Tuesday 20th April. BACK ONLINE AT LAST!

Well folks, it's been a while, hasn't it? The untimely demise of my trusty laptop was almost like losing a friend, and more importantly a cruel blow to the finances, just as all my hard work in Bletchingley was starting to pay off. I'd managed to claw my way out of debt, and then 'bam'. But that's all history now, and my new Sony Vaio is up and running, as you can see. If anything, I'm thankful that this happened here in London and not in the middle of Siberia, or Hungary. Thanks for your patience and support over the past weeks, and for your kind donations, which have helped ease the financial burden.

Now, where were we? If I recall, Mai and I had just had a great couple of days in London. She'd returned to Bletchingley, and I was staying on in the capital to catch up with David and Jeanne, who'd hosted me for several nights in Indianapolis last year. They were here in London for a few days, and figured I owed them a beer or two. (Actually, that's not true- although I tried to beat them to the shout when I could, their generosity still outdid me. Thanks guys!

coo…coo…pigeons drinking beer on my window sill every morning at the Nevern backpackers hostel in Earls Court! David and Jeanne and I in one of the many pubs between Notting Hill and Westminster!

I knew they were staying in Notting Hill somewhere- yes Notting Hill from that sickly sweet Julia Roberts/ Hugh Grant movie!- so I wandered across to that part of town, settled into a comfy little pub- imaginatively named the Sun In Spleandour! There I sat, laptop on table, ready to write my journal, awaiting the call from David and Jeanne. My mobile rang before I could even get my lips to my first pint of Guinness. I told them which pub I was in, and less than five minutes later, through the door they strode. They were staying literally two blocks away!

We had loads to catch up on, myself having been through quite a few adventures since I last saw them, and they themselves having become grandparents TWICE in the intervening months. That's right, both of their daughters had babies just a few months apart! Grandma and Granddad, or do they prefer Nan and Pop? Hee hee…

So David and Jeanne and I spent the afternoon and evening wandering from Notting Hill into Westminster, repeatedly being drawn in by the allure of the charming old English pubs along the way. When it wasn't the old world charm that led us into a pub, it was the need for a toilet, and it'd be bad manners not to have a beer once you've availed yourself of the facilities, wouldn't it? Manners are very important in this country.

The magnificent Royal Albert Hall! Posing outside Buckingham Palace

We ambled through Kensington Gardens and past the Royal Albert Hall, where scalpers were asking a hundred and thirty pounds each (about six billion US dollars at today's exchange rate!) for tickets to that night's sold out The Who concert. We posed in front of Buckingham Palace and asked the heavily armed but faultlessly polite policemen about the following day's 'changing of the guards'. Finally, well after dark, we made it to Big Ben, and the London Eye. By then, we all had aching legs, so we caught the tube back to Notting Hill, and I farewelled my American friends and wandered back to my bunk at the Nevern Backpackers Hostel in nearby Earls Court.

Phone box. Big Ben. Two silhouetted Americans. No further explanation required. David and Jeanne making obscene phone calls to the Queen

Another successful reunion, although I couldn't help but wonder if David and Jeanne noticed that I was somewhat preoccupied- my friend returned to chemotherapy that day, and my thoughts were often with her, since I've seen the way this treatment knocks the hell out of her.

London eye at night, like a giant bicycle wheel.

While I'm on the subject of my friend, she and I both want to thank everyone who's been praying for her, and everyone who's sent their best wishes. She received some great news from her specialist a few days ago; after this next course of treatment, they're quietly confident that she will enjoy complete remission. She'll be monitored periodically of course, and on the chance that the tumour does try to make a comeback, it will be able to be treated with localized radiotherapy. Great news, and a real relief to everyone!

So that was my London experience. I returned to 'business as usual' in Bletchingley until Easter, when Mai and I took another little trip, this time a day trip to sunny Brighton. Mai hadn't been to the English seaside yet, and I thought she'd get a kick out of the pebble beach, a stark contrast from Indonesian beaches.

Mai, trying on a top hat in the Brighton markets. Me, trying to blend in with the locals.

We stretched hankies over our heads and ate fish and chips on the pebbles, then strolled out to the end of the pier, where a band was just setting up for a free concert. You know me and anything free! We sat down on the pier with hundreds of other holidaymakers and enjoyed the open air show- a tribute to Shawaddywaddy (never heard of 'em) and Madness. baggy trousers…baggy trousers…

No visit to Brighton would be complete without getting lost in The Lanes, so we did this several times before phoning my friend Becky for help. Becky lives in Brighton, and came into the Lanes to join us for a few beers before Mai and I had to head back to Bletchingley. THAT was when it all turned pear-shaped!

Our return tickets to Redhill, which had been safely tucked into my back left hand pocket, had vanished. In their place was the small packet of tissues I'd bought, so Mai would stop chastising me for wiping my nose on my sleeve. The tickets must've fallen out when I reached for the tissues during the day. One way tickets are basically the same price as returns, so suddenly our trip to Brighton became twice as expensive. During a frantic scramble for the tickets, Mai realized with horror that her camera was also missing. Having had a camera stolen once, with irreplaceable photos inside, I knew how she felt. At least that stopped me swearing about the tickets for a while! Incredibly, a series of phone calls led to the location of the camera. We'd (she'd!) left it behind at Leo's Lounge where we had a cup of coffee in the afternoon. Tricky thing was, Leo's Lounge is somewhere in the middle of The Lanes. The Lanes are like something from Lord Of The Rings, like the ultimate test not only of navigation, but of character and patience. So after failing that test, and walking around in circles through The Lanes for what seemed like an hour, Leo's Lounge suddenly burst out in front of us. Camera secured, disaster averted. Time to go home. Or so I thought.

Upon arrival back at the station, I saw that out train, a direct service to Redhill, was about to leave. I fed a twenty pound note into the ticket machine, pressed Redhill, and the machine said 'thanks for the twenty quid. Now bugger off', or at least it might as well have. No tickets were forthcoming, no refund either, and during the time I spent filling out a grievance report, we missed our direct train, had to catch a later, non-direct train, and had to buy two more bloody tickets! I'm still waiting for the train company to contact me about refunding my twenty pounds, but no, I'm not holding my breath. The return thirty mile trip ended up leaving me almost a hundred and forty Australian dollars out of pocket! Next time I'm going to save the hassle and just charter a Lear jet.

Since then, I've had to commute into London twice to have software loaded onto this new laptop- essential Sony software that should've been on it when I purchased it, that is. Each time, the process cost me an entire day, involving a bus to Redhill, a train to central London, and then two underground trains to arrive at Tottenham Court Road, only to then be messed around with continual promises that "it'll be ready in an hour". Then yesterday, it was off to London again, only this time for a more pleasant cause. My friend Gail, from Vancouver, was flying into London last night, and had booked beds for both of us at a cheap hotel in Kensington. (Yes, there is such a thing, but I believe it's the last of its kind!)

Gail's flight wasn't scheduled to touch down till after nine o'clock at night, but I made my way into London at lunchtime. Who knows, maybe I'd find a few computer stores open on Tottenham Court Road, and pick up the CD drive and network card that I needed? But first, I had a challenge to complete. It was a challenge to me from myself. Huh? A few weeks ago, while meandering around Camden Markets, I'd seen a shirt that really took my fancy. That doesn't happen to me real often, and I've been kicking myself ever since for not buying it. So I was back with a mission. It only took about two hours of scouring the labyrinth of market stalls, before I found the tiny stall (which had actually moved!) and promptly parted with ten quid. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face as I reboarded the tube, but of course when I tried the shirt on later, it's too small. Even though it's a 'large', it reveals thin vertical crescents of hairy flesh between each button, a look that Cosmo tried on his wedding day and I'd vowed never to emulate. But I do like the shirt and I am gonna wear it so hey, maybe Cosmo and I can start a trend!

Upon my return to Tottenham Court Road, I soon found both the items I needed at a little store that I'd never even noticed on previous expeditions. Not only that, but I saved a total of thirty pounds on the best prices I'd been quoted elsewhere. So it was with a spring in my step that I took myself off to the cinema. "Monster" had been receiving good reviews, and that sexy Charlize chick was in it so hell, I'd give that a go. Well, any spring that had been in my step was gone by the end of that movie. It was awful. Even worse than the new Adam Sandler flick "Fifty First Dates", which I'd subjected myself to a few days earlier. With all this spare time while waiting for my computer to be sorted out, I've been catching up on a backlog of movies that I'd wanted to see. "Starsky and Hutch" was another one, and the slightly freaky "Butterfly Effect" as well.

What got me talking about movies all of a sudden? I hate it when conversations degenerate to talking about movies. There seems to be no return to normal constructive conversation after that, just a slippery slope into movie trivia until everyone starts quoting their favourite lines from "Blues Brothers" or "Ace Ventura- Pet Detective". Sheesh!

There I was, wandering around Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus in the pissing rain, and of course none of the shops have awnings over the footpath. I was soaked to the skin before I realized that my train travelpass also allowed me to jump on board any of the passing buses and escape the downpour. It doesn't save any time mind you, since the average speed of traffic on Oxford Street is something like three miles an hour, actually slower than the average speed a hundred years ago, when it was all horse and carriage stuff.

Must have been no shortage of horse poo on London streets in those days.

Eventually I made my way back to the familiar territory of Earls' Court, and tucked into an enormous plate of cheap, bland greasy food at Benjy's, my favourite diner.

By then, it was after dark. Gail and I had arranged to meet at the Polo Bar in the Kensington Plaza Hotel, where I used to work. I figured there was no harm in getting to the bar early. There were half a dozen people sitting quietly in the Polo Bar when I arrived; two men chatting at the bar, a couple at a table, and two guys sitting separately. Well, that didn't last long. I detected an Australian accent from the barman, and started talking to him, and next thing the whole bar was just one big conversation. The two guys were Canadian, the young couple were newlyweds from Australia on honeymoon, and the other two were Aussies as well. In fact believe it or not, one of the guys was from the small town in Australia where my boss' son has been working for the last three months!

Time flew by, and before we knew it, it was well past closing time and the barman was politely hinting that he could do with some sleep. Still no call from Gail, two hours after her flight had been scheduled to arrive. Hmm... I knew the name of the hotel, Saint Simeon. The name rang a bell, actually more than that; I could picture the front doorway of Saint Simeon, and the plain blue lettering of the sign, a memory from ten years ago, when I spent hours every week exploring the streets around Kensington. To begin with I headed off in the wrong direction, and ended up at the Natural History Museum, but once I was back on track it only took ten minutes before I found Saint Simeon, the blue signwriting unchanged from a decade ago. The receptionist let me check in, and it wasn't long before Gail phoned. Her connecting flight in Toronto had been delayed by bad weather, leaving her two and a half hours late. As if this wasn't bad enough, that made her minutes late for the last tube from Heathrow, leaving no option but to catch a night bus- and the less said about the joys of riding London's night buses the better! Poor Gail finally turned up at the hotel at around two o'clock in the morning. Like a pair of pathetic computer geeks, we spent most of the next two hours in a tangle of transformers and cables, showing off our latest electronic purchases- hers a new digital camera and a portable photo printer, mine the tiny laptop, a new network card and a CD R/W DVD R. When my watch pipped that it was four o'clock, we figured that was time to get some sleep.

Gail and I outside Saint Simeon, Kensington last budget hotel. In my hands, a bottle of Canadian maple wine, a gift from Gail. Sound interesting? I'll let you know.

This morning, we both managed to make it to the dining room just in time for the complimentary breakfast. Then Gail made her way north to be fitted for her puffy pink bridesmaid's dress, and I returned to Bletchingley, where I now sit tapping away at the keyboard. So there you are, up to date already. It's kind of like missing a few episodes of "Days Of Our Lives", isn't it? You switch it back on, and next thing you felt like you never missed a beat. Well, don't stray far from this site, because changes are afoot. Foreign shores beckon. Watch this space, and in the meantime don't be shy to get your challenges in. I was going to surprise you with some of the new additions to my itinerary, but I guess if I want the challenges, you'll need to know where I'm going. Below is a list of the countries I'll be accepting challenges for. Knock yourselves out! Issue you challenges on the interactive messageboard.

Australia
Bulgaria
Cambodia
China
Czech Republic
England
France
Greece
Hungary
Indonesia
Italy
Jordan
Laos
Malaysia
Morocco
Myanmar
Poland
Romania
Russia
Singapore
Slovakia
Slovenia
Spain
Syria
Thailand
Turkey
Ukraine
Vietnam

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