Thoughts of a geek

17 January 2016

Christmas and New Year

Filed under: Photos, Travel — Tags: , , , , — qwandor @ 5:13 pm

I spent Christmas in London this year, so it was pretty quiet. I still find Christmas in winter weird, it’s all cold and miserable, and I find London winters hard. The afternoon of Christmas Day I went over to my friend Matthew’s place for Christmas dinner, which was nice. His parents and some of his siblings were visiting from Paris (they are originally from NZ, more or less), and there were a few other kiwis too.

I took the 3 days between Christmas and New Year off, and the Monday after New Year, and went away for just over a week to Bratislava, Vienna and Brno. The main point of the trip was to go to the Vienna Folk Marathon, but the flights worked out cheaper (and I thought it would be interesting to visit a couple of new cities) to fly into Bratislava on the Monday morning, spend the afternoon exploring the city, and catch the bus to Vienna that night. In Vienna I stayed with Thi, a university friend from Wellington who now lives there with her boyfriend, which was nice as I hadn’t seen her in ages. After the Folk Marathon I caught a train to Brno on the Sunday afternoon and spent a day and a half sightseeing there (and touring the cafes as it was too cold outside, -7°C with snow and wind most of the time) before flying back to London on the Monday night. My flight back was delayed almost an hour for de-icing, which meant I finally arrived home at about 1:00 am Tuesday morning.

On the whole it was a good trip, but cold. I caught one cold just before Christmas, which I was just getting over as I arrived in Vienna, then caught a second cold towards the end of the Folk Marathon, which made everything less fun. The other annoying thing was that it is still legal to smoke in bars and so on in Austria, and although most of the venues were supposed to be smoke-free for our events, there were still people smoking in almost all of them, which several times forced me to leave. I’d like to go back to Brno sometime warmer, as there was more to see which I didn’t because I was too cold and couldn’t stay outside any longer.

For more, see the photos: Bratislava, Vienna and Brno.

Advertisements

1 January 2014

Seven months

Filed under: Me, Travel — Tags: , , , , , , , — qwandor @ 10:14 pm

I really have not blogged much in ages! A lot has happened since May. Other than Morocco, let’s see:

A friends (Emily Swan) was in town for a few days in June, I caught up with her all too briefly for lunch. Wow, that seems so long ago. Briefly saw another friend (Jordan) around the end of June or beginning of July too.

European Blues Invasion was at the end of June, and was amazing. Lots of really great dances, learnt some new stuff (hmm, I suspect I have forgotten most of it by now), and got into switch dancing. Not quite the first time I had done any switching, but the first time I really got into it. Made a few new international friends too.

Sarah was in London for a couple of days in the middle of July. Jen got a group together to go along to the first day of the Ealing Blues Festival, which was fun. Lots of great music, and great weather for sitting out in the sun with a picnic. I think we paid £5 for the day, for probably more than 30 different bands. Babajack were particularly good. Our team offsite to Croatia was straight after that, which was also fun. I got sunburnt on one of my legs because I forgot to apply sunscreen before going white-water rafting, and of course spent several hours facing in the same direction with the sun shining on one side of me.

I enjoyed some of the free outdoor dancing over the summer, though did not make it to as much this year as in past years. I mostly just went to a few of the swing dance ‘picnics’ at the Victoria Embankment Gardens, which had a mix of DJed and live music.

I went to Belgium for a long weekend at the beginning of August; 2 days in Brussels with Aga, and 2 in Bruges by myself. Both were interesting to see. Alex was in London the following weekend; it was good to catch up with him briefly.

Daniel came to stay on his (indirect) way back to NZ from Germany. He was going to stay with some other friends, but they ended up being a long way out of London so he stayed at my place for almost a week instead. He came along on a walk from Salisbury to Stonehenge that a friend from church organised, which was fun. The weather was great, and we even ran into a medieval festival at Old Sarum along the way. We arrived at Stonehenge in the end with only a few minutes to spare, just half an hour before it was closing, as they were letting the last visitors in. An excellent day though: good bunch of people, nice walk, good weather, and a decent pub lunch in the middle. Right at the end of August I went on an ‘Alternative London’ walking tour with some friends and workmates, seeing some cool street art in Shoreditch.

In September I went up to Edinburgh for a weekend, stayed with Karoliina and went for some nice walks up North Berwick Law and along the coast from there, and in the Pentland hills. We found a few geocaches along the way, and sung Simon & Garfunkel songs.

Charlotte and Nicolai were in London, so I got to catch up with them which was nice.

Craig was in town at the beginning of October so came for lunch at Google. My cousin Brittany was in London for a full month, and stayed with me for her first few days, in the second week of October. I had not seen her in years so it was good to catch up. She kept herself pretty busy between sightseeing seeing a bunch of her friends. I went to David & Amber’s wedding, which was good fun. Had a few interesting conversations, and there was a ceilidh. (Strictly speaking they got married some time earlier for immigration purposes, but this was the ceremony to celebrate it properly.) My old friend Daniel was also in the UK in October, for military stuff in Wales, but came to London for a few days as well and stayed with me (overlapping with Brittany actually), so I was able to show him around a bit and catch up. And then Emily visited on her holidays, and we went to Cardiff, Bristol, Cheddar Gorge and Bath for a few days. At the end of October was the Morocco trip, which I have already written about.

Shortly after getting back from Morocco there was another blues dance festival, Blues Baby Blues. It was also good, though not quite on the same level as EBI. Unfortunately I caught something partway through so was not feeling great on the second day of workshops, and had to leave early that evening.

The annual London Jazz Festival was on in the middle of November, and I went to a number of the free gigs on both Friday nights and Saturdays. I managed to drag a few friends along to some of them, and others was on my own. There was a mix of excellent music and weird, but all good fun. I heard something like 12 or so bands in total, which was but a small fraction of what was on offer.

I went to a couple of thanksgiving dinners. One was hosted by Mark from work on Sunday 24th, which funnily enough was full of Kiwis: apparently one of his flatmates and quite a few of his friends are from NZ. About half the party watched the rugby, which I hear was pretty tense, but we won in the end. The food was good. The other was at Amber & David’s place, as one of the regular Thursday night dinners they had been hosting. There was going to be another Thanksgiving party on the Saturday as well at Gareth’s place, but it ended up being cancelled in favour of a belated housewarming party for Rachel and Dan. I grew a small moustache the last week of November for Joanna’s moustache party the same night, but ended up arriving after midnight so it was the 1st of December already.

Karoliina was in London briefly in December, and came to Google to catch up with people which was nice. I saw the new Hobbit movie with some workmates, and a Robin Hood pantomime with Rachel and some of her Morris dancers. We also had a Google eng-lon pantomime again; this year was Cinderella, and it was again very well done, with lots of funny in-jokes. There were two work Christmas parties as usual; the engineering one at the Millbank Tower, and the one for everyone at the Troxy, with a Christmas fun-fair theme. And Cheryl was back from New York for Christmas, so she also organised to catch up with a bunch of Googlers for brunch.

I took the Monday and Tuesday before Christmas off as I had to use the annual leave or lose it, and there were a couple of swing bands playing at the Royal Festival Hall to dance to. They also had the annual swing dance on Boxing Day, though only with recorded music sadly.

My flatmate Carla had her parents and sister visiting over Christmas, and invited me to join them for dinner on Christmas Eve, which was good, though a little hard to communicate as her parents do not speak much English. Went to a friend’s place for Christmas dinner, though did not stay too long as I caught a cold the weekend before and was not feeling great. Saw the New Year’s Eve fireworks with Carla and her sister, saw some of the New Year’s Day parade today (though it was cold and rainy so not many people came, and those who did did not stay long, so I left halfway through), and then here I am. Hoping the cold goes away soon.

Photos are in the usual place, and have a few more stories.

15 December 2013

Morocco

Filed under: Photos, Travel — Tags: , , — qwandor @ 5:32 pm

I planned to write this post straight after I got back, while everything was still fresh in my memory. Obviously that failed: it has now been over a month since I got back on the 4th of November. Anyway, Morocco! It was a great trip. I will see what I can remember. Photos are linked along the way, and tell more of the story…

I went to Morocco for 10 days with 3 workmates: Alberto, Joanna and Monika. We flew into Marrakech on the morning of Saturday 26th October, and spent the afternoon exploring the old town (Médina) and stayed the night in a riad there. Sunday morning until Tuesday we went on a guided trek in the High Atlas mountains (just the 4 of us, our guide Nouredine, a donkey to carry all our bags, and a man named Muhammad to look after the donkey). Our guide was Nour from Berber Travel Adventures, who I would highly recommend — he seemed to know everyone in the area, and was super helpful. The trek was the highlight of the whole trip for me, as we got to see quite a bit off the standard tourist trails. The hiking itself was not especially challenging, but it was really interesting seeing all the little villages. We walked from village to village, stopping to eat at places that I am not entirely whether were guesthouses of some sort or just people’s homes, but either way not anywhere we could have gone without Nour. The first night we stayed in Muhammad’s family home, and the second in a local guesthouse of some sort in a larger town. The accommodations were fairly primitive, but comfortable enough. In the first village we stayed there just so happened to be a wedding happening the night we were there, which we were lucky enough to be able to watch a little of. I think the bit we were able to watch was more of a party after the bride and groom had already left, described somewhat ambiguously by Nour as ‘a folklore’. Whatever it was, we went into the courtyard of a house, packed full of people (with lots up on the roofs around the outside watching as well, mostly women and children). There was a circle of men in white robes singing and dancing, and some watching, while women in colourful clothes and children watched from the other side. Men and women kept fairly separate the whole time.

The second day of the trek we passed by a small primary school in-between two villages, which we were also able to visit. It only had two teachers and two classrooms, so there was quite a range of ages in each class. We had a chat with both teachers, who unlike most of the people we had met up until then spoke fluent English. Unfortunately none of us knew enough French or Arabic to talk to any of the children. One of the teachers described finding it a difficult place to teach compared to the city where he had previously taught.

After the trek we spent another night in a different riad in Marrakech, then in the morning picked up a hire car to drive around some more of the country. Unfortunately when we got to the car rental agency (Dollar), they refused to give us the car we had booked and paid a deposit for without a much higher insurance excess than the contract we had agreed to said, which was not possible on the credit card we had booked with. After about 3 hours wasted arguing and waiting, we ended up getting a car from a different company for about the same price, which we were assured was four-wheel-drive, but which turned out (to our peril) not to be. Our late start meant we did not have much time for sightseeing on our way Skoura, where we spent our next night. We did however make sure to make time to see Ksar Aït Benhaddou, and spectacular and fairly well preserved old fortified city which is still inhabited by a few families. We also chanced across a great little juice shop in Ouarzazate called ‘Amsterdam’, where we tried some interesting juices after dinner.

The next day we drove up Dadès Gorge, and decided to try taking a 4WD track across to Todra Gorge as mentioned in a guidebook. We had some difficulty finding the track as it was not signposted at all, so took a guide to show us the way, which turned out to be very much for the best. The track was hard to follow in places, and a large section in the middle was completely washed out so we had to drive along a dry rocky riverbed, which was really not a great idea in our car, and we frequently had to stop to clear rocks or build little ramps. We made it through in the end, but many hours behind our overly ambitious schedule, so had to push the rest of our plans back a day as there was no way we would be able to make it to Merzouga in time for our camel trek originally booked for that evening. Anyway, as we were driving down Todra Gorge looking for somewhere to stay, who should we spot but Nour, our guide from the High Atlas trek! He happened to be sitting outside a hotel by the road taking tea just as we were driving past so we stopped to chat, and decided to stay in the same hotel. It turned out he was guiding another couple, and had taken a similar route to us. He gave us some more advice on routes to take for the rest of our trip, and we chatted over dinner.

The next day we made it to Merzouga in plenty of time, after taking a few hours in the morning to walk around Todra Gorge a bit. We joined a group of about 10 other people and rode our camels out into the desert for about 1.5 hours, stopping along the way to watch the sun set over the dunes, until we made it to the semi-permanent camp where we spent the night. We were happy to see it was fairly small, just 4 or 5 tents, unlike some of the much larger camps we had seen along the way. We had more tagine for dinner, chatted to the other tourists, and listened to (and joined in with) some drumming under the stars. The four of us also went over the nearest dune to watch the stars in the darkness, and they were certainly brilliant, but unfortunately by that point the wind had got up a bit so there was a lot of sand blowing in our faces and we did not stay out long. I was still finding sand all through my clothes and shoes weeks later after I returned to London. When we went to our tent to play cards we were surprised by a small bat in the tent, to which Joanna amusingly reacted by alternately cowering in the corner and trying to get up close to take photos.

We got up early the next morning to watch the sun rise, then rode our camels back to the hotel where we set out to take a (very welcome) shower and breakfast. It took several more showers to get rid of all the sand though. From Merzouga we had a long drive to get to Ouzoud Falls, where we arrived at our hostel around 10 or 11 pm only to find that they had not changed our reservation as we had asked, and so had quite some fuss until they finally found us a room with no working hot water various other problems. The next morning we had a walk around the falls, which were nice, then drove to Bin el-Ouidane reservoir for a quick look before heading back to Marrakech to drop Alberto at the airport.

Our original plan of going out to Essaouira to relax on the beach was not possible due to having pushed everything back a day, so we decided instead to spend our last night in the Ourika Valley, not far from Marrakech. We drove out there and looked for somewhere to stay, and were lucky enough to find the nicest hotel of the trip, a somewhat resort-like place with surprisingly large grounds but only 4 rooms (all fairly large, but still), only one of which was occupied. They gave us the largest and nicest room for a good discount. There was even a fireplace, which they lit for us! Fire is always fun. In the morning we had a guide from the hotel show us around some of the villages in the hills nearby, which was interesting, then drove back to Marrakech to catch our flights back to London.

Rather ironically, Monika’s Ryanair flight was on time, while the EasyJet flight which the remaining two of us caught was delayed by 3 hours, finally arriving in London some time after 2:30 am, well after the Gatwick Express for which we had booked tickets had stopped running. Still fighting EasyJet over that for compensation.

12 May 2013

Visiting home

Filed under: Travel — Tags: , , , , — qwandor @ 3:02 am

Back in London! (Well okay, I got back almost a week ago now, but I started writing this post on the flight from Sydney to Dubai.) That was an eventful visit back to Wellington: rain, sun, an indoor picnic, dancing, a couple of walks, various dinners, chats and catch-ups, playing in a playground in the middle of the night, star-gazing, painting a horse-jump to look like a sailboat, several attempts at geocaching with mixed success, and wandering around Sydney.

Before you get bored with the wall of text, here are some photos (or on Facebook if you prefer). Follow along if you like.

I spent just under 3 weeks in NZ, so a bit over 3 weeks away from London. My flight out, rather depressingly, left London on Sunday night to arrive in Wellington on Tuesday afternoon. I did not visit Auckland this time around, as I did not have quite so many people up there to see any more, so my only trip outside of Wellington was a day in and around Palmerston North. I went up with my mum to have lunch with my grandparents, one of my cousins and an aunt in Feilding, and saw the house my grandparents recently moved into in a retirement village there. They seem to be settling in well, though it is a bit smaller than their old house. I then spent some time with my friends Daniel and Sharon, whose wedding I went back for last year. Daniel has spent the last few months working as a grounds keeper at an equestrian centre just out of Palmerston North, and I ended up helping him with a few things he wanted to get finished before going home. In particular, he was repainting the stands for a horse jump to look like a sailing boat on the sea, so I painted part of that. I then headed to a family dinner with a different set of cousins and aunt, and my grandparents again. My cousin Lisa, who works as a chef, made us a very tasty dinner. I was then back down to Wellington first thing the next morning and back to work.

On Friday night some friends who blog together on common topics from time to time had organised a dinner to get together and chat, so as I was conveniently in town I was able to join them. I think there were about 14 of us who made it to the dinner, including a few hangers-on, and we had some good conversations over Chinese food at Cha. After dinner some of us went for hot chocolate and coffee somewhere else, and then I continued on to my friend Emma’s birthday party. She lives in a bit of a hippy flat in Mount Vic full of vegetarians and green activists, which suits her rather well. As well as a couple of other friends, there also happened to be a guy there with whom I had been friends in primary school, and probably not seen since, so we caught up a bit and he told me about his radio play. Wellington is full of connections like that!

On Saturday I had hoped to go for a walk, but the weather was not at all up for it, so instead a few friends came over to play card games and catch up, and then we made pizza together for dinner. I went back to my old church, The Street City Church, on Sunday morning, but did not see many people I knew there any more. Afterwards I had planned to have a picnic at Freyberg Beach to catch up with lots of people, but again it was raining so we had an indoor picnic at my parents’ house instead. Though not quite as good as the beach I think we did a decent job, with picnic rugs out on the carpet and even a stone turtle. It was good to catch up with everyone all the same, though as always at big gatherings it was hard to have many long conversations with people coming and going all the time.

Monday night I caught up with some friends from Memphis (the old compsci graduate lab at Victoria University) and Innaworks for pizza, Tuesday was dinner with the Hornblows (aunt/uncle/cousins on my mum’s side of the family), and Wednesday dinner with my old flatmate Richard and his wife Sarah. It was great to catch up with Richard about what he has been up to, and his plans to perhaps start a small local brewery with some friends following his recent success with a home brewed beer of his winning an NZ-wide competition.

Thursday was ANZAC day, so I took a day’s leave from work and got some friends together for a walk. 4 people came in the end: Cat, Gael, Jill and my brother Tim. We started at Aro Park, in Aro Valley, and walked up through Polhill Reserve to the Brooklyn wind turbine. From there we continued along the fenceline of the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary (aka. Zealandia) for a little, before continuing off along the ridgeline to Red Rocks, then back along the coastline past Owhiro Bay to Island Bay, from where we caught a bus home (except Cat, who decided to walk the whole way). I made a map of our route, or as near as I could get it. We stopped to look for a couple of geocaches along the way, though only found one of them. The weather started out rather rainy, for the first couple of hours, but cleared up beautifully in the afternoon. Cat managed the first hour or two of the walk (uphill, on gravel and mud) without shoes, but eventually gave up and put his shoes on.

NZ visit 2013: A curious sign along the way to Red Rocks

Thursday evening was dinner with some of the Walbran side of the family.

Friday night I went out for some swing dancing to see how the Wellington scene was doing, though sadly was not able to convince any friends to join me. It was pretty small, only about 10–20 people I think. After a couple of hours of swing they had a woman named Elizabeth Wise who was over from the US to sing and play some blues for us to dance to. By this point there were only about 10 people and not many dancing, but it was good music, and I had a few nice dances before I headed home.

My second Saturday in Wellington had much nicer weather than the previous one. We started the day with brunch at a local café to celebrate my dad’s birthday. My little brother Mark was down from Auckland for a few days as well, so it was cool to have all 5 of us together in the same place. After that, my friend Michael organised a walk at Otari-Wilton’s Bush, and I invited some more friends to join us. There were 8 of us in the end, which was an excellent number: me, Michael, Melissa, Isabel, Matthew Kiernan, Enoch, Josh Baker and Polly. This was a much shorter and easier walk than the previous one, and the weather was great all day. We took a few silly photos at the end, and after a little car trouble all headed our different ways.

I went to the Makertorium exhibition at Te Papa, a one-day showcase of all sorts of creations from people, clubs and companies around NZ. It was pretty cool. There were a lot of 3D printers and quadcopters, but all sorts of other things as well. I took a few photos, though they do not really do it justice.

After that I went to a friend’s house-cooling party in Mount Victoria, then Richard’s beer launch party. The prize for the homebrew competition he won was to have a brewery in Auckland make a batch of his beer, and so he organised a bit of a celebration at the Kelburn Village Pub, which had it on tap. Most of the people I knew had unfortunately gone by the time I arrived, but I did see a few on their ways home as I made my way up, and also got to see a couple of people I knew still there. I then got a last-minute invite to another friend’s flatwarming party up in the far reaches of Brooklyn, so walked all the way there to hang around for a bit, then all the way back home to Hataitai.

Sunday morning I visited the local Elim church where a number of my friends go, then caught up with a few friends in the afternoon, walking around the waterfront and then meeting some others in the Botanic Gardens. Emily, Beth and Teresa were all in Wellington for a few days, in a happy coincidence, so I was able to catch up with them to varying degrees.

The next Monday night I was invited to a party which was partly to celebrate my friend Josh Thompson getting back to Wellington, so it was good to catch up with him and my other friend Daniel. Tuesday night was dinner at the Greenhaus flat in Newtown with Peter and Elaine. Peter, being his usual self, had ended up double-booking himself so was not able to join us for dinner after all, but I made some dessert for us to share when he got back a bit later in the evening and before he had to go out again. And I had a great long chat with Elaine, catching up on and discussing all sorts of things. Peter, Elaine and I (plus a bunch of others) all used to flat together in 2008, my last year of university, and Peter and I were also friends from college.

Wednesday night I was able to join in a regular ribs night that some of the ex-Memphis crowd have, trying out different restaurants around the place. This time was Uncle Mike’s Kansas City BBQ in Petone, which was good. Thursday night I was originally planning to do some night geocaching with a few friends, but it was all a bit disorganised and then it ended up raining so we decided not to go after all. My friend Jill dragged me along to a ballroom dance class instead, which was interesting.

Friday afternoon I went to the Xero drinks for a bit to catch up with Will and Donald. Will was a colleague of mine at Google London, who recently moved back to Wellington with his wife and young kids after having lived in London for many years. He seems to be enjoying being back. Afterwards I was catching up with Talitha, as I had not yet seen her by that point. As we were looking for somewhere to eat we happened to run into my friend Tim Best, so he joined us for dinner at a nice Korean Barbecue place. That certainly does happen a lot more in Wellington than it does in London! Even in the less than three weeks I was back, there were at least 6 times I randomly bumped into people I knew around town.

On Saturday I had a wander around my old university, VUW, to see what had changed. They have built a new building where the quad used to be, with several levels of space with seats, desks, shops and so on connecting to the library. It all feels rather different to how it used to. I met up with Felix and Tim for lunch in town; Felix had been back in China for a while so I had not been able to see him earlier. I then met up with Emma for a bit.

On Saturday night I dragged a bunch of my friends along to a contra dance, which was good fun in the end despite a few problems. There has been a monthly contra in Wellington for about 10 years, with a band called Chilli Jam. I had only been a couple of times, years ago, but wanted to see what it was like compared to London, and to dance with as many of my friends as possible, so invited a bunch to go with me. The numbers had always been fairly small, but little did I know it had been declining recently, and they were planning to stop this year after the April dance (i.e. just before I got back). Fortunately they got an excellent turnout in April, and a friend of mine happened to be there and told them that they should keep on going at least a bit longer as I was organising a group to come to the next dance, so they decided to keep running them for the time being. Anyway, so I had about 10 friends or maybe even a couple more who came along, which was great. There were only about 30 people dancing in total I think, so I knew almost half the people there. However, we turned up on the night, and the band and caller were there, but the church hall where we were supposed to be dancing was locked and we could not get in. Apparently it was also full of junk for some reason. Fortunately it was a nice calm mild night, and we were able to get some power for the band and caller, so after sorting ourselves out we formed up in a longways set on the footpath outside and had our dance there, to the bemusement of all the passersby walking and driving through Kelburn village that night. The combination of uneven footpath, background noise, about 3/4 of the people never having done any contra before and people walking through made for a rather chaotic few dances, but they were good fun nonetheless, and quite a unique experience. We even managed to get a few passersby to join in which was cool. Perhaps this is something to do more often! I have danced Lindy Hop and blues outside a few times in London last summer, but not contra before. Oh, someone took some photos of us dancing. And one of my friends says we were mentioned in the local newspaper, though I have yet to see this.

Afterwards Polly had the excellent idea of organising a bunch of us to hang out for a while, so we headed down to Freyberg Beach in various cars to play on the climbing frame there for a bit and watch the stars, before heading to Enigma for some late night coffee and gelato. All in all, an excellent last night out in Wellington!

Sunday I went to church in the morning, then joined some people for lunch from the Chaffers market in Waitangi Park, then throwing a frisbee around for a bit. Great weather again. I then headed home to pack and get an early night, before getting up at 4:00 am on Monday to get to the airport and catch my flight out. By this point it had started to rain quite heavily, and apparently there was quite a bit of flooding in town on Monday, along with thunder, lightening and even an earthquake. It seems I got out just in time!

I spent the better part of Monday in Sydney, as I had a stopover there from 8:10 am until 4:05 pm. I had a walk around Centennial Park, as I had not been there before, then went for lunch at Google to catch up with Arya (a friend from university) and stretch (who used to be on my team at Google London). It was good to see them both, though I lost track of time a bit and ended up leaving at about 2:30 pm, only just in time to get to the airport and catch my flight. I had not meant to cut things quite so close. Anyway, the rest of the journey home was fairly uneventful, some minor delays due to mechanical problems and air traffic control meant I arrived in London about an hour late, but otherwise everything was fine and I managed to nap a bit on the flights. I arrived in London around 7:30 am, headed to work, and did a fairly decent job of staying awake all day. And now here I am!

Starting this Monday I am going to try blogging every day for a week, as something I am trying with some blogging friends. I may find this a struggle.

23 March 2013

NZ visit and miscellany

Filed under: Me, Travel — Tags: , , , — qwandor @ 8:54 am

Firstly, for those of you in NZ who do not pay attention to Facebook, I am going back for a visit in a few weeks. I fly out of London on 14th April and arrive in Wellington at 2:45 pm on Tuesday 16th April, and stay until Monday 6th May. I plan to spend most of my time in Wellington, other than a trip up to Palmerston North for a few days at some point. If you are keen to catch up, let me know and we can organise a time! I am keen to organise a few picnics (weather permitting), walks, dinner parties and so on, as well as dragging people out dancing. I should probably get on with that soon, I have just been too busy with other things.

In the meantime, I have a friend coming to stay next week, which I am looking forward to, and then am off to Marseille (and hopefully some of the surrounding countryside and towns) for 4 nights over Easter, flying out there on Easter Saturday and then back to London on Wednesday 3rd April.

At the start of this year I decided to make an effort to have people over for dinner more often, and that has been working out so far. I have had lots of different groups of people over for dinner over the last few months, and Rachel and Matthew have returned the favour several times to have me over for dinner at theirs. I think I have averaged about one night a week (or perhaps even a bit more) of either having people over to my place for dinner or visiting others. So definitely a success so far! Lots of tasty food, interesting conversations, some music, dancing in kitchens, and all sorts of fun.

On the topic of dancing and fun, I went up to IVFDF in Sheffield a few weeks ago, which was good fun. Learnt some new dances (there were an enormous range of workshops), got to see what folk dancers make of blues, heard lots of great music, and did not sleep or eat all that much. Definitely well worth it.

30 December 2012

4 months

Filed under: Me, Travel — Tags: , , , , , , , , — qwandor @ 3:29 am

It has been ages since I last posted, so I guess it is high time I wrote something again. A have done a fair bit in the mean time:

The weekend after my trip to Amsterdam was Blues Shakedown, a blues dance exchange in London with 8 different bands plus plenty of DJs playing for lots of dancing all weekend. I was a little apprehensive as it was the first such event I had been to, but it was great fun and I was very glad I went. I definitely plan to go again next year assuming I am still around by then.

My parents came to visit in September. On first arriving in the country they spent a week by themselves in a cottage in the Lakes District, then I met them up in Glasgow and we spent a week driving around Scotland, visiting Glasgow, Oban, Skye, Inverness, Pitlochry and Edinburgh. Scotland is pretty, and it was nice to see some hills again; London is much too flat for my taste. The west coast of Scotland has particularly nice scenery, and reminded me a lot of parts of New Zealand. We saw lots of castles, lots of rain, and a fair few lochs and hills. There are plenty of photos in the usual place.

From Glasgow

They then spent another week by themselves in the Peaks District before continuing on down to London to stay with me for a week. It was nice to finally be able to show them around some of the city I have been living in for more than two and a half years now, and we went out to see a musical and a play as well (Singing in the Rain, and One Man, Two Guvnors; both were good). They then spent another week enjoying the warm weather in Greece before heading home via Singapore.

Shortly after my parents left London I headed to Berlin for Berlin Blues Explosion, the first weekend in October. It was also good fun, if rather exhausting. I met some nice new people there too.

On 20th–26th October my friend Chris Wood came to stay and see a bit of London. He was over from NZ for work, so stayed on a little as a tourist while he was over this side of the world.

Warsaw: With Andrzej and Małgorzata

I then flew to Warsaw the night of the 26th, to spend 9 days travelling around Poland and Hungary, catching up with a few friends and seeing some new places. I stayed with Agnieszka (who had been an intern at Google London) in Warsaw, and also caught up with Małgorzata and Andrzej, whom I met through Charlotte in Uppsala last year. Apparently it had been around 20°C the week before I arrived, but when I got there it was below 0, and it was snowing much of the time I was there, which made sightseeing less pleasant. Nonetheless it was interesting to see Warsaw, and I had a really good hot chocolate (with ginger and orange) at a nice café there. On Sunday we took a daytrip to Lublin, and then on Tuesday night flew down to Budapest where we stayed a couple of nights with a friend of Agnieszka’s.

From Budapest: Looking out from Gellért Hill

Budapest was beautiful, though unfortunately quite rainy. Not as cold as Warsaw at least, though. The photos tell most of the story. On Thursday evening we flew up to Krakow and I stayed 3 nights there in a backpackers’ hostel, but unfortunately Agnieszka was not feeling well and had to go home early. Along with the usual sightseeing and a couple of guided walking tours of the city, I met up with Nina (whom I had met at the aforementioned Berlin Blues Explosion a few weeks earlier) and some of her friends. She happened to have a friend in town for the weekend as well, so the 3 of us plus another of her friends did a bit of sightseeing together, which was nice. It also happened that the friend, Jordan, was planning a visit to London later in the year, which worked out well as I was then able to show her around London.

Back in London, the London Jazz Festival was on so I went to a couple of different free gigs as part of that: on Saturday 10th November there were 3 different bands playing at the Royal Festival Hall, and on Sunday there were 4 bands, all from Finland, playing at the Barbican. Unfortunately there were big gaps inbetween their sets, so I left after the first couple, but they were all good music.

The following weekend was time for yet more blues dancing, with Blues Baby Blues happening in London. I really enjoyed it, learnt quite a bit I think, and again made some new friends.

I had been thinking for some time lately about changing churches, for a number of reasons, and so in November I decided to check out All Souls Langham Place again. It is a large central London church, near Oxford Circus, and some of you may know it as the church where John Stott was rector for some time, and closely associated with until his death. I had been to All Souls a few times in the past, and was always impressed with the quality of the preaching and depth of thought that seems to go into everything, but this time I also found it to be quite friendly, more so than I had noticed in the past. So I went along to an open evening to learn a bit more about the church, and have now started attending regularly. It seems like a really good church so far, so if any of you reading this are in London, you should come along with me to a service there some time!

I had three different American Thanksgiving meals this year. There was a Thanksgiving themed lunch at work on Thursday 22nd November, which was alright. That evening an American couple I am friends with, Sean and Sarah, had invited me to a Thanskgiving dinner at their place with about 12 or so people. Sarah and a friend of hers had cooked an amazing meal, and the company was good too. Then on the following Saturday another American friend (Jennifer) hosted a pot-luck Thanksgiving meal at her flat, which was also full of tasty food. There was just so much of it! At first there was a reasonable amount of food, but then people kept arriving with more and more pies and cakes, and despite all eating too much there was still heaps left over.

The next weekend Jordan (the friend of Nina’s whom I met in Krakow) was in town. She is from Texas but spending the year working in a small town in Poland, and trying to travel around Europe as much as she can. She arrived late Friday night and left Sunday morning, so only had the Saturday to see London, but we managed to fit a lot in: starting at Baker Street we walked through Regent’s Park, up Primrose Hill, along Regent’s Canal to Camden Lock, then spent a while wandering through much of the Camden markets. We then took the Tube down to Leicester Square for a quick around there, Chinatown and Trafalgar Square, along The Mall for a brief glance at Buckingham Palace, back through St. James’s Park, past the Horse Guards, along Whitehall, Westminster Palace, Westminster Abbey, Dean’s Yard, then across Westminster Bridge. We walked all along the Southbank, with a brief walk through the Tate Modern, a detour through Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral, then across Tower Bridge for a look around the Tower of London. We discovered a little church there which I had noticed before, which had a small free museum in its crypt, featuring among other things some original Roman tilework. We then walked past St. Paul’s Cathedral to poke our heads in, by which point it was getting dark already, so we just had a quick look at some of the remnants of London Wall around the Barbican before heading home. Not bad for a day’s looking around though! I think that may well have been the most of London I have managed to show someone in a single day.

In December we had two work Christmas parties, one just for engineering at the Natural History Museum Earth Hall, and one for all London Googlers at some big club on the Southbank. The latter was extremely crowded much of the time, but the snowball fight was fun.

Christmas itself was pretty low-key. All my flatmates except for Steph were away with their families in various different places, and Steph had her sister and father visiting. Unfortunately her father only speaks German, and I only speak English, which made conversation rather limited. On Christmas Day itself I just went to church in the morning, then went to visit a friend for a bit in the afternoon, for some tasty lasagne. Boxing day was even less eventful. Work has been pretty quiet all this week, especially on Monday, but hopefully more people will be back next week.

Well I guess that is all my news for now. Next up, what to do this year… any suggestions?

8 September 2012

A weekend in Amsterdam

Filed under: Photos, Travel — Tags: , , , — qwandor @ 6:20 am

Monday 27th August was a bank holiday, so I went to Amsterdam for the long weekend. Unfortunately it rained a lot for most of the weekend, with Saturday and Sunday alternating between torrential downpours and nice sunny weather every half hour or so. Other than that it was a good trip though, and I got to see some interesting things, as perhaps you have already seen in my photos.

Amsterdam: A well-known sign of the city’s slogan

It happened coincidentally that one of the interns who is working at Google London over the summer — a girl from New York named Erica — had also decided to go to Amsterdam that same weekend. We had each booked independently several weeks beforehand, but discovered the day before that we were both going there when another intern mentioned it to me. A number of other Googlers also happened to be in and around Amsterdam the same weekend, but they were busy with other things, so the two of us met up to walk around sightseeing together most of Saturday, Sunday and Monday morning. We were staying in different parts of the city but not too far away. There also happened coincidentally to be a free music and arts festival on that weekend called Uitmarkt, so we went to see and listen to some of that at various points on Saturday and Sunday. Among other things the Holland Symphonia was playing a selection of Eurovision hits on the Saturday night, and songs from various popular musicals on Sunday night. A few of the latter were in English but most were in Dutch, so it was funny to hear songs I recognised (like those from Wicked) but in a different language. There were also songs from The Sound of Music, The Little Mermaid, Fame, The Buddy Holly Story, Yab Yum, and various others.

Amsterdam: Songs from Wicked in Dutch

We went to the Amsterdam Museum on Saturday to escape the rain for a while, which was reasonably interesting. Among other things they had models of houses from different periods of Dutch history. We also walked around a number of parks, which were nice but no doubt would have been much nicer had it not been raining much of the time.

Amsterdam: We came across this strange playground equipment on Saturday

On Sunday we took a daytrip to Volendam and Edam, which are nice old towns a short distance out of Amsterdam, with more traditional architecture (and lots of tourists). It was cool to see what we could in-between the downpours. I had been advised that it is nice to bike up there, but the weather being what it was we decided to catch a bus instead. Later in the afternoon we visited the NEMO science museum, which I found a bit disappointing. It was mostly just the standard basic science stuff, not terribly well done, and very much aimed at kids. Definitely nothing to compare to the Science Museum in London or the Deutsches Museum in Munich, the latter still being probably my favourite museum of any that I have visited.

Amsterdam: Little houses in the old town of Volendam

Funnily enough, on the Sunday night as I was sitting on a couch in the youth hostel, catching up on Facebook, Twitter and IRC before going to bed, there happened to be a Chinese girl sitting to my right with her Mac. Looking over her shoulder she seemed to be compiling something and reading something programming-related online. After a while we ended up chatting, and it turned out she was working through Stripe CTF 2.0, a set of web app cracking puzzles. Furthermore, it happened that she also lives in New York and studies computer science at Columbia. I mentioned that I had a couple of friends doing their PhDs at Columbia, and sure enough it turned out that she was friends with Erica but did not know that she was in Amsterdam at the same time. So, we ended up working together on the cracking puzzle for a bit before I went to bed, and then the three of us toured together for a bit on the Monday morning and early afternoon before Erica and I had to catch our respective flights back to London. Monday was thankfully sunny so we walked around some parks and nice areas in the east central part of Amsterdam, and bought some Stroopwafel as I had been instructed by one of the other interns who used to study in Amsterdam. We also took a free ferry across the harbour to see what was on the other side, but it was not particularly exciting.

Amsterdam: Strange creatures we came across

29 June 2012

Visiting friends, seeing sights — Canada and the USA

Filed under: Travel — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , — qwandor @ 11:14 am

I just got back from a great trip around a bit of the northeast side of the USA and Canada, catching up with some old friends and being a bit of a tourist. I managed to catch up with 3 out of the 5 friends I had originally hoped to see, had some great conversations, plenty of dancing, and saw some new places.

I started by flying into Toronto on Friday 15th June, where I stayed with Teresa, a friend from university back in Wellington. She is currently living over there and working as an intern at a charity called Romero House who help to refugees who have resettled there. She seems to enjoy it, but it can be a bit hectic and all-consuming a lot of the time from the sound of it. The last time I went to Toronto was back in January, so it was nice to see what it was like not covered in snow. Kensington Market was cool (thanks for the tip Alex!), and the PATH was rather eerie in summer, with most of the shops closed and few people around (I did not manage to find it last time I went).

On the Saturday night I was there, Teresa had some work to do but mentioned that some of her friends were going to a free concert in town. I asked them who was playing and it turned out to be no other than The Flaming Lips, giving a free concert in Dundas Square! Needless to say I went along. Unfortunately it was very crowded and we got there rather late, so we ended up right near the back and unable to see much, but it was still very cool to go. It was more of a spectacle than a concert per se, with giant balloons bouncing over the crowd, smoke, lasers, video and light effects, strange costumes, a giant hand shooting lasers off a disco ball, and of course Wayne Coyne crowdsurfing in a giant inflatable hamster ball, while they played ambient soundscapes to accompany it all. The only songs I actually recognised were She Don’t Use Jelly and Do You Realize?? right at the end, which everyone sang along to. I also managed to make it along to Saturday Night Swing for a spot of Lindy Hop afterwards, though did not manage to drag anyone along with me this time.

First thing on Monday morning I caught a bus down to Niagara Falls and spent the day there walking around, going on the Maid of the Mist boat tour, and getting wet. I then flew from Buffalo Airport to Washington DC, where I stayed the next 3 nights.

DC was very hot: around 36°C most of my time there, and fairly humid too (though not quite as bad as Singapore or Malaysia). Other than that, it was cool. I visited the Capitol building, sat in on Congress (they were not very exciting), saw lots of different monuments and statues and such, went to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (space ships!) and National Museum of Natural History (rocks!), L. Ron Hubbard’s house (hey, it was there), and various other places.

Next up was New York City, where I stayed with an old flatmate from Wellington, Jordan. Our mutual friend Kirsten also came up from Baltimore to join us for the weekend, and we had a great time catching up. (Or at least I did. (-; You guys had fun too, right?) Jordan is now doing her PhD in oceanography at Columbia University, while Kirsten is doing hers in Pharmacology at John Hopkins University. I have some very smart friends!

I went along to Frim Fram Jam on Thursday night, though it seemed a lot quieter than I expected for some reason. I still got some good dances though. Most of Friday I spent exploring New York by myself as Jordan was working, then Kirsten arrived that evening and the three of us went for some Friday Night Blues. Jordan got into blues around the same time as I did so it was cool to finally get to dance with her, and Kirsten had never done any before but was up for trying so we tried to teach her a bit before we headed out. The New York blues dance scene seems to be more blues fusion, and generally different in style than what I am used to in London, but it was good fun once I got into it.

Saturday consisted mostly of sleeping in late, eating, cooking, and then heading to Princeton for an excellent contra dance. The band in particular (Perpetual e-Motion) were amazing — they are just two guys, but sing and play electric guitar, electric violin, didgeridoo, and synths with live looping for music that has folk, jazz, electronic and pop elements all mixed up together. A bit different to the usual fare. Well worth checking out if you get the chance. Sunday was fairly uneventful after another sleep-in as Kirsten had to head home and Jordan had to work, then I had to get up at 5:25 am on Monday morning to catch my train to Boston.

I liked Boston — it seemed like somewhere I could almost live. Quieter and less touristy than some of the other cities I visited, and the weather was mostly nice apart from a couple of torrential but fortunately not too prolonged downpours. Boston seems quite English in parts, and almost but not quite European in others. I had a bit of a poke around the campus of MIT and peered into some of the labs, and ate lunch at Harvard. (Both are actually in Cambridge rather than Boston itself, but it is just across the river, well within walking distance from central Boston.) I only had the one night in Boston, flying out on Tuesday night to arrive in London midday on Wednesday 27th June and head straight to work. It turns out that if I had stayed another night I could have gone to a contra at MIT! That would have been cool, but I had booked my flights so as to be back in London in time for the Google London engineering summer party on Wednesday night, which was also fun.

A lot of my transport was delayed, for some reason. My flight out to Toronto was delayed and then ran late. The flight from Buffalo to DC was held on the runway due to inclement weather elsewhere causing air traffic control to ground all planes, until we eventually got an exception and ended up an hour or so late. The bus from DC to New York got stuck in traffic and ended up arriving more than 2 hours late. And then the train from New York to Boston broke down due to a lightning strike, and so after they failed to fix it we had to wait for a replacement engine to be sent, and ended up more than 3 hours late. My flight back to London ran pretty much to time though, and clearing customs at Heathrow was much quicker than last time when I came back from New Zealand.

Prices in the US and Canada being given exclusive of sales tax continued to confuse me, especially as they do not even seem to be consistent about it — most prices exclude tax, but occasionally the price given is actually what you pay, so I never knew what to expect. Mostly it just took me a few seconds to work out why I was being asked for more money than what the sign said. And then there are tips to worry about. |-: I was also bemused to note that on the flight to DC the flight attendants went down the aisle taking orders for drinks, then returning with them in batches once they had taken everyone’s orders. It seemed rather less efficient than just wheeling a trolley down to hand them out as they went. I have not seen that before on an aeroplane.

I did take a reasonable number of photos, but have not yet had time to go through to tag, caption and upload them, so they will follow in a little while once I have time to do so. Keep an eye out as usual.

5 May 2012

Visiting New Zealand (and being back in London)

Filed under: Me, Photos, Travel — Tags: , , , , , — qwandor @ 10:03 am

I have just returned to London after a month-long visit back home to New Zealand (well, okay, I am actually writing this from the aeroplane between Sydney and Singapore, but I will be in London by the time I post it). It was great to be back home! It was a pretty full-on month, as I was working from home for most of the time I was back then spending as many nights and weekends as possible catching up with friends and family and generally trying to make the most of being back in NZ. I did also take a few days off, as well as the two public holidays for Easter.

Arriving in Wellington on the afternoon of Friday 23rd March, I flew up to Auckland first thing on Saturday morning, where I stayed a couple of nights with my little brother Mark who has just started studying engineering at the University of Auckland. I slept on the floor of his room in one of the student hostels, so was surrounded by 18-year-olds. As well as Mark I was able to catch up with one of my cousins and 4 different friends who are currently living there, and also made it to the Saturday night of the New Zealand Swing Dance Exchange, which so happened to be on that weekend in Auckland.

NZ visit 2012: With my cousin Philip and brother Mark up in Auckland

Back in Wellington, I had a picnic at Freyberg beach (repeating the procedure from last time I was visiting Wellington), a barbecue, a board games afternoon (interrupted by a bit of sailing on the harbour), a walk on Easter Monday (the City to Sea walkway, which goes from Parliament to Island Bay via a series of parks, punctuated only briefly by sections on the road), and dinner with various friends. I ended up eating quite a few times at various Malaysian restaurants in town, of which it turns out Wellington has quite a selection, more than I had realised. Indian curry houses came a close second. I went night geocaching with some friends, which I had not tried before and was fun (we found 2 of the 3 caches we were looking for), and did some normal geocaching another day as well. I made it to Speakeasy (Wellington’s weekly and only swing dance social) 3 times, though only managed to get friends to join me for the last one of those times. I also went up to Palmerston North for a night to catch up with various family and family friends up there. Just wandering around the Wellington waterfront and central city was also good when the weather was nice. But the main highlight, of course, was to see all my friends and family whom I had not seen for a year or more.

One of my main reasons for visiting at that time of year was to attend the wedding of my friends Daniel Wilkes and Sharon McGowan. Daniel I knew from college, since my first year at Rongotai in 2001, and Sharon I knew from university a fair few years later. Both the wedding and the reception were well suited to Daniel and Sharon, as they are suited to each other.

I also had the opportunity to catch up with some of my friends and old colleagues, and my old boss, from Innaworks, the company I worked at until I left Wellington in 2010 to come over here. Innaworks has now (as of the end of April) closed down, which is a funny feeling — it rules out that option for returning to Wellington! (Correction: Innaworks has not closed down, but my old colleagues have left and it is nonetheless no longer an option if I were to return to Wellington.) It was interesting to have a bit of a wander around VUW too, and see how things have changed; both with all the new building work that has happened since I left, and with the new Engineering degree resulting in a lot of restructuring of what was the school of Mathematics and Computer Science. Sadly a lot of the student culture and community there has died, particularly that which used to be focussed around Memphis (the honours comp-sci lab) and Interface (the computer club). Hmm, that might be a good connection for the next blog post I am writing, about community…

Anyway, it is now over a week and a half since I started writing this, so I should probably get on with posting it. It seems like a different world over here, so far away from New Zealand. I do miss home a lot still, and I still need to work out what to do next year in that regard. The weather having been so cold and rainy here since I have been back has not enamoured me of London.

Oh, last weekend was fairly fun though, if rather exhausting: I went to blues dancing workshops (taught by Annette Kühnle, visiting from Germany) both afternoons, then socials both nights as well: Down Home Blues (with live music from Dan Nash) on the Saturday night, and Book Club Blues on the Sunday. Okay, I should not write sentences with more than one colon. This weekend I am going to the Saturday night of London Lindy Exchange, where there will apparently be a band battle between the Shirt Tail Stompers (from the UK) and Gentlemen & Gangsters (from Sweden). I decided against going to all the rest of the exchange as I have been too busy lately, and need some time to catch up on other things. Like blogging. And fixing my bike, planning my trip to the US and Canada in June (I have booked the international flights at last! I still need to sort out planes, trains and busses within North America though, as well as accomodation and such), perhaps finding a dentist, emailing various people, hopefully buying some shoes, and probably a bunch of other stuff I need to do that I cannot think of right now.

In the meantime, you can look at my photos from New Zealand (and one from Sydney) if you want. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention Sydney. I had about 8 hours in Sydney between flights on my way back to London (much like last time I made the same trip), so was about to go into the city and wander for a bit, then have lunch at Google with a couple of friends who work there now (a friend from Wellington, and one of my colleagues from London who transferred over there a bit over a year ago). Unfortunately it was raining pretty much the whole time I was there, but I nonetheless managed to walk through some of the city and the botanic gardens and make it out to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair.

That will do for now I think. Now to see whether I can manage to write anything about community.

6 February 2012

New Zealand here I come!

Filed under: Me, Travel — Tags: , , — qwandor @ 4:46 am

Hello dear readers! Those of you living in NZ may be happy (or perhaps unhappy?) to know that I am planning a visit back home in just under two months. I fly into Wellington on Friday 23rd March, and back out again on the morning of Monday 23rd April. I will be working from home for a fair bit of that time, but should be fairly flexible and certainly free most evenings and weekends as well as taking some leave, and also hope to visit at least Palmerston North and Auckland (and perhaps also Christchurch if anyone down there wants to see me) at some point.

So, who is keen to catch up, hang out, tramp / dance / bake / picnic / dine / converse? Is anyone keen for a weekend camping trip or anything like that?

While I am at it, seeing as I have not written anything here for a while, some things I have been up to lately (in no particular order) are:

  • Going to the Saturday night of TUX 5 in Toronto (great band, some great dancers, and great fun).
  • Going ice-skating for the first time in something like 20 years, also in Toronto (I was not very successful, predictably).
  • Learning the basics of Balboa dancing.
  • Sliding down a snow-covered hillside on inflated tubes in Kitchener with some Googlers.
  • Catching up with Teresa in Toronto, and Charlotte in London while she was visiting on her European tour.
  • Breaking one spoke on the drive side of my bike’s rear wheel, then breaking another while trying to fix it. (It is now sitting in a garage at Imperial College, I need to find time to go and fix it now that I hopefully have all the tools I need.)
Older Posts »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.