Sunday, 22 February 2015

Safely Home

Yes, I'm back in the bosom of Wiltshire. My house is warm and welcoming (once I've lit the woodburner). Snowdrops gather in hopeful clumps in the garden. The man at the market remembered me.

It's always disorientating, coming home. Everything seems the same, and it's easy to slot into the same old ways. Yet each trip I do is enriching, and I come home with questions and memories that I want to cling on to. It is a privilege to travel as I do, and would be wasteful to cast it aside as I slip on the coat of normality back home.

I will, in time, put photos here on the blog. Just sorting them out will help cement memories. But give me time - I've only been home a couple of days. I'm still recovering from the journey.

It was a bit of a marathon, from Singapore to Bangkok (woops, I forgot to check that both airlines used the same airport ...), from Bangkok to Abu Dhabi, from Abu Dhabi to London - and then home.

The route taken by that last flight was the most tortuous. We headed straight up the Red Sea (keeping well away from Yemen), then north of Basra and south of Baghdad, then a significant detour to avoid Syria and parts of northern Iran, turning west to make sure we stayed out of Ukrainian airspace ... I know it was necessary. But what a dreadful reality it reflected. It underlined, for me, how the world feels increasingly dangerous.

While I am settling back into my market town, where the biggest grumble is about the road works making children late for school, more and more people must live in war zones. I sit and read by my fire. While others run in terror from the guns and the bombing. There is food in my markets. I have shoes on my feet and clothes to keep me warm. If I am ill I can go to the doctor. My grandchildren go safely to school. And millions of people - as innocent as you and I - are swept into conflicts that are not of their making. Their homes suddenly under rubble and who knows when, or if, there will be food in their markets.

Surely, if there were more women in positions of power, we'd not allow such bloodshed? We might sit up all night over endless cups of tea (or glasses of wine) but we'd not see people go hungry. We'd not see children murdered. We'd not see women raped in the name of war. If our menfolk carried guns we'd withhold the conjugals till they came to their senses. (Oh I do not it's not as easy as that, but it does feel as if everyone has stopped listening to each other and reaches for weapons without thinking.)

And so, as I gather my corner of the world together after my weeks away, I can't help thinking of those whose world is forever in pieces.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

When travelling plans to awry ...

I've been doing this travelling thing for a few years now. I've met a hazard or two. I've taken a risk or several. But at the back of my mind I've always thought, if I was really stuck, I should get to a comfortable resort, sit by a pool, and decide what to do next.

For the first time - and in Malaysia which is basically a safe country and easy to get around - I've done it. All the planning before I came, and still I stumbled up against an insurmountable or three.

Firstly, the weather. This is partly my fault: I knew it was the tail-end of the monsoon but I hoped it would have blown itself out by now. It hasn't. Winds still hammer the east coast unpredictably. The ferries to Pulau Tioman are worse than unreliable. They were running, it seemed, about one day in four. I could have gone to Mersing and waiting for the right day, in the hope of reaching my beautiful island (and then sat on the beach to have sand blown in my eyes). Who knows if there would have been a ferry to bring me back in time to catch my plane home.

Then - the Chinese New Year. The streets are decked in finery. The dragons are practising. The fireworks ready for firing. And every Chinese man and woman is taking to public transport to go home to their families. I met a couple who were unable to get a ticket on a long-distance train for three weeks. The interstate buses are frequent, but filling rapidly. I couldn't rely on turning up at a bus station and buying a ticket. I came across the same problem in Vietnam a few years ago and had to take night bus with blocked toilet and people sleeping on the floor. It was funny the first time, stupid to do it again. I needed to be somewhere I could stay for a few days before the razzmatazz really set in.

Then - a big political trial in KL was reaching its conclusion. The Leader of the Opposition was appealing his conviction for sodomy. If upheld (which it was), then he would be imprisoned for five years. I had no way of knowing how this would play out. I had several conversations with students, mostly young waiters, but we talked about their studies and I didn't feel I could drop the odd question about sodomy into those conversations. I don't know KL well enough to make sure I could stay out of the way of any demonstrations. So it seemed like a good plan to stay well south of the city given that I was flying home from Singapore.

It felt as if all three were conspiring to limit my choices.

So I've come to a resort on Sentosa, the island just south of Singapore. The pool is fed by spring water and fringed by palm trees. I can swim and read and read and swim. And eat. There are, I admit, worse solutions.

But one day I shall have to come back - and not in February - and catch the ferry to Pulau Tioman, to sit on the beach with the monkeys and monitor lizards.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Miss Jo from Malacca

I love Malacca. I love Malacca even more than I love Penang, but for the same reasons. It is a melting pot of cultures. Chinatown is getting dressed up for the Chinese New Year. A stone's throw away is Little India. Mosques remind the visitor of the city's Islamic foundations. Intermarriage between ethnic groups has led to distinctive subcultures each with its own traditions and cuisines. On top of that, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British all had a hand in its architecture.

And it's small enough that getting lost is only ever a brief experience.

I first came here eight years ago. I stayed in a hotel in Chinatown, in an building that was once an old mansion; much of its old character is still treasured. There is heavy wooden furniture with pearl inlay. I eat breakfast in a courtyard with a fountain and bamboo rattling in the breeze.

Eight years ago I chatted with one of the cleaners here - Miss Jo. She'd been a lecturer at a university but retired with no pension and so worked as a cleaner to support herself. We were delighted to share a name. She took me to a celebration at her Sikh temple and I shared a meal there.

We talked every morning, about her family and my family and whatever we read in the newspaper. She glanced continually at the young women on reception. She was in permanent trouble for talking when she should be sweeping.

I'm here again, at the same hotel. And, that first afternoon, when I saw a small woman in her green cleaner's overall hunched over a newspaper I knew it had to be Miss Jo. Our mutual delight was wonderful. So much has happened in the past eight years and we had to cover it all. Her sister has died. My grandchildren have arrived. Hers have gone to university and are successful young people.

But what pleases me most is that she is still here. She is over eighty now. She always has her broom with her. I've seen her wave it round the floor just once. And occasionally she walks around looking purposeful. But she spends much of her time reading the newspapers (provided for guests) or talking with visitors. It seems that her employers have given up trying to insist she attend to her work and have taken a more compassionate attitude. This, the Hotel Puri in Malacca, is one of my favourite hotels in the world.

And someone is doing the cleaning, because the place is spotless.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

From One Jungle to Another

I've left the trees behind and made it to the jungle of Kuala Lumpur. It's not my favourite city - full of new skyscrapers, glass twinkling in the sunlight, with echoes of the old city squashed into precious corners. The traffic clogs the streets and belches fumes. The main escape, for people who live here, is in the air-conditioned shopping malls, where you can buy Levis, and pants from Marks and Spencer's. I've been up the Petronas Towers, to peer down on it all. Green space is precious here.

I miss the jungle of Fraser's Hill. I spent hours walking the trails, tramping deep into the rainforest. Although the leaflets suggest the paths are wide and easy - they fib. There is much scrambling, over tree roots, down banks to cross tiny streams that race down the hillsides. Everything smells damp - with occasional whiffs of animal.

For the jungle is teeming with wildlife. I was rewarded by the sight of two young gibbons playfighting - too far away to even think of a photograph. Besides I was mesmerised, as they threw themselves around in the trees and never fell to the ground - how did they do that? And I saw wild boar - from a safe distance. I saw the holes where tarantulas hide, ready to prey on unsuspecting birds. I saw an ants nest hung high in the trees. I saw wild ginger - that was the only plant I managed to recognise.

And yes, I was bitten by a leech. There's a first time for everything. I can tell you that the thought of it is far worse than the reality. It doesn't hurt - though it does bleed a lot. And it was worth it to see the gibbons.

The morning before I left, I has a long conversation with the Chinese cook a the hotel. We talked about food, and about the jungle:

'Did you see a tiger?' he said.

'What tiger?'

'Only once, last year, tiger was seen here, at Fraser's Hill. Mostly they live high in the mountains.'

Note to daughters - I promise, I never knew there might be tigers. Being bitten by a leech feels insignificant when I could have been tiger-tea.

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!)