Thursday, December 27, 2007

Tuesday, 25 Dec - Heading Home

The journey back to Singapore wasn’t difficult at all. I was laden with goodies from London, but the entire public transport system in the city on Christmas Day had been shut down. Coming to the rescue, however, was the good chap GNK+1 in his trusty Vauxhall, providing me a lift straight from SSG and HM’s Shad Thames apartment to Heathrow Airport Terminal Three. HM was also nice enough to come along for the ride, and to send me off personally.

There I breezed through customs and the security checks, helped by the Fast Track process which I was entitled to, as I had managed earlier to upgrade myself onto a Business Class seat on the Singapore Airlines flight back home. Yeah!!! The Silver Kris lounge offered a nice respite before boarding, and when I stepped onto the upper desk of the 747, flying heaven awaited me. Visions of beauty slinking around in dark kebayas, offering me wine and more......I couldn't get enough of it all.

I awoke earlier that morning with the sound of the front door opening. It was good ol' BP, who had just flown in on a red eye flight from New York, where the lucky bugger is spending his second year of studies. He’s gonna be in London from Christmas till New Year’s Day, taking over the couch and living room that I had sorta called my own for the past week. It sure was good meeting up with him, even if for that half day, over breakfast and then over a turkey pasta lunch, rekindling memories of time in Goodenough College and of jaunts across Scandinavia just this past summer.

But now I’m back in Singapore, and back to the grind of work. Is there and can there be such a thing as instant nostalgia? I have nothing but the loveliest and warmest memories of this past week, and already, I’m thinking fondly back to my first day, not so long ago, when it was me who trundled into the Shad Thames apartment early in the morning, greeting a bleary eyed and sleep deprived HM…

I must have said it before, but I’ll say it again - this has been a most amazing week in London. I was glad I returned. I feel entirely comfortable and at ease in this city, but what has made it special were the many moments spent with close and dear friends, some of whom I may not see for some time yet. I’m very very grateful to the SSG and to the HM for letting me stay with them, for their time, for their company, for everything – especially their friendship.

And so, it’s time, again, to suspend Rampant in London, for I am now, once more, Subdued in Singapore. I know of no other city – apart from my hometown – which has managed to excite me so much, and which has offered me so much. When I was there, I didn’t feel as though I had been away. I felt I was home – a second home, as it were. I don’t know when I will be back. But back I will surely be, soon...

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Monday, 24 Dec - On Christmas Eve

After five frenetic days, I finally slowed things down on Monday, but just slightly. The fog had cleared on this Christmas Eve morning, as I started the day late, lingering around, partaking in some of the beef casserole which HM was preparing in advance for our big dinner later on.

We then went out after lunch for some grocery shopping, followed by a stop at the Starbucks next to Tower Bridge, where I had another cup of chai latte. It was a drink to which I was introduced only this past year in London, and copious amounts had passed through my system since. I recall saying to friends back home, as I was about to leave for this trip, that I’d be eagerly looking forward to another cup of chai latte.

“Don’t they serve chai lattes in Singapore too?” asked one of them.

“To be honest, I don’t really know,” I replied.

For it was only then that I realized that I never even looked out for this drink when visiting the local Starbucks joints, settling back instead for my usual double lattes or mocha frappuccino. The chai latte has become for me, curiously enough, an entirely London drink, best consumed with friends.

HM soon returned to the apartment to continue preparations for the dinner, while I headed to High Street Kensington to meet Russia, whose office was located nearby. We then took the Tube to Hyde Park, to the Winter Wonderland Christmas market. It looked lovely, with an ice rink, ferris wheel, and lots of happy people. The only thing missing was snow. Indeed, yesterday turned out to be one of the mildest day since I arrived in London.

I had wanted to try ice skating, but there were no tickets available. Russia and I then headed up the ferris wheel, getting a good view of the city. This ain’t no London Eye, but the experience was pleasant nonetheless. I was conscious that a scrumptious feast was awaiting me back home, but greedy pig that I am, I couldn’t resist sharing a few dishes with her – rum balls, a wurst, fried potatoes, and poffertjes, a type of delicious Dutch pancakes.

Doubling back to Shad Thames, I joined the many commuters returning home this Christmas Eve evening, and reached “home” just after eight pm, in time to join HM, SSG,GNK+1, his Other Half, plus another friend of SSG’s in a most lovely and filling Christmas dinner.

We pulled Christmas crackers, played yuletide music, carved the turkey, imbibed the wine, exchanged presents, and generally had a good time, although at one point I felt as if I was really about to burst. We ended by just slouching around the sofa watching Love Actually on DVD. I can, and have critiqued it on a sociological level. But this wasn’t time to play Scrooge. It’s a very touching film, and it made me think of certain other thoughts as well...

I know I’ve had a very good time this past week. I felt right from Day One that I didn’t wish to return to Singapore. But I know I have to. That is where my life is, right now. London represents so many things for me. It is a metaphor for feasting, for friendship, for fantasy. London will continue to be in my future. But London is also now part of my past. There are things awaiting me in Singapore, which I treasure greatly. I shall be back soon.

Sunday, 23 Dec - Serene and Spiritual

The days just keep getting better. And Sunday was truly lovely. It shall be one of those days which I shall remember forever, replete with activity and significance, even though it was shrouded, ironically, in a cloud of fog.

That’s right. We woke up to a blanket of thick, white fog covering the whole of London. Peering out of the window at HM and SSG’s, I couldn’t see even across the carpark to the buildings on the other side. And when HM and I emerged to head to the Tate Britain, it was a truly surreal and atmospheric sight which greeted us outside.

Tower Bridge, surely one of London’s most iconic structures, was cloaked in dense fog, and standing at one end of the bridge, we could even discern the shape of the Tower of London across the river. All these tourists on top of the bridge, cameras at the ready. Are they disappointed, or are they happy? London has a cliché for being cold, foggy and dreary, but such a day comes only very rarely.

We were at the Tate Britain for a special retrospective exhibition of the works of John Everett Millais, the great British Pre-Raphaelite artist. He’s the fellow behind such stunningly beautiful paintings as Ophelia and Mariana, with their fine, precise detail and lively colours. Incredibly, both works were executed in the early part of his career, and we were able to see the evolution of his style, including the many portrayals of ordinary couples living through extraordinary times.

Stepping out of the museum, HM and I took a bus to the Strand, where we had a quick lunch, before heading back to the Tower Hill station, and back home to link up with SSG. Our next destination? The Sunday carol service at St Paul’s Cathedral. It all seems pretty pedestrian, and I don’t know how best to describe the next couple of hours – how totally amazing it was – how best to convey what I saw, what I heard, what I experienced. But let’s try anyway….

So, I had come to London determined to do a few Christmasy things, like attending a pantomime performance, touring a Christmas market, and also going for a church carol service. HM and I were discussing things online before I arrived, and we settled on the St Paul’s service on Sunday. At the same time, I was planning to meet “Russia”, one of my dearest friends from UCL.

By a wonderful stroke of coincidence, we had arranged also to meet on Sunday, and she told be that she’d be working at St Paul’s that afternoon, where she had been temping for some time over the past few months. “I’ll be attending the carol service that afternoon, and can meet you afterwards,” I recall myself saying to her.

What I didn’t know was how wildly packed and popular the service was going to me. Russia gave me a call earlier in the day, and offered to secure us some seats inside the cathedral. And that was what the lovely girl really did! We arrived at St Paul’s, bypassed the long queue amassed outside, and went inside through the North Transept instead.

Inside, it was already almost full house, but Russia had “unofficially” secured three fantastic seats for us which a direct view of the Quire and Dome Sanctuary. I have no idea how she did it. Mere words cannot convey how absolutely grateful we were for her efforts, and what followed was a most enriching carol service.

The music was good, the setting was perfect, and the sermon sounded like a sociological thesis. But you really have to credit the weather as well. In churches back home, especially those which aren't air conditioned, you’d be sweating, surrounded by people clad in tee shirts. Here, even with thousands gathered inside the cathedral, everyone was close to shivering, lending a most Christmasy mood to the service. And when we exited, the wintry sun had already set, and St Paul’s was encased in the still present thick night fog, conveying a most Dickensian atmosphere.

SSG, HM and I emerged, feeling very appreciative and privileged, and went nearby for tea and minced pies at the imaginatively named tea, located in the shadows of the cathedral. Shortly after, Russia finished her shift and was able to join us for a brief moment. HM and SSG really took to her, and we all had a good chat, before I left with Russia for our planned dinner.

London at this hour was dark, cold and foggy, but I was feeling all nice and warm inside, happy to be with a close friend from the city. We crossed the Thames on the Millennium Footbridge, towards the Tate Modern, cutting through the fog, and then settled down at the Founders Arms pub along the riverside for a nice Sunday dinner.

It was lovely catching up with Russia. We had lots to talk about. She updated me on her life, and I updated her on mine. She told me she was considering making a trip to Singapore in March next year, which would be absolutely delightful. True friendship surely transcends space and time. But come on. It’s still good to meet as often as one can : )

After bidding goodbye to Russia, I took a train to Canada Water station in the Surrey Quays areas, and was then picked up by GNK+1 and HM. We headed back to his place, where his Other Half and SSG had already gathered. They’ve got a lovely apartment, set in an area of London which looks totally unlike the rest of the city. The developments there are very new, looking more like an American suburb than the ancient city that is London.

GNK+1 and his Other Half are proud owners of two guinea pigs, Bubble and Squeak, which I had great fun playing with. I remembered fondly my own two guinea pigs – may they rest in peace – from my days in the US, Millie and Caramel. Bubble and Squeak is actually the name of a British dish, but I had to not think of these two lovely sister animals as food. One was brown, and the other a lovely shade of grey, with a white crest tuff on top of her head.

We hung around till past midnight, talking cock, and even doing boh liao things like throwing a little toy rugby ball around the living room. Now I know who among my friends can catch, and who has absolute butter fingers. Heh. It was a truly great day, and already, I know I shall return home to look back fondly upon moment such as these.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Saturday, 22 Dec - Onwards to Oxford

I’ve already done so much these past few days, and yet there was more today to do! One place which I missed out on visiting when I was last in the UK was Oxford, city of dreaming spires. The town and the famous university that’s located there occupies such an important position in British history, and can be reached in less than two hours from London. And thanks to my dear friends here – HM, SSG, GNK+1 and his Other Half – I was able finally to visit Oxford today, being ferried on board SSG’s Hansum, her Audi A4, and guided by Jane, her calm and redoubtable GPS system.

We reached there in the late morning, shivering under a gloomy cloudy day, after having emerged from one of the most modern vehicle rest stop areas located just outside the city, where we had a heavy BK breakfast. Burgers and fries in the morning? I guess there’s always a first for everything. Also, strangely enough, I am a true rest area connoisseur, and I must say that after having come across so many dark and seedy facilities both in the UK and other countries, this one was truly, remarkably impressive.

We had time barely to walk for about a half hour around town, before leaving for the Oxford Retreat pub for lunch. Bangers and mash for me, washed down by a pint of Diet Coke, as usual, and then a cup of brewed coffee. At this point, I could already feel the stomach complaining, but I decided to overrule it.

OK lah. The afternoon was spent on some real culture and history. We toured the famous Christ Church College, walked past the striking Radcliffe Camera, the Sheldonian Theatre, and the evocative Bridge of Sighs. We ended the day by touring the famous Ashmolean Museum, home to treasures ranging from classical antiquities to 19th century European visual arts.

This was certainly one of the most welcoming institutions I’ve been to. Free admission, a well stocked gift shop, and a very liberal camera policy. I was able to capture some images of a few lovely French impressionist masterpieces, but alas, without the right software, I’m not able to down load them onto this laptop for now.

We returned to London amidst a slight drizzle and headed back to the Primrose Hill area again for dinner. This time round, welcoming us was Lemonia, a noisy Greek-themed restaurant, where I came close to eating until I burst, which is something best not done in polite company. I had the tavva dish, comprising lamb cubes accompanied by onion, gravy and rice. But the rest had ordered a mezze set, which came with cold starters, warm starters, and then servings of mains – available for everyone around the table to share.

I think there’s a physical limit to how much more I could take in, and while I sat there there, fused to the seat, impressed by the bottomless pit that is GNK+1’s Other Half (and I meant that in a most affectionate and endearing way), I decided to toss in the towel, and dream instead of lingering on the sofa at HM and SSG’s later on, with a glass of chilled wine in hand. I can’t get these experiences in Singapore. I really need to think about when I can next return to London.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Friday, 21 Dec - The Winter Solstice

My life in London had been characterized by lots of eating, drinking, feasting, swigging, munching, gobbling, gulping, and all round burping. And I was determined this time round to reprise my achievements of the year past. The mission still remains the same: to eat my way through this city, no matter how long it takes.

I had stayed up a bit too late last evening, finishing the bottle of Fettercairn. [Mmmmm….the wonders of whiskey...] Woke up in a great haste and rushed out to meet “Manchester”, a dear friend from UCL. We got together at Cubana near Waterloo station, where we had last met. The pollo crillo was totally yummy – grilled chicken, black bean rice and fried plantain, washed down with two glasses of diet coke and two cups of coffee. How did I manage to fit it all in?

But what was more fulfilling was the chance to meet up with one of my bestest friends from class. We managed to update each other on gossip, intrigue and intelligence. Images of the different people in our group started popping into my mind. It hardly feels as though I had been away from London for three months, or that I was only in town temporarily.

That’s been how it’s been. I don’t feel like a tourist in a new place. I feel as if I’ve returned home, to a place I feel entirely at east in, with places familiar and people dear to me. But right now, I have no idea when I shall next see her, and much as I continue to pester her to make a trip to Singapore, I know that the more likely scenario for our next meeting – whenever that might be – will see me coming back to London again.

But a separation of time and distance doesn’t mean that we cease being friends, and I know we will remain friends if we try hard enough. Later in the afternoon, after we had said goodbye, Manchester actually left me a very sweet text message, which certainly made this trip back to London all the more worthwhile.

From Waterloo, I took a Tube ride to Rotherhithe, where I linked up with HM and GNK+1. We then made a short drive to Greenwich, where I checked out what was purportedly a Christmas market, but I was distinctly unimpressed by the offerings I found. We moved instead to George of Greenwich, a simply most lovely coffee hangout, where the three of us lingered on a settee, with coffee and cake in front of us.

Outside, the sun on this winter solstice day was steadily setting, with the temperatures hovering only a few degrees above freezing, and a steady fog moving in. The throngs of passers by shuffling past, the lights of the cars whizzing by, while inside, we had a good time chatting and talking cock. This was what I had come to London for – an experience not to be had in Singapore. It was absolutely lovely.

We left and then drove half way across the city to pick up GNK+1’s other half, and then headed to the posh Primerose Hill area, home to the city celebrities and other assorted hanger ons. We found ourselves soon at the Engineer pub, where I feasted on a very well prepared roast duck breast with dauphinoise potatoes, sour cherry and port jus. Man, this wasn’t just some routine pub grub. These gastropubs now serve top-notched cuisine, which can better a lot of what mainstream restaurants dish out. The Lansdowne was another of their Primrose Hill favourites, but alas, I'll have to visit it some other time.

Now it’s time to look forward to the next few days. More food to eat, more friends to meet, more memories of London to revive. But for tonight, it's time for some good wine.

Thursday, 20 Dec - London Redux

Arrrrgh! I brought my trusted Canon digital SLR over to London, but for reasons too tedious to go into, I can’t download them onto this laptop I’m using. So there will be no images. Right now, words and words alone will be what I can use to describe this episode of London Redux.

Day Two has been a most enriching day, taking me to places old and places new. The sun was strong, but the day was cold. Really really cold. It started off with me heading up the London Eye with HM, getting a panoramic view of the city in bright but smoggy skies, after which I just had to return to Queenway – to my favourite dim sum restaurant at Royal China. There, I attacked the assorted har gaos, siew mais, cheong funs and dan tarts with great gusto, accompanied by cups upon cups of Chinese tea.

After a post-lunch latte nearby, we set forth across the city to the Barbican, checking out the Seduced exhibition, which proved more cerebral than what I had expected. The private lives of the ancient civilizations, and what members used to get up to. Heh. But nehmind lah.

Later on, I headed up to the Hackney area for the first time – to the Hackney Empire for a pantomime performance. It was a performance of Dick Whittington, complete with his famous cat. I had often heard of traditional Christmastime pantomimes, but never had the good fortune of watching one.

"Hiya Hackney!", the girl playing Dick would go, beaming to the audience.

"Hiya Dick!", we'd all respond, loudly and exuberantly.

What great fun. All the elements were there: the bawdy jokes, the risqué humour, the pantomime horse, the cross dressing, and the breaking of the fourth wall, with stage performers addressing audience members directly. The jokes were simply awful and corny, but much of the music was good, but alas, we had to leave before the show was over.

For we had a late dinner appointment to keep, which was transformed into a nice and simple meal of Vietnamese noodles at the Royal Margin, which I had visited before. I’m writing this now back at SSG’s place, a bottle of Fettercairn whiskey open before me, thinking that even though I have a few more days left in this city, I should really plan my next trip to London soon.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Wednesday, 19 Dec - The Return of Rampant

Yes, I know I said in my previous posting that this blog would be shut down, following my return to Singapore after the wonderful year away in London. But guess what? I’m now back in the city! Rampant has returned to London, not for a year, alas, but for a good week of holidays leading up to Christmas. And what better reason could there be for this temporary return to blogging?

The past couple of months had been characterized by lots of work, amidst lots of fond memories of the previous twelve months away from Singapore. Something which I missed in particular was the chance to hang out with my London gang, but we had a semblance of that earlier in December, when SSG, GNK, DH and I headed up to Malacca to link up with Swinger on our great Malacca Makan Mission, where the objective was to Eat Until Burst, and then to Eat Some More.

Coming into London on an overnight flight, I thought warmly of times gone by, and felt a sense of a homecoming as I walked through Heathrow. It was a nondescript flight, with the inevitable screaming baby, and I left the aircraft feeling exhausted but excited. The airport’s as crappy as ever, but it was a place I’ve become familiar with.

I’ve also become well acquainted with the good old London Tube, and it was up to its usual good old self, breaking down when I was at Acton Town on the Piccadilly Line, less than a half hour into the 75 minute ride into town. We all shuffled out, whereupon I made by way across the platform for the District Line to Tower Hill.

This time round, I’ll be spending my evenings not at Goodenough College, but with SSG and HM at their lovely apartment south of the Thames, a short hop and a stroll away from the iconic Tower Bridge. It feels great to be back, as it was here where I spent my second last evening in London before leaving for Singapore in September, and into which I had helped the SSG move.

I knocked on their door only just after the late winter sun had risen, with both ladies still snoring away in bed. OK, I made that last bit up, but I did feel kinda bad arriving so early. But the entire day lay ahead. Sleep would have to come later.

After a nice breakfast of scones and cake, the three of us chatted merrily for a while before a very reluctant SSG left for work. HM and I then jaunted off to the nearby Starbucks for a cup of steaming chai latte. It’s been a very cold winter in London so far, with daytime temperatures at only about 5 degrees. But that’s not gonna stop me from venturing around. We sauntered off to the nearby Hays Galleria, past a German-style Christmas market, before repairing home for a nice homemade pasta and chicken lunch.

Later in the afternoon, Bus 188 then took me and HM back to our old haunt at the Russell Square area, where I proceed to visit the local Waterstones, pop into my old university gift shop for some hot UCL gear, and then a nostalgic journey back to the Brunswick, with the inviting Waitrose and other outlets. Dinner was at the Hare and Tortoise…BackPain’s Janet wasn’t there anymore, but I had gone there for the Penang Prawn Mee lah.

Spent the evening watching Spamalot at the Palace Theatre along Shaftesbury Avenue. What rollicking good fun. I think I’ve never come across any musical with a less coherent plot than this one. All the Monty Pythonesque elements of the surreal were there, including the giant foot – something lost on anyone who’s not familiar with this classic act. I can’t say I came away with any memorable tune stuck in my head, but what I do know is that I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. It was campy and corny, but I never claimed to be atas in taste.

This return visit to London has been absolutely lovely. I feel a curious mix of sentiments. There’s the comfortable contentment of returning to somewhere I’m familiar with. At the same time, there’s a decided sense of excitement at being, once again, with close friends in a most remarkable city, where I spent some of my happiest days. I’ve lined up a packed schedule of stuff to do, places to visit, people to meet, and things to eat. Yes, Rampant is back in London : )

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Last Word

And so it's time now to shut down Rampant in London. I'm not planning to delete the blog; it will remain on-line - for as long as the good folks at are willing to continue hosting it. But with the studies now complete, my life in London has come to an end, and with that, so has the reason for writing this blog in the first place.

This has been a good ride. But it was never meant to be a permanent chronicle of my life. When I started it last September, I intended to use it as a means of documenting the main highlights of what promised to be an exciting year away from home. And what a great year it has proven to be : ) What a simply wonderful wonderful year. I could go on and on, recounting all that I did, but then everything's detailed in the 235 posts uploaded these past twelve months, including this final one.

What's clear is that I have learnt much, seen much, travelled much, and, most importantly, made many new and dear friends - a few of whom I hope to keep for life. They have made my one year in London so much more enriching and rewwarding, without whom the tone and tenor of my time there would have been very different.

When I last returned from living abroad, I had a broken back and was confined to a wheelchair and crutches. The transition this time round has been very different. I've now been back in Singapore for a week, settling back into life here with great ease, tucking into all my favourite dishes - the Radin Mas lor mee gets a special mention! - yet with the thoughts of London remaining absolutely fresh in my mind. And I hope they will stay this way.

Will I blog again? I don't know. I rather enjoyed all the writing. But can a life of drudgery and work in Singapore ever beat the blissful days in London? I doubt so. But if I do blog again, I'll certainly set up a fresh site, and inform everyone out there of the new URL.

For now, though, Dear Readers, thank you so much for your company this past year. Thanks for the comments and the interest in how I've been doing. But Rampant in London is now Subdued in Singapore. That's how it's gonna be, unfortunately. I wish it were otherwise. Yet what will remain, always, will be the warm memories, grateful thoughts of a fine, fulfilling year away....

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Final Feasts

The final few days in London were pretty frenetic. On Friday, we gathered for one last big pow-wow at Club SSG, featuring a fantastic culinary demonstration by the Celebrity Chef, who was on hand to deliver us an ultimate flourish, before hanging up his wok for good. OK…I was kidding. It’s only for the remaining time he has in London.

But what a wonderful meal we all had, feasting on his amazing Teochew porridge. SSG, GNK+1, his other half, and even SSG’s flat mate all had an opportunity to tuck into the scrumptious offerings. Good food, good wine, and good company. All the right ingredients were there. The only thing missing was the lup cheong. But I wouldn’t dare complain…

And things were only gonna get better. I left London the following morning on a rented Peugeot from Alamo and headed southwest to the beautiful county of Dorset, where a good friend from class had organized a party for the rest of us and a few other friends of hers. I expected something casual along the lines of the different events I had attended earlier in London.

But what I found upon arriving was another thing altogether. First, her country house was grand and luxurious to the extreme. There was a live band playing. And almost everyone was dressed up to the nines. Before long, we were seated out on her expansive lawn, under a marquee, and served with a proper three course dinner. Posh. Posh. Posh. And very English.

And as I sat there, looking at the bonfire burning further away on the lawn, breathing in the cool early autumn evening air, and sipping into the lovely red nectar, I knew that this was perhaps the best way with which I could end my stay in the UK. This, too, I guess, will be my penultimate post for this blog. For it is time, alas, to bid farewell to this one year of rampant activity...

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Avenue Q

This was a most funny and politically incorrect musical, which brought the whole house down to thunderous laughter and applause. I joined GNK+1 for the show, after the two of us feasted on a nice dinner of duck and more at the Four Seasons on Gerard Street in Chinatown, and couldn't wait to hear great hits such as The Internet Is For Porn and others. This wasn't one of the more sublime or monumental West End productions, but who cares, for the exceeding silliness of it all more than provided good entertainment for an evening. The resemblance to the various Sesame Street characters were less than subtle. I would imagine that there was no official cooperation extended.

So that's it then, as far as musicals in London are concerned. Attendances at other shows will have to come during my future visits to this city. And let's hope one takes place soon. I have so much more to do here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Farewells

I met up this evening with my old friend DB for the third time since I came to London. His wedding provided the reason for my visit to Barcelona last year, and we got together again later in January this year. Over beer and grub at the Drayton Arms in South Kensington, close to his flat, we reminisced about the past. It’s actually been twelve years since we first met in Germany, and he’s spent virtually all of his time since in London, leading a very different life.

I guess one of the more remarkable things he said that was I was probably one of the few friends at his wedding who dated from those Germany days, as he has lost touch since with many of his compatriots. Who knows where life will take us. I certainly never expected to be in London for this one year, nor imagine that I’d be where I am right now, by circumstance and not by choice.

But the time in London, at least, is drawing to a close, and as we shook hands to say good bye, I think it will be sometime more before we will meet again......That’s how things often are.

Midway in Miami

When I stepped out of Miami-Dade International Airport, it felt as though I had stepped right back into Singapore. The heat! The humidity! The overpowering feeling of being in a tropical country once more. But of course, I was only midway through my return journey from Peru back to London.

I had landed in Miami just after noon time, enduring a long flight from Lima which had departed at a God-forsaken hour. And what lay ahead was an awful and long eight hour layover, before my connecting flight to London was due to take off.

I could hang around in the airport, wandering up and down the miserable sods, cramped in the massive, concrete halls, or I could head into town and have some fun instead. Which was exactly what I did.

I had been to Miami before, and decided to skip the famous South Beach district, with its array of handsome art deco buildings. The cab ride took me this time round to the Bayside Marketplace – one of those well planned combination retail, dining and entertainment hubs to be found all over America.

Lunch found me at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., where I wolfed down a divine clam chowder, a heavenly plate of fried shrimps, and then an almighty serving of a Mississippi mud pie. I need no further reminder of how massive food portions in the US are.

Adequately bloated, I then took a cruise round the Florida port area, with its elite island-homes for the rich and famous. Some of the local residents? Rosie O’Donnell, Shaquille O’Neal, Gloria Estefan and even Vanilla Ice. All in all, it was quite a fun little interlude. Incidentally, BP, if you’re reading this, surely you recognize that this seems be the same itinerary that you had just a couple of weeks ago?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Faces Of Peru

One of the pleasures of touring Peru this time round was the opportunity to see so many faces that were new and fresh to me. I had travelled through Latin America before, but not to a country that had such a rich indigenous tradition. I reckoned my tour leader, Javier, must have come from the 15 percent of the population who claim complete European descent.

The vast majority of the population, however, were mixed mestizos, or of pure Amerindian heritage, with some still speaking the Quechua language of the Incas. Of course, Peru is also known for having produced Alberto Fujimori, the controversial Japanese-descended president who held power during the 1990s. There’s actually a small Asian ethnic minority, including the Chinese community, who are behind chifa – the distinctive Peruvian-Chinese cuisine.

But for me, I was just happy to have captured these brilliant images of the people of Peru.

A Vision Of Beauty

It was really awe-inspiring. Some attractions ended up being anti-climatic. But Machu Picchu lives up to the hype. I think part of the allure lay in the difficulty visitors have in reaching the site, perched high up at 2400m above the jungles, far from anywhere. And when you get up there, finally, the view which greets you is simply amazing.

It’s easy to read the detailed history of Machu Picchu elsewhere. What’s important to know, however, that this supposed lost city was, I guess, just not that widely known to the outside world, until 1911, when American explorer and future Senator Hiram Bingham came to the region, and was shown the place by more knowledgeable locals.

Since then, Machu Picchu has sprung to international fame, attracting more visitors than it probably should, getting itself listed recently as one of the new seven wonders of the world, with my presence helping probably to damage the fragile environment. But let’s put that aside for now, and consider the remarkable history of this place.

For one reason why Machu Picchu retains its well-preserved state was that the conquering Spanish never did manage to stumble upon this mountain citadel, because, if they did, they would have doubtlessly rampaged through the entire town, destroying anything that was valuable, as was their wont.

Yet history took a different turn, and Machu Picchu survived, although it was later abandoned by its own inhabitants. Perhaps there was a plague. Or perhaps mountain living became too difficult to sustain economically. It was never a large settlement, encompassing perhaps only a thousand inhabitants.

Agriculture must have been difficult, and trade with other communities not easy as well. What they were spared from, however, was earthquakes, for the reason why the Incas built this high altitude settlement was to escape the landslides and unsettled terrain further down.

It’s estimated that the Machu Picchu was built, occupied and abandoned in the space of less than a hundred years. And when the last person left, the jungle took over, covering the place up, thereby serving to shroud Machu Picchu for generations to come. The stuff of legends. And frankly, I feel rather privileged to have had the opportunity to come see this monument to humanity.

Rampant in Peru

And so this past week found me in the land of the Andes, of llamas and alpacas, of distant peoples speaking Quechua and Aymara, of towering mountains and misty coasts, of that most mystical mountain redoubt known as Machu Picchu, and of mind-blowing headaches, which was what I endured, when I went to Peru.

I handed in the final dissertation, having pulled through an unhealthy week of too little sleep and too much chocolate, before setting of across the oceans to Lima, where my tour was set to begin. The country had suffered a devastating earthquake only a fortnight ago, but the damage was limited to the south, with my itinerary hardly affected at all.

As for me, all seemed fine, even with the delayed arrival into Lima – which proved to be a more modern and Americanized city that I had expected. The next day, we flew to Juliaca, up in the Andean highlands, before taking a bus journey to Puno, nestled on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, located at the Peruvian-Bolivian border.

I had long heard of this most magical expanse of water, situated high up, and reputedly the source of the mighty Incan civilization, which reigned supreme throughout much of the area, before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the sixteenth century and began their ferocious ravage through these ancient lands.

But it was in Puno, at an elevation of more than 3800m, where the problems started. My head began to thump and thump ever harder, and I felt increasingly dizzy and nauseous. So this is what altitude sickness feels like. It was certainly not what I expected, and I proceeded to have a rotten few days. This being the South American winter, the freezing temperatures did not help as well.

Pumped full of Aleve, Advil and altitude sickness pills, I got myself in shape for a cruise on the following day, marvels most magical greeted us. The Uros islands, such as they were, were not even real islands, but floating reed-based platforms, on which communities have long settled. The scene which greeted us could have existed for centuries, if one took out the odd solar panel from the perspective in front.

Taquile Island, however, was a real land mass, and we had to trek up a few hundred meters, my heart pounding crazily, as I gasped for breath in the thin air, before reaching a central plaza, where lunch was to be had. An interesting area, looking out to the wondrous expanse of blue water under a brilliant blue sky, but perhaps not worth the near heart attacks I had to endure.

We left the following day for a trip to Cusco, lower down at 3300m, and formerly the capital of the Incas. Little from that era survives today, however, with the Spanish having stamped their presence. Their typical modus operandi was to plonk a church right on top of indigenous sacred sites, such as the Monastery of Santo Domingo, built on top the Incan Temple of the Sun.

Give the conquerors their due though. Cusco now has a very attractive central square, the Plaza de Armas, with a lovely La Compañía de Jesús church and a magnificent Catedral – housing an interesting Andean version of the Last Supper portrait, featuring Christ and his apostles dining on a roasted cuy, or guinea pig. What the rest of us regard as household pets are eaten with aplomb in Peru. Having once owned two guinea pigs, I could not bring myself to even contemplate tucking into one of these loveable creatures.

One had to head out of Cusco to find remnants of Incan life, such as the fortress of Sacayhuamán – universally pronounced as Sexy Woman – and also Ollantaytambo, which we visited the next day during an extended tour down what is known as the Incan Sacred Valley. There was also Pisac, with a lively market in the colonial town nearby.

The Incans were an amazing civilization, accomplishing much, reaching at its height from the jungles of present-day Columbia southwards to northern Chile. And they managed rather well, despite not having invented the wheel, which was pretty redundant, given the rough terrain of the area, and despite not having devised a written language.

The meant that most of what we now know of the Incans come from contemporaneous Spanish chronicles, many of which were drafted to serve the purpose of empire, rather than for disinterested scientific research. Certainly, the tale of how the Spanish crushed the Incans is no bedtime fairytale, filled as it is with harrowing accounts of duplicity and deception, masking outright aggression and sheer greed.

The exception to this tale of domination was Machu Picchu, which represented our focus for the next couple of days. Those so inclined to take a four day trekking trail, hiking through the forests. But I was a lazy tourist, and already, I felt that the journey there was long enough. We had to take a train from Ollytaytambo and then spend a night at Aguas Calientes, a little town at the foothill of the impressive city, whose entire existence seems to be to support the throngs of travellers who have journeyed there to behold this wonder of the world.

The way things worked out, I was able to tour Lima, the capital, only at the tail end of my visit to Peru. It’s a large, sprawling city, with many different districts, some more upscale, and others less so. My base was in the prosperous Miraflores district in the south, but many of the sites were clustered around the colonial core, including the delightful Plaza San Martin, and the prominent Plaza Mayor, with its stately yellow colonial buildings and imposing cathedral and presidential palace.

During my time in Peru, the epicurean in me was keen also to try out the local booze, particular Pisco Sour, the national cocktail, which comprises Pisco, the Peruvian brandy, and a heady concoction of lime, egg white, syrup and dash of bitter. A much easier drink was the Cusqueña beer, of which I consumed copious amounts. I tried chica as well – a corn based beer with a low alcohol content.

It struck me that, counting Spain itself, Peru represented the seventh Spanish-speaking country I’ve visited, and I wish I’ve picked up more of the language through these joruneys. Yes, I can certainly order some leche to add to my coffee, and demand my mantequilla, when I get my toast, but when it comes to haggling with the souvenir sellers, I have quite a bit of ground to cover. Well, till next time...

Travel Notes: I flew to Peru on American Airlines, transiting in Miami. The ground tour was arranged by the Canadian-based G.A.P. Adventures, which I would recommend highly. During the trip, our tour leader introduced us to a series of excellent restaurants, including the Fallen Angel and Witches Garden in Cusco, and also Mangos in Lima.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Ode To The Toaster Oven

Here’s a picture of one of my best and most dependable companions this past year – my toaster oven, which I bought from Argos at the start of my time here in London. Surely the best £20 I’ve ever spent, considering the sheer hours of joy it brought to me and my satisfied stomach. It’s now old, used and full of crumbs, but the delicious memories will always be there. The nights may have been cold, and the work may pile up, but with the oven around, there’s always a Cornish Pasty to be heated up, or even a bowl of soup. What bliss.

Student lives are simple. We don’t ask for much. Just easy exams, less work, and a full stomach. I’m now nearing the end of my time as a student, though, with mere days to go. The past weeks in August have been pretty dreary – and even unhealthy – but I’ve had to put in time to work on my dissertation. How will I do? Well, just gimme a pass, and I’ll be happy.

I’ve been commiserating with the Swinger a few doors away, who’s also in the last stage of his much more massive dissertation. And even at this late stage, he’s yet to receive his experimental results from his university lab. Damm these Imperialists.

Anyway, I don’t usually preview my coming days, but the plan now is to hand in the completed work at the end of this week, check out of Goodenough College, and head off thereafter for a post-dissertation break, before returning to London later in September. I’ll then spend my last week here in this great city.

So I’ll be back soon. Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Towards The End Times

Nothing is happening. Well, nothing which is worth blogging about. I’ve been stuck to my desk, working on the dissertation, for the due date is looming large, and consuming copious amounts of Diet Coke, coffee and chocolate. Night is day, and day is night. It's not the best kind of lifestyle, but I think this is purely transient.

Even the weather outside has been crappy. I know I was afraid of a hot summer, but this is ridiculous. We’re in the middle of August, but I’ve had to turn on my heater, and put on a jacket when stepping even a step away from the hall. And meanwhile, the rain continues to drizzle downwards, soaking this capital in more misery.

A bright note has been my Anglo-Russian friend from class, who dropped off a CD comprising mainly German and French pop music with me. Heh, we’re certainly leading very cosmopolitan lives here. There are quite a few good tracks. But even as I write this, my room’s already half dismantled, with my move out of the College measured now in days.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Name Is Bourne, Jason Bourne

So I took valuable time away from much needed deskwork. But who cares? It’s Saturday evening, and awaiting me was a screening of The Bourne Ultimatum - simply a most brilliant movie, with lots of violence, lots of gore, lots of action, bullets and car chases, though there was hardly any sex. But I don’t think that was the point of this amazing thriller.

I met up first with SSG, GNK+1 and his other half for dinner at Royal Margin, where our Wah Laus marked us out immediately for who we were. Wah lau. And then came the big bowls of Vietnamese beef noodles, which were a delight on this rather cool August evening.

The Surrey Quays Odeon was rather packed, but we managed to get pretty good seats, and settled down for the third installment of the Bourne trilogy, which seized me instantly when the first, The Bourne Identity, was released some years back. It came right at around the same time as the disastrous Die Another Day, Pierce Brosnan’s final outing as James Bond, marred by an over-reliance on special effects. And the contrast was immediately striking.

Borne, thus, was the anti-Bond. The difference was reflected even in the camera directions, with conventional steady shots juxtaposed against edge, hand-held effects. And in fact, surely I’m not the only one who has noticed the similarities in their names? James Bond vs Jason Bourne? One being the suave agent of the state, and the other being the hunted enemy of the state? The Bourne Ultimatum had it all; chase sequences through most of Europe, including a wonderful scene set in London’s Waterloo Station – a place I’ve been through quite a few times.

While waiting for the bus after the movie, SSG asked if men aspired to be like Jason Bourne as well. I don’t think so. The thing about Bond is that it represents a fantasy. He has his vodka martini, his gadgets, his cool cars, and of course, the women. But Bourne gets none of this. He is a person without friends, without support, without even an identity. He roams the world, seeking to flee those who would wanna kill him, seeking to find out more about himself.

So, I’d much rather have my Aston Martin Vanquish than have to put up with stealing crappy cars.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Raising Of The Bridge

SSG's back in town, and I went over to her new place this afternoon, exiting at Tower Hill Tube Station and then crossing the Thames on the famous Victorian-era Tower Bridge – surely one of old London’s most famous landmarks. It was a pretty good day to be out – delays on the Circle Line notwithstanding – with the weather remaining rather mild. I had feared a repeat of last year’s summer, with temperatures well into the thirties, but things have remained cool, if showery, this season.

Walking back later, a little unexpected treat was in store - the lifting of Tower Bridge. Both vehicular and pedestrian traffic were stopped, as the road bridge parted, pointing majestically upwards.

What a sight. Which august vessel could be sailing through? Soon, excited voices shrieked. I turned to my right, and witnessed this sail craft go by, with a posh looking posse on board. Heh. I can’t believe they would lift the bridge and stop traffic for such a small – albeit tall – vessel.

And after it sailed past, down came the bridge, and before long, all was normal again.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

An Evening With The Brains

How nice – another London experience in the bag. This evening, I attended a live recording of the BBC Radio 4 general knowledge quiz show, Brain of Britain, at their Maida Vale studios. I’d thought I’d try my luck and sign up for a ticket entitling me to be part of the studio audience. And though I had a good time this evening, I felt as though I had stepped back twenty years.

For Brain of Britain will always remind me of my childhood. I first heard it on the BBC World Service when I was growing up, and have continued to tune in over the years. It’s been chaired for eons chaired by the venerable Robert Robinson, who stepped aside this year because of health problems. In his place this season was another British institution, the veteran journalist Peter Snow, who seemed rather absent-minded, even given the straightforward format of the show. I bet the producer wished he had picked someone else instead.

The studios, too, must have been constructed decades ago, reminding me somewhat of the Caldecott Hill broadcasting centre in Singapore, which I’m familiar with. There was a 1980s atmosphere all round – hard to describe – but definitely present, even in the loos. And what about the audience and contestants? Well, let’s just say that it was a joy to be able to step into some place nowadays, and find myself lowering the average age, not raising it.

But I’m not here to be mean. I rather enjoyed myself, and wished at times that I could have been up there as one of the contestants. There were quite a few questions I could answer, though I need to brush up on my Greek mythology and my Bible knowledge. Several questions came from these fields. But at least I now know things like what a hydra monster is exactly, that Cassiopoeia is the mother of Andromeda, that the Epistle of Jude is the shortest book in the New Testaments, and that Patmos is the place where St John the Divine composed the Book of Revelations. Useful stuff eh?