Month: December 2011

Last Night in Thailand

It’s taken a week to get here, but we’re now very close to our exit point from Thailand into Cambodia. Since it’s Christmas Day, we’ve splashed out on a beachside resort. Chanchon Resort is rather a nice place, and our unit is so close to the sea that there is a real danger of it floating away at high tide. Still only about $25USD though. For cyclists coming this way, it’s about 8km north of Khlong Yai, sign-posted off the main road. Turn off the main road, travel a short way down it, turn right again. Not a big diversion to come this way, see if rooms are available. They have a restaurant here serving beer, food and wine cooler (Anna wasn’t too impressed by the wine cooler, but after the 4th one, it seemed to be OK). The food isn’t cheap, but it’s good.

We’re very close to the border, should just be a short ride tomorrow across to Koh Kong. I’ve been doing some research about the next leg, to Sihanoukville, and I don’t like what I’ve found so far. The boat stopped running when they finished the road, but the road runs through an isolated part of the Cardamon Mountains, with few places to stay. It’s a modern road too, which is not always a good thing.

Over the years I’ve gotten better at reading maps, and interpreting the relationship between roads and geography. One of the things you learn is that the old roads are the best. Old roads were built for horses and carts, not for modern engines. They pay careful attention to the lie of the land. I can look ahead at the terrain, and predict where the road will go. New roads are different. People don’t understand the reason for winding roads any more, they expect to be able to plow straight through. In your white, air-conditioned Land Cruiser, you don’t notice the difference. On the bicycle it’s a different story. A slight gradient to your V8 could mean an hour’s climbing. 35° with 80% humidity feels rather different on the outside of air conditioning.

So I’m a bit concerned about that road leg, which has very few places to stay, and certainly not the plethora of roadside stalls selling all manner of cyclist-sustaining goodness that Thailand has. When we get to Koh Kong I’ll have to investigate the bus situation. Putting bikes on buses can be a hit and miss affair. The good thing about this part of the world is that pretty much any need can be accommodated, provided you have a few dollars to smooth things over. We’ll see what happens when we get to Koh Kong.

Something I should have mentioned in the last dispatch is the impact of the floods. In Bangkok itself, there was no direct impact from the floods, more the evidence of it. There were sandbags a-plenty, mostly just stacked up to one side now. Quite a few places had hastily thrown up brick walls built in fron of them to a height of 500mm or so. A couple of places right beside the river were pumping water out, but by and large, things were pretty much normal. It has been in the countryside that we’ve noticed the serious impact. All touring cyclists who have travelled through Thailand will be very familiar with the 7-11 convenience stores dotted around the country. After a long hot day, these are like a veritable oasis of calm, offering the holy trinity of air conditioning, Snickers bars and chocolate milk. It seems that the floods have hit the 7-11 distribution centres hard, and they are not carrying the full range. Prepare yourself: Almost all 7-11 stores have no ice blocks or ice cream available. That’s right, no Magnum caramel-dipped chocolate and peanut coated, “FDA approved only for people exercising more than five hours per day” ice cream goodness for us. That’s not to say that ice cream is completely unavailable, but be warned: You’ll need to hunt it down.

Wifee in Tow

As mentioned in the last dispatch, Anna and I are now off enjoying our honeymoon. In an unsurprising move, we have taken our bicycles with us on a month long trip in South East Asia. I’ve only got a vague route planned, but we fly in and out of Bangkok, and the rough plan is to loop out to the east, take in a bit of Cambodia and Southern Vietnam, before coming back to Bangkok.

I haven’t worked out exact distances and times, and some places are going to be just a touch tricky to manage around Christmas/New Years, but I’m sure that things will work themselves out. They usually do in this part of the world, especially if you’ve got a little bit of cash to help sort out hassles.

After a couple of days in Bangkok, we got a bus to Pattaya, and started riding south and east. We’re currently in Chanthaburi, heading to Trat tomorrow, and into Cambodia in the next few days.

It’s been a while since I’ve been out on the bike much, and Anna has never done any bike touring. So there’s been moaning, grumbling, sore backsides, a few tears, the usual stuff. Anna has been very good though.

Unfortunately the riding hasn’t been all that great so far – we should have got a bus further out of Bangkok. It’s a far busier, far more industrial area, for much further out of Bangkok than I realised. Plenty of places to eat, wide roads with a good shoulder, but just too much traffic. Our next stop is the last place of any real size, so things should start to quieten down then.

It has been interesting to return to Thailand. Some things I’d half-forgotten about, like the regular bus stops that are perfect for a rest in the shade, the rhythm of traffic and how to use it to cross the road, the ladyboys… There’s also some new things in this part of the country, like flash cafes periodically spaced along the road, all offering a range of coffees, cakes and free Wi-Fi. These places look like they have been transplanted from any Western city, but they’re either in the middle of nowhere, or in light industrial areas. It’s quite odd. If they were the standard roadside stalls, I would think nothing of it. But these are flash places, marble, glass, air-conditioning. The one we stopped at even had Asian garden gnomes. Very odd.

The food of course has been good, but I swear I have to stop ordering the papaya salad. The last one had me drinking beer and chocolate milk, to try and stop my mouth burning, to no avail. I couldn’t eat any of the other dish we had either, as it felt like my mouth had been burnt, and eating more hot (temperature) food just made things worse. Anna just laughed at me.

For any other cyclists coming through Chanthaburi, I can advise that there are at least 3 bike shops, with a couple of them carrying some reasonable kit. Some Schwalbe tyres even. Not Duremes/Supremes, but still. Oddly enough, there also seems to be a bit of a single-speed culture in this city too. Is this what happens when countries become more prosperous? They start adopting deliberately difficult cycling styles? There’s boy racers here too. Not sure I like this sort of progress.

Ah well. Cambodia soon, as long as the borders don’t get closed too much around Christmas.

northlandboy…and his girl

This year has been a tough year, with a huge amount going on in both my life, and Anna’s. In the last few months, it feels like we’ve hardly had time for ourselves, let alone each other. In my case it was study taking up all my time, in Anna’s case it has been three things: Exams, moving house, and organising our wedding. She passed her exams, we are successfully installed in our new house, and now finally we made it to this scene on December 10:

In front of our friends and family, Anna and I said our vows, and are now formally married.

We wanted to do something different, so we held both the wedding and reception in St Kevins Arcade, an old shopping arcade in an area that was once Auckland’s premier shopping strip, but is now a somewhat alternative area. Very cool location, and very central, making it easy for guests to get there.

We had a huge family turnout, which was particularly appreciated. I know it’s not always easy for people to travel, especially when they have young children. It meant a lot to us that those people were able to make it.

Since it was an evening wedding, it meant that we had the day to do as we pleased. So I went for a run, read the newspaper, sat around chatting, generally took it easy. Somehow I doubt things were as relaxed where Anna and the bridesmaids were getting ready.

The wedding itself was a lot of fun, if extremely busy for Anna and I. Normally if you go to a party with 130 people, you only really talk to a dozen or so. When you’re the bride/groom, you need to make an effort to chat to as many people as possible. I did my best, but I couldn’t make it around to everyone. To those I didn’t get a chance to talk to, I apologise, but I did note your attendance, and we’ll catch up next year!

I can also highly recommend getting a live band for a wedding. The area the wedding was held in is a bit of a party area, but we still managed to get noise control called in. To a party on K Rd! Top effort that.

When we went home at the end of the night, I was half expecting someone to have done something to the bed. What I was not expecting was to be locked out of our own house. We have two doors, only one of which we have a key for. It seems that the last person to leave had put the chain lock across the one door we had the key for. I had to kick it in, busting part of the door frame. Lucky it was an old door frame.

Now it’s time for Anna and I to head off into the distance on our own, on our honeymoon. More on that in the next post, probably entitled ‘Wifee in Tow’

P.S. Yes that is Samson just disappearing around the corner ahead of us

Not quite there yet

You haven’t heard much from me recently for a very good reason. I have had no life. None whatsoever. No biking, no going out, no watching TV, nothing. All my spare time has revolved around one thing: CCIE study. This year I set myself a challenge, of becoming a CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert). This is a top level networking certification, highly respected within the industry. I know most of you have never heard of it, but trust me, if you work in my field, you certainly know about it.

Becoming CCIE certified involves passing a written exam, taken at any one of hundreds of testing centres around the world. That part needs a bit of study, but it’s straightforward. That then qualifies you to register for the real meat of it – the 8 hour practical exam, taken at a limited number of lab locations around the world. These have limited seats available, and depending on where you are, it can be tricky getting seats. Luckily my nearest location is Sydney, which is usually not too tricky to get space at.

Because of other rather important things going on in my life – i.e. I’m getting married next week – I had to schedule my first lab attempt for this week. I always knew that it was going to be a bit tight to get ready by this time, but I thought I could just about do it. I don’t do any hands-on work with Cisco equipment these days, so all of the practice I get is in my own time, on my own dime. I’ve mostly been using training materials from INE in my study program. These give me some structure to work from, as I try and cover the enormous range of topics covered in CCIE Routing and Switching these days.

Almost every night I’m either reading, or practising scenarios on rented routers and switches. At least one whole weekend day is taken up with practice lab scenarios. Closer to lab time, this was both weekend days. My iPod has audio lectures loaded onto it. When I’m driving to and from Tauranga for work, this is usually what I’m listening to. Some people keep track of the total hours they spend studying. I don’t, but trust me, it’s a lot. I really don’t know how Anna puts up with it all, I really don’t. She has been amazingly supportive though.

All this work, but it turns out that I’m not quite there yet. Close, but just not quite there. Recently I tried a couple of practice labs from from Cisco 360 program. These offer a pretty reasonably simulation of what you might expect from the lab. One of them I was just below passing, the second one I passed. Note: There are two parts to it, troubleshooting and configuration, and you need 80% in both parts to pass.  So I knew I was on track. Not certain to pass, but certainly in the frame.

So this week I travelled to Sydney, for my first lab attempt. Things started out reasonably well, and I was reasonably sure I would pass the first part, troubleshooting. Sometimes candidates know they’ve failed the first part, and so they don’t make a proper effort in the configuration part. But I thought I was doing OK, and I thought I was going OK for time. So I wasn’t rushing, I spent a bit of time reading through the questions, looking at the diagrams, getting a feel for what’s going on. The last thing you want is to find that a question near the end of the exam completely changes how you should have done something at the start. It’s a classic Cisco trick, to have something late in the day that breaks everything you thought you’d configured earlier.

I started working my way through configuring various bits and pieces. I could understand pretty much all of the core stuff, but the problem was time. After a couple of hours, I realised I just wasn’t moving through the marks fast enough. I also got tripped up by the deliberate mistakes Cisco had inserted. I was prepared for a misconfiguration, I wasn’t quite so prepared for something added that would actively break things. That took a little longer than it should have to track down and fix. At lunch time I was OK, but only just.

After lunch, I worked my way through the rest of the items, all except for 3. Two of them were on a complex, but niche topic, and would have required a huge amount of work for the marks. One was dependent on the other, so I made the decision to just leave that, as it didn’t affect anything else. The third thing I could have worked it out, but I was running out of time, and didn’t want to risk breaking other things. I took too long configuring things, and I didn’t have the time to properly verify everything, other than full connectivity. Provided I got every other section right, I could just scrape through, even with the missing sections. So I wasn’t certain I’d failed, but it would be tough to pass.

This morning I got my score report. Passed troubleshooting (the section that trips up most candidates), but failed configuration. No CCIE number for me today. I think the thing that got me was three little words: “No partial credit.” If a question has 5 requirements, and it’s worth 3 marks, it means you need to get everything working correctly to get any points. You can’t get 4 things working, and get 2 out of 3. So what they’ll do is have 4 straightforward requirements, and one to catch you out. Clearly I’d made a few little mistakes along the way, because I lost too many points to pass. If I’d been faster, I would have had more time to verify, and maybe I would have picked up those mistakes.

Am I down about it? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t down, at least a little bit. I’ve put in a lot of work, but I’ve still got more to go. But I need to keep this in context – the numbers I’ve heard are that there is a 10% passing rate for first timers, and overall about a 26% passing rate. So I’m in good company. It’s not wasted effort either. It’s not cheap, taking a week off work, flying to Sydney, paying $1650USD for an exam, and coming away empty-handed. I’ve spent thousands on training materials too. But this is all good experience, and I know I can pass this exam. It’s just going to take a bit more work. I know I deserve to be there attempting it – passing the troubleshooting part proves that. But first things first, I need to take a break. I’m getting married in just over a week, then I can take a good holiday. Hopefully I don’t forget too much while I’m away! Next attempt will be around April/May I think. Have to negotiate with Anna…