Sunday, 25 January 2015

Time to head for the hills

It was time to head for the hills.

I left the glorious mayhem of Penang and spent three days in Ipoh. The city is surrounded by steep-sided hills, and temples hide in the caves. Huge gold Buddhas sit alongside Chinese gods. Thai gods are next to Hindu shrines. And I went from cave to cave, understanding little but marvelling at the colours that can shine in these dark places.

Then - two days in Cameron Highlands. I've been there before and so knew what to expect, though the town is better organised for its tourists now, with plenty of well-signed walking trails. But I took a tour - I needed a guide through the slipperiness of the mossy forest, named because it is so old and the trees so gnarled and covered with moss. The trees echoed with the chorus of monkeys from across the valley; and there was a damp smell from the moss and the mud and the trees.

But it's all been very active, and I need a few quiet days. So I've made it to Fraser's Hill - the journey was an event in itself. The narrow road winds uphill for mile after mile, the forest dense on each side, with occasional surprises like mudslides from the recent rains and temporary bridges that rattle as you cross them.

And now I'm here - in the clouds. There was a view from my balcony when I arrived, across a golf course and the valley beyond. But soon I could see nothing but ghostly trees. A growl of a car was muffled by mist. A solitary bird twittered. It was blissfully quiet - a lull before the deluge. Rain hammered on leaves and tarmac and tin roofs. The rain stopped. Night fell; I fell asleep to a chorus of rattling tree frogs, scratching insects, the cry of a solitary animal. I woke to bird song.

I have five days here. I shall walk - there are trails here, too. I shall look at birds, with little idea what I'm looking at but hey ho, the world is a better place for having birds in it. I shall read.

I shall gather myself for the pandemonium of Kuala Lumpur.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Penang, in all its wonderfulness.

There are many things to love about Penang.

Dare I mention the weather? All right, I won't.

I can tell you about the architecture - the centre of the city is now a World Heritage site and UNESCO money has meant that many buildings that were crumbling last time I was here have been restored to their former magnificence. There are mansions and museums and lovely old temples at every turn.

And I can't resist telling you about the food. Because of the rich ethnic mix in the city, it is food heaven. Each culture is determined to demonstrate its culinary prowess, leaving the passing traveller (me) dithering at every meal. Should I have South Indian curry? A Malayan nasi lemak? Chinese noodles? Japanese sushi? Indonesian ... Thai ... Swiss ... Italian ...

And the origin of all this gastronomic wonderfulness? It goes back to the East India company setting up a trading post here, and needing more workers than they could find in the indigenous Malay population and so attracting immigrants from India and China. Followed by workers from all over Asia, also looking to escape from poverty.

The result - a truly multicultural city that works. Chinese lanterns swing in one street; turn the corner and there's the sting of incense from a Hindi temple. Confucianism and Taoism sit comfortably alongside Buddha. There are imposing Christian churches. The muezzin can be heard at regular intervals all over the city. (The synagogue closed in 1976 - but I don't believe there is no Jewish street or two here, fitting in with the rest of us.) Some women wear full Islamic dress while others flop about in jeans and tee-shirts. There are men in suits and men in kurtas.

So why, in the west, are we making such a meal of living together? It can be done - Penang proves that. I know there may be undercurrents and I'm sure it's not sweetness and light all the time, but nothing that leads to fisticuffs.

People here don't live in fear. They respect each other's differences and traditions. We have much to learn from them.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Why would you want to get your eyelashes permed?

Bangkok is a wonderful city. Oh I know it's polluted - diesel hangs in the air like soup, and there's the endless hiss and smell of frying street food. I know it's noisy - the honking of car horns, the music blaring from restaurants and bars. I know it's exploitative, of tourist and Thai alike. But I still love it.

There are so many things to do. On Saturday I visited the Palace - all gold and glitter and, to western eyes, possibly over the top, but even so it is sumptuous and there are unexpectedly peaceful corners. The city has parks - maybe not as green as those at home, but still places with scrubby trees where you can find shade on the hottest days. There are vast, air-conditioned shopping malls, though you won't see me there.

Instead I'm lurking in the backpackers heaven of Khao San Road. And here you can buy anything. You can choose material and have a suit made. You can have a foot massage, a shoulder massage. You can have your fungally feet nibbled by fish who have, just five minutes ago, been nibbling at someone else's fungals. You can buy skirts, t-shirts, baggy trousers, necklaces, pirated DVDs, scarves, knickers. You can buy a driving license and a degree certificate.

Go to Chinatown and, in the tiny market stalls, you can find wigs, fabric, gold (possibly fake), remedies for everything from alopecia to athletes foot.

Go to the Amulet Market and you can find old coins, artefacts (possibly fake), glasses, dildos, false teeth.

Make it back to Khao San Road in one piece and you can get a piercing, a tattoo, get your hair cut.

You can get your eyelashes permed ... What??

Why would anyone want to get his or her eyelashes permed?

And then, should anyone decide that his or her life is not complete without curly eyelashes, what is involved in the procedure? A smelly lotion and tiny curlers? (Pause to savour that image for a second.)

Am I missing something? It my life really incomplete without permed eyelashes?

(Sorry if I'm letting the side down heading for Malaysia with none of this stuff!)

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The year has turned. Time to pack those bags again.

The decorations are in hiding for another year. We are launched into January, a little older, no wiser, but hopefully with dreams intact after all the festive excess.

It's not an easy time of year. Winter stretches in front of us - the weather can delight or depress us, but always makes life hard work. All that putting in and taking off of clothes. The lost gloves. The heavy coats that get even heavier when they are wet. Soggy feet.

Hang on a minute - what am I complaining about? I'm off to Bangkok on Wednesday.

I'm not actually complaining - I'm trying to be empathetic. To show that I do understand that life isn't all log fires and crumpets while I'm away. That you are all keeping the show on the road while I'm ... swanning around the Far East.

You are unconvinced by my empathy? All I can say, in my defence, is assure you that I've done my share of British winters and know I'm just rubbish at them. I hate the cold, the dark, the wet, the lack of colour.

And I'm privileged - I know I am - to be able to turn my back on the seasonal horribleness and head for the sun.

Why the Far East again? Because I love it. Cuba was hard work (as some of you know) so I want to go somewhere I feel at home, where I know how to get about and look after myself, and maybe to look up a few of the people I met on my long trip.

Will I write about it - I know I say, every year, that I won't make promises. And then I come home and write. This year feels a bit different, because I know more or less what to expect and it doesn't include adventures like cyclones and tigers, nor the trauma of a terrifying history. This is a journey just for me, going somewhere I love.

Having said that, I shall carry on blogging, and there will be plenty of photos when I get back. And if I do stumble into an adventure or two (which is definitely not in the plan) I might revise my ideas about writing another book.

(Forgive me for rushing off, I have packing to do. And I hope you all have excitements of one shape or another to cheer these dark days.)

Sunday, 21 December 2014

A future for Cuba.

I might be expected to join in all the Happy Christmas shenanigans, but I can't let the Cuba news slip by without a thought or two.

Do I really have the qualifications to give an opinion on the thawing of relations between Cuba and America, based on just one month on the island last winter?

Of course not. But I can make an observation or two. Besides, I've read a couple of newspaper pieces that seem to be based on internet research. I have, at least, been there - and very recently.

Feelings, on both sides, run deep. There are misunderstandings, fantasies, projections - all feeding beliefs that have their origins in history. And that is surely the point - the fallout between the two countries began over fifty years ago. At last, it's time to talk.

In my opinion, what is most encouraging is not the announcement by President Obama that diplomacy will be resumed; rather it is the acknowledgement that there have - behind the scenes, in the bars of Havana and the corridors of Washington - been talks. Men and women from both countries have sat together, out of sight of newsmen and photographers, and settled on a discourse. There will be upsets and foot-stamping before an understanding can be reached. But the doors are now opened. There is the opportunity of listening.

And, from my position of ignorance, I can tell you what I wish for Cuba. I wish investment - in her buildings, in her health service, in her infrastructure. There is much to be done. But I hope it can be done thoughtfully - Cuba is a vibrant, wonderful country with a unique culture. Her music (ah the music) is compulsive. Her people are welcoming. She needs antibiotics and better transport.

Does she need MacDonalds? New cars? - Who are we, with our western luxuries, to go all gooey-eyed over the old cars, the shortage of french fries? Cuba should be free to make her own choices.

I rarely mention my books on this blog, but for once I reckon I'm allowed. In Vultures Overhead I wrote about my experiences in Cuba last winter. I found a Cuba that might not be recognised for much longer. Turkey vultures circled everywhere. I just hope that the Americans visit with the humility of puppies and not the avarice of vultures.

(There's a link to the book to the right of this blog.)

And - Happy Christmas. May it be whatever it need to be for you.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

My winter travelling plans

It's that time again. The days are long; the nights are cold; I'm grumpy. No, I'm not depressed - I have no seasonal illness. I can get out of bed and join in the razzmatazz. But I'd rather be somewhere warm.

And so, just as the baubles come off the trees and tinsel is packed into the cupboards for another year, I'll be again. I have a flight booked to Bangkok, and six weeks later I come back from Singapore. I shall probably spend most of that time in Malaysia.

Why Malaysia? I was there on my long trip and loved it. I love its multicultural soupiness. There are indigenous Malays, many of whom are Muslim. There are Chinese with their temples and wonderful food. There are Thais, of course, with their Buddhism. And plenty of Indians with their Hindu stories and curries. There is tension - much of which is not immediately obvious to the tourist - but there are also some wonderful celebrations of cultural difference. (For instance, each tradition seems to have a different date on which to mark the New Year - and they all celebrate with wonderful processions and dancing. How I'd love it if the tiny Chinese population in my little market town took over the High Street with dragons one year ...)

I love its scenic differences. I shall brave the leeches and go into the rainforest. I might try a little snorkelling off the coast of an island. I shall admire the patchwork hills of the tea plantations.

I shall see if some of the people I met last time are still there: Farouk, the waiter who gave me bigger and bigger breakfasts every day in Penang; Rusty - a landlady in Mersing who knew I needed a cup of tea before I even opened my mouth; Miss Jo - who took me to a Sikh ceremony and then to lunch. They may not be there, of course - it's nine years since I was last in Malaysia and much will have changed. But I'll look for them. And spend time with anyone else who might wander across my path.

Will I write about it when I get home?

I don't know. If there are adventures - then I probably will. But I'm not looking for adventures. In spite of all the dramas in Nepal I don't go looking for cyclones and tigers. I'm returning to a place that I love, because I can, because it's winter, because it is so gloriously different.

But I will blog it. (And I don't go till January, so no need to wave me off quite yet!)

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Time to Think.

What is life if, full of care, we have no time to ...  I've no time to finish the quotation now.

After all, there are cards to buy cards to write presents to buy presents to wrap don't forget Aunt Vera this year remember that sour look she gave you last year and then the children ah the children we must do our bit to give Santa a hand he'll need carrots and mince pies - not supermarket ones that's cheating - no you must make the mince pies and the sausage rolls and the stuffing get it all in the freezer and your cake will be made by now and the puddings so you've time to make costumes for little Nellie is a shepherd and Joss is a dog and the tree don't forget the tree and the decorations make some with the kids you know how they love it and a wreath for the front door ...


Who says we have to do all this?

I'm all for a midwinter festival - with or without any religious overtones. But does it really have to be such a struggle?

Speaking for myself, I want to hibernate at this time of year. I want to snuggle by the fire, watch the flames and let the winter blow itself out. I want to read. Write.

Most of all I want to think.

Some years ago I heard an interview with Germaine Greer in which she was asked her favourite pastime - and she said, 'Thinking.' Wise woman.

Where is the thinking in all the December mayhem? For without it we are simply automata, lurching from one must-do to another. There is no time for anything to touch us. To let the fun and laughter echo as we fall asleep.

If we cannot stop to think, we are purely reactive. We consider neither history nor consequence nor meaning. And we're all the poorer for it. We allow the marketing gurus to lure us into all the razzmatazz, sweeping us away from the glorious temptations of independent thought. From those quiet reflections that remind us of those we love.

It doesn't have to be like this. We can choose what we get swept up in, and what we allow to pass us by. But that means we must make the time to take that decision. And maybe it also means taking time to stand and stare.