Posted by: JLG | 24 October 2014

My New Job(s)

A few weeks ago there was a resignation on the board of the local council-owned business that runs our regional tourism board. The person who resigned was the chairman of the business, and previously had been the general manager of the tourism board until she resigned from that position to have her first baby (in the intervening time–which is no more than three years–she has gone on to have two other babies, which is what prompted this latest resignation). I contacted the mayor to see if it would be reasonable for me to submit an application to join the board, given the fact that I’m also on a few other boards, including the one that looks after our farmers’ market and the one responsible for managing the historic buildings in the centre of town, as well as a local tourism business association and of course the luxury lodge association. He saw no problem, and in fact rather encouraged me to apply, since he thought my background would be of use, and that he would also like me to get on a board that pays a stipend, since all my other work is uncompensated.

I submitted an application and soon got word that I was one of four people short-listed who would be brought in for an interview. I had the interview, which I thought went pretty well, but as I left I saw that the next person going in was the husband of the outgoing member of the board. I pretty much figured that it was an inside job, and that I’d be passed over, but as it turns out, I was wrong and I was told that very evening that I had blown the other candidates out of the water and would be confirmed at an upcoming meeting of council. Before long I was called in for an induction meeting with the GM of the tourism board (someone I know pretty well already), and to turn in my tax forms, and in a few weeks I’ll attend my first meeting.

So that was pretty exciting, but then earlier in the week I was approached to take on another new job, that of kitchen hand at a new cafe in town. Now, to be fair, it was relatively informal, and the approach was made by my sous chef, Ashley, who was leaving her day job to become the chef at this new cafe. The new place is owned by a young couple with great ideas about providing Oamaru with a hip new place to have some interesting food that no one else is doing, such as Turkish eggs, steamed Chinese dumplings, and gourmet sandwiches, many of which I actually recommended to them (and some of which use my recipes). So as the opening day approached, Ashley was getting more and more nervous, and in the end she asked if I would help out on opening day. Thus I found myself at the cafe this morning at 8am, a full two-and-a-half hours after Ashley and a kitchen hand arrived to bake their sourdough bread (using my starter, btw), and I spent the next six hours as a short-order cook, helping to poach and scramble eggs, steam dumplings, assemble sandwiches, fry Thai-style squid strips, prep condiments etc. It was tremendously fun, and pretty busy from start to finish, and I managed to convince Ashley that my way of poaching eggs was better than hers, and to persuade her to switch from a North Island bacon supplier to a local one, who even came by to see what it was we wanted him to prepare for them. I plan to go back in tomorrow and help them find their feet, and then will leave it to them to manage on their own for the rest of this long weekend.

October has been a very slow month for us, with only a handful of guests, but it all picks up quickly next month, so I’m not too sure when my next post will be.

Posted by: JLG | 7 September 2014

Visiting Sydney

IMG_7083It has long surprised our friends and neighbours here in NZ that, with all the travelling we’ve done over the years, and especially given that we now live in NZ, we have never visited Australia. There are a couple of reasons for this, and the one that I’ve always told our Australian guests is that I was traumatised by being taken by my father to see Nicolas Roeg’s film Walkabout as a young child (it was on a double-bill with one of the Planet of the Apes movies) and I begged him never to take me to the horrible, terrifying country where it took place. (If you never saw the film–and it seems very few people have–it’s about a pair of spoiled kids from Sydney whose unhinged father strands them in the outback, leaving them to fend for themselves as they struggle to get back to the city, with only their meagre possessions and an Aborigine boy on his ritual walkabout, to help them.) But probably the main reason was lack of interest, since prior to moving here the country seemed too far away, and too similar to the US, to be worth travelling to when there were more exotic places we had yet to visit.


So why did I go now? It was purely to attend a luxury trade show that our lodge association had negotiated a good deal for, and since it was coming so soon after our return from our big trip, J2 decided that he would stay behind and take care of the house (and the dogs) while I made the trip on my own. 

The trade show lasted three days, but I decided to spend six days to give me a chance to spend a bit of time actually enjoying the city. Flying in early on Friday, and with the first trade show events only on Sunday, I had two full days to explore before having to get down to work. I fully expected Sydney, with its reputation for sun and warmth, to be, well, sunny and warm, so I was a bit disappointed to find that it was in fact grey, rainy and actually pretty chilly. As a result, my first impressions of the city were decidedly mixed, since it seemed like just an antipodean version of Vancouver. Happily for me, and the future of my relationship with our big neighbour, the weather improved markedly on Sunday (naturally, the day that I started having to spend most of my time indoors) and I developed a much greater fondness for the city.

jg-20140831-8594I found Sydney to be extremely easy to navigate, something that became a bit of a joke since my lodge-owner colleagues kept coming to me for help getting around the place even though all of them had been before and it was my first time. Perhaps it’s due to my having been raised in NYC and being used to public transportation, or perhaps it’s because I am good at using Google Maps, but I certainly became very familiar with Sydney’s numerous ferries, buses and trains very quickly. It didn’t hurt that Sydney offers some very visitor-friendly public transport fares, including a Sunday deal where you can ride as much as you like and spend just AUS$2.50. 

On my first day I really didn’t do anything much other than wander more or less aimlessly through the centre of town, visiting bookstores, clothing shops etc but buying nothing. The guy I was staying with through AirBNB took me out for a drink in the evening at a very happening place in a converted old department store before I met up with Malcolm, a fellow lodge owner, for dinner at Tetsuya’s. Tetsuya’s is probably Sydney’s first real world-class restaurant, set up 25 years ago and always winning top awards in annual restaurant rankings. I had wanted to visit ever since I first heard of it, so when Malcolm suggested it, since he once worked with Tetsuya himself a number of years ago, I leapt at the chance, even though it promised to be a very expensive evening. In the end, the food was exceptional but the service left me a bit cold, as did the plating, which was kind of boring, but Malcolm and I had a great time enjoying the experience and a chance to spend a bit of time together for a change.


Exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art

On Saturday I got a bit touristy, starting off my morning with a short visit to The Rocks market (a weekend event in the neighbourhood where Sydney was first established) and a  lengthy stop at the impressive Museum of Contemporary Art. Even though the day continued to be rainy and chilly, I decided to venture out a bit further from the centre, riding the ferry to Manly for lunch. As the ferry proceeded across the bay, an unintelligible announcement came over the loudspeakers. I had no idea what they were telling us until suddenly the boat began rocking and rolling as we hit a stretch of open water where the weather had more of an impact on the waves. Once in Manly, I found a little place for lunch where I had my first taste of barramundi, a fish that I see prepared a lot on Masterchef Australia. It’s a delicious fish, and the place’s chef managed to turn it into the best fish and chips I have ever had. In the evening, in contrast with the previous night’s blow-out dinner at Testuya’s, I decided to try Japanese food at the other extreme of the price spectrum, having an ethereal bowl of ramen noodles at a stall in a food court. Even though it cost 1/20 what I paid at Tetsuya’s, I imagine I’ll remember those noodles much longer!

My booth at the show

My booth at the show

These trade shows inevitably include a lot of socialising, and with a luxury travel show you’d think they’d take you to the crème de la crème of the host city. So I was a bit surprised that the opening reception was to be held at Luna Park, an amusement park on the other side of the harbour from the central business district. One advantage of this location was that it afforded me a chance to ride the ferry over in the evening, giving me a chance to get some nice shots of the city. And in fact the reception was in a fairly nondescript building that could have been anywhere, though the food and drinks they served were pretty good (and no, there was no cotton candy or popcorn). On the second night the organisers invited high-end consumers to the trade show and had a leading Sydney restaurant, Quay, cater a cocktail party for them. Unfortunately, the servers were under orders not to let any exhibitors near the food (even though we were the ones paying to be there), so a bunch of us decided to leave and fend for ourselves for dinner. When we got to our chosen restaurant, Mr Wong’s, which had been recommended to me by many former guests of ours and is even owned by a former guest, we were surprised to find that a huge contingent of NZ lodge owners and managers had made the same choice! Happily for all of us, the food was excellent.

The trade show was held in a converted wharf on the inside of the harbour, just under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Like most of these events, the days of the show were filled with 15-minute meetings with agents from around the world, some of whom were aware of us but most of whom were not (I purposely chose to meet more with new agents, since that seemed to me to have the most potential impact on our business). Even though I started the show with a bit of nervousness (“what am I doing here, alongside all these super-lodges and Ritz-Carltons?”) after a couple of very positive meetings that dissipated and I got into a bit of a groove. All together I had about 50 meetings, and only one or two were duds, or seemed to be, and I ended the show feeling very glad that I went. Now I’ll have to plan to return some day for a proper visit, and perhaps even bring J2 along.


Posted by: JLG | 20 August 2014

Election Fever

As I am sure all my readers around the world are only too painfully aware, New Zealand will be going to the polls in a few short weeks to select the people who will run the country for the next three years. (What, NZ’s election is not front-page news around the world? How can that be??) Well, be that as it may, this is the first time that we are eligible to vote in a national election, so I have been paying more attention this time around than I did in 2011, when after all, all the candidates, parties, positions and issues were completely opaque to me. Back in those early days of our time in the country, I had only ever really encountered two NZ politicians–the Prime Minister, John Key, and our local MP, Jacqui Dean, both of whom are from the right-of-centre National Party, affectionately known to some as “the Nats”. When I met Mr Key in Shanghai at a business roundtable not long before our  move, he struck me as an intelligent guy, who clearly was listening to what the business people were saying, and able to distill those comments into coherent thoughts. I would therefore have had no reason not to support him in the 2011 election, as indeed most of the country did, since he won the election by a large margin.

This time around, I am not quite so sure about Mr Key and the National Party. In recent months there have been a number of reports of misgovernment by the ruling party, and even some allegations of inappropriate snooping by the party into the activities of some of the opposition parties, especially the Labour Party, which is the main opposition party (if you are at all familiar with NZ politics, you may have heard of Helen Clark, who was the PM before Mr Key took over in 2008; she was from the Labour Party). But there are many other parties in the country, including the Maori Party, which is left-wing; the Greens (left-wing); the Conservative Party (right-wing); ACT (don’t ask me what that stands for, but they are right-wing); NZ First (right-wing); and the Mana Party (an off-shoot of the Maori Party, and also left-wing). To add further colour to this mix, there is also a new Internet Party (left-wing), set up by the very colourful German-Finnish immigrant Kim Dotcom. Mr Dotcom moved to NZ not too long before we did, achieving residency despite the fact that he was a convicted criminal in not one but two jurisdictions (he was convicted of internet piracy and violating copyrights, I believe). In 2011 or so the FBI tried to get him extradited to the US to stand trial there, but the raid on his mansion was so incredibly bungled, and so badly handled by the NZ counterpart of the FBI that Mr Dotcom has not only managed to avoid deportation, but he has even become a cause célèbre for all sorts of people who feel that the current government is too much of a lapdog of the Americans (this view is bolstered by Mr Key’s frequent photo-ops with President Obama at golf outings and the like when Mr Key visits his getaway home in Hawaii). So Kim Dotcom set up the Internet Party basically as a tool to oust John Key from power, and he even managed to orchestrate the merging of that new party with Mana, which already has seats in Parliament, so he’s very likely to get at least a few candidates elected.

NZ Electoral Districts

You  might wonder, how would such a marginal party get into Parliament? Well, NZ has the most bizarre electoral system I have ever seen (and yes, I know that this sounds hard to believe when you consider the American system, with its Electoral College and its weird conventions and all that stuff, but just wait a second). In NZ they have a system called MMP (I think it stands for “Many, Many Politicians”) in which each voter votes not just for the preferred candidate for the parliamentary seat in his or her district, but also for a preferred party. So, as an example, I might vote for the Labour Party candidate for our district, since I think he or she is the best person for that job, but I may have a preference for, say, the Green Party, so I’d give them my party vote. At the end of the voting, they count up the party votes and depending on how many votes each party gets, they get to put a certain number of “list candidates” into Parliament. As a result of this, as long as a party gets at least 1% of the party votes, it will get at least one candidate into Parliament. (There’s yet another vote that goes on, but only for people who register as Maori voters; they get to vote also for a candidate in the country’s Maori districts, which are distinct from the regular districts and overlap with them.)

So as we enter into the final weeks of the campaign, I have to confess I have no idea who will get my vote. My sympathies are with the Labour Party in general, but their leadership are just too unimpressive to support (and the candidate for our district has made very little effort to sway voters, since this is a strongly National district). I like a lot of what the Green Party stands for, but I think they are a bit too crunchy to run an actual country. And the other parties are just not my style at all. Regardless, it seems a sure thing that National will win the election, so we can look forward to three more years of the same old thing, only more so.

Posted by: JLG | 17 August 2014

Inle Lake

Our second stop on our tour of Burma was Inle Lake, located a short flight from Bagan, more or less in the centre of the country. When Abdo and I were communicating by email to plan this holiday, he could not find anything online about “the wonders of Inle Lake”, despite our friend Hnin Hnin recommending it as a top destination in the country, and my conviction that the place, as one of the few places open to tourists back in the bad old days of Slorc, should warrant a few days’ visit. As a result, I was persuaded to limit our time in the area to just one full day, together with the afternoon of our arrival. This was a mistake, I think we would all agree, since Inle Lake is a lovely area, well worth exploring in more depth than a 42 hour visit would allow.

Arriving at Inle Lake

To get to Inle you have to fly to the town of Heho, and then drive about an hour or so to the jetty town of Nyaungshwe, and then catch a boat to wherever it is you are staying. Our travel agent arranged all the transfers for us, and they worked like a charm. The first thing we noticed on arrival in Heho was that the weather was noticeably cooler here than in Bagan, since we were a bit higher up in the mountains. Also, the scenery was completely different from Bagan–much greener, hillier and considerably richer looking in terms of the productivity of the land. This was clearly a more agricultural area, and we passed through loads of farming areas on our drive to the lake. This is also one of the semi-autonomous states that make up a lot of the periphery of the country. This one is Shan State, and if Lonely Planet is to be believed, the term “Shan” is a corruption of the word “Siam”, since the people of Shan state are close to the Thais, and indeed the state borders on Thailand. Not that Shan cuisine is all that similar to Thai cuisine; while the Shan dishes we had were distinct from Burmese cuisine, they were nothing like the sour, spicy, and rich dishes of Thailand.

House in Inle Lake

When we got to the jetty in Nyaungshwe we had no time to explore the town at all before boarding our little boat to make our way to the hotel. I don’t know quite what I was expecting from the boats on the lake, but what we got was a lot simpler and more open to the elements than Abdo was probably hoping for. In fact, all the boat appeared to be was a long canoe sort of thing with a couple of wooden chairs lined up along the middle of the thing, and with no cover whatsoever. Since we were no longer in the “dry zone”, and it was still very much the rainy season, as we boarded the boat I began to wonder what they would have done if it were raining. Well, the answer came soon enough, since before long after we set off the rain set in, and a few pink plastic ponchos were sent down the line for us to put on. Between the wind, the rain and my concern not to somehow fall into the water, I decided not to try to figure out how to wear the actual poncho, and instead just used it to keep my legs and camera dry, and to minimise some of the wind, which was actually making the temperature a bit cooler than comfortable.

Inle Lake town

Before long we got to our hotel, the Inle Paramount Resort. Calling it a resort was a bit of a stretch, since the accommodations were a bit basic, though certainly comfortable. There should have been WiFi available, but there was a problem with the modem, so it had to be sent to Yangon for repair, a situation for which the owner/manager could not stop apologising. Once we put our stuff away, J2 and I decided to maximise our time in the area by exploring a bit, since our boat was at our disposal and Abdo and Barbara opted to relax at the “resort”. The thing that was really interesting about the lake to me is that when I had heard that a lot of people live “on the lake”, I had understood that to mean that they lived on the shores of the lake, but in fact they really do live “on the lake”, in houses that are built on stilts over shallow (and perhaps not so shallow) sections of the lake. More than that, they even plant crops on floating islands that are sort of skewered to the lake bottom by lengths of bamboo, with acres of tomatoes, beans and squashes, along with plenty of other things, growing on bobbing islets all over the lake. So instead of having to water their plants, we actually saw people adding more soil to their plants to replace soil that got washed away by rain, wakes, or whatever else.

“Soiling” the plants

During our little cruise around the lake, we stopped for a lovely lunch of Shan-style noodles at one of many restaurants that dot the area, and we paid a visit to some of the artists’ and craftsmen’s shops nearby, including one Shan silversmith. While in Yangon we had seen a beautiful little curio that I was interested in buying, a pair of miniature covered baskets made of woven silver that could be connected by a little silver “yoke”. The vendor told us it was a Shan specialty to make such woven silverworks, so we figured we’d wait and see if we could find something similar while in Shan state itself. Sure enough, we found that every silversmith in the Inle Lake area made the exact same, or very similar, item, but here the price was no less than double what it was in Yangon! Happily for us, we would have time back in Yangon to return to that same store and pick it up (assuming it would still be there, which it was). This was to be a recurrent theme of our visits to shops in the Inle Lake area–pricing was a lot higher here than elsewhere, and way out of kilter with what we saw as the value of what was being sold. A prime example of this came up during our full-day tour of the area with Abdo and Barbara the next day. We visited a workshop where they make lotus silk, something we had never heard of. The work begins when one of the staff scores the long stems of a lotus flower, breaking the stem in such a way as to leave the fibres running the length of the stem intact; she then twists the fibres together, forming long strands that then get dried, spun, and then used to make garments. The fibres are not particularly soft, and the resulting fabrics are not that attractive, but because of the labour involved in producing them they cost 40 times the price of silk. Why bother then??

Making lotus silk

On our full day in Inle we ventured out in the morning to the morning market in one of the nearby towns on the lake. The markets in the area work on a five-day rotation, so you have to know which town the market will be at on any given day to find it. We were lucky that on our day it was at one of the larger venues, so there was a lot of stuff on offer, and loads of photo-worthy things and people to look at. The people of the lake include not just Shan and Bamar people, but also Inntha people who wear distinctive outfits (chiefly distinguished by what looks like a towel that they wear on top of their heads), in addition to the famed Kayan, whose women elongate their necks with brass rings. [We didn’t see any Kayan women at the market (I think they would find all the movement involved rather straining), but we did see them in some of the lakeside shops, clearly there to lure tourists to photograph them and then charge them for the privilege. We had read that the reason for the rings was to make the women unappealing for neighbouring tribes to abduct, and that nowadays it is imposed on them solely to earn money from tourists, so we followed the advice of the guidebook and avoided the temptation.] At the market there were a number of people selling prepared food that I was really interested in trying, but I felt that some of my fellow travellers were opposed to the idea from a hygiene perspective so I also withstood this temptation, though not without some grumbling. Instead we focused our attention on gifts and photographs, coming away with a good number of both.


Inntha Women at Market

I’d have eaten here

…or here

Temple near the market

Not all our visits on the lake were to shops, though. We also made a stop with Abdo and Barbara at an important temple about which we knew absolutely nothing as we entered. However, the objects of veneration in the centre of the temple were so bizarre that I had to break out my Lonely Planet to see if it would shed any light on them. They looked to us like nothing more than golden blobs, reminding us of something that you might have seen in a Star Trek episode when an away team landed on an obscure planet where the locals worshipped formless entities of pure energy or something. What these things turned out to be was in fact five Buddha statues that have been venerated for so long by people who would add little sheets of gold to their surfaces, that their forms had been completely obliterated, turning them into what the guidebook calls “amorphous blobs”. Once a year these statuettes are paraded around the lake on a special barge (which can be seen next door), but some years ago the boat tipped over, causing the Buddhas to tumble into the water. Divers were able to retrieve all but one of them, but when they returned them to their spot in the temple they found that the fifth one was already back! A miracle!! As a result, that one is no longer taken out of the temple on the barge, apparently. It is still the custom for people to affix gold leaf to the statues, so we figured I would join in and have Barbara take my photo doing so, as you can see here.

Adding my 50 cents (-worth of gold)

On the day we left Inle, we set off from the hotel at the crack of dawn for the boat ride back to Nyaungshwe, from where we drove to that day’s market town, Pindaya. As it turns out, Pindaya is famous for its tea, and it’s one of the top sources for laphet, the fermented green tea leaves that I mentioned before. So of course I had to buy some to go with the laphet dish that I bought in Bagan. Here I also managed to persuade Barbara and J2 to join me for a bite to eat at one of the market stalls, and we wound up having what was easily the best dish of the trip thus far, just a simple dish of noodles with a great mixture of aromatic spices and dressings. Like all meals in Burma, this one came with a bowl of soup, as you can see below.

Eating our Shan noodles

Pindaya is also home to a massive cave that has been turned into a shrine of sorts (for reasons that are a bit mysterious, but one argument is that some maidens were imprisoned here by a giant spider that was vanquished by Rama or something, or at least that’s why we think there’s a huge spider statue at the entrance being shot at by a bow-and-arrow-bearing Rama).

Entrance to Pindaya Cave

Inside the cave are something like 8700 Buddha statues, which is certainly enough Buddhas for anyone, or at least I could have done with seeing only the first thousand or so, since once again we were barefoot in this hallowed space, and the walkways were damp and sticky with a combination of humidity, cave drippings, and the detritus of countless pious feet. Yuck.


A bevy of Buddhas

I think our driver was surprised at how little time we had spent in the cave, and he scrambled a bit to find something else to do before we had to go to the airport to catch our flight to Yangon. So we just sort of meandered a bit, stopping at a little stall to buy some tea (we had seen that he had bought quite a few packs, at the request of a friend of his back in his hometown) and then walking through a field of baobab trees. Then we had a bit of a highlight by stopping at a traditional paper-making workshop where we got to see how they make beautiful rustic paper and then turn the paper into umbrellas. The techniques they employ to make these things were very impressive, and we could hardly leave without buying something, even if it meant having to come up with a way to schlep a rather bulky and fragile item all over the place.


Traditional umbrella

With that our time upcountry was over, and we returned to Yangon for a few final days in this great country.

Posted by: JLG | 14 August 2014


Once our friends Abdo and Barbara joined us in Yangon (after we had already been there two nights) our holiday began in earnest. Our first destination was to be the old capital of the Burmese kingdoms, Bagan (formerly known as Pagan), famed as home to countless temples, stupas, pagodas etc. There is a proliferation of private airlines in Burma these days (though many supposedly still have government connections of one kind or another) but all the flights seem to go to the same places at more or less the same time. As a result there was a decent amount of confusion at the airport since the flight announcements are impossible to understand (even when in English) and the airlines are named things like “Air Bagan” and “Yangon Air” and of course they’re flying to towns like Mandalay and Bagan (in our case, we were on Air Mandalay, flying to Bagan). But we arrived in Bagan in good shape and good time, and were surprised to find that the rainy season does not seem to affect Bagan, even though it’s only an hour or so away from rainy Yangon. Perhaps that’s why they call this part of Burma “the dry zone”.

Bagan Transport Options

Our travel agency had booked us a car and driver for only our first day in Bagan, but as soon as we realised just how spread out the sites are, and how hot it can get in Bagan, we decided to engage him for the other two days we would be in town. Mr Ko was a great guide, though his English was a bit iffy, and he made sure to show us the temples in a sensible order, and to pepper the day with “highlight” temples (not all the temples are exactly ‘detour worthy’, but with three days in town, we had time to see more than just the top ten).

Going native in Bagan

When visiting a Burmese temple there are a few issues of protocol that must be observed. Chief among them is that no shoes or socks may be worn on the temple premises, though also you may not wear “spaghetti strap” blouses or short shorts (though these latter rules seem not as strictly enforced). Thus when you get to a temple, whether in Bagan or Yangon, you will see a pile of shoes–actually, mostly flip-flops–at the entrance, and then you’ll see a bunch of tenderfooted tourists hopping around on the baking-hot paving stones, seeking out shaded areas to stand on while they shoot their photos. Luckily for us tourists, the grounds are well maintained (for the most part) so there are few if any errant pebbles to worry about poking the soles of your feet, though many of the steps leading up to the viewing platforms are a bit narrow or crumbly, so they pose a bit of a hazard.

Bagan Temple

It would be impossible to recount (or even to recall) all the temples that we visited in Bagan, since there were dozens of them, and they vary considerably, though there are certain themes that repeat a lot. There are the temples that are based on golden stupas like Shwedagon in Yangon; there are temples that have multiple Buddha images in the interior; there are temples with viewing platforms upstairs; and there are others, too (you can read all about them at Bagan’s Wikipedia article).

Bagan traffic jam

Aside from temples, Bagan is also known for its lacquer work. I had no appreciation for the difficult process involved in producing lacquer, and so could not understand why so many of the nicer pieces we saw in Yangon were so expensive. But it turns out that a quality lacquer product can take six months or more to finish, and involves numerous labour-intensive steps. The materials used are all natural (in high-quality pieces, anyway), and we had a chance to see several workshops where they make some beautiful pieces, some of which we of course wound up taking home.

Lacquerware Workshop

Bagan resembles Siem Reap, home of Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat and other temples, as it was when I first visited in 1999 or so, before it was truly open to the outside world. Hotels and restaurants were a bit basic, though serviceable, and the number of tourists was pretty modest (though this could have had something to do with the season). Even so, as you can see below, some of the temples did get pretty busy for the ever-popular sunset viewing. Happily for us, our guide Mr Ko managed to steer us to some quieter places, so we had a lot of our temples all to ourselves.

Crowds viewing the sunset

There was one stop we made during our time in Bagan that I wasn’t quite thrilled with. On our first day we stopped at a small village where a young girl with very good English showed us around. To me it smacked of “poverty voyeurism”, giving visitors from the developed world a chance to see what the developing world is really like for the lower rungs of society. With that comes the requisite chance to see a typical house, the owner of which is only too happy for you to take all the photos you want, but then of course comes the outstretched hand asking for money. I don’t begrudge the money, per se, but something about it just strikes me as smarmy. We were happy when one of our stops was a little microscopic business selling longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong, so we could buy one for J2 to wear while visiting temples. And sure, it was interesting to see how simple Burmese rural people live, but still I felt really wrong poking my nose around the place.

In the village

Sunset in Bagan

Posted by: JLG | 12 August 2014


First up in my write-up about our trip to Myanmar (Burma) is the capital city, Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. I am not sure what I really expected from this city, which I figured would be a hot, steamy Southeast Asian city along the lines of Bangkok but a bit less developed and flashy. When we landed at the airport I was surprised that they had free WiFi on offer and ATMs, two things that my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook assured me I would not see anywhere in the country. Turns out a lot has changed in the three years since that book was published, and a lot of the things I had prepared for would never materialise.

Entry into the country was dead easy, with none of the “welcome to a military dictatorship” stuff that I was half-expecting. Instead, passport control went smoothly, baggage claim went smoothly, and booking a taxi to our hotel went smoothly, too (and at $9 for the ride, it was also really really cheap, something that would become a bit of a theme on this trip). The hotel that I booked, the Hotel K, was recommended by our travel agent as being close to things but not too pricey, with all the services you want/need. Sure enough, it was a clean hotel with WiFi and air conditioning (the three things I need), and smack dab in the middle of a busy section of town with loads of shopping and eating venues.

Monks walking near the Sule Pagoda

Yangon resembles to me nothing quite as much as Bangkok in the 1980s with a bit of a South Asian flair thrown in. The buildings are generally pretty low slung, and in the section of town where we were based (the old centre of town near the river) many of the buildings date back to the British colonial period, as does the date of their last cleaning. The climate of the city is not friendly to ornate plaster-fronted buildings, and many of the buildings near us had sprouted moss, mould and even trees coming out of crevices in their façades. Some of them, such as the municipal office building, have already been renovated, so that there is now a sort of patchwork of beautiful, pastel-coloured edifices set amongst the decay, though I am sure that most of the old buildings will soon be renovated as the country’s opening to the outside world continues.

Colonial buildings in central Yangon

In addition to the colonial era buildings there are also a number of temples of all persuasions in the city, including, in the centre of one of Yangon’s busiest traffic circles, the 2000-year old Sule Pagoda. It’s a bit odd to see such an ornate and beautiful structure serving as a traffic circle, but it somehow seems fitting in this city full of people whose devotion to their faith is daily in evidence. Each morning at around 8am processions of maroon-robed monks are to be seen in the city, with alms bowls in their hands, collecting donations of food from people on the street. Burmese men are expected to serve as monks at least twice in their lives, once as novices between the ages of 10 and 20, and again as full-fledged monks later in life. They may not stay in their robes for long–sometimes as little as a week or so–but it’s obvious that most Burmese take their faith seriously, which perhaps goes some way to explain why they are so incredibly friendly and honest.

Novice monk at a Yangon market

As I believe I mentioned in my earlier post, one of the main attractions of visiting Burma was to sample Burmese food at the source. For our first dinner we stopped at a nearby hotel to ask for recommendations, and thus ensued a lengthy debate among the hotel’s maître d’ and two taxi drivers about where the best place to send us would be. Since we were a bit jet lagged, we didn’t want to venture too far, so in the end one of the cab drivers decided he would personally escort us to a place he liked not too far away, since he was going off duty anyway. So here we went, traipsing behind this wiry Burmese man as he weaved his way through the crowds on a rainy Yangon evening as he led us to a small restaurant with no English menu and left us there. The owner (we think he was the owner) could not have been more helpful, as he guided us through our options. Fortunately for us and other non-Burmese speaking visitors, it seems to be the norm for restaurants in Burma is to have all the food they have on display in pre-prepared pans behind a glass counter, so all you really need to do is point at what looks appealing to you and off you go! Of course, since this was our first meal in the country, we were a bit concerned about eating food that was not prepared fresh, but that was nothing compared to the fear instilled in us when they delivered to our table a plate of raw leafy greens and par-boiled vegetables that we were to dip in either of two sauces that are on all the tables. We skipped the vegetables and just tried the sauces and found one of them, called apparently ngapi ye, to be an ambrosial concoction of fermented fish paste, chillies and who knows what else. I definitely need to find a recipe for that! And happily for us, the rest of the dinner was also delicious and led to know ill effects in us afterwards!

Burmese dinner

We had been warned in advance that we were visiting Burma in the rainy season, but I pictured that as meaning that there would be short rainstorms every so often during the day with bright sun the rest of the time. Well, that was not what it meant. Instead we encountered on our first day such incredible torrents of rain that the city’s woe-betide storm drains were completely overwhelmed and the streets quickly became flooded. The many street-side food stalls and hawkers were not dissuaded, though, and few pedestrians seemed at all concerned, since everyone but us was wearing traditional Burmese dress and flip-flops that would soon dry off, in comparison with our jeans and shoes that quickly became sodden (we learned our lesson, and bought flip-flops for the remainder of our time in Burma).

Rainy Yangon

The main tourist attraction in Yangon would have to be Shwedagon Pagoda, an enormous complex centred on the country’s tallest stupa, which houses several Buddhist relics. Around the stupa are numerous shrines and “chapels”, donated by various people around the country as a means of earning merit. The stupa itself is covered with many tons of gold and topped with numerous precious gems, including a 76-carat diamond. It’s a truly astounding place, and one that you could spend hours in (and if the guide we hired when we visited with Abdo and Barbara had had his way, we probably would have…).

Shwedagon stupa

While Yangon may not have many other bona fide “tourist attractions” there is still a lot more to see, from the many other temples that dot the city, to the numerous markets, to the fantastic old architecture that is all over the old tow. There’s also good shopping to be done, with loads of antiques, crafts and other things to peruse all over town. Burmese crafts may not be as well known as others in the region, but that will surely change now that the country is opening up.

Posted by: JLG | 8 August 2014


Ever since I first saw Monty Python’s famous “Penguin on the Television” sketch in the early 1970s I have had a thing about Burma. I learned a bit more about the country in the course of my graduate degree, and met a few Burmese there, too, and developed an abiding curiosity about this country that had been among the most enlightened of Southeast Asia up till the 1950s, only to retreat into its own world under the rule of the generals after the coup of 1962. With the repression of democracy activists calling for a tourism boycott, I always felt that it was not opportune to visit in the past, even when I had friends posted there with the US Embassy, but the boycott ended with democratic elections in 2011 and now even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratic activist who was under house arrest for so many years for challenging the generals, is in Parliament, so a visit seemed appropriate, especially since I wanted to see the place before it became overdeveloped.

We managed to persuade our friends Abdo and Barbara, with whom we have had wonderful trips to Italy, France, Central Europe and Cambodia in the past, to join us on this trip, and thus we arranged to meet up with them in Yangon, the capital, at the end of our marketing trip. The timing worked out in such a way that J2 and I had a few days to ourselves in the city before they joined us, and we used that time to wander around and soak in the sights while also checking out places for us to take them during their much shorter time in the capital.

Another reason for our interest in visiting Burma, of course, was our interest in the food. Burmese food is hardly ubiquitous in the US (or really anywhere else outside of Burma), but we were privileged to have been introduced to the cuisine by Burmese friends of Abdo and Barbara in DC, who kindly would invite us to meals at their place every so often when we still lived there. One of the dishes that could be considered a national dish was one that particularly caught our fancy, and that could alone have prompted our visit. Called lephet thoke in Burmese, it is a salad (“thoke”) comprising a uniquely Burmese ingredient–fermented green tea leaves (“lephet”)–together with crunchy peanuts, diced chillies, bits of lime, shreds of cabbage, and fried peas. It is often served as a dessert or as a centrepiece in festive meals, and whenever we have seen it outside of Burma, including at a restaurant that I visited in Shanghai last year, we have ordered it. Perhaps it’s the caffeine in the tea leaves, but whatever the reason I find it addictive.

Since I had so many impressions and experiences throughout our time in the country, and yet I don’t want to create text-dense posts, I will post separately on each stop on our tour, and leave this as a general introduction to the country.

J2 and I arrived in the country with really very little information about what to do in Yangon other than visit the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, so we relied on our trusty Lonely Planet to guide us. Since we got to our hotel in the old centre of town by late afternoon and did not want to risk falling asleep too early, we immediately headed out to explore our neighbourhood on foot. The heat was not as bad as I had feared–since this was the rainy season, the temperature was somewhat moderated by the rain–but it was still pretty steamy, and yet we were dressed in jeans, which we quickly realised was a bad choice, not just because they were a bit too hot for the conditions, but because when the rain got heavy, as it did several times during our walk, the bottoms of our jeans got absolutely soaked. That led to our determination to wear nothing but shorts (or local dress) for the remainder of our time in the country.

Downtown Yangon is typified by a hodgepodge of British colonial buildings that have not seen a facelift since the end of the Raj in the mid-1940s. Many of the buildings are covered with moss and mould, with plants poking out of crevices in the plasterwork, while only a handful have started to undergo the renovation that I anticipate many will experience over the coming years. Of course, this only serves to add atmosphere to the city, which in this way seems to resemble how I imagine Havana must look. The people of Burma are Buddhists for the most part, and there are monks all over the place, collecting alms in the morning in their maroon robes and bare feet. The people appear to be fairly pious, since many make donations to these monks as a means of earning merit. But there are also Hindu temples, churches and even a lonely synagogue in central Yangon. For some reason I was not expecting the kind of ethnic diversity that we encountered here, since it turns out that Burmese people can take a wide variety of appearances, resembling in some cases the people of East Asia, and in others the peoples of South Asia. This of course, in hindsight, should have been obvious, since the country is very much right on the cusp of these two great subregions, so it would stand to reason that it would have drawn people from its two huge neighbours. They are also and without exception extremely friendly and welcoming. I cannot recall ever feeling more welcome in a country, or encountering bigger smiles from the people we dealt with throughout our time in the country.

Stay tuned for more about our time in Yangon, as well as separate posts on Bagan and Inle Lake! Meantime, here are some photos of Yangon:

Dining in the rain

Dining in the rain

Getting a much-needed haircut

Getting a much-needed haircut

Monks walking down the street near the Sula Pagoda

Monks walking down the street near the Sula Pagoda


Posted by: JLG | 4 August 2014

Burma Post Coming

Hi, everyone! In case you were wondering, we are having a great time in Burma, but the internet connection is a bit on the iffy side, so I have not been able to update the blog. I will do so when we have a more reliable connection and when I have gone through the 2500 or more photos we have taken in the week since we arrived…

Before I get to our visit to the Low Countries, let me finish up with the UK. On our last day in the country, J2 and I left our friends’ flat in town and headed to meet another friend (this one from DC, whom we even saw on our last day there) to introduce her to the British culinary tradition of fish and chips. Unfortunately, it was Sunday and not many good places were open, so we wound up at a rather poor example of the art and J2 and I left a bit disappointed (the f&c at Sally’s in Oamaru is far better). From there we set off to finish doing the shopping for the evening’s dinner that we were to make for my cousin David and his wife Cathy back in Windsor. Stopping at a Sainsbury’s in Slough (famous for some as the home of the British version of “The Office”) I was a bit surprised to find that some things that can be found even in our small New World grocery in Oamaru could not be easily found here, chief among them organic chickens and fresh basil. I finally did find one last chicken, a bit bigger than ideal, but workable, and would up having to go to the Windsor Farm Shop to find the basil.

When we got to their apartment, I set to work making dinner. For the starter, it would be a salad of fresh mozzarella and tomatoes with my mother’s Caprese sauce; for the main, chicken in the style of Treviso with chanterelles and baby artichokes, served with sweet potato gnocchi in a sage butter sauce; for dessert, zabaglione with fresh berries, followed by a selection of cheese from Neals Yard Dairy. Cooking in a strange kitchen is always a challenge, but they had everything I needed and the meal came together pretty easily and tasted OK.

Early the next morning we left for the airport and our flight to Amsterdam. Arriving in Amsterdam in the late morning, we made our way from Schiphol to our home for the night, an AirBNB in Regulierdwarstraat, right in the centre of things. Our hosts were an Irish-Scottish couple who could not have been nicer, especially given the fact that one of them had just had back surgery and was newly (but temporarily) confined to a wheelchair. We headed out to our meeting shortly after arriving, and as we left the meeting were confronted with the first real rain of the trip other than one day (July 4, as it turns out) in Connecticut. Unfortunately our umbrella was back at the flat, so we made our wet way to the apartment to collect it before wandering around town for the rest of the day. I have always liked Amsterdam, and this trip was no different; it’s a beautiful city, and I love the way so many locals get around on bikes. We even stopped at Rembrandt’s House, which we think we may have visited before on a previous visit to Amsterdam, though none of it was familiar to us. If you’re going to Amsterdam, we’d recommend a visit.

This was J2’s birthday, incidentally, so I told him he could choose whatever he wanted for dinner, figuring he’d opt for something with french fries or perhaps an Indonesian rijstafel, two typical Dutch treats. Instead, he said he wanted Ethiopian, so, turning to Yelp for guidance, I found a place that seemed promising, a reasonable walk away from our place. When we got there at around 7pm the place was deserted but for one table of diners, which gave me pause for a bit, but the aromas from the kitchen persuaded us to persevere. And a good thing we did, too, since the place was absolutely full by the time our dinner was served, and the food was extraordinary, better even than the famed Ethiopian restaurants of Adams Morgan in DC.

The next morning we left Amsterdam in our rented car (which it took a long time to locate, since the rental company had sneakily moved its depot between the time I made the booking and the time I was to pick up the car!) for our out-of-town meetings. The first was in a town called ‘s-Hertogenbosch (though everyone calls it “Den Bosch”), but when we got there we found that they had made a bit of a mistake with the scheduling so they could not see us then, so we had to reschedule for Friday morning. The second meeting was in Arnhem, famous as the site of the Battle of Arnhem, memorialised in the film “A Bridge Too Far”. The bridge itself is not at all interesting to look at, and so is the town (largely destroyed in the war, it was rebuilt in the period of European history when formless architecture was in vogue). After the meeting we took a quick visit to the war cemetery, which was moving especially to me, since the battle took place in late September 1944, so many of the headstones showed that the soldiers died on my birthday.

Our next meeting was to be in the early morning the next day in Utrecht, so we headed there to find a place to stay. We wound up in a very cheap (€45) hotel in the outskirts of town. The less said about the hotel, the better, but suffice it to say that it offered the bare minimum of comfort and service, but at least it was more or less clean. We of course wanted to minimise our time here, so we immediately headed out to check out the town for the rest of the day. First impressions were not too promising, but once we found the old centre of the city, our opinion changed–it’s a very pretty town, with canals and charming architecture, and some nice places to have a drink or eat. We chose a place at random and enjoyed some local beer and a bowl of mussels and proclaimed Utrecht to be a nice place after all.

After our meeting in the morning (which was another good one) we opted to make a detour for the night to Belgium, rather than stay in the Netherlands until our Friday meeting, and hopped in the car to drive to Bruges, a town I have long wanted to visit. We found a reasonably priced hotel near the centre (Hotel Fevery) and drove off, making it to the town by shortly after 1pm. Too bad for me that the weekly market closes at 1pm, so I just missed it! But even without the market, the town is simply beautiful, and the weather could not have been better (actually, it could have been a bit less hot for us, now that we’re fully acclimated to the moderate climate of New Zealand). For lunch we stopped a local brewery (“De Halve Maan”, or “The Half Moon”) for a glass of their wonderful beer and a snack (actually a large slab of local cheese with a pot of mustard), but the snack was so filling that we had little appetite for dinner later on, not that that stopped us from going out for dinner later on!

Bruges is clearly a popular destination with a lot of nationalities, as we heard just about every language imaginable on the streets. As a result of all the tourists, there are a lot of shops catering to their tastes, which apparently leans heavily toward chocolate–the sheer number of chocolate shops is dazzling! I don’t know how anyone can choose among them, so we did not try, since in any event any chocolate we’d have bought would have melted long before we got it back to our hotel, since the weather was unrelentingly hot and sunny all throughout our stay.

When beer o’clock struck we turned to Yelp and found a brewery near to the main square that seemed promising. Finding it was a challenge, since its address made it seem to be on a fairly big street though no sign of it could be found. Finally we asked someone for help and they directed us to a very narrow little alleyway leading off that street, and sure enough the brewery was at the end. This place, De Garre, is supposed to be the home of the world’s best-tasting beer, De Gulden Draak (the Golden Dragon), so we had to try that, along with another of their own beers. On the bottom of the menu where these beers are listed there was a warning–only in Flemish–saying that “for reasons of health, patrons will be limited to three servings”. Turns out, these beers are STRONG, around 11% each, so after one you definitely feel that you have had a bit to drink, even though the beers are served with a little bitty bowl of cheese to help soak up the alcohol.

For dinner we made our way to a place called Cambrinus, recommended by our hotel and clearly popular with both locals and tourists, and we were lucky to get a table. We placed our orders–rabbit in beer sauce for me and beef for J2–and promptly found that we were too stuffed–whether from the slab of cheese or the beer we could not tell–to finish our orders, but we enjoyed them both a lot.

The next day we spent wandering around town a bit more, including a stop at a candy shop that demonstrates the process they go through to make lollipops. We both thought that this would be a great idea for a shop in Oamaru–it’s “authentic”, artisanal, Victorian(-ish), and saleable, plus it would draw people to the historic precinct. We both also observed that, even in parts of town where the shops were closed, there were still a lot of people milling around in the evening because there were eateries and drinkeries nearby to draw them in. Perhaps a lesson for Oamaru? The rest of the day was spent in the usual way (for us), wandering the streets, having a beer at the same brewery (this time we both had the Golden Dragon) and then dinner at Dell’arte, a place we found on Yelp. Here I tried to order a “light” dinner of a salad, but what was brought was so enormous that despite my best efforts I could only eat around 1/3 of it. J2 did a bit better with his Carbonade Flamande, the supposed regional specialty, which was delicious but still too big for us.

On our final day in Europe we left our lovely hotel in the morning and drove the 2-1/2 hours back to Den Bosch for that meeting that we had to reschedule. With that out of the way we were officially on vacation, so we returned our car at the airport and awaited our flight to Bangkok and connection to Yangon, which will be the subject of the next post!

Posted by: JLG | 20 July 2014

Return to Blighty

After the horror of our flight from DC to NYC, you can imagine that we were a bit nervous about what might happen on our longer flight from NYC to London. The flight was a daytime flight, rather unusual for transatlantic crossings, on Virgin Atlantic, and left really early in the morning, so we had to be up and out of my mom’s place by around 5am to get to the airport in time to return our car, check in, go through security, etc. I had figured that the airport would probably be rather quiet at that hour of the morning, otherwise we might have left even earlier.

At check in for the flight, I asked if there was any chance of our moving from our rear-of-the-plane, middle-of-the-row seats to something better, and as it happened there were two exit row seats left that we could have, if we were willing to pay $100 each for the privilege. We leapt at the offer, but I made sure to advise the check-in person that, in the event of an actual emergency, I would require reimbursement of that $100 from the airline for opening the exit door (this was before MH17, so it was still funny then). What a great move this was, since our seats were very comfortable indeed, and we got to chat with the flight attendant who I guess became fond of us, judging by her bringing us glasses of champagne and offering us an additional meal during the flight.

Compared with the international flights that we have grown accustomed to living in NZ, this was ridiculously short and fast, and before we knew it we had landed at Heathrow. Being summer, it was still light out when we landed at 7pm or so. We were staying our first few days in Windsor with my cousin David and his wife Cathy, who live opposite Windsor Castle, which we could still see clearly when we arrived.

On Sunday, our first full day in the UK, after cousin David fixed my broken tooth (it helps to have a working dentist in the family!) we thought we might visit Windsor Castle with a possible eye toward gingerbreading it, but when we saw that the tickets were a whopping £37.50 each (that’s around NZ$75) we decided to pass. Luckily the gingerbread rules state that J2 must have been to the subject of the gingerbread, not that he actually visit it in depth. Phew. So instead we made arrangements to head into town to see friends of ours for a wander around Chelsea. The weather was stupendous, so we really enjoyed being able to amble around London with them, and just soak up the warmth and sun. In the evening we took David and Cathy to dinner at their local Chinese place, where we ordered from the Chinese-language menu (that has no translation), earning us envious looks from the neighbouring table, who kept asking us what dish that is since nothing looked like it came from the £14.50 all-you-can-stomach menu that they were given. This prompted us to take a copy of the Chinese menu back with us for me to translate, which I did while David watched the final of the World Cup.

After a few days of no meetings, we were back to the grindstone on Monday, leaving Windsor in the morning and joining the commuters on the train into London. This was going to be our single busiest day of the trip, with six meetings scheduled between 10am and 5:30pm. Miraculously, we were on time for all but one of them, and the only reason we were late there was that we were kept longer at our previous meeting, with Tourism NZ, since they were so intrigued by all the new stuff going on in Oamaru and the lodge and wanted to learn all about it!

Happily for us, our last meeting was to be held over drinks at the newly built tallest building in London, the aptly named “The Shard”. To get there we took the tube to Monument station and walked across London Bridge, and as we did this I realised suddenly that this was the path of my daily commute to work when I lived in London in 1989. But as we crossed London Bridge I realised that the building I used to work in was no longer there, having been replaced by…The Shard! Our meeting was at the 52nd floor bar of the Shangri-La hotel, so from up there we had a great view of London below. The drinks were not bad, but as expected, they were vastly overpriced at £10 each.

With our meetings of the day over (and incidentally they all went very well!) we had the evening off and had arranged to meet my college friend María and her husband Renaud for dinner at The Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe. To get there we took the new (to us) river transport that zigzags along the Thames, which affords a great way to see the city, especially on a lovely evening. When María suggested this as our venue for dinner, I was initially surprised, since it seemed like it would be the height of touristy, but María is a very sophisticated diner (she and I decided, way back in 1986, to forego the class graduation dinner at some nondescript restaurant in NYC, in favour of dining together at the infinitely better Four Seasons, a meal that I remember to this day) so I figured she must know what she’s doing. Sure enough, the meal was excellent on all counts, and the only nod to the neighbouring Globe Theatre was the intrusion of a troupe of actors from the evening’s performance, in full costume, barreling through the dining room in character (we think they might have been performing Julius Caesar). After dinner we walked along the Thames, passing by countless new things that have arisen since our last visit in 2011, to the station where we caught a rather late train (11pm) back to Windsor.

Tuesday morning we bade farewell to David and Cathy and headed out in our hire car for meetings in the provinces. Our first stop was in Surrey, south of London, and then in Hungerford, west of London. When these were over we decided to drive up toward where our Wednesday meetings would be, in the Cotswolds, and find a place to stay near there. I had not counted on the popularity of the Cotswolds as a holiday destination, though, so rooms were hard to come by, but we eventually found a comfortable place in a town called Shipton-under-Wychwood, located between Witney and Chipping Norton, where Wednesday’s meetings were to take place. The owner of the B&B we had chosen asked what brought us to the area, and when we said we were visiting two nearby travel agents she told us, somewhat shocked, that they are very posh agencies whose itineraries are beyond her budget. When she realised that our place in NZ is also rather posh, she immediately set to apologising for all the perceived failings of her B&B, which frankly was perfectly fine. Happily she eventually became comfortable and we had a lovely time with her. She even recommended a nearby place for dinner that we enjoyed so much we ate there both nights of our stay.

On Thursday we left the Cotswolds for the Peaks District, a further two hours or so north, stopping along the way at a couple of gingerbread candidates. These places were all ones that I had visited on my first visit to the UK as a teenager in 1979, and only one was still how I remembered it. The first stop, Warwick Castle, has been completely disneyfied, with recreations of medieval activities, costumed performers etc. That, combined with the £22 entry price, persuaded us not to enter the castle grounds. The next stop, Kenilworth Castle, was a ruin when I saw it 35 years ago, and it remains a ruin today. Unlike in 1979, today they charge £10 to get in, which we did not want to pay (gosh, I sure sound cheap on this leg of the journey!). But a gentleman at the ticket booth noted our lodge shirts with the “Oamaru NZ” embroidered under the logo, and told us that if we became members of English Heritage we would gain free entry to Heritage NZ properties (and vice versa). That’s definitely something we’ll have to look into when we get home. The last stop along the way was at Coventry Cathedral, famously bombed in 1940 and left as a ruin (with a new cathedral built next door).

We got to our destination, Buxton in Derbyshire, on one of the hottest days so far this summer. Of course, nowhere has aircon in this part of England so we were wilting (as was everyone else) and took refuge at a funky little craft brewery in town after walking around a bit. There, too, our meeting went very well, and it seems that the agency there wants to put us on their website, so the travel to this part of England was worthwhile. The next morning, Friday, we left Buxton in the early morning for Cheadle, near Manchester, for one more meeting in the north, before heading south to Flackwell Heath for the last meeting of our English visit. All of these also were very positive, so we have a good feeling at the end of this trip to the UK.

Flackwell Heath is just an hour from London so we headed into town to spend the weekend. This time, we were going to spend a few nights in town, with an old colleague and his wife. In the evening we went to a nice local place for dinner, downing three bottles of wine in the process (in the spirit of full disclosure, we only had about two glasses of that wine ourselves…) and then afterwards we returned to their place to watch the final episode of a quiz show that has my name written all over it. It’s called “Only Connect” and the object is to find the connections among apparently unconnected things. I hope they show this in NZ!

Saturday started off a bit thundery and rainy, but by the time we headed out of the house it had cleared and we had a mostly fine day once again. We met another former colleague of mine (from Moscow days) for lunch at one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s places (NOPI), which was excellent, and then we visited the Gallery of Russian Art & Design (GRAD) for their exhibit of Soviet-era household goods, which was a real trip down memory lane for us. From there J2 and I headed to the Borough Market, again near my old office, to do some shopping for a dinner that I’ll make on our last night for David and Cathy (we’ll spend our last night with them, since they live so close to Heathrow and our flight to Amsterdam leaves very early), and after that we met yet another friend for dinner in the East End.

The East End used to be a rather down-and-dirty neighbourhood, but it has been undergoing a steady process of gentrification lately and the place was hopping when we got there. Dinner was at a very funky place called Les Trois Garçons, with extremely quirky interior décor (heavy on taxidermy and somewhat kitsch animal sculptures) but very good food. After dinner we wandered around the area for a bit before finally returning to our friends’ place for the night.

This has been a very good return visit to the UK, so much so that it seems likely that we’ll have to include the UK on our European visits a bit more regularly. We’ll see how the bookings shape up before making any final determinations.


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