Saturday, March 16, 2013

Two Point One

Here I go again on my own…

…only this time it’s different. The last time I went on a trip of a lifetime I was looking to escape. 12 years in London had left me tired and confused. I was unhappy with life, looking for something to believe in and sought answers in the freedom of the open road.
Reading back through my blog I realized I found the answers, but not in the place I was looking. The answers weren’t in independence, freedom and isolation on deserted highways, they were in the people I met. From the incredible week on the QM2, to the days with Dolly, Eric, Everett and, yes, even my sister. The one-off encounters with waitresses, barmen, fellow customers, random people in the casinos and waitresses. Even brief conversations with people from different backgrounds with different experiences, different lives, were fascinating.
After RTW1 (as it’s now known) I was numb. I’d found the answers, but didn’t realize, and if I did, I didn’t know how to apply these answers to life.
Then came Amsterdam.
I found myself in a place where I could meet people from all over the world, go out every night and have a good time, (almost) all the time. Yet I also had the advantage of staying put, of making friends. For the first time I felt like I might actually want to… (deep breath) …settle down!
So I’m going round the world again.
Er...not sure why!
I still want to see New Zealand. And this might be the last chance I get to spend a good quantity of time down there, at roughly the right time of year. So I booked a trip.
Yes, booked. I told you this one’s different. Fixed timescale, all flights, 2 months, full on, no messing about getting lonely crying into my mojito on exotic Hawaiian islands.
In fact, that’s enough bollocks, let’s get on with the trip…

(Via Frankfurt, London, Southampton)

Round The World tickets are complex things. To cut a long story short, I could go business class for less than the usual mark-up, but had to go via Frankfurt to get to London.
However, flying fancy meant this wasn’t a chore! Oh, how the other half lives… not just big seats and space, but airline lounges! Peace and quiet, free wifi, free showers, and free food and booze! I made it my objective to consume more than the difference in ticket costs!
Off the plane first, straight through Heathrow and straight into my rental car. Perhaps I’d been hard on jolly old London…until…
You don’t get this on a bicycle.
“Screw this, I’m off.”
So I decided to sell my car and move out of my London flat. After all, I had 3 days to spare.
Thus followed a manic 3 days, getting out of London, and dumping my stuff at a mate’s in Southampton. So RTW2 began, just like RTW1, with a meal with Craig. Only this time, rather than a disappointing burger, it started with some very nice tapas.
Back to Heathrow, and I could finally relax. And in the Singapore Airlines Lounge, man, you can relax!!
Six nations rugby on tv, a nice curry, some tiger beer, a quick shower.... bliss.
But I’m not going to Singapore! Oh no, thanks to the Star Alliance, I can use any of the 27 member airlines lounges!
So I nipped next door to the “No.1 Lounge”, which was a bit, well, number 2. Then the SAS lounge, where there was a surprising lack of balaclavas, and it was time to hop on board All Nippon Airways, where I have my own pod.
I’ve never had a pod before. Cool.
I mean, some might think it’s just a seat with walls, but it’s not, it’s a pod!
Although something’s not right, there’s a small child behind me! In business class? What the hell? Something needs to be done about this!
But it’s a Japanese child, and as I was to discover, Japanese people are quiet.

The trouble with a pod is you don’t get to chat to your neighbours. So you won’t find many plane-buddy anecdotes this time, and the fact that I got more than an hour’s sleep on a plane for the first time in history makes less amusing reading. But meant I was ready for Tokyo!
Well, sort of, I didn’t get more than 2 hours sleep, pods ain’t beds!

So off the plane and into a Limousine. Wahoo! Travelling in style…. “Bust out the Hennesey!” “Where da girls at?”
Er, no hang on. A “Limousine Bus”. Or as we call them in England, “a bus”
Oh well, it takes me into Tokyo (Narita airport is 45 miles away!) and I get to see a bit of the city on the way.
And a bit more
And a bit more

Tokyo’s a bit big. Something like 35 million people in the Metropolitan area. Finally we drop down from an overpass into the world of Bladerunner. Neon soaked streets, shouty LED video screens. Hustle and bustle.
But it’s clean. And tidy. And quiet. How can so many people be so quiet? There’s no sirens, no car horns, no trucks in the city centre. Just taxis, taxis…
Things I know about Japan: Don’t get hit by the remote control taxi doors!

..and into my hotel, which is French, but also very quiet. Very, very frickin quiet. Bjork could write a song about this place. How can the quietest place on earth be half a mile from Tokyo station!?!
In fact this doesn’t help with the jetlag as I spend so much time in bed, with no audible signs of life rousing me from my pit.
Another thing about Tokyo, there’s a lot of Japanese people here. Now, stop snickering at the back while I explain that.
In London when you walk down the street you see people of all sizes and shapes, all colours, races, religions whatever.
In Tokyo, you see Japanese people. And all the men are wearing suits. Not stylish “Suit up!” suits. Drab, dull, dark suits.
And just as the monotony starts to affect your mood there’ll be someone dressed as a nutter.
Seems to be the Japanese way. Miserable conformity, or blatant reactionism.

I’m not good at talking to people. I enjoy it, and I can hold a fun conversation, but I’m rubbish at starting them, especially with people who don’t speak much English. So I need a bar, with stools, where I can plonk down next to some poor soul and strike up a conversation. But Tokyo is so compact all the bars seem to be hidden in basements, making it impossible to wander round looking in windows for a nice looking place. I descend a few staircases and find deserted bars.
Over four nights I didn’t get to talk to anyone Japanese. I found a decent bar called 300, because everything costs 315 yen(?). A couple of rubbish “British pubs” which weren’t pubby, or containing anything British. Eventually I ended up in the salubrious part of town but at the Hard Rock Café were I finally got to talk to somebody. A Swiss bloke who’s lived in the Far East for years.
“Where do you recommend for a bar to have a good time?” I ask.

So if the bars didn’t work out for me what did I enjoy?
Well, I went up a tall building and looked at the view which was, er, Tokyo. Not the most famous skyline in the world, but it gives you a reminder of the scale of the city.
I went to the Sony building where they have lots of exciting cutting edge technology like 4K (even higher def telly) and er, phones.
I went to Akiba, where they have lots and lots of technology, and girls dressed as… I don’t know what they’re dressed as, but it involves short dresses.
I went to Shimbuya, where that busy crossing is that appears in loads of movies.
I was disappointed to fail to find the banana vending machine, but did manage to acquire a bottle of sweat.

And that was pretty much Tokyo. No Sumo on at the mo. The sake tasting place shut at 5.30pm (I was going at 7 so I could continue drinking)
I’m not saying I had a bad time. Just walking the streets is pretty incredible, but I didn’t have a “great” time.

To the airport!

…via the Narita Express train, which was very nice
…and into the United Airlines lounge, which sucked.

So along to the ANA lounge, which was much better, and allowed me to cram in the essential Japanese experiences – Sake, Sushi and a mechanical massage chair with Japanese instructions that almost killed me!
I even bumped into the only person I know in the whole of Japan! The Swiss bloke! Maybe it’s not such a big place.

Another plane, another pod. Only the Boeing 777-200 as everybody knows, is not as nice as the 777-300, so my pod is smaller. Hence 1 hour’s sleep. The stewardesses are better though. You can keep your Japanese dolly birds, I’ll take a nice middle-aged Kiwi mother figure with a sense of humour any day!

And I arrive in Auckland to meet Ben, who you last encountered in RTW1 in Vegas, as did I , come to think of it.
Ben is dressed for summer, with shorts and sandals, because it’s hot in Auckland and hasn’t rained for 3 months. I don my shades and walk outside into the drizzle.
“Honest it hasn’t rained for 3 months!!”
Ben has to work, but has kindly agreed to drop me at my hotel, and gives me a quick rundown on where to go, what to do, and how to get there:
“Don’t use the trains, they’re awful”
and that the number one Kiwi phrase to learn to use is:
“She’ll be right”
…an expression of relaxed contentment, and a reminder not to worry.

I’m in luck. The local rugby league side are playing Sydney tonight, and at New Zealand’s greatest stadium, Eden Park.
I book a ticket online and ask the Concierge how to get there.
“Take a train”
“Oh, any alternative?”
“What? Take a train – it’s simple”
So I take a train. It is indeed simple, and cheap, and painfully slow – I could walk this fast!

But the atmosphere on board is good. And the atmosphere at the stadium is great. Incredible seats, barely any queues, and a great game. The Warriors start slow, and those bastards from Sydney look like having the better of “us”, but in the second half the Warriors fight back and we have plenty of chances to go mental in the stands, while the pyro guy tries to give a few thousand people second degree burns.
Fantastic stuff.
Which is fortunate because I’m flagging. Forget beer, I’m on Red Bull. The guy at the counter has my second drink ready for me. 42,700 people and he knows my order? Am I the only one drinking Red Bull?
The Warriors score another try, the conversion will level it…
“Go, Warriors, Go!!!”
The bloke behind me points out that a tie means extra time
“No, Warriors, No!!!”
but the glorious pansy misses, and blows the Warriors last chance. With 60 seconds to go it’s all over, and I peg it for a train.
Predictably the train is packed and takes forever to leave as they ram it to the gizzards. But my speed has paid off and I have a seat for the epic 2 mile trundle back to town. Honestly, I’d have walked if I had the faintest clue which way it was!
We’re half way there when the train grinds to a halt. After ten minutes the driver comes over the radio:
“Ah, there’s a dropped track ahead and a technician has been called to fix it, could be a while…”
Eeeurggh. Despite the loss there’s a good atmosphere on the train, and it’s been a great day, but I’m flagging badly.
Sooooo tired! I’m struggling. How blooming long are we going to be stuck here? We can’t get off. And even if I could get off, where the hell are we?
I hang in there. Repeating the magic phrase:

“She’ll be right.”


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