On The Road: Pacific Northwest, Part II

I am in love with Northern California. Have been ever since I went there on honeymoon. On this trip we were only one night in the state, just a dozen miles or so across the border from Oregon, in Crescent City. But it was far enough south for what mattered: the Redwoods.

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We hiked a trail in Jedediah Smith Redwood State Forest. I’ve seen Redwoods before, but they always make me catch my breath. They’re my favourite tree (I can’t believe that you don’t have a favourite tree). Trees as wide as buses towered into the canopy above. We saw others on the trail, but for the most part we  were alone. At one point we stopped, and BKC whispered to me: “I’ve never heard such silence.” The forest seemed to soak up sound. For a while we couldn’t even hear birdcalls; there was just the overbearing presence of trees, looming upwards as they did yesterday, they will tomorrow, and they will long after I’m dead. That stillness, when we just stopped and listened – I tried to fold it away inside myself.

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Edge of the Pacific

The Oregon coast. Famed, apparently, in the US for its wild beauty. In the UK its reputation is unfairly overshadowed by California – to my mind the coast just stopped at the state border, like when segments of google maps are slow to load and you just have blocks of grey. But no. It is wild, remote and rugged, and in a few places teeming with tourists. Yet in the five days that we spent hopping north from California on the 101 we didn’t encounter any other Europeans.

We visited and stayed in a succession of small towns – Brookings, Port Orford, Bandon, Yachats – stopping off inbetween at beaches and overlooks. On a beach whose name I don’t remember someone had built a driftwood fort, still standing despite the wind whipping in off the Pacific. We were the only people there. We poked around in rock pools and watched the waves crash against volcanic rocks. I picked up a smooth, black stone speckled with green crystals that I took home and later kept on my desk at work as a reminder that deadlines and emails aren’t everything.

Perhaps it was because I was jaded from spending too long behind the wheel, but I was disappointed by the Oregon Dunes. It’s allegedly the place that inspired Frank Herbert to pen the novel Dune. I’ll let you into a secret: it’s just a lot of sand.

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Hint: the best thing about this is running down the dune really quickly. The worst thing is then having to walk back up the Giant Hill of Sand.

In the small town of Yachats (pronounced ya-hots) we indulged ourselves by spending two nights rather than our usual hurried one. It was a relief to have a day off driving; I spent the day reading and writing, whilst BKC tried to soak up some of the weak spring sunshine. In the evening I spent a long time on the beach, watching the churning waves crash against the rocks.

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Eventually we made our way to Astoria, at the northernmost end of the Oregon coast. On our journey north we had acquired: one damascus steel penknife; a vintage (read “in bad condition”) US flag; a cardboard NRA-approved shooting target; several interestingly shaped rocks; an old road map of California; two mugs, one featuring pelicans, the other pigs; a 1950s dress; and one pound of beef jerky. I should note that we did legitimately purchase these (except the rocks), we weren’t on some kind of small-time crime spree targeting only junk stores.

Astoria sits at the mouth of the Colombia River, the same river that we had earlier in our journey, further east, witnessed so many waterfalls joining. It is a wide, great volume of water that flows so strongly into the Pacific that the first European explorers to discover it could not land nearby due to the strong currents. Huge shipping vessels now moor there.

But let me tell you a story.

In 1824, in what is now Astoria, a son was born to a Hudson Bay Company trader and a local Chinook chief’s daughter. They named him Ranald MacDonald, and as he grew up and sought a profession he faced discrimination for his mixed race, struggling to progress as a bank clerk. He was restless, and became interested in Japan – possibly through the tale of three Japanese fisherman who had drifted across the Pacific and been shipwrecked nearby. At the time Japan was little known and closed off to all foreigners.

Ranald quit his job and signed on as a sailor on a whaling vessel. After three years onboard, he convinced the captain to set him adrift off the coast of Hokkaido in a small boat, which he deliberately shipwrecked. He was rescued by the indigenous Ainu people, who turned him over to the authorities.

He was imprisoned in Nagasaki, where he learnt Japanese and became the first teacher of English in Japan. After ten months in Japan he was handed over to a US warship, and once home made a statement to the US congress about Japan and its society. Ranald’s students in Japan later became instrumental to the negotiating of the trade deal with the US that opened the country up to foreigners.

Ranald MacDonald was a man with a foot in different worlds, at the edges of things. And Astoria, at the northernmost tip of the Oregon coast with the Pacific stretching out to the west, does feel like its on the edge of something – ocean, continent, culture, state line. Ranald’s forebears had travelled to the new world, headed west and hit the ocean, but he carried on travelling west, and there’s something about that story of new and old cultures, promise and failure that seems for me to embody the Pacific Northwest. It’s one of my favourite stories that I collected on this journey.

Not Just The Sound of Rain

The next day we crossed the bridge into Washington, hulking tankers slipping by beneath us, and hit a wall of rain. We had entered the Olympic Peninsular, a wild, sparsely populated area of land cut off from the rest of the state by water on three sides, and home to a temperate rainforest.

During our second day on the Peninsular, we were walking around one of the more popular trails in the Hoh Rainforest. Our walk was dogged by three loud kids with their grandmother, being loud in a way that only Americans can. When we sped up, so did they; when we slowed down, they did the same. We couldn’t seem to get rid of them. “But I just want to enjoy nature in silence,” I fumed to BKC, demonstrating exactly the kind patience I’m sure I’ll be called upon to exhibit if we ever have kids of our own. I tutted under my breath in a very British (and uncharitable) way, then smiled at the family as they walked past. Frankly my reserves of patience had been brought to their limit by our unfailingly enthusiastic waitress the night before, who at one point actually gave us a double thumbs up (“I’d be more than happy to get that drink for you.”). Was she taking the piss? I asked BKC. She thought no – our waitress was just naturally infuriatingly cheerful.

So these kids the next day pushed me over the edge. “We’re going a different way!” I declared, and took us down the overnight hiking trail.

Immediately the people-noises fell away, and we were left with just bird song and the sound of the rain. The path was bedecked with moss a thousand shades of green, and we cut off the main path to reach the nearby riverbank. There we could look out across a wide, rocky, flood plain at a misty bank opposite. Pine trees snagged holes in the clouds. There was the sound of running water. It was completely tranquil.

Or at least it was until I sat down and screamed like a girl, because I’d sat on a thorn bush.

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That’s a Hoh lotta moss…

That night we stayed in La Push, a tiny town at the north west of the Peninsular, known principally for being where the Twilight novels are set. It’s a Native American reservation, and signs on its beach warn visitors not take anything away with them as the place is sacred to the local peoples.

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We stayed in a hotel just next to the beach, and we were able to climb over the accumulated drift wood to walk down to the sea and watch the whales gathered just offshore. We saw both Grey Whales and Orcas – mainly as fins and spouts popping up from the water now and again. It felt very special and very far away from anywhere. That night I lay in bed for a long time listening to just the hum of the motel fridge and the crashing of the waves.

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We were nearing the end of our journey. But for our final slice of the wild, we stayed at a little AirBnB place near Elwha River, on the northern side of the peninsular. It was a rambling looking house on several acres of land, with a horse paddock and chicken coops. As we were talking to the owner a bald eagle drifted above overhead, and all the chickens ran for cover. “The rooster’s a mean old bird,” she told us, “but he keeps the chickens safe from the Eagles, so we keep him. I’d stay away from him, though.” Then she added, as an afterthought: “and don’t touch the electric fence. It’s so hot it’ll make you pee your pants.”

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We were just a short drive from another entrance to the Olympic National Park that took in the Elwha River. When we got there, however, the roads were closed because the river had flooded recently. So we parked up and set off on foot instead, walking down the middle of the road. Mountains poked up above the trees, and debris from the flooding was strewed along the tarmac. The campsites that we came across were all trashed, the water having left silt and fallen trees everywhere it’d been. It felt like the end of the world.

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The next day we were sad to be heading back towards civilisation. It was a bright, cloudless day with temperatures pushing up towards a place where short wearing becomes legitimate. So to cap our journey, we drove up the very long and winding mountain road to Hurricane Ridge, where we could look out across the miles to see the mountains of British Colombia.

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Not shorts wearing weather here…

In the car park, a JCB with chains on its wheels was clearing the snow, pushing it up into huge, twice-person-size drifts. There was a restaurant, but the season hadn’t really started yet and it was closed. All there was to do was sink up to our knees in snow and take in the view.

Soon all this snow would be gone, melted and run off into waterfalls and rivers, before travelling out to sea, perhaps some finding its way out through the mouth of the Colombia River, where we’d been earlier in our trip.

It filled me, strangely, with hope.

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***

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On The Road: Pacific Northwest

WE WERE GOING to the Deep South. We bought a guide book, spent time looking at maps, planned routes – even got a quote from a travel company for flights and some sadly unimaginative accommodation. Then we booked to go the Pacific Northwest instead.

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This was our first foreign holiday since our year of travel in 2014. We had two weeks. We once spent that long staying on one beach in Malaysia. It seemed like a ridiculously short amount of time. We wanted epic landscapes around every corner, not desert, swamps and long straight roads (I’ve never been to the Deep South, but I’ve seen True Detective, I know what it’s like…). This was travel for the Instagram generation.

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Remember the days before filters? Me neither.

We were also seeking an instant relief from others things: my job was stressful, perhaps doubly so because I was trying to balance it with a part time MA – the anxiety curled up tightly inside me, and, it seemed, around both our lives. In hindsight, it was one of those times in life where you need reminding that you are not, in fact, pivotal to the continued existence of the universe, despite everything seeming previously to have been arranged for you – right down to the stranger who bags the last empty seat on the tube having been sent to thwart you, personally, and having no other purpose on Earth.

To gain perspective from travel, from nature, from the unexpected, and thus to lose the chagrin of the lost-seat-on-the-tube: this is to be free.

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***

WE PEERED AT Mt Rainier from the highway, jammed amongst rush hour traffic on our journey south from Seattle-Tacoma airport, bound for a cheap hotel. The snowy peak hulked over everything, pushing through the gaps in trees and billboards. That night, after a fatigued dinner at Denny’s, I dreamt that we climbed it.

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The next morning, amidst the waffles and fruit loops of the Comfort Inn complimentary breakfast, I thought that perhaps some of our fellow guests may have consumed Mt Rainier whole. An enormously fat family of four crowded a table, shovelling cereal into their mouths. We squeezed past them to the buffet, vainly searching for the low sugar, dairy and gluten-free dietary options. The coffee was bad. I don’t even want to talk about the tea. There was only one solution to these first world problems:

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No single origin beans? No organics? You KNOW who to call…

Organic Everything

Four hours later, I was sat on the steps amongst the other lunchers outside the Portland Saturday market, eating empanadas, scalding hot juices running down my chin. The lady on the step next to me was knitting. I watched a homeless woman colouring her obligatory cardboard sign with felt tip pens.

The next few days passed in a caffeine fuelled blur of locally-sourced, ethically-produced, craft-brewed hedonism. Basically like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, except with Triple Echinacea Green Tea instead of mescaline.

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Stay off that echinacea, kids…

For a pair of bibliofiends, Powell’s  City of Books was a highlight. This is the only place in the world where I’ve come across secondhand books mixed in with new, so you stumble upon an untouched edition sitting next to three used. It’s inspired, and it obviously worked: I left with a bag full of books. All other bookshops, please take note.

Frankly, if this doesn’t set your heart racing, I don’t know what will.

But as glorious as beer, caffeine and books are, it’s not what we travelled for. Consuming is fun for a while (quite a while – we spent 3 hours in the REI store), but shopping bags, beer flights and fancy meals all have diminishing returns*. We went for this:

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Nature. Accessible via a carefully maintained series of manmade trails.

*except for fish tacos, obviously.

Falling Water

It was spring, and the waterfalls of Colombia River Gorge were crashing torrents. We spent a long time just standing and staring up at one particular waterfall, close enough for its spuming drizzle to soak us through, close enough to feel utterly insignificant against its urgency. Its roar filled me.

This is what I want from the wild: to feel very small. Other people visit dominatrixes.

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That night we crossed back over the Hood River into Washington and stayed in a hut in the countryside, just outside a place called White Salmon. It was, like all the best places, an AirBnB place. After briefly meeting the owners, we watched the sun sink over trees and a sky full of stars emerge above.

In the morning, following the owners’ advice, we walked down to a little creek, passing on the way bullet-holed shooting targets. We stood on the riverbank, trying to absorb a tiny slice of sunshine, taking stock of our lives and what might be next. Then we bundled our luggage back into the rented gas guzzler and were away.

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Land of the free.

A few hours later we were driving down criss-crossing rural roads, red barns perched atop rolling hills. In the fields we passed were row upon row of young pine trees, each destined to one day be decorated with tinsel – for some reason it had never occurred to me that Christmas trees would be farmed in this way. They seemed oddly incongruous amidst the spring greenery.

After a quick stop off at our accommodation (a lavender farm, no less), we were at Silver Falls State Park, walking the Trail of Ten Falls. These stellar examples of falling water were, in fact, even better than those we witnessed in Colombia River Gorge, helped partly by the fact that it was sunny rather than raining and that for a few of the falls, it was possible to walk behind them. I began to think that I was becoming something of a connoisseur, and looked rather haughtily on some of the lesser examples that, if I’m honest, were just making up the numbers to allow for some easy alliteration in the trail’s name.

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I don’t know about you, but I’d score this about a 4.82.

Back at the lavender farm, we sat outside in the warm spring sun and read. It was quiet, just the sound of birds and occasionally a car from the road below. A helicopter flew above us, and even it seemed to be following a lazy meander through the sky. Rolling hills spread out to the horizon and as the air cooled and the sun dipped, the first stars emerged and we could see the lights of Salem twinkling in the distance.

***

The next day was a travel day – a six hour drive south down the I-5 to the northernmost tip of California. We ate a Wendy’s for lunch. I don’t know why. The man behind the till was excited to meet us. I was excited about the fact that they named a burger after me (no one even told me), but he was more interested in our accents. We had the usual “where you guys from?” conversation, I got my Dave Burger, we sat down.

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About midway through my namesake burger, the man from behind the till – let’s call him Joel – approached our table.

“Pardon me for interrupting, but when will Kate be inaugurated? I heard Her Majesty had passed.”

“The Queen’s dead?”” I asked, thinking immediately of my mother, the diehard republican. “We haven’t seen the news. When did it happen?”

“Oh, I saw it on TV,” said Joel. “A few months back.”

BKC and I exchanged a look.

“Are you sure you’re not thinking of Margaret Thatcher?” I asked. “She died a few years ago. There was a big funeral. I don’t think the Queen is dead. We’d know. Someone would’ve noticed.”

“Oh!” said Joel, “Well, that’s a relief to know Her Majesty is still with us.” There was an awkward pause, then he added: “Kate will make a great Queen.”

I picked at my fries. BKC explained about the line of succession.

Joel nodded sympathetically. “Such a shame about Diana,” he lamented, “she would have made a good Queen.” Then, cryptically, he exclaimed: “let’s hope Charles doesn’t get the guillotine out again!” and swished his arms as if swinging a sword.

“Sometimes,” he confided in us, as I struggled to consume my burger as quickly as possible, “I like to push it as far as I can, you know, politically.”

I didn’t ask him about Trump.

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NEXT TIME, in part two of my Pacific Northwest adventure… Redwoods! Whales! Endless pictures of beaches! Don’t miss it.

***

Australia As You Thought It Was

DEAR WORLD, I’M back. Obviously I’ve been back – as in, back home, not travelling, not living the dream – for some time now. Four months, in fact. It’s been traumatic. And wonderful, obviously. Seeing friends and family. All of their pale, cheerful, slightly chilled faces. Wonderful. Returning to work, getting the train into central London, bodies crammed into carriages like paperbacks on an overcrowded bookcase. Having a dishwasher. Having to shave. All the things that you romanticise when you’re lugging a backpack up to the fifth floor of a dingy hostel, cockroaches scurrying before you. Wonderful.

Home...

Home…

...and re-discovering my Jamie Oliver festish

…and re-discovering my Jamie Oliver fetish.

But I’m not talking about that. I mean that I’m back here, in the blogosphere or whatever the kids are calling it now. I’m here with a post that I mostly wrote whilst I was still travelling, but I haven’t been able to search out photos for until now, on account of having to hit the reset switch on life and wait for the loading screen to disappear. Now I’m all booted up and running DKC 2.0, I can write some more things for you, dear reader. And maybe for myself a bit, if I can keep from crying when I look through our travelling photos.

I have some Proper Thoughts about returning home. But they’re for later. This is for now.

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THE NORTHERN TERRITORIES are Australia as you imagine it: long roads, red scrubland, and the sudden realisation that those hats with corks hanging from them might actually be helpful because, man, these flies that keep landing on my face are annoying.

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We were there with my parents in the third week of our Australian journey. It was the second week where we’d been travelling together, and the bird count was high. This is not a euphemism. As this was his first time in Australia, for my dad every bird was a ‘lifer’ (for the uninitiated in twitching ways, that’s a bird that you’ve never seen before in your life), and every waking moment was another opportunity To See More Birds. There had already been some tensions and controversies as I tried to navigate a course through BKC’s likes (sleeping) and dislikes (walking) and those of my father (walking and sleeping, respectively). There had been numerous binoculargates, the latest – as we left our one-night-only AirBnB place in Darwin to head for Kakadu, now locked out with no way of re-entering – the most serious. When the hallowed optics were discovered missing, believed left-in-flat, recriminations flew, bags were turned inside out and pockets thoroughly checked. Only the late discovery of said binoculars in the side pocket of a less used bag saved us all from the sight of a grown man crying.

Thus blooded, we headed out to the land of man-sized termite mounds.

Trav22-6 GENERALLY, I AM not a fan of sunrise tours. The early rising is rarely justified – they invariably cost more and they usually mean spending a significant portion of your time at the temple/volcano/natural wonder in complete darkness. Sunrise tours are an epidemic amongst Asian tour operators. Sunrise is often beautiful; tourists want to see something because it is spectacular/historical/it-said-so-in-the-guide-book; tourists will pay more to see the attraction at a time that everybody knows is beautiful. Thus the thing that they see will also be more beautiful. And we will be richer. That is the logic.

Hence we once found ourselves tramping through a grey, dusty, volcanic ash landscape in complete, utter, can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face darkness, trying to find our way solo to the crater of Mount Bromo in Java, Indonesia, as a light rain pattered onto our heads. Every so often, moped drivers passed us, travelling from somewhere to nowhere; sensing our weakness, some occasionally stopped and circled us, like vultures. “Hey, you want volcano? I take you for 80,000. No? Ok, ok, 60,000.” After telling the first four no, we eventually caved – but only after having a heated, whispered argument as two moped drivers looked on (“we’re lost, we don’t have a choice, and it’s dark.” “It’s too much [it was £2.50], it’s a rip off. They might murder us and chop up our bodies. We’ll find our way.”).

A  volcano. In the dark. About as exciting as this photo.

A volcano. In the dark. About as exciting as this photo.

Mount Bromo by morning light. Steaming like a hot cup of tea outside on a cold morning, except without any of the benefits of warming your hands or making you feel cosy inside.

Mount Bromo by morning light. Steaming like a hot cup of tea outside on a cold morning, except without any of the benefits of warming your hands or making you feel cosy inside.

Dawn breaks. Or, rather, the rain takes a break from its relentless attempts to crush our spirit.

Dawn breaks. Or, rather, the rain takes a break from its relentless attempts to crush our spirit.

They took us to the bottom of the volcano, which we dutifully climbed in silence. As morning dawned behind the grey clouds, we were treated to an underwhelming view down a steep crater from which grey steam emerged into the grey day, joining its great friend, grey rain. Then we walked back the way we’d ridden on the mopeds and realised that in the darkness we’d missed the best part of the trip – an otherworldly, moonlike landscape, truly spectacular in its monochrome desolation. But there wasn’t time to stand and enjoy it: we had to catch our bus.

For the record, this is what a good volcano dawn tour is like: you eshew the option to pay more and get up earlier (2am) so that you can see the "blue fire" from the crater, and instead walk up a hill just darkness begins to slip away, looking out over a sea of cloud.

For the record, this is what a good volcano dawn tour is like: you eshew the option to pay more and get up earlier (2am) so that you can see the “blue fire” from the crater, and instead walk up a hill just as darkness begins to slip away, looking out over a sea of cloud.

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And you’re rewarded with what a volcano should look like: spectacular. It’s Ijen Plateau, also on Java. If you’re there, skip Bromo, do Ijen instead.

So I was sceptical about the Yellow Water Sunrise Tour in Kakadu National Park. During the dry season, when we were there, Kakadu is a vast expanse of outback with just scrubby, red bushland stretching for miles and miles. There’s the odd, half dried Billabong, patrolled by hopeful birdwatchers and hungry crocodiles. And that pretty much seemed to be it on our drive into the park along the dead straight roads that disappeared into the heat haze.

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But Yellow Water at sunrise made me feel like I was David Attenborough. And, let’s be honest, you can’t get better than that. As we boarded our boat, the sun was sliding over the water, nuclear bright but honey-in-hot-milk soothing; mist was creeping out over the river like a flock of ghostly sheep that had taken a wrong turn; and an Azure Kingfisher was perched atop our boat, flashing its iridescence and shitting on seats. I have never seen so much and so diverse birdlife all in one place as we did on that day (and I spent most of my childhood in bird hides). We were in for a remarkable trip, our guide told us, but “just remember not to lean out of the boat, otherwise a croc might go for you.”

Better than most volcanos.

Better than most volcanos.

Don't be fooled, something's lurking in there.

Don’t be fooled, something’s lurking in there.

...and he wants to be your friend.

…and he wants to be your friend.

See how friendly he is?

See how friendly he is?

Rufus Night Heron. Yes, that's right, check out my Bird Knowledge.

Rufus Night Heron. Yes, that’s right, check out my Bird Knowledge.

Whistling Ducks.

Whistling Ducks.

...and an Australian Pelican. My favourite kind of Pelican. Because they're massive. And easy to remember.

…and an Australian Pelican. My favourite kind of Pelican. Because they’re massive. And easy to remember.

But Kakadu is not just about the birdlife. There’s also the thrill of longdrop toilets in the dark. Will there/won’t there be a spider crouched under the toilet seat? Probably not, but, as I discovered when I heard a small scream from BKC in the toilet next to me – to be fair, it was more of a yelp, certainly less of a screaming-like-a-girl sound than I would have made – there are other things that lurk. “Everything alright?” I ventured, over the partition wall.

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS FROG?

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS FROG?

“It was a frog!” my wife shouted back. “It jumped up my bum!”

I considered this statement for a moment whilst I stumbled in the darkness to find the sink. “It jumped up your bum?”

“It was inside the toilet and it jumped right at me.”

Such aggressive frog behaviour is perhaps more understandable in the light of my mother’s experience in Darwin: queuing outside a similarly rustic toilet, she was surprised by the sudden emergence of a pale faced Dutch girl, who slammed the door behind her. “There was a frog in there,” she told my mother, “it was in the toilet.”

“Are you ok?” my mum enquired.

“Yes, but,” whispered the beleaguered Dutch girl, “I weed on it.”

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We were also lucky enough to join a tour that headed into Arnhemland, a vast, largely untouched wilderness that covers over 97,000 square kilometres, roughly equal in size to the state of Victoria, and is home to about only 17,000 people. It’s aboriginal land and for non-residents it can only be entered by permit. When we went, Tony Abbot, the Australian PM, had just spent a week living and working there.

One of the primary reasons for visiting Arnemland is to see rock art. There are places where it’s possible to see drawings and paintings that were left centuries or millennia ago by the ancestors of those who now live on the land. And when I say millennia, I mean 10,000 years plus – which is a staggering amount of time for one culture to have been in the same place, uninterrupted, let alone for its artwork to have survived. Perhaps more so than other works of art, photos cannot truly convey rock art.

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To truly appreciate aboriginal art, you need to walk around half-dried billabongs, under dusty red overhangs of rock, and watch as distant dust devils twist upwards from the flat, baking bush. You need to scramble up cliffsides, anxiously holding your binoculars in one hand whilst balancing with the other, pausing for a moment to appreciate the 8,000 year old paintings and the view that stretches into the distance. And in that moment you might forget the fragility of your optics, whether or not you’re wearing enough suncream, or the fact that you should have brought a hat and didn’t; instead, you might appreciate how the light here stretches water into glass and landscape stretches time into a past before the arrival of European settlers. Or something like that anyway. I’m pretty sure that’s what the Australian Tourism Board told me to say. They definitely said not to mention the giant man eating reptiles or the small, slithery, deadlier-than-a razorblade-smoothie snakes. (“are those fires deliberate?” asked my dad of our guide, pointing out to the long columns of smoke in the distance. “Yeah,” he replied, “round here long grass is bad news.”).

Nothing to worry about, apparently.

Nothing to worry about, apparently. Keep driving.

Whilst in Arnhemland, we also visited the art centre of Gunbalanya, where locals ply their artworks to tours and daytrippers. Gunbalanya is a small, dusty town of squat buildings with corrugated iron roofs, a few shops, a police station, and a modern looking school. The place felt poor in a way that we hadn’t experienced in the rest of Australia.

Whilst there was some outstanding work at the art centre, on sale there was also a lot that was less good. As we were led around on a somewhat haphazard tour by a local artist who worked at the centre, I couldn’t help but feel that – despite there being some excellent artwork on display – the place was as much a job creation scheme as a place for artists to work. How to decant aboriginal culture into a European, tourist, market driven system, whilst still preserving its heritage? It’s a question that Australia still struggles with.

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Alternatively, of course, you could go to Mindel Market, in Darwin, and watch the Northern Territories sun sink into the Timor Sea whilst eating kangaroo sushi rolls and browsing aboriginal art sold by a stoned white hippy lady. No it’s not Crocodile Dundee, but there’s still always the threat of amphibians in the lavatory – and you don’t get much more authentic than that.

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A Note To My Future Self On The Importance of Home

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I AM SAT in the car as I write this, door open, remnants of the morning’s rain spattering the windscreen as the wind ruffles the trees above. In the driver’s side cupholder there’s an empty beer bottle leftover from the night before. Our tent, pinned down by all four of its pegs, sits next to the car, looking about as good as a NZ$30 (£15) tent can. When we erected it for the first time, yesterday, we discovered that, due to a manufacturing error, the entrance had partially been stitched closed. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.

We’re in a peaceful Department of Conservation campsite somewhere north of Napier, on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. We’re basically marking time until tomorrow, when we can decamp to our luxury cottage accommodation in Lake Taupo that we’ve booked for three days over Christmas. That and we’re doggedly attempting to justify the NZ$157 that we optimistically spent on camping gear when we first arrived in New Zealand, six week ago – before we knew about the six weeks of rain that was to come and before we’d realised the LIE of free camping (“yeah man, you can, like, just camp anywhere you want in New Zealand. It’s, like, awesome” – this from pretty much everyone we’ve ever met who’s been to this country).

Have you ever seen anyone so proud of her tent?

Have you ever seen anyone so proud of her tent?

Instead of sitting in this car, we could be going and doing THINGS, important TOURIST THINGS in this beautiful country. But we’re not – in fact I’m quite enjoying just sitting and doing very little, quite enjoying not spending the day driving around (although I am, ironically, still sat in front of the steering wheel). New Zealand has been one of the best countries we’ve visited. We’ve loved it, from its snow capped Southern Alps to the crashing waves of its West Coast, from its varied craft beers and delicious Sauv Blancs to its unfailingly friendly people and laid back ‘tude. It’s every bit as good as people say. And it’s so far away from anywhere else (our flight home from Auckland to London will take us 30 hours) that there’s a good chance I’ll never come back. In two weeks our year of travelling will be over, and soon after I’ll be back in work. So why not maximise our time seeing the place? Why not revel in our freedom?

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On the shores of Lake Tekapo, NZ

This post is an effort to answer those questions. It’s also an effort to recount the impact of long term travelling and, above all, it’s a reminder to my future self about the importance of home. (Future David: remember how you’d grown to hate the uniformly white mugs found in motels, hotels and hostels everywhere? Remember how you just craved a mug with some colour on it? Remember how it bothered you so much that you went out and bought your own mug?).

WHAT’S A NORMAL week in travelling? The glib, cliché answer that’s only half true is that “there is no normal week.” In fact, there are rhythms to travelling, some regardless of who you are, others specific to us.

Accommodation

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I’ve developed a real problem with authority whilst travelling. Sometimes, in motels, I DON’T DO WHAT THE SIGNS say! Stickittotheman.

When I was a student and went travelling in Eastern Europe for a month, we just turned up at places and found accommodation by speaking to people or walking between hostels. This seems to me now to be an incredibly inefficient way of doing things when you have a very heavy backpack. But maybe that’s because I’m a decade older. Without exception, everywhere we stayed in Asia we booked in advance, usually over the internet, often through Airbnb. Thus a portion of our time (and, it has to be said, more of BK-C’s time than mine) was always spent researching accommodation options. Where do we want to stay in the city/region? What’s available? Why have they got such bad photos on their websites? What does tripadvisor say? How long should we book for? Sometimes this could take five minutes, sometimes it could take hours; sometimes we’d book only the day before, sometimes we’d go on accommodation binges and book several stops in a row, gaining breathing space but losing spontaneity. Booking accommodation is a never ending rabbit hole: remember that, Future David.

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I didn’t risk this one though.

In Australasia we’ve always had a car and sometimes we’ve been lucky enough to be staying with friends. So we’ve quite often just turned up in places without anywhere booked, and it’s always been fine. However, see below for Transport, specifically travelling by car.

Rowf?

Rowf?

Packing/Unpacking

There’s been a lot of this. In Asia, particularly towards the end, we slowed down a lot and thus were able to properly unpack our bags and live out of things like wardrobes and drawers for a while, which was blissful. However, then there was always the hassle of trying to fit everything back into the bag, which often resulted in me sitting on BK-C’s bag (which is marginally smaller than mine) whilst she zipped it up. In Australasia we’ve spent much less time in places – normally one or two nights – and thus there’s been a lot more packing/unpacking, but we’ve had the luxury of cars, so breaking zips has been less of a risk.

This is what happens when you have a car for six weeks and then have to catch a ferry on foot.

This is what happens when you have a car for six weeks and then have to catch a ferry on foot.

When we arrive in a new place now (every night it seems), we have a well oiled routine: BK-C empties the cooler bag and food items, I get the toiletries out of the bags and arrange them in anally straight lines in the bathroom and on bedside tables/the floor. The side of the bed nearest the bathroom will always be mine. That’s just the way it is. (Future David: remember the sinking feeling when you emptied the washbags only to discover that something had leaked over everything else. Remember that one time when it was tiger balm that had melted in the heat, and everything, everything smelled of tiger balm for weeks?)

Budgeting

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Actually, this rarely caused us a lot of stress. I researched every country before we came and how much we were likely to spend on a daily basis in each. This has proved to be fairly accurate, so we were prepared for how much things cost. But we’ve also been scrupulous about recording everything that we spend, through the marvellous phone app Trailwallet. Every time we spend money, it goes in the phone. Thus I can tell you, for instance, that on 19 March, a date that I just selected at random, we spent a total of £72.02, or NT$1,858 (Taiwanese Dollars). The financial record reminds me that 19 March was a great day of food – we caught the metro to north of Taipei to Tamshui, where we indulged in a “delicious pasty like thing” (59p), “cheese potato with bacon” (£1.19 – about as bad as it sounds), and “steam dumplings” (£1.19). Then we caught the metro back home via Taipei’s famous night market of Shilin, where we ate “green onion bread” (49p), “stinky tofu and oyster omelette” (£2.67, worse than it sounds) and “delicious sushi” (£7.71). I can also tell you that street food – of the sort that we indulged in on 19 March – made up 3.82% of our total spent budget in Taiwan, at £53.79; our biggest expenditure was, predictably, accommodation, at £689.46; and our smallest expenditure category was laundry, at £2.77 (read into that what you will).

This kind of data is fantastic when you’re trying to stick to a budget, but it’s also great in retrospect: its specificity dredges from my memory a vivid image from when we were sitting by the quayside in Tamshui, enjoying an evening iced coffee (£6.96) at a posh restaurant, watching the simmering orb of an Asian sun dip into the Taiwan Strait, turned a deep crimson by pollution blown over from China.

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I’m glad that we recorded everything we spent, and what it went on, simply because it’s meant that we’ve curbed our potential expenditure and because it prompts memories of what were we doing on each day. Putting purchases into the Trailwallet has become second nature. But, I must admit, I’m also looking forward to being able to buy a coffee without assiduously recording it, without making an assessment as to whether it’ll take us over budget for the day. Future David: revel in your ability to choose any of those sandwiches neatly lined up in Pret, without fear that you’ll go over budget.

Transport

I know, I know. I look COOL.

I know, I know. I look COOL.

This one’s up there with accommodation. Whoever you are, you’re going to need to get from place to place. It’s sort of the point of travelling. In Asia, that means buses, trains, planes, boats, tuc-tucs, mopeds, or some ingenious – probably hand built, certainly not safety tested – combination of all of them. Often, you can (and we did) just rock up and get a bus. If you’re in Malaysia then celebrate! For you are blessed with a cheap, well organised and above all easy public transport system. If you’re in Japan, don’t even think about it – the Japanese system is so efficient that they’ve probably heard you were coming and booked everything for you already (except you Tokyo, yes you: please meet my friend London who has a unified transport authority and not A GAZILLION private companies running different lines and routes in a confusing mish mash of colours and acronyms). But if you’re in Burma, well, don’t exactly expect efficiency. You’ll probably have to walk forever to book your bus tickets and then the bus “terminal” will be dozens of kilometres out of town and you’re just expected to know which bus is yours. It’s all part of the fun. In the forty degree heat.

Roads? Where we're going we don't need roads...

Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads…

In Australasia we travelled by car. We went where we wanted, when we wanted. It was liberating. But I also realised how much I’d grown to value that time bundled up on public transport – time to read and write, the opportunity to meet locals, or simply the chance to stare at the landscape, thinking big thoughts about the world. In Australia, we drove over 7,000km in two months. After four months of driving for several hours most days, I’m beginning to tire of the road. (Future David: remember how towards the end of travelling you used to get into those moods where nothing was quite right and where your tolerance of other people was equivalent to that of a cat? Remember how you wrote that blogpost to remind you in the future about the wearing parts of travelling, and then instantly regretted it because people would think you were ungrateful?).

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Eating

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Shan Noodle Soup from a roadside stall in Nyaungshwe, nr. Lake Inle, Burma. Possibly my favourite noodle soup of the year.

I love food. It’s one of the reasons I love to travel. We’ve had so much amazing food this year, from banana leaf curries in Malaysia that really put the “gorge” into “gorgeous” (no, I can’t believe that I just wrote that cheesey line either) to so-fresh-it’s-nearly-still-moving sushi in Japan – we’ve had it all, and then we’ve asked for seconds. But there comes a time when even the most hardened foodie tires of eating out at restaurants, of choosing where and what to eat every night (why is it worse having lots of choice instead of just what’s in the fridge? I don’t know, but after a while it becomes overwhelming – I want less choice, not more). In Asia, there’s always that old staple of noodles-in-a-cup, easily enjoyed in your hostel/hotel room. Yes, there’s the hostel kitchen as well, but if you buy those ingredients you’ve got to carry them around with you and, besides, it’s actually cheaper to eat out and that’s not to mention the fact that all the fresh produce is sold at markets miles away from where you are at times when you’re highly unlikely to be up. So: you’re probably going to be eating out at restaurants. And it turns out that you really can have too much of a good thing. (Future David – think about how much you love eating out at restaurants? It’s one of the Best Things, isn’t it? Now remember how you’d come to resent having to eat out when you were in parts of Asia. It seems like a form of cruel and unusual punishment, doesn’t it?).

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In Australasia – and especially in NZ, where we’ve been without family visits – there’s been, blissfully, a lot of self-catering. The facilities with which to cook have, however, been varied – most motels have only a microwave, all have blunt knives, and there’s no guarantee that we’ll have a fridge from night to night. As a lover of cooking this is frustrating, as a shopper for food, it’s limiting: most things that we buy to eat for dinner can be cooked in the microwave. I can’t wait to have my own kitchen again, where the knives are sharp and the spices are neverending. (Future David: remember how you’d grown to quite like tinned STAG Chilli, the best long shelf life microwaveable meal you’d found in the supermarket? Yes, that’s right, hang your head in shame).

People, other

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Our hosts in Penang, Stu & Clara.

The people you meet is one of the best things about travelling. Vincent, the Taiwanese IT consultant turned design-guru surfing hotelier; Francoise, the 71 year old French man with whom we shared accommodation and a love of antiques (“my treasures,” he called them) in Kyoto, and whom I helped with his IT problems: “I wish to send an email to my girlfriend, but I do not wish to send it from this account, because it is my wife’s. Can you help?”; the postcard seller from Yangon, Burma whose name I can’t write here because he dared to talk to us about politics and his hopes for the future of his country; Joslyn, who was our Oregonian tour guide on a trip to Central America and later put us up for the night at her house in Brisbane; Lorette, our French, wise old-soul-in-a-young-person’s-body companion on the two day Tiger Leaping Gorge hike, in China; Tom, the funny, open minded film editor from LA on his own travelling odyssey – these are just some of the amazing people we’ve met this year. But for each Tom and Lorette there’s been a dozen others who we either haven’t clicked with, who have been downright unfriendly or, worse, friendly and the most annoying person alive. Yes, yes this is the joy of travelling – and I’d meet everyone again just to meet those few gems – but after a while you start to ache for shared context. You miss your friends. I miss my friends. And then your patience starts to wear thin, and you become as intolerant as BK-C has become of Other People’s Music, however minimally it may be leaking out of someone’s headphones, and you must, you simply must ask them to be quiet. In short, you begin to Hate Other People. When this happens, Future David, you remember all the good things about home – the way that you don’t have to start conversations with everyone by telling them where you’ve been, where you’re from and where you’re going; the way that you can can say something and the person you’re talking to will just get you (or at least pretend to) without you having to explain just how witty you really are; and you remember how your home friends delayed their New Year celebrations until you got back, and how much that meant to you. At this point, you realise that it may be time to head back.

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Our hosts in Bali, Ktut and… er… Mrs Ktut.

All These Things Together

INDIVIDUALLY, THESE THINGS are insignificant. But together, taken over time, they start to matter a lot more. Everyone needs something to anchor them – a space to retreat to, a good book to read, a friend to turn to, an ipod to plug into; travelling either takes these things from you or makes them more difficult to control. It’s fine at first, but after a while you’ll go to greater lengths to secure your anchor, and not being able to do so frustrates you more. The good thing is that taking nothing for granted – be it comfy accommodation or the ability to speak to your family – you get a better sense of what’s important to you, something more difficult to achieve in the rhythms of home routine. The bad thing is that after a while the exciting challenges that travelling brings seem only to get in the way of your anchors, not to augment your appreciation for them. Some people are able to spend their lives travelling; I do not know how. For me, to have meaning, all things must have an end. You might say that travelling is a constant series of beginnings and endings, as you depart and arrive from places, greet and leave companions – but sometimes I just want to enjoy being in the middle of the story.

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Future David, the things that I’ve written about are not the things that you’ll recall. When the 6.30am alarm goes off telling you to get up for work, you’ll remember having no alarm when you travelled; you’ll remember sunrise over Yellow Water in Kakadu, the way that the birds cut through the mist; you’ll remember walking through the blistering heat of the market in Pyay, Burma, and the friendly, confused smiles of the locals; you’ll remember the exquisite pork dumplings from that place in Hualien, Taiwan where no one spoke English and everyone – yourself included – laughed at your ineptitude in miming what you wanted to eat; you’ll remember the flight over the Great Barrier Reef, the way it stretched out and disappeared beyond the horizon; and you’ll remember feeling free to do whatever you wanted to do, all of the time. But also remember this: there’s a wide range of multi-coloured mugs in your kitchen cupboard, and not a single bloody white one.

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Our year of travelling comes to an end on 2 January, when we arrive back in the UK. But don’t fret! I’ve got loads of stuff still to write about, including an oh-so-nearly finished post about PROPER travelling stuff, in Australia, rather than this boring boo hoo I’m ready to come home stuff. So stick with me.

Australia Is More Than This

Trav20-2 “WELL, IF YOU’D have kept up with your blog, then you’d be able to remember all these things, David.” So said my mother as she sat opposite me in our cabin in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territories, Australia, and quizzed me about our year of travelling. “Your fans are waiting.” 

Yes, well. Thank you mum. Sorry all for the interruption. Been busy travelling and seeing things and that, which I appreciate is a departure from my 2014 normal of just sitting and reading in different places. Hope that you’ve got along just fine without me.

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I CANNOT TELL you how strange it is to arrive in Australia after eight months in Asia, eight months of being different. You’ve journeyed from London to the other side of the world; you’ve seen sights, eaten foods, learnt strange new things; and then you arrive in Melbourne to find Woolworths and pie shops, fish and chips and hipsters. And everybody kinda looks like you.

From this...

From this…

...to this.

…to this.

It’s a wonderful, awful, comforting, uncanny thing and we were so happy to be here. After nearly six weeks in Bali, drinking water from the tap and having a refuse disposal system that didn’t involve burning plastic on every street corner was a joy.

When we first booked our flights for this year, I said to our guy at Travel Nation (who worked their airline ticket magickery and got us an excellent deal) “but what are we going to do in Australia for two months? Do you think we’ll be bored?” I imagined Australia as being a few big, western cities, a lot of beaches and lots of red scrubland.

Sorry Australia, I had you all wrong.

And I guess that I was wrong about what we’d want at this stage of the trip. I’d imagined leaving Indonesia as the end of the “proper” travelling. It’d all be easy from now on and we’d have a gut wrenching nostalgia for eating dirt cheap street food on tropical beaches, floating from place to place on a cushion of camaraderie and travelling awesomeness. Well, it wasn’t quite like that. It was amazing, obviously. But when everything is amazing all of the time, things stop being, well, amazing. After a while you become a bit jaded and find it hard to get excited about things. It’s a sort of travelling impotence – you just can’t get it up for anything anymore.

Another bloody volcano? It's alright. I s'pose.

Another bloody volcano? It’s alright. I s’pose.

So we spent five weeks in a bungalow on a family compound in Bali, our days filled with hammock swinging and reading, cake eating and writing. I probably won’t have so much free time all at once for decades, possibly ever. If anyone reading this is considering going travelling long term, I urge you to build in time to rest and do the things you want to do without worrying about going to visit that temple or those rice terraces. You won’t have the chance to do it again for a long time and you probably saw a better temple in Burma anyway. And when you start thinking thoughts like that it’s time for a holiday from the tourist duties.

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Five weeks of this: highly recommended.

So when we finally did arrive in Australia, not only was I well rested and a lot better read than before, I was also excited to see new things. And more than a little glad to be met at the airport by our Melbournite friend Catherine.

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Later on that week we met up with my parents who’d flown out to see us and also, I should’ve known, as much bird life as possible given that they were accompanied by their reluctant, none-twitching son and daughter-in-law.

Is this what they call a selfie, David? Yes, Dad, it is.

Is this what they call a selfie, David? Yes, Dad, it is.

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And in other news, today a woman was escorted from the premises of a Melbourne deli after shouting “cheese!” and immersing her head in brie.

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“Yeah, she just put her head right in there. A whole brie. Just gone.”

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Do you have any eucalyptus for me? no? Then sod off.

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And in other news today, a man was escorted from a food truck after attempting to drive it away whilst shouting “I want all the tacos.”

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AFTER MELBOURNE, ROAD. But don’t be fooled – the Great Ocean Road, heading west from Melbourne, is about more than the coast. Or it should be anyway. Yes, there are amazing clifftop views.

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My mum laughs in the face of danger.

My mum laughs in the face of danger.

But unless you fantasise about being in the landscapes from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, being seaside on a rainy day when everything is the colour of tumble dryer lint and the rain stings like a swarm of kamikaze bees is not that much fun. Instead, on one day, we followed a winding, decaying road into the Otways National Park, taking nearly an hour to travel 18km and wandering whether we’d just entered into a different kind of hell, the kind where a T-Rex might jump out and attack the car.

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Something

In hindsight, putting superglue onto the lenses of everyone’s binoculars wasn’t that funny a practical joke.

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The Otways is a temperate rainforest that elected to skip the last 60 million years of evolution. Enormous ferns loom overhead, lorakeets squawk out of sight and Giant Myrtle Beech entice the unwary into their cavernous, hollow inners, offering far-too-convenient path-side person-sized crevices that surely bring only a spidery death (this is Australia, after all). When we were there the reluctant sun broke into a crusty light, falling between the leaves, fronds and twisted tree limbs, and we idled amongst the prehistoric fauna, feeling more than pleasant. This was my favourite part of the Great Ocean Road.

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Venture further into the Otways and you will find a forest of Californian Redwoods, planted in 1939. They stretch up to the sky, eerily uniform in their giant, branchless reach upwards. There was no one there when we went, and we just stood amongst them, dwarfed, watching a tiny, Pink Robin proudly show off its fluffy fluorescent chest. It was still there when we left, alone amongst the redwoods.

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IN TRUE ROAD trip fashion we didn’t book any accommodation for our time on the Great Ocean Road, and instead just rocked up at wherever took our fancy. We never had any trouble finding somewhere and were never disappointed with where we slept. One night, curled up in front of a log fire in the common room of our B&B in Port Fairy, we were roused from our reading and sipping of peppermint tea by a raucous party of seventy-somethings returning from a Tuesday night out. “Hello and who are you?” asked the man who had come to sit on the sofa, breathing alcohol over me in a friendly manner. “I’m 70,” he said, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “you wouldn’t guess would you?”

We sat with them and talked about “the old country,” as they called the UK, including its relative merits (“Europe on the doorstep”), its de-merits (“the rain, and the awful food, or it was when we were there in the 80s.”) and what we did there for employment (“and are you far enough along to have any influence?”). Britain persists in the mind of many Australians as a strange historical anchor that many think they know and perhaps did thirty or forty years ago; it’s glimpsed through the news and through the ex-pats that never quite made it home. I lost count of the amount of times that I had conversations with people about what the weather had been like in the UK this year and last – they knew more about it than me (“those floods were awful.”). And yet small town Australia can feel like the Britain of forty years ago, stuffy and unapologetically blue-collar, all shops closed on Sundays and a varied cuisine provided only by the changing of what the pastry walls of pies hold. People eat mysteriously early here, and it’s not uncommon for restaurants to close at 8.30pm. At one restaurant in Brisbane that we visited with friends on a Thursday night, we were the last people there at 9pm and shortly afterwards were asked to leave as they were locking up. All of these things feel like an echo of a Britain passed – the greatest irony is that “the old country” is now found only in Australia.

After the Great Ocean Road he headed onwards to Adelaide, via the Grampians National Park. It kinda looks like Scotland.

After the Great Ocean Road we headed onwards to Adelaide, via the Grampians National Park. It kinda looks like Scotland.

Or possibly Mordor.

Or possibly Mordor.

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BUT THE TOP End is not like any part of Britain, now or then. After driving all the way to Adelaide we flew to Darwin, in the Northern Territories, 3,000 km north. Then we headed into the bush. Kakadu National Park is exactly as you imagine Australia to be – long, straight roads, red earth and man size termite mounds. Oh, and hundreds of crocodiles, just waiting to eat you.

But more about all that another time.

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NEXT TIME: Crocodiles! Long Roads! More Birds Than You Can Shake A Stick At!

This post has been a long time in the writing, mainly because I’ve been so busy. It was started in Lismore, in the Gold Coast hinterland, NSW, Australia, and finally finished in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Burma and Britain, Past and Future

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MANDALAY. The Irrawaddy River. Yangon, formerly Rangoon. Wonderfully evocative names, aren’t they? I think of heat rising from the banks of a wide river; golden, towering pagodas; and bustling street markets colour dashed and culture steeped. But I also think of elephants tugging timber, workers loading steamers and men in linens drinking gin & tonics on hot, hot nights. Burma existed in my imagination – exists even now, having been there – as much as a product of Empire as a product of Asia. In Yangon, the buildings of Empire are all still there, decaying, repurposed, divided, lived in, empty, rat filled; all of the above, all at once. How to square splendour and decay, empire’s legacy and Burma’s future – my own sense of being British with the tragedy of what happened here, is happening here?

Yeah, I like setting myself up to fail.

As I’ve recounted in a previous post, we arrived in Yangon from Tokyo (could two cities ever be so different?). The streets were thick with traffic – banged up cars, buses without doors, and scooters that had seen better days. And it was hot. Heat rose in waves from the asphalt, forcing its way into the cracks in the road, the spaces where your skin touched your clothes and the opening-closing gaps between your heels and your flip flops. Brow mopping was de rigeur, parasols mandatory – unless you were white, in which case you just baked and sweated, and generally brought the shabby elegance of the place down, letting it drip off your hair and run down your neck. People sat in tea shops and on street corners, seeking shade wherever they could. Old women sat on the pavement selling mangoes, a man stood at a stall preparing betel nuts to chew for the taxi drivers that pulled up at the side of the road.

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A seamstress in Yangon’s central market, Bogyoke Market (or Scott Market as it was known under British rule).

I had a cold – a rotten, clingy affair that made me sniffle whilst I shuffled along the busy streets, cursing my preponderance of snot that seemed so out of place in such tropical climes, regretting that I hadn’t offered BK-C more sympathy when she had suffered from the same thing in Japan but ten days before. I spent one day cossetted in bed in the hostel, thankful for the air conditioning but cursing the frequent power cuts. The rest of the time we spent wandering the streets.

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The Sule Pagoda is an important, sacred site for Buddhists and a defining landmark of downtown Yangon. A pagoda has been on that site for centuries, and parts of the current structure date back to the fifteenth century. Demonstrating their usual regard for Other Peoples’ Cultures, when the British arrived they built a roundabout around the pagoda, which remains today. Beat that, Swindon.

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WE VISITED THE famous Shwedagon Pagoda, the iconic landmark of the city that is a must see for visitors. Or we tried to, anyway. It was early evening, our intention having been to get there to witness the setting sun reflected on its golden spire, but having failed to appreciate how long it would take to walk there. On the way, walking up Shwedagon Pagoda Road, we’d passed grand old colonial houses lining the street, most behind barbed wire and with expensive looking cars outside, a few run down and abandoned. By the time that we arrived, the sun had already dipped beyond the horizon. We left our shoes at an overmanned desk at street level and walked up the wide, grand corridor that leads to the entrance of the Pagoda. There were a handful of other tourists ambling alongside us, as well as a few small groups of Indian naval officers and sailors in spotless, perfectly creased white trousers and shirts. As we’d walked around the city earlier in the day, we’d seen dozens of the sailors in the markets, shops and streets, as well as clustering around ATMs, arguing about the exchange rate. When we reached the entrance to the Pagoda itself there was a desk, behind which sat two officials. One looked at us and tapped a sign that said Entry for Foreigners: 8,000 Kyatt. That’s $8 or about £5. Not a huge amount by my own reckoning – probably what I’d pay for a beer in London – but it was a steep price by Burmese standards, and money that goes entirely to the military junta. Plus, we were on a budget. No doubt, though, we would have paid and gone in if, at that moment, two of the Indian Navy guys hadn’t strolled past the desk unchallenged.

“Aren’t you going to charge them as well?” I asked.
“No.”
“But they’re foreigners, too. Look,” I said, pointing, “they’ve even got the Indian flag stitched to the arms of their shirts.”
The official looked at me, blinked once. “Yes,” he said, “but they’re officers.”
“Well how do you know that we’re not officers?”
“Are you?”
“…no.”

So we left in an indignant huff, railing against the unfairness of the situation but also feeling a little bit self-righteous because we’d refused to give our money to the Government, money that either went into the pockets of generals or funded state repression of the Myanmar people. I’m sure that the Indian officers had a lovely time at the Shwedagon Pagoda, though.

So this is the night time view from Vista Bar. Much better to enjoy the pagoda with a drink in your hand than pay to go in. Right?

So this is the night time view from Vista Bar. Much better to enjoy the pagoda with a drink in your hand than pay to go in. Right?

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ON OUR FINAL day in Yangon, we went on what must have been one of the best walking tours we’ve ever done, with Free Yangon Walks. The tour (which consisted of just us) was led by an Australian, Gino, the confident, garrulous, remarkable founder of this enterprise (when we took the tour with him it was his first week and he was the sole guide, offering free walks every day). Gino showed us many of the old buildings and took us through the history of each, as well as offering an insight into the broader history of Burma.

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Having exhausted its own forests of oak, Britain wanted Burma for its teak. Without wood, the Royal Navy wouldn’t have its ships. And without ships, Britain wouldn’t have its empire. So over the period of 60 years and three wars, the British conquered the country; by 1886 the whole of Burma was administered as a part of India. With the timber companies came banks, hotels, and office buildings, along with investment in the country’s infrastructure. Not that the infrastructure needed to ship teak from the north to the south was particularly sophisticated. Felled trees were dried and then piled up in the dry season by the side of rivers; when the rainy season came, they were floated downriver, until they reached the wide expanse of the Irrawaddy. There, they were lashed together into giant, makeshift rafts that men lived aboard and piloted down to the shipping and timber merchants of Yangon.

Walking along Yangon’s riverfront and the streets leading up to it, those buildings are still there, the paint peeled, the brickwork fallen away, and the floors – still tiled with beautiful, nineteenth century tiles made in the long dead factories of Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent – are stained with the red marks of betel nut, where chewers have spat. The flooring alone of some of those buildings is probably now worth millions of pounds. For the most part, people live, work and walk upon them in poverty.

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The Burmese people – or, more correctly, the patchwork of different ethnic groups that occupy modern day Myanmar, the largest of which are called the Bamar, whom Burma was named after – are culturally distinct from the Siamese to the north and east, now in modern day Thailand, along with the Chinese and Indian groups that they share borders with. Prior to British rule, the literacy rate in the country was remarkably high for that time, at 60% (compared to about 75% in Britain), and there was a thriving culture of writing and theatrical performances. Even today, the Burmese love to read, and all along our travels in Myanmar we saw stalls selling used books in Burmese. This might not sound odd, but it stands apart from most other places we’ve visited in South East Asia. In Laos, for instance, a comparably poor country, there is no tradition of reading, and very few Laotians read for pleasure.

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SO THE BRITISH came and built the stunning buildings that I enjoyed seeing as a tourist, giving me the thrill of seeing something so British somewhere else, so out of place, and they built railways and roads and schools, and educational opportunities for women increased enormously (literacy rates among women were about 5% previously)… but of course the British also played ethnic groups against one another in order to maintain control, brought institutional racism, put down rebellions with bloody massacres and, naturally, shipped a large portion of the country’s natural resources to Britain for fat profits.

In George Orwell’s Burmese Days, his novel based upon his experiences as a colonial policeman in Burma, the characters are all venal, selfish, destructive people that lord over the locals as well as making each others’ lives hell. Empire corrupts and damages everything, including the imperialists themselves. This all encompassing corruption is also mirrored in Amitav Ghosh’s excellent novel about colonial Burma, India and Malaysia – The Glass Palace. The British sit in their teak camps pining after the rolling fields and craggy highlands of their home, drinking and worrying about when they’ll die of malaria.

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The Irrawaddy.

Before Burma gained independence in 1948 things looked like they might work out alright because of a driven, charismatic, inclusive leader called Aung San – the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. Unfortunately, he was murdered by political rivals in 1947. The country then limped along as a Republic, still riven by ethnic infighting, until the military coup in 1962 gave the country the repressive junta that still rules it today.

Throughout our time in Burma, I felt uncomfortably colonial. Every time we walked into a hotel or hostel reception, the trio of beautiful Burmese women who were inevitably sat behind the desk always stood, and remained standing the entire time I was in the room. “Please, sit down,” I’d entreat them, but they never listened. We asked a postcard seller that we spoke to what Burmese people thought of the British (he initiated the conversation on politics – more on that in a future post). “I’m scared to tell you,” he said. I pressed him, and he told us that “Burmese people, they are afraid of two people: the British, and the Japanese.” When we visited the cooler, mountain climes of Pyin Oo Lwin (or “the hill station,” after its imperial designation, as it’s still known), there were punnets of strawberries for sale everywhere, and lots of stalls were selling jams and fruit wines. It was all weirdly familiar, comforting and uncomfortable, all at once.

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You don’t see many houses with chimneys in Burma.

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SO: AS A RESULT I’ve been struggling recently with my sense of national identity. These are the kind of existential indulgences that one embarks upon when taking a year off work. Here’s the thing: the British really screwed over Burma – and a load of other places – but my own sense of Britain and its place in the world, as being active in world politics, as being a multi-cultural nation with links across the globe, as being – in some sense – a good thing, is predicated upon this history of Empire. Also, I might add, the impending referendum on Scottish independence is playing into my general anxieties. What’s British if a part of it leaves? Those people building the banks and railways in Burma were Scottish and Welsh as well as English. Not a history to be celebrated, but it is a shared history.

Looking up at those impressive, familiar colonial buildings in Burma (and Malaysia) it’s easy to forget the bloodshed and hatred that went alongside them, and just to feel excited as I experience a strange sense of belonging, like seeing my own history reflected back from an unexpected place. Weird isn’t it? There’s a whole body of academic studies on this, of course, called postcolonialism and this kind of musing doesn’t really stand up to any kind of academic scrutiny – but equally the sensation of seeing yourself reflected in the remnants of Empire can’t quite be captured in a beautifully footnoted, double spaced essay.

Britain isn’t empire, but a sense of nation can encompass the bad with the good, conflict with agreement, making something that’s worthwhile today, without having to forgive, accept or condone the things in the past that would fall far short of the nation today. The challenge, for Britain, is to build something out of all these pieces.

In The Glass Palace, towards the end of the book, one of the Burmese characters talks about why he believes Aung San Suu Kyi will work for Burma:

“[…] she’s the only one who seems to understand what the place of politics is… what it ought to be… that while misrule and tyranny must be resisted, so too must politics itself… that it cannot be allowed to cannibalise all of life, all of existence. To me this is the most terrible indignity of our condition – not just in Burma, but in many other places too… that politics has invaded everything, spared nothing… religion, art, family… it has taken over everything… there is no escape from it… and yet, what could be more trivial in the end?”

So, I can’t say that I’ve found any answers to my existential questions. But I can say that sometimes we find parts of ourselves in the most unexpected places. And, also, that I will be very sad if Scotland leaves the United Kingdom.

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This post was written and uploaded in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.

NEXT TIME: More Burma, less Britain. 

On Writing and Food in Penang

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WHEN I WAS perhaps 4 or 5, I entered a competition on Saturday morning television to win a Lego pirate ship. It was the sort of competition where you had to put your address on a postcard and send it in, and then the next week they would, live on TV, draw the winning postcard out of a huge, stuffed postal sack. Gordon the Gopher may have been involved. Despite the evidence from the postal sack that the odds were stacked against me, I was convinced that I was going to win. When I was younger, I’d entered another competition and won a video about dolphins, so it stood to reason that I’d win this one too.

I got up early, as I did every Saturday, to watch the draw. I didn’t win. So I went upstairs to climb onto my parents’ bed, wake them up, and tell them that I hadn’t won. What I remember most about that event is my own sense of bewilderment at my parent’s lack of surprise (“oh dear, maybe next time”). In that bewilderment was the germ of an idea that the world might not be set up for me to win at everything.

Whenever I enter a competition now, I still think about that Lego pirate ship and my parents’ lack of surprise. Yes, I know, this is in danger of getting a little twee – so I’ll get to the point.

I recently entered the Daily Telegraph’s Just Back From… weekly travel writing competition. I did not win. They have a very large postal sack, and a very high quality of entrants. But it didn’t stop me checking my emails incessantly – the 21st century equivalent of getting up to watch the draw. As with the Lego pirate ship, though, there are still lessons to be learned, plans about how it could be better written – I’m sure you don’t need me to spell it out for you. This isn’t Oprah. Anyway, this was my entry.

“Murdered at Panghore by a gang of Chinese Robbers,” reads the headstone of Christopher Henry Lloyd, who met his unfortunate demise in 1876. Strewn about me are the tumbledown graves of two centuries of sailors, merchants, and civil servants, all buried in George Town’s protestant graveyard. Here the usual tragedy of cemeteries is made up by a global crowd of those who were just passing through (“James Winlock, Midshipman, US Navy, Died At Sea, 1876 Aged 21”) and those who tied their livelihoods to the tropical island of Penang (“To the memory of Anne, widow of George Herne, late of Trelawny, Jamaica, who departed this life at Caledonia Estate”).

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Long term readers of this blog will remember my delight in visiting old graveyards. Everybody needs a hobby.

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“Do you have a flag? No? Well then you can’t have this island. It’s mine. I claimed it. With my flag.”

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Life in holey death.

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I didn’t see the gravestones of any elderly sailors.

The indelible pen of British colonialism marks George Town, but leaving the graveyard and heading for the Chinese Clan Jetties, it is the multiculturalism of the town that seems empire’s most enduring legacy. At the entrance to the Lee Jetty, I watch a woman in improbably high heels set light to a paper money pile, sending the offering to her ancestors. Walking on, I peer curiously into the neatly arrayed houses, incense burning outside some, barnacles clinging to the silted stilts of all. Water laps, the sun shines and it is calm here; the only thing troubling me being the sweet, strangely tantalising rotting chicken smell of durian fruit coming from one of the houses. My stomach growls, and I realise that I’m the best thing to be in Penang: hungry.

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The problem with adding pictures to something solely intended for print is that it exposes your artistic embellishments. Those highheels aren’t “improbably” high at all. And, now I come to think about it, “improbably high heels” is a terrible cliche. Damn.

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I’ve seen Speed 2. I know how this ends.

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I really miss crab sandwiches.

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 A short walk from the jetties and I’m in Little India, my lunchtime destination. I feel out of place eating with a fork and spoon, so I join other diners in getting messy with my hands by dipping rice balls into ten different curries, arrayed in tiny bowls on a banana leaf, meat free and deliciously spiced. Iced tea sweetened with condensed milk provides a mercifully cooling counterpoint to the whole meal, and afterwards I sit back, watching tri-shaws cycle past, listening to the frantic sitar music of the sarong shop opposite, and wandering how on earth I will ever move again.

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There’s no such thing as a small portion of rice in Malaysia.

Eventually I do, and spend the afternoon bouncing between Churches, Mosques and Confucian Temples. Not nearly soon enough, it’s dinner-time and I’m seated at a hawker stall. I dine on Assam Laksa and grilled stingray, the Laksa a sour, tangy and fishy noodle soup famous in Malayan cuisine, the stingray doused in a spicy, sweet rub and popular, judging by the queue, with most of George Town.

Trav18-12“One. More. Drink.” orders the old Chinese lady serving me, wrapping me on my knuckles with a set of chopsticks to emphasise her point, and baring her single tooth in what I hope is a grin. I give it some thought. “Well, I suppose I could have another carrot juice, and perhaps some of those satay skewers…” Things have moved on in George Town since the days of Chinese robbers – today the only person lightening my wallet is myself, as I stand up to see what else I can possibly eat.

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(The winning entry, in case you’re interested, can be found here).

This post was written in Solo, Java, Indonesia, and uploaded in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. The competition entry was written in George Town, Penang, Malaysia, in the downstairs cafe of our wonderful hotel – Lang Hoose.

(Food) Courting Kafka in Penang

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A FUNNY THING happened on the way to the food court. We’d just arrived in George Town, Penang, Malaysia, and were venturing out of our hotel to seek some dinner. As we passed by two cars parked on the side of the road, we saw a small, elderly lady sat on the ground between them. Are you alright? we asked. No, she said, she’d fallen down and couldn’t get back up again. We helped her up. She was using an umbrella as a walking stick. Holding it in front of her, she gripped it with quiet ferocity – less to support her weight, it seemed, and more as a futile handhold to stop her from falling backwards, which she was in perpetual danger of doing. It was clear that she wouldn’t be going far. Can you walk? No. My leg. It doesn’t work. Where are you going? The coffee shop. She pointed to a small food court about a hundred meters away. My husband usually takes me, but he’s at work. I see.

It was still light, and there were other people about. Eventually, a woman from the car rental place opposite came to see what was going on – why an increasingly desperate looking white male was standing with both hands on the back of this little old Malay lady, whilst his wife waved at passing vehicles. The car rental lady got her car and drove our charge to the coffee shop. We went to have dinner. So: situation resolved?

No.

At the food court we ate Char Kway Teow, which is like a Malaysian version of Phad Thai. It was delicious. This is irrelevant to the story, but I just mention it in passing.

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On the way back to our hotel, we passed the same elderly lady standing in the road. Hello! We called. Hello! Found your feet again! Glad to see you moving about! I cannot move. Oh. My leg. It does not work. Oh. Ok.

So, once again, we resumed our positions. Each of us linked arms with her. Can you walk like this, if we support you? Maybe. She managed two steps. I cannot. Ok. How far away is your home? Down there. She pointed along the street.

By this point it was dark, and there wasn’t really anyone around. Cars and scooters passed us every now and then, but their drivers studiously ignored us.

You carry me. Carry you? Yes.

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I knelt down – she was quite small, the top of her head just coming up to my chest – and went as if to give her a piggy back. BK-C pointed out that quite apart from sheer indignity of this for the lady, she wasn’t in any position to climb onto my back. So I lifted her up in my arms instead. She was as heavy as a sack of lead, or perhaps I was as weak as someone who hadn’t been to the gym for five months. I am scared, she said to me. Me too.

I managed perhaps ten or fifteen metres like this before I had to put her down. We were outside the car rental place again, but it appeared to be closed. I deposited the lady next to a car, where she stood holding onto the rear windscreen wiper, me supporting her back with my arms. At this point, BK-C went to a local business that had its shutters down but from which a light could be seen. She managed to coax the reluctant owner out onto the street, where he joined us so that he could contribute nothing whatsoever to the incident, except wringing his hands and talking to the lady in Malay. (“She says she cannot move. It’s her leg.”). There was talk of flagging a car down, though the Malay business owner seemed very reluctant to do so. We were also apprehensive about the task as we spoke no Malay; we’d only just arrived in George Town from the tourist haven of Langkawi and at this point we hadn’t appreciated how widely English was spoken in Malaysia. Besides which, it was dark, we were in a strange town, and the cars were driving fast.

Trav17-5 We were joined by a young Malay man who had been working in the car rental office. He volunteered that he wasn’t able to help because he was working. Nevertheless, he stood there with us and discussed the situation. What was to be done? It was a pickle certainly. If only there were someone with a car.

The elderly lady was leaning further and further back, and holding her up was becoming an increasingly strenuous task. Moreover, my bladder was becoming increasingly full.

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The owner of the car that she was gripping onto arrived. There was a conversation in Malay. He was unable to help. I think that he had to wash his hair or something. He drove off, the old lady and me breathing in his car fumes as its back window slipped from her grasp.

Minutes ticked by. The lady didn’t get any lighter. I know this, because it was just me holding her up. Then I spotted that there were dozens of plastic chairs stacked outside our non-helper’s business. I suggested that perhaps we might retrieve one for the lady to sit down on. He went to get one. Upon returning, he placed the chair down on the ground about a metre away from my charge, and gestured that I should manoeuvre the lady into the chair. I gestured that he should bring the chair to the lady. A short period of competing gesticulation ensued. Mohammed and the mountain were mentioned. BK-C took the chair and placed it behind the lady. She sat down.

Eventually, a tall, wiry, old Indian man walked by carrying big bags of shopping. There was another conversation in Malay. He walked off. I was led to believe that he would be returning.

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Some time passed. Then I saw a cyclist approaching from down the street. It was the wiry Indian man. He dismounted and indicated that we could put the lady onto the back, where there was a flat ledge above the wheel for carrying bags. She expressed some reservations about this arrangement. Is there a car? No. I am scared. Yes, but this is the only way you’re going to get back. We’ve been here for over half an hour. We’ll hold you. We won’t let you fall. I might piss myself if I have to stand here any longer.

The wiry man and I lifted her onto the back, and walked the bike down the street, one on each side, one hand on the lady, one hand on the handlebars. Our two other helpers wished us luck and waved us a cheery goodbye.

After a few streets, we reached the lady’s house. Our cycling saviour shouted inside and a younger woman came out, whereupon she immediately began berating the elderly lady in Malay. We helped her off the bike, and walked her to the doorstep. Do you want to come in for a drink? she asked, as we bodily handed her over to the younger woman.  No. No thank you. I just want to go back to the hotel and urinate like there’s no tomorrow.

After that, we took a different route to and from the food court.

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I HAVE BEEN READING…

Now For Then: How To Face The Digital Future Without Fear, Ben Hammersley
My Ear At His Heart: Reading My Father, Hanif Kureishi

I HAVE ALSO CONSUMED…

The Economist, (recent issues)
The Paris Review, No. 209, Summer 2014
Neil Gaiman: Keynote Address 2012, Neil Gaiman, The University of the Arts
The Psychology of Your Future SelfDan Gilbert, Ted.com
Buddhist Economics: How To Stop Prioritizing Goods Over People and Consumption Over Creative Activity, Maria Popova, quoting the work of E.F. Schumocher, brainpickings.org
The Shape of Days, Austin Kleon, austinkleon.com
Impressions of Poverty, Richard Davies, AS I PLEASE, criticaldispatches.com
…and way too much of the Lonely Planet Guide to Indonesia (& LP Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei).

This post was written and uploaded in Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia.

NEXT TIME:

I get more in depth about the food we ate when we arrived at the food court.

Six Months of Travel: Things To Remember, To Learn, To Forget

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“Did you know that ‘but’ means ‘no’?”

It was evening, and we were sitting in the common area of our guest house, an open structure with chairs, benches and a pool table, sat on the edge of the beach. Two locals were potting poolballs in exactly the way I had failed to a moment ago. Every so often, bats raced over our heads as they flew through the common room to eat the bugs that clustered, suicidally, around the lights. There was the sound of waves breaking. BK-C and I were arguing about education policy with a Dutch life coach. She had just interrupted my reasoned and, if I may say, elegant, riposte to her previous argument, to deliver to me this tiny bit of life coaching.

I really hate people telling me what to think, especially through the medium of meaningless clichés. I took a deep breath, had a sip of my gin & tonic, and carried on: “but what you’re not taking into account…”

That’s it. End of story. I was very restrained. Why have I just recounted this tale of me being a little bit of an arse to an otherwise very nice lady? Well, mainly it’s because I’ve just discovered that it’s actually very difficult to start a post summarising a long period of travel without resorting to meaningless clichés, grand generalisations, or speculations about what you may or may not be thinking/expecting/visualising. Travelling, in other words, is a lot like the rest of life. There are highs and lows. There are good days and bad days. Life is not, in fact, a beach everyday. Ok, maybe every other day.  And maybe there have been some phenomenal experiences that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. But the point is, I’m going to have to use some sub-headings here. Maybe even a list.

Things to Remember

THERE HAVE BEEN distinct phases to our travel. We travelled from Bangkok, into Cambodia, up through Vietnam, through Laos, back into northern Thailand, and back down to Bangkok. I think of this as Stage 1.

I’ve previously written about our time in Vietnam and Cambodia, so let me just select a few things from Laos and northern Thailand. In Laos, we visited Luang Prabang, which is a city of much culture, history and wonderful temples. We got up early, when it was still dark, and went to watch the giving of alms, where long lines of orange robed monks took offerings of rice from the devout kneeling at the side of the road. Then we wandered around the morning market, sampling all kinds of new foods, before ending at a local coffee shop where we drank coffee strong enough to bring back the dead, sweetened with condensed milk. This is one of my favourite memories.

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It’s hard to make generalisations about an entire people, but of course we all do, and I’m not making an exception for the people of Laos, who were unfailingly lovely. We travelled up the Mekong River from Luang Prabang into northern Thailand; rocks loomed out of the cold morning mist, and we huddled underneath blankets as our junk boat cut through the water. Eventually, the sun burnt away the mist and we were left seeking shade as dense jungle swept by on either side of this wide, wide river. That evening, we docked at a tiny village in the middle of the jungle, for our homestay. As we walked up the dusty hill amongst the houses on stilts, people came to their doorways to stare, in silence; young children in raggedy, dirty T-shirts hid from us; a dog, panting in the heat, watched us, her teats gorged and hanging, two puppies playing underneath her; we looked behind, and a straggling group of older children had begun to follow us. I have never felt more foreign than at that moment. That night, we saw stars like I have never seen before. Two other guys and I broke the awkwardness of no common language with our hosts by making shadow puppets on the wall for their kids, the mother smiling on. Then we fell asleep on the floor, under mosquito nets, wrapped in the utter, utter silence of the night time village.

Trav16-6 Trav16-7 Trav16-5 Trav16-9 Trav16-8IN MAE HONG SONG, northern Thailand, we were two of the few westerners in the sleepy town, and ate phad thai omelettes sitting on the floor, looking out over a lake where the brightly illuminated pagoda was reflected. Later, we bought hand woven textiles from a little old Karen woman at the night market, the prices embarrassingly cheap.

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The next day, we hired a guide and hiked through what seemed to be unspoilt jungle to reach two local villages, one of the Hmong people, the other of the Karen people. There was no trail, there was no path – just hacking our way through head high bamboo. Yes, we ran out of water towards the end, and yes we had to remind ourselves that we were having fun – but it’s not these things that I remember, it’s the children playing with a kite made out of the plastic bags, the wrinkled faces of the old women as they watched us wander about the village, the constant fear of standing on a snake amidst the bamboo…

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FROM THAILAND WE flew to Hong Kong, and spent a month in China. This was Stage 2. China gets a stage all to itself because it’s so big and because at times it was something of a trial. I’ve written extensively about the country, so I won’t recount it all again here except to say that hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge was one of the best treks I’ve ever done.

Trav10-16  WE FLEW FROM Shanghai to Taipei, and spent three weeks in Taiwan. Then we flew to Tokyo, and spent three weeks in Japan. After that, it was to Yangon for three weeks in Myanmar. This was Stage 3. We were travelling fast, we saw a lot and we had some of the best and most memorable experiences of the trip so far. I intend to write more about all three countries (I took a lot of notes and a lot of photographs), so I’ll just pick one thing from each place.

At the southern tip of Taiwan is the national park of Kenting, a beautiful expanse of rolling hills, cliffs and coasts that has much in common with the south west of England, except that it’s tropical. We had no transport of our own while we were there, but Vincent, the wonderful owner of our hostel, took pity on us and drove us around the coast to show us his favourite places. He gave up a successful career as a web designer in Taipei and Beijing so that he could open a business in Kenting and spend his time surfing. We reaped the rewards of his choice.

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IN JAPAN, WE had the luck to visit during sakura, cherry blossom time, and the trees were bright and bristling with flowers, the petals shivering in the wind. On our first full day we travelled to Kyoto on the Shinkansen, bullet train, and after checking in at our Capsule Ryokan hotel (all tatami floors and folding floor futons), we hot footed it to the Toji Temple, where a monthly flea market was just starting to close. There, we darted between stalls to look at people’s wares even as they were packing them up; BK-C bought vintage kimonos and antique washi paper, whilst I, inexplicably, bought a hand painted Union Jack flag from the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics. Then we went into the gardens of the Toji Temple, and had our first taste of why Japanese gardens and temples are so famous the world over. We’ve visited a lot of temples whilst we’ve been traveling. It’s fair to say that we’ve become a little jaded (in fact, the worst kind of traveller – the constant comparers: “yeah, this is ok, but it’s not as good as Wat Pho in Bangkok.” Or “yeah I could climb those steps to go and watch the sunset from the top of the temple, but it’s not going to be as breathtaking as that place in Luang Prabang. Why bother?”). But I never got bored of visiting Japanese temples. Their elegant aesthetic, the precise beauty of their gardens, the quiet contemplation of sitting on the tatami floor – I fell in love with all of this.

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IN BURMA, WE visited Bagan, a vast, scrubby plain where, from the 9th to the 13th centuries, Burmese kings vied to build increasingly magnificent temples, and where over 2,000 of those temples remain today. We hired electric bikes and zoomed about the plain in the 40 degree heat, slipping and sliding in the sand, visiting whatever temples took our fancy. Although there were plenty of tourists at the bigger temples, most were deserted, and we explored them Indiana Jones style, with torch and whip. Ok, maybe not the whip, but certainly the torch. On the walls of many remained 1,000 year old drawings, and it is a remarkable feeling to stand alone in the dark, quiet and relative cool of one of these temples and to stare upon the doings of people long dead, the pictures drawn before Chaucer put quill to vellum to pen the Canterbury Tales, even before Richard I sat on the English throne. There is no glass, no grill between you and these incredibly precious paintings, just air and your own sense of wonder. I shall name our firstborn Indiana.

Trav16-24 Trav16-23 Trav16-25THEN WE FLEW back to Thailand, visited a couple of islands, and headed south into Malaysia, where we’ve been for the past month. Malaysia has had the most consistently great food of the trip. Because of the uniquely cosmopolitan make up of the country, you can eat Indian curry for breakfast, Chinese food for lunch, and Malay food for dinner – and every time you’re eating the local cuisine. Increasingly, as we travel, I find myself spending less time – or sometimes no time – reading the ‘sights’ part of the Lonely Planet, and instead spending hours salivating over the ‘eating’ section, in order to plan what restaurants and street stalls we’re going to visit. Eating is a pleasure, everyday; seeing temples is not.

Trav16-26 Trav16-27On Saturday, we arrived in Singapore. Next, we’re travelling to Indonesia. When we leave Indonesia, in September, that will be the end of Stage 4. Stage 5 will be Australia and New Zealand. We return on 2 January, 2015. I’m sure that won’t be a downer.

Things to Forget

Inevitably, and yet also in a way that surprises me, every time, life is not a montage of edited highlights, even when travelling full time. As I write this it is a Sunday, and BK-C and I are sat in our room, spending the day writing and reading. It’s our first day in Singapore, and we’re spending it indoors. We travelled really fast in the first five months, and it takes a toll. You have to have down time. After a while of spending two or three nights in a place you start to crave continuity. And you realise that you can’t go on walking into furniture in the middle of the night when you get up to go the toilet. Eventually you’ll fracture something (once I thought I had, and lay in bed, in the darkness, suffering in silence and wondering what lie I could tell to my friends and family about how I fractured my leg).

BK-C and I seem to measure everything in the domestic: could we live here? Would we want that table in our house? Would we get better service here if we were regulars? It’s different for other travellers, of course, but for us one of the most important things about a place we visit is where we stay. Our room has to be somewhere where we can spend time, where we can lie on the bed and read, or pretend to write and instead stare out of the window. For other travellers it’s about meeting other people, the location of the accommodation, the availability of wifi… and of course all of those things are important to us, but if a room is nice, then none of the other things really matter. Every place must feel like a little home. This means, of course, that if we don’t like our accommodation then it can colour our entire experience of a place. In Langkawi, our room was a dirty box with no window, and thus the whole island was a downer for us. At times like this our friends and family seem a long, long way away, and we wonder why we’re here (similarly, you feel very alone when you’re sat on the toilet at 4am for what is the tenth time that night, in your guesthouse’s little shared bathroom that, as you’re going to realise later, has open topped walls abutting the common room).

However much you try and keep in touch with home, there are things that you miss. Two sets of friends have got engaged whilst we’ve been out travelling: both sets are getting married before we’ll return. My father-in-law’s cancer has come back. My granddad has died. Two sets of friends have had babies. Many more children of friends have changed alarmingly quickly (I mean, is that normal? Shouldn’t they stay in stasis or something until we get back?). England still haven’t won the world cup. Again.

Things to Learn

This wouldn’t be a self-reflective post on a travel blog if I didn’t have a list of all the things that I’ve learnt whilst we’ve been away. So here it is.

  • The place where we sleep is also the place where we read, and thus it must be nice; or we must make it nice through the medium of post it notes on the walls, filled with lists of things to do and quotes from inspiring people. Yes, we are losers, but I knew that before we came travelling and so it has no place on this list.
  • Our favourite places have history and culture and a creative scene.
  • Don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t take your phone, your ipad, your laptop with you: they’re wrong.
  • It’s heartbreaking not to be able to attend your grandad’s funeral.
  • I scream like a girl when I see a cockroach. Every time.
  • Gaffa tape is one of the most useful things you can travel with.
  • You can never eat too many chinese dumplings.
  • It’s still hard to make time to do all the things you want to do, even when staying in a hut on tropical beach (this must be what retired people feel like).
  • British humour isn’t universal. Or, there are a lot of people in the world who just don’t understand how funny I am.
  • Mutton is delicious, and should be used more in Britain.
  • I’m still not very good at relaxing.
  • Condensed milk in coffee is ace.
  • Indian food makes a fantastic breakfast. A curry trumps a full English, any day.
  • Sitting on a chair designed for primary school children doesn’t in any way affect your ability to enjoy your food.
  • You don’t always need to plan, and things will work out.
  • But it’s still better to plan. I’m not a hippy, for goodness sake.
  • Don’t send text messages to people at home telling them what a killer time you’re having on your tropical island. They’re either asleep or at work when you send them, and both seem to make people grumpy.
  • Bigger mosquitoes are easier to kill than small ones.
  • Tea without milk is good, often better than tea with milk (I’m looking at you, Lipton Tea).
  • Tiger Balm is the most effective thing to put on bites. Try it.
  • Except ant bites, for which nothing works. Wear mittens in bed.
  • Writing everyday makes me happy. So maybe I am a little bit of a hippy, after all.

Final Words

THIS IS THE bit where I end with some wise and meaningful words. Like the beginning, though, it’s difficult not to stray into clichés and platitudes. The learning that comes from travelling is lots of little pieces of wisdom that accrete over time, like the lint in your tumble dryer. So, I’ll just settle for this: it’s been amazing.

But I can’t wait for what the next six months will bring.

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What I’ve Been Reading For The Past Six Months

 Ferried over rough seas, bounced at the back of minivans, perched on mounds of luggage, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my kindle over the past six months. This is what I’ve read, in no particular order:

Wool, Hugh Howey
Great House, Nicole Krause
– Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China, Paul Theroux
– The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss
– The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss
– Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s, Graham Stewart
– Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s, Alwyn W. Turner
MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood
– 1Q84, Haruki Murakami
– Road of Bones: The Epic Siege of Kohima 1944, Fergal Keane
– Show Your Work!, Austin Kleon
– The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
– Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami
– The Collected Short Stories of Anton Chekov, Vol. 1, Anton Chekov, (Constance Garnett translations)
– The Glass Palace
, Amitav Ghosh
– Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
– Reading Like a Writer: A Guide For People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, Francine Prose
– On The Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds
– The Complete Short Stories, Franz Kafka, Vintage Classics
– Burmese Days, George Orwell
– How To Shit Around The World: The Art of Staying Clean and Healthy While Travelling, Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth
– A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony, Hector Garcia
– Hiroshima, John Hersey

This post was written in Juara, Pulau Tioman, Malaysia, and Singapore. It was uploaded in Singapore.

NEXT TIME: The street food of Penang. Almost definitely this time. No more travel montages.

Beijing & Shanghai: Photo Essay

AFTER X’IAN, BEIJING: we travelled there at 300 km/h, our speed digitally displayed at the end of the carriage. There was boiling water on tap, there were wide seats, there was more than adequate leg room and the train ran on time. In other words, it was everything that train travel in the UK is not.

 

THE LAMA TEMPLE

 

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Welcome to the Disneyfication of religion. Don’t worry if you’re not Buddhist, it really doesn’t matter. Please collect your complimentary bundle of incense sticks and proceed directly to the brazier, where you may light them. Screams of excitement are encouraged. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous (and you probably are) please do feel free to light the entire bundle at once (don’t worry about the sign telling you not to do that). Next, proceed to wander around the temple clutching your incense stick like you don’t quite know what to do with it. When you’re bored with it, just drop it on the ground. Thank you.

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THE HUTONGS

 

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Welcome to the hutongs, a series of old narrow lanes that you’ll probably get lost in. People have died trying to get out. Do come in, though.

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Residents are mostly friendly.

Mostly.

Mostly.

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Don’t touch my beer.

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All hail.

 

The discarded bikes of those who didn't find their way out of the hutongs.

The discarded bikes of those who didn’t find their way out of the hutongs.

 

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Don't worry that you're lost, having a beer will help you find your way out.

Don’t worry that you’re lost, having a beer will help you find your way out.

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THE WALL

 

Welcome to the Wall. Yes, it looks like it was rebuilt recently, and there's a reason for that. Try not to be too underwhelmed. Distract yourself by buying overpriced gloves to stop your hands falling off in the cold. And if that doesn't take you mind off it, don't worry, because there's a toboggan run all the way down to the bottom of the hill which is a lot more fun than the wall itself.

Welcome to the Wall. Yes, it looks like it was rebuilt recently, and there’s a reason for that. Try not to be too underwhelmed. Distract yourself by buying overpriced gloves to stop your hands falling off in the cold.

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OK, so it is quite impressive in places.

And if you're still bored, don't worry - because there's a toboggan run all the way down to the bottom of the hill which is a lot more fun than the wall itself.

But if you’re still bored, don’t worry – because there’s a toboggan run all the way down to the bottom of the hill which is a lot more fun than the wall itself.

 

REMEMBER THIS?

 

Remember this?

So 2008…

SHANGHAI

Welcome to Shanghai! You can get married here.

Welcome to Shanghai! You can get married here.

It's very popular.

It’s very popular.

We've got the whole post thing covered as well.

We’ve got the whole post thing covered as well.

And laundry. I'm pretty sure it's fine to be a Christian in China as well.

And laundry too. I’m pretty sure it’s fine to be a Christian in China as well.

We don't talk about the hairy building. Look away,

We don’t talk about the hairy building. Look away.

This is the view that you're paying £6 a beer for. Better enjoy it.

This is the view that you’re paying £6 a beer for. Better enjoy it.

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NEXT TIME: The food of Penang.

This post was written and uploaded in Kuala, Lumpur, Malaysia.