Archive for November, 2009

My favourite sign in Tokyo: “Used Clothing Bingo”

As I type I am riding the bus to Narita airport, which our hotel diplomatically calls the “Friendly Limousine” I find it hard to begrudge them this exaggeration for two reasons, firstly that I am literally the only person on said bus, and secondly because the hotel itself is stunningly gorgeous and exceedingly swish. I am also rather amused by the scrolling information sign “For Narita airport. Please inform the driver when you see a suspicious thing and a suspicious person”. Japanese English is just brilliant.

This week has been amazing. I have had an absolutely fucking kick ass time, and learned many things, including but not limited to the following:

  • You really need to speak Japanese to be in Japan. Seriously. I am accustomed to being able to fumble my way round any number of countries by guessing, pointing, speaking English, speaking a fragmented version of some other language, or just plain dumb luck. Not so in Japan. Tokyo is reputed to be one of the more gaijin-friendly places, and even here people rarely have more than a couple of words of English. Even getting a taxi is a problem as place names are only recognizable in Japanese to the majority of people, which to any European is a series of unintelligible squiggles. I consider myself a fairly seasoned traveler, and Tokyo was occasionally entirely beyond me.
  • It is not as expensive as I thought it would be. Don’t get me wrong, its fucking expensive. But compared to London it is not in any way out of the ordinary. I’m told it has normalized to the west a little in the last decade or so.
  • Japanese people are crazy.
  • School uniforms are some sort of fashion. Kids will actually dress in them on weekends to go to places like Harajuku (kind of like Camden but with cutesy anime characters instead of goths)
  • Karaoke in those little rooms that you rent is possibly the most ridiculously amusing thing ever. And you can get unlimited drinks for 2 hours there. Clearly not that many irish people have been frequenting them or they would have learned the error of their ways by now
  • My friend the german is really fucking awesome. As is his Korean wife, who was delighted to discover that irish people are not, in fact, all that religious.
  • Japanese beer is really good.
  • When you buy horrendously awful  porn in Japan it comes not just in a brown paper bag, but a brown paper bag with a picture of some cute puppies on the front. And a poem. About puppies. I wish I was joking.
  • There is no tipping in Japan. As someone who has lived in the states for a year and a half this is really, really weird.
  • The train to Kyoto is $300. This is why we did not go to Kyoto. I found this outrageously expensive until I discovered that the train to Kyoto is an express train that takes 2 hours, whereas the bus takes about 13 because Kyoto is in fact very far away.
  • Tuna are really very big
  • I am really quite tall
  • Japanese women dress even better than New York women. Its really quite impressive. I think I saw maybe 2 chicks looking less than perfect the whole week. And I am pretty sure both of them were doing it on purpose.
  • I cannot buy clothes in asia. With the exception of a giant pair of Hello Kitty sweatpants, absolutely nothing fits someone with an ass as eh, western as mine. Sizes run from XXXS to M if you are lucky, and a size M jacket doesn’t fit over my shoulders.
  • Cell phones work on all public transport (subway, bus, train etc), but you are asked not to use them as (and I quote) “they annoy the neighbours”.
  • Foreign phones do not work in Japan. Not because roaming isn’t turned on, not because they suck, but because japan does not seem to make deals with foreign telecoms companies. So much to my surprise out of the 4 phones I had on me (blackberry, G1, Nokia Irish PAYG phone and Siemens UK PAYG phone) not a single one of them worked.
  • It can piss rain for 5 solid days in this bloody country. But its hard to stay mad at Japan
  • Mount Fuji is incredibly beautiful
  • Hot springs are an absolute must do. They separate women and men, everyone goes naked, and you lie around watching the sun set over the mountains. Stunning.
  • I have said I judge a place on its bathroom facilities, Tokyo wins both best and worst in this category. The hotel room had a toilet (whom we affectionately dubbed Timmy the Robo-toilet) that did everything from warming the seat, to making a flush noise so people can’t hear you peeing, to providing three different types of water jet to clean you after you have completed your activities (in case anyone cares, I do not recommend “oscillating spray” but most of the others are ok). The nearby subway station however, had a fucking porcelain hole in the ground.
  • The Tokyo Emerging Science Museum has, amongst other awesome things, robots. Robots which you can drive. Robots are cool.
  • Tokyo went through a phase sometime in the 80s of building imitations of western landmarks. So this week we saw an imitation Statue of Liberty (smaller than the real thing) and an imitation Eiffel Tower (bigger than the real thing).
  • The Japanese are _incredibly_ polite. They thank you profusely for your custom, they bow when they are handing you your change, and they present you with their card using both hands as if it is some sort of award. Presumably all the while thinking you are an ignorant westerner with the cultural awareness of a dung beetle, but they are very nice about it all the same.
  • When you get a bus to Narita airport, they do an inspection at the airport entrance to check you have your passport. At least I think this is all they check, they didn’t even look inside it when I waved it at them.
  • The Japanese seem to quite like the French. Which seems odd, because as far as I can gather almost no-one else does (Sorry FGs :) Sad but true)

Rules for happiness: always hide the onset of raging leprosy

My flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo left at 10.30 in the morning and went via Tai Pei. Unfortunately, I just could. Not. Sleep. I lay awake trying to doze off pretty much all goddamn bloody night, turned the air-con on, turned the air-con off again, had this dull headache-y feeling that just wouldn’t go away, and felt generally like ass. I must have dozed off briefly though, because when I finally opened my eyes to FG2s alarm going off, I realized there was something odd happening, they weren’t opening properly. As it turns out this is because my eyelids were puffed out like ping pong balls and looked utterly ridiculous. I put this down to not sleeping enough, took some painkillers and had tea with the fabulous FG2 before she went to work. I then finished packing, got my shit together, and headed for my flight. Hong Kong has a truly marvelous feature, which is that you can check in your luggage in the main station before you take the train to the airport, something that all major cities should most definitely adopt as it is made of win. Having divested myself of my cumbersome baggage I then made my way to the airport train, feeling slightly odd, but not unwell enough to think anything of it.

As I boarded the plane I noticed that my wrists had a strange looking rash on them which I could have sworn hadn’t been there a few hours previously. This became slightly more alarming in Taipei where I noticed it had morphed into a solid red lump on each arm and become rather itchy, and about half an hour before we landed in Tokyo I woke from a snooze to discover that it now speckled all of my arms, and from the feeling of most of my upper body had made it to my torso. At this point, I was forced to acknowledge that I was having a full-blown allergic reaction, and that it was getting worse. Not only this, but I had it leaving china, source of half the world’s potential pandemics in the last several years. Nothing engenders paranoia like someone leaving china looking like they have early stage leprosy. In fact if this had never happened before I would have been pretty damn freaked out myself. Fortunately, I am familiar with this one.

I am allergic to a variety of things. Most of these are stupid and easily avoidable – bubble bath, certain types of fabric softener, aniseed. Some of them are more serious – I am heinously allergic to penicillin for example. Yet more of them are the subject of some uncertainty – certain additives in food colouring which I haven’t narrowed down really, a few types of sweetener. I very rarely come across the latter in the EU because EU law covering food additives is fairly restrictive, and frankly I rarely come across them in the US because I don’t eat the kind of crappy sweets the US generally has to offer. This particular reaction has only happened once before when I was 16, and I had to eat about 15 packets of M&Ms to induce it (yes, 15. I really liked m&ms and I have a tendency to over-do things)

In any case, I was in neither the EU nor the US, I was in China, a country that sells cartons of milk that say “made with real milk” on the side. In fact I am fairly certain the milk in my tea that morning and the previous night was the perpetrator of my blotchiness, but despite the fact that it had been about 12 hours, things continued to worsen. By the time I had gotten through customs (while hiding my arms and trying to look healthy) I could tell it was all over my legs too. By the time I finally found Cheese (the person, not the delicious foodstuff) and went back to the hotel (a tale in its own right) my entire skin was one huge red lump. It was everywhere. My face, my neck, my feet, even the palms of my hands. I felt cold but my skin was on fire, I had a fever, and I was in fucking agony. I had been working myself into a rage at Cheese for ludicrous airport based inefficiency, but I was incredibly glad he was there, because he found a 24 hour pharmacy and got me the antihistamines without which I think I might have thrown myself off our 18th floor balcony rather than continue to scratch my own skin off.

So kids, the moral of the story is: do not drink the milk in China. Of course, Cheese entirely disagrees with this theory, and claims that it is perfectly obvious that I am merely allergic to communism.  Which I suppose would be kind of cool.

Hong Kong (cont)

Day 2 (as mentioned in the previous post) began twice really. The first time at 6am when I awoke, reviewed my decision to fall asleep at 11 and found it slightly wanting in view of the fact that I was fucking awake at 6 in the morning, and decided that after FG2 went to work I would try for an extra hours kip. Hah. Day 2 had its second glorious beginning when I dragged, and I mean _dragged_ myself out of bed at about 3.20pm. My day was made of fail, as I was too late to do any of the cool things FG2 had told me to go do in her absence, However the evening managed to be a little less fail-tastic, met an irish mate from working in London back in the good old days, and we drank far too much horrible crap til 4am. FG2 cunningly stopped drinking about 5 drinks before we did, thus securing her a place in the non-imbecile hall of fame, a lofty honour which I fear I may never achieve what with doing so many fucking stupid things. Upon getting home and reading my emails, being multiple time zones and miles away from people and things that concerned me  became a problem, and I ended up on a rooftop on the phone til 6am. Unfortunate to say the least, but necessary in the circumstances

Day 3 – death on a stick. Not the worst hangover I have ever had, but possibly one of the worst with which I have ever had to do anything much. FG2 had chosen that morning to move to her new flat, which I suppose was part of the reason for her eminent sensibleness the previous evening. For a full appreciation of the horror of this you merely need to know that is 27 degrees and humid in HK, and she was moving to a 5th floor walk-up. And for the Americans in the audience, in proper countries that means 5 flights of stairs – not 4, kids. Truthfully I was very little bloody use at this, though I did make a valiant attempt at helpfulness. It is just a pity my sense of duty doesn’t extend to ensuring I was in a fit state for said.

Anyway, I was ILL. Note the capitalization, it is deliberate. I tried to put contact lenses in at one point and received for my trouble such a violent onslaught of headache I nearly threw up. Throwing up was not a problem for the remainder of the day, but I had some other compelling digestive issues which I can only attribute to “being in China” because as far as I could tell I had not drunk or eaten anything the least bit suspect. This did not stop my stomach from mounting a concerted protest however. I was also completely and totally exhausted. This may have been due to the 4 hours sleep, or possibly the fact that my sleep pattern was at that point 7 shades of buggered. Whatever the reason I felt like throwing myself off a bridge so I suppose it was fortunate we didn’t cross any.

Astonishingly despite my complete lack of functionality a lot was done and seen that day, including some beautiful Chinese gardens (surrounded Hong Kong style by a huge elevated highway), an Indonesian meal with some Chinese friends of FG2s, and a sortie to Mong Kok, the technology bazaar type area of Hong Kong.

Day 4 – Our chilled out day of general niceness, FG2 and I went to the market, bought some silly asian crap, drank tea, walked around the frankly amazing docklands area of Kowloon. Took zillions of terrible pictures of Hong Kong Island at night (which makes New York look like a tasteful and understated lighting display, but nevertheless manages in its own way to be beautiful), had a picture taken of us for some stupid amount of dollars, and found Jackie Chan’s star on the star walk, Hong Kong’s answer to Hollywood’s avenue of the stars.

After our stunningly nice day of ferries and beautiful things and Hello Kitty crap, we finished up with a Thai massage before going home for dinner.  Salad from the local shop, with pink champagne from the airport some days previously.  More things I learned in Hong Kong include:

  • The reason for the hot water thing – apparently Chinese medicine decided a thousand years ago that hot water was good for the brain, and Chinese people are not prone to contradicting wisdom that has been around that long apparently
  • A thai massage is a fascinating experience, in which the person giving it actually climbs on top of you at various stages. At one point there was a small thai woman balanced on top of me on just the points of her knees and elbows
  • Thai massages are good after, but they hurt during
  • Technology is not that much cheaper in asia than in the states, and its probably worth it to buy something with a manual not printed entirely in Chinese.
  • FG2 is a fantastic hostess, and even provided a pre-dinner cup of tea before our fabulous dinner at home on the last evening, a fact which I mention because it becomes something of a focal point in the next stage of my FHoUA.

 Tune in next post for details on how not to leave a country famed for it’s contagious diseases.


Jetlag is for the weak….

…has been a motto of mine for some time. When you fly as much as I do (and I assure you, that’s a lot) succumbing to the rigours or air travel and time zone switching seems an extensive waste of precious time that could otherwise be spent looking at cool things, or drinking.

However this month I am trying something I’ve never even come close to attempting before – I am flying around the world. Due presumably to some sort of odd masochism I chose to do so by going east, thereby losing hours of time each hop until eventually gaining it all back in one large chunk en route from Tokyo to Honolulu when I cross the IDL. I am pretty certain I will spend this entire flight filled with the thrill of time travel as I leave Tokyo Monday night and magically arrive in Hawaii bright and early Monday morning. I simply cannot think of this as anything but incredibly cool.

The upshot of all this however, is that I spent every flight valiantly trying to sleep for 4 or 5 hours to readjust myself to morning once again coming significantly earlier than my body expects. Today – my first day in HK, my body reacted to this by waking me at 6am, falling asleep again at 10am, and fighting me for supremacy as I dragged its ass out of bed around 3pm. Today has, as you might imagine, been a bit of a loss.

Right now I am on a train back from Lantau island, where I spectacularly failed to see anything cool whatsoever due to my extraordinary tardiness in arising. On the plus side, I managed to buy (amongst other things) some cheese. Cheese is important. It is incredibly difficult to buy any sort of street food that does not consist entirely of rice or pastry, yet no-one here appears to be fat. Form this I conclude that Chinese people eat practically nothing, and have excellent metabolisms.

I really like Hong Kong. I tend to judge places by imagining whether I would like living there for a while, and so far this place receives a somewhat fascinated yes vote. I doubt I could ever have a relationship of any kind here, but then that goes for America too, and in this case cultural differences are extreme enough to be interesting instead of merely being annoying most of the time.

My fantastical holiday of ultimate awesomeness – Part 3 – Hong Kong

Days  0 -1. So titled because it took me pretty much an entire day to get to HK from London via Beijing. Because this is cheaper.  The fantastical holiday of ultimate awesomeness costs a goddamn fortune as it is, I am not going to fork out for direct flights too. This is also by far the most miserable jump of the entire FHoUA, involving a 10 hour flight to PEK followed by 1 hour in the airport (which mostly consisted of queuing, but we’ll get to that) and then a 4 hour transfer to HK. Departing 1740 Wednesday, arriving 1655 Thursday. Ew.

Day 0 yielded some fascinating information about the Chinese people. Anyone who has spent much time in China is familiar with this, but for example it is not considered impolite there to make the most horrendous bodily noises imaginable. I don’t mean farting, I mean some truly dramatic and unbelievable hocking and hacking and throat clearing and nasal cavity vacuuming. I am hard to disgust unless you are playing with your chewing gum (this actually give me dry heaves. Not kidding. Wish I was) but I found this incredibly repulsive, I had to suppress the urge to look ill and threaten to smack people. This must be how the Japanese feel when we sneeze in public, I must try to be more tolerant of that idiosyncrasy in future.

Personal space is another interesting issue. I was fortunate enough to have a spare seat on my left on the flight to Beijing. Now this is fortunate on any flight, but particularly on this one, as the gentleman (and I use that term loosely) on my right decided to read his Chinese broadsheet by holding his left arm at approximately a 90 degree angle to his body, landing his elbow pretty much right in front of my face.  Had I not had the extra room on my other side it would have taken a lot more effort to refrain from ripping his arm off and beating him round the head with it. I despise the general group “people who sit next to me on planes” in any case, but a special hell is reserved for some of them, most notably  “people who sit next to me on planes and will not shut the fuck up”, “people who sit next to me on planes and attempt to use it as an opportunity for business networking” (these categories often overlap),  “people who sit next to me on planes and smell bad/snore loudly/have a really annoying voice” and right at the top of the list are “people who sit next to me on planes and encroach on the fucking 2 square feet of personal space I have been allocated”. The rest make me want to punch someone, the last item makes me want to actually set them on fire.

Day 0 blended sleepily into day 1 as I pretty much expected it to, and I landed in Beijing, filled out the I-do-not-have-swine-flu-no-really-I-swear form, went through about a dozen queues I was mildly confused by, some of which had temperature detectors and all of which had people in military uniforms, and walked straight onto my connection. I am pretty accustomed to airports in general, what I’m not quite as accustomed to is being in a country where I really, really can’t speak a word of the language and must rely entirely on other people to tell me if I am doing it wrong.  Besides which, its China, general paranoia makes me slightly nervous. They try to filter the internet for fuck sake, they are clearly at least partly evil. (Note: I am writing this in Taipei ie. Not China. Mostly because I didn’t have time in china, but tiny amounts of paranoia are a given)

In any case, I eventually arrived in Hong Kong (having of course filled in yet another form assuring the Chinese government it has been weeks since I last sneezed or petted a piglet), laden with baggage, exhausted and extremely hungry, having not eaten since the previous day. On my first evening in Hong Kong, I learned the following things:

  • It is possible to do some truly horrendous things to a chicken burger. Possibly only by going back in time and ensuring the chicken in question spent its entirely life miserable, greasy and alone, but nonetheless. Well done Burger King Hong Kong. I never thought anything would out-ick that twinkie.
  • If you ask for water in a Chinese restaurant they will bring you hot water. Not tea, not bottled water. Hot water.
  • Napkins are not assumed necessary here. Something of a shock to the system after coming recently from incredible-waste-of-fucking-paper land. I have a pile of unused napkin on my desk that I will someday use to provide myself with a lifetime supply of toilet paper in post-apocalyptic earth. Or failing that I could probably construct a papier mache scale model of the Eiffel Tower or something.
  • Everyone in Hong Kong speaks English. It might be shit English, but they speak it.
  • Hong Kong is shockingly, incredibly efficient. The trains are amazing. On the train from the airport not only do you see a dot light up when you reach a stop, the distance between that dot and the next is in fact a progress bar, indicating how far along its journey from one to the other the train has travelled. Genius. Where else has this? I have never seen it before, but it seems shockingly obvious as a cool feature.

London – City of dreams… (Note that I didn’t actually specify what kind of dreams)

London is my favourite place in the world. It took me a long time and a lot of travel to figure out whether this statement is justified or not, but I finally believe I can say it without worrying that I don’t really know that for sure, or that I haven’t done/seen enough of the world to make such a broad assertion. Not that I’ve seen everything, but I have managed to stop caring, because I don’t think anywhere else is ever really going to feel as perfect to me.

I really miss London. I loved every minute of living there, and I have been concerned that maybe going back could never turn out to be as perfect or as happy as it is in my head, that maybe nowhere is as amazing as I think London is. After this week though, I am fairly certain I was worried about nothing. I was here for 9 days and every second of that 9 days was fun and amazing and felt great. Granted its always fun when you come back from faraway lands for a short time, everyone wants to see you and you get a lot of leeway for being late/stupid/generally careless. But its more than that, I really miss living there. A brief stopover is never enough, and I know I am definitely going to go back if not right now. I may not have been born there, but its home. It feels natural, and beautiful, and its where I want to live my life.

Highlights of this branch of the trip included:

  • My ex-housemates, who are utterly brilliant in every way. I really miss living with them.
  • J&D in Ealing Broadway, who made me bacon and invited me over for New Years Eve. God I love bacon
  • Monty, who is the coolest person in the world. If you’d like to know how to be the coolest person in the world, a good start is to let me sleep in your flat, buy me an amazing dinner at a restaurant filled with meat, and give me an envelope full of money. A good follow up is just to be Monty though, really, so the above may not be that useful.
  • QCCB, some of my favourite people ever, a good percentage of whom made it out for wine outside in the cold.
  • Meg, who didn’t smoke because I gave her a pony, and with whom I have formed the Terrifying Plan. We will live together and have a pet pig and multiple cats. Hehehehe. And a pony. Obviously.
  • Lunch at Frederick’s with Maria. Damn that was a good idea.
  • Brunch at Ib and Katie’s. I <3 Ib and Katie. Bacon was also involved here. You really can’t lose with bacon.
  • Indian food. So. Much. Indian food.
  • Drinks with the ex-work crowd – including the german girl, the crazy Spanish lady, the Spanish boy, Frankie, the Hair, and our new American, not exactly an ex-colleague, but pretty cool nonetheless.
  • Dinner and drinks with Frankie and his boy, an interesting foray into an actors private club in soho in the most excellent of company. I totally miss working with Frankie.
  • Torture Garden with an assortment of strange individuals, including Gonzo in possibly the best drag I have ever seen. After which we got to crash at Scally’s house, the irish contingent feeling particularly welcome due to the small bag of potatoes in the living room. I <3 Scally.

Ireland – alternatively titled “the pub”

Ireland is always a bit of an insane episode for me. I am always trying to see dozens of people simultaneously, I always manage to fail to see someone I care about, and I seldom have more than 5 minutes at any point in which to gather my wits before the next task. This is probably not helped by the fact that I am permanently either drinking, drunk, or hung over, because irish people do not consider it proper socialising unless you can barely stand by the end. If I ever manage to go more than 3 hours from setting foot on irish soil without being handed an alcoholic beverage by someone, I will be extremely impressed, or possibly mildly worried.

The weekend in question was no exception. Time was of the essence, and I had several tasks to fulfill – meeting my best friends from college (which is always, without question, an epic night), surprising my mom with my presence in Dublin when she wasn’t expecting it, having dinner with some of my favourite Dublin inhabitants, and meeting the irc brigade plus assorted others in the pub for large quantities of drinks.

Since I had two evenings in which to achieve all this, it was something of a challenge. I think I rose to it reasonably well though, and even managed not to die on the morning of my flight to London, but to spend time hanging out with ducky and dredg, two of the most frankly fantastic people it is my privilege to impose on occasionally.

I managed to see some of my favourite people in the world, and had an absolutely amazing time. I also remembered how bloody annoying it is to try and find a drink in Dublin after 1am, something I tend to occasionally forget. Perhaps this damn country would have less of a drinking problem if we were not desperately trying to cram all our drinking activity into the hours before. And while I am on the topic, quit it with the Good Friday bullshit. No-one cares anymore. No-one.

Thanks to everyone who came out, it was a fucking excellent weekend. Hopefully I will see you all again at Christmas, along with anyone who didn’t make it.

The fantastical holiday of ultimate awesomeness

For some time I have been contemplating doing something a little nuts. Like quitting my job and joining the army, or living on a beach in Thailand for a while, or even just volunteering at BMOrg and helping to build next year’s Black Rock City. However, right now I work in the US on a visa, not to mention the fact that my job is currently a fairly decent one. So doing any of these things kind of screws me a little out of what seems to be a pretty good deal, and would be less looking a gift horse in the mouth and more like accepting it, riding it for a while, and then jumping off and spitting in its eye a bit.

So I decided instead to take the most ridiculously extravagant holiday ever. Originally this started as just a trip to Tokyo, which is a bit of an endeavour in and of itself. However it gradually evolved until eventually I was leaving the US for a month and hitting Ireland, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Hawaii. Which let me say, has been pretty damn awesome.

I’m not home quite yet, but I have been writing quite a bit of stream of consciousness wank on this trip that I haven’t managed to put up online yet, so the next few posts will be my attempt to post these as blog entries in a vaguely sensible and chronological order. So there may be a bit of overlap. If you don’t want to hear about my fucking bitchin’ holiday, I suggest you ignore the next 4 or 5 entries. Otherwise, enjoy. I sure as hell did.