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.

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14 November 2014

Much dancing

Filed under: Me, Photos — Tags: , , — qwandor @ 5:23 am

I spent two recent weekends at two quite different folk dance festivals, neither of which I had been to before.

The first was Dance Around the World at Cecil Sharp House in London, and was quite varied. It ran all day Saturday and Sunday, with three streams of workshops plus one of performances during the day, and dances in the evening. It attracted mostly an older crowd, though a bunch of young people too, varying a lot from workshop to workshop. Some had 8 people, some 50. A few friends (including Jenny) also attended some or all of it. Highlights of the workshops for me were Irish Set, English Clog, Latvian and Greek, though the others were interesting too. (I also did the Polish, Lithuanian, Bulgarian, Bolivian, Tango, French, Caribbean Quadrille, Nineteenth Century Quadrille and Jamaican Quadrille workshops.)

Saturday evening there was a French (Balfolk) dance night which was excellent. Two great bands, lots of cool people, lots of great dances. Sunday evening there was an ‘Anglo-International Barn Dance’ which turned out not to be very interesting, and a swing dance night hosted by Swing Patrol which was alright, though there were not that many people. It was nice to have plenty of space and a nice floor though, and I did get some good dances.

The following weekend was Skint, which was excellent. It runs annually in a parish hall in Ashover, a bit south of Sheffield, and is limited to around 100 people. Tickets sell out in minutes. The name apparently refers both to ‘Scandinavian and International dance’ and the fact that it is really cheap (£45 for the whole thing Friday–Monday including meals and accommodation? Woah!) Dances are primarily Balfolk (French, which I really enjoy) and Scandinavian (which are also interesting, though not so much my thing), though with a mix of other styles as well. Workshops were all taught by volunteers; there were three at once during the day, usually one dance, one music, and the third either another dance or something different. We all took turns to cook and clean and ate all meals together. Each evening the main organised dance ran until around midnight, then there was midnight cheese (an excellent idea!) then more dancing in a smaller room with any musicians who wanted to join in playing whatever they felt like. Probably half the people there played at least one instrument, so there were never any shortage, and often the musicians outnumbered the dancers at the late night sessions. Dancing in the middle surrounded on all sides by a circle of 20 musicians playing all sorts of instruments was magical. There were a lot of great dancers as well, and I had a bunch of switch dances (mostly French schottisches and mazurkas) which was cool, trying to spread the idea. I ended up dancing until about 2:30 am on Friday night and 3:30 am the following two nights, so really did not get enough sleep, but it was worth it.

I took a few photos (also on Facebook) but Ben and David posted some much better photos.

On Saturday I did the Fandango, Contra, Polska, Irregular Waltzes and Sønderhoning workshops. On Sunday I did Playford, the first half of the Swedish waltz workshop, found I was not getting it so gave up and went to try singing Sacred Harp instead, “Out of Body Dancing” (which was a fun experimental workshop about connection and musicality, sort of) and Wallonian / Flemish. Monday did not have any workshops, sadly, mostly just cleaning up. All in all, an excellent weekend, and lots of new friends! I highly recommend it, and will be going back next year.

Skint 2014: Fiddlers in the sun

Now to decide whether to try Copenhagen Folk Marathon, and perhaps some Balfolk events further afield next year…

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.

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

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.

21 November 2011

Blog it more

Filed under: Photos, Travel — Tags: , , , , — qwandor @ 11:28 am

I guess I should continue the no-doubt-fascinating story of my life, starting back at the beginning of September where I left off. I got back from Spain on Sunday 4th September, and straight back into work as usual. The following weekend was the Thames Festival, which happens each year along the Southbank, with four zones of music, dancing, stalls, performances and all sorts of things from noon until midnight or so on both Saturday and Sunday. I went for some of the Saturday, which was enjoyable. Swing Patrol was running various things on an outdoor dancefloor with various DJs and bands, including some performances which were interesting to watch, and free beginners’ lessons for the public. I also managed to get a little bit of dancing in which was nice. And there was plenty of other things going on, making it a particularly good afternoon to just wander along the Southbank. That Saturday evening my flatmate Donna had her 40th birthday party in a bar near our flat, with an open mic night. She has quite a few talented friends who sang or played various songs, plus poetry readings which were not so much my thing.

I had a pizza and pancake party on the 18th, which was fun despite not that many people coming. We made all sorts of interesting flavoured pizzas, including a dessert pizza with custard and many different sorts of fruit, and so in the end everyone was too full for pancakes. Well, maybe next time?

From Pizza & pancake party

My birthday was rather uneventful, as I could not find any friends to hang out with in the end. This was partly my fault due to not planning anything very far in advance, as people are always busy and booked up here. My flatmates made me breakfast and gave me a card and some gifts though, which was unexpected and pleasant. And I went out by myself in the evening rather than staying at home by myself, which I guess is an improvement.

I went to Paris for the first weekend of October, which was enjoyable. My friend Matthew was going over that weekend to stay with his parents, and had invited me to join him, so we took the Eurostar over after work on the Friday night. I stayed for two nights as I had to get back for work on Monday, while he stayed a bit longer. Unfortunately he had an overdue report for his PhD which he ended up having to work on all weekend so I was mostly on my own exploring the city, but it was still fun to see a bit more of Paris, and to meet his parents and various siblings, who were all cool. The weather was perfect too, clear and sunny the whole time. It happened that the Saturday night I was there was the annual ‘Nuit Blanche’ (White Night), an all-night arts festival with various installations and performances running from 7:00 pm until 7:00 am on Sunday. Neither of us had the energy to stay up that late, and there were massive queues for many things, but we saw a few things after dinner until around midnight.

Paris, take 2: The Petit Palais

The following weekend (well, Friday 7th October) I flew over to Sweden for a week travelling around. I spent the first few nights in Uppsala staying with a kiwi friend of mine (Charlotte) who is over there on exchange at Uppsala University, and meeting a bunch of other international students there. Although I saw lots of interesting things around the place during the week, I think the evenings in Uppsala hanging out with a bunch of cool people from all over the world were my favourite. And I got to bake for them, which I do not get to do nearly enough of! I made the ever-popular chocolate fudge pudding, a giant muffin-cake for lack of muffin trays, and pancakes another night. One night we made pizza together, which is always fun and tasty. I am getting the impression that pizza is the Polish national dish, at least several of my Polish friends like making it. Around the dinner table we had a couple of Germans, a couple of Americans, a couple of Polish people, the two of us Kiwis, and later a Chinese girl. All good fun sorts.

Uppsala: International pizza eaters

While in staying in Uppsala I spent a couple of days down in Stockholm looking around, and went again to the Vasa museum where about 20 years previously (so my parents tell me) I set off an alarm by opening a door I was not supposed to. Oops. I managed to avoid that this time, I guess I have learnt something in the past 20 years. There were plenty of other things to see too, but my photos tell that story better than writing it all down so check them out if you have not already. Though unfortunately the batteries in my camera were flat for my first day in Stockholm so I did not get many photos then.

Stockholm: The Vasa in its eponymous museum

We then flew to Oslo, Norway, where we stayed a night in a big flat with a bunch of Christian students at one of the universities there, whom Charlotte had a contact with from the IFES conference she went to earlier in the year. That was cool; it happened that the night we were there they were having a dinner and games night with a bunch of the students living there and the adjacent houses, so we got to join in for that, and even sing some hymns in Norwegian which was cool. We also managed to see some of the main sights of the city, including the opera house (the roof of which slopes up from ground level, so you can walk up to the top and admire the view, and the famous sculpture park).

Oslo: Sculptures in the park

After that we took the bus down to Ljungskile to stay a night with an old family friend, a woman named Lena who stayed with my parents in NZ when I was about 8 or so I guess. It was interesting to catch up a little, before we headed on to Göteborg in the morning to continue the touristing. The highlight of Göteborg for me was the Maritiman, a maritime museum consisting of a collection of various military and civilian boats, barges and a submarine moored together in the harbour (19 in all plus a crane), most of which you are able to wander all through. The submarine was very cool, though also very cramped. Living in a submarine for any length of time must be rather uncomfortable. There was also a destroyer, which was enormous and mazelike with 8 different levels in total.

Göteborg: Bunks and torpedoes in the submarine at the Maritiman

After a night in Göteborg it was on to Lund to stay with another friend of Charlotte’s for a couple of nights, during which we explored Lund, Malmö and very briefly a bit of Copenhagen. They were all interesting, but now it is late and I cannot be bothered saying any more than I already have with the photos, so ask me if you want to know more.

Planking in Malmö

I flew back to London on the evening of Sunday 16th, ready for work on Monday. Since then I have not left the city again, and am not looking likely to until Christmas at the earliest. Though I do not have any firm plans for Christmas yet. One of the American guys I met in Uppsala is coming to stay for a week just before Christmas, which should be cool.

I have been sick with what I assume is the flu, which has been a pain. I took a day off work last week because of it, would have taken longer but could not because there is too much to do and I had already been working late. I spent much of last weekend in bed but am mostly better now, just a bit of a cough and stuffy nose remaining. Unfortunately I missed the Lord Mayor’s Show last weekend on account of being sick, but this weekend was great, the best in a while. The London Jazz Festival was on this past week, finishing today (Sunday), and I got to a couple of the free concerts at the Southbank Centre yesterday afternoon, and another this afternoon. Then there was church this evening, dancing on Friday and Saturday nights, various chores, all in all a full and fun weekend. So life is good at the moment despite work being a bit crazy busy just now! And I get to cook for people on Tuesday night next week, which I have not done for ages, so that should be good.

6 November 2011

Blog, blog, blog it all

Well, it has been ages since last I posted here! A lot has happened in that time, where to start… Well, since July I have had my cousin Philip visit (briefly, we just caught up in a café as he had plenty of other things to see and do, but it was still nice to see him after quite some time), taken a holiday to Austria, Liechtenstein (heh) and Switzerland with Charlotte, had two friends from NZ to stay at overlapping times (which was great!), went to Spain for a week, went to some of the Thames festival, had one of my flatmates turn 40, had some friends over to make and eat pizzas and pancakes (except not very many in the end), turned 24 fairly uneventfully, baked a few cakes, spent a weekend in Paris staying with Matthew Sinclair’s parents, spent a week travelling around Sweden and briefly Norway, bought a new bike (at last) and along the way did a bit of dancing.

Austria and Switzerland were both great. My friend Charlotte from NZ, who is presently studying on exchange in Uppsala, was travelling around Europe for several weeks before she started her studies for the semester, and I was fortunate to be able to join her for part of that. We met up in Vienna on Thursday 4th August and stayed a couple of nights in a youth hostel, during which time we got around a fair bit of the city. I particularly liked the areas around the various branches of the Donau (Danube) river, the park around Schloß Schönbrunn, and the large Prater park. As well as the park itself, which has lovely grassy and forested areas and some good playgrounds, Wiener Prater has a fairly substantial amusement park. We went on a rollercoaster where you lie forwards hanging down from the track with your feet sticking out rather than sitting down, which was cool.

Vienna: Schloß Schönbrunn

From there we travelled on to Salzburg, and stayed in a hostel where they play the Sound of Music every day. We did not watch it. Salzburg was nice though, with the Hohensalzburg fortress up on the hill, a nice old town, and Schloß Hellbrunn just a short bike ride out of town. We had one lovely sunny day where it was so hot we had to find somewhere to go swimming, and then one dreary and rainy day during which we ended up going round Schloß Hellbrunn and then biking back in the rain. Sunday night we spent in Feldkirch, mostly because it was on the way to Switzerland. There was not much to do by the time we got there fairly late, but we did get to explore a glowing green power station, which was pretty cool.

Feldkirch: The hostel where we stayed was quite an old building

The next morning we took the bus across to Liechtenstein, walked down the main street of Schaan and Vaduz, then continued on to our train to Romanshorn, Switzerland. In Romanshorn we were picked up by Charlotte’s friend Sarina, whose family very kindly had us to stay in their farmhouse near Arbon. Although we did not see as much as in some of the other places on the trip, the time there was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. Sarina took us biking through the beautiful Swiss countryside, through Arbon, and down to the lake Bodensee where we went swimming very briefly in the lake and then for a while longer in the nearby outdoor swimming pools, before it got too cold. And then we had a delicious homecooked dinner of raclette. The next day the three of us went to St. Gallen and had a bit of a look around before Charlotte and I caught our train to Lucerne. In particular we went into the library of the Abbey of St. Gallen, where there was an exhibition with a lot of old musical manuscripts and various texts. The room was also beautiful. Thanks Sarina!

Liechtenstein: The royal palace in Vaduz

Lucerne is a lovely little city around a lake. It has a nice old town, walls with towers around the outside (some of which we were able to climb to enjoy the view, and to walk along some of the wall), and some great mountains nearby. We stayed in a Korean hostel, which was a bit different. There was Korean fried rice for breakfast and lots of Kimchi in the fridge. We went on a paddleboat on the lake (which was rather slow) and I later walked around some of it and went for a quick swim, which was nice though a bit on the cool side. We also went up the nearby mountain Pilatus on the Wednesday, and took plenty of photos.

Lucerne: The view from one of the towers

We took the Silver Roundtrip up Pilatus. This meant catching a train to Alpnachstad, taking the cogwheel railway up Pilatus from there (the steepest in the world, apparently!), spending a fair while walking around some of the different tracks up the top of Pilatus to a few different peaks and eating out lunch, then taking three panoramic gondolas down to Kriens via Fräkmüntegg and Krienseregg. From Kriens we could then catch a bus back to Lucerne proper. It was lovely, though like everything in Switzerland rather expensive. Unfortunately our views were rather limited by the large amount of cloud all around us by the time we got to the top, but we did manage to see some things through brief gaps in it, as the photos show.

From Lucerne — Pilatus

After Lucerne we headed to Interlaken, so named because it sits between two lakes, with a river flowing through the town from one to the other. The river was an amazing translucent blue colour; I am not sure why. While there I found a couple of geocaches, and swapped a weta travel bug I picked up in London for a Swiss Army Knife one, which I later dropped off in a geocache back here. We biked out to one of the lakes for a swim, which was nice, but the highlight was surely going up Männlichen (via various small towns along the way) and admiring the view of all the different mountains around. As usual the photos tell this part of the story best.

Interlaken: See how blue the water was?

After a couple of nights in Interlaken we stayed just one night in Zürich, with a friend of Sarina’s. On the way we stopped in Berne for a few hours in the morning, and I am glad we did. It is a nice city to walk around, and we also happened to be well-timed for a tour of the Swiss parliament building there. Unfortunately the tour was in German as the English tour was at a different time of day, but they did have an English booklet for us so we could follow along with what the various rooms were.

Berne: Some shop doors at a different angle to that which I am accustomed

The night we were staying in Zürich happened to be the night of the annual street parade, which is a pretty big thing with lots of DJs on various stages around the city and then lots more DJs and bands going around on big trucks along the parade route. It was a bit crazy with so many people, and at one point we got stuck in the crowds and it took us quite some time to get back out again. But we did manage to find a nice and quieter spot to go for a swim in the lake, and also went up Üetliberg the next day to see the view of the city. Charlotte left shortly after that to continue on to Italy for the next part of her trip, while I had the afternoon to myself to enjoy a museum and walking along the lakefront promenade before catching my flight back to London.

Zürich: along the riverside

Well! I think I have written about enough for one post, so I will continue the story in another post shortly. I will get there yet! In the meantime, there are plenty of photos to look at.

19 July 2011

Cambridge

Filed under: Photos, Travel — Tags: — qwandor @ 10:06 am

Last Saturday I went out to Cambridge for the day, which was nice except for the rain. I went with my friend Vivian and three other friends of hers; in all we had three accountants and two software engineers. It was a fairly international group again. There was an Indian guy who has been in the UK for the last 20 years or so (except that he has spent the last 8 months or something travelling all around the world), and a girl from somewhere in Europe (I forget where) who spent quite a few years growing up in New Zealand and Australia. She went to Wellington East Girl’s College, just through the Mount Vic. tunnel from Hataitai where I used to live, and her little brother went to Rongotai College (where I went for my first 3 years of college!) for one year, though it sounds like it was the year before I started there. There was also another girl, though I am not sure where she was from. Maybe America? I forget.

Cambridge: The King’s College chapel

Anyway, we took the train out to Cambridge, and it was pouring wet. We did the first part of a bus tour in the rain, but could not see anything on account of it. After lunch in a busy pub we went to see the King’s College chapel, which was beautiful (it has an amazing fan vault ceiling) and the rest of the King’s College grounds. We had a bit of a look around the grounds of Peterhouse, the oldest and smallest college of Cambridge University (founded in 1284), which was interesting to get some idea of what it might be like to study there. We then went to the Fitzwilliam Museum, which was quite good, and had a great big collection of art, mostly paintings as well as some pottery and other things. We did not quite see all of it. By the time we left the museum it had stopped raining, and we went on a punt tour of the river Cam which was nice. We went under the Cam Bridge, after which the city was named, and various other bridges, including the Bridge of Sighs which was named after the more famous bridge of the same name in Venice, but shares little else in common with it other than being covered. It does not really look anything like the original. We then did the rest of the bus tour, being just in time for the last bus of the day. We tried to see the Botanic Gardens too, but they were closed by that point, so we just took the train back to London.

Three of us then had dinner at a Taiwanese restaurant in Chinatown, which was nice though very small and cramped. I accidentally knocked over a wine bottle on the table next to ours with my bag while trying to get to my seat. Oops. It was tasty though, and quite affordable.

And that was that. All in all a good day, just a pity about the rain during much of it. See my photos of the trip for more.

23 May 2011

Italy

Filed under: Photos, Travel — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — qwandor @ 12:09 am

Oh, time flies. I was going to write about my Italy trip just after my last post, and now it is 10 days later. Well, I have been busy since then. And lazy.

So! I went to Italy. I went for 9 nights in all, over the Easter / Royal Wedding week, as there were 4 bank holidays over 2 weekends and so by taking 3 days of leave it was possible to have a total of 11 contiguous days off work. We left early on Easter Saturday, 23rd April 2011, and got back on the evening of the Early May Bank Holiday, on Monday 2nd May 2011. I guess I should start by noting that I went with my friend Vivian, and her friend Cathy. Both are American and both accountants, though Vivian lives in London at the moment. They had actually planned the trip anyway, and I was fortunate to be able to join them. Travelling with other people is nice, though it does bring its own set of challenges.

Milan: The entrance to Castello Sforzesco

Anyway, we started off by flying to Milan, where we stayed for one night. We had a wander around the city on the Saturday, and saw most of the main sights that we could find, including (as was to become the pattern of our trip) lots of beautiful churches. The castle, Castello Sforzesco, was pretty cool, and the park around it is nice too. We also made it to an interesting interactive art exhibition in front of the Duomo, in large white bubbles. There were all sorts of interesting things to see, try and listen to. On Easter Sunday we went to a service at the Duomo, which was interesting and beautiful despite having little to no idea what was going on due to it all being in Italian. We also paid our money and climbed up to the top to get a view of the city, which was worthwhile. I also bought an Italian SIM card to use in my phone for cheap 3G data. For €20 I got a prepaid SIM with 50 MB free 3G data to use per day for a year, plus some number of free SMSes and the prepaid credit itself, which was rather more than I needed but still a good deal. After a little more looking around near the Duomo we caught the train to Venice.

Milan: The Duomo is really quite spectacular

Venice was completely different, of course. We arrived at the main station on one of the islands, and decided to walk the 20 or 30 minutes or so to our hotel, which was an adventure in itself. The route we took, like most routes in Venice, was rather roundabound and involved crossing many bridges, sometimes back and forth over the same canal. We also found ourselves going from crowded streets, to wide empty streets and squares, to narrow back alleys and back frequently. 3G data, a GPS and Google Maps routing came in very handy, here and for the rest of our time in Venice. Well, it was handy for all our time in Italy, but especially so in Venice.

Venice: Gondolas, of course

After checking in to the hotel the girls got some dinner while I wandered around for a bit, then we met up again and headed to the Basilica di San Marco as it was not that far away. It was a bit late to do anything much, so we just spent the evening wandering through all sorts of different streets, along the waterfront, through empty back streets and crowded streets of shops and restaurants, and over the famous Ponte de Rialto and along the main canal a bit as it got dark. One thing I did notice about Venice is that it never seemed unsafe, even at night on back streets. Perhaps it is just too expensive for the usual criminal demographic to live there. The next day we went back to the Piazza San Marco, where there happened to be a celebration of the city’s anniversary day, or something along those lines, with various military types parading around and raising the flags of the EU, Italy and Venice. We then attended part of the Easter Monday service at the Basilica, which was again beautiful if incomprehensible. After that we climbed up the bell tower to take photos and enjoy the view, then went to the Palazzo Ducale and the various other museums on the piazza. All were interesting, especially the Palazzo, but we were not allowed to take any photos inside so I have no record. For the rest of Venice, though, check out my photos! After that we picked up our bags from the hotel and caught a very crowded river bus back to the train station to head on to Florence. Unfortunately it was rather late by this point, and the only train left was a slow regional one, so it took quite a while and we arrived in Florence quite late that night. Curiously, despite Venice in most respects being one of the most expensive places in Italy, the gelato there was probably the cheapest, ranging from €1.10 to €1.50 for a small cone or cup, compared to closer to €2.00 in most other cities. Strange. Though perhaps they were smaller? I am not sure.

Venice: Looking over St. Mark’s Square and Basilica

We got to Florence late on Monday night, and went to bed as soon as we got to our hostel. Tuesday was our only full day exploring the city, and we saw plenty of things. Lots of lovely churches, again, the Duomo, and again we went up a tower and took panoramas of the city. In Piazza della Republica we found a 3D map of the central city with labels in braille, for the blind. I again tried various different flavours of gelato, all of which were yummy. We went past the Uffizi, which was really near our hotel, but even the queue to buy a ticket for a time later on was enormous and we did not want to spend our limited time waiting in a queue, so we decided to miss it. We did however make it into the Galleria dell’Accademi to see the original David, by paying extra for a 1 hour tour after which we could stay and look around by ourselves. It cost a bit but saved time waiting in line. There were also replicas of the statue in the Piazza della Signoria near the Uffizi, and in the Piazzale Michelangiolo up on the hill across the river, where we went that evening to look down over the city lights.

Florence: The Duomo at night (click the photo, it looks much better bigger!)

On Wednesday we went straight to Pisa on the train, and booked our tickets to climb up the tower. While we were waiting for our assigned timeslot we had a bit of a look around the town, which apart from the touristy bits immediately by the tower and duomo and so on is actually a nice old university town, with lots of nice old buildings and lots of students. It is a walled city, so the walls are interesting to see too, and there are the remains of some old Roman baths. When it came time we headed back to the tower and climbed up in our group. It did have a nice view, and quite a noticeable lean as we climbed the spiral staircase around and around. We also went into the Duomo and the Baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni), which were both nice. The Baptistery in particular is definitely worth a visit on the half hour, when one of the guards comes in and sings a few notes. It is a circular building with a domed roof, and if you sing from the right position as he does it has a quite spectacular echo. By singing different notes each for a few seconds he was able to harmonise with himself, forming chords with the still-echoing notes. After that and the obligatory tourist photos we hired bikes and biked out to the coast. Unfortunately we did not have much time to look around Marina di Pisa, but is was still an enjoyable ride. After returning the bikes we got dinner, had a little more time looking around the city as it got dark, then headed back to Florence and back to bed.

The next day we caught the train to Naples, which took a while. Our hostel in Naples was my favourite of the trip, a proper lively backpackers’ hostel with plenty of people from all sorts of places and quite friendly. It was a pity that we only stayed there one night. We were not impressed with our first impressions of Naples, getting from the train station to the hostel in rain and busy traffic, but it did somewhat redeem itself later in the day as the sun came out and we wandered around some of the nicer and more interesting streets. The staff at the hostel recommended two famous pizza places for us to check out (pizza having been invented in Naples), which we did for lunch and dinner that day. Both were very busy, hectic and quite small, with crowds waiting outside trying to get a seat. We got our pizza to take away both times rather than wait for ages. Both were nice, different to the pizza we had had elsewhere, and also the cheapest we had on the trip. They seemed very popular with locals and visitors alike. We also went to see various churches as we walked by, of course, as well as some streets of interesting shops. We made it down to the waterfront in the evening and walked past a castle, though it was closed by that point.

On Thursday we took the advice of the hostel staff to catch a bus from near the hostel straight to Pompeii scavi, taking our bags with us to store there, which they do for free when you buy your ticket to see the ruins. We spent the whole day wandering around the ruins, which are really quite extensive. The main baths are particularly well preserved, as well as many homes large and small, shops, bakeries, fora and public spaces, theatres and a brothel. It was fascinating, especially because when I was learning Latin for 3 years back at Rongotai College the textbooks we used followed the life of a boy growing up in Pompeii. Sadly I have forgotten most of the Latin I learnt, so I was not actually able to make much sense of the signs and inscriptions around the place. At the end of the day we picked up our bags, took the local train straight back to the main station in Naples, then the next train on to Rome. Unfortunately it was delayed quite a while, but we made it in the end.

Rome was full of people, even more so than the rest of the cities we visited. No doubt it is always pretty crowded and busy, but the particular weekend we went happened to be the weekend of the beatification of John Paul II at the Vatican, so there were even more visitors than normal for that. Especially Polish people. We spent the Saturday looking around some of the main sights, including the Forum area and of course the Colosseum, along with Trajan’s Column, the Arco di Costantino, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona. We also happened to walk past the Palazzo di Giustizia (Palace of Justice, apparently something like a supreme court), which just happened to be open to the public for a free tour just then, as part of some anniversary celebration, so we went on that. There were a lot of guards and other staff going around with the tour group, and we were fortunate to have one of the staff give us an English translation of some of what was being said. We were not allowed to take photos though. We found a nice restaurant near the Pantheon for dinner, which was better and less touristy than many of the other places we had eaten.

The next day we attempted to get somewhere near the Vatican City to see what we could see, but could not get anywhere near due to the streets and streets packed full of people all around. We gave up and tried to see some other things in the area, but again got stuck in crowds which took quite some time to escape. We finally made our way to the park near the Monumento a Garibaldi for a nice rest in the sun, lying on the grass and snacking on fruit, which was a welcome respite from all the crowds and walking. There was a nice view of the city, too, as it was up a bit of a hill. We went back past the crowds, which were thinning a bit but with a lot of people still around (and there was so much rubbish all over the streets!), and went to see the Piazza del Popolo and a little bit of the park on the hill above it, then headed back to the Colosseum to take some photos of it in the evening sun. That night we went to the Palazzo del Freddo Giovanni Fassi, a particularly famous gelato place near the railway station. It was indeed popular, and they had an enormous range of flavours including many unusual ones. It was also cheap, especially for Rome, and tasty. I had mandarin, liquorice and coconut, and tasted some of the other flavours including rice. On Monday morning we did not have time to do much as we had to get to the airport to catch our flight and it takes quite a while to get there, so we just paid a quick visit to another famous gelato shop, Giolitti. It was also nice, and I tried some new flavours, but I think Giovanni Fassi was still my favourite. Go there, if ever you are in Rome! We then made our way to the airport and flew back to London, which took the rest of the day.

All in all, it was an interesting trip. We saw lots of places, I ate lots of gelato and a fair bit of pizza, and it was nice to have company for a change rather than travelling by myself. I took many many photos, some of which are already online (and linked above). The rest will hopefully be making their way online shortly, so check my Picasa gallery.

Now, where to next? Scandinavia has been suggested to me as a good area to visit in summer. What advice and suggestions do you have, fair readers?

10 May 2011

Malaysia, New Zealand and Sydney

Filed under: Photos, Travel — Tags: , , , , , , — qwandor @ 8:47 am

Hello everyone! I have not posted here much lately, so figured I really should get onto that. So, what have I been doing since February? Well, I went to New Zealand for 3 weeks, as planned, and had 5 days in Malaysia on the way. I also had most of a day in Singapore on the way out and in Sydney on the way back, due to the timing of flights. I also more recently had a 9 day holiday in Italy, which was interesting.

Kota Kinabalu — General and flight home: A beautiful sunset by the beach in KK

Starting at the beginning, I had a 5 night holiday in Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia on the way back to NZ. I spent 4 nights in KK itself, and one up near Kinabalu Park. During this time I went out to two of the islands (Manukan and Mamutik) and went swimming, explored the city a bit, went hiking in Kinabalu Park, went to a museum and a heritage village with lots of different styles of longhouse from all the different tribes on display, ate various different food (and Soursop juice, which is delicious!), and caught up with my good friend Shirley who lives in Sabah. It was an excellent holiday, and the first time I had been swimming in ages. The only bad part was that I got quite badly sunburnt on my first day, while out on the islands and swimming, despite having applied some sunscreen. I also had a day in Singapore in-between London and KK, as there was a gap between my flights. It was not that much time, but I went into the city and wandered around some parts I had not seen before, which was good. You can discover more by looking through my photo albums linked above, and reading the descriptions and captions.

From Kinabalu Park

Back in New Zealand, I was working from home most of the 3 weeks I was there (all but 3 weekdays) while I was waiting for my visa application to be processed, and spending most of my evenings and weekends catching up with lots of people. I had a picnic at Oriental Bay, had various people over for dinner and lunch, caught up with lots of people for ‘coffee’ one day, went to a barbecue with Memphis people, had lunch with some postgrad students and lecturers up at Vic, visited various people’s houses, visited my old company (Innaworks) twice, celebrated my mother’s birthday, visited family up in Palmerston North, went up to Auckland for a weekend to catch up with various friends for picnic lunches, dinner, a flatwarming and swing dancing, taught a few friends some moves, had some delicious meals cooked for me (thanks for the chicken curry, Thi, and the roast, Talitha! And Richard, and Emma, thanks too!) and generally tried to make the most of what time I had. Thanks to everyone for the company, conversation, card games, geocaching, dancing, food, and everything else! Unfortunately I did not get to celebrate International Pillow Fight Day, but I guess it is alright, I did many other things. (-:

Weekend in Auckland: An interesting sign

On the way back from Wellington to London I had a stopover of about 8 or 9 hours in Sydney, due to the timing of Qantas’s flights. I went into the city, wandered around some of the parks and the botanic garden (which is well worth a visit, I wish I had had longer there), and met up with my friend Arya who is currently over there doing an internship with Google. We had a bit more of a wander around the city, especially the waterfront, and I took a few photos. We even walked past the Google office, but unfortunately Arya had left his badge at home and they require a special building access card rather than just the standard one so we could not look inside.

Sydney stopover: The Sydney harbour bridge and me

I got back to London, and back to work here, on Monday 11th April. I then headed off again on Saturday 23rd April with a couple of friends for a holiday in Italy, which I think I will split off into another post. In the meantime, check out the photos I have posted so far!

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