Saturday, June 30, 2012

I saw an eclipse today... honestly

They don't call me Dave 'Hubble' Warburton for... obvious reasons

On the morning of 21 May, I stepped outside to get a can of hot coffee from the vending machine (that sentence alone might have merited a blog post back when these things weren't normal) and saw a few people from my hostel gathered on the other side of the street, swapping around what looked like three pairs of differently shaped sunglasses clumsily fixed together. Because that's what it was.

Apparently, there was an annular solar eclipse going on that I hadn't even known about, but was able to enjoy through this crude and extremely medically inadvisable apparatus. Don't try this at home, and certainly don't try to take a photo through it with your camera. It will look shit. But I thought it might amuse you. It should have looked a bit more like this:

Ring of Fire, as seen from the Ring of Fire.
But enough about my anal fissures (Image: Wikipedia)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

I saw Mount Fuji today... honestly

Mount Fuji from Mount Takao, as seen with my natural eyes.
Photo: Japanory

This may not be news to you, but Tokyo is pretty big. So big, you can travel on an express train for 90 minutes and still be well within the city limits. So big, you can escape the squashed city streets for the serenity of the mountains and not even get close to the edge of the local rail map.

I've been trying to pack in as much as I can during my brief stay in Tokyo, and filling my 'off' days with work due to inflated worries about how much Japan's costing me (not too much and I'm doing fine, but don't waste your effort trying to assuage my paranoia with facts and maths). So discovering that the day trip to tranquil Mount Takao would only take about an hour and 1000 yen or so each way, this seemed like a great way to spend the best part of my Saturday.

I love nature walks, and from the websites I read, this seemed to be my perfect type of national park - not too far out, well signposted trails, the teasing prospect of monkeys and easily accessible even by old women, so I can clamber over tree roots past the old dears and delude myself about my physical superiority.

Unfortunately, this promise of Zen serenity was splintered into annoyance and more financial worries when I arrived at Takaosanguchi station and dug around in my bag to find my camera was missing.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Tokyold and new

Tokyo may be a sci-fi city set permanently in the future, but there's some nice old stuff here as well. Or at least, what remains of old stuff and reconstructions of old stuff destroyed in some obscure Asian conflict called 'World War II.'

Budgeting my days out is fun and a refreshing bit of strategic thriftiness after being able to travel ridiculous distances in Thailand, Malaysia and even Korea for practically nothing, so today I planned out a rapid tour of Tokyo's east side that took in the old, the faux-old and the brand spanking new. What you won't see is the tangled subway knots and train connections linking these places together, which was all part of the experience.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Tallest, oldest, sexiest

...but enough about me! Brilliant, Dave. This blog was inspired by my visit to (look at) the Tokyo Sky Tree (東京スカイツリー) a few days before the grand opening of THE WORLD'S TALLEST tower.

It wasn't all that impressive. Maybe I've seen too many doc-off structures in the last couple of years or maybe I only visited reluctantly out of a sense of obligation - after all, if you've already seen a few examples of a thing, you have to complete the set, no matter what the cost to your finances and patience. That's what those never-ending Dinosaurs and Star Trek Fact Files magazines taught me as a kid (or taught my mother, who had to buy the bloody things).

Maybe having some official goals would make me feel more motivated and excited, and make it easier to obscure the pointless futility of life. Here's some far from complete brainstorming.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sleep like the dead

I thought long and hard about where to go next after not exactly being blown away by Sri Lanka, before ultimately making an impulse decision again after spotting an absurdly cheap flight to Tokyo. It was as good a reason as any, and this time I was a lot more excited about Japan, having strategically lowered my quality of life in recent weeks rather than coming straight from comfortable Korea like last time.

In the short term, I was particularly excited about spending my first night in a capsule hotel - you know, those extremely cramped, utilitarian bed/coffin arrangements that sprang up as a cheap accommodation alternative in the overcrowded megatropolis of Tokyo.

You might have seen these on TV shows highlighting how kerrrazy Japan is. I thought I had, but clearly I hadn't, as the image I had in my mind was of a fully grown man in pyjamas sliding horizontally into a barely-human-sized slot, like a poor family keeping its children in a chest of drawers (citation needed).

It turns out it's really not that bad, and I found there to be more than enough space. Though I have spent a lot of time in bunks over the last 20 months, which generally offered a lot less room and privacy (especially last time I was in Japan). You'll have to try harder than that to shock me, Tokyo - please take on the challenge.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Memories of Scotland

Image: SSPIA

Scotland is an important country for me, and one I like to be associated with more than England, which is why I usually tell people I'm from Edinburgh. That's technically true, as it's where I lived for three years before setting off travelling, but only something I say to people who are sufficiently foreign that they won't pick me up on the tell-tale lack of accent.

In my day-to-day life, living in Scotland was no different than living in another attractive old British city, and it's not like my view of this place is completely rose-tinted - despite the deprived areas I've visited in foreign countries, Edinburgh remains the only place I've been violently beaten up and had my head kicked in.

But I don't hold that against the place, like I would car park diarrhoea in Paris (that's a specific reference to a previous post, not just a bizarre analogy), and I had plenty of great experiences here that could only happen in Scotland.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Memories of Germany

I studied German for seven years at secondary school and right through to sixth form, not that you'd be able to tell from my almost total lack of conversational German skills.

I haven't forgotten everything I learned, it's more the case that I was never very good to begin with. I'm pretty sure I only scraped a mediocre 'C' by abusing the senility of the frail German assistant, whose overly constructive feedback to my coursework consisted of crossing out my bad grammar and providing grammatically perfect German in red pen, which I could just type up. Like that would teach me anything apart from the value of the old and deranged. I wonder if she's still there, or if they've had her put down.

Another failed attempt to enhance our language studies was the semi-annual school trip to whichever uninteresting part of Germany could be reached in the least gruelling time by bus from North West England. I'm pretty sure no one came back from those trips feeling that their German skills had improved, but some of the excursions were memorable for having unrealistic stereotypes improbably reinforced.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Memories of France

Image: Sam Osbon

I didn't travel much before 2010, which is part of the reason I went so full-on with it, in my typical binary on/off, black/white, glass-is-full/glass-is-instantly-empty-and-you-didn't-see-any-transition-got-it? way. But I did have a few notable experiences on family holidays, school trips and excursions around Britain in my adult life, which are memorable either for being fantastic or incredibly awful. Like I said, I don't do half measures.

Today: France.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

My kind of place

When I'm enjoying my time in a country and the end of my visa is fast approaching, I usually wish I could stay a little longer, and it can take some time for the next country to win me over (if it manages it at all).

Other times, as was unfortunately the case with Sri Lanka, even four weeks starts to feel like far too long around the half-way point, and an optimistically pre-booked flight means I have no choice but to endure a torturously slow internet connection indoors and certain hassle and insane traffic every time I venture out for biscuits.

There are plenty of countries I've enjoyed visiting, and even in the lousy ones there's usually something great that stays with me (namely, this). But when it comes to settling down, I doubt there's one perfect place that satisfies all my needs and unreasonable demands in a single location.

Or is there...?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The longest month

I got a bit fed up of South Asia towards the end of last year, but after seeing through a Korean winter it seemed like a good idea to go back to these warmer climates. I probably should have stayed away longer.

Sri Lanka requires a certain state of mind, and if you're heading here for a relaxing holiday, on a spiritual retreat or for any other reason that doesn't rely on technology or prompt service, it might not be so bad. Then again, it's only a couple of extra hours to South East Asia, so I'm not sure why you'd feel the need to stop off here. Maybe like me you wanted to see something different and made an arbitrary decision based on budget flights.

I might have been able to achieve this state of mind if my livelihood didn't depend on a reliable power supply and Wi-Fi connections capable of at least loading Gmail in basic HTML mode without crashing. I've hopefully learned a lesson (or reminded myself after forgetting) that some countries just aren't suited to dependence on an internet connection and electricity. I've also learned that one month isn't always too brief a stay in a country, especially when many days are frustrating ordeals that make me wonder why I didn't just stay in Korea for the spring.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

I (don't) have the powerrrrrr

Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
Anyway, I'm just a plug;
Get some perspective.

The day I had long feared finally arrived as I gazed down at the power cord tethered umbilically to the left side of my laptop to find its familiar white glow absent. Tenderly wiggling it around in its socket and aggressively forcing the prongs in and out of the wall, I was unable to re-ignite the spark of life. My laptop plug had delivered its final charge and gone to join the toasters in silicon heaven.

I was screwed.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Bank rant

I've tried to eliminate as much unnecessary stress from my life as possible, and I think I've done okay. It's a little annoying how I depend so much on my laptop to earn a living, but the alternative of not working in my pants in a different bed each week would be a lot worse, so I get by.

Aside from my laptop, there are very few items I'm carrying that I'd consider 'essential.' My British laptop plug might be annoying to replace out here, and I'm resigned to the inevitability of my camera breaking, but in terms of inconvenience turning into disaster, there's only my passport and bank card I need to keep a tight hold of. This isn't due to affection. My bank card can be a dick.

Friday, June 8, 2012

We fort them hard, we fort them well

I regretted my decision to take the train down Sri Lanka's west coast before I boarded the vehicle, which began rapidly filling up with human cattle even before it came to a halt on the platform. Clearly, these people aggressively shoving past disembarking old women knew something I didn't, and my comparative politeness left me spending most of the sweaty three hour journey squeezing myself into the space in front of people's knees as an endless stream of snack sellers tried to mow down standing passengers with their aisle-wide carts.

Maybe that's why I was so relieved to arrive in Galle's historic Fort district, which felt a lot more peaceful and spacious than other cities in this country, and where I was only pestered by about one taxi driver per minute as I stubbornly walked to my hotel - an unprecedented improvement. I thought Kandy was quite nice, mainly for not being Colombo, but this place is properly nice. I couldn't wait to de-stress and get my work done before heading out early the next morning to take photos.

After a good sleep, Galle seemed less spectacular in the harsh light of day, but it's still the most attractive dilapidated colonial outpost I've visited - more relaxed than Georgetown and Malacca, less sterile than Singapore and the less said about Manila and Malang the better. I like it when people actually live in these heritage attractions, though I had a familiar sense of vague ancestral guilt that the place I felt most comfortable in Sri Lanka was the one largely built by Europeans.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Into the lion's den

There's a lot to see in Sri Lanka's northern provinces, but weighing up how much I was prepared to spend and how many days' worth of blogs I really needed to get out of this place (come on, let's get to the insanity of Tokyo already), I decided the only other thing I really had to see before heading back south was the Sigiriya rock fortress.

I didn't feel like relocating to another part of the country for a few days just for the sake of 90 minutes' sightseeing, so I took the unprecedented luxury travel option of making the couple of hours' journey by taxi. These five days in Anuradhapura I've basically had a driver, like I'm Lady Penelope or something, because after dealing with bus hassle in Kandy and rail closures in Colombo I really couldn't be bothered any more.

It wasn't too long ago that I explained how travelling hadn't changed me, but that was before South Korea reminded me about quality of life. Hopefully this is just temporary wastefulness brought about by a couple of weeks of higher travel stress than usual, otherwise this blog could serve as a chronicle of my transformation into a monster.

Speaking of monsters, check this place out. No wisecracking commentary this time, just enjoy the journey.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

How many New Years do you people need?

Four months into 2012, I'd already had to endure three new years in the countries I visited. The Solar New Year (1 January) and Lunar New Year (23 January) in Korea were easy enough to avoid, and the swarming streets didn't look much different from the safety of my tower. But the Sinhalese New Year in Sri Lanka (13 April) was a different matter, as the family-owned shops, restaurants and hotels that are so pleasingly prevalent in developing countries all took the day off so they could go swimming in the lake. Where's an evil corporation when you need one? I'm thirsty.

It was like being back in the UK during that dead period between 25 December and 3 January when the Western world shuts down (I never did work out what was going on there). It's my own fault for not doing my research, as I'm pretty sure there are websites and leaflets out there designed specifically to inform me about this. If I'd known the country would be sleeping for 48 hours I wouldn't have spent my Thursday uploading photos of old ruins on a tediously slow connection - I could have done some emergency stockpiling instead. But if there's one thing you will have noticed about me in recent months, it's that I'm incapable of planning ahead.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Bodhi langurage

The pleasantly mouldering temples of Anuradhapura aren't just curiosities for tourists to visit and write ace blogs about. Even the more remote ones attract their fair share of interactive scenery (i.e. local people), and major ones like the Bodhi Tree Temple are extremely hard to take vacant photos of without some bloody humans getting into frame. Sometimes I can't tell if I'm a perfectionist or a misanthrope.

The Bodhi tree itself is reputed to date back to 288 BC, which is really, really old. Impressive, sure, but did this tree uproot itself and fly hundreds of miles to join its owner in exile, like the Tobiume plum tree at Dazaifu definitely actually did? Didn't think so - bad luck Bodhi, you get second place.