Wanderlusting

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Sunset on Dili beach, Timor-Leste

I double checked the meaning of Wanderlust – which turns out to be the “strong desire for, or impulse to, wander or travel and explore the world”.

Since running off to Uganda when I was 21 years old, in the absence of having any more concrete a plan for how to handle life after university, I’d say my Wanderlust levels have remained piqued ever since.

No doubt some genetic influence from my parents helped fuel my appetite for getting out and “seeing the world”. In reading Dr Suess poems to my daughters (as well as flying them off to different countries almost every school holiday) I suppose instinctively it feels appropriate to want to pass on that particular piece of DNA, connected to wandering, to them also.

Over the past five years, even without that DNA, the travel I’ve undertaken as part of my job has secured for me a schedule for which any aspiring “Wanderluster” would have been thrilled.

As someone working in international development, I can’t quite settle my mind about how conflated my footprint and actions in the world are. Choosing to direct my career into finding better ways to serve the poor, whilst simultaneously responsible for emitting more carbon in an average month than the output my entire family back in the UK manage in a year (ok, Mum and Dad are relatively guilty on the carbon too, but I wanted the analogy to sound extreme!)

Since my last update in February (freshly back home in Saigon, as we were at the time, following a skiing holiday in France – eek, guilty again!) I’ve visited Ethiopia, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Egypt, Thailand (twice), the UK, and Timor-Leste. I was back in Bangkok last Sunday when I started writing this post, on my way to Pakistan.

For anyone interested in CARE and international development issues, then the two links above to Ethiopia and Timor-Leste will pop up some of my musings about social development “stuff” over on the http://www.definitelymaybe.me site.

Loyal subscribers to this site – all five of them – will associate the Saigonsays posts over on these pages more with life in Vietnam. If you belong to this small and perfectly formed readership, and were hoping for more of a journal update (or if you simply needed something to help get you off to sleep later this evening) then here we go…

March

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Traditional coffee ceremony in Tigray, Ethiopia

And so, finally, and after 11 years, on 7th March this year, I found myself flying back to East Africa.

Really, Uganda and my time there in 1996 working as a teacher, had left the undeniable ‘mark’ on me to which so many people who live in Africa often allude. I’d always thought I’d work back in Africa – I still do – however as long as I’m not able to fulfill that goal, then any excuse to be back there is a privileged one.

Ethiopia, not Uganda, was my host for the week. Addis first, then north up to Tigray.

There wasn’t time to become an expert on the country’s capital city, but it doesn’t take too long there to pick up on some of the basics.

The traffic is quite intense. Buildings are in a constant state of being unfinished, with little evidence of cranes about. Actually, the hustle and bustle of life on the streets had all the hallmarks of Kampala twenty years ago: hawkers bearing tea towels, roasted bananas and newspapers to sell through car windows; young students ambling home from school with immaculate uniforms and cheeky smiles; and a constant sight of large winged birds of prey, circling above.

And, as I remember in Uganda, pretty much every dish you sample will have the staple, signature food of the country included in it. In Uganda, it was matooke. In Ethiopia, it’s injera – a spongy sough dough that you use to soak up the sauces on your plate.

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Eating potatoes and injera in Tigray

Later in March, I headed over to Hong Kong with my football team (these days, if I don’t go on tour with them, then I never see them) and took part in my third Viking Cup.

Enough antics from the weekend would fill a separate post. Suffice to say, on the field we were hopeless, however our team won the boat-race drinking competition for the second year running during the last night’s Gala Dinner.

And, we all dressed up in traditional Vietnamese Ao Dai costume. What a treat for the eyes indeed…

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First night in Hong Kong.

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Last night in Hong Kong. Time to leave!

From Hong Kong, I flew overnight to Cairo, another sprawling city, overheated with exhaust fumes and the muddied, dust-baked backdrop of building after building after building.

Taxis in Cairo are hair-raising for the passenger. Akin to how I spent these last few days just gone in Karachi also, with drivers hell bent on spending large chunks of their days sipping tea and gossiping in languid fashion, before then ironically turning demented behind the wheel, driving like their life depended on it, and deploying braking tactics whereby the foot is floored only at the very last minute prior to what would otherwise have resulted in a pile up with said tuk-tuk, scooter, truck or bicycle.

In both cities, things that occur in life derive their meaning and their consequences from powers all too often out of an person’s control.

You hear “inshallah” a lot in Pakistan (meaning “God willing”) and it can be used in every situation. My CARE colleagues last week taking great relish inserting it to most conversations with me, just to laugh at my reactions.

“See you tomorrow” – “Inshallah”.

“Will we get to the airport safely, driving as we are currently over 100 kph and dodging traffic like we’re in a human game of froggit?” – “Inshallah”.

Even pilots are in on this: “Ladies and Gentlemen”, came the announcement as we descended into Karachi airport last Thursday, “Please fasten your seat belts and, inshallah, we will be landing very shortly.”

The highlights during my trip to Egypt, once the event I was helping host had closed out for the week, were a fun evening in downtown Cairo, shopping, snacking and then ending up on a rooftop with some cold beers and apple tobacco hookahs, surrounded by an array of engaging and jocular local weekend banter. And then of course, the morning after, we “did” the pyramids.

The pyramids are 100% recommended in my books and well worth the effort.

I say ‘effort’ however, until I reached Cairo, I hadn’t appreciated that the pyramids are in fact only a few miles from the city-centre.

Perfect for the tourist who just has one day to spare.

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My hotel room. The pyramids. Close.

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Yeah, who cares. Let’s go for “full tourist” money shot.

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Not satisfied with “full tourist” mode, we go “black and white” as well. Skills.

April

London and Bangkok ate up almost half of my month.

The short schedule for the former work trip choreographed with military precision, as I was in and out of London in about four days, throwing my body clock some extra curve balls in the process.

I grabbed a quick lunch with family, a night out on the tiles with friends, and was just in town long enough to pick up the scent of panic surrounding the upcoming European Referendum, before jetting straight back across to Bangkok for a week long conference.

This was followed by the delightful treat of being joined by Issy – whose stockpile of interestingly sourced fabric gifts from all my travels was growing, but who was adamant she was not missing out on another chance of a weekend away.

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Sibsan Resort, Chiang Mai, from their “Lookout”.

We flew up to Chiang Mai for the weekend and pressed pause for a few days.

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Zen.

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Delicious Khao Soi – two bowls maketh the man. Chiang Mai.

Elephants sauntered around the back of our resort about an hour north of the city, which was novel and something special. I even wrote a cheesy poem about it.

Although on reflection, I do wish I’d not seen all said elephants dumping into the river, upstream from a local village – large digestive biscuit shaped bowling balls, bobbing between the rocks and gradually breaking up, as we watched from the bridge – (I can only apologize for that imagery however, for sure, do be careful on your choice of swimming outlets if you are ever nearby to a herd of elephants in Thailand.)

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The Elephant: Graceful, magnificent, and the producer of canon ball sized turds.

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Chiang Mai’s famous weekend Walking Street night market.

May 

And so it was then to Timor-Leste, and a slice of Caribbean-esque backdrop, with local fishermen walking down the beaches all day long, their fresh catches on display.

As well as a great work assignment there, my final day highlight was taking part in a 200 person strong beach comb. A regular past-time in Dili, sadly..

All I could think of as I picked up the rotten debris was “thank goodness Dili doesn’t have elephants also.”

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Earning my Saturday brunch.

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Jesus Back Beach, Dili (named because of a Jesus statue, just out of shot).

Dili is a fascinating place, seemingly quite detached from the mainstream…well…from the mainstream anything.

Quietly building back the lost years of the 1980’s and 1990’s, where so much destruction that unraveled there at that time just seems unfathomable today.

Unfathomable is a word not unrelated to the struggles which Pakistan, the last in the sequence of this particular list of trips, has undertaken since the turn of the century: earthquakes, floods, insurgencies, Talibanisation, political upheaval. And so much more.

As usual, I learnt a considerable amount from being there for a week with my colleagues. And all the while savouring meal times, as I have done there in the past, and relishing the re-acquaintance with meat, meat and more meat. It was a struggle, but I pulled through.

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Any salad going per chance?

For some years after I returned from Uganda in 1997, I worked for a company who organised one month long expeditions for UK schools to “far flung places” – trekking, living in jungles, walking through deserts, learning about life outside of the UK.

Pakistan was our most popular destination at the time.

I recall driving to a school up in the Midlands at 4am one morning, my slide deck (the old fashioned carousel ones) on the passenger seat, which housed jaw-dropping images of the Hindu Kush mountain range. In spite of knowing very little at the time about the country, the photos did all the selling required. 600 students sat in their assembly and were spell bound at the images. We were over subscribed for Pakistan each year.

Making money for that expedition company was not enough of an incentive for me at the time to stay for longer than two years. However, hoping that a few young people who took part in one of our expeditions, might just come back with that magic Wanderlust dust sprinkled over them, was enough.

Let’s hope one day soon the country’s glorious scenery will be open for business again.

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As I finish up this post, it’s Sunday, and I’m back from watching Martha perform in an acrobatics concert, having flown in from Karachi last night.

Flo, too, has had a run of entertaining us all of late. Swimming galas, and jazz concerts (dancing, not saxophoning) as well as school sleepovers, Athletics tournaments, International Day festivals, camping trips in Vietnam, and dog racing in Vung Tao. It’s been a cracking year so far.

Both girls are thriving and growing fast (as evidenced below in the pics and the videos!)

Martha will be 5 tomorrow (you may read about this on the BBC website, as the event is getting a lot of press at the moment.)

The summer holidays are looming. Issy and I have signed a lease on a house for a year, down the road from the girls’ schools. Much excitement is bubbling about scootering to school and having new neighbours (and a garden). We move in on July 1st, during which time are entertaining no less than four Melbourne visitors.

By then we’ll also be gearing up for our second time camping in Italy with its enchanting Tuscan surrounds, free flow of just about every one of our favorites drinks, and this year the bonus of various Bishop and Oddie family members joining us.

Cheers to that and to you all!

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The Chinese State Circus better watch out.

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Post athletics race. Thirsty work.

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International Day at School

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Martha’s favourite drinking apparatus.

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Cider Party at Saigon Outcast.

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All in a day’s work. Swim Gala + Jazz Dance Show.

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Book Week dress up!

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Camping Weekend.

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Vung Tao trip.

Thai Green*

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Beneath snaking concrete viaduct, baking heat
Cooks sunburnt pores, street vending nooks,
Pungent fried sizzles punch lung deep, an urban Kingdom
Jostling air, space, and conditioned lifestyles.

Bangkok.

Spiced iced tea, rice soup, lychee cocktails,
Mesmerizing Soi-mazed corners
Inhale city sewer flavours,
Pavement tiles uneven, tilting, roasting.

Curbside, rainbow taxi ranks flank
Juice bar pit stops, bamboo bar tops,
High rise scrapers, elevators, shopping centres –
Eastern promise meets Western dream.

And still.

Not far flung from this urban jungle,
Nestled north, enveloped forest,
Lies a calmer version –
Country living –
Breathing, feeling,
Fibrous woodland,
Smoke-filled thatch.

Chiang Mai.

Opening up green borders,
Boundaries,
Walk amongst your past-time inclines,
Sun bleached hills and warbled song birds that
Listen back.

Stop here, stop now and let this touch you –
Nature’s glorious paradigm,
Working.

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*A poem inspired by a damn fine Saturday morning, and several elephants

Catching a breath in February

Happy New Year!

2016, and Saigonsays trundles on…

This weekend will mark five years since arriving in Saigon, when these pages first kept track of life and work out here and across Asia. Some defining moments within that particular half decade have been and gone, and the familiar confines of my apartment continue to provide a reliable anchor from which it becomes, then, and with a healthy dose of catharsis, a comfort and a pleasure to spin out these words and images.

Two months back, Boxing Day, and Issy and I were headed down to the coast after a tremendous Christmas Day hosting a cheery hoarde of festive revelers. A month ago I was off in Abu Dhabi meeting up with my best friend (and previous author on Saigonsays) for a weekend of “catching up”.

Last fortnight, and over the Chinese New Year period (called ‘Tet’ here) and I was side stepping down a sled run in France, propping up Flo as she skied solo for the first time in her life. And then this week, I’be been working across our closest border, in Phnom Penh.

Next Sunday I’ll fly to Ethiopia on an exciting new project. Bangkok, Hong Kong and Cairo are on the March itinerary also. Yesterday morning an offer landed on my lap to head to Timor Leste shortly after that. And so it goes on…

Too many details to catalogue since I was last peddling these pages (back in Vientiane in November) however the intention is that, hopefully, these two family videos (our Tet skiing holiday to France, and previous Australia visit back in October) might go a way to capturing some of the special experiences shared on both adventures. The photos below that then piece together December festivities and a window into life here since then, with two increasingly active little girls performing, as usual, for the camera.

Stay tuned for some more regular updates (a New Year’s resolution of mine) here and before you can say “where did the first half of 2016 go?”


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Christmas elf

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Christmas cheek

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Christmas gingerbread making

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Christmas Day

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Yellow!

 

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Dig in!

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Four minute Cinderella panto

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Robin Hood

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Boxing Day treats

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Boxing Day walk (in Vung Tau)

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New Year’s Eve boys (Saigon)

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New Year’s Day girls (Mui Ne)

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The view from…our bungalow

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Birthday girl (@ Park Hyatt)

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With Cake (@Abu Dhabi)

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Another year, another sports day

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Tet celebrations

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Poseur

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The view from…the de Groot balcony

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Layered up

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Catching the first powder and remembering how to ski again

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Mont Blanc (on the left)

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Sunrise back in Asia (Phnom Penh) this week.

 

 

 

A Quick Coffee Stop in Laos

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The Mekong River at sunrise. Thailand to the left, Laos to the right.

I’m sat with a delicious Saturday morning coffee, in Naked Espresso, a funky cafe in the thick of the Vientiane backpacker area, having completed my daily ritual here of a brisk walk down the Mekong River nearby, which has presented me with picture perfect views this week of Thailand, just metres away over the water.

Since my last post about holidaying in Australia with Issy, I’ve traveled for work to Colombo, Bangkok, Singapore, and Seoul. Squeezing in a weekend of football in Manila along the way. I’m trying my best to be a good citizen of the world, but for sure I am going to carbon hell.

Vientiane represents my penultimate trip of 2015 and, fittingly, last night I kicked off the evening with some Kiwi friends, in a German owned bar, managed by a kind man called Kami from Tokyo, where we tucked into some Laotian pork rolls, washed down with a few drams of glorious Japanese whisky.      Continue reading

A Brief Spell Down Under

Monday. And, so far today, I’ve flown to Singapore and just put in six hours working out of a business lounge and still have another eight to go before I get to kip (am Colombo bound this evening for the week…)

Mustn’t grumble however as, since my last post about our summer holidaying in Europe, Issy and I have also just indulged in a trip over to Melbourne earlier this month for weddings, family birthday partying and some brief flirting with a delicious vineyard and the salty ocean road inhalations on offer down in Sorrento.

As is the form when I get back over to the UK, trips like these are extremely special and also meticulously executed, in order to maximise each and every hour with all the important things in life.  In the case of this particular trip, the important things consisted of: new babies; zany nieces; legendary siblings; old school friends; and then an inevitable immersion in all of the particular shopping experiences and drinking haunts yet to reach the humid back-streets of Saigon.

We fitted it all in, and lapped it up (although, truth be told, for me to be accepted into the funky suburb of Fitzoy I’ll need to grow an exceptionally impressive beard – and this may take me a while.)

Video compilations with be forthcoming however, in the meantime, heartfelt thanks to Mark for the most spectacular day at Yabby Lake, to Phoebe for all the snippets of special laughs and larks, to Pobby for the Aga coffee and the egg and bacon pie on arrival (plus about two dozen other mouth-watering dishes enjoyed throughout the week) and to Mike for a lesson in cryptic cross-wording that I will never forget (I hope the Tuesday Latin tutorials continue to go well).

To all the other family and friends entourage, thank you for making me feel at home and for making me smile, constantly.

And to Alice and Richard Cook-Watkins. For seating me opposite the bride (I have been dining out on that since) and for laying on a seamless day of memories for us all.

So, as Mike would recommend – to anyone curious enough to ask – it is with whisky that one should finish one’s day and so, in spite of the fact that I am long off being asleep, I may just – on this one occasion – take him up on that and bid you farewell, for now…

Until next time.

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Melbourne skyline. Obvs.

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Emily, Archie and Ben. Stripey boys.

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Fitzroy chic. Also obvs.

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OK, I’ll admit it, the coffee ain’t too bad here…

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These lot know how to do ice creams.

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Replica clock-tower from Ben Thanh Market, Saigon. Love it!

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End of day beer at Naked for Satan. Yeeees.

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Brunswick Street bakery. Spectacular.

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‘Knock off’ gin and tonic time in the garden.

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Pobby’s kitchen. Aga toast – ooooooooooooooooh!

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Yabby Lake vineyard.

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The calm espressos before the twelve bottle tasting storm. Happy days.

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The BEST lunch.

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Diamond Bay. Hmmm.

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Issy likes green. I like blue.

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Everyone likes a good sunset.

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Pin the tail. Hazy’s 3rd birthday.

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Squirt the person who is pinning the tail.

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It’s OK, it’s only Sam!

Summer times

In contemplating my work trip back to London this evening, I’ve realised that I’ve been remiss at updating this site since our summer trip back to UK (and Italian) shores…

As seems to be so often the norm, several weeks since being back home in Saigon and the vibrant memories of safari-ing at Longleat Park, crabbing in Lymington and camping in San Vincenzo can get easily eclipsed in the all too pressing realities of school runs, work trips and planning the next holiday!

I have managed, however, to keep up with my new video making enterprise, and in doing so have tried to capture some of that vacation vibrancy in these two clips:


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Time to replace the Yorkshire Gold

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Summer holidays Rule OK – Flo and Martha, 6th July

Saigon was blustery and cold today. That’s news in itself, given earlier this year the city broke it’s own temperature record by plummeting to depths of 23 C degrees (74 F).

However, enough about the weather. It’s July. The Ashes are on. Murray is still in Wimbledon. And it’s summer holiday time. Rejoice we all must.

My efforts in that department for the next two weeks will be not to fly anywhere and to catch up on all those things I’ve put off doing since they first found themselves populating a New Year’s Resolutions list, six months back. Continue reading

An Irishman walks into a pub (in Bangalore)

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The Groom. Speechless, at last.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the month in which I will celebrate my 40th birthday. I’ve not yet decided upon a suitable present to myself. Currently, it’s a close call between a new motorbike (black, with big handles, obviously) or a new sound system. A drum-kit seemed too much of a cry for help.

In reality, I’ll probably settle for a new suit-case, as my two have both recently submitted to the perils of non-stop travel these past four years, hurtling around the region. Continue reading