Final day of RTW in 11 days

So I am back at home finally. The travel home was pretty uneventful. The flight out of Hong Kong left on time and so we arrived on time at 7am into Johannesburg. I was pretty tired when I got onto the plane as it was 11:15pm already when we boarded. Add to that 3 days of limited sleep and a round of golf in 30 degrees I was ready to sleep in any position. I fell asleep before they had even closed the doors and I woke up about 45 minutes after take off while they were serving dinner. I debated with myself whether I should put my chair down and go straight to sleep or try and having some dinner. I eventually concluded that it was only 7pm in SA and so if I was to beat the jet lag that I should try and have some dinner and stay awake a little longer. So I took that option and watched an episode of CSI and then Modern Family while eating supper. I then put the chair back into the bed position and fell asleep almost immediately. That was about 8pm SA time. I woke up at 12am SA time (6am in HK) and thought I would probably not go back to sleep again (given the time in HK) but closed my eyes again and fell asleep until 3:50am SA time. That meant I slept close on 8 hours (which must almost be a record for me on a plane) and if you could the other hour at the beginning of the flight you could even say 9 hours. That was despite the fact that the business class seats on Cathay are not nearly as good as SAA, BA or Virgin (in my view). I am hoping this extra long sleep will help me beat the jet lag entirely.

We arrived in Johannesburg at the same time as 6 other international flights (BA from London, SAA from London, SAA from HK; Lufthansa from Frankfurt; SAA from Munich and one other I missed). Fortunately we were just behind the BA and in front of everyone else so the queue was not that long at immigration (probably took 15 minutes to get through). The luggage started to come off just as I got to the belt and the priority tags worked for once with the business class bags coming off first. I got mine and went to the domestic departures to re-check it for the flight to CT. That flight also left on time at 9:15am and we got back to CT at 11:15. My bag was first off and came out as I got to the baggage carousel. So I managed to eventually get through a long international trip without my luggage getting lost.

So what are my overall impressions for the trip – here is my quick summary:

  • LA is a pretty dull place (sorry Rachel)
  • LA airport is the worst international airport have been too in the last 10 years (worse than Nairobi).  And it wasn’t just my opinion but I see in an email today from Paul that he concurs with my view (and he used another terminal)
  • Cathay Pacific have a fantastic First Class but a so-so business class
  • I love Asia and need to plan to go back on holiday with the family
  • I particularly like Taiwan and especially the people who are very jovial, always joking and really make you feel welcome
  • I really am not as fussy an eater as most people think … next time one of you says I am fussy remember I have eaten Sea Snail, Insects, Frog’s Cream and other things which a whole lot of you would never eat (and have told me so)

Thanks everyone for your comments along the way. I write for an audience so it is always great to get the comments back!  Sorry I did not reply to all of them but I did occasionally. Consider yourself a lucky one if you got a personal response. However, I do have to mention the best reply I got in 11 days and it came this morning when I downloaded my emails in Johannesburg. This was it:

If nothing else it proves I have at least one resourceful staff member with a sense of humor. Pity he didn’t actually see them himself otherwise I might have considered promoting him…

If you’re enjoyed the read then you will be pleased to know that we go on holiday in June/July and I will blog our holiday as per usual. Until then…

Day 10 of RTW in 11 days

Woke up at 5:30am this morning and even though I tried to sleep in for another 30 minutes I just couldn’t. So I got up and packed up and was ready to leave at 6:30am for the golf course. One of the Taiwan office staff came to collect me (Chiren). He drives what looks like a Lexus what is a Taiwanese manufactured car that is a Lexus copy. The trip to the golf course (Lung Tan Golf Course – which means ‘The Lakes’ – should have been a sign about the amount of water on the course) took about an hour. What I learnt is that if I ever come to Taiwan on holiday, hire a driver. The roads are incredibly confusing. And a large number of signs do not have English markings. For example, the golf course was only ever signposted in Chinese characters. They clearly aren’t keen on visitors.

The club house was enormous. I don’t think I have seen a golf club house that large anywhere. You get your own locker with an electronic code. Though I doubt anyone would steal anything anyway. You can’t play at Lung Tan unless you are a member or you arrange a golf day (like today). My 4-ball consisted of me, the MD of HSBC Insurance (Lee Wood – an American but now living in Taiwan) and two local Taiwanese insurance guys (both apparently from companies Lee reckons are technically insolvent). One of them was able to speak English much better than the other. Both were very friendly. The reason I have not mentioned their names is because I could not pronounce them let alone type them and my keyboard doesn’t have Chinese characters. Chiren (the guy who picked me up) lent me his golf clubs. I felt bad that he had to sit out and not play. He took photos, organized the food etc for the day. Roger (our branch manager in Taiwan) did not seem concerned – he said he must sit out to enable me to play. I hate playing golf without my clubs but I really liked his irons and hit them so well I reckon I am going to buy myself a set this weekend when I get back home.

Golf in Taiwan is an experience. We had 2 caddies – both women and both wrapped up like to was 10 degrees outside. It wasn’t, it was more like 30 degrees with 90% humidity. By the second hole my shirt was wet with sweat. By the ninth I could wring sweat out of my shirt and my hat was drenched so that the sweat just ran down my face. The one Taiwanese guy looked like it was 15 degrees outside – I never saw a drop of sweat the whole day! I drank a bottle of water, 3 cokes, a glass of water, a Sprite and never needed the toilet at any stage. I reckon I have lost at least 2 kgs today. My pants keep slipping off as I walk – really irritating. In addition to the 2 caddies, you also take a cart. They are 5 people carts. One of the caddies drives, 3 on the backseat (only Taiwanese size people can fit). The other caddy holds on the side. I wished I could do that as I am sure the air flowing would have cooled me down a touch. The caddies do everything. Give you clubs, tell you yardage (even in English in my case), keep the score, mark & clean your golf ball when you’re on the green, give you the putting line (not always right I discovered) etc. Paul would have hated it. My sons would have loved it. It was a really enjoyable round, I played quite well (despite not having my clubs) and I only hit one ball in the water (which I was able to recover even). For the golfers reading this, I had no blow outs at all (a shoes round Paul) and 32 putts despite having the strangest putter I have ever seen. It had a grip with a diameter of about 4cms. They don’t just have a halfway house – they have points also at holes 5 and 14.

After golf we had lunch at the club. Who knows what I ate. Some I recognized (like Sea Whelk … seen that 3 times now so I recognized it) and some I have no idea what it was. Very nice prawns but try de-shelling a prawn with chopsticks. Believe me you can do it. I watched one of them doing it and then I copied. Was 80% successful in getting it right. As usual there was a HUGE amount of food with about 8 courses for lunch. The Taiwanese also love to toast and the visitors get individual toasts. It happened last night as well. One by one they toast you and each time you must drink. Fortunately I can drink a lot of beer and certainly a lot more than any of them. At lunch it was just toasting with Iced Tea (fortunately). Very special technique to toasting – I will show you when I get home.

Chiren then took me to the airport. It was about 30 minutes away. My flight was only at 7:35pm back to HK but there are almost two flights an hour so I asked them to move me onto the next flight they could. They put me on the 4:15pm flight. The plan was that it would give me time to shop at HK airport. The flight ended up being delayed for about 30 minutes but I still got to HK just after 6pm. My flight leaves at 11:45pm this evening for Johannesburg so lots of time to kill. I checked out every shop. Most of them are ridiculously overpriced. They are the big brand names – Dunhill; Armani; Ralph Lauren; Jimmy Choo, Boss etc. Nothing cheap. Shirts on special at R2500. They felt great but I cannot believe any shirt is worth R2500. I did manage to buy two things – a present for Helen and a present for Helen & me (combined one though I suspect Helen will use it more than me). Nothing else of interest though. Pretty disappointing as it was my only real chance to shop. I am now sitting in the Cathay lounge. I am pretty tired – combination of early morning, golf in 30 degrees, long trip, lots of jet lag etc. I will have some dinner in the lounge (they have a fantastic buffet including sushi) so that when I get onto the plane I can go straight to sleep. Unfortunately I am slumming it in Business Class this time as there is no First Class on the plane.

I remembered one other thing from the National Treasures Museum last night which I forgot to include in yesterday’s blog. It is for all the Gen Re people reading the blog (and CBD people). I learnt that you know a promotion is imminent when you see a Monkey riding a horse. So when you see that happen you can ask me when your next promotion and related salary increase is due. Otherwise don’t bother …

Until tomorrow which should be (all things going well) written from home! Looking forward to seeing the family. Looking forward to my nightly hug from Chloe. Playing Call of Duty with Michael (we have to finish that stupid mission now). Beating Stephen again at squash and snooker (though the latter is not a certainty these days). And no, I haven’t forgotten Helen … just can’t put that in writing.

Day 9 of RTW in 11 days

As I only got to bed at 2am this morning I was still pretty tired when my alarm went off at 7am. I did manage to drag myself out of bed and had a bath for the first time in 9 days. I think other people might have noticed the smell so I thought it was time. Seriously this was the first hotel to have a bath and a shower and so up until now I have been forced to shower only. (By the way, this hotel was rated as 2nd best business hotel in the World – don’t ask the price!). Breakfast at 8am and the seminar started at 9am. The seminar was in the hotel and about 50 people arrived. I was first up. I only got up to speak at 9:20 though as the introductions were done by Roger Chen (our branch manager in Taiwan) who then also allowed the head of the Insurance Institute in Taiwan to speak. They both did so in Chinese (or Taiwanese) so I had no idea what they were saying. While there were no questions again, the audience were much more receptive than HK and they nodded their heads etc at the appropriate points. I also didn’t notice anyone falling asleep. John Gilbert spoke after me, we had a break for tea, John spoke again and then I had the last session again. The people really liked my last session and while again there were no questions, afterwards people came over and engaged with me on the thrust of the presentation. I think it went down well and even John Gilbert said he thoroughly enjoyed it and it made him think.

We had lunch (this time nothing strange) and then at 2:30pm we headed out for the National Treasures Museum. We had a tour guide who started guiding on the bus. She was very funny (in both English and Chinese). She said it was the first time that she had taken a tour group around for 3 hours (3pm-6pm). We had booked for dinner at 7pm at the restaurant right next to the Museum and so she said that we could spend form 6pm-7pm in the gift shop (another first for her to have a group spend an hour in the gift shop!). As you can see that spirit and humor was pervasive throughout the afternoon. As John and I were the only 2 needing English translation, Tuan offered to be our English tour guide so that Sunny (our real tour guide) could just speak Chinese. The museum houses 680 000 artifacts from China – the majority of them from mainland China and brought to Taiwan before Mao’s cultural revolution. That is probably the only reason they were preserved. Only very little of the artifacts are on display at any one time. They change the displays every 3 months and Sunny told us that if you came once every 3 months (i.e. to see the new items on display), it would require you coming 20 years consecutively before you had seen all the artefacts they have.

I could probably write a whole book on the museum but I won’t because I am tired and need to be up 6am tomorrow again and it is now 10:30pm.  My impressions from the museum were:

  1. The Chinese love Jade – and the most valuable and sought after is White Jade – just in case you thought Jade was always a greenish color – you would be wrong!
  2. The Chinese were miles ahead of the Western culture in 12th and 13th century.  The pottery they had was already glazed and if you hadn’t told me it was from then I would have guessed it was made last week.
  3. They eye for detail is clearly displayed in their carvings (some you could only see with a magnifying glass and yet when you did the detail was incredible – and these were done in 18th century)
  4. If you own anything “Ming” you are incredibly wealthy – a Ming Tea Cup sold on auction recently for R40m.  Forget about a Ming Vase … give me a teacup!
  5. I learnt about the Qing, Ming and Han dynasty’s.  I probably quadrupled my Chinese history knowledge.
  6. Taiwanese have an excellent sense of humor
  7. Walking around for 3 hours at a museum is very tiring.

One thing did strike me (as a point of application … especially for Mssrs Pillay & Lewis given recent events). You can be miles ahead in the 12th century and become overly confident about your abilities and cut yourself off from the rest of the world and then the end result is that you end up lagging the rest of the world by 2012. It is a great analogy for business (or what not to do).

After we finished at about 6:30pm (we managed to get in another 30 minutes before they kicked us out of the museum itself), I did get to go to the gift shop and I found another present for Chloe. Still nothing for anyone else though. I am hoping for some shopping time at HK airport tomorrow though! We then went to dinner at Silks Restaurant right next door to the museum. One quick look at the menu and I knew we were in for another interesting dinner. The courses included:

  • Water chestnuts (make that another first for me)
  • Sautéed Sea Whelk (had that yesterday and sea snails twice in a row didn’t appeal to me)
  • Frog’s cream with Crab Meat Soup (ate that … still don’t know exactly what it was but was assured it had to do with frog … so another first)
  • Pan-fried Lamb Chop with Curry (skipped that for obvious reasons)
  • Shrimps with Jelly Fish (again)
  • Jadiete Cabbage with Insects (Yes – was worried about that one – ate the cabbage and skipped on the insects)
  • Steamed Grouper with Tree Pod
  • Chicken Soup with Yams
  • Flied rice (sorry … Fried Rice)
  • And then desert…

There were starters as well – never figured out what all of them were but one thing I did eat was bamboo stems – which were ok actually – would have them again. I sat next to John at dinner and we talked about the food (a lot) and avoided the same things. The quantity is just ridiculous though. I was full after the the Soup. I have no idea how they eat so much and yet stay so slim. I will skip breakfast tomorrow as I don’t think I could manage to wake up that early any way and I am sure I don’t need it.

After dinner it was back the hotel. Everyone seemed to be heading off to the mall or the night market but John and I headed to our rooms and bed.  It is quite hard work talking to people whose first language is not English. I have to admit that they all tried really hard, are very polite and are friendly and nice people. You get a sense that they enjoy life. I like the Taiwanese people. If you want to see what Taipei looks like from my hotel room have a look on my Facebook site. I have posted a photo there (and also of the menu tonight).

Sleep well.

Day 8 of RTW in 11 days

This morning I woke up with lightening striking and thunder rolling.  Of course it was 2:45am and I felt like I had finished sleeping for the night.  Here we go again with the jet lag.  I forced myself to go to sleep again until 4am but slept very lightly due to the lightening.  I tend to sleep with my curtains open in a hotel room (not sure why but it has become a habit now).  At 5am I finally gave up and got up and answered emails.  I realized that the reason I could not see anything when I arrived in the room was probably due to the fact that I was in the cloud.  As it was now raining the clouds had lifted and I could see the lights of the harbour.  It was quite beautiful.

We had a breakfast meeting at 8am in the hotel.  What I realized immediately is that the food was going to be different over the next 3 days.  Steamed buns, sago and various other chinese items which were unrecognizable at breakfast.  Even the fruit was interesting.  At least half of the fruit I had never seen before.  I stuck with the known.  They had bottled fruit juices of every type you could imagine.  I went with watermelon – it was fantastic – like drinking a watermelon.  I stuck with the Western breakfast this time and had my usual of 2 eggs.

I had free then until lunch but as I was feeling really jet lagged I headed back to the room and tried to have another hour of sleep to get me through what I knew would be a long day.  I did nap on and off but never managed to fall asleep properly.  We then had lunch in the Dynasty Club in Hong Kong.  It is a private members only club.  There are two Gen Re people speaking at the events – myself and John Gilbert who is our Chief Investment Officer (and based in the USA).  He spoke during lunch today.  He spoke incredibly well and all the clients were paying attention.  My mind wandered from time to time but he even managed to keep my jet lagged mind most of the time.  Lunch was an experience as well.  I think I must have eaten at least 10 things I have never eaten before.  It consisted of 7 courses and then 2 desert courses as well.  It was a HUGE amount of food.  Impossible to eat all of it.  I think in every course there was something I had never eaten before.  If you’re squeamish, you might want to skip this part!  Here are the things I ate today which I have never had before:

  • Jelly Fish
  • Deep-fried bean curd (remind me not to ever try that again)
  • Sea Whelk (sea snail)
  • Chinese Yam
  • Longan
  • Meldar (it is herb used for healing)
  • Abalone
  • Conpoy (this is dried scallops – scallops I have eaten previously but never dried)
  • Spotted Grouper (they offered the head around for people to eat the eyes etc)
  • Dragon Fruit

The soup also had chicken feet in it (though I have had those before).  I could not bring myself to eat the Sago Cream Mango for desert.  This was all accompanied by plenty of wine – one of which was Rupert & Rothchild from SA.

After lunch we had about an hour before the next meeting so we went into the office and I met everyone I have only ever dealt with via email.  The office is on the 68th floor and you have to take 2 lifts to get up that high.  Half way up is an observation deck with fantastic views of the city.  We then went to have a meeting with the Actuarial Society of HK.  As we were slightly early, my host (Tuan) asked if I minded if he popped into a bookstore at the bottom of the building.  Tuan lives in China and is our branch manager there.  The bookshop turned out to be ‘Elim Christian Bookstore’.  This obviously resulted in us having a conversation about Christianity and it turns out that Tuan is a Christian.  He is Malaysian by birth and 3 of his family members were converted all in different countries.  He told me it was ‘by the Grace of God’.  He bought two books (one by Josh Harris translated into Chinese).  He told me it is illegal to take them back into China but he will do it anyway.  He cannot get any Christian books in China.  We got talking about CBD and our numerous branches.  I could see the envy in his eyes.  I asked about his Church and he says they meet illegally because they are not allowed to have an official church.  He runs the house church – they do not have a pastor.  They usually get 35-40 on a Sunday morning but he says that they have about 80 people linked to the church.  He said the Church in China is growing rapidly because of the suppression.  It said it is really encouraging to be involved.  A lot of the people attending are younger people and they have no teaching and so he tries to get books every time he comes to HK to take back.  It was an amazing conversation and incredibly encouraging to find this out.  I have know Tuan for about 2-3 years now and he is a very nice guy but he never mentioned that he was a Christian previously.  He said he knew I was a Christian because Wolfgang (our head of Asia-Pacific) told him.

We then had a benign (by comparison to the 15 minutes of conversation above), discussion with the ASHK about actuarial education and various items of mutual interest (which none of you, even the actuaries, would probably be interested in).  The ASHK had organized me for to speak to their members and we had to walk to the KPMG building about 15 minutes away.  It was bucketing down with rain but most of the walkways are covered so it was only the occasional drop of rain that actually fell on me as we ran from one walkway to the other.  The talk was attended by about 50 actuaries from across the market.  I had been warned that there was likely to be no questions.  And there weren’t until I eventually coaxed one out.  They seemed entertained.  I only noticed 1 person fall asleep.  I spoke really slowly and deliberately so my usual 30-35 minute presentation became a 45 minute presentation.  Afterwards a few people came up to me and spoke to me and thanked me or asked some questions.

We were then off the airport to catch our 22:40 flight to Taipei.  We had about 2 hours to kill in the airport but as I with Tuan & Wolfgang we went to the Cathay Pacific lounge and had dinner and chatted about various things including Gen Re matters.  It was good catching up with Wolfgang in particular.  The flight left bang on time and arrived at 12:20am.  We got through immigration & customs with no problem.  The airport is a little like JHB/CT airports were about 5-10 years ago.  Old but functioning.  We had a car pick us up and take us to the hotel.  We are staying in the Far Eastern Plaza Hotel in Taipei.  It is very nice.  The rooms are spacious, have a walk in closet and a beautiful marble bathroom.  Given that it is now 2:05am, I am going to send this email and then get into bed and sleep until about 7am.  I have breakfast at 8am followed by a seminar (which I am speaking at twice).

Good night, sleep tight.

Burb ….  (must be the sea whelk)

Day 7 of RTW in 11 days

Just arrived in Hong Kong. It is 8:50pm. I travelled 15 hours and there was a 15 hour time change. That means I have gone from being 9 hours behind SA to 6 hours ahead of SA. Sunday went past without me noticing it. I am writing this now because if I don’t do it before I have a shower, I know for certain I will fall asleep before I get to it. I am feeling totally out of it at the moment so again excuse the missing words and typos (I am not reading it again before I send it!).

As you know, I left LA at 12:55pm on Saturday. The LA international terminal is terrible. It is far worse than any other international terminal I have been to in the last 20 years. They are finally renovating it but that renovation must be at least 10 years overdue. My first ‘Asian’ experience came at the gate when they announced just prior to boarding ‘that adults with children did not have to queue with the rest of the grown uppers but there was a separate line for them’. That isn’t a typo or the jet lag speaking. Of course their boarding system is brilliantly organized. Separately marked lines for First, Business and Economy and the economy lines are split by row number. Why don’t other airlines do the same thing? We had been warned at check-in that the plane was parked at a remote gate. I didn’t realize that meant they parked the plane in Nevada and that we had to take a 20 minute bus trip to it. And I am not exaggerating that much here. The bus trip took us to the furthest point on the airfield. They have these remote gates which are just a concrete ramp to get up the arm which links onto the plane. It is the weirdest thing I have ever seen and I have not seen it anywhere else in the world except now in LA. It actually looks rather freaky (as Chloe would say) especially since they are located so far away from the terminal. It is like a quarantine area.

Once on board I could immediately see why Cathay Pacific is just a highly rated airline. Their attention to detail is incredible. I had the privileged of traveling first class and there are only 6 seats (or should I say beds or maybe rather a better description would be double beds) in First Class. 3 cabin crew for the 6 people (3 of whom were Mexicans … in my view drug lords because why else would a Mexican be traveling First Class to HK?). 2 toilets for the 6 people (never had to wait for a toilet at any time on the flight). The TV was the size of our TV at home that we have in our bedroom. At least 35-40 cms. It had 200 movies, 500 TV shows and 888 choices of music. That excludes the games which I never even looked at. The seat has it’s own cupboard to hang your jacket and clothes. They give you a sleep suit so that you don’t crease your other clothes. Slippers so that you don’t have to walk into the bathroom barefoot or in your socks. The seat is so big you could easily fit two people next to each other. It is opulent.

As you can imagine their service is superb. They called me by name from the moment I got on the plane. They gave me a handwritten note (I have attached a photo of it). You can eat whenever you want to and they had three meal options – lunch, snack (which looked liked lunch or dinner in my view) and then dinner. I had all three at various points in the flight. I had the lunch just after take off and they have a Western option and an Asian option. When they came to ask me what I wanted they only offered me the Western option! I think they assumed I would not eat the Asian food. I quickly corrected them in that regard (especially as the Asian menu had lobster on it .. not kidding). In fact as we I finished dinner this evening the air hostess said they were very impressed that I only ate the Chinese food (which is what I did for all three meals). The food was superb. I really like Chinese food and this was just the type of food I like. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. The vegetables aren’t always recognizable but they taste good – I must just remember what their names are because I never can remember. Fortunately I can use chopsticks otherwise it would have been very messy as chopsticks is all that they gave me.

I managed to watch 3 movies again on the flight. All 3 were action/thriller ones. The 3rd movie (called The Game) got me so wound up that I decided no more movies and I went to TV shows instead. I did manage to get in two sleeps. The first one was around 4 hours and the second one of about 2 hours so roughly 6 hours in total. However, I don’t feel like I have slept 6 hours at the moment. The one thing I found amusing is how difficult it is to understand the air hostesses. They were all very quietly spoken so I was always straining to hear them and they seemed to battle to understand me as well. I had to repeat myself 2 or 3 times usually. I will have to change my intonation and say things like “Flied rice” so that they can understand me better.

The sun was setting as we landed in HK and there were thunderstorms about as well (I tried taking a photo out of the window which I have attached but it does’t look nearly as good as it did on the plane). The water is littered with boats of all shapes and sizes. The runway is built on reclaimed land and so you keep wondering where you are going to land and then you just suddenly see land and touch down. The runway lights are in the water even. Of course the airport was very busy and it took about 30 minutes to get through immigration. However, once I got through that my bag was already waiting for me. I had a car pickup service from the hotel (why travel in a taxi when you you can travel in a Mercedes S-class). It was 29 degrees when we landed at 7pm and it hasn’t cooled down at all. It is also very humid. I am staying at the Renaissance Harbour View Hotel. When you check in they come up to the room with you to do the check-in in the room rather than at a desk downstairs. I have staying on the 38th floor (there are only 39 floors) and I do have a view over the harbor (even though it is pretty dark right now).

Well that is it for today. I am going to have a shower and then go straight to bed. I have a breakfast meeting (again) tomorrow morning and a full day of meetings so I am hoping for a good nights rest so that I am not jet lagged for tomorrow’s full day.

Day 6 of RTW in 11 days

This morning I was cursing when I alarm went off at 6am.  Not only was I having a really good dream (yes it involved you Helen), I was fast asleep and had slept solidly from immediately after sending my last days news.  Jet lag definitely beaten and now I traversing who knows how many time zones and no doubt I will be totally jet lagged again.  We had a meeting with the whole of Europe over breakfast.  Yes I know you think I am crazy but that is what we did.  All the Europeans have formed an organization called the Group Consultatif which is made up of 33 EU based actuarial organizations.  So instead of negotiating and talking to each EU country’s organization separately we could just speak to this organization.  So we had breakfast with a Frenchman (who was late of course and it didn’t really matter because every time he spoke no one understood what he was saying anyway), an Englishman and a Swede (who spoke like an Englishman, looks like an Englishman and if I had to bet was probably born in England, lived in England for most his life etc and add to that his name is Campbell which might make him Scottish).  It was a very good and productive meeting again even if it had to start at 6:30am.  We finished just before 8am which gave me enough time to go and pack (which I hadn’t done yet).

I packed, phoned the family (and spoke to Chloe as the boys would never have answered the phone of course), packed some more, sent a last few emails and by that time it was time to leave for the airport.  Checking out was even quicker than checking in – all he asked was whether the account should go on my credit card and when I said yes he handed me a copy of the bill and that was it.  The taxi ride to the airport took about 25 minutes along a 8 lane highway (that is 16 lanes in total i.e. 8 both ways).  That was the highway that was totally at a standstill last night (you can imagine how many cars!).  This morning of course there was no traffic.  I am traveling on Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong.  When I approached the check-in counter the check-in lady stepped out from in front of the desk to welcome me.  Seriously  … which other airline does that in the world?!  I had been pre-seated in 1A but they told me the TV was broken and so gave me 2A.  Given the flight is 15 hours, a broken TV would have been a TOTAL disaster.  What would I have done for the whole time.  At least that disaster was averted.

Security at any US airport is generally a mission and today was no different.  Even though there was no one in the queue it still took me 10 minutes to get through security.  You have to pretty much take everything out of your bag that might be electronic.  And you definitely have to take off every item of clothing pretty much down to your underwear.  And they now have body scanners anyway which you have to step on the shoe markings on the floor and then raise your arms like you are being arrested.  I was just waiting for the handcuffs to be smacked on and taken away for some questioning when the guy said thanks I could do through.

Given I have done zero shopping (and I owe Chloe a present at least), I thought I would do some terminal shopping.  Terminal shopping can be fatal.  And it was in this case because there are only 2 shops once you pass security in the International Terminal at LA.  No, not kidding.  In the land of consumerism, LA International Terminal has two shops.  And they are both the size of a shoebox.  There was also a See Candies stall – I say stall because it wasn’t a shop just a display in the passageway.  See Candies is another Berkshire Hathway company which Warren Buffet owns.  It is probably the best chocolate in the US (but still doesn’t come near to Cadbury according to Helen’s estimation).  The shopping will have to stand over for HK airport it seems!

I am now in the OneWorld Alliance (BA, Qantas, American, Cathay etc) lounge.  As I walked in the smell of Asian food hit me.  They have noodle boxes, sticky rice, chicken and beef and vegetables all done Asian style.  As it is 11am I am resisting the smell at the moment but I can feel my resistance waning by the minute.  The flight leaves at 12:55pm and so I doubt whether they will serve us anything on board until about 3pm so a mid-morning snack would be appropriate I think.  As I land at 7pm on Sunday (get your around that … I still haven’t figured out how many hours time changes are involved) this will be my update for today and I will email on Sunday evening from Hong Kong again.

So what is my summary of LA.  As city it is pretty boring (sorry Rachel … I know you live here).  It is very flat.  The downtown area is really not great.  I can think of numerous city that have much nicer downtown areas including Cape Town, London, New York, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago (for you Helen), Sydney, Auckland, Bloemfontein …. And it is a pretty risky place to visit – probably up there with Johannesburg (though I have never seen an arrest in Johannesburg yet – might be because they aren’t any police in Jhb to make any arrests  and those that are around have been bribed not to arrest one).  And the meetings were generally boring too.  I will definitely have to learn to manage my attendance at these meetings in future (especially since I have another 3.5 years to go of them).  Fortunately the next one is in Nassau, Bahama’s and my beloved is going to be with me.  The meetings might hold even less attraction there.

Enjoy the rest of your Saturday.

Day 5 of RTW in 11 days

I seem to have finally beaten the jet lag.  I slept from 11pm until my alarm went off at 6:15am this morning.  Even the 3 missed calls on my cell didn’t wake me up.  It was another early start today as we have a 7am breakfast with the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries from the UK.  It was another very productive meeting & discussion which will hopefully have direct benefit for every member of ASSA (Actuarial Society of SA) who is also a member of the Institute & Faculty (my rough guess is that is probably about 60% of our fellow members).  I was planning to go to a session after breakfast but I got an email from Paul that distracted me and we ended up sitting at the coffee shop in the lobby.  Paul was eating and I was watching (not sure if that was his breakfast or his early morning snack).  We did something we seldomly get to do in SA – discuss SA business for an hour or so uninterrupted.  Coming to LA to do it was probably a little extravagant but it did help that we were out of the office with no one to distract us in any way.

We (ASSA) then had lunch organized with the Australians to discuss subjects of mutual interest.  Unfortunately one of our delegation didn’t pitch up and so had to proceed without him.  It was still a very productive discussion and again one that should bear fruit and value for our members in SA.  I had the afternoon free as there was nothing I either wanted to attend or had even the remotest interest in.  It did give me some time to work and clear emails though.  I realized I have failed to mention anything about the weather.  So far it has been relatively mild.  Most days it is around 22-23 degrees C but today was overcast in the morning and probably slightly cooler than this.  It had cleared up by the evening.  It was ‘wear your pastel colored jeans today’ at the Guess event.  I needed my sunglasses on for some of those jeans!  Lime green was probably the most hideous I saw.

During the afternoon I was watching the traffic backup on the motorway (I can see the motorway from my hotel room).  It is Memorial weekend in the USA and so everyone was heading out of LA in one direction or another.  They were expecting 2.4m people to be leaving LA this weekend!  We had the official convention dinner with buses departing from 6:45pm to go to the Hollywood Museum.  The traffic had still not dissipated even at that time yet and so it took us about 35 minutes to get there.  We had some time to wander around the museum before dinner.  Not really my type of museum given I seldomly can remember the name of the movie let alone who were the actors in it. The whole 2nd floor of the museum was taken up with an exhibition on Marilyn Munroe (including the famous Playboy centerfold spread) – R rated!  I suspect I spent the least time of anyone looking at the exhibits (Paul was also pretty disinterested but even he spent more time on them).  They finally served dinner which was (in my view) rather bland/boring.  A variety of lettuce leaves with (in my case) ¼ of a baby tomato (must be the recession effects on America) and two 1mm crumbles of cheese.  That was followed by the main course of chicken breast with mashed potato (and asparagus which I don’t eat).  I like bland food generally but this even was a stretch for me.  The service was so bad that I only managed to get ½ glass of wine the whole way through my starter of leaves and main course of boring.  Of course I don’t eat the desert but Paul tells me it was very good (chocolate cup with mousse inside).  Paul then almost broke the chair he was sitting on (BMI issue again I would say).  Of course he is again disputing my BMI and he now reckons he is finally lower than me.  He probably weighed himself immediately after spending 3 days on a mountain bike and sleeping in a tent.  What does he expect his weight to be after that.  It make it a fair comparison I reckon I need to take off 5 kgs from my weight.  Paul wanted to add 2 kgs on because he says people always lie (he never learns – been through this once before and all we discovered was that I overstated my weight and he understated his).  Nuff said.

It was a pretty boring evening and so Paul and I were the first two people on the bus to get back to the hotel.  We are probably also the two youngest people here (by around 20 years I would guess).  Andrew Gladwin was the 3rd person on the bus (another South African).  It seems these 70 year old American Actuaries really know how to throw a party!  Marcus would have loved it.  The bus trip took 25 minutes to get back and I am just finishing off this email and going straight to bed (it is now 11:45pm).  I have another 6:45am breakfast tomorrow before I leave for the airport to catch my flight to Hong Kong.  So good night (and for the most of you good morning).

Day 4 of RTW in 11 days

No PG rating today but some action movie stuff included today.  I managed to make it through to 2:30am this morning before I woke up so things are slowly improving.   Once again I was woken by my vibrating cellphone (it was the bank this time – Helen buying something as per usual).  A few minutes later and it was vibrating again – a number I didn’t recognize and it turned out to be the bank (I didn’t answer but they called Cecilia straight afterwards).  I managed to fall back to sleep again until 4am and then was awaken by another text from a SA client thanking me for the way the UK office treated him (they were hosting him).  Managed to go back to sleep again but at 5am I was wide awake and so got up and cleared the 55 work emails that had come through while I was sleeping.

It was an early start this morning as we had arranged to meet up with the leadership of one of the American Actuarial Associations (they have 6 in total).  We had breakfast with them at 7am.  The meeting over breakfast went extremely well and far exceeded our expectations.  They were also very nice people and clearly want to try and work closer with us.  A great start to the day and I was hoping that the rest of the day would continue in that vain.  I then had my first official committee meeting that I was a member of (the Professionalism committee).  It was a 4 hour affair and it was actually quite productive and well run.  Might have something to do with the fact that the chairman is a South African!  It did give me some thoughts about things we can do in SA.  Just as I wasn’t paying attention (and replying to a work email on my blackberry), the chairman kindly asked me to comment on an issue.  Not only had I not been listening but I only got the bit when he said “Peter Temple might like to comment on that.”  I am not sure if he did it intentionally because he saw I was on my blackberry or whether it was just timing (my suspicion is the former) but I think I commented on the right thing and everyone seemed accepting of my comments (or they were just being polite).  I was much more careful though after that when I looked at my blackberry.  The guy next to me (from Holland) was playing cards on his iPhone (with the shuffling sound on) and he got away with it throughout the whole meeting!

I skipped lunch because I had a large breakfast and need to maintain my athletic physique.  I don’t want my body to end up with Paul’s BMI.  After lunch was the President’s Forum and while I am not President yet I am allowed to backbench in the meeting.  It really was just a series of presentations.  The first one was from a professor from Wharton.  I thought it would be good but he actually didn’t really say anything I didn’t know already (and hadn’t been practicing for 10 years already at Gen Re).  I was quite surprised that everyone else thought what he was saying was groundbreaking.  He talked on managing risk and unexacting the unlikely.  Not really earth shattering stuff.  His best line was “It is a great being a pessimist because your expectations are always exceeded”.  I looked at the other 2 presentations while he was speaking and concluded that I wasn’t going to learn anything new from them either so I did a ’Themba’ and ditched the meeting at the tea break.  Paul went to the education meeting and he did the same thing at the tea break.

This evening I had arranged to have dinner with my sister, brother-in-law and niece.  My niece is graduating this week so my sister & brother-in-law were here for that.  My brother-in-law is also in fact graduating from another California based college (he is getting his masters) so it was good timing to see them all.  Only my niece actually lives in LA.  She decided that we should go to Little Tokyo for dinner to a restaurant called oomasa (I didn’t forget to make the o big, it is meant to be small).  I agreed to meet them their.  When I went down to take a cab, all the Guess delegates were waiting in reception to take buses to wherever they were going.  Of course they were dressed up ’to the nines’ (whatever that means) and I had to (slowly) weave my way through them.  Marcus would describe them as ‘beautiful people’.  Even the cab driver was intrigued and asked me if I knew them!  I gave the driver the address (he was Asian) and he told me that he didn’t know it.  How can an Asian cab driver not know where Little Tokyo is?!  I suggest that maybe he use the GPS that was attached to the windscreen in front of him.  Fortunately he took up that idea and we got there relatively easily.

I got there about 20 minutes before my family arrived so I planned to walk around and see what I could see.  However, before I go even a few steps down the road came a LAPD car chasing after a guy on bicycle.  He then cut off the bike, jumped out and jumped on the ‘American American gentlemen’ and proceeded to handcuff and arrest him.  During the process the gentlemen tried to palm off a package to another lady who the LAPD cop also then arrested.  The security guards from Little Tokyo also then got involved (they were Latin American) and they started yelling at the cop and telling him off for arresting the guy.  Then other people from the shops were coming out and giving their opinion on the matter.  Here I stood pretty amused.  I don’t think I have ever seen anyone arrested in SA and here I see it happen in downtown LA.  Dangerous place based on my experience.  The cop was still there with his two handcuffed suspects (only suspects because you’re innocent until proven guilty – I know my law) when my family arrived.  I think he was waiting for backup which was taking quite some time to arrive (especially since the LAPD office was only about 500 yards up the road).

We went into oomasa for dinner.  As you might have guessed it is a Japanese restaurant and so I headed for the sushi.  It was a nice meal and we had a good time catching up on various bits of family news.  (@Helen – I will fill you in when I get home – I don’t want to consume everyone’s time with all the details.)  The meal also cost us a fraction of what Paul and I paid the first night and I got a lot more sushi tonight.  But then the venue was much more high risk!  Fortunately they offered to take me back to the hotel (I had visions of wandering the deserted downtown streets looking for a taxi and getting mugged by one of the gentlemen’s friends).  And as it is now 11pm I think I might have beaten the jet lag problem.  Off to bed now so that I can get up early again tomorrow for another full day!

Day 3 of the Round the World in 11 days (PG rated including Helen and my parents)

Of course the inevitable happened.  Went to sleep at 9pm and I woke up for the first time at 1:45am.  The fact that was phone was vibrating because someone was calling me from SA didn’t help but I suspect I was waking up anyway.  I forced myself to try and sleep for another few hours and dosed on and off until at 4am I eventually gave up and started clearing emails on my blackberry.  It was going to be a long day because I had meetings until 7pm and then a dinner straight after that as well.  At 7am I was starving and so headed down for breakfast.  Of course breakfast choices are unlimited.  You could do an a la carte breakfast (with about 20 choices) or go buffet (with 3 choices).  I must have looked confused because the waitress made a suggestion what I should do and that is what I did.  And you never have to worry about going hungry in America because you know that whatever choice you make, the plate is going to big and full.  The best part of breakfast was the bacon (Apple smoked) – I just had visions of Michael loading up his plate and only eating bacon.  At the end of breakfast the waitress said that I could have a “coffee to go” if I wanted it (that was after I already had 2 mugs).  I declined but I probably should have accepted as I needed all the caffeine I could get.

I had the rest of the morning free as my first meeting was at 2pm.  I spent the morning working but at about 11:30 I had such a splitting headache I took some painkillers and lay down and got an hour’s sleep (which I reckon was a real winner to enable me to get through the rest of the day).  I had my first IAA (International Actuarial Association) meeting at 2pm.  Half way through the meeting a sent a text message to one of the other South Africans at the meeting which said “If I have to attend these meetings twice a year for the next four years I might commit suicide”.  It was incredibly boring and tedious.  Think of the worst meeting you have ever been to and then multiply that by 2!  It started with a spanish speaking person presenting telephonically from Washington.  That was followed by a presentation from a French speaking gentlemen from Togo.  As French is an official language of the IAA (who knows why), the chairman repeatedly invited him to do his presentation in French.  I thought once was being polite but he almost insisted.  Fortunately the man didn’t take him up but one of the other members did the presentation in English.  It was still bad and I caught myself wondering what it would have been like in French.

I was sitting next to a gentleman from Japan who slept though the whole meeting.  At once stage he was so deep in sleep that I thought he was going to fall off his chair and against me.  Fortunately he woke up and caught himself just at that moment.  I have never seen anyone sleep through a meeting like that before.  I had a lot of respect for him at the end of the meeting because if I could have fallen asleep as unashamedly as that I might have made it through the meeting a lot less painfully.  I have made a mental note not to ever attend that meeting again.  Themba (the President of the Actuarial Society of SA currently) left at the tea break and afterwards told me that you only make the mistake once of staying after tea!  I thanked him for warning me (I will get him back still).

After that meeting we had a 6pm meeting lined up with the Canadians.  Fortunately they didn’t speak French through that meeting (though 3 of the 4 of them were French speaking).  After that we had dinner lined up with the other South Africans present in LA.  We went to ‘The Farm’ which advertises itself as “Innovative American Cuisine” and “the food is like Mom would make, only better”.  I haven’t yet figured out what American Cuisine is so it was hard to place what was innovative about it.  And there definitely was any aspect of the menu that was ‘food like Mom would make’ let alone the ‘only better’ part (see Mom … still prefer your cooking to a restaurant … looking forward to my next meal at your home …).  Hopefully that bracketed bit will get me another favorite meal of tripe and onions when I next eat at my parents place!

So it is now 9:10pm and so I have made it at least to the same time last night.  I feel like I can go for another one or so before needing bed which is a good sign.  I have a 7am breakfast meeting tomorrow (for those of you who think international travel is glamourous).  What I haven’t told you about is that the hotel is not only hosting the IAA meetings but all a Guess conference (Guess of the jeans brand).  It looks like a much more interesting conference going purely on looks.  (This part is the PG rated part including Helen and my parents).  90% of the delegates are female and 89% either are or could be models.  If I wasn’t married to such a beautiful and lovely wife I might get distracted.  Paul (on the other hand) is constantly drooling.  I need to speak to Tina when I get back.

Until tomorrow.

Day 2 of Round the World in 11 days (PG rated)

If you are wondering what happened to Day 1, well that was spent in London doing my usual thing in the office so nothing really exciting or interesting to mention.  However, I did think it might be interesting to ‘blog’ the rest of the trip especially since I am heading into unchartered waters for me next week.

Today I left London at 12pm on British Airways heading for Los Angeles.  The flight was full (from what I could see).  My first taste of America was actually at the gate as we were boarding.  An American lady had taken it upon herself to instruct and organize the boarding of the plane.  She wasn’t a BA staff member – she was a passenger like the rest of us but I think she just couldn’t help herself.  Even the BA staff were amused.  She announced loudly that the flight was boarding and that first and business class could board on the right and the plebs (her word not mine) could board on the left but only rows 39-55.  It was quite amusing.

Once on the plane I realized that I had the unfortunate privilege of being in a cabin with at least two couples who had never travelled outside of the US before and they were now returning home.  They talked so loudly it became evident that they also had not travelled in that class before either.  So every new discovery was announced not only to their partner but also to the whole cabin.  They also shared their trip details with all the other passengers even if you didn’t want to hear them (like me).  I fired off a Whatsapp message to the family complaining about them (it was cathartic) and also asked the kids to predict how many movies I would watch and in return for the one who got it correct I would buy a present from LA.  Fortunately after we took off the champagne kicked in and the couples quietened down and went to sleep so that I could watch my movies in peace.  Having said that, they might have continued talking incessantly but my Bose headphones (the best thing I ever bought for myself) blocked them out.

After take off I stretched out and prepared to get stuck into the movie selection.  Of course I had already watched about 50% of them but I had cleverly held back on flights recently knowing I was going to need a store for this trip.  I selected ‘Girl with Dragon Tattoo’ (see S, M & C I remembered the title) and settled in to watch Daniel Craig in action.  I am probably one of only a handful of people that never read the book so I didn’t know what was coming.  It was a 2.5 hour movie and while I was watching we were served lunch (scallops to start, chicken-ala-king as main and ice cream for desert).  Lunch ended before the movie.  When the movie was finished we only had another 8 hours to go.  Everyone was by this stage asleep in the cabin but it was mid afternoon so I got down to reading some of the papers for my meetings in LA (Cecilia kindly printed them for me and gave me a stack 10cm high as I left the office last Friday!).  I managed to get through about 60% of them before getting bored (and I still have to get through the meetings this week).  Played a game or two on my iPhone and then decided I should try and get some sleep.  Managed to get about an hour before the chainsaw snoring from across the aisle woke me up and there was no way I was going back to sleep again.  It was 10am LA time so another 5 hours still to go.

I went to the toilet (this is the PG rating bit) and walked past one of the couples.  She was lying VERY close to him and he had both his hands under the blankets on her side of the seat.  She blushed profusely as I walked past.  I didn’t even need any imagination to know what was going on there….  On the way back I noticed they were still awake but very much watching out for my return.  I settled into movie number 2 – ‘We bought a zoo’ – which is a Hollywoodized version of a true story of a Guardian journalist who bought the Dartmoor Zoological Park in the UK.  It was quite good (Matt Damon and Scarlett Johannsen) – a warm, feel good movie.  After that I still had about 2.5 hours left so I watched another rubbish movie whose title I have already forgotten and the only reason I watched it was to consume 90 minutes.  We were then served English ‘Afternoon Tea’ – Scones with clotted cream (of course).  Some reading fitted in between, some more games on the iPhone and we were starting to descend into LA.  Passed the Grand Canyon (nice view from the air), over Las Vegas and lots of desert and then down into LA to land on time at 3pm.

Fortunately LA on the international side is not very busy and we were the only flight landing at that time.  So I managed to get right in front of the queue.  But of course the weren’t ready yet for passengers so we had to wait another 2-3 minutes while the guy unpacked and set up and placed everything in precisely the right spot.  They really do have to be the world’s grumpiest passport control people.  The guy just said “Why do you want to be let into the USA?” in a very demanding tone.  I wanted to reply “actually I have just changed my mind, I don’t want to come here” but instead just said “business”.  This was followed by “when will you leave” and I wanted to say right now but actually said “Saturday”.  Fortunately he didn’t read my thoughts and so he let me in.  My luggage came off almost immediately and I was through customs and out quickly as well.  Paul had arrived 40 minutes earlier (he came on Emirates via Dubai) and he didn’t want to pay for the taxi fare (those of you who know him will know he is a cheapskate) and so he was waiting at the coffee shop in the arrivals hall.

We got a taxi to our hotel which is in downtown LA.  It is a standard USA type hotel (Marriott) and is situated at the Staples Centre (sports arena) and there are a whole lot of restaurants, movie theatre’s etc in the area (called the LA Live area).  My room is on the 13th floor (I hope the fire alarm doesn’t go off).  The check in procedure restored my view of American service.  It was the slickest and quickest check in I have ever had.  Very pleasant and helpful.  It was 4:30pm when we arrived and Paul and I decided that an earlier dinner at 6pm was the way to go.  Given my head was already pounding I was wondering whether I could make it to 6pm but after a shower and starting to type this email the time vanished.  Paul and I headed for the Japanese restaurant which is famous for it’s sushi (meant to be the best in California).  American Idols have a set up in the square today and tomorrow and all “your favorite idols stars” are on hand.  Given neither Paul nor I have watched American Idols, we had no clue who were the stars and who were the help.  People kept cheering (or rather shrieking) and hold up their phones taking photos.  I felt like I should have joined in but I resisted.

Dinner was ok – tasted better sushi in SA.  At the price (R850 for the 2 of us), our whole family could have had sushi back home.  Just another reminder of how cheap eating out is in SA.  Paul wanted his mandatory after-dinner ice cream (hence why he has so high a BMI) and so he got 3 scoops in a waffle cone from some New Zealand ice cream shop.  I restrained myself and had nothing.  We walked around the block and tried to look impressed at the Idols people again but when Paul had consumed sufficient of his ice cream to ensure he wouldn’t drop it on the lobby floor of the hotel we came back to our rooms.  It is now 8:00pm and I can hardly sit upright and have no idea how I can keep going for another hour or so.  I know if I go to sleep now I will be awake at 3am or 4am so I really have to keep going for awhile longer.  Excuse any spelling errors or typos or missing words (my kids always critique me over those) – put it down to the jet lag.

Feel free to forward on if you know someone else might like to read it too (and let me know if they want to be added to the distribution list for the rest of the updates).  Until tomorrow.