16 July 2014

Observations of Tokyo


I'm in Japan. I've always wanted to come here, so it's great to have a chance to come here on a business trip.

What have I found so far?

  • Japanese people don't wear sunglasses. It's the summer and it's stinking hot. Sunny, muggy and humid. Everyone is mentioning the heat to me, so I'm sure it's not normally this hot. Yet nobody on the streets is wearing sunglasses. I'm the only one. I don't know why. I hope it's not considered rude. The women, however, are hiding from the sun with umbrellas.
  • Japanese people are concerned about contracting diseases. Upon arriving at the airport, I had to go through quarantine before passport control and customs. Video cameras were looking out for people with symptoms.  Many places have alcohol hand sanitiser available for everyone to be able to clean their hands at the first available opportunity. In 7-Eleven and similar stores you'll find a whole shelf dedicated to medical face masks, and indeed you'll see many people wearing them. I'm not sure if they are wearing them to stop other people's germs getting to their face, or whether they are being considerate and wearing the masks so that they don't breathe on other people - maybe they are sick and don't want to spread the germs.
  • In Japan, I'm a millionaire. By no means rich, but at $100 to a yen, it feels like I have a lot of money in my wallet. A lot of zeros anyway. Which is fine, until I pay 900 yen for a coffee and a bagel at Starbucks.
  • Japanese food is great. I was worried about what I'd be made to eat in Japan. Raw fish? Chicken feet? But I've really enjoyed the food, from chicken yakitori freshly barbecued over coals to sushi ordered straight from a computer screen. The weirdest (yet surprisingly delicious) sushi I had was cheeseburger sushi!
Tokyo from one of the many meeting rooms I've visited this week

I have a few more days left in Japan so I'll do my best to supplement this with a follow-up post, maybe with some observations about the politeness and conservatism of the Japanese people.


01 March 2014

A mild winter

Last winter, as I trained for a half marathon in April, I was constantly having to run through frost and snow in and around London. This winter, however, has been very mild. It has barely been freezing at all, which is more than I can say for some of the winters I've endured since moving to London. Some years I've witnessed a frozen serpentine in Hyde Park and tubes not running due to snow.

Last week I visited Oslo for a business trip. I expected Norway in winter to be a really cold experience but even there it was surprisingly mild. No snow on the ground and temperatures in the positive side of the Celsius scale.

Grand Hotel in Oslo, where I stayed on this occasion.

27 December 2013

Back in Canada

Happy new year and greetings from beautiful Victoria, British Columbia in a Canada. I'm back in BC for the first time since April 2008. Tomorrow I head up to return to Whistler for some skiing.

When I get back to London I plan on writing my travel summary for 2013. Talk soon!

16 September 2013

Where is good to shop for gadgets these days?

If you wanted to buy the new iPhone 5s when it gets to the stores next week but had a choice of where in the world to buy it, where would you choose?

I've checked out the prices for an unlocked 16 GB model quoted on the Apple website for various countries and compared these prices, and listed them in Aussie, British and US currencies.

CurrencyAustralia (including 10% GST)UK (including 20% VAT)USA (not including tax)USA (including 9% sales tax - California)Canada (not including tax)
Australian Dollars869939696759748
British Pounds508549407444437
US Dollars810875649707697

You're certainly better of getting one in the USA if you're there (especially if you find yourself in one of the tax free states such as Oregon, Delaware or New Hampshire). With the recent weakening of the Australian dollar, Australia would also be a good bet especially if you claim the 10% GST back when you leave.

03 July 2013

Getting up at 4am sucks

Anyone who knows me well will tell you I'm not a morning person. It is hard enough to get in to the office by 9am most mornings.

So when I tell you that I got up this week not once but twice at 4am you will understand that that is quite a struggle for me.

Last week I needed to go to a meeting in Stockholm for work but didn't have time to stay there the night before and needed to be back that night for a work function (at the top of Tower Bridge - can't be missed!)

So I got up at 4am to get the 6:30am flight from Gatwick to Stockholm, just in time for my 11am meeting. Then time for a quick beer (150 SEK for 2 beers! That's about GBP 15!) before hitting the 4:50pm flight back to London City airport in good time to get back to the party on top of London's most famous land mark (well maybe second after the Elizabeth Tower  of the Palace of Westminster best known as the Big Ben).

The second time was leaving Glastonbury yesterday morning, in order to avoid the crowds leaving the festival. It is strange getting up at 4am at a music festival, a time where a good proportion of people have not gone to bed yet.

The up-side, of living in the UK, however, is that 4am is about the time it gets light at this time of the year, and by 5am the sun is truly up.

02 July 2013

Glastonbury Festival

I've been a bit poor at updating this travel blog lately, and normally I write about international travel, not things like trips to music festivals. But for Glastonbury I'm going to make an exception.

I've been to a lot of music festivals in my time, both in Europe and in Australia. From going every year to small festivals like Meredith Music Festival (a couple of hours from Melbourne) to bigger European festivals like Sziget in Hungary and Isle of Wight (circa 65,000 people). But nothing I have ever experienced even comes close to Glastonbury.

Glastonbury, where I went for 4 days around this weekend, is a whole city set up in the west country of England catering for the 135,000 ticket-holders  plus many more thousands of staff and performers over 100 stages. It took me about an hour to walk from one side of the festival site to the other, and another 45 minutes to the car park. What a huge set up.

I was fearful of images I remember seeing in newspapers in previous years of revellers wading through knee-deep mud and just about needing boats to haul their camping gear across the site. I encountered a night of rain upon arrival but was lucky to get scorching sun* throughout the long weekend. Which was great for sitting in the sun with cider, watching band after band come and play.

Watching bands play in the sun at Glastonbury
There were hundreds of acts across a handfull of main stages and some 100 other small stages. Watching the Rolling Stones with about 100,000 other people was an interesting experience, but of course some of the more intimate performances might remain more memorable.

Despite the massiveness of it all, the people are friendly and the crowds are mostly tame. The festival organisers did a great job of managing so many people. Nevertheless, a camp out festival still ends with getting home and appreciating the comforts available, like flushing toilets, warm showers, and peace and quiet. Or am I just getting old?

* - Scorching by English standards, that is. Nothing like the 45 degrees I had to endure on New Years Day 2006 at the 2005 Pyramid Rock Festival on Phillip Island with a huge hang over (partly caused by the lack of food available at the festival) and no shade.

12 April 2013

Easter in Morocco

As an Australian, I struggle with the London winter. And this year it's been a long one. Despite spending Christmas and New Years in Florida and Mexico respectively, I couldn't cope with the cold and gloom so decided to go somewhere warm for the Easter long weekend.

At about one month left before Easter, I decided to go Marrakech. My girlfriend couldn't come with me so I decided to go alone. It was a destination well-suited to solo travellers, with hostels costing around GBP 7 a night.  The problem, however, was that all of the flights from London for Easter were either full or uber-expensive.   I ended up finding an Iberia itinerary on Opodo that was affordable, but hardly direct.

On the way out: London Heathrow - Madrid - (overnigt stop) - Casablanca (6 hour wait) - Marrakech

On the way back (somewhat better): Marrakech- Casablanca (4 hour wait) - London Heathrow

It wasn't as bas as it sounds. I flew out to Madrid after work on the Thursday night and stayed in Madrid at a cheap but nice hotel by the airport. The next day I flew down to Casablanca at around lunch time.


What to do with a 6 hour wait in Casablanca? That's just enough time to get out of the airport and have a chance to look around town. It sounds simple, but the city is 40km from the airport. There is a train but it only runs once an hour and takes over 30 minutes. So timing is key.

The train journey to the city was already interesting. First of all I was surprised by how green the countryside was. I'd always imagined Morocco to be red and dry but it was anything but that. Green lush fields surrounded the tracks on the way to town. Various animals - sheep, goats, horses - pastured along the tracks, each flock watched by a shepherd sitting or lying in the grass. Children played in  fields, sometimes shared with animals. Shanty shacks were littered across the countryside before we got into the built-up Casablanca suburbs.

I met some French girls also catching the train to town and once we got to the main train station I shared a taxi with them to the centre. The taxi ride was hair raising but we managed to survive. After a quick mint tea at their hotel I walked back across town to the station, taking in the surprisingly Western feel of Casablanca.  It didn't feel like a typical Arabic-Muslim city. Young women were not covered up and hanging out with young men in the streets.

Once at the station I popped into a shop to get some snacks. I ended up with some local cashews and a drink which I think was some sort of chunky, pomegranate flavoured, yogurt drink.

I went to the platform where the next listed train to depart was the one to the airport. It was to leave in 10 minutes but was already terribly crowded, so I decided to board to guarantee a spot. To my shock, it then departed straight away! This wasn't the train to the airport!

I didn't know what to do and was too embarrassed (and non-French-speaking) to ask someone what to do, so I decided to get off at the first station and decide what to do next. Perhaps catch a train back or get a taxi to the airport. Luckily, it turned out that Oasis station was the only stop that the airport train stopped at between the city and the airport so all I had to do was get the next train from the green leafy suburb appropriately named.

Arrival in Marrakech

I finally got to Marrakech in the evening. A taxi was waiting for me. The taxi ride, although largely uneventful, was a bit scary. Not because of the driving (that was the reason for my taxi fear in Casablanca) bit because of the state of the car itself.

Typical Grand Taxis in Marrakech
Image borrowed from Read: Between the Lines
It was a late 70's or early 80's Mercedes, with no seat belts.  I spotted the fact that it had 650,000km run up on the clock but I'm not even sure if it hadn't already looped past zero before. The speedo didn't work as it constantly showed 0 km/h. But there was no chance of speeding: the 5 speed manual  couldn't seem to go above third.

A taxi not dissimilar
Image borrowed from Sending Postcards
My taxi dropped me off in some narrow street inside the medina. Despite having some printed instructions which directed me to the hotel, there's no way I would have found it as I had no clue where I was. Luckily, there was a guy from the hostel waiting for me. He guided me through a series of narrow pedestrian alleyways, which were nevertheless frequented by motorbikes, horses and carts, donkeys and bicycles.

I was welcomed with biscuits and Moroccan mint tea. I didn't have long in Morocco so I booked myself in for an early trip the next day to the Atlas Mountains and beyond.

Over the Mountains

I did a minibus tour which drove us for over 4 hours into and over the mountains. Although the drive was long, it was amazingly scenic. The red cityscape changed to green fields around Marrakech, which turned into lush green valleys under the mountains. As we climbed the snow-capped mountains the scenery slowly got less and less green, eventually turning into barron, rocky cliffs under snowy peaks. Once we passed the mountains the scenery became dry, flat and dessert-like. We were at the edge of the Sahara.

High Atlas Mountains

Although I only spent a few hours outside the minibus, I managed to get myself sunburnt  It seems I now have English skin which is no longer used to the Aussie - or Moroccan - sun.


By the time I got back to Marrakech I was so sick of being in a car I decided the next day would be spent purely walking around. So I managed to get myself more sunburnt walking around, taking in the craziness of the city.

The main square in Marrakech. Usually full of vendors, snake charmer and various other people and animals,
I enjoyed shopping in the vast souks around town and eating the street food in the market in the square that's set up each night. The local shopkeepers and food vendors were pushy but friendly, and much easier to manage than I expected. Overall the city left a great impression on me.

Flying First

On my way back to Madrid I received my first ever free upgrade to business class. With all the flying I do, I was disappointed I had never been upgraded but that is no longer the case. Of course business class on a short haul flight isn't particularly special, but after being in a country for 4 days where it's very hard to find alcohol, the free champagne was a treat!