Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Barcelona: why you should go in Autumn

Reasons to visit Barcelona in Autumn

When most people think of Barcelona, they think of a hot city with beaches, great shopping and nightlife. In summer it is all those things but it is so much more than humidity, and Autumn is no better time of year to prove it. Barcelona is not just another English-appropriated town in Spain but one of the most culture rich cities in EuropeLike the absolutely wonderful array of delicious red wines you will find there, you should drink up and come back for more. It’s classy.

Art and Architecture  

Aside from the famous collections of art in Barcelona, like Gaudi’s buildings and the Picasso gallery, there is a huge amount of street art here. It’s all over the place in Barcelona as monuments, statues, installations and graffiti art. Serious, funny, political or thought-provoking, street art here covers so many subjects and asks for any reaction.  and it really sets it apart to visitors. 

As an English person, I really picked up on how the Spanish and Catalans value collective outdoor art. With such a vast amount of street art on offer, seemingly up for public ownership and definitely for public appreciation, this is something of a wonderful concept to me - a person who comes from a country where art is seen as an unnecessary expense (which explains a lot of our ugly towns and buildings with ill places statues that act like lipstick on a pig). 

If you like to wander down gorgeous old streets and gaze at wondrous and mind boggling feats of architecture, like the Sagrada Familia cathedral, this city is for you.

L-R A giant matchstick, Casa Mila by famous architect Gaudi and a giant cat statue 


I love food, wherever the country, whatever the faire. I throw myself in to trying new dishes, snacks and drinks because then I get to understand so much about a culture, and its’ history - just by sampling what the local people eat. In Barcelona that’s tapaz. Lots of it. And it’s everywhere. 
 Iberico ham, manchego cheese, marinated anchovies, Spanish sausage and croquettes as just some of the dishes I tried, which are on rampant offer around the city. And although you can get tapas at home, there is much more variety here, where the food orginates. You can of course also get all the usual Spanish meals like Paella, and there’s plenty of international variety, all up to a fantastic standard too, but while you’re in Barcelona, don’t pass up a chance to sample its’ specialities.

It's still warm enough for outdoor adventures 

I'm not averse to adverse weather, especially snow but it is always nicer playing in the sun. And though there’s lots to do in the city and you wont be able to fit it all in, there’s even more out of the city. Mount Tibidabo is a gondola ride away with an adventure park nearby. On the beaches, there is a wake-boarding park among other features. 

A couple of hours’ drive from the city in to the Catalonian hills, is a great hiking area near Sant Feliu de Pallerols, which is popular among cyclists and almost at the country border. Forest walks, rambling and waterfalls abound. And from up there sunset is a spectacular sight. 

Barcelona is also close to Andorra, the tiny corridor country between France and Spain that straddles the Pyrennees and incidentally is also a great place to go shopping for its tax-haven status. Come winter Barcelona is a great stop either on the way to or back from an Andorran budget ski holiday.

Furthermore, Barcelona’s further south and a lot closer to Morrocco than England! Spain has a much milder autumn and winter than we do in soggy England and with all the sights and autumn events available what else do I need to say to convince you?! 

Waterfall at Sant Feliu de Pallerols, Catalonia

There’s less pollen at this time of year, which also means-

Here’s a little tip from a hay-fever sufferer. Barcelona is stuffed with pollen in spring and summer. From the moment I got there in early June I couldn’t leave the house without taking anti-histamines. Thankfully, along with the crowds, the pollen will have died down by now. And less people means less queuing for tourist attractions. 

And when there are fewer queues the prices are usually lower. Shoulder season is a wonderful thing for those without kids to keep in school. Make use of it.

Apartment blocks along the sea front, Barcelona.

Some top tips!  

  • Get around by bike. I was surprised how much walking I did on my visit to Barcelona. I like walking and I had a good pair of comfy trainers but my legs were still tired and sore by the end of each day, wihtout putting much effort in. Thankfully there is a similar bike scheme to the Boris bikes in London, so you can see more with a bit more glide. 
  • Be picky when ordering patatas bravas, most of them just come with mayonnaise and kind of spicy ketchup, but real bravas sauce is where it's at. Bacoa burgers are dotted all over the city and apart from serving up amazing juicy burgers for meat eaters and veggies alike, they also do the best patatas bravas I had during my trip. 
  • Get your bum to Refresca Tea for, as the name would suggest, refreshing cold fruit teas and organic coffee. 
  • There are loads of good hostels, but a few great ones are Casa Gracia, Pars Tailors and Factory Garden. Air bnb is also a great alternative to hotels, you help to earn a local person some extra cash and gives you a more 'local' experience. 

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Living in a local world, travelling to Europe

A change of tact

What's with the lack of exotic destinations on this supposedly Asian travel blog? Well, once upon a time I filled up my passport and had to return home to get a new one. That was almost two years ago.

In the mean time the new passport has been taken across various parts of Europe, some of it warm, some of them cities and some of it alpine from the temperate base of England.

A travel blogger who is not backpacking? Can this be? Can you claim to be a traveller when you use a suitcase or a snowboard bag? Do backpackers go on press trips instead of the budget blag?

Yes you can. And with this in mind, have a peak at these quick tips for travel to European mountains. 

Can I just say Les Deux Alpes in France, and can I just say, I don't think it's possible to tire of that resort. All it needed was global warming to turn on it's head and have a really good dump of snow. We shall persevere for the future and keep hoping.

Thankfully the Alps are under two hours away by plane, or if you're wary of the carbon footprint, many a mountain train will take you up there. Euro star does a ski train to the mountains that could be warranted a party in itself, either way most of Europe is cheap enough to get to now and holiday deals can be found any where, including ski pass, that unless you actually don't like riding (and if so my god why!) then there's no excuse not to go.
Unless you have no friends, in which case you have my sympathies, let's form a group or use the new tinder style ski dating app, Snowflake.

It certainly is that time of year again. Where the snow addicts among us start dreaming up where we would like to spend the next six months while the sun has it's long holiday to where it seems naturally more at home- on the other side of the planet and no where near England. And then some of us remember that we now have jobs and cars and rent to pay and wonder where the hell it all went wrong? How did being an adult creep up on us and get in the way of the fun?

Or is that just me and am I just really Peter Pan?

Any way, I was here and there and everywhere and now I'm just here, enjoying the stillness with a glass of red wine that doesn't have to be kept in the fridge to stop it 'maturing' in to vinegar for all the heat.

Then there was the trip to Tignes Val Claret, a place you can definitely get tired of unless you venture to other parts of the mountain. Despite that, when the time comes to leave you still don't want to, no matter how tired you might be of the same runs. Would anyone be up for a long mountainous road trip one day when we're all millionaires?

Tignes is a great resort, especially if you like the purpose built concrete look, which I oddly do. It's easy to ski in and out, good access to a pile of other resorts like Val D'Isere, Tignes' Le Lac and Les Brevieres in the Espace Killy ski area, which has two, count em two, glaciers! It's also in the Savoie region of France, best known for yummy mountain food like tartiflette.

Bit of local trivia or mountain myth for you, but one of the villages was flooded,Tignes' Lac Du Chevril when the dam was constructed. So the story goes, some villagers refused to move to where the authorities were rehousing them and stayed with their homes even when the village was sunk. Supposedly you can see the village when they drain the dam every couple of years. It's become such seasonaire urban myth that a tv show was made about it called Les Revenants - The Returned.

Other than that the international travel has paused apart from the  press trips to Deauville and Munich. Go by the way, go for the food, for the French riviera style glam even if it is on the North of France and not the south. Go to see the architecture and resilience of post war France at Le Havre, and to eat lovely crepes. Go to sample all the cider in the region and all the horses. Deauville is Normandy and, by the by, France's biggest cider producing and stud farm region. It must be the apples.

And might I add the light. Northern France is much less polluted and more forested than most of England. After three days there I felt like my lungs had been cleared of all smog, everything was so crisp and fresh, but also warm in the sparkling sunlight.

As you can also guess Munich was a great city break and I was never far from a beer or three. Their biergartens are pristine and with the weather not dipping below 30 degrees it was a no brainer to spend half the time walking around the city learning history so we could write, and the other half quenching thirsts in a sculpted biergarten. Or cycling around on a Dutchie down to the river to cool off in melted mountain ice that trickled its' way down to Munich. Or watching men's calves saunter around in lederhosen.
Men would, and still do, wear lederhosen because it was practical while working in the fields. Not only that it showed off their legs to nearby maidens who were looking for a strong farm boy to look after them. That's a historic fact about Bavaria there and I took my lead from that fact. There really were so many men and women walking around in their national dress. You wouldn't get that at home.

Have we lost out there?

That's the short extent of my non-exotic travels in 2015. An abismal lack when put against 2014! As I said, my radius of movement has drastically shortened down to something like 3 miles a day. Being static doesn't suit me and I frequently find myself looking for an escape button before reminding myself that sometimes you have to put down the bag and actually work to find some new experience that might lead you somewhere unexpected. Like in to a van across Europe, and with any luck with some company.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Les Deux Alpes, France! Catching snowflakes in my hair

I just spent a very serious 7 months in Asia contemplating my place in this world and living off £300 per month. I ate noodles, considered Buddhism, drank far more Sangsom than is deemed past the point of unhealthy and became thoroughly sick of overnight buses and introducing myself to people every. Single. Day.

So when a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to work a new festival, "come stay in a chalet, the festival is in year one. We'll pay for your flights, accommodation and lift pass", who was I to pass up the chance to play guess who with some potential new friends?
Four months after landing in Heathrow, I took off from Luton, blinked out of the window at the sun that hides behind that thick Tupperware blanket of cloud we call the English sky and kissed hello to snow capped mountains. Sometimes I take for granted how much I love this travel malarkey. This time I would be eating cheese for ten days and not noodles. This time I would also be eating snow for the amount of bruising and cold wet bum I would gain from falling over.

Contrary to that statement, I'm not a bad snowboarder. I can keep up with most boys, I can just about hold my own in the park but previous injuries have made me cautious and so I resent the somewhat back hand compliment "you're good for a girl." Thanks, that's nice of you to say, if not slightly annoying that you're subliminally making it known that girls are supposedly not as good as boys because of genetics or whatever. Not that I ignore the straight up fact that guys do appear to be more fearless (reckless?) but instead of saying that though, can we just say "you're good" and leave the gender specification out of it?

So, back to letting loose at a festival and generally having a rad time. Les Deux Alpes is in the French alpes, next do Alpe d'Huez, about two hours from Grenoble and three from Lyon. The town rests at a breathless 1600 meters above sea level and the highest glacier point is 3200. When you get to that topmost height, where the air is thinner, the sun closer and the snow about two years old, you'll see white-tipped peaks for miles in every direction and wish you'll never need to come down. This is an area of France where marmots poke out of the ground to play in the snow as you ride past.

On the way up the mountain the transfer bus swung through shuttered valley towns, bar one glaring and flashing pharmacy sign against a grey and quiet building. At this moment I hear that Moutier has France’s highest suicide rate as the sun can’t reach it through the mountains in winter. At night however, with a sprinkling of dampened orange glowing lights in houses, it feels like an exciting hint at the pre-Christmas fun to come.
Twig-like trees in characteristically French forests are trying to jolt me in to realising I’m away. I still feel like I’m in the UK- mainly because I haven’t flown for endless hours to get here. It’s very easy for Brits to forget that a whole and varying continent is on their front door and it’s something we should be more appreciative of. 

There are building works happening at Lyon airport and you can’t even tell. This doesn’t dawn on me until I’m winding through a slick, heated and well lit tunnel that runs down the side of the main airport building on the way to baggage reclaim.  In England you know if modifications are happening. orange signs yell of hazards with every step with yellow trip tape and bright cones shifting about in your path so you know that things aren’t right but we are trying to improve them in only the chaotic way that England can do this. Nothing is very smooth running in Britain at the best of times, even though we like to think we are an efficient nation. Something that goes hand in hand with the British values of puffing chests, and driving on the left equals superiority to all things foreign. Take any bus in the UK and you will be given evidence to the contrary, along with broken down trains, long car journeys and the inability to run a transport network on any weather other than mild or light drizzle. Weather is newsworthy in England and a preferred topic for small-talk. I am not so sure of the rest of Europe.

A giant statue of a bike on a roundabout welcomes us to the start of the steep upward slalom towards resort and all too quickly it’s too dark to see outside of the coach. I am left to feel the switchbacks and hairpins through the axel of the bus until the air becomes thinner and greater breaths are needed. Snow begins to appear under the streetlights that have emerged at the top of this road. We are at the bottom end of Les Deux Alpes. At the other end lies the 60ft sheer cliff drop.

There is no barrier or warning for this even when a few drunken individuals (unsurprisingly English) have met their makers falling off the edge of this. The lip is a stomach-churning trigonometry inducing nightmare and it seems testimony to a European way of thinking that they haven't signposted this hazard. Unlike in England, and America, where signs would pop up involuntarily, barriers would be raised and it would be deemed the council's responsibility to take care of any financial costs involved along with compensation. In Europe the attitude is much more, you fall off a cliff when you're drunk, that's your fault. Which, you have to admit, they have a point.

In New Zealand the attitude lies somewhere between. There are a few signs and a government scheme to prevent you losing earnings when you get injured, which doubles up as a way to prevent compensation claims, but also the ethos is 'don't be an idiot and you won't hurt yourself'. There's no health and safety law in the wild, not that New Zealand is the wilderness, but I prefer that kind if thinking to our growing culture of claiming.

Another thing I really enjoy about France is their strong cultural identity. The no nonsense - no arguments with a customer service rep, stop dancing on tables and at least try to order in French- way of living. Of course England's multi cultural environment is incredibly vibrant and there's so much that we're catered for and our culture is made more rich for it, which is always great, but there's something intoxicating about a country who still has a very firm grasp of their one solid cultural identity. Like Italy, Spain, Norway, Japan, Australia- they all have really interesting cultures that they're proud of. Most English pride comes from sayings like 'it's not the winning, it's the taking part', which goes to show our awkward abilities with sport (a few of those we made up and in some hilarious Karmic retribution, all the countries we took over and taught the sport, now far out strip us on the field or court).

Here are some things you can do in Les 2 Alpes. Go to Crepes a Go-Go for all manner of mountain meals including of course, crepes. Visit the charcuterie, go ice skating, go swimming, go to the cinema, do après at Pano bar, have dinner on a glacier after riding the inner mountain funicular, cheese out on fondue, tartiflette and raclette. Drink copious amounts of red wine, it's seriously good and usually way better priced because the French generally keep the best in country.

Here's the obvious thing you can do in the Alpes: ski. I'm a snowboarder so ignoring the boring rivalry for a moment, and for the sake of keeping my word count the tiniest bit lower, I will refer to it in general as riding. No not horse riding. Riding-a-board-or-skis. This is one of the best resorts in the world for terrain with all levels and interests catered to. You can hike up la grave with a guide and do some big back country riding, find some tree runs to slide through, stick to the wide variety of planned pistes and get in the park and tap the gnar button. Or in my case wuss out, head to the baby park, feel decidedly average, get annoyed with yourself and then wipe out on a jump before trying a big jump to get your balls back. Somehow it worked. I love snowboarding, I find that rhythmic swish and carve of edge against powder so addictive. I have to find more ways to be out there because I love it so much. And the culture that goes with it- of people just supporting each other, enjoying the sport and life a lot more than were they stuck to a computer 5 days a week. We have a lot to learn from the average ski bum.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Turtle mothers, turtle babies

Once Upon a time I saw a nesting mother...

We’d only just passed by this spot five minutes ago. Ahmaly and I fell silent and looked at each other.
“Isn’t this what we’re looking for?” I asked the sand in front of me.
“Yes, look they’re tracks” Ahmaly replied, her red torch following this new path up the beach. A distinctive row of flipper pushes and under shell drag lead to the bush line. The smell of firecrackers and rain clung to fresh sea air, our dark red torches bouncing cautiously as we proceeded. She was halfway towards her intended patch of darkness away from the trails of light pollution. 

Excitement boiled inside me as Ahmaly reached for the volunteer phone in her pocket. This was it; this is what we were here for. Lightning strikes lit up the sky as mother Elaine began to dig, the swipe and swoosh of her fins in time with the spraying thud of light sand into the air. Forty-five minutes later, with a waiting nest, she was ready to begin the drop of her brood. 

The old poacher, now paid to help Conservationists, was ready to scoop as the eggs dropped. His efforts would ensure a zero breakage success rate from mother to collector to box to new nest to hatching in 60 days. Six volunteers stood nearby, protectively waiting for the soft balls, silently egging her gargantuan efforts on. She looked exhausted already.

The next morning

Six hours later Ahmaly, Daniel and I in a thick black hoody, sat on the speedboat driven by Boy out to Munjor Beach.  The sun was rising over blue waves and a chilly early morning wind caught at my cheeks. Daniel from Singapore, lowered his binoculars from the horizon grinning at my somewhat unnecessary layers. We were about to swim over a reef to a fresh egg nest.

No one ever tells you this, and why would they, but dinosaur eggs are very soft, almost like fabric. You did read that correctly, the word, dinosaur. Turtles are  dinosaurs.  Another mother had laid a new batch on this beach while we had been watching ‘Elaine’ do the same back on Juara beach.  We lay together on our bellies among the trees, burrowing gently, downwards to the nest below, careful not to knock or break any eggs. They were the size of Chinese lucky balls.

“Aarrrgh!” I cried out, feeling the stodgy goo between my fingers. “No!” The shift in sand and my hands on the delicate shell had broken an egg.
Five minutes later I struck misfortune again, unaware that my oafish digits were to blame. Sand crumbled down towards the nestled ping pong balls, exacerbating our efforts. On the third crush, this time from a slump of sand, two more came out dripping yellow yoke. I decided to step back and one by one, two by two, out they came in to the waiting mouth of our poly foam box. The total broken came to rest at five out of 104. Ninety eggs were ready to take to their new address: the Juara Turtle Project hatchery.

This may all seem rather mysterious. Turtles? I thought she was in Thailand? Where the fudge is Tioman any way?! I shall enlighten you. I was staying in Ko Lanta, swishing my toes in the sand of the hostel common area, looking for a… ‘something.’ There it was, Jaura Turtle Project, a place to stay, do and maybe even learn?   On the minibus leaving for the ferry port: rammed in as we were, old ladies cast their inquisitive eyes at these curious foreigners. I am as ever enthralled by Thailand and it's nuances, in fact all of South East Asia. This is a part of the world where dashboard-nodding dogs are replaced by dusted purple nodding elephants that smile back. It is a place where children learn how a Gecko sounds instead of a sheep, with an upwards 'uh' tone to the downwards 'oh', so fun for little mouths to repeat. Half a week later, when the nodding elephant was a memory behind several more bus journeys and a stay on Perhentian Kecil, that incidentally reminded me of Kellerman’s in Dirty Dancing, I held on to the interior of a tiny Jeep careering over an incredibly steep hill. Juara was at the bottom.

Turtles hatching

“Put one on top of the others,” instructed Charlie.
A crowd of us had gathered around the 1ft diameter fenced nest in anticipation.  Just a couple of small nondescript heads were poking out, and a few rings of sand clung in patches where their eyes should be. They had finally reached the fresh air at the top. In a bid to wake them up to their need to get out of the shifting sands around them, we followed his advice. Just the top baby turtle began to shift his flippers in a flurry of fins.  Charlie picked him up expertly by the ‘rails’ of his shell, his little fins thinking they were in water and not suspended in air, and placed his tiny body in the centre of the baby heap. With a sudden great push from below, they heaved upwards as one. It was like watching an erupting volcano or bees leaving a hive en masse in search of pollen. 

They crashed up against the fencing, trying to get to the waves ahead of them. They climbed over and over each other, some falling on their backs with their necks stretching out so they could flip themselves back over; and a few of us motherly volunteers succumbing to a kind of cross species broodiness and picking them up ourselves. And this is definitely a real phenomenon. How else do you explain all those videos of kittens on You-Tube?

When we released them two hours later, a small crowd of families had gathered. Now, beating themselves against the inside of a foam box, they sounded like a crowd of birds flapping their wings against the wind. The evening was at that point where it changes suddenly from light to pitch black. Twilight is especially fast on the equator and this was a blessing for our brood of 200. The box was tipped and the most we could do now was hope they all made it to the sea, not back up the beach or in the beak of a hovering bird, the likelihood of either most certainly swayed by the presence of a crowd of humans. At the same time, a storm was appearing with globs of water greeting us a cool hello. 


Great swipes now came from the bottom of the great hole Elaine had previously dug. She slowly turned her vortex in to a small ridge, and even slower, after about an hour, she managed to shift her exhausted self and nudge her shell away from the covered nest beneath. I left before she made her about-turn to face the waves. Something told me, besides my own tiredness, staying to watch her return could be a step past the line between impassioned volunteer and intrusive voyeur.  I crept away, leaving her safety to the remaining volunteers.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Tid-bits of Volun-tourism

Clean up on Tioman Island 

The phone was ringing an urgent tune.

"Hello, Juara Turtle Project?" I asked.
"Hi, it's Julie, there’s more washing up on the beach. Can you ask Charlie if anyone can come down to help?"

A short explanation came from the other end with a request to gather troops. I was volunteering at Juara Turtle Project on Tioman Island, where fishermen had been dumping their oil in the bay. It seems they wanted to save themselves the official fees in Singapore’s busy ports, 123 nautical miles away.

Charlie, ever the horizontal hippy, the big man in charge, drawled in his methodical California accent:
“Whoever wants to go can take a bike. There’s rakes down there still.” 
Lumps of oil were melting in to the sand, fast.

Three of us hopped on to reclaimed Dutchies, sans breaks, and creakily wound over to the hotel in question, using our flip-flops to skim along the floor when we needed to slow down.

Tioman Island is a remote easterly national conservation park, shaped a little bit like a wine bottle. Steep mountains separate quiet villages and a lack of partying has kept this secret Malaysian location away from most of the backpacker crowd.

Juara bay lies on a calm patch of barely visited sand. Clear waters and reefs dot the coast under a white-hot sun. By night phosphorescent plankton can be seen shimmering in the moonlit water, waiting for nesting turtles to wash ashore.

When an oil spill happens, whether near or far from land, eventually it is brought to solid ground by the ebb and flow of currents. The black grease normally solidifies in to lumps of tar, sometimes sticking itself to rocks, rubbish or animals. When it melts under a hot sun, it slips through fingers, in to the sand, blending with the grains, meaning that what is raked up is sand itself. As the tide pushes itself back on to the beach, the water filters in to the sand with all this oil and then you just have a giant never ending shit storm of impossible clearing and tiny crabs whose home is this now polluted beach.

On arrival to Julie’s hotel, rakes and wheelbarrows aided us in scraping and filtering oil from the sand. It would keep coming back and by the next morning a fresh sheen of dark stickiness would cover our scooping. Our debt to nature was beginning repayment, even if it appeared futile.

Three hours later I was covered in oil, sweat dripped off my brow and my back was sore from bending in to the polluted sand. Raking, hauling was thirsty work and followed by cold ice tea, courtesy of Julie’s gratitude. The hard work left a strange mix of satisfaction and unrest. I was happy to pitch in and play eco-warrior, and I took the opportunity to play eco-warrior with gusto because I wanted to. I was, simply put, not so full of delight at the cause.

It would be wonderful if the chances to clean and conserve need not occur; that would mean everything is and will continue to be in balance in future. As someone who at least tries to live with a sense of reality, hilarious though the claim may seem, these opportunities will continue to come for a long time. The experience of tripping in to a minor catastrophe really encouraged me to take up my recycling bag and join the ranks in the War-On-Pollution. It's like the war on terror but with cleaning materials and no one gets bombed. We have the opportunities to help now, but they won't be here for much longer before its' gone. The question now is whether we choose to take the chance while we have it. 

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Cleansing Ko Lanta

 Breathing and cleaning up in Ko Lanta, Thailand  

The grainy sand sticks to my toes and won't let go, leaving a dusty perma-film along the soles of my feet. The hot wind blowing across my back distracts me from the heat of the sun. An unknown black lump has attached its sticky tack to a washed up water bottle. It moved at my touch, slinking and clinging between my fingers, like toxic play-do.
Getting up, I took a few steps nearly treading in another blotch of mystery goo. Ahead of me tiny lumps had bottle caps in-bedded in them, larger ones showing off a sand casing, sprouting plastic straws, and even one completely shaped around a lost flip flop.

I conceded that missing the Klong Dao clean up was justified while my book –filled beach time with long thoughts on how to make dream catchers, turned in to a two-woman black gold treasure hunt. Only the treasure was unwanted, and, we wondered, where had it all come from?

If you ever wondered what an island of hippies might look like, go to Ko Lanta. The smell of incense cones and clunk of wooden wind chimes will explain it all. Stumbling off a Songteaw few days previous, I lumbered around muddy potholes on Thailand’s second largest island, in the dirt track next to Chill Out House hostel. An ivy-laden gable tickled my hair as I trundled inside to discover wooden tables in a tree house, people playing Jenga and a bed to myself for 100 baht per night. After the prices on Koh Phi Phi, where you’ll pay two thirds more a night for a strobe-lit dorm full of teenagers crawling all over each other, like drunken incestuous rats, this was a very good deal.  I was also quickly informed that the best Pad Thai on the island was a two minute walk away and could cost just 40 Baht per serving (about 80p).

Not only did Ko Lanta impress my wallet, it turned out to impress me. After months of living in Bali and months of buses on winding Asian highways- the traveller’s road- I was in need of some peace and quiet. Bangkok had ruined me again, Kanchanaburi educated me in the hardships of war, Krabi showed me how easily a beautiful place can become a tourist wreck and Phi Phi told me how sad it all was. I needed somewhere to exhale.

I spent my time here eating the cheap pad thai, visiting a lighthouse and getting attacked by monkeys that were too familiar with humans and ice cream. Sunshine bleached the tops of womens’ hijabs as they whizzed by on their scooters in the midday scorch.
I visited a Mangrove forest for the first time and saw tiny crabs scuttling along the silt, squaring up to each other as they held up a giant red claw each. Their mismatched arms a sign of virility in this swamp of roots pulling out of mud. I even fed some malnourished and poorly treated elephants. Why did I feed the elephants you ask? Well I’m so glad you did.

So often in South East Asia, elephants are used to attract tourists to certain areas. People need to make money and feed their families. But too often putting food on the table comes at the expense of a creature’s liberty or even their health. Quite often Mahouts will use a Thotti, a long wooden stick with a metal hook, to control the elephants. This ‘control’ generally comes in the form of beating and driving the hook in to an elephant’s ears. For more information on this go to One Green Planet.com. 

On the drive to the Mangroves rainy season storm clouds hovered above menacingly. A Canadian girl and I wondered in to an elephant trekking ground, after finding a monkey park with the monkeys all tethered to posts, unable to run about or escape. This time of year is slow business for the locals, allowing us a better look at the animals. We stopped the bike and went to say hi to the Mahouts in a dusty open field. Two hungry looking baby elephants were bound to a tree, their ears ripped and full of bloody holes and mother tied to a post across the other side of the field. With a look to each other we decided to find a market to get bananas for the animals, we were not going to give money and feed the supply and demand of this treatment.

It’s up to you to decide whether we did the right thing that day. To us it felt like the right thing.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Rainy biking and windy diving in Hoi An

Returning from My Son

As we (I was now back with dear Ciara, my partner in Asian bike journeys) set to hop back on the red carcass of the squeaky bike we had hired, the clouds started to come true on their threat of rain.  This wasn’t to be any rain, but magic rain which transforms humans in to drowned rats.

Now I thought that this being Asia, where tropical rain comes and goes as quick as Callum Best at a single’s party, it would be over pretty soon. So, sensing the imminent downpour, we stopped before it started, for a strong coffee in a derelict looking open café. It housed several old men, coughing away on cigarettes and Mahjong.

I thought stopping here to avoid rain was a stroke of genius. It turns out, it wasn’t genius at all. As we discussed the finer points of Vietnamese traffic laws, or rather their non-existence, the ongoing drizzle didn’t appear to be growing heavy or showing signs of abating. We decided to go for it, unaware of the impending arduous task of trying to see in theatrical curtains of rain.  I have since discovered that the original Roman meaning of genius is a deity or spirit who comes and goes as they please to endow you with creative talent and brainy power. So where mine was that day, I don’t know.

I’m uncertain how well I can explain but really, it was awful!  Think, not one item of clothing or crevice in your body that hasn’t been molested by cold rain. Ciara’s bus was in two hours so we had no choice but to keep going through.
The drops filtered their way in to our mouths, tasting of field with a hint of buffalo poo. Not that I know much of the flavour of farm animal excrement. The storm got up our noses. It stung our squinting eyes and ran in such a fashion round my helmet that my wet hair crept along my moistened cheeks and worked its way between my face and glasses, so that I couldn’t see more than 4 meters in front of me.

When we clunked in to a petrol station somewhere outside of I-have-no-idea-where-I-am-please-help, the ‘20p’/Dong poncho I’d bought, which had ripped down one side, was now purely acting as a windbreak. It had kept me dry for all of ten minutes and poor Ciara who neglected to be such a spend thrift, hovered close, freezing on the back of my bike. I had offered to pull it up over the both of us, like some sort of waterlogged windproof bed sheet.

Finally, rolling in to Hoi An town, I praised,“Oh my Buddha we’re back!”

We were met with a scene from the film ‘The Day after Tomorrow’. Maybe it wasn’t that dramatic but nature certainly looked pissed at humans that day. Watching people push their flooded bikes along narrow rivers of streets, made me hopeful for steaming hot Pho. And a non-air conditioned room where my ears might clear of their post-diving clog.

Diving Hoi An

A couple of days previous, as we had been staying at the exceptionally lazed and beautiful hostel, ‘Under the Coconut Tree’, out at Cua Dai beach, I went on a lil’ dive trip. Water logged itself in my ear canal during my first dive and in the words of Ed from Birmingham, I tried the “old hoppadeemus” to free it. It didn’t work, and 24 hours later, with the water still sloshing mildly in my head, I went to sleep in a very coldly air-conditioned room where it solidified.  Two flights two days later left me walking a little wobbly as I nervously handed over my passport at Bangkok passport control!

As for the Diving…

The prestigious, I use that term loosely, Cham Island Diving centre took me to, well, Cham Island. As beautiful as the sparse reef and clientele were, the guides and safety standards left a lot to be desired. Before I got on the boat that morning, no one had checked my dive creds, only our word. Which is fine, if you say you can dive and you can’t, it’ll become pretty obvious when you arse up a buddy check or breath from the wrong regulator. I can dive, I am also qualified to drift dive as an advanced open water diver, *salutes PADI.

The thing about a strong drift dive is that if you don’t understand the basic idea of staying close to the bottom where the current is weaker, you may well lose your dive group. Which is pretty dangerous, in case that wasn’t obvious. Han, from Bulgaria, ended up thirty meters from the island. As the numbers of ours, and other groups, dwindled, we rose to the surface early. While Han was located my buddy and I were left to cling on to a large barnacle covered buoy and await the dive boat’s arrival.
I will concede that they stuck to their duties in getting us all safely out of the sea, but they could have easily avoided losing clients and their fins by,  
A, ensuring we were all qualified to drift dive.  
B, actually checking that we were all genuinely certified to the right standard with experience in drift dives,
C, taking us to a site with better conditions.

In the end everyone was ok and they did however, put on a good spread at the island. They gave us a good two hours to eat, digest and fall asleep in a hammock. And being a positive person, even though I was less than impressed with their lackadaisical attitude to our safety, the way to win me over is through food. I still won’t be rushing back to risk my life with them again.