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.