Wednesday 5 November 2008

Thank-you America

It’s a great relief that Barack Obama has won the US election and we can begin the honeymoon now.

I’ve been following the campaign for the last year. Personally, I had originally wanted Hilary Clinton to win despite the dynastic issue. She had experience and balls and would be very capable. You knew what you were getting with Hillary. Once it came down to just Obama and McCain, I was inclined to side with McCain as I wasn’t impressed with Obama’s expensive policies and interventionist inclinations. He could talk but so what? He just didn’t seem to have a lot of substance. McCain had experience and enough chutzpah to not always toe his party’s line. The person in the top job needs experience and balls.

I finally switched to Obama when the candidates chose their running mates for vice-president. Obama made an excellent choice. McCain made a terrible choice. The thought that Sarah Palin might be required to act as president was just too scarey. But worse, it showed a bad decision making process and it made McCain look unreliable.

So I’m glad Obama has won and it’s a novelty to see a politician with rock-star status. I’m hopeful but skeptical. He has a fantastic political mandate for change but the expectation that he will put right the world is just too much and I don’t expect the honeymoon will last long.

At least the neo-cons are on their way out the door and I really look forward to reading about the shutdown of Guantanamo Bay. That symbolic event will demonstrate closing the book on Bush-era policies.


Monday 8 September 2008

Back To School

The kids started school last Thursday. K* started Year 5 back in his old school. For R*, it’s Year 8 after missing a whole year. More significantly, it was her first day at high school – a major milestone. She also has to wear a uniform.

School Uniform JumperSchool Uniform Shirt & TieSchool Uniform BlazerSportsuniform


Sunday 7 September 2008

Notting Hill Carnival 2008

Last year I said I wouldn't take the kids back to the Notting Hill Carnival. Well, we went again. This time we went to the adult day on the Monday. We also had the use of an apartment in Notting Hill right in the middle of the carnival area. The friends who owned it had taken off to France to escape the noise.

It was much bette this year. We got there early in the afternoon so we didn't have to wait for the parade to start. The only problem was that there are often large gaps between floats. We just kept on walking around and when we got tired, crashed at the apartment. That was great.

The only scarey bit was getting crushed in a crowd as we tried to get past a sound system. I don't think the kids liked that. The day was very cool and cloudy so it wasn't so great for photography either.

Verruca and Tea Tree Oil

I had a very annoying verruca (plantar wart) on my foot for several months. Never had one before. I ignored it while travelling and when I got home tried to treat it with with salicylic acid. It didn't help much and made it more painful. My doctor told me that there wasn't really any cure beyond the body healing itself in its own sweet time. My body was was definitely procrastinating.

So, along with using salicylic acid to remove the dead skin, I started dousing it with 100% pure tea tree oil once a day. Presto! The verucca soon abated and disappeared in a few weeks. I assume the tea tree oil has some effect on the body to heal itself.

So if you're stuck with a stubborn verruca, it's worth giving tea tree oil a shot.

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Doctor Who Exhibition

On my birthday, we went down to Earl’s Court to see the Doctor Who exhibition. I've seen every episode of the new series. The exhibit was much as you would expect. Lots of costumes and artifacts and an interesting display of how they make the aliens. A TARDIS and K9 was there. Of course, the best bit was the Cybermen and the Daleks. Walking back to the car, we found a real police box on the Earl’s Court high street.

Face of BoOodCybermen

CybermenDalekPolice box in Earl's Court

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Go Karting

Jenny on her go kart

Some weeks ago we took R* go karting with a couple of friends at Teamworks Karting in Reading. Karting is always good fun. Heck, I like any motorsport. This was the first time I had tried electric ones. It makes sense for an indoor track and at 10hp, they could do 40 mph down the back straight. Fast enough. However, they do lack the excitement of a revving noisy engine and the smell of petrol and fumes. It’s just not the same! Give me petrol any day.

The facilities at Teamworks were brand new and excellent. You can have up to eight karts on the track. It costs £30 for four 7 minute races. That’s plenty enough time.


Wednesday 16 July 2008

Year 4 Sex Education

My son was shown three sex education videos at school last week. He’s in Year 4. One of them included full cross-section animation of intercourse. If you ask me, he’s a bit young for that. I didn’t get a sex education talk until Year 7 and it certainly wasn’t animated!

Jenny watched a preview to check the content. I talked to him about the video both the evening before he saw it and the evening afterwards. Basically, he wasn’t much fussed about it and wasn’t very interested. I think he got the general idea already from watching animal nature programmes and this just filled in some details.

The UK has the highest rate of births to teenage mothers in Europe (which is still about half of the US rate). I doubt teaching children at age 9 about conception will help any. I would have preferred they left this topic until the end of Year 5.


Sunday 29 June 2008

BeefEater BBQ

Happy Customer

Jenny spent ages shopping for a BBQ and finally settled on the BeefEater Discovery Classic as the best choice. It’s a proper Aussie one. She’s now an expert so you can ask her for advice. The day it arrived, I dutifully assembled it and it proceeded to start raining. Doh! The picture is of our first test run later that day.

Friday 27 June 2008

Diving Layang Layang

Jenny and I went for one last diving trip before the end of our travels. We flew to Kota Kinabaloo, met up with Jenny’s brother who flew in from Singapore and the next day we all flew out together. Pulau Layang Layang or Swallow’s Reef lies 300km northeast off the coast of Sabah. It’s part of the Spratly Islands which are militarised for various territorial claims.

The plane we flew in was tiny. It held 15 passengers, two pilots and our bags and supplies piled up in the back. Just behind the pilot was a box marked as the life raft. It would only hold 12 people. Somebody got their math wrong! This is the only flight I’ve been on where they weigh both you and your bags.

Arrived at Layang Layang

The flight took about 80 minutes and we eventually touched down on the tiny island. There really isn’t anything more than a runway, a dive resort and a naval base. In fact, much of the island is artificial. The naval base is strictly off limit.

The resort was excellent by diving standards. Diving places tend to be simple and functional. The rooms were hotel-like rather than bungalow-like but they were very comfortable and spacious. Meals were served five time a day and the food was very good. There was a nice bar and an excellent pool with lots of loungers. Each day is much the same: get up, dive, eat, dive, eat, dive, rest, optional dive, eat, sleep. Sunsets are beautiful. There’s nothing that bites you. The water is 29 degrees celsius. Perfect!


Layang Layang rises out of very deep water. The navigation chart puts the water depth at 1600m. Nearby it drops to 2000m. The place is famous for healthy corals, fantastic visibility and big fish of which hammerhead sharks are the big attraction.

The visibility is indeed wonderful; it’s at least 20m and maybe 30m at times. It’s a little scarey when you look up and realise how deep you are. My deepest dive was 35m. There’s a strict rule that you can not go beyond 40m or you’ll be banned from diving. The resort doesn’t have a decompression chamber and it’s 16 hours by boat to Kota Kinabaloo so you really do not want to get the bends.

After five days of diving, I was gutted that we never encountered a hammerhead shark. We knew there was a large school of about 50 of them around. Divers on the other boats saw them. But after several swims into the blue, we just never got lucky. And that’s the problem when you want to find big stuff – a lot of it is luck.

Fish EyesSoft Coral

The corals were extremely healthy and beautiful. There’s not as great a variety of reef fish as Sipadan but I’m not complaining. There was plenty to see. The highlight was seeing many manta rays including a few at quite close quarters. There were other rays, sharks and turtles. We also encountered dolphins while on the dive boat but they moved too quickly to swim with them. The pictures here are from Jenny’s brother who had bought a new underwater camera for this trip.

Floating in the blueManta

Layang Layang is a great diving destination. I got in 13 dives bringing my total dives up to a total of 66 since I started. Our dive trips have been the favourite part of our travels. I would certainly like to go back and find one of those hammerheads.

It's Later Than You Think

Went down to London yesterday with a friend to see the recording of a new Radio 4 comedy show at the Drill Hall. It’s a chat show format hosted by Marcus Brigstocke where he has a guest and gets them to try things they’ve never tried before. His guest was Tim Brooke-Taylor of Goodies fame.

It was free and very good fun. Tim had to order pizza, go to the gym, listen to rap music, eat sushi and buy porn. The pizza call and sushi were done live; the rest were things he had done previously. Buying porn was the funniest but might suffer from a lot of edits. Lots of material for a good laugh.

I really should sign up to the BBC website for getting more free tickets like these.

Wednesday 18 June 2008

Home Sweet Home

We’ve been back home in the UK for two weeks now. After being away for seven months, it felt pretty strange coming home. Everything is very familiar but new at the same time. It’s very clean and green. Plenty of open spaces and it’s not crowded. It’s great going outside without the energy-sucking sweltering heat sapping your motivation. Skin isn’t sticky. Traffic is orderly. No ants or mossies. Of course, prices are outrageous.

Best of all, it sure is nice sleeping in one’s own bed and being surrounded by one’s own stuff.

We’ve got dozens of projects keeping us busy. I need to sort out and post our pictures. The house and garden need work. We need to toss lots of our useless stuff and reorganise what’s left. K* was offered a place so we put him back in school. R* needs to catchup with her schoolwork. We’re catching up with all our friends. It’s good to be home!

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Monday 19 May 2008

Diving Pulau Redang

We got back to Malaysia at the end of April and had one more month left before our flight home. We decided to take the kids on a beach holiday and I also wanted to fit in one more diving trip.

Pulau Redang is an archipelago of 9 islands 12 miles off the east coast of Malaysia. The entire place is a marine park and it’s famous locally for fine beaches, clear water and excellent snorkelling. It’s not really on the international tourist circuit and is mainly visited by local tourists. There’s around a dozen resorts catering to different budget levels. There’s no roads on the island, just paths, so there’s not a lot to do beyond whatever is offered by the resort.

We flew to Kuala Terengganu with AirAsia and then transfered to a speedboat which took us out. Jenny’s parents came with us. We stayed at Redang Kalong mainly because we knew one of the owners. It’s not fancy but comfortable and more importantly, it has the best diving operation on the island. Besides diving and snorkelling, there’s kayaking, karaoke and a wide range of games. The crowd is pretty young.

As part of the package, you get four meals a day all inclusive and two boat trips to a variety of snorkelling destinations. All you need to do is rent your snorkelling equipment and wait for the boat to leave.

I’m very pleased to report that both our kids took to snorkelling well. R* wasn’t keen on getting into deep water but overcame that fear. It helped that we all wore lifejackets. K* took a little while to get used to the mask and snorkel but was soon swimming around. You’re not allowed to use fins as a precaution against people walking on the corals.

Snorkeling Practice

The boat provides a few loaves of bread that get shared by everyone on board. You take the bread into the water and you quickly get engulfed by reef fish in a feeding frenzy. It was a great experience for the kids. They got a good idea of what we see when we go diving.

Reef Fish

Snorkelling isn’t the first thing you might consider doing with your elderly in-laws but they’re good sports and gave it a go.

Jenny's Parents

We almost killed Jenny’s Dad.

After a long swim, we were called to the boat which required a long swim to shore. By the time we got there Jenny’s Dad was having trouble breathing and need help to get out of the water. I had visions of us needing an air ambulance but he recovered all right.

R* was confident enough that on our third day, she signed up for a one day PADI Discover Scuba course. Jenny’s parents looked after K*. R* did the course. Jenny and I went diving.

The first dive at Che Isa wasn’t too interesting but the second dive at Pulau Kerengga was good. For our third dive, we joined R* for her very first open water dive out at Pulau Lima South Point. She was very cool and had no problems do a backwards roll and descending with us to 10m. We even saw a turtle! She later admitted that the only way she managed was by not thinking about anything and just doing what she was told. The diving at Pulua Lima was superb with excellent hard and soft corals and plenty of reef fish. We even saw a massive stingray. The only downside was the visibility of 6m was rather poor.


Our package of 4 days and 3 nights was just long enough. It’s best to go during the weekdays outside of school holidays. Highly recommended.

Friday 16 May 2008


More catching up. After Tokyo, we spent a week in Beijing. I haven’t found Chinese cities to be very pleasant places and Beijing is fine example of an ugly city. It’s  built on a flat featureless plain and smothered by air pollution. The worse air pollution I’ve ever seen. It’s hazy just two blocks away! Beijing has massive multilane roads clogged with traffic and is not at all pedestrian friendly.

Luckily, the buses and subway work well and taxi’s are plentiful and cheap. It wasn’t hard to get around. We dropped the idea of riding bikes as it would put K* in too much danger. It’s bad enough just being a pedestrian.

We stayed at the Days Inn Forbidden City. It’s new, modern and clean. Price was reasonable. Rooms are small but adequate. The location is very convenient. Beijing has plenty of tourist attractions and we got around to many of them.

The first day we caught a public bus and made it down to the Temple of Heaven. It looks just like the pictures. More interesting is that it’s a major place to just hang out for elderly people chatting and doing exercises. Jenny was particularly taken by rouli chu or rotary ball.

From the Temple of Heaven we walked and walked and walked until we finally found our way to the Museum of Ancient Architecture. It’s a small museum off the beaten track but I thought it was very educational. They have lots of models showing how ancient buildings were constructed.

Fed up with walking, we took a taxi to the Liulichang Culture Street. It’s very touristy but a pleasant area to explore. We were going explore the backstreets but then discovered we could catch an acrobat show nearby so we went to the show instead. It was entertaining but not particularly outstanding.

TempleofHeavenLiulichang Culture StreetAcrobatic Show

The second day, we explored some of the parks. We started at Jingshan Park provides a superb view over the Forbidden City. Too bad the haze of air pollution spoils it. We then walked east to Bei Hai Park wandering around Qiónghuá Island and spent a lazy hour playing with an electric boat on the lake.

View of Forbidden City from Jingshan Park

From there we walked north up to Hou Hai Lake and got talked into taking a Hutong Tour in a couple of bicycle rickshaws. What wasn’t clear is that you have to pay an entrance fee at each and every hutong you want to see. Still is was good poking around a few of them. There’s a huge range of bars and restaurants around Hou Hai Lake so we had dinner there.

Kids driving our electric boat at Be Hai ParkHoutong Tour

On our third day, we joined a tour by the Chinese Cultural Center of Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City. The guide was excellent but there’s too much to cover. At the end of the tour, we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Forbidden City and Palace Museum. I was disappointed that the Hall of Supreme Harmony was under renovation work.

Forbidden City

With some “culture” under our belt, we spent our fourth day shopping. Wangfujing Street is rather ho hum. The Silk Market was fun and sharpens your bargaining skills. I picked up a Mao watch. The dirt market at Panjiayuan was excellent. Ton’s of bric a brac.

Dirt Market at Panjiayuan

It is a downright pain that the airline baggage limit is only 20kg. That said, we did send a box home by China Post and it arrived just fine.

After the market, we took a taxi to the Factory 798 district to have a gander at Chinese modern art. Unfortunately, we had left it a bit late and didn’t have enough time. I much prefer the modern art to the traditional fare.  Very interesting place. It’s in a more suburban district of Beijing and dinner there was much cheaper than around the center.

Exhibition at Factory798 Art District

As an aside, another place any visitor must go is the Donghuamen Night Market which basically puts anything that’s chewable on a stick and serves it you. Centipedes, snakes, starfish, whatever.

The fifth day was a write off. Pouring rain. We wandered around a mall and went to a large Decathalon outdoor shop to pick up some rain gear for the following day.

Day six was our trip to the Great Wall. We had previously arranged with a travel agency to take us on a 12km hike starting on a section of the wild wall and ending at Mutianyu. However, after the heavy rain, the wild wall section would be dangerous to hike. At least the rain had stopped.

We drove out to Mutianyu taking a short detour to see the Olympic site and the Birds Nest. It was great getting out of Beijing and eventually the air pollution receded and we were driving through pleasant countryside.

Jenny at Mutianyu

Mutianyu was excellent and there weren’t that many visitors. We took the cable car to the wall and huffed and puffed our way along it. The steep bit at the western part of the section was a struggle. The kids, of course, were running all over the place and we barely saw them.

Walking the wall at Mutianyu

We took the go kart track down from the wall to the parking lot. Really good fun.

Kart descent at Mutianyu

Since we didn’t get to hike the wild wall section, we negotiated with the agency to replace it with a tour of the Summer Palace so that’s where we went on our way back. It’s a nice park but the clouds were grey and threatening to rain.

So while there’s lots to do and see in Bejing, it’s not a city I enjoyed and wouldn’t want to visit again.

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Monday 12 May 2008


I love Tokyo. It's such a great hive of activity and concentrated Japanese culture. We took the kids around some of the main districts and mostly spent our days wandering and shopping.


Our first stop was Akihabara ("Electric Town") to check out all the electronics. The kids loved it. Lots of stuff but nothing particularly cheap. I picked up a new pair of earphones. I also had to witness this trend of waitresses dressed in french maid uniforms. Indeed it's true. There's even manga all about maid power! We also wandered around Shinjuku the same evening just enjoying all the neon.

AsakusaDrum Museum

We spent a full day wandering around the market and kitchen shops of Asakusa. Jenny picked herself up three knives altogether. It was a shop till you drop day. We had a good time bashing the drums at the Drum Museum.

Hirajuku MaidsHirajuku cosplay

We spent Sunday wandering from Harajuku to Shibuya taking in all the teen culture. This is where you can find the Japanese youth dressed in the various tribal fashions along Takeshita Dori and by Harajuku station. It's fascinating to watch.

Yoyogi Greasers

Yoyogi band

There was a group of greasers dancing in Yoyogi park and a local band playing on the sidewalk. Outside NHK Hall, there's plenty of buskers. It was a rather damp and cool day but there was still lots going on. It must be amazing in the summer.

NHK performers

Once you get to Shibuya, it becomes fashion city. I mean Japanese women really dress well. They are fantastic and are right up there with Italian women as best dressed in the world. If you get a chance, wander around the the 109 Building just to check out the shop assistants!

On our last day, we found the Sony Building in the Ginza district and checked out their latest toys. Unbelievably, we ran into Chung & Ang there - friends who had moved to Seattle. We chatted a while and then went in search of the Sony Playstation showroom which had moved to another district. It was rather disappointing and not worth searching out. However, along the way, we found the Honda building and got to see a demonstration of Asimo, their humanoid robot.

Sony Playstation ExhibitAsmio

We had to cut the day short as we needed to move to a hotel in Narita to make it easier to catch our morning flight to Beijing. In Tokyo, we stayed at the Hotel Edoya - yet another modern ryokan. I'd highly recommend it. It's quite central (near Ueno Park) and easy to get around.

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Izu Peninsula


Got a lot of catching up to do. We left Kyoto by Shinkansen and spent one day on the Izu Peninsula before heading into Tokyo. The Izu Peninsula isn't far from Tokyo and is reknown for it's hot spa's. Plenty of things to do if you can spend the time there. The hope was to get a view of Mt Fuji but the weather simply didn't co-operate. Lots of rain and no views.

We stayed at the Nanzanou in a small town called Izu Nagaoka. We had an absolutely fabulous room. It was the sakura suite. It was about thirty tatami mats in size and had a view over a private water pool. A cherry tree spread over the pool but unfortunately, most of the cherry blossoms were gone. We enjoyed just hanging around in our suite and didn't do much else.


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Thursday 10 April 2008


Before flying to Japan, the kids considered China and Japan to be basically one in the same except that Japan had sushi. If they learned one thing on this trip, it’s that these two countries are vastly different.

Arriving in Osaka was a welcome relief from China. It’s so clean! It’s so orderly! People queue even to get on a subway train. In China, people don’t even let you get out of the elevator before they step in.

We caught the train to Kyoto and were thrilled to spot cherry tree’s in full blossom along the way. Our timing wasn’t so bad after all! A taxi got us to the modern ryokan that we had booked tucked away down a side street in the downtown area. It turned out to be a great location for exploring the city.


All through our visit to Japan we stayed at ryokan’s with Japanese style rooms. This first one was one of the best and was a generous 12 tatami mats in size. The staff prepared our beds each evening and put them away in the morning. Breakfast was served in the room by a motherly Japanese lady chatting away in Japanese as if we understood it. Every evening, the kids looked forward to their wash and soak in the public baths.

One fascination was the electric toilet seats. They’re heated! And they wash your bum with a spray of warm water and blow dry it too! I can’t help but wonder what the carbon cost of millions of warm toilet seats must be.

The first day of sightseeing was a washout – literally. It rained hard. We attempted to go to a museum but it was closed being a Monday. We salvaged the day by browsing the Nishiki food market and the Daimaru Department Store. The food floor in Daimaru would put Harrods to shame. We also explored the Teramachi and Shinkyogoku covered arcades. Determined to do some real sightseeing, we joined a walking tour of the Gion district in the evening despite the rain.


HeianjinguWeeping Cherry Tree

The next day was grey but at least the rain had stopped. We did the classic walking tour of Higashiyama going from Kiyomizu-dera up to Heian-jingu via Maruyama park.

Maruyama Park

The temples blur together as there’s so many to visit but the cherry blossom tree’s are simply stunning and are truly glorious when the sun breaks through and lights them up to their full radiance. The wind occasionally blew the petals into a gentle blizzard that filled the air.


The following day, us boys visited some more temples in the northern bit of Higashiyama and walked along Tetsugaku-no-michi (Path of Philosophy) while the girls joined a long Arts & Crafts walking tour.

I regret that we didn’t plan to spend more time in Kyoto. You can certainly cover the highlights in three days but it would be very easy to spend a week or even more exploring the area. And it’s very well worth the effort going during the sakura season.