Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A first full of Rupees

I'm lucky to finally get a chance to be in Chennai, where I'll be taking part in some training with my new team.

Again, we were fortunate enough to fly business class - but with Emirates this time.  The lounge wasn't quite in the same class as the Virgin Lounge, but the food was nice (VC champers that I managed to resist until just after noon) and you boarded the plane straight from the lounge, so no queueing up with the plebs!

It was my first time on an A380 for the first leg to Dubai. It was the quietest and and comfiest flight I've ever been on, mainly helped by the built-in seat massage for my poor back - very nice!  Food was also better than Virgin and despite concerns that it might be a dry flight, it was anything but - if fact I think they forgot to load the tonic on, if the strength of my G&T was anything to go by.

The stop-over in Dubai was a bit of a non-event - just enough time to figure out that everything was really expensive (except Alcohol, which again thought it might be dry, but no) and then back on a plane (777 this time) for the second to Chennai.

I managed to get a little sleep on the second flight, despite having to actually sit next to another human being (in business class as well, I mean what's that all about?!?) who insisted on switching his light on and off all flight. Note to Emirates - eye masks on every flight please!

So arriving in India was a bit of shock from the shiny loveliness of Dubai.  The airport just looked like it was falling apart and there was lots of old machinery and luggage containers left to rot in piles along the perimeter.  After being picked up by a driver for the trip to the hotel it was just a case of hanging on, hoping we didn't wipe out a motorbike (helmets appear to be an afterthought and kids are also OK, as long as Mum has a good grip on the child and the back of the bike) or us being wiped out by a bus. No real rules while driving signals are an afterthought, undertaking and use of the horn obligatory.  Thing is it just seems to be self-regulating and actually work! Oh and it was 21 degrees at 9am as well.

We are staying at the ITC Grand Chola, which is just a vast marbled edifice of opulence.  I have never stayed somewhere so big and with so many staff - all of which are so incredibly polite and go out of their way to to help.  It takes about 10 minutes to get from my room to the lobby through various other sub-lobbies filled with amazing furniture and statues, but no people.
The huge marble staircase in the hotel lobby

View over the 4 swimming pools
One of the many items of furniture just dotted around the hotel, as you do...
My room is relatively big, but the bathroom is huge and is entirely marbled. Bit of a concern that I might kill myself when I flooded it after a shower, but as you get about 12 towels, I managed to  clear most of the water up.
My marble-cladded bathroom of loveliness.  Flood cleared up

Mmmmm super comfy bed
So after some brekkie (first introduction to spicy food at breakfast was interesting) and a little sleep, I went down to check out one of the three swimming pools.  Unfortunately I didn't see the no swimming sign and got shouted at for going in(doing some chlorine thing, apparently).

Lunch was another exploration in Asian cuisine (go for the dish with the lowest proportion of chillies!) and after the gym (curry sweats on first day, not nice!!) it was time to turn in for the day.
Lunch (especially for Sammy) From top left: fried chicked, spiced lamb, cheese, deep fried lentils for starters.  In the centre is main course of shredded beef, fish, shredded pork, more chicken.  Yum
Unfortunately I don't think we will get any time to do any site seeing, but if I do,I'll post up the piccies for everyone.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Sao Paulo Day 12 - Leaving on a jet plane

My time in Brazil had at last come to an end (I'm now safely back in the chilly UK), so one final post to finish things off.

After a brutal first week of work in Brazil (7 am calls to the UK, conducting training 9-5 and then another couple of hours afterword), the second week was a but calmer.  I had taken on board my Brazilian colleague's comments that things were a bit more 'relaxed' than in the UK, so coffee breaks and lunches were all a lot longer...

Still not much time to do any sight seeing though, so that was all left to the final couple of days.  On my final day I was taken to the equivalent of a Chinese fake market.  This was an area just to the north of the city centre in an old part of the town.

There were plenty of legitimate shops selling real goods - hardware stores, sports shops, mobile phone accessory shops; but also plenty of fake shops hawking everything from branded shirts/trainers, football stuff and toys.  As an indication, a real Brazil replica shirt was R$189 (about £64), while a fake one was R$40 (£13). I picked up a Brazil shirt for my son (who has not taken it off for 24 hours) and a Corinthians one for me, while my daughter and SO got real Havianas (in pink natch).

After wandering the streets for an hour so we then headed to the Mercado Municipal, a covered food market.  Probably half the stalls were selling fruit and vegetables.  I could identify most of the products on offer, but some I had never seen before.  Papaya and Guava I had heard of, but caqui was a new one to me (Looks almost exactly like a tomato, tastes amazing) and there were also what looked like passion fruits, but with yellow and vivid purple flesh.  Yum.

Many of the stalls were stacked high with bacalhau - dried and salted cod.  This appears to be a bit of a delicacy of the Brazilians (thanks to the Portuguese), with the market also having lots of pastel stalls selling bacalhau pastels.  A pastel, as far as I can tell, is a pasty with pastry made of pasta flour and then deep fried (a very common cooking method in Brazil).  The bacalhau pastel also had spring onions and green olives in it and was very nice thank you very much - especially when washed down with a honey beer.

Good Friday street market - fish on the
 left,  fruit and veg on the right
Ibirapuera park.  Yes, it was raining.
As my flight wasn't until nearly midnight on Saturday I had the whole day to myself.  After a 10k run in the pissing rain (But sooo nice and warm), I had a wander through a local food market and then made my way over to the Pecaembu to try the Museu do Football again.  Its a fantastic museum that describes the evolution of football in Brazil from the point where Charles Miller bought the game to the country to the modern day.  There are exhibits that cover the country's most famous players, stats about the game and (most interestingly for me) the world cups.  The museum is housed within the main stand of the Pacaembu, an art deco stadium built in a valley to the north of city centre.  The sideline stands are built into the valley, so the top of the stands are at road level - very clever!
Pecaembu Stadium.  The museum was within this main stand.
...and the view from the inside.  The stands on either side are built into the valley sides
After the museum I just had time to get some food before packing up and leaving the hotel for my trip back to England.  All in all, a really enjoyable visit to another country I may never get the chance to visit again.  It would have been nice if I could have done more while there - go to Rio, sample a beach and see the rain forest, but you never know, I may get another trip some time!
My lift home...
A week off with the children and then back to work.  More importantly, gonna have to work hard to get rid of the 14 cows I've eaten while I was away...

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Sao Paulo Day 6

Work has been brutal this past week, far harder that anything we encountered in Shanghai, so opportunities for wandering around have been few and far between.  I have also been counselled by work colleagues about realities of Sao Paulo life - I've been advised against using the metro/train to get to the office, not to open my rucksack in the street (wait until inside Taxi), carry only a minimum of money with you and don't show off my watch (a battered G-Shock).  Better to be safe that sorry, but I think its a bit extreme nonetheless.

So in the few hours in between work, taxi and sleep I've managed to sample a few Brazilians meals.  Every single one contained meat of some kind, the majority of which were huge chucks of dead cow.  Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for a hunk a steak now and then, but this is taking it to the extreme.  Where in the UK, the meat portion is smaller than the vegetable portion by quite a lot, hear the opposite is true.  Huge steaks with a spoonful of salad to help you along!

The 'traditional meal' of the Brazilian people is a beef steak (of some sort), rice, black beans and a little salad.  Its pretty good, only problem is:
  1. The meat is also always well-done to the point of being able to bounce it
  2. So much salt is used it burns my lips.

Bangers, mash and onion gravy every time for me I'm afraid!

I have discovered that desserts are not really that common (unless its ice cream) and chicken nuggets (I forget the Portuguese translation) are looked on as some kind of food of the gods (wtf!?!)

I've also tried some new (to me) fruit - Kaka, which looks like a tomato but is almost toffee-like in taste and sweetness, papaya (heard of, but not had before), which I found to be mleh to eat and very bleugh to drink as juice and finally guarana, which is a Brazilian berry sold as a caffeine soft drink (and very nice it is too).

The street sellers can also be seen pushing cart loads of coconuts around as well - these still have their original green husks around them and the sellers just drill a hole and plonk a straw in and your away!

I've been taken out a couple of times by the guys I'm training, which has been fantastic - the first occasion I was forced to try cacha├ža - a cane sugar liquor that tastes and resembles ethanol.  Lets just say that doing the training the next day was very hard work...

Finally, the sun comes out

Today was the first day this week that the sun shone for longer than about 10minutes.  It also didn't rain.  As a result I've done some wandering and managed to fit in a 10k run first thing.  I may have at last earned a steak this evening...
Paulista Avenue used to be lined with Mansions like the this one (apparently), unfortunately now all mostly cleared for ugly tower blocks.  This building is in a sorry state, but is beautiful
What you can't quite see is the 3 metre wide cobweb stretching from the statue to the tree...
I walked over to Paulista Avenue with a view to walking to Paceambu stadium where the museum of football is, but I soon realised that I was never going to make it in time so I ambled back via a couple of secluded urban parks.  Felt a bit perved out as I appeared to have stumbled into a park reserved especially for secret lovers (snogging going on everywhere!), but I think it will be about as close to the amazon rain forest as I'm about to get on this trip.  By far the coolest thing I noticed was the 3 metre wide cobwebs between the trees.  perhaps I should have had that yellow fever jab after all.
Welcome to the Jungle, we've got fun and games...
Hopefully get to the museum of footy tomorrow and then an afternoon of prep for the coming week of training - such fun!

Another Day, another megacity...

Sao Paulo this time for two weeks of training my Brazilian colleagues in the ways of the dark side...

The flight from Heathrow was nearly perfect - I was whisked through security so fast in London that I even had time to watch the whole England game live.  Kind of wish I had been stuck in a queue for two hours now though given the result!  We were delayed at Heathrow for an hour for some reason but once in the air, everything was great.  The food was much better than Virgin Atlantic (to/from Shanghai) and even though the seats didn't fully recline like the Virgin seats, I was so much more comfortable as I could actually fit my shoulders in!  Entertainment system was much better as well - even got the noise cancelling headpones that reduce the sound of the plane when you switch them on.

Managed nealy 6 hours sleep (unlike the crappy virgin flight), though that may have had more to do with being knackered from the 2 hour bike ride I'd done in the morning (must remember to do that next time I fly long haul ;o)

Upon arriving at Sao Paolo, I was, well, a bit underwhelmed to be honest.  I hadn't really appreciated just how 'new' Shanghai looked until I was walking through the 'Posh' part of Sao Paulo and desperately not trying to trip over the broken concrete, open rain gutters and slippery tiles that make up the pavements.  Parts of it resemble a partly finished building site before they relaid everything.

Been to two places of note today.  First of all a little wander to Ibirapuera park to check out the running route there.  Its an urban park a bit like Central park in New York, with large lakes, a number of museums and ampitheatres all within it.  There is paved road (no cars allowed) with a cycle track and walking/running track marked out.  Today being Sunday it was heaving, be interesting to see what its like at 6:30am on a Tuesday morning though.
Huge sculpture on the entrance to Ibirapuera park.  Pity about the six lanes of traffic that surround it.

View from Ibirapuera park toward Jardim Paulista area of Sao Paulo.  It was raining, a lot
 I also went to MASP (Museum of Art, Sao Paulo), which has the largest collection of western european art outside of Europe  (Ohhh get me!).  It was virtually empty, so I got to wander around and stare at various works of Gainsborough, Turner, Constable, Renoir, Van Gogh, Monet and others to my hearts content.  Only a fiver to get in aswell - great way to spend the afternoon!
The MASP building.  Bloody ugly building, beautiful art inside it though.

Sao Paulo, 1965 called, it wants it's buildings back

View overlooking the Avenue Nove de Juhlo.  Typical of all the buildings in Sao Paulo.
Ah yes, the architecture.  Not many gleaming 200 metre neon-clad skyscrapers here.  If you've been to Plymouth, imagine a mile-long 6 lane boulevard entirely populated with tower blocks resembling the Plymouth City Council building and you're there.  Its not a pretty sight to be honest.

Weather is not holding up its end of the bargain either.  Although the temperature is in the high teens/twenties (so shorts on, natch), it has pissed it down virtually all day.  As a result I was decidedly moist for most of the day.  I came armed with waterproof and cap for windy, UK style rain, not the huge tropical straight down drops you get here.  This is where a brolly really works, must remember than for next time.

Have forced myself to sample the local cuisine as well.  As people warned me, this mostly incolves huge lumps of roasted/boiled/fried meat, with a passing nod to veggies in the form of roast potatoes and fried beans.  There is also a worring tendency to deep fry or steep in syrup anything they get their hands on (Deep fried banana anyone?)  As for the fruit, I thought it looked like a pear, but it most definitely was not...   My best find was a bowl the size of my head full of butterscotch.  I had to force myself to leave the restaurant at that point before I dunked my head in, Winnie the pooh style and started slurping

Work tomorrow, so might get to do any more sights till the weekend.  Hopefully rain will stop long enough for me to take some photos...

Friday, 16 November 2012

Shanghai Day 8 - So long and thanks for all the fish

I was intending to post my final entry while I was in Shanghai, but due to the Chinese political change over Gmail and Blogger were blocked for two days.  During my time, facebook.com was completely inaccessible, though it could be accessed via my phone - I suppose the URL to the facebook API was available (obviously the Chinese tech heads aren't the sharpest tools in the box).

The government were also paranoid about foreign media reports about China being shown in their own country. Every time BBC Worldwide or CNN did a feature on the change of leadership or interviewed anyone who had anything uncomplimentary to say about the leadership, the feed went off and the screen went black for 5 or 6 minutes.  When BBC interviewed Ai Weiwei, I thought it may never come back!  Speaking to an expat currently living in Shanghai, she said that they knew more about what was going on in the country than the typical Chinese person did.  Censorship was still widespread in the media (as I witnessed).  I'm not sure how much longer this can keep up though - they have more internet users than any other country in the world (500million), how do they expect to censor them in this digital world?  Blocking of twitter and facebook is only going to last for so long...

Anyway, onto less political matters.  My second to last night in Shanghai and as the following evening will be spent trying to squeeze all my tourist tat into my suitcases, I thought I would venture out amongst the pimps and get some final nighttime photos of the water front.

I have also run out of pants, but wanting to take some photos sounds a bit more organised.

So first to some new underwear.  Giordano is just across the street from the hotel, so braving the constant enquiries of  lady massages and sexy girls, I popped in to have a nose.  Its a bit like Gap, only a little bit trendier and  I think I still fit the Gap demographic (just).  I was only after some pants, so two pairs of boxers, three pairs of socks and three t-shirts later I was on my way to the Bund...

I decided to take the 'back street' to the Bund to avoid the crowds and came across some nice colonial-era buildings and non-oriental lions on the Postal Savings Bank of China Building.

The Bund and the view over the river is even more stunning at night, as the photos show.  If I had had more time it would have been nice to take the river cruise and see the whole of the Bund in more detail, but I have to leave something for the next time I come I suppose.

On Thursday morning the limo picked us up for the short journey to Pudong airport and our 13 hour flight home.  The business class lounge wasn't up to the Virgin one in Heathrow unfortunately, but at least it had free WiFi so I could fire off a few work emails before going silent for half a day.  The flight was a lot more bearable on the way home - mainly due to me deciding not to drink alcohol I think.  Managed to watch Snow White and the Huntsman, Dark Shadows and the Raid on the TV, though. the entertainment system could do with an upgrade now.  People are becoming increasingly used to having HD from films on their TV's and now their phones, so a low resolution film in cropped 4:3 ratio doesn't really cut it anymore.  It could have been a lot worse though.

On landing, the immigration controls were lightning fast (Heathrow in doing something right shocker!) so I was in departures by 5:30.  I had planned to go to the Virgin Revive lounge and get a shower and a bite to eat, but it was only open in the morning (you didn't put that on the website did you Virgin?), so I jumped on the Heathrow express and decided to chance my arm on an earlier train out of Paddington.  Oh my, I had forgotten what a merry bunch of people London commuters are.  The train was rammed leaving Paddington and I was already public enemy number one for having the temerity to want to put my two suitcases in the empty luggage rack.  After lots of tutting, signing whipping of newspapers and muttering I managed to find a spot and stood until Reading and then found a seat for the final part of the journey to Taunton.

The trip was one of those experiences I don't think I'll ever forget.  Possibly the only time I'll get to fly business class and travel to China along with the opportunity to sample a culture and sights half a world away  - wow.  The things I'll take away from the trip are:
  • The staggering amount of money there is now sloshing around China
  • Despite the complete absence of order in both the subway and on the roads, the transport system copes
  • Haggling is not a humiliating or an embarrassing thing to do - its actually quite a lot of fun!
  • Constant spitting in the street is disgusting and the quicker the Chinese authorities quash it, the better
  • My hatred for MacDonalds, KFC and Starbucks grows ever deeper as they try (and unfortunately succeed) to take over the world
  • Skyscrapers are beautiful 
  • No matter how you dress it up, 10-13 hours in an aluminium tube at 600km/h is hell.  Having a flat bed and nice food just makes it a little more like the third level of hell, rather than the seventh (but hell nonetheless).
  • Jetlag is a bitch
  • Pimps all look the same and can be spotted a mile off, if you know what you are looking for!
  • How a government still censors what its 'subjects' can and cannot do.
  • The smell of fried tofu will haunt me to my grave.
So thats it for the Shanghai posts, back to triathlon training next time...

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Shanghai Day 6 - Top of the world

Another day of sightseeing today.  After breakfast, my colleague and I met her friend's daughter, who is working in Shanghai at the moment.  She took us to Tianzifang, a small area of the city made up of old buildings and lanes.  It was all a bit boho and arty, with lots of little galleries and shops selling decent touristy items (rather than the tourist tat you find in the fake markets).
Tianzifang lanes

After that we walked to a local antique market - which this time did actually have some old(er) items in amongst the mass produced rubbish!  I especially wanted to buy a load of the old leather suitcases and make a 'feature' of them at home, then remembered I had a 2 year old daughter and 5 year old son who would take great delight in destroying them!  Anyway, I can only check in three bags into upper class on the way home...
Ye olde antique market 

From there we wandered back to the hotel and then I went straight back out with a view to getting to the top of the World Financial Centre building for sunset.  On exiting the subway you are faced with 2 (and a half) of the tallest buildings in the world right in front of you.  The Chinesey looking one is the Jin Mao tower, while the one with a giant bottle opener is the World Financial Centre. The third building being constructed is the Shanghai Tower, which apparently is going to half as tall again as the World Financial Centre.
World Financial Centre, Jin Mao & Shanghai Towers
After a bit of queue (me and fellow Europeans queueing correctly, Chinese bun fighting and barging), we got into the lift which took us up the 430 metres to the 94th floor.  From there it was an elevator up to the 97th floor and the first observatory and then another lift up to floor 100 and the 'highest observatory in the world'.
Hmmm quite high up here aern't we?

The viewing platform views are amazing, looking over both sides of the Shanghai.  There is also glass flooring that you can see the 460-odd metres straight down.  Despite the day being extremely clear (for Shanghai), there was still a pollution haze hanging over the city - bit of a pity really.  I sat down and hung around until it got dark and managed to get some cool photos, I even manged to spot our hotel!
My teeny tiny (27 storey) hotel
The Jin Mao and Oriental Pearl TV tower at dusk
I took up the tower's very kind offer to take my photo for 50 yuan as I was playing norman no mates.  After using an electrically powered toilet for the first time in my life (uppy downy, side to side, front and back washing and 'relaxing wash') and yomping my way through the obligatory souvenier shop (magnets for fridge, check), we zipped down in the double decker lift and were deposited in, the shopping and restaurant floor yay!
The two towers all lit up and looking pretty

Back to work tomorrow, only three days to go before I have the pleasure of a 14 hour flight back to the UK, wahoo!

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Shanghai Day 5 - Amateur haggling

Its been a busy few days work wise - still suffering from jet lag while in the office means that I'm in cloud cuckoo land for the first half of the day, but perk up in the afternoon.  I finally thought I was over it last night, but then woke at 4:50am promptly ready for the day!  Maybe tomorrow then.

We were taken to dinner by the Chinese Program Manager last night for traditional 'Shanghai-ese' food.  This mostly involved fresh water shellfish and tofu.  I've come to the conclusion that the smell of fried tofu sits on a similar smell-pedestal as baby poo and vomit in the stomach churning stakes - not good in a country like China.  The food on everyone else's table looked delicious - why did we get the smelly root stew and shellfish fungus goop??  I ate the food, but I'm hoping my local Chinese in Taunton doesn't start offering Shanghai delicacies as a dish - house special chow mien and sweet and sour pork balls will do just fine next time thank you.  I'm paying for it this evening now as well, thank god I decided to get some Imodium in case of emergency...

I'm not lyin, I'm a tiger Rarrrh!
Today was a big day as well, went sight seeing in the morning to the Yuyuan Gradens.  I was out of the Hotel early so I got to the Gardens not long after they opened - as a result, my first hour of wandering was tranquil and quiet.

Amazing that a place like that can exist in such a breakneck-paced city as Shanghai.  Its a series of walled areas with buildings, pagodas and various tree species. There are ponds full of Koi (well, giant goldfish anyway) and many rockeries built of water smoothed stone.  I went a bit snap-happy with the camera, but hopefully it was worth it.
One of the many sculptures on the roof of a pagoda
Many of the buildings are set amongst the ponds 

Notice the water-eroded/smoothed rock - the gardens are primarily composed of these rocks
After the gardens, I took a wander around the 'market' that surrounds the gardens.  Traditional-looking Chinese buildings housing all sorts of tourist shops, plus the ubiquitous American imports of KFC, McDonalds and Starbucks.  I did my first piece of haggling (practice for later in the day) and picked up a mini sceen thingy with Chinese decoration.   Probably got completely ripped off, but there you go!

One of the buildibgs in the market - probably only 20 years old!
By midday, the market so so busy I escaped back onto the subway to go to a large photography mall I'd read about online.  I was after a new lens for my DSLR, but found that the prices were similar to or even more expensive than the UK.  I did manage to pick up a memory card and some UV lens filters for a similar price as ebay - why buy on ebay when you can spend £4k on flights and buy them in the shop eh?!?

After a snickers (tasted of Hershey chocolate not Mars chocolate, felt duped by Masterfoods) to gird my loins, I made my way to the Science and Technology subway station and the (in)famous A.P.Plaza Shopping Mall.  This is a fake market - don't be under any illusion that anything in the market is the real deal apart from the bespoke suit fitting (which I didn't go for anyway).  So if you after any of the following, this place can provide a facsimile of it:
  • Handbags (Jimmy Choo, D&G and Mulberry seemed to the most popular)
  • Belts & wallets (stamped with all sorts of designer logos)
  • Sunglasses (Rayban and Oakley mainly)
  • Watches (Ice and G-Shocks were the main ones I saw)
  • T-shirts (Abercrombie, Diesel etc)
  • Jeans (All sorts, but due to my small waist/huge arse disfigurement I didn't bother)
  • Shoes (Mainly Converse and Uggs, but a lot of leather shoes as well)
  • Bags (Rucksacs and suitcases)
  • iPhone/iPad accessories
  • Helicopters (bloody everywhere)
  • Tourist Tat (Chopsticks, buddas, dodgy jade, tea sets, masks, abacuses and little jewellery boxes)
Hels had packed me off to China with some very specific instructions about a particularly nice handbag I was to look for and I found it straight away, so then it was onto the process of haggling.  I managed to get the bag for less than 30% of the original asking price, which wasn't bad (probably still got ripped-off, but never mind, the bag was £680 less than its original...).  I wasn't quite so successful with my tourist tat as the girlie was particularly polite, friendly and pretty (bloody sucker), so I forgot to haggle as hard, but still got a bit off nonetheless. 

There were more westerners than locals and shop owners were forever trying to drag you into their shops.  In the end I just switched off and wandered around until something took my eye.  There are only so many times you can asked if you want bag, t-shirt or shoes before you want to just start shouting fuck-off and die at the top of your voice, so I decided that was enough and came back to the hotel.

Five subway journeys in all today amounted to a grade total of £2 with all journeys 30 or 40p, not bad for a days work!  More sightseeing and tourist stuff tomorrow - hopefully will get to go up to the highest observation deck in the world (complete with glass floor!) if the low cloud has improved.  Will post some pictures if I can get up there!