Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Next Few Days

The drive south could have been a nightmare; the traffic was heavy and very slow moving all the way down to Birmingham but Brett had volunteered for the first shift of driving, so I napped through it and took over as the traffic cleared.  There was plenty of fog along the way but London was fairly empty of traffic as we came through.  It took us seven hours in the end.

Tuesday, we were home and all on leave.  Brett and I decided to take a run over to Bluewater.  I needed to change the belt I’d been given by my parents (they’d over-estimated my waist size!) and Brett wanted some cables from the Apple store and we both fancied a bit of window-shopping.

The drive wasn’t bad but I was a bit concerned when we discovered the queue on the A2 to get into Bluewater was probably a mile or so long.  Unlike the lemmings though, rather than join the queue, I took the second lane and managed to avoid the congestion.  The car parks were all full though – even the one right out back by House of Fraser which I always use and is always empty.  Finding a parking space was like swimming with sharks; lots of cars cruising the lanes, all looking for that one elusive vacant spot. In the end we stalked a couple leaving the centre all the way back to their car and nabbed their space.

After the difficulty parking, I was expecting to find Lord of the Flies in the centre itself, but while it was busy and there were chavs galore, it wasn’t really overcrowded and everyone seemed to be in a reasonably good mood.   We were both surprised by the fifty-yard queue to get into Hollisters!  Clearly it’s the new teen sensation… Abercrombie & Fitch being just so older generation! We did the things we needed, had a coffee and came home again.

This evening we were over in Eltham for Patrick S’s almost-New-Year’s-Eve party.  There were a selection of Chorus boys there and plenty of mulled wine.  I apparently proved my butchness by being able to set up a chocolate fountain.  Go figure how fey the rest of them must have been!

This morning I was more hungover than I felt I ought to be and it took a while to get moving.  Brett was at work today and Rosie didn’t feel like doing much, so I trekked into town and took in the Moctezuma exhibition at the British Museum.  The museum was busier than Bluewater but fortunately the exhibition wasn’t overcrowded and it was an interesting insight into the life and beliefs of the Mexica.  (They believed they were God’s chosen people and, so long as they did what he told them, they were destined for greatness.  I really must discuss that with Mikey!)

Once I was done, I meandered back down Shaftesbury Avenue to have a coffee in Waterstones (and ogle the Sony eReader) whilst waiting for Brett to finish work.  We had tickets for Full Monty at the New Players Theatre.  It was directed by the same guy who’d done the Rent at Catford Broadway earlier this year that we’d loved.  Sadly this wasn’t quite as spellbinding; a passable performance from most of the main characters, but let down by the lead’s acting which just didn’t convince.

Caught the train back to Catford and had a chicken kebab wrap on the way home.  No idea why I felt the urge for that.  Maybe I’m pregnant.  Hmm.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas 2009

Had dinner with Rod & Jess at the Wimbledon Wagamamas before we went to see Avatar.  Rod’s finally doing the job that he wanted and that they wanted him to do, but which they kept on not appointing him to because of HR cock-ups.  Jess has also got another inter-parliamentary job which sounds like it’s going to get her a pile more travel.  The flip-side however is that it’s probably put the kybosh on the holiday in Memphis that we’d tentatively planned for later this year.

The movie was good but it was nearly three hours long, so we didn't get away from Wimbledon until about 23:30.  Although I was still feeling pretty shabby the drive was quite good; no traffic, no delays and no especially bad weather.  We made it to St. Helens around 03:45 and headed straight to bed.

Christmas Eve was largely a write-off for me; lethargy and over-sensitive skin and eyeballs, mostly spent in front of the TV after we emerged from our beds around lunchtime.  We stayed up until midnight though, watching some 100-best clip show about Christmas.  Brett called home before we went to bed and we had a chat with his family, who were only just gathering at Susan’s for their Christmas Eve present-giving.

Christmas Day, I was feeling only marginally better, so resorted to drugs.

We opened our presents first thing.  Rosie, Brett & I took a stroll out around the park after breakfast and I got a few decent photos of young swans, ducks and gulls on the ice on the lake, as well as tobogganists on the hill.  Auntie Pauline had arrived when we got back.

The parents had laid on a lovely buffet lunch, so we ate and chatted a bit, then lounged around until dinner; fish terrine or coarse pâté followed by beef wellington. A choice of Christmas cake or Christmas Pudding Ice Cream for dessert.  All very tasty. I picked up another usable pair of cufflinks from the Christmas Crackers too.

Boxing day was a pretty much a repeat of Christmas Day, except we had Auntie Anne, Cousin Maria and her five year-old son, Jamie, visiting as well.  I was still under the weather and we had a ham instead of beef wellington on the menu.

Sunday was the first day I felt vaguely human.  We arranged to go over to Chris & Michelle’s and went down into town to watch Sherlock Holmes first; it was an enjoyable movie.  The only time I really cringed was at Hollywood's mucking about with London geography (one of the lead characters runs from the cellars of Parliament to the top of Tower Bridge in about thirty seconds!)

Chris and Michelle were well and we met the latest addition to their family, baby Charlotte.  Chris had managed to bugger up the web browser on one of his computers and wanted me to take a look at it.  Somehow his browser wasn’t reaching the Internet connection – which was connected and seemed to be working from a command line.  I was suspicious of his McAfee security suite, as those domestic products get their grubby fingers into all sorts of places, but ultimately couldn’t track down what was causing the problem with both IE and Firefox.  Recommended he stump up for a Win7 upgrade.

Back at the ranch, Steve & Steph and family had arrived, so we tucked into another festive buffet and chatted with them for a while until Kath & Iain came over with Rebecca, shortly followed by Pod & Jenny.  We spent a few hours catching up with them and Mikey called briefly from Cuba again to wish us a belated happy Christmas and discuss cigars.  We eventually headed to bed around 22:30.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Day After That

Tuesday was my last day in the office before the new year and it went perfectly. I got some useful stuff done, finished off a couple off issues that have been dragging for a while and had enough time left over to give my desk a proper tidy and clean. The only downside was an increasing feeling of malaise accompanied by a chesty cough. By the end of the day I was sure I’d picked up another cold.

Even so, the show must go on. Ian B (my former boss) was coming in for his leaving drinks at the nearby Slug and Lettuce so I toddled along and had a few shandies with him and his replacement as Financial Controller, Catherine C. The drinking was interrupted briefly by a call from Mikey in Havana. They are staying at an all-inclusive resort and apparently both the food and drink are appallingly bad.  Apart from that though he was enjoying Cuba but I think struggling a bit to get down to the exam revision that he needs to do while he’s away.  I was touched that he took the time to call though

After the drinks I still had to head down to the Festival Hall for the last of our three slots with Sandi Toksvig’s Christmas Cracker. I was feeling increasingly rough, but got through it okay. It is bizarre how we ended up spending more time waiting to go onto stage than we did actually on stage performing. Tonight they sent us on early and then we had to wait for Sky Arts (who were televising) to come out of an advert break. The houselights dimmed, the extra-bright stage lighting came up, we all shuffled into position... and waited. Nothing happened.

After a short while, nothing continued to happen and the audience started a slow handclap until Sandi came out and explained we were still waiting on clearance from Sky. Eventually we got it, Simon bounded on, we sang the numbers and filed off stage six minutes later. Oh, the high-life we lead!

Came home and went to bed.

Today has been half about me sleeping off whatever it is I’m suffering from an half about getting ready to go north for Christmas. The car has had a slow puncture in the front passenger-side tyre for a while which I wanted to get fixed before we did any motorway driving. Also the weather lately – particularly in the north – has been atrocious with lots of snow and ice, so I made a point of checking fluid levels and all the tyre pressures and we’ll take lots of supplies and winter woollies.

We’re driving late tonight after going to see Avatar with Rod & Jess in Wimbledon. Don’t expect to get in until the small hours.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Coasting Towards Christmas

Fairly quiet day today; the office is definitely winding-down for Christmas.  Did a bit of informal business planning ready for when the budget process kicks off in January, met up with our new Head of Finance to discuss our budget/spending and how the two teams (technology and finance) interact, which was all very productive.

Did various home chores as well… the car has a slow puncture in one of the front tyres, so I checked out local Kwik-Fits so I could get it fixed on Wednesday.  Also had a word with the managing agent for our building about a dodgy lock that needs replacing.  In the quiet of the late afternoon I spent a while toying Google Maps plotting out an itinerary for a US Road Trip that we’ve spoken about on a few occasions but never really knuckled-down to organising.  Maybe next year…

There was a sudden blizzard this afternoon too which closed all the stations for a while, but as I was back at the Festival Hall for the second of the three Sandi Toksvig gigs this evening,  I didn’t mind so much.  Sure enough, Charing Cross was open by the time we had done our two numbers and trudged through the slush across the river.  Quite a few people didn’t make it tonight though and it felt quite exposed on stage.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snow and Shows

The lovely weekend actually started on Friday. Snow had been predicted and Mikey had suggested I take my camera up onto Hampstead Heath to get some Christmassy pictures. I arranged the morning off work (well, I told Rob that I wasn’t going to be in and he should call if anything came up!) and hopped on an early train into town. Both the train and the tubes were uncommonly empty – probably lots of people had planned to work from home because of the expected snow – and I reached Hampstead at about 08:30, did a couple of hours wandering around with my camera (the better results being here.) Mikey and I met up around 10:30 for coffee (he’s already broken up for Christmas) and strolled around some more before he had to head off for a singing lesson. I headed into work and had a quiet afternoon – everyone seems to be throttling back, ready for the break.

Friday evening was our team’s Christmas night out. Rather than the traditional over-priced turkey dinner at an over-packed London restaurant, I’d booked us all in to see La Clique, a burlesque circus act currently playing at The Roundhouse. It was a good choice – although the lady magician who stripped stark naked during her act (and still managed to make the handkerchief disappear!) was probably an unusual highlight. Mofida’s face when she took off her g-string was priceless; she couldn’t believe she’d actually done it!

After the show we wondered down towards Camden, with Gavin and Rob H snowballing each other along the way, and ended up in the Strada just up from the Jazz Café.  As we were finishing our pizzas, I got a text message from Brett asking if I wanted to come down to The Edge (where he was partying with the Chorus boys), so as soon as we’d paid up at the restaurant, I hopped the Northern Line down to Soho.

The party had been organised as a going-away do for Richard D, one of our younger First Tenors who’s off to Canada with his job for a while.  He’d decided to make it a transvestite party – where everyone dressed as the opposite sex.  Sadly(?), because I’d come from work I wasn’t in drag – in fact I still had my walking boots on and longjohns under my jeans from this morning on Hampstead Heath!  Brett had dragged-up however, as had a number of other Chorus boys and they were quite the sight to see!  I hung around, enjoyed the fun and had a few more beers until we all got thrown out as the bar closed.  Our journey home on the nightbus, although longer than it might have been, was remarkably uneventful considering I was travelling with Norma Desmond in a blue-sequinned beret!

Saturday was a lazy day.  We all went down to the Stage Door Café for a full-English then came home, fully intending to do lots of housework, but somehow all I managed to do was laundry and upload all my photographs from Friday.  Mikey had been meant to come down for a few beers but he never showed, so we had a quiet evening in catching up on Burn Notice on Sky+.

Sunday was all about the Chorus.  We had a 1pm call to be at the Royal Festival Hall for a quick rehearsal, followed by a tech-run for the Sandi Toksvig Christmas Cracker show.  We’d started off planning to do four songs but apparently the show had run so long on it’s earlier nights (it’s been running since last week with different guest choirs) that they were cutting as much as possible so in the end we only did two songs.

Before that gig though we had one of our own in the Clore Ballroom underneath the main auditorium, where we did almost all of the repertoire from the Cadogan Hall show back on the 4th/5th December.  Ping was there to see us (he’d been in KL when we did Cadogan) and he enjoyed it for the most part.  I personally feel that while we were musically quite tight, we didn’t quite have the sparkle in some of the numbers that we had for the big show.

We had an hour and a half between our set in the Ballroom and the call for Sandi’s show, so Brett, Ping and I had a hog-roast ciabatta from the stall in the farmers market and did some catching up before we went to report in.

In the end I think we spent more time on stage waiting to perform than we actually did performing, but that’s show business…

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Squeezing Up

So the end of the week felt a bit hectic as there were lots of things waiting to be done when I got back from the seminars.  Most of it is mundane management but there is one issue that is an old problem coming back to haunt me.  It’s simmering at the moment; just remains to be seen whether it boils over or fades away.  Not sure how soon I’ll know either.

Had rather hoped to spend today exploring London Open House Weekend, but in the end we used the time to empty the study out ready for Rosie to move in.  Some rationalisation was done but by and large it was mostly squeezing everything up in the other rooms.

One upside was that I found some archive CDs with some really old stuff on them.  I spent a nostalgic few minutes browsing through my old university files and chat logs of years gone by.

We gave up reorganising some time after five and spent the evening on the sofa watching Lord of the Rings and Casino Royale.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Interesting Times

It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster over the last twenty-four hours.  Yesterday evening Brett came home from a Chorus Membership meeting with the news that his new boss had messaged him to say “it wasn’t working out” and that he’d effectively been fired little more than a week after starting.  It seemed to be part of a pattern as he’d been employed with a two-week probationary period and, the day after he started, the other programmer (who’d started the week before) got canned.  Similarly, a new guy had been taken on just a few days before Brett got the heave-ho.

As you can imagine, last night we were both a little bit depressed.

After a bit of a morose start though, today improved for both of us.  Brett had a fairly positive ‘exit interview’ and spent the rest of the day sending out CVs.  I sat down with the household expenses spreadsheet and found that several expense-cutting decisions I/we’d been putting off were now quite easy to make.  We are in austerity mode for the time being.  It was good to realise that, even if we won’t be living it up much, at least we won’t be homeless or hungry in the foreseeable future.

I spent most of the rest of today visiting a seismic survey company’s datacentre in Weybridge as part of a marketing freebie by the people who designed and built our new server room.  It was an opportunity to look at how new, greener thinking is being applied to datacentres and is resulting in huge savings on the power bill for cooling your systems.  It was an interesting afternoon and although I won’t be rebuilding our datacentre any time soon, it was a good catch-up on the technologies and trends.

Had a piano lesson tonight and it went well.  Oddly though the piece that I have almost memorised and can play very well for pretty much everyone, I kept tripping over when I played it for my teacher, and yet the one I’ve been struggling with all week went pretty much okay.  Go figure.

Got another jolly tomorrow; off to spend the day at Microsoft talking about Unified Communications with Tandberg and Vodafone.  Should be another solid geek-fest!

Friday, April 03, 2009

Final Day in Colombo

Chris laid on another stupendous breakfast for us this morning.  Fruit salad, yoghurt, muffins, scrambled egg with smoked salmon, coffee and juices; all very tasty and set us up for the day.  The plan was just to go shopping today.  Chris was busy, so couldn’t accompany us, and Mark had meetings throughout the day but Chris jotted down a list of places we might want to visit and organised us a taxi.  Taxis are cheap it seems; we had the taxi for about five hours and it only cost us a tenner.  There’s nothing like having your own private chauffeur when you are out shopping around town!

We visited five different shops and liked them all.  In the end Brett and I picked up a selection of linen shirts, four statuettes of the major Buddhist and Hindu figures, some organic Veda honey for my parents.  One of the places we visited was a jewellers.  Sri Lanka is noted for its precious stones and Qudsi is a jeweller in the old fashioned sense; the room lined with cabinets containing both pre-fashioned jewellery and display-boxes of loose, cut gems that you can have put in the setting of your choice.

While we’d originally gone in looking for some amber jewellery for my sister, we came away with a turquoise necklace for Brett’s mum and an order for a pair of cufflinks to be made up for me using a couple of aquamarines.  Apparently aquamarine is my ‘birthstone’ and I rather like the icy blue colour.  We later went back for some fossilised coral too.  There were some truly beautiful gems in there though. If I’d had the money I could easily have come away with many more shiny things, but alas proper ostentation is beyond my means at the moment, even with the substantial discount we were given for having a friend at the High Commission.

The other place we visited twice was Paradise Road, a store owned by the chap who also owns Tintagel.  We actually ran into him at one of the stores and he and Ping spent a while talking art.  Paradise Road has quite a varied stock, but it’s mostly homeware in various forms and we found lots of lovely stuff – including the statuettes we came back to buy.  I have a fondness for sculpture…

In the evening we had dinner at the Gallery Café (attached to one of the stores).  We got there just as the afternoon rain was letting up and had a cocktail before dinner.  The menu had some dishes in common with Tintagel, but also quite a few more.  I dined on the delicious butter chicken that Mark & Chris recommended.

Unfortunately Ping was feeling increasingly unwell as we sat down to dinner; he didn’t eat anything and spent a while away from the table trying to clear his head.  In the end though he decided to leave early – and almost collapsed on his way to the door.  Chris accompanied him home in a tuk-tuk and Brett, Mark and I f0llowed as soon as we’d settled up.

Back at the house, Ping was feeling somewhat recovered – and somewhat sheepish.  He’d been having problems with his stomach adjusting to some of the Sri Lankan food and so had skipped lunch.  He doesn’t normally take a lot of alcohol, so the vodka cocktail he’d had to start had hit his empty stomach hard and he suffered for it.

It was good to see him recovering though and we got a final farewell picture of the five of us, plus Theo the labrador, before heading up for a bit of packing and an early night.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Pinnawala and Colombo

So, after one final sunrise from the comfort of my bed, it was farewell to Kandalama this morning.

On our way back to Colombo we took a detour via the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.  After seeing the hotel’s elephant yesterday and then reading in the Lonely Planet guide last night that there had been complaints about the way the mahouts handle the elephants at Pinnawala, I was really in two minds whether I wanted to pay them money to watch.  I went though and all was well with what I saw.  We arrived in time to watch the herd being bathed.

I didn’t count but there must have been forty or fifty of them mucking about in the river.  The river was quite shallow, running over rock terraces mostly, with some deeper pools.  There were a couple of males having a scrub and clearly enjoying it.  Once they were out of the way, the females and the youngsters were herded into the deeper water.  There was one group in particular that found the deepest pool and seemed to have an underwater love-in; mostly submerged and rubbing against each other with little to be seen of most of them apart from an occasional trunk curling up and spraying water.  I got plenty of cute photographs.

One of the herd only has three feet, having lost the fourth to a landmine (according to Wikipedia) and I was impressed both by how careful and yet how agile she was over the uncertain terrain of a rocky river bed.  Another reminder that elephants are not mindless lumbering beasts, but have minds up there alongside primates and cetaceans.

Once we’d seen all there was to see, we were back in the van for Colombo.  After a detour via the JetWing office to pay up for Maliq’s services we arrived back at Mark & Chris’ place.

I’d been in touch with Chris by SMS throughout the journey, so when we arrived lunch was waiting for us on the table and we all had massages booked for later that afternoon.  After scoffing the scrummy grub with lashings of ginger beer, Chris drove Brett and I down to their local spa for my first ever Ayurveda massage; a lovely experience and, for all that there was a cute guy rubbing oil all over my naked body, a surprisingly relaxing one!

As we were finishing up, Chris & Ping were just arriving for their massage.  Brett and I headed back to the house to chill and surf.  A strong wind picked up not long after we sat down and then the heavy rain arrived.  There was a lot of noise, but it wasn’t until Chris and Ping got home with Mark that we realised either lightning or wind had brought down two trees, one at either end of the road.  We were completely oblivious.

We got changed and relaxed with Mark and Chris to catch them up on the rest of our trip over drinks and then headed out for dinner at a nearby restaurant called Tintagel; home of the first president of Sri Lanka, now converted into a really gorgeous boutique hotel and restaurant.  Dinner was lovely – almost like a private restaurant for us.

Later on Mark was telling us a little of what’s happening with the civilians in the north and it is truly awful.  It sounds like 150,000 civilians are caught in a tiny area between two opposing forces but with nowhere to go and not much sympathy on either side.  All sobering stuff; kind of puts the quality of the Kandalama’s coffee into perspective.  Human beings are often strange, selfish and vicious animals.  Our social herding instincts combined with our often irrational belief/trust in causes and leaders gives us great potential to be self-destructive as a species.  It’s quite out of step with the people we’ve met on our trip; you wouldn’t think the easygoing, friendly folk elsewhere on the island are capable of doing the sorts of things that are going on up there.

We put aside the heavy thoughts after a while though and enjoyed the luxuries that we are fortunate enough to enjoy, one of which was a tuk-tuk ride back to the house.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Sigiriya and Rest

Sigiriya this morning.  We had the hotel phone ahead and they were more informative today; we could go to the top if we were accompanied by an official guide (the cynic in me imagines that requirement is because the official guides won’t have been earning while the site was closed…)

It is an impressive sight and rather put me in mind of Lord of the Rings; an oval platform of rock, just thrusting up pretty much vertically from the plain.  One of the kings had fortified it and built his palace there.  Around the base were the remains of gardens with formal flower beds, fountains and pools; the whole nine yards!  Then you began to climb.

We acquired a couple of ‘official helpers’ at this point; uniformed guys whose job is to carry your bag and essentially to help you up the stairs.  While I was glad to be free of my gear, I wasn’t so keen on him grabbing my arm every time the step was uneven.  His hand resting between my shoulder blades would likely not have been sufficient to stop me tumbling down the steep stairs had I lost my footing; more likely I would have knocked him down with me as I was probably twice his weight!  He eventually got the message and left off the handling.

About halfway up is a gallery of sorts; barely a ledge beneath an overhang in an otherwise vertical wall.  Here they have found quite well preserved wall paintings of ladies relaxing.  Given the gallery’s unlikely position no-one knows why the paintings are there.  For me it brought to mind a variation on an old cartoon strip I had once seen; a king is supervising the building of his new fortress and concludes instructing his architect thus; “…and when you’ve done all that, dangle some artists off that cliff and have them paint some fancy erotic stuff halfway up.  It’ll confuse the hell out of archaeologists in a thousand years time!”

Having seen the gallery and paid my hundred rupees to the guy to get the advanced tour, which includes a woman with “eyes like the Mona Lisa,” (yeah, right!) I was none the wiser either, so we descended the spiral staircase again and continued with the main ascent.

We paused at the Lion’s Paws; an enormous pair of feet either side of the final staircase.  Originally the entire front half of the lion existed and you entered the palace through the lion’s mouth, but that is now all decayed to brick rubble and stone.  Hanging above this staircase today though are several hornets nests which had been attacking visitors climbing the stairs over recent days.

Of the seven or so other parties we had seen coming up to the paws, I only saw one other party go on past them.  I think the guides were spooking people to be honest – and there were few enough people coming anyway.  We went on up though and were untroubled.  The ancient buildings on the top of the rock had clearly been extensive, but there is little there to see today and the most stunning thing is the view from the top; literally miles of unobstructed panorama in every direction.

The trip down was uneventful and much easier and we returned to the hotel in time for lunch.

After some rest and relaxation, Ping and I went out for a walk.  We were told we shouldn’t walk in the jungle but could walk along the lake shore.  We didn’t even get down the drive before we had an encounter with the monkeys, who were feasting off the shrubs along the side of the road.  As we got down to the lake the elephant they use for giving people rides was out being bathed by his keeper.  Call me a soft-hearted liberal, but the beast did not seem happy and his keeper sounded bullying.  How do I know?  I don’t know, but that was a clear impression I got from watching them interact.  Not the happy social animals we had seen in Udawalawe.

Leaving them behind, we wandered along a track into the jungle a little, following another couple who had been accompanied by a hotel guide, but we didn’t come across anything much and turned around before it began to get dark.  Back at the hotel, Brett and I headed up to the top floor, where they have a natural water pool  and some loungers, to read and then watch the sun set for the last time here.

We were joined for sunset by Ping and then by Colin and Felicity (a lovely young Scottish couple who had arrived that day.  Colin is rather toned and had spent the afternoon wandering round in just his board shorts, so we were happy for the company…)

Quite apart from the eye candy though, it was a lovely half hour; the sun set behind partial cloud cover so there were many colours and patterns.  I took a first and final dip in the infinity pool and listened to the flautist for a while before heading in for a shower and dinner.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


When I was a tour guide myself, I led a group to Cuba.  We stayed in fancy hotels were Cubans were allowed to work but not stay – not that they could have afforded them.  One morning, I received a strong complaint from one of my group about the hotel’s inadequacies because they didn’t have English Breakfast tea on the buffet.

I was quite dumbfounded; there was perfectly good local tea available, but because it wasn’t the familiar brand, these people weren’t happy. In amongst all the poverty of rural Cuba, these people wanted their PG Tips.  I thought it was quite a petty complaint as the tour was billed as an exploration of a foreign culture, and if you’re going to explore a foreign culture but then want it to be just like home, what’s the point really?

I tell the story because I have a complaint about the Kandalama; in amongst all this five-star luxury, they serve lousy coffee.  While I have noticed tendencies in that direction, I do hope I am not turning into that petty Englishman abroad – the bane of every travel professional’s life.  In my defence I would point out that at every hotel we’ve visited here, the coffee has been fine and plentiful, so it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation.  The catering otherwise is very good, so I can’t understand why they can’t do decent coffee.  Harumph!

Post-colonial huff aside, the hotel is still impressing me.  I still can’t get over the views.  Everywhere you look there is jungle and wildlife.

Today we were up early to head out to the rock fortress of Sigiriya.  There had been reports of hornet attacks on parties climbing to the top and it was unclear whether it was open or closed, so we drove out there anyway as it was en route to our second destination; the ruins of Polonnaruwa.  At Sigiriya we were told we could go in, but only to the Lion’s Paws (i.e. not to the top) but still had to pay the full price.  We decided to try again tomorrow and drove on.

Polonnaruwa is one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka.  The site is spread out and there is a lot to see but there’s an informative museum at the entrance to set you up with background.  In retrospect I wish we had taken a proper guidebook and done it very early in the morning.  Maliq gave a good commentary but sometimes it was hard to put things in context – although perhaps that reflects more on my lack of prior homework than anything.

The sun was baking and within a minute of stepping out of the van at each site, I was soaked with sweat; it was literally dripping off me and leaving a trail in the dust.  We rapidly drank all the water we had brought with us and were grateful to find a shanty rest-stop opposite one of the ruins.  We sat, resolutely declining and then ignoring the hawkers, while Brett supped Coca Cola and I quaffed Elephant Ginger Beer; a great restorative.

It seems that every king who ever ruled felt he had to build his own Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic as there are a number of them among the ruins. Because they are still considered temples, you are obliged to take off your shoes before entering – indeed some other British tourists were scolded by a primary school child for forgetting to do so.  It was a bit of an ordeal under the midday sun; the rocks were hot, really hot!

We certainly missed a number of the ruins, but we did the highpoints and were still in good cheer when it was done.  Lunched at a ‘recommended’ restaurant on the way back and had some tasty local fish and several fruit juices.

On the road back to Dambulla though, Maliq got pulled over by a random policeman standing on a bend for trying to overtake on a blind corner.  He got a ticket and was fuming about it afterwards.  I have some sympathy as he wasn’t doing anything that everyone else here doesn’t do, he was just unlucky enough to be spotted by an ornery policeman.  Our trip back to the hotel was lengthened by a stop at the local Police Headquarters for him to try to sort it out.

Given the heightened security in Sri Lanka, I did wonder how long our van could be parked, engine running but without a driver, on the roadside outside the gates to Police Headquarters before we became a security alert.  “Longer than it was,” turned out to be the answer as the only attention we attracted was another passing JetWing driver who stopped to check that everything was okay.

Back at the hotel I lounged in the jacuzzi for a while to wash off the sweat and grime of the excursion and then blogged some before dinner.

Over cocktails Brett and I were discussing our different reactions to Kandy; he found it overcrowded and overwhelming and felt like a target, whereas I loved the vibrancy and the bustle from the outset.  When he challenged me to say why, I found it hard to come up with anything coherent other than ‘because it’s new and different.’  Genuine curiosity and learning, or just cultural voyeurism?  Couldn’t say.

I guess you can tell I’m feeling a bit ambivalent today! :o)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Dambulla and the Kandalama Hotel

From Kandy we headed north again towards our next hotel, just outside Dambulla.  En route, we passed by the headquarters of the Special Forces Regiment and, in amongst the additional road-blocks we had to navigate, there were cotton trees all along the road opposite, dropping puffy little cotton balls on to the road.  It seemed incongruous somehow.

Dambulla is known for its cave temple, created by a formerly deposed king as thanks for his regaining his kingdom.  There are a series of five caves high in a hillside, in which have been carved numerous statues of the Buddha.  In fact, to describe them as numerous is an understatement; in my view there were just too many.  One wonders what is the point of the repetition; many of them are identical.

On the climb to the cave temple, as well as a number of hawkers with postcards, wooden elephants and ‘secret’ boxes, we’d passed lots of monkeys sitting on the steps and in the surrounding trees eating fruit and larking around.  Apparently they used to be a real nuisance to the temple – sneaking in and eating the floral offerings.  The solution was to build a high fence and top it with electrification!  This allows the humans to control when the monkeys get their floral feast; instead of helping themselves, they now have to wait until a caretaker comes along with a bucket of old offerings, opens a gate in the fence and chucks them out…

We had arrived in the mid-afternoon which meant that the stones of the courtyard were quite hot underneath our bare feet – not to mention the occasional stretches of gravel to be navigated – so I was not sorry when the time came to move on to the hotel.  On our descent though, we could see the rock eruption that is Sigiriya on the horizon, lit by the evening sunlight.  Very pretty.

Our hotel, the Heritance Kandalama, is built on the side of a cliff face; all of the rooms look out over jungle to a large lake and the architecture of the hotel is arranged to make you feel a part of that jungle.  It is quite spectacular; you are high up, the only enclosed spaces in the hotel are the rooms and the dining room/main lounge.  The corridors and other public areas are all open to the jungle and built around the physical geography of the rock face.

In our room (which is again spacious and luxurious) the bed faces the floor-to-ceiling glass doors separating you from the balcony, looking out over the plain, edged with creepers and foliage and a regular haunt for the monkeys.  In the bathroom, the toilet likewise faces the view, but the real treat is the bath which occupies the width of the bathroom underneath the windows.  You can sit and relax in your jacuzzi right next to the glass with no fear of being overlooked (apart from by those monkeys, I suppose.)

You really feel a part of the jungle.  Everywhere you walk, there are tiny lizards scuttling over walls and ceilings.  Birds and bats fly through the corridors and swallows swoop beautifully in the evening out over the trees.  There is a herd of cattle that comes down to the lake towards dusk to drink before heading back into the jungle before the sun sets.

There is an infinity pool off the main lobby which looks out over the lake and during the day the waters seem to merge into a whole – creating some very odd perspectives when people swim out towards the far edge!  At night a solitary flautist sits and pipes above the pool before dinner.

All is not perfect in paradise however.  Upon arrival, and seeing the bathroom, I had the water flowing into the jacuzzi even before the luggage was delivered; what a way to wash away the grime of the day!  However, it the jacuzzi hadn’t been used in a while; as soon as I switched it on I got covered in flakes of brownish gunk.  Hmmm.

I took a shower instead.

The Streets of Kandy

Breakfasted on the terrace; all very pleasant.  The view was initially obscured by mist (smog?) but that slowly cleared as we ate.  We checked-out and met Maliq for a 9am run down into Kandy.  He’d stayed with his family rather than in the staff quarters; he didn’t say why, but I wandered at the quality of the spaces for the workers.

We had decided to take a walk around central Kandy to get a feel for the place as so far we haven’t really been out of our fully-catered hotel/tour guide bubble.  We started by walking around the lake, which was teaming with fish (and fishing birds!) and the occasional turtle, then ventured into the central streets of town.  It was more relaxed than I had expected; as virtually the only white tourists around I’d expected to be mobbed by beggars, hawkers and scams.  We did okay though, attracting some attention but all of it easy enough to disengage.  Mark had described the Sri Lankans along the lines of not having extremes of caste or wealth found elsewhere in South Asia and we found that to be true; there were beggars but no-one appeared to be starving and everyone was friendly enough.

After our walk around the lake, we were in need of refreshment so we picked a small bakery at random and bought some cream sodas.  They had seating on the first floor which opened out onto a balcony overlooking the street.  We sat in the shade and watched the world go by.  Central Kandy was colourful, noisy and bustling with people.   Brett observed a sign advertising a dental technician who also specialised in brasswork and curios and we decided that the combination didn’t inspire confidence in us wussy westerners.

Wandering the streets and alleyways I spotted an ornate gateway and we went in to take a look.  It turned out to be co-located Buddhist and Hindu temples (A religious mall, as Brett put it) which was a delightful oasis of calm and (almost) quiet in the centre of town.  Brett paid 500 Rupees (£3) for a blessing from a monk who had had his photo taken with the Dalai Lama.  (He was a little worried he’d been had afterwards though and described the white string bracelet they had tied around his wrist as his ‘rube bracelet’.  I had noticed our waiter last night wearing the same bracelet, so thought it was probably as genuine as such things go.)  Eventually though we retrieved our sandals, ducked the guy who’d followed us around trying to be our guide, and returned to the streets.

It wasn’t clear whether it was a market day or not, but there were plenty of vegetable sellers with their wares laid out on the pavement.  I found it invigorating and could have wandered for hours just taking it all in but we were now in need of a toilet break so headed into a new shopping centre that looked a good bet.  It had the facilities we needed, but was so new that only the supermarket and a couple of banks had yet moved in.  We went in to the supermarket to look for electrolyte drinks for me (John H had reminded me on Facebook that this could be the cause of my malaise) and came out with batteries and ice cream cubes – as you do.

We’d had about enough by now though and were ready to move on.  When I pulled out my phone to call Maliq I saw that I had three missed calls from him – it turned out that he had been getting worried as we’d been gone for two and a half hours.  It seems he hadn’t thought we’d last that long.  He doesn’t seem to be accustomed to travellers being as independent as we want to be.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tea Trail and The Tooth

We were up even earlier this morning to walk one of Norwood’s trails.  They have several treks of varying lengths marked out through the plantation.  We picked the 8km one which Mark & Chris had run the previous morning.

As we set off from the bungalow, the sun was just about to crest the mountains opposite, so we got some lovely early morning light on the tea bushes and trees as we walked.  The trail was a gentle 6km climb to a point where you could just see Adam’s Peak in the  distance and then a 2km descent back to the bungalow.  About half of it was on the road through the plantation and half was on tracks through the bushes themselves.  It was all very scenic and the first exercise we’d done since we came away!

Back at the bungalow we showered and had breakfast with the boys; Chris noting that four of the five people at the table were wearing  Abercrombie & Fitch.  After the sociabilities we all retired to pack and relax before our appointed departure hour.  Mark and Chris left around 10:30 (Mark wanting to try to break his land-speed record for the trip back to Colombo by doing it in less than the 3½ hours!)  We left as planned around 11am.

The drive north to Kandy only took a couple of hours but was somewhat marred by Maliq pulling in to a Gem showroom and expecting us to go in and do the tour.  He hadn’t mentioned it before we stopped and we had no wish to be sold at, so we said we weren’t interested and could we go straight on to the hotel please.  He didn’t take it very well and pretty much lectured us about how it was a ‘recommended’ stop and how we would have learned things if we had gone in!  He subsequently seemed to realise that he had gone a bit far and switched back to information-giving tour guide mode.

We found the hotel without too much difficulty.  It’s a small, very new boutique hotel set in a residential area.  It has lovely views over Kandy from the hillside opposite but, while it is certainly stylish, some of the design seemed poorly thought through and on the whole the place was a little cramped compared to other hotels we’ve stayed in here.

As we’d got there in good time though, we headed straight out to go see Kandy’s premier attraction; the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, one of the most revered artefacts of Buddhism.  After being searched twice by security on our way in and dispensing with our shoes and hats, we finally entered the temple.

Maliq guided us efficiently round the site (although I did have cause to wonder how it could have been King Edward IV who had come out to sign the Kandyan Convention in 1815.)  Because the actual relic is sequestered within nested shrines though, there wasn’t a lot to see except the ornament of the outer one and all of the flower offerings left in front. Lots of impressive carving in the wood though.

Afterwards we went next door to the Cultural Centre and watched a display of Kandyan dancing and some firewalking; Tourist trap.

Back to the hotel for dinner which we took on the terrace overlooking the lights of the night-time city.  We were the only guests in residence, so we had the whole staff to ourselves; the service was a little wobbly in places, but at least they were friendly and (excessively!) eager to please.  I did have to correct them, though when the advertised soufflé turned out to be a mousse!  (I did think a soufflé was possibly a little ambitious for the place, but the mousse was very good instead.)

I was still suffering from a minor headache so we retired straight after dinner and fell asleep by the light of the little fish-filled trough which made up our window ledge.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tea Country

We had a late breakfast this morning, not eating until 8am.  It was a beautiful scene though; sitting at the table on the terrace I could look out over the lawns and the flower beds to the mountain vista just beyond the garden, all partially lit by the morning sun.  Breakfast was all cooked to order and was pretty much whatever we wanted; the fruit plate looked like an architectural concept model the way the slices were stacked together.  There was toast and pastries with lovely jam and marmalade and even marmite for those who wanted it.  The cooked breakfast was equally scrummy and all was accompanied by a delicious selection of teas.

After breakfast Andrew Taylor, a relative of James Taylor who founded the tea industry in Sri Lanka back in the 1850’s, came by to conduct us around the Norwood Tea Factory.  It was an interesting tour, looking at the bud of the tea plant and the top two leaves which are really all they want to make tea, he showed us some bushes which are over a hundred years old and still being harvested today.

While there is a lot of machinery involved in the processing, it’s really a very simple process; nothing is added to the shoots after they are picked.  In essence they are just dried, chopped, filtered to remove the extraneous vegetable fibre and then packed and sold.

We were offered the opportunity to do some tea tasting after the tour.  I was feeling quite rough still and was just grateful to be able to sit down, so I declined, but Chris and Ping had a go and it was interesting to hear the process described; it’s a lot like tasting wine and knowing how the different aspects and flavours manifest  in the mouth.

We also spoke about the workforce; it averages one  person per acre of tea grown and the plantation, which is government-owned but privately run, provides cradle-to-grave support for the ethnic Tamils who make up the pluckers and factory workers.  This includes health care and education.  Only about five percent of those born on the plantations go elsewhere for work, the rest presumably stay to pick up where their parents leave off.

It’s a system that works for the tea production but we nevertheless wondered about the fulfilment of the workforce.  The question came up a couple of times later on but we didn’t come to a satisfactory conclusion.

After lunch on the terrace, we spent the afternoon each doing our own thing.  I blogged a while and uploaded postcards to Facebook and then read some.  Brett, Mark & Ping swam I think.  We reconvened for afternoon tea and explored their tea menu some more.  Before dinner we played various parlour games and ended up doing our own version of Taboo (where one person has to describe a word or phrase without using any of the listed taboo words.)

We had dinner in the dining room again, but by candlelight tonight as the electricity gets a bit uncertain during the rain and we thought it added atmosphere.  After dinner we stayed at the table for a second round of Taboo.  Lots of teasing between Mark and Chris about who was the better/worse loser.  It’s hard to tell which of them is the more competitive…

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Weekend in the Country

We left Galle early as the drive up to Tea Trails was expected to take us about six hours.  Rather than retracing our previous route through the centre of the island, Maliq took us up the coast road northwest back towards Colombo and later turned inland again.

We stopped at a turtle hatchery on the way; set up some years ago to help conserve the several species of turtle existing in Sri Lanka which were being threatened by over predation of both their meat and their eggs.  The hatchery collect the eggs as they are laid, allow them to incubate and hatch in enclosures protected from animals, keep the young for a few days and then release them to the sea.  We were allowed to handle the one- and two-day old turtles and they were very cute.  They also keep a few older turtles that couldn’t survive in the wild (one blind, one with no front flippers, one albino).  It was an interesting diversion and I felt that my 200 rupees were going to a good cause.

We carried on inland, through the colourful panoply of towns and villages, had a brief stop for lunch and a brief stop for me to photograph a large monitor lizard that was ambling along the roadside.  As we reached the hill country, the roads became far twistier and we encountered occasional rain showers.  The final approach to our bungalow is a single-track road, which was once made up but is now more pot-hole than tarmac.  That said, the destination certainly made the trip worthwhile.

I don’t know if I can describe Norwood Bungalow without sounding excessively smug.  The ambiance is that of being invited for a weekend at the villa of a wealthy plantation owner.  It is very much a house, not a hotel; there is a corner of the lounge with bottles of alcohol laid out, a couple of sofas and comfy chairs gather around the open fireplace, there is a small staff on hand to discreetly serve you endless meals, do your laundry, organise any excursions you might want and to generally keep the house in order.  There’s an outdoor pool, a croquet lawn and a couple of wandering paths around the grounds and longer walks around the plantation if you are up for it.

We arrived in time for High Tea and indulged ourselves on cake and scones until Mark and Chris arrived (they are spending the weekend here with us as a break from Colombo.)  We had more tea and regaled them with our experiences so far.  The chef appeared to confirm the dinner menu and time and then we went back to our rooms to freshen up before dinner.

I took a siesta as I’d been feeling under the weather through most of the day and was unusually weary.  It perked me up for dinner though.  We started with drinks in the lounge, where we met the other couple staying here; Anna and Kevin from Oxford, with whom we chatted for a while.  They are leaving tomorrow and seem to be doing almost the reverse of our itinerary, having come from the Kanadalama Hotel and going on to the Lighthouse at Galle when they finish at Tea Trails.  The staff had set them up with dinner in the second lounge, so the five of us had the big dining room to ourselves and had a lovely dinner.

I sloped off early to bed afterwards though to try and sleep off my malaise.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Day Relaxing

After some discussion, Brett and I decided to have a quite day today. Ping went off with Maliq to explore Galle while we lazed.  Brett did some reading and I wandered round with my camera, capturing brochure shots…

Brett had a massage, we both swam in the pool and watched the sun set over the ocean from the terrace.  This is pretty much the dream that Travel Agents promise you; long may it continue.

We have a 9am departure planned for tomorrow when we head up country to the tea plantations and what sounds like everyone’s romantic notions of the colonial high-life.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

To The Beach!

Having said our goodbyes to Mark and the staff of Kulu Safaris, we were reunited with Maliq for the drive down to Galle and our time by the beach.

Our itinerary is not the most logical, as we’ll have to go back past Udawalawe to get to our next destination, Hatton, but the safari shuts down now for a fortnight for the Buddhist new year, so it had to be the first item on our itinerary or we would have missed it entirely.

The drive to Galle was uneventful (although Ping would tell you we had numerous close-calls on the road) and I slept through a lot of it.  For all that you are just sitting in a jeep looking at the scenery, safari is hard work between the early starts and all the hanging-on as you travel cross-country!

We arrived at our hotel, the Lighthouse, mid-afternoon and it is quite the beach paradise.  You arrive on the ground floor via a gloomy canopied fortress-like driveway and are then led up a broad wooden circular staircase, decorated with ‘scrap’ iron statues forming a life-size battle frieze around the inner banister, and as you reach the first floor you turn off and are suddenly presented with a clear view out across the ocean through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors that line the reception area.  Quite breathtaking!

You are seated out on the terrace beyond the doors while they process your check-in and served drinks.  The hotel is built on a rocky promontory so you are regularly treated to huge surf sprays as the waves crash on the rocks about fifty feet beyond the terrace; close enough to be a feature, but far enough away not to be a saltwater shower!  To the side are a couple of palm-tree-lined beaches and the hotel grounds.

The rooms are lovely; minimal as things go, but very spacious, very comfortable and with all the amenities you really need.  The en suite area is another room unto itself; behind a sliding teak panel you have a small lobby with the bath, basin and an enormous closet and to either side of the bath are shower and toilet rooms.  Our balcony looks over an infinity pool to the palm-fringed beach and the ocean.  For once, the reality really does match the image in the brochure…

We took advantage of the facilities to shave and properly wash away the grime of the safari before taking advantage of Room Service to save us having to walk anywhere for lunch, then we took advantage of the big, comfortable beds for an afternoon nap.  Bliss.

Pre-dinner cocktails on the terrace, listening to the sound of the surf and admiring the horizon lined with the lights of hundreds of fishing boats.  We dined in the main restaurant on the five-course-plus-coffee set menu, which was pleasant enough but reminded me that we are now at a package hotel – a recognition which sadly took the glamour off the place a little after the personalised experience at Kulu.  Nevertheless, it’s all relative and it’s still a fabulous hotel; I would happily stay here for a good long while as a chill-out holiday.

Final Safari

We were up at 5am again this morning for our final trip into the bush.  We did well again today with more elephant close-encounters, one of which was particularly photogenic, another of which involved a game of ‘chicken’ with a playful young bull.  There were also buffalo, pelicans, woodpeckers, eagles, monkeys and a peculiar black bee (that may have been a beetle) with diaphanous wings fracturing the sunlight into a constantly changing spectrum.

Back at camp there was a frog looking very cute, peering out  from behind the frame of the mirror in the shower.  And that wasn’t the last of it; even as we left camp for the final time, we had to chase an iguana off the road.  Our departure was further delayed by an encounter with three elephants enjoying the shade of a tree whose shadow crossed the road.  There was an amount of back-and-forth between the jeep and the one in the middle of the road before she finally stood aside and we could pass.

If we’d had the time and the money, I wouldn’t have minded doing a few more days with Kulu though.  Being (kind of) away from modern civilisation was tranquil and relaxing and watching all these creatures existing in their natural habit, lying there at night listening to the sounds of the jungle, serves to remind you that we are all part of a fabric of life, an ecosystem, and not separate from it as it is so easy to believe living in the city.

I won’t really miss the chemical toilet and having to keep the toilet paper in tupperware, but as such things go, that’s a minor issue – it did its job and didn’t smell (no bad thing in these temperatures!)  I got some stunning photographs of the wildlife and had a great time doing it.  Mark was a genial host and he has a good business going there I think.  (Amongst other things, Ping and he were talking about online marketing and he asked us all to send him our views on their website content.)  As soon as I get time, I’m going to check out Kulu Safari’s Facebook group and post a few of my own pictures too.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Grazing Elephants and Knee-Deep in Mud

We were up before dawn at 5am this morning.  The humidity means that absolutely everything around camp is damp, but the temperature makes that not unpleasant.  The porcupine had been back during the night and been gnawing on Brett’s sandals, so we are going to be more careful what we leave out tonight.

Mark brought us all coffee which was quickly supped and then we were on our way.

Today was a much better game day than yesterday; plenty of birds and herds of water buffalo, several herds of elephants and several solitary males.

We tracked the elephants for a while and once we saw their direction we pulled the jeep almost in front of them and switched off the engine.  Sure enough they grazed their way past us, within yards of the jeep.  I took plenty of photographs but once I was done, it was a deep pleasure just to sit and watch them; a selection of ages, massive and placid, interacting with each other, familial; the silence of the plain, broken only by peacock wails and the tramping and chomping and occasional guttural growling of the elephants themselves, was beautiful and very satisfying.

We also got close to a young bull who was accompanied by three egrets and sat and watched him grazing for a while.  There were huge owls, eagles and a small flock of parrots.  There are peacocks everywhere, some of them in plumage.  Several times we saw them take wing which is quite a sight and we got to watch an eagle catch some small prey and feed quite nearby.

We stopped for a while on a promontory overlooking the central lake of the park.  It was a comfort and snack break with some great vistas; most of the park is quite flat so you don’t easily appreciate the scale of it until you get a little altitude and see how far it goes on!  Although there were distant pelicans on the lake and a wandering buffalo, the only close encounters we had were with crows after our biscuit crumbs.

On our way back to camp for breakfast however, we attempted to cross a channel where the jeep just couldn’t make it up the other side and then couldn’t back out.  After a bit of spinning wheels back and forth, Mark got out and unwound the winch on the front and pulled it out of the ravine.  It was a chance for me to get out of the vehicle and I took it.  The warm mud between your toes was lovely – who needs expensive spa treatments!

A little further along the same track though, we got bogged down in the soft mud again and really could not get out.  We tried the winch, we tried rocking the jeep back and forth to release the suction – then the winch gave out.  We tried pushing unsuccessfully.  (Trying to gain purchase in the soft mud beneath a foot of water was interesting – but not unpleasant.)  In the end we had to call for help – bizarrely in the middle of miles of wilderness there is better mobile coverage than Rod & Jess get back in Wimbledon!

While we waited, we walked along to the next ravine and rested in the shade, drinking the mango juice and keeping cool with our feet in the running stream.  If I’d had a blanket to lie on, I could have stayed there all day, but the sound of elephants foraging nearby made a return to the relative safety of the jeep a necessity.

An hour or so after we’d sent out the call, the rangers arrived in their landrover and, after much discussion and trial-and-error, (which on several occasions looked like it would result in them being bogged-down too!) we eventually got the jeep free and set off for camp again.

Having waded through mud up to our knees, when we got back it seemed appropriate to bathe in the river rather than take a shower, so Ping and I did just that and it was very refreshing.  The boys were serving a combined breakfast/lunch by the time we were done, so we took our leisure by the river again and ate heartily.  Almost as soon as we’d retired for siesta though, the rains came down and didn’t let up.  We’d planned to do another safari in the late afternoon but aborted in favour of an early morning one tomorrow instead.

We spent the afternoon relaxing and just watching the river through the rain.  We had tea and biscuits and later cocktails and then a barbeque dinner.  (I had been sceptical of the chances of barbequing in a tent, but it worked out perfectly well.)  The porcupine (now nicknamed Peter) showed up later on and scared Brett out of his wits by walking over his feet before anyone noticed he was there.

As I write, it is pitch black outside, broken only by the few flaming torches which bound the camp.  The night is full of sound; the sounds of the river, the cicadas and crickets doing their thing, the occasional water pit-patting down out of the canopy and the odd peacock call or elephant roar.  The rain has stopped now and it’s a lovely mild night; the sky is clear enough to see the stars.  Ping observed earlier that we’ve been here barely forty-eight hours, but it already feels like forever; we are all comfortable and familiar and totally at home.  I have mixed feelings about having to leave tomorrow.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Golden Light

The morning started early as we had a 7am departure organised.  Mark and Chris laid on true feast for breakfast; lots of fresh fruit, yoghurt, scrambled eggs with cheese and ham and home-baked pastries and muffins (I hate to think how early Chris was up to prepare them!) and plenty of coffee to perk us up.  It was a great way to start the day.

We met our driver for the fortnight, Maliq, and set off into the morning rush-hour, heading south.  The traffic was busier and more chaotic this morning than it had been yesterday afternoon but it wasn’t long before we escaped the Colombo suburbs and had as open a road as there is.  The trip to Udawalawe took a little less than four hours, which was better than expected.  I gathered so many impressions along the way that it’s hard to integrate them all into anything coherent, so I may leave talking about my general impressions until the end of the trip when I’m more familiar and in a retrospective frame of mind.

At the park entrance, we said a temporary farewell to Maliq, as he goes off to find himself accommodation while we are on safari. and we said hello to Mark, the owner of Kulu Safaris and our host for the next two nights.  As soon as the luggage was transferred into the jeep we headed off into the National Park.  Our camp is located fairly centrally within the park, so it was about a thirty-minute drive along the dirt tracks to reach it.

Along the way we saw our first selection of game; a distant group of elephants, some deer and several peacocks.  The camp itself is a marvel.  It’s set on the side of a river, in which we can swim, so long as someone watches out for the crocodiles and which is crossed on a regular basis by a herd of water buffalo who are hunted by the crocodiles.  Brett and I have a tent, all quite luxurious as camping goes, with a decent double bed within an insect-free inner and our own awning/lounge space.  Nearby there are enclosures for toilet and shower and in the other direction a canopy for dining under if it rains and the kitchen/staff tents.

We settled in, and then had a beer and lunched on the bank of the river; the boys had prepared us a selection of Sri Lankan dishes; mostly vegetarian and spiced/curried.  After a siesta we headed off into the bush around 3pm for our first proper safari.

It was quite a quiet afternoon and we didn’t really see much up-close.  The jeep ride along the game trails is an experience though – better than any rollercoaster I’ve ever been on!  It also rained from about four o’clock, but rain in the tropics isn’t quite the miserable thing it is in the UK.  Mark and his team had ponchos at the ready for us and when it got heavy, we rolled down the plastic shield at the front.

As we headed back towards camp around 6pm, the evening light turned the whole landscape from yellow, to orange, to red before the sun finally set.  It was quite special.

It was still raining a little when we got back to camp so we were dining under cover by lamplight.  I tried out the shower first though; they fill the reservoir with hot water on request (although normally it’s not required) and I had a quick shower to wash off the dust of the road before dinner.

Over dinner we chatted to Mark; he co-owns Kulu Safaris with a friend and they also have a boutique hotel less than an hour from Colombo.  Ping asked him for the card as it sounds like the sort of thing Mark & Chris may like to try.

After dinner we were joined in camp by their occasional guest, a foraging porcupine.  Once he’d wandered on though, we turned in for an early night.

Sunset and Dinner on the Beach

The onward flight was unremarkable.  We arrived at Colombo about half an hour early and were met at the gate by Mark.  We were first off our plane and our plane was about five minutes ahead of a packed Sri Lankan Airlines slight from London, so we were ahead of the crowd at Immigration.  Our luggage was amongst the first ones which came through.  All in all we managed to exit the terminal building about fifteen minutes after exiting the aircraft.  That’s got to be a record for a long-haul flight!

The drive back to their house took about forty minutes and, although Mark seemed worried we’d be petrified by the anarchic driving practices of Colombo, it wasn’t actually that bad.  I spent most of the drive looking out of the window and taking in the ambience; lots of lush scenery and tuk-tuks, people playing cricket and open-air shops.

Colombo reminds me of a combination of Havana and Singapore; it has a tropical climate – although pleasantly temperate today – but on the one hand the people are poor and the infrastructure is mostly run-down and on the other, there are spots of fine British Colonial architecture alongside occasional ultra-modern glass & chrome buildings.

There’s an obvious military presence and everyone in uniform carries a rifle, which Mark assured us were not for show.  There are regular traffic checkpoints throughout the city and lots of green-sandbagged watchtowers/gun emplacements.  The soldiers all looked young – Mark told us that, because of recent losses, the government had to up its recruiting targets and they are mostly filled by young men.  The soldiers we saw seemed to be in the 16-18 year range.

We had arrived early enough to be able to go out for dinner, so we did a quick freshen-up and then headed out in taxis to the old Galle Face hotel.

The Galle Face is a grand old colonial spot on the beach next to where the liners from the UK would dock, back in the day.  We had drinks on the beach-side lawn, watching the waves roll-in and the sun set over the ocean.

It was at that point I really began to soften I think.  There had been cracks in the facade on the drive from the airport as it settled into my head that this was terra incognita (for me), but while I sat there on the lawn, sipping my gin with the waves rolling in from Africa and listening to Chris regale us with all we can expect on the safari tomorrow, I really began to get excited.  We are going to have such a fantastic holiday!

Anyway, pre-dinner drinks complete, we headed up the road to their favourite seafood restaurant, Beach wadiya.  It’s the kind of place that gets imitated a lot in holiday resorts, but this felt far more genuine; we sat at tables in the sand a few metres up from the waterline and the menu was the catches of the day presented on a tray for you to pick from.  We got extremely messy picking our way through sweet-chilli crab, garlic prawns and grilled fish (I never quite got clear what type of fish it was, but it was very tasty.)

We rolled back to the house for a nightcap around 10 as we have to leave at 7am tomorrow to get to Udawalawe in good time.  Mark plied Brett and I with Glenmorangie, Ping showed off his sarong and Chris took Theo for his walk out in the garden.  (Theo being their lovely labrador puppy.)

Apparently we are sleeping in Kylie’s bed, or at least the one she slept in when she stayed here.  That will make a couple of friends back home insanely jealous.  Mwuhahaha!

And finally, because it just has to be said; “Mr Ambassador,  with ze Ferrero Rocher you are really spoiling us!”

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunrise Over Arabia

Apart from traffic delays on the way to Heathrow, the holiday  has started quite well; we flew Business Class with Qatar which made the overnight flight much more bearable, although the flight wasn’t long enough to really sleep well.  As they were serving breakfast we were able to watch the sunrise over the desert of Saudi Arabia which was quite lovely.  (Note to self; avoid Arab Meze Breakfast in future!)

This is the furthest East that Brett has ever been and he seems both excited by the prospect and a little nervous of it.  He mentioned previously that this is his first trip outside of the ‘Western World’, so I suppose some trepidation is to be expected; he knows it will be different but he’s not really sure how different or how he’ll respond to it.

Ping is also excited, he is less clear about why though.  It seems to hinge on the concept of ‘the Western World’ too; he says he gets this feeling when he goes anywhere in the East now, but not to places like Helsinki, even though he’s never been there either.  Perhaps the sense of the exotic, the unknown?  I’ll have to see if I can tease it out of him as the trip progresses.  He also mentions his enjoyment of travelling with friends, which was nice.

As for me, I am not yet excited but I am starting to feel that I’m on holiday.  I think that the excitement will develop once we leave Colombo for the safari.  Tracking game in the jungle by Land Rover and sleeping under canvas will be enjoyable enough, but having a staff to serve your meals and make your bed while you do it will be quite the experience!  That, plus I probably need a few days to decompress and relax.

Have just chatted to Mark on Facebook and he tells me it’s looking like a lovely day in Colombo.  Chris is home too (last seen in Russia and Switzerland) so the timing has worked out well.

Ah, and now I’ve got a chat window with Chris C in Oregon – what a globe-spanning network of friends and relations I have.

Anyway, I’m going to publish this and go have a nosy out of the windows to get my glimpse of Qatar – although we have a longer layover on the return, so may save any exploration attempt until then.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Departure Day

Well, after a mammoth catch-up on the last two weeks in the previous post, here begins the holiday blogging.  Yeay!

We’re flying this evening, so we’ve just got a shedload of household chores and some packing to do and then we’re off to Sri Lanka for a fortnight.

Rosie is house-sitting for us and providing us  with airport transfers.  Ping, who’s travelling with us, is meeting us there.

In what is probably the last gasp of our pre-mortgage-commitment lifestyle, we are flying Business Class with Qatar Airways, so even though it’s a long flight (fourteen hours travelling, eleven and a half in the  air, overnight) I am expecting a comfortable journey.

Just Another Week

It’s been nearly two weeks since the last posting – I’m backsliding again! Then again, most of last week was pretty much the same as the week before, so you don’t really want to hear all that again, do you?

Notable differences were going to see Radio 4 Stands Up (A Stand-Up Comedy programme) being recorded last Tuesday. Another trade show on Wednesday; this one about Unified Communications which wasn’t anything special – apart from me getting a very good massage and a shoe-shine into the bargain.

Saturday was the day assigned for my birthday celebrations. Brett had organised a meal at Albannach, a Scottish restaurant on Trafalgar Square. It began to look a bit risky on the day though as several people called-off due to a bad cold which is doing the rounds – we began to wonder if anyone would turn up. In the end though, people did and we had a very pleasant meal in their private dining room, along with John Mc, Rod & Jess, Ping, Owen, Jerry & Rosie. Ping tried Absinthe but wasn’t much taken with it. Everyone else had wine and whisky (they have an extensive collection of both!) and I got given lots of cards and gifts.

Jerry bought me a rather nice bottle of aged port and a CD to try out a new artist, Rosie bought me fancy cufflinks and a box of hand-decorated champagne flutes (something we are a bit short off), Ping got me a couple of photography books; one a quite practical technique guide and one a coffee table book (Anderson and Low’s “Athlete Warrior”) which is more gay artistic soft-porn than anything else! (And hence I liked it!!)

On the whole though it was a very civilised evening of good food and conversation. We ended the evening with some delicious Balvenie and a contented feeling.

Chorus this week was at the City of London Girls’ School again and I got tagged for a birthday boy and had the whole Chorus sing to me. I’ve managed to avoid it every other year, but Brett wasn’t going to let that happen for my fortieth and it was a very powerful moment.

Michael W also spoke to me about doing some photo work for FFK to which I was certainly agreeable. We’re going to speak in detail after we get back from Sri Lanka.

Apart from it being the season for annual reviews, the week so far at work has been mundane.

My actual birthday was last Wednesday, the 18th. I hadn’t really planned much for it – I was at work all day and rather fancied a quiet night in.  Mikey, who hadn’t been able to attend at the weekend, had asked about doing something that night, so he was invited along. I dithered for a while about whether to invite anyone else and in the end invited Rosie too. Then Chris C from St. Helens dropped me a message to say he was going to be in town and did I want to catch up, so I invited him as well.

As the hour approached though, Rosie called off sick (that damn cold) and Chris was delayed en route, Mikey was delayed for reasons unspecified but showed up shortly after 8, so the three of us dined and drank and generally had an enjoyable drunken evening. For reasons to do with his profile photo which are too complex to explain, there was a point where we updated a couple of things on his Facebook profile and then stole his phone so he couldn’t change them. All rather teenage, but tremendous good fun and actually a bit of quid pro quo on my part for previous misdemeanours when he’s had his hands on my diary!

Mikey had to leave at 10 though (Surprisingly drunk for how much he’d had! I learned subsequently he’d thrown-up on the Tube. Oh dear, the yoof of today!) Which meant he almost passed Chris arriving on his way out.

Chris joined us after a tedious journey for a bottle or two more of the wine and we did a bit of catching up.

Actually, I’m not sure it really was catching up, it was more just drunken chatter as I was pretty far gone myself by that point.

Thursday, I had taken time off work to recover from a hangover which I richly deserved but managed to avoid by drinking lots of water before bed and staying up until about 2am. Nevertheless, I took it easy this morning and just pottered around the flat.

We were due in North London with the Chorus boys for a school assembly at Mikey’s school to discuss LGBT issues – fairly groundbreaking stuff for the LGMC and, I think for the school. It all went well; Mikey was his usual hyperactive self, but articulate and prepared; it was easy to tell that he does a lot of presenting.

We sang to top and tail the assembly and FFK members did ‘Bless The Broken Road’ in the middle. We also were asked to volunteer stories of our own experiences of homophobia or coming out.

I was slated to speak last and, listening to those who went before me I was glad because what I had prepared was so anodyne. I almost ducked out but in the end spoke briefly about the trauma of coming out for the first time; to Phil, my best friend at school. I don’t think I was especially articulate on any of the topics I’d like to have mentioned, but I was assured that I was at least spontaneous and genuine sounding. Hmm.

In the evening I’d been asked to chair a meeting of the Chorus’ Steering Committee as they discussed one of the more contentious topics they need to deal with; how to manage the growth of the group. It was quite a ride. Started out okay but as the complexities of the issues involved came out it got more and more messy and, although I stamped hard on people a few times, I rather think I should have done it more. Still, at the end of the meeting we had made a few decisions and inched the issue forward a little.

If they ask me to do it again, which is doubtful I think, it would certainly require a much firmer hand – and probably an alcohol ban!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Lots of Time Spent in The Cloud

Chorus on Monday was rehearsing at the Roundhouse. We were trying it out as an alternative rehearsal venue and we had four DMDs auditioning. It was a really nice venue, if a little monochromatic. Generally a good night apart, from Martin B having a real go at Mikey for our talking. He was quite threatening, so during break lots of words were had with Anthony and Sacha; Mikey and I may talk a lot during rehearsal, but Martin was out of order with the way he addressed it. I think he thought better of it during the second half though as he apologised to us afterwards.

On the way home, we travelled most of the way with one of the DMD candidates; he was one of my choices and a nice chap in person, but sadly didn’t get the gig in the end.

Tuesday I was up in town for a seminar about the Cloud. It was slightly unusual in that the first three speakers were telling us how easy it was to build your own cloud and the fourth speaker said, ‘Why would you want to? Buy cloud services from someone else!’ It was a thought-provoking session though, so worth half a day of my time.

In the evening I was to Greenwich with all my photography gear to do headshots and rehearsal shots for David W’s play. All went fairly smoothly and I got the dates for the other shots straightened out too.

The highlight of Wednesday was lunch with Owen. He had a lot on his mind about his relationship and where it's going but I managed to raise a few smiles…

Thursday night we had tickets to Fame. Met up with Rosie for food at The Atlas which was good before meeting up with Mikey, Joffrey & Michael M to head to the theatre. Stuart B had choreographed the show by Cygnet Players who did A Chorus Line a while back. Fortunately the choreography was good, but sadly the cast lacked energy – which you need for a show like Fame – and there were problems with the sound levels so you couldn’t hear the lyrics a lot of the time. But even so it was an enjoyable evening.

Friday morning I was at Old Billingsgate Market for another supplier event. This one was less worthwhile (who knew the Google UK CEO would be so dull??) I even managed to miss the free lunch. Back at the office I did my first presentation of the Tech Strategy… just to the team and it was more of a Q&A session, but it went well and everyone seemed enthusiastic.

Got a reply back from a lady in Microsoft’s marketing team too, so it looks like I might be joining their focus groups. I need to start a (technical) blog and get on Twitter (which I’m now on). More to follow on this I suspect.

In passing I noticed that Friday was also Marcus Nicoll’s birthday – not that there ever really was a Marcus Nicol; living in London now the paranoia of a Scottish squaddie seems a world away. I will probably always wonder what became of the guy I knew and will probably never know. Still, je ne regrette rien

We had a full-day rehearsal on Saturday. On arrival I had quite a firm talking to from Sacha (well, as firm as Sacha can do, he is really rather a gentle man) and it seems Mikey had had a similar dressing down from Anthony, so we determined to be quiet – and spent the day on the back row chatting by notepad instead. It all rather got me thinking about taking up sign language; I always was fascinated by the Drasnian secret language… We’ll see!

The rehearsal itself went fairly smoothly; lots of songs about London.

The rest of the weekend has been pretty much all geeky stuff. In my Microsoft researches I’ve come across a couple of neat facilities which I may be able to use (or at least use as inspiration for stuff) at work, so I was playing with them to get my head around how things worked. Housework too. Blah!

Think I’ve finally pulled out of the winter blues. Am fairly looking forward to work tomorrow as I get to start putting strategy into action.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Prince Who Relied Upon Their Words

And another week has gone by; this one just as crazy as the last.

Monday, as ever, was Chorus; sectionals this week. Still doing the part new/part familiar repertoire.

Tuesday I was up early to catch a train out to a supplier’s offices for a seminar on Software Asset Management. It was an interesting day but principally reassured me that we don’t have a need for that particular area of products. On the way back into town I met up with Mikey for a coffee. When he’d suggested meeting it had sounded like he needed to talk some heavy stuff over, but in the end it turned out to be a purely social visit. It seemed a little strange since we’d only seen each other the previous evening…

Wednesday at work was mostly taken up with hassling users about the rapidly dwindling disk space on our London file server. In the last two weeks, we’ve added more data than we added in the whole of 2005; even with Moore’s law factored in, that’s really excessive growth I’d say!

In the evening I was out at the Gay Photographers Network meeting near Vauxhall; listened to a lecture about Yukio Mishima, a photographic pioneer in Japan in the ‘50s, showed off a few of my own recent pictures and then came home.

Thursday was all about disk space again but we all left work a bit early to go to the Comedy Café for our (very late) team Christmas jolly. We had a good evening despite being sat right in front of the stage and getting picked on by each comedian. We’d booked a party package (meal + show) which meant we got party hats too. We were the only ones in the room with party hats. They didn’t get worn.

Friday was just an obstacle to be overcome to get to the weekend.

The night wasn’t great though as Brett heard back about his audition for FFK – he didn’t get in and was quite brought down by it since he suspects secondary criteria might have been put ahead of primary criteria in the decision. It seems to have crystallised his thinking a little about what his interests really are though and he’s reassessing his priorities now.

Saturday I spent a while working on the Sri Lanka itinerary and then we headed out to the new Westfield Shopping Centre near Shepherds Bush. I needed a lightweight summer jacket (my old one, which never fitted properly anyway, has developed a tear under one arm) and some trainers. Ping joined us on a whim and we had a good wander round. The place has something of the feel of an airport about it but still works well as shopping mall. I achieved a first by buying something from UniQlo (the aforementioned jacket) and then went on to Top Shop to buy cheap t-shirts to go with the jacket; one of the more unusual shopping combinations I’ve ever tried…

We had been planning Sunday lunch with Rosie, Mikey, Ruth & Chris but the latter two declined the invite early in the week because Ruth had a girlie weekend organised, Mikey called Saturday evening to bail out because he had essays to write (his unreliability is beginning to try my patience!) and Rosie spent Saturday with Ruth being girlie, so we cancelled lunch with her so she could carry on with their weekend.

Instead we arranged brunch in Wimbledon with Rod & Jess for late Sunday morning after they’d done their morning rides and had a very pleasant catch-up with them. In typical London style, we are seeing them more often now that they live further away!

This afternoon I spent processing the photos I took of Jerry at the session last week and there are some nice shots there, so it was a good day.

Am contemplating having a year along the lines of the one John Windle had a few years back; doing all the things I never did when I was young that everyone else seemed to. If not exactly that, then at least making a deliberate effort to push the boundaries of my existence.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The week in short:

Monday; winter blues seemed dissipated. Work okay. Chorus okay too.

Tuesday; good day at work, went talk to a man about a play and some photographs in the evening.

Wednesday: Spent the morning doing market research and the afternoon doing my own research. Left work late as a result and then got delayed on the way home.

Thursday: Was so-so.

Friday: Lunched with Ping which was pleasant. Spent the afternoon expecting a phone call that never came but got useful work done in the meantime. Went out to a Chorus social in the evening. Felt old and grumpy and wanted them to turn the music down.

Saturday: Went along to a St John Ambulance induction in the morning (disorganised), met up with Brett to do the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy in the afternoon (overcrowded and not well laid-out) and on to Greenwich for a movie in the evening. (The movie was meant to be Benjamin Button, but traffic chaos meant it took us an hour to get there so we watched ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ instead which was formula Hollywood RomCom.)

Tomorrow will be household chores in the morning and a photoshoot with Jerry H from Chorus in the afternoon.

That’s my week. Winter Blues/Mid-Life crisis still have me in the dumps.

Message Ends.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Day at the Alhambra

It’s Valentine’s Day today, also Brett’s nephew John-Paul’s birthday. The trip to the Alhambra wasn’t as enjoyable as I’d hoped. Arriving early meant we missed the worst of the crowds as planned. We didn’t miss all the crowds however and I found myself continually frustrated as other tourists kept getting in the way of my lens. In fact, as a photography outing it was really disappointing; I hadn’t reconnoitred, so I was winging it entirely and I had to make the best of what equipment and light was available, so what I took amount to just holiday snapshots. Maybe one or two of them will be decent.

I also found my tolerance for people didn’t take long to wear away again. It was more relaxing though once we’d finished with the Palaces and the Alcazaba and were strolling through the Medina to the Generalife. The Medina is mostly gardens these days, with occasional old ruins along the way, so quite peaceful and green. The oranges weren’t quite ripe on the trees, but they were colourful enough to give the effect, and there was the warm, moist smell of nature as you walked through the trees and hedgerows.

Large parts of the Generalife were being renovated and so were closed off, which meant the crowd was more concentrated in the areas which were open. That spoiled the effect somewhat, as part of the attraction of the Generalife is the quiet seclusion you can find amongst its shaded walkways.

While the day had its moments, I was quite glad when it was over. The lift and relaxation I’d felt the previous evening had evaporated and I was tired and longing for solitude again.

We stopped for lunch at a little roadside restaurant on the way down from the Alhambra. It was quite picturesque; being situated on the side of the hill the terrace had views off to the Nasrid Palaces on one side and over the outskirts of Granada towards the Sierra Nevada on the other. The weather had turned out nicely; having been close to freezing when we arrived (in our shorts!), the sun was now up and very pleasantly warm. We were after tapas for lunch and they had a selection – although we should have ordered a salad too if we were going to eat traditionally Spanish! As it was we basically ate deep-fried carbohydrates with some jamon serrano and manchego. I sent a (rather smug) text-message ‘postcard’ to the few friends who knew we were away, then we settled-up and made our way home.

I was pretty drained by the time got back. Rosie cooked dinner for us and we had ice cream for dessert (too much of it, in my case.) We watched De-Lovely at my request, because I love the songs. I’d forgotten that it’s actually a rather depressing movie. Went to bed early when it was done.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Woke up at the usual time but before everyone else. Showered then breakfasted continental-style. The apartment is cold when the sun isn’t on it but there was plenty of hot water so the shower wasn’t unpleasant and the heater unit had warmed the lounge by the time I sat down to eat.

After breakfast I grabbed my camera and wandered down to the beach. It’s a bit dirty, but not unusable and I was able to make use of the jetsam in some photographs. It’s February so even in Spain the air is chilly, but when the sun comes out it’s very pleasant.

Back at the apartment Brett and Rosie were breakfasting. The sun hadn’t come round to our garden area yet, so we went around to the pool area and read in the sun for an hour or so, by which time we could come back and lunch in the sun behind our apartment. Rosie and I took a drive into Mijas-Costa and had a look around; very pleasant, not too touristy.

Dined-in on chicken stir-fry before sitting down to watch Wanted, which was a movie I’d wanted to see in the cinema but as it turned out to be a little too far-fetched I was glad not to have spent the money on it. After the movie we pondered what to do tomorrow and settled on a trip to the Alhambra Palace. I did a quick bit of research via the reception building’s wifi and we agreed on an early start, so got an early night.