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Wednesday, February 26

Wairakei

So far so good. I'm enjoying living at the campsite, not feeling like I'm expected to work all that hard (I was tired at the end of the day yesterday, but that was because I'd got stuck into ripping out weeds, rather than because anyone was there pushing me to keep working), and even wondering if I should extend my stay. I'll definitely head South next Friday, because if I put that off the weather in Southland will get gradually less pleasant, but after I leave the South Island I was planning on spending a few more days at Wairakei, and if I postpone my departure from NZ I could turn that into a few weeks.

I'm in Taupo itself right now, and must be quick because internet cafes round these parts are damn expensive (too little competition, too many tourists...), but there's a nice buzz about this place because this weekend it will host the New Zealand Ironman. A completely insane sporting event (a triathlon, of which the bike leg alone is longer than I've ever cycled in a day), but I'll see if I can get into town to watch the start, and then come back for the first finishers in the afternoon.

I should be able to write a bit more regularly in future, because my laptop is now online for a brief period each day at the campsite, but we're trying to work out whether the calls are free or not, and until we know I'm trying to keep my useage minimal.
posted @ 5:04 PM -

Saturday, February 22

off to Wairakei today. I'm getting a lift with some nice people who've been staying in the same hostel as me in Auckland. I'm looking forward to this, though I am a little disappointed that in the end I only got to watch 1 America's Cup race while I was here.
posted @ 12:49 PM -

Friday, February 21

After today's America's Cup racing was called off, once again due to light and unreliable winds, I wandered around the Viaduct Harbour to check out the syndicates' bases. I have to say that Alinghi are leagues ahead of their competitors in terms of efforts to engage spectators. The other syndicates basically have a shop selling merchandise (and all the Luis Vuitton Cup losers are now selling stuff off at half price, naturally) but nothing else. Team New Zealand have a very bustling shop, but they do seem to be riding on the home support and consequently making little extra effort to promote themselves. Alinghi meanwhile have a double-sized base, half of which is the usual closed workshop, but the other half is a really well-conceived and presented exhibition, explaining a lot of the rules and tactics of match racing, and with several interactive exhibits that do a lot to give a flavour of what it's like to crew one of those boats, and exactly what each crew member does.

Even though they are challenged the fanatically-supported home side, Alinghi have picked up some support locally because they put across such a good image. I hope this sets a precedent for the next Cup, with the other syndicates trying to compete more for spectators' interest. If it does the next defence will get even more people interested wherever it is held, which can only be good for the competition.
posted @ 10:46 PM -

Even less sheep

Note the somehow very appropriate banner ad above another story about sheep.

[link via Need To Know]
posted @ 1:41 PM -

Thursday, February 20

Less sheep

New Zealand's sheep population has decreased. There are now only 10 sheep per person in this country.
posted @ 9:14 PM -

Wairakei

A little more information about where I'm going. There's no website for the place as yet, but I'll be putting that right over the next couple of weeks. It's a tearooms & campsite in a geothermally active valley, the main draw to which is a guided walk around the bizarre thermal sites.

The location isn't marked on any map I can find online, but on this map the access road is just above the words Wairakei Geothermal Visitor Centre. The world's second-largest geothermal power plant is the immediate neighbour. There's a little bit more about the area here. I suppose you could say it's rather underpromoted at the moment....

I don't know how easy it's going to be for me to go online. I think I should be able to actually connect my own computer up once or twice a day, in which case it will be far cheaper and less hassle to update this site and read my email than it is at the moment, but I'm not sure. Otherwise I may have to get myself to Taupo whenever I want to go online, in which case updates are inevitably going to get more sporadic.
posted @ 7:07 PM -

Making plans

Apart from the slight hitch that STA Travel New Zealand don't issue tickets same-day (seems awfully primitive to me - they have no problem doing this in the UK), and don't have a branch anywhere near where I'll be for the next few weeks (so I have to pick up my ticket when I pass through Christchurch in a little over a month's time), I have sorted out most of my travel plans from now till getting back to London.

I'll be heading to Wairakei (I've been referring to this place as near Taupo because that's the nearest place that I'd heard of before happenning to drive past it, but Wairakei is actually the nearest village) on Sunday, and staying there for a couple of weeks.

Then it's off to Dunedin, where I will probably buy a bike (depends on what's around in Wairakei - I think I'll be able to borrow or even earn a bike from the guy who runs the place, but unless he has something that's the right size and type and in fairly good nick the mileage I'll be clocking up will justify buying myself a new machine), and start a long cycle tour of the South Island. First leg will be to Invercargill, and then I think I'll take a few days off to visit Stewart Island / Rakiura. Then up (literally) to Queenstown, over the Haast Pass (the lowest pass across the Southern Alps - wussy or realistic, delete as appropriate), and down to Westland. North along the West coast, past two glaciers, as far as Greymouth. Then I'll be a bit of a wuss, and take the train back across the mountains to Christchurch. From there, 2 more days' cycling should get me to Kaikoura, where I'll hopefully spend a week or so (I'm waiting for confirmation from the owner) at Woodgrove Farm. From there a few more days' cycling should get me to Nelson, in time for my friends' wedding on the 12th of April.

Then I have the small problem of getting my bike back to Wairakei (it actually might be worth selling it in Nelson, depending on exactly what I'll do with the rest of April), and myself back before Easter. If I do keep the bike I'll probably end up flying to Wellington, taking the train to National Park (because planes & trains can guarantee bike carriage if you book, whereas bus operators round here tend to say we'll take it if there's space, which could be a bit of a problem), and then taking 2 days to cycle back to Wairakei, which is one reason to be eager to finish before Easter, when the roads in that very touristy area will probably be a whole lot busier.

After Easter I'd like ideally (there may not be time / I may not have the cash) to do another week's cycling around the Eastern cape of the North Island, which is a bit of a legendary route (but I'm leaving till last because in late April the Southern & Western parts of the South Island tend to be a bit cold, very wet and somewhat windy, whereas that area just cools down to a nice cycling temperature).

On the 30th of April I'll be leaving New Zealand, and heading to Brisbane. I'm not particularly interested in Brisbane itself, but it should be a good base for me to head a little way North and get to the Great Barrier Reef. I haven't worked out any detail for this yet, but a quick web search has found at least one attractive looking dive package that I can afford.

On the 9th of May I fly from Brisbane to Bangkok (arriving early the next morning). I probably won't stay in Thailand, but go straight to Cambodia instead, for a few days at Angkor Wat. Flying there is rather expensive, so I had convinced myself I wouldn't be able to do this, but I've just found out that the overland crossing is much less of a nightmare than it used to be. Must research this more, but it looks encouraging.

Finally, on the 15th of May I'll arrive in London. I was very disappointed when I got the idea into my head that I'd have to head back within the next couple of weeks, but I'm actually quite looking forward to getting back then. Much as I'd love to, I can't string my trip out indefinitely without getting an income, but I feel like by then I'll be ready to get back to familiar territory.

In case it isn't obvious enough, I'm feeling a hundred times happier than I did a week ago.
posted @ 6:39 PM -
Cannot find Weapons of Mass Destruction

[thanks to Peter for the link]
posted @ 12:18 PM -

Wednesday, February 19

America's Cup non-event

So what happened in today's race? Erm... nothing. This is the downside of a sport that is far more dependent on weather conditions than most others.

The next race will be on Saturday, which should be my last day in Auckland.
posted @ 10:32 PM -

More photos (but I'm cheating)

I've just had an email from Brian Truong, who I shared a cubicle with at HP last year (and he survived, even managing to appear reasonably sane). When we finished there, he also took the chance to do some travelling, and he's finally put his photos online. We met up in Bratislava (you might notice a familiar face or two in a rather unflattering snap), and he also went to some of the other places that I've lost pictures from: Berlin, Kraków, Budapest, Split & Zagreb, as well as a few other interesting countries in Western Europe.

Be warned though: you can click on each image for an enlargement, but on a dial-up connection they will take 2-3 minutes each.
posted @ 9:47 PM -
Following the Interisland Ferry (waiting for passengers to throw food), Cook Strait, New Zealand

Three seagulls doing some nice formation flying.  When anyone did throw food they would dive-bomb for it and catch it in mid-air

January 7th 2003
posted @ 8:34 PM -

Tuesday, February 18

BBC News: Japanese scientist invents 'invisibility coat'
posted @ 9:10 PM -

Switzerland's Cup?

I went to watch America's Cup race 3 yesterday. I had a longer post about it but lost the text and can't be bothered to re-type.

The strange thing about being in Auckland for the America's Cup is that actually the only boats I saw in the flesh were the two syndicates' B boats, which came back into the harbour to huge cheers during the race (they go out in the morning with the actual race boats in case they are needed, but once the race starts there's no point in them staying out there). The actual race was quite far off in the Hauraki Gulf (tomorrow I might try and get to a viewpoint where I can see something), and the course is quite long so from anywhere on the shore the best one could hope for is a glimpse of the boats as they get to that area. Instead, there's an enormous screen set up in the Viaduct Harbour, and those who turn up early enough (I didn't) can watch the boats go out to the course, and those who stay late enough (I didn't because I was already somewhat sunburnt - must get a hat if I'm to be spending long periods of time outdoors from now on) can watch them come back. It was still lots of fun though, because this being the place to go to see it there was a noisy crowd and much atmosphere, plus it was one hell of a tense, close race.

Unfortunately it looks like Team New Zealand are on their way to losing the Cup. They had to withdraw from Race 1 with huge technical problems (they were lucky the boat didn't sink), Allinghi just managed to win Race 2 in the dying moments, and they never quite managed to catch Allinghi yesterday although they kept the pressure on constantly. They can win any individual race - the last two have been close enough to make that clear - but now they have to win 5 out of a remaining 6, whereas Allinghi would only have to win 2.

I don't know why, but I'm actually quite disappointed about this. I'm not from these parts, and if anything I should support the European syndicate because if they win I'd be more likely to get to see the next contest, and the British challenger would stand a better chance. Yet somehow the kiwi passion for any sport they can put up a good show in is contagious, and I have been hooked.

All of this begs one question though: so far the America's Cup has always been contested in the home country of the current holders. Allinghi are Swiss. Would they race on Lac Leman? It just wouldn't be right....
posted @ 3:19 PM -

Monday, February 17

Better a crossroads than a dead end

I realise that what I wrote yesterday probably didn't make a whole lot of sense, but it made about as much sense as my thoughts did. Having slept on it, my mind is much clearer, and I have decided to respond to the failure of plan A (get work in the IT industry in NZ) with a radically different tack.

I'm giving up on getting paid work in New Zealand, because it feels uncomfortably like flogging a dead horse. However, I'm not eager to head back to London just yet, because I feel like I'm very far from finished with this country, and the only real advantage of London is that I would be able to take uninteresting jobs to make ends meet. Instead I'm finding places to work for food & board, trying to keep out of my usual routine and in this country for another couple of months.

My first step is to get myself to Taupo this weekend, where I have been offerred lodgings in exchange for a few hours' grounds maintenance work a day, and the possibility of getting my hands on a bike either by designing a website for the place or overhauling the other bikes they have around. I'm looking forward to it, but it is taking me a while to get my head round the extreme nature of the change to my plans that this represents.

I still have a slight nagging doubt in my mind about whether I'm doing something sensible or not, but I think this doubt is ill-founded, and has more than anything else to do with taking time to let go of something I had had my heart set on for months. In the end the clincher was actually a conversation with my dad, who had some quite good suggestions for things I should try if I still want to find a skilled job. I was listening to this, knowing he was talking sense, but just feeling that my heart wasn't in it.

My thinking now is that I should stay here for a few months, spending some of my time working for lodgings and some of it cycling around parts of the country I haven't seen yet. There's a plan crystallising in my mind to get to the South of the South Island (Dunedin or Invercargill) and cycle all the way back up to Nelson or Picton, which should take 2-3 weeks. If I do that I should do it relatively soon, before the Southland gets too cold, windy and rainy, but then I can always come back to Taupo after that for another few weeks, and there's a place near Kaikoura where I might be able to do something similar. My current NZ visa runs out at the end of April; it shouldn't be a problem to get it extended but I'm starting to feel like that would be the right time to head back anyway.

So that's what I'm up to and what's been on my mind. Not what I had in mind when I was planning this year at all, but that doesn't have to be a problem.
posted @ 8:45 PM -

Sunday, February 16

Spinning around

The road trip was good. Got me out of a rut, and gave me some ideas for what to do next. I do need to do a lot of thinking though.

The only bummer was the end of the trip - getting lost in Auckland and ending up driving right across town twice in rush hour traffic. Almost as stressful as the equivalent in London would be.

Right now my head is spinning, partly because I'm tired and partly because I stand at a crossroads, where the things I decide over the next few days will probably end up determining whether I enjoy the next few months or not. It's not actually that complicated, but it's important that I get this right.

Over the next few days I will stop being so vague and explain both what's going on and what I'll be up to for the coming months. I can't do that yet because I'm not actually sure what it will be.
posted @ 11:51 PM -

Thursday, February 13

Contingency plans

I am not accustomed to failure, at least not to failing at things I put my mind to (lord knows how many unfinished schemes I have going on, and how many ideas I've let slip over the years). I guess that must sound arrogant, but it is the way things go for me - if I want something enough I am used to finding some way of getting it.

This is making it very hard for me to accept that my plans for this year might well not work out. My big idea was that having in-demand skills and flexibility about where to work meant I could get to New Zealand and find a contract within weeks. I didn't really think it through properly.

First of all, saying I'm willing to work anywhere is all very well, but really employment agencies only notice me when I am in their region and reminding them of my existence, so I can only practically look for work in one city at a time. Then there's the issue of logistics - if while I'm in Auckland something came up in Wellington I would definitely want to come back and interview for it, but that may not be practical because of the expense of flying at short notice, and the time taken by travelling overland (a whole day by road or rail).

Then there's the work permit issue. Had I got around to getting British citizenship over the last couple of years, as I promised myself I would (there's one I let slip because I didn't appreciate how important it would become), I could have applied for a working holiday visa, which would let me take rubbish short term jobs to have some income while I wait for the good one, and when the good one turned up would give me 3 months from starting work to sort out my longer-term paperwork. Instead I am dependent on getting a confirmed job offer in something that I have specialised experience with, and then going to Immigration to get a work permit, for that specific job. Immigration say it will be easy enough, but I am getting the impression that employers and agencies don't really want to deal with it, because until I have the work permit there is a theoretical risk I could be turned down. Catch-22: I can't get a permit without a job offer, and not having a permit seems to hinder my getting a job offer. It definitely knocked me off the shortlist for a very short term (1 or 2 weeks) contract that came up this week and I was able to do, which at least would have bought me time.

Of course there is the option of illegal work. I haven't actually looked into it here, but certainly in the UK it is very easy for people who are a little bit resourceful to get cash-in-hand work that takes no notice of whether they are legally entitled to it or not. In a parallel world this would be worth me doing, because the risk of getting caught is small, and the worst that could happen is deportation; I will have to leave NZ soon anyway if I can't get an income, so what would I be losing? The trouble is that I want to study in the USA, and friendly countries share information about immigration matters. If I get caught working illegally here, I would stand almost no chance of getting a student visa for the States, and that means that no matter how small the risk of getting caught may be, I just can't afford to take it.

So I'm pretty much trying my last trick by going to Auckland. I've registered with agencies there this week, and had nothing positive, but I'm not going to give up hope until I've spoken to a few in person. I know that does help. But the signs are not very encouraging, so I have to be realistic here, and consider what to do if I decide I'm not likely to get a job, and how soon I have to make that decision.

To some extent, this depends on feedback next week. If I don't get a job within a week, there is still a range of possible outcomes, from no leads whatsoever (in which case I should probably cut my losses after a week), to the scenario of getting a few interviews and just not finding a job that quite fits, in which case I should definitely keep trying. Probably the week will be somewhere between those extremes.

In a sense I feel like I am willing to give up too early, because I still have some savings, and running a tight ship I could definitely survive for another 2 months or so in Wellington (probably a shorter time in Auckland), in which time a lot could happen. But that ignores the purpose of my being on this side of the world - I'm not here chasing a career, but I'm here to enjoy being in New Zealand and travel around this beautiful country as much as I can. Playing the waiting game makes sense if there is a good chance of a return, but I run the risk of waiting for nothing, and then when I do decide to give up finding that I just don't have the money to do any travelling and have to head straight back to the UK. On the other hand, if I decide now to bring my flight home forward, I could at least relax my spending controls a bit, have a few weeks of travelling around this country, and take advantage of my stopovers on the way home (Brisbane & Bangkok) to dive the Great Barrier Reef and visit Angkor Wat, which would leave me feeling more like there was a point to me travelling out here. Plus I have several free changes on that air ticket, so the day I decide to start travelling around NZ doesn't have to be the day I tell agencies I'm not available for work any more, because if anything comes up before I leave this country I can still fly myself back to wherever the job is and change my plans again.

So I think unless next week is more encouraging than I am expecting it to be, I will probably revert to tourist mode again after that. It's a big decision for me, because it would mean accepting failure, but at least if I do that I can snatch something from the jaws of defeat, rather than finding myself flying home in April, having spent several months here and seen nothing.
posted @ 4:37 PM -

Cricket God

Try telling this chap that cricket is a frivolous subject:

....His seven-minute long pooja includes special archana mantras like "Om boundary adippavare namaha, Om sixer adippavare namaha, Om hatrick eduppavare namaha, Om wicketaii eduppavare namaha ...

From The Hindu
posted @ 3:42 PM -

Wednesday, February 12

Shock news: England to play "cricket" in World Cup
posted @ 7:42 PM -
oh dear
posted @ 7:14 PM -
Unix geek question: what switch makes the ls command output in columns?

Apologies for a post that will be of interest to almost nobody, but if anyone can tell me it would make uploading the rest of my photos a damn sight quicker....
posted @ 6:27 PM -

Caption competition

Greenwich Village, NYC, USA

A man poking a long stick into a grille.

January 26th 2003
posted @ 6:13 PM -
New Zealand has some very strange parliamentary standing orders. I can't make head nor tail of this latest controversy over whether a disgraced MP's votes count or not.
posted @ 2:39 PM -

Monday, February 10

More photos - Bangkok
posted @ 11:04 PM -

Road Trip

Dear Ndugu,

Yesterday I saw a poster from Maui Rentals, advertising that because they needed to get some stock up from Wellington to Auckland, they were renting out vehicles for $1/day under certain conditions. It seemed too good to be true, but seeing as I needed to do that journey soon I thought I'd check it out. There are some restrictions, but nothing that caused me a problem, so I now have a camper van booked from Saturday to Monday. I only have to pay for petrol, which even if I travel alone should make it a pretty cheap way to get to Auckland. I'm advertising for someone to come along for the ride, but I'm not too worried about whether anyone replies or not.

It's nice to have something to look forward to again, especially as a reminder of what I'm doing here - the point was never to sit and stew in a city (even if the funkiness of Wellington has been a pleasant surprise), but to take as many opportunities as possible to get out and enjoy God's own country.
posted @ 10:09 PM -

The America's Cup

Of course there is one good thing about my impending trip to Auckland: The America's Cup starts there this Saturday. Come to think of it, this might even be a reason to leave here on Friday, earlier than I had planned (though it does also mean I'd better make up my mind today and book a place to stay).
posted @ 7:26 PM -

I've seen this happen before

A year or two ago I was talking to a Canadian, who had worked as a ski guide in New Zealand for a season or two. His description of the place was like Britain, only 10-20 years behind (which was meant as a compliment). Well here we go: New Zealand is in the midst of a moral panic about dangerous dogs.
posted @ 7:21 PM -

My days are unoriginal

The other reason the flow of content here has diminished is that my life is not really very exciting at the moment. The problem is that I'm trying to spend as little money as possible while I have no income, but at the same time I can't really put down any roots here, because the employment market is so awful that I may well have to leave soon. The trouble is I really like Wellington, and there's actually quite a lot to do for no money, as long as I don't mind going to things alone. This week there's a songwriters' showcase, with 3 local singer/songwriters performing in the Civic Square every lunchtime; one of today's acts was outstanding. When that finishes, the Fringe NZ festival will start.

Meanwhile there are ways I can go out and meet people. Now that my health is coming back under control it's about time I joined a martial arts club, plus there are sailing and kayaking courses in the area, and I'm sure if I looked hard enough I could find a photography club too. Trouble is this is all a bit pointless if I don't know whether I'm going to be able to afford to stay here for long or not.

So it's with some regret that I've decided I have to leave Wellington and head for Auckland, a place which no Kiwi has a good word to say about. The trouble is I can't just sit here and watch my money run through my fingers; I need at least short term work. I've reached the point that all I can do about that in Wellington is scour the papers (having already written to all the companies who advertise regularly) and keep in touch with employment agencies in the hope that one day they'll give me better news than so far. It's depressing. I don't even know if Auckland will be any better, but I can't just sit here in this rut, I have to try something else out.

I've started sending my CV up to agencies there, but I don't really expect anything to happen until I turn up in person - there really is no substitute for being there. So far I think I'll probably go up there this weekend, and spend a week there, but all really depends on response. If Auckland is no more promising than Wellington then I should probably come back here, at least for the duration of the festival. On the other hand if I get some interest there, even if it doesn't immediately lead to a job, I should probably stick at it in Auckland, because even if the place is as bad as everyone says at least if I had a job I could afford to go somewhere interesting every weekend (and there are definitely plenty of places worth seeing within a couple of hours' journey of the city).
posted @ 6:30 PM -

Sunday, February 9

Photos, at last

One of the reasons I've had very little to say over the last few days is that actually I've been quite absorbed with tinkering with this website. The point is partly to de-rust my own technical skills, but mainly to finally do something about the photos section that has been out of action for a year or so. Finally I have something I'm reasonably happy with, and now that the basic structure is there it shouldn't take me too long to fill it.

So far there aren't many pictures online, but you can take a look at Hong Kong. I'll mention when there's more there.

Because I don't have my own computer online (I'm going through the slightly laborious process of designing on a laptop, then burning a CD, then uploading in an internet cafe from the CD), I haven't been able to test this out properly on different browsers and different connections and so on. Feedback is therefore particularly welcome - tell me how it looks on your machine, tell me how long the pages take to download fully, and so on. If it's slow please tell me what kind of internet connection you have, and if it looks rubbish please tell me which browser you're using.
posted @ 2:52 PM -

Saturday, February 8

one track mind

I have been reading photography magazines over this weekend. That's how exciting my life is right now.

Anyway, what this means is that when I received a junk mail about a 'super-enlarger' I had to actually read the message to realise what was really on offer. I should have known better....
posted @ 6:33 PM -

Wednesday, February 5

Palace Pier, Brighton, UK

The pier in flames.  Photo courtesy of the Evening Argus

February 4th 2003

more pictures - full story
posted @ 2:57 PM -

Tuesday, February 4

Oh, did 3000 people die here? How sad. Let's make a quick buck

One thing I forgot to mention about the time in New York was that I went to Ground Zero. It was actually a lot less moving than I thought, because it's not the void I was expecting. All quite sensible really - work needs to be done to restore subway services that pass under the WTC plot, and it would be quite unhealthy for the city if dwelling on a sad day stopped things from getting done - but I hope that when the site is eventually redeveloped it gets some kind of thoughtful memorial. Meanwhile it still has some emotional impact, mainly because of the sheer size of the gap that's been left in a particularly built-up part of a very built-up city, and the amount of damage to neighbouring buildings that can still be seen.

Anyway, there were two things there that did wind me up somewhat. There were groups of tourists having their photo taken in front of it (aside: people also do this at Auschwitz, where I was made much more angry by the bad taste of it. I mean are they going to go back and show their friends This is me in front of a pretty church. And this is me in front of where the premeditated murder of thousands upon thousands of innocents took place in the most organised attempt ever to wipe a nation off the face of this earth. See how well the colour of the brickwork goes with my coat?), and there was a stall selling postcards of the twin towers on fire and collapsing. Can that stallholder sleep at night knowing that he's been making money peddling images of the moment a few thousand peoples' fates were sealed?

Anyway, what reminded me of this was a particularly unwelcome piece of junk mail I've just received, promising me pictures of Ground Zero, The Empire State Building, The Statue of Liberty, The Yankees, The Mets or Broadway Posters. So Ground Zero is equivalent to the New York Mets now? I suppose it probably has a more international appeal as a brand, but I just can't bring myself to accept commercialisation of real life horrors in such a casual way.
posted @ 10:13 PM -

Monday, February 3

When a negative is a positive

I decided to have an HIV test yesterday. Not because I believed I had done anything especially risky (I've generally been quite well behaved, never injected myself with anything, and luck has never dealt me the chance to be particularly promiscuous), but because I think it's something everyone should do every now and again as a general responsibility to one's partner(s), and I've written sanctimonious things on World AIDS Day twice without actually taking this simple step myself. I like to think of it as an act of love for people I haven't met yet.

Anyway, the reason I've dithered so long is an irrational fear. Not my near-phobia of giving blood samples, though I have kind of used that as an excuse (and one of the reasons I finally got around to this yesterday was that I am ill once again and had to give a blood sample anyway, removing this excuse), but because in spite of my lack of risky behaviour I was scared of what I might find out. It's an irresponsible act of cowardice to have caved into that fear for so long, when taking the test wasn't going to change reality, just potentially allow me to limit the damage if the worst turned out to be true.

The thing is that normally I can just ignore the marginal risk that I (like anyone) might in fact be carrying this disease without knowing anything about it. Normally I just don't think about that. Once I decided to have the test, that was different. The mere possibility that I would not hear what I wanted to hear preyed on my mind to the extent that I actually lost sleep over it last night, even though every rational risk assessment told me how low the risk really was. The thought of the bad news that I knew I probably wasn't going to get was horrifyingly on my mind through today as well.

Fortunately, medical care seems to work rather quicker over here than I am used to, so I have just been told by the doctor that I am HIV negative. [incidentally, I waited till now to write this because were the news bad I don't think I'd want it to be quite so public, at least not at first]. I feel like I've been released from an awful mental torment.

I was lucky that the wait was so short. Only a day and a half to think about
who I slept with, who they slept with
who they, who they, who they slept with

....
the first thing I do if I'm H.I.V.
have a cry and tell my mother
get on the phone and call my past lovers
(Positive, by Spearhead. I'm pretty sure it's a true story)

Still, in the end I'm pleased I did this. I feel it is everyone's duty, and I've been shirking the responsibility for years because of an irrational fear.
posted @ 8:22 PM -

Not quite as planned

Definitely the worst thing about my trip to the states was the journey back. It started badly before I had even made it out of Manhattan.

I was waiting for a train at Penn Station, and foolishly didn't get on the first one that was going to Newark, because I had booked a ticket online and given a specific time (the next train that was due), but afterwards realised that my ticket was only route-specific, not limited to that train. Shortly after the train I let slip left the station, a train broke down on a track just outside the station. In a distinctly British fit of incompetence, this caused all Amtrak services to have unlimited delays (even though there are about a dozen tracks in each direction, feeding at least 16 platforms), and to make it worse the matrix board didn't announce this - it just put up delays, 5 minutes at a time, for the trains that had already missed their departure times (a typically British trick - I guess it makes the information desk peoples' lives easier). By the time I understood what was really going on, I was beginning to worry about missing my flight (I had plenty of time to spare at that point, but this could drag on for hours). Luckily the New Jersey Transit, which also connects Penn Station to Newark, seems to be a little more competently run, so I managed to get there on one of their trains.

This was just the start though. Newark (which has recently been renamed, ahem, Newark Liberty International Airport) is possibly the most confusing airport I have ever encountered. The train station is only a link to a monorail, which costs $5 to use. I have never before seen an airport that charges for the 2 minute ride from the train station to the terminal. Then there's the small matter of working out where to check in. Continental have 4 check in areas, across 2 floors. It took me 3 attempts to find the one that could actually process my request to check bags through LA straight to Tahiti. Then the real trouble: an invalid ticket.

When I was booking these flights, I was originally due to leave New York a few days earlier, and spend some time in Tahiti, but there was some kind of change of schedules that made this impossible, so I decided to spend a few more days in New York. The travel agent must have issued tickets for both dates, and then cancelled the wrong one, because there was nothing in my name for that flight, but the check-in attendant did eventually find an unused booking in my name for the earlier date. Initially it looked like I was going to have to buy a ticket for this flight there and then, for $1,200 dollars(!), but fortunately this lady did enough digging to find this old booking, and managed to change it without a fee, even though it was several days after the supposed departure date. All of this took about an hour, in which time I was seething, as you can probably imagine. [and by the by the check-in agent also hassled me about UK residence permits even though there was no way it was possibly her business. It could conceivably have been her business to check up on my right to enter New Zealand (certainly the check-in at Tahiti were legally obliged to do this, but also failed to), but that didn't seem to bother her. The sooner I get my work permit for New Zealand the better, because then I'll have something in my passport to show stupid people and shut them up, even though it's a far more limited right than I have for anywhere in the EU.]

Then I cleared security, and saw that the flight (which by this point I was only just in time to board) was delayed by half an hour, giving me to get some lunch. So I ate, and then ambled over to the gate a little late, but expecting the flight to just be about to board. Except that no-one at the gate actually knew the flight was delayed, so the gate was closed. Luckily another very nice person radioed the crew on the plane, who said he could re-connect the walkway as they evidently weren't going anywhere, then gave me a bit of a lecture about delaying the plane, before it proceeded to wait that half hour before finally taxiing off. It seems no-one had bothered to tell the flight crew they were delayed either.

After all that the flight itself was pleasantly uneventful, and LA airport perfectly straightforward when the INS aren't involved.

The way my bookings ended up going was that I had 27 hours at Tahiti, which I hadn't been looking forward to, because it's just too short a time with jetlag and a wrenching change of climate. Tahiti seems like a nice place, but my stay there wasn't much fun. For a start the dramatic change of temperature (up at least 40°C if not 45 from one day in NY to the next in French Polynesia) just made me feel ill. To make things worse, being rather dazed I let myself get horribly ripped off by a taxi driver. What I paid to him wasn't too outrageous, but I asked him to recommend a hotel (all through Asia I did everything possible to avoid being steered to touts' hotels, but at Tahiti Fa'aa airport there is no tourist information desk, and no way of finding a hotel, so having planned badly I was desperate). He took me to one of the most awful, dirty, smelly, beetle-infested dives I've ever graced with my presence, where the manageress treated me like a nuisance, didn't let me into my room till 11 (I was desperate for sleep, but this meant waiting for hours), and charged me US$50 for the trouble. That's practically a week's full living expenses in parts of Thailand or Malaysia, where the accommodation is far superior and the people friendly and helpful, so I found myself resenting it ever so slightly.

The next morning it was back to the airport, where I was all but strip-searched after going through the metal detector. My understanding is that it didn't even beep for me, but that actually it was the lady behind, who insisted on rushing through directly behind me, as if she had something to hide. Trouble is, I didn't have the guts to say this to the security personnel, because in my experience all that will do is make them assume I'm trying to hide something and give me a hard time. So it was that I had my time wasted and dignity hurt for nothing, having already been through countless metal detectors in the previous few days with no bother anywhere.

After that, there were no more human-induced problems, but clear air turbulence about an hour away from Auckland that was so bad that even I was scared (I'm not trying to claim any general fearlessness here, but I am a very calm flyer), and then a typically windy day in Wellington making that final approach pretty rough.

Oh dear. I'm even finding it tiresome to read back through this. If you've made it this far, thanks for persevering.
posted @ 5:58 PM -

Sunday, February 2

Watching the Big Apple Turn

New York (and everywhere else I went in the US) was extraordinarily cold. Some days the high was in single digits of Fahrenheit. I must admit this probably jaded my impression of the place a little, because it made me far less inclined to spend the time I should have spent walking the streets and gazing up, where almost all of the architectural interest of the city is. Besides, when one is shrinking into one's shell like a hibernating tortoise everything is a bit less fun.

I did enjoy New York, though I must admit I'm still trying to work out what makes it the most amazing city in the world that so many people rave about. There are areas (basically Midtown) which feel quite claustrophobic, because whole blocks are terraces of 20+ storey buildings, creating an immense, dwarfing brick wall on either side of the not especially wide street. A few times I found myself feeling how I used to feel in every big city, but lately have only experienced in Guangzhou (though to compare NYC to Guangzhou would be a gross injustice to NYC); feeling like I was groping for my space among an overbuilt, overcrowded environment that was just too closed around me. I suppose if it had been warmer I might have been able to assuage that by spending more time in Central Park (which is great precisely because it's so needed, and definitely benefits from being surrounded by tall buildings because it's big enough to provide the necessary space) or by the water.

Still, it is a good place, with some mighty impressive architecture (not so much the tallest buildings - of those it's only Chrysler and a few around Wall St. that I was particularly impressed with, but more the wrought iron around some of the older buildings, turning unsightly fire stairs into works of art), and some far more human-scale areas than I've described, like Greenwich Village. Just not my favourite place, and not even that close to being it.

More importantly than all this, I saw my cousin, who lives there, my parents, who came over mainly to see me (the Atlantic doesn't seem so big when your son's on the dark side of the world...), and my aunt who was in the area on business. All good, especially my parents who I hadn't seen since September.

I can't really face writing about the journey back, so that will have to wait till later.
posted @ 4:58 PM -

So, how was my trip?

First things first: I can't write about the actual interviews, for fear of prejudicing the outcome (part superstition, part rational because anyone can read this page and there's a shortish link trail from my admissions materials to here). I didn't get any definite answers, because the whole application has to go through due process, and I won't hear from anywhere for a few months at least, possibly not till mid-April.

So that basically leaves a pair of not very pleasant journeys, and New York. The journey out was a hassle; not that anything went terribly wrong, but I've learned that taking a 4-leg flight to save NZ$500 is a false economy because it's so much less straightforward than flying across the Pacific in one leg (I had to do 3 legs; Wellington - Auckland - LA - NY). The only airport that I could check my bags through was Auckland, but even there I had to check in again, which strikes me as an absurd failure of IT (but then again it strikes me with almost all services I use that improved IT infrastructure could make customers' lives much easier). To make things worse Air Tahiti Nui appear to be seriously lacking in the organising-a-piss-up-in-a-brewery department, so the short check-in queue (with no fast lane for luggage free passengers) took so long to move that I was amazed the flight managed to leave on time.

Then on to Tahiti, where it is necessary to clear passport control, collect bags, clear customs and quarantine (a joke of a quarantine, especially compared to Australia & NZ where it's taken very seriously indeed and well organised), check bags back in (even though apparently it's sometimes onto the same plane - at least I was spared that insult), listen to the check-in lady take out her frustrations on me because I dared to ask if I might have a window seat when checking in so late, and then get on a plane with no time to spare.

Then LA. I have an intense dislike of the United States Immigration and Naturalisation Service, because they are the only such service in the world that insist on treating me as a criminal for wanting to visit their country (and bear in mind that I went to some pretty dodgy countries last year). Last year I very nearly missed a connecting flight because they demanded to see my residence permit for the UK ((a) how the hell is that their business? (b) I don't have one because I don't need one to live anywhere in the EU. (c) if I did have one, why would I regard it as a travel document to have ready when entering a third country (unless of course it were a stamp in my passport)). Then on the way out they tore my passport, which while petty is annoying.

This time, there was the mother of all queues for passport control and awful lot of desks conspicuously empty. When I tried to explain to someone that I was about to miss a flight they were totally unhelpful, and eventually just said I should be complaining to the passport controllers (which of course no-one does because they have absolute power and carry guns). I complained as loudly as I dared, asking the guy what I should do about the flight I was about to miss. His deeply constructive and sympathetic answer: Run, or catch the next flight.

I did run, and I just got to the check-in desk on time, where in fact check-in had just closed, but the lovely attendant (may I just say that in the midst of everything that wound me up on this trip, every time I had dealings with Continental Airlines staff they were nothing short of wonderful) re-opened it just for me, and I made it through security just in time to not delay the plane.

Phew. Next instalment, New York.
posted @ 4:47 PM -

Columbia astronauts R.I.P.

The Columbia disaster came, obviously, as a shock. Somehow I'm much more upset about these particular 7 deaths, even though they were people who knew they were taking risks in order to live out a dream, than is proportionate for 7 people I never knew from Adam. Michael Jennings has a good stab at explaining why it matters - I'll leave it to him rather than waffle.
posted @ 3:44 PM -
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