absentfather

Letters for my kids to read in the future, from around the world now

Archive for the month “March, 2013”

Seoul Food

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Dear George,

The tour of east Asia continues and I am nearly at the end, here in Tokyo. It is cherry blossom season and the branches are heavy with white and pink blooms; enthusiastic photographers aiming their expensive telephoto lenses at them from tripods in the park. Tokyo is a relief after Beijing, only three days there is enough for me.

This work trip has lasted two weeks and my first stop was Seoul, Korea. It wouldn’t be a normal trip for me if there wasn’t imminent doom predicted, and the tensions between North and South Korea are at a peak. All rhetoric of course and it was hardly mentioned during my stay. I worked solidly for 6 days, my only down time was at the gym and being taken out to Korean BBQ restaurants by clients. It is always a BBQ restaurant and you have to act as though it is something really special for you each time. After three nights of it, I was ready for something less time consuming and more western, but the BBQ kept coming. Some guidelines: marinated beef is best, followed by chicken followed by pork, which is generally really fatty and sometimes still has hair on it. They cook the skin too. The places with genuine charcoal are my favourite as the heat is homely and the popping fuel makes it feel more authentic. Grab a leaf, add some rice, a bit of spicy paste and some snipped up meat then shove it in your mouth. Wash down with local beer, makoli (fermented rice alcoholic drink that looks like milk. All the cool kids mix it with lemonade) or soju if you are feeling brave. Of course, it is accompanied with kimchi and pickles.

One exception was a trip to Korea House, a heritage site surrounded by traditional gardens and serving food made from centuries old recipe books. It is fine dining, Korean style and is quite an experience. Boxes with many compartments containing shredded vegetables, pickles and meats arrive for you to build miniature pancakes with. Baked abalone, seafood soup, meat patties, kimchi and sweetened nuts all make up an 11 course menu washed down with tea. The setting makes it a unique experience.

Then on to Beiijng, a city that is changing at an incredible rate. When I first went to China in 2005, I was still a little bit of a novelty, kids stopping me in the street to have their photo taken with me. There was 16RMB to the pound and I couldn’t spend money however hard I tried. A bottle of beer was about 30 pence and a hotel room in the middle of the city was about £40 a night. Now beer is £5 a bottle and hotels don’t come much cheaper than £150. I was staying in Haidian, a student district, and was struck by the massive increase in foreign students there – hundreds of American, British, Russian and Korean kids taking the opportunity to experience China and learn Chinese.

My hotel was hosting some snooker players playing in the China Masters, so I was eating breakfast next to sports celebrities (in the UK and China anyway) every morning.

I met up with a friend one evening and went to Hohai lake for dinner and drinks. We went into the hutongs behind the main drag and found Bed bar, a converted peasant house that now charges £4 for a mojito and you sit on beds to drink them. We ate some Vietnamese food and went to a bar owned by an American couple. Just shows how Beijing is now a very different city to a decade ago – truly international. We whinged about the dirty air, the traffic and the spitting taxi drivers, but it was fun.

I arrived in Tokyo last night and love this city. It’s efficient, convenient, massive and bonkers. When your mum and I first came here in 2002 we felt like we had landed on mars, but things are a little easier now. The subway has English signs for a start. As always, I’ve got a pretty packed schedule, but I’m looking forward to the food, maybe a run around a park and hopefully something cultural one morning.

Love

Dad

Pictures:
Seoul food
The gardens at Korea House
Snooker players in Beijing
A funny sign at a university in Seoul
The view out of my hotel over Shinagawa station in Tokyo

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Your Dad the Pakistan TV Star

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Badshahi Mosque at sunset – a wonderful vista

Dear George,

I have remembered another story from travels past and thought I should jot it down before I forget:

During my last trip to Pakistan in 2010 I was treated incredibly well by all the locals I met, greeted with lots of “thank-you-for coming” smiles that were both inquisitive and apprehensive of my reaction to their country. This was a time when very few people in my industry could travel to Pakistan as their employers would not let them. It was following a couple of years of heightened alert and increased terrorism following a large bomb at the Marriott hotel in Islamabad and civil unrest due to political instability. Your mum was pregnant with you at the time and was anxious about my trip, but I know from experience that perceptions from the outside are always overstated and incorrect. I only saw a handful of white faces during my 8 day stay, all on which were in my hotel in Islamabad and one of which I think was the Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie. She was there to raise awareness of displaced refugees and the impact of NATO operations in the region at the same time as me and I saw someone very much like her leaving my hotel one morning.

My stay co-incided with Ramadan and every evening was therefore a social event to break the fast (an Iftar), eat traditional treats and talk business. At one event I met gaggles of fashionable women, all well groomed, well-educated and full of strong opinion and life. My Pakistani colleague was really well connected and knew a great deal of people in each city we visited. One of her contacts was Ayesha Sana, a daytime TV star and we were somehow invited onto her show together to talk about education in the UK.

Set of Meena Bazaar TV Show

Set of Meena Bazaar TV Show

The lovely and bubbly host, Ayesha Sana

The lovely and bubbly host, Ayesha Sana

Looking "Bradford ready" and a little nervous

Looking “Bradford ready” and a little nervous

The set up in the studio for my interview

The set up in the studio for my interview

And so it was that I found myself in front of a lightbulb-lined mirror having my hair heavily coated in gel by a camp make-up assistant in a rather grotty green room of the PKTV studios. He spiked it up aggressively, stood back and stated proudly, “There you go my friend, Bradford ready!”, as if that is a good thing. So not only was I going to make a fool of myself on national television, I was going to do it with bad hair.

We were ushered into the studio and sat, waiting our turn whilst I tried to follow what was going on. Someone was talking about bangles, showing examples on a display table. The odd word or phrase in English, but otherwise I had no idea what was going on. This was a light-hearted lifestyle programme, aimed at women in the home, I thought. Before I knew it the ads were on and I was being miked up. “Don’t worry, relax, you’ll be fine. Nice hair,” said Ayesha with a warm smile, before having her make-up touched up, finishing a text on her mobile and shouting fiercely at a cameraman. Her beaming smile appeared again instantly after her tirade and she started to speak at camera, welcoming the viewers back and introducing me. I can’t remember much about the next 20 minutes but I did manage to record it all on Sky TV
back home and I don’t think I did too bad a job of being relaxed, giving light-hearted answers and trying to charm Ayesha. My colleague was a natural and rescued me a few times I think.

Glad it was over, we went to a shopping mall that evening for dinner where I was instantly recognised by a fellow diner. “I saw you on Meena Bazaar today”, she said and right there and then I knew celebrity. Your father was a z-lost celeb in Pakistan for a day.

The rest of my trip was fine, without a hint of trouble. I even had a couple of whiskeys, which I thought would be impossible in Pakistan. It was on a rooftop in Lahore overlooking the big red mosque at sunset and was a lasting image for me. Beautiful.

Pakistan has suffered many problems in recent decades and is a complex country, to often dictated to by outside events,
hindering its progress. There are elections this year and Imran Khan, the former cricketer, has a huge following. He  promises reform, independence from external forces and to clamp down on corruption that interferes with everyday life there. I do hope he makes it to the election alive, is elected and can make some changes. The world needs it.

I’m on another plane as I write this, at the beginning of a two week trip away from you to Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo. Great
places to visit, but a long time to not see you. You are 2 years old and hilarious and incredibly cute. We found out yesterday at a 20 week scan that you will have a sister in August, which is just lovely and so exciting. You’ll make the best older brother.

Love

Dad

Bogotá: steak, gold, dancing and an Ambassador’s reception

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Dear George

This time it was Bogotá in Colombia. I came here in 2010 for a few days on my own and remember being anxious about security and not trusting anyone, but was actually surprised by what a cosmopolitan city it was. I saw dog walkers with ten loaned hounds striding in cycling shorts and businessmen drinking espressos in the sun and thought how like LA it seemed, not the rustic, crime-ridden struggle I expected through reputation.

This time I knew people on the work trip and my few days here were fun as well as great for business. Colombia seems to be turning a corner and there is opportunity for those with ideas. I was heartened by the people I met, their realism, drive and honesty and very British sense of humour (bit with a much better sense of fun). Leaving you is getting harder and harder, especially as you can now talk a little bit and ask where I am all the time. Heart-breaking. It is easier if the place I am visiting is not punishing and this trip was comfortable (great Hilton hotel), worthwhile (so I don’t feel my time away was wasted) and short (just 6 days).

What can I tell you about Bogotá? It has such a bad reputation internationally after decades of crime and it’s name goes hand in hand with cocaine, which people tell me is still its biggest export. I think this reputation makes Colombians adamant to prove the world wrong, that they are a fair and fiercely democratic people with a country full of opportunity. They are certainly resource rich and are investing heavily in education. Sure there is disparity between rich and poor, like all developing countries, but things are fairer now and patriotism is strong. The relationship with the UK is fantastic due to President Santos who spent 10 years with us and has pushed through trade agreements. They love a good time.

I went to the British Embassy for a meeting and was invited to the Ambassors residence for a reception. He is in his late 30s and seems like the youngest Ambassador in the world. He used to serve under William Hague and is a nice guy; everything you would expect of an Ambassador: charming, positive and full of praise for his country of posting. His wine left something to be desired though.

My other evening of fun was as Andres de la res (Andre’s steak house) which is a legendary restaurant/nightclub. We were assured we had a table which transpired to be a reserve list and so were left waiting by the bar, where the drinks were strong. The place is over 5 floors of dining and dancing and performance artists acting out crazy scenarios to drums and trumpets. A valentines day massacre complete with red paper blood and a tommy gun takes place over people eating steak followed by a crazy Latin shake-dance before they disappear away silently. Crazy stuff but a lot of fun. I managed to get a bite to eat at the bar but the mojitos had taken effect and I danced with Colombians and tourists for an hour or so. The next day I went to the Gold museum, a well-arranged celebration of antiquity from the region and a great way to spend a couple of hours. Free too. I love the style of animals crossed with humans and the intricacy of the gold work – crazy to think there were people hammering it out and sacrificing their virgins only a few hundred years ago.

I walked around the old part of the city, which feels how I imagine Cuba to be: colourful but shabby and the actual state of Colombia’s economy is more obvious. There a is poverty, but there is time for relaxation on a Sunday too.

I’m now on Air France 422 somewhere over the Atlantic and it is time to try to get some sleep in my rather uncomfortable plastic chair after my rather tasteless plastic meal and cognac from a plastic cup. Home to you in a matter of hours.

Love Dad

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Some of the artefacts in the gold museum and my invitation to the Ambassador’s house

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