Friday, 18 October 2019

In Dallas...

There's one phrase I hate hearing. "This is going to be a full flight." It's particularly unwelcomed if I've already enjoyed virtually empty flights (a recent journey from Budapest to London and, of course, an excellent flight from Miami to Monterrey. Well, the flight going from Monterrey to Dallas was full and I was sitting in seat 15F, a window seat, but that was the only hassle, that it was full, there were no other issues, we took off on time, the flight was smooth all the way and now I sit in au bon pain (the bakery cafe) munching on a cheese and ham roll right next to Gate A34 where my flight to London departs at 1705hrs, getting in to London at 0810 on Saturday morning. I'll be in seat 26L, an exit row and a window seat, although I have a sneaky suspicion that there won't be a window.

I went through US immigration, which seemed to take an age; first there was a kind of self-service system into which I had to key details, including my fingerprints, and then there was one of those zig-zag, back and forth, slalom queues leading to the guy that lets you into the country. Anyway, I'm through, I've done security and now I'm waiting to board. Can you believe that after getting off the plane, going through immigration and then security and arriving at the gate I only had 35 minutes before my London flight boards. It's less than that now, something like 10 minutes. I was expecting to be sitting around here for a couple of hours, enjoying a hot meal and then a bit of writing, but no, that's all gone to shit. In fact, boarding starts in just one minute. Hate it!

The view from room 2319 on Friday 18 October 2019
Back in Monterrey I'd had the misfortune of stopping off at The Urban Corner for a cup of luke warm tea and what amounted to a scone. It's amazing how, once you engage with the travel system you start eating shit and getting bad-tempered. Here at Gate A34 there's a lot of people waiting to board. I'm sure they're going to board all the fat bastards that fly business class first, so I'll probably get the chance to finish my mint tea. Don't you just hate people that fly business class? Why are they always fat and ugly people. Always, without fail. Big, fat, beer-gutted bastards. I hate them all.

I got up at 0630hrs this morning and the sun was shining over Monterrey. I had breakfast (another Sunday roast followed by a bowl of cereal and a yoghurt) and then I went back to my room, packed stuff away, checked out, took a cab to the airport and boarded the flight.

I sat by the pool all day, writing an article on a conference I'd attended
Yesterday was a kind of lazy day spent entirely by the pool, but I was working all day long and skipped lunch in the process. I took the lap top to the poolside, wrote 95% of an article based on what I'd been doing in Monterrey and then, around 1830 I had a swim. I went out for a Mexican meal and hit the sack around 2230hrs. Little more to say and they're boarding, so I'd better go. Talk again later.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

In praise of the Real Inn, Monterrey, Mexico...

I could say that it didn't start well. When I arrived, tired after 15 hours of travelling, 12 of which had been flying, I needed sleep like never before. I was given room 2612 on the top floor of the hotel and then discovered that I had left my toothbrush and toothpaste in England. Silly me, and all credit to the hotel. Within five minutes a man arrived at my door with a toothbrush. Minutes later I decided to take the lift down to the front desk in order to buy some toothpaste. After cleaning my teeth I clambered into bed only to realise that a deep, pulsating sound of machinery was going to prevent me from sleeping. How anybody on the 26th floor can sleep, I don't know. I called reception again and within five minutes another man arrived and took me down three floors to a junior suite with automatic curtains. The sound of machinery had disappeared and I fell asleep. So, hats off to the Real Inn for their quick responses.
Roast spuds and chicken for breakfast!
The rooms are of good quality. The bathrooms are amazing, equipped as they are with rain showers and everything you might need for a decent wash in the morning. The bed, incidentally, was huge and certainly wider than it was long, but I slept well even if jet lag woke me up at an ungodly hour. On my first night I awoke around 0355hrs; on my second I managed 0444hrs and as soon as I've written this review I'll hit the sack and we'll see what time I wake up tomorrow. Last night I had a full eight hours sleep as I went to bed early, around 2100hrs.

The Stock Cafe for breakfast, lunch and dinner
And then, of course, there's breakfast. The great leveller, the chief benchmark, in my opinion, of whether a hotel is good or bad. The Real Inn passed with flying colours. There was such a variety of hot food. For the first two mornings I opted for scrambled egg with diced potatoes followed by a yoghurt and some cereal and a couple of small pastries, not forgetting the vanilla tea. This morning - and yes I'm still in the hotel as I write this review - I thought I'd go the whole hog and have a Sunday roast. Yes, it's possible! I had roasted potatoes and chicken and there were vegetables blended in with the potatoes, so it was authentic enough. I won't lie, I'll probably do the same tomorrow.

I had lunch in the restaurant yesterday (arrabiatta) and just now I had dinner (salmon fillet with vegetables). Both meals were perfect and what made them great was the music and the environment. First, the music: sixties, seventies and eighties, stuff like So Lonely by The Police, the Rolling Stones, Pop Music by M, Abba, the Doors, everything and all the original artists too. Yesterday, as I ate the pasta in the heat of the afternoon I was taken right back to lazy holidays in European resorts and just a second ago, when I was tucking in to the salmon I just felt good being there, by the poolside, alone with my own thoughts, looking at the city at night and the houses on the hillsides twinkling in the early evening darkness.
The pool and dining area if you wish to eat alfresco - perfect in every way
There's a pool and I enjoyed a swim yesterday afternoon, being careful to keep head above water (I don't want to go deaf for the remaining days I'm here). There's a gym, but I didn't use it.

So the rooms are great, the restaurant is fantastic, the breakfasts are to die for, the hotel staff respond very quickly to any problems or otherwise experienced by its guests, there are great bathrooms, pleasant staff and a great location. All-in-all, I would return to this great establishment. There are other hotels here in Monterrey, most of the big brands are here and then across from the Real Inn there is the SAFI hotel and, of course, the Quinta Real, which colleagues of mine have described as a bit dated, a little jaded, its time of greatness passed. I don't know, but I think the Real Inn probably knocks them all into a cocked hat, if that's the right expression.

First and foremost, however, this is a friendly hotel and it has a lively buzz to it without being pretentious in any way. In a nutshell, I can't really fault it and with that I'm going to bed.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Monterrey - you can't just go off alone on a pointless hike (more's the pity)

It was 0444hrs when I checked the iPhone. It's dark outside and all I can hear is the murmur of the traffic below me and a gentle hum that I assume is the hotel building. Outside, lights, like fallen stars, are dotted around, but that's about it. Most people are still asleep, not me. I'm awake. I probably woke up around 0300hrs and I soon realised there was no point in trying to get back to sleep, it simply wasn't going to happen. This happened yesterday too. There's been a full moon for the past couple of days and now the moon in question - there's only one moon - is high above me, higher than it was yesterday, but that might be to do with the time. Perhaps as the morning progresses and the mountains surrounding Monterrey become visible, the moon will come down off its high horse and greet me properly.

This city clearly isn't safe. It's fine here in the San Pedro district of town, but once outside of it, across the river, I get the feeling that I'm entering the badlands of drug cartels and Donald Trump's 'bad hombres'. Believe me, they exist. A colleague of mine paid a visit to the downtown and said he felt distinctly uncomfortable and stared at; he decided to hail a cab and get back to safety. Last night, the coach I was travelling in had a police escort - at least four motorcycle outriders and a cop car, but the police aren't safe either. Being here in the San Pedro district there's a mild feeling of being under siege and that out there, not that far away, are some dangerous people. Perhaps I'm over-egging things slightly, but I'm not sure.

Earlier this year, gangsters torched a restaurant that probably owed money to a cartel. Staff was jostled out and the place was set ablaze. "The arson was the act of would-be extortionists seeking to send a message," said one news report. The incident happened earlier in the year but the fear is that violence might return to this North Eastern Mexican city.

According to the same news report, Monterrey - home to 4.5 million people - has experienced a recent increase in violence 'reminiscent of the darkest days of 2010, 2011 and 2012, when murders were occurring at a pace of 2,000 per year.

It's not just people that have to worry: dogs and cats can find themselves on the streets too, according to a story in the Mexican News Daily. I've not yet found myself on the banks of the Santa Catarina river, but apparently if I take a stroll down there I'd find an infestation of stray dogs abandoned by people who simply don't want them anymore. Some 500 stray dogs are living along a 30km stretch of the river. In the San Nicolas de la Garza municipality of of the city there are an estimated 1.5 million stray cats and 500,000 dogs, according to Daniel Carillo, human development secretary of the area.

But let's get back to people and the question: is Monterrey safe? It's not even a case of the jury's out. I'd say it's not safe, but it seems safe enough in the San Pedro area of the city where I'm staying. Online advice says it's a fun city, but don't wear expensive jewellery, keep to public and crowded areas, never be alone and go everywhere by car. Uber drivers cannot be trusted according to one on-line report from Trip Advisor. Lastly, don't trust anybody. Seems like fair advice.

Breakfast in the hotel is something to savour. There's plenty of choice and today I didn't have my usual scrambled eggs with diced potatoes. The reason for this was simple: there wasn't any. So I opted instead for what amounted to a Sunday roast: potatoes, beef and vegetables plus a vanilla tea, cereal and, of course, a yoghurt. When I'd polished off the lot I noticed that the scrambled egg had been replenished. If only I'd waited. But they always say eat a massive breakfast and have progressively less during the day so that's what I did.

The hotel pool on a hot and sunny afternoon
For lunch I found myself back at the hotel and sat by the pool eating arabbiatta accompanied by a small glass of mineral water. The heat is stifling today and in the end I decided to have a swim in the pool. I was the only person in the water and I stayed there for around 20 minutes, swimming back and forth and savouring the heat. It took me back to pool holidays and long summers and was made even more evocative by the music, seventies hits, sixties hits, all with a summery, youthful overtone that made me feel really good inside. After drying I sat in a chair reading the most amazing book, Laurie Lee's As I Walked One Midsummer Morning. It has a sleepy, summery feel to it and blended well with the Mexican heat, the pool and the music. I was reminded of being on the Greek island of Spetses reading Graham Green novels like Our Man in Havana and The Comedians. Sometimes I have to pinch myself, and swimming around in a pool surrounded by Monterrey's mountains and skyscrapers was one of those occasions.

Earlier, a mint tea in Starbucks
It's 1645hrs and the sun is still scorching hot, but I'm back in my room with the air-con blasting away. Work is finished for the day, almost. I have a meeting tonight, but I've had a fairly chilled few hours and they were much needed.

The swim was about the only exercise I've had while in Mexico and when I get back home I need to start walking again as things had slowed down on that front. In fact, I was spending an inordinate amount of time in the Pop Inn Cafe, my favourite eating establishment, stuffing my face with chicken breast baguettes and apple pie and custard. I need to get back to my diet-conscious self again as I've been overloading on all sorts of rubbish including Bounty bars, biscuits, more bread than I need and it's got to stop. It tends to be things that begin with the letter B: bread, biscuits, buns and I suppose Bounty bars. Today I've been fairly good. I didn't have any pastries for breakfast as I figured having a roast dinner at 0700hrs put pastries out of bounds and, well, what else can I say? I want to get back on my bike and start cycling round the block again, except, of course, I'll have to accept that the weather won't be as hot as it is here in Mexico when I get back on Saturday morning.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

In Monterrey, Mexico...

Once off the flight from Miami and through passport control, I found my suitcase on the baggage carousel and took a taxi to the hotel. The taxi driver didn't speak a word of English and because I don't speak Spanish we sat in silence for the drive from the airport. After going round in circles for a short while, we found the hotel and all was fine. I checked in at the front desk and I was having trouble staying awake, but soon I was given my key card (room 2612 on the top floor) and off I went. The lift required me to use my room card, which I did, and soon I arrived. All I wanted to do was sleep, but I couldn't. Or rather I could, but, well, there were problems. First, toothpaste. Oh, and a toothbrush. I'd forgotten to pack them. Within five minutes a man appeared at the door with a toothbrush, but no toothpaste so I walked to front desk, 26 floors below, and bought a small tube for 40 pesos. Finally, it was time for bed. Or was it? There was a throbbing, pulsating noise that I initially thought was the air-con, but no, it was the machinery used to power the elevators. The room shook and I soon realised that I was not going to sleep, not ever. I called reception. Five minutes elapsed and another man arrived. "Can't you hear it?" I said. He thought it was the air-con so I took him outside, into the corridor. "It's out here too," said I. They decided to re-house me, three floors down, in a junior suite with automatic curtains and a television that emerged from behind the desk. I wasn't impressed, but the room was quiet.

Room 2619 - nice but noisy, very noisy...
Room 2319 - nice and quiet...
I slept for about five hours and then found myself awake and calling home. All was well. I stayed up, started writing the last post, which was already written in longhand, and then took a shower. There's a rain shower and it was great and much needed. Breakfast was good too: scrambled egg, diced potatoes, yoghurt, cereal and three small pastries, not forgetting a vanilla tea. Afterwards I took a look at the pool and the gym - they have a stationary bike, two in fact, but I can only use one at a time. I then took a walk in the early morning sunshine on a quest to find a razor, shaving foam, everything. I bought a razor in a 7-Eleven, the only shop open in a huge mall, and then found a huge supermarket that sold massive flat-screen televisions, barbecue equipment, absolutely everything, even bananas. I bought a bunch of eight and moseyed on back to the room. I was still tired, but I went out again, the plan being to visit the restaurant recommended by Mike the flight attendant, but I couldn't get the ATM to work so instead I went to a pretentious restaurant where I ordered a chicken broth followed by artichoke risotto. I wasn't that keen if I'm honest. When the soup arrived I thought they'd messed up. A bowl of diced chicken and vegetables was put before me, but it wasn't soup. I thought it was a chicken salad. Ah! I get it, the guy had a jug of hot broth in his hands and proceeded to pour it over the vegetables making it a kind of vegetable soup. Yeah, right. In my book if you need a fork to eat it, it's not soup. I needed a fork. The risotto was equally unappealing. A kind of beige mush like something a cat brought up, with crunchy bits. I was glad when it was over as I also had to fend off a gang of flies intent on eating my food. I ordered sparkling mineral water on ice and then remembered that perhaps I shouldn't be having ice, not here, not in Mexico. I felt like booking ahead for an appointment with my toilet. "Shall we say three in the morning, sir?" That'll do nicely. Not! My arse is in the lap of the gods. Let's hope it's not a problem.

View from room 2319...
More views from room 2319...
I returned to the hotel and decided to lie down for an hour. I set the alarm and 60 minutes later was awakened by David Bowie. "Don't let me hear you say life's taking you nowhere...". I need to register for a conference I'm attending tomorrow so what do I do? I sit here, like I am right now, writing this blog. Well, I've got to get dressed and go.

Did I mention the view from my room? No? It's amazing: the city, the mountains, wonderful (see photos above). Transmission by Joy Division is blasting out of my iPhone. "Radio, live transmission...". After this track I'm heading on out, it's 1644hrs here, the sun is out, it's hot and I need to register, then I can relax.

It's now 2137hrs, I've attended a cocktail reception and now I'm back in my room. The air-con is on and it's got to go off soon because there's a cold breeze and it's not good.

Notes from American Airlines Flight 4494 Miami to Monterrey (Mexico)

Earlier, before I boarded the flight, a man checking passports ahead of security told me I looked like James Bond and I hadn't even opened my mouth to reveal my English accent. Really? James Bond? Who's he kidding? Either way, for a while I walked a little taller until I caught sight of myself in a mirror. I look more like Russ Abbot's Basildon Bond, I thought, remembering that I look nothing like Daniel Craig either and that the man checking the passports was either being a cheeky chappy - entertaining the weary passengers and keeping their spirits high - or he was simply a fool. Probably a mixture of the two.

I'm now sitting in seat 8a of a small and nippy little plane, an Embraer 170. There's two rows of two seats and an aisle in between and we're heading for the runway. The plane is not full and I have nobody sitting next to me in seat 8b.

Miami airport from seat 8A of the plane...
Monterrey in Mexico is a two-hour, 50-minute flight, almost three hours. Basically we're heading - or will be heading when we take off - across the Gulf of Mexico. Outside of the window I can see tarmac, grass and palm trees. There's cloud, but blue skies above them. And now we are airborne having raced along the runway at breakneck speed. We're climbing steeply away from Miami. Below I can see the freeway and the downtown and the sea and motorboats as we bank left. The engines slow and we level out and disappear into the cloud before breaking through soon after and find blue skies and sunshine. A blinding sun and a bed of cotton wool below us. The cloud could be snow.

I could do with a cup of tea. There's two cabin crew on board: one male, one female and I'm guessing the guy is in charge of the first class because he's just unravelled a kind of mosquito net, a grey net curtain, that now separates first class from the rest of us, although the truth is that first class on this tiny plane isn't worth the paper it's written on; it's basically no different from what is on offer beyond row seven.

My ears are popping. Perhaps it's something to do with being in a smaller plane (the flight from London was a 747-400). Either way the ear popping is of no consequence.

The female member of cabin crew has handed me some forms that I need to fill out as the plane embarks upon its flight across the Gulf of Mexico. The cloud below has gone and there is nothing but blue below us. I've been handed a cookie, although it's really a Lotus Biscoff. It's fairly light and I have another eating rule I need to explain. All rules are off when I'm flying. It's okay to have a biscuit or a cake or some pretzels because it's all part of the allotted meal being offered. Also, you're on a plane so who's to say it's not going to be your last meal? "In the unlikely event that the food being handed out by our cabin crew is to be your last meal, we suggest that you scoff the lot."

Not long after take-off from Miami...
The biscuit was free and so, I'm guessing, there will be a free cup of tea too, although it's yet to arrive. I could do with another Biscoff, but somehow I don't think I'll get one. Oh! Hold the bus! They've just announced that the hot beverage service will begin shortly. Well, when they turn up with a trolley I order a lime-infused mineral water with ice and have a chat with the male member of the cabin crew, a nice guy and just how all cabin crew should be: friendly, helpful, you name it. Mike (because that's his name) gets top marks for being probably the best example of how cabin crew should behave towards the passengers. He told me that Monterrey was one of the safest Mexican cities, which was reassuring, as all the bad press Mexico seems to be getting at the moment was playing on my mind. Here's hoping I don't meet any 'bad hombres'.

I ask you: is there much better than flying over the Gulf of Mexico on a clear day with a chilled glass of lime-infused mineral water on ice? Yes, I'm sure there is, but right now it suits me fine.

The seat belt sign has been switched off, always a good moment in my opinion. This is proving to be a good flight and I'm enjoying every minute of it so far. When flights are like this I want to stay up here, flying around for hours, it's very relaxing, and writing notes like I am now relaxes me. What's more, there's plenty of leg room, its a lot more comfortable than BA 207 from London Heathrow to London.

Below us the cloud has re-appeared, but we are still over the sea. They've just come round to collect rubbish, which I reckon means that's the end of the drinks service. At least it was free.

For some reason - and this is going to sound a little pretentious - I can hear Rossini's Thieving Magpie as clear as day playing inside my head; I think it's my mind or my brain playing tricks on me because I should be in bed asleep, buyt I'm sitting here at 35,000 feet writing in broad daylight when my body clock is saying it's well past my bedtime. Lack of sleep and jet lag is strange, but there you have it. I 'm really looking forward to reaching my hotel. I need a good night's sleep.

For a while I snoozed, not properly, just five minutes here and there, but I have no idea of what time it is. Outside there is a slight haze and an occasional, mild shake from the plane as I realise just how tired I am. Random thoughts go in and out of my head, like long would it take to drive from Miami to Monterrey?

Later on in the flight...
There is not a lot of haze - or higher cloud  - and I keep having random and senseless thoughts that I hear in a split second and the immediately forget.

The light is fading slightly. I can't work out if we've started our descent.

"I'm going all out for an inflatable dinghy," I hear myself think (or say) to myself. Why? Tiredness is at play. And then I try to sleep, this time resting my head against the window while rather fancying myself as Doctor Heywood Floyd from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Any minute now the female member of the cabin crew will walk slowly towards me in a stilted fashion as if she's in a zero-gravity situation in order to retrieve a biro pen that has floated off. Or perhaps not.

The captain announces that there's 25 minutes until we land. The weather in Monterrey is 68 degrees and blue skies with light cloud. For me, it's 1225am and I need to hit the sack. The 'fasten seatbelts' sign is on and we've definitely started our descent so I'll have to stop writing soon. The curtain separating us from first class has been drawn back.

I reckon it'll be around 0230hrs by my body clock (if not later) before I reach my hotel room.

Outside I can see the twinkling lights of the city below. The cabin lights have been switched on, the cabin crew are wandering around collecting the trash in a black plastic bag and suddenly it's dark outside and then, in a split second, the city lights close-up, cars, street lights, the usual stuff. The undercarriage comes down and for some reason I think of my mum. Mum has never flown in a plane and has no intention of doing so.

The flight attendant has given me the name of a restaurant - Fonda El Limoncito - and has told me to ask for Juan Pablo and mention that Mike the Flight Attendant has recommended his fine establishment.  Perhaps I will. The address is Calle Guillermo Prieto, Ote 938, Monterrey.

And then we land and I spot a full moon in the night sky.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

In Miami...I'm not here for long

I left the house early this morning. Gupta drove me to the airport. Gupta is not an Asian gentleman, he's British, ex-army, a minicab driver who is called Gupta by his colleagues because of, shall we say, his 'views'. He doesn't have a good word for Siddique Khan, he's a Brexiteer, you get the drift, but today he was surprisingly restrained. It was raining and grey, but now, many hours later and after an eight-hour BA flight (BA207) I find myself in the sunshine state of Florida and Miami Airport. I'm not going to leave the airport as I'm connecting to Monterrey in Mexico. In fact, right now, I'm sitting at Gate E33 having gone through immigration and back through security. I'm not even that hungry so I'm sitting at the gate writing. The flight over from Heathrow was smooth and relatively painless. I met an American chappy and we chatted most of the way over about Trump and the Joe Biden Ukraine case and how the USA is rife with corruption and that's why nobody really likes Hillary Clinton because (this guy says) the Clintons were corrupt and that's why Trump got elected because he's setting out to do things, unlike past presidents: he'll build his wall, keep his country safe from illegal immigrants and say it like it is. The USA is a corrupt place and it's all because of money and greed and vested interests, according to my new friend. The healthcare system is there to make money, not heal people, and the food is shit because it's supposed to be because if people get ill they enter the healthcare system, which is all profit-based and, well, it's a vicious circle. No surprise that he wants to leave and live in Europe, but he likes the sunshine in Miami and that'll probably sway things for a while.
Breakfast at Terminal 3

I ate chicken curry and a rock hard bread roll and a small pot of some kind of chocolatey mousse and then there was nothing until an hour or two before we landed. Then we got a mini Magnum and then about an hour later a smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich and some tea. It was a good flight and now I'm waiting for another one. I think it's going to take around three hours, across the Gulf of Mexico and there's not much in the way of eating establishments. I mean, there's Wynwood Warehouse Bar, which isn't at all appealing, and there's a Versailles Cafe selling cakes and stuff and that's not appealing either. So I'm sitting here writing this, listening to a toddler crying about something and looking out on the 29-degree heat outside. There's cloud and there's blue skies and the heat hit me hard as I jumped off the transatlantic flight on to the jetty, heading for passport control. There were queues, but it was bearable and soon I was through and now I'm here at Gate E33. The toddler is still whining about something, yelping like a dog at times and there's a baseball game on the television screen in front of me. Max Scherzer, I'm assuming he's the guy with the bat. He's out, he's been struck out, says the commentator. And now there's a Corona Premier ad. I could do with a cold beer, but I don't drink, it's nearly been two years and as I've said many times I don't really need to drink anymore.
Heading for Gate 40 at T3

People are gathering for the flight and there's about an hour to go; I might get a cup of tea, but that's all I need. Yesterday night back in the UK I went out for dinner and foolishly ordered a Tiramisu for dessert. Now there's a dessert that'll make you stop all desserts, it's so unhealthy. I resolved there and then not to eat any more shit. I'm always eating shit: biscuits mainly, but cake too and large 'caff' meals down at the Pop Inn. This week just past I think I had my fair share of custard. Two (or was it three?) apple pies and custard for lunch, alongside my favourite fillet of chicken baguette and then stewed apples and custard at home. Talk about custard overload! So, after the Tiramisu you can imagine how I was feeling. In a nutshell I was feeling ashamed of myself.

The baseball's back on and they're making an announcement. Russell something is being asked to go to gate something or other to catch a British Airways flight, presumably back to Blighty. I saw a massive Jumbo jet at one of the gates and I'm assuming that's the plane he ought to be on. More people have gathered for the American Airlines flight 4494 to Monterrey. It departs at 5.51pm and it's on time. There's not much else to say right now so I'll sign off. More to come.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Long way to the bus stop - a great work-out!

Saturday is sometimes a struggle for me and this weekend (or rather than one just behind us) proved difficult at first; in a nutshell I was feeling a little weary, but it wasn't raining and it wasn't cold so I soon got myself together and headed for the green to meet Andy. We decided that the slow way to the bus stop would be the best bet as I had some driving to do later and couldn't go to Westerham, as originally planned, to celebrate this blog's 10th anniversary (it was 10 years old on 27 September).

Beddlestead Lane is a slog, but thanks to some mid-week cycling it was a little easier and the ride proved to be a great work-out. It was good to reach the bus stop, put it that way, and when we got there we did our usual (drink tea and munch biscuits) although, as avid readers will know, I haven't had a biscuit on the ride for many weeks now as I'm trying my best to cut them out where possible.
Heading for Botley Hill on the return ride

The ride home was also 'the usual'. Andy branched off at The Ridge and I carried on along the 269. We kind of said 'see you tomorrow' but it wasn't looking good and when I woke up in the morning there was rain hammering down. It continued for some time so the ride, which I'd aborted around 0600hrs, was a non-starter, although I think Andy did get out. I was considering getting out and doing my hill run around the block, but I didn't. I slobbed about for most of the day, fretting about this and that.

Now it's Monday morning and I missed my round-the-block ride. Last week I went out three times so I'll try to make it four this week (Tuesday to Friday) but let's see how the weather performs.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Thoughts from flight BA875 Budapest to London (27 September 2019)

My BA flight has departed from Budapest en route to London Heathrow Terminal 3 and the cabin service has just started. The flight is empty from row 20 backwards so I'm in seat 20A and I have nobody sitting in my row. Luxury! I've been in Hungary since Tuesday, staying at the Sofitel Hotel in the centre of Budapest. It was a large and roomy corporate hotel with decent rooms and I loved it, although the plug in my bathroom sink was jammed so I had to prise it out and keep it out.

Dangerous tea bags?
I'm weighing up what to eat and drink for when the cabin crew arrive. I've thought about tea, but they've got Tea Pigs, which is supposed to be 'premium'. However, there are news reports claiming that teabags, like those used by the Tea Pigs people, contain microplastics. Apparently, they're not harmful, but if you believe that, you'll believe anything, so I might have sparkling mineral water instead. The problem with not drinking alcohol is that you're limited to shit - or non-alcohol beer, which amounts to the same thing. Today, sitting in a restaurant in Budapest, I realised how crap non-alcohol beer can be and resolved not to order it again. Not that they have any on board this BA875 flight. They do have peppermint tea and I'd like one, but I'm put off by those micro-plastics, so it's going to have to be mineral water. Despite the fact that there's only a few people on the plane, it still seems to be taking an age to be served, but I can wait, I had a late breakfast around 0930hrs and then lunch around 1400hrs and I'm not particularly hungry, although I might have a Kit Kat.

You can't beat writing on a plane, longhand
The weather in Budapest has been wonderful today - very hot, something like 23 degrees and sunny - tee shirt weather. Back home in the UK, it's raining and horrible, just like you might expect. It's an awful country, especially with Boris Johnson in Number 10. We need a general election. I won't say anymore about politics because it's boring, fucking boring.

We're almost in October. Soon the clocks will go back and it's winter and, of course, Christmas! Mum will be 90 in November. I'm actually lost for words, I just want some mineral water and a Kit Kat, but the cabin crew are taking their time.

It was pleasant wandering around Budapest and I know that whenever the city is mentioned somebody always brings up the fact that it's two cities: Buda and Pest. My walk took me into Buda, which is a little sleepier than Pest where I was staying. I visited the odd gift shop, bought a fridge magnet and that was about it. Had I not had a late breakfast, I might have sat in one of the coffee shops, I might have enjoyed a cookie or a cake, but I didn't need food. I do now, though!

Come on, Ladies! I'm hungry! I felt like yelling this, but decided not to. Stop yabbering to the other passengers and come and serve me instead! In all honesty, I'm not that bothered. I can wait, but at this rate I won't get a drink until we arrive in boring old London. A Kit Kat and a mineral water, that's what I need and I need it now, not next week. Ah! Here they come. I'd better stop writing for a while and secure my order - here goes, back in a second.

I've ordered a can of Loveau, a sparkling, flavoured mineral water with nothing nasty in it, or so they say. The drink is claimed to be all-natural, zero-calorie and sugar-free and 'bursting with juicy berry flavour'. Well, it's alright, but there's an old woman on board who simply won't stop coughing and it's a little off-putting. I hope her germs don't circulate through the cabin and infect me! She's making a right old noise and putting me off my food. Shut up!

Outside, it's pretty hazy, but sunny. There's one hour and thirty minutes to go and we're due to arrive in London at 1905hrs. We are currently flying over Germany, not a million miles from Nurnberg and we're cruising at 38,000 feet. There are 568 miles until we reach our destination. I'm still enjoying my 'guilt-free pleasure' and I think that's my problem at the moment, everything in my life is guilt-free. I don't drink or smoke, I don't do anything wrong and it's plain boring. I just don't wake up with a headache, that's all. That woman is still coughing.

Culture vultures
I tell you what I like about being in Europe - and I don't mean politically, I mean physically - and that is the fact that they are much more cultured that us Brits. As I was about to walk across the so-called Chain Bridge, there was a woman handing out leaflets for classical concerts at Saint Stephen's Basilica. The programme included Bach, Handel, Saint-Saens, Vivaldi, Purcell, Schubert, Sibeliius and Mozart and it also printed their dates of birth and death. JS Bach was 92 when he died, according to the leaflet. I would have loved to attend that concert, but here I am halfway to London Heathrow, and besides, it's not until Sunday (29th September) when I'll be at home listening to the rain.

Circling over London...
The skies outside have cleared and now I can see fluffy clouds below me, some way below me, and they are bathed in sunshine, a bit like a huge, white duvet not dissimilar to the one in my hotel room back in Budapest.

It's so nice not having anybody sitting in my row. It means I can spread out a bit. Who needs business class? The plane is virtually empty. It must have something to do with the planned strike, which was called off. I'm guessing that nobody booked the flight because they thought it would be cancelled. But the strike was called off and hey presto! Virtually no other passengers.

London clearly visible below...
There is just over an hour until we land and the cloud below us is clearing and the sun still shines. We seem to be over Luxembourg and approaching the Netherlands, although, more precisely, we're kind of north west of Frankfurt; it's hard to know exactly from the little map on the screen hanging from above the seats in front of me.

We are flying on an A320 Airbus. I've been on holiday to the USA recently and flew on an A340. The 320 has two rows of three seats whereas the Virgin A340 I flew on to New York (and later back from Washington DC) had a row of two seats, a central row of four seats and another row of two seats.

I don't mind flying
Do I like flying? Yes and no. In some way not particularly, but in others it's the most exciting part of most trips aboard. I get by, I suppose. It's nice when the flight is smooth and the plane is empty, like now, but this is rare. I remember once flying home from Paris and there was only five of us on the flight. Fantastic! It would be good to fly across the Atlantic in an empty plane, but I doubt that will ever happen.

Outside the cloud below us has reappeared, but the sun is still shining and we are flying towards it. We appear to be flying between Aachen and Dortmund and have 55 minutes left in the air. Our descent will start within the next 20 minutes and I'm amazed at how time seems to fly when I write long hand in notebook like now. Writing, however, needs space and, hold on, the engines have slowed and I'd imagine that means the descent has begun. The cloud below has thinned again. What was I saying? Oh yes, oh, hold on again, I can see land below! Buildings and roads, but it can't be the UK, not yet. I'd imagine it's Germany or the Netherlands. Anyway, I was talking about writing. For me it's a solitary thing so when writing on a plane it helps to have nobody sitting next to me trying to see what I'm writing.
Heading for the gate...
The cloud below seems closer and I can see that Norwich and London have appeared on the map. We're over Eindhoven and there's 253 miles to go.

The Reckoning
A white-haired gentleman across from me is (or was) reading a John Grisham novel and just because those engines slowed earlier doesn't mean we have started our descent, we haven't. The plane is still flying at 38,000 feet. Perhaps the cloud is getting thicker and higher as we approach the UK? The sun is still shining too, but then it always is once you get above the clouds, unless it's night time. I hate night flights as I like to see what's going on; there's nothing worse than turbulence when you can't see what's happening outside.

The captain has just said we're about to start our descent and are currently over Amsterdam. Looks as if we will be circling around the airport before we land, but by all accounts it might be relatively clear skies as those sitting on the right hand side of the plane (the man with the John Grisham novel and the woman who keeps coughing) will get good views of the City of London as we come into the land, according to the captain. Lucky them!
Time to disembark...
I can see the sea below us and I assume we are leaving behind the Dutch coast and flying across the North Sea. I can see a clear coast line and I think sandy beaches too. The cloud cover seems relatively thin. We are 37 minutes from our destination.

Writing on a lap top is fine, but you can't beat a notepad and pen, it's so relaxing.

The map shows the plane over the North Sea and heading towards Dover, there's 32 minutes to go. Soon those seat belt signs will go on and I won't be able to use the tray on which I am resting my notebook. I bought the notebook in Tokyo, just the for record.

You can't beat an empty airport terminal
Why is it that I prefer being on the left hand side of the plane? I'd rather be in seat 20A than seat 20F. And in truth, there's no answer to the question. You get what you're given. Actually, you can choose your seats.

Looking down on a rough sea
The sea below looks a little choppy. I can make out the white horses, which seem frozen in time at this height. I guess there will be less cloud because of the breezy conditions, not sure. We are definitely descending as my ears are going and I have to swallow to hear properly. There's around 25 minutes to go but there is still sea below us as we head towards Essex at 26,500 feet and 95 miles left to go. Now, just a few words later, we're at 23,000 feet and there's 23 minutes left of the flight. The plane has just gone through a bit of cloud, it shook slightly, but is through the other side, and below I can see the UK coastline. We are now over land and there are 71 miles left to fly. More UK coastline below us and I think it's the Thames Estuary as we now appear to be following a river. There's a building down there, close to the water and there are flashing lights, some kind of amusement park or fairground perhaps? Now there are patchwork fields and clusters of housing and we're still following the river. I can see lights here and there because it's not fully dark yet. More houses, more patchwork fields and I think we're in some kind of holding pattern with 21 minutes to go. Through the cloud, a higher density of housing, motorways, traffic, infrastructure.

The John Grisham novel the white-haired man across the aisle from me was reading was The Reckoning.

We are banking left and the wing is brushing the cloud. Lights below twinkle.

"Cabin crew, thanks very much. Ten minutes to landing," says the captain.

We are going through cloud and it got a little bumpy. There's more to come and I'm now writing on my lap. Not my laptop, my lap. Big clumps of cloud. I hope we don't have to go round again. We're banking to the right and the city below is twinkling like the stars.

"Cabin crew, seats for landing," the captain commands.

We are flying over the Thames. There are high rise buildings, streets and roads, a floodlit football pitch. We've banked right and have levelled out. A park, another football pitch, the Thames again, we're flying parallel to the river, I can see traffic and yet another football pitch, in fact, three of them. This must be the final approach. The bunkers of a golf course are just about visible in the approaching twilight and still the river is there. The undercarriage is down, flaps are down too, buses and houses, front and back gardens, a tube train, road markings, a busy roundabout, more houses, car parks, airport buildings, the runway, we're down and the engines have been thrown into reverse to slow us down.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Heathrow Terminal Three," says a member of the cabin crew.

We're home!

We parked up at the jetty around 1922hrs and that woman with the cough who, incidentally, is sitting next to the white-haired man who was reading the John Grisham novel, is still coughing.

I sailed through immigration, bowled cockily into the baggage reclaim area, carousel number 8, picked up my case, waltzed through customs and headed out of the airport.

Further reading...

For more notes from flights, click here. There's another one here. And how about this one from a recent flight home from New York, click here! There's also this rant from a flight to San Antonio, click here. I also got busy on a flight from Delhi to London, click here.

Friday, 27 September 2019

In Budapest...

When I woke up on Tuesday morning there was driving rain and gusty winds. Not ideal weather for flying. Fortunately, I was due to fly to Budapest at lunch time and hopefully the weather would calm down: that was my thinking anyway. And it did calm down, the rain stopped and the flight, which had been delayed because of the poor weather conditions, took off around an hour later than scheduled. It was relatively smooth, but as always I couldn't relax. The flight was too short to get immersed in a good book, there were no movies, so instead I flicked through the High Life magazine, read John Simpson's column and looked longingly at some of the watches in the shopping supplement. I sold my Rolex a few years back to pay off some debts. I didn't order anything to eat either and that was because I'd already eaten a chicken burger followed by an apple tart with ice cream and a cup of tea, two cups, actually, at the Oriel bar and restaurant in Heathrow's Terminal 3. My colleague Paul had texted me to say he was there, so I made my way after checking in and paying an extortionate £65 to stow my suitcase in the hold. One of the most annoying things about my Samsonite case is that the company that made it said it offered cabin dimensions, but I know that it's a bit bulkier than the sort of case one normally takes on board, that's why I bought it. But when the check-in woman asked me to put it in the metal frame that determines whether a case can be taken on as hand luggage or not, it failed the test and I had to pay up.

Room 102, Sofitel Budapest
I was running late so my case was probably one of the last to be loaded, which meant it was first on the baggage carousel when we arrived in Budapest. We took a taxi from the airport and soon found ourselves at the Sofitel hotel, which is one of those places with a massive, galleried atrium and glass lifts that run eight floors up the side of one wall, exposing the occupants.

Once, a long time ago in Mexico, my work colleagues and I played a game of dare; we all had to write down a dare and place it in an ash try and then it was a lucky dip as to what dare we were going to choose. Various dares were on offer: one was singing with the hotel band, another was travelling in one of the escalators dressed in nothing our underpants and another was running around our hotel floor - or any floor we chose - stark bollock naked. And that, my friends, was the dare I picked. I could do it at any time as long as I did it some time before the end of our stay in the hotel. I chose my floor, which was some way up, I can't remember my room number, and I picked 2300hrs as the time I'd attempt the dare. We were sitting down in the hotel restaurant one evening when I announced that tonight was the night. One of my party had already sang along with the hotel band, another had travelled from the top to the bottom floor dressed only in his boxer shorts and now I was going to run around my hotel floor naked. If I'm honest, it didn't phase me. I simply went to my room, took off all my clothes, ensured that I and nobody else had my room key and off I went. Fortunately for me nobody came out of their rooms and I reckon I completed a circuit in about three minutes, probably less. These were pre-digital times and when I reached home I asked my wife to drop my film at the chemist for developing. This she did, but what I didn't know was that one of my little group had somehow managed to half inch my camera during my nude run around the hotel. I got back home from work one day to discover a neat little fan of prints on the dining room table and they were all of me running naked around that hotel in Mexico. What I'm saying is this: there's photographic evidence, folks. Mind you, had Facebook been invented those images would probably be circulating around the world.

Breakfast most days...
In Budapest, I was staying in room 102 on the first floor and the room was great. Quite a big room with the bathroom on the left as you come in followed by a huge double bed with fluffy pillows; there was a sofa, a table, which was the desk and a flat-screen TV. There was a minibar stuffed with booze, which I didn't touch, plus a couple of Mars Bars, which are still there, and a couple of small cans of chocolate peanuts and spicy peanuts, which I did touch, and I owned up later when asked 'did you have anything from the minibar?'

The bathroom was pleasant. It had everything I needed, there was even two showers, one in the bath and the other in a self-contained shower room. The only thing wrong with the room was the plug in the sink, which remained permanently shut. I had to prise it out with my fingers and managed it once or twice, but there was a period of around a day or two when it remained full of water. Not even the housekeeping staff bothered to empty it, so it was down to me. It was best to keep the plug out at all times.

One of the Sofitel's elevators
The most annoying thing about the hotel, however, was the lifts. They work using the room's key card - never a good idea - and it's a bit of a faff. I've had one or two occasions where I've been faffing around trying to get it to work and then noticing that the lift was travelling somewhere to pick up other guests, leaving me to say something like, "Oh, this isn't my floor". Pathetic. There's a pool, which I haven't used and a gym, which I haven't been near, and outside there's a city, which I haven't seen, although I've been to Budapest before and on previous visits I've walked all over the place.

Last night I took a brief stroll around the city and returned to the hotel to have dinner: venison soup followed by chicken with a non-alcohol beer and a bottle of mineral water. I skipped dessert based on the fact that all week I'd been nibbling at little cakes and pastries during the coffee and tea breaks of the conference I was attending.

I think this is St. Stephen's Basilica...
It is now Friday morning and I have a bit of time to go exploring before heading home, although, as I write this, it's nearly 0900hrs and I haven't had breakfast yet. I fly this evening around 1700hrs (1720 to be precise) so I don't have to be at the airport until mid-afternoon. No doubt I'll take a stroll across the river and sit in a Starbucks reading, if I can find one. Something like that. Last night I switched off my alarms as I didn't want to be woken up at 0600hrs and I wasn't. I woke up around 0830hrs and right now I'm sitting here in the dark, curtains drawn, lights not on, typing away on my blog.

The Sofitel from the chain bridge
Today, incidentally, my blog is 10 years old, something I'll probably write more about at a later date. It's been 10 years since I started writing and it's been good, it's kept me out of mischief when travelling abroad and it's documented my life over the last decade. I say it's kept me out of mischief and by that I mean that I tend to sit in my hotel room of an evening writing the blog rather than sitting in the hotel bar drinking too much. Of course, I haven't been drinking for the past two years so that's now out of the equation, but in truth, I enjoy writing, like now, alone in my room. In fact it's distracting and I tend to miss breakfast as a result, like now.

It's 0903hrs and I'm going to have to rush to make breakfast ... but now it's 1036hrs and I've returned having enjoyed sausage, scrambled egg, mushrooms, potatoes, cereal, a couple of bakery items and a peppermint tea. Check-out is at 1100hrs so I'd better get moving. There's never any time. First I'm rushing to reach the breakfast room and now I'm rushing to check-out. I'll leave my 'stuff' with the concierge and take a wander around town. I'll probably have lunch somewhere and then I'll head back to the hotel, pick up my 'luggage' and head for the airport. But first I've got to print out my boarding pass in the business centre downstairs. They've got quite a good business centre. It's on the ground floor, close to the front desk. But enough of all this! My work here is done, so to speak, and I'm looking forward to getting home and re-engaging with my usual routine.

A Jamie's Italian? In Budapest? And it's still open!
I decided to cross the Danube on the bridge across from my hotel, which I think was the chain bridge. I then followed a path to higher ground where I visited Buda Castle. There were soldiers marching around and flags, perhaps it was a Government building, who knows? I popped my head around a few gift shop doors, bought a fridge magnet and then sauntered back, down the hill and across the river to the hotel and then I decided to get some lunch. I found a fairly posh gaff, which was part of the Four Seasons Hotel where, incidentally, Will Smith was in residence. I never saw him and he didn't see me either so all was well.

Soldier at Buda Castle (I think!)
I'm getting fed up with non-alcohol beer, by the way. It's so awful and not really worth buying so in future I'll stick to sparkling mineral water, it's more refreshing. Lunch was beef bourguignon (their spelling, not mine) and it was fantastic. I also stuffed myself with a few bread rolls and then asked for the bill.

Back at the hotel I ordered up a taxi and fell asleep on the one-hour journey to the airport, from where I finish off this post. Check-in had already been done online, I dropped off my bag and was told that the plane would be empty from row 20 backwards. I changed my seat from 18A to 20A and had a whole row to myself, which was wonderful news and I'm now at Gate C12 waiting to board. I'd better go.

Monday, 23 September 2019

Round to mum's on Saturday and the fast way to the bus stop on Sunday (we got soaked)

It's great riding to mum's for so many reasons: first, of course, is seeing mum, who is 90 in November. Mum's looking extremely good for her age and she's as bright as a button, according to Bon. I was hoping he would join me on the ride, but he had stuff to do. Mum reads a lot, she eats well, sleeps well and most importantly, she's chilled. You've got to be chilled, that's half the battle. Mum is chilled because of her garden; she's out there most days and it's immaculate (as I'm sure I've said before). I must have arrived just before 0900hrs having left the house around 0810hrs. The weather was perfect and the ride was good, although there's always a bit of traffic as I travel west through the burbs. A lot depends on the time I set out; if I leave earlier, there's less in the way of cars and vans, but once beyond 0800hrs it starts to build up, until I reach Carshalton Beeches, which is when I enter the magical world of mum and fruit cake and Brambly Hedge and Mrs Tittlemouse.

Nice weather Saturday en route to mum's
Sitting in 'the lounge' by the patio window, looking out on the garden, we engage in small talk about forthcoming weddings, what my brother and sister have been up to, how Marion from 'across the road' had her operation and came out of hospital the same day as the op, the woman in the bungalow opposite is a chartered accountant, don't you know, and, of course, we talk about dad, who died on 15 May 2011, but leaves behind a legacy of history books, like Trevelayan's History of England, a red hard back that has seen better days and is held together by red sticky tape. I daren't say I'd like to read it because it would mean taking the hefty tome home on the bike and then not reading it and having nowhere to put it. On the same shelf is the dictionary I presented to dad just a few days before he died. Inside, I had written 'Just in case you're lost for words', which was a pun on the fact that he was never lost for words and the book I had bought him was full of words.

I cut myself a couple of slices of mum's fruit cake, another reason for riding over. There's always fruit cake at mum's and there's always KitKats in the biscuit 'tin'. It's not really a tin, it's a piece of porcelain shaped like a house, which I bought her for Christmas a few years ago. The lid is the roof and when I lift it, there's always KitKats or Penguin bars or something of interest. I stuck with the cake.
Keeping the saddle out of the rain...

I rode back exactly the way I rode out, but the traffic was heavy and I regretted not taking the slightly longer off-road route, but all was well.

On Sunday I heard rain on the conservatory roof and almost aborted the ride, but stopped short of doing so. Instead I wrote "Pissing down here. Thoughts?" God knows what I was expecting, but I followed up with "Might leave it 30 mins and see" followed by "Or 15 minutes". Andy suggested meeting at 0745hrs and we did – and got a bit of a soaking, but it was warm so it didn't matter. In fact, the rain stopped for my ride to the green, but returned as we headed past Knight's Garden Centre en route to our chosen destination, the Tatsfield Bus Stop. It made sense to ride 'the fast way' rather than dawdle along Beddlestead Lane in the pouring rain, and soon we found ourselves under cover and drinking tea.

Next week this blog is 10 years old. Well, the exact birthday is Friday 27 September, but we'll be celebrating (if that's the right word) with a ride to Westerham on Saturday 28th September. Westerham was our first ever destination, but our cycling predates this blog by three or four years as I think we started in 2006 – or was it 2007? I'll have to check it out. Andy said the weather for next Saturday is not looking good, but let's see.

I considered riding back with Andy along the Ridge, but was put off by the hill at the Warlingham end of Slines Oak Road and decided instead to risk the 269. I always risk the 269. The rain had stopped, but when I reached home I was still soaked through and so changed into drier clothing.

The ride is nearly over as I arrive at Sanderstead's village pond...
The weather has changed, the light needs to be switched on when I come down in the morning and it's clear that winter is coming. In a month from now the clocks go back and we enter what I always describe as 'our weather'. I don't know why dull and overcast weather characterises our rides, but it does. I woke up this morning, for example, to the sound of rain, meaning I won't be able to ride around the block, although it's all gone quiet so perhaps it will be possible.

All-in-all, a good weekend of cycling, probably around 28 miles in total. Yesterday (Monday) I rode around the block and I was hoping today too, but the weather dictates otherwise.