Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Really Bermudaful

I make no apologies whatsoever for saying unequivocally that Bermuda is the most beautiful place in the world. Bar none. Full stop.

The beaches at Coopers Island I think are the most beautiful anywhere

We've lived in Bermuda since 1985 and just returned after a long period of traveling so on the first few days I did a circuit of the island archipelago. By bike of course which is the best way to get around I think and see the island. The first few days are always the days when you have the greatest immediate opinion about things and for some reason time I felt that the island seemed smaller than I remembered. Slower too, of course the roads; quiet, old.

We have spent time in Penang in Malaysia which is a Unesco World Heritage site. It is lovely in its way too seeing as its heritage goes back to 1786 with much of the Georgetown buildings dating back to the 19th century. It however is neither slow nor quiet. Much of it is not old either being a sort of Silicone Valley of that part of Asia. In Bermuda too, the old capital St. George's is a Unesco World Heritage site. It dates back to the first settlements which began in 1609.

The view from our apartment over St. George's Harbour

It actually makes me wonder why the entire island isn't a Unesco World Heritage site.

Don't take my word for it though. Check out the photos.

Two different views of Warwick Long Bay. Our first home overlooked this beach but whilst we enjoyed it I don't think we fully appreciated how lovely this is. I always felt that if I was not moved by this view then it was time to leave. I never have.

Church Bay from above. This is a lovely snorkeling beach as it gets quite deep fairly quickly but the reefs are literally 20 yards offshore so very accessible.

South shore near John Smith's Bay. One of many, many random views.

Coopers Island again. Being at the end of a road and then half a mile walking, this beach is always empty. What colors though.

One of the bays at Ferry Reach. This one is where whaling ships used to come in as it is so shallow.  The small boats would beach themselves and the whale here and do the grisly dissection and boiling.

Three great views of the Railway Trail around Ferry Reach and what I only recently discovered is Ferry Point. The pre-railway ferry used to be to the left of the railway arches whilst Ferry Point is to the right, where there is a nice little fort dating back to 1668.

Sunset over West Whale Bay from Landmark.

View from the top of Knapton Hill over south shore

Tough to argue, isn't it?

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Lessons Learned

It has been a couple of weeks since we arrived in Bermuda for a visit that we had been looking forward to and are currently enjoying. However the way in which we arrived was pretty bad, much of it supposedly weather related but mostly due to shoddy performance by both Delta and American Airlines.

I was pretty disappointed about how both reacted but in retrospect why would I feel this? Airlines historically don't make money for long periods of time. Many have gone out of business including some great names. Remember Pan Am? So method has changed from a service to customers to what feels like airlines doing we the passengers a favor about flying us from A to B, over charging us and providing essentially zero customer service.

Take the automated check in machines (same as the automated immigration machines too), one AA employee told us one machine equals 5 employees. In my experience they rarely work and in any event someone has to stick the bag tags on so you have to line up again anyway. Its all about cost savings. And that is what their focus is all about. Cost savings through lower head count, no food, cost surcharges... you name it in fact and as a result they are starting to make money. Which I suppose is why Warren Buffet has started to buy airline stocks for Berkshire Hathaway.

Anyway it was all very disappointing and costly for us too but the people I feel for are the others particularly on the Bermuda flight for in that long line at the airport I heard many stories. People coming for weddings or indeed funerals. People coming on a once in a lifetime holiday only to find that if they did extend their days in Bermuda by the 2 or 3 they would miss from not getting on a plane today, AA would recharge them for the new flight and cancel this existing one with no recompense. Staggering. Of course this was only what I heard in the line and may not have actually been the case but then AA did call in 3 armed policeman to watch over the endless line at the customer service desk, presumably just in case anyone may have got annoyed for some reason.

But I am getting ahead of myself for nobody knows the full story. Well here it is!

Day 1 – Tuesday, 15 May 2018

On May 15, 2018 we had tickets to travel from Toronto to Bermuda on American Airways via New York JFK. We had taken this routing many times before leaving TO around midday and arriving into Bermuda around 9 pm at night but on this day the flight was cancelled due to what the airline said were storms in the New York area. As we had 4 bags to check and 2 carry on bags, we arrived even earlier for the flight than we would normally. It was now nearly 9 am.

The AA check in counter is physically located next to the Delta check in area so the man who ‘checked us in’ asked the Delta check in person whether their 10.30 am flight was still open… going to New York JFK. The lady said ‘yes’ so we decided to switch from AA for this leg to Delta, received our boarding passes, proceeded through baggage check in, US immigration, security and thence to the boarding gate where we arrived around 10.00 am, just before boarding was due to commence.

As we lined up to go onto the plane, the Delta check in person noted that my boarding pass had ‘SSSS’ on it, meaning that on a random basis I needed to go through additional security checks.

The boarding gate was A16 and the lady said I should leave the line and go to gate A10 where someone would be waiting for me to do this quick check and return as she said she would call the specific person and ask for a security official to attend to me. I left the line and went to A10 as directed where there was nobody. No flights, no security, nobody at all. So I returned to gate A16 where I told the Delta lady that nobody was there and could she call again or do something as the flight was due to leave imminently. She was adamant that I had to go back and do this inspection and said that she had called already and would do so again.

I left the line once more and this time ran back to gate A10 where there still was nobody. I spotted a lady with a ‘security’ tag and asked her what I should do. She told me that nobody was there and that the security office was never manned unless someone had specifically arranged for someone to be there. I told her that the Delta lady had called twice and she said that she would call again there and then, which she did in my hearing. She then directed me to the security check waiting area and in less than a couple of minutes someone showed up and I showed him my passport, told him my story and asked him to hurry as my flight wouldn’t wait.

He conducted the inspection in less than 5 minutes by which time it was just after 10.30 am and when I came out of the screened area found my wife who told me of the events that had taken place after I left the gate for the second time.

The Delta lady specifically did not call anyone in security but did call someone presumably with Delta to ask them to take our bags off the flight.

Clearly there was no intention to wait for me and again no effort to call anyone in security to perform this additional inspection.

As we were standing at the security area a different Delta employee arrived and came over to ask after us. He said that he was in some back office area and that he was the one that the Delta lady at the gate had called originally regarding the additional security check. This gentleman had called airport security and had apparently asked for someone to attend to me at gate A10. He was now checking up to see what had happened. It was 10.45 am and the flight had gone.

He explained that the security people were rarely prompt in their attention to customers in this regard and went on to say that as he had become older and recently had had a cancer scare, that occurrences such as this were less important in the great scheme of things (not joking here). He said that he had learned to take things as they come and not stress about details too much.

Obviously this was something I could not agree with and told him so and I asked him what we should do now and what was likely to have happened with our luggage, checked in and most likely in the hands of Delta. He said that he could not help us but should go to any Delta gate and explain our story and get onto the next JFK flight which was around 2.30 pm.

So we went back to gate A16 where a flight was boarding and all the Delta employees had changed and then to A14 where a flight was about to leave and where a different Delta lady asked us to wait until she had cleared this flight when she would be able to help us. It was around 11.15 am.

Near 12 noon after the Delta flights cleared the lady said to us that we should go to talk to someone at AA to get us booked onto a flight as she could not see us anywhere in the Delta system and had she known this at the outset she would have told us to do this 45 minutes earlier.

We went to gate A9 where AA fly to JFK and found an AA lady to help us. She asked us why we were there as we were booked onto the 2.30 pm flight on Delta to JFK with Delta holding our bags already. She said that the flight left from gate A6 and we should head there and talk to the gate attendant when they arrived to sort us out. This we did.

The notice board advised us of delays to the flight on multiple occasions but around 2 pm someone from Delta arrived and set up the computer. After waiting our turn after many people doing the same thing I spoke to this Delta lady and explained our predicament. She told me that there was no record of us being booked on the 2.30 pm flight to JFK and she had no idea where our bags were. She recommended that we speak to an AA attendant and resolve this issue.

This shocked me of course and I explained that we had already done this with AA saying that we were booked onto this 2.30 pm flight to JFK along with our bags. The Delta lady was adamant in that there was no record of us anywhere in their system and there was nothing she could do other than suggest we speak to AA. It was now 2.30 pm.

We went back to gate A9 where we spoke to a different person and went through the same story again. This AA lady checked and said that that was strange as she could see us booked onto the Delta flight to JFK at 2.30 pm. She said that at that point the best that she could do was to book us on the flight tomorrow but which would go through Miami as the JFK flight was full.  We decided to do this as it was now 3 pm and even had we made a connection to JFK, we would miss the Bermuda flight.

We asked about our checked luggage, particularly as to who had it: Delta or AA. The AA lady looked at the tags and said Delta still had the bags but she would organize transfer of the bags and return of them to us via baggage claim 2 in the terminal. She then took us out of the secure area and down to the baggage hall where she directed us to wait until the bags arrived.

This we did and the bags duly arrived some time around 4 pm.

Day 2 – Wednesday, 16 May 2018

The Miami flight (AA 308 2721) was due to leave Toronto at 1 pm but given our experiences of the day before we again decided to be early to the airport so arrived again just before 9 am when we spoke to the AA check in lady at the Priority counter. She told us that we were indeed booked on this flight but were in fact booked in twice, i.e. we had 2 bookings not one. This was a surprise to us of course but then before we were able to be accepted and checked in, the AA lady had to cancel the 2nd booking, which took her over an hour to complete. It was now 10 am.

We had our boarding passes and checked bag tags and were again able to pass our checked bags into the secure baggage area without problem, pass through security and immigration without issue and proceed to gate A7, the departure gate for the Miami flight. We managed this quite comfortably and settled ourselves to wait at the gate for the boarding time which was 12.15 pm.

The AA gate people asked for passengers with carry on bags if they’d like to check them into their final destination free of charge. We did this and so found ourselves with just our personal items for the flights.

The flight to Miami was uneventful and arrived at about the right time and we looked for the departure gate for the Bermuda leg (AA 308) which would be at 5.41 pm. When we arrived at the gate, the notice board said it had been delayed and from discussion with fellow passengers it was due to the weather. Apparently there were thunder storms in the Miami area and this prevented any activity at all from taking place at the airport. This included not only things directly related to the flights themselves but also maintenance, baggage handling, resupplying the beverages, and in fact everything else at the airport that took place outside.

Our plane had arrived by this point apparently.

The area around these gates filled up as more flights were delayed. The Bermuda flight notice board kept putting back the departure time too. On one occasion the tannoy exploded into life with someone, presumably a gate attendant saying:

“I don’t know how many times I’ve had to tell people that flights are being delayed due to the weather. If lightning is spotted within 5 miles of the airport, the rule is that no activity whatsoever takes place outside in this time. This is for the safety of the workers.” And then he shouted not spoke “So don’t ask me again!”

I can imagine the pressure he must have been under from disgruntled passengers like ourselves when there were no airline announcements of any sort. This was the first information that was provided to us even if it was handled in such a way. Airlines would do far better to actually tell people what is going on rather than say nothing and look the other way as happened at Miami on this day. Everybody understands that sometimes things happen and will be very understanding and probably sympathetic if appropriately told. Saying nothing merely aggravates people so airlines shouldn’t be surprised that passengers get disgruntled and complain.

Finally the flight was called and we dutifully passed onto the plane which was full. It was 7.30 pm.

We sat in the plane for 20 minutes or so when the pilot came onto the PA and told us that because the ground staff were not able to oil/grease the engines whilst the plane was sitting on the ground during the period of time when the storm warning was on, it had to be done now. This would be a 20 minute or so exercise. Furthermore the baggage had not been loaded and the resupply of the plane had not taken place either, this would have to be done. It would take 20 or 30 minutes to accomplish. It was now nearly 8 pm.

Half an hour later the pilot made another announcement. He said that the good news was that all the necessary maintenance had been successfully done, baggage loaded and plane resupplied but the bad news was that the crew were now out of hours so could no longer fly the plane. And as the storm had meant a number of other cancellations into Miami, there were no other crews. It was now 8.30 pm.

The pilot went on to advise that the AA ticketing desk should be our point of first contact so we could see what our options would now be for our travel.

Bedlam ensued as the passengers debarked and rushed to the ticketing counter where the line already was snaking down the terminal building. I joined the line. It was nearly 9 pm.

The AA ticketing counter had room for what looked like 5 or 6 employees, however only 3 were working and each customer of course had individual issues so took 15-30 minutes each to resolve. An AA employee in white uniform (a supervisor maybe) told us in the line that as this was not due to the weather but due to the crew running out of hours, AA would have to reimburse us and find us lodging. It was around 9.30 pm and I had moved 6 feet.

In the meantime my wife had moved out of the line to see what could be accomplished by calling AA on the phone. Others I later discovered simply went online in the lounges to do the same thing. The waiting time on the phone at this point was 45 minutes. It was now 10 pm and I had not moved any further in line.

Some time around this point 3 policemen showed up as passengers were getting angry at the length of time in line. In addition other more senior AA people showed up too and were immediately surrounded by irate passengers demanding to know what was going on. The upshot of this was that AA would not be making any compensatory payments nor would they be willing to pay for any lodging expenses as they argued that this cancellation was due to the weather and not due to any other reason. Not even because the crew were out of hours. It was nearly 11 pm by this point and I had moved a further 10 feet.

In addition other flights were also being cancelled at this time too so the line was growing ever larger but luckily by this time my wife out had managed to contact AA on the phone and had confirmed that we had been booked on the Friday flight out of Miami as the Thursday flight was now full.

My wife was further able to book a hotel for this period at which point she also asked about the status of our 6 bags – 4 checked plus the 2 additional carry on bags that we had checked at the counter in Toronto. She was told that we should go and discuss this at the AA baggage desk which was outside the security area. This we did and I left the line around 11.45 pm having moved in total some 20-30 feet.

At the AA baggage desk we provided our bag tags and were told that if we made a specific request the bags would be pulled and be available around 11 am tomorrow (Thursday) as the baggage crew were now off duty and the first shift of the day would only come in at 4.30 am tomorrow. We made the specific request and left for our hotel. It was now 12.30 am on Thursday.

Day 3 – Thursday, 17 May 2018

As the AA baggage desk had suggested we arrive around 11 am, we arrived a little earlier and took our place in line where we were told that we should have been here at the airport around 2 am in the morning as our bags had come out then. We asked where they were now and the desk said that many had been left in the area between baggage claim 24 and 25 and that we should ask the staff at that desk for assistance.

This we did and the staff encouraged us to look around for ourselves in the area between the two carousels and behind the desk as we would more readily recognize the bags as opposed to them checking each bag tag number. Our bags weren’t there. The desk lady there suggested we ask at the AA baggage desk even though as I pointed out that they had directed us to this spot in the first place.

We did as suggested and a different person at the AA baggage desk said that it wasn’t going to be 24-25 all, rather more likely between carousels 26 and 27, so that is what we did. It was now between 12 noon and 12.30 pm.

Miami airport is very large so it takes some time to walk up and down the terminal, even on the baggage claim level but ultimately we did find carousels 26-27 and another AA staff person there looking frazzled as I am sure she had had many people like us gamely looking for baggage. She again encouraged me to take a look behind the counters and I was able to find 3 of our 6 bags. It was now 1 pm.

I asked where the other bags would likely be and the lady said they probably hadn’t been requested but if we went back along the terminal to opposite entrance 9, there would be a grey door with some markings on it. She suggested I knock and ask for more baggage assistance there as this was where a lot of bags were being held.

This we did and we tramped back along the terminal building as directed and found the door in question. I knocked and told the lady that opened the door that I was looking for my bags whereupon she opened the door and said “take a look”. Again I presumed this was because I would know what my missing bags looked like whilst she would have to laboriously go through checking each near identical looking bag by its bag code.

In this room were lines and lines of racks and hundreds of pieces of luggage. Luckily I was able to spot all 3 of our bags immediately making the full complement of 6 pieces in total. It was nearly 2 pm.

We took another taxi back to our hotel but this time with all our bags.

Day 4 – Friday 18 May 2018

AA 308 from Miami to Bermuda was scheduled to leave at 5.40 pm but as usual and with our experiences fresh in the mind, we decided to leave very early and so arrived before 3 pm where we were able to check in and pass through all security checks without delay.

Boarding was pretty much on time but as soon as we were seated the pilot made an announcement. He said that the plane was in great shape and that everything had been done… except for the resupply of beverages and food for the plane. This delay would be around 30 minutes. In the event it was nearly 1 hour later that we took off but this time we were able to compete the journey without further incident.


Delta have markedly improved service conditions but the conduct of the gate personnel we thought to be terrible. The first gate lady in Toronto was totally unhelpful in conditions when it was totally in her control to resolve the SSSS security issue. She failed totally in this regard. She simply directed that our baggage be removed from the plane as there was no way it could all be done in time. This may have been a pragmatic response to the situation but in terms of service to a paying customer, totally wanting.

This is a failing on behalf of Delta with the appearance of the second gentleman to ‘find out how things were’ was merely a sop to stop me getting even more angry at the situation that so easily could have been resolved with only a modicum of effort and a small piece of common sense.

2. American Airlines

As a long time member of their frequent flyer program I was shocked how badly AA responded to admittedly a bad situation when so many flights were cancelled (I understand this number was 22 flights). However this said much of this is a situation totally in their control. It is AA’s choice not to be fully staffed so that at times of stress there is capacity to resolve a bad situation. Not having a fully staffed ticketing desk at Miami airport, for example, and then calling in the police is simply terrible.

Even worse is the manner in which AA wriggled out of their obligation to passengers to compensate them in some way for the inconvenience of having their flight cancelled and then denying them lodging until the next flight is available. The Bermuda flight was not cancelled due to the weather at all. It was cancelled due to the crew having run out of hours. How can AA then say no compensation as it was weather which is an act of God? No it wasn’t. It was an act of very poor planning on AA’s part to not have crew cover available. Even the first AA person that we had met in the line said this was not weather related so AA would have to compensate passengers.

Furthermore, the entire airport had just sat down doing nothing waiting for the weather to improve for the previous 3 hours. That would have included the crew too. It wasn’t as if they were flying or anything. Most likely they were just sitting around drinking coffee like the rest of us. This is simply a very poor excuse and a way for AA to get out of paying for passenger inconvenience and save money.

3. Problems

Nobody expects everything to go according to plan every time. Things often happen that disrupt even the best laid plans. But to have as a response no information, no announcements, and no compensation is simply unacceptable. Problems happen, it is how they are resolved that provides the measure of the person or the organization.

God, this was a boring post. Sorry! The bulk of the text is the letter I have written to both Delta and AA. I'll provide updates if there are indeed any. Don't hold your breath. I am not.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Beer Can

Its been nearly three months that we have been in Penang and it has been great. This said having lived 32 years in Bermuda, another island, I do feel many similarities abound. The endless motorcycles of course. Weaving in and out of traffic on both sides, no helmets here and I have seen 5 people on one bike as my personal record -- that didn't happen in Bermuda or rather I don't think it did anyway. Craziness, yes. But perhaps not quite this crazy.

Both are islands so that does mean a certain insularity. An apartness from those on the mainland, wherever or however far away that mainland actually is -- in Bermuda it is 600 miles but we still feel it.

Shared heritage too. Both are/were British colonies, Bermuda rather older than the upstart that is Penang by some 177 years or so (1786 versus 1609). So both share the same common language, that knot that binds us together. (I have just finished watching the Commonwealth Games which I thought were wonderful, part of which prompted this post). Or do we?

Bermudjian is the way the local people speak the language in Bermuda and it really does have its oddities. My children Alex and Ali speak it like the natives that they are and can turn it off and on at will. Sounds strange sometimes to hear them cracking along with their friends in what sounds like another language but then comes down to that lowest common denominator:

"That's what I'm talking about".

"You got that right!"

"I'm saying."

"Uh huh"

and of course the ubiquitous:

"Fat, bye" which has no known translation but which can be used just about anywhere in conversational Bermudjian.

With these short simple phrases you can have a conversation lasting hours, with the duration of the conversation being dependent on the availability of some fine local rum or Elephant beer, Carlsberg of course, "to refrAsh the vocal chords, don't you know (pronounced "doan-chu-noow")."

The Beer-muda Triangle

No spelling mistake there as Bermudjian often replaces vowels with others seemingly at random. As for double negatives and malapropisms, well...

Take this simple phrase: "You don't tell me nuffin'"

Loosely translated it means "You don't tell me nothing". A double negative, yes... but is it?

At first glance this could be a cry from the heart of someone desperate to know things but who is being deliberately excluded from those things as in "you doan tAll me nuffin, bye". But on reflection it could also be a directive in the same way as "doan chu tAll me nuffin, bye" is a directive although slightly differently worded. A request given rather peremptorily to someone to not give him or her instructions, the implied undertone being that the instructions will not be followed and that the requestee is rather put out by the fact that someone has the temerity to think about giving an instruction when clearly that other person has no right to do so and in all likelihood is being "dis-respActful".

This is the worst thing that anyone can do to another Bermudjian. Be dis-respActful.

Coming to Penang it has been an assault on many of my senses, one being the language. Of course the local language takes precedence but when it comes to the use of English, some times it makes my eyes water until you actually get into the rhythm of what is being said.

The loose translation of 'yes' is 'ya'. I never realized that until I filled in an official form for something which had one of those yes/no boxes translated into both languages and saw the yes/ya option presented for the first time. I had thought that 'ya' was a very chummy greeting as in the Bermudjian "ya ya mon".

After playing tennis one day in chatting with one of the other guys who turned out to be a business coach, he told me that the Malays didn't finish what they were saying when they spoke. They ran out of context and content before they finished usually so they would add a few cheerful "ya's" or most normal "la's" to the end of what they were saying as in:

"Bring me a beer la".

The 'la' is redundant but it does end the phrase correctly and makes the sound of what has been said feel about right. And I guess at the end of the day we can drone on and on about the mangling of the Queen's English but it is a living language in the way that say Latin no longer is and has a life and breadth of its own, wherever you may go. It just takes a little while to get to grips with how the language is chosen and what the local rhythm is. Makes for tricky moments when the gap in understanding is fairly wide but one of the solutions certainly here in Penang is the use of the word 'can'. It is used on its own in the context of "certainly that can be done. No problem. Hope you enjoy the outcome." But this is all truncated in popular use so that the correct response to that earlier request would be:

"Beer can"

Hope this is all clear.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The global sport

Its Sunday morning in Penang and I am watching Liverpool play Watford in a premier league match on tape delay. I just checked on the nationalities of the players on display and there aren't that many Brits. It underlines for me that this game and more so this league is THE global league of THE global game. Just don't expect there to be many Brits actually on the field, particularly in the creative positions in midfield or up front.

This is a World Cup year so the English media will hype up England's chances as usual but really what we have are some decent full backs and central defenders and some hardworking journeymen defensive midfielders. As for the creative element? A Messi or more specific to the game I am watching now, a Salah -- who is in the process of scoring 4 and laying on the other in a 5-0 drubbing?  Sadly not. Harry Kane undoubtedly is a terrific finisher but he does that with the help of a Dane, a Korean and a variety of other nationalities. I am pretty pleased that Iceland didn't make it but undoubtedly there is a another banana skin beckoning.

I don't know why but watching the game made me think of a cup match my school old boys team played in the Southend Borough Combination some 40+ years ago. It finished 13-11 after double extra time. No penalties back then, you just played till you finished.

It was the regular 90 minutes plus extra time of two 15 minute halves and then another two 10 minute halves. It was 8-8 after 90 minutes, 11-11 after the first period of extra time and we went down 13-11 after the second period. One guy on their side scored 5 and should really have scored 10. Nobody on our side scored more than 1 goal and there were no substitutes which means that everyone including our goalkeeper scored.  I cannot believe that that record will ever be beaten!

I haven't watched any amateur games for years so do wonder if the global game at its grass roots level is still played this way. I do hope so.

Incidentally this is a great advert, particularly so as the poor suffering opponents are wearing the same strip that we used to!

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Plus Ca Change, Penang Style

The Far East is the most populous part of the world by a distance. Something like 60% of the global population are near by, well relatively nearby so one of the things that happens is that the cost of labour is cheap. Being someone that does economics for a living, I remember reading that globally there are only 2 billion jobs. Given the population size this means that nearly 50% of all working age people are either unemployed or under-employed so little pressure on businesses to pay up for staff.

That is noticeable here in Penang. The island has 750,000 people and is of relatively small size so is very busy and crowded but also that means lots and lots of low paying jobs away from the factory complexes which are very high tech indeed (Pharma, Tech, Chips, etc) so require highly trained white collar skills as well as the command of English. Away from this salaries drop precipitously and you can see that with jobs that simply wouldn't exist in the west, here there are always people and in many cases multiple levels of back up for that job.

I am completely OK with this as I follow the trend of robotisisation (if that's not a word, it soon will be) and the use of Artificial Intelligence to enhance tech solutions even though I don't necessarily agree with it all as people do need to work for a living. What would they do if there no jobs? Nothing good I suspect.

I met a guy here recently who manages his California IT business from just down the road. OK that's nothing special I know as many people do that these days but its what he does that blew me away.

If you remember the last two Jason Bourne movies, you may remember that on at least two occasions the CIA trackers were trying to find him by hooking into local CCTV networks remotely from wherever it was that they were located and by communication links directing their trackers to find Jason. That was managed by people so even though it took seconds in the movie, that was pretty darned inefficient according to this guy.

Imagine now that you want to do that and you harness the power of AI into the loop. Ditch the people watchers and replace them with a computer image that you have of the person you want to track. And then do it globally. Apparently once you do all of this correctly it now takes less than a nanosecond to find whomever it is that you want to find. Anywhere in the world.

Unsurprisingly law enforcement agencies from all over the world are buying this technology and adopting it. So this computer nerd from the 1970's is now an AI superstar with killer technology that everyone wants. Forget about the intrusion into your personal life. See what this wonder technology can do! I told him that this was 1984's worst nightmare come to life. He laughed. Thanks!

However that world has not made it here yet. Well not entirely anyway. There's a wonderful taxi service here called Grab, a Singapore start up and a competitor to Uber which is also here. As the local taxis are dreadful, both these guys have killed the licensed taxi industry. The service is very fast, very cheap and the people that drive the cars are happy to use this for a second job. We have used both frequently and both are fantastic. We have also met some great local people, all friendly, all inquisitive on their side too.

One young man we met in this way said that his lifetime career ambition was to own his own hawker stand selling the best chicken rice. We asked him his recipe and he said he would be learning from a chicken rice sifu and go from there. Talk about life aspirations but typical of here and I imagine typical of this highly populous region. AI won't have much luck competing with this young man I hope.

The original purpose of this post was something different but clearly I had that other stuff on my mind too! We are just settling in here and have moved into an apartment where we wanted some work done. Nothing major, just putting in a sink and cabinet. Sounds simple but just as anywhere else as soon as you start off with a contractor, he says well if you want that, you'll have to do that and that will be more expensive. Sound familiar? Anyway we agreed on a price way more than we expected and the works to do and the cabinet installers have just been in and I have to acknowledge they did what looks like a great job. The cabinet has a lovely new cabinet smell too.

The various stages of work
So I went in the room where they were working and found a crew there. Maybe 6 or 7 guys. Two were on their phones looking at videos and giggling, one guy the boss had his back turned and was tapping away vigorously on his phone, another two were generally milling around and the one sole guy was doing all the work.

Some things really do not change!

Friday, March 2, 2018

Call that traffic? This is traffic!

It has been a week or so since we returned to Penang, sorry home to Penang, from Bangkok but as with my previous post about Penang I wanted to ruminate a while rather than jump right in. I did use the wonderful Track My Tour app (thanks to Chris as always) for those keen on a more contemporaneous account of our short trip there -- you can view it here -- but this post is made with the benefit of thinking about things a little first.

If you think that the header for this post is Crocodile Dundee-is you are right. That bit was my favorite part of the movie but exchange things for traffic and you have Bangkok.

Yes, that scene!
I thought Penang was busy and bustling with humanity after Bermuda and then Canada but then we arrived in Bangkok and my goodness. In the previous post I said that Penang was an assault on all my senses and it was but Bangkok is that on steroids.

5 million + people, endless traffic, small streets except for the freeways, monstrous buildings except for the tiny streets, hawker stands, market stalls... It was endless. Returning to Penang has made it seem that my new home town is serene in comparison.

We went on a night time tuk-tuk eating tour to some of the city's most famous restaurants, local not fancy. This one for deep fried chicken had its kitchen in the alley behind the restaurant itself.
Even though Thailand is the next door country to Malaysia, there are huge differences starting with religion. 95% of Thais are Buddhists and you can see this everywhere. Apparently 441 temples are in the city and I can believe it. You keep coming across them everywhere. Some not so grand but all reverently cared for and respected.

The Temple of Dawn by the river with the late King (left), the late King's wife (middle) and the current king (right). Their pictures were everywhere in the city. All huge pictures too.
And respect is a word that could be used widely in Bangkok, at least from my vantage of 4 busy days of visiting, sightseeing, eating (particularly) and drinking with our friends Tracy and Norbert from Malta (but also ex-Bermuda hands). From the greeting that practically everyone does -- the two hands together plus bow -- to the respect shown for Buddha and their King whose pictures are simply everywhere, particularly the late King who ruled for a long time and was considered a man of the people.

But yes whenever I think of the King of Thailand I do always think of Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr in The King and I. That was a wonderful movie with one of the classic movie lines of all time: "Dance after Dinner!" Just watch the movie and you will understand.

In that movie in the more serious scenes, few and far between I know, the undercurrent is clear that the King is fully aware that his kingdom is one of the few independent ones around. Every one of their neighbors is part of one empire or another and he is trying to make sure Siam as it was known then stays that way. Quite how that all happened is not clear to me even after reading my favorite go to knowledge site Wikipedia who sadly failed me in this question. Anyway, well done to him and his successors for managing it. No wonder the people revere their kings.

One popular connotation for Bangkok is sleaze -- girly bars and lady boys. In addition back packers and people that look as though they sort of arrived in 1970 and never left abound. This is strange to me as drugs are illegal and trafficking carries a death sentence but clearly people don't care and still come and stay in one of the endless back street hostels and get a tattoo and some body piercing. Why on earth would you get one of either of those in a grungey back street parlor where of course they sterilize their needles?

Oh yes, back to sleaze. I never saw a girly bar nor a lady boy, unless they were very good which I understand many are. We went to Khao San Road where endless westernized bars exist alongside mobile phone shops and trashy tourist souvenir shoppes. We also went to Pat Pong market which seemed to be grunge central alongside the massive night market selling trashy tourist items -- I bought some of these! I am sure they exist but just saying, we never found them.

What we did find were shopping malls. Endless and huge shopping malls. We didn't even go to the famous Chatuchak outdoor market. Didn't have to as there are so many others. All huge. All with massive hawker stands dotted inside and out.

On our food tour, the guide took photos so we didn't have to however  in every photo that included me, I had my head down in some dish or other! He could have said "say cheese" or something.
We also found traffic. Lots and lots and lots of traffic. Nobody uses taxis as they are considered untrustworthy. Rarely would they use a meter and would then charge a fortune for a ride. Particularly tourists. So people use Grab and Uber and of course the tuk-tuk. They also use the motor bike taxi which is not for the faint hearted as no helmet is provided and like I said there is lots and lots and lots of traffic. Also did I say that nobody pays attention to little things like road signs, give way notices, traffic lights... and as for the dividing line in the middle of the road. Chicken!

Chinatown just before Chinese New Year was thronging with people and traffic. I asked the guide if it was due to CNY that it was so busy and she said "no, its just Tuesday". As in on any day the crowds are like this...
One night we were planning to go our for a dinner to a place in the centre of the city -- we stayed in the old part, near the river -- and our hotel first asked why we wanted to go there as there were loads of great places nearby, then said it would take us an hour and a half to get there by taxi because of the traffic, and then offered to make us a local reservation. Our Uber took 20 minutes! I know it depends on your luck as on other occasions it did take a while but never that much.

And then there's the bugs! I suppose it is a 5 million person city so you should expect there to be 5 billion bugs. But did they have to all decide to eat me that one night?

I counted over 100 bug bites on both my legs from that one night sitting out by the river at night!
Brilliant city though. Loved it and am looking to return!

Monday, February 19, 2018

First Impressions...

I try not to make snap decisions particularly on places that I visit as very often they are totally wrong. Years ago I made up my mind about a man at the tennis club where my brother Jan and I played a lot and it wasn't good. As it turned out he was one of the nicest men that you could know. So I try to keep that in mind.

Mind you, quite often the first impression you get is the one that stays with you longest too. A bit like the current environment of accusation for this and that, particularly through social media. If I was to say, for example, someone had a big nose and put it out there on social media. Chances are that that would stick irrespective of the fact that that person may indeed not have a big nose, but a very nice one. That is almost irrelevant these days it seems. What will stick is the 'big nose' comment. You see it in newspapers which may make wild accusations one day then 3 days later print a retraction on page 16 after the obituaries or something. Now I know that I don't have a huge following and that anything I may say will never see the light of day, which incidentally is fine by me, but still I don't really want to have to print a retraction at some later date.  So I've waited a bit, just about a month actually, before I address our arrival in Penang.

Map of Malaysia with Penang to the toppish left
What, where, why?

Penang is an island originally settled by some rascals from the East India Company in 1786 but of course it had a massive history before that which you can find on Wikipedia here (and do please contribute to their coffers as I think they are pretty wonderful. Everything you may want to know is there. I think it's even better than YouTube which in itself is also pretty wonderful). But for us it was the modern period that has the most relevance.

We've wanted to travel more in the Far East as to this point most of our travels have been using Bermuda as a base which has therefore given an emphasis in the west. So we thought that using Penang as a base out here would do the same job for us. In addition Viv's brother Anton plus family moved here something over a year ago and waxed very lyrically indeed about the place so we thought why not.

Penang is about 60% ethnically Chinese, 10% Indian, 20% Malay and the rest is a mixture of expats and other nationalities and races. In fact it is a real hodge podge as even those who are ethnically not Malay are more Malay in many ways than they are their original ethnicity... if that makes sense. And they all seem to get on. Certainly the religions here (and there are quite a few) get on. Practically immediately we arrived came the festival called Thaipusam, a Tamil hindu festival which was a public holiday here -- read about Thaipusam here again on Wikipedia. There are plenty of others too, currently we are in the middle of Chinese New Year, another public holiday.

For Thaipusam, people dress up in their finery and parade along a route that takes  in a number of temples passing by stalls erected by others, associations and companies who provide food and drink for the pilgrims all in a party atmosphere. Imagine Indian rap music and people dancing! From Bermuda it reminded me very much of Cup Match.
Talk about noise and colour with a 'u' not the washed out version which drops the 'u' as that is one of the biggest things I have noticed here. It was to me a total all out assault on all my senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

First of all sight, my goodness what sights to see. Coming from Bermuda, a small relatively quiet little place with few people where everything is ordered or at least compared to Penang it is, the sights were amazing. Many people, huge vibrant colours, absolutely nothing held back or in any way understated....

Penang is very religious. For Thaipusam, hindus who'd had something good happen in the previous year dressed up, were impaled by spikes and in this case hooks upon which were balls which dug into their skin and which they wore on their pilgrimage. It is a way for them to say thank you for a great year.
The sounds are all different too starting with the language or should I say languages. With all the ethnic backgrounds the lingua franqua is English but what a variety of English! We are staying for the moment at a serviced apartment and the manager was speaking to the cleaner about something and we asked him to confirm a couple of things as we couldn't understand one another and she said that she hadn't a clue what language he was speaking, so it may be tricky. It sounded to us that they were speaking the same language so we asked where he was from and the manager said he didn't know and sure enough after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing he found out (it wasn't a simple where are you from Q&A session it included much gesticulation and commentary) that the cleaner was from Myanmar which is right next door. Well the country is. The language apparently is nothing like Malay or any other languages the manager spoke but somehow they managed to communicate and that is how it is here. You may not share the same language originally but you are here in this melting pot so you just have to get on and talk. Take a look at the map and you'll see all the different countries around. None speak the same language really except English.

Today is one of the many days of Chinese New Year (year of the dog) and we went into a shopping centre to find a couple of dragons dancing to the beat of deafening drums and other musical instruments. This troupe worked their way bit by bit around every shop doing their bit of dancing and prancing before moving on to the next shop. Exhilarating, colourful, noisy.... yup.

We ran into this troupe time and again in the shopping centre. They were welcomed by the shop staff and danced all around the shop inside and out accompanied by a deafening band behind them. First impression is that it would have driven me nuts but then again this is Penang...
Smell is the sense that most westerners would nod sagely at and believe the smell differential is to do with the plumbing etc. and whilst those are shall we say different to what may be expected to be the norm in the west (although I have had some horror experiences in France particularly the trains, and now that I think of it Italy too... again trains) it absolutely is not what I think of when I think smells. It is the plants, the humidity, the spices... Penang is a spice island so if you fancy a mind boggling adventure with spices whose names you've probably never heard of but which are essential components of shall we say 'curry', come here. We went to a museum and one of the things we looked at was cooking and one such item was a Musselman Curry, one of the great foods in my opinion. But the number of ingredients!  Probably 20 if not more separate spices all available fresh in any downtown market. And that's before you get onto the meat, potatoes, etc.

That leads nicely to taste and there again wow. I'm not sure I have the words to describe the new tastes I have experienced in just about a month here. I thought I'd eaten a lot of different types of food particularly 'curry' but the difference with what Patak, for example, puts out in their Madras Curry paste and what I have eaten here is night and day. And that is all down to the availability of the underlying spices and the methods used in preparation.

Some staples in this food city: chicken rice and Hainan chicken. Just phenomenal!
Forget Gordon Ramsey and the celebrity chefs. Some of the best curry I have tasted comes from some guy or lady on the street with a single burner (always gas) which sends up a volcano of heat into the massive single pan in which everything is prepared. Into this goes the oil to start then onions, garlic and the plethora of spices. After a while the final result is simply unbelievable. Never hot, I mean never chilli hot. Forget vindaloo, that doesn't exist. The hottest food I have eaten here so far is a Thai salad which was almost nuclear.

Street food during Thaipusam
Finally touch. Not sure how to describe but the array of things that are totally different here makes you want to touch everything to make sure they are real. They are. In Penang they are entirely normal.

So summing up, Penang has been an assault on all of my senses, so far in a great way and I love it!

Gong Hei Fat Choi!