Wednesday, 25 August 2010

clean underwear and travel

One problem about travel is that you get sweaty and dirty. No matter how clean and restful the experience was you're going to spend a long time sat in the one place. And it's not a good look if you've got to interact with people at the end.

Long train journeys are bad for this, planes are worse. And with flying there's always the lurking fear that the airline will lose your bag. Well sometimes, not very often, they do, and they usually turn up but that doesn't help solve the immediate problem that you're stuck in a an alien city with no clean undies. Everyone has suggestions as to how to plan ahead, but here's mine:

  • Buy yourself a flight bag - most airlines let you take around a 10 litre bag as cabin baggage, even the really mean screw-you discounters
  • In this bag put a small backpack and put the following in the backpack:
  1. Travel computer in travel sleeve - make sure the battery is fully charged
  2. Cell-phone
  3. Two pens (at some point you'll have to fill out an immigration form)
  4. Hardback notebook
  5. Spectacles and sunglasses
  6. Something to read
  7. Passports, copies of any documents required for the journey
  8. Ziploc bag containing spare change (both local and overseas)
Remember to put your keys (including car keys) in the bag once you're done with them. Do not put chargers, network cables, kensington security cables in this bag. Some paranoid security geek is quite capable of deciding that they can be used to attack someone.

Besides the little back pack also put the following in the bag - clean underwear, socks, a clean t-shirt. You can simply put them in a plastic bag to keep them clean, or else Kathmandu and other outdoor shops sell packing bags that do the job. If you can face the paranoia at airports also pack your three 100ml bottles of shampoo, after shave and anything else in a clear plastic bag separately to the rest as you'll need to get them out to be inspected.

Also put in the obvious extras, a jumper, a lightweight waterproof, and if you want to risk the security geeks a travel umbrella - some places are happy if they can x-ray it, some aren't. And most importantly a travel portfolio containing printed copies of all your travel documents, both outgoing and incoming. Make sure this can fit inside the small backpack.

Why the separate small backpack?

Well security always want to check your computer and it makes sense to make the business of going through security as easy as possible. It also means you've (a) got all your essentials grouped together, a separate small bag in case you need to check other stuff in, as happened to us in Singapore last year when we had an unscheduled day in the city, and came back sweaty. We'd bought extra t-shirts and toileteries in the city so we bundled all the nonessential stuff into the bigger bag and asked nicely if we could check it in as an extra (b) a spare bag for the extra stuff you need to check in coming back - everything from books to t-shirts. (If the airline does lose your bags and you have to buy some extra things, having a spare bag is doubly useful)

The travel portfolio is really useful if you need to prove to immigration somewhere along the line that you really are going to X then Y as in I'm going to a conference at Harvard and then going on to Canada by train before flying back by a different route.

If you're really paranoid a thumb drive with pdf copies of the essentials is useful too - you can always find someone to print them for you.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

travelling to Patagonia

I’ve started reading, or more accurately rereading Paul Theroux’s ‘Old Patagonia Express’.

I first read it about thirty years ago, when it first came out in paperback, and didn’t much like it then, in part because it didn’t seem as amazingly romantically fascinating as Bruce Chatwin’s ‘In Patagonia’ and in part because of the way Theroux’s character shone through - that amazing mix of bumptious pretentiousness and ignorance one finds in some arts and literature graduates from upscale US universities. Knowing about fourteenth century literature does not equip one to deal successfully with a monoglot Italian train conductor at three in the morning

Well I’m still finding his character irritating, but overall I like the book better now, perhaps because I’m older, have travelled more, and perhaps because it captures a world now vanished, without cellphones, email and discount airlines.

Like Theroux I have always been fascinated by the idea that one can put a notebook and some clothes in a bag, go to a train station and end up, well, wherever one can get a train to.

Of course in Australia, it doesn’t really work. We don’t really do trains any more. From Canberra the only direct train is to Sydney, or one can get a bus and connect with the Sydney Melbourne train.

However, when I lived in England it was different. And impossibly romantic. Bus to the station, train to London, and in pre-Eurostar days, the boat train from Victoria to Newhaven, and then rattling across France in the dark of early morning, and across Paris as the sun came out to catch the train south to Spain and the Basque Lands.

This was travel, humping bags, customs officers, discussions with railway officials in bad French and worse Spanish, standing all the way from Paris to Irun in an impossibly crowded over booked train.

And the chance encounters. The man who gave me some apples from his garden and a spare metro ticket when he found I was going on to London, or the blonde girl who spent all night on the ferry talking to me about organic smallholdings and Bhuddism. We could have become lovers but our only shared intimacy was coffee and Gauloises in a cafe opposite the Gare d’Austerlitz as we waited for our separate early morning trains.

And there were sleepers - in pre-easyjet days the simple idea of a night’s sleep on a rattling train saved a day or two off a journey making longer trips possible. When I moved from Scotland to Wales I packed up my gear on my touring bike, rode to the station one January evening, checked my bike in and rattled by various trains to Shrewsbury on a cold winter’s morning before catching a train to Lllandrindod through a cold frozen early morning rural landscape straight out of Kilvert’s Diary.

Of course there were downsides as well - hours spent in cold station waiting rooms waiting for the early morning train from somewhere to somewhere else, trying to find somewhere for a shower after a long sweaty un air conditioned journey, but it was still fun.

Fun in a way that that you don’t get if you only travel by air and just pick up a rental car. On planes people do not move around, talk to each other much, or anything much. Mostly you sit there, watch someone else’s choice of movie, eat indifferent food, and try to sleep when possible. Solitary air travel is, well solitary, and if one travels with one’s companera it may be more companionable, but it’s still tedious and boring.

The fun bits of air travel really revolve around missed connections and delays, like the time we went to Brunei for the afternoon. We were supposed to connect with local flight to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, but our flight was hopelessly late.

We had to meet some people in KK so the airline’s suggestion of a hotel and a flight the next day didn’t work. In the end it was through immigration, into a battered Holden mini-cab - the driver had to hold the gear change in drive to stop it jumping out - for a mad dash across Brunei to a highspeed passenger ferry to Labuan, other cab and wait in the airport for an onward flight.

Or more accurately wait outside the airport. The security guards locked themselves inside the air conditioned terminal to watch ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ in Malay while we sat in a taxi shelter in a tropical downpour waiting for them to open the terminal building for the next flight.

Or being bumped off a flight from Turkey, and flying back via Berlin, overnighting in a very strange discount hotel I always suspected of having been a Stasi barracks in a previous life and then doorstepping an airline office to cram onto the next available flight to London as they couldn’t book us through all the way from Istanbul.

Car trips are similarly insulating divorcing you from interaction - and while we’ve had good times, including rattling round Crete looking at Minoan ruins in a dented Fiat with a dodgy gear change, - you’re just another pair of people on a road trip.

Likewise we’ve taken some small group tours to cram travel in - basically if someone has a tour organised of Hellenistic sites in Turkey it can be quicker and less of a hassle to travel on one of those - preferably the travel oriented ones - the rougher the better staying in cheap local hotels and eating in local cafes - because the company has usually sorted the logistics out. Also the people attracted to that sort of tour tend to be more adventurous and interesting.

Real travel is something else, travelling on local public transport sometimes, like our trip to Laos with the rattling sleeper to the border and the insane bus journey across the north of Thailand from the Mekong to Chiang Mai with 150 people crammed into a fifty seater bus, trying to find/organise hotels in advance, or wandering round strange cities trying to find somewhere to eat - which sometimes can be surprisingly difficult.

However, it’s fun, in a perverse, sustaining. stimulating way that lets you experience a country, and how other people live. When they say that travel broadens the mind this is the sort of travel they mean, the dirty grubby stimulating sort. And irritated as I may be by Paul Theroux, I appreciate and admire his sense of adventure

No more morning newspaper ...

Today was our first day without a morning newspaper, having decided to cancel the papers as we weren't getting through them.

I'm afraid to admit I kind of went cold turkey and took my breakfast coffee into the study and started reading my mail and RSS feeds ...

spare tyre woes

back at the end of June, while I was having my wisdom teeth out someone broke into my car.

I'd left it parked on the nature strip rather than in the drive to make life easy for J. In retrospect I should have put it at the top of the drive, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Anyway, while I was pissed that they'd buggered one of the door locks - the passenger side - there was nothing of value taken and the radio was still there - I wasn't fussed. After all it's a 10 year old Excel with dents in every panel that I bought from a post grad in the Maths Institute for three thousand bucks back in 2007.

So I did the usual things, phoned the cops, who took my name and address and gave me an incident number, called the insurers who told me I wasn't covered for lock damage, knocked on our neighbours' doors to warn them to be careful if they were planning on leaving cars parked on the nature strip.

And that was that, until last Saturday, when I put a case of wine in the boot and noticed the floor bent rather a lot. So I lifted up the floor panel and discovered the spare tyre, jack, and wheel brace had gone.

Now garages sometimes take things like that out when they're fixing something and forget to put them back, but I've had other heavyish things in the boot since the last time it was serviced back in March, so I reckon I'd have noticed before now.

Anyway it had gone. And whenever it had gone it was a long time ago. So, you say 'shit' and move on. However I sort of lucked out. I phoned some wreckers to see if they had a suitable spare wheel and jack, and the first one I called said 'Not a drama, $45 for the wheel, $25 for the jack'.

'Sounds good, put them aside, I'll collect them this afternoon'. So after work I drove out to their yard, collected and paid for them - and this is where I lucked out - they'd found me a compatible wheel - with a factory new tyre - and jack from a new car someone had written off and threw in a wheelbrace for free. So while I was $70 down it felt like I'd come out ahead ...

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Judi in the snow

Judi in the snow, originally uploaded by moncur_d.

Just to prove that even though our ski-ing trip on Monday was a bit masochistic we enjoyed it - really !

Cancelling print media

It might seem like heresy but we've started cancelling print media subscriptions. Not because we've become iPadified but because we find we've unread papers and magazines sitting around the house, and yet we both spend more and more time reading newsfeeds and other online sources.

First to go is the New Scientist - which is a wrench given that I've been a loyal subscriber since I was sixteen, when it was valuable as the only reliable source of science news and which has sustained me for years.

Nowadays there's more choice of news sources, and the New Scientist seems increasingly not to cut it as a backgrounder for new topics. Sad, but $300 a year for something that sits unread seems a lot of money.

Next to go will probably be the Canberra Times. It's always been one of these newspapers that looked as if it ought to be a heavyweight paper, but actually wasn't, relying on syndicated content most of which you can get online, while its local news coverage is increasingly trite. I had hopes that when Fairfax took it over it might turn into essentially a Canberra edition of the The Age or the SMH, but no such luck - it seems to get thinner and thinner and worse and worse.

I feel guilty as I've always enjoyed reading newspapers, but then I don't really read the Canberra Times, more flick through it at breakfast, and especially since I've taken to reading the Australian at lunchtime I've found it far too lightweight.

As to the Guardian Weekly - I'm still enjoying it and it's a nice foil to the Australian, so it'll be interesting to see how it lasts if we go newspaperless ...

Tuesday, 17 August 2010


This year has not been a particularly good snow year, with decent cover coming late - as we saw with our trip to Kiandra at the end of June. The snow didn't really appear for another month and then the usual mix of colds flu and work meant we couldn't get out for a bit of cross country ski-ing.

Well, yesterday the stars aligned and we managed to get out - and it was truly horrible.

We woke up to a clear Canberra morning after overnight sleety rain, checked the weather and ski reports, and while there was bad weather coming it didn't look that bad. We'd originally planned to go to Perisher but at the last minute changed to Selwyn near Kiandra as it was a bit more sheltered and while they had had sleety rain that morning the forecast said it should clear by mid day.

It didn't clear - it got worse. Unbeknownst to us there was a severe cold front coming through and dumping snow on the Victorian side of the Alps. Driving up through Cooma in cold but brilliant sunshine we could see the weather clustering around the Alps with sleet and snow falling - but having checked the weather that morning we thought that was probably the end of it and it would start to clear back from the Kiandra end. Driving through Adaminaby the wind began to blow with the town flagpole noticably bending and twisting in the wind and as we started up Connors Hill it began to sleet, turning to wet snow at the top, although it wasn't lying. Sawyer's Hill was much the same story and when we got to Kiandra it looked almost as if the snow was rained out with patches of grass showing, and the Eucumbene river was in flood.

We momentarily thought about giving up and turning round and cutting across to Perisher as we thought it didn't look as if there was much ski-ing to be had, but decided to press on. At Selwyn itself the snow looked ski-able and we decided to give it a go. The snow was coming down as small wet flakes at this stage but we reckoned we were well enough equipped.

Off we set towards Four Mile Hut along the trail. The track was covered in wet draggy snow but we were making reasonable progress but the snow was now coming down in wet sloppy flakes the size of 10c coins. About half way there as we were coming out of shelter under the trees we realised it wasn't going to clear and while we were warm enough in our ski gear our packs were getting seriously wet and it was only a matter of time before the wet started seeping through gloves and boots.

So we turned tail and ski-id back down to Selwyn, with our vision getting steadily more obscured by the heavier and heavier falling snow. And all the time the skis were getting draggier and draggier in the wet snow, making the experience less and less enjoyable.

When we got back to the car there was already about four or five centimetres of snow on it so it was gear in the back and skis on the roof as quickly as possible.

Rather than sit and have a thermos of coffee we decided to follow the National Parks snowplough down to the park gates before the road got too wet and slippy. Driving down we had to zigzag around a ute that had spun and ended up in the ditch partly blocking the road. The police were there and everyone looked to be alright so we kept on heading down.

Things were no better when we got down to the Snowy Mountains highway, so we decided to carry on down the hill joining a line of three or four cars behind another snowplough. Left to itself the road would have been covered but there was enough traffic (just) to keep it slushy.

The snowplough stopped at the bottom of Connor's hill and from then on the sleet increasingly diminished and the road cleared so that while it was cold and spitting it was basically clear by the time we got to Adaminaby, where we retreated to the cafe for a pie, coffee and a shared danish.

We must of looked cold and weatherbeaten as the lady serving suggested we should sit by the fire. After that it was back to the car, which was still partly covered with now melting snow and surrounded by a fascinated excited group of Indian children, who'd clearly never seen such a thing.

The rest of the journey back was uneventful apart from the occasional sleet flurry. It looked as if we might get some snow on the Brindabellas out of the weather, but there was none visible on the mountains this morning as I drove to work.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Oyster card annoyances


J and I have an Oyster card – a London Tube and bus stored value e-ticket card. Just like we have Singapore travel cards as well.

Anyway, we’ve a trip to London coming up so I thought I’d add some value to each of the cards online in advance – the last thing you want is to find you’re out of credit when you get the Underground from Paddington to our short stay apartment.

No way. London Transport will happily sell you a visitor’s Oyster card online, and even send it to you in Australia but won’t let you top up online.

They seem to have this really weird idea that if you want to top up the card you want to register, and you have a UK address, UK phone number and UK postcode, and that you only have one card.

Well we have one card each and we don’t mind who uses which – as we usually go most places together it doesn’t matter.

What we really want is an anonymous top up facility – here is my Oyster card, here is my Paypal account, or visa debit card number, please transfer GBP10 from my account to my Oyster card.

But no they don’t do that – and it can’t be paranoia over foreign credit cards given that they let you purchase cards over the internet. And it’s silly – if you lived in Paris or Brussels and came to meetings in London three or four times a year you’d probably want to get yourself a card and top it up from home as well

Thursday, 12 August 2010

hot chips

isn't it strange how the smell of hot chips, salt and vinegar is doubly wonderful on cold blowy day at the end of winter ?

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

what a wonderful thing is the internet - part 78

I own this rather wonderful bia 4 coffee pot from Bialetti and have done so for over 15 years - and use it every morning for my first cup of coffee of the day.

Over the years I've tried a lot of coffee makers - automatic drippers, filters and the rest but stove top espresso ones are the best. Out of these I've tried stainless steel ones (scalds the coffee) and Asian copies of the orginal octagonal Gaggia's but the bia still makes the best coffee. Better even than the automatic machines we have at work.

Like all stovetop espresso makers the gaskets harden and die, and this has been bia's problem for the last few months - you had to tighten things up really hard otherwise you'd get steam and spurts when you brewed.

Poor bia really needed a new gasket.

But where to start? Well, while our local DJ's still sells stovetop espresso pots they don't sell spare gaskets.

Apparently no one in Australia sells spare gaskets online - yes I'm sure there's some wonderful traditional coffee shops in Sydney and Melbourne that still sell such things but they're not online. The stores in Canberra want to sell you a new (and preferably an expensive automatic) coffee maker.

So it was off to google.

The first shop I turned up was in the States somewhere - really helpful website, told me how to work out which type gasket I needed (in inches mind you - ever tried finding a non-metric ruler in a metric country?) but wouldn't ship to Australia.

Then I turned to ebay - and immediately found two ebay stores - both in the UK - who would ship to Australia. Eight bucks all in including shipping, with payment via paypal. Ten days for it to get to Australia and hey presto, I had a pack of manufacturer original gaskets.

A bit of swearing and probing with a kebab skewer to get the old ossified gasket out and we were in business.

And that's what's wonderful about the internet. Instead of trudging round stores and endless phone calls interstate I could find what I needed online, and with paypal make the payment efficiently - without being stung for minimum transaction fees. It was easy.

And that's how it should be - the internet enables things, not just the sexy web 2.0 things but the simple should be easy things as well ...

[originally posted to my other blog and updated slightly]

Sunday, 1 August 2010

People amaze you in so many ways ...

People are quietly amazing.

My niece Amanda, who I tend to think of somewhat of a flibbertigibbet, amazed me last night in a Thai restraurant my holding forth cogently and coherently on the LHC, the Higgs boson, and what building an even bigger machine could potentially reveal.