Sunday, January 31, 2010

Border Crossings

Bolty crossing into Laos

Bolty sent me this timely reminder about some of the more obscure Border Crossings.

Crossed the Laos / Cambodia border (Voueng Kam / Dom Kralor) a few days back. Only me.. no-one else. Middle of the jungle. As you can see in the photo it was designed for very very small people / animals to cross. I assumed it was used by hobbits or some legendary pixie-type forest creature. The fair to pass was: USD23 for the visa, USD2 for paying immigration for Sunday overtime, USD1 for health check (temp gun at the head) and USD2 for... wait for it........ the ink in the stamp on the visa. I was rolling over laughing. Wish there was someone else there to share it with.... Keep well all. It's mad out there.

My passport (issued after my mugging in Bolivia) is less than 4 years old and valid for 10. However with just four clear pages left, i suddenly realise it isn´t going to get me very far in Africa at all. With great British efficiency i am told to expect a wait of 2-6 weeks.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Dental Hygiene

Any trip to the dentist has always filled me with complete dread and fear.

Even today for a simple visit to my Hygienist, Justine for a complete scrub. I just couldn´t bring myself for love nor money to a dentist in The Ganj (or pretty much the whole of India to be honest - however cheap)

Justine is a very attractive 30 something, who looks the archetypal hygienist, a little too clinical and sterile for my tastes.

She is usually very soft and gentle with me.

But not today!

She is clearly pissed at me for failing to floss properly and daily as previously instructed. Indeed, i have continued to drink large quantities of thick black sweet coffees, and whilst my cigarette intake has been reduced, i still regularly and merrily puff away. She scrubs me with brutish force unusual for someone who looks angelic.

She scowls and warns me that if i continue with my evil ways my teeth will soon begin to drop out.

Feeling like a naughty school-boy, i humbly apologise for the errors of my ways. I do floss, but irregularly. In an effort to win Brownie points i tell her about my twice daily gargling, but Justine remains completely non-plussed. She tells me mouth-washes are completely useless and i am wasting my money on them – something that i hate to do!

She tells me it is a cultural thing. In North America they floss twice daily and have much strong idea about oral hygiene. I take this to be likely truism, and indeed this is verified by GA. Britain has certainly never been at the forefront of dentistry - that´s why we all have crooked and blemished gnashers.

Justine manages to sell me a variety of tiny wire brushes and demands to see me again before i head off on my travels, clearly expecting me to make noticeable improvements to my life-style.

Her clean-up session this morning hurt so much, and coupled with the threat of teeth-loss, fills me with enough fear and remorse to mend the errors of my ways – at least for the next 24 hours.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Some Say No

The Times of India reported this story from Ambala:

The new-age Indian woman has arrived. A bride from Ambala Cantt on Monday walked out on her groom the moment she set eyes on him after the jai mala (garlanding) ceremony, as if, in instant realisation that he wasn’t the man of her dreams. No amount of ranting and raving by the boy and his family or police intervention could bring about a change of heart.

“We tried a lot to persuade Reena but she just wouldn’t listen. She said she didn’t want to marry Dharamvir Singh because she didn’t like him. There was no way we could have forced our will on her,” said the bride’s father, Ramkishan.

I am pleased to hear this - if it doesn´t feel right for her, fair dos. However, the sense of rejection for poor Groom to Be Dharamvir must have been brutal for him.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Secret Slumdog Millionairre

Channel 4 – in my humble opinion the UK´s top terrestrial TV station offers a diverse and more off-beat menu to the discerning viewer as well as collaborating with the film industry – i may be somewhat bias but the independent UK movie scene have produced tens of classic movies with the likes of the award-winning Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, Trainspotters, Slumdog Millionnaire) just one of the benefactors.

Channel 4 takes a successful late 30s/early 40s 3nd generation multi-millionaire Indian businesswoman leading a suburban existence in Derby in central England, and flies Sema Sharma out to Mumbai and introduces her to the largest slum in this incredible city.

Sema is offering tens of thousand pounds hard cash to a needy cause. She goes “under-cover” posing as a potential aid worker to decide which cause will gain offer the most benefit from her donation.

Thus Sema moves out of her Bourgeois existence into a one bedroom bedsit which didn´t look dissimilar to my Ganj bedsit. So she is in tears from Day 1 and continue for the rest of her two week stay.

Sema sees one heart-wrenching scenario to the next, some individuals and some organisations. She struggles to deal with her dilemma and the camera gets in close.

Unable to select just one she spreads her wealth around and split-loads her money. The lucky winners includes a cresh for young kids, a bus school that services the slum areas, a mother trying to raise money for her daughters´ dowries and a homeless man and his family from Rajasthan.

Classic viewing for India-philes like myself

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Nice Time in Nice

I do seem to get around a bit. From the foothills of the Himalayas last month, i have just spent the last few days based in Nice and exploring parts of the Cote d´ Azur.

This is an area of France that i haven´t visited since early childhood, and after the somewhat basic conditions to be found travelling across India, the opulence to be found on the Southern coast of France makes a stark contrast.

This is a region that Boy knows well from his three month stay in 2007 and he is happy to lead me around both Nice and takes me off on hikes around the coastline. Generally the weather has been quite good, especially compared to the British winter i have been suffering with over the previous couple of weeks.

Nice, as a city, oozes that je ne c´est quoi often found in France. The elegance of the buildings is matched by the elegance of its people. My favourite part is the Old City with its narrow alley-ways laced with cool boutiques and shops.

café in the Old Town

Walk eastward and remnants of a 3rd Century BC castle and a small waterfall offer interesting views over the city.

Head a few kilometres East to Villefranche and look out for the spot where Princess Grace made death by car-crash far more fashionable well before Princess Diana. Villefranche has all the beauty of its neighbouring town without the hordes of tourists.

Culturally, Nice and its surround seem to have plenty to offer. We attend a free concert on Saturday afternoon with a mix of Mozart, Verdi and Brookner played by a competent woodwind and brass orchestra. Boy and i also check out one of the jazz clubs – but again a little too funky for my tastes, but Boy persists and admires.

Since 1066, the relationship between the Brits and the French has been chequered, after all, the French are often, well kinda French really. However on this trip i find them much warmer, friendlier and more polite than before, especially when compared to my last few weeks in the UK. In every restaurant, patisserie and even at the SNCF railway station we are warmly greeted and served even with my crappy French that i bastardize with Espanyol.

Nice and its surround became highly fashionable in the 1920s and 30s and coastal walks lead you past mansions owned by the rich and famous. The pink mansion of David Niven near Cap Ferrat and “The Rock” palace of Greta Garbo close to Cap d´ Ail bear witness to this Millionaires´ playground. Each coastal town boasts their own marinas with enormous yachts and boats moored of the coast: the largest one currently harboured in Nice is owned by the Russian oligarch and owner of Chelsea Football Club, Roman Abramovich.

yachts at Monaco

harbour at Beaulieu

One can´t help but to eat and drink well in France. Whether a simple bistro or a swanky restaurant on the promenade (a celebratory birthday lunch sorted by Pa), the food is always tasty, well presented and accompanied by sauces to die for. Alcohol which hasn´t been a drug of choice for some 20 years is plentiful, and i drink more in 3 days than i have over the last 18 months.

One particular favourite restaurant “La Pignatelle” (10 Rue Quincenet, 06310 Beaulieu Sur Mer - telephone 04 93 01 03 37) was simply exquisite.

A couple of side-trips take Boy and I into the principality of Monaco. With Monte Carlo as its capital, it is luxuriant as one can imagine.

subway in Monaco

The Aquarium wasn´t cheap at Euros 13 but as a fish-lover, it was a particularly favourite place to spend our final morning in the rain. There are a wide variety of aquariums of varied sizes and a maritime and Natural History museum upstairs.

easy to find Nemo in this tank

Lion fish

Getting around is relatively easy. Many of the coastal walks offer walking tracks, and buses are pretty cheap and regular. Also regular are the trains, which are more comfortable but much more expensive.

With the Euro currently so high, it is certainly difficult to find bargains. Nonetheless the break has done me good with more sun, healthy sea-air, quality food and offering an interesting contrast to places i normally visit. I note it all seems a bit too “civilised” and i yearn for places more wild and exotic.

Fortunately my parents continue to mellow with age, i find there company more pleasurable. They in turn appreciate our time together and continue to spoil Boy and I. It is a most pleasant of breaks from the dissertation that at the moment just gives me migraines.
Ma and Pa

Boy - a capable guide and coastal hiker

a guardian angel?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

General Ketchup

It is so difficult for me to adjust to life in England and I feel somewhat lost and in some Kafka-esque nightmare – a weird and distorted limbo.

So i try to bury my head in my thesis, escaping occasionally to play with family and friends who make my life bearable. I am so blessed. I have met just a chosen few and they have been all so lovely, kind and helpful.

Fortunately my first drafts have been surprisingly well received by my University and are close to the point for full submission. Thus, i am planning a final trip up in the first week in February for final meetings with my tutor, and an appointment with the library for final reference checks. March now looks the likely start for my African Adventures and running more than six weeks behind where i wanted to be, Plan B has been forced into implementation.

Just as well for my feet itch to travel.

And travel i will, for today i meet up with Boy and together we head off to meet up with parents who sensibly winter in the South of France for a three day trip. I have been through Nice as a kid, but i can´t remember anything about the place. I travel with The Beast and i´ll let you know.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My Very Own Guardian Angel

Following my excessive hippy experiences over the last 18 months it was bound to have a 60s style effect on me.

Now, you can poo-poo this all you like, but I have recently been blessed to have my own Guardian Angel. Not only does she look after me in so many mysterious and truly wonderful ways, she offers sound advice and shows me unconditional love too. Wow! How cool is that? I only wish I felt so deserving.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

As Pretty As A Picture?

Emma, my precocious and much spoiled Hong Kong born and based cousin is a bit of an artist. She has kindly immortalized me in a portrait and sent it out via Facebook.

I think i am meant to be the one sitting shoeless on the far left in the corner on the blue sofa with a teddy bear – right out there. What is she trying to say about me i wonder?

Monday, January 18, 2010

An Eye and a Lens

Sunset in Utah

Taken by my special correspondent in Utah, her neighbourhood looks magical. I can´t believe it has not ended up on my "must-sees before i die" list before.

Although not a trained artist, my friend clearly has a natural eye for colour, light and composition. Always reluctant to share her pictures with me, i do have to beg quite hard to secure a few, but the results are so worth it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Expat Experience Survey

Many thanks to Loud Shirt Chip for passing this article my way. Ideal for those like myself who chose a life of self-imposed exile.

The second annual Expat Experience survey, commissioned by HSBC Bank International, revealed that expats in Canada have the best quality of life and found it among the easiest places in the world to integrate with the local population.

Australia and Thailand also came in the top three in the survey of 3,146 people working in 30 different industries and 50 countries, even though Thailand was one of the countries worst-hit by the recession for expats.

"We have seen that there is a distinct trade-off between income and overall quality of life, as many of the top performers ... scored toward the bottom of this report's league table (of the best places to make and save money)," said Betony Taylor, spokeswoman for HSBC Bank International.

"What is clear is that the locations where salaries may not be as high, such as Canada and Australia, are where expats are really enjoying not only an increased quality of life but are also finding it easy to fit in to their new communities."

Last year Germany, Canada and Spain were the top three countries deemed to have the best lifestyle for expats.

This year Britain was one of the lowest ranked locations when it came to lifestyle after being named as one of the most expensive places for expats with the recession taking its toll.

About 44 percent of expats in Britain are considering returning home, compared with only 15 percent of expats overall.

About 41 percent of expats in Britain find it difficult to find somewhere to live, most find the quality of their accommodation drops after moving to Britain, and a third claim their health has deteriorated since moving there.

"Despite this, the UK does hold the crown for being expat entertainment capital of the world, with over half (58 percent) of expats in the UK saying that the quality of entertainment had increased," said Taylor.

She added that 62 percent of expats also said that employment prospects were the main reason keeping them in the region.

Results from a different section of the survey, which was conducted by research company FreshMinds, released earlier found Russia was home to the highest proportion of expats earning more than $250,000 with 30 percent of international workers there banking that amount, followed by Hong Kong and Japan.

The lowest-paid expats live in Australia and Belgium with the majority -- 63 percent and 61 percent respectively -- earning less than $100,000.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tiger´s Karma

As a useless and inconsistent, but nonetheless enthusiastic golfer, like many I held Tiger Woods in the highest regard.

Tiger´s fall from grace has undoubtedly shocked many. However, he has shot up in my estimations. How he managed to have procured so many mistresses, and all those distractions that were clearly on offer, he still managed to stay at the very top of this most difficult of sports? Respect!

However, Tiger has learned the hard way and now faces a US$300 million dollar payout for his soon to be ex-wife, as well as the loss of many of his many lucrative sponsorship and endorsement deals.

Tiger made his money by playing around and karma seems to dictate he has lost it through the same means.

Friday, January 15, 2010

101 Years Ago

Model R Ford 1909

Always indebted and inspired by GA, she kindly forwarded yet another interesting email, which this time offers an interesting historical perspective on life in the United States 101 years ago.

The year is 1909, now one hundred years ago. And what a difference a century makes!

Here are some statistics for the Year 1909 :

The average life expectancy was 47 years.

Fuel for this car was sold in drug stores only

Only 14 percent of the homes had a bathtub.

Only 8 percent of the homes had a telephone.

There were only 8,000 cars and only 144 miles of paved roads.

The maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 mph.

The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower!

The average wage in 1909 was 22 cents per hour.

The average worker made between $200 and $400 per year ..

A competent accountant could expect to earn $2000 per year,

A dentist $2,500 per year, a veterinarian between $1,500 and $4,000 per year, and a mechanical engineer about $5,000 per year.

More than 95 percent of all births took place at home.

Ninety percent of all doctors had no college education. Instead, they attended so-called medical schools, many of which were condemned in the press and the government as 'substandard´.

Sugar cost four cents a pound.

Eggs were fourteen cents a dozen.

Coffee was fifteen cents a pound.

Most women only washed their hair once a month, and used Borax or egg yolks for shampoo.

Canada passed a law that prohibited poor people from entering into their country for any reason.

Five leading causes of death were:
1. Pneumonia and influenza
2. Tuberculosis
3. Diarrhea
4. Heart disease
5. Stroke

The American flag had 45 stars.

The population of Las Vegas, Nevada, was only 30.

Two out of every 10 adults couldn't read or write and only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school.

Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter at the local corner drugstores. Back then pharmacists said, 'Heroin clears the complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind,regulates the stomach and bowels, and is, in fact, a perfect guardian of health'

Eighteen percent of households had at least one full-time servant or domestic help..

There were about 230 reported murders in the entire US

95 percent of the taxes we have now did not exist in 1909

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Devastation Hits Haiti

You´d have to be inhuman to ignore the devastation that came in the shape of an earthquake that ravaged the already poor Haitians.

The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, eight out of 10 Haitians earn less than US$2 per day. Indeed, many of the citizens of Port-au-Prince survive on biscuits made from salt and mud. Horrific in itself!

The earthquake hit the capital at 4.53pm on Tuesday. It lasted for 45 seconds, flattening entire areas of the city, knocking out electricity supplies and phone lines, and sparking dozens of small fires. Between 20 and 30 aftershocks, some of them as severe as 6.0, have already hit the island, and experts warned they could continue for days. The death toll could rise anywhere between 50 – 100,000 depending on which newspaper you read.

An excellent article can be found in The Independent by clicking here.

Oxfam are taking donations specifically for this cause. You can donate now by clicking here.

Editor´s Addition: Like an ostrich i can´t bear to turn on the news to witness the aftermath in Hiati. At least if i was back in The Ganj i could at least offered a kora.

Violence at the African Cup of Nations

Just because i smoke like a chimney at a nuclear power plant, does not mean i don´t have a lot of respect for human life.

The shocking scenes of the terrorist attacks on the Togo football team at the start of the African Cup of Nations football tournament held in Angola was totally shocking, and not surprisingly resulted in the Togo government pulling their team from participating in the tournament.

The vicious machine gun attack on the Togo team´s bus has outraged many and resulted in the death of the bus driver, and Togo team´s goalkeeper Dodji Obilale remains in intensive care.

Team captain and Premiership star Emmanuel Adebayor describes the incident in this BBC podcast.

The tournament, so close to Africa´s first World Cup in June, should be a celebration to be reveled in, not become a terrorist target. All Africa has lost out because of the actions of these small-minded murdering bastards.

It looks like Angola is added to my list of no-go areas for my travels which is a shame as it was on my "must see" list and will hamper my desire to complete my travels overland along the coasts of the continent. The other country that still looks too unstable for an on-the-road Aubs is Somalia - again a country that was high on my hit-list due to my friendships with Somalian students at my first school that i taught in.

It´s a bummer!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Advice on Courtship and Marriage – Emily Jessop

J, one of my quintessentially eccentric and literary friends in UK sent me a flier for this book. It claims to be a reprint of a Victorian self-help book. It looks brilliant and i´ll certainly try to track down a copy whilst in England. It gives a somewhat bizarre insight into life in those times, or at least an insight into Ms Jessop´s mind.

I´m sure you´ll agree, there is sound advice for all ladies and gentlemen – quality stuff

GOOD BEHAVIOUR: A young lady should not permit her gentlemen friends to address her by her name. A gentleman should never use the term "Dear" or "My Dear" under any circumstances unless he knows it is perfectly acceptable or a long and friendly acquaintance justifies it.

A young lady who is not engaged may receive calls from unmarried gentlemen as she desires, and may accept an invitation to concerts, to theatres etc.
A lady never calls on a gentleman, unless it is a professional or official matter. It is positively improper to do so.

RECEIVING THE ATTENTIONS OF GENTLEMEN: No well-bred lady will too eagerly receive the attentions of a gentleman, no matter how much she admires him.
However, she should not be so reserved as to altogether discourage him.
A lady never demands attentions and favours from a gentleman, but always accepts them gratefully, graciously and with thanks.

Unmarried ladies should not accept presents from gentlemen to whom they are neither related nor engaged.

APPROPRIATE ATTIRE: Avoid the slouchy appearance of a half-unbuttoned vest and suspender-less pantaloons. That sort of dress is disgusting.

When a gentleman escorts a lady home from a ball, she should not invite him to enter the house, and even if she does so, he should decline the invitation.

BENEFITS OF MARRIAGE: Marriage purifies the complexion, removes blotches from the skin, invigorates the body- and gives elasticity and firmness to the step.
Statistics show married men live longer than bachelors. Child-bearing for women is linked to longevity.

THE HONEYMOON: A husband should remember that his bride cannot stand the same amount of tramping around and sightseeing that he can.

The female organs are so easily affected by excessive exercise of the limbs which support them and, as this is a critical period, it would be foolish and costly to drag a lady hurriedly around the country.

In many cases it lays the foundation for the wife's first and lifelong "backache".

A PERFECT MATCH: The best wife is the woman who has found the right husband, a husband who understands her.

A man will have the best wife when he rates that wife as queen among women.

This sort of man will not only praise the dishes made by his wife, but will actually eat them.

TRUE FACT: Up until 1782 men in Britain had the legal right to beat his wife as long as the stick was "no thicker than his thumb."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lonely Planet Blog Sherpa

Congratulations to me.

Despite some rather lame postings, Ketchup With Aubs has now been awarded the Lonely Planet 2010 "Featured Blogger" badge accolade.

In fairness to myself i have now written 100 articles for Lonely Planet which isn´t bad considering the project has only been running for a year.

I just wish they´d give me some hard cash for my endeavours. The Blog Sherpa project is still in phase two and this might change in its next morph. Here´s hoping, but i will not be holding my breath on this one.

Dry-Suit Diving

Antarctic penguins photographed by Norbert Wu

I am an incompetent, but qualified and an enthusiastic scuba diver. Having qualified in The Philippines in 1992, i have dived throughout S.E. Asia including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. I therefore got used to the tropical waters and diving in some incredible bio diverse underwater environments with 20+ metres visibility.

However i didn´t really appreciate this until i subsequently did dives on the Great Barrier reef and Hawaii which were colder, often lacked clarity and were far less impressive for both coral and fish.

My worst diving however came when visiting Ushuaia in 2007, on the Southern tip of South America, on the way to Antarctica. K. and i decided we´d experiment with a dry-suit and enter the freezing summer waters.

We found a dive-master who had two spare ill-fitting dry-suits which took almost an hour to squish into for our shore dive. Having eventually navigated this first hurdle we both are almost completely unable to move the last couple of metres to enter the water. After 10 minutes of microscopic waddles we finally make it up to our waists in the water. K, sensible as ever, won´t go any further and heads back to shore. However, having spent so long struggling into the equipment, hell - i´m not turning back now.

So i head out into the bay with the dive master. I can´t say i´m cold, but the suit feels like a weapon of torture from the Spanish Inquisition. The BCD is rendered useless as i have no control of the air floatation due to the cumbersome mittens i am wearing which are so tight they cut off my blood circulation.

Whilst the water is clear, there are no fish or cold-water corals to see. There are however huge swathes of large leafed seaweeds which tangle up the equipment and strains to separate my mouth with my regulator.

I endure the ordeal for 20 minutes and despite the fact i still have two thirds of an air-tank left, i have had all i can take. The most uncomfortable of all diving experiences!

I therefore offer my complete respect to underwater photographer Norbert Wu. Whilst i´m sure he possesses a made to measure dry-suit, Wu has spent 400 hours swimming in the coldest waters in the world. He has travelled nearly 200,000 miles and dived in Antarctica more than 1,000 times — spending the equivalent of an astounding 17 full days in the frosty depths.

The daredevil often has to perch in dangerous icy nooks and crannies to take his shots.

His remarkable photos were taken on seven trips to the planet's most southern continent spread over the past 12 years. More of Wu´s outstanding images can be viewed by clicking here.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Natural Photographer

My nephews clearly love their new email accounts, and we have exchanged several emails already. Admittedly their mails are somewhat short and filled with a wide range of Smileys, but this afternoon David sends me a picture of the melting snow in Hitchin.

His photograph is excellent and i´m so proud of his natural ability.

melting snow in Hitchin by David Groves (aged 8)

I just wish the snow would thaw here. Temperatures rose above freezing today for the first time in five days, but instead of thawing here, it has started snowing all over again.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Despite the treacherous weather, I brave the trip up to Hitchin to celebrate my Godson and nephew´s seventh birthday party.

my gorgeous Godson

Rail travel is awkward with several London Underground lines suspended or with minimal services provided.

Nonetheless, both Boy and I struggle over and we are pleased to have been able to join in Jonny´s celebrations for his seventh birthday. We also win additional brownie points for none of Thida´s family is able to attend.

Fortunately most of Jonny´s friends are from his local village school and 12 of the 18 children invited are present.

My sister-in-law certainly knows how to put on a party, providing a great spread with tables bulging to the seams with high quality food – somewhat more suited to adults rather than the children, including smoked salmon and turkey breast sandwiches. Brilliant methinks, and I thoroughly gorge myself to bursting point. Despite the high numbers most of the children are fairly quiet and polite, and it never gets too rowdy.

For entertainment, Thida (my Burmese sister-in-law) has hired a chappy called Mike from Science Boffins. He “performs” for an hour, and is really quite good with the kids, although completely fails to get the balance right between talk and experiments. And indeed, even his experiments appear fairly lame – magnets, balloons, and water pressure.

The kids seem to enjoy it and answer the questions asked with intelligence and appropriate vocabulary. The village school is government owned and is clearly educating their students well. Whilst Thida might wish to send them to a private school, it seems to be based solely on kudos rather than any real dissatisfaction at their current learning institution.

What interests me most is that for an hour, Science Boffins charge a whopping GBP250. Hell! I´m clearly in the wrong profession.

Mike - from Science Boffins - a rich man indeed!

I am most grateful to Thida for she has now set up both my nephews with an email account and at least I feel that even when I am on the road and travelling the planet, I can still stay in contact with them both directly.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Begging in High Definition and Stereo

One of Pa´s most special material possessions is a Bang and Olufsen television. It´s certainly not one of their better models, but it is still pretty cool and sexy-looking.

I have written several postings on beggars in India and are an everyday occurrence on the streets in every city, town and village. Of course beggars can be found in most towns and cities in UK too.

Watching television last night I witness a rather shocking television advert. It is for Action Aid. It is made up of scenes of poverty, from India and other “Third World” countries. The images are disturbing enough, but it is accompanied by text explain their pitiful circumstances, each more shocking than the next. It informs you that for 50 pence “you can make a difference”.

India itself is shocking enough, but in some ways this is even more in your face – it´s emotive, evocative and on Pa´s B&O TV, in high definition and stereo too.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

An Eye and a Lens

buried berries

a Watford supporting snowman

ice crystals on a leaf

Brrrrrrrrrrrritain in Winter

Although a regular visitor to Britain, I rarely do a winter trip.

My last experience of winter in the UK was to perform my Godfatherly duties for Jonathan´s birth in 2004. In Jewish tradition it is the Godfather who holds the baby during their circumcision. It is amazing that my nephew even to talks me, let alone love me, after my role in this most intimate of bodily mutilations.

So with classic timing I arrive in Britain to experience the coldest winter in 30 years. Snow has covered much of Britain – up to 50cms in some parts.

Snow comes to the UK every year, but nonetheless the country seems to grind to a halt. Police recommend no-one should make any journeys unless “absolutely necessary”. TV news and national newspapers are filled with their “snow stories” and everything else has fallen by the wayside. More than 8000 schools are closed, and many county councils are now out of salt and grit. The cost to businesses is said to be more than GBP600 million per day. Just what recession-hit Britain needs at the moment.

Somewhat tragically, like some Dickensian novel, yesterday´s Metro News leading story reports that old age pensioners are buying hardcover books from charity shops to burn on their fires, such is the price of more traditional fuels.

I head up to the supermarket in my walking boots without any difficulty whatsoever. The cold is predicted to last another 10 days and therefore this situation will only deteriorate further.

the parental garden

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Boy, Not Boy

My poor parents were burdened by having four sons, each as different as different peas in the most unusual of pods. Apart from a similar distinctive laugh we are all as chalky cheesy as you could ever possibly imagine.

I am the third son, preceded by Doctor Gloves and followed by Boy. Our oldest brother is known as The Boy; yeah – it is a bit complicated, but it isn´t rocket science.

We have all got our own distinctive personal traits including our psychological problems, but ask anyone who knows our family and The Boy is the most fucked-up. Even he will admit to this.

I confess to having my own issues which include ADHD and OCD, but however screwed I am, The Boy takes these same issues and magnifies them manifold. He has the social skills of a feral child brought up by maggots.

However, The Boy is an exceptionally intelligent guy and although he took more than 10 years to qualify as an MD, he has found an interesting niche as an academic in the Department of Nuclear Medicine at the world-famous University College Hospital in London.

He basically plays with equipment costing millions of dollars pumping radioactive chemicals into patients to check vital organs; predominantly the heart and lungs through PET and CT scans.

The high tech equipment designed in Israel is impressive and some of them are unique in Europe. Thus, The Boy jets across the United States and Europe to deliver keynote speeches in the latest technological capabilities and advances in the field.

Today he gives me a guided tour of the department´s facilities – something that both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have also explored in their time as Prime-ministers.

Despite having the sociability of a pit-bull terrier, The Boy is clearly valued and respected by his co-workers, almost all of which are archetypal geeks. But they are nice and are curious to meet an adventurer (for this is what my brother has clearly described me to them) as well as showing genuine interest in my studies.

I ask The Boy about the state of the National Health Service. Despite the best efforts of the Tony Blair Labour government, The Boy reckons that it is so politicized, the bureaucracy is cumbersome and funds are squandered on unnecessary administrators. This seems to be true in all government departments including public education in Britain.

His salary sounds quite good to me, but he doubles it by working as a private consultant two afternoons a week. He seems resentful that if he was in the same role in the US or Australia his salary would increase fourfold and is seriously considering leaving UK for good.

University College Hospital London

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Ketchup With My Nephews

Jonathan (almost 7) and David (aged 8)

For the last couple of days I have been staying with my nephews for their last days of their Christmas vacation.

It has been divine although somewhat exhausting as they both crave the attention of male company. They are usually surrounded by a handful of Burmese aunts who treat the boys, almost 7 and 8 like toddlers and are continually at their beck and call to meet their every whim. Uncle Aubs would not countenance such behavior however – and has always been great believer of Tough Love.

David on ice

We have certainly had a great time together with shared walks, cooking, board games (junior monopoly and chess), reading and writing activities and even a few crap DVDs to boot.

As over-indulged as they are (and they really are - their toy room would put Toys R Us to shame) they are great fun, affectionate and loving. It is lovely to share in their development and see their personal growth even in just a couple of days.

Jonathan with ice

Monday, January 4, 2010

Are You Ready For Your Own Death?

T.´s 2nd kid - Carla

I am always aware of my own mortality. As I write this now, the increasing seconds and minutes bring me closer to my own demise. Not to mention the Gold Flake cigarette I am puffing on at the moment. This isn´t just for Buddhists you know, it is for us all.

I would like to think I have lived life pretty much to the full. I have travelled the World, shared incredible life experiences in so many different environments and circumstances with many incredible individuals, have found my vocation as an Early Years teacher and received incredible love from both family and friends from around the World.

One day i´m making the dawn walk with T. to our school in the outskirts of Bogotá. T. is a Canadian, and a few years older than me. He is also a complete adventure seeker whose passions include bike touring, running and climbing.

Traffic is horrendous in the Colombian capital and it was often quicker to walk the 12kms rather than get the Staff Bus.

Unfortunately, both Bogotá and especially our exclusive international school is very formal and we have to wear suits and ties. Thus we usually can only do this on co-curricular days when we are dressed in sportswear.

The skies are clear that morning and huge cobwebs glitter in the morning dew. T. has just found out that his wife is pregnant for the second time in 18 months. He loves his son very much, but had no intention of having a second. He starts talking about searching the Internet to find something he could slip his misses that would cause her to abort. T. is so gentle and kind, I am completely shocked and horrified.

T. then throws me a curve ball. He asks me to picture my own death-bed and then asks to think of what my biggest regrets will be. I did and I was very disturbed, humbled and ashamed. At least I am more prepared now. I think i would just prefer to be run down by a bus and not have to contemplate anything.

Give it go for yourself – a classic party game. Cheers T.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

An Eye and a Lens

view from my parents´ balcony

I may have broken several House Rules since arriving back to my parents´ home in England, but one rule that remains unbroken is my indoor smoking ban.

The temperature has dropped to zero so i put on my overcoat and scarf, and take my MP3 player onto my parents´ balcony.

The sun sets early - this shot was taken at about 3.40pm using my 300mm lens.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Walks in the WInter Sun, MP3 Players and Spooks

I have now been in UK for 10 day, and today I finally get to see the winter sun for more than 20 minutes.

It´s 3 degrees Celsius, frost on the ground and not a cloud in the blue sky. Bereft of my beloved kora, I make do with a hike over the nearby golf course over to Hamper Mill.

Hamper Mill

The pathway is icy, but the light is low and sparkly. If I have learnt anything about photography the key component is light which will enhance any composition.

poplar trees

I also enjoyed an MP3 miracle.

My Creative Zen 16K purchased in May on my brief sojourn to Hong Kong refused to operate after the flight down from Dharamsala to Delhi. Next to my camera, it is my most treasured of material possessions and I was seriously concerned about its demise. Just before sleep last night i try it one more time and it unbelievably bursts into life.

Not all is rosy however. My poltergeist from my bedsit in The Ganj has also followed me into my parental home. Working in the dining room, there are footsteps to be heard in my bedroom above on a regular basis.

I tell G about it yesterday and as a logical soul he scoffs at my suggestion of paranormal activity. As we work downstairs the noise returns. G. insists that the noise is probably a mouse. One would expect to hear a soft scurry not footsteps. A little later, again the footsteps return – even heavier this time. I ask G if he wants to review his hypothesis. “Maybe it is a rat!” A rat – my ass.

Much later in the evening the footsteps return again and this time it is accompanied by a tapping on the upstairs window.

Whilst clearly not threatening, it is annoying and increasingly spooky.

Friday, January 1, 2010

I Love My Thesis

So I have made peace with my dissertation – no easy feat I can tell you.

G comes over this afternoon to assist me with the statistical analysis of my data and in four hours we have tested all my six hypotheses and produced supporting pictorial representations in a multitude of colourful and exciting graphs. G is a total star and an incredible friend. He tells me what to write as well, and i´m hopefully down to about 4,000 words to embellish the results and this thesis will be completed and ready for approval for submission.

The results and conclusions should make me a World Leader and Educational Guru in Early Literacy acquisition, but instead the dissertation will sit on the University´s library shelf collecting dust. What a worthy exercise this Masters course is! More like BS rather than an MA.

The stats are amazing. Through the implementation of an accelerated phonics programme, out of fifty five 4 and 5 year old students, 100% were operating above their chronological age in both reading and spelling. On average these Hong Kong students were operating 20 months above their chronological age in reading and 23 months above their chronological age in spelling. Truly outstanding – mind, at least half of them had a brilliant teacher.

Most of these students have English as an additional language. Even more earth-shattering is that students who operated in three languages were more successful than students who were mono or bilingual. A test never academically documented before.

So feeling rather chuffed and inspired a busy week awaits. I´m gonna put this baby to bed and then directly hassle my university for an early submission.

Not much of a New Year´s Eve I hear you say? Oh how wrong. It was truly remarkable and magical, if a little debauched and naughty. But isn´t that what New Year Eve is for?

To regular readers of Ketchup with Aubs, wishing you and all sentient beings a peaceful, magical, adventuresome and healthy 2010.