Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Back in Sydney

I'll only mention it once, but the weather has been rather fantastic most of the time since I've been back. See. Mentioned it. Now its out the way. Will try not to mention it again.

Right, so. Well then. As promised I have continued to try to update the website weekly... ...have tried. But failed!

It has been a busy old couple of weeks though. After arriving on the 13th - and not yet having a place of my own to live in - I enjoyed the excellent hospitality of my good mate Ed and his lovely girlfriend Dace at their bijou residence in sunny (and quite posh) Edgecliff. The views of the harbour from my bedroom window reminded me of being back in my Cremorne flat on the north shore of the harbour when I was here earlier in the year. It brought on a fair amount of nostalgia. Equally, thoughts of that lovely flat made me determined to find somewhere homely to live for the next year too. And perhaps somewhere a bit handier for the pubs and city centre this time.

Ahhhhh. Chris and I are reunited... in fact it looks as if we've actually glued ourselves together.

I won't bore you with the details of the accommodation market in Sydney but suffice to say that I saw a lot of shoddy apartments. In fact, if I can be so bold, I saw a lot of shoddy potential flatmates as well. It was a blessing that I had nearly a full fortnight of free-time before starting my new job, as I spent a fair amount of time traipsing across the city with little to show for it. In fact, even more worryingly, flat-hunting was starting to intrude on my busy social life.

Perhaps it was fitting then that, when I did at last find somewhere, it was within crawling distance of our regular Thursday Night Lads (or Grumpy Old Men's) drinking parlour, The Shakespeare. For those of you who've seen Shaun of the Dead, think The Winchester, but without the jukebox.

I will be sharing with two Irish guys, David and David - which keeps things simple - and have my own en-suite room. The flat is a nice 40 minute meander through Hyde Park to my work in the city-centre and disturbingly close to Surry Hills bar and cafe facilities.

Oi Lennon! That bottle's not plugged in!

In some ways it feels like a long time since I was last in Sydney and at first I was surprised at how unfamiliar the city felt. But a few things are happily just as good and as welcoming as they've ever been. Firstly, Sydney is just as sociable as ever I remembered. Not least Ed and Dace putting up with me for the first couple of weeks. Their cooking skills and finely stocked liquor cabinet were things of awe for me and I'm already looking forward to having them round for dinner in my new place.
Will aka Bono aka Elvis Costello sings Brown Eyed Girl (or something like that).

Its also been great to get back into the Thursday night routines. The first of which was a real Thursday-night special with teapots long into the night, as you can see below...

The first week was topped off by a rather enjoyable fancy-dress karaoke party for a friend's 30th birthday, at which i managed to avoid dressing up, but didn't avoid the karaoke. Apologies to Keith - i really did think a Sean Paul duet would be a good idea -never mind that he doesn't even sing in English...

Best outfit of the night was the home-made Bjork tribute. Superb.

Violently Happy.

In the first two weeks I also managed to squeeze in a great scuba diving day with Roslyn and some peeps from the Beverly Hills scuba dive club (less glamorous but definitely more friendly than the name implies), a visit to my favourite (Shelley) beach with Chris, Caroline, young James and not-quite-so-young Keith (when I got thoroughly sunburnt), catching up with some other friends and even a visit to a 'soccer' game.

David Beckham came to Australia for the first time last week with his team, the LA Galaxy. They played an exhibition match against Sydney United midweek in front of 80,000 super-hyped fans. In fact, the reception DB got in Australia was just astonishing - even for a Brit like myself, hardened by years of golden balls' over-exposure back in the UK. His photo took up two-thirds of the front page of one of the national newspapers, and his visit to play a friendly club game, sell his new perfume, sign some autographs (ie do nothing!) took up an even bigger proportion of the tv news for the whole week.

I was kindly offered free tickets to the game on Wednesday by someone at work but couldn't go. In any case, I wasn't toooo excited about what I thought would be an uncompetitive and unexiciting knock-about between two exotic but unrated sides. How wrong I was! In a complete shock, Sydney beat LA 5-3 in an end-to-end match, which featured a trade-mark Beckham free-kick special and a sending off for stamping!! And I sat through a 0-0 on Sunday night when the most exciting things were going on in the crowd (Brazilian drumming, female linesmen and beautiful female fans were a perplexing novelty for a footy fan used to Tannadice in January).
Time to get the magnifying glass out. This is halftime in the game between Sydney United and Queensland Roar (bad name, I know). Somewhere in this photo is David Beckham.

With such a busy couple of weeks already under my belt, and with summer, and Christmas (how weird is that?) only just coming around, I couldn't have wished for a better start here in Oz.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hong Kong

Two International Financial Centre. This prosaically named building was being built when i was last in Hong Kong in 2002. It became the third highest building in the world, but has since been overtaken by several others, not least the Burj Dubai which, incredibly, will (when completed) be twice as tall.

It's been 5 years since I first visited Hong Kong, and I wondered how much this stellar city would have changed in that time, and whether my high expectations from that first visit would be met.

I had three days in the former British colony and as well as testing my previous experience, I planned to see some of the sights I’d missed, first time around.

Sculpture in downtown Hong Kong.

Hong Kong may be the fastest changing city on earth. When I was last there it had been 5 years since Britain’s 99 year lease had expired and the general consensus was that Hong Kong’s economic and social transformation had been unchecked by Chinese stewardship. A further 5 years down the line and I can personally confirm that Hong Kong is still a whirlwind of development.

For example, when I was last there, they were busy building the third highest building in the world. That building was finished a few months after I left. But, impressive as it is, its already in danger of being forgotten, as already a taller building is under construction in Kowloon and several still-taller buildings are in the planning stages.

The largest seated Buddha in the world on Lantau Island, HK.

The transport system is also something that never stands still. The new airport is the product of one of the largest land-reclamation schemes ever. Having been to the even-newer Bangkok International airport, I feel that Hong Kong’s is no longer the world’s most impressive (in my limited experience). However, HK’s public transport system is something Bangkok can only dream of. The MTR seems to operate perfectly and effortlessly with stacks of spare capacity whenever I used it. And officials in Hong Kong have a greater appetite for public works even than those in Japan. The latest plan is for an extension to the train system to link Kowloon with Macau. At present Macau is an hour’s journey away by speedboat. This would be the largest bridge of its type in the world.

This development comes at a cost though. China’s environmental record has come under considerable scrutiny in the last 18 months as record growth has resulted in record levels of pollution and a move towards some unenviable records. In particular, climate-change sceptics in the US point to China’s progress towards the title of greatest contributor to global warming as an excuse for foot-dragging on reducing domestic carbon emissions (China will still be well behind the US on emissions per head).

Despite its low levels of industrial activity, Hong Kong is a significant contributor to China’s environmental footprint. In addition, the colony also has a significant environmental impact at the local level. This was something I would see myself on my second day in Hong Kong.

The Chinese White Dolphin is one of the most endangered dolphin species in the world. I took a trip out into the harbour on a dolphin spotting tour to try to see these beautiful animals, which - in spite of the name - are actually tinged pink. You can see from the pics that we got very close to the dolphins and it was a really exciting trip, although we had to wait an eye-straining 90 minutes before we spotted the first one. The dolphins played around the boat, usually at distance but sometimes swimming close. Given the huge volume of ferry, freight and sight-seeing craft in the harbour, its amazing that the animals survive at all, and that they will come so close to boats.

The other highlight of Hong Kong for me was the horse-racing. HK is famous for Happy Valley racecourse, a track squeezed into the built-up area of Hong Kong island. However, while I was in HK there were no meetings at that track. But such is the popularity of horse-racing in a place where it is the only legal form of gambling, that there is another venue for horse racing just a few miles away on the Kowloon peninsula. Sha Tin racecourse is an amazing stadium with capacity for 85000 people and over 1000 horses! Even the parade ring has seating for several hundred people and its own stadium-style all-weather roof.

Liking the odd small gamble, I loved the place and had a great afternoon there. In the first race, I backed a rank outsider at about 35-1. It led right the way round the course and was still in the lead coming down the final stretch! Of course, it was seventh by the end, but it did get me excited.

This fella would have had about as much chance as my pick in the second race of the day.

After two races, my small petty cash fund had run out, so I make a withdrawal from the ATM and put a slightly less modest bet on the third race. The picture below is off the closing stages of that race. And what a cracker it was! I backed a one-two-three and raked in over HK$1000!!! This paid for my accommodation for my whole stay in Hong Kong... which was nice!

Come on Dover - Move yer bloomin' arse!!!

So my second day in HK was a cracker. Unfortunately I spent the whole of the third day in bed with food poisoning! I guess I'd used up all my luck at the racecourse. Even so, it was great to go back to Hong Kong. The dolphin spotting, horseracing and the island hopping I did on the first day made for a great few days. And quite different to my first visit into the bargain. Next stop Sydney.

Attractive sandy swimming beach on Cheung Chau island, 30 minutes from HK by ferry. HK's mass of people and activity has an impact on the environment for some distance around.

Coincidentally, I watched the Al Gore film "An Inconvenient Truth" on the flight to Hong Kong. If you haven't seen it, I'd implore you to make every effort to watch it. Though it has come in for some criticism for a few of the things it claims, it is an incredibly compelling film and hopefully one that will have a significant impact on the way politicians in particular view the environment and their moral responsibilities. It just so happens that, as I write this, there are only 24 hours before Australians go to the polls in the national elections. Surveys suggest that the former global warming sceptic and enivronmentalists nightmare John Howard will be defeated by the more left-leaning (but still quite right wing compared to UK politics) Kevin Rudd. But more on that in another update.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Leaving Scotland

(Stuart in party mode at the Arches.)

I’ve been on the move again.

After two and a half months back home in Scotland, I’m back out in Australia, ready to start my new job. The original intention of this blog – in addition to being a diary to entertain me in my old age (well it has to entertain someone) – was to keep distant friends and rellies up to date with how I was getting on in exotic lands on my year out.

(Right: Sombrero Craig)

So it seems appropriate now that I’m living and working down under that I should start up the blog again. But no more books, I promise…

Before I mention Australia (and the gorgeous weather here!) maybe I should start by filling in the details since the last update.

As mentioned before, I got back to Scotland around the end of August. It was an odd feeling being back, and I especially remember being on the British Airways flight from Heathrow, looking out of the window over the Firth of Forth and seeing the buildings of Edinburgh and then the Forth Bridges.

(Left: Sheena, Nic and I)

I wondered what had changed as I stepped off the plane. It seems there were two big stories in Scotland in the year I’d been away and both were evident before I’d even ventured out of the airport.

The SNP’s victory back in the Spring had – whatever its long-term merits – promoted a new sense of pride in Scotland and I felt I could discern this optimism and hopeful nationalism in the adverts at the airport.

The other big event was, of course, the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport in June. A certain John “Smeato” Smeaton is now a part of Scottish folklore – and a hero to rival James McFadden – but while Smeato and friends’ actions are also a source of pride for Scotland, the re-envigorated security measures at Edinburgh airport were more a signal of the negative indirect impact terrorism can have, whether their direct actions are successful or not.

(Right: Kate and Tony)

But anyway, I never felt that my time back in Scotland would be about Scotland per se. It would be all about catching up with friends and family. It was great to meet up with Stuart and Lorna for lunch that afternoon, just a couple of hours after getting back. After that I headed down to Ayr where I surprised my mum by knocking on the front door unannounced. As I’d only secured a place on my flight at the very last minute, I hadn’t had the chance to let my folks know I’d be home a week early. I thought I’d rather leave it as a surprise than phone from Heathrow.

So the first week was spent catching up with family and friends in Scotland. One person had certainly changed a lot. My niece had gone from 3 months to 15, from burbling and not doing much, to walking and (kind of!) talking. Some cute photos attached. After missing my own homecoming party it was good to catch up with Kirsty and Gordon. And Rowan and I had a good laugh at the Simpsons movie.

(Left: Colette looking a little nervous about the camera in her jim-jams)

I only really had one major task to sort out in Scotland – my new job. With my work sabbatical extended for a year and having met my old colleagues in Edinburgh, those ends were easily tied-up. Sorting out the job was far less easy. Time differences and a busy workload for my new boss meant that I didn’t get my application in until two months after I got back to Scotland. Though this involved a lot of testing late-night calls and extensive emails, it didn’t leave me with a lot to do during the day.

And so it seemed obvious to write the book, about which I’ve send enough below. Aside from this and catching up with people, it was a fairly relaxing couple of months in many ways, though the tension of waiting and hoping for my visa to be approved was tiring in itself. But at last the visa was approved on the last day in October.

I booked flights a couple of days later and arranged a last run around to catch up with people. Most of the photos here are from those nights out, including a couple of really enjoyable visits to London. It was great to meet up with old friends, and new friends from my travels.

So I flew out to Hong Kong on the 8th of November, for a few days of (more!) travelling before getting to Australia and my new job.