Thoughts of a geek

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.

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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.

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