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In a stark contrast from the current healthcare system in the US, the UK has the National Health Service aka NHS. This is a socialised healthcare service that pretty sucks for preventive care but does fine if you get hit by a bus. It’s what you would expect from free health care. Service is generally poor…not terrible…but not great either. It’s certainly not all roses like the picture Michael Moore painted in Sicko. There are plenty of people that have fallen on that line between life-threatening and non-life-threatening that have gotten the fish and chips up their arse as a result.

As the US is shifting towards this public healthcare model, note that the NHS is going bankrupt and that overall I prefer privatised healthcare like most people in the UK get anyway because you want someone to look at that rash under your bum instead of defining it as “non-life-threatening” and telling you to bugger off.

I will end this blog by saying bollocks…just because.

3 mobile

There isn’t much need to write much more on the topic of Pay As You Go mobile services. I already talked about using it to call your family and friends at home for cheap and making sure to get 25% off your Skype credit top up. Well, they officially cemented their position in my hall of fame this month byoffering an amazing deal:

For every top up of 10 quid , you receive free for 90 days:
1. 600 texts (5 quid only gets you 25 text messages)
2. Unlimited In-network calling
3. 150MB of mobile Internet
4. Unlimited Skype use
5. Unlimted Windows Live Messenger use

With this kind of a deal with no commitment, there is absolutely no reason to go on contract unless you’re using an iPhone…in which case you should just PayPal me 20 quid just because…and I mean per month. I take it as a sign that mobile services are so commoditised and competition so fierce that you need to push the envelope to steal market share from your competitors. In this case, the nimbler 3 Mobile wins on Value and Simplicity. Yeah, Vodaphone offers free twittering, and O2 has the iPhone contract but for the cheap-arses, which is supposed to be most of us in this recession, 3 is the hands down winner.

Derren Brown

Back in May 2008 I wrote about Derren Brown – An Evening of Wonder. None stop engagement with the crowd. None stop jaw-opening mind-reading acts. You just kept saying “WTF?!?” through the entire show. Bar none, the best show I have attended live. No annoying kids singing. No annoying dudes singing. As a matter of fact…no singing at all.

Luckily we were able to score frontish row seats, maybe 4-5 rows back. If you want to watch the exact show I was talking about, you can now purchase the DVD if you did not catch the show on Channel 4 in the UK. Better yet, catch a live show in London this summer, which I will be doing soon.

Update (June 2, 2009): I’ve purchased front row seats for 45 quid each on July 15 in case anybody is in London and would like to rock out with us.

One of the things that I have come to be quite efficient at is booking a flight in Europe. This is generally done 1-2 months in advance. No more than that. Yeah, this is not like planning a trip from the US to Europe, where you book flights months in advance. This is more like planning a trip from San Francisco to LA. Except it’s a lot more fun…let me show you how I do it.

The best way is always to go to Skyscanner and literally select the option to fly from London to anywhere in the world. I previously gave an overview of the Skyscanner service but I can’t explain how much fun it is to say give me a location to fly to anywhere in the world instead of me choosing the destination. Skyscanner rocks.
Skyscanner

Since the European flights will be the cheapest, they will show up a the top. These prices are from 5 minutes ago. For those of you that aren’t familiar with the pricing of European flights from London….these prices are fo real, yo…AND these are OUT OF POCKET PRICES. Yeah, sliced bread, flowbee, or even the overly-reinvented wheel has nothing on this.
skyscanner second page

The page is telling me I can go to Italy for 5 quid. I don’t know what kind of a world we live in but 5 quid return from London to Italy sounds absurd. If we dig in, we do see limitations to this price. It’s only offered on certain days in July and there are heavy fluctuations in pricing all the way from 3 to 106 each way. I don’t know about you, but I’m flying on the 3 quid flight. This is usually the bit that takes the most time, is finding dates that work and costs me less than 30 pounds return (5 if I can find it)
skyscanner page 3

After you select the flights, you are taken directly to the airlines where Skyscanner gets an affiliate commission and companies like EasyJet or my favourite RyanAir get their sale and I’m on my way to eating ravioli tartufo in Italy.

Skype phone

I wrote previously about how Skype is a great way to keep in touch with friends at home. If you use Skype to call internationally via your 3 SkypePhone, it allows cheap phone-to-phone internationally calling in addition to free mobile-to-pc calling. The problem was that you had to top up your Pay As You Go plan (with 25% discount)every 3 months to continue using Skype of the phone. While 3 months was a step up from 1 month when the 3 SkypePhone was introduced, it was still something to consider. Recently, however, 3 has announced that as long as you have credit on your 3 account, you can use Skype. That means cheap international calling for cheap! You could literally put 10 quid on your Skype phone and use Skype on your mobile for a year including calling international phones, free PC calls, and Skype chats. Nice one!

Poland is one of the cheapest places you can visit in Europe right now and get old school eastern european prices. As a member of the EU that has not joined the Eurozone, which are the countries that have converted to using the Euro. As such, prices are in Polish zloty, which right now is quite shit. This makes for a great trip. Krakow, pronounced krak-oof, is the cultural centre of Poland and the place to go.

Krakow Highlights:

1. Relive the horror of the Holocause at Auschwitz

Auschwitz

No trip to Krakow is complete without a trip to the concentration camp of Auschwitz. It’s a cold, dark place where 1.5 million jews were massacred. It is where Jews from all other parts of the German empire were taken for their executions in cold, calculated efficiency. Crematoriums were asssessed regularly on their throughput of bodies to amount of fuel for the fires. The chambers full of hair, spectacles, luggages, and shoes for re-purposing are a powerful image of this cold effiency. Hair, for example, was shipped to Berlin to be used to make blankets. Yes, that’s blankets and pillows out of human hair.

The tour begins with a black and white film, which you have seen on Discovery channel, and then a guide takes you through the different areas. Everything is carried out with, again, a cold effiency without much emotion. There is nothing glorified here, no tear-jerking stories of heroism or tragedy. You just took a tour of the sites where 1.5 million Jews were sent to their deaths and what the operations were like to execute on that plan. (see what I did with execute there?) It is a somber place with a tragic history. You don’t need to dress it up.

You are then taken to Birkenau, aka Auschwitz 2. This is the true death camp where the weak were taken for execution. This place made the other Auschwitz seem like the Ritz Carlton. People stacked on top of each other waiting for their deaths.

You don’t leave Auschwitz with any new revelations or strong feelings of human emotion, since you have seen it all already on Discovery channel. What you do leave with is a glimpse of what it may have been like to have been here. Seeing some of the photos, lining up where the people slept or were tortured. It gives you just enough of a glimpse to think…maybe my cubicle job isn’t all that bad, considering I’m not sleeping standing up while the two bunks above with 39 other people piled on top of each other is dripping with filth.

2. Eat some Polish cheese in the moutains of Zakopane

polish cheese

It is nice to visit an area outside of the main city and see the resort area of Zakopane. All over the area, there are old ladies selling these blocks of cheese, which taste like a smokey gouda. It is great when it is grilled.

3. Enjoy perogi from a milk bar like a commie

perogi

Perogi is the national dish of Poland. It’s a heavy dumping, usually with a bit of pork in the middle, consumed when Poland was a part of the USSR in the milk bars, where people ate at every day. You usually top off the perogi with some bacon bits and oil. Yummmm. It’s pretty tastey, just not the best thing if you’re trying to work on your fitness.

4. Drink vodka with the locals like a commie.
Krakow has many great bars and the Vodka Bar has a great selection of vodkas to taste, including coffee, lemon, and chocolate. A great way to cap off the night.

Conclusion: 3.5/5 Ninjas
Krakow is a gem of a city in Eastern Europe, still holding on to some of the old school while embracing capitalism. With the economy the way it is, the Polish Zloty has come down significantly, making Krakow a great place to visit. You are well-reminded on how this place has been shat on throughout history but you can also see the country coming to its own in a young and thriving town like Krakow. Getting out of Krakow for Auschwitz and other towns will give you a even bigger picture of a great place to spend a weekend before returning to your 9-5 cubicle job and thinking life is pretty good.

Krakow photos:

Auschwitz photos:

I don’t usually post the most viral video on the Interweb on my blog as you will have seen it already but because this clip of Susan Boyle was exceptional and worthy of being watched multiple times, voila!

I don’t know what it is but something about it touched my soul. It brings me back to the Les Miserables showing at the Queens Theatre we went to last year. I like it when videos do that to my deep sensitive side, like that old video of that monkey falling off the tree. Absolutely moving stuff. The Punjabi Michael Jackson is worth re-watching also.

jumping in front of kasbah
Morocco is a special place but in no way met any of my expectations, both good and bad. To sum up our Morocco trip in a single phrase, I would say it was “full on”. Let me give you my top observations about Morocco here:

1. Marrakech is not an undiscovered city.
There is no better way of exemplifying this than terrible Hop On Hop Off City Buses. These abominations fill every tourist big city stuffed with fat colourfully dressed Westerners. They were in Marakech. So it goes.

2. Moroccan men enjoy the company of other men
I will start by saying I’m a gay rights supporter that has DJ’d for a San Franciscan gender illusionist club. That said, Moroccan men kiss each other and hold hands…not that there’s anything wrong with that.

3. The Djeema El Fna is a big rave sans the glow sticks
djeema el fna
The world renowned square in Marrakech is an interesting sight of vendors, tourist attractions like snake charmers, food, and people everywhere. It really just felt like a big rave where you walk around in the desert looking at light shows. Some areas have very aggressive guys trying to get you to try their food and reminding you constantly that you are Japonaise…which brings me to my next point.

3. London Ninja is not Japonaise.
I studied Japanese for 2 years in University but am not Japanese no matter how much sushi I consume. The people in Marrakech, however, do not seem to agree with this and continually say, “konichiwa, arigato.” I have no one to blame for this but the Japonaise themselves. I am certain groups of wealthy Japonaise giggle and toss out Moroccan Dirhims at the sound of anything resembling Japanese. Thank you, Japonaise. I owe you one.

4. Moroccans do not shake or eat with their left hands.
I’m not sure I need to expand on this, but I will and let’s just say toilet paper is not present in every toilet…and by toilet, I’m talking about a hole in the ground…a shithole, literally. There’s usually some source of water around so you can wash your dirty hand or however that works. I don’t even want to go there other than to say bring your TP if you’re heading out to Morocco.

5. Moroccan food is …. ok
Tajine, meats and vegetables cooked in a clay pot resembling an upside down funnel, brochette, and cous cous are pretty good…but not that good. It is, however, what you eat every meal of every day in Morocco. The flavours are ok, just not varied or complex. After a couple of days, beef pho with basil and Sriracha starts to sound pretty damn good.

6. Islamic chanting over loud speakers sounds like chicken killing
moroccan praying
No offense to all Moroccan Muslims out there, but the prayer/song that is chanted all day in Morocco really needs a bit more soul(see what I did there?)5 times a day, the city is covered by the singing of various priests who make a singing/whining sound through loudspeakers covering the entire city, which is when Muslims are to pray in a mosque or on their own. While I found it amusing the first time I heard it (during a nap), it lost that jenesequa at 5am. This was every day I was in Morocco and apparently they never voted out the bad singers. What happened to quality control?

7. Camels are cute and cost less than donkeys
camel smiling
Donkeys, are also cute little things. This is my sensitive side, folks…you know, the one chicks(including my wife) dig. Feel free to take notes. You can’t take the game out of the player, son. Where was I? Ah, yes…Donkeys. Camels cost 12000md, 500 for a donkey. Yes, your very own donkey for the price of dinner and drinks in San Francisco. Why not? From what I’ve seen both donkeys and camels have a undeserved reputation for biting, spitting, and being disagreeable creatures. The farting reputation stands.

Both animals seem to always have a smile on their faces. Who doesn’t like that? Camels also have interesting feet, their toes in particular…not sure why.

8. When given the choice, do not ride a camel smaller than you
camel
On our 3 day excursion out to the Sahara desert in Erg Chebbi near Merzouga, we rode camels into the sand dunes where we slept under the stars in a Berber tent. Somehow I was stuck on a camel the size of my cousin Jimmy, who while big for a ninja, is nowhere near what a camel is at full size.
The ride was pretty amazing…if you define sore and chafed bollocks as amazing. 2 hours felt just right for the camel ride…if you ask my bollocks.

Sunset and sunrise were lovely, as were the most amazing stars I’ve seen since Hale Bopp. One bit of advice on these yours is not to expect full narration. Let’s just say there still is a language gap between Moroccans and Japonaise.

9. Riads are where you should stay in
Riads are like bed and breakfasts but in a fancy Prince of Persia type setting. Ours was very cool where the host brought us mint tea in the courtyard and brought us to our very ornate room. There is no other way to stay in Morocco…stay in a nice riad.

10. Berber Whiskey is not the same as Scotch Whiskey
mint tea
There is no distillation process. There is no aging. There is no slurring of speech. There is no puddle of filth in the corner of the room(as displayed by ODJ during our trip to Galway). There is no headache the next morning. There is no looking around and asking “Where are my clothes and why am I in a chicken outfit?”

Morocco is a Islamic country and as such alcohol is difficult to get a hold of…usually at the risk of death. Generally you can find it at Westernised hotels and other buildings that get blown up here and there. (nah, it’s not all that extreme). Instead of alcohol Moroccans drink a lot of mint tea, which is strong green tea, fresh mint leaves, and a lot of sugar. It tastes like Spearmint gum in a shotglass, which once you get used to it can tastes much better than Jim Beam ever tasted.

Conclusion: 4/5 ninjas
Morocco was in the end unlike anywhere else we’ve ever been. The “full-on” aspect of it, the camels, the mint tea, the sahara, etc. It was a great. You can only stay in Marrakech for so long and trips to the desert or outside of Marrakech are recommended. You are viewed as dollar bills and the people can be aggressive but as long as you’re aware, it’s all good. Just have some Berber Whiskey and start practicing Japonaise!

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Slideshow (~65 pics)