Wednesday, May 4

Film: Captain America: Civil War Click for more info

The MCU is a funny beast. Despite the titling, it's now become pretty difficult to isolate any single film as standalone - in my view they should have just stopped messing around and named this film MCU 13. That's not to say the labouring of the MCU is a bad thing; on the contrary really since Civil War really is one of the best film to have come out of the franchise so far. And yes, that includes Assemble.

Despite being the easiest way to explain, it would be unfair to directly compare it to that the lynch pin movie of 2012. CW is mature, grown up, relying less on gimmicks and set pieces. There's more to the film than just the action and fan service. And yes, it does make you think (well, kind of). All of the characters come into their own (another reason why calling this a Captain America film could be seen as odd), and have been given more than enough potential to grow even more.

The downsides include some shoddy filming, especially during the fight scenes. Overall though the movie does get away with it, as it injects the blue, red and gold blurs into your eyeballs.

I won't go on because it'll just end up being gush. Needless to say Civil War is a great film and very much recommended.

Sunday, May 1

Food: Pictures at Dorsett Click for more info

Sometimes I feel like a very lucky chap. Without being too wet, this luck stems from knowing various groups of friends, all of whom are drivers in a particular field. Some know about board games, some about religion, and some in this case for instance, have a knack of finding some amazing places in which to eat.

Pictures is a relatively posh hotel restaurant situated on site at the Dorsett in Shepherd's Bush. It's clean, quiet and classy. The service is as you would expect, the food of a high quality. Granted, the place was empty but for our party of 12, but I put that down to ignorance rather than reputation.

And the best bit? With the assistance of a diners club membership the bill for a wonderful soup and fish mains came to the princely sum of £10. Like I said: amazing.

Saturday, April 30

Food: Sultan Click for more info

Oh man. Yes, another East London grill... one of many situated on Cranbrook Road. Is it different? Well maybe. I would suggest that the spices are spicier perhaps.

Ultimately with such optimised menus the unique selling points come down to a few things - cost, decor, service. Sultan manages an above average mark on all these things and so remains a choice out of many options.

Friday, April 29

Book: The Universe versus Alex Woods, Gavin Extence Click for more info

Alex Woods is a fun book. It's well written (and by that, I mean it's laugh out loud hilarious), the plot is adequate enough and the pacing is just about right to keep the reader engaged. What it lacked is depth. In particular, characterisation. "Formulaic" isn't quite the right word, but the characters as they stood were pretty shallow and one dimensional - there wasn't much development either.

And so the book sits at "fun", which is ultimately a shame because it could have been so much more. In passing (or between two heavier books) however you could do much worse.

Sunday, April 10

Film: Zootropolis Click for more info

The obvious things first: Zootropolis is a solid film. It's fun to watch, the characters are endearing, the plot sophisticated enough for the adults but accessible enough for the kids. The visuals are lovely and overall the film presents a neat little package which really doesn't have much that needs improving upon. You should all go watch it for all the usual reasons you should watch a Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks joint.

Digging a little further however and we find much more; the plot isn't just sophisticated... it's also topical, of substantial depth and full of moral dilemmas and guidance. Compared to the usual lessons presented - you know, that it's okay to grow up, that friendship is great, or that bravery comes from within, etc etc - Zootropolis is almost multidimensional in how it handles issues of prejudice, victimisation and politics of hate.

That alone makes this film more special than its peers. Definitely recommended.

Saturday, April 9

Food: Hoppers Click for more info

I really wanted to hate this place. Any restaurant that makes me queue up automatically gets demoted, although once we actually got in I was less upset - the place is positively tiny. I think there must have been 40 covers maximum, including those squeezed in at the bar and window benches. Okay, so maybe queuing up was necessary. Doubts continued to linger though - despite having visited the place I'm no expert on Sri Lankan cuisine... and at first glance the menu did seem a little ordinary. Dosas are cute, but plentiful here in London, and my immediate thought was "oh man, I hope this isn't just another hipster gimmick joint".

Any remaining fears I had evaporated when the food came. It was good. Really good. We ordered a decent enough spread of mutton rolls, dosas and meat and fish curries (the chicken and lamb here being halal), and everything was spot on. It tasted good, weighed in well, looked great... it was almost as perfect a meal as one could have, which is quite a statement. Everything else fell in line too, with the excellent service and perfect buzz.

And we didn't even have to pay for this quality - £15 ensured that everyone was well fed with a variety of food. Hoppers really is a gem and is very much worth a try (you know, despite the queuing part).

Wednesday, April 6

Book: Crossroads Of Twilight, Robert Jordan Click for more info

The big one-oh (year of release, 2003) and quite frankly I was disappointed. I think this volume was always going to fall short, not least because a large part of it happens simultaneously with book nine which gave the impression that not much plot had progressed by the end of it. Which of course is silly; lots did happen, but I guess someone like me needs things to be overt and explicit to be appreciated. It's hard to write about what was essentially filler, yet I am excited to move on to the next parts; if anything it feels like the middle of the epic is winding up so the promise of a thrilling final few volumes is there - there are only four left; five if you count the prequel which according to the publication order is what I'm to read next.

Sunday, April 3

Dirty Pakistani Lingerie Click for more info

Apparently Aizzah Fatima was so frustrated with the lack of diversity and imagination behind Muslim characters, that she came up with Dirty Pakistani Lingerie, a one woman play apparently about what it's really like to be a Pakistani Muslim Woman these days. It's ironic then that we end up with a bunch of stereotypical stories which demonstrated anything but imagination. So yes, once again we saw the Pakistani (in this particular case - it may have been Bangladeshi elsewhere) women who are surrounded by loser guys. Oh yes, and the ones who are always being rejected on the marriage market due to their ages and skin colour. Oh and let's not forget the ones who have "broken free" and taken charge of their sexuality. Such heroism.

If I'm feeling charitable, I'd say that the play only lacked novelty in a London theatre - angry brown women have had platforms here for the past decade and have used them relentlessly. Maybe this is just fatigue talking. The fact is though that there was nothing really new here and no new ground trodden - perhaps in the USA this stuff still feels fresh.

Aizzah Fatima as an actress was okay, and the production okay. There were some funny moments. But really, for those of you who had missed this (it was only playing the one night in Ilford) you didn't miss much. There was a Q&A with Fatima and her producer after the show but I chose to have Nando's instead - the theme for the evening was the treading on well worn cliches after all.

Saturday, April 2

Virtually Dead Click for more info

I spent this morning training to fight zombies. To be honest I went into the session blind, not knowing anything about what was to happen, except that there would be a virtual reality session with the newly released HTC Vive... which to be honest was the reason we had even booked in the first place.

The morning was actually a mixture of theatre, live action and practical jokes, and overall it was pretty fun. It wasn't the scariest thing in the world, but it had some cool moments... most involving zombies who had escaped confinement.

Despite only having spent a disappointing five minutes or so with the aforementioned virtual reality headset, that also was quite impressive to play with. I was ready to claim it a total failure, but it was responsive and engaging enough to be quite effective, and the addition of dual hand held stick thingies made the whole thing even better (we were shooting virtual zombies in the head). It remains to be seen whether or not it's worth £800 plus a decently spec'd PC of course.

The tour ends on the 3rd of April and looks to be fully booked, but I'm guessing there'll be more of the same popping up in other parts of London, so keep an eye out. For £30 I can think of worse ways of spending a Saturday morning.

Sunday, March 27

Film: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Click for more info

I'll take the strange approach of starting with my conclusion - I actually rather liked BvS. I went in relatively blind and not already having decided it was going to suck, although I did detect the growing post release hate the movie was getting. I may have had slightly low expectations, but as someone who doesn't believe in the whole "it will be bad if you look forward to it" theory I don't think that mattered much. So yes, I think I genuinely enjoyed the film.

I won't bother mentioning things like acting or plot (both sufficed). The action was good, the fun factor surprising given the dark theme chosen for the DCEU, and the superheroics... well, super heroic. There just wasn't much to complain about.

All in all, you'll probably already know whether you'll like BvS or not. From me however it gets a recommendation and I'll even go as far as to say I'm excited for the DCEU movies to come.

Tuesday, March 22

Film: 10 Cloverfield Lane Click for more info

Well is it a sequel or isn't it? The producers of 10 Cloverfield Lane were very careful in not telling us, and neither will I. I will say that answering this question does add to the enjoyment of the film - it's something meta that adds to the general psychological thrill of the whole thing.

Three actors stuck in a bunker is always going to be a petri dish for fun, but 10CL could have been much worse than it is. This partly comes down to the acting: Goodman is creepy and Winstead heroic, but the plot and direction all lend themselves to the whole jolly good romp too.

If there's one thing to complain about it's that the pacing is a little off part way through the film, but since it's so short anyway that's really no big deal. All in all a hearty recommendation from me.

Sunday, March 13

Rebel Muzik Click for more info

Am I really writing this post? I have to say it seems pretty surreal - after all it's been over six years since the last Rebel Muzik and most regular attendees had made their peace with its transiency: in fact that was almost what made it all so so good. I didn't even really believe that it was back at first: perhaps some hipster upstart was trying to be original or something... after all it was being hosted at the Rich Mix. They were even selling tickets in advance for heaven's sake.

But no, it turns out that this was the Rebel Muzik we all knew and loved... and yet it was also very different. The new location was the most visible difference, with the more grand stage and space losing some of the intimacy you'd have found way back in the Inn On The Green. Most of the old faces we all knew and loved were there, but joined with a more fresh crowd - a show of hands put us who had previously attended Rebel in a clear minority. The stalls were more elaborate and varied - but it was criminal to have no halal chicken pies. So yes, different but the same.

But it was the performances that immediately threw us back to the old times. The proceedings opened up with a screening of Hip Hop Hijabis, a mini documentary that provided an insight into the life of Poetic Pilgrimage. This was followed by the open mic, which as always both impressed (with the sheer talent of this so called amateurs) and depressed (with the realisation of exactly how talentless I am myself).

And then it was the featured artists.

First up was the both-inside-and-out-beautiful Rukeia who blew us away with her acoustic soul haunting sound. We were then treated to some classic yet still relevant spoken word courtesy of Amen Noir. Amen was followed by a set by Poetic Pilgrimage themselves (accompanied by the adhoc band "Soul Brothers", because, well, that's how Rebel Muzik rolls) which as always was worth the entry fee alone - and this was when I finally accepted that Rebel Muzik was back. I'm grinning just writing about them.

The evening was rounded up by the most wonderful Son of Ee whose effortless performance honestly left me wondering how the heck talent shows like the X-Factor even exist. Liza Garza was up next for some more spoken word and then finally we (well, those of us who remained anyway - the Rebel Muzik crowd obviously need warming up before the next event) were treated to a few hip hop tracks by Shay D.

All in all it was a brilliant night out, in vibe and effect if not scope and exposure. To be frank in a landscape of pretty safe and totally unradical (DYSWIDT?) corporate sponsored cultural roadshows it's equally refreshing and vital to have a deeper level of conversation when it comes to the almost hijacked and agenda laden topics of Islam, the environment, spirituality and social commentary. I'm so glad that Rebel Muzik is back and I look forward to all the shows, support and engagement to come.

Tuesday, March 8

Film: London Has Fallen Click for more info

First we were excited: a sequel to the best White-House-gets-taken film of the past five years (just about mind, I liked White House Down too). Then we were disappointed: London Has Fallen hadn't reviewed that well - it was so bad that we decided not to give it a go at all. Then the twist: we ended up watching it since we didn't have any other options. And then finally: I actually quite enjoyed it.

I'm not sure why to be honest: perhaps it was the lack of expectations, or maybe it was fun seeing London play a big part in the film. The ensemble were just as good as before, but I guess the plot could have had more meat on it, but this was always going to be a jock of a film really. The action wasn't too shabby, with one sweeping continuous-but-not-really shot was quite fun to watch.

I don't think I would actually recommend it mind; I just don't feel like I had wasted my time watching it. One for a home viewing then perhaps.

Sunday, March 6

Food: The Second Wife Click for more info

The Second Wife is a bit of a curiosity. It's a cosy little place, the type run by hard working families (I do not know if this is true), where you know the attention to detail is what will count. Our group of many (10 perhaps?) were led downstairs into the Moroccan themed basement, where we were able to relax to some level. Browsing the menu certainly stroked my appetite; there was something about how basic and simple the breakfasts on offer were (just to be clear, we went for lunch), and quite frankly I wanted to try more than one item on the menu.

I eventually settled for the Eggs Royale - two poached eggs on salmon and a bagel with hollandaise sauce - and it was good enough. As a side (cough) I ordered a stone baked sausage pizza which, quite frankly, was very ordinary. Overall the food was middling, but at around a fiver or so per breakfast it was of a decent enough value.

The only complaint was, unfortunately, a big one. Unfortunate from two angles actually - firstly a lack of service will always have an impact, no matter how amazing or cheap your food is. But secondly it was unfortunate because it probably wasn't normal: our group was joined by another similarly sized one and it was clear the kitchen wasn't equipped to deal with such number of covers on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Orders were omitted and cancelled and even the basics like plates and table water were a struggle.

It's a shame because I could have imagined the place to have been the default place to go for a greasy breakfast (yes yes, at lunchtime), but unless we know we'd have a basic level of attention I can't see us going back. So I'll say it for the third time this article: unfortunate.

Friday, March 4

Food: Abu Zaad Click for more info

"I've never had Syrian before!" I thought as I approached Abu Zaad. I don't usually get too excited about food, but I've been lucky enough to have tried a wide range of weird and wonderful cuisines and so the oppurtunity to try something new is always welcome. Heck, I couldn't even imagine what food Abu Zaad could offer.

It turns out that there's a reason for that - anyone who's been to a Lebanese or Persian restaurant would immediately feel at home at Abu Zaad; the place is as identikit as these middle eastern grill type places can be. I had actually felt like I had been tricked.

But the crashing of my dreams aside, Abu Zaad really wasn't all that bad. The staples were solid, the kebabs above average. The decor was half way between a kebab shop and fancy place, and the service was adequate enough but the cost of £15 per head was more than I would have paid elsewhere.

So although our time at Abu Zaad was decent enough there just wasn't anything special enough to have me return there again; it turns out the next time I fancy a Syrian I can go to any one of the hundreds of grills in and around London anyway.

Wednesday, March 2

Food: Feng Sushi Click for more info

There really isn't a place to go for cheap sit down sushi - Yo! has always been a bit of a (costly) gimmick for me, and from what I remember the food wasn't worth the time or the cost. So yes, I always felt that there was a gap in the market for a go to place for a Japanese cuisine fix.

Until now that is. Now, I'm not sure when Feng Sushi came about, but there's a fair few branches so I'm guessing I've just been out of the loop. Regardless I'm glad that I've found it - the food is good and cheap (although I did leverage a Tastecard) and the locations relatively convenient. If I do have a complaint it's that the service wasn't exactly timely, but with the right company that might not really be an issue.

From the sushi, through the tempura and until the mochi desserts, there really wasn't much Feng could do wrong. Recommended.

Saturday, February 27

Food: Clockjack Click for more info

Hmm. Chicken. Prepared over a rotisserie. Served in a trendy yet clean environment, complete with eclectic chairs and the like. A whole bird of which came to £20.

Yes, that's right, just when I thought that the hipsters had already done chicken I find a place that does it even harder. But thus is the hipster way.

But okay, look: the food was good. The main event that was the rotisserie chicken (strangely that was pretty much the only item on the menu that was halal) was succulent and tasted pretty good despite my discarding of the skin (we went sauceless). The sides of fries were decent enough too, and the home made lemonade did hit the spot.

But there's something inherently wrong about sullying the simple nature of chicken with a lather of fad and then charging an obscene amount for it. So despite rather enjoying my time there I really can't recommend Clockjack, you know, on philosophical grounds. But if you did happen to want a great photo of a cooked chicken (you know, for social media reasons) I guess there is no better place to go.

Cube Network: Leadership for Muslim Networks Click for more info

Today, Cube Network hosted a day of mini lectures and introductions centred around the running and leading of Muslim networks in the workplace. Judging by the audience, "workplace" in this context meant the professional and corporate type, although the lessons learned would actually be applicable to different workplaces and even other aspects of life. Briefly, the topics were:

  • Influencing without authority - where we learned about the mechanisms available to empower opinions which may not otherwise find representation, so things like lobbying, media influence, key groups.
  • Leadership in the face of adversity - where it was explained that in an Islamic context, leadership doesn't necessarily have to be overt or even about the results, but can be about the effort and journey.
  • Facilitation - more of a workshop where we brainstormed about the steps we could take to promote change in the workplace.
  • Legal rights and the Equality Act 2010 - where we learned about our rights as minority employees, and what recourse we could have if these rights were ever infringed upon
  • The Islamic case for leadership - where a frank and pragmatic explanation was given as to why leadership is required in the context of Muslim networks in the city
  • The Islamic Workplace Index - the attempt to create an authoritative ranking of the 100 most Islamic friendly places to work in the UK

Now, full qualification: I know some of the guys who are involved in the Cube Network relatively personally. But any personal bias aside, it was refreshing to see a corporate aimed and structured series of presentations that were at all times pivoted around our duty to God and our struggle to get to heaven. I felt that as a result a lot of what was said was to-the-point, honest, credible and transparent, something which is usually missing from other leadership programmes (be they labelled with an Islam prefix or not).

Of course whether there are any longer term changes remains to be seen. But as an introduction or start to a larger context it was quite fun, and I look forward to seeing what else comes out of this series.

Tuesday, February 23

Film: Deadpool Click for more info

It says a lot about society the number of times (three to be precise) I had to warn friends not to take their nephews to this film. I mean I get that it's a superhero film, and superhero films are for kids in the main. But come on guys, isn't being a responsible adult about being diligent? At least check the rating (15) before you offer to take an 8 year old.

And it's a good thing that the warnings were heeded. Deadpool offers up strong language, heavy violence, nudity and pretty much anything that is bad for the soul. This is not a film for the saintly.

On the other hand it's also a lot of fun. The action and humour are all on point (largely because of the aforementioned vices) and it's clever too, with the continuous breaking of the fourth wall that the comic is so well known for translates well onto the big screen.

If I have any complaints it's that the story isn't that sophisticated; we essentially have a bunch of set pieces tied together with a love story of some sorts. But that's okay because I'm not sure anyone would want to take the film seriously in that way. But as something to enjoy and chuckle at, it does the job... and on that aspect alone it gets my recommendation.

Monday, February 22

Science Showoff Click for more info

Well isn't this a treat? A amateur cabaret night themed around the weird and wonderful world of science, Science Showoff is just the ticket for some geeky release. But it's actually more than that, as you actually really do learn something too.

Such is the genius of even today's line up, all of whom are considered to be fresh meat. I only stayed for half of it, but in that time I learned about heart disease, cancer of the uterus research, evolution and saw some contemporary dance demonstrating the magic of stem cells.

It was a laugh, it was insightful and yes, it was oh so geeky. It's the grassroots stuff that takes me back to Rebel Muzik, and has definitely found a future place in my diary.

Sunday, February 21

Food: Al Souk Click for more info

Grammatical errors aside, Al Souk (urgh) was actually quite the quick win. The food was good, fast and cheap and combined with the local location we turned around a pretty decent meal for £8 per head (albeit using a Tastecard) in under 90 mins. That's not bad for the standard starters and two sticks of kofta for the main. For a default choice there's much worse options, so this will go down as the place to go for a quick local bite.

Tuesday, February 9

Film: The Big Short Click for more info

I'd like to think that for anyone who's been in finance for a relatively long period of time that The Big Short is not saying anything new. The final message that the film has (spoilers!), that for some reason we tend to place authority in people who wear suits, is a lesson anyone who's worked in a corporation would know about - that these things are run by people and that people are on the whole, stupid, lazy and/or bent. The only real difference with banking is that the product we're dealing with is money and so all of a sudden it's more important (or maybe less believable).

But still, The Big Short is a fun film, with respect to the subject matter, the "true events" it's based on as well as the way in which it's presented - many of the characters break the fourth wall for instance. I guess the fun is there to balance out the rest of the film which is pretty much a depressing indictment of our society. Recommended.

Thursday, February 4

Food: All Star Lanes, Brick Lane Click for more info

To be frank I'm not sure it's even fair to include this place in my listings. The only reason one would ever eat here would be to follow up on a spot of bowling (which was bad for its own reasons), so maybe expectations should have been set low. But just for completion we paid almost £20 a head for really shoddy food. The service was okay, but one can't really eat that.

One to avoid then, even if you wanted to follow up on a spot of bowling.

Monday, February 1

Book: Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson Click for more info

I'm really not sure where to start with Cryptonomicon. I mean for sure it was an amazing read and has definitely made my top ten of books ever read. But to describe why I enjoyed it so much is difficult.

Cryptonomicon is ultimately a work of fiction, but that is kind of diluted by how much of the real world it borrows from. Not only do we have a mention of Turing, but he's actually quite important as a character in the story. We have a world war going on, as well as the impending dotcom bubble of the 90s brewing. For me it actually be came a little tricky navigating what was fiction and what was not, but after a while I did manage to start trusting the book.

Cryptonomicon is also mainly a thriller about technology. But that too is diluted by the immense level of characterisation built in by Stephenson - see the chapter that describes the motivation behind and physical response to having a bowl of Cap'n Crunch for breakfast.

Cyrptonomicon is also very well structured and accessible. But this is despite having multiple arcs and sub-arcs and being set in two time lines and multiple locations. The book has a level of depth which places a lot of trust and even burden on the reader, but I suspect a second reading would be extremely fulfilling.

So yes, Cyrptonomicon is a book that makes you work hard but rewards you for that effort. Recommended.

Friday, January 22

West Coast USA, Day Ten: Farewell Los Angeles

This being our second and final Friday on the trip, our day was pretty much centred on the mosque and Jummah. As such we managed to start the day relatively early, the idea being to mop up the remaining sights, pray and then head out of the city. Santa Monica was the main highlight where we checked out the pier, biked (myself on a tricycle, naturally) to Venice Beach where we checked out the canals, posed on Muscle Beach and generally horsed around till it was time to go.

Maybe it was the weather but I have to say that Santa Monica and it's surroundings aren't as glitzy as they might appear on the television. Oh for sure, it seemed like a wonderful place to hang out and possibly even live... but there was also something a little underwhelming about the whole place. We got our fill, and then headed to the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City to both offer our Jummah and meet one of my uncles for lunch.

After a hefty haul of pizza it was finally time to head out of LA. Unsurprisingly we were behind on schedule - we actually left the city at 4:30pm - but I suspect none of us had any expectations of any schedules by that point. As such, we decided to randomly stop at a cute little beach cafe in Malibu for an unwarranted amount of dessert and milkshakes before finally arriving at what became our final destination of the day, Ventura.

To be clear this was not part of the plan; heck I hadn't even heard of Ventura before arriving here today (my first thought was to try Santa Barbara). This, again, turned out to be a bit of a gem as we followed some suggested advice and caught the second half of a comedy gig being played not too far from our hotel.

It was a great way to end the day, and indeed mark our departure of SoCal. Our road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway had begun.

Thursday, January 21

West Coast USA, Day Nine: Today Is Culture Day

After prioritising our list of things to do we settled on starting the day at The Getty Museum. This is probably the top most attraction in LA for anyone with a vague interest in museums or art, and it was well worth checking out. The building itself was interesting enough, while it's collection had more than enough breadth to keep us busy for the morning and beyond.

It was actually so good, we lost all track of time - make sure you budget for just how much there is you'll want to see there. Although The Getty turned out to be the most wondering of timesinks, it did mean that we had to cancel our planned trip on a studio tour. Instead, we headed to The Broad, another excellent cultural highlight of LA, this time hosting a selection of fine modern art. It was no Tate, but pretty good nonetheless.

And that was all the tourism for the day. Like yesterday, our timekeeping and efficiency left a lot to be desired... and yet I don't feel that I missed out on too much. We had dinner plans with a friend of mine down in Long Beach which would have been nice to have seen in the day time, but we settled with Compton and Skid Row by night instead. Quite.

Wednesday, January 20

West Coast USA, Day Eight: Hollywood

Perhaps I spoke too soon? It seems that we have fully embraced the lazy-start-long-breakfast way of starting the day, and as such pretty much started our exploration of LA at around noon. For an early starter like me this was a disaster - flexible and meandering schedules only work if you have the time in which to flex and meander in. On the other hand breakfast at The Griddle was pretty awesome, and to be fair we did manage to squeeze in a quick look at Rodeo Drive and Beverly Hills (I looked out for the Walshes but no go).

Today was all about Hollywood really. After parking up we spent more time than we really should have noting the Stars on the floor and the handprints of the TCL Chinese Theatre. We even got roped into taking a drive by tour of Hollywood, Bel Air and Beverly Hills. I won't bore you with the list of alleged celebrity houses we saw but I guess it was all part of the Hollywood tourist trapping. In total we spent 5 hours obsessing over the whole thing - oh and as a tip, if you want a really decent view of the Hollywood sign don't drive to any promised viewpoint: you can see it well enough from the viewing platform of the Dolby Theatre.

Cutting our losses, we headed to the Griffith Observatory. Now this was more like it - starting from the drive up, to the views from it's hill, to the architecture of the observatory to the actual science of the whole thing it really is a special place.

There were science demonstrations, experiments and we even regressed to schoolchildren and bought tickets to a show in the planetarium. My only regret is that we only had two hours or so there, but even that much time salvaged the whole day for me.

Our final task for the day was to catch a basketball game. Lakers was the target, and so we headed down to the Staples Centre to see what we could find. To say the mission was a failure was an understatement; a lack of research left us with pretty unrealistic expectations on how much it would cost to watch a game. We consoled ourselves with a cosy dinner at a lovely Italian called Osteria La Buca... after which we gorged on cheesecake at The Factory of such things. That was all a pretty decent turnabout if you ask me.

Tuesday, January 19

West Coast USA, Day Seven: San Diego

Our ad hoc trip into Mexico yesterday meant squeezing the rest of our schedule. I was probably the least bothered about this; as I have learned in previous trips the lack of schedules always adds a huge amount to any tour that I've previously been on. The trick is to prioritise what you want to see and forgive the rest, and in our case San Diego had a clear priority: The USS Midway. Actually wait, no. The first priority was actually breakfast, and with a little help from Google* we found a pretty amazing 24 hour place on the way.

We made the rookie mistake of ordering one breakfast each, when each could have supported a small family for days. But hey, welcome to California I guess. Aside from that there was something pivotal about this morning's breakfast, kind of like a formal transitioning from a vacation that was busy and scheduled to a holiday that was whimsical and dynamic. Despite the extra calories I actually felt lighter for it.

Back on the tourist trail, we eventually made it to the USS Midway, a deommissioned aircraft carrier that had been re-purposed as a maritime museum. Needless to say it was pretty awesome. The fact that it was a real life aircraft carrier was amazing enough, but the museum side of things was just as top notch... and once again we found ourselves struggling to consume it all. It was pretty late in the afternoon when we left for La Jolla.

La Jolla is, apparently, the fancy part of San Diego. Apart from a few shiny cars it didn't have much of that vibe, but that could be due to the classiness of the rich people around rather than their bank balances. It was clean and lush and oh my the sea lions were smelly. I could just about see it as a laid back place to retreat to, which in actual fact was a vibe I felt across the city as a whole. This feeling carried on through to a simple dinner consisting of fish tacos and some luscious desserts with some local friends; much fun and good conversation was had on this, our final and only night in San Diego - we left for Los Angeles right after saying our goodbyes.

Monday, January 18

West Coast USA, Day Six: An Impromptu Tijuana

Tijuana actually was originally on our itinerary - it got cut mainly due to scheduling concerns but also partly due to a growing reluctance to cross another international border. A few minutes with the chap who dealt with us at the car rental place changed that; not only was he from Tijuana, but he commuted from there every day. The way he pitched it Tijuana was extremely accessible and it would have been a crime not to make a visit. So we decided there and then to give it a bash. And he wasn't wrong: less than 30 minutes driving and we were in Mexico. It was so easy that we didn't even have to stop our car at the border; so no stamps, no customs, nothing. I guess the USA don't really care about those leaving the country, but it did make us wonder if we'd have any trouble getting back in. So no, we didn't have a plan - just a car and a tank full of gas - so we did one of my most favourite things to do on holiday: we winged it.

Our first stop was on encountering a local street market. This is as close as you can get to hitting the bullseye really: we were pretty much the only non residents there and so got a great insight to Tijuanan life.

And of course... we stumbled across a mosque while we were exploring.

Unfortunately it appeared to only open during salaat time, so we didn't get a chance to meet any local Muslims. Boo. After chilling out beach side in a cafe we backtracked back north by foot to the border as it hit the Pacific. Like all borders it was a little jarring as there really didn't appear to be any difference in soil between here and there.

We then headed into the central part of Tijuana, mainly to fulfil the shopping needs of those in the party. A couple of us did manage to absorb some of the locality by randomly walking around, including a brief visit ot a mostly closed Tijuana Cultural Center. It might just have been the inevitable naivety that comes with being a tourist... but we really never felt at all unsafe, even after dark. Well until we hit Zona Centro that is.

Our final stop before aiming to head out, Zona Centro, or downtown, was where we were advised to go to pick up souvenirs (in my case the bane of my travels: fridge magnets). It might just have been the time of day (ie late), but the place did feel pretty seedy and intimidating. We even got stopped by the police on our way out which was less fun than it sounds (especially since it was my driving licence that he took away albeit temporarily). The long story short is that we were glad to finally be heading back to California. Of course what we didn't realise was that although it was easy getting out of the States, getting back in was always going to be a little more difficult.

All in all, the border crossing took three hours, 2:55 of which was us waiting in a car queue. In hindsight we should have aimed to have gotten back before rush hour, but I guess it's not every day one gets to check out Tijuana.

Oh and as a side note don't bother ever trying to order a fish burger from McDonald's past 11pm - apparently they would have long turned their fryers off by that point. Sheesh.

West Coast USA, Day Five: Leaving Las Vegas

We didn't really do much this morning on this, our last day in Vegas. The plan was actually to leave much earlier but we didn't manage to hit that particular target - but failed logistics aside, we were finally leaving Las Vegas.

A friend suggested that we check out something called the Valley of Fire. It was in the opposite direction to where we wanted to actually go, but some quick research convinced us to give it a try. It turned out that this was a great decision; in many ways I found the views more inspiring than those I saw yesterday in the Canyon. It was pretty alien to be honest, and another example of exactly how diverse the USA can be.

Although our time in the Valley of Fire was unmissable, it did suck up more time that we wanted to; in fact we didn't really have much time at all to see much of San Diego when we arrived close to midnight. However that in itself gave us a great excuse to try the 24 hour diner that is Denny's, so I guess we managed to remain tourists till the end.