The Have’s & Have Not’s – Hong Kong

6 07 2014

The second leg of our grand Asian tour was the mighty city of Hong Kong. A former British colony, fought over between the Brit’s and Chinese over tea and opiates. Now handed back to the Chinese mainland after 100 years of lease. An intensely populated group of islands with a very interesting history.

This was my first visit to Hong Kong, and a long awaited one. Surprising really as I have visited most of the surrounding area. Struck by the natural beauty of the place, lush green forest everywhere juxtaposed by skyscrapers and apartment blocks clinging to the hillside. As a Brit, it felt almost natural. Driving on the left side, British style number plates everywhere. Yet somewhat alien to me. The home comforts transported to a foreign faraway land.

Unable to withdraw any local currency from the ATM’s in the airport, I relied upon my friend to make our journey happen. The taxi driver gave the impression that we were inconveniencing him somewhat by our presence. Unable to understand very clear English, he made me enter the destination into my mobile. Extremely aware of roaming costs, I gingerly put the hotel’s address into the phone. Unable to understand he switched to Google Navigation. With a squeal of horror I snatched the phone away from him! Why he needed my mobile I have no idea. I counted no less than eight mobiles around the confines of his cab. Everything from old Nokia to Samsung 3G tablets surrounded him. He must have been cooking from the inside out based upon the radiation!

What I noticed first was the opulence of the city. Huge adverts adorned the side of buildings, showing Prada, Gucci and other such over priced names. Very large Mercedes (what is the plural of Mercedes), BMW and a regular Porsche appearance drove alongside us. This was a city of money and excess. The hotel was modern, swish and more importantly air conditioned as the temperature outside was approaching 35C!

As we had a half day vacation we headed over to Kowloon. Taking the old ferry across the bay, it was wonderful to look back at the soaring skyline of Hong Kong island. The ancient ferry began to dock and I remarked upon the condition of the mooring rope to my friends, as it was being wound around the capstan. An old hemp rope, it was knackered and ready to be retired. I joked that we should move back, in case the rope snaps – someone might lose their head. Yet again my Spider Sense proved correct, and with a huge CRACK the rope snapped. Luckily no-one was injured. The second we stepped off the ferry in Kowloon, every few meters someone of either Arabic or Indian descent asked if we wanted a fake Rolex. It was annoying at first and became tedious quickly.

We walked up towards Nathan Street and the infamous Temple Street market. Land of the fake and cheap. This really felt like China compared to Hong Kong island. There was very little opulence here, people searching through garbage bins for food. The overpowering smell of sweat and old food mingling with the hot air. This was a different country completely. Fake goods refused (ahem) we returned via the cool and efficient MRT to our hotel.

The next day was the big meeting. Standing in the office, looking out at (again) the soaring skyscrapers, I noticed a very different street. Almost forgotten amongst the modern, this was a 1950’s apartment block that had not seen paint in a century at least. Iron bars across the windows, grimy smears of dirt everywhere. The occasional individual looking disheveled coming out of the doors. This was Hong Kong island, not Kowloon. I was really struck yet again by the huge difference between those who have even a reasonable income in Hong Kong, and those who aren’t working or simply don’t earn enough. It was not a small gap between the two, it was a Grand Canyon sized gap. How do these two alien species get along together?

Hong Kong has a very uncertain future. The day that we left there was a huge democracy rally against the Chinese government. HK inhabitants have a fierce independence that they wish to protect. I only wonder about those unlucky enough to not live in a nice air conditioned apart, how does their future look?


The Have’s & Have Not’s – Manila

2 07 2014

Three meetings/tasks, three Asian countries. Sounds easy when you let it roll off your tongue doesn’t it? However, three very diverse Asian countries. Each in very differing states of development and economic make up. Each with a very different political system. Each with their own unique issues and humanitarian problems.

The first destination on the agenda was Manila, the city of many millions. Squeezed into some of the most densely populated areas of the world and bathed by almost equatorial sun. This city of 12 million rub shoulders against each other. Massive amounts of vehicles belching noxious fumes into the hot and fetid air, challenge each other for millimeters of space on the small roads. All driven with equal impunity and an average speed of 1km per hour, as the rules of the road only matter when a cop is present. Then there are the ‘Jeepney’s’ – the public transport backbone of the Philippines. These aged leviathans of a far gone age, grumble along the packed streets stopping indiscriminately to let passengers on and off. They resemble a prison van, except for a major difference. Each Jeepney is customized by the owner. Typically adorned with religious phrases, and normally chromed metal or rust/yellow they provide a colourful backdrop against the drab concrete.

The hotel ‘Diamond Manila’ overlooking Manila Bay was our refuge for the week. A delightfully opulent retreat, once the security guards have swept the underside of the car for bombs. Once you have got past the bomb sniffing dog. Once you have gone through the metal detector, it’s truly a delight. Amazing food and wonderful service made this a wonderful experience. Yet each time my eyes fall outside the window, past the jungle effect swimming pool and pool attendants a desperate scene awaits.

It was once a bulding. Overtaken by primary jungle, guarded by killer chickens was a ‘camp’. A group of people lived there, walking around in flip flops and dirty clothing. Thinner than concentration camp survivors they were cooking over a wood fire and sorting through rubbish. This was the 1850’s in the 2000’s. Viewed through my microscope it was an awful reminder of the massive poverty issue that was so evident here, even in my guilded cage. Yet it wasn’t just in my goldfish bowl view, it was everywhere you looked. Everywhere you walked or drove extremely thin and malnourished people were sleeping over cardboard on the street. I recall one guy leading a child across the busy street. Sunken eyes looked at me in the taxi. I recognized the look emanating from him – the look of death. Even my colleague remarked upon this poor guy, he didn’t have long before he shuffled off this mortal coil.

Another thing I noticed was the weapons everywhere. Surly looking guards with pistols on their hips in shopping centres. Equally surly looking guards outside banks holding pump action shotguns. More scary than the guns were the guards. I have done some shooting and I really doubt that these guys would know how to shoot, assuming that the guns are loaded. If they start shooting, I run towards the bad guys. It’s probably safer compared to taking shelter near the Filipino Storm Troopers!

Manila was a strange place indeed. I had been warned about the crime, poverty and risk of kidnapping. However the reality was this is a megapolis with real issues. Filled with hard working people who try their best to improve their situation. Yet they do it with a smile and make it work. I had to admire their spirit, working in a  crowded and dirty environment.

I felt like an white alien in this offworld landscape. Even though I had some great times with colleagues there, it’s not a place I will be rushing back to see.

A case of mistaken identity – Part Two – Novi Sad Nightlife

25 12 2013

Novi Sad, Serbia. In English it seems like a pretty strange name for a town. Almost like a tropical medical condition. I can imagine a Doctor coming into the surgery, eyebrows furrowed deep whilst studying the clipboard in front of him. ‘Mr Jones brace yourself, we have the test results back. I can confirm that you have Novi Sad. It’s a terminal condition. I’m sorry!‘.

After somewhat of a strange diversion in my mind, Marko took us from Belgrade to Novi Sad. The road in darkness, cars and trucks zipping past at speed. Part of the route took us through the mountainous ‘Fruska Gora National Park‘. In darkness it caused my spidey senses to become more than alive. Hairpin bends greeted us, whilst we jostled for position with cars and trucks. However Marko deftly weaved us safely through the traffic. We drove through the Serbian wine country, which frankly I was surprised to find out existed. There were some very impressive wineries that we passed, but alas they were closed.

Arriving into the families apartment in Petrovaradin, Marko’s wife Marija greeted me. Rakija was placed on the table (family recipe) along with some excellent food. Maria had made some cheese and mushroom savory pastries. The mushroom ones in particular were fantastic. I was genuinely made to feel part of the family. After talking for about an hour, Mirjana said…’Now we go party‘!

So each nations version of partying is slightly different. Actually that might be a bit of an understatement, completely different. Actually, I would like you to comment underneath this blog on what a typical party in your country entails?

Marko & Mirjana described the destination as a traditional bar/cafe called ‘Biblioteka‘. I sauntered alongside my host family, arriving at a huge anonymous looking wooden door with two bouncers outside. There is no way that I would have expected what was inside. Imagine the contents of several double decker buses had arrived into this small place at once. Literally squeezing my way though the crowd, we made our way to the bar. I have never experienced a wall of people like this before, and it was a little intimidating to say the least. Music was being played at maximum volume, with a definite Slavic feel to the lyrics.

Reaching the bar, drinks were ordered. We met up with a couple of Marko’s ex naval colleagues. Chinking glasses together, we proudly said ‘Živeli’ to each other, looking into the eyes. If you don’t look at each other in the eyes whilst proclaiming this, you will never have sex again. That seems like a fate worse then death!

The bar was thick with smoke which is something that I am not used to. It’s intensity was cloying and suffocating. Girls were dancing and men were drinking, all with approximately 2mm of personal space. However I did not detect any anger between the patrons at all. They seemed to be having a great time. It became apparent that I appeared to be one of the smallest people in the bar! I am 1.75m tall, however I was tiny compared to the Slavic giants surrounding me (male & female).

Conversation was pretty much impossible, especially when it turned out that the voice singing was a middle aged lady winging her way through the crowd. Mirjana explained to me that the songs were traditional Serbian songs, albeit with a faster dance beat over the top.  The beats were infectious, combined with the alluring and foreign lyrics that invaded my ears. Again another moment when I felt very far away from Liverpool. It was also strangely affecting my feet too. Rather than looking like a dancing diva, I looked like an epileptic suffering an attack of Grand Mal!

The collective ‘we’ were listening to lyrics that were from traditional songs. Traditional lyrics in a nightclub, rammed with people all probably younger than 40. Each one of them singing their heart out and dancing. With no personal space whatsoever and strong booze being consumed in vast quantities. Regular readers of my blog will know that I always pay attention to national pride. In Serbia it was fierce, and this bar was living proof of that. It was fantastic to observe too. Young and old, united in the traditional songs of their heritage and goddam enjoying them too.

Jeven and Rakija was beginning to affect my head plus my ability to stand. Therefore we beat a hasty retreat back to the apartment in Petrovaradin. Resting my spinning head on the sofa bed, I came to a single conclusion…

Serbian’s really know how to party.

A case of mistaken identity – Part One – Belgrade

20 12 2013

Tell someone that you are visiting Eastern Europe as a tourist. Instantly they will think of Budapest, Prague or Krakow. Fantastic architecture, culture and cheap beer springs to their mind. However take their mind in a more southeasterly direction towards the Balkans and the perception changes. Mention that you are going to Serbia, their expression will change and you are rewarded with ‘Why the hell are you going there‘!

To most westerners Serbia is still a dangerous country. Images of terrible atrocities committed during the Balkans conflict are still fresh in peoples minds. More recently the impression has changed to hardened criminal gangs who will steal your kidneys, then murder you until you are dead. The media certainly hasn’t helped with this perception, only solidifying the preconceptions deeper.

So as mentioned previously, telling my family that I was going to spend five days in Serbia visiting friends was not received well. I was not particularly worried about the journey, but I did check that my travel insurance covered me.

The plan was simple. Fly into Belgrade and meet my friends, then stay in Novi Sad. That was the sum and total of the itinerary. Although I did have one request to my friends ‘show me Serbian life‘. It sounds easier than it actually is.

Belgrade was a typically busy city, but with very nice architecture. I did feel very far away from my roots in Liverpool though. This feeling was exacerbated by the Cyrillic text everywhere. They pointed out a couple of former government buildings that had been bombed by NATO. It is insane to see the extent of the damage caused by the bombs. You could see that the bomb had dropped into the centre of the building, carving through the concrete spine and blowing out every window. However these were the only signs of any conflict.

We visited the Saborna Crkva Sv Arhangela (Holy Archangel Michael Church), with huge fresco’s adorning the walls. This was my first visit to an Orthodox church. Then to a really small but interesting cafe called Kafana Pavle Korcagin celebrating the former Yugoslavian dictator/leader (delete as appropriate) Tito and communist life. Lots of original propaganda posters and artifacts from the communist era adorned the walls whilst people of all ages drunk rakija and beer chatting away. This was a very impressive place, like taking a beer inside a museum. Maybe the best cafe that I have ever visited the world over? My hosts (Marko & Mirjana) and their friends were informative and keen to tell me about how Tito was revered by the people of Yugoslavia. Again a completely different picture was painted by western media of Tito. It made me wonder who was actually correct. Western media with a hidden agenda, or the people living under his leadership?

Onwards to walk around Belgrade’s expensive shopping areas, which felt rather sterile given the vibrant atmosphere on a Saturday evening. Serbian’s certainly know how to party! We visited Belgrade’s oldest cafe, literally called ‘?’. Cafe ? made a very bohemian impression on me. I imagined long discussions between men with beards and small glasses on how Slavic artistic style was influenced by rakija!

The hour was getting late, and Marko still had to drive to Novi Sad from Belgrade. So bidding farewell to Belgrade, it’s amazing cultural secrets and it’s incredibly cold winds…we drove into the night.

Creed and Colour

12 09 2013

Why is it that I gravitate towards the proverbial den of iniquity? Finding myself with an evening to spare in a less than salubrious area of Oslo always invites opportunity.  In this particular instance I am sat outside a pub in quite a multicultural part of Oslo (Brugata). It is really interesting just to watch the different nationalities walk by here. There is a large Somalie group here, a very large group of Romany Gypsies around the corner and various other ragtag peoples.  What strikes me most is the world’s problems from yesterday are here. Somalia, Ethiopia, Romania, Iraq – the displaced need to go somewhere. What is more interesting is the amount of time that it takes for these poor folk to end up somewhere safe. We see the Syrian conflict on TV right now. Yet in one year we will see the human face of that tragedy.

So back to Two Dogs on Brugata. I think this place is a semi gay bar, catering for the female gender. Still it’s a welcoming place. Sitting outside watching the world go by, nursing a pint of Ringenes it allows you to contemplate upon things. 

How lucky are we? You, me, our friends and family. To live in place free of war, poverty and natural disasters. To be able to vote for a (relatively) honest politician.  To have support and assistance when we need it.

Yet still we moan and pule about how bad our life is. We still feel that others who look a little different to us don’t deserve the security that we are accustomed to. Turn the tables and imagine their lives. What horrors have they seen and experienced.

The right to live is a basic human need.

Walk a day in someone else’s shoes. You might learn something about yourself.

The bucket list

2 05 2013

The term ‘Bucket List’ seems to have gained significant popularity over the past couple of years. For those who are unfamiliar with the term here is the Urban Dictionary’s definition;

Bucket List

A list of things to do before you die. Comes from the term “kicked the bucket”. ‘I need to remember to add skydiving to my bucket list.’
The most memorable use of ‘Bucket List’ for me was the venerable Karl Pilkington’s ill fated journeys across the globe in ‘An Idiot Abroad’. If you haven’t seen any of these I really do recommend putting some time aside to watch them.
All of that aside I have not thought much about my bucket list. As I drift towards the comfortable middle ages of my life, I think about what I still want to achieve. I am not talking about financial or career based achievements, but life events. A positive event that fundamentally changes the person that you are. Impacting not only you but those around. How can you conceive such a notion? How can one determine what events are so significant?
From the vagaries of my mind, one item has always stood clear as a ‘must do’. That is to write a book. I am not artistic or creative. I cannot paint a picture or draw well. A five year old painting with their toes would do a better job than me. Therefore to take experiences, emotions and sensory inputs and process them into words. Words so others can experience and feel as I have. To walk alongside, hearing the sounds, feeling the air and having their noses filled with smells.
I am very proud to announce that I have taken the Vietnam blogs and converted them into a book. Expanded and with many photos included it really chronicles the journey, including the events that led up to it. It feels like a life achievement, six months of work finally in print. Actually it was almost never in print thanks to Adobe Lightroom. I lost all text within the book for weeks. Six months work gone, lost forever. Before you ask, no I did not make a back up. Luckily Lightroom seemed to get it’s self back together and the text recently reappeared. Several hundred back up’s later and it was complete.
My original theory behind my blog was to make my journeys and experiences available to my family, in particular my daughter. As the blogs have developed so has my writing style. The blog has become not so much about self expression, more about self exploration.
If you are interested you can take a look at the book

Noodle Soup

Life Reloaded

20 04 2013

I have been blogging for 2 1/2 years now. I have documented many things in my life, travel and food being the prime examples. Blogging has even allowed me to explore my creative side with amateur poetry bursting forth from my fingers. However there is one blog that remains unpublished. It’s a very personal blog, highlighting major failures and low points in my life. Consequently it’s been even difficult to gain the confidence to contemplate writing it. The confidence is there, the time feels right. Therefore the creative juices and the planets are in perfect alignment.

My new marriage fell apart after only five months in early 2012. Fingers were pointed, unkind words were said. Two people were to blame. The whole experience left me questioning everything in my life. My trip to Vietnam gave me the ability to see through the dark veil of negativity. To rebuild my life and therefore my soul. I grasped that opportunity with both hands and took it. Seeing things in different light, Dan v2.0 was constructed. A new positive Dan, open to opportunities and free from the tyranny of negativity.

Ever since I was young, I have always wanted to live outside the UK. Various opportunities have presented themselves and for various reasons they didn’t work out. This time was different. Over the past year I had spent a great deal of time in Bergen, Norway. It felt like home. It was a ‘gut feeling’. I was happy and settled when I was there. The opportunity arose for me to relocate to Bergen. I grasped it with both hands. There were a number of items that made me nervous, not to mention my daughter in the UK (living with her Mum). This is a new country, a new job, new language, new culture, new home. Dan rebooted. I had kind of moved out to Bergen in November. I found an amazing place to live, with a lovely landlady.

Have you ever tried to give something away? People don’t want your cast offs. Try giving away the contents of a house. I guarantee it causes stress. My aim was to emigrate with as little as possible. Nevertheless, two weeks before Christmas I was able to move out of my home. Staying with family for the Christmas period, the aim was to drive my UK car over to Norway. The route is not exactly straight forward:

Liverpool to Harwich > Harwich to Esbjerg (Denmark via ferry) > Esbjerg to Hirtshals > Hirtshals > Bergen (via ferry)

Leaving Liverpool early on the 28th of December, my car’s suspension was groaning. I had a three day journey ahead of me. The journey was actually very easy. Music blasting, taking a rest when needed. Enjoying every single mile. Plus the moment of terror as I rolled off the ferry in Denmark. Driving a right hand drive vehicle on a right hand road takes quite some adjustment. Nevertheless, the journey was quite smooth up until Hirtshals.

Hirtshals reminded of a ghost town. I saw no one. I went to the hotel. I saw no one. The key to my room was left by the door, presumably by a ghost. It was spooky to say the least. I managed to get some sleep in the ghost hotel and prepared for the final part of my journey. Boarding the ferry the next morning was not the most enthralling of experiences. As we sailed out of the harbour, I could feel my excitement rising. I was embarking on my new life.

The North Sea is an unforgiving beast. I would actually say that the sea is a ‘She’. She was pretty upset, because she threw our ship around and around. Despite working on ships I do suffer from seasickness. Amazingly I did not here.

Pulling into Bergen harbour at 0800 on the 31st of December 2012, I was on the dawn of my new life. Taking the drive out to Sotra, the weak sunlight was creeping low into the sky. I reached my apartment, fresh snow on the floor.

Walking into the apartment, the familiar yet unfamiliar sense of home. The feeling of similarity yet everything is different. My tired mind struggling to comprehend all of these new factors.

31st of December 2012 – A new year, a new home, a new job, a new language, a new culture. Life Reloaded

Top of the world

Top of the world

View from my bedroom window

View from my bedroom window

View from Pyttern

View from Pyttern

%d bloggers like this: