Tuesday, 15 September 2009

My new (humble) abode... complete with pets!

Welcome to my humble abode. Apartment 2002, room G. Since I arrived a week before the rest of the plebs, I made them give me a choice of rooms. In other words, I kicked up a fuss as soon as I saw room G and my - eeeeek - shared bathroom. This caused Joyce to call Amy over from the school building to show me the other available rooms. Room C was basically a coffin with an en-suite, no window = no natural light. Room E had just been vacated, had dirty towels and bedding strewn over the floor, a flooded (by overly hairy male) bathroom, and ciggy smell and left-over butts presumably thrown in gratis. Under the circumstances, G was looking better by the second! It's light, very large by comparison, has a window instead of a balcony, and no cigarette smell. I figure it's going to be freezing in about 6 weeks at most and I may be quite glad not to have a massive expanse of glass along one side of my room. There's no heating, just an air-conditioner that doubles as a heater... Yup, loving G more every minute. G is Grrrreat!

Unfortunately, G comes with a shared bathroom with F. The inhabitant of F is a lovely German girl called Eva. She too apparently has reservations about our bathroom and informed me that "the cleaning lady used it the other day and left something you shouldn't have to see... big business if you know my meaning". Niiiice. I found no presents this morning, but that's not saying much. I did, however, kill 2 of the inhabitants (not human) and had the quickest shower ever. I was trying to psych myself up to take a picture... Since then, the cleaners have been in and it looks...the same really. I'd also forgotten the requirement for Chinese plumbing to toss the loo-paper (used, naturellement) into the uncovered bin...in a bathroom with no window... Oh well, when in Rome.

The rest of the apartment consists of a large room that's sitting/kitchen/entry-hall in one. No windows, fab fluo lighting, a tv & DVD player, a washing machine, about 15 umbrellas and miscellaneous orphaned slippers, a microwave, a massive extractor fan above a single electrical hob unit, and just the one pot. I've found 5 pairs of scissors and not a single kitchen knife, which leads one to wonder... Good thing I don't enjoy cooking and I have restaurants all around. Now I just need to learn to read characters so I don't mistakenly order fried dog's bits and I'm sorted!!!

Monday, 14 September 2009

On the road again... CHINA!

After almost a year of pretty much focusing on allergies and nothing, nada, niente, noppes, niks, nil...you get the drift... else, I decided Something's Gotta Give! That didn't include me getting a yappy little dog, a foul temper, and a load of neuroses (allergic to first, have the others already).

So I'm off to China, Shanghai to be exact, to study Mandarin. "Again???" I hear you ask? Yes, again, but this time I aim to become passably advanced as opposed to just being able to command a taxi to go left or right, ordering a bottle of water and "no MSG please" and knowing names of various fruits. OK, so I knew a lot more than that, my brain seems to not have held onto this acquired knowledge in 2 years of non-practice, fancy that?! So off to Shanghai I go for 6 months of cramming!!!

All my things are now in storage. In my enthusiasm, even my iPod was briefly "misfiled" in storage and had to be rescued at the 11th hour (about 20 minutes before my last train to the airport). Bob & Bertha were temporarily lovingly adopted by Olivier and his family, my Bella (car) and plants are with Vanessa and Tim, Pauline is overseeing FedEx shipment of necessaries (including porridge, winter cardigans, and...errr....tea), and my brother will hopefully help sort out forwarding mail since the nice man at the post office surprisingly lied and I cannot do that online. It's lovely to have so many people keeping my hiney out of the bad stuff :)

So, missing iPod saga notwithstanding, I made it to Shanghai in one piece! I was loving the Emirates Airlines flights - they have little lights in the ceiling to simulate a starry nigth when they dim the lights...awwww - until I hit Dubai and went on the flight to Shanghai. I had some particularly obnoxious Iranian arab male chauvinist "pigdog" neighbours! 5 men apparently all travelling for same company, all scattered separately over 11 rows, 2 HAD to sit next to each other and decided that I should swap my first row aisle (major legroom) for a middle in the 3rd row. Methinks not. I came, I booked, I reserved one month ago, you-out-of-luck! They singled me out, didn't bother asking any of the other 4 people they could have moved. After asking three times with the same negative response, they even tried to make the stewardess move me. Luckily she kindly explained that it was my CHOICE not their RIGHT to demand a change. Hah! I was going to SUPERGLUE myself to the seat if need be! Well, joke was on me because PigDog #1 promptly fell asleep and decided to use my shoulder as his pillow...not matter HOW many times I pushed him off. I strongly suspect he wasn't so much asleep as trying to get an eyeful of cleavage! That isa, UNTIL I used my spiky hairclip to pin my scarf accross - thereby neatly closing off view from any cleavage AND creating a particularly uncomfortable landing place for his head! Double Hah! Don't mess with a (natural) blonde.

I made it through immigration despite having a visa that runs out 4 months before my return flight...by leaving return flight empty on the form. I got through customs with the many, many, many copied DVDs a certain person kindly hooked me up with. Although I'm sure I'll be able to buy versions here, my experience in the past has been less than confidence-inspiring... the English version of "Over The Hedge" turned out to be in Russian only with Chinglish subtitles :P Hilarious thought it may be, not exactly as ordered.

The school sent a driver to pick me up, it took only 35 minutes to get from the airport to their main office in central Shanghai. I've forgotten (read: mentally blocked my memories) of a lot of things about China, but not the hectic chaos that is highway driving. The driver was a pro and did not so much as flinch when buses and trucks tried to swipe us off the road - he expertly maneuvered us accross 4 lanes of traffic to hit the off-ramp with about 3 metres to spare. The new school offices are huge compared to what the school had 2 years ago, business must be good! I was met by Fiona, Joyce and Amy - all incredibly nice people who went out of their way to make sure I had everything I needed (water, keys, map of Shanghai, choice of rooms...).

I am actually now in the same apartment - different room - as 2 years ago. The main reason I elected to come back to the same school was the location of the apartments - just one block from the main shopping street, two main subway lines, with a mall on the corner and the Meridien hotel opposite (for when I just NEED to have a bath...). The school has moved to a building around the corner. I could quite literally crawl there if I needed to! My room is quite large, relatively clean, and my suitcase has already exploded to make it look lived in :) Being an alumnus of the area, I immediately found the bank, corner store and fresh juice shop - in order of importance! On my brief 2-block reconnaissance mission I also scoped a few new places including 2 Starbucks, 1 Costa Coffee, a subway, a McDonald's, A pizzahut and a Juice Boost. It's like I didn't even leave the UK. I also found my namesake shop so I feel right at home.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Ushuaia - Really The End of the World.

After an evening of Bingo (I lost), Trivia Reveal (we lost... though the answers were wrong and the quizmaster told me in a weak moment that we had the same amount of points as the winners, not that I'm competitive...), and just general revelry to celebrate a great trip - we moored overnight in Ushuaia port. Kind of a let-down after all the rocky eventful nights at sea! In the morning everyone disembarked and we headed for the town.

Ushuaia itself is a quaint small little village with the requisite tourist eateries, postcard shops and tour operators...and a marathon? Yep - the day we arrived they were having a marathon smack through the middle of town (well...on the ONE main road through).

Since we couldn't check in immediately when we arrived, we decided to throw on our walking gear and head for the chairlift to take us up to the local glacier. After 4 days of ice, we were simply gagging for more! The hotel receptionist kindly informed us that it was a 20 minute walk up the road, so we decided not to bother with a taxi. 45 minutes later, we finally made it to the chairlift after a long slog uphill in increasingly cold weather.

Having spent 10 minutes at the top realising it was another 2hr hike up to the where the glacier ice-cap would begin...and that we'd all seen plenty of ice recently and are inherently lazy... we made use of our chairlift tickets for the return trip and headed to the quaint little tea shop for a (well-deserved) hot chocolate and piece of cake. All that fresh air...

On the way down we decided to take the "hiking route" back to the hotel and must have missed a turn-off or other sign on the path as we promptly got lost in the middle of nowhere on a field. Lots of hilarity ensued as we all tried to navigate the muddy track with varying degrees of accomplishment (film clips available upon request and payment). It wasn't until we realised that our ENTIRE FAMILY was lost, no one knew where we were, and mobile phones didn't work that the laughter stopped...temporarily. :Luckily we backtracked and finally found the inconspicuous trail... (see picture below right with BRIGHT YELLOW MARKINGS).

After all that fresh air it was finally time to check in to our wonderful hotel in Ushuaia, the Las Hayas Spa & Resort hotel. I have to say up front that the name is a little misleading, but then Ushauaia IS AT THE END OF THE WORLD! They are a little too fond of their floral patterns, though the curtains in front of the bath are a nice touch... The Spa had a swimmingpool, hairdresser, mini gym and Squash Courts. My brother even convinced me to try out the latter. I am not a fan. Mainly because the stupid ball doesn't bounce, he's a great player, and I had to run into walls to try to hit the ball in time. Niiice.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Cape Horn!

We finally made it! We’re at Cape Horn. After another eventful night on rocky seas (why is it always between 3 and 4 am that the boat goes a-rocking?), we anchored just off Cape Horn Island at 6am. Mummified and without breakfast, we all scrambled towards the Zodiacs for the expedition to Cape Horn Island. This time, we finally managed to be at the head of the queue, even in front of the Spanish Armada and the German Battalion. All three Peeks made it onto the first boat out to the landing site, the first group up to the island walkways, the first group to the seagull memorial, the first group... you get my drift. Did make for some rather nice pictures sans other pesky tourists! There is only 1 dwelling on the island, that of the man and his family running the lighthouse. Apparently they have cable TV and Internet, their two daughters are home schooled, and they get frequent visits from the tourists that come to clamber all over the island. On top of that, they sell postcards for USD $4 each, which the lighthouse man will stamp with the Cape Horne symbol if you part with your cash. Hmmm, yep, I still wouldn’t trade with them!

Since we boarded the ship a few days ago, we’ve had a trivia competition delivered to our lunchtime table every day with random questions. Some questions are about the trip itself, some geography and some culture. Of course my brother is reining King Supreme of all answers...but when he’s in a bit of a quandary, it helps that I packed a world map showing all countries (and more importantly that Belize is clearly larger than El Salvador), and a 3kg South America Lonely Planet. Since we were joined with another table, and we know that the Peeks (Roger) had all questions right in the first round, I made it my mission to go inform Mathias that he had to count our answers if we had more correct than the table we ended up joining. Me competitive? No, never, totally not my bag... aherm. Just count the points OK. :)

This afternoon we moored in Wulaia Bay for a nice long uphill hike. After a 7am start and freezing weather at the cape, of course we were all psyched to be “tree climbers” and climb a hill above the bay for an amazing lookout. The bay is essentially owned by Cruceros Australis - they bought the only house and the land around it for conservation purposes and...what else... to turn it into a lodge for future passengers. The house is large and the surroundings are truly beautiful. Not sure I'd want to stay there for days on end, but then I'm not a bird fanatic or a professional photographer! Fun was had by all - but mostly my brother, who had this great idea to have me crouching in the tall grass / grain for a truly unique photo... unfortunately also meant that I spent the following 4 hours (until I could take a shower) itching all over with creepy crawlies and bits of hay and other imagined things... Turns out the hike to the top of the hill wasn't all that bad - quite a nice path (if a little slippery in the mud) and an amazing view of the bay, ship, and afternoon sun from the top. We even managed to get just over 40 passengers to shut up completely for more than 5 minutes of absolute reflective silence.... ooooohhhhhhhmmmmmmm!

Friday, 14 March 2008

Glaciares, Glaciers, Ice Everywhere!

After an eventful day at Pia Glacier, and once again de-layered (it's getting easier and easier to just sling the 5 layers on and off at the drop of a fleece hat), we were all in the main deck lounge for the cruise down Glacier Alley. And they weren't kidding when they said we'd see a lot of glaciers. Funny though, even though it's all ice, they all have their own distinctive shape, colour or just "vibe". I guess a lot of that was created by the crew who played Mozart as we passed the German glacier and served little snacks typical to each country as we passed!!!

Won't bore you with all the many many details, mainly because I don't remember them. Thickness, width, length, advancing, receding, blue ice, black ice, etc etc etc. Instead, I will just shut up and let the pictures do the talking... then again, you probably had to be there for the full effect (nah nah nana naaaah!). we passed the Romanche Glacier, German Glacier, French Glacier, Italy Glacier, and last - but not least - Holland Glacier.

I don't remember which pics belong to which... but here are some of them!

Pia Glacier - up close and personal

OK, I officially love, LOVE, LOOOOOOOOVVVEEEE this trip!

Due to the continued rocking and rolling during the night - so much so that my glass of water slid off the night table, but I woke up at the sliding sound and caught it just before it toppled - we got up somewhat refreshed if a little sleep-deprived. Since we had a long way to go to the disembarkation point for the day at Pia Glacier, we first played our one (and as it turns out ONLY) game of UNO. Roger dragged the cards with him all the way from London. I quickly ended up with my fair share (80% of the total?) of cards, which had my mother and brother chortling. However, fate is fickle, and they both soon felt the cruelty of "no green card because Marisa's holding them all in her hands" and had to draw, and draw, and draw... Who's laughing now?! After an hour, "we" decided to give up and pack up to be ready for the main attraction of the morning - a tour of the Engine Room! Yeah! yeah. Apparently their disenfranchisement did not go unnoticed as two other passengers commented on how "easily your mother and brother gave up. Boy, that game really got to them, huh?" End quote. Har har har.

I got to the tour meeting point in time to snag some of the scarce headphones - my mum close behind. Seeing as they were going fast, I asked for another for Roger. Patrizio (he of the "catwalk show with many models") promptly asked "where is your husband?" Husband? Ewwwwww. Yes, BINGO, the lack of resemblance strikes again. Unfortunately, I patiently explained that he is not my husband, neither of us are married, and - believe it or not - Roger is my brother. This had its repercussions later that day... But anyhoo. On with the tour.

Not much to tell, or maybe just not much that stuck :) 3 engines, 2 main ones, one back-up for inside the harbour area. 850 horse power each. They recycle and treat all the water before chucking it overboard and have a massive tank to store much and waste. Lots of important looking switches and signs and a bit LOUD. I took some pics and then made a hasty retreat to the bridge where I soon made myself comfortable in the Captain's chair. Much more my area of expertise, non?

In the afternoon we finally arrive at our destination. Pia Glacier. Pia Glacier. Yes, Pia Glacier! Pia Glacier makes everything better. It makes sleep uneccessary, cold showers fun, and breakfast buffet scrums an activity to enjoy and delight in. Seriously - NOTHING compares to laying anchor in front of a huge wall of ice, then hopping in a Zodiac to go WALKING on rocks just 20 metres away from said wall of ice... hearing it crackle and pop. Nothing! Well, maybe driving a tank, swimming with whale sharks, walking the wall of China, and sitting on an elephant. But Pia Glacier definitely ROCKS...also. :)

Oh yes, and Roger showed me how to use the Panoramic picture setting on my camera, so you will see that newfound knowledge being abused from here on!

Once again, they were a person short on an earlier Zodiac and I quickly volunteered to get that space. I ended up in a boat almost filled with a German group who were all very friendly and concerned that I was without family! For about 10 minutes. :) The "landing" was onto an outcropping of rock about 30 metres in front of the main wall of the glacier. Being in an earlier boat also meant I could get a prime shot of my mother making a rather dignified descent from the boat with my brother gallantly helping her (ehmmm, or is he taking a picture or me taking a picture...shame on you!) The pictures speak for themselves, so I'm just going to plaster the post with pics rather than words! Enjoy!

(Picture below on the left is by my brother - Roger Peek - newly contributing photographer to the blog!)

After some gawking at the ice wall, we then clambered up onto the nearby hill to a look-out point. Not even Patrizio-the-expedition-leader-and-entertainment-director's chatter could ruin it. I suffered an exhausting 2 hours of "Holland, are you single?", "Holland, why don't you come work on the ship for a year?", "Holland! Happy Single!", "Holland, I was once in finance and a stock trader, I wasn't always a guide" (accompanied by much chest-puffing), and "Holland, you left without me!" after I walked back down off the hill-top viewpoint back to see the glacier up close and personal. It appears that I have been renamed “Holland”. Great. Due to the frequent and loud use of that monicker by Patricio both on board and off, now even other guests are starting to call me “Holland”. As in, "Did you take any more pictures of seals, Holland?". AAARRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH.

Pia glacier was awesome, but the pictures cannot do it justice. The crew brought whisky and hot chocolate onto the shore for us to enjoy - whisky on the rocks, courtesy of Ice by Pia! (That's the Brazilian bartender pouring Scotch into my mother's hot chocolate by the way!) After a cup of delicious hot chocolate (without additives), the sugar shot to my head and I spent the next 10 minutes jumping in the air while my brother tried to capture it on Megabytes. My wild escapades got me noticed by someone else though... There was a professional photographer on board the cruise, as a guest, and after seeing my blonde hair flapping up and down in front of the glacier, he asked me to pose in front of the glacier, though thankfully standing still! I was Chosen...because I was the only one with blonde hair, and he needed something in perspective that wasn't dark. Yeay, whatever! I might end up gracing the cover of the BBC nature magazine!