Posted by: JLG | 28 August 2016

Hawaii!

The last port of call on our two-month worldwide odyssey was the Hawaiian Isles. I had only been to Honolulu once before, for business, and only for a few days, so this was going to by my first “real” visit to the state, and J2 had never been at all, so this promised to be a welcome treat after a rather gruelling period of travelling.

Flying out of LAX we had our first encounter with the delays that we had heard were going to be plaguing US airports this summer, facing a very long security line as we arrived at the United Airlines terminal. Fortunately, someone at TSA decided to grab a bunch of us at the end of the queue and bring us to the premier security check-in, which sped up our inspection enormously. Also, having taken advantage of the curbside bag check, we avoided the queue inside the terminal (though we were caught a bit off guard when the redcap made a blatant demand for a tip, which I had completely forgotten would be a thing here; with only $5 in my wallet, and checking in three relatively heavy bags, I was virtually certain we would not see them in Honolulu, but that fear was unrealised). This was also the only flight of the 17 that I would be flying on this trip that would charge me for checking a bag; United Airlines only allows us each one checked bag, so the third had to be paid for, at what I thought to be a rather unreasonable rate of $150. For future reference, Southwest allows two checked bags per passenger, at no additional charge. Go Southwest, young man!

Anyway, when we got to Hawaii we were met at the airport by our good friends Naomi and Mike, who always make any visit with them a special treat, whether it’s at their place (I’ve visited them in Beijing, Shanghai and DC before their move back to their base in Honolulu) or at our place in New Zealand. They bestowed leis on us as they greeted us, and took us to their car for the drive back to their house on the southwest side of O’ahu. Since United didn’t feed us during the six-hour flight (that departed at dinnertime…) we made a stop en route at a supermarket to pick up something for dinner, and found that the only thing that looked appealing was a vac-packed thing of cheeses and salami. Welcome to Polynesia! (In hindsight, we should have bought a can of Spam and a loaf of white bread…)

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View from Diamond Head

Naomi and Mike had a busy schedule lined up for us during our stay. With a relatively short visit (just three days on O’ahu and three on Maui), and wanting to minimise the impact of traffic on our visit, we made as much use of our mornings as possible, and aimed to return to Kapolei (as their part of O’ahu is called) before evening rush hour began. So on our first day we kicked things off with an early ascent of Diamond Head Crater. Parking at a lot of Honolulu’s attractions seems to be quite limited, and getting places early became a theme of some of our visits. We ended up not able to park at the closest lot to the start of the hike here, but lucked into a spot not too far away. The hike is very easy, though it was rather hot, especially for two Kiwis like us, and with J2 still suffering from the virus that he caught in Virginia, he struggled a bit to make it to the top (though not as badly as a tourist we encountered who was suffering from electrolyte loss and whom we helped out by finding someone to give her some Gatorade–my good deed for the trip!). The view from the top was beautiful–we were very lucky with the weather–and it was very good to get a bit of exercise, especially given what was to follow.

 

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Poke Selection

Naomi and Mike both have a taste for the finer things in life (which explains why they befriended us, I suspect) and they know that we appreciate sampling local foods, so for our first proper meal on the islands (I’m not counting the impressive breakfasts that Mike prepared for us, including an outstanding Hawaiian fried rice our first morning, and kalua pig quesadillas on the second) we went to a restaurant called Town in Kaimuki for an early lunch. The food here was beautiful, and my order of octopus with a sort of poi relative called pai’i’a was especially delicious, I thought. (While I’m on the subject, I’ll mention that J2’s dietary issues–an aversion to fish and fresh fruit–made some of our dining choices a bit challenging here; fortunately for me he is always very happy to make do with whatever he can when I indulge in my fish or fruit-eating adventures, though I think Naomi and Mike were a bit concerned that he was being left out. Don’t fret about it, guys!)

 

When we finished our lunch we headed to the day’s next stop, the North Shore of O’ahu for the requisite visit to Matsumoto’s for an order of shave ice. This is the place to come for shave ice, a concoction made of rather simple ingredients–shaved ice (shaved on a special machine, no less) doused in fruit syrups of your choosing, with the option of having an order of vanilla ice cream and/or sweet red beans hidden under the ice. When I was in Hawaii in 2006 I drove all the way up here just to try the stuff (and also to have some garlic shrimp at one of the nearby food trucks, something we skipped this time around) and found that the North Shore was still fairly unspoiled, with a very rustic feel to the place. A lot has changed in the intervening decade–not only has there been a bit of a building boom in the area, but Matsumoto’s has expanded, and their main competitor seems to be out of business. And even though Matsumoto’s is probably on every visitor’s checklist, the line moves very fast, and the quality is undiminished. I opted for the “tropical” combo (ice with passionfruit, guava and pineapple syrup) with both ice cream and beans, and found it to be delicious, and far less fluorescent than the rainbow combo of more pedestrian flavours.

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Matsumoto Shave Ice

We wandered around the shops of the North Shore a bit, and then made our way back home, stopping along the way at the Poke Stop to pick up our provisions for dinner. When I came to Hawaii in 2006 I was completely besotted with poke, and then with our move to China I promptly forgot all about it until just recently, when I started to make it for guests. I predict that poke will soon take over the Mainland, since it is an endlessly variable concoction made of the freshest-possible fish (not always raw, but often so) and a wide range of flavourings. When confronted with the choices at the Poke Stop, which looks like a completely unassuming low-end stripmall shop at first glance, but which offers a creative and high-quality assortment of poke choices, I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store, unable to process all the choices I had to make. Somehow we managed to limit ourselves to three types–a spicy salmon, a tuna with limu (a Hawaiian seaweed) and octopus–along with “sides” of taegu (Korean-style dried cod shreds in a sweet-spicy sauce) and seaweed salad. And since the Poke Stop is also famous for their eggplant fries, which have to be eaten fresh from the fryer, we also had an order of these to eat on the spot with some local beers. The fries were extraordinary, crispy, well spiced, and the kind of thing that you cannot stop eating after just one, but they were nothing compared with the pokes, which we enjoyed with some wine back at the house. Served on a bed of hot rice, poke is a light and probably not unhealthy meal, which is one of the reasons why I think it will soon become the next big thing, especially since it is much easier to make at home, assuming you can get really fresh fish.

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Shangri-La

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Thursday we had a somewhat more leisurely start to the day, since our first outing was to visit the Doris Duke estate “Shangri La”. I confess that I knew nothing about Doris Duke before Naomi told us she wanted to take us here, other than that she was once called the “richest girl in the world” when she inherited a huge estate from her tobacco baron father at the age of 12. In her 20s, in the 1930s, she became enamoured with Hawaii and bought a parcel of land on the O’ahu coast on the ‘other’ side of Diamond Head where she designed a house to showcase her collection of Islamic art, which she discovered during her months-long honeymoon in 1935. The house is a true treasure trove, filled with antiques from all over the Middle East and commanding impressive views over the coast. You can only visit as part of a tour, and our guide was excellent, providing a wealth of information about both the house and the life of its reclusive owner, who died childless in the 1990s and left the house to the city.

jg-20160728-DSC-RX100M3-01345Since we had found an amazing parking spot in town (that was under cover and free of charge, no less) we opted to walk from the Honolulu Museum of Art (which is the base for the visit to Shangri La) to our lunch spot for the day. Naomi had been wanting to eat at The Pig and the Lady in Chinatown for some time, ever since it opened, but had not been able to get in for dinner. Our visit gave her an opportunity to try it for lunch, and after our visit I can see why it is hard to get in. The chef-owner is from Vietnam, and his menu is a very interesting amalgam of Vietnamese, Laotian and American dishes that are both creative and delicious. We started with their Laotian fried chicken to share, which was like a Southeast Asian version of Korean fried chicken with an extremely crunchy coating and a sweet-sour-spicy sauce, and then we each had a different main dish. Mine was a “Pho French Dip” sandwich, which I suppose you could describe as a banh mi version of pho, morphed into a French dip. The filling was a slow-braised beef brisket combined with traditional pho add-ons (onions, cilantro, bean sprouts) and alongside was a bowl of pho broth to dip it into. What a creative concoction, and one I’d happily order again and again. J2 had the “Lucky Mi” sandwich, which is a more traditional type of banh mi, but the fillings were prosciutto, avocado, Calabrian chillies, and kale.

After this incredible lunch we visited a Japanese-Hawaiian warehouse store so I could pick up some supplies to take home. It was basically an Asian-inflected Costco, and if I lived here, I would probably do most of my shopping here (and at Costco, too, which has a really interesting product mix), and I found some interesting flavours of furikake to take home.

We decided to have a lightish dinner, after the rich lunch earlier in the day, so we stopped at a grocery store to pick up some poke to have at the house. If I lived in a place where even the grocery stores (a Safeway, no less) had such a great–and inexpensive–treat to take home for dinner, I imagine I would spend a lot less time cooking. They always let you taste before you select what you want, and the clerk here made sure I sampled the spicy salmon since she had just finished making it (and she did so “with love”, she told me). I probably would not have opted for the salmon had it not been for that sample, but it was really delicious so it was one of the three we chose for dinner (J2 had some of the leftover kalua pig with rice for his dinner).

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Flying over Diamond Head

Naomi had suggested that we visit another of Hawaii’s eight major islands (two of which are not visitable) during this trip, so she arranged for a Maui outing through Costco that had us depart Honolulu on Friday morning for the 40-minute flight to Kahului. I’m really glad we got to see Maui, since it is quite different from O’ahu–much slower-paced, more rural, and I’d even say a bit more beautiful. We picked up our car and drove over to our hotel on the west side of the hotel near Lahaina, and grabbed lunch at the Maui Brewing Company (good food, and really nice beers).

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What passes for a sunset on Maui

Lahaina was the original capital of the united Hawaiian islands under King Kamehameha the Great, so it has a good deal of history to explore. We started by heading into Old Town Lahaina and visited the Baldwin Home Museum, which was a good introduction to the history of Maui and Hawaii, since the docent provided a thorough history of the missionaries’ role in 19th century Hawaii, including how the Baldwin whose house this was helped to shield Maui and Moloka’i from the smallpox epidemic that ravaged the other islands, and how they helped to bring literacy to the population (Hawaii was the most literate country in the world, thanks to Kamehameha mandating learning to read as part of his effort to consolidate his control of the islands–it’s easier to control the various islands by sending them a written message instead of having to visit them himself all the time). Lahaina is also home to the oldest lighthouse in the Pacific (though it’s not very photogenic) and to a very interesting little museum that we wandered at length. In the evening we stopped at a grocery store and bought provisions to make into dinner to have back at the hotel while watching the sunset.

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Haleakala Crater

On Saturday morning we got an early start (again…) and drove into the “upcountry” part of Maui to visit the Upcountry Farmers’ Market, where a friend of ours from Beijing has a stand. She has relocated to Maui and now makes fruit pastilles and fruit pastes that she sells at tourist shops and to restaurants, and we thought it would be nice to say hi. The market is full of beautiful produce, all grown locally, of course, but when it came to finding something for breakfast it was a bit thin on the ground, especially since we didn’t really want tempeh with organic kale or spirulina juice. There was one vendor that seemed to be selling the sort of food we wanted, but the French toast that J2 ordered turned out to be made with gluten-free bread (why….???) so it went largely uneaten, though my free-range eggs with sweet potato hash was pretty darned good.

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Yawn.

The main objective of our visit to upcountry Maui though was to ascend to the summit of Haleakala, the highest point in Maui. The drive is long and slow, and it got colder and colder as we ascended, so much that by the time we reached the 10,000-foot summit it was actually rather chilly up there (and of course we were dressed more for sea-level weather, in shorts and t-shirts). The views were beautiful from up there, though, especially with the clouds below us, though moving around was a bit tiring with the thin air. An added bonus for us was that the Haleakala Silversword was blooming, a very curious plant that exists only here, and that blooms only once in its very long life (as long as 50 years) before dying. Another added bonus–we arrived on the Haleakala National Park’s 100th birthday, so entrance fees were waived!

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Haleakala

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the way back down we stopped at the village of Makawao, where we found a nice lunch at a small bistro in the centre. We also visited the Surfing Goat dairy, which we expected to have a tasting or something but which turned out to be rather disappointing (and the cheeses weren’t all that good, to boot), but the neighbouring Ocean Vodka and Rum distillery was far more interesting. Not only did they offer a very good tour, but the tour ended with tastings of their products, which were actually pretty darned good. The vodka bottle would also have made a great candidate for making prisoner pears back home, but getting it home would have been a challenge so we left empty-handed.

For dinner we tried to get into Star Noodle, but reservations were impossible and the wait for a walk-in table would have been two hours. So instead we bought a take-out order that we supplemented with some wine from the next-door liquor shop and found a place along the coast to eat while watching another sunset. It was only once we found a spot that we realised we had no plates and that the restaurant only gave us three pairs of chopsticks, but we improvised and had a great meal in a beautiful setting.

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Ho hum

We were flying back to Honolulu on Sunday so we spent the first part of the day meandering around some small villages looking for interesting things to do. We started with the Iao Valley park, where we were given free entry by the parking lot guard when he learned that Naomi and Mike live in Hawaii but appeared not to be the kind of “kama’aina” who tend to despoil the place. The park is noted for its needle-shaped spire in the rainforest, and the walk through the park was beautiful despite passing rain showers. We in fact got back to the car just as the rain started to get heavy, so we took that as a cue to find a place for brunch, settling on a surprisingly good Korean spot in a shopping mall nearby. We also visited Paia, another cute little village with a plethora of shops, and Spreckelsville to see the Maui Sugar Museum, which provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of the industry that made Maui a magnet for Europeans and Asians in the 19th century. (This, the last remaining sugar mill on Maui is scheduled to close at the end of the year, and all the sugar cane fields that supply it are to be converted to diversified agriculture, rather a loss to future visitors, I think.)

We got back to Honolulu in the early evening and headed straight to dinner at the Side Street Inn, another storied restaurant that Naomi wanted us to experience. This place is a bastion of home-style Hawaiian cooking, serving family-style portions (read: enormous plates meant to be shared) of such treats as kimchi fried rice, spicy fried chicken and spare ribs, all of which was delicious.

One more day remained for us in Hawaii, and in order to make sure we made the most of it we started off by leaving the house at 5am (!!) for Hanauma Bay. Parking here is extremely limited, so we needed to arrive close to its opening time of 6am or risk not getting in. We arrived very shortly after the gates did and got a parking space easily, and then we learned that the entry fee is waived if you arrive before 7am (what’s this, the fourth time we escaped having to pay an entry fee??). The reason for being here is that this is the place to come to go snorkelling. The snorkel gear rental depot only opens at 7am, so we spent an hour just enjoying the view, and then when we got our gear we got into the water. You don’t have to go far at all to see the fish, which are numerous, beautiful, and not afraid of people (in fact, they come up to you if you stay still enough). In no time at all I saw my favourite tropical fish, the wonderfully named humuhumunukunukuapua’a (also known less wonderfully as triggerfish), along with wrasses, tangs, parrotfish and who knows what else. (J2 saw even more, since he ventured further out with Mike leading the way; I preferred to stay closer to shore.)

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Humuhumunukunukuapua’a

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stayed at the bay for several hours, until shortly before the promised rain storm was due to arrive, and before it started we visited the Halona Blowhole nearby and some other coastal scenic points before moving on toward lunch at yet another poke place, and a little treat of mochi ice cream at a place owned by a high school classmate of Naomi who has also relocated to Hawaii. We made a few shopping stops in the afternoon before returning to the house to sort out our luggage, making sure that we could pack everything into our bags, including several pieces of antique glass that Naomi and Mike were giving to us as part of their household downsizing (thanks again!!).

jg-20160801-ILCE-7M2-06152For our final dinner of the trip, Naomi had chosen a place on the west coast of O’ahu called the Monkeypod Kitchen. Since the restaurant had no view of the coast, we went for a drink at the Four Seasons where we sipped our cocktails as the sun dipped below the horizon, giving me a chance to get some nice photos. Dinner was excellent, though J2, Mike and Naomi went all boring on me and each ordered the same dish (gnocchi with Italian sausage–how much less Hawaiian can you get??) so it was up to me to get something evocative of the islands, a pan-seared onaga fillet with garlic shrimp and sweet potato purée, which was excellent, and a fitting coda to this amazing trip’s generally excellent food.

We had to leave bright and early for the airport on Tuesday, since traffic is pretty terrible in Honolulu in the morning, but we got there in plenty of time, making short work of checking in and getting through security. The only fly in the ointment was that we managed to leave our coats behind at the house, so after toting them around half the world for more than a month for no good reason, we managed to leave them behind just as we were about to need them, what with a winter storm bearing down on New Zealand as we arrived. Oh, well, it will give us a reason to return to Hawaii!!

Posted by: JLG | 29 July 2016

Los Angeles

It’s no secret that Los Angeles has never been one of my favourite cities. Perhaps this stems from my being a true-blue New Yorker, with distaste for Los Angeles bred into me from an early age, or perhaps it’s just that it’s really difficult to like a city that is impossible to walk in, where there is no discernible center, and where the main contribution to the improvement of mankind’s lot was the invention of right-turns on red. No matter the cause of my condition, arriving at LAX is sure to cement in anyone’s mind a deep hatred for this city. Say what you will about JFK or LGA, neither of which wins any awards for efficiency or ease of use, LAX is an absolute cesspool, and on arrival from Houston it even smelled like one–I was sure that something had died in the terminal, the stench was so bad–and I could not wait to get out of there. (It turned out that not long before our landing Terminal Two had been evacuated as a result of a bomb threat, so that may have added to the chaos, though it doesn’t really explain why Terminal One, where we were, was in such a state…)

I had a little treat in store for J2 when we arrived in LA. Since his birthday was the day before we arrived, and we don’t buy each other birthday gifts any longer, I decided he might enjoy it if we had a car to drive while in SoCal that he’s been admiring for a couple of years. So, making use of an AirBNB-type service for rental cars called Turo, I hired us a Tesla for us to use in LA. Collecting the car was a bit confusing–Turo’s information as it was sent to me was far outdated so all the contact numbers I had been given were no longer working–but we eventually got to the hotel where the car was parked. I had J2 wait by the front door while I sorted out the car, and when I drove up in a shiny Tesla he was very surprised and not a little bit excited to be able to play with this beautiful car for a few days.

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Us and our Tesla

As always when in LA, we stayed with my old college friend Kristin, who was also hosting another friend and his partner while their new place in LA is getting ready for them, so it was a bit of a reunion for me. Kristin also has a new dog, Wyatt, a tiny eight-pound mixed-breed that she rescued and who is very, very cute, and quite a change from the massive pit bull that she used to have (and that had to be rehomed after an incident in the area). Wyatt is very cute and, even though I’m not normally too fond of little dogs, his personality more than makes up for his puniness and we enjoyed having a little dog time after a bit of a gap.

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Wyatt with a bone

We had nothing much to do in LA for most of our time in the area, so we spent the weekend pretty lazily. Kristin did have me prepare dinner on Saturday though, so we went out to Koreatown to collect some supplies and put together a delicious Korean bbq for Kristin, her other houseguests and some friends who came by. On Sunday we visited the Mar Vista farmers’ market and then headed downtown to visit Smorgasburg LA, a collection of food trucks modelled on the original Smorgasburg in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The weather was extremely hot–and a nearby wildfire had added to the heat and dryness, along with adding some eerie colour to the skies and especially the sunsets–so after we did the rounds of the trucks to see what was on offer we made our choices and decamped to a covered area to enjoy our lunches. The item I chose was the unquestioned champion of the day; it was a “Goa Taco”, consisting of a freshly cooked Indian paratha (flakey flat bread) filled with succulent grilled pork belly, pickled red cabbage, and chipotle mayonnaise along with some cilantro sprigs (anathema to Kristin and her mom, who ordered the same thing only without the cilantro). It was all kinds of delicious, with the warm, flaky bread contrasting with the tender and flavourful meat, crunchy and sour cabbage and the creamy sauce. Definitely something I’ll try to recreate at the lodge!

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Smoky Sunset in LA

On Monday J2 and I drove out to Riverside, a community way inland where a friend of his from dental school lives. With the Tesla, which of course doesn’t use gasoline but instead runs on electricity, having a range of 230 miles, we had to recharge the battery before setting off, a process that was a bit more complicated than we had expected. The first place I tried was the EV charging station at a Whole Foods Market near Kristin’s house, but the plug there seemed to be incompatible with the Tesla (what I didn’t know was that an adaptor was sitting in the car’s trunk just for this sort of situation). Then the closest Tesla-branded supercharging station turned out to be inaccessible due to construction, so we had to go to a third place where we were finally able to charge up, which took close to an hour. The drive was pretty good, and putting the car through its paces on the highway was great fun for me. Maybe one day we’ll have one of these of our own to play with…

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Korean Barbecue

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Pork Belly for Goa Taco

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Goa Taco

Our only meeting of the LA portion of our trip was on Tuesday, at the offices of Tourism New Zealand. They recently got a new person to head up their premium sector, so we wanted to be sure to meet him. The previous holder of the position was not someone that I had a particularly good relationship with. While we were civil and even friendly with one another, I did not trust him one bit, since we had known each other in his previous job, with a big inbound travel agency, where I found him to be very biased towards the superlodges and not to give lodges like ours much consideration. The new guy turned out to be a vast improvement, much more open-minded and an actual New Zealander who is familiar with Oamaru and knows what a great place it is from personal experience. I’m very hopeful that his time at TNZ will be very good for us, and that he will last a long time there (the fact that his wife is an American–from South Dakota, no less–may mean that he’ll stay in the job longer than earlier occupants did).

 

With that meeting over our time in LA ended and we headed to the airport after grabbing lunch for our flight to Honolulu. Knowing what a nightmare LAX is, we gave ourselves plenty of extra time to get through check-in and security, and were thus surprised when we sailed through both (though we were caught a bit by surprise when the curb-side luggage check people expected a tip for their service, something our time in NZ has made us unfamiliar with, and the only reason why security went so quickly was that we were among a small group at the end of the seemingly endless queue waiting for security in the main terminal area who were brought up to the premium area where there was no wait at all). The flight was with United–the only time on this trip that we’re flying with a mainstream American airline–and was a good reminder of why we try to avoid mainstream American airlines. Not only was no meal provided on the six-hour long flight, but there was no entertainment either, unless you knew to download an app for your personal device that would connect with the wireless system on board. But it was over soon enough and we arrived in warm Honolulu ready to start the holiday portion of our trip at last.

Posted by: JLG | 23 July 2016

DC and Houston

As I drove from NYC to DC, with a stop in Philadelphia, I was getting text messages from J2, who was struggling with just about every aspect of returning his rental car to the depot and making his way to our rendezvous point at the Tysons Corner mall. First he could not find the car rental return spot, so he texted me. I had never been to the place where he collected the car, so I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to know where to return it, but I was the one with data on my smartphone so I tried to find out for him (while driving at highway speed on I-95, of course). I eventually realised that I was better off stopping, so I pulled over and tried to phone Alamo Rent-a-Car, but that was a surefire way to give myself a stroke, since the person I was speaking to was probably the single stupidest person in the entire organisation (e.g., he could not quite grasp the fact that Washington DC is not the same thing as Seattle, Washington). So I gave up on the toll-free number and instead phoned the depot itself, though that was also fruitless, since the only information they could provide was pre-recorded (no option to speak to a person was proffered) and that did not include directions to the car-return lot. So I advised J2 to ask a cop. I later found out that he had circled Union Station countless times in a vain hunt for the entry to the parking structure, which it turns out had its primary ramp under construction and a small sign directed people to use another entrance. There was no sign about rental cars, so he only found it by accident (and he was told that everyone who returned a car that day made the same complaint about how hard it was to find them).

Then, with the car disposed of, he could not get cash from the ATM card that I had set up for him to use. He kept asking for one bit of info after another, from our ZIP code in NZ, to the PIN that might be on the card, to my blood type (well, maybe not the blood type), but nothing would lead the machine to give him any cash. In the end, he used my Amex card to buy himself a metro ticket (and when we met up and I asked to try the ATM card, it turns out he brought the wrong one with him–this one had expired in 2014).

Anyway, I eventually found him and we spent the next several days in the DC area staying with friends (thanks, Connie & Ken, and Abdo & Barbara, for your hospitality!) and visiting with others. One of the most anticipated evenings was our annual get-together with the “chowhounds”, friends of mine who used to get together for meals at one exotic restaurant or another when I was living in DC. For this outing they chose something truly unusual, a Yemeni restaurant. Having never had Yemeni food, I had no idea what to expect, but it was listed as one of the area’s best “cheap eats” so it seemed pretty promising, even if Abdo, who has lived in the Middle East, advised that Yemeni food was not among those with a particular following in that part of the world. Turns out there’s a reason for that–the food was pretty bad, and one dish in particular was so bad that I could not bring myself to eat what I had taken of it. Still, it was a fun evening, and I can now skip any future invitations to dine in a Yemeni restaurant with a clear conscience.

img_1093We had the great pleasure to be able to see my grad school friends Andrew and Meg, who are just back from serving at the US Embassy in Mali, and who are about to leave for Burkina Faso where Andrew is slated to be the next US ambassador! We also were joined for an Ethiopian dinner by another long-lost friend, Margot, who recently moved back to the DC area from Sri Lanka. And we had excellent Peruvian food with a Burmese friend who has spent the past three years posted to Yangon with the World Bank. You definitely cannot say that my friends don’t get around!

We also managed to do a little touring in DC, with visits to the National Gallery and the National Zoo. But it was so hot that we spent most of our time at the apartment, taking care of office work and preparing for meetings.

Our time in DC coincided with the beginning of the Republican National Convention, the less said about which, the better. We had to leave DC before it finished, however, in order to head to Houston, where we anticipated a far different reaction to that particular three-ring circus. It turns out, however, that we did not see any overt support for Mr Trump during our time in Texas (not a single Trump bumper sticker was in evidence, nor even a gun rack on the back of a pickup truck). Who knows, maybe he really won’t win come November??

I had scheduled a busy two-and-a-half days in Houston, with six meetings organised, the first of which was on the afternoon that we flew in. Having had a very early flight (we flew out of DC at 6:50am) we had to leave Abdo & Barbara’s place at the ripe hour of 4:30am, so neither of us was exactly going to be at our best that afternoon, but on top of that J2 had been feeling poorly since earlier in the week, so he opted to stay at the hotel while I headed to the meeting. The meeting was not even going to be in Houston itself, but in a town called Katy, about 30 minutes west of Houston. And on top of that, I had arranged to meet a friend from our Beijing days even further west, in the town of Needham, since she recently moved to Austin and Needham was more or less halfway for both of us. The meeting was good, and the drive was fine, but neither of us was especially hungry when we got to Needham, so the barbecue that we ordered went largely uneaten (and it wasn’t really all that good, either). But it was great to see her and at least I can say that I had Texas barbecue.

I ended up conducting the rest of the meetings on my own, too, since J2 was still not feeling well. He decided to see a doctor on the second day in Houston, so we found a “RediClinic” at a local grocery store where, for $108 he had a doctor look at him and give him a few tests–he did not have mono, which is what he suspected, so she gave him a script for a steroid to help relieve his difficulty swallowing, and an antibiotic to take in the event that that did not help him to feel better. When the pharmacist asked for our insurance I told her we were from NZ and had national medicine; at that she told us she’d give us a discount… Still, the meds cost $48 for a week’s worth.

J2’s birthday was on that same day, and I had planned to take him to a nice Mexican place for dinner, since Mexican is one of his favourite cuisines. He was not able to eat anything more than a bowl of soup, though, so instead I got him soup from a grocery store and I went out to a food truck for a simple Tex-Mex dinner of three tacos and a cold can of Texan beer from across the street. Despite being a really cheap meal–the tacos were $1.50 each, and the beer was all of $5–it was one of the best tacos I have ever had, and that cold beer was a treat on a swelteringly hot Texas evening.

We are currently waiting to fly from Houston to Los Angeles. J2 is feeling well enough that he had an actual meal for lunch–burritos at a place that was well-reviewed–and we even headed to NASA to visit the place after our morning meeting (but when we found out that tickets were $25 each, and gathered that the place would pale in comparison with the free-to-enter Air & Space Museum in DC we bagged the idea). Overall, I cannot say that I was terribly impressed with Houston. It’s a really unattractive city, resembling a big, sprawling suburb more than anything else (though the skyscrapers of downtown look nice enough, especially against the blue sky and puffy clouds), and it’s way too hot here for human habitation. But the people have been very nice, and the meetings were very positive, so I will consider this to have been a worthwhile visit. Time will tell if we’ll have to return anytime soon!

44C in Houston!

Where I had J2’s birthday dinner

Happy Birthday, J2!

Posted by: JLG | 23 July 2016

London, Boston and New York and a sad story

Our two days in London were met with nice weather (for the most part, anyway) and very good meetings. Despite Brexit, the mood was pretty upbeat among our travel agent partners, and they did not anticipate much of a downturn in their numbers in the coming year, though that would hinge on whether the UK currency continued the downward path that began with the Brexit decision. We had a chance to visit one more English Heritage property, a rather large estate with an impressive garden, and we saw two more sets of friends for dinner, once for a really nice Sichuan meal (who’d have thought!?) near the Bank of England, and once for a very nice British meal on the banks of the Thames.

We flew from London to Boston on 2 July, arriving in the afternoon of what promised to be a beautiful July 4 weekend in New England. We really should have thought that out a bit better, since picking up our rental car at the Budget/Avis counter was a real test of our patience. J2 sat with the bags while I joined the queue, which snaked v-e-r-y slowly through the rental car center as it inched forward toward the handful of clerks staffing the counter. About an hour into my wait, one of the passengers who had made it to the counter, but who had not moved from there in a very long time, announced that the reason for the delay was that they had “run out of cars” and were waiting for people to return vehicles so that they could be turned around and hired out. That seemed highly unlikely to me, but a lot of the passengers in the queue seemed to buy that logic and a loud hue and cry ensued. I commented, calmly, that it seemed illogical, and sure enough a manager came out some time later and announced that they were indeed short of minivans, but there were plenty of other cars to be had. (What she did not explain adequately was why they did not move the people who were waiting for minivans to one side so that they could take care of the non-minivan customers…) Regardless, when I finally got to the counter, after more than 90 minutes of queuing, the agent who took care of me asked if I would like a complimentary upgrade from the econocar that I had reserved to a 2016 Ford Mustang. I asked what colour it would be, and when told it would be red I agreed–hesitantly–to take a sports car for the three weeks we’d be on the East Coast.

13613692_10153592899357611_438057475354860983_oCar in hand we made our way to Cohasset, on the South Shore, to spend the holiday with our friends Cindy and Paul, and their sons Nicholas and Xander. It’s always a highlight of our visits to the US to spend time with these old friends, and this trip was no different. Of course it helped that we had perfect weather, great food, excellent cocktails (they make a mean Dark and Stormy) and ever-interesting conversation. The second stop on our East Coast visit was to Clinton, Connecticut, to visit with my sister Diane and niece Debbie. That’s always fun, too, since we never fail to eat well (these are members of my family, after all) and do something fun, whether it’s visiting the outlet mall, going to the Indian casino, or seeing a movie–or in this year’s case, doing all three!

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Cohasset Beach

After our Connecticut visit, J2 and I parted ways, with him taking the train down to DC to spend a week with his friends, and me visiting NYC. This was a genius solution to what could have been a small problem, since a) J2 is not a huge fan of NYC, and dragging him around the city is neither of our definitions of “fun”; b) we don’t normally have enough time in DC to see both his friends and my friends, and since he skipped the US last year, it had been at least two years since he had spent any time with them; and c) there were things I wanted to do in NYC that he would not have been at all interested in. So I made my way to NYC after dropping J2 at the railway station, stopping along the way in Westchester to have dinner with old friends of mine from when I lived in Moscow. Katya, the Russian-born wife of my friend Robert, put together a dinner large enough to serve a small army, and while their son has become a rather large and muscular kid who can eat a good deal, there was plenty left over nonetheless.

The rest of my time in NYC was spent primarily at mom’s place, where I prepared dinner three of the six nights I was there. It’s always a bit weird coming back to the house where you grew up and trying to get used to things that are no longer all that familiar. Cooking in what is essentially a strange kitchen is even weirder, since things are lower than I am used to, the stove is a lot weaker than I’m used to, and I cannot count on the spices and other staples being where I’d have put them (or be within their use-by period). Still, mom and I enjoyed our meals together, and it gave us a chance to spend some ‘quality time’ together, something we rarely get to do.

My sister and niece came down for the day on Saturday, and used the occasion as an excuse to go out for our traditional dimsum lunch at a nearby favourite haunt. It was too bad that mom could not join us, but we brought her back an order of egg foo yong so she was able to participate in our lunch vicariously. That evening I had booked a spot on a nighttime photo safari that would start at Bryant Park behind the NY Public Library and take us to Times Square to learn how to shoot that iconic location after dark. I took myself for dinner before that to an izakaya nearby that turned out to be extraordinary–excellent Japanese food designed to pair well with sake, which was also excellent, and reasonably priced, too!

As I walked to Bryant Park, the weather started to become a bit worrisome, but when we gathered it was still dry so we plugged on, hoping for the best. We were five students, three from Asia, one from Kansas and me (from New Zealand…) and our instructor, and we learned how to use flash sensibly while out and about in the nighttime city, how to capture those iconic images of a taxi with trailing taillights or zooming neon signs. Just as we were about to start shooting in Times Square itself, the heavens opened up in dramatic fashion, and we would have got ourselves soaked if we were to continue outside. Instead we decamped to the subway and shot passengers coming down escalators, trains speeding down the tracks, and all those types of images. It’s not quite what I was hoping for, but it was the best we could do under the circumstances.

On Sunday the weather had cleared and it was going to be a gorgeous day, so I decided to take advantage of the weather and do something I had never done before–walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Not only had I never done that before, but I could probably count on one hand how many times I had taken the subway to Brooklyn, and I certainly had never done so from Queens (if you’re not familiar with NYC geography, the subway lines are all designed to bring people from the outer boroughs into Manhattan, rather than connect the outer boroughs to one another, so going from Queens to Brooklyn is a long trip, especially when the express trains all decided to run local in Queens on that particular weekend). But it turned out to be a fantastic trip. I got off the subway very close to the bridge, and figured I’d try to get some photos of the lower Manhattan skyline before crossing to the other side. As I wandered the streets looking for the waterfront, imagine my surprise when I ran into an old friend from graduate school! We both recognised each other immediately, and while my being there was completely logical, since I was making my way from the subway to the waterfront, it was not immediately apparent why he was lingering there. Turns out he was acting in a movie that was filming in the area, waiting for a scene to be ready. This movie–it’s called Dark Tower, based on a book–has been filming all over NYC, and I kept running into their shoots, causing me to have to detour around film crews. He’s an extra in the movie, so we had a few moments to chat before he had to dodge a runaway taxi trying to get away from a zombie apocalypse (or something).

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Brooklyn Bridge

Eventually I got to the waterfront and took hundreds of photos of the bridge from underneath and the skyline, before grabbing a surprisingly good lobster roll at a shack under the bridge (which was also being visited by a Korean wedding party) and then making my way to the bridge. Thousands of people–mostly tourists–were also on the bridge, meandering their way across to Manhattan and causing tremendous traffic jams. If there is one thing that needs to be banned under the upcoming Trump administration, it is certainly selfie sticks (aka “wands of narcissism”) since they serve no useful purpose and cause inexcusable obstacles as you try to get around people posing for their moments of vanity.

Once on the Manhattan side of the bridge, I figured there was no particular reason to get back on the subway to head back to Queens, so instead I continued walking, making my way through the City Hall area to Chinatown (where I figured I had earned a treat in the form of a Xi’an spicy lamb sandwich and a bowl of cold liang pi noodles), up to SoHo and as far as Midtown. All told I covered around 12 miles, a pretty decent day even for someone like my marathon-walking friend Abdo.

On Monday I had an errand to do, to fix the suitcase that I brought with me on this trip (if you have been following this travelogue, the handle came off as I had finished packing it and was about to head to the bus from Oamaru to Christchurch). The place I found that would do it under warranty was in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, so I drove myself there first thing in the morning so that it could be fixed while I waited and not ruin my whole day. Williamsburg is a heavily Hasidic section of Brooklyn, so the vast majority of people I saw on the streets were very religious Jews who wear distinctive clothing and segregate themselves from the rest of society. I always feel a bit self-conscious around them, but they probably took no notice of me whatsoever, even if I was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts while they were all wearing white dress shirts, dark wool suits, black coats and fedoras, despite the intense New York heat of a summer day.

When my bag was ready I was faced with a quandary–do I drive all the way back to Queens to drop off the car, and then spend my day in the city, or do I try to park somewhere nearby and grab the subway? I figured I’d try my luck with the latter and see what happened. I opted to head to the Queens side of the East River, visiting a park that I thought might afford a good view of the midtown skyline. As luck would have it, I found a legal, unlimited and free parking spot almost immediately upon arriving, so my choice was validated! I spent a while photographing the skyline and the iconic Pepsi-Cola sign before heading to the subway to begin the day’s meandering.

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Midtown Manhattan

I took the train to the Upper East Side so that I could visit some of the museums that I had not seen in a while, starting with the Cooper-Hewitt Museum (a branch of the Smithsonian with exhibits on design) where they had some amazing exhibits that were unlike anything I had seen before. One in particular grabbed me–a wall of analog clock faces that seemingly were moving at random and with no particular pattern, but that would stop periodically in such a way as to reveal the time (you had to step back to see the pattern in the clocks’ hands). I also visited the Guggenheim, but the exhibit going on during my visit was of an artist whose works did not really resonate with me, so I zipped through their pretty quickly.

The only other thing I had to do that day was make my way to the Top of the Rock, where I had booked a 7:15pm admission to their observation platform with a plan to shoot some photos of the skyscrapers from there as the sun descended and as the city’s lights came on. I thought I was being extremely clever by booking my entry at that strategic time, since it would give me the best of both worlds for one entry price, but it turns out a LOT of other people had the same idea, since the three floors of viewing area at the top of the building were absolutely thronged with people, many bearing those ever-present wands of narcissism. But my elbows are very pointy, so I was able to snag myself a good spot facing south (so that I got a great view of the Empire State Building) and proceeded to wait for sunset. The view was outstanding and I got hundreds of photos–I even gave some advice to the people next to me, who were disappointed that their camera’s built-in flash was failing to illuminate the distant buildings.

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Nighttime Manhattan

For the rest of my time in New York I bummed around the city, did some shopping (Kalustyan’s Spice Shop warranted two visits, as did B&H Photo & Video) and had some more good ethnic food, and spent some more time with my mom before heading out toward DC on the Thursday to reunite with J2, stopping along the way in Philadelphia to meet with two travel agents.

Normally at this point in the entry I would have a bunch of photos to share with you. Unfortunately the pickings are going to be very slim in this instance, since the hard drive that I saved all my images on for the trip thus far–including all those hundreds of photos taken in Times Square, on the waterfront and from the Top of the Rock, failed on me on Wednesday and I cannot seem to access any of the images! I am hopeful that someone will be able to get at them for me, but in the meantime we’ll have to make do with the few that I had shared on Facebook or shot on my iPhone… Keep your fingers crossed for me!

Posted by: JLG | 4 July 2016

Visiting England During Interesting Times

When we planned our overseas trip for 2016, it had not been our intention to visit only countries in the midst of political and economic turmoil, but that’s how it turned out to be. Brazil and Argentina of course have both, what with an impeachment proceeding going on against the Brazilian president and a new president in Argentina trying to de-Kirchnerize his country, and both suffering from economic malaise, and the US of course is in the midst of a terribly worrisome election campaign, pitting a highly questionable charlatan against a candidate whom many also consider to be a highly questionable charlatan (I am on the side of one of them, whose charlatan credentials I highly question!). The UK, we had initially thought, would be an island of relative calm, but that was not to be, since our arrival coincided almost exactly with the announcement of the results of the referendum on the UK’s exit from the European Union (the so-called “Brexit”). Certainly no one I knew expected the “Leave” campaign to emerge victorious, but that is precisely what happened, albeit with a rather slim majority of 52% to the “Remain” camp’s 48%. The results showed very strong “remain” support in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the key English cities (London, Manchester, Bristol, etc) and very strong “leave” support in Wales and the English countryside, especially in the North, where our travels in England commenced.

As we drove around the North, we passed by countless “Vote Leave” signs, still hanging on overpasses, pasted to bumpers, and hanging in shop windows, and we hardly saw a single sign of “Vote Remain” agitation. But, whenever we had a meeting with a travel agent, their loyalties were clearly on the “Remain” side. It certainly seems to be a case of the people who have exposure to the outside world, as big city types and travel agents would do, support remaining integrated into the EU, while those who don’t, such as the residents of the pretty hardscrabble towns of northern England, do not see how it benefits them, so they opt to remain. If they did any research, however, they’d have seen that the EU helps to fund new development in a lot of those places, and overseas firms are more likely to invest in the UK if their products will be saleable not just to the 50m people of Britain but also to the 350m residents of the rest of the EU.

My great fear is that, in just the same way that the polls confidently predicted a win for “Remain” in the UK and yet turned out horribly wrong, the polls that see Hillary comfortably winning over Trump may also prove mistaken, and we could be in for a terrible shock come November.

But this is not a blog about economics and politics. Back to the fun of our driving around England!

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Cirencester

Neither of us seemed to suffer too much from jetlag coming in to the UK, so on Monday morning we woke up rested and ready to start the business side of our visit, heading out to see travel agents. Our first appointment was right in Harrogate, a short drive from our hotel, with an agency that we had never met before, but that already sends us guests regularly. As we started to chat, they told us that they had chosen to add us to their new New Zealand brochure, which is quite something—that gives us a tremendous amount of exposure, and should translate into additional bookings. What a great way to start off our UK visit!

Our next stop was about 90 minutes away in Bolton, near Manchester. Driving around the countryside we saw a tremendous number of English flags out, which we took to be a sign of people’s support for Brexit (but that we later learned was to support the England team in the European soccer championships, since they were to play Iceland that evening). The Bolton meeting was with a boutique agency, new to us, but that seems to be a specialist in tailor-made holidays, so right up our alley. It was another positive meeting, with the people expressing a great deal of interest in what Oamaru and the lodge have to offer their clients. The final meeting of the day was an hour away in Buxton, a place we visited on our last UK visit. Here there is a NZ specialist agent whom we hit it off with immediately last time, and who has sent us guests ever since. Meetings with him are more like a friendly get-together than a business meeting, perhaps because we always seem to meet in a pub where we can sample the excellent craft beers made in this beautiful spa town. When he entered the pub, we asked how he was doing and we thus embarked on a lengthy discussion of the implications of the Brexit and his despondency over the decision. I don’t think we actually ever talked about the lodge, or Oamaru, or even New Zealand (other than as a possible place for him to emigrate to), but I think he felt better and perhaps we’ll see him in NZ next year, possibly with all his worldly possessions.

Our meetings the next day were quite a way south, so we opted to spend the night closer to those meetings, which meant a nearly three-hour drive to the Cotswolds. One of those agencies recommended a little pub in the town of Barnsley as a place to stay, and when we got there we found it to be a really charming town and the pub to be a very old building with low ceilings (so low that we wondered why they had chosen to put a canopy bed in the room—the canopy grazed the ceiling). But it was a very comfortable room, oozing charm, and the food at the pub was pretty good. It’s perhaps worth noting that in both Harrogate and Barnsley none of the people we interacted with at our hotels was actually English–they were all from elsewhere in the EU. This is almost certainly a reason for a lot of the antagonism toward the EU in these parts, since I am sure that the perception is that these foreigners are stealing jobs from the English. But in every instance these people were eager to serve, smiling while doing it, and extremely pleasant to deal with. Have the English “sullened” themselves out of work in the service sector??

The Cotswolds is a bit of a centre for specialised travel agencies, perhaps because it’s a nexus of well-to-do people who choose to live in the area’s charming villages and commute by rail into London. Cheltenham is the “centre” of the Cotswolds (and is also the home to the British equivalent of the NSA) so we had two meetings here, one with a successor to an agency we visited here in 2011 that almost immediately closed down, and another with a small agency that welcomed us with a “Welcome James of Pen-y-bryn” screen on the waiting room’s TV screen, complete with a picture of the Moeraki Boulders. Nice touch! We also had a meeting in nearby Cirencester, another lovely and prosperous Cotswolds town (and the region’s largest) that I visited as a kid back in 1979. I don’t remember what the reason for that visit was—I’ll check my travel journal when I get home—but it certainly is a beautiful town, even in the drizzly cold weather we experienced, and the cathedral in the centre has extraordinary architectural detail.

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Cirencester Cathedral

Our first meeting on Wednesday was to take place in a small town in the neighbouring county of Wiltshire, so we decided that we’d stay near there on Tuesday night, booking a room in a B&B just outside of Devizes, which is for some reason Oamaru’s sister city. On our way into Devizes we had time to stop in Avebury, home to the Avebury Manor and the Avebury stone circles. The manor is quite unusual for an English Heritage property, since they actively encourage you to touch everything in it. This is because the manor was the subject of a recent BBC documentary called “The Manor Reborn”, in which they took the rather dilapidated old estate and restored it, but each room was restored in the style of a different period in the estate’s history. Thus one room is done up as it would have appeared in the time of the Tudors, another in Queen Anne, and yet another in Edwardian style, etc etc. The gardens have also been restored, and are a delight to explore. They also have the clever idea of selling the produce that comes out of the vegetable gardens and potted plants that they take from the perennial bed as a revenue-generating effort (perhaps this is an idea that the Oamaru Public Gardens should follow).

The Avebury Stone Circle, meantime, is a less-known but nonetheless very interesting sister site to the more famous Stonehenge nearby. While not as dramatic as Stonehenge, and with far smaller stones, the circle (actually, there are three of them) itself is much larger, and is considered to be among the oldest prehistoric sites in Britain. We’d have happily spent more time wandering among them, but the weather was putrid and we just could not face walking around in cold rain any longer, so we headed to our lodgings for the night.

Our hostess for the evening had no idea about the sister-city relationship between her town and Oamaru, despite the sign that she must pass on a nearly daily basis that shows the flags of the NZ flag (and the other three countries that have sister cities with Devizes–Germany, France and Finland). Nonetheless, the B&B was great, despite terrible internet connections, and the pub nearby where we had dinner was just what we were in the mood for on this cold, wet, English summer evening. No more will we allow English people to complain when an Oamaru summer day fails to be warm and sunny!

jg-20160628-DSC-RX100M3-01133Since our meeting on Wednesday morning was not to start until 11:30, we had time before to go to the biggest attraction in Wiltshire—Stonehenge. I am pretty sure that my 1979 trip included a visit to Stonehenge, though I have no recollections of it at all. I am certain, however, that we did not have to take a shuttle bus to get to the stones, nor that there was a big, modern visitor centre full of Stonehenge-shaped edibles, Stonhenge-branded jams and cakes, and Stonehenge-emblazoned clothing that you had to pass through to get to and from the stones. When we arrived for our timed-entry of 9am, there were not too many people there yet, so we were able to see the stones without the interference of throngs of visitors. It also probably helped that the weather was again miserable—grey, drizzly and cold—so we may well be in the running for the Guinness record for shortest-ever visit to one of the world’s most important ancient monuments. We also had time to visit nearby Salisbury, home to the cathedral with the tallest spire in Europe and to a copy of Magna Carta. We were supposed to have visited Salisbury during my 1979 visit but something happened to prevent that, so this was my first time here. When we entered, one of the docents told us to be sure to stand under the spire to see how its enormous weight has caused the columns to buckle–I wasn’t sure this was something I needed to see so up close and personal, but it was nice to know that we could…

We had our meeting with the agent in nearby Pewsey (another wonderful little town, full of thatched-roof cottages), and then drove toward London for our second (and last) meeting of the day in Beaconsfield. This agency is new to us, since we only learned of its existence in May when one of their people attended the luxury lodge trade show in Auckland, but he was very energetic and excited about NZ, despite having literally just got off the plane from London about two hours before coming to see us. Beaconsfield turned out to be yet another beautiful town with a busy main street lined with interesting shops and pubs, and the meeting went very well. The main theme seems to be that people are now looking for two things that Oamaru has in spades–it’s not the kind of place that everyone has done to death already and it offers an affordable splurge in the form of our place. Let’s see if this turns out to be true!

With our meetings for the day done, we headed toward Windsor, where we’d be staying for the last three nights of our visit to England at the home of my cousin, who unfortunately was not going to be here during our visit. So we got to his place and almost immediately headed out to meet friends in London for dinner, at a southern Italian place that they had discovered. Dinner was excellent, and of course the discussion hinged almost entirely on the implications of Brexit for them (she’s American, he’s English, and they were both pro-remain).

 

Posted by: JLG | 30 June 2016

Yorkshire: The Photos

As promised, I am now in a place with good internet (thanks cousin Dave!) so here are my photos from North Yorkshire:

Posted by: JLG | 29 June 2016

North Yorkshire

We both managed to get a pretty good night’s sleep, regardless of the flimsy walls in our room that seem to amplify the sounds in our neighbours’ rooms (both vertically and horizontally–the floor boards are pretty creaky upstairs). We had not included breakfast with our room booking–I usually don’t when with J2, since he’s not a big breakfast eater–so we decided to wander around and see what we could find in town. The answer, at least at 8am on a Sunday in Harrogate, is nothing. Absolutely nothing was open, not a coffee shop, not a baker, nothing. Come on, Harrogate, even in Oamaru there are breakfast places open early on a Sunday! So we got in the car and headed to nearby York, figuring there’d be something open there.

I visited York once before, in 1990 or so, with an old college friend, but we did not stay overnight and all I remember seeing was the Shambles, so I was looking forward to revisiting this town. Finding parking was a bit of a challenge, but once I managed to ditch the car we found a very nice little café where we ordered some breakfast. Soon we found ourselves in the middle of a political debate, since one diner–a guy with a very cute dog who befriended us–asked us, when he saw our jackets with “NZ” on them, what New Zealanders think about Britain’s vote to leave the EU this week. We told him that we had no idea what most Kiwis think, but that we were against it, which led another diner to agree with us, vociferously, and for the original guy to say it was the best thing the country had done in ages. They went back and forth about it, and all I wanted to do was eat my eggs. The results are of course all over the media, and while most of the signs we have seen on houses, cars and elsewhere in Northern England support the “leave” campaign, it seems no one on the radio or TV wants to go. I’ll be interested to see where things wind up.

Ever on the search for suitable gingerbread subjects, we visited the beautiful York Minster, and wandered around town for a bit. It’s a nice town, but it’s not as charming a place as, say, Bruges, so after a little while we decided we’d had enough and opted to move on. Even the Shambles, the old street that I remembered as having lots of buildings that appeared to be on the verge of collapse and touching from across the street, was in fact in pretty good shape and not particularly remarkable.

As members of Heritage New Zealand we are entitled to free or discounted entry to properties managed by English Heritage, so we decided to visit a few of their properties in the area, starting with Helmsley Castle, about 45 minutes away. The castle is a ruins overlooking a very charming market town, and we found a place for a very good order of fish & chips for lunch before visiting the castle. The castle is very nice to wander around in, affording some lovely views of the warm-coloured stone contrasting with the deep green lawn, bright blue sky and puffy white clouds that dominate the landscape.

From Helmsley we headed northward to see the Rievaulx Abbey, about which we knew nothing at all. When we arrived there we found that they have two things to visit, the abbey and something called the “Terraces and Temples”. Since the turn for the latter came first, we thought we’d check it out, since we had lots of time. This turned out to be well worthwhile, since not only were the terraces designed by the former owner of the land on which the abbey sits to afford 12 good views of the abbey from the garden he designed above, but it was also a day when people were coming to the park in Georgian-period dress for tea parties, so we got a view of people in their finery enjoying the grounds as they would have done several hundred years ago. (So Oamaru has no monopoly on people playing dress-up!)

jb-20160626-Canon EOS 50D-0243The abbey was very beautiful despite being in a state of ruin–you can really appreciate how grand it must have been in its heyday when it housed dozens of monks and played an active role in the surrounding area. Unfortunately, it, and all the other abbeys, were shut during the Suppression of Henry VIII (when he created the Church of England) and they went into decline and eventually crumbled.

We went to one more ruined abbey after Rievaulx, the Mount Grace Priory, a bit further north. This was a Carthusian monastery, which operated very differently from Rievaulx. Whereas at the latter the monks lived communally, the Carthusians believed that the only way to live a godly life was to do so solitarily, so the monks lived in individual houses called cells that lined the outside wall of the priory grounds, each tending to a small garden as his form of manual labour, and having little to do with the other monks. The priory was disbanded during the Suppression, and then became the property of a local businessman who built a lovely house next door and restored one of the cells. The cells were actually pretty comfortable and would have afforded the monks a nice living–I’ve certainly seen far less comfortable looking houses. FYI, if you haven’t heard of the Carthusians before, they are the monks responsible for Chartreuse liqueur, which all monks in the order receive a bottle of at Christmas.

For our last stop of the day we popped in quickly at the town of Ripon to see the cathedral. It did not hold a candle to the one in York, though it was interesting to see that it has a wooden ceiling and some beautiful stained glass. It began to rain while we were visiting though, so we decided to call it a day and return to Harrogate, where we had a pint of beer at a pub near the hotel before seeking out dinner.

It dawned on us that we should not miss the chance to have Yorkshire pudding while actually in Yorkshire, and, it being Sunday, there was no shortage of places doing a traditional Sunday roast, which would include the savoury pudding we sought. But finding a place that would live up to our standards was a challenge, with many of the more promising places being closed when we turned up. We wound up at the White Hart Hotel’s Fat Badger Restaurant, which produced a very credible roast beef with horseradish sauce, potatoes and Yorkshire puddings, along with an excellent sticky toffee pudding. You can’t get much more English than that, and it was a very good way to cap off this day of celebrating England’s heritage.

(Photos are to follow; our internet connection in provincial England is horrible!)

Posted by: JLG | 27 June 2016

Rio to Harrogate (with numerous stops)

When I booked our tickets back in Oamaru in February, I was surprised that there was no way to get from Brazil to London on a Star Alliance partner (or at least no way to do so at a reasonable price), so I had no alternative than to fly from Buenos Aires to Frankfurt, and then transfer to a flight to London. The BA to Frankfurt flight was to leave at 5pm, so when I booked my intra-South American flights, I had to find one that would get me from Rio into BA in time to catch that plane. As it turned out, all the flights from Rio would land at one airport, while the flight to Frankfurt would leave from another one, a good hour or more away. I thus had to decide if I considered it worth the risk to get a flight that landed at, say, 1pm, and hope that a) it would not be delayed and b) that traffic between the airports would be smooth, or if it would be safer to get a flight that would land at 9:30am and thus have the entire day to get between the two airports. I decided, after much introspection, to opt for the latter.

So my flight from Rio was to depart at 6am. The hotel clerk told me that in order to get to the airport at the required two hours before departure, I would have to leave the hotel by 2am, since I could anticipate a 2-hour drive to the airport. This seemed highly improbable to me, since it took Abdo and Barbara only 30 minutes to reach the hotel from that airport in the middle of the day. But the clerk assured me that pre-Olympics construction on the road would make travel at night out of the city very slow, and proposed ordering me a cab (which would cost R$100) to come at a compromised time of 2:30am.

But during our dinner with Digo and Gil we discussed this plan, and they told me that not only could I anticipate a drive lasting no more than 30 minutes, but an Uber would be no problem and 1/3 the price of the cab. So I cancelled the cab and planned to leave at around 3am (just in case). It turned out that Digo and Gil were 100% correct–not only did I only have to wait around 2 minutes for my Uber to arrive, but we got to the airport in around 25 minutes, arriving by 3:30am, and the total fare was R$35. The only problem was that when I checked in for the flight on Aerolineas Argentinas’ website the night before, the boarding pass advised that we would depart from Terminal 1, so that’s where I had the driver drop me off. There was only one problem–Aerolineas moved to Terminal 2 three weeks ago, so I had to schlep myself about a mile to the correct location (and of course there is no inter-terminal transport at this hour of night, if indeed there is even any during prime-time).

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This is a short portion of my walk between Terminals at GIG

The new terminal is part of Rio’s preparation for the Olympics, and like so much of the other Games-related work it is incomplete and far from ready. Once I finally got through security and passport control (a bit of a drama, since my boarding pass was only valid for Terminal 1, so I had to have it reissued), it was barely 4:15am, and not a single thing was open for a coffee or a bite to eat. How was this possible? Terminal 1 had loads of things open, but Terminal 2–the showcase of the airport–had nothing? I finally found a little makeshift stand selling coffee and baked goods for breakfast, but it was pretty poor, and way overpriced. And speaking of overpriced, if you want to change Brazilian currency into something else at the Rio airport, they give you half the rate that they should have, so I opted to hold onto mine on the hopes that it would prompt me to return sooner rather than later.

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Dining area at GIG completely deserted

The flight to BA landed exactly on time, by 9:30, and while I had toyed with the idea of killing some time in BA before heading out to the airport, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t really fond enough of the city to spend more time in it; there was no place where I wanted to have lunch particularly; I did not wish to tempt fate and have this be my opportunity to get robbed during my South America trip; and I figured I’d be better off conserving my strength so that when I got to the UK I wouldn’t be any more tired than I had to be. So I just took the next shuttle bus to the airport (which I had pre-paid a few weeks before leaving for the trip) and arrived at the international airport by 11:30, a good 4-1/2 hours before my Lufthansa flight.

I was unable to check in for my flight online for some reason, and the Lufthansa counter only opens 3 hours before flight time, so I had 90 minutes to kill, which I accomplished by having a pulled-pork sandwich at an American-themed restaurant at the airport. When the counter was open, I went to check in and encountered a problem–I had paid to upgrade to Premium Economy, but there were no seats available (hence my inability to check in last night). I expressed a willingness to be moved into Business Class, which the clerk said was not possible, since you cannot jump two classes, apparently. I stood my ground though, and said they should not have taken my money if the upgrade to Premium Economy was not possible, and the prospect of a 13-1/2 hour flight in Economy, after having woken up at 2:30am and having yet another flight and a 3-hour drive still ahead of me that day, was too much to bear. So he agreed to let me upgrade to business, albeit for $599, which I decided was money well spent.

So I checked in and headed to the Business Class lounge, where I had a lovely rest while waiting for my flight, disturbed only by a very loud Russian child (who I think may be on the spectrum) whose mother was oblivious to or uncaring about the level of disturbance her child was causing. I just hoped they would not be on my flight. When I boarded the flight, I found that the clerk had put me in the upstairs section of the 747-800 we’d be flying, and gave me a seat with no one sitting next to me. (I also later learned that the Russians were indeed on my flight, but sitting downstairs, out of earshot.) The flight was thus completely painless, other than a very rough patch of turbulence somewhere over Brazil, and since I had internet access I was texting with J2, who was also travelling this day, making his way from Oamaru to London via Christchurch, Auckland and San Francisco, all the while.

It seemed like no time had passed at all when we landed in Frankfurt. Not only had I slept, but I had a lovely dinner and watched a good movie that I had not seen yet (Room) and two that I had (Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Deadpool). All this made the connecting flight to London all the more unbearable, since not only was I back in Economy where I belonged, with absolutely no leg room at all, but there was no entertainment and I had a window seat with a very large American man squeezed into the middle seat next to me. But we eventually landed, and on time, so it was just a matter of clearing immigration (slow) and collecting my bag (quick, thanks to the slow immigration process) and then making my way to the rental car desk to get our vehicle and meet up with J2.

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Flying Over London

We were on our way out of Heathrow by 4pm, and made steady progress northwards to the town of Harrogate in North Yorkshire where our first meeting will take place on Monday and where I thought we could spend Saturday and Sunday nights getting used to the time and enjoying a part of the UK that we haven’t visited much. The hotel I chose is a grand old one that has seen better days (I now realise) but that will be fine for us. We took much-needed showers on getting into the room at around 7:30pm and immediately went out for a beer and dinner at a quirky little place (“Major Tom’s Landing”) that had a wide range of craft beers and pretty good pizza. We succeeded in staying up until the reasonable hour of 10:30 and collapsed asleep.

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Buckingham Palace is up top in this photo

Posted by: JLG | 25 June 2016

Rio de Janeiro: Day Two

As beautiful as yesterday turned out to be, this day started off rather grey and chilly, but we had scheduled this day for a walk along Copacabana Beach, and we would not miss that despite the weather. We took an Uber to a point where we thought we could start to walk, and wound up pretty close to the north end of the beach, right near where the beach volleyball will take place at the Olympics.

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Copacabana Sand Castle

Apropos of the Olympics, it is very hard to imagine that the city will be ready for them, since they’re only about six weeks away and yet there is still a LOT of construction going on. The VLT light rail system is only half finished (and the line that is done is running for free as a testing mechanism, and since it’s quite quiet and runs level with the street, there are people dressed as the VLT going around the centre of town with signs saying to watch out for the train), and apparently a new bike lane that was to be used for the cycling competitions, and was reputed to be one of the world’s most beautiful, with its location on the coast, was knocked down by a recent (and not at all unusual) storm. There does not seem to be as much excitement about the upcoming Games, perhaps because of the political, economic and health turmoil that the country is experiencing. If nothing else, these Games should be very interesting!!

Anyway, I was apprehensive about the walk along Copacabana since it was here that J2 and I were nearly mugged in 1999. Fortunately for us on that occasion, he was being much more attentive than I, and while I was snapping photos and getting distracted by colourful shop windows, he was keeping an eagle eye out for would be trouble, and espied a guy following us along the beach who then followed us when we turned up a side street to get lunch. J2 turned around to face the guy (from quite a distance away) so that he knew he did not have the element of surprise, and from there he went away.

So as we walked along the beach, I kept an eye open for possible ruffians, but for the most part it was pretty clear. There were loads of people biking, jogging, walking, playing volleyball or paddleball, or surfing, so the place was busy. Still, while Ariana, Barbara and I walked onto the sand to see the surf closer up, Abdo stayed behind and witnessed some guys spray mustard on a passersby shoe to get him to have them clean them (and possibly expose him to pickpocketing, like happened to us in BA). So we became a bit more vigilant and kept a brisk pace as we walked, reaching the far end of the beach much sooner than anticipated. That gave us time to add Ipanema to our walk, but it’s a bit shorter than Copacabana, so it didn’t take us too long to be done.

I was pretty relieved, I must say, when we decided to call it a day for the beach, and move on to our next activity. First we stopped at a book store to see if I could find a good Brazilian cookbook (no), and then we hopped in an Uber to head to the Santa Teresa neighbourhood for lunch.

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Santa Teresa Tram

Santa Teresa is a sort of bohemian neighbourhood that is famed for its street art, boutiques selling tchotchkes and a couple of good bars and restaurants. It also is serviced by a little tram that used to be considered rather unsafe, since people who lived in the nearby favelas could easily jump on, rob people, and jump off. For this reason, we opted for the safety of a car to make our way to this stop on our tour. If Barbara should happen to read that sentence, she is probably laughing now, since I expect she will question the use of the word “safety” to describe that ride. The driver was fine, and the car was fine, but the GPS was not quite following where he actually was, so he had to make a stop in the middle of the highway to find his way, and then we wound up in the outskirts of a favela and trying to ascend a very steep cobblestone street where he did not have enough momentum or engine power to make it, so he had to ask a cab driver whose car was impeding our progress to move (and the cabbie could probably tell he was an Uber driver, so he only moved reluctantly). Just as we started to make a run at the hill, some kid ran in front of us, causing a general shout of alarm from the back seat, though he dodged the car in time and no harm was done. When we finally got to the top of the hill we were all pretty relieved (not least the driver) and we soon were in the heart of Santa Teresa.

One nice thing about heading up high like this was that we were now experiencing different weather than we had at sea level–here the sun was out and it was actually rather warm. The restaurant we were heading for was the Bar do Mineiro, considered the place to go in Santa Teresa. Normally there is a line out the door to get in, but this being lunchtime, and during a general lull in travel to Brazil, we walked right in and got a table immediately. We ordered a feijoada completa for three to share, and an order of feijão tropeiro. Have I explained what feijoada is yet? If not, it’s the national dish of Brazil, made of black beans and all sorts of pork cuts, including many off cuts (an article was written about feijoada that I served at the lodge: http://www.listener.co.nz/lifestyle/food/recipes/brazilian-cuisine/) and this is considered a great place to have it. Feijão tropeiro is another popular dish, also made with beans, though this is more like a paella with rice, pork, vegetables and other things cooked together. Both were absolutely wonderful (though the pork that topped the feijão tropeiro was a bit dry) and once again we needn’t have ordered quite so much food.

We wandered around Santa Teresa for a short while, but quickly ran out of things to look at (and the tchotchkes were not compelling) so we got another Uber and went into town to see if we could visit the interior of the Municipal Theatre. As luck would have it, it was closed for maintenance (but would reopen tomorrow, after I have left) so we went instead to the museum of fine arts across the street. I cannot say that this was my favourite fine arts museum in the world, but it was a good way to spend a little time. When we emerged we were at a loss for something else to do, but it was too early to call it a day so we decided to venture out to the São Cristóvão market, about which we knew nothing other than that it might be a place where I could have a particular street food item that I had been looking for since arriving in Brazil.

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VLT Safety Crew

The market was a good ways away from where we were, and when we got there it seemed not to be quite open yet. Some stalls were open, but they were not terribly interesting, and none of them was selling my snack (acarajé, a fried black-eyed pea fritter served with a dried shrimp sauce). We bought some cashews, Ariana got some gifts, and we decided that this market could be crossed off our list and we could return to town.

We gave Ariana the task of finding a restaurant for our last night in Rio, and since I had to leave the hotel at 3am for the airport (!!) I did not want it to be a late night. While I’m sure Abdo was silently fuming about getting back to the hotel before 10pm, it’s just the kind of thing you do for your friends. The place Ariana chose was in Lapa, a section of town within walking distance from our hotel that is famed as a night spot. Walking there was OK for the most part, but it became a bit dicey toward the end, so we all decreed that we’d be riding back afterwards rather than risk walking through this area again later in the evening.

Why we have not yet learned that when a Brazilian tells you a dish will serve two, that it will actually serve three, is a mystery that we shall leave to future generations to solve. So when we were told that the restaurant’s signature dish is a roast goat that serves two, and that the dried cod dish also serves two, we should not have ordered both of them for the four of us, or if we did, we should not have also ordered starters. Regardless, this is what we did, and while the food was all very good, it could not be finished by the four of us, and we left a good quarter or more of it all to be cleared away (I hope someone in the kitchen would eat it, since it was too good to waste).

We said our farewells in the lobby of the hotel and I proceeded to try to get a bit of sleep before waking up at 2:45 for the trip to the airport.

Posted by: JLG | 25 June 2016

Rio de Janeiro: Day One

The hotel we stayed at in Rio is in the Catete neighbourhood, not too far from the centre of town. Nonetheless, we opted to take an Uber (Abdo had loaded it on his phone but had never used it) to get us from the hotel to the Municipal Theatre to join a free walking tour along the ones that I took in São Paulo. As much as I had feared traffic in SP, it never really materialised there, so it was a bit of a surprise that the traffic in Rio was so, so bad. Perhaps it was a function of our being on a street that leads one way to another one-way street that feeds a big thoroughfare, and that we left at the height of rush hour, but we seemed to inch through the streets to our destination. Luckily for us, however, the scenery of the streets we passed was beautiful, the weather was nice, and the driver was very friendly.

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Pedro and Ananda starting the tour

Unlike the São Paulo tour, where their website and Facebook page all provided the same start time for their tours, the Rio group had one time on the website and another one on their Facebook page. Not being able to determine which was correct, we arrived in time for the earlier start, and found no one around who was obviously part of the group. So we decided to wander around the neighbourhood a bit, though without straying too far afield since none of us was certain about the security situation in this part of town. Both Abdo and I had brought our “big” cameras, so we were a bit more alert than we might otherwise have been, but things seemed pretty much OK and we took a number of snaps of the area before returning to the start point.

jg-20160622-DSC-RX100M3-01011Happily for us, there were people in bright yellow shirts carrying bright yellow umbrellas emblazoned with “Free Walking Tour”, so we signed up and were eventually joined by quite a small crowd. Unlike SP, the tours here are conducted in English, Spanish or Portuguese, so they broke up the group by languages and off we went. Our guide was Ananda, accompanied by Pedro, a trainee, and like in SP they were energetic, informative and eager to show off the city. Unlike SP, this tour was actually pretty short–I am pretty sure we did not actually spend the promised three hours wandering around, but perhaps it just went by quickly.

Our tour took in a range of sights that I had not seen on my previous visit to Rio, including the square where the theatre, city hall and library are located in the centre of town, the famous Lapa steps (that I did not know existed until last week), and the brutalist cathedral. I had thought the cathedral might be the ugliest building I had ever seen until we went inside–there it turns out to be rather beautiful, though in a stark, 20th century modern way, with four enormously long but quite narrow panels of beautiful stained glass providing the only ornament in the place. Apparently the architect wanted to show that no matter how ugly we may be on the outside, we are all beautiful inside, and I guess he succeeded in that effort. According to our guide, the atheist architect of the neighbouring office building, built after the cathedral was completed and housing Petrobras and a bank, designed his building in such a way as to provide a negative-space cross that would appear to be on top of the cathedral when viewed from the right angle. A nice touch.

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The Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro, with “atheist” cross behind

Also unlike the Rio tours, this one did not really stop for a snack break, though we did pause at the famed Confeitaria Colombo, where I had a meal during my last visit to Rio in 1999. We did not opt to eat here, though, since it was not clear whether that was the plan, how much time we had, or what was coming next. The tour ended in the middle of town, more or less with a whimper rather than with a bang, so as the others wandered off we asked Ananda and Pedro if they could recommend a place for lunch in the area, and wound up taking us to the place where they were going to have lunch.

This place was one of hundreds of “quilo” restaurants that offer a buffet of Brazilian foods that are sold by the weight; you take what you wish, have your plate weighed, and pay when you leave based on how much you took. It’s really cheap–around US$10 per kilogram–and was pretty tasty, and let us take the things we wanted. The girls were craving vegetables, so they loaded up on the salady things, while I had no problem sticking with the meatier options like shrimp, feijoada and some sort of chicken. There was also the option of queuing up for grilled meats like at a churrascaria, but I did not feel like I needed that much meat, especially at lunch.

Lunch taken care of, we decided to venture up to Christ the Redeemer up on Corcovado, again grabbing an Uber to get there. When we got to the point where we had to get out of the car and change for the vans that take people up to the top, we were warned that there was a lot of mist at the top, and our views might be obscured. We had nowhere else to be, and the weather apps told us that everything would clear by 3:15pm, so we decided to try our luck. Sure enough, the top was completely engulfed with cloud, so much so that we could not even see the top of the statue from down by the plinth. There were dozens if not hundreds of people up there, waiting for their photo opportunity, so every so often when a break would open in the cloud, they would ooh and aah, take a couple photos, and then resume waiting when the clouds closed in again. This continued for well over an hour, during which time we had ample time to get to “know” some of the other visitors. There was the asshole Russians who stupidly were handing bits of banana to the wild marmosets that live in the surrounding forest, ignoring the invocations not to do so; there were the Latin American visitors with their selfie sticks making provocative poses in front of the likeness of their lord and redeemer; there were also the Taiwanese and Chinese visitors taking loads of pictures of themselves stretching their arms out in imitation of the statue. I started chatting with the group of Taiwanese, and ended up possibly drumming up some business for the lodge (shame I didn’t have any cards on me!), so this trip was now deductible!

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Clouds part for a spell

Eventually the clouds dissipated enough to give us not only views of the statue, but also of the city below. What Rio lacks in organisation, traffic management and work ethic, it more than makes up for in beauty. With the water, the mountains, and even the colourful favelas, it is a much prettier city than São Paulo, even if that city is far easier to deal with on a practical level. When we could no longer find a new angle for a photo, we decided to pack it in and try to return to the city before the crowds descended, and quickly realised that a) we could not hire an Uber since there is no signal up there for our phones, and b) the taxi companies that wait up there have you where they want you and can dictate their price. Thus we had no choice but to take a R$50 taxi (after negotiating down from R$200), and I suppose he was in a huge hurry to return to the top for another fare since he BARRELLED down the windy road to take us back to town.

In the evening I had arranged to meet my friends Gil and Digo, Cariocas whom we met while living in Beijing (Digo worked at the hospital; Gil was the bureau chief for a Brazilian newspaper) for dinner at a place they chose in Leblon, a part of town that we had not yet visited. Abdo sat the event out, so Barbara, Ariana and I headed out, intending to get there early and have a drink before our 8pm meeting time. It took an hour to get to the place, the Bar d’Hotel, which apparently is well known for its cocktails. I had their “Public Enemy #1”, made with whiskey, bitters, and who-can-remember what else, served in a small bottle like a small Coke bottle, wrapped in newsprint with an image of Al Capone on it (thus evoking the Prohibition era). We decided we’d better eat something, too, so we ordered the restaurant’s couvert, expecting it to be like what I had at A Figueira Rubaiyat the other day. Instead, it turned out to be minuscule, barely enough for one person, much less three to share, but it was a bit pricey so we made do with that.

Gil and Digo arrived and we had an amazing evening chatting with them, enjoying a very very good meal, and catching up a bit. Gil is an excellent story teller, and very funny, and both of them had some tales about Brazilian corruption and political characters that kept us all very entertained indeed. We also learned a bit about the 6-year old boy they adopted around 18 months ago, and the horrors he underwent before they came along (they have been advocates for the campaign not to ban gay adoption, since the experience of this poor child under the would-be adoptive parents that preceded them would give you nightmares).

We called it a night around 11pm, and we all summoned Ubers to return home, promising to have a “late start” the next day, with breakfast only at 8:30am.

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