Saturday, January 19, 2019

Where were you when the coup in Gabon happened ? – three days off-grid at Gal Oya Lodge

After a fun six-hour journey with driver Gayan – which includes an up-close-and-person encounter with roadside elephants at Udawalawe National Park (and two bakery/coffee/smoking stops) we get to the turnoff for Gay Ola Lodge. It’s actually called Gal Oya, but we have renamed it Gay Ola in honour of a local peacock that spends most of its time trying to get off with itself in the reflective glass window of Room 9.

Gay Ola Lodge is off-grid. There is no internet and the nearest phone signal is a 17km cycle ride up the road. (From time to time, one of the hosts sets off carrying all his colleagues’ phones and downloads everyone's emails and whatsapp messages for them.)

There is no Google. I repeat, THERE IS NO GOOGLE!!!!! There is also no IMDB which makes it nigh on impossible to work out what year Picnic at Hanging Rock came out.

Gay Ola is a stunning place, located on the edge of Gal Oya National Park, one of the most remote and least visited wilderness areas in Sri Lanka. It’s an eco-lodge and for once, the eco bit lives up to its name. The accommodation is lush – beautifully-styled cabanas constructed in wood, stone and bamboo. Big room, comfy beds, semi-open-air bathrooms – and a panic button in Francesca’s room (Andrea and I don’t need a panic button.)

The views are incredible, especially from the pool which has a ridiculously gorgeous vista of nearby Monkey Mountain, (You can climb Monkey Mountain if you want to  - we don't).

Getting Active at Gal Oya
Gal Oya has numerous other activities on offer though; I am tempted by the “Sri Lankan Jungle Cooking Course” but only if we can start with the basics - like toast. There is also “Bicycle Tour” which Andrea does do and actually enjoys, even though it involves scaling a nearby mountain on a bicycle presumably last seen in the Wandsworth Bridge Road. It’s a hard-core adventure but she comes back peaced-out and very happy, especially as she managed to keep up with our new Scottish friends Robbie and Ally who are in their early 30s. 

I opt for “Bird Tour” and spend a lovely hour chatting  to our fellow guests Nina and James while responding sporadically to Boba's numerous sightings of the White Whiskered Tern. I also take part (loosely) in the “Gal Oya Lodge Animal Monitoring Program” by spotting a parakeet and calling it a White Whiskered Tern.

As we are adamant about our desire to NOT climb Monkey Mountain, we are instead offered the newly-invented “Monkey Mountain-lite” option which takes to the elephant grasslands a quarter of the way up. "Assistant Manager" Lewis has billed this as  a “gentle stroll” so I am geared up for a very short climb and a croquet lawn at the top.

We start threading our way up through half a mile of steamed-up jungle to reach the grasslands. I start wishing I hadn't brought the croquet mallets. Lewis has lied and this is only a gentle stroll if you are Asia’s biggest mammal I’m well on my way to the title but not there quite yet. There's no lawn at the top and the so-called “grass” is neck-high and needle-sharp, strictly for ellies which, at certain times of the year, amble through the area as they make their way up to the top of the mountains.

Elephant territory
I immediately lose my croquet ball and can’t look for it as the grass is full of lethal snakes. Boba – a gently-spoken, home-grown quasi-Rastafarian who learned about Gal Oya National Park in school and has wanted to live here ever since, spots some rocky slabs above us and, after checking for snakes and looking for my croquet ball, leads us all safely up. We spend a heavenly hour chatting, admiring the spectacular view and taking selfies with Arrack, the Lodge’s gorgeous rescue dog.
Arrack at rest
Arrack posing

Down at the lodge, there is nothing specific to do apart from lie on your back in the swimming pool and gaze at Monkey Mountain, lie on the sunloungers, read, eat, listen to podcasts, play Chinese poker or make up random facts which can’t be verified. We have three hosts. Nero (aka Gap Year), Lewis from Leeds and Brent from Zimbabwe. The chill-out areas are spacious and perfect Chinese poker territory. I snap out my cards and have both Gap Year and Brent heavily addicted within ten minutes. During practice games, Brent gets a nut low and quads on at the bottom – a feat that definitely won’t be repeated when we start playing for money.

We have nightly lock-ins, even though are no doors, locks, or even people – and sit around spouting unconfirmable facts and discussing Brexit. Gap Year says I remind him of Jeremy Clarkson. I tell him he reminds me of Justin Bieberlake but this is clearly such a weak parry that I’m almost embarrassed. “Clarkson” takes flight as my new nickname.

Gap Year is a semi-genius who is reading a hefty tome on blockchain for fun. We discuss the blockchain future (which Gap Year will be running) and I tell him that Malta is known as Blockchain Island and my fragment of an Ethereum which I bought six months ago for £50 on Coinbase is now worth £6 – or was. I can’t check how much further it’s fallen as I don’t have internet. Gay Ola is not the place to be a trader.

We discuss the suicidal peacock bashing its head on the window at Room 9. It did it five times while I was trying to rest in our chill out area – flirting with his own reflection and then, as he finally rushes in to make his move, knocking himself out.

Brent, who is a wildlife expert, says that apparently one time the peacock hit his head so hard there was blood all over the door and they had to clean it up before the next guest arrived. Brent doesn’t think the peacock’s gay; it’s actually attacking. Gap Year doesn't think gay peacocks exist. Brent mentions gay ducks, I mention gay penguins – and although nothing could be much more gay than a peacock it seems clear that the one at Room 9 is probably straight as he’s in really bad shape. Scraggy tail, unkempt feathers. Not gay.

The conversation turns to the dangers of the shamanistic drug iowaksa. Brent recites the chemical ingredients of iowaska. We can’t challenge him. We don’t have google. #NoGoogle is a thing. You have to try to remember stuff and anyone can come up with utterly random facts and statistics and get away with it.  #NoGoogle was frustrating at times but makes for much longer conversations as everyone scours their brain cells for residual trivia. With hashtag no google, you can’t just shut a conversation down by looking it up on Wikipedia. You have to keep going until there is a consensus or someone sounds more confident – or just louder– than everyone else. Us oldies can’t remember anything anyway, but it turns out we’re just as good as the young at making shit up.

Boat tour
Another exercise-free activity on offer is the boat trip round Senanayake Samudraya Lake, located right in the middle of Gal Oya Park. We see a herd of elephants moving gently along the edge of the forest, lots of birds, crocodiles sliding silently into the water. We picnic on a sun-baked slab of rock – safari style – everything exquisitely laid out in beautiful copper bowls. James – who went to Oakham and thus has impeccable manners – serves us tea, hands us our plates, ferries things back and forth. We are all very jealous of Nina.

Enjoying a spot of lunch at Gal Oya lake
Woman on rock - an ongoing series
Nina did International Relations at Cambridge. We find out she was working for the think tank which advised Cameron NOT to go ahead with the referendum. We are impressed. I get very over-excited when I find out she is mates with Tim Marshall – my hero, author of the must-read Prisoners of Geography). In a rash moment, she promises me we can all meet Tim Marshall when I get back from my Gap Year. James hints that Nina is quite well-known. None of us can check this however back in the land of the internet, we fire up Google and our crush on Nina goes through the roof. She is Sky News, CNN and Bloomberg’s go-to expert for all things Brexit. Andrea and I spend an entire afternoon going through her Instagram feed and listen to her explain on dozens of broadcasts why Brexit is a disaster. Andrea decides she is going to get ALL her news from watching Nina Instagram videos from now on.

Day 2
We are now completely at one with #NoGoogle. We don’t know what’s happening outside the lodge and we don’t care. Even Andrea has given up worrying about all the fabric that is not being ordered and won’t arrive in time for a project she is working on somewhere else in Sri Lanka. We don’t care about anything. It’s very peaceful – just the jungle, arak and us.

Suddenly Andrea comes in in a fury. One of the hosts has just told there’s been a coup in Gabon.

“There’s been a coup in Gabon. How do they fucking know that? They have satellite TV!!! They’re frauds. And who cares about Gabon? I don’t care about fucking Gabon. The only reason to care about Gabon is if you’re from there or you’re planning to visit there.”

“That’s very selfish,” I said. “I don’t fucking care,” says Andrea. “I’m supposed to be relaxing. I’m supposed to be off grid. I don’t want to hear about fucking Gabon.”

“Where were you when you heard about the coup in Gabon” becomes my new favourite expression. What’s clear is that we don’t really know exactly where Gabon is and Andrea doesn’t care they’re having a coup. Back on grid a few days later, I start googling. I find out where it is, what happened with the coup (failed) and the fact that it’s rich in all the bit and pieces you need to make nuclear warheads. It also has the best-preserved rainforest in Africa and looks beautiful; we decide we want to go there. I like the former President’s name a lot but apparently the country destabilised when Bongo had a heart attack last year. He was on holiday in Riyadh at the time. What the fuck? Who goes on holiday to Riyadh????? Thank god for Google.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

From Egypt to Sri Lanka: the Jeddah Airport Experience

Jeddah Airport
My flight from Egypt to Colombo is via Jeddah Airport. I have four hours there and my goal is to meet a newly-licensed women driver and ask her how many times she’s crashed her car. Saudi Arabia only allowed women to drive cars last June – the last country in the world to let women get behind the wheel. Ever since I have been obsessed with the image of millions of new women drivers taking to the road and being absolutely terrible. I’m especially obsessed when I’m in Dahab as I can see the lights of Taqba in Saudi Arabia across the water and sit in my comfy lounging area imagining the chaos.

I am so sure that I am going to get into trouble at Jeddah Airport that I send Andrea and Francesca details of my next of kin and passport number in case I’m arrested. On arrival from Sharm El Sheikh, there are only three passengers in transit and we are escorted everywhere in case we try to escape. Initially we are put in a holding pen – a 10ft square with security rails round it in the building of a vast empty hall. We are told to stay there for two hours. 

There are three chairs so we sit on them. My fellow transit passengers are a couple from Kuala Lumpur who don’t speak English. They look like farmers so I'm not sure how they've managed to afford the flight, but I look like I've been sleeping outside Poundland for a week so they're probably thinking the same about me.

I am dying for a cigarette so one of our police escorts leads me to a smoking cubicle which is located inside the airport women's’ praying area. We sinfully smoke as a bunch of women pray earnestly right next to us on rugs provided by the airport. My guard and I work our way slowly through a couple of Camels and then it’s back to the holding pen. The guards change shift and on my next smoking break, I’m escorted to a full-on part of the airport. I am under the impression I’ve been fully released so have a fag, a feta cheese salad and get out my laptop. I’ve been there for at least half an hour before I realise my police escort is waiting for me the whole time. There is one other white person in the smoking cubicle – a Scottish guy who lives in Jeddah. I immediately ask about women drivers and he says he has seen three so far – and one of them was driving on the pavement.

Back to the holding pen, and me and the Lumpans are loaded on to a bus and driven several miles to the International Terminal. I hang out with the security staff for a while before we are finally given boarding passes and let loose in the airport.

Jeddah Airport is an eye-opener. Almost everyone there is a pilgrim on their way back from Mecca and/or Medina. I don’t see any other Europeans or white people for the full four hours I’m there and a security guy says mine is the first British passport he’s seen in years. It’s a bizarre experience. I realise how marginal Whites/Westerners are in this world – a rarity, of absolutely zero interest. No one stares at me, no one asks me any questions. Everyone is a Muslim but it’s clear that there are thousands of different ways to be and dress like a Muslim. There are loads of men draped in fluffy white hotel towels which I surmise have been stolen from the Monte Carlo Bay Resort: they are worn very loosely as if they’re simply heading down to the spa. There are pilgrims from India, Singapore, Arabs of all kinds, people who look Tibetan or Mongolian. It’s a kaleidoscope of different cultures, different national dress, different ways to wear a hijab or burqa. One thing unites them: they are all really into Mohammed. I am fascinated by a bunch of pilgrims from Nepal wearing fantastic, ornately embroidered saris, their hair loosely covered, men in cute caps. It’s a great look which is completely ruined by the plastic tour company holdalls they’re carrying. I can tell they love their holdalls; they have the same look of pride and awe that online qualifiers display when they first put on their PokerStars hoodies.

There are many men in free-flowing long white Saudi robes, women head to toe in black, women in drop-dead gorgeous burquas of every kind. The smoking cubicles are segregated here and the female-only ones are packed with women chatting like they’re at the hairdresser's. 

I ask every single Saudi woman I meet if she has her their driving licence yet. I only find one – Lina – and she got her licence overseas. Lina is in full hijab but holidays in Knightsbridge every summer where she wears fuck all. She shows me pictures of her out clubbing with friends in London on the night they found out that they’re going to be allowed to drive. She’s wearing a boob tube, mini skirt and high heels and looks exactly like girls in West Street on a Saturday night.

Lina - didn't ask how many times she's crashed, did see her London clubbing pics

Everyone agrees it would be best if Saudi women stuck to automatics. One woman tells me she doesn’t want to learn until it’s safe – at the moment Saudi women drivers are still getting used to three-point turns and there are a lot of prangs. A Saudi guy I met told me that new drivers start out on super-high-tech,
state-of-the-art car simulators before being allowed out on real roads and the waiting lists are very long. His sister has applied, his mum isn't bothering.

Jeddah Airport is dazzling and I realise that really the world is Muslim: Europe, the West, the States seem as remote in Jeddah as Togo does to me when I’m sitting at Lawns Café in Hove. Somewhere I’ve vaguely heard of, not really relevant.

Friday, October 05, 2018

A feast of entertainment for VR fans at TOMTech’s 2018 VRLab

Dance fans – and people who like things that go whoooooosh – are going to absolutely love Wave VR at this year’s TOMTech. Grammy award-winning singer and technologist Imogen Heap has been grabbing the headlines with her mesmerizing VR music performance however the experience that literally had me raving was The Glitch Mob's "See Without Eyes". 

 This fab work is fully interactive and more immersive than scuba diving. Soar and zoom through space, sci fi landscapes and other trippy dreamscapes while being aurally dazzled to a 20-minute custom mix of great dance music. For one track, I was able to use my hands to magically transform passing rocks and mountains into pulsating mushrooms of psychedelic colour; in another, I was flying through asteroid fields in an endless galaxy while zapping planets with an arc of rainbow sprinkles. It’s quite a trip – and you’re dancing throughout because, well, it’s just that kind of music.

If you want the same kind of experience but sitting down, then Fantasynth should be your next port of call. Here it’s your chair that’s doing all the dancing as a padded back pulses forcefully against your back and you visually traverse yet more trippy landscapes, all set to the sound of N'to’s beat-heavy Chez Nous.

On a much quieter note, the talented, innovative and very modest artist Rachel Henson takes you on small but beautiful journeys in Outshift. Her small stand in the main room is a little oasis of tranquility. I was intrigued by her flickbooks (remember those??) which take you on charming Super8-style walks round the lamp-lit city wall of Chester or down a leafy country lane at Stanmer Park. A more immersive project are her lovely films – tiny scenes where filmed real-life characters are augmented onto static backdrops such as a photograph of a hospital corridor or a cartoon drawing. Peering through the eyepiece, you control the movement of the figures yourself using a touchpad on the side of the tiny, custom-designed monocular. Despite the small scale, this is awe-inspiring work and I would love to see more of her pieces.

In the bar, there’s a very intriguing and dynamic Augmented Reality dance production to enjoy from AΦE, the people who last year gave us Whist, a creepy and disturbing take on the imagined unconscious. This year’s production is truly lovely with sculpted avatars dancing sinuously around the bar area, superimposed on whoever happens to be standing there. There are several variations during the work – in one piece, two dancers merge on the floor; in another, dozens of tiny, tiny dancers are trapped in a outsized, transparent Rubik’s cube and you can flick them all around in a bid to solve the puzzle.

In the Waterloo Room, The Female Planet takes you back down to earth. This is a series of films which each feature an inspiring female role model talking about their life experiences. I only had time to watch one of the works – actress Gina Rodriguez urging youngsters to follow their dreams whatever their gender or colour. There a real sense of intimacy as Gina, a persuasive and engaging personality, shares with you one-to-one. I will be definitely be back at the Old Market before the weekend is out to watch the other stories from women such as aeronautical engineer (aka rocket designer) Tiera Fletcher, American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who was first the Muslim American athlete to wear a hijab at the Olympics, and Indian-born YouTube star Vidya Vox.  

There are many, many other treats are in store at this year’s VR Lab. I was dying to have another go on Loco Dojo, the bonkers “It’s a Knockout”-style cartoon game that has you milking pigs, boxing eggs, stacking moles and whacking urchins. I also enjoyed another visit to the Plankton World of artist Iona Scott, and a first trip underwater with Living Coast. This is an interactive exploration of the chalk reef just off the coast, between Brighton Marina & Beachy Head.

This unique marine environment is home to abundant wildlife, including threatened species such as short-snouted seahorses, blue mussels & native oysters
. In real life, the chalk creates so much stirred-up sediment that’s it impossible to see a thing but Virtual Reality gives you an insight into just how many underwater riches lie beneath us as we bob around in the Sussex sea.

One session at VRLab probably isn’t enough time to try out everything on offer so I recommend … going twice. I’m certainly heading back there before the weekend is out, ready for another full immersion in the myriad wonders of Virtual and Augmented Reality. TOMTech is on until Sunday – don’t miss it.


Saturday, June 13, 2015


That's it. Don't leave the sofa. You will eventually lose weight.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


After a night on the tiles at Brighton's premier gay disco "Revenge" (Jägerbombs £2 a shot, very classy), I was up early this morning for another LGBT/alternative wedding fair, my second in four months. Officially I was representing Pip Wyatt and but Robbie came along too in case there were any hot men around (there were).

As a now seasoned gay wedding fair delegate, I was actually expecting Quaint Queer Weird to be wackier than it was: more camp men, more funeral directors (there were two at the Gay Wedding Fair including the Co-op), more drag queens and at least a smattering of bondage. Quaint Queer Weird was rated 18+ by the organisers and I had high hopes that the Corn Exchange (which normally hosts jazz quartets and the like) would be magically converted into a scene of wild bondage-themed abandon, oozing sexuality and awash with scantily-clad, body-painted wood nymphs. There was also talk of a "fetish duo" plus the Mayor cutting a ribbon, in a non-fetishistic way, clad in a revealing crimson cloak and tricorn hat with feathers in it.

Sadly we missed the Mayor and couldn't find the fetish duo but Robbie practically passed out with joy when we saw a shirtless Ryan Gosling lookalike stretched out semi-naked having his arm tattooed and we both had to be forcibly restrained from jumping on the PolarSnap guy.

Olly Dall (aka Mr PolarSnap) is a sort of one-man, mobile Polaroid photo booth who will not only take snaps of people with a range of props, but also load the pics up to facebook. Olly is considerably cheaper than a stationary photo kiosk or taxi photo booth and I imagine it's also easier to get people posing if you're wandering around interacting with them (especially if you look like Olly).

Hats off to Feathered Fantasy who make ravishing headwear concocted out of feathers, fur, bone and other bits and pieces hand-foraged in woodland mainly inhabited by elves, fairies and centaurs. Beautiful.

Also stunning was Freya von Bulow’s paper couture wedding dress - although maybe a bit impractical and I'm not sure what the flammability rating would be.

Fat Cakes Design’s tiered wedding cakes were amazing, super gothic and looking like something Tim Burton might have thrown together. The skull one was fantastic but I couldn’t discuss it with the owner because she was busy having a tatoo done.

Thanks to the organisers, especially Lesley Taylor, for a thoroughly entertaining morning and a lot of pretty inspiring suppliers. The best are above but honorable mentions to the following:
  • - nice couple with a cute vintage-styled VW camper van.
  • Jaunty Twig, an app which allows guests to take and share photos during the event – and view all the pics live at the venue.
  • Antoinette Hoogstrate who makes photographic prints on wood

  • Pauline Moore De-Lights – cool “MR & MR” Hollywood lights, and their facebook page also has one saying LOVE

Hotel Pelirocco - Brighton's original rock'n'roll boutique hotel. Amy and Cecily were the lovely girls running the hotel's stand and got us plastered in about a minute flat with something called Cheeky Milkshake (Bols, yoghurt liqueur, Stoli Chocolate Raspberry, lime guide, vanilla).

Things I’m gutted I missed:

  • Louise Tyler’s “bespoke crochet table centres” (I googled one of her crochet mushrooms – staggering!)
  • Death & Glory Taxidermy - as I can’t think of anything much nicer to wear to a wedding than a dead, stuffed animal (only these morning I was wondering I could get away with wearing stuffed zebra finches)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


The Fairmont has had such wild success with its €5 "corkage" rule on food and beverages that it's extending its policy to cover a wide range of other items that guests might try to sneak in to their room.

At present, guests are charged €5 for any item of food or drink that they bring in to the room themselves (this includes water, or any life-saving medicine that you might have brought with you, decanted into plastic water bottles).

Fairmont cleaning ladies are briefed to check dustbins for evidence of "introduced items" and this is then added to guests' bills.

The policy has gone so well that the Fairmont has now decided to charge corkage for ANY item which could conceivably be obtained from the hotel. So any guest now found bringing their own shampoo, conditioner or bath gel, cotton wool ear buds, shower cap, shoe cleaning equipment, flannel, towel or loo roll will now be charged €5 per item.

You must NOT use your own condoms because the Fairmont supplies plenty of these in the mini-bar. And if you want to have sex, you MUST use one of the many prostitutes available in the lobby. Even if you just want to talk all night or "cuddle up and spoon", you will be charged corkage if you try to do this with a woman that you brought yourself.

Obviously this will come as a relief to some people because they can now tell their wife or girlfriend that, although they would love to take them to Monaco, they can't afford the "corkage" costs. The Fairmont has also been considering ways to charge corkage for any photographs guests take as the hotel sells perfectly good postcards in the gift shop, but this idea is still in development.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


Background info ... Oscar Chica Lucena appears to be a freelance Vueling consultant whose role is to answer awkward posts on Vueling's facebook pages in the guise of an independent third party. Here's my reply to Oscar!
Oscar... that's sweet of you to defend Vueling and their fantastic social media team. I am something of a fantastic social media team myself so I always appreciate fantastic work in others.

However if you look at all my posts on, you will see that their only reply - sometimes repeated three times in one post, was "Hello Mad, please send us your claim through, and our team will answer you as soon as possible. Regards". Also, in response to my emails, they have replied (three times) with a form letter which you can see at the bottom of my blog: It doesn't matter what I write to them, that's the answer I get.

Passengers are not obliged to know a thing about about "aeronautics culture" or "EUROCONTROL" in order to pursue their legal rights to compensation which is very clearly outlined in Have you read this? Extraordinary circumstances are situations "beyond the control of the airline", for example, "security risk, political instability or severe weather that makes flying dangerous". I'm sure it's "very hard" finding a specific slot between two airports, but as that is what airlines are supposed to do, I don't see this as "extraordinatry cicumstances". And, as nearly all the flights were running from Orly during the time period I was there (13.00 - 19.30), then we can certainly rule out "severe weather". I could see the weather out of the window and it was mainly drizzle plus the odd snowflake (and I do mean one or two!).

What I CAN tell from my brief foray into "aeronautics culture" is that it is verging on airline policy to ignore complaints from passengers who have been denied boarding in the hope that a wall of silence or repeated stock responses will cause them to give up. Airlines are clearly banking (and I don't mean this in the aeronautical sense) on the fact that not many people will continue to pursue their rights faced with this kind of response. This is what "aeronautics culture" actually amounts to.

However the law on compensation for cancelled flights is extremely clear - and is also referenced in section 7.2.1. of Vueling's own Conditions of Carriage The form letter that I have been sent repeatedly ignores 7.2.1. entirely, and quotes 7.2.3 of the Conditions of Carriage which refers to reimbursement and delays (a wholly different situation and not one relevant to me).