Monday, 8 July 2019

A Shrinking World

I have been plotting our 2020 trips for several months. Next year, all being well, we will have two long haul vacations.  Mexico City next summer will be one of them. The other? I have been looking at a map of the world to have a looky-see, hoping for inspiration. Yet the options are diminishing every year. A few dozen countries are now categorised 'Been There, Done That', although a repeat trip to Sri Lanka one day is not off the cards. It's a fabulous place and I'm sure Mrs P would love it.

An increasing number of countries are a little bit too 'Head Choppy Offy' or just plain too confrontational for my liking. Which is a shame. I'd love to see Libya and Iran. A growing number of places just have too many people and too much pollution. Mumbai is an absolute non-starter. In fact, that applies to much of India. And, for next year at least, a trip to South America is not on the cards. It's an expensive trek, one that will have to wait for a year when we do just the one long haul holiday. 

I have been considering Uzbekistan, and possibly Kazakhstan. They are both opening up to the idea of tourism. But ultimately, our second long haul trip this year will be defined by cost and ease. So China and Cambodia it is. It is possible to nab a multi stop ticket from London to Beijing (two or three night stop over), on to Cambodia and then back to London for little over £400. That sounds like a winner. Not least because I'd like to see the Forbidden City and a bit of the Great Wall, but have never been inclined to spend a fortune in time and money on a Chinese visa. Which won't be a problem with this trip. So I think we may well have a winner...

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Wednesday, 26 June 2019


I have a range of options to choose from when looking to flee the country. The two most common departure points are Heathrow and Gatwick airports. At about 2 hours and 3 hours respectively, they don't make for a quick getaway, but they do provide the widest choices of destination, particularly if one is looking to  go to far flung shores. Stansted and Luton airports are a good four hours away, but as the likes of RyanAir and EasyJet use them, they are good for ultra cheap fares. I've made use of all these options more than once.

The most local airport is Bournemouth International which offers some cracking fares courtesy of RyanAir, to some pretty decent places. Malaga, Krakow, Prague, Dublin and Malta to name but a few. Indeed, I could continue to reel off some desirable European destinations. But it's a small airport, so if I did continue, I wouldn't add an awful many more words to this paragraph. We've used Bournemouth airport plenty though.

But living on the coast means there's more than one way to leave the UK behind. Docks at Southampton provide the escape route for the cruise liner set. Portsmouth is the place to go for most cross channel ferries. But Poole also has a port, just a fifteen minute drive from home. A giant ferry transports cars and passengers to Cherbourg in France. Condor Ferries operate a high speed trimaran between Poole and the Channel Islands.

Mrs P and I have used the ferry to Cherbourg. But I had refrained from jumping aboard Condor's Liberation. It might be new. It might be quick. But it also has a terrible reputation for emptying the stomachs of its passengers when crossing on waters that are anything other than dead calm. I've been sea sick before, on a small fishing boat nine miles into the English Channel. It's a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Not something one would want to repeat.

But a half price offer is hard to refuse. So, with a certain degree of trepidation, I bought a pair of day return tickets for the pair of us. And prayed to a god I don't believe in to provide us with seas that resembled a mirror. The non-existant god obliged, bless him. Very pleasant sailing conditions. Almost as good as they get. But regardless, we both felt a little bit queasy on the way over. Less so on the way back. Perhaps our stomachs were too full and too tired to be queasy.

Guernsey is a small, quaint little island. And much like the Channel Islands currency, it is immediately identifiable as British, and yet not British. One feels a little like Alice as one wanders through the streets of St Peters Port, as things become curiouser and curiouser. I was convinced I'd turn a corner and be greeted by a grinning Cheshire cat. Not that Lewis Carroll spent any time in Guernsey as far as I know. The most famous author to have spent time here was the French writer, Victor Hugo, who penned Les Miserables during his stay.

As with most of these sea faring day trips, one spends more time aboard than abroad. The ferry whisked us there in little more than three hours, but that totals six hours bobbing on the waves, and a paltry three hours walking and dining. Should you ever make it there yourself, I can recommend Le Nautique. It's a conveniently located restaurant, with reasonably priced two and three course lunch deals and excellent service.

Will we ever return? Never say never. But probably not. I'm still a cautious sea traveller and don't want to push my luck too far.

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Saturday, 22 June 2019

Bus 81 to Marsaxlokk

Shall I rate the four Maltese locations visited by Mrs P and yours truly? Scores out of ten, as is the normal practice. Rabat and Mdina score an easy 9 for its beauty and tranquility. The capital, Valletta, gets a 7.5 for its blend of history and shabby chic aesthetics. The Blue Lagoon on the Island of Comino also scores 7.5. If there'd been a thousand people fewer, I'd have given an extra point. If there'd been no one but Mrs P and I, it'd score a perfect 10.

The final destination on our whirlwind tour of Malta took us to Marsaxlokk, a small fishing village tucked away on the south eastern tip of the mainland. I'd seen pictures of the colourful fishing boats bobbing gently on the mirror like waters in the bay. It looked magical. Up close and personal, in the flesh, it's less so. The brochure doesn't show the cranes, tankers and other items of industry that lie in the background across those tranquil waters. But that's not to say that the place doesn't have its charm. The seafood is good. It's a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Marsaxlokk scores a decent 7.

Marsaxlokk presented us with two difficulties. The first was in the pronunciation of the name. I think I've got it now. Maybe. The second issue was getting there from Valletta. I rely, perhaps too much, on Google Maps. Google swore blind that we needed to walk the final mile, a thirty minute stroll down a road with no pavement. Google lied. There is a bus, no. 81, which runs to and fro between Valletta and Marsaxlokk all day and late into the evening. 

We discovered Google's treachery whilst feasting on a fish dinner, and armed with this new information we were spared a long walk back. The fish dinner took an alarming turn. We had several scaley creatures to choose from. Our waitress recommended the n****r. I looked confused. She repeated the word. I felt obliged to walk into the kitchen to inspect this fish. It was a Meagre. Much to my relief. Marsaxlokk retained its decent rating of 7. And my recommendation to pay the place a visit.
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Friday, 21 June 2019

The Alleys of Rabat and Mdina

First impressions count. The first impression one gets of a city is from the window of your aeroplane as you fly in. The first sight I had of Mexico City was a breathtaking view of the mountains silhouetted by the setting sun with the vast metropolis in the foreground twinkling as the lights came on. My first sight of Malta was less majestic.

We flew over a yellowish landscape that was largely rural, with small towns and villages dotting the lanscape. And I wondered aloud if we were overflying Syria. So many half built shacks. Or were they half destroyed? It's tough to tell from 10,000 feet in the air. But it looked a bit of a mess. 

We stayed in Rabat, with Mdina just a short walk away. One could argue that this area has a look of Syria about it, but from a decade or two ago, before the bombs and shells did their work. The names Rabat and Mdina certainly have an Arabic ring to them. It seems that everyone and their mother have been through Malta at some stage. Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, the French and British have all left their mark.

Rabat is effectively a suburb of Mdina. Rabat does of course mean 'suburb', which you'd be aware of if you knew a little Arabic. Or had just browsed the relevant wiki page. Both towns are pristine. And quiet. And the labyrinth of narrow alleys leading to tea rooms, museums, restaurants and little shops make for a wonderful few days exploring.

The stand out architectural feature of Malta are the balconies. Throughout Mdina, Rabat, Valletta and elsewhere, the honey coloured limestone brickwork is speckled with colourful balconies jutting out into the air above the heads of passers-by. They become addictive to the casual photographer. I have several dozen shots of balconies. I will bore you with just one of them.

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Thursday, 20 June 2019

Monzo in Malta

Our trip to the Blue Lagoon on the tiny island of Comino was a highlight of our short trip. The water is postcard perfect, is it not? Alas, the island has one tiny issue. People. Lots of people. Boat loads. If you want to pitch yourself on the tiny strip of sand, you'll need to be there at the break of dawn. By early morning, even the rocky bits are occupied. You're best of doing what we did and stroll over to Santa Marija Bay. It's a 20 to 30 minute walk, or a few minutes in a shuttle jeep at €3 each way. 

But unless you have a physical impediment, go for the walk. It's a very pleasant and scenic stroll. And Santa Marija Bay will be far less crowded. It's not quite so dazzlingly beautiful. But it's good enough. There are a couple of dozen sun loungers for rent, and half were empty. But this will at least in part be due to their cost, €10 each. We went for towels on sand. There's a couple of huts there serving up food and drink, and a small hotel with a bar and patio overlooking the bay.


But enough of what we paid, or didn't. And more of how we paid. A couple of months ago I opened a new bank account with Monzo. It's a new bank, one of the so-called challenger banks and you can only sign up with the iOS or Android apps. The bank has two big selling points, for me anyway. Firstly, transactions show up instantly. No waiting around for two or three days before a purchase shows up on my balance. 

Secondly, it's great for travelling. There's no commission or fees charged when you use it to buy things abroad. And the exchange rate is at Mastercard wholesale rates. Which are good. We'd bought some euros before leaving the UK at €1.09 to the £. The average rate on our cards worked out at about €1.12 to the £, as you can see from the summary above - #winning!

Are you a UK resident and fancy some of those Monzo benefits? Sign up via the link below and you'll earn an extra £5. As will I. We can both be winners.

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Wednesday, 19 June 2019


Mrs P and I have been to experience the delights of Malta, the tiny island in the middle of the Mediterranean, just south of Sicily. And why not? It's the perfect short getaway for a resident Bournemouth. Flights from the local airport, just a ten minute drive from home, are cheap - from £60 to £100 return - and it's just three hours away. We set off early on a Thursday morning, enjoyed two full days in the sun and flew back mid-morning on Sunday, lightly bronzed and thoroughly relaxed.

What did I know of Malta before I went? It's small and rocky. The islanders bravely fended off the Nazis in WW2 - the Maltese flag features the St George cross, awarded by their then imperial master, the British. There's a bit of an issue with organised crime and suppression of the press. There's the Maltese dog. That was about it. Mrs P and I argued over just how small Malta is. I said smaller than the Isle of Wight. She disagreed. I have checked. And I was right. 

What didn't I know about Malta that I am now better informed of? Maltese is the only recognised semitic language in the European Union. It's a confusing tongue. Half the words are of Italian origin. English makes up anything from 10 to 20% of the vocabulary, with whole phrases abruptly interrupting an otherwise unintelligible stream of chatter. And a Tunisian would be able to understand about 30 to 40 per cent of an average Maltese conversation. Indeed, Malta seemed in many regards - language, food and architecture - to have something of a confused sense of identity. It doesn't, of course. Cultural blends are to be found in every land. It was I who was confused.

We also discovered that Malta itself isn't the cheapest European destination once landed. Buses are good value when getting around, at €2 for two hours travel. Food and accommodation are a little pricey. Not extravagantly so. But closer to what one would pay in Paris than in Budapest or Sofia. But for a long weekend, Malta is worthy of consideration. We may well return, particularly when we are in need of a little bit of southern  European sunshine. 

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Wednesday, 5 June 2019

The Secret Garden

We Brits have few nice things to say about our weather. We do not receive the amount of sunshine that we would like. But it's not just about the gross amount of solar rays that reach our little island. It's the useable quantity. Let me give an example. Last week we set off on a day trip, deep into rural Wiltshire. It had been sunny all week, so why not make the most of it? Needless to say, the sun disappeared the moment we departed. And stubbornly refused to to reappear until the moment we returned home. We Brits have been playing this game of galactic hide and seek for millenia. It's a game that we are handsomely losing.

The garden? It's a strenuous half hour walk from the nearest train station at Avoncliff, up and down a steep hill. But that is all I can say. Mrs P has declared it a 'secret garden', just for us.
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Thursday, 23 May 2019

Queen Mother

Given that it seemed like the Queen Mother lived for all eternity, it somewhat surprised me to find she's been dead for more than fifteen years. I only remember the last couple of decades of her life, when she closely resembled a breathing corpse. She would be trundled out on her walking frame to be waved at by an adoring crowd, before being trundled away again. Quite often to hospital to have a fish bone removed from her throat.

This statue is a recent creation, on display in Poundbury, Dorset. The Queen herself came on her Royal Train for the grand ceremony. Made from a fairly solid chunk of stone or metal, this Queen Mother may well survive for all eternity. Or at least, until the revolution...

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Monday, 20 May 2019

Victoria Pubs: Real Ale and Real History

Have you arrived in London to immerse yourself in its rich culture? Learning about London and its history would be incomplete without a visit to the best pubs near Buckingham Palace, where you can enjoy pints of quality ale, while having a lively conversation about the culture capital of the world. And, if you need a good place to stay in the meantime, there are some great yet affordable hotels near Buckingham Palace, the Passport Office and the London Eye, offering easy access to the pubs and major tourist attractions in the city, says Sidney Hotel, one of the leading Hotels near Buckingham Palace

Here’s a look at some of the best pubs in Victoria.

1.       Cask

If you're after craft beer, then you cannot go wrong with Cask. Moreover, this pub in Pimlico is among the best-stocked beer bars in the UK. Even a person who considers himself a connoisseur of beer would be overwhelmed by the range on offer here. And, if you happen to go there on a Sunday, there's a live folk band playing that adds to the whole ambiance. 

2.       The Thomas Cubitt

The Thomas Cubitt in Belgravia is best known for its food, but it also offers a wide variety of cocktails. It has a bar on the ground floor and has a French-style dining area on the first floor. You can eat and drink in whichever part of the pub that suits you the best. Roast rack and pumpkin wellington are their specialties. This is a fine dining restaurant, so the prices are on the higher side.

3.       The Orange Public House & Hotel 

This hotel cum pub on Pimlico Road is another one of Cubitt House Group's upmarket gastropubs. It attracts a wealthy crowd, just like The Thomas Cubitt. The bustling ground floor bar is The Orange's heart. You can enjoy classic British dishes, along with a good variety of drinks here. But, if the bar is packed, then there's a vintage dining area upstairs. 

4.       The Albert

If you're a tourist looking for some cheap breakfast early in the morning, then this Victorian landmark, situated between the Parliament building and New Scotland Yard, is where you must go. Portraits and photos of past prime ministers, members of the Royal family and leaders can be seen on the walls here, which give the place a historical feel. Also, this place is popular among the locals for its puddings.   

5.       Speaker

If you're like old-school pubs, then this one is a must-visit for you. This pub prides itself on having created an atmosphere of a classic English pub. There's a sign in the front of this establishment that proudly states, “This is a real pub.” There are no television screens or music being played in this pub. This is where you go for a drink, some great food and some good conversation. 

Victoria is among the best places to stay for tourists visiting London. Hotels near the Victoria Tube Station in Central Londonand pubs in and around this area can offer you a real cultural experience of Britain.
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Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Lost and Found

I have recovered another batch of photos from a recently rediscovered set of CDs that I'd long assumed were lost. This set featured three photos from our flat in Mexico City, which brought back memories. The remaining hundred or so photos were from a trip Mrs P and I made to see her family in Milwaukee. With a day trip to Chicago thrown in. The year? Twas 2005, a few months after I moved to Mexico.

The photo I've chosen was for more than a decade my most viewed image on Flickr. For a while it was used by Wikipedia, and can still be found on dozens of other websites. And it was published in a book about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It's hardly the greatest photo I've ever taken, but it is the most successful. For much of the last decade, I've had only a 640 pixel copy of it. Now I have the full size original again. Which is nice.
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Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Egypt 2001

I visited Cairo in 2001. It seems a long time ago. It was a long time ago. The world has changed hugely since then. Shortly after a visit to the pyramids of Giza where this photo was taken, I learned that Timothy McVeigh had been put to death whilst I relaxed beside the hotel pool. One associated terrorism with white christian males back then. Either of the US far-right variety, or the Irish unionist/republican kind. 

That said, there has been an horrific Islamic terror attack on tourists at Luxor four years earlier which left over sixty people dead. But this was before 9/11, which changed everything. Anything before 9/11 was a 'one off' tragedy. The Arab Spring that rose up a decade later did the tourism industry of the Middle East additional harm. I visited Cairo at a good time. A simpler time. 

I took this photo with a 3.3mp Nikon  Coolpix 880. It was a great little camera that cost me a small fortune. I was impressed with the photos I came back from Egypt with. Sure, low light shots in the museums were a little blurry and grainy, but the ones taken outdoors were sharp and vibrant. They printed out onto A3 paper just fine. 

I recently found the CD I had the photos backed up on. I hadn't seen it for years. I wasn't sure I even had it anymore. I'm glad I found it, because my digital copies are all at small resolutions. I transferred them to my iMac and processed them. I learned that while the photos looked great on my old HD laptops, they do not look so great on a 27" screen with 4k resolution. Far from it. This made me a little sad. Still. The Nikon 880 was a great camera, back in 2001.
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Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Lordification of Kings Cross

London has changed aplenty during my lifetime. Parts of the capital have been utterly transformed. Mostly for the better? That depends on who you ask and which part of the city you are referring to. It's a big place. Great swathes of the centre have undergone a process known as gentrification. Balham in the south, for example, where I lived in the late 1980s. And its neighbour Brixton. When I was in residence, if being kind, one would have described Balham as having character. 

If pushed, but remaining diplomatic, one would have described it as gritty. Between friends, one would have labelled it with more vulgar Trumpian language. As for Brixton, for most of the last two decades of the 20th century, the area was still best known for some of the the worst rioting London had ever seen. But times change. They have become smart, trendy places with a vibrant cultural  scene and skyrocketing property prices.
Then there's Kings Cross, the raison d'etre of this post, and a 'hood that Mrs P and I visited at the weekend. Twenty years ago, visitors to Kings Cross arrived for one of three purposes. To catch a train from either Kings Cross or St Pancras to elsewhere in the country. To engage the services of a cheap street hooker. Or to consume ecstacy and other illicit drugs whilst raving the night away at Bagleys, a night club set up in one of the disused railway warehouses. 

Nowadays, one can catch trains not only to elsewhere in the country, but to the continent too, courtesy of the Eurostar services. The unwashed ladies of the night have been banished from the streets, replaced by expensive escorts advertising their wares online. The last of the nightclubs shut down in 2007, as the grand redevelopment project began.The huge Grade II listed gasholders? They've been given a lick of paint and filled with pricey flats.

And, of course, there's a substantial area set aside for retail outlets and dining options in this prestigious N1 postcode zone. Granary Square opened a few years ago. Coal Drops Yard opened recently. The redevelopment is a clever use of modern design and planning to retain much of the old historic brick built warehouses alongside the new constructions and keep the industrial atmosphere alive and kicking into the 21st century. 

Unlike other gentrified parts of London, the shops and restaurants you'll find here will not include the likes of Prezzos, Olivier Bonas or Waterstones. Nor will you find any quirky, arty independent stores selling cheap tat. There is a Waitrose. Naturally. Granary Square and Coal Drops Yard are filled with high end stores selling high end goods at prices that only the nobility of the land could possible afford. Aesop sell a range of skin care products that will make your eyes water. A kitchenware store stocked a vast array of lethally sharp, ornate knifes, meat cleavers and axes. The display would make a murderous Saudi jihadi giddy.

A luxury chocolatier sells the most exquisite bars and jars of the good stuff. But what might cost £1 elsewhere costs 10£ here. Perhaps a scientific consumer study has shown that the incorrect positioning of the pound sign will make the price easier to swallow. I settled for a free sample. That went down nicely. Next door is a homeware store that sells the most fabulous set of copper light shades, polished so thoroughly that you can see your reflection in them. If that reflection displays anything other than a gentleman in top hat and waistcoat with a man servant by his side, then you can't afford them. Sorry. Welcome to the Lordification of London. Gentrification is just so last decade...

The dining options we looked at, however, were priced with the clear intent of appealing to a wider economic range of  clientele. We chose a suitable establishment, took our seats and prepared for a pleasant Sunday afternoon feast. With the date being 5th of May, there was only one establishment that we would consider suitable. A Mexican. To our delight, it turned out to be an authentic Mexican restaurant, selling barbecoa rather than burritos. With a mariachi band. An all female band, which was something of a novelty. The food was good. Very good. We'll go again.

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Monday, 6 May 2019

London in Colour

If I have a complaint about London, it is that it sometimes lacks colour. Especially in winter. The skies are grey. The buildings are, more often than not, white or a pollutant inspired shade of grey. There are exceptions. The red bricked buildings of Kensington spring to mind. And now there is this marvellous creation near Kings Cross station. It's wonderful. I love it. We need more of this in our lives.
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Thursday, 2 May 2019


This week I have ticked off an item on my bucket list. It’s not a terribly long bucket list. And truth be told, my bucket list is much like the British constitution - unwritten and largely made up as one goes along. Items are added and removed at the whim of the part of my brain responsible for remembering such trivialities. Anyway, I’ve always thought of bucket lists as the sort of thing for people who’ve just had a spot of bad news from their doctor and have an unexpectedly sudden and urgent need to get on with the fun things in life. I’m in good health, as far as I’m aware, so there’s no need to jot down a definitive list with pen and paper just yet.

But there are a few items worthy of inclusion on this notional list of mine. It contains the sort of things that I’d really quite like to do but are a bit of an aggravation to get done. Which is largely why they tend not to get done. But this week I’ve shown a little bit more determination. I went to see a session of snooker at the World Championships in Sheffield.

Where’s the aggro in this, you you might ask? Well, getting a ticket for one. You have to buy it a year in advance, and to be quick about it. Snooker has a small but mightily enthusiastic bunch of followers and the venue for the three week tournament holds less than a thousand spectators. If you snooze, you lose. Then there is the getting there and back, which involves a ten hour round trip on the train from Bournemouth to Sheffield. And how many people would wish to spend ten hours on a train in a single day? Actually, you’d be surprised - there’s plenty. But I’m not one of them. Which is perhaps why the years of intending to go have turned into decades of ‘not going’.

Nonetheless, this year I got it done. At a cost of about £100 all in, and with enough sitting down to provide my derrière with a taste of the rigor mortis that will eventually come when I do have that disappointing news from my doctor. I took my seat at the Crucible theatre to watch two grown men bash 21 coloured balls around a green clothed table with a pair of think sticks. Except....I didn’t. I sat down to watch the back of a giant man’s fat, view-blocking head. Behind which, out of sight, a game of snooker took place.

Sadly the greatest aggravation about the whole trip was something I hadn’t given any thought to at all. But even if I had, what could I possibly have done about it? I can choose my seat. But I can’t choose who gets to sit in the seats in front of me. Oh, how I yearned for the good old days, when I lived in Mexico and was guaranteed an excellent view over the sea of three foot tall munchkins between me and the stage.

One would really think in this day and age, at a time when passports are being rendered obsolete by facial recognition technology, that there would be a better way to fill a theatre. Something akin to a human version of the coin sorting machines at a supermarket, where you pour a jar of assorted change that you've been collecting into a slot, to exchange for a shopping voucher.

I'm envisioning a scanner at the front doors. Something that sizes everyone up as they enter. Casting a suspicious electronic eye over the punters. And then feeds the results into some clever software to allocate seats according to each persons physical proportions, and charges supplements as necessary. Mr Gigantor? Row Z, seat 56. Mrs Fatty McTwopies? We've got seats with extra width over there in Row H. Yes, they are twice the price, but you are bringing double the arse to the party, aren't you. 

Ah, you there sir. With the bald head. We're just going to move you a couple of seats along, away from the overhead light. There's a good chap. We don't want everyone blinded by the reflection. If the system were really clever, it could even weed out those persons whose 'tickly cough' sounds more likely to be late stage emphysema, and find them a seat in the basement.

There's only one downside to this cunning plan. At six foot three inches, my lofty frame will be sent to the back row every time. But if that is the price to be paid to be able to see anything at all, it's a price worth paying. I look forward to the day when everyone is allocated the seats they need, rather than the seats they want. Bring on the revolution. 

As for my rather lengthy day trip. Sheffield was quite pleasant. There's a nice shop selling Portuguese pastries. I saw Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry in the Winter Gardens. I watched, as best I could, Judd Trump demolish Stephen Maguire in double quick time. So quick, the partition was lifted so that I could enjoy the remaining three frames of the session on the far table between John Higgins and Neil Robertson. Will I return? I'd like to. The Crucible is a special place for a snooker fan. But there is no longer a bucket list obligation to do so.

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Saturday, 20 April 2019

Travelling On A Lost/Stolen BRP

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the trauma of losing a BRP in the UK just before we were due to go on holiday. The post got a lot of traffic and I received quite a few comments and emails. The information I offered helped a few people, which is great. Because I recently changed my domain name over to this new blog, links to the article that have been published elsewhere all broke. This re-blog of the original should fix that. To see comments left on the original post, some of which may be helpful, please click here

This is a public service announcement by the Mexile in association with an awful lost of frustration and angst. Roughly 24 hours before Mrs P and I were due to fly to Mexico for our two week holiday, there was what I shall refer to as an ‘incident’. I won’t bore you with the details of the ‘incident’. Just one of the consequences. The most pressing consequence. Mrs P was no longer in possession of her Biometric Residence Permit. This is the card that shows she has the right to be in the UK and it is what she needs to re-enter the UK at the end of a trip abroad.

Potential disaster loomed. What do we do now? I did not know the answer. So I did what I always do when I do not know the answer to something. I got straight on to the internet. Where I discovered that, if lost in the UK, a replacement can take up to six months to process. Yes, there is a priority service, at over £500, which will take a few days. Neither option worked for us. But you know what the internet can be like. You log on looking for a cure for a headache. Next thing you know, you have, apparently, got a bad case of Ebola.

If the BRP card lost abroad, then you can apply for a single use entry permit. It’s just £72. And will be with you in 14 days. Ish. Maybe. There is, again a priority service. In New York. Great, if you happen to be in the Big Apple. But this also clearly wouldn’t work for us. The internet basically told us just two things. Firstly, a BRP visa or replacement permit was necessary for re-entry to the UK in order to retain the correct immigration status. Secondly, we wouldn’t be able to get one in time.

 So I did what I do when the internet fails me. I speak to a human being. Or try to. Good luck with that if you also care to try. There is a Border Agency helpline you can call where, for an extortionate per minute charge, a disinterested sounding person will read off sections of the website that you read yourself just a few minutes ago. It all just began to turn into a major headache. Which, according to Google, was not Ebola but just a bad case of Homeofficeitis.

So there you have it. No BRP card, no re-entry on the correct immigration status. Which is a bad thing. Very bad. So says the internet. So says the disinterested man reading from the internet. So we gave up. Except at the last minute, we decided not to give up and to have one last throw of the dice. Grab bags, head to the airport and speak to a real human being from the UK Border Agency. Face to face.

Where we finally had a sensible conversation. Not face to face, as it happens. There’s no UKBA presence in the Arrivals hall. But there is a more general airport Help Desk on the ground floor, with a telephone that puts you through to someone in Immigration. We spoke to a cheerful young lady and briefly explained our predicament. I can relate the remainder of the conversation almost word for word…

UKBA Lady: Where is your wife from?

Me: Mexico.

UKBA Lady: Does she have the passport she used when applying for the BRP?

Me: Yes, she does.

UKBA Lady: That’s fine then. Enjoy your holiday.

Me: Really?

UKBA Lady: Yes, no problem. They’ll just check her passport against the BRP database on her return.

Me: Really?

Hours and hours of research on the internet, wasted. A two minute conversation with someone on the shop floor – priceless. The bottom line here was that Mrs P comes from a country that does not require a visa to visit the UK. If that were the case then she would have been refused travel by the airline on the way back. And it also helped that she had a passport that the UKBA have a record of in relation to her immigration status, although I am not convinced that this was the most important factor of the two.

So if you have found yourself in a similar predicament, then all may not be lost. Of course, it must be stressed that I am not a UKBA approved spokesperson, nor am I an expert immigration lawyer. Your circumstances may differ, or rules may have changed since this was written. But there is hope. Maybe. And it’s a good thing to share experiences.

Whilst I did come across a couple of potentially positive posts on forums, I rather wish I had found something a bit more detailed during my internet search. Something like what I have just written, perhaps. But we did make it to Mexico and, more to the point, we made it back again. The UKBA agent took no more than 2 minutes to pop into the back office to do the necessary check. It couldn’t have been easier.

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Friday, 19 April 2019

Goodbye Vietnam

All good things must come to an end. Including my holiday to Vietnam. At the time of writing, the holiday has been over for nearly a month. I hope you enjoyed the run of posts. The written content was, most of the time, really just an excuse to publish the photographic content. It would have been nice to close this journey with a recording of Robin Williams screaming 'Goodbye Vietnam', but that wasn't the catchphrase, and he's no longer with us in order for a custom recording to be commisioned. Instead, I offer a short video. Made with Apple Photos, a collage of some of my better shots from what was a wonderful, fascinating, unforgettable fortnight.

I'll finish with a few final observations. I've never felt as safe anywhere in the world as I did in Vietnam. I rarely saw a uniformed policeman. How about police and security services not in uniform? They are awfully discreet if there were any of those milling about. The atmosphere was not oppresive, quite the opposite. Communism? I didn't notice. People are busy. Vietnam is busy. They are learning how to be a modern deeveloping country. They look like fast learners to me. We'll be back, one day.
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Thursday, 18 April 2019

Train Street

I liked travelling solo, in the days before there was a Mrs P. There's a freedom in going solo. One can do as one pleases. Travelling as one half of a couple means compromises must be made. The trip must work for both people. But still, I enjoy travelling with Mrs P too. Despite the compromises. I would have liked to ride the Reunification Express all the way from Saigon to Hanoi in a sleeper carriage. Mrs P did not wish to do any such thing. I suspect the trauma of my Indian train travel in 2017 has put her off international train travel for life. Mrs P won this argument, and we flew instead.

I did want to see the train chugging its way down Train Street in Hanoi, however. It's become quite the item on the tourist 'to do' list. Mrs P wasn't quite so interested. But I won this argument, and we strolled along in good time to see the train pass through. Our railway compromise worked for both of us satisfactorily enough.  
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Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Notre Dame

Let's pause from my tales of Vietnam for a moment. A momentous and tragic event is Paris has occurred, and it seems to be obligatory for all social media users - bloggers included - to post a photo from the archives of the finest cathedral the French have to offer. Who am I to buck the trend? It's also the done thing to share a few words about how wondrous and meaningful Notre Dame was during that trip a few years back. Hmmm. Perhaps I shall be a bit 'au contraire' after all.

I was underwhelmed by Notre Dame. I don't entirely know why. It's tough to put my finger on it. I mean, it is a magnificent cathedral. It is terribly old. And yet I was terribly underwhelmed. Perhaps it was the weather. Perhaps it was my mood. Perhaps my ignorance of it's history and importance in western culture played a part. Perhaps because it was so well looked after, it looked almost new. Perhaps the grand expections derived from its reputation had a certain negative effect. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. It was 'just' another cathedral. One of many that I have visited.

How underwhelmed was I exactly? Would you believe that I don't have a single photo of the exterior.  Not a one. I just wasn't sufficiently inspired to reach for my camera. And I have only a few from the interior, including the one shown. Is it a photo of Our Lady? I couldn't tell you.

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Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Tam Coc

Tam Coc, we were told, translates as 'Three Caves'. This makes perfect sense. The tour took us down the very still waters of the river through three caves. No need to alert Trading Standards about any misleading literature regarding this tour.

The boats are mostly paddled by women. Who use their feet to row the boat. It's a little bizarre, but it clearly works. Our lady rowed like an absolute demon, overtaking other boats as we steamed up through the caves then back again. If this were a competitive sport, I'm pretty sure she'd have won. And then failed the drugs test...

You could get to Hoa Lua by public transport and rent a boat and oarsman/woman yourself. But the tours are pretty competitively priced, so it didn't seem worth the agro of a do-it-yourself day out. We paid about $38 each, which included the hour long drive down to Ninh Binh, a pretty decent buffet lunch, a visit to a temple and the main attraction - the boat ride.

Do Mrs P and I have any regrets about our trip to Vietnam? Yes, and it is here in Ninh Binh. The countryside is simply magnificent. We'd have loved to stay here a few days exploring. But time was limited and a two night cruise in Halong Bay beckoned. So a day trip had to suffice. 

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Monday, 15 April 2019

Temple of Literature

Hanoi is home to a plethora of temples. This is but one of them. Albeit an important one, the Temple of Literature. Have a good look around, courtesy of another pretty decent Google Streetview 360 photo.

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Halong Bay

Halong Bay, just off the north eastern coast of Vietnam. Pick a cruise that suits you, and visit another world. Most people seemed to pick a one night cruise. We went for a two night cruise. I felt the place would be special enough to justify the time and cost.

Pick a spot on the deck of your chosen boat. Any spot will do. Once you're into the bay, the views will surround you. You can't escape them. You wouldn't want to escape them. They are why one comes here. For the view. Which cruise boat did we choose? Seeing as you asked, we plumped for the Signature Royal.

We picked that particular cruise for a number of reasons, but particularly because they send you off on a day trip into the less populated Bai Tu bay. Mrs P sat on the deck, listening to the theme tune of one of her favourite films, the Painted Veil. If you've seen the movie, you'll understand why she thought of it. If you'd heard the tune, you'll probably appreciate how well it fits with the scenery.

We were afloat for two and a half days in the bay. But the sun broke through the clouds for just a few minutes on the final morning, just after dawn. And then disappeared, not to be seen again. Not by us, anyway. The sun stayed just long enough for me to capture the photo above. It would have been nice to have had some more sun. But the sea mists, at dawn and dusk especially, added their own magic to the spectacular karsts, rising out of the Gulf of Tonkin.

Was the decision to go cruising for two nights a good call? I thought so. I think Mrs P agrees. It was a relaxing few days. Tranquil. Peaceful. Restful. Words that one would not associate with the other stops on our two week tour of Vietnam. It was not just a pleasant respite from the fumes, din and pace of Hanoi. It was a necessary respite. And Halong Bay delivered that in buckets.
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Sunday, 14 April 2019

It's Chinese

Tourism is flourishing in Vietnam, with visitors making their way to the country from all over the world. But no one sends more tourists than China. They are everywhere. Now, you might wonder how you tell a Vietnamese and a Chinese apart. They all look the same right? Oooh. Bit racist. But moving on...I can tell you, it's very easy to tell the difference. No degrees in geneaology required. Did it just hawk up a deep-lung grolly and spit it on the restaurant floor? It's Chinese. Is it chomping on its food with mouth wide open, bits of chewed stuff going all over the place? It's Chinese.

Did it literally just loudly fart and belch in front of everyone? It's Chinese. Did it just push you out of the way rather than saying 'excuse me?' It's Chinese. Is it shouting at the tour group through a loudspeaker, deafening everyone within 100 metres? It's Chinese. Is that a slice of endangered species on its plate that it is tucking into? It's Chinese. Did it really just chuck all those used plastic bottles over the side of the boat? It's Chinese. 

Mrs P and I took a boat trip into Halong bay. Just the two of us and the crew. And four Chinese. We settled down in chairs at the far end of the boat, intent on avoiding as much foul mannered bodily functions as possible. In the afternoon, we all went kayaking. The Chinese grounded themselves on a beach that was completely unsuitable for a landing. Then capsized trying to get out. We chuckled and paddled safely away. I may have  sung a quiet rendition of 'Rule Britannia'. I may have explained to Mrs P, 'this is how we won the Opium Wars...'

The day came to an end. But just before disembarking, one of the Chinese chaps came over to us, smiling. He'd taken a photo of Mrs P and I kayaking. Would I like it? Well, yes. Please. That's really great. Thanks. We chatted a while. He was a really nice chap, very friendly. His English was pretty good. I liked the chap, I really did.

Yes, I know. You don't need to tell me. I am a terrible human being. I am ashamed of myself, you're quite right. One moment I'm using 'it' instead of 'him/her' and was just a moral step away from UKIP membership. The next moment, I'm all please and thank you. An unforgiveable combination prejudice and hypocrisy. Please forgive me.
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Saturday, 13 April 2019

Hanoi and the Three Ps

One notices the difference between north and south immediately upon landing at Hanoi airport. There is a marked change of climate. Hanoi is cooler and more prone to rain than Saigon. Hanoi is also noticeably poorer than its southern brother. My first impression was that Hanoi was a bit like Delhi but with pavements. But this was a grossly unfair comparison as it turned out. And there is a sudden abundance of pho joints. There is, apparently, a saying in Vietnam - dress like a southerner, eat like a northerner. The food, we were promised, is the tops here.

But precipitation, poverty and pho are not the Three Ps than are the subject of this post. I had another three words in mind. Population, plastics, pollution. They are a feature all across Vietnam, but nowhere more so than in Hanoi. The population of Vietnam is the 14th largest in the world and rapidly hurtling towards 100 million, with a sizeable chunk of them packed into Saigon and Hanoi. Saigon is the bigger and more densely populated city, but Hanoi felt more claustrophobic. Perhaps it's the narrower streets. Perhaps it was the part of town we stayed in.

Hanoi felt far more polluted than Saigon. A little bit of research shows that this is indeed the case. Our chests felt heavy, my eyes were stinging and we gradually began to feel a little unwell. This was a shame, because it took some of the shine off what is a fabulous and fascinating city. The food was as good as promised, the pedestrianisation around the lake made for pleasant evening walks and the numerous temples and pagodas were a joy to see.

We've left the people and pollution of Hanoi behind us. But there is that third problem - plastics. The stuff is everywhere. It's a hot topic in the UK and there are huge efforts being made to reduce the existence of single use plastics, to recycle it where possible and to properly dispose of it when it cannot be used again. Alas, the ongoing environmental catastrophe that is being caused by plastic does not seem to have registered with either the authorities or the public in Asia. This is more than just a shame. It's a tragedy. With an unhappy ending.

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