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.

Posted by: JLG | 24 June 2016

São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro

On my last morning in São Paulo I had one more meeting to attend to, starting at 10am, with someone who couldn’t meet me the previous day because of a bout of food poisoning. I had hoped to have the day free to poke around SP, but when that hope was dashed, I at least hoped to get the meeting out of the way early, but she was concerned she’d be late getting into work, so 10 was the earliest she could do. I decided to take advantage of the situation a bit and use the free time before the meeting to explore a street market, something I didn’t even know existed until one of the people I met with turned me onto them. In particular, she advised that it would be a sin for me to leave São Paulo without experiencing a pastel, and the best place to have one is at the street markets.

When I concocted this plan, I went down to see my new friend, Angel Jesus, the helpful clerk at the hotel front desk, to see if he could recommend one for me to visit. It turns out there is a very handy website, feiralivre.cc, that lists all the markets in São Paulo by day, and allows you to search based on the location and day of the week you’re interested in. In this way I managed to find a market that was walking distance from the hotel, but also in the direction of the meeting, and within walking distance from there, too. Perfect!

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São Paulo street art

The morning was rather grey and a bit drizzly when I set out, so for the first time I carried an umbrella with me (though I did without a jacket–I’m a true Kiwi after all now) and within around 30 minutes I found the market. Though the market opened at 7:30, and I got there at 8:30, quite a few stalls had not yet opened or were setting up. The first stall was a large one that had guess what–pastels (or in Portuguese, pasteis) for sale. I did not get one here, though, since I thought there might be better options further along.

The markets seem to be in general along a single street that allows the top and bottom to be closed off to vehicles without causing too much disruption to traffic. This market, called Bela Vista, was along one long narrow road with no intersections, so it was really ideal for this purpose. The vendors were all very friendly, calling out to me with a cheery bom dia! and offering me to check out whatever it was they were selling. Most stalls had fruits or vegetables, but some had meat, fish or housewares, mostly very prettily presented. I managed to find a new Brazilian coffee maker called a coador, which is like a sock made of very tightly woven cotton that you fill with coffee grounds and pour boiling water through. However, I did not find another pastel vendor until I got to the very end of the market–apparently the cooked foods are used as bookends or lures to get you into the market.

I had a pastel at one of the vendors at the far end of the market, opting for one with a filling of dried cod (bacalhau), the sine qua non of Portuguese and Brazilian cuisine. I had been told by the travel agent that when she makes pastels at home she uses wonton wrappers, so I had imagined a relatively small thing, but what was presented to me was a flaky pastry a bit larger than a US letter-sized envelope that was filled with the cod mixture and then fried. It resembled a Georgian chebureki, though it was far less oily, and the filling was fish instead of lamb, and it was very, very good. Definitely something to convert into a canapé for the lodge. I made my way back along the length of the market to the first pastel vendor, and decided that one pastel was not a well-rounded breakfast, so I had one from them, too, though this was filled with meat and some sort of vegetable (cupuriy??), and also delicious. For just R$5 each ($1.50) it was quite a steal.

The meeting with the agent was a bit of a waste of time, to be honest, since her reason for meeting with me was to persuade me to spend $1000 to advertise in a booklet they’re putting together to distribute to 15,000 subscribers to certain magazines in Brazil. I listened politely for a while before telling her that I did not see it as a good investment, though we’d consider doing it on a barter basis (so they’d pay for it out of future bookings). That was a no-go for her, so we left it that we’d leave it for now.

With the meetings now done and dusted, I was free until it was time to leave for the airport. I hopped on the metro and made my way to the Liberdade neighbourhood to check out São Paulo’s version of little Asia. Since Brazil has the largest population of Japanese outside of Japan, and São Paulo is the largest Japanese city outside of the country, it stood to reason that this should be an interesting thing to see. I suppose it would have been if I a) had never been to Asia, b) were not going to be going to places later on in the trip where Japanese and Asian products were just as readily available and c) I was not in a place with a vibrant culture of its own that I wanted to explore. So for all these reasons, I decided I’d had enough of Liberdade after only about 30 minutes, and got back on the metro to head to the Municipal Market.

It’s worth noting one interesting thing about the São Paulo metro here. At several of the stations where I entered the system, the ticket booths were offering limited-time discounts on the normal fare of R$3.80 to compensate for various faults in the service that day, whether it was a faulty escalator, or a slow-down or whatever. At one station the fare was reduced to R$3.75 (hardly anything), while at another it was down to R$3, which is pretty good. Maybe Washington DC or NYC should investigate this…

So I got to the São Bento station, the closest to the market, and realised that the route from the station to the market is not an obvious one to follow. I was a bit reluctant to wield my iPhone too much as a GPS, since this is central São Paulo and it has an iffy reputation for safety (though it did not seem all that menacing). I followed one or two signs that pointed toward the market, but their trails went cold quickly, so I found myself wandering more or less aimlessly, though following my nose, as it were, in the direction of where I thought the market ought to be. Turns out my nose for markets is pretty good, since I found it without getting lost at all, though it probably helped that the market is huge and is topped by a very tall flag from the state of São Paulo…

jg-20160621-iPhone 6-0808

Municipal Market

Inside the market, there are alleys upon alleys of stalls selling everything you could possibly need for your culinary needs in Brazil, from meats and fish of every description from all over the country and the world, including all the kinds of thing you need to make a proper feijoada, to fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs, spices, etc etc. The vendors are again very outgoing and friendly, offering tastes of this and that as you pass by. One fruit vendor kindly presented me with a taste of that most exotic fruit, the kiwifruit, which I rejected, pointing to the logo on my chest, which had “Oamaru, NZ” written underneath. He laughed, apologised, and gave me a date instead (from Israel, I later learned).

One of the big attractions in the market is to have a sandwich at one of the many Italian-style joints that are dotted around the place. One in particular, Hocca, was made famous by Anthony Bourdain some time ago on one of his shows, but when I got to it I found that it was not only empty, but the pricing was pretty steep for the iconic market sandwich of mortadella. I kept looking for a better prospect and settled on one place called Di Callani that was packed with people, mostly Brazilian, and had pricing about 2/3 of what Hocca had. I ordered the “mortadela completa”, which was a very large sandwich of mortadela, cheese, marinated peppers and who knows what else, in a nice crusty roll. Normally I don’t get excited about mortadella, but this was stupendous, and though I really could easily have just had half of what they served me, I ate the whole damned thing, since it was too good to waste.

jg-20160621-iPhone 6-0809My errands for the day complete, I returned to the hotel, gathered my things, checked out (but to my dismay Angel was not there for me to say goodbye…) and Uber’ed to the airport, hoping to get a slightly earlier flight to Rio de Janeiro so my friends would not have to wait till 8pm to go out to dinner with me. Alas, there was no earlier flight than the 6:30 one I was booked on, so I just hunkered down and waited a few hours until my flight left.

In Rio, I landed at Santos Dumont airport, which was very close to the centre of town and to my hotel. The 1900 Hotel–which Abdo and Barbara selected this time–is in an old façade on a small side street in Catete, so very conveniently located, and while the rooms are tiny, they are clean and the staff are nice, and the price was very reasonable. Since they got here a few days before from Iguaçu, they had scoped out the area and Abdo’s goddaughter Ariana had identified a place for dinner from her list of “cheap eats” just a short walk away.

As we walked to the restaurant, I was a bit apprehensive about walking in Rio in the evening, since everyone warned me how dangerous it is, but they were going along quite blithely so I lightened up. The restaurant was a charming little place serving northeastern Brazilian food called Severyna, with a lovely server who looked after us very well. The meal was excellent and the price was right. What a great welcome to Rio!

Posted by: JLG | 22 June 2016

Back to São Paulo

I got back to the hotel in São Paulo (via Uber, again) late on Sunday evening, and things did not start off well at the hotel. First, the key to the room I was now going to be in did not work, so I had to come all the way back downstairs to get a new one. Then, after being told that the laundry that I had left to be done during my absence had been left in the room, I couldn’t find it, so the clerk on duty apologised and came back upstairs to deliver it. Then, all attempts to get the internet to work failed miserably, so again the clerk from downstairs came up to the room, also failed to get it to work, rebooted the modem, had me reboot my computer and still no luck. I finally decided that there was no need to get online at close to 11pm on a work night, so we called it a night and I went to bed.

In the morning, I woke up relatively late, and had a pretty sound night’s sleep, so when I stepped out of my room and found that all the carpeting in the hallway on my floor leading to the elevator was missing, I was sure I was not dreaming. I asked the clerk (still the same guy) whether he was aware that the carpet had been removed from my floor, leaving an extremely rough and uneven surface, and he assured me that I must be mistaken. I assured him that I was well enough educated to be able to distinguish a carpeted floor from a non-carpeted one, he made a phone call and confirmed that indeed the carpeting had been removed as part of a renovation project (which, to be fair, the hotel desperately needs). The clerk (his name is Angel) apologised profusely and could not hide his embarrassment for all that had gone amiss since my return. I was able to laugh it off, though (it didn’t hurt that Angel is really handsome) since really no harm was done.

My meetings went well throughout the day, though they were located in such a way that I wound up criss-crossing the city. Fortunately, I had become comfortable enough in the city that I was now blithely taking the subway in addition to hailing Ubers and the occasional taxi, and I started almost to feel like a local. Even with having to go back and forth through town, I managed to have time for a nice lunch, which I had near Praça Republica (where I took my first walking tour) at a restaurant in the Copan Building that I had tried to photograph earlier. This turned out to be a famous restaurant, Bar da Dona Onça, and it lived up to its reputation, serving very good food in a nice setting at reasonable-ish prices (though this being Brazil, it’s actually quite cheap, especially compared with dining out in New Zealand). I started out with an order of coxinhas, little street food dumplings filled with chicken. I expected the order to consist of one piece, but instead it was four pieces, served on a cute little tray with coiled metal “springs” supporting each one. For my main I had carne moída (“moist meat”), which was sort of like a soupy risotto, with sautéed kale and beans in the mix, and a fried egg on top. Delicious! I even had dessert, a little trio of Brazilian sweets (quindim–a sort of coconut eggy custard; flan and dulce de leche).

Unfortunately, at my last scheduled meeting of the day I realised that I had left a photo book that we use to show people scenery from the Oamaru area, and a penguin adoption certificate that we use to show a little extra something that we do for our guests, at the morning’s first meeting. Not having  a way to phone them (my cell phone doesn’t work here), I had no choice but to return there, hoping to get there before 5pm, when I figured they’d have left work for the day. I hailed a cab and proceeded not only to get stuck in traffic, but also to have a cab driver who took me to the wrong end of Av. Paulista, causing us to inch along the length of this major road. Happily for me, I got to the office in time, and the items were returned. Phew!

For dinner that evening I was going to be joined by the local rep for Tourism New Zealand, Karem; and the first agent I met with in São Paulo, Paula. They had chosen a restaurant right near my hotel called Restaurante Micaela, and when I arrived spot-on at 7:30pm, they were already there. We placed orders for drinks–another caipirinha for me, a caipiroska (made with vodka instead of cachaça) for Karem, and a caipirinha with red fruits instead of lime for Paula. They got to talking with the waiter about the cachaça used in the drinks, and the next thing we know the waiter brings Paula and me a shot of the stuff to sample. This was a special cachaça that is infused with an herb similar to betel leaf that causes your mouth to tingle as you drink it–a nice effect.

The restaurant specialises in regional Brazilian ingredients, including fish from the country’s many rivers and native plants and fruits, and several things were unfamiliar even to Paula and Karem. We placed our orders, and all the dishes when served were just fantastic. One of our starters was called “Aquarelas do Brasil” (Brazilian water colours) after the famous song, and consisted of four different concoctions served with manioc bread. It came beautifully presented on a sort of painter’s palette dish, further evoking the dish’s name. Our other starter was a little pastry made with tapioca flour filled with mushrooms, also very prettily presented. The mains were equally as good, if not better, and the dessert was amazing, sort of a cake soaked in caramel made of white chocolate, together with toasted coconut and “puxurí”. We didn’t know what puxurí was, so we asked the waiter, who brought us a piece–a sort of bark that has an aroma similar to cinnamon and cinnamon. He even gave it to me to keep and use myself. (Let’s see if NZ customs has a listing for it on their import list.) We had a fantastic evening, with easy conversation and great food, and parted company at the end of the evening as good friends.

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