Positive Portions

Well that was fun.

Although being overseas has its problems, and being apart from the Lovely Wife is one of my least favourite things, having the opportunity to live and work in another country and culture – albeit for a short time – is one of the most interesting things I think you can get to do. I had an eye opening experience back in 2000 when I had the opportunity to work in our Japan office, which is still one of the most fondly remembered periods of my life (especially so as I met the Lovely Wife the weekend I returned, with timing I still find hard to believe). The recent much shorter sojourn in Singapore and Beijing may well rise to mythic status in my memory and certainly I am starting to miss things already, and not just the people. It does not matter where you are, or how beautiful a place is, it is the people that I think really forge your lasting impressions. In this case, a fine, welcoming and enthusiastic crowd who it was a pleasure to interact with. Generally I find Asia a stimulating place as there is a real feeling of opportunity, even in places where the place you are starting from may seem very low; I wish sometimes I could see such get up and go back in my own country, but too often I see almost a forlorn acceptance of the situation and if any energy is expended it seems to be in the form of bemoaning the lot you have been dealt with. My parents expected me to work my way into a better place (a task I find instinctively difficult as in my estimation I am at heart of an inherently lazy disposition given half the chance) and there is no point in life dealing you good cards if you do not use them boldly. I have come back with a little bit of a spring in my step and a reminder to look for opportunities. Sometimes I need these reminders.

I’ll miss the food also. I do not think I have eaten so well and relatively healthily for some time. It did provide me with some amusement that everyone seemed convinced that I might struggle with hotter dishes, and it took some convincing to point out I wanted some extra chili, please, not less. In the end despite tempting fate several times on the heat side I did not come across anything hotter that the Chicken Jalfrezi at the Indian restaurant around the corner from home which I do like when I am actually eating it but comes back to haunt me later. I had no such problems in the last month. I cannot really replicate some of the things I liked out there – you rarely can – due to lack of access to some ingredients. However one thing I do want to try and replicate is a sensible attitude toward portion size. Looking at the mounds of food that I have again experienced now that I am back – including in my own kitchen, I still have a tendency to over cater – and think about what and how much I was eating in Singapore, for example, I do not recall to ever feeling anything other than pleasantly and not overly full on considerably less. Yes, partly that is the kind of food, and in that kind of hot, muggy climate you do feel less hungry, but it is another principle that I have forgotten/never got quite a hold on, and really should.

So I’ll miss the place (don’t start me raving about the Botanic gardens in Singapore – loved them), the people and the food; but the positive memories are something I’d like to relive here from now on.

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Driving Me… Around the Bend?

Confessional time again, although I do not think this is much of a ‘crime’ then just something that many people would find unusual. I really do not like driving very much. Which is perhaps odd, as I do quite a lot of driving when it comes down to it with going back and forth on the dreaded M25 to work or perhaps the long trip up North to my father near Newcastle. Then again, maybe this is precisely why I am at best ambivalent to getting behind the wheel, and I am guaranteed to respond positively to any suggestion from the Lovely Wife along the lines of ‘would you like me to drive?’ As with several areas of life we nicely complement each other here… I am not taking advantage of her as the Lovely Wife actually seems to like driving. Even if I did not have a company car hybrid my car would always be a boring work horse while the Lovely Wife would want the thoroughbred.

Anyway, out here in Asia on business someone else is doing the driving (when public transport is not really an option, as I much prefer using trains when available). In Beijing, where I am writing this, I am heartily glad of the fact I do not have to drive as I would not last five minutes. There is a particular art it seems to driving here, which involves treating lanes as optional, a willingness to get perilously close to other vehicles and liberal use of the horn – generally it seems as a warning of ‘I’m coming through’ rather than the rather pathetic gesture of annoyance it often is at home. I guess I should be cowering in the back (nervously noting the lack of useable rear seatbelts, something particularly striking in someone who grew up in the period in the UK where wearing then became compulsory in both back and front). But I am not. Indeed, my generic fitness tracker is telling me I am actually quite chilled, which surprised even me. But, thinking about it, there are a couple of reasons why that might be. First, I find China endlessly fascinating and there is so much to distract me – like the gentleman in minimal beekeeping gear (a hat with a net) checking his bees from one of about ten makeshift hives lined up at the side of a busy road. Then there is the group of older ladies in uniform with their massive petrol driven strimmers, efficiently pushing back the encroaching vegetation.

In addition, I am generally a good passenger. Perhaps because I dislike driving so much I think you have to accept that you are putting your faith in your driver, something I have only rarely regretted (and once regretted and survived, never repeated). So I’m letting the taxi driver do what he needed to and, at least physiologically, not worrying about it too much.

Compare this to my most terrifying moment behind the wheel, driving a hire car through the Turkish city of Izmir. Initially we (a bunch of lads) found driving around (typically, although we were based in Bodrum, the main focus was visiting many of the Greco-Roman sites as we could rather than partying the night away every night) rather stressful, but soon started to adapt a bit so that we started to do what the locals do. But somehow I ended up driving through the only city we had to negotiate and in my head (obviously not in reality – well I hope not) I drove through it with my eyes closed in terror as vehicles, mobile market stalls and at least one cow seemed to hurtle towards me from all directions.

We survived. But thinking of that experience means that I’ll leave it to the experts from now on, given half the chance.

Things that Go Bump in the Night

Apart from leg injuries I am enjoying my sojourn in Asia, especially this brief period where the Lovely Wife is out to share the experience with me – at least out of work hours. Sadly, this is not a holiday, but for moments it feels like it. This weekend, for instance, had some very special moments, not least at the zoological parks here in Singapore.

Zoos are a controversial topic, and I am not going to debate pros and cons of modern zoos – instead let’s all agree on the abominations some of them were in the past – I still remember some of the places I was taken as a child where the conditions the poor animals were kept in where not only inappropriate but positively disgusting, even to a child. Sadly I have been to several major zoos where the penny does not yet seem to have dropped, and even when championing the very real need for captive breeding programs and consumer education (among the ‘entertainment’), which keeps me just about in the pro-corner, there is still a lot of work to do with some institutions and there are some species that just cannot cope with captivity and need to be treated especially carefully in terms of how we conserve them.

But Singapore zoo (and night safari) certainly impressed me. I am not sure about the poor polar bear, but some of the big predators – who often suffer the most and in the most obvious fashion – seemed a lot more relaxed than I have seen in similar places. In particular, the pair of white tigers was positively playful with some rather engaging pair play/mating behaviour. I have just noticed I have used the word ‘playful’ when describing a tiger. I think the only thing that put more of a shiver down my spine than watching a large predator leaping around its enclosure was looking directly into the eyes of a group of spotted hyenas, only a few metres away and in the dark. Those eyes said no mercy, and I was very glad of the ditch that kept us apart.

This latter encounter was at the rather wonderful night safari. This is a unique night time zoo which focusses on nocturnal animals and was quite magical. There is a tram that takes you round some of the site but we ignored it in the end – the loud and overly enthusiastic recorded commentary irritated us both and we thought we would leave that to the families. As reasonably able bodied people (albeit one of us limping a bit) we wandered off along the various trails at our own pace, with a relatively small number – on this evening at least – of fellow intrepid explorers. It was worth the shoe leather. I have never seen a Slow Loris alive and in the flesh – probably never will again. Small deer graze and interact with each other just off the path, completely unconcerned as you walk past and/or stop and stare. In one place, one slightly sleepy Binturong (related to Civets) was turned into three very curious ones, all sniffing at us, just as the signs had suggested we do to them (apparently they are supposed to smell of popcorn; not entirely convinced on that one). Perhaps because there were relatively few people on the trails the animals were so, well, relaxed, but also it pushes the point that for these species night is their time, and the time to see them at their best. Some of these species are found in day zoos, and I suspect some of them suffer stress from the noise and disturbance of visitors at a time when ideally they would be resting.

So thumbs up to the night safari and let us keep thinking of ways to better look after our wildlife – and how to stop and if possible reverse their habitat destruction as if there is any reason for captive breeding there has to an eventual end game for reintroduction, otherwise you are breeding museum exhibits; personally I do not think that is good enough. Also, thumbs up to the constant messaging in the zoos here on saying no to illegal trade in animals and animal parts – I would also like to see this emphasised more in other zoos.

The main highlight for us… Well, for us I think we both agreed that the fruit bats are stars. Not only the larger ones, but also the first animal we came across coming into the zoo, near to the toilets. A small colony of fruit bats hanging down from the roof of the covered walkway, each one maybe six inches in length. Very sweet, and as we watched one of them suddenly changed the position of its wings to reveal the tiny baby it was grooming. Sold from that point, I think.

Living with Setbacks

Sometimes you just cannot win, I thought as I limped onto a plane today to Malaysia for a day meeting tomorrow. A few minutes before I had been not limping, feeling my leg was getting back to normal and happily admiring some rather lovely orchids that slightly incongruously can be found in one of the terminal buildings at Changi airport in Singapore (together with a rather impressive spread of sunflowers on a terrace overlooking the departure gates). Now I was in some level of agony because, as I slipped my boots off for security I felt the muscle – the one I have been trying to nurse back to health for about a month – tear rather badly. I managed to avoid swearing somehow (there were very small children around) and just limped on with it. The irony us I probably need not have bothered – it was just that the sign said removed high boots and the DMs fitted that description. If I had decided not to be overly conscientious I would be well on the road to recovery, rather than back at square one, or possibly worse.

While I am hardly a sporting great, running is really important to me, and being injured hurts a lot more than the physical pain, because it brings frustration as well. I miss the pleasure of the feeling after a good run. I am not quite in the ‘I enjoy it as I do it’ category, although there are people who clearly do – in St Albans we regularly see a young lady training with what we assume is the St Albans boys school cross country team in the Abbey Orchard, and from the slightly insane grin on her face she is obviously getting something out of the activity in the moment as well as in retrospect. I worry about fitness loss and weight gain (which I can very much ill afford) and then the terrible, nagging doubt that this time it will be serious enough to stop me running altogether, in any meaningful way. I guess that will come at some point – I do not think I have the true grit that the septuagenarians who often pass me in big races, with often with a very curious gait that while looking odd clearly Works For Them. But I am certainly not ready for that point now, if my body will let me.

The harsh reality is that I am getting older and my body is not as robust as it was twenty years ago when some friends introduced me to running and I finally started to get a bit fitter. Like a lot of things, I have a tendency to be lazy unless forced – the Lovely Wife will be sympathetic but point out that my lack of effective stretching has partly caused the problem. Not enough flexibility means there is the possibility of breaking – and at the moment I am broken.

So I have to promise myself to be better, and to accept that even if the pain goes quickly, I have to let it heal. That probably means no running until July at least… At that point it will be getting late to get ready for my 22nd and final Great North Run; I intend this year to run for charity, possibly dressed once more as some kind of animal – but whether I will be doing it or not feels, tonight at least, very much in the balance.

Dazzled and Frazzled

I never fail to be surprised at just how interesting Asia can be, even in the simplest of things. Even in my short time here in Singapore and even while I struggle with the jet lag. Come to think of it the most difficult thing is probably not the time difference and more the climatic difference – from fifteen degrees Celsius (combined with a stiff and cold breeze off the Quantock hills – conveniently, at least for us, keeping the significant part of the threatened rain in South Wales on the other side of the Bristol Channel (sorry to any Welsh friends out there) to over thirty degrees and humid. Almost hard to breathe but then as a confirmed North Easterner I do not really do well in heat of any sort, much preferring to lurk in the shade. In fact apart from being away from the Lovely Wife probably the thing I miss most is that I’ll be away for all of May – one of my favourite times of the year. A month where the birds are fully in their breeding season and the summer visitors starting to arrive, culminating in the arrival of the swifts at the end of the month and the literally screeching arrival of summer. It is often sunny and bright with that kind of light intensity that the season brings but without the wearisomeness that can develop as the summer rolls on an mellows into a pedestrian pace – May is a month that skips along like a six year old girl, full of unrestrained joy. Well, in my head anyway. So I’m going to miss the British spring, here’s hoping for a great June to compensate.

Anyway, back to Asia. Whether it is Japan, China or here in Singapore, there is always something to look at. Different ways of expressing things (and not just in terms of hilarious English – let’s be clear about the number of terrible uses of English in the UK – including having to looked out for ‘Slow Children’ and worried about the mental state of the poor ‘This door is alarmed’). Pictograms, warning signs and reminders to jog on the left are fascinating. But it is food that is the true wonder of many Asian countries for me. Having landed two hours beforehand I was obviously determined to shock myself into getting rural Somerset out of my system a kill or cure way by walking around one of the many food halls here. Assaulted by colours, smells and noise, I could wander around these places for ages constantly seeing things that make me think first ‘what on earth is that?’ closely followed by ‘I wonder how it tastes?’ Sadly, or perhaps happily for my already ample waistline, I think go into equivalent of being caught in the headlights of all of these culinary delights and end up unable to choose. It is a common problem for me; at a music festival Canada a few years ago I ended up going hungry because I could not decide what type of poutine to have – and considering that poutine is basically cheesy chips with gravy (and in this case some meat and/or vegetables thrown in) that is indecision of the highest order.

It may take me some time to get used to the heat – I’ve not had the courage yet to venture outside in my running kit yet in fear of heat exhaustion – but there is plenty to keep me amused in the air conditioning (outside of work of course). Most amusing thing so far is some cooking oil branded as ‘Duck’, going on the reassure us that it is 100% vegetable (to put off any concerns that the name might be more a description of contents, I presume!).