Hello world!

Life is exciting! I started this blog having just completed the Camino de Santiago in July 2016, a walk of the soul.   It was incredibly difficult leaving behind the people and way of the Camino yet that’s exactly what I did, launching head first into Brazil, the starting point of my round the world adventure.

The content of this blog is the humble memories, insights and sometimes silly events that I experienced during my year out……Come with me as I travel both far and near to Scotland my home.

Hope you enjoy my ramblings.

The Great Escape

20170101_141816It got to New Year and instead of embracing thousands of other human beings all frolicking around the multitude of Edinburgh’s bars and perhaps the biggest street party on this earth, I found an excuse to head for the hills.  The Southern Upland Way (SUW) is one of Scotland’s long distance coast to coast walks that you can do over a number of weeks or just dip a toe in and do a short section as I did.melroseabbey-450I headed off on the 31st of December for Melrose: a lovely, quaint town in the Scottish Borders famed for its small town charm, vast number of ice cream outlets, pubs and the ruined Abbey that draws in a good few bus loads of tourists each year.20161231_102644-1Heading north past the Abbey I met a slightly frenzied local who had more energy than most…side stepping his salivating jaws to cross the iconic foot suspension bridge where our venture of walking and wild camping would begin.
20170103_123645The rolling hills were typically moody and sullen at times with swirling cloudscapes promising a battering of rain but also offering a quick feeling of freedom and an intense sense of being away from the hussel and bussel of our lovely capital city….The landscape and route was truly void of any other souls.  I suppose the chill factor and the likelihood of poor weather kept all but a few farmers and a hardy feld runner at bay.20170101_143401There’s a lonely vastness about the Borders hills and although not tough terrain it does demand respect, given that most distances between towns can’t easily be covered in the daylight hours we have during winter here in Scotland, meaning that often a walk between towns involves a wee bit of wild camping and thus a heavier load to walk with.20170103_125125With all this considered, I reckon there’s nothing better than a good new year exfoliating hail storm to tear the flesh literally from your face, followed swiftly by a massage of sun, albeit glowing but far from warm to remove any clingy, previous year cobwebs. Scotland is certainly fresh, I’ll say that for her and combined with copious volumes of fresh air exhilarating the lungs,  I felt a real sense of contentment as the new year count down started ticking.
20161231_113526We made steady progress and found ourselves a few miles outside Lauder.  It was near a slither of woodland that we deciding to pitch out tent, providing the needed fuel for our Hogmanay camp fire and a little respite from the wind that had accompanied us all day.20170101_110015The threat of rain was ever looming so it was in the shelter of a fallen tree that I set up our stove and later got a heart-warming camp fire going to thaw the port and red wine we’d diligently lugged in our packs.20170101_113611In my humble opinion it is far from acceptable to omit an obligatory tipple from your rucksack….I believe it comes under first aid on the kit checklist!20161231_201938All was going well when my intrepid pal Colette, who’d wandered through a number of bogs and mud pools during the day, decided to warm her toes and boots by the toasty flames.  Not dissimilar to an incident involving Colette and a pair of her gloves I glanced up, smelling the putrid aroma of burning rubber to find not her gloves this time but her boots on fire, Colette oblivious to the entire incident….Thankfully with the reflexes of a pouncing cheetah I grabbed the boot and snuffed it out. They escaped with some minor melting but thankfully still wearable.  We toasted to a happy new year and made for our sleeping bags hearing the haunting sounds of owls calling into the night.20170101_103007The next day was cool and fresh with glorious low-lying sun, sparkling and twinkling against the fields.  We made our way down to Lauder to stock up and give ourselves a coffee and cake reward for getting up and braving the chilly temperatures.  Lauder seems quite lovely and although quiet on new years morning I did spy the Black Bull hotel and pub which may need to be frequented at a later date.  A rainbow welcomed us to the town as did a lovely shop keeper who gave us free cakes to help us on our way.  Thanks Lauder.20170101_120259We were soon back on the hills…uphill in fact for a good number of miles before tramping across the barren and desolate Lammermuir hills.20161231_114423The wind picked up but we dug in, leaning almost horizontally against it making it down to the delightful Blyth water spot we’d chosen for our camp site.20170102_085720
20170102_082316Just as well, as no sooner had we got the tent up when a snow storm swept across the hills, whipping at our tent leaving nothing else for it than to bed down, eat silky dark chocolate, washed down with a delightful Argentinean Malbec. It felt like a hurricane was forming around us but to its credit the two person Coleman tent stood her ground and we didn’t end up flying to Norway.20170102_090041The morning air was frosty and sharp as I took leave of the tent. The ground crunching with each fresh footprint and glistening like a carpet of jewels outstretched across the horizon. I love the quiet trance that nature lulls us into at these moments and I caught myself gazing at the beautiful hills surrounding me. Glancing down and coming back to myself, I noticed my laces had frozen into a delightful organic form and it was with a chuckle that I surveyed the white frost encasing the tent. What a lovely morning!20170102_09040620170102_082138Four layers of clothing later Colette and I could quite easily have auditioned for the next Jurassic Park movie, given my resemblance to a vast and cumbersome woolly mammoth trudging steadily through a smattering of melting snow.woolly-mammoth-1We watched the sunrise before packing up and trekking back over these lovely hills to Lauder for a welcomed lift back to Edinburgh and the hearty meal that now filled my thoughts.20170102_08320820170102_09300520170102_100511If you get a chance this year include a wee wander around the southern upland way on your resolution list, I know I’ll be back rambling around soon……All the very best for 2017.

The day my feet stood still…

20160706_08460120160706_091137Today I was kind to myself.  I factored in an hour of breaks which is just as well as the terrain was mostly over bolders and rocks, all thick with mud and as slippy as a pack of riving eels (not sure what they’d be doing underfoot but you get the idea).  I could easily have slipped into Loch Lomond on at least ten occassions and had a different kind of break altogether! 20160706_12322120160705_084640Predictably the going was naturally slow, infact at one point I stopped and my feet planted themselves to the spot in response to my knees whaling out in opposition to any further hauling of bags over treachrous, wet terrain. 20160706_085721On the plus side the wonderful vista of rushing water over black reflective rocks and lush inviting vegetation enough to make a wild herd of goats bleet out in ecstasy was admittedly a pleasant setting, if frought with danger.20160706_130455I settled down for the long haul to Inverarnan and although the rain started and didn’t stop around noon I really enjoyed the plodding.20160706_134333Maybe it was the space that would appear after hours going over rocks hugged by dense forest or maybe the comfort of a bothy to shelter in while stripping the shiney wrapper off a Tunnocks teacake and carefully sucking the white interior out with the skill of a humming bird gathering its nectar…..20160706_223127Either way I had a good day knowing myself, even if I can feel every shoulder, knee and foot muscle ache with radient consistency at the slightest movement….let’s hope a battered haddock and a cooling pint resolves the body groans in preparation for my jaunt to Tyndrum tomorrow😆

Sauna fa Gun

20160705_093654Leaving at 7am today was a good plan.  For one thing the zipping and unzipping had become mildly frenzied as folk lurched to the toilets at 5:30 am but more importantly the sun was blaring and my tent had become a mobile sauna. Time to get up out of ones own juices I think!  You could have served me with a bed of crisp seasoned vegetables, mustard mash and a peppercorn sauce such was the succulent pink taint of my flesh.20160705_07214320160705_064832Anyway I diverge…it’s tiredness. Back to the early morning walking, striding along a wet, glistening road illuminated by crisp morning sunlight was truly lovely. Flowers beckoned excited purposeful bees along the roadside and meadows burst with colourful interest as wild flowers started my day in a fashion comparable to Eden.  The vertical presence of the ever striking Foxglove once again accompanied me as I made slow but determined progress up Conic hill. How full of optimism and strength I felt only a few short hours ago having rested for many hours yesterday but after this climb and the next few hours of unrelenting undulating ups and down through Ross wood I am quite simply knackered……not fit for junk!20160705_084945The fact remains that I’ve been whittled down to half my former self by a relentless 7  hour march to Rowardennan and then some…to get to Ardess Ranger bunk house due to the syha having no room at the inn. Booking’s not for me, I like the fear and my tent is getting itchy again.20160705_12311220160705_09190720160705_092316Now the Rangers lodge has tickled me.  Even as I enjoy the use of a washing machine and drying room it has to be said that the even nicer sight of a lovely ranger called Fraser must be the jewel in today’s crown. Yes I’ve had glorious views over Loch Lomond and a shoreline to behold but as torn and limp as I am I still appear to be able to hold animated conversation with this majestic fellow.  Wow never mind the scenery!20160705_184952 20160705_162226Eh why are all the rugged rangers taken? Maybe he’s not? Just very keen to allude to the idea given my purple sweated face and drooling jowls…still I’m very glad I came here; it’s lovely and has nice surrounding trails and a fab historic recreation of a thatched house that’s well worth a look just out back.  Yes there’s nothing sweeter than eye candy and a fine place to lay your head down for a night.  It is likely however that ill not be able to move tomorrow so maybe a two-week stint with a certain ranger tending to my massage needs? Just tell me if this is unacceptable.  I fear I’m quite delirious.20160705_080833Off to camp at Inverarnan tomorrow where I believe there’s an old drovers pub that I’m keen to sample noted for its moth-eaten bear.  In all honesty I’ll probably be a walking zombie by then….guns to the ready…..

Water my doing oot here?

20160704_16075320160704_122727As I sprawl out, cozy for now at least, in my 1 person tent listening to the heavy and persistent pitter-patter of rain against my tent’s outer sheet; I’m hoping and mildly praying that it’s as waterproof as a young, sleek Tuna!US-Citizens-Tune-in-to-Hear-News-About-Radioactive-Tuna-220160704_161149In contrast to the dreich weather, the upbeat rise and fall of guttural German chatter can be heard outside balanced by soft French sighs, all thankful I’m sure for a distinct lack of swarming midge (hopefully all drowned by now).  Their young voices fade in and out thanks to the hammering of still heavier rain pounding relentlessly down with a certain menace against my north ridge tent. I wonder about the content of their conversation. “Are we mental coming here on holiday?” Yes you certainly all are, but join the clan and prepare to get wet.  Very wet.20160704_110416I’m considering what the hell I was thinking packing a bag excitedly and heading off on one of Scotland’s most iconic caminos with the vigour and thoughtless determination of a young salmon heading up-stream. Little did I know just how apt the analogy would become and as evidence would have it this could be quite a wet walk indeed!20160704_121451It seems I have a liking for torture or to stay optimistic, walks in nature but this might yet turn into an amphibians delight, an aquatic fun park or maybe just a tribute to Kevin Costner’s water world. Maybe it’s sailing I’ll end up doing.20160704_161107 I guess we’d never leave the house in Scotland if we sat waiting for good weather, but the thing is it’s a tent I’m in, not a dingy! And I didn’t bring a Goddamn swimsuit so Noah, you had best float by and pick up a partially drowned, flock of brightly coloured tents before the species goes under completely, never to unzip or breed again….the rains clearly hypnotic.1467660017371523627761On the plus side the train from Edinburgh Waverley via Partick was on time and swift.  The change at Partick was great as I got to remain on the same platform (2), and within 5 mins was whisked off on a further 15min journey to the pleasant start of my walk in the little town of Milngavie or “Mullguy” if you actually want to pronounce it correctly. The west coasters do weird stuff like that so expect words to have no phonetic resemblance to their actual spelling.20160704_100814Anyway, the rain stayed at a light drizzle all day as the flat and idyllic shire-like pastures unfolded towards our first stop Drymen (not exactly a name characteristic of our current conditions but hopefully dry tomorrow).  A gentle path follows an old railway line and produced lovely jewels like ginger cows and radiant foxglove interrupted by birch woodland shroud in bird song. The still Lochs soon to be filled up, glistened between sunny spells and the gentle gurgle of the river  accompanied my way north. Arriving at the Drymen campsite about 1:30pm, the clouds started darkened and I made haste like a hungry cheetah to get the water proof coffin erected.  Just in time too as the heavens opened and spewed Scotland’s favorite weather type upon us.20160704_095520
I’m at that point now where having found a stray can of Sardines to improve my cous cous and a delightful free can of Carlsberg lager my bladder is beginning to moan and swell with the pressure.  The problem of course is how to get to the toilet and back without being swept down stream…? I’m very reluctant to leave my cozy little shelter but I guess if I burst, the whole campsite would be swept off to a watery grave and I can’t have that on my conscience. I’m gonna get wet one way or the other….one less smelly and acidic so off I go to the loo humming that Travis classic – ‘why does it always rain on me’.  The tourists are only a little bemused.1467660513942138988234114676603417881774139205Signing out as my bladder begins to put pressure on the other tents. Water my doing out here!

Spit it Oot

edinburgh-Princes-Street-Gardens-1500x850Putting aside the fact that I don’t have an endless spring of flowing free cash nor a stinking rich significant other (all applications will be considered) or indeed a vast untapped inheritance, I thought today might be a good day to consider what makes a person return home in the wake of my own homecoming to Edinburgh after 10 months of diverse travel. 20160514_135728-1I suppose the fresh, rather cutting wind sweeping along Edinburgh’s Princes Street today, may have whipped up a curious state of contemplation in me enough to prompt such deliberation.

Our weather here in Bonnie Scotland is certainly not high on most people’s reasoning to enjoy this eclectic and rich culture, but it does have you scuttling into coffee shops, where wistful thinking is always welcomed (J.K Rowlan territory). So here I am, thinking that weather might actually form part of my appraisal of returning to Scotland.  Is it true that I like the unpredictable and constantly changing nature of Scotland’s weather? Yes I think so;  I like the freezing flurry of cold wind against freckled skin, even though it’s now summer.  For one thing it cools my consistently ruddy cheeks and barely penetrates my seal like blubber, so yes, 10 degrees totally rocks if you’re me!20160516_153916blossomThen there’s the inherent beauty of Scotland’s wild spaces and her abundance of preserved architecture from Pict settlements to Edinburgh’s picturesque Georgian New town.  I can’t seriously overlook our proud history of invention, creativity and now politics nor the indelible dark humour that pumps like blood through the veins of Scottish culture. And with more Castles and Churches than I have freckles (that’s saying something) you’ll also never be short of a fortress or a prayer during a Zombie apocalypse; what more could I want?20160513_133339sculpture20160518_162123As you might expect, my conclusions for returning, moulded slowly over a delightful coffee in a fine establishment called Artisan Roast on Broughton street (Edinburgh)helped me to realise that it’s simply the people in our lives who interact and embrace us that ultimately anchor most of us to home.20160511_164448 Returning home is certainly bolstered by fun venues, eclectic festivals, tasty fresh food, creativity and art, an air of sophisticated learning and progress and of course the tangy, cheap Whiskey found lurking in the notorious Central bar in Leith not to forget a warming folk song or two in the Royal Oak just off the Bridges. Indeed there are many reasons to return and ‘bide at hame’ but there’s nowt quite like folk!20160514_12071220160507_161338The banter of Scottish folk is well-known but did you know that we have men, so skilled in the art of spitting that they can bring a buffalo down in one feld swoop such is the size, speed and adhesive viscosity of their produce. I was reminded of this ancient sport today by an elderly gent who released a turbo charged globule of spit that pole vaulted over my head, missing my tanned freckled cheeks by what we would call ‘a baw hair’! That’s a close shave in English!

I giggled nervously after the assault knowing I was one step away from an OCD meltdown but I was also in awe of the velocity, trajectory and general surprise of the incident (you can imagine how such a substance might halt traffic, now consider what might have become of me had I been encased?!).

The nice thing about this sport is the gruff apology that followed indicating that Scottish men have clearly evolved since I left… This is certainly not what people would deem to be an acceptable reason to return home and embrace Scotland for, but it did make me consider the uniqueness for good or bad of her people and made me laugh uproariously.3.smBagpipes Scotland to me is familiar and easy and if your heart is softened to it, as mine is, there’s no better place on earth.  Her people, spitting Olympians included can be a little odd (often dependent on postcode), a little reckless depending on how much alcohol is swirling through the blood and sometimes downright nuts, but I think in all honesty the cap fits. There are few caps I’d rather wear and simply being back amongst friends, family has highlighted the joy that is Scotland and her people.20160508_112210 There’s certainly something in the special banter that makes our differences so sweet and our humour so silly. Sadly we don’t all say bye bye to our local bus drivers quite as enthusiastically as this wee woman, herself an advocate for the nation!

The brutality of not being submerged in such a culture, can surely only be compared to a fish gasping for air on dry land. Thankfully I’ve dived back into the place I call home and in spit of itself it’s still a wonderful wee country to return to. porty beach

Goan Home….

20160423_08135520160423_081324There are little things that we adjust to when we stay in one place for a while. Little things that fade from our senses like ripples breaking and scattering across a still lake.  Of course it’s very easy to notice your senses when faced with giant cascading waterfalls, inspiring mountains or aromatic temples or spice plantations, but it takes incredible effort to sense, notice and value the things that are ordinary; a struggle I pursued with interest before embarking upon this trip.20160426_120602My first stop was ‘The Camino de Santiago’ which simplified everything and brought small ordinary things into focus, allowing time for the mind to gently notice things that we miss in the chaotic rush of life. Soon after the Camino however I found my movement, travels and saturation within a multitude of cultures and countries both exciting and dizzying; I was quickly swept away on a tide of exploration with wide eyed wonder at the world.20160426_142621 Luckily travel sometimes seems to set it’s own pace and flows and ebbes with a slower mood allowing you to taste a destination with greater awareness. It’s not just the familiar that can fade and dull if you’re not careful. Writing this blog has certainly helped at points to articulate the flavour of my senses and has made me look closer, at times when I might have moved too quickly. Pace is its own challenge and sometimes my surroundings seemed to lose their shine in a dash to see more.20160426_21422120160426_131838I’ve found that being away has greatly shielded me from this faint distance that can grow between our surroundings and our inner world, but there were times when I physically just closed my eyes and didnt want to look around.  It’s like we participate in allowing things to fade, choosing to retreat instead and spend time elsewhere in our minds refusing to notice the subtle, beautiful shifts in the everyday things be it Rio, Hong Kong or Leith. It takes firm resolve to pay attention, to come back to the present with genuine wonder and interest whether it’s down to jaded apathy or wide eyed apprehension of the unknown.20160426_145805This week of all weeks I’ve paid close attention to this shifting of phase and felt it more like a pleasant wind than a lack of luster which I think means I’ve travelled inside as well as out. Only a short week has passed here, yet each day has seemed a little slower and longer than the next toying I’m sure with quantum physics. It’s the end of season here in Goa and perhaps the packing away of umbrellas, the hint of a stronger wind stirring off shore and the visible loss in the faces of locals as they watch their income taking flight like migrating birds is emotive and fitting. With the last scattering of tourists ambling around combined with my own quiet days of prolific reading; the hypnotic rhythm of crashing waves, the intermittent buzz of crickets and the occassional haunting call of an unfamiliar bird I’m lulled into a self-induced trance not dissimilar to the tired stares of local woman selling flip flops. I find lazy days here easy to master as though I’d clambered into a cocoon shielded from the outside world.

The ocean still commands my attention of course as I walk within it’s warm, soothing waters as does the intense heat of the day as I reach for cool liquids but should I be concerned by such stillness? Is this a state of apathy or relaxation I’ve not experienced before? Is my body finally telling me it’s tired of its long exciting adventure? Perhaps allowing the quiet within myself is more acutely startling than I could know.

I woke this week to the curious sense of being emphatically lazy. But life as I’ve come to know it is energy and I wake again tuning myself back into my surroundings like a lost radio station found amongst the white noise. There’s more chattering than I thought; a local dialect dances up and down from a kitchen where the hiss of fresh giant prawns are being fried and the scent of intense spice wafts intoxicatingly on the hot air currents.  The powerful sound of the waves fade for a moment as I catch a carrion crow rasp a number of sharp, rough caws from a wooden fence hoping to poach at scraps.  Cheers rise and fall as a distant football game erupts.  The upbeat pop of a beer bottle opening behind me, soft reggae music faint in the background and the rapid flapping of a fallen sun shade bring this place alive again in all its sedated glory.20160425_183601I suppose what I’m reminding myself of here is we can wake up to any day in our lives be it in Goa, New York, London or Edinburgh and shake up apathy or slow down the blur without needing a ticket. This is a stirring lesson I feel I needed to remind myself before returning home after a long while spoiled by exotic and wonderful sights. If I can remember adventure lurks and hides within the ordinary I might yet have travelled further than I could have imagined. It’s time to Goa home and see it all with fresh eyes keeping the internal journey ‘goan’ and my salivating, urgent need for a humble baked potato suppressed at least until passport control allow my dubious freckle count back into the country. Next exciting installment…tuna tattie by the Thames.

The Human Candle

20160421_12181520160420_13204220160421_103027-1When sweat production rises above 3 rapid beads per second to a cascade running down each side of your temple, warning bells ring out in the mind.  Big loud screaching bells…..your legs begin to scuttle a little faster and when you finally reach the bleached white facade of a Portuguese church your adrenalin pushes you in with no uncertain urgency.20160421_103559-1 20160422_144435Lunging for the shade my soaked body expelled a sigh of release, venting a sizzling hiss out into the cold volume of the church; her darkness smothering me in a loving embrace. As my eyes adjust to the shadowy interior it’s only then I realise I’ve stumbled, albeit delirious into a funeral service.  No matter, another mourner is always welcome even if they do appear pink like a rare steak with succulent juices running freely.20160420_11560120160422_14454620160420_13175420160420_131834 Before the end of the service I think better of attending the burial or wake. Backing out gingerly into the mid-day Balti pot I make my escape hugging as much shade for a few miles beyond the church as I can, finally making it back down towards the beach and the soothing shade of a beach shack.20160421_12221520160421_120722I see how far I’ve come, with a long scorching stretch of sand sprawling out before me. The task now is how to get back along this vast panoramic beach to the hotel without a self-inflicted cremation?  The brain begins to blink and bleep as it computes the foul options before me.20160420_12375020160420_124034Option A. Running in short bursts? No! Heat exhaustion could creep in quicker that way…B. Swim? Mmm no! Sun reflection and nakedness might cause extreme burning to the back and bum cheeks, there must be a better way? C. Sweet talk the life guard with the red jeep into giving me a lift. Mmm possible but unfortunately I’m not wearing my gold tassel bikini and I’m not overly sure I’m looking my sweated best given I now ressemble a large melted white candle. In fact I’m basically a human drum of bio ethanol minutes away from going up in an inferno of flames. Nope this wont do the jeep might explode. D. Wait until nightfall. Plausible but likely to incur a rather large bar bill. E. Walk swiftly along the wet sand with speed, stopping every 10-15 minutes in the many beach shacks for water and an obligatory cocktail while trying to minimise the impact of the suns rays with factor 50. Yes! The risk assessment for this last option seems agreeable. Phew! Life is perilous down in sunny Goa.20160421_12063920160419_132948 Fingers crossed I make it back without becoming a stick of charcoal or indeed a flailing inferno of flesh part drowned from a desperate bid to put myself out.  I think tomorrow I’ll consider buying a bio suit or resign myself to a life of perpetual darkness.images

Mumbai Bye

20160417_15130220160417_14453120160417_115107Mumbai international airport was eerily quiet with not a soul in the customs hall except me and one lethargic customs official. His polite interrogative questions seemed loud in such a vast, empty space, yet when I asked, truly puzzled as to where everybody else was, a quiet mystical shrug, celebrated by the metalic clang of his passport stamp rung out like a Buddhist prayer bell. This was perhaps a question only the Dali Lama might tackle.20160417_160958There was of course only one bag slowly coasting around the squeaky conveyor belt with staff poised nearby like patient vultures hovering near a still twitching corpse.  I considered that a zombie apocalypse was underway but given it was around 4pm and I’d just got off a plane with another 100 or so folk I was begining to think that perhaps I’d died and my soul had kept walking….it’s a supernatural and unnerving event to suddenly have an airport virtually to youself at that hour.  I escaped through the arrivals exit and thankfully found more of the human race but clearly the rest of flight 9w265 had vanished. Where’s Mulder and Scully when you need them eh?20160417_160119So I get a cab. Correct me if I’m wrong here, I thought taxis were more than just random cars with Ejits driving them.  I got into the cab, I tell the driver the location and show him the address repeating it slowly, then show him 3 maps to which he nods, shakes his head enthusiastically and smiles.  This reassuringly indicates to me that he knows where he’s going and that I’m a paying passenger going to a destination as many have before me. All is well with the world, order prevails and this is not the final frontier where I might expect to boldly go where no-one has gone before. It’s Mumbai and I’m in a taxi, yet I might as well have been in an un-maned probe to the Gamma Quadrant.imagesIf I have to get my compass out and question the Mumbai public ever again to locate my own hotel I’ll personally utilise a 100 Ruppee note with Gandhi beaming back at me to paper slash the next so called ‘taxi driver’ into a couple of thousand sushi rolls.20160417_125913 With my temper a little frayed the driver asks me if we go straight ahead?  He seems to think I look Indian? Is it the fact that my freckles are now completely joined as one and I’m being mistaken for a resident of Mumbai? How could I possibly know where we’re going? Maybe I look like a Guru of sorts? I’d really like to have conducted a personal work review or a continued professional development plan for this chap.   There’s certainly room for a greater skill base with navigation underlined forcefully on his individual learning plan. Mind you it is hard to convey this when your use of English has been paired down to one verb and don’t even think about past tense.  I’m gonna come home with speech like the Wolf Boy or Man Friday at this rate.20160417_151351Luckily the next day I met a real professional in the form of ‘Mahinder’. One of those taxi drivers who steer with their toes while using their arms for the animated process of Indian conversation over a mobile.  The eye masks you sometimes get on long haul flights would be beneficial to retaining ones nerves when spending a day in a Mumbai taxi rushing round the sights.20160417_12412620160417_20274820160417_12385520160417_143335It was fun. We both got to the point of using dismissive hand signals and flicking our heads saying ‘chop’- a colloquial way of saying in Hindi ‘shut it you’ to the disordered hoards of erratic drivers occupying the road here.20160417_151053 20160417_124049We crammed in as much as Mahinder’s driving could afford us.  I had a sense of Mumbai being the best Indian city I’ve had grace to visit yet and if I can give advice in my all knowing Guru capacity, if you’re flying to India stop here before you throw yourself into Delhi. Delhi is like dark matter: an unseen malevolent force harmful to tourists where as Mumbai is like a vision of earth albeit distorted. For me it’s a warm city (literally as well as being hospitable) with less hassel and of course it has the ocean to support the course of mindfullness you’ll certainly need to adopt upon arrival in the great nation of India. Good Luck on your journey should you get to say hi and bye bye to Mumbai.20160417_150615images (1)

Wet Souls

20160410_110824Like the start of so many journeys on this trip I found myself this morning stretched out like a warm, lazy dog reluctantly rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, and then with some resolve and a quick lick of the lips I jump up and have a shake of my tail….well okay, maybe it was more like a lightheaded stagger towards the shower. Anyway with an outcry of blessings going through my mind at the appearance of hot water I considered the day ahead.20160410_112733 Pokhara is a town like many others except it has a delightful lake with many a restaurant selling everything and a lassi (to be understood as a wholesome milk drink as oppose to the illegal trade of Scottish girls). So first I’ll have breakfast here at the Tristar, a family run hotel I’m calling home just now and then a wander by the lake passing a few of my favorite bikes and then a cool banana lassi. That’ll start the day in as civilised a manner as can imagine.20160410_143245As the last cool slurp of lassi dissappeared I turned the next page of my book to find a chapter break. The natural pause allowed for a welcome glance at the lake with it’s lovely vibrant boats baking nicely in the sunlight before I did that lovely thing that involves hopping to your feet, hailing a cab and whisking off to a temple.20160410_10361420160410_105627So why this temple? Well it’s a cave and considering my Albinoism it seemed like a strategy for self preservation. Located at the western side of Pokhara and not far from the lakeside, it’s entered down a spiral staircase in the bowels of the earth here you’ll find Gupteshwor Mahadev Cave.20160410_145337I make my way down towards the entrance noting exotic sculptural forms and colourful statues and then with some horror I note the pile of colourful shoes.  Of course! That makes sense it’s a temple after all, but really no shoes in a cave? As if to read my mind a cheerful voice reminder me of the shoeless practice here. Off with the shoes then! I took a deep breath and stepped into the cavernous darkness with both soles of my feet bare and pressed hard against frigid unknown liquids!20160410_105405 With rubble underfoot causing an uneven jerking motion I made slow precarious progress downwards towards a slippy set of ladders.  The things you do for faith eh…or at least the repect of others faith? Like a white ghost I seemed to cause quite a stir as I stummbled onwards deeper into the darkness towards some bell ringing, my face glowing at the other devotees prompting a few photos of me and the accompanying family.

Health and safety went right out the window when I stood on a wet bulbous form that in my imagination was a squashed blooded mammal the size of a small rodent of sorts….the resulting spasmodic toe stubb had me gripping the cave walls with a flash of red temper bubbling up to the brim of my throat. Who leaves socks to fester in a dark, albeit holy cave? I’d honestly have stuffed the soaked, crumpled ball swiftly down the sock offenders throat if I’d got half a chance. Never mind peace and love to all men!20160410_105544 Thankfully a further 10 meters presented a long luminous vertical crack in the rock with the gurgling rush of a little waterfall. With water dripping continuously from above and a dank, cold scent invading my nostrils (probably from a good few thousand other dead socks) and God knows what else on the floor my mild to moderate OCD kicked in like a defibrillator. I felt a sudden pang of sickness at what was lurking underfoot and I struggled hard against a complete muscle spasm. My throat convulsed and at that I made a hasty retreat with filth clinging to my ankles.  I certainly made a prayer or two….”Good God save me from this watery sewer of Hell, take away the limp shards of wet muddy tissue clinging with menace to my toes…..forgive all the wet souls and cleanse my size 9 soles while you’re at it! Please have mercy!20160410_165841The story ends with loud dryboaking and some very vigorous scrubbing with a bar of detol soap. With my soles clean I can now finally consider a little tipple to soothe my shaken and frayed soul. Beware of temple caves!

Himalaya happy and you know it…

20160403_075114Nepal has its fair share of chaotic city life in the wonderous, colourful corridors of Kathmandu, however this sprawling mishmash of box houses and the surrounding hussel and bussil, albeit polite and typically gracious do make for a wanton escape to the hills.20160407_062532Like many other Himalayan pilgrims before us we headed to Pokhara, traversing high twisting roads with breathtaking drops, arriving a good 6-7hrs later at the pleasant lakeside town that fools you into believing its small, given the easy throng of activity that exists along its relaxed shores.  A high vantage point such as the Buddhist Stupa watching over the town like a white guardian soon reveals an outward sprawl of pastel coloured houses, all crowding together as though to retain some warmth. Most visitors only pass through this hive of houses as they enter or leave the town meanwhile Pokhara seems to grow fat from the many visiting trekkers and expands far back towards the hills that contain it.20160406_10525920160406_114146-1Visitors are attracted to the lakeside like thirsty amphibians during a dry spell and delight in the many colourful little boats bobbing and hugging the tranquil shores. The streets of course are lined with outdoor shops feeding off a transient population of trekkers, all heading out on one of the many alluring mountain trails.20160402_080037 20160331_095913Coming to Nepal means one thing to most tourists: The Himalayas and therafter steps, altitude and jaw dropping views worthy of a disslocation or two.  The air may get thinner but most of the gasping comes from finding yourself in the majesty of nature. One might even say God.20160401_08193020160403_080638 The snow capped giants twinkle at you as the sun rises and radiates off their luminous white snow, contrasting against the razor sharp prussian blue shadows and crevaces that give them their character. It’s intoxicating making your eye’s hungry for more.20160403_060748The inumerable and often irregular steps that carry you ever higher are punishing but with delightful mountain life evident in the wandering herds of goats, lazy masticating buffalo and the sweetest children on this earth you push on through the need of a respirator towards your goal.Screenshot_2016-04-08-07-17-35-120160408_07273620160329_204420In our case we ambitiously dared to reach Annapurna base camp, 4130mt high and a dizzying up and down that requires steady plodding in the face of neck straining hilltop villages such as Chomrong or Gandruk.20160405_120845Sure enough our adventure took us north up through a valley to seek and capture those hugely iconic snow capped peaks and precarious stepped farmlands.  We weren’t dissapointed; quickly becoming accustomed to the crunch of stone underfoot and lush green jungle, ever protective of snaking paths heading deeper into high country.20160401_09241920160405_09580920160329_14452420160331_091350 Each night a hearty plate of momo, vegetable rice, pasta or noddles filled us and not long after laid us to sleep as the sweat and heat of the day took its toll. Early to bed and early to rise meant we started each day just as the mountains groaned awake with sunlight. A hearty morning cup of lemon, ginger and honey tea switched us on and oiled our tired limbs. It’s quite satisfying how such simple things can induce such contentment.20160403_15441320160401_150402Our last hour towards base camp saw us move in slow motion as altitude weighed us down ever heavier.  Understandably the emotive sense of achievment in reaching our goal felt as though the mountains had finally accepted us; a startling acceptance given the toil that a good trek imbues upon her pilgrims.  In short we were bloody knackered and darn glad we’d made it to the wonderfully colourful rags and flags that welcome you to base camp.20160403_07195220160331_131422If ever there was a time or place to feel camaraderie it’s here!  Having struggled individually to one point, a beautiful point encircled by mountains, a simple warm glance at each other is all that was needed to mean and say well done, we made it! Thanks to Colette and Maddy for those lovely precious and comical days of walking. It’s left me high, quite literally at the foot of the Himalayas.Screenshot_2016-04-07-15-07-49-120160403_055016

 

 

Ganga Lama and a Bomb

20160326_151516Kathmandu has a different flavour, a marinade of warmer people perhaps? Appearing less pushy or determined to fleece you in quite the same way as her much bigger southern neighbour.  As far as cities go it’s busy and chaotic but with a charming appeal to tourists; the economic staple here in Nepal. With countless shops and trinkets to interest a casual brigade of travellers, Nepal prides herself on hospitality. To faciltate this the city wraps around you with it’s warren of narrow streets lined with shops and roof top bars and cafes much like capillaries linked to veins and the occassional clogged artery packed with a throng of white taxis, cycle rickshaws and motorbikes echoing across the city, as it beats with life.20160326_125841As we wander the streets and visit the sites I notice how things have changed since my last visit some 8 years ago. The earthquake has left an indelible scar upon architecture, but visible also is human poverty which seems to cling to the rubble as we explore the city. The crunch of construction work hammers out steadily each day in an effort to rebuild.  People go about their business with admirable strength, smiling at us as we pass their shops or enter their restaurants. Life goes on. Of course it’s very sad to see such destruction especially to world heritage sites like those defying gravity in Durbur Square.20160326_130923It’s clear however that the key to progress is the stoic perseverance of which I’m certain is indemic here in Nepal’s people. You don’t need to look too far before you’re enveloped in warm conversation and laughing heartely.
Our wanderings led us finally to the colloquially named Monkey Temple sitting high above the city.  With a glorious gold stupa shining like a beacon from the top we endured the sticky trek upwards following the glint of bouncing sunlight like moths.20160326_15331720160326_152415Finally, Kathmandu spread out like lego beneath us, as monkeys jump and frolic around us, feeding on various treats and stealing anything of interest. Monks and worshipers circle the stupa steadily rattling prayer wheels, burning offerings and praying faithfully as we catch our breath.20160326_15300020160326_15232820160326_153007-1Amongst the devotees tourists watch and mingle round the little stalls that nest at the top and line the steps on either side selling various trinkets.  On our way down we took time to look at and admire all the things you will never need in life like curious magpies.20160326_130938-1As we approached the next stall we met a lovely woman called Ganga Lama.  With outstretched arms and a braking smile oozing energy she was hard to resist and we found ourselves caught up in warm chatter. Her beaming face, full of charisma and humour charmed us.  Her infectious laugh delighted us as we playfully bartered for some completely unnecessary beads.20160326_155108In the absence of Easter eggs we figured prayer beads might substitute as a treat of sorts but actually this wonderful interaction became the treat and we left after many photographs and handshakes glad we’d met such a captivating soul.  Appearing happy to her core and delighted by selling 3 sets of beads I wish the same contentment could be found in everyone for the humble cost of a pint; the world would be a much richer place if we all poured ourselves out like the lovely Ganga Lama.   If you find yourself on the stairs heading up to this temple look out for her near the halfway point on the right-hand side as you ascend, she’s sure to add spice to your day albeit at a small cost.  Thanks Ganga 😊.jet-airways_2283321e-c34b-11e5-878d-765e7b48378dAs if life wasn’t interesting enough we got word earlier that Maddy arriving on the ill fated Jet Air flight from Delhi was delayed due to a suspected bomb! Now, I’ve heard of arriving with a bang but this takes the biscuit.  The plane circled for an hour then finally landed.  All passengers got off the plane at a deserted runway before it was thoroughly searched for explosive devices.  Scarey stuff.  Hopefully the only explosives Maddy sees during the rest of her trip will be thanks to a spicy Dal curry….next stop Himalayas.😊

Jaipur: not for the faint hearted

20160323_132010Travelling west from Agra and Chambal we collided with Jaipur, a city known also as the pink city. The old walls and buildings in the old quarter are uniform pink or if you have eyes like mine you might say Sienna.  There’s nothing pink about the walls but I’ve allowed this colour discrepancy to wash over me without any ill temper towards Indian inaccuracies…2016-03-23 14.24.4820160323_1659032016-03-23 14.24.17The city is certainly alive as the Indian nation prepares for Holi. People scurry around buying coloured dye, water guns and an array of tasty sweet snacks in preparation for a few days of fun and feasts. We find ourselves caught up in the chaotic motion as our tuk tuk weaves precariously with speed around stationary traffic, dawdling cows and kamakazi pedestrians. There’s already people vomiting out of cars and colour powder fights visible as we head to the notable Amber Fort on a high hillside north of the city.2016-03-23 11.25.512016-03-23 12.07.26gardensIt’s hot as we crane our necks to the look at the splendour of mans endeavours. The fort stands proud as a stream of tourists make the 15 minute hike up to the entrance. Decorated elephants slowly plod upwards carrying immoral individuals to the main gate. Their eyes mournful and their movements that of a broken soul. I find myself quickly angered by the sight of this, spurring me onwards to the top as I imagine pulling a sword out and slashing it across the throats of these putrid vessels of humanity. Okay you get that I wasn’t keen to see these majestic animals used in this way.20160323_114547Just as the elephants had struggled it became clear that Colette herself felt drained by this quick, sharp ascent. She gulped at sweet mango juice but still looked pained by each step.  Having reached the top we took refuge in the many beautiful alcoves and delighted in finding a little coffee shop in the bowels of the fort.colette1Standing waiting on our two coffees I glanced at Colette who by now looked as though her soul had been sucked out by an unscrupulous hungry demon. Pale like chalk and with drained lips, hanging on her feet by a thread she announced “I don’t feel well, I think I’m going to be sick” then with a few delirious steps her crumpled and thankfully very lite frame was in my arms. I carried her over to the chair, held her head up and got some cool water. She mumbled incoherntly but sipped back sugary water and slowly revived. For one minute I thought she might need to be placed in the recovery position and strapped over the back of an elephant to get down but thankfully she stayed with us and gulped back a number liquids. This fort is certainly not for the faint hearted.2016-03-23 12.13.12

Snouts

2016-03-20 14.05.012016-03-20 14.07.05Like two pampered Queens of Sheba we dropped our bags in the boot and sat back to watch India fly by from the cool air conditioned comfort of our car. We headed south about 60km to the Chambal Nature Reserve staying at the wonderful Chambal lodge, a literal oasis and quiet sanctuary away from the lively hive of Agra with its swarm of people and honey is money philosophy.2016-03-22 08.35.49With friendly staff on hand to meet us we immediately considered ourselves welcome as gentle nods and ingratiating hand shakes invited us in.  The grounds are large with a soft vista of trees and flowers framing the simple traditional buildings that accomodate a family home and the lodge’s comfortable villas.2016-03-20 18.13.01Colette typically was very interested in the food that would sustain us for the next few days. She declared her approval having inspected fresh, subtly flavoured salads, home baked breads, light hydrating soups and a vegetarian’s delight of 8 scruptious dishes each night accompanied by rice.  The woman from Broughton Road said yes!2016-03-20 17.39.21The proud resident chef, always full of smiles and concern for our enjoyment happily observed our empty plates and accepted our warm thanks, such was the tasty treats that filled us full each day. He even accommodated my desire to learn how to make chapati which was fun!2016-03-20 21.08.18Our first afternoon saw us meet ‘sir-denis’ our very sweet yet assured guide.  With a youthful smile and intense eyes he politely asked if we were ready? “Yes” we both announced glancing at each other wondering what we might need to ready ourselves for.  We’d decided a visit to the nearby temples that crest the river might be a relaxing start to our stay in this part of India, void of tourists yet only a few hours south of Agra: the toursit Mecca.2016-03-20 17.41.52The first temple located amongst some scrubland was disappointing; white with little decoration.  I was worried we’d peaked too soon with the Taj Mahal to appreciate this rural location and this humble place of worship.2016-03-20 17.12.532016-03-20 17.18.03But as the sun started to dip, lively Hindu music could be heard merging tonally opposing notes energetically.  The busil of a market place and temple came quickly into view with cows and pigs strolling and foraging around the peripherals. We walked amongst life here looking on and absorbing this strange yet facinating place. 2016-03-20 13.45.182016-03-21 08.53.54Our pale faces appeared brighter than the vibrant powdered colours laid out ready for ‘Holi’, India’s famous festival of colour splashing. Locals looked on at us curiously yet appeared untouched by tourism enough to forego trying to sell us something or beg money which even after only a few days in India was very satisfying.2016-03-20 17.20.42dye powderWe turned back towards the river to witness the spectacle of white structures lining the river bank like glistening white sugar cubes sweet upon the eye. Taking to a small boat we travelled gently up the river feeling small beneath these structures while people washed clothing oblivious to our gaze.2016-03-20 17.51.3620160320_175800The main temple was busy but we were beckoned in by Denis and followed curious to see what all the colouful commotion was about. That’s when we found ourselves deeply inbroilled in a ceremony involving lots of chanting and ritual flower throwing.  Very serious stuff that was hard to stay entirely straight about.2016-03-20 18.06.522016-03-20 17.39.02I didn’t want to catch Colette’s eye for fear she’d laugh and drop the plate of fire she was busy gyrating in front of the metallic head of Sheva. Coloured powder was smeared upon our foreheads and bright yellow garlands placed around our necks, further immersing us in this intriguing yet bizarre blessing.  Whoever thought the Catholics were into ceremony clearly haven’t been here! We left wide-eyed and 20 rupees lighter having thrown powder, flowers, leaves, mints, and a melon which Colette was intrusted to place.  She was a little unsure of her conduct with the melon and although there was no emergency I half expected her to take a nervous bite out of it.2016-03-20 18.07.05We left quite stunned but tainted sympathetically towards the devotees and tremendous aesthetic appeal of India’s biggest faith. Denis led us up to a rooftop serving tea to watch the sun go down, ever keen to show us his favorite Bollywood movies imparting as much about his country as possible.2016-03-21 08.10.532016-03-21 08.38.09So we came here in search of the illusive and shy Gharial with its rather alluring snout. Colette armed with a toothbrush boarded our little personal river boat and we set off with Denis our naturalist, as the early morning sun started to scorch our backs with warmth. It wasn’t long before we saw the slender form of four Gharial slipping with agility into the water from the shallow sand banks they like to bask upon.Gharial2The river and its banks are very clean and populated by a great variety of rare birds, fish, turtles crocodiles and of course the long snouted Gharial. We were very lucky, instead of submerging as the others had one lone Gharial sat poised ever watchful but fearless.  We sat for sometime watching it flick its eyes open and closed before finally making off.2016-03-21 08.29.482016-03-21 07.24.01A trip to India is always going to be frenetic. However making this trip off the beaten track has been a wonderful opportunity, showing us an innocent rural India that refreshed us but more importantly charmed us. Thanks to Denis our wonderful guide and the lovely staff and owners of the Chambal Lodge for letting us taste such splendid hospitality by the Chambal river.

Taking the Taj

2016-03-20 06.55.3920160319_135214Having survived Delhi we heading by train south to the city of Agra famed for the Taj Mahal and other notable Mughal architectural jewels.20160319_14015720160319_142127Agra is around 2-3hr south of Delhi and similarly is a whirl wind of Indian life.  It of course oozes all the typical derision for rules, with a delightful exception to order fueling a kaleidoscopic existance.20160319_1539532016-03-19 21.28.47If the excitable high octane shouting and screaming I heard leaving Agra train station could manifest itself into a physical action, then I reckon I’d have been lassoed swiftly and hung drawn and quartered by the barrage of audio from competing Taxi and Auto rickshaw drivers awaiting their prey. Our express train was only 1hr late which may explain why the waiting mob was salivating and slightly Agra…ssive.  Sorry couldn’t resist that one.20160324_10210520160320_151326-1So Agra is all about the Taj Mahal and is a pilgrim route for most if not all tourists wading into India via Delhi, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s all about tourists.  This man-made wonder is as much a lure to Indians and given the tiny entrance fee for nationals it’s no wonder it’s popular.20160319_140422-120160319_1501462016-03-23 12.11.44We zipped via rickshaw with interest and speed around the baby Taj, the impressive Red fort and the gardens which lie opposite the Taj Mahal to wet our appetites. Then true to any text written about her ‘the pist de la resistance’ and heavenly jewel of Agra, and the sparkling white treasure of any visit to India, The Taj Mahal came into view forever etched as a white diamond in our minds.2016-03-20 07.25.502016-03-20 06.57.332016-03-20 07.36.49If only the process for accessing this heavenly sanctum was as symetrically perfect and tantamount to the beautiful order demonstrated by the building herself. In stark contrast and perhaps even comparable to hell we endured a number of rage inducing events.20160319_14102120160324_120937First the tickets are not available at the gate. Surprisingly they can be obtained a kilometer away which doesn’t help if you’ve walked to the gate at dawn.  Then the queue to get the ticket builds a certain amount of teeth grinding in itself as it trickles along without urgency.  Finally you reach the front and are told No! No change! No ticket! At which point I imagined thrusting my hand through the communication gap in the glass, grabbing the back of the guy’s skull and hauling this impetious ticket sellers forehead through the glass with certain force.2016-03-20 07.06.54I opted for the more peacful option thankfully, venting boiling steam out of my ears and rolling my eyes with vexed agitation. I raised my voice declaring how ridiculous the situation was….”a man made wonder of the world and you don’t have change! Give me a break will you!” A few of us clubbed together got the tickets then endured a stampede to get aboard the tiny bus commissioned to take us to our next queue.2016-03-19 15.27.12By this point it was every man, woman and indian counterpart for themselves….pushing, biting, and scratching our way to the distant entrance and security. Finally I caught sight of a security woman frisking and searching people.  We must be close now. Excitement built up as I neared the front only to be severly deflated by the linguering, prising hands of an overly thorough security woman, showing a little too much interest in my upper body anatomy. “Nothing explosive in there” I declared helpless to the grappling.

Then as though transcending through light itself we immerged through the first archway to gain or first precious glimpse of this stunning monument. As far as tombs go this is pretty impressive! The roles royce of graves and a nod to opulent romance til death do us part.2016-03-20 07.31.402016-03-20 07.21.46We spent the morning allowing the Taj Mahal’s pristine white surface to seduce us. Showered by soft yellow light and adorned with beautiful architectural detailing and inscriptions the feminine curves and recesses calmed and soothed any previous ill-temper.  Here in this building perhaps, is enough majesty and devine order to balance the external chaos that is India.  There is such a stark difference between the symbol of India and the workings of India, but then it’s this diversity of polar extremes which intoxicates us and keeps us seeking.20160319_14503020160319_145251

Delhi…rious

20160320_03100220160318_111415-1The chaotic roads and frenetic manner in which Delhi conducts life is all at once awakening.  It’s quite startling to be immersed suddenly into Delhi, something a kin to a centrifuge of colour and noise flying at high speed towards you. The last time I arrived in India the screaming gaggle of taxi and rickshaw drivers was overwhelmingly bamboozelling, this time round however a sedate, clean airport and a shiney metro system greeted me sweetly.20160319_140422-1The flavour of India didn’t hit me until I reached the train station.  As a traffic jam of bicycles, motorbikes, cars, vibrant green and yellow rickshaws, a myriad of hawkers and people, mobile fruit stalls as well as an obligatory herd of goats met me as I gingerly stepped amongst the collision of life to get down the Asif Ali road where the Stops hostel resides. Stepping over bodies languishing on the street, canine and human, I crossed a mound of rubble and darted into the sanctuary of the hostel vowing to never go outside again!20160316_23214320160315_145811A nights sleep healed the mild agoraphobia that was developing and out again into the swarm I went.  I know I’m white but do I glow?20160320_025504 The disbelief upon the warm caramel faces around me is quite unnerving especially walking amongst the filth and dust of Delhi’s old quarter at night.20160319_20383520160316_225440At least the arrival of fresh blood in the form of Colette has given the kamakazi mosquitos something else to get their teeth into. She’s depleting by at least a pint of blood I reckon….perhaps accounting for her fixed look of shock?20160320_04001120160318_12550320160318_16034120160319_134826In a trance like state, weakened from blood loss she staggered into the rickshaw and we headed out accompanied by Rowena a new acquaintance to brave a wave of horn blasts, monoxide poisoning and the terror of oncoming traffic in a bid to view the sites of Delhi.20160318_11102920160318_14334220160318_140226 20160318_13572920160318_11382420160318_134527We were all quite Delhi-rious, sweated and overwhelmed by the sheer white knuckle ride we endured. Our travel insurance is on the brink of becomning nul and void and certainly would have been torn up in our startled faces if the little grey suit wearing insurance man ever clapped eyes upon the amount of chillies in our evening banquet of hot or rather super hot stews. If the roads don’t get you it’s likely that a dissolving digestive system certain will. Next stop Agra on the 6am express train….20160318_174110-120160318_174415-1

 

 

 

Hong Kong-Go

20160311_184509I can’t fully articulate how wonderful it was to reach Hong Kong.  First of all we had some extreme turbulence.  The type that has people glancing nervously towards the windows and gripping their arm rests with a sudden strength they didnt know they had and in some cases making quiet internal prayers to whichever heavenly diety floats their boat or plane in this case.  We seemed to suddenly burst free of cloud cover and land all at once on a thin strip of reclaimed land jutting out of the sea. “Welcome to Hong Kong” the stewardess gingerly announced to a lite smattering of claps. The second welcoming fact is that the pavement here seems to exist soley for pedestrians, combined with the civilised notion  that it’s better for all if you dont urinate, spit, throw bone or muscle sinew or generally pour egg, water and God knows what other liquids, about these sacred spaces.  Yes I suppose it was very welcomed to arrive in a gloriously sanatised environment, not least for my corroded mental state, having endured some quite incredible violations of cleanliness and civilised order in Vietnam.  Don’t get me wrong I thoroughly enjoyed the liberation of Vietnam but I did feel like getting down on my hands and knees and kissing the Hong Kong Terra Mundus (clean earth?).20160312_081508In fairness it’s an ecclectic, youthful city with more designer shops than my cowering purse can handle and with countless, sleek skyscrapers to rival New York; a city of markets, aromatic aromas and delightful food lurks amongst Hong Kong’s glittering skyline and quirky irregular back streets.2016-03-12 13.20.4820160312_19495720160312_125323Visiting Hollywood Street and the surrounding area with it’s many art and antique boutiques showed a bohemian, cultural cool side to this metropolis. Just a few streets away from the main drag we found ourselves visiting the very atmospheric and smokey ‘Man Mo’ temple, evidencing a deeply spiritual and superstitious side to the city’s burgeoning population.20160312_12593820160312_125834There’s certainly a colonial influence notable in spoken English, double decker buses, street signs and little gems of architecture but there’s also a pride of traditional culture and an intelligent approach to living in what is essentially a small area. I found myself picked up and hugged by Hong Kong, embracing it with a real love for it’s diversity and exotic beauty.20160312_082652-1Screenshot_2016-03-12-11-20-35-1image-643abede9f0f828772b51185cba97836b417ac52c93a05a2c591df8bd6484f3b-V20160312_082844The wonderful harbour looked great from the high vantage point of Victoria Peak but I think I’ve enjoyed traversing the city far more on its incredibly cheap public transport, a firm favorite being the iconic Star ferry and the slim rickety trams that transport you east, west and back in time.20160311_185117The ‘Peak tram’ which makes the gravity defying ascent up to Victoria Peak was very fun, possibly because getting on board with the hoards of Koreans who were standing as a twitching, salivating mob was like a gladiator death dual.  I could swear someone tried to tear at my coat pulling me out of the way but thankfully with the strength of an angry bull I surged forward securing a seat with a smug grin imagining the 40 tiny Koreans who’d tried to haul me back, now lying flat in a heaped pile on the platform. Okay everyone got on but you’d have reckoned it was life or death minutes before.Screenshot_2016-03-12-11-58-48-1Heading out across the harbour we explored Mong Kok, a feast of people watching, market streets and shopping. There’s markets and then there’s this, with whole streets devoted to the like of goldfish.  An optical theme park!20160312_155755 20160312_154836 20160312_153103There’s lots to do here….I guess I’ll just have to come back and in the meantime try to squeeze in a Sunday trip to Jumbo Kingdom and maybe even a fun jaunt to Disney Land or perhaps one last Giant Buddha (Tian Tan) or simply just an energetic Hong Kong-Go down one of the many lit up dazzling streets. It’s certainly been fun….however I have a demand! The next trip must involve a certain Watson family! Thanks to Tess and Hugh for the foodie advice….I’m like a swollen, lucky Buddha given the edible treats this city has thrown at me. Till next time, farewell Hong Kong.Screenshot_2016-03-11-18-44-36 20160312_13101620160312_131302-1Next stop India and Nepal 😊.

Very Hanoi-ing

20160308_10230320160308_103116-1It was a curious and slightly worrying sight that met me as I returned to my bed after an obligatory morning tinkle. The shirvelled remains of my left ear drum lay expelled in disgust across my pillow, like a shed piece of snake skin, translucent and crisp.20160308_094122-1 20160308_094136-1I’d tried to run and indeed to muffle the noise in Hanoi, pressing my hands hopelessly against my earlobes but unfortunately the piercing screeching and constant blasting of motorbike and car horns combined with the shrill of hawkers and squealing of emergency brakes has led to this unfortunate point. Deaf in one ear and dulled tinitus ringing in the other. As you might imagine this is a tad Hanoi-ing!20160308_120109Okay, so in the real world I’ve still got my two ear drums intact but my faculties are in a somewhat more precarious position, such is the filth and general chaos of this labyrinth of streets and menagery of excited activity. The pavements are strewen with everything from unknown liquids to chewed bones, dead rats and vegetable peelings.vietnam-04-pageDodging and walking amongst this takes nimble footing and a strong stomach. Then there’s the millions of parked mopeds and people eating, almost submerged in the waste on miniture seats, forcing all who dare to walk to navigate around them, which inevitably leads you to steer out onto the narrow roads in search of a clear path only to be rushed at from all angles by bikes, cars, motorbikes, people,dogs…….And don’t be surprised if a large push cart full of squaking chickens, cardboard boxes, a mattress and a couple of gas canisters driven by an unseen assailant makes a determined effort upon your life. The streets here are most certainly not paved with gold but given a handful of vallium I’m sure they’d be managable…..maybe. There’s a great number of cafes and local eateries but to be honest something keeps putting me off. I think it’s the feng shui?20160308_09394720160308_121944Today though I will succeed.  I will traverse the city with agility like a gazelle chased by a hungry Cheeta. Saving my sanity from further assault with a speedy course direct to the Indian Embassy.  Today I will triumph over all odds and retrieve a visa! Yes you heard right; the illusive and highly prized article, the holy grail of travellers, the absolutely must have it or I’ll cry – the humble bit of paper that is the tourist visa. I’ve prayed considerably.20160309_123908 The tourist visa for India is not an easy prize to come by and I half imagine the smiling receptionist to grin manically while informing me in a tuneful accent that “I’m sorry Madam, no entry to Indian this time.”Screenshot_2016-03-09-13-37-42-1The two lethargic Oxen powering the Indian Embassy’s online application system had better step on it and shit out a nice, shiny visa or I’m gonna have to follow in the footsteps of many a Buddhist Monk and self-immolate on the spot. Yes it’s extreme, admittedly, but I’ve been driven to the edge and may yet end up a charred remain….With any luck their plush gold embroidered curtains might go up like dry tinder as I flail and blaze about their office, resulting in the whole place burning brightly.  Guy Fox eat you’re heart out and then throw the chewy bits across the pavement like any good respectable local. Fingers crossed the visa comes through! How very Hanoi-ing!20160308_09574420160308_103805

Halong Bay from Home

20160306_18204020160306_210407Having peeled one eye open I coerced the other, clinging resistantly to sleep while grappling with the rather cheerful tune I’d assigned as my phone’s alarm.  5:30 rise and shine said a jolly internal voice.  The rest of me complied heavily as I made for the shower grumbling but looking forward to a tranquil setting miles from home and far enough away from Hanoi that I might escape the tinitus that’s rapidly developed thanks to the auditory assault from traffic horns in Vietnam’s bussling capital.20160307_08234620160307_080239Our pick up from Hanoi to Halong Bay was early to make the 3- 4hr road trip towards the coast where we met the pristine nautical team looking after us for 2 nights/ 3 days.  The company I chose is called Indochina Junk, which at first sounds like a tradewaste pit, housing all of the detritus of the eastern world and then some.  As it turned out they’re a very ship shape team leaning towards a luxury market with an aim to giving an experience away from the hoards of other junks out on the bays waters.20160307_19232220160307_082241We headed to Bai Tu long Bay, a little further north east than Halong Bay which is less touristic and much much quieter and notably cleaner than the very popular Halong boat circuit. The steady and constant rattle of our boats engine gradually faded into the background becoming a comforting addition to the quiet stillness of the bay, interrupted only by the haunting call of native hawks soaring upon the warm air currents. A veil of mist shroud the many limestone islands, 1969 in total and created ghostly silhouettes of other junks heading out onto the bay.20160307_19352020160307_080805The little chugging of fishing boats occasionally crossed our path but the spiritual silence and heavy sky made for an atmospheric scene as we meandered and weaved between the vast and rugged rock formations that has brought notability to the area.20160307_09140020160306_112401Arriving at the very busy port the sound of a low verbarating horn sounded intermitently from the huge hulk of a rusty shipping container. A swarm of little boats bustled around the port frenetically ferrying passengers onto the many traditional junks glistening white some way from the shore. Once aboard the ‘Dragons Pearl’ the elegant interior dark wood and gold curtains set an opulent mood that offset nicely against pale blue and white porcelain plates adorning the walls and wood carvings announcing traditional Asian style with a capital A. It’s a very comfortable boat with attentive staff and a wonderful chef serving 9 courses at lunch and dinner.  I’m not sure how the boat has stayed afloat given our ever growing rotund bellies, swelling bigger with each delicious meal.20160305_171242I’ve been really impressed with the activities: – kayaking, swimming, learning to make spring rolls and squid fishing of all things!20160306_192550 We had a delightful dinner in a cave far up the side of a rocky island which made a lovely Mother’s Day treat and we’ve enjoyed some very moody atmospheric weather at points, which suited my glowing cheeks at least.20160305_162459It’s been a lovely couple of days in great company.  An ecclectic mix of nationalities took our numbers to 14 people making group meals intimite and personable.  We’ve laughed quite a lot especially given the antics of getting in and out off the kayaks and of course everyone has a story to bring to the table about their Vietnam experience.  I can whole heartedly recommend the company in terms of attention to detail and attentive service.  Check them out if you’re ever Halong Bay from home.20160306_182648

Hue….mid

20160303_15293520160303_131050As cloud cover broke revealing an intense sun over the city of Hue today I found myself feeling the humid air intensify as we made our pilgrimage to the imperial citadel for a day exploring splendid walls, carp filled moats and entrance gates with immense curb appeal before our night train to Hanoi later this evening.20160303_142243Buildings within walls within gates over moats with beautifully arched bridges provided a tranquil backdrop away from the roar of chaotic motorbikes flowing endlessly outside the thick impenetrable walls of the imperial enclosure.20160303_13062620160303_142844We strolled the tended gardens and listened to the tinkling of bells moving in the wind. The gentle tapping of restoration work lulled us as we sought shade in the many houses and outer buildings dating back to around the early eighteen hundreds.20160303_150623The contrast of green foliage against the now faded red and yellow washes set a theme for the many buildings creating a sense of unity in this vast enclosure and certainly delighted us with the sheer grandure evident in the little details of carvings, tile work and ornate roofs and decorative bonsai and water features.20160303_132810Today we leave Hue behind having gained a glimpse of the countries royal past let’s hope some of this same elegance can be found lingering aboard the Vietnamese night train. Wish us sweet dreams and a distinct lack of bites from other smaller travelling companions.20160303_143242 

Good Morning Vietnam

20160229_172516Time passes quickly when you’re on the move every few days. As the sun rises over Hoi An, a little picturesque ancient town I thumb the lonely planet impatiently noting with some weariness the multitude of key sights, temples, pagodas, tombs and imperial citadels ahead of me as I prepare for Hue my next port of call.20160228_10204920160228_131156 The demands of touristic life urges me to quickly drink back the thick, black Vietnamese coffee accompanying breakfast, wincing a little at the last bitter gulp.  With a deep breath I take flight, meandering towards the river finding myself quickly amongst the low-lying yellow dwellings typical of Hoi An, feeling much like a worker ant in a large colony tying not to miss what each town has to bring to the cultural and global banquet.20160228_10242920160228_101501Traversing the little allys and quaint riverfront that’s lined with colourful wooden boats, we parade over an ancient Japanese bridge seeming to absorbing history through the soles of our shoes such is the impression of reverence suggested by the need for a ticket and a few bored guards.20160229_145647Stopping occasionally for breath the obligatory call of ‘looky look, looking is free madam’ bellows out of an overly eagre – some might say desperate shop owner’s mouth. When nodding and frantic hand gestures are ignored, out comes the stealthy pounce and grapple of an arm, pulling me helplessly towards an array of colourful tat. No thank you becomes a mantra that simply washes over the well oiled skin of these determined vendors. Wriggling desperately free, apologising now for the obvious trouble I’ve caused by simply daring to walk by a shop, I speed towards a European looking terraced cafe in hope of some polite etiquette and asylum from the barrage of sellers.20160229_183601The next few days look set to steep me in history but just as I thought I had life under control with steady leather reigns in hand, there goes life bucking and throwing Hoi An’s hawkers at me again.20160302_13592920160302_115938With no intention of buying anything we found ourselves at the mercy of a Hoi An tailor with Avril hauled into a number of clothing shops, lassoed skillfully by the crack of a measuring tape.  In all honesty it was complete comedy as a little measuring terrier grappled with a tape across avril’s proudly protruding breast, declaring “more money, more material these very big” stated with some element of fact and awe while pointing menacingly at the two bulbous mounds.20160229_142914 Laughing with some mild hyperventilation too found myself whisked into a shoe shop, my shoe ripped off and an assault by a creature with a thousand hands quickly measured my giant size nine feet.  Three tiny Vietnamese women looked mildly horrified remeasuring with a look of confused joy.  Having said very little, somewhat mute with shock Avril bartered with the skill of an Arab clinching a deal as my raised eyebrow and bemused expression gave way to bellowing laughter.”Yes madam I make shoe, you have tomorrow okay yes yes good shoe, very nice you pay half now I make tonight yes yes okay?” “Fine” I replied surrendering myself to the process. I glanced at Avril now feeling the extreme need for a cold beer to mellow the ravaging I’d just survived. With my purse now a tad lighter, and having had nothing much to do with the entire transaction I gulped back the beer realising that some Vietnamese worker would no doubt sew late into the night to produce a shoe for me that I neither needed nor wanted really. Tip 1. Never shop with your mother and always wear thick plated armour when within a 100 metre radius of a Vietnamese market! Did I ever mention I have a phobia of shops?20160229_17282020160302_124556-120160302_12300720160301_172605Having survived the delightful town of Hoi An and it’s army of tailors we now find ourselves in the metropolis of Hue, zooming around on motobike taxis to visit the many historic sights with a completely new adversary to avoid: the tenacious bicycle vendor who will follow you straight over the edge of a cliff looking for a fare! Heeeeellllp!20160303_091637

One for the Road

2016-02-24 12.07.202016-02-24 12.08.39I’ve been on the road now for 7 months give or take a few weeks and not including my month spent on the wonderful Camino de Santiago. I pondered quietly about this as the bus from the hill town of Dalat snaked down through dense fog towards the coast and beach of Nha Trang where a storm system welcomed us, sweeping warm wind around us as we stood on it’s golden sands.2016-02-25 16.15.02.jpgTwisting around bends on route to Nha Trang with the perpetual screech and pumping of brakes I cast my eye over the wonderful voids carved perilously out of the hillside, realising how easy things change in our lives and not just referring to the toil and variety that accompanies a road trip.
2016-02-25 10.02.472016-02-25 09.39.34As I looked back up towards the hilltop villages we had past, heavy blue clouds clung to the mountains allowing the pine clad hillside to peek out; I realised beauty in the brooding weather. Perhaps this in itself brought me to consider my own internal weather system. The waves and ebbe of moods and the thoughts and feelings that shift like sand as we move and journey both through Vietnam and life.2016-02-24 12.16.162016-02-26 13.45.18Aside from distracting myself from the sudden sight of oncoming motorbikes emerging through the veil of thick mist and some hair raising over taking as well as a bus door that intermittently swung open with a sudden vacuum on sharp bends, I wanted to consider where I was in an emotional capacity, journeying for so long and so far from home.  Asking myself how this journey may have shaped me into a better teacher, friend or human being, if you can allow me such an emotive thought.2016-02-24 12.25.192016-02-24 12.04.22These gentle and seeking moments shows you that sometimes the simple rhythm of moving through a landscape connects you with the quiet, thoughtful part of ourselves that encourages you to ponder fondly and sometimes doubtfully about where we are metaphysically.2016-02-26 14.44.392016-02-27 15.07.13I guess I’m literally heading to Hoi An just now on the road to Hanoi but I’m also journeying closer to myself spiritually and in self- awareness, listening to my thoughts in the quiet times of this voyage. What are you looking for in the quiet journeys you make each day? Where are you going?Hopefully somewhere nice with a relaxing glass of fine wine. Next stop Hoi An.2016-02-27 15.12.002016-02-24 12.06.32

 

Mekong Waves

 

2016-02-22 20.15.37Early morning sunlight illuminates and sparkles against the dark olive waters of the Siagon River.  It’s alive with the distorted reflections of hard edged buildings and industrial structures that quickly abstract with the passing of small motorised boats, chugging apathetically downsteam.2016-02-24 08.50.48Trying hard to block out the riotous traffic behind me I lean over the little jetty and allow my eyes to rest upon the litter and plant life drifting by, intertwined together like some kind of symbiotic organism on a forced pilgrimage towards the silty Mekong Delta.2016-02-22 19.54.34These clogged waterways form a living artery, bringing vital supplies up and down between the city and the rural countryside.  An army of grossly overloaded boats choke along breathless, busy carrying all imaginable produce in towering mounds, teasing the water to swamp their decks at any moment. Our boat slows respectfully to pass some incredibly fragile vessels with half naked children waving and grining eagerly back.20160222_200454A gaggle of delapitated houses line the banks of the river and tidal canals, all perched tenuously upon wooden stilts trying with success to claim land where none exists while subversively challenging gravity on nothing more than a prayer.  I’m reminded of the balance game Jenga where one wrong move brings the entire structure toppling down, in this case hundreds of homes would career helplessly into the river. It’s like engineering roulette at best as our boat once again picks up speed sending rough parting waves towards these precarious dwellings.2016-02-22 13.16.102016-02-23 12.07.32As morning takes hold I catch a glimpse of people crouching near the waters edge to wash, seemingly oblivious to its pungent unmistakable presence. Rotting detritus cling to mangrove roots and stick to the wet muddy banks as low tide slows the water to a thick stew.20160223_18514220160223_185420Snaking through the sprawling districts of the city, the Siagon provides water for so many. A woman wearing a typical conical hat scoops mirky water up into colouful plastic containers denying its toxicity as her neigbour pours human waste out through an innocuous looking hose pipe dangling close by. Something seems very skewed and wrong here. Water is life yet here I struggle to comprehend people fishing, washing and god forbid drinking amongst such filth. I can only imagine a level of immunity now coarses through their veins where such bacteria would be lethal to anyone else coming into contact with it.2016-02-22 20.14.52It’s not long before I’m quickly daydreaming as the suns heat begins to sedate me.  In my mind I’ve adornedgreen khakis, smeared black boot polish onto both cheeks and adopted a crouched, watchful stance as dense palms hug the waters edge obscuring the land beyond.  I’ve tied a black scarf around my forehead and can smell the burning wreckage of a downed helicopter.  The set of Apocalypse Now or Platoon engulfs me and having left the city behind a landscape famed for being the brutal battle ground of the Viet Kong during the Vietnam war comes to life (in my mind you understand).20160222_105655The boat nudged up hard against a mud bank bringing me back to 2016. Lush green rice paddys lay beyond and yellow ochre water gently announced freedom from city life and a different pace enveloped us as we headed out towards a little market town.20160222_12523820160222_12520120160222_12523020160222_125225-1The very curious ‘one eyed temple’ a faith merging 4 or 5 of the worlds religions and Victor Hugo interested me greatly while lunch at an orphanage tore a little at my heart strings.2016-02-22 14.06.34Local farmers were keen for us to sample fresh produce showing us their fields with pride.2016-02-23 18.52.5120160223_185328We met minority peoples working and passing between the fields and oddly, a man farming plump pythons of all things.2016-02-22 11.39.49The curious wonders of the Mekong Delta transported us far away from the explosion that is Ho Chi Minh City, leaving me humbled by the endemic poverty. I was reminded sharply that just as the river keeps flowing, so life moves on in a constant cycle for all of us regardless of the tradgedy it carrys. We return to the city, a little quiet inside both tamed and thankful for a day traversing the great Mekong Delta.2016-02-22 13.34.26

Cu Chi Cooo

2016-02-20 13.26.172016-02-20 13.27.06Far from being cute the Cu Chi tunnels made a deep impression upon me today. North of Ho Chi Minh City the Cu Chi complex remain partially intact hidden under dense vegetation and new forest all previously destroyed by intense bombing and horrendous poisoning affecting three generations with birth defects. Of course we know it better as the Vietnam war but actually having learnt that America was merely one of many invading oppressors over the course of perhaps one thousand years you begin to see a people not dissimilar in struggle to our very own nations bid for freedom historically and some might argue currently.  The Vietnamese kick ass! In terms of guerrila warfare these guys had it nailed….spiked and booby trapped to the hilt. They dug these tunnels to avoid massive bombing and other such attempts to take their land and lives. They laid traps and recycled American bombs using them to actually create home made explosive devices and of course the traps they were renowed and feared for.2016-02-20 12.01.32 2016-02-20 12.33.032016-02-20 13.33.27200km of tunnel network inspire an admiration for the tenacity the Viet Kong rebels fighting against the American forces during the war but it also hit home how awful a battlefield this would have been for young fresh faced Americans up against an enemy who had been fighting for years with what ever was at their disposal. Bob Dylan and the folk singers weren’t wrong about stopping the killing!2016-02-20 12.06.22Oppressive heat and the cramp space of the tunnels accompanied by the rattle of nearby machine gun fire made this trip a virtual reality.  I felt intense panic rise in me as I scrambled forward desperate for an exit.  These tunnels were not made for bulbous humans!2016-02-20 12.47.57Jackie our eccentric tour guide asked if I’d like to buy bullets to fire a selection of guns.  Given I was cowering under a table with shell shock developing due to the constant, loud and abrupt ratatatat  I declined. Note to self – never become a soldier…ever! Today we learnt first hand about war from the other perspective.2016-02-20 14.06.40

 

 

Rat Race

2016-02-18 18.23.56 (1)ratsAdmittedly it was a desperate and frantic move and apparently the only sensible thing I could think to do.  I followed the rats escaping the ship. Hoards of them squeaking and riving along as one unified furry mass. They raced past me across the dizzying and lurid carpet pattern on deck 4 inciting panic yet relief as I sped after them. Reaching the gangway, a final leap had us back on dry land just in the nick of time as the ship made one final gurggle, before rising sharply and decending steadily with an eery resolve into the dark deep. Disappearing with a final splosh the ship passed out of sight as though a figment of my imagination. 2016-02-11 11.41.10Now what? Where should my twitching, adrenaline filled toes take me? The rats gave me a nod of camaraderie, sniffing inquisitively North Eastwards. I nodded gratefully for their offer and accepted. Vietnam called to us, sparkling far on the horizon.2016-02-17 17.11.522016-02-17 14.09.52The trash haven of Ho Chi Minh City pumped and buzzed with human life as my fellow band of furry escapees found a new home and slipped with ease into an inviting sewer. With the last flick of a muscular tail I bid them goodbye, sure I’d spot more of their kin around the vast and plentiful city detritus.Ho Chi Minh City is an enthralling kaleidoscope of human endeavour with more mopeds than people I’m sure.Everyone’s trying to do something relative to making a buck which seems hard to compute given that two heaped plates of noddles and two cold and inviting beers cost an extravagant £7.002016-02-17 17.14.56It all mixes up well to the throbbing sound of tooting vehicles. And what a brash and wild place to pound the streets which await the healthy spread of my eagre flipflops. Dodging uneven pavements and the likelihood of a rat on every corner, ever keen to nibble an untrained toe we head out to meet street stalls as they abundantly sprawl out and claim the night with twinkling warm lights. Having avoided being mowed down by the herds of mopeds that never stop the locusts move in with spare change in hand.  “I think I’ll try the round edible ‘thing’ on a stick charring nicely over there please”. Tomorrow could indeed see me compete with the Arabs in the production of rocket fuel or even better some new hybrid ethanol product. Whatever happens it’s likely to be fast much like the swell of activity here in Ho Chi Minh City.2016-02-17 16.20.532016-02-17 16.26.40With a sweet and sour mix of French architecture and traditional dwellings all competing with the usual modern glass Goliath’she city visually tears up and down, crinking the excited necks of tourists trying to make sense of the horizon. This is a cauldron shaped by many an invader but finally cradled by the Vietnamese’ tenacious spirit for self determination albeit through the ruling Communist party.2016-02-17 17.29.46Here a nation stands proud and seems to be making economic progress even though the currency is in the millions and I’m yet to make head nor tail of it really.It’s an exciting mix, steeped in history with all the modern traps of 21st century living sprinkled like chilli flakes amidst a bed of shiny noddles. Okay, we’re off to taste, smell and slurp up the city with greed and hunger. Savoring one of Vietnams largest cities.

 

All Aboard

2016-02-12 10.24.182016-02-11 09.11.56The vast white hulk of our Royal Caribbean ship loomed high above us, casting a long shadow across the pristine Marina port in Singapore.  Quasimodo our luggage handler lifted our weighty bags with ease aboard the ‘Mariner of the Seas’, tossing them aboard like candyfloss upon a waiting trolley.

Prior reading has informed me that the ships morgue only has space for 5 corpses which didn’t overly thrill me given at least two dozen plague Infected individuals, sporting masks were spotted lurching aboard including the now sniffling Avril.  The echo of coughing and spluttering had me recoil in an attempt to steer clear of what has become a super bug in my wandering mind.

I’m not that keen on ships and although I’ve drilled myself endlessly regarding possible escape routes and also considered these routes with the ship upturned just like the film ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ I remain sure that disease will sweep through the ship mercilessly, if a tsunami doesn’t get there first.  It should be noted there are no psychiatric facilities onboard yet this might be something that could accompany a prayer room next time the ships in dry dock…..special note to Royal Caribbean!2016-02-12 12.22.062016-02-12 10.45.33

All kinds of anxious thoughts flooded over me as I vividly imagined having a strict quarantine enforced and dead bodies piling high to the point that we would witness corpses lobbed overboard in a bid to contain the super flu. By the time we embarked I had a clear premonition of the Malaysian Navy and Air force bombing our plague ship repeatedly, sending us all to a water grave.

I noted my muster point and of course know where the nearest life craft is but having started to time my escape I’m disgruntled realising it takes at least 4mins to sprint up stairs to the deck.  Not acceptable!

It might be time to polish the 4 holy medals I carry and have a few recitals of the Rosary before we commit to the open seas.  In one respect it’s a rather glamorous coffin.  Are you sensing my foreboding? Anyway all aboard, tattie baba…..2016-02-10 11.57.252016-02-10 11.32.18First stop Kuala Lumpur and the Batu Cave, if I don’t end up zipped firmly into a black shiny body bag first. Sharon signing out valium in hand! Ps. I do at least have my Scottish swimmers badge…..2016-02-13 18.43.18

Elephantastic…

2016-02-05 11.15.52Weeks ago I started researching wildlife sanctuarys and specifically Elephant projects.  I’d seen a horrendous documentary about the tourist industry and it’s abuse of Elephants here in Thailand and knew for sure that I’d have nothing to do with riding these magnificent and revered creatures.2016-02-05 10.22.19This was principally based upon how these hugely powerful animals are broken and tamed to allow the ‘Mahout’ or handler to have a measure of control. Pain and beatings are often used in this practice and I knew my conscience wouldn’t allow me to have any part in it.2016-02-01 13.04.56The Elephant is a strong symbol within Thailand both in religion and culture so I felt compelled to get closer to these wonderful animals having seen such vivid depictions of them at every turn. I also hoped to help in some small way to alter how we as tourists interact through the growing popularity of Eco tourism.20160205_11151320160205_142237By actively choosing to support sanctuary work we’re boycotting the many other operators who put Elephants second.2016-02-05 13.18.58  http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/

Ideally we would observe these creatures in the wild but here at the sactuary an easy truce is made. Visitors fund medical intervention, feeding and campaign work to stop the abuse of these animals and of course to save many from outrageous conditions. I can certainly live with that.20160205_13090720160205_134433-1The Elephants have a routine here involving free roaming, feeding, bathing and mud baths. It was a real pleasure being allowed to help feed and bath them within and under a strict code of conduct and definetly on the Elephants terms. There are no barriers out on the grasslands or nasty tools to control these animals, so it was important to give them space and follow our guide as instructed. Some of the Elephants are very tame given the industry they’ve come from so we were allowed to gently touch their side’s but always respectful of the animals movements and behaviour and based on the Elephant wanting to be there.20160205_11113920160205_131116That felt really cool and it was heart warming to meet Elephants that had encountered landmines, been injured in logging and others that had been blinded by awful displays of Human cruelty and evil, yet these giants weren’t aggressive or full of malice as you might expect, quite the opposite. Curious, calm and typically quiet. We met Elephants enjoying a measure of respect they had been previously denied which moved me almost to tears at points.2016-02-05 13.54.502016-02-07 11.24.55A lot of time and care goes into rehabilitating the Elephants and each Elephant has a keeper who never uses sticks, prods or violence. Simple calls and tasty pumkins and water melons are used as positive reinforcement.  It appears happy Elephants are well fed Elephants and boy do they feed! For once me and Avril looked positively starved next to these rather greedy gulping hulks.20160205_1138012016-02-05 11.16.59The Elephant Nature Park is located an hour and a half north of Chiang Mai and ticked many of my boxes first and foremost because there are no shows, riding or tricks. These Elephants are all rescued from the tourist industry or the logging industry that is still very much legal in Burma, and although it is tragic that such a place should need to exist I would say I left sure of my support for the organisation and moved by the work these people do each day to keep rescuing Elephants as numbers dwindle in the wild. We had a wonderful day and although sadened by the hard facts it was quite simply elephantastic to see an optimistic result for the endangered Asian Elephant.20160205_102230

Always Opium For More…

20160203_15091720160203_15114420160203_153023Our journey yesterday took us north out of Chiang Mai towards the Golden Triangle where the 3 countries of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand converge. Here in the middle of the river confluence between the Ruak and Mekong rivers a small no man’s land exists where Opium was once bought and sold for gold weight for weight.Who knows if this is still the case but there’s certainly a lot of boats moving easily between the relaxed borders as we found out, visiting Laos for some market shopping, a beer or two and some rather outrageous scorpion and snake whiskey that had a distinct home brew feel to it and a lot of bite.20160203_16010520160203_16021420160203_16131720160203_15301820160203_161203Leaving Chiang Mai, plentiful rural rice fields emerged as we passed from the outskirts of the city sprawl. They held my gaze for ages reflecting the soft morning light, beautiful in their regularity and interrupted only by far off temples clinging to jungle clad hillsides and garish billboards the size of King Kong’s duvet cover.20160203_11135320160203_11194920160203_111052-1-1Our first stop was the outlandish and spectacular White Temple. It looks traditional and sacred given its glistening white characteristic yet intrestingly it was created recently in 1997 by one of Thailands most noted artists, Chalermchai Kositpipat and has quickly become a Mecca for tourists and Thai visitors alike with free entry for all. I liked spotting the inclusion of a Wolverine claw/hand in the artist’s depiction of Hell.20160203_111145In contrast to the White Temple, the Black House a short distance away was create by Chalermchai Kositpipat’s mentor and teacher to be hereby known as ‘The Butcher’! This site was a feast of tradition combined with the rather eerie feeling that we were wandering around Hannibal Lecter’s holiday home.20160203_13091920160203_13122220160203_131338I lost count of the cow skulls and bones that where stacked high in the many outhouses and black wooden structures around the grounds. It was certainly facinating both from a creative, historical and vegeterian viewpoint. If you ever wondered what happens to all of McDonald’s dead cow carcasses look no further. I’m certain they’ve been supplying this fellow with his fetish needs for some years now. Nice one Ronald.20160203_13254620160203_13081920160203_125810Traveling further north, we visited a small yet curious village community of refugees, eeking a living from handicraft and neck extensions. The village recieve money from visitors meeting with them which would seem to encourage the continuation of the long neck way of life. I’m not convinced this is a good thing as it certainly doesn’t look comfortable and they apparently sleep, eat and shower with the metal never being removed until a new longer piece is fitted. This is somthing more useful to the judicial system surely? Stick your neck out 3 times and you get the old neck brace for a year enhanced with electric shock inducers to keep the wearer compliant and alert to their community service….sorry started to slip into George Orwell 1984 mode.20160203_140455-220160203_14175220160203_135653Anyway upon meeting the visually vivid Karen Tribe with the long necks I was immediately transported into another world, staring excitedly at the cast of some strange alien race from Star Wars. The tribe started the tradition of wearing metal wire around their necks as a protection against a jungle tiger attack but this has since become a tradition and indicator of beauty amongst the tribal women. The longevity of this practice for extending the neck or in fact dropping the shoulders continues to a lesser extent amongst the youth but it’s certainly still turning heads such is the unusual height and width of these long necked woman and I suppose the facination outsiders come armed with.20160203_140834-1 I have a working theory that Mary White was stolen at birth from the tribe and has since passed on her own long neck genetic material to her 3 long necked daughters. A long lost reunion of the Whites with the Tribe would really satisfy a longing I have to compare length and provide an answer at long last as to the origin of the long White family necks. Fancy a long weekend break on a long haul flight Mary? Go long you know you want to!20160203_13580920160203_14082720160203_141427It was a long and varied day but exciting none the less. I’m always opium for more as you know and indeed visiting a jungle sanctury for elephants tomorrow should just about do it.  Two short necks signing out on what was an extremely long themed day.20160203_135431

 

 

 

Hot Dogs….

IMG_20160202_141254351_HDRChiang Mai is an ancient walled city. Much of the wall has crumbled but walking around the old town reaching the peripheral edge you are met with the pleasant green waters of the surrounding moat and red brick defensive wall. Modern fountains enliven the still waters and clearly mark the old from the new.20160201_18275820160202_135910-1IMG_20160202_144750843Here we have a city with an incredible amount of temples. Sitting looking at the map I’ve counted no less than 5 major sites in a 1km radius and have seen triple that just walking the cluttered, disorders streets here. Each site has its own element of uniqueness be it a giant Buddha, a tiny Buddha, a laughing Buddha, a green Buddha, a crystal Buddha or a golden gang of Buddha ….there’s a lot of Buddha! Each temple varying subtly from the next but all a glorious haven for devotees, tourists, magpies and oddly enough clothed dogs.20160201_13045620160201_13275320160201_134603 Even as I sit supping at an iced coffee I can see the familiar gold sparkle of a temple stupa rising from amongst the rabble of modern houses opposite our digs. The gold decorative twists of a Dragon adorn the front of a two tiered orange roof, but as to gaining access to this particular site I imagine I’d have to ninja-foot it along the roof tops, dreaping down silently into the court yard from above, such is the impenatrable appearance of the tightly packed modern houses that imprison and surround it.20160201_13092320160201_131042One of the things I’ve enjoyed about ‘Temple Tramping’ is the dog spotting or better still the ‘clothed dog’ spotting with their tattered fleece jackets that some monk, somewhere decided was clearly a requirement given the extreme winters Thailand seems to suffer from, with their very chilly 25 degree days?!20160201_13072520160201_131029 I’ve questioned the ‘clothing’ of a fur laden animal of course but was told it’s cold for the dogs. My surprised expression so dramatic I thought my eyebrow might sweep right over the top of my skull and down the otherside leaving my hair at my at my ankles. I think my eyes nearly popped out of their sockets, rolling out across the temple towards another ever watchful, golden Buddha. “Mmm I’m not convinced it’s cold” I muttered back to monks who were keen to chat, curious I think of my rose coloured face.IMG_20160202_145421714IMG_20160202_14485869020160202_11521620160201_134138When I witnessed a dog wriggle like it had the early onslaught of Rabbies in an attempt to remove its boiling straight jacket I became convinced that this country is a little bit barking but then you just need to accept the rather odd traditions you come across I suppose, and there are many of those to interest a head-cocking tourist. From silk worms to dressed up dogs and bikes, today’s been eye opening as we’ve gotten a little friendlier with our new pal Chiang Mai.20160201_13405920160201_14151220160201_14143220160201_182641 20160201_132546The exploration and fun continues tomorrow as I go on the hunt for mmm… let me see, my new obsession: more mutts and temples, a meeting of countries and borders at what’s known as ‘the golden triangle’ and a visit to the long necked villagers of the Karen tribe. I wonder if they’ll manage to rival the White family panache for neck extension? Tomorrow will tell. IMG_20160202_145124367

 

 

My My…Chiang Mai

20160128_180517
20160128_132724The moment arrived for us to leave Bangkok and in fairness I was ready for something a little more sedate. It may be something to do with the meditation book I just speed read…..or the repulsion I’ve since developed for fried Scorpion as a regular bar snack on the Kao San road,20160127_21411620160127_214304then again it could simply be the chaos of whirring around a busy city on route to the polar opposite temples that are plentiful here and stand in stark contrast to the night life of Bangkok.20160128_15141420160128_144220-120160128_152449In short I was developing a Bangkok twitch and needed a hospital ward but instead opted for a 2nd class night train. You see my logic, right? That soothing, rocking motion lulling me to sleep to the chu-chug-chug metallic rattle of Thailand Rail.20160131_075251We arrived at the station met by a swarm of brightly coloured tuc tucs guarding the entrance.  The interior has a grand marble floor with food vendors huddled around like vultures waiting for a meal.20160131_081119In a city with scant order I did like the regimented arrangement of leather purple seats all facing forwards towards the platform entrance allowing a mass of eyes to observe the bumbling backpackers come in. The place felt like a theatrical stage as oppose to a train station and I almost burst into a tap dance there and then grinning manically at my new found Thai audience.images (2)-1

The eyes all appeared to merge into one giant head and I could swear I was looking at a giant arachnid with it’s many eyes…ok that’s probably the onset of Dengue fever setting in but there was quite a lot of peering going on. I brought myself back from my creative mind-trance and headed for the train, a long purple ‘number 1’ train with deep ridges cut into the side and eager attendants busy preparing the many carriages.20160131_075304I have to say these trains are not designed to have more than a handbag stored on them but they are functional with chairs that transform into bunks where you can set up a pillow for your faithful backpack to lie along side you.20160130_193125images (1)One of the entertainment features on-board is a bit like free diving.  You hold your breathe for as long as possible while you fiddle with a door lock worthy of the crystal maze, then comes the test of balance as you try to hover and aim while being rocked like you’re enduring a grade 10 earthquake. You expel your cargo as fast as possible much like a pressure hose while the growing lack of oxygen begins to burn your lungs. An urgency forces rapid drying, trying not to inflict a serious friction burn given the coarse grade of tissue paper.images Frantically now, and near to slipping into unconsciousness you find yourself pulling at resistant pants as you try to escape the stenching crampted space all in one breath, sighing with relief as you emerge from what can only be described as a toilet from hell. If you dare to breath in the toxic Uretha as Avril did you’re left with burnt nostrils and a feeling of nausea for hours.  Quite entertaining really but I don’t think Avril was too amused….20160131_072952Meanwhile the attendant pacing up and down the train whom I’ve re-named ‘the Budgie’ for good reason could be heard declaring in a comical high pitched voice “cheep cheep” meaning chips chips repeatedly for hours. I fell asleep giggling as his voice trailed off down the carriage selling crisps and juice to night feeders….these trains are certainly quite fun.20160131_11534720160131_14394120160131_080805We arrived safe and sound ready to explore Chiang Mai and after a bizarre shared taxi/truck costing £1 each we headed out for breakfast gulping in an20160131_11514120160131_125608obligatory temple or two on route and are now consulting tourist info and a self declared Oracle as to what we might do next….20160128_163036Who knows what Chiang Mai will hold….It appears Thai Elephants, Thai boxing, Thai cooking and a giant hand reared Thai Tiger are knot to be missed while of course more temples than people remain high on the list. We’re off out for a Chang beer or two to decide what Thai delights to get roped into….The intrepid duo logging out…..My my we made it to Chiang Mai!20160131_144029

 

 

Who Buddha Thought

20160126_13091720160126_15383420160126_130830A mind boggling assortment of chaotic and frenetic mayhem known as daily life is served at high speed in Bangkok, seasoned with the smokey waft of barbequed street food, pungent drains and the obligatory tooting and reving of Tuc Tucs.20160126_19473820160126_15080420160126_172455-1IMG_2798Trying to navigate the colourful water taxis’, overloaded ferrys, rickety buses, a metro and the ants of the transport network – the ever present tuc tuc has caused the sudden onset of cardiovascular and pulmonary palpitations. Thankfully there’s always meditation.20160126_15501120160126_180231-120160126_145050-1A kind of transport network appears to function miraculously within some unseen parameters that I’m convinced forms the basis of what enlightenment is all about. The mystical awareness of how one gets from A to B (alive) is a valient pursuit that could take a lifetime of devotion and meditation, and that’s just to master the rudimentary skill of buying a ticket.

A sense of confusion and dissorientation is surpassed as you surrender to being swept aboard a vehicle you hadn’t intended upon and carted off to a destination not previously on your itinerary. Maybe this is why there is so much smiling and blessed nodding? An acceptance that you’ll end up somewhere, sometime and possibly not pay for it? This was certainly the case aboard the packed ferry we were hauled onto and set adrift upon.  I laughed uproariously as Avril announced her sudden sense of culture shock; peering out at the filthy river and mish-mash of erratic buildings peppered with temples, shaking her head thinking this can’t possibly sustain life. The system and flow, alien and unruly in comparison to anything she’d seen….and for everything else there’s MasterCard.20160126_13050220160126_155254Meanwhile the boatman balanced nonchalantly on the outerside of a string barrier, the only force containing the swell of bodies from spewing off the boat and into the river. All the time reminding me of how sterile and ordered life can be at home amidst such an apparent lack of it.  “I think this is fun!?” as my heart takes another uncertain flutter towards the heavens.20160126_20511820160126_130537Populated by what must be the smiliest folk on the globe and more temples than phone boxes, Bangkok is a hotpot of contrast with it’s very own river of neon lights and rich culinary and historical traditions.khaosan-eating-102420160126_134035Sexual promiscuity sits alongside a dominant devotion to Buddhism while polite custom and an influential Royal family stabalise a burgeoning population. The extremes make for visual interest and mild panic especially when you end up directing a Tuc tuc driver through his own city at rocket pace.  Here I am clinging to the stable walls of the hotel gasping at the wonder and pace of today.20160126_152626

20160126_155207-1Our visit to the Grand Palace and giant reclining Buddha mesmerised us with unimaginable beauty and splendour,completing a day that tossed us about like a couple of tombola balls. It’s certainly been a baptism of culture that has me learning some basic Thai words and talking with a pitched inflection as I raise the endings of sentences like a native. “Welcome to Thailand” the Customs Officer had said smiling and gently nodding forward at me and it’s welcome I feel if a little exhausted and startled with wide eyed excitement for what tomorrow holds. Welcome to Bangkok.20160126_155937-120160127_05500420160126_130300