Back From Belgium, But The Question is…

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Scotland, Aye!

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With Jessica off for two weeks at Easter and Aaron off for the Friday and Monday.  We decided to head up to Scotland with a couple from the house we stayed in when we first got here.  After Aaron finished work on Friday at 17:30 so we rushed to Kings Cross station in North London to catch our 18:15 train to Edinburgh.  We made it with time to spare and we can say the first leg of the train was nice, but when we had to switch in York then things got interesting!

As soon as we got on the next train we saw 5 or 6 young Scottish guys sitting with a whole bunch of 12 packs.  From that moment on we knew it’d be a rowdy carriage.  The guys were quite and reserved at the beginning, even gave a beer to Jess, but as we went further into the black of night it got loud.  First off it was louder and louder talking and then an iPod playing to accompany.  Soon it turned into chanting and singing.

There were ten bombers in the air,

There were ten German bombers in the air,

There were ten German bombers, Ten German bombers,

There were ten German bombers in the air,

And the army from Britain shot one down,

And the army from Britain shot one down,

And the army from Britain, The army from Britain ,

And the army from Britain shot one down,

There were nine German bombers in the air,

They subbed in Scotland half way threw and did a few numbers a couple times. It was entertaining, but towards the end of the four and half hour train it was unbearable.  Even when the train arrived in Edinburgh we couldn’t escape their chanting as we could hear it throughout the train station.  Eventually we got away and wound up at McDonalds for a quick late night supper before our search for the apartment we rented for the weekend.

The couple we went with, Scott and Raphael, took the bus from London and got there at 1900.  They didn’t have any issues finding the apartment and now at 23:30 we were going to attempt to do the same.  We were on the right trail, until Jessica had to ask a guy who turned us around the same way we came.  Then we asked these two girls who told us we were going the right way!  Oh boy!  Once we finally arrived, the apartment we rented really WOWed us and Scotty and Raph too.  It was a good size, really well equipped and had a home feel.  We can’t remember the name of the company, but we found it on Edlets.com.  Highly recommend it.  To stay here it was cheaper then a hostel and way cheaper then a hotel.  Plus we could cook our meals.

On top of Carlton Hill

On our first full day in Edinburgh we wound up walking up and around Carlton Hill.  Where you can get great views of the city, although not as good as Arthur’s Seat, and see some cool sights.  Now an extinct volcano, Carlton Hill has an unfinished replica of Athens’ Parthenon called Edinburgh’s Folly, Nelson’s Tower for an even better view, a Portuguese cannon, the City Observatory and a few other things.  It would be a great place to take in a sunset or rise.  After that we wound up walk to the National Portrait Gallery and learn about some famous Scottish people.  To finish up the day we wound up walking around almost aimlessly, but sort of towards the Royal Botanical Gardens.  When we finally did arrive it was closed and we wound up at a pond full of swans and other types of birds.  The last few breathes the day had left, we spent here before heading home to cook dinner and relax.

The following day we had our eyes set on Edinburgh Castle, but had a few distractions and we got there in the late afternoon.  Sited on top of an extinct castle as well, Edinburgh castle provides great views and natural defense too.  In fact, it had such good defense it was never taken over from one single attack (the only way it switched hand was by waiting their water and food supply out) and no army ever got past the 3rd or 4th gate of 7.  There is a lot see here including the Scottish Crown Jewels, the 1 o’clock gun, and the National War Museum of Scotland.  One cool thing about the 1 o’clock gun is traditionally they set off 12 cannons at noon for the ships, however the Scots being cheap on set off 1 at 1 o’clock.  Does the same trick, costs less cannon balls and gives them more time to eat haggis.

We were a bit rushed touring the castle as we had a ghost tour booked at 17:30.  A bit of a shame giving the ticket of admission is a steep £14.50, oh well.  Now the ghost tour I don’t have much to say on that, it was interesting at time but ultimately boring I thought.  Jess enjoyed it and it was sort of neat being in the underground roads/passages of the city.  Earlier in the day we had plans to cook a big Easter dinner and erase our memory of the terrible movie Rob Roy with Braveheart.  We went to Lidl, got all the fixings for supper and headed home.  Everything was going smoothly, the pork roast was in the oven and supper was only a couple hours away.  Until Jess checked on it and noticed the oven was on broil.  Here we had a crispy top with a pink bottom.  Fast forward to around 23:30 and we finally ate a la super rich.  Dinner was fantastic, but maybe not for the wait we had to do.

The Forth Bridge

The following morning after our late night, we had to rush to the city for our Scottish Highland tour with a company called Hairy Coo.  On a suggestion from a teacher Jessica knows, the Hairy Coo runs their tour for FREE!  All they as for is a tip for what you feel the tour is worth.  This deal is great considering most companies charge over £40 for a day trip to highlands and you don’t even get to ride in bright orange buses like the Coo’s.  It was our tour guide, Nicola’s, first tour with the company and she did a great job aside from hitting a pheasant.

The Forth Road Bridge

This tours first stop was at the Firth of Forth where we saw the Forth Bridge an iconic cantilever bridge for trains and the Forth Road Bridge which is a suspension bridge.  Next stop was the National William Wallace Monument, located on top the hill which is where Wallace supposedly watched King Edward I gather his army before the battle of Stirling Bridge.  The monument looks like a Gothic style watch tower that over takes the treed landscape.  After the Wallace Monument, Nicola took us quickly to short look at Stirling Castle and then on to highlands.  Just before the highlands we stopped at the only lake in Scotland, the only lake you ask.  Well it’s the only lake in Scotland that is referred to a lake, the rest are lochs the Scottish Gaelic word for lake.  Not a 100% on the background, but it has something to do with the English on why it’s called Lake of Menteith and not Loch of Menteith.

Lake of Menteith

Almost as soon as we drove a bit from Lake of Menteith the scenery changed pretty dramatically.  What once was fairly low lying land was now hilly with valleys and a more colourful landscape.  It reminded us of the Okanagan with a bit more rock, fall colours and not as green.  It was really pretty to say the least.  After a bit of driving we stopped in a small town for lunch and after a bit of convincing Jess we ate at this on the suggestion of our guide, Nicola.  WOW!  The food here was unreal, they made good sandwiches, pie, burgers.  Out of the four of us nobody had a bad thing to say!  Just full cheeks and big smirks.

Once lunch was done we all piled back on the bus and made our way to see some Hairy Coo’s.  Now you might have asked when you told you the tour company we went with, ‘what is a hairy coo?’  Well it is a hairy cow, just the way the Scottish accent comes out cow sounds like coooooooooooooo.  They are pretty darned cute!  The rest of the tour went pretty quick we stopped at a couple look out points, one other loch, a famous hairy coo in Hamish The Highland Cow, and Duone Castle which is famous from the Monty Python films.

A Hairy Coo!

Overall, all four of us thought the tour was great and a good alternative from the cookie cutter bus tours out there.  Something we would recommend if you are ever in Edinburgh.  After we said our goodbyes to Nicola we went to a whisky bar to indulge.  Just a block or two from where the bus dropped us off, we quickly melted into the pub chairs and drank.  We met this gentleman Stevie who was in town from Glasgow watching rugby.  After a while of chewing the breeze he offered to take us to the Scotch Malt Whisky Vaults in Lieth, Edinburgh.  Scotty and Raph had to jet off cause they were going to meet up with a friend and so off we went with Stevie in a cab to this place called heaven.  Now the Scotch Malt Whisky is a members only and is the only place in the world where they buy casks directly from the distillers.

Both Jess and I learned a lot about Whisky here, Jess even got into Whisky!  Some facts about whisky we learnt were to be considered Scotch whisky it must be oak casked in Scotland for atleast three years and one day, they usually use old wine casks to mature now and even ones from the American bourbon/whisky industry as regulations require them to use new casks everytime.  The gentleman we came with Stevie and the bartenders were fountains of information on whisky.  When we were picking out something to drink we soon found out the whiskys here can be a lot more then to 40% you see on the shelf.  Most are inbetween 50% and 60% however there are some in the +70% range.  So it’s not unheard of for some people to water them down, as they do have water on all the tables here.  Whisky can vary a lot cask to cask and for a brands like Glenfiddich, Macallan, Glenlivet, etc they dilute it with water and use colouring to give it a rich and consistent appearance.  We soon asked the questions well why not cask a whisky and leave it there for 50, even a 100 years.  Every year the cask loses about 1.5-2% a year of alcohol and volume which is known as the angels share.  If you leave it too long you’ll have nothing left and also anything below 40% from the cask is not known as Scotch whisky.

Inside the Scotch Malt Whisky Vaults

After we got schooled in whisky we ordered up a round and some beers and then another round and some beers.  Soon it was last call and time to leave.  We said our thanks to Stevie and parted ways.  That was the end of our last full day in Scotland!  On our last day, we had time to kill until 15:30 when our train left for London.  Scott and Raph were staying an extra day since they didn’t work Tuesday  and Scott has a cousin in Edinburgh.  Our train ride should have been easy, however somebody wanted Subway and we were left with little time to get to our platform.  Running around like a mouse in maze we found our train platform through the construction mess of Waverly Station as our train was leaving.  Well, atleast we live in a major city and the next train was in 30 minutes.  We found some unreserved seats on the train, didn’t get a fuss from the ticket collector, all in all it was good end to Scotland and a quick 4 1/2 hours back to London.

There is another long weekend on the first week of May and Oslo might be the plan.  We’ll report back in then!

Cheers,

Aarissca

Break On Through To The Other Side

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This holiday season, as usual, came quick and flew by even quicker.  The week before Christmas Jessica had off from teaching and we spent the week getting ready for the holiday season.  Buying gifts, wrapping gifts and gallivanting around London.  The by the time the 23rd of December rolled around we were heading to Kent with Jessica’s cousin Helen, her husband Andy and her 12 year old son Ben.  They live north of London in Sheffield and drove down and picked us up.  For Christmas 2011 we were going to spend it with The Bakers, Andy’s side of the family, in Kent.  A quick little 1 hour drive south from the bustle of London and you are in the quaint county of Kent.  It is called the garden of England, so you can imagine how nice it is.

It starts to get dark in England around 4:30pm, so sadly when we were driving to Kent we didn’t get to take in any of the beautiful country side.  Once we arrived at Andy’s parents, they quickly sat us at the table and fed us fish pie.  As far as traditional British food this has been our favorite so far.  Chicken tikka masala is the national dish of the British and probably our favorite, but we don’t think it really counts as real British food.  As much as we got sick of eating out on our travels leading up to London, I think we turned a corner and became sick of cooking every night.  It was great to be served great meals for the 4 or 5 days we stayed.

The days leading up to Christmas we explored Rye (Paul McCartney lives here), Hastings and Bodiam Castle with our tour guides Helen, Andy and Ben.  Both Rye and Hastings are small cute little towns.  We walked around Rye first popping into a few shops here and there.  Then we headed to Hastings where we looked in a maritime museum, walked along the ocean, had some really good fish & chips and then headed back.  Really massive difference in the way of life in England outside of London.

On Christmas day, it was just the usually suspects at the Baker house for gift opening and dinner.  It was a great spread for dinner, getting hungry thinking about it again, and the only real difference from Canadian Christmas dinner was their Christmas pudding for dessert.  Which is pretty much just a fruit cake they drench in brandy, light on fire, blow out and then serve with brandy butter or custard.

Everyone at the table kept on asking us if there were many difference between British and Canadian Christmas, but we couldn’t see any besides dessert.  However we couldn’t for the life of us land on the traditional  Canadian dessert.  Jessica thinks it is pumpkin pie while Aaron thinks it is fruit cake.

Helen and Ben skipped town on boxing day and went to Malta for a vacation.  While the rest of us held down the Baker’s house for the influx of guests.  Andy’s brother and sister came over for the day with their families and it was a lively day.  Kids running around, Christmas gift opening, play with the new toys (this air cannon was the star), Jessica snoring in the corner and board game playing.  It was an exhausting day to say the least!  After a well deserved sleep we packed up, said our thanks to Andy’s parents and hit the road for London.  Our flight was leaving early the next day for Amsterdam and Andy was going to crash at our place and drive us the next day.  Once we got back to London, Andy headed out to explore while we…well Aaron packed for the trip.  When Andy came back we all headed to the pub for supper and a few pints.  The following day Andy graciously drove us to the airport and off we went to Amsterdam, which was less time then flying from Edmonton to Calgary.

Once in Amsterdam, we had a bit of time to kill before we could check into the hotel.  Around town we went searching to exchange our Sterling pounds to Euros and eventually found out banks in The Netherlands don’t handle physical cash or exchange money.  Only those dodgy looking Western Union kiosks do, oh well.  We shopped around for a bit for the best rate and then hoped for the best.  It was almost nearing check-in time so we headed to the hotel and got all checked-in.  The apartment-hotel was beautiful, could not have asked for more!  Modern decor, big gas stove, lots of room and comfy beds.

During our time in Amsterdam we checked out a lot of museums.  On day 1, in the morning we went to the Van Gogh museum where they have a large collection of Van Gogh’s work, paintings that inspired him, paintings he inspired and some of the paintings he and his brother Theo collected.  We easily lost track of time in the musuems three floors of beautiful paintings and interesting letters between Van Gogh and Theo.  You get a real sense of Van Gogh from the museum.  Next we jetted across the street to the Bols Experience, where they have a little museum on the Bols alcohol brand.  Which is the oldest distillery company in the world.  The real highlight of the Bols Experience is the free tasters and 1 cocktail of your choice.  A stiff drink was the perfect ending to a museum day, Jess went with the Original Collins and Aaron the Holland House.  We both had known the Bols brand back in Canada, but just thought they produced that blue liqueur in the weird shaped bottle.  However my friends, they produce mainly Dutch Gin, almost 40 kinds of liqueurs and that weird shaped bottle is highly engineered for bartenders.  All in all it was a cool place.

Day 2 involved going to the Rijkmuseum and taking in some beautiful Dutch Golden Age paintings as well as fairly large Asian collection.  The Dutch was a super rich country back in the day.  Continuing with our drink after museums tradition, we went to the Heineken Experience after.  Touring the original factory, taste testing, interactive ride and finally enjoying a few pints.  Again it’s just what the doctor ordered!

All of a sudden it was New Years Eve and we had not made a plan on what to do!  After much researching and looking around we found a place that hadn’t sold out.  For the stroke of midnight we went to this nightclub call Rain.  Which was packed, but did have a disco dance floor.  New years day we were all hurting and just wound up watching Wallace and Gromit.  However the next day we went with Rachael to the Anne Frank museum which was really neat and we were glad we went early.  The queue  here was huge by the time we came out.  I don’t know what it is with Amsterdam, but buy your tickets online and beat the lines.  They are ridiculous.

The last ‘big’ thing we did in Amsterdam was go to a place called Nemo’s which is a big science center.  We were expecting it not to be so kid oriented, but it was still a good time.  They had soap bubble stations, this chain reaction-domino show every couple hours, science lab, ball factory and a bunch of other pretty neat stuff.  The novelty didn’t last too long and we probably spent more time on the roof looking at the panoramic view of Amsterdam.

As soon as you knew it, we were packing our bags and checking out!  With some time to kill before our flight we wandered around Amsterdam, having a sit for dinner, taking some photos and did a canal tour.  All in all Amsterdam was a success.  It’s a really world class city with lots of sights and things to do!

Brilliant Music Scene

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We recently picked up a weekly magazine called TimeOut: London, which we first encountered in Mumbai, that keeps you up to date on what’s going on in the city from arts to plays and everything in between.  This is where we came face to face with how many quality bands play London.  Now obviously it makes sense being a world class city, but it still boggles our mind.  You can honestly find a concert you’d like to see everyday of the week.  The amount of good bands playing here is in that large of quantity.  Jessica soon saw The Secret Sisters were playing here (we saw them at the Edmonton Folk fest this past August) and Aaron saw a local act King Krule that interested him.  We didn’t end up going to any of those two, but we did break the London concert ice by going to the English dub step producer James Blake’s concert the following week.

The venue James Blake played in was a unique old theater with high red ceilings and Roman looking art work done in gold.  It was a type of venue you would not find in Edmonton or even Canada for that matter!  The show was good, a young London based band named after the Amsterdam park, Vondelpark, opened up and put on a good show.  James Blake set was good playing his major hits like The Wilhelm Scream, CMYK and his cover of Canadian artist Feist’s song Limit To Your Love.  His music is mostly electronic ballads that carefully build up in intensity, so the crowd vibe was not high energy.  Some people were even sitting on the floor!

Rapper Big Daddy Kane sporting the infamous hi-top fade.

Once the concert bug bite, we soon went to another concert this time to see Toro Y Moi.  His music wasn’t Jessica’s cuppa tea, but he plays an lo-fi electronic/pop, garage, chillwave type genre.  If that makes any sense to anybody.  Sometimes at these show, especially the indie/hipster crowd, people watching over takes the show.  At the Toro Y Moi show there was this tall guy with a huge hi-top fade that would make 90’s hip-hop artist green with jealously.  This guy just happened to get the front middle spot for the show too.  His head and hi-top rose  above the crowd like a mountain peaking through the clouds.

After we bought some drinks we tried to make our way to the stage and wound up pretty close to the guy with the hi-top fade and his buddy.  Out of the corner of our eyes we peaked over at them here and there and noticed they were huffing and passing a paper bag back and forth.  Some peoples children.  All the openers and Toro Y Moi put on an enjoyable show.  With that second concert it sort of started a Wednesday date night tradition for us.  Where we have tried to do something special every Wednesday to spice things up a bit.  Other then that it’s the same old, same old in London.  We moved out of the Guesthouse into a place her son rents out down the street and it’s been nice so far.  We only have 2 roommates, a washing machine, kitchen to our selves pretty much, our own private bathroom and shower.  Can’t complain!

Toro Y Moi in the flesh

What Aaron was trying to take a picture of

One last thing, at our new place the bedroom window looks onto a small backyard and one day Aaron saw a bunch of birds lined up on a roof. Wanting to take a picture he quickly ran out the basement door and started clicking away through the gap between the wood gate and stone fence in the backyard.  When all of a sudden somebody yelled ‘there’s a pervert’.  Just thinking that this pervert must be somewhere down the street or something, Aaron continued taking pictures.  Then he heard it again, so Aaron put down the camera and saw a group of 6 or 7 people walking down the street.  Someone in the group asked ‘where?  where?’ and at that moment Aaron made eye contact with the boy who cried pervert.  Sorry mom, the pervert was Aaron.  Quickly Aaron yelled at them ‘no, no, no, no I was just taking pictures of the birds up there’ and pointed to the roof.  The group of them collectively looked up, went ‘ohhhh’, said sorry and continued on walking.

The shot that got Aaron called a pervert.

Here’s a song by each band we went and saw if you are interested:

Pip, Pip, Cheerio

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As we write this blog entry, a quick 3 weeks has already passed in London and more like 3 months since this was posted.  Our plane touched down in the afternoon on October 31st and after a long immigration line plus a wrong train we finally arrived at our guesthouse!  With a 5 and a half hours time difference and a 1am arrival, it made for a really long travel day.  Right off the bat we made friends at Mrs.Wilson’s Guesthouse by opening the door for Kat, a Aussie, who was coming back from hockey forgot her key.  In our brief late night chat, we talked with her about living in London and soon found out she is a teacher also.  After our talk with Kat, we all went up the stairs to retire for the night.

Before we set off to Japan, we never set up shipping for our proper clothes to get to London and obviously we didn’t take care of it during our travels!  Here we were in London stuck with hot weather travel clothes and nothing really fit to work in.  The housemate we let in the previous evening, Kat, had the day off from work and offered to take us around to do some shopping in Lewisham, a borough of London.

View from Greenwich Park

First stop was a store called Primark where they have decent looking clothes at an affordable price.  For 31 pounds Jess bought a pair of dress pants, a sweater, some dress shoes and just like that she was ready for her orientation tomorrow.  We also did a bit of grocery shopping before we headed back to the house.  The place where we are staying at, Mrs. Wilson’s Guesthouse, is an old English house with 11 rooms.  In total there is about 15 people staying in the house and let’s say things can get a little crazy during supper time with only one kitchen!  Overall we have been happy here aside from the lack of fridge space, but we manage.  Located in a part of London called Greenwich (pronouced Gren-itch) we are rubbing elbows with some of the rich and powerful of London.  It’s not the expensive area in London, but it has lots of upper class Londoners who like how close it is to the city yet it feels far away with it’s open green spaces.  Greenwich park is absolutely beautiful and only a 5 minute walk from our doorstep.

On day two in London, Jess had her orientation at 10am with the agency she is working for.  It seemed simple on paper get on the train at Westcomb Park, take it to Cannon Street, then get on the underground and we should be there!  Unfortunately, it quite didn’t work out that way in practice.  Once we arrived at Cannon Street, quickly we became disoriented as we couldn’t find the route to the tube station (lots of construction is going on to the underground for the 2012 Olympics).  With luck on our side we asked the right (I’m sure UK spell check will turn that to proper) Londoner as she was heading in the same direction as us, but walking.  Running a bit late we hustled with our guide and quickly found it wasn’t a very far from where we were.  Once you get into the city, London is a very walk-able city as everything is relatively close.

One of the resident foxes in Mrs. Wilson's backyard

Eventually we got to Jess’s appointment a bit late, but it was better late then never!  After she did her orientation and all the formalities we went to open a bank account.  With her letter from the agency saying she has a job off we went to the bank to open an account.  We went with HSBC and they have this, what seemed cool at the time, little device called a secure key here.  It looks a like a calculator, is almost the size of a credit card and it’s propose is to protect you from online banking fraud.  When you enter your details to log-on to your internet banking everything is the same except there is one extra step.  Where you have to turn on your secure key, enter your PIN for it and then it generates a 6 digit code you have to enter into the computer to complete the log in process.  How it works is, your secure key will generate a specific code at certain times of the day and HSBC’s servers know this code.  Your internet banking account is linked to the secure keys serial number on the back, so it’s unique code.  It is a little annoying to use in reality although.  Opening an account took another couple hours and next was seeing a company that will take care of Jess’s taxes.

In the UK it is your employers responsibility to file your taxes every year.  So in Jess’s case since she is a ‘contractor’ in a sense she needs to hire a company to do this for her.  Sort of sucks since they take a percentage of her pay, but it’s needed.  That was the last thing we did on day two aside from getting a pay as you go chip for Jess’s phone.  You have so many choices for cell phone providers out here and it’s pretty cheap.  A lot cheaper when you compare it to Canada, that’s for sure.

The rest of the week we spent just getting used to where we are and settled in a bit.  We also checked out London’s National Gallery on the weekend and WOW!  They have a huge and diverse collection.  In total they have 40 or 50 rooms with over 2,000 paintings and large collections of famous painters.  It will take anyone numerous visits to take it all in, thank goodness it’s free admission.  As a matter of fact almost all the museums in London are free, it’s just the special exhibits museums host that charge an admission fee.  Like the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit the National Gallery is hosting right now.

An afternoon in Greenwich Park

By the time Monday morning rolled around on the next week, Jess was all dressed and ready to go teach!  She got five days in for the week, knocked some socks off and did it all in the same Primark outfit!  That weekend a housemate, Koorri, was celebrating her birthday so the house cooked up a feast with chicken parmi’s (crazy Aussie lingo, Chicken Parmesan in English) as the main event.  After we were all full and merry from Rachel’s cooking, we stuck around the house for a few drinks and then headed to the train in dramatic fashion to go out.  Most of the housemates came out and danced the night away in the city.  The next day was slow moving in the house with a lot of laughs over the pictures taken that night.

Our luggage was enroute during week two in London, after some technical difficulties and with the help of Aaron’s parents & his friend Jeremy.  In perfect condition out luggage arrived on Friday right before Koorri’s birthday, so it was really good timing!  Thanks again!  Excited to now have more London appropriate clothes, Jessica was ready for another week of teaching and couldn’t wait for Monday to roll around.

Or maybe not, since on Monday she slept in and didn’t call into work to see if they had any work…opps.  They eventually called her with something, but she used the old I have a Doctor’s appointment.  We used that stolen Monday to get some some errands done and tried to head to the Doctor’s to register for a NHS number to make the day off look legit but it was closed.  The NHS number is exactly like your Alberta Healthcare number, but in England it’s country-wide.  For the remaining 4 days Jess woke up on time, sort of, and worked the rest of the week with varying success.

The Imperial War Museum

Aaron during this time as been applying for jobs in the morning and then being a tourist in the afternoon.  He’s seen the Remembrance Day celebration, The Imperial War Museum, The National Maritime Museum, a couple National Gallery’s and just strolling down in the city.  This next week he’s been told by two parties to stop looking for the perfect job, so potentially he might be educating children as a teachers assistant.  Keep your eyes on the news for updates on that.

Aside from that you are up-to-date on London!  We are in full stride now, but still not used to flicking the light switches the opposite way and looking the wrong way when crossing the street!

-Aarissca

Bombs Away, Bombay!

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Thanks tips!

Everybody we talked to about Bombay on our travels said skip it, garbage, crap, hell hole and few other words we shouldn’t repeat.  With only a week before our flight to London and tired of moving around we opted to ignore the negativity and stay 7 days in the city.  No Goa, no Taj Mahal, no Rajastan, just Mumbai (okay this is where we turn Bombay to Mumbai).

We landed in Mumbai mid afternoon with nothing booked and not a clue.  However after a quick talk with an ex-Jaguar worker, we hopped in a cab to Mumbai’s Colaba area where most tourists stay.  Now, the drive from the airport was a wild one!   It was full of honking, motorbike weaving in between cars, and non-existent lanes or traffic lights.  We didn’t keep track, but the drive probably took over 2 hours.  Which is crazy when it’s only 25 kilometers at most,  Edmonton international to the north side is about 50km to put it in perspective. Once we arrived in Colaba, we now begun our search with the driver for the hotel we were thinking of (and can’t think of it now!).  Then out of the corner of our eyes while we were scanning side to side, we saw a sign for another hotel we thought we would check out, Hotel Moti International.  In what seemed like a good location we said ‘STOP!’ to the driver and got out.  We toured the room with the owner, Raj, and decided it was good for us.  Mumbai has real estate prices as high as Manhattan in some areas (mainly the Colaba area), and we figured 2,500 rupees (about $50CAD) a night was a not bad for where we were.

Police Officer on Colaba Causeway

Raj, gave us some great tips on where to eat, what to do, what not to do and so on. Every single restaurant suggestion of his we tried was great. There is no doubt we ate great for cheap in Mumbai, you’d struggle to spend 10 dollars on a meal for 2. Our meals usually came to 300-600 Rupees, so about $5-11 CAD for two. Out of Raj’s suggestions Olympia & New Laxmi Vilas were our two favorite for Indian dishes. The famous Leopolds was good too, a little more expensive, but still cheap in Canadian terms.  The shopping was pretty good on Colaba Causeway too.  Lacoste, United Colours of Benetton, Nike, Puma, etc all had shops and most prices were a lot less then back in Canada.  We both picked up a couple things each.

On the first day of Diwali (Big Hindi celebration in India), we were walking to get some sweets to give to Raj & his family for the Hindi celebration and a man came up to ask if we wanted to be in a Bollywood film. It was one of the things we wanted to do, so we listened to what he had to say. Everything seemed to be in order, except he only wanted males for this scene. Discouraged, we walked away after giving him a ‘no thanks’ but then turned around and said we’d do it…well Aaron would do it. He told us be out in front of the McDonalds tomorrow morning at 8am (last time I was told that the hamburgler robbed me blind). After our Bollywood casting agent encounter, we made our way back to the hotel with the sweets in hand for Raj.

Rolling out the 5,000 fire crackers

The Diwali celebration is the most important celebration for Hindu’s and we don’t know all the details of it.  However we do know it involves a lot of fireworks & firecrackers and we aren’t talking crowds taped off, 20 minute display.  Diwali is in the street right in front of you, ‘oh my god you almost hit me’ and ‘he just got hit in the eye’ type of fireworks.  It is chaos for days, at all hours of the day.  We spent the start of celebration at the hotel where Raj, his family and the hotel staff lit lots of fireworks and this big roll of 5,000 firecrackers.  Once that roll was done it felt like your ear drums were pushed inside your brain.  Once the festivities at the hotel were over, they gave us some sweets (none of the ones we gave to Raj, what’s up with that?) and then they retired back to their place.  That night we just ended up walking the streets, with ear plugs in of course, watching little boys and girls light fireworks.  Then eventually retired as well to rest up for the 8am Bollywood adventure.

On the following day, we went down to the McDonald’s for 8am and waited around for a bit. This was a hint of things to come! They piled us into this bus with shot shocks and that wasn’t a good combination with Mumbai’s cobble stone & rough roads. After a long drive we arrived at the movie studio and we’ll leave it at it was no universal studios. Off the crappy bus and into the crappy studio we all went. All 15ish of us extras sat in a big, dirty, empty room on plastic lawn chairs, while we waited to goto costumes and makeup.

They pulled us to get suited up in groups of 4 to 5 at a time and played a sick, sick game with us foreigners.  A team of 3 and two racks of the worst knock-off clothes you’ve ever seen was the costume room.  If you were wearing shorts and sandals they gave you a whole new outfit with the pull of the lever on the clothes rack slot machine.  Maybe you’d get baggy jeans with a middle finger patch on them, a worst then pleather jacket, or some ballin’ wigger shirt.  These 3 people I’m sure loved in that they were making us look like douche bags.  Aaron got off pretty lucky, they just gave him a pleather jacket and a guitar necklace.

Watching the show at the hotel

Next up, was the hair and makeup room.  Equipped with hair gel and hair gel this is where they massacred poor Aaron.  At first all Aaron got was a bit of powder on the face and a few strokes of a comb.  Then while he was standing around the Indians started talking loud and pointing at him, not exactly sure what they were saying and what to do Aaron just gave a WTF face.  Eventually they sat him down again and pulled out the number one weapon in their arsenal, hair gel.  Gobs of it, inhuman amounts of gel plopped on Aaron’s head and then they proceeded to slick his hair back.  One half of Aarissca is glad there is no pictures of the Bollywood adventure, more on why later.  We still aren’t sure why they were yelling and pointing at Aaron, but it might have been he didn’t look douchy enough or maybe it was his travel facial hair scruff.  We will never truly know.

Once costume, hair and makeup were done they sent us down to the set which was suppose to be a London night club.  Now we’ve never seen a London nightclub (at the time, of course), but this place we were sure was nothing like one.  It resembled Peewee’s Playhouse on drugs with lots of crushed velvet, but not real crushed velvet…that would be too expensive.  A Brit in the group of douche foreigner’s later confirmed, ‘the director of this movie is a golly-wag.  This looks nothing like a London nightclub.’  All us foreign and Indian extras stood around on the set for a while with no real clue as to what was going on.  Bored with time to kill, rumors started to create and float around ear to ear.  The main one was this scene is taking place in a gay bar and that was totally plausible as the only females on the set were 2 bartenders.  There was probably 40 foreign and Indian extras on the set…oh god what was half of Aarissca’s Bollywood debut going to be?

The infamous Leopold's Cafe

Eventually the stars of the film appeared on set and did their fake ‘hollywood’ hugs & kisses to different important people on the set and the last little bits of their makeup.  The main star was Akshay Kumar who is one of the biggest Bollywood stars and is doing a movie with Russel Peters!  When they were finally ready to do some shooting, the scene began with 2 actors walking down some stairs into the nightclub.  All of us extras were suppose to be full of energy having the time of our lives…with no music.   This was really hard to do.  The scenes we shot before lunch with the actors went well as they didn’t need many takes, but after lunch is where it turned ugly.

When we came back from lunch, they finally allowed the girlfriends, wives, daughters, etc on set after a lot of discussion with the security guards.  The ladies were all sitting on the staircase the actors walked down in the scene we shot before lunch and they were all snapping pictures while nobody was watching.  Then during one of the breaks to change the set,  Aaron came over and someone on the set caught Jessica taking a picture.  Here we were, looking down seeing people on the set talking on radios and looking in our direction.  Eventually a lady came over and asked us to delete the picture.  So Jessica thinking she was all sly and deleted just one picture then cycled backwards through the camera to show there were no more.  This lady was not going to be fooled that easily and asked to see the camera because she knew her trick.  Needless to say the camera came back empty, oh well.

Up next, they were shooting the scene with dancers on stage in the nightclub.  This would have been fine if dancer number 6 didn’t keep on screwing up.  Every take all you would hear from the director was something about how bad number 6 is.  At least with these scenes they had music playing, so it wasn’t as hard to be’ high energy’.  However, it quickly became annoying hearing the same 15 seconds of some Hindi song 25 times.  Hiya, huya, piya, fiha, bleh.

Crows chilling in an alley

Dancer number 6 finally pulled his dancing legs out of his @$$ and we wrapped up a little after 6pm.  All in all we seriously shot 30-45 seconds for the movie, pretty sad.  Right after they called a wrap, we went up stairs and returned our high quality costumes to wardrobe.  However Aaron got to keep his 3 pounds of hair gel!  Right after we were all returned to our normal clothes they loaded us back on the bus, paid us each our 500 rupees and headed back to Colaba.  Keep your ears and eyes out for the Bollywood hit Housefull 2 in spring 2012!  When we got back to Colaba, we went out for supper and drinks with a few people from the movie.  Before we all went our separate ways for the night we made further plans to hang out the next day since all our hotel/hostels were close.

The following night started with us Bollywood stars (Brad, Jono, Dustin & Aaron) and a star stuck fan (Jessica) gathering outside our hotel for some drinks.  Quickly the booze was all gone and we all went to a kebab shop to grab a late supper.  This place was a road side restaurant with cheap tables littering the sidewalks and side of the street.  Our food was really good, but we apparently were not.  People repeatedly came over and told us to be quieter.  So in turn we bolted from there as soon as we were done eating.  Next stop was a locals bar called Gokul right by the kebab place.  This place was a cramped, tight, two-story, dingy bar.  However it served cold, cheap Kingfisher and it didn’t scream tourist so it was good with us.

The night in question

Again, we were apparently too loud and the locals didn’t like it.  Two or three rounds of beers and we left cause we felt like we over stayed our welcome.  Dustin & Jono said that was enough and retired for the night while we went with Brad to find a night club.  Everything in Mumbai for night life doesn’t stay open too late and it was past midnight so our choices were in between nil and none.  However, we did get into one dead club for a mojoito and lesson on cricket from Brad.  Indian’s LOVE their cricket, but they wouldn’t let Brad watch the end of the game to see if Australia would pull out the dub.  Once they kicked us out and closed the door on our butts we walked back to Brad’s hotel.  Eventually we all fell asleep in Brad’s room and woke up the next morning feeling rough.

Brad was set to leave Mumbai for Hong Kong that evening so we all just aimlessly walked around Mumbai until it was time for him to head to the airport.  Our last couple of days were pretty uneventful in Mumbai.  We did a bit of shopping, had to move rooms twice in the hotel and that was about it as the night of drinking really put us out of commission.  Our flight to London couldn’t come quicker because feeling under the weather without familiar comforts sucks!  When October 31st came around, we got to the airport and onto our flight without a hiccup.  We were glad we gave ourselves a lot of extra time because India security is really intense with all the terrorist attacks Mumbai has seen recently.  Leaving India was bittersweet.  We loved it there and want to go back, but we were ready to put some roots in the ground.

 

Thailand Lessons Learned

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Oh my that must be some of the Kiewit culture still in Aarissca speaking, lessons learned oh my.  Here’s our list of lessons learned and tips picked up from our time in Thailand.

General Tips

  • For the most part, if you are travelling in low season don’t book your accommodations in advance unless it’s a highly popular place.  The people we found who got the best deals just showed up to the hotel, Koh Phangan during the Full Moon included.  Doing this during high season might be risky.  Also if you book in advance spring the question when you check in of if they have any deals on right now.
  • If money allows, spend some nights in one of Bangkok’s 5 star hotels. They are reasonably priced and some of the best in the world.
  • Northern Thailand is worth a lot of your time.
  • The Full Moon Party has encompassed the party part and is really overrated in our eyes. We thought  Ton Sai &  Loh Dalum on Koh Phi Phi were better party scenes.
  • Koh Phi Phi is really as beautiful as everyone says.
  • Koh Samet has beautiful beaches but they are pretty developed.  Also watch out it gets really busy on weekends from all the Bangkokers escaping the city.
  • Tourist Police can be super helpful.
  • Koh means island and Ao means bay in Thai.
  • Thai is a very tonal language (think yes. versus yes?) so just give it a go and practice.
  • The Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok and Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar were are two favorite markets.

Getting Around Tips

  • This one is a double edged sword, book flights well in advance because they are dirt cheap.  However don’t plan your trip to the littlest detail, you will like certain places more and others less.  A rule of thumb that worked for us well was, take a guess on how many days it will take to do the things that interest you and add 3 days on top.
  • If you are travelling by bus make sure not to get on any private buses that aren’t sanctioned by BKS, they are shady and huge scams.  BKS is the government bus transport commission.  Read about our private bus encounter here.
  • Research what local transport should cost then barter till you can’t barter no more.  Because there will be a time when Thailand bartering will break you.
  • Cheap tuk-tuk drivers are too good to be true, they will stop at many shops in hopes they can make a commission off you.
  • If a driver tells you something is closed for repairs, holiday, out of business they are trying to scam you.
  • Always insist on using the meter in taxi’s that have them.
  • Renting a scooter is a good option in most small towns & islands.  Just make sure your travel insurance covers it and you are a decent driver. We saw way too many hurt tourists from crashing them.
  • Walking in most places is tough due to traffic, so having a hotel in a good location is a great idea.

Staying out of Jail Tips

  • Carry a copy of your passport and visa stamp.
  • Keep your Visa dates in mind, you automatically get 30 days on arrive via air and 15 days on arrival via land .  It’s a big deal in Thailand to over stay your visa. 500 Baht a day penalty when you exit and if they catch you on the street with an expired visa that is ‘uh oh’.  You can apply for 60 day visas and 7 day extensions.
  • They do ask for proof of onward transit from Thailand sometimes, so have e-ticket for a flight or bus ticket in hand just in case.

Culture Tips

  • It’s impolite to sniff food before eating it.
  • In public places they play the national anthem at 8am and 6pm, stand up for it.
  • The head is view as the holiest and feet as the dirtiest on the human body.  Never touch a Thai on the head and if you do apologize immediately.  As for feet don’t point at or touch people with them and stepping over someone’s feet is a no-no.

We used Fodor’s and Lonely Planet’s travel books both did the trick, but we preferred Fodors.  Other then that, that is all we have for you folks.

Safe Travels,

Aarissca.