One of the friends I was travelling with had a cool t-shirt with the faces of various gangsters printed on it. They included Che Guevara, Malcolm X and some other superhero I forget the name of. Anyway, on boarding the boat back to the mainland after visiting Robben Island one of the staff stopped us to compliment my friend on his t-shirt:
Staff: Nice t-shirt man. Do you know who that is?
xxxx: Yes of course. That's Malcolm X. He's my hero.
Staff: Don't be absurd. Malcolm X? You have no right to wear that t-shirt. Have some respect.
xxxx: Huh? It IS Malcolm X! Look! It says so on the t-shirt! Che Guevara, guy in the middle and see? Malcolm X. You're wrong man.
Staff: That's not Malcolm X. I look at you in disgust.
xxxx: Okay then. Who is it?
Staff: That's El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. You're so white.
And this is why I always wear plain t-shirts.
The above exchange has been paraphrased and may not reflect actual reality.
Thursday, April 29
One of the friends I was travelling with had a cool t-shirt with the faces of various gangsters printed on it. They included Che Guevara, Malcolm X and some other superhero I forget the name of. Anyway, on boarding the boat back to the mainland after visiting Robben Island one of the staff stopped us to compliment my friend on his t-shirt:
If there's any advice I can give you regarding Capetonian tourism, it's to give Robben Island a miss. I probably missed the point or something, but I didn't find being led through an ex-prison by an ex-prisoner particularly thrilling or insightful. It was kinda pricey too, although you do get to go on a neat boat ride I suppose.
If you do go, make sure you ask to leave the tour and check out the karamat on your own. It's a little Islamic building that looks like a miniature mosque but is actually a Muslim tomb.
Frankly I would have preferred to have stayed up on Chapman's Peak and the surrounding bays for a little longer than we got the chance to this morning. Oh well, we now know for next time I guess.
Tuesday, April 27
I've written and spoke before about my inability to do the guy thing; you know the whole hanging around and chatting breeze thing. I never seem to know what to say about football or sport or women, and I'm always weary of the ego, stubbornness and the lack of sophistication and humour I've previously witnessed during the times I had the misfortune of being part of a sausage-fest.
So imagine my surprise when I found I was able to do exactly that multiple times during my stay in Durban. I'm not sure if it was the environment, the quality and class of the guys here, or simply that I had to do it but the fact is I have never felt more comfortable and secure in a group of guys than I did during tonight. the pizza and burgers invariably helped, but looking past that the conversation flowed and ebbed, the jokes and passing shots were in abundance and there was no hint of the typical male idiocy I've come to expect from such situations.
Although these experiences haven't really changed my stand on post-marital space and the demand we seem to have of it, I do now kinda understand why so many people wish to hold on to their guy or girl times. Maybe I've not seen it enough, or perhaps I've just become accustomed to not having easy access to it, but I still don't see guy time as a requirement to my own well being.
All of a sudden I actually regret having had missed the trip to Drakensberg. Heck, I think I might have even fancied the guys I met in Durban more than I did the girls. Only just, mind. Wink wink and all that.
I am no longer surprised by the coincidences of life. They happen way too much now. Whether it's being in the same town at the same time as a friend on the other side of the world, or finding out you're actually the first cousin of that hot chick you've been checking out at a wedding, I've come to accept that sometimes the planets align and some really crazy stuff happens.
It's already happened more than once on this trip where so and so happened to know so and so really well, but for me the biggest pseudo-random-bumping-into was to see a friend who I hadn't seen for the past 16 years or so at the nikkah we had flown to South Africa for. Of course he happened to have been a friend of the groom. What else?
Don't get me wrong. I knew he was in Durban, I had his number and I had fully planned on making a courtesy call or even meeting up for a coffee or whatever the cool Durbanites happen to do. But to have him there at the nikkah, for him to have already been baked into the social circle I was currently invading, well that was just weird. He was even supposed to have come to Drakensberg.
The meeting turned out to be more than just a minor amusement though. Not only did we hook up but the bloke actually became quite a pivotal character in our trip - it's safe to say it would not have been as awesome without his input and efforts.
So yes. Some people call it luck, some people call it good grace. And although I've come to expect this kinda stuff happening all the time, there's no way I could ever not appreciate the way some things just work out. I guess that at the end of the day it's just about trusting the curve balls that life throws at you. That, and it's yet another testament of how willing and able to make and welcome new friends these Saffan people actually are.
It took a couple of inhumanly early starts (I like to go back to sleep after Fajr, thanks) but I finally got to understand the fuss surrounding the Durbanite beaches.
To be fair those that I had seen before today weren't much to shout about. My basis of reference, of course, is the amazing Gold Coast near Brisbane, Australia, on which at first glance North Beach was no match for. The sand wasn't as clean or fine and the waves looked a bit too noisy to be of any real interest. To be honest I was wondering whether any of my hosts had ever seen a really good beach before.
But that all changed this morning. We switched to Ushoka a few miles south, a much quieter and calmer beach and all the better for it. Despite the quite unreasonable time of the day we decided to don our swimming gear and throw our misgivings into the sea (literally). It was probably the best decision I had made during my stay in Durban.
I think I could have stayed in the Indian Ocean for hours longer than we actually did. There's something quite heavenly about bobbing up and down with waves demonstrating amplitudes of 5-6 metres or so. I even tried a bit of body boarding, something which in hindsight I shouldn't have done (a grazed forehead and sprained neck provide a good argument for that). And as what can only be seen as a generous bonus there was even a swimsuit photoshoot going on all the time on the beach. I'm sure that doesn't happen every day though.
For the first time I feel that I could actually live in a place like this. I'm kinda surprised at how it just took a single and quite trivial thing like a beach.
Sometimes the best days come out of a lack of planning. Take today, for instance: our sole objective was to try Bunny Chow, a local dish we had been told to check out. It was also a bank holiday and combining that with asking a few local friends who we hadn't really seen yet to hang out with us for the day resulted in a recipe for a brilliant eight hour doss that took us all over the Durban coast. And what's more, my purdah had finally been lifted and I had some serious catching up to do.
Our journey started with Bunny Chow and aloo paratha, a decent start to any day in my humble opinion. After finishing with the meal we decided to head off to the nearby stadium to check out the sky walk it had been offering us since seeing it from above on the flight in. By then the randomness of the day had been put in motion and the fact that the skycar was broken and the walking tours fully booked didn't seem to disappoint too much; all of a sudden I was confident that the momentum of the day would carry us through anyway.
After offering our zhur salaat in the shadow of the stadium (while using their fountains as a source of water for whudhu) we continued up the coast toward Umhlanga, stopping off at the very Indian Blue Lagoon on the way. A relic of apartheid, Blue Lagoon seemed to not have gotten over its classification as an Indian beach - and as we sipped on over-sugared drinks and forced ourselves to eat spiced pineapple I was suddenly reminded of my times in Clifton and its surroundings way across the Indian ocean in Karachi. I was promptly brought back down to earth after trying to converse with one of the many Pakistani immigrants selling fake DVDs at the time.
Umhlanga is supposed to have been the posh bit of Durban and for the most part it was. After a brief stroll along the beachside we ended up at the rather fancy Oyster Box hotel for coffee, doss and chat. Although I could have stayed there chilling for a few more hours, the sun and weather was failing us by that point and people needed to go home.
Being in the final few days of our time in Durban this was actually the first time we were saying goodbye to people we would probably not see again on this trip, something that served as a vivid reminder that we weren't in fact locals but people who are only here temporarily. I knew that I'd get this feeling - as if the carpet of good times had been pulled right from under my feet by flight schedules and real life - again and again during the remainder of this trip. I guess that's the price you pay for letting go and making yourself comfortable in what ends up being a home away from home.
Monday, April 26
It was clear how disappointed I was when I realised that, no, lions and elephants do not roam the streets of South Africa freely. I was expecting to see wildlife from my bedroom window, to sleep with the sound of animals hunting and all that. But it seems South Africa is actually more civilised that I had imagined it was. I was even able to drink straight out of the tap!
The point was that I was not going to see a lion take out a water buffalo any time soon; unless of course we made an effort to visit one of the many game parks South Africa have to offer. Kruger Park is probably the famous, but one that required overnight stays to be of any use. There were local ones to Durban too, but they weren't too hot (the closest to us didn't even have any cats).
We finally decided on Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, a reserve around three hours away from Durban. Waking up at 3am (animals are more likely to be seen during the morning), we set out on a car ride that would last 12 hours in total; all driven by a single guy, and yet another testament to the hospitality of the Saffans. Packing a quick lunch made up of leftovers from a braai last night, we headed off.
I was a bit disappointed with the animals. It wasn't really the fact that many of them were in hiding - we must have spent at least 75% of the time driving around aimlessly seeing nothing. It was more that when we did see animals they were just that, animals. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I didn't feel any more excitement here than I would have found in, say, a zoo. Where was the lions taking out the water buffalo? That said it was pretty cool spotting an elephant as it tore down a tree.
But it turned out that this was less about the animals and more about male (and female) bonding. We totalled five guys and a girl (who spent most of the journey in the boot. No, really, she did) and perhaps it's just an obvious cliche, but being in such close proximity for such a long amount of time did serve to build bonds, personal stories and plenty of jokes.
Today was a case of enjoying the journey rather than the destination, a testament to the concept of the road trip and explicit bonding and because of that it remains one of the best things we did in South Africa. In some ways it was the most indicative example of how this holiday as a whole was less about tourism and more about the company. Good times.
Sunday, April 25
Due to all the nuptials this weekend I had the opportunity to sit in three marriage orientated lectures, one each before the Nikkah, reception and Valima. Although they were all quite different they all shared a common fundamental point: that South African Asian Muslim men needed to step up a bit.
You know, about how there is a huge pool (ie oversupply) of awesome single women just waiting to be good wives for any guy lucky enough to realise it, and that men needed to stop looking at beauty and youth when considering a woman for marriage and begin appreciating all those law and medical degrees their counterparts went out of their way to get instead. They needed to begin to accept that women had a voice, and support their struggle for an equal standing; that female independence is something to be sought after and celebrated and not shied away from.
Judging by the nodding of heads on the men's side (and the alleged swooning on the girls') this all seemed to be pretty well received by the audience at hand. So yes, perhaps South African Men really do suck?
It's funny though. There are times when I stare at wonder at how advanced Muslim society is here in South Africa (especially when it comes to more traditional practise like prayer and halal food) but then there are times like this when I'm reminded of our own development and journey back in the UK. This is all pretty much much the same kinda thing we used to hear back in London five years or so ago, a lot of it which has already been challenged by men and women alike since then - I won't go into the details since they're a bit boring. However I will say that the overall effect there was to have people marry a bit later in life at an age none really expected; it'd be interesting to see how it pans out in these parts.
As an aside from what I can tell of the girls I spoke too although many of them are all mild feminists (quite depressingly I don't think I met any who had or were willing to change their names after marriage) they all seemed well rooted in tradition. I'm still trying to get my head around this. Either some are in a huge denial about what they believe to be their role in society or they've exclusively managed to follow a narrow path which has eluded other women all over the world.
One of the biggest draws for me coming here was to experience first hand the wonderful sense of balance I've seen in the Saffans I've met in places other than their home country. I think it has something to do with how they've been in a non-Muslim country for centuries and so have gotten over some of the identity issues those in other places like the UK, US and Canada are still struggling with. And what better place to get a good picture of identity than at a wedding?
It was very similar to the vibe I got during the wedding I attended in Australia (the family of which were also originally from South Africa). We had bearded guys in thobes, clean cut guys in suits, women in traditional gear, women in dresses all hanging out in the same place accepting each other for who they are. It's lovely to witness and something we're still pretty far away from in the UK. The events I went to were what I can only describe as "loosely segregated", where there were obvious male and female sections, but without any damnations to hell cast if the odd person happened to become confused with their gender. And yes, we did spend more time than necessary in the wrong section. Even the food was cool - Indian cooked chicken served with steak and chips? Blimey.
There were some things I noticed which went against these observations though. There seems to be a sweeping wave of new age and populist Islam (you know, the type that combines Islam with feminism and animal rights) as well as minority who are turning quite heavily toward the literal and cultural route. However what's awesome is that above all there seems to be a good understanding and acceptance of difference - it must be an apartheid thing.
So three months are officially up then, and I've fulfilled the challenge that had been set out for me; and as such here is the inevitable analysis and post-mortem regarding my findings.
First up some qualifications and admissions. I did actually break the contract a few times before today. There was a single dinner out with friends, four of us in a mixed group of equal numbers, but more criminal than this was me visiting a friends house for dinner where I turned out to be the only guy of five. For shame. To be fair one of the girls was leaving the country indefinitely so I felt I could bend the rules on that particular occasion.
Then of course there's the fact that I was out of the country for most of the time I was placed under conditions. That said South Africa had potential to make my life difficult, but quite fortunately my Durban leg turned out to be full of bromance and man-crushes anyway. That said, I'm glad purdah lifts today since I suspect there will be times when I'll have to chat to women, and I'd like to be able to enjoy that without awkwardness, thanks.
Overall, I think I fulfilled the terms of my contract.
So what has changed? Well not much to be honest. I don't perceive women any different to how I did three months ago, and I haven't all of a sudden begun to appreciate or fancy any of my girl mates (well not any more than I already did anyway). Avoiding women hasn't made me any more desperate to get married (although that's probably because it's impossible to be any more desperate than I already am) and I find myself still wanting the same things from a wife. In that sense the experience has been quite vindicating and reassuring that I'm sure about what I want and can offer in return.
So what have I learned about myself? Well most of the lessons have been indirect; not being able to join my usual circle of friends for dinners and the like taught me that I didn't need to take up all the invites to socialise thrown my way and that I wouldn't die if I missed out on a dinner or two.
I also grew a pair and found that, actually, hanging out with guys can be quite fun; provided of course that I'm hanging with the right guys. This is good to know seeing as most potential wives seem to reserve their right to do their own thing from time to time so at least I know I won't get too bored when they do.
And finally I've demonstrated to myself that I'm able to cut out certain things in my life should the need arise. Although some (including me to a certain extent) may find the idea of limiting friendship, especially on gender lines, pretty harsh, at least I know how possible such an action would be to do. And possibly more usefully, potential rishtas now know this too.
So yes, all very interesting (or not I guess). I must admit that I found it a relatively useful exercise to take part in, even though my prediction that it wouldn't actually get me any closer to actually getting actually married came to pass as true. Whether or not it actually helps in the long run I don't think I'll ever know, but for now I just glad that I'm able to go back to enjoying the exquisite company of my female friends once again.
Perhaps it's because I'm from London, but I'm quite used to making quick decisions and preparing for whatever it is I've planned to do. I guess time seems to be a luxury back home, which is why I tend to be so impressed at the laid back quality of life in other cities around the world like Brisbane or even here in Durban. The fact that it takes 15 minutes to get anywhere helps though.
But there are times when this lack of urgency becomes a little frustrating. When it takes longer to decide what to do than to actually do it, you start to think maybe things should be done differently. That said there has been times when figuring out what to do is a laugh in itself (the journey versus the destination and all that) and to be fair once we finally figure out what to do we usually get right on it.
I guess I just need to let go and slow down my own pace to suit the local way of doing things. I mean hey, it's only been three days and it feels like we've done a month's worth of stuff anyway.
Friday, April 23
Or rather assistant journalist. Oh, alright, we just tagged along for the ride. Anyway, as part of our focus on hanging around with our mates instead of being mere tourists, we were taken by a friend to a shady back alley residence to see him interview a couple of Somalian guys about their experiences as asylum seekers in South Africa.
They had some pretty harrowing stories, although nothing really that different to what you would hear from a Somali asylum seeker in London. They were bullied (sometimes with violence) for trying to earn a keep and blamed for taking away money and jobs from the locality when all they were doing was working harder than the locals. They were seen as foreigners who clearly had a home to go back to.
In short: different country, same stuff. Even though I nodded off for a bit (hey! We had travelled half way across the world the day before), it was an eye opening experience, one that added yet another dimension to the general issue of race relations in South Africa.
A lot has been said about the state of affairs in South Africa when it comes to crime. Muggings and car-jackings are common place apparently and tourists are spotted as targets a mile away. Even though I never really thought it could be as bad as I heard it was, I did leave my brand spanking new HTC Desire in London, you know just in case.
That said, walking around the streets of Central Durban it's clear that many of the people who warned me about the mean streets of Durban have never been to the Karachi or any of the other hotspots in the Subcontinent.
I felt much safer here than in Karachi but perhaps my judgement was being clouded by the fact that I was on holiday. The fact of the matter is that of all the people I've met so far, more than a few have personally been mugged, car-jacked, smash and grabbed and had even had family members murdered. Hard core stuff, and one of the main concerns I would have if I ever considered moving here.
Maybe it was just me, but I noticed immediately how there weren't actually any white people serving. Most were Black, some were Asian (and pretty, but that's neither here nor there), but there wasn't a single white person asking if I needed to buy anything. Not even in managerial positions. It was actually quite bizarre.
Otherwise there wasn't much else making this different from a UK or US shopping mall/centre. Things seem a bit pricey here though.
Thursday, April 22
I never really got to grips with this whole group dhikr thing currently becoming popular in London. In fact the one that I went to tonight was my first, which is probably why I approached it with curiosity and reservation more that a complete willingness to participate. It was the pretty standard stuff I had come to expect from how others described it, but I did remain quiet throughout a lot of it. I guess it's something to get used to, although I do have to consider how it fits in with my own practise of Islam.
That aside, I did appreciate the whole group, social and community aspect of the evening. The event was open to men and women, and we all had a good chance to chat afterwards over some awesome food.
I have to admit that I was kinda surprised with the prevalence of the whole Sufi/Brelvi vibe here in South Africa. Coming from a Gujarati background myself and knowing how traditional and "sterile" those who have come directly from that part of the sub-continent can be, I was kind of expecting the same practice here in South Africa. Instead I see behaviour I commonly associate with those Muslims in the UK originally coming from North Pakistan and the Punjab.
The long shot is that I had a pretty good time tonight, and after meeting all the main players in the upcoming wedding I reckon this trip has been set up to be a pretty amazing one. And we just arrived today!
Since we've arrived in South Africa six days late, we've had to make some pretty big changes to our trip. The first casualty was a trip to Drakensberg with a bunch of guys (whom admittedly I had never met before) as part of some pre-marriage bonding bachelour ritual. If I'm being honest missing that wasn't as much a big deal for me, but seeing as part of the reason of the trip was to receive us to Saffan land it's a shame we didn't make it.
Still, we did arrive just in time to catch our flights to Durban. As it stands the only thing we've seen of Johannesburg is its airport (and Ocean Basket: amazing fish, prawns less so), but seeing as we've extended our return we'll get a good chunk of contiguous time here toward the end of our trip anyway.
Hey. Wait a minute. We're actually in South Africa! Blimey.
Wednesday, April 21
The A380 we're flying on wasn't around when we first booked our flights to South Africa. Presumably Air France have brought in the plane on this route to serve World Cup traffic, but for us it means getting the unexpected chance to travel on a relatively empty double decker plane. Woo.
To be honest though once we sat in our seats there was little to distinguish it from any other more smaller plane. Where's the bar/gym/cinema/swimming pool?
What a con. Still, at least it's clean. And I must admit that I was in awe of how such a beast could actually take to the skies. Amazing.
After four rebookings, masses of uncertainty and even a coming to terms with the fact that we might not even go to South Africa at all, we've finally secured a flight (that is actually scheduled to leave) for tonight. I'll spare you my opinion on the whole ash cloud thing, except to say that I'm not amused that it is a policy change rather than environmental.
It's weird though, because the part of my brain that usually gets excited about travelling seems to have been beaten to death by the constant on and off status of the trip as a whole. So in some ways I'm not even expecting tonight's flight to go. It's not that I'm trying not to get too excited, it's more that I don't seem able to care.
Still, I'm sure it'll wear off if we do fly.
Thursday, April 15
It's Rocking - Kya Love Story Hai
Although I've been hearing this song for a while I never got around to figuring out where it was from. Fun and quite schizophrenic it's one of those songs that tends to put me into a silly mood after listening to it.
Teri Ore - Singh is Kinng
Yes, YES. I know.
Wednesday, April 14
And there you have it: I have finally succumbed and joined the fancy fray of smart and large screened smartphones. But to be fair picking HTC's current flagship didn't feel like much of a compromise or downgrade from my trusted Nokia E71, a phone second only to the great SonyEricsson K750i.
I love the E71 for one big reason: its keyboard. That alone really changed the way I used my phone; I was texting more(!), I was emailing more and I was generally using the non-talk features of my phone more (although this was also helped by a new O2 contract which gave me more minutes and texts than I could possibly use and unlimited infinite). So important was the keyboard that it's been the only reason I've not bothered changing my phone.
Still, despite my fondness of the Nokia it was starting to grate a bit - it was clear how underpowered and sluggish it was, and the lack of consistency in its UI was starting to annoy me a bit. Oh and I've not used my calendar effectively since getting it due to Nokia's insistence on reminding me about events not via a discreet notification (which every other sane phone will do) but a repeated alarm tone, something I was forced to dismiss and therefore forget about.
So when HTC announced the Bravo, a phone that would lay the foundation for a series of phones including the Google Nexus One and my new handset, the Desire, I decided to take an interest. I had already decided on supporting Android over the iPhone, WebOS and Symbian as my next generation smartphone platform, so all that was left was the hardware specification. Apart from the usual GPS and compass, the Desire has a 1GHz Snapdragon processor and a large and lovely OLED capacitive touchscreen (which I've now learned not to actually push too hard). If I was looking to switch to a current phone, this would have to be it.
Well not really, since the Nexus One was also an option. A quick search on Google will tell you the differences, but for me the deciding factor was that the Desire was released here in the UK first. That said I like the hard buttons and love the trackpad, but do miss the voice-to-text and navigation stuff that the Google branded phone has (those who have seen it in action might consider it as magical as I do). EDIT: Thanks to the magicians at XDA, I now have both voice recognition and UK Google Navigation on my Desire. And they're both pretty awesome.
So after a week with the HTC, what do I think? Well, my misgivings about non-pure Android implementations and UIs like Sense have pretty much been thrown out of the window, and I now appreciate how much they add to the platform. It remains to be seen what effect it has on Android updates and the like. I hope that HTC don't drag their heels too much, although I suspect I'll be hitting XDA quite a lot over the next year or so.
It took me a while to get used to the Android (or maybe even smartphone) way of doing things - having a separate phone application for instance confused me a bit, and due to the phone refusing to sync with my PC over bluetooth (an unforgivable omission) it took me a while to figure out how to use Google Contacts and Calendar in a clean and manageable way (I've spent a lot of time keeping my address book in order. Perhaps a little anal but hey). I also don't understand why the HTC (and other manufacturers) insist on putting their headphone sockets on the top of their handsets - I can't be the only one who puts their phone in their pockets upside down in order to pull it out the right way, and it doesn't even make sense having it at the top when you're using it or have it against your ear.
Unfortunately calendar notifications still don't work the way they should (which so far only SE seems to have nailed correctly in their decade old phones. I wonder if they've changed it "for the better" yet?). Here's a clue, dear phone makers: notifications should be discreet and short (think a single beep) and then added to a list of outstanding events. The Desire gets this right to an extent, except the events will keep beeping every five minutes or so until you dismiss or snooze them, which of course then hides them so you forget what they were about in the first place. On top of that, you can only clear all outstanding events and not just the single ones you want to. Absurd, absurd, absurd and possibly enough for me to not bother with the calendar in this phone either.
I also have a few issues with battery life - although I'm guessing that a daily recharge regime is something I'll have to accept and get used to. Of course the battery may still have to settle down, plus I might be playing with it much more than I will be usually.
As time goes on and I adapt the way I consider the handset (it's not a phone, it's a portable computer with a modem) I'm getting over some of the issues I had. And it's already changed the way I do things for the better - I now no longer use Outlook as a overkilling contact and calendar backup (although I'm not sure Google is a better bet) and I love how I have a list of the day's prayer times as a widget on my home screen. Web browsing is so easy I've started using my phone to surf even though I have a PC in the same room, and practical things like a Qiblah compass mean that I don't need to carry my own anymore (although I probably still will since that doesn't take batteries). Things I thought I would hate - like Facebook contacts - work like a dream and really do make a difference as it means I don't have to manage things like contact pictures and birthdays myself. I doubt I'll be using the phone to email or IM on the go, but that's more of a lifestyle choice rather than a fault of the Desire.
To be honest I didn't immediately fall in love with this phone in the same way I did the SE's or the E71. But if my first week with it is anything to go by the potential is definitely there and it might even surpass the K750i as the phone I consider to have been the best I've ever owned. I don't even miss the keyboard on my E71 that much (although I will be disabling the auto-correct pretty damn soon).
According to you - Orianthi
As heard on a big open air display while aimlessly wondering through the Amerikamura area in Osaka, this track has managed to become my track of the holiday, and that after only hearing once. It's more teenage angsty trash, but it somehow fit anyway. And on the flight back home I came across her again while watching Michael Jackson's This Is It. She's quite a talented guitarist actually.
Monday, April 12
I have a theory that How to Train Your Dragon was just a big excuse to make a film full of some awesome flying and swooping 3D action sequences. And talking as someone who's never been fully convinced of this whole 3D thing, I gotta admit that some of the goggle enabled effects in this film were pretty fantastic.
But even without the help of the visuals HTTYD would still be a brilliant film. The story, the plot, the script, the voice acting; all were way above the curve and the film served as proof that the well saturated genre can still provide some gems. It's super funny too, with the mandatory slapstick well and present for the kids with a good dose of sarcasm for those looking after them.
And that's about it really. Go watch, 'cos it's ace. You don't even need, say, a couple of nephews in order to get away with it.
Sunday, April 11
I'm quite the cynic when it comes to temporary art exhibitions. Unlike the more permanent collections which have stood the test of time and therefore have more of a classic feel to them, the more short term collections always seem to me to be jumping on some kind of bandwagon. Of course it could just be that I don't really Get It™, but I'd rather admit to that then fake some awe.
Take this exhibition for instance. Some might say it's come a little too late; being brown is so last year, but then I guess it takes time to find enough prints to build a collection justifying an 8.50 entry ticket (although we got in for nowt during Whitechapel Gallery's free 11-1 Sunday morning session).
That's not to say that the whole thing was totally just a mish mash of gimmicks and cliches; there were some genuinely good stuff in there - I liked a picture of a girl jumping in the burned streets of Lahore as well as some of the other "lifestyle" shots and my dad would have loved to see the older Bollywood stuff - but after a while the constant stream of yet more black and white and what I hope to have been deliberately out of focus shots began to grate a bit. In my opinion there was a lot of noise in this collection, and I think the whole display would have been a little better off had the organisers exercised a little more discretion.
So a bit of a disappointment then, although possibly one borne of my own bias. Either way today was the last day of the show so you can't really decide for yourselves, although I have a hunch the same stuff will pop up at the next brown art do anyway.
Friday, April 9
Film about a loser who decides to do something about all the bad people out there by dressing up as a superhero and generally getting his butt kicked. Kick-Ass's main pull is going against the grain when it comes to typical superhero lore; even our main protagonist complains about how unrealistic normal superhero stories are. Whether it succeeds in this or not probably depends on who's watching. For me, it all got a bit silly and, worse still, hypocritical toward the end.
But this film is definitely one to watch. Why? Because of Chloe Moretz's Mindy. I won't spoil anything here, but you can get a good idea of how ace her character is in the trailers. Frankly I'm not sure how they even got away with it, but hey, maybe I'm old fashioned like that.
A bit disappointing otherwise, but worth a look for Mindy alone.
Wednesday, April 7
After what seemed like months, we were finally heading home. It was weird passing back through Incheon, the Korean airport that served as my personal gateway to Japan.
My eagerness to return was a direct result of not being able to do the hotel thing for more than two weeks at a time as the homesickness kicks in; I fare much better during holidays where I stay with family or friends for instance.
That said, my time in Korea and Japan have been pretty much filled to the brim. I've done most of the stuff I had wanted to as well as a fair amount of stuff that happened by chance (and I don't just mean Park Eun Kyung), and the trip has been well worth it. My only regret is not having much time to just hang out; of course as a tourist this isn't as easy as it sounds as you're pulled by the promise of amazing sights and sounds.
In fact I'm not sure that I want to return to Japan or Korea any time soon, unless it was to see a friend or something. And if I did, I would certainly leave the camera and guidebook at home, focussing instead on socialising or hanging out.
But as it stands I have had a wonderful time in the region, and I've finally managed to tick off a country I have longed to visit for ever but that has somehow managed to elude me till now. It took a lot of energy to get it done though - in fact I reckon I need another holiday just to recover.
Tuesday, April 6
Today was all about unwinding. There was no plan (well for me anyway: my friends were off to gorge themselves on meat again), no page in the guidebook bookmarked and no leaflets left describing where to go or what to do. Leaving my camera and guidebook in the hotel, I picked up my much neglected reading book and headed out to where I thought a park or public space might be.
Namba Parks is an artificial bit of greenery situated on top and within a shopping complex and transit hub. That's not to say it's not a nice place to relax and chill out; it was certainly sufficiently secluded for me to plant myself and bask in the glorious sun for an hour this morning. But after a few chapters I decided that I was looking for somewhere a bit busier in order to get in a spat of people watching as I read.
So I headed back to Dotombori and the crowded Ebisubashi bridge where I was immediately greeted by a street entertainer. After watching him do his thing I headed toward Amerikamura, much trendier during the day (punks and all) in order to check out a halal restaurant in the area.
After meeting up with my pals in the hotel I headed back out to Ebisubashi for a couple of more hours of reading and people watching. The weather was perfect for this and footfall at a maximum. I suddenly realised how much I liked Osaka.
We spent another hour or so wondering around Simsubashi, after which we headed to the south of Dotombori in order to catch an early dinner and partake in a cheesecake mission (which was quite weird by the way - super light and fluffy with no biscuit base, I think I had way more than I should have).
The only thing I had left to do was to pack for the last time and grab some rest. We have an early start tomorrow as we finally catch our flight home.
Monday, April 5
Nara was to be our final day trip in Japan, and after a relatively lazy start we arrived in the area at around 10am. The most striking thing about Nara is the large number of free roaming deer just walking about the streets, hassling any passer-by who was offering them food (every few metres there would inevitably be a deer biscuit seller to satisfy any urge a tourist had to feed one). It added to the whole natural vibe of the area and we spent quite a while in awe of how tame and majestic they were.
back on the sightseeing trail we passed by the equally majestic five story pagoda on our way through the Nandaimon Gate in order to get to the main reason I wanted to come to Nara in the first place: to see the Daibutsu sitting in the Todaiji Temple. This is a massive metal statue of the Buddha which, in Nara, happens to be enclosed in a great hall - itself being the largest wooden building in the world. Despite being awesome to look at, what's amazing about the hall is that it's actually only two thirds of the size it originally was. Behind the Buddha is a wooden post with a hole that is apparently the same size as one of the Buddha's nostrils - passing through this grants one enlightenment, but I chose to try it just for the challenge (and yes, I made it through okay).
Since Nara is pretty small, we were more or less done with the other sights and attractions in the area (including Nigatsu-do Hall and the Kasuga Shrine) by lunchtime. After grabbing some food in Nara we headed back to Osaka for more wondering around. Our first objective was to check out Festival Gate, a shopping and entertainment complex south of Den Den Town, but when we finally found it, it was closed and even a bit derelict. The journey wasn't a complete waste since we got to see the shadier part of Osaka; we decided to quickly take the train back though.
After a brief rest in our hotel we went for dinner and then paid a visit to the bar in the nearby Swissotel. To say my breath was taken away is an understatement as I was treated to one of the best night view of a city that I had ever seen, be it in Japan or elsewhere. Osaka is such a vibrant city at night, with countless buildings amidst a couple of sky scrapers all laid out as far as the eye can see. At last I was treated to the cosmopolitan Japan of my imagination; this wasn't just a modern city but a futuristic one - think Blade Runner and you'll have an idea of what I mean. The bar food and drink was a bit pricey though, but to be honest it was worth it for the view alone.
We now have one more day left in Japan.
Sunday, April 4
We decided to stay in Osaka today, and while my friends went on a meat binge for breakfast I decided to take the opportunity for more walking, sightseeing and aimless wandering.
I roamed about our hotel, the Kita area, and then headed out to Osaka Castle. Although this wasn't a patch on yesterday's Himeji, it was still nice to watch the crowds spend a lazy Sunday in the castle grounds with their family and friends. Walking back, I passed by a riverside park with more of the same, but with live music playing alongside BBQs a-cooking. Unfortunately I had left my music and book at the hotel, otherwise I could have easily spent an hour or so hanging out.
After returning to the hotel to meet my by then well fed friends, we transferred to our second Osaka hotel in the Minami area. The Cross was another boutique hotel and I was glad to ride out the remainder of my time in Japan in style. We're ideally located too, mere seconds from the buzzing Dotombori.
After a brief rest we headed out to Minami. We visited the electic district of Den Den Town, walked up and down Dotombori and passed by Amerikamura, all the time lapping up the atmosphere. This afternoon was (finally) more about experiencing vibe than sightseeing and as such served as a winding up of the holiday as a whole.
Saturday, April 3
Today we visted what turned out to be our biggest time-sink of the trip so far: Himeji Castle. We were compelled to brave one of Japan's most popular sights during one of its busiest occasions due to it being list on so many must-see lists, but even with that in mind we did wonder whether the one hour queue to get tickets and three hour queue to enter the castle was worth the hassle.
And to be honest, it wasn't. Like many castles around the world, Himeji was perfectly accessible from the outside and in retrospect our time would have been better spent lazing in the grounds, watching the live music and dance that was going on there. Instead we waited to climb the castle and see some admittedly wonderful views of the surrounding town.
The massive queues and time spent traversing them had taken their toll, so after a brief walk around Himeji town we headed back to Osaka. After dinner we visited the n-shaped Umeda Sky Tower north of where we were staying in order to take in some of the views it had to offer via its glass elevator and suspended-in-mid-air sky elevators (and yes, it's what you're imagining). Since those alone were so much fun we decided to pass paying to get into the actual observatory itself.
Osaka at night is pretty cool. The distinct lowering of pace has made us realise how much of a toll all the action is taking on us.
We decided to grab an early night.
Friday, April 2
According to all the guidebooks and friendly advice, a mere night in Kyoto is no where near enough time to take the place in. Even considering the fact that my friends and I are quite quick at the whole tourist thing, I was worried that I'd miss out on some things before our train to Osaka later that afternoon. Add to that that I had to somehow find the mosque and squeeze in Jummah today, it wasn't looking too good.
It's times like these when spending a little time to plan and prioritise really pays dividends. Laying out maps and sample walking tours, I figured out a plan that would lead me through most of what I wanted to see, provided I stuck to my usually brisk walking pace. I think my friends found it incredible that I would even consider walking the length of Kyoto, but in my mind a ten minute walk is better than a ten minute wait for a bus.
We started south of our locality of Higashiyama, checking out a threesome of temples right across our ryokan: Entokuin, Kodaiji and the Ryozen Kannon. There wasn't really much to see apart from a (literally) hugely impressive stone bhudda in the Kannon. We continued walking the back streets until we reached Kiyomizu temple which included an impressively large main hall seemingly balanced on stilts. Classically Japanese, it was a pretty amazing site. Beside that was Zuigudo hall which had what I can only describe as an underground passage in pitch black; which provided an amusing and curious experience to follow. On the walk away from Kiyomizu, we lazily walked through the stalls and shops, stopping to take pictures of the Yasaka Pagoda and wondering geishas.
In retrospect I spent way too long in the south of Higashiyama, and so taking leave of my colleagues I went off to do my own thing. It was 11am and I had yet to see the couple of sights I wanted to before joining the Jummah congregation a couple of miles North of where I currently was. What followed was a whistle-stop tour of the rest of the Higashiyama area, and although many would have criticised me for rushing I think I paced it quite well.
Chion-in Temple was the star for me, if only for its ominous leading stairway. Once up there was the usual array of halls and temples, and the same went for the Shoren-in Temple further down the road. Carrying on north I passed under a huge torii gate at the entrance of the Heian Shrine, with yet more of the same. As you can probably tell I was beginning to overdose on the temples and shrines by this point; I wouldn't say that I didn't enjoy checking out the ones I had, but I wouldn't call any of them too unmissable, and at 500 yen entrance fee a piece you'd probably bankrupt yourself if you chose to visit all of them anyway.
With the help of some friendly passer bys I managed to find the mosque relatively easy, although arriving at 12:30 meant missing most of the khutba; what I did catch seemed to be an English reading of something from Islam online or the like. Doing my usual post Jummah rounds I started talking to a Russian immigrant; once I heard he worked in a kebab shop I made sure I latched on to him for lunch. He took me to the Kyoto University cafeteria where I grabbed a halal kebab, and hung out with my Russian friend and a couple of other students, chatting about Kyoto and other things. Once again, this was one of those unique experiences that no guidebook can direct you to and I savoured every moment. Alas I was on a clock and so left my new friends earlier than I really wanted to.
After being put back on track by my new Russian friend I headed east toward the Ginkakuji Temple. On the way I happened to come across the entrance to what turned out to be Yoshida Hill. I hadn't read anything about it till then; it was deserted but seemed interesting enough so I decided to take a punt and headed up the winding path.
An hour of aimless wondering later and I found my way back on the main road to Ginkakuji. In that hour I had scaled a hill, invaded a graveyard, found a row of over twenty torii gates, found some hidden shrines, visited an isolated hilltop cafe and witnessed some breathtaking and unique views of Kyoto. Not bad for a punt.
Fully aware of the time I rushed ahead and found the start of the old canal running through the eastern side of Kyoto. This canal more of less led home and so was the last journey of today, and so of Kyoto, but there were plenty of sights to be had on the way back. For a start was the canal and adjoining path itself: described as The Path of Philosophy by the local learned, the combination of water, pathway and cherry blossom seemed designed to live up to that name.
Otherwise known as the Silver Pavilion, Ginkakuji will always be compared to its golden brother (or is that sister?). But where the pavilion itself fails to live up to its name, the accompanied gardens were amongst the nicest I had seen yet during my stay in Kyoto. Clean, lush and breezy, it was almost like something from a film.
Rejoining the path, I headed toward what would be the final temple of today, the Honen-in. Unlike many of the other temples I had seen, Honen-in appeared to have a distinct modern feel to it, and was definitely bigger on the inside than it appeared to be on the outside.
Heading home along the path, I came across a street sales lady who was selling a bunch of magically jumping clowns. It would dance, bow and exclaim in response to her questions and had drawn quite a large crowd by the time I had joined them. Of course coming from London I'm trained to disbelieve anything like this - I certainly didn't accept her explanation of it being due to "magic". I finally figured out who her stooge was: the quiet guy on the side with his right hand always hidden in his bag which had an invisible tugging along its surface. I decided not to give the game away.
I finally reached the end of the path at Nanzenji Temple, but alas I didn't have the time to check it out. Instead I hung out at its gate, hoping to get a flavour of what lay after it, and then turned away to head back home. Since I was now really tight for time, I decided to throw caution to the wind and take an impromptu short-cut through the back streets of Kyoto. This paid off both in terms of saving time and giving me a last chance at seeing the hidden Kyoto. With a final visit to Maruyama Park I was back at the ryoken where my friends were waiting for me.
Two hours later we were in our hotel in Osaka calling it a day. Due to logistical issues (that is it was fully booked over the weekend) we were unable to spend any more time in Kyoto. I could have easily spent another day here, if only to bathe in the vibe of the city (something the whole trip has only had rare yet excellent moments of). Still, I think today was an outstanding success given what I managed to cover and experience; I must have walked well over ten miles or so.
Thursday, April 1
Due to our lack of a rail pass we were able to book seats on the super fast Nozomi Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. This meant arriving in around two hours, quite the feat considering some of our day trips from Tokyo took longer. Unfortunately I still didn't get to see Fuji and seeing as we weren't coming back to this side of Japan that was pretty much my last chance. Oh no.
Kyoto seemed a bit underwhelming at first, but that all changed once we found our ryokan. We decided to spend our only night in Kyoto in a traditional Japanese inn instead of a hotel, and we immediately realised what a brilliant decision that was. Apart from the ryokan being clean, homely and rustic the service is above par too, which is astonishing considering how Japanese service is leagues ahead of the curve already. I merely had to mention that I needed Jummah tomorrow and they had found my mosque and printed out instructions on how to get there. Amazing.
The local vicinity of Higashiyama had as much character as the ryokan. We paid a visit to the nearby Maruyama Park to check out the cherry blossom and then got straight onto the sightseeing trail. We only had one night so rushed to make the most of our time in Kyoto.
Our first stop was Nijo Castle and its ever squeaking nightingale floors, after which we headed north to check out a trio of sights starting with Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavilion. Next door was Daitokuji, popular due to its rock garden (I can't say that I fully understood the attraction myself). Although we were too late for the final sight, Ryoanji, I did manage to sneak a peak as its wonderful pagoda before it shut completely.
Back in the ryokan the traditional vibe carried on. We put on our robes(!) and settled down for our nine course kaiseki meal; the dinner was awesome in terms of the food, hospitality and the overall experience and we basked in how well we were being looked after. We had reserved our slot in the public bath for after dinner, although we chose not to take the fact that it was public literally and instead split the time between us separately. I could have sat in the hot bath for hours though.
Unfortunately it appeared that I had missed a few friends who were also in Japan - Kyoto was pretty much the only time our paths would have crossed so it was a bit disappointing that we didn't get to see them especially since they had made it all the way to our ryokan while we were away temple hopping. It's a shame, since meeting up with friends on holiday is a pretty special and rare occurrence.
Tonight we sleep on tatmai mats.