Saturday, April 30, 2005

Meeting the folks

I had already met some of July's family the previous weekend, but this was a regular large group reunion for some of the cousins and extended family. So, quite a high stakes affair and a chance to meet July's father. Yikes!

All was smooth, however, and I had a great time. The food was good and I did language exchange with July's improbably cute cousins. I became their new play station, and was asked at the end if I could possibly move into their apartment because they wanted to see more of me ... so I passed an important test!


Nosh - a hot soup where you add ingredients as you like. I had done a similar thing with Michael some time ago, but this was much better with the guidance of some people who knew what they were doing (ie: we did not set fire to anything this time).


Nio Nio - a delight


... and plus Ge Ge

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Birthday Boy

I celebrated my birthday this week in quiet style. I was hoping to have a proper session next week when everyone is back from travels and mountains. It was strange celebrating the day miles away from home, and away from old friends and family. I made the big mistake of keeping it a bit quiet and I ended up feeling pretty silly - several friends would have really wanted to surprise me with something or other. Still - you live and you learn.

I also just got back from another fantastic ride up Yang Ming Shan. The conditions were terrible, with the weather making a rather unwelcome return to winter, but the terrain did a terrific job of transfmorming into something different. Very slippery, I had several minor comic spills, but always managed to get my feet down when the front wheel washed out. Still, happy to build up my confidence. I maintain that my new pedals made a big difference!


Luckily for me, the celebration dinner for my birthday fell on the same night as the Red Dot design award celebration dinner. The result? Plenty of free booze and food. Result!


Diego devours a fish

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Kyle's 'home party'

Kyle had a house warming party to show off his new apartment. It was easily the most impressive and well designed place I have seen in Taiwan so far, and certainly had a toilet with a fantastic panorama view over the mountains and Taipei. As is standard for a Friday night, however, the party started at 7:00, the locals arrive soon after and eat all the food, then we arrive at 9:30 just as they are leaving as a big group. It's always the same! Why?!

Still, we stayed and chilled out, and I met Fabian - Marta's ex from Poland (cool glasses).


Fabian, the telly (which stayed on through the whole party until we arrived), Marta and myself on the phone to July


Who is looking at whom? Oh my God! - Michael has the same haircut!


Blending

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Singapore Sling (again)

Well, I made it back to Singapore! 2 weeks of buses, boats and dodgy car rides and I am back in the 21st century. Malaysia impressed me, even when the bus system seemed to have been set up by Ken Dodd.

And I finally found the night market in Khota Bahru (spelling different again) - a local lad showed me the way, took me to the back of the market and I had simply one of the most delicious chicken dishes of my life, eaten straight out of a banana leaf with my (right) hand.

So. One day in Singapore and then winging it back to Taipei!

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Friday, April 15, 2005

Jonny Jalankaki

I am now back in Kota Bahru after 6 days on the island of Pulau Kecil. I had a set of fabulous dives, met some great people and prepared myself for returning to Taiwan.


Although it looks like a tourist catalogue, I did not actually retouch this image at all. It really is this ridiculously blue.

The days were typically spent diving in the morning and reading in the afternoon. Food would be squeezed into this busy schedule, possibly some ice cream, and hanging out with my dive buddy, Thomas.

Highlights of the diving included seeing Hawksbill Turtles surfing the underwater currents, several coral reefs, rock pinnacles with exciting swim-throughs and caves, and a wreck of a sunk Japanese cargo boat. It was great to get back in the saddle / goggles after an 18 month break - not quite the magic of the original dive team of John, Serge, Beto, Ron and Lise in Guatemala, but some great people none the less. I realise now how important the people diving with are for the experience, and of course safety.

Maz, my primary dive master was very good. A local guy, he and his friends Christened me 'Jonny Jalankaki' which is Malay for 'Jonny Walker' - I rather like it! Thomas, whom I met on the boat and shared a double bed with for the first night (!) joined me on the wreck dive and that was great fun.

My final dive was to a location called 'Secret Reef' - and it was. Each time the dive shop places a buoy line the line is cut and the buoy floats off - mysterious, eh. We headed to the site, a 30m deep dive, and descended through the depths. Sadly, due to a navigational error, we headed in the wrong direction and missed the reef. Most people were disappointed, but I really felt like I learnt something new. I had never been to the open sea bed before, seen so many jelly fish and plankton, swam in such low visibility (down to 2m in some places) or used an emergency locator at the end of the dive. I really learnt a lot. And Nadine and Jaap (co-buddy and buddy) were hilarious fun as the effects of deep diving took effect - we were all laughing our heads off at fish swimming by or someone swearing. I really came up with a smile on my face.

So, in Khota Bahru again (pretty sure my spelling changes each time I try it) on a Friday. Again, it is the quiet market day so I am missing out a bit, but it is nice to relax, clear up some souvenir shopping and have plenty of time for my 8pm bus to Johor Barhu, near the Singapore border.

My two weeks here could not have been of higher contrast. World cities, jungle missions, heroic long distances and then sitting staring at clouds! Malaysia has left a very positive after glow.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Island Paradiso

I am having a rather wonderful few days on on Perintian Kesil in Malaysia. It is marvellous - a crescent of white sand, diving with turtles and sharks, and deep starry skies at night.

I think I can handle this.

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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Boat, Car, Bus & Train

Leaving Tamara Nagara was hard - only because I wanted to spend more time there and do some longer jungle hikes. That is the problem with great places - you want to spend more time there!


Morning sunrise in the jungle


Messing about on the river

Our boat departed and we had a simply luxurious ride down the river. Sun, waves, animals.... astonishingly relaxing. From the jetty, I met with a German couple I had bumped into before. Luckily, he worked for Deutsch Bahn and therefore knew everything there was to know about the train system here in Malaysia. Impeccably planned (a contrast to my go-with-the-flow attitude) we got a short taxi ride up to a small town to meet a bus that took us to the train station in Ga Masan - and the fast train saving us 3 hours!

The ride was simply breathtaking. Seeing the sun set over the tree-covered mountains while riding along at the head of the train is something I will remember for a long time. Utter relaxation.


Gua Masan - play 'Spot the goat herd on the tracks' and win a prize


Loco

Arrival im Khota Baru, near Thailand, was a bit of a disppointment - it is supposed to have the best night market for food in the region, but for some reason it was closed and we spent last night and this morning looking for food. Oh well - at least it is a town with some charm and nice buildings!

So now, I am sitting bare-footed in an internet cafe and preparing to head for the Perintian Islands for some days of diving and staring at clouds. Should be amazing! See you there!


A rather characterful door near the ferry


One of the colourful local boats

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Thursday, April 07, 2005

Junglist Massive

I have just returned from three fabulous days in the Tamara Nagara National Park.


Kuantan kept pulling me back - a view of the food stalls at night

From Kuantan, I took a bus as far as Jerantut and transferred to the jetty and awaiting boats. Three happy hours passed, chugging up the river, through rapids past wallowing water buffalo and the most fabulously coloured birds. I sat down next to a 60 year old German woman who was living in Sri Lanka and she became my dinner buddy for the next few days and we laughed at all the other guests who were not as cool as us.


Luxurious Travel


Arrival at Camp Nasi

I stayed 60km up the river, and was surrounded by dense forest, strange creatures and even stranger noises. I was taken out into the jungle almost as soon as I arrived to see the environment at night time. The difference is startling. As soon as you turn on your torch light a whole new world opens up - reflected eyes stare at you, shadows cast strange shapes and your world gets compressed into a small radius of light. Then, of course, you turn the light off and another nocturnal world comes into view as your eyes adjust. Lichens glow, glow worms blaze and a billion stars above you become pin pricks of light that get reflected by the canopy.

And I saw a tarantula! I hand-sized beast lurking on a tree trunk ready for a kill. Rather intimidating in the wild, but fascinating to see in its natural environment. I also saw a sleeping snake hanging in the branches that woke with our torch light, bats flying over my head chasing the insects attracted by my head torch and some bizarre centipedes that would look more at home on a coral reef.

My alarm clock, set for 7:00am, sounded exactly the same as the cicadas in the forest. Thus, yours truly awoke fresh as a daisy at 10:00am, missing out on the sun rise over the trees... I made up for it by hiking up to the peak of the hill, which afforded the most amazing panorama over the canopy. I stayed up there for some time, reading my book (and sweating profusely), and descended again.


Great view over the canopy and river below


But rather a sweaty climb!

In the afternoon, I signed up to the cheesy tourist canopy walk and I unashamedly loved it. Threading its way through the trees 30m above the ground from tree house to tree house were a set of long rope bridges. Although a little unsettling at first, you soon get into the 'swing' of it and it manages to be both exciting and relaxing at the same time. Both in and out of control... so a bit like skiing!


Bear in mind that you are already 25 metres high and the whole contraption is swinging around constantly .... and I hate Ewoks

I split from the tourist posse and headed down to the main village. I bumped into two Swedish guys that were also at a loose end and we resolved to head down the river for a few hours. Luckily, we bumped into a great guide - Mat - who took us to native village. This nomadic tribe are only accessible when they are near the river, so we were very lucky to see them. I felt strange to be a tourist there but Mat reassured me that they were happy with the deal and it helped them. After hearing about the history of the tribe (amazingly, they originate in Africa! - and you could see it in their faces) we lit a fire with their tools and tried our hand at using a blow pipe to fire darts into a target. It was easily the most 'authentic' native people experience I have had - I only wish Taiwan would treat their native people with the same respect.

However, the authentic experience became rather too real when we heard an animal sound. Mat froze and we were unsure of what the sound was - a deep guttoral rumble. Tiger! Luckily / unluckily, we did not see it, but it was a rather sobering experience. All the more sobering when two lost American female back packers walked through the camp going in the wrong direction - they looked concerned when we told them the news!


Firepower


Kids checking the scene - the African roots are apparent


Let it be known that I tried this ... and I did hit the target (if I continued, and had killed six monkeys I could then become a hunter, but I had to get some dinner instead). Incidentally, each blow pipe takes 6 days to make and is astonishingly straight - a true piece of engineering.

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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Tasek Chini & Kuantan

My travel up from Singapore was smooth, and I arrived shattered in Kuantan at 4:00am. My original plan had been to make it up to Maran - near to Tasek Chini - in the same day, but I had so little sleep on the bus I crashed straight into the hotel for some Z's.

Waking much later than even my modified plan, I made it to the bus station in time for the bus up to Maran. It was fairly uneventful, and hooked up neatly enough with a taxi that took me onto the Jetty. Waiting around in the rain, the clouds parted as soon as I stepped into the boat and we hurtled up the river doing a good impression of a Vietnam war movie.

I was alarmed when the cap'n aimed the boat straight at the trees on the opposite bank, but they drew back as the revs dropped and we entered a secret jungle world. The river threaded through the trees like some giant snail's trail - the lake system is linked thus and I spent a fascinating 20 minutes staring up at the vines, the birds and more exotic wildlife. The driver cut the engine and coasted as soon as he saw a one metre long iguana basking in the sun. Far bigger than anything I had seen before, it scampered up the bank to safety as soon as it realised I was pulling out my camera.

I stayed the night in very basic accomodation provided by Rajan Jones - a local Indian man. The food was home cooked and I had a lovely view out accross the lake, and happily supped tea while watching the fishermen pull in their nets.

Today, I originally planned (do you see the pattern?) to make it up to Jerantut and the national park. Rajan explained to me that since people are becoming more affluent they are also less and less reliant on a good local bus service. As a result, I arrived in Kuantan late for my connection bus up to the park, and will have to stay here a second night. Not too much of a problem, and will make it in time for the next day's boat up the river.

I am having trouble accessing my e-mail from this cafe, so please do not be offended if I am not replying!

Planning is for losers anyway.


Tasek Chini Boat Trip

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Sunday, April 03, 2005

A Taiwanese Accent!

Day three in Singapore was utterly laid back. I finally ploughed through the last 50 pages of Samuel Pepys and as such spent much of it in Cafes drinking in the atmosphere (and avoiding the rain). I did manage to get some more Indian food, shop for some essentials and then peruse the local fashion market, test driving my Chinese.

It was such a pleasure. You start the conversation in Chinese, they look at you slightly quizzically, then they reply, and as soon as you return in Chinese they have a big smile on their face - haggling is much easier when the seller is laughing and on your side! In fact, one lady guessed I learnt Chinese in Taiwan because of my accent - i was so flattered! How cool is that?!

Later, I bumped into Michael Designer and we went out for Taiwanese dumplings at Din Tai Fong - part of the same chain from Taipei. That was excellent, and amusing to be drinking Taipee in Singapore.

In one hour, I head for Malaysia, the jungle, and adventure!

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Saturday, April 02, 2005

Food Heaven

The food in Singapore is simply fantastic... (there is now a break of 12 hours in this post - the guy sitting next to me was an industrial designer from Bury St. Edmunds - we had several beers talked the designer talk, and it turns out he is on his way to Oz to evaluate interactive TV in Asia for the BBC. Fascinating! Just shows who you bump into, eh).

Anyway, yes the food is amazing here. There are places called 'Hawker' markets that are similar to night markets in Taiwan, but they are slightly better organised. There are dozens of stalls, you pick your food and drink from each of them and then sit in communal areas to dine. I have had, without exception, amazing food at every opportunity.

At lunch time, after booking my bus up to Malaysia, I wandered along to Little India and had a world-class curry in a really busy local eatery. The colours on display were amazing, the fruit stalls screaming for attention alongside the spice stalls and incense filling the air with exotic aromas. The Bryani was packed with wonderfully dry, mature spiciness that gradually heated up from your belly as you ate it. I jad to turn around to see how to eat the thing, and was met with laughter from some local ladies who signalled I should turn out the pot onto the dish - though only after did I realise that everyone was eating with their hands! The knife and fork were wheeled out for the unsuspecting visiting Brit.

Last night I was lucky enough to sit down next to two local women - it was immediately apparent that we had all ordered far too much food for ourselves, so we arranged to share. I was initially test driving my Chinese and of course they helped my battle through, but of course they spoke perfect English and thought it amazing and hilarious that I was learning. I was fortunate to get talking to them because they had ordered exactly the food I had been wanting to check outm, but that was rather too much for one person. The Barbecued Sting Ray was scintillating, the Black Pepper Crab (a crab cooked in a rich peppery sauce - messy but devine) was mouth watering, the La La clams fresh as sea daisies and this was backed up by the Dim Sum and some very special Chicken Satay. I went to bed very satisfied.

Right now (12:50pm) I am off to get some Arab flavours. Again, I was woken at dawn by the dawn prayer in the Mosque at the end of my street. And again I felt really lucky to be in Singapore. This place is really growing on me. A real meeting point of Malay, Indian, Chinese and European worlds, resulting in a well-fed belly!


A 24 hour Arabian restaurant ... downgraded to 21

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Singapore Slung

I am now moderately drunk sitting and writing. I have had a very enjoyable day doing nothing too much. I had the most fantastic sleep and woke up to a rather louder Singapore than the one I left the previous night - specifically the Mosque at the end of the street with its morning call, the Hindu tailors in the street outside my hostel and the Chinese market traders hawking everything from cell phones to dried mushrooms. A very different Singapore to the early AM of yesterday.

I had a very slow start to the day due to my Malaria tablets and their doping effect. This fitted in perfectly into my innactive holiday mode of sitting drinking coffees in the sun and watching the world go by. Singapore is strangely familiar, and yet unlike anything I have seen before. Laid back, organised and hygienic, and yet busy, cosmopolitan and humid to distraction. Places it reminds me of include Brighton, Victoria BC, Hamburg... a strange mix. But an attractive and very accessible one.


China town in Singapore - I had to wait for a minute until no foreigners were in view (!)

They have managed, unlike Taipei, to preserve at least some of the old colonial areas. I am realising I am perhaps hyper-sensitive to this because I complain about Taipei destroying its heritage, and yet here I am along a beautifully preserved street of colonial houses... and it is all rather Disney. Where is the perfect balance? Europe, I suppose - where I grew up! Hard to please, eh.


Bussorah Street - where I stayed and centre of the Arab district

Singapore is certainly reminiscent of Hong Kong, but is more... colonial. A cricket clun in the centre. More low level luxury hotels. More influence from Arab and Indian quarters. And at the same time I am noticing ridicuous details, perhaps because I am already tuned into 'Radio Asia' amd Singapore is quite western compared to Taipei. So, there are pidgeons here (do we have them in Taipei?), people ride Honda more, there are less scooters, people speak kind of a mix between Chinese and English, I think, and well.... it is very comfortable. Just some impressions.


Raffles Hotel - the quintessential British establishment in Singapore and home of the Singapore Sling, bless 'em

I spent the night along the waterfront of the south china sea drinking massively over priced beers. I had a great time, but realised that most Brits out here are public school boys and absolute bigoted arseholes. Man, I hate that friday night white collar trash thing in London and I hate it even more here where the pay is relatively higher and the targets of their scorn (the local girls on the whole) are not able to defend themselves.

Still, I like the place - but I feel more connection with Hong Kong. More edge. More.... Just more.


Cricket club in the very heart of Singapore. You can see their priorities when they landed! Government, then Library, followed by Cricket pitch, and then plenty of drinking establishments - the Brits certainly colonized in style!


BJ Massage - I had to take a photo!

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Friday, April 01, 2005

Singapore Sling

So, here I am sitting in the colonial district of old Singapore. The fan is whirring away above me and I am necking a Tiger beer. I am on holiday!

I had almost forgotten I had the rights to vacation - especially since the locals in the office do not really get much. I am ready to have a massively decadent 2 and a half weeks here and plan to jungle trek, then up to the perinthians to dive. I am sure that will change, but this is the contract for now.

The trip from Taipei was smooth. I flew with Jet Star Asia - more or less the first budget airline to operate out of Taiwan, and my ticket to paradise... for about fifty quid. All of a sudden, Singapore, Malaysia, and all of south-east Asia is laid out in front of me.

The four and a half hour flight was punctuated with children puking and coughing and crying in my immediate viscinity, which was exactly what I did not want. However, the little critters redeamed themselves when one turned around when alighting the aircraft and said 'goodbye mister airplane' in the cutest possible English. I almost puked.

Singapore itself, apart from the astonishing humidity, seems nice. Very tame and quiet after Hong Kong and Taipei, but nice. Strangely, at night my local area (the Indian quarter) takes on the feeling of a northern town at night. Old houses and a moaque juxtaposed. All is very clean and controlled, which is fine by me on the first night when arriving at midnight - but it does have a reputation as a 'Switzerland' of Asia, with many rules and disinfectants.

And, mes parents will be mid air right now. So hello to them. And a special hello to July - the new sunshine of my life.

Just realised... it's April Fool's day... let's see what happens to me...

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