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  • Bugger Buddha – I’ve found Jesus!

    Friday, January 15th, 2016By annablog3 Comments

    In Bagan, there are 4,000 temples occupying a 26 square mile plain. Some are red brick stupas, others dazzling gold pagodas topped with gilded ‘hti’ pinnacles. How to see them all? Hop on an electric bike, that’s how. At the Ruby True Hotel – which had all the exterior glitz of a Nevada knocking shop – the ever-smiling, matronly ‘Madame’ assured us that riding one of these nippy vehicles was a piece of cake. On a regular tarmac road, this might be an accurate assessment but on winding sandy tracks, rutted by a host of other vehicles, a piece of cake it was not. The first major incident occurred when I’d slowed down to avoid hitting a monk. I lost my balance and somehow, the bike (which was quite a big lump of metal) fell over on its side. In the process of trying to get it back upright, I panicked and inadvertently activated the accelerator. The bike jerked forward (with me still holding on for dear life), and crashed into an unfortunately placed hovel where I bashed my shoulder. Thankfully, Ian came to the rescue and switched me off before I could whizz off again. Meanwhile, the monk I’d narrowly missed came dashing over, not to see if I was injured or needed assistance, no, he was most perturbed to see that I’d dented the hovel’s rusty old corrugated iron roof with my clumsy shoulder and proceeded to bend it back into shape. I’d like to say that over the course of the day, I became a proficient electric bike rider but that would be lieing. I skidded and careered around the dusty tracks, narrowly missing other bikes, dogs and tourists who hadn’t the sense to hide behind a tree when they saw me coming.

    Despite the transport challenges, Bagan was stunningly beautiful. We watched the sun go down from the giddy heights of one of the city’s largest, most spectacular pagodas, visited the family of one of Ian’s friends, sharing dinner in their tiny bamboo house from where they run a small-scale lacquer making business, and wandered down to the mighty Irrawaddy River, a serene blue ribbon in a sea of dry desert. Despite it being a tourist hot-spot and awash with hawkers peddling everything from boat rides to baskets, parasols to puppets, Bagan was bloody brilliant.

    If Bagan could be said to have embraced Western travellers with zeal, our next destination was still languishing in the dark ages, yet to even dream about the potential for tourism that lay in their mountainous land. Chin State was until recently, off limits to travellers (the government blamed insurgency but the reality is this is a very poor region and they didn’t fancy the bad press they might get) so I felt very excited to be going to this north westerly region of the country, 60 miles away from the Indian border. Our launch pad for Chin was the town of Kalaymyo, a bustling town two blocks wide and nine miles long with an airport that consisted of a shed in a field, and just two hotels. We were booked into the Majesty, a large, imperious looking building with a Paladian frontage and a Holby City interior. While the reception area exuded ‘Dynasty’ (peach curtains, gold trim, mirrored glass), the corridors were long, high, white tiled and extremely utilitarian. This was a hotel that had done a deal with Topps Tiles; its aim – to aurally torture its guests. ‘Echoey’ is a wholly inadequate word. At night, the upstairs function room turned into Karaoke central, filling the hotel’s vast network of corridors with a blasting Myanmar version of Cher’s ‘If I could turn back time’ and other assorted soundy likies. Thankfully, we were only staying here two nights, just long enough to shop (I could have bought a concrete mixer or a plastic urinal in the shop next door), have a swim in the hotel pool (also somewhere to wash seeing as there wasn’t any hot water in our rooms), and marvel at the lack of cutlery in the downstairs restaurants (which had a Lazy Susan on every table but no knives – we had to ‘butter’ our mattress bread with a spoon).

    Kalaymyo, like many towns in the region, is Christian which, after Bagan with all its Buddhist and Hindu temples, felt weird. Whatever your denomination, as long as you’re Christian, you’re catered for in Kalaymyo. There’s Baptist, Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, and the mysterious Believers (maybe I read the sign wrong and it said ‘Beliebers’ – Justin is big here too as is One Direction). One night, we passed by a large Baptist Church set back from the road and blazing multi-coloured Christmas lights all over it. In the car park was a life-sized nativity scene, minus the baby Jesus but with a modern-day attraction of three youths sprawling in the hay smoking. We could hear some Mariah Carey warbling from inside the church so we poked our heads around the door. Our arrival prompted a bit of a commotion. A middle-aged man in an ill-fitting suit spied us and came hurtling down the aisle to welcome the foreigners and question our presence in the town. Were we missionaries? What ‘project’ were we involved with? Were we the second coming? By now, the whole congregation had stopped listening to the warbling woman and were staring at us. We were invited to join the service and sit at the front as guests of honour. I was ready to lead the prayers, give a sermon or even slip into an ecstatic trance but Ian, not being a total show-off like me, declined the invitation and we went back to bed to be kept awake by the screeching karaoke brigade.

    The next day we got on a minibus for the far-flung town of Falam, only 70 miles away but an incredible mountainous journey of perilous switchbacks that lasted seven hours. Chin is one of Myanmar’s poorest regions and has the added disadvantage of being prone to severe weather. Last year’s cyclone had resulted in countless landslides which decimated the only road that linked Falam with Kalaymyo, hence the time it took to reach our destination. Every few miles we’d come across a red flag and join a queue of motorbikes and trucks, all waiting stoicly for a gap in the roadworks. Chin people have learnt to be patient. There were JCBs shifting mountains of sandy soil to create flood terraces and legions of bamboo hatted female workers laboriously transferred baskets of stones on their heads to the road ready to be covered by the evil smelling pitch that was bubbling away in nearby oil barrels.

    We eventually arrived in Falam, a former British hill station that is well off the beaten track for most tourists. Our accommodation here was the Holy Guest House, a two-storey hostel in the centre of town, opposite the Baptist Church. The bare and basic double and single rooms were arranged on either side of a long corridor that led to communal wash facilities at the back of the building. The latter consisted of a couple of squat toilets, a ‘shower’ room with a big tiled water tank, and a Western toilet. The Thomas Crapper was strictly prohibited to all but foreign use, probably owing to some Asian type who, unable to grasp the special position required of this type of facility, had climbed onto the porcelain to do a number two and broken the seat, if not the whole toilet bowl.

    My bedroom was triangular in shape with a sliding door and a Goldilocks sized bed plus a washing line for my clothes. Separating me from the man next door? A flimsy plastic wall bearing a green bamboo leaf motif. Sleeping was a challenge in the Holy Guest House owing to the snoring, farting and sleep-talking, as well as the heavy-footed guests who seemed to be constantly prowling the corridor at all hours. Our hosts, Mr and Mrs Holy, were an elderly couple who slept in a shoebox on the ground floor and spent all day either gazing out of the window, carrying bags of dirty laundry to and fro, filling up our thermos flasks so we could have a strip wash with a flannel (for we had no hot running water) or, once the sun had gone down, huddled around a small charcoal brazier on the first floor landing. Falam boasted the balmy temperature of a typical UK summer during the day but once it was dark, it did get rather chilly. Oh yeah, and the electricity kept going off – one night I had no torch as I couldn’t charge my phone which meant when I blindly stumbled to the loo in the dark, I inadvertently put my foot down the squat toilet. Nice!

    Being the only Westerners in this remote neck of the woods, in an area that had hitherto been off-limits to the outside world, we were viewed like celebrities everywhere we went. Some people smiled but seemed too shy to say hello, others were keen to practice what little English they might know – “Happy birthday” was one greeting – others just stared or ran away screaming.

    We had a contact in Falam – Jack, the Secretary of the Chin National Democratic Party and editor of a local newspaper. Like a lot of Myanmar minority groups, Chin is having a tough time getting its voice heard at a national level which is something Jack is hoping to redress. He took time out to arrange for us to go trekking (an activity unheard of in Falam), putting us in touch with a couple of local guys who could take us around the local villages. The first trek we did was about 12 miles long and took us west along a dusty road that skirted the mountain. On incredibly steep terraces we passed villagers scratching out a living growing a variety of vegetables. Irrigation here is an elaborate and highly creative system of bamboo and plastic pipes bringing the water from the many waterfalls that cascade down the mountains to the fields. Everyone that passed us on the road slowed down on their bikes to stare and ask our guide what the bloody ‘ell he was doing: a. walking when he could be on a bike, and b. fraternising with a man with grey hair and enormous feet (Ian), a smaller man with a big bottom and a ridiculously loud sneeze (Tristan), and a towering mass of hair, knees and nose (me). To every comment, our guide, Luey, would laugh, saying: ‘They want me to walk them to my village and they’re going to pay me for it. It’s bonkers!’

    When we arrived at Luey’s village we were invited into the house of a local woman and treated to a plate of trifle fingers and a cup of hot beverage (none of us could tell if it was tea or coffee). We were then handed one bowl of assorted beans, one spoon, a saucer of salt, and one cup of hot water. Unsure of whether to put the hot water over the beans or wash our fingers in it, we decided to each eat one spoon of beans topped with a sprinkling of salt followed by a hot water chaser and then pass the bowl to the next person. This seemed to be the correct procedure by the look on the face of our hostess. We imagined this was ‘lunch’ but then Luey took us to his house where we had more beans, this time there were three bowls accompanied by some salsa. For pud, Luey’s wife then plonked a load of sugar cane on the table with assorted knives. Ignorant of how to strip, trim or even eat sugar cane, Mrs Luey had to demonstrate. She got out the biggest knife in her arsenal and with the dexterity and speed of a master chef, trimmed the cane, cut it into bite-size pieces and demonstrated the chew and spit method of ‘eating’.

    Lunch over, we bid our farewell to Luey and his wife and started the trudge back to Falam. Walking on a metal road is hard on the legs so just before we reached town, we cadged a lift from a vehicle that consisted of a sit-on lawn mower engine pulling a much larger trailer containing some stones and timber. The driver was all of 14 years of age and was delighted to have Ian and Tristan in the trailer and me alongside him in the cab. He dropped us off on the outskirts of town where we then ran into an octogenarian dressed in a beige rainmac and fleece pyjama bottoms who had studied English in Cardiff in 1961. He showed us the hospital that the British had built in 1951 complete with isolation ward for leprosy and other highly contagious diseases. Sadly, the building was now in a parlous state of disrepair and like a lot of Myanmar’s old colonial architecture, not likely to be restored to its former glory any time soon.

    Just before the sun went down that night we watched a game of Sepale Takraw in the town’s sports hall. It’s played on a volleyball court but the ‘ball’, about the size of grapefruit, is made of bamboo and players use their head and feet to pass the ball to each and slam it over the net. It’s a bit like ‘keepy uppy’ but much faster and involving rather dangerous looking scissor kicks. The next day, we did another trek to a couple of villages in the other direction from Falam, and, it being Sunday, we got to sit in on a Baptist Church service. The pastor did a lot of shouting while babies cried and people wandered in and out willy nilly. There was a man on an organ but he only got to use it once at the end, and we didn’t do any clapping, shaking hands or kneeling down. Also, all the festive decorations were still up – despite the 12 days of Christmas having long been and gone. I was going to suggest they took them down but then remembered I had absolutely no idea why it was the custom (UK or Western-wide?) to take down the decorations on the 12th night.

    We were a bit sweaty when we got back to the Holy Guest House and my hair was full of dust and God knows what else so I locked myself in the bathing chamber and threw a couple of thermos flasks of hot water over me, lathering up with two sachets of Silvikrin that I’d bought the day before from a hole in the wall shop along with a jumbo packet of what I call Vile Crisps (very, very oily). The sun had gone down so I layered up and we went out to the Chinese restaurant for the third night running (it was that or the dodgy restaurant where everyone was pissed on 11% local beer), along the way, running the gauntlet of Miss Fiddle, the local fruitcake who, every time she saw us would burst out laughing. The restaurant was a bit like eating in a garage – overhead lights, concrete floor, doors wide open. We were served by an expressionless 10 year old girl who’d wipe our table with a pair of old underpants, casually sweeping the previous meal’s detritus onto the floor before throwing you a menu. We were just settling down for a stir-fry (without soy sauce!!! What Chinese restaurant doesn’t have soy sauce?) when a large and rowdy office party came in and plonked themselves down next to us. The head honcho, some district government minister, who’d obviously been on the pop, was eager to talk and kept coming over to our table. ‘Can I have a conversation with you?’ he asked us? ‘Yes, OK’ we replied. But he was so pissed he couldn’t string a sentence together and every time we tried to say anything he blindly ignored us. At one point he wanted to analyse our palms: mine was ‘weak’, Tristan’s was ‘weak, Ian’s was ‘medium’, but his hand was ‘strong’. It just looked dirty to me but anyway, his wife then pitched up and dragged him away from us and we got to finish our dinner in peace.

    The next morning I bade my triangular bedroom goodbye, packed my rucksack for the umpteenth time, had some fried oil cakes dunked in a cup of ‘three in one’ (super sweet coffee’) and we went down to the bus stand – the final farewell of Mr Holy: ‘I will pray for you’ ringing in our ears. The roadworks on the way back to Kalaymyo were even worst on our return journey and we only just made our plane back to Yangon. The airport officials were a bit perplexed by the cast iron fire stand that I was transporting along with my regular luggage. Did I have a bag for it? No! Alright, slip us 1,000 Kyat and we’ll go and buy one for you. That’s how they roll here in Myanmar. Money gets you everywhere!

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  • The Burma Campaign 2015 – 2016

    Tuesday, January 5th, 2016By annablog3 Comments

    I arrived in Yangon on Christmas Eve to be met by Seema, Ian and Tristan’s housekeeper – a small person of few words who it would appear, spends most of her life locked in a cupboard, steam ironing. She escorted me by taxi back to the boys’ house, relieved me of my dirty bag and disappeared into the cupboard for a long session with her ironing board. What a relief to be in a clean, presentable house with soft furnishings, mood lighting and a fully fitted kitchen. There were two other guests, Julia and Jeff, ex-pats living in Malaysia. Julia is a maths teacher and likes sky diving. Jeff is from the Philippines and has perfect skin. They too had been off-piste, travelling around Myanmar, so were relieved to be in relative civilisation, abluted and laundered, and with a large bottle of gin and some dried broad beans with which to toast the season. We had a blackout during which I nearly fed the ensemble cat biscuits that I mistook for some sort of Myanmar chilli snack but apart from that, Christmas Eve was a relaxed evening of eating, drinking and sharing travel stories.

    Christmas Day was spent in Bago, north of Yangon, at a friend’s boutique hotel. Think bamboo verandah, rattan furniture and teak floors. We drank Camparis, ate mousse and exotic fruits, and had a bit of light petting in the swimming pool. Well, if you can’t pet in a pool on Christmas Day, when can you? Our only concession to the festive occasion was a box of luxury M&S crackers that despite their selection of premium novelty crap had skimped on the paper hats. Mine burst the minute I tried to ram it onto my great big head. Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without a ripped crown and a fish skeleton key ring!

    The next day we had a tour of downtown Yangon, a really beautiful, if dilapidated old colonial part of the city with wide, tree-lined avenues and grand old buildings reminiscent of the Europe of old. Yangon doesn’t have the chaos of India or the poverty; what it has is bucket loads of charm and a more relaxed ambience that delivers without overpowering the senses. Yes, there are frequent power cuts (Myanmar sells a lot of its electricity to China) and the traffic jams are a nightmare but it also has fascinating markets, friendly people who don’t look at you like the freak show has come to town, and great places to eat and drink. All the men wear longhis – long cotton skirts that they wrap around and knot to form a sort of sporran over their bits. The women meanwhile (who also wear a longhis but fastened more discreetly) like to plaster their faces with a creamy coloured tree bark paste. It’s part fashion and part sun protection; think wheat germ face mask without the germ. Apparently, it’s most beneficial for acne.

    Next stop on the itinerary was Nay Phi Taw, the vast, glitzy new capital that’s been built in the centre of Myanmar, housing the ministry HQs and other administrative centres. It’s a weird, ghost-town that has no centre but consists of separate shopping, hotel and business zones, interlinked by enormous 20 lane highways that, apart from the odd scooter and private car, are eerily deserted. The city’s hotel complexes, set way back off the road in the middle of huge dusty areas of waste ground, generally have only around 5% occupancy. It seems, no one wants to go to Nay Phi Taw unless they really have to – and I can see why.

    Our bolt hole for the next two days while Ian and Tristan were running a workshop, was the Royal Ace, a huge, plush hotel where the only other guests were a bunch of grim-looking Russian men (big old units in shorts, heavy smokers). The hotel boasted all the accoutrements of a high-end Western hotel but sadly was lacking any real personality. In the cavernous lobby someone had tried to create some festive cheer with an undersized plastic Christmas tree that could have done with the magic hands of Kirsty Allsop. No baubles, no fairy, just a few manky lights and a bit of threadbare tinsel. In the huge dining room, we were surrounded by a multitude of eager staff – there was one person to take your order, another to top up your water, and yet another to lay your napkin oh so carefully across your waiting groin. Unfortunately, the money they’d spent on staff training hadn’t been extended to health and safety; I got violently ill from the salade Nicoise. It’s times like these you’re thankful for Thomas Crapper. I don’t think I could have faced kneeling down retching over a squat toilet. Julia too had dodgy guts. She hadn’t eaten the tuna but something was obviously bubbling away in her intestines because she had to keep excusing herself, and her skin was the colour of custard.

    Anyway, after emptying my guts a few times, we went ‘sight-seeing’. There being no public transport in Nay Phi Taw, we got a private car to take us around. Highlights: the National Landmark Park, a 400 acre theme park that largely consisted of a rifle range, antiquated swing boats, and a few models of Shrek, the Little Mermaid and a giraffe; the Fountain Water Park, an evening attraction where I walked behind an illuminated waterfall and felt sick on a mini suspension bridge; and, and,…..no, that’s it!

    Thankfully, we then left the big city for Inle Lake, a beautiful wildlife haven where the locals live in bamboo houses set high on stilts above the water and farmers grow tomatoes on floating reed beds. We stayed in Nangschwe, a small village that was rammed to the gills with 20-something neo-hippies dressed in elephant pants and bandanas, eating banana pancakes and drinking flat whites. ‘Like yeah, we’ve done Thailand,’ they’d drawl to each other, flicking their carefully groomed dreadlocks. ‘And these days, Micronesia is like so full of tourists.’ Unfortunately, we had to spend the next couple of days with twats like these as Nangschwe was back-packer central. Wandering around on the first day, we were accosted by a local guy on a mini moped smoking a cheroot and sporting the reddened teeth of a habitual pan chewer (the betal nut mild narcotic favoured by the men around these parts). He also stank of whisky! He was touting trips around the lake on his motorised long boat where we’d see floating pagodas, craft workshops and fishermen plying the waters of the vast reed-lined lake. Impressed by his spit punctuated patter, we said ‘yes’ and the next day, bright and early, we followed our boatman (still stinking of whisky) down to the river along with all the other tourists for our day on the water. We saw lots of fishermen (showing off by fishing on one leg while steering their boat with the other), visited the lotus and silk weaving workshops (little old ladies on Industrial Revolution era looms), avoided the long-necked women of the Paduang tribe (sad victims of a human freak show) and wandered around the souvenir stalls (‘Mingalarbar big lady. Wanna buy my nicky nacky noos?’).

    Next on the agenda was a three-day hike. Tristan and Ian joined us from their workshop in Nay Phi Taw but sadly Julia and her bubbling stomach and Jeff with his perfect skin, opted to stay at Inle Lake a little longer to recuperate. We were walking from Nangschwe to Kalaw, an old British hill station that’s reached by forest-capped hills peopled by various hill tribes. Our guide, I’m going to call him Ow Ow, was a very smiley 24 year old who used to be a painter and decorator but had switched to trekking as a more lucrative way to feed his extended family. Ow Ow didn’t exactly look the part; he was wearing suit trousers, holey socks and a pair of ripped pumps. I said to him: ‘Ow Ow, you’ll see where you’ll end up with that type of footwear. You’ve got no support. And you could do with a new pair of socks.’ He just smiled but then Tristan gave him an old pair of woollen/nylon mix from Sock Shop which perked him up no end.

    On the first day of our trek, we traversed steep limestone crags before the path reached a plateau and we had a pleasant ramble into a small village where we were going to spend our first night. Consisting of a few bamboo houses and a monastery, the village had no electricity but a lot of cattle hence much dung that they could use for fuel. It was a bit Eurovision at our homestay; there were the jolly French girls, the bald headed Italian Phil Mitchell lookie-likie and the wholesome Norwegian bearded man who probably chopped wood for a living. After dinner, our assorted guides and chef built a fire and enticed us with half pint glasses of rum sour – a potent concoction that brought out the crazy in some of the party. To the strains of an out of tune guitar and some very creaky vocals, we sang Myanmar pop songs and twerked. The chef, who had consumed vast amounts of rum sour, was very thrusting and, when he wasn’t almost falling into the fire, kept making a bee-line for my arse. I tried to change the mood with a rendition of ‘London’s Burning’ but the Myanmar contingent wasn’t keen. I then threw in a bit of ‘Tiger Feet’ for good measure and Tristan got me dirty dancing – we both had a go at the Jennifer Grey lift – and we finished off with a Myanmar rendition of ‘Country Roads’, at which point the whole ensemble linked arms and shared some Euro love before going to bed – at 9pm.

    Ian, Tristan and I were bunked up in a hut next to the kitchen so I fell asleep to the sound of our drunken chef breathing heavily, just inches from my face on the other side of a very thin bamboo screen. And then, at the ungodly hour of 5.15am, the resident cockerel started its morning squawks, followed by some very vigorous hawking from our homestay hosts. The next day, we picked our way between paddy and wheat fields and along dusty tracks of brilliant russet earth to the next village. Along the way, we saw fields of red chillies and white flowering mustard. This is Myanmar at its rural extreme. Teams of oxen plough the fields and transport the workers by wooden cart to and fro; the male farm workers wear bamboo hats to protect them from the hot sun and the women carry their babies on their backs, eating their lunch under the shade of an acacia tree. We saw women sifting the chaff from black sesame seed heads while others were spreading red chillies over the ground to dry before taking them back to the village.

    At our next homestay, we ran into the giggling French girls and another French-speaking couple, a young woman and her French-Canadian boyfriend, a painfully thin individual who looked in dire need of a solid meal but who wasn’t averse to having a very thorough outdoor strip wash while we were enjoying a nice cup of tea on the verandah. That night, we all slept on the first floor of the homestay. The gigglers were in one corner while I lay inbetween Ian and Tristan under my multi-coloured blanket. Meanwhile, the Quebecers had their own small space just off the main room. Not forgetting the host family who, to make room for their guests, had decamped to a broom cupboard, also off the main room. It was all very cosy. In the night, Ms Quebec went down to the toilet and on her way back had a fainting fit, falling into an occasional table and bumping her head. At this point, the cupboard family all came out of the cupboard, while Mr Quebec, who had an air of Munchausen by Proxy about him, started telling us all that she had Dengue fever and they would have to call off the trek and go to the nearest hospital.

    A word about the food. Myanmar bread is a bit like chewing on a mattress; Myanmar ‘butter’ biscuits have a chalky, breeze block consistency about them, and every main meal comes with a bowl of washing up water, masquerading as chicken soup. The jam is nuclear red – with no discernible fruit in it and ‘butter’ is cooking margarine. Apart from that, Myanmar food is very tasty! I am, however, missing cheese. The minute I get home I’m going to get some Sainsbury’s multi seed and make myself a great big cheddar cheese and pickle sandwich.

    My final act upon leaving the homestay was to visit the pig pen – positioned suspiciously close to the squat toilet – my aim, to feed the pigs the remains of my deep fried breakfast banana. They screamed with delight (as they did, disturbingly, when anyone approached the toilet). Ow Ow told me that the pigs spend their whole life in the pen and are never let out to stretch their short porky legs. This bothered me a bit but what can you do? On our way out of the village, we paused to watch a football match being played, curiously, on a ‘pitch’ peppered with what looked like oversized mole hills. Naturally, this made the game very stoppy starty but oh how those boys laughed as they ran up and down the hills emulating their favourite Chelsea/Manchester United player.

    As we approached our final destination, Kalaw, we came across a narrow gauge railway line, one that the British had built during their Empire days, so I naturally re-enacted a silent movie where the damsel is in distress because she’s been tied to the railway line by two gay extremists. How we laughed! Ow Ow, in his new socks, thought this was highly amusing. We rewarded his enthusiasm and good humour with a big fat tip, said goodbye to Tristan, who was off back to Yangon for work, and Ian and I got on the JJ Bus for Bagan. ‘JJ’ stands for ‘Joyeous Journeys’ and the motto emblazoned across the windscreen reassuringly told us, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done’. Praise the Lord for an evangelical bus company, that’s what I say.

    Watch this space for my final thrilling installment……

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  • The last hoorah (and a big hooray for Bangkok)

    Sunday, December 27th, 2015By annablog3 Comments

    My final night in India was spent at a typical airport hotel, ie overpriced but handy although I didn’t know how handy (under a kilometre away from the airport) until I’d been ripped off by the taxi driver to the tune of 200 rupees. ‘I could have bloody walked it’, I declared to my shameless driver as he parked up outside the glamorously-named Shangri-La Lodge.

    So, after five weeks in India, I’m leaving for Myanmar and Christmas with Ian and Tristan. I’ve had my last cloyingly sweet masala tea with the skin on top, taken my last shared jeep ride along treacherous roads peppered by landslides and roaming animals, and had my final bag of disappointing sweets (looked like a macaroon, tasted like dust). I’ve met a few Westerners ranging from the Austrian John Hurt lookie likie who had sex tourism written all over him, to the Belgian occupational therapist from Brussels who took me to the Tibetan monastery where I got chased by a dog with the largest nipples I’ve ever seen.

    I’m sad I won’t be in India for National Handwashing Day but not sad that I’m going somewhere where lettuce is not dangerous. I’m still curious about a few things: why there are hardly any balding men (they can’t all be wearing syrups), and exactly what do I do with the bucket, jug and small stool in all my en suites, and am I hosing my anus with the small shower attachment or washing the toilet seat? I’m also sad I don’t have room in my rucksack for a machete. I feel I could make good use of a killer knife back at home, if only to hack away at the blackburry bush on the allotment.

    Things I love about India:

    1. The correct use of the apostrophe.

    2. The proliferation of public notices and mottos eg ‘Don’t litter – it makes the world bitter’,’No urination in this place’, and my particular favourite speeding admonishment, the wonderfully succinct ‘Better to be late than dead’.

    3. The occasional sense of humour. I saw one toilet with a simple sign for ‘Men’ on the left hand side and an opposing sign for ‘Women – always right!’.

    4. You can go to jail for ‘misbehaving with bank employees’, as the window sign outside the ICIC Bank informed the public. I read this as possibly making an inappropriate deposit with your favourite teller but no, this was a reference to bank robbery.

    5. The wonderfully delicious food to be eaten by the side of the road, provided you can ignore the fact that the vendor looks like he needs a ruddy good wash and a visit to the dentist.

    6. The wonderful use of the Empire’s mother tongue, a combination of Dickensian era English and unabashed verbosity eg a sign from Guwahati’s local council informing its residents to keep the noise down on New Year’s Eve becomes: ‘The rollicking and frolicking of high decibel music systems committing sonic violence is prohibited.’

    Things I’m not so keen on….

    1. The hawking and spitting of betal juice every which way. Does no-one blow their nose in this country?

    2. The lack of maps or road signs and the seeming inability of people to give adequate directions eg ‘turn left at the bottom of the road and proceed in a northerly direction for approximately five minutes…’ No, it’s all vague hand waving and shouting. If I ever arrived at my chosen destination, it was a miracle.

    3. The daredevil driving, horning, and lack of seatbelt wearing. With no traffic lights, zebra crossings or lollipop ladies, if you’re a bit lily-livered or have a limp, you’re road kill. Having said that, I loved the roadmen who wore dazzling gold wellington boots that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the London catwalk, and the men pouring vats of bubbling tar over the road in just a pair of shorts and flip-flops.

    4. The extreme poverty, exemplified by the man with no eyes singing at the roadside. It was a bit XFactor early stages, but I gave him 100 rupees (£1 – a fortune), nevertheless.

    5. The rubbish. Despite all the signs, India is one big litter bug. I’ve seen so many beautiful locations marred by the detritus of modern living – crisp packets, fag ends, and most heinous of all, plastic bottles. There’s seemingly no regular rubbish collection so people burn at the roadside, releasing noxious gases into air that’s already clogged by traffic fumes and dust. No wonder so many people wear face guards.

    6. Just like home, everyone is on their mobiles, all the time; think less ‘I’m on the train’ and more ‘I’m on the rickshaw’. People may live in a derelict concrete block with a corrugated roof and no running water but they can still watch ‘India’s Got Talent’ on their phone of any evening.

    After all this, I had one glorious night in Bangkok – where a towel on the bed is not just a towel on the bed – it is a swan! And the taxi to my hotel has working seat belts, air conditioning, and a driver with a full set of teeth. Next stop Myanmar…..

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  • The Guns of Manipur

    Monday, December 21st, 2015By annablog3 Comments

    On my final two days in Meglahaya, I went on a mini safari in Kaziranga National Park, home to the world’s only group of one-horned rhinos. Alongside me on my excursion I had a Bengali couple and their teenage son from Kolkata. Mr Kolkata only had two bottom teeth and belched in my face during dinner. Master Kolkata was studying statistics at University but hadn’t got the sense he was born with. When presented with a boiled egg at breakfast, he stared at it in blind panic until Mummy Kolkata, a miserable woman with oily hair took it off him and shelled it for him.

    For some inexplicable reason, our transport to the park was a 50 seat bus which had a good sizeable hole in the gangway so I could watch the road underneath as we sped along if I got tired of watching it out of the window. All went well for the first two hours of mostly ‘motorway’ driving (I use the term loosely as a ‘motorway’ here means yes, there’s sometimes a central reservation and demarcation lines but vehicles often choose to drive the wrong way into the oncoming traffic when looking to cross over onto the other side of the road, and undertaking is de rigueur), but then we bust the clutch and had to pull over onto the ‘hard shoulder’ ie the ditch. At this point, I imagined hours waiting for a mechanic or maybe even having to spend the night by the roadside but no, quite possibly the dirtiest man I’ve ever seen appeared out of nowhere in vest and flipflops (he was also wearing trousers), flung himself underneath the bus and ripped out the clutch. The driver then went off in an auto-rickshaw to the nearest clutch centre, got a new one, and dirty man put it in. We were back on the road in just over an hour.

    Kaziranga was triffic; we did indeed see the one-horned rhino plus water buffaloes, wild boar and elephants plus a myriad of bird life. The park itself is lush with tall elephant grasses, glistening lakes and thick jungle. Our accommodation was a cluster of old colonial bungalows that had seen better days but the setting was glorious. In the evening we were treated to an outdoor Assamese dance demo featuring a clutch of doe-eyed lovelies and some men with long bongos and wrap around skirts. It was a bit Hi-de-Hi – lots of audience participation from people who had no place in show business. One badly coordinated Belgian boy made a complete hash of the lady line dancing routine but I saved his blushes by jumping onto the stage and sliding effortlessly into a flowing sequence that had hints of Pussy Cat Dolls and a big chunk of Zumba.

    The next day we were up at 4.45am for a dawn elephant ride that got us really close to the animals. I had a numb bum at the end of the ride but was chuffed to have seen the wildlife at such close quarters. I was a little worried that the elephants we rode might not be happy and when I asked the Austrian man I’d shared the saddle with what he thought about their emotional state as they were a bit ploddy, he said he thought they had ‘dead eyes’ which bothered me for a bit but then I saw them later sans saddlery and they seemed to have perked up a bit and were having an elephant love-in. I would have liked to stay longer in Kaziranga but we had to drive back to Guwahati from whence I was off to Imphal in Manipuri on the border of Myanmar. ‘Manipuri is volatile’, it says in my guide book. There have been ‘decades of brutal inter-factional conflict’. Well, I do like to go out with a bang and it is my last stop before leaving for Myanmar so….

    On the hour long flight from Guwahati to Imphal, I was sat next to a man who insisted on playing his itunes to the whole cabin at full blast. And what was his favourite tune? ‘Country Roads’ by John Denver, either a strange coincidence or people in the northeast of India really go for cloyingly sweet cowboy music. He also pissed me off because he kept leaning over and taking things out of MY seat back pocket – the menu, the in-flight magazine, and even the sick bag, although he didn’t use it, thank God!

    At Imphal airport there were more soldiers, police and sundry militia than passengers. They looked me up and down as I got off the plane and then had a mutter to each other. Inside the terminal, I had to register myself with the police, tell them where I was staying , who my guide was and where I would be visiting. Of course, I had to make all of this up as I was clueless as to my forthcoming movements in Manipur. It seems the politics of exclusion is taking a firm hold in this neck of the woods. There are a myriad of tribal groups here who are concerned they are being marginalised by the influx of outsiders (Burmese, bangladeshis and the like) who are buying up land and taking the jobs. Just a couple of months ago a group of ‘terrorists’ torched a government minister’s house and seven young people were killed in the gun battle that ensued. Anyway, there were gun carrying troops on every corner and after 7pm the streets were deserted as a virtual curfew was in place.

    On my first day here I somehow got involved in a funeral cortège that took up the whole pavement and spilled over into the road. The corpse – an old geezer, for I could plainly see his pasty dead face framed by a white muslin snood – was being carried on some thick bamboo canes by four men while all around a load of other men were chucking what looked like Rice Crispies over the body. I followed the procession down the busy main road for a while but when it headed right for the flyover, I left the mourners to it. Next stop, the Ima market, a vast indoor market run exclusively by women selling everything from live eels to purple carrots. These were gutsy, independent women who delighted in taking the piss out of me. ‘Hey lady, is it cold up there?’, I’m imagining their ribaldry consisted of – for the world is the same all over when it comes to jokes about tall people. Some funny lady even brought her own orange crate over to stand on for the entertainment of her fellow fish sellers. Oh how we laughed!

    That night, Hema, one of the tour guides I’d met earlier that day knocked on my hotel door and asked if I wanted to go to a party. ‘Oh yes please’ said I. It was either that or watch ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ on the telly. I accompanied Hema up to the 5th floor of my hotel to the function room where there were flashing lights, hip hop and a fringe of skater dude types with their high-heeled, powdered molls, sitting around chatting and drinking cans of Kingfisher. Little did I realise that this was an illegal college disco and we were about to get raided. A group of about eight paramilitary with rifles and balaclavas burst in, stopped the music and turned on the lights. ‘Whose party is this? Tell us, now!’ the guy in charge demanded. But the organiser had got wind of the raid and had hightailed it. A very shouty soldier was berating one poor lad and jabbing his finger in his face. Meanwhile, his camouflaged cronies were going around the room menacingly, confiscating the beer and roughing up the punters. I had to resist the urge to stand up and tell them to ‘bugger off’. It’s times like these that I wish I had a machete.

    Apparently, the young, inexperienced organisers had neglected to inform the authorities that they were having a bit of a do. Shame, as just a bit of baksheesh and we’d have been left alone to party on. I went back downstairs to R2D2, happy to have witnessed a bit of break dancing Manipuri style but disappointed I hadn’t had a snog behind the bike sheds.

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  • Siliguri to Shillong

    Friday, December 18th, 2015By annablog3 Comments

    If it’s Thursday, it must be Siliguri, a particularly grubby city whose populace seemed to converge on one long main road fringed by a myriad of market stalls, the road itself plyed by bicycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, buses, motorbikes, lorries – and in the middle of all that, men carrying piles of bricks on their back, school kids, and some daft bint and her limping mother, all taking their lives in their hands in an attempt to get to the other side of the road. Oh no, there are no lollipop ladies here! Anyway, the noise was ear-blasting. As I lay on my bed in the inappropriately-named Nirvana Hotel, located just off the main road, the auditory layer cake, if anything seemed louder than when I was outside in the middle of it. The base note was the thrum of traffic; on top of that there was a cacophony of horns ranging from what I would call a ‘pap’ to a ‘beep’ to a ‘honk’, some long and drawn out, others short and repetitive. Oh yeah, and intersperse all of that with dogs barking, babies crying and really nasty Indo-pop music. Thank God I only had one night here. The next day I was off to Northeast India.

    In the morning I had an early train to catch from NJP to Guwahati, the capital of the Northeast region so I made my way to the rickshaw stand where there ensued a bit of a kerfuffle between the autorickshaw and the cycle rickshaw guys – over me! They all wanted to take me the 4km to the station. One autorickshaw guy said he’d take me for 200 rupees, then a barefoot cycle rickshaw guy, who must have been about 60, undercut him by 50 rupees and practically ripped my backpack off me and dumped it and me onto his rickety yet extremely colourful old contraption. He couldn’t pedal off immediately, such was the size of his load; he had to push me along for the first 50m until he could get some momentum. And as he headed off into the traffic, behind us, I could hear autorickshaw man gleefully shouting after us, I can only imagine words to the effect of, ‘you’ll never do it, she’s enormous’.

    Well he did do it, although, it was quite possibly the most uncomfortable 30 minutes I’ve ever spent, reason being the rickshaw’s narrow seat obviously isn’t built for Western sized buttocks – I kept sliding off. There was one hairy moment when I thought we were going to attempt the flyover route to the station but thankfully, my driver took a less alarming road and we arrived intact although as we parted he did look like he’d need a long lie down to recover from the experience.

    At NJP station where there were no platform numbers or signs saying where to go, who I should run into but the Muswell Hill Crustafarians. They’d missed their train to Guwahati and were arguing about whether to spend £20 on new tickets. ‘Just think’, I said, ‘if you’d got your horsebox here, you wouldn’t need to be taking the train at all’. I don’t think they appreciated my quip. Then I ran into two Americans from Alabama. They were both members of the ‘look at me, look at me’ brigade, togged out in ethnic attire and speaking way too loudly than was necessary. I had an hour long conversation with Madame Alabama about her asthma attacks, her dogs, her sister’s dogs and the fact that she couldn’t stand the dirt, the noise or the litter of India. Mr Alabama had a ponytail and spoke without opening his mouth so I had great difficulty in understanding what he was saying. ‘Honey’, drawled Madame Alabama, ‘where was the place that Eric got bitten by the monkey?’ ‘mmmmmmmmmnnnnnnnnnnsssssss’ inarticulated Mr Alabama. My train being late, we then had another long conversation about Eric and his rabies treatment. I never did find out who Eric was or indeed, if he survived his simion attack but thankfully my train arrived and I got on.

    After an uneventful eight hour journey, I rolled into Guwahati after dark and, taking the advice of the Oliver Reed lookie likie in my first class compartment, went over the other side of the tracks where there were lots of hotels – and lots and lots of men hanging around gawping at the big woman with the big hair. Thankfully, I quickly found a hotel – the lovely Sagar which had a super king sized bed, a powershower and a wicker basket full of toiletries. What a treat. I got a big old lather going, I can tell you.

    I had a day’s sightseeing the next day taking in a Hindu temple, Guwahati’s law courts and a cricket match. Feeling peckish at the ghat and not being putting off by the man having a strip wash at the water’s edge, I bought a bag of nuts off a vendor who sprinkled them liberally with chopped onion and masala. I’d been eating them for a good five minutes – with an audience, of course – when I realised I’d been using the wrong hand. I keep forgetting the bum wipe rule but then it does beg the question, what does one do if one is left handed or one has a gammy right hand?

    I nipped into ‘Pauline’s Books’ as I’ve been gagging for something to read for days. There were lots of spiritual and self-help books but a smattering of classics and lighter reads. The owner, I’m going to call her Pauline, was trying to push a Jeffrey Archer on me but then I spied some Dickens, and then Hardy, and even Conrad. Of course, my choice was dictated by weight. I could have plumped for the Oscar Wilde short stories but it was a heavy tome so in the end I went for ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ – a paperback punctuated with curious line drawings that bore no relation to the story. Pauline was very curious, like most other Indians I’ve met, as to why I’m travelling on my own. She was baffled when I said I had no husband or children. She then wanted to know about my parents and my brothers and sisters, and why they weren’t with me. I think I might start saying my husband is round the corner buying a bag of nuts from now on, if only to avoid the probing questions.

    That night, I went to the Guwahati Cine Club Film Festival to see Warriors of the Steppe, a Khazakstani film about stabbing and horses in the Middle Ages. I knew it was going to be an arty farty event because there was something resembling a red carpet outside the venue, and a lank haired middle-aged man in a grey cardigan with turn-up jeans and suede lace-ups was welcoming people and ensuring they got a biscuit. Anyway, I think the organisers thought I was Meryl Streep because they pounced on me as soon as I walked in and started taking photos of me in front of the festival poster, shaking hands with the man in the grey cardigan, sitting down drinking tea, and standing up eating a biscuit. I could just see the caption in the local paper: “Unknown foreigner with great height at glittering Guwahati film premier”.

    The next day I went to Shillong which, to be honest, was a bit of a shithole. Situated about three hours’ drive south of the capital, Shillong is another hill station that was popular with the British during the days of the Raj when it earned its title as the ‘Scotland of the East’ because of its nearby lakes and forests of conifers. Unfortunately, it’s had its day and apart from the sylvan Ward Lake in the centre of town, it was another dirty, decrepid old town that seemed good for one thing only – shopping. I’ve never seen, not even in Oxford Street, so many people shopping in one place before. And Christmas is big here. Tinsel, trees, Santa, it’s all here together with a myriad of versions of ‘Walking in a winter wonderland’ and its ilk playing in every shop. I nipped into a cafe for a quick snack and there it was, a Perry Como soundie likie warbling away at full blast. Having come to India to get away from the schmaltz of the season, I wasn’t best pleased to have it rammed down my throat along with my vegetable pakoras.

    The Meghalaya region, Shillong being the hotspot, is well known for its rich tribal heritage and there are a number of festivals every year where they celebrate their culture with spectacular song and dance. Unfortunately, the best I got was the Presbytarian Church of India Peace and Harmony Carol Service that took place at the town’s old Polo Ground on Saturday afternoon. The audience were all wearing Santa hats and there was a nativity tableau on the back of a lorry that everyone was taking photos of, plus a bouncy castle, courtesy of the Shillong Rotary Club. Unfortunately, the pastor’s Christmas message delivered from a huge empty stage, was severely compromised when a bunch of young kids spied me, screamed and started taking photos with all their mates. ‘You’re so tall’ they kept screaming as the audience all swung around to see what the disturbance was. One of the shepherds on the lorry left his post by the baby Jesus to implore the kids to be quiet but there were a lot of them, and they all wanted their picture taken next with me. Such is my celebrity!

    I escaped my fans and headed to the extremely atmospheric Cloud 9 bar on the fifth floor of Shillong’s top shopping centre. It was like I’d stepped through a portal into another world. The lighting was candle soft, the furniture consisted of club chairs and rattan tables, the music was chill-out. And there were cocktails on the menu. This was bliss – and they had working Wifi to boot. I could even forgive the fact that the Thai green curry tasted nothing like Thai green curry. They had nibbles, they had beer, they had a big screen showing videos, they had a hand drier in the toilet. Personally, I would have taken down the picture of the woman on the bike that said ‘Put some fun between your legs’ but apart from that, Cloud 9 got a big thumbs up.

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  • The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Rude

    Wednesday, December 9th, 2015By annablog3 Comments

    I left the Dracula Hotel (dark, scary, blood on the walls) in the sleepy village of Yuksom for the slightly less sleepy village of Tashiding. I was in a shared jeep with three young girls from Sheffield. They’d spent the last year mllking cows in New Zealand and were now on a world tour in an effort to find out what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives. ‘Girls’, I said. ‘You won’t find yourself without a decent cappuccino and a clean pair of pants. Go home.’ My motherly advice was inspired by a pint of millet beer provided by our most gracious host, Tibetan Suma and her quite possibly lesbian sister Sana (54, never had a boyfriend). Suma had a comfortable homestay overlooking some rather dramatic hills and a lush valley. She also had smoked pork, something of a coup in these parts. I’d seen her smoked pork hanging from the curtain rail in her ‘living room’ when we first arrived. It looked like it had been there for quite some time. Anyhow, I took Suma up on her offer but when dinner arrived it was just three cubes of 2″ squared pork nestled on a bed of spinach.

    The next day I said ‘cheerio’ to the Sheffield girls and piled back into a shared jeep for Kalimpong, another hill town like Darjeeling but without the charm. In fact, Kalimpong was rather like the Wild West, a bit tense and a lot dusty. This was a town on the edge, physically and psychologically. As the jeep wound its way up through the busy bazaar, past the fruit sellers, the beggars and the schoolkids, towards the top of the town, I kept seeing soliders carrying guns and truncheons. They weren’t smiling. Apparently, there was going to be a big Gorkhaland demo later that day. The Gorkhas (Nepalis) make up 80% of the population and have lived in the Darjeeling/Kalimpong region since the days of the Raj. They want autonomy from West Bengal but it aint happening. There are regular strikes and crackdowns from the authorities and hundreds of Nepalis have been killed over the years. I found all this out from my new friend Deepen – but more of him later…

    I arrived in Kalimpong with footwear issues, In fact, I flapped into town like Charlie Chaplin, reason being, the soles of my boots had decided to divorce from their soles rendering walking in the normal sense of the word, ie picking up your feet and putting them down again, an impossibility. I had to adopt a stoppy starty shuffle in order to remain upright, not easy when you’re carrying an enormous backpack. Thankfully, just around the corner from my hotel there was a man with glue – a man with one bloodshot eye, a filthy anorak and a shoe repair business that consisted of a trestle table and a selection of knackered looking tools. Totally unphased by the job in hand, he got to work with a tube of Superglue, looked on by a mesmerised crowd who had probably gathered to witness this magician of adhesion at work in the perverse hope that he might glue his fingers together. He didn’t and my boot components are still happily married 5 days later – and all for the princely sum of 50 rupees (50p). Shoe/glue man, I salute you.

    Later that night, the demo got going. 200 or so Nepalis bearing torches wound their way through the town chanting ‘We want Gorkhaland’ or words to that effect. Flanked by snarling soliders, the march culminated under the clock tower with some pretty feeble speeches given by a motley crew of speakers who garbled their words, probably owing to the mysterious bottle that they kept passing around themselves. There were no fists in the air, no shouting, no flying spittle, just a few polite hand claps. The torches went out, the soliders put their truncheons back down their trousers and we all went to bed.

    The next day I was up with the lark, as per, ready for my 7am bus to Lava, 80k away. I got down to the jeep stand and bought my ticket from the luxuriously coiffed Jeep Commissioner, an Englebert Humpadinck lookie likie who told me to get on an empty jeep that had just rolled in. No sooner had he spoken than a pushy group of seven Nepali ladies shoved me aside and wedged themselves onto the back seat. I tried to get into the next row but Englebert told me that I was too late and that the rest of the seats were reserved.

    Thankfully, there was a Bengali Corporation bus going to Lava an hour later. So, I grabbed myself a cup of chai from a cafe and hung about observing the depot activity. Today seemed to be car wash day. Buckets of cold water were chucked and feather dusters flourished in a bid to bring a touch of the spic and span to the beaten up vehicles. I was tempted to shout ‘you missed a bit’ on several occasions but resisted the urge.

    At 8am I was on the bus which wsa driven by another lookie likie from the British light entertainment establishment – Max Bygraves. Max was surprisingly solicitious of my needs and escorted me onto the bus, offering me the option of front second or third row seats. I plumped for second row which I’m now grateful for as I’m certain I would have ended up through the windscreen had I gone for the front row. Max was a bit a of a boy racer. We hurtled through every village at breakneck speed on our rickety 1960s charabanc, barely slowing down to let people off or on. The only time Max slowed down was to negotiate a landslide that had brought boulders and mud down onto large areas of the road. Max was undeterred and we somehow made it through to Lava two hours later in one piece.

    If Kalimpong was like the Wild West, Lava was a Spaghetti Western. A thick fog hung over the small frontier town and somewhere, somebody was whistling. The shops and cafes around the bus stop were either deserted or closed. I was gagging for a cup of tea so I approached the first place that looked habitable and sat down on a plastic chair on the shabby verandah. No one came so I went inside where three old men in beanie hats stopped chatting and stared – hard. I stared back then smiled. ‘Could I have a cup of tea please?’ I asked as clearly as I could. ‘Tea’. ‘Tea’. ‘Tea’. It’s got to be the easiest beverage to pronounce in the known world but no, I wasn’t getting through. I even mimed it and finally, one man cocked his head to indict the affirmative (well that’s what I thought). I went outside and waited for 10 minutes. Nothing. I went back inside and repeated my request. ‘No’, came the response. This bloody mindedness turned out to be the lingua franca here. ‘No’ fromm hoteliers. ‘No’ from restauranteurs. I was beginning to get a complex. On the way down the winding, rubbish strewn main road I passed a man clipping his toenails next to a group of men in hats and scarves who were sat on their haunches playing cards. They stopped playing and stared. ‘Hello boys’, said I refusing to be cowered by their rudeness.

    I never did get to the bottom of why I met with such animosity in Lava but I know the town is somewhat off the beaten track for Westerners. Or maybe they just didn’t like the cut of my gib. Anyway, I finally found a hotel that would take me and set off for a forest walk to the next village. En route, I met a dog that I shall call David Boswie dog owing to his eyes being different colours. What is it about dogs in India? Does no-one ever take them for walks? Everywhere I’ve been I’ve been follosed by dogs: single dogs, pairs of dogs, packs of dogs. In Kechapari Lake I had five dogs follow me up a forest trail for over an hour. The pack consisted of one overheated bitch and four dogs, all of them very keen to copulate. One young dog kept trying to mount her head on. ‘You’ve got the wrong end’, I kept shouting but he never did get it in. Anyway, back to David Bowie Dog. He was lying passed out up an alley when I came cross him. I think he was first attracted to my bag of Masala flavoured crisps but then he stuck like glue. When I headed off the road into the woods at the sign for ‘Piles and Fistulas’, DBD took the same track. It was only when he was confronted by a vicious mongrel on the outskirts of the next village that he slunked off. ‘Goodbye Ziggy Stardust’ I trilled.

    Next day, I arranged to go on a trek in the nearby Neora Valley National Park with Rohan, my guide, and Suman, my driver. At the entrance to the park, we were greeted by the park warden and a white horse called Dandy. Dandy, according to Rohan was dangerous and shouldn’t be touched. Personally, I think he was just a bit depressed (Dandy not Rohan). Apparently, his companion, Jennifer (also a horse) had sadly departed this life leaving Dandy and the warden alone in their wooden shack. We had a great 21km trek alongside a gurgling river and up through the virgin forest of pine trees and rhododendrums. Rohan’s English was limited but every now and then he would stop and point at some scuffed up earth and say ‘wild boar activity’. There were a lot of wild boars in the vicinity which we didn’t see but boy did we see a lot of their ‘activity’. However, we did see a lot of shit – bear shit, barking deer shit, and a lot of Dandy shit on the path back to the warden’s office. Dandy, it appeared, could shit for India, probably a symnptom of his depression, I thought.

    The next day I hooked up with Deepen and the Muntjac adventure crew. We were going camping for one night only (foreigners are not allowed to overnight in Neora Valley – there’s an ugly rumour that a foreigner stole a black orchid and we’ve been banned ever since). Our destination was the delightfuly named Tiffin Dara, an epic summit that had 360 degree views of the surrounding hills, as well as of the snow-capped Kanchenchunga. Deepen was a fan of Che Guevara and an agitator for Gorkhaland. His crew consisted of Dawa, the chef, a cool dude in a leather jacket and bandana, Anup, a keen photographer, and Ondi, a man in an oversized puffa jacket who’d never learnt how to talk properly since he’d spent his formative years in the company of cows. He was, however, a wiz at making a fire.

    After pitching our tents, we did a bit of bird watching from our vantage point, where the British used to take tea (hence the name ‘tiffin’), then sat around the camp fire as the sun went down. The team treated me like a queen giving me first nibs of the rusk like biscuits and even a burnt jacket potato, which tasted vile. We sat around discussing the Gorkhas and I told them about Joanna Lumley and her campaign for Gorkha pension rights in the UK. I tried to explain Ab Fab but didn’t get far. At 8.30pm Deepen asked me if I was ‘ready to nest’ at which point I had visions of gang rape but then he stuck a lantern in my tent and bid me goodnight. I fell asleep, not to the soft murmorings of the night forest but to Guns ‘n’ Roses singing ‘Sweet Child of Mine’. Those Nepalis. Crazy guys!

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  • The Day of the Jeep

    Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015By annablog3 Comments

    On the way down to the jeep stand in Darjeeling from where I was going to depart for Sikkim, a man with no teeth asked me: ‘do you want to ride a horse?’. ‘Do I look like I want to ride a horse?’ I replied, gesturing to the huge pack on my back. When one is carrying two months’ worth of gear on one’s back: long johns, short johns, lady shoes, walking boots, knitwear, underwear, lotions, potions, and a ruddy non-air i-pad to boot, one is inclined to deal with local imbeciles with disdain. The day before, I’d spent considerable time in a chemist shop trying to buy batteries. ‘Mattresses?’ blinked the female shop assistant incredulously. ‘Do I look like the sort of idiot who would come into a chemist and ask for a mattress?’, I was tempted to reply. We eventually got to the nub of the communication break-down. I should have said ‘battery’ not ‘batteries’ but not after involving the shop’s entire serving staff in trying to decipher what the funny foreigner was asking for.

    Back to my jeep ride to Sikkim (a tiny state to the south of Tibet bordered by Nepal and Bhutan). Darjeeling’s jeep stand, adjacent to the town’s colourful bazaar was chaos. There were battered jeeps arriving and departing in a constant stream. Most were rammed with people; bags, food, gas bottles and other sundry items teetered precariously on the roof racks – and the whole lot veiled in a cloak of dust and exhaust fumes. I found a tiny wooden booth that seemed to be the place to buy tickets but this being India, the transaction was anything but smooth. No, I couldn’t go to Pelling direct; in fact, you’d think I’d asked to go to the moon; I would need four different jeeps, and it would take forever. It also wasn’t completely clear where I would board the first jeep; indeed whether I would fit in amongst the potatoes and family outings. However, after shouting at a few bored looking individuals huddled around another wooden kiosk, I eventually found my jeep and piled in.

    As promised, the journey to Pelling did take all day but it only cost me £4.20 and I did meet a nice Nepali man who worked in Hemel Hempstead as well as a pair of Crustafarians from Muswell Hill whose only aim in life was to live in a horsebox, so the time passed relatively quickly.

    Following an overnight stay in Pelling (rubbish facilities: six shower knobs, one tap and a plastic bucket but no hot water) I bought four green satsumas (surprisingly sweet) and set off for Khecheopairi Lake. Another bumpy jeep journey but by now, I was used to sitting crunched up, rammed hard against strange buttocks with my head permanently cocked underneath the low roof. Although referred to as ‘sacred’ and ‘serene’ in my guide book, Khecheopairi Lake had a distinct air of scuzziness about it. The usual docile muts greeted my arrival along with a roadside bonfire surrounded by some half naked toddlers and a Tibetan in a trilby who I can only describe as looking shady. I avoided the ramshackle huts selling the usual selection of sweets in jars, sachets of shampoo, dry-looking biscuits and toilet rolls, and headed for the romantically named Lake View Nest, 20 minutes of slog up a steep forest path to a stunning plateau overlooking the lake and surrounding hills. Run by a delightful family of Tibetan extraction, Lake View Nest was a cut above. It had scatter cushions! Scatter cushions! Having said that, I had to throw my wee out of the window as there was only one toilet and that was downstairs via an outdoor staircase with no handrail – not to be negotiated in the middle of the night in the pitch black by one as prone to falling over as I am.

    The homestay had only one other guest, a young Bengali man called Somi who was into pranic healing and spent a lot of time waving crystals in a theatrical manner around the joint. I took a walk along the plateau to the next tiny cluster of two or three houses and pigpens where I met a man who was digging himself a septic tank; it was a very deep hole! At the other end of the plateau, in the monastery, the monks were beating their gongs and blowing their horns in celebration of the life of some local guy who’d pegged it. I wouldn’t mind but they did insist on taking up their funereal lamentations again at 4am, just at the same time as the sodding cockerels were starting their own morning incantations. Having said that, I have been going to bed at 8pm (it’s what villagers do, you know – nowt else to do) so come 5am, I’m wide awake and ready to rock ‘n’ roll.

    After a couple of days I said goodbye to my hostess Chumden and her family and walked back down the perilous forest trail to the lake where surprise, surprise, I ran into the Crustafarians from Muswell Hill. In true hippy style, they’d been invited to some festival or other where they’d be getting loaded on the homebrew and ‘just chillin’, dreaming of their horsebox, no doubt.

    Despite stories of bear attacks in the region, I then decided to walk alone the 10k or so to the next settlement, Yuksom, where there was a particularly beautiful gompa (monastery). Now normally, 10k would be nothing to these hardened thighs but when you’re carrying a heavy backpack and negotiating knee-grinding descents and leg-wobbling ascents, it’s a long old slog. As for a map – well you can forget it. There are no maps; there are no signposts; there is no bloody indication of which path is the right path. If there’s a man up a tree chopping wood with a machete who you can shout at, that’s all well and good. But when you’re all alone, deep in the forest at a trail junction, sweating like a pig and bent double with the weight of your pack, you have to rely on your wits, and your powers of detection; if the right hand fork has two recently discarded sweet wrappers on it, and the left hand fork an old plastic bottle, then the right hand fork must be the right way to go. Spurious, yes, but my reasoning worked and I found my way down though the forest, over the raging river and up the almost vertical path into the sleepy hamlet of Yuksom.

    I must have looked a sight – a bright red nose from the hot sun, dirt smeared on my face, sweat soaked top and a bloody arm from a tumble I’d taken while climbing (on my hands and knees) up a bank that turned out to be not even a path and certainly not the route I should have taken. What a mess! ‘Namaste’, trilled the little school kids in their pristine uniforms with sleekly coiffed plaits as they passed by oggling the funny foreign giant with the Ken Dodd hair and wobbly legs. I bought a nice cup of tea and two sachets of Silvikrin, one for the body, one for the hair, and got checked in at the Hotel Dracula.

    More to come……

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  • A view of Everest with sausage fingers

    Wednesday, November 25th, 2015By annablog3 Comments

    For anyone who likes a bit of a ramble, sausage fingers are a perennial problem. For those unfamiliar with the condition, it’s a swelling of the digits when on a big old walk. Now chipolatas in the Quantocks I’m pretty familiar with but when faced with Mount Everest, I obviously needed to upgrade to a Cumberland sausage; after all, I was 3,636m up on the Singalila Ridge. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

    Last Friday, I spent what seemed like hours running around from one trek company to another trying to organise my Himalayan odyssey. Take into account the fact that Darjeeling is all steep hills with the streets full of countless market and regular traders of everything from live chickens to tea (of course) and masses of people, shopping, chatting, begging, and you can imagine how exhausting the process was. At one point I was juggling five treking options but since I wanted to join other people and none of the companies had confirmed bookings, it was a waiting game. Inbetween, I took some light relief and went and sat on a bench in the main square where I got chatting to a Nepalese man who wanted to discuss, in no particular order, Iron Maiden, Chelsea Football Club and The Eagles. I felt a little out of my depth but when he said his favourite song was ‘Country Roads’ by John Denver, I felt inspired to break into song and, low and behold, my new friend joined in, and then a passing monk. Surreal doesn’t come close.

    And so it came to pass that I decided to join Tim and Nina (Australian and German) for a five day trek to the stunningly beautiful, Singalila National Park, lying on the border of Nepal and India where the Himalayas in all its glory could be seen astoundingly close, stretching from Everest in the west to Kanchanjunga (3rd highest peak), and onto Panjam (might have spelt this wrong) in the east. The trek began in Manlybanjang where I thought I was going to die! It was a vertical climb up extremely steep steps that went on forever rendering me not so much out of breath but on the verge of a heart attack. I was, however, glad to hear when our group (led by Amar, an Indian guide of Nepali extraction) stopped for a short break that even my fellow foreigners were experiencing breathing difficulties (and they were 30 years younger than me).

    Eventually, the gradient got less intense and we passed through a mini monastery and over some gorseland, eventually reaching, after five hours, our first homestay in the tiny settlement of Tumling. Here, we were ushered to sit by the open fire in a snug one-storey dark and dingy house and fed a three-course extravaganza, the main constituents of which were eggs, soup and custard. A group of middle-aged Bengali men joined us who were going to the highest point of the ridge: Sandakphu by jeep. They pleaded their age (only 50) as being the reason why they weren’t walking up as we were and I took much pleasure in taking the piss out of them for being wimps. However, the next morning I had to eat my words when I was forced to cadge a lift. The thing is, I spent the entire night wide awake, with, I can’t explain why, the strains of George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’ coursing through my wired brain. The following morning, I had words with Amar to the effect of, ‘I’m bloody knackered, haven’t slept a wink, cannot walk 21km or I will die’. The upshot was, the Bengali middle-aged spreaders offered me a place in their jeep to Sandakphu where I could rejoin my group in the late afternoon and (hopefully) continue my odyssey on foot the day after.

    The Bengali eight were all old schoolfriends; no-one spoke much English, they all had congestion issues, and they were super teched up: tablets, cameras, phones – when they weren’t shouting at each other, they were tip-tapping on their equipment. In fact, the bespeckled, bobble-hatted gentlemen on the front seat next to me insisted on showing me clips of famous Bollywood movies all the way to our destination – the concentration this necessitated on an exceedingly bumpy switchback ride, unfortunately made me feel even iller.

    When we reached Sandakphu, a larger settlement than the previous night, I said goodbye to my jeep companions and waited around for Tim, Nina and Amar to arrive. When they did, sometime in the mide-afternoon, they said it had been hell and yes, I would certainly have died had I attempted the slog having had a sleepless, George Michael filled night. In our homestay, we ran into three Nepali men who wooed us with yak meat and rice wine. The main man had a top knot and a thirst for alcohol while his cousin, a 20 year old student, apparently fell in love with my hair but was too embarrassed to say so! The third sold carpets and spent his spare time practising Bruce Lee moves. I had two glasses of the extremely strong rice wine and went to bed – perchance to sleep! And did!

    The next day started with a bowl of stale cornflakes and hot yak milk. Umm, yummy! And we were on our way, striking out along the ridge itself from where we had the full snow-capped Himalayan range laid out in stark contrast against the cobalt blue sky. Along the way, we passed a couple of Indian army checkpoints where we had to show our passports. These barren, incongruous camps consisted of Nissan style huts surrounded by high wire fences. They were sparsely populated by bored looking soldiers who had seemingly nothing to do but lie around in the sunshine playing cards or just leaning against a post. They were a rag-tag bunch wearing dirty t-shirts, camouflage trousers and flipflops but they were scrupulously poliate and noted our details in their scruffy looking exercise books before waving us on.

    Our next stop-over was a truly bleak place called Phalut comprising two corrugated iron buildings with a couple of outhouses on a bluff at the end of the ridge. There was nothing to redeem this place. Freezing cold and exposed fromm all directions, we huddled together in a small wooden outhouse with a dirt floor, no electricity and a kitchen where our hosts crouched over clay open fires cooking our meagre meal of dahl and rice. The only other visitors that night were a group of geriatric Japanese who arrived with an entourage of mules, porters and cooks. They were staying in ridge tents and had their own toilet – not for them the long-drop and freezing cold strip-wash with manky flannel – they had a chemical toilet and hairbrushes. They also had an early morning exercise class on the flat grassy area on the top of the hill. ‘And reach for the sky’ summoned their Nipon leader, at which point I was delighted to see Phalut’s pet dog launch itself at an elderly Japanese gentlemen who was valiently trying to do the bidding of his instructor and touch his toes while ignoring the erection slapping insistently against his leg.

    After Phalut, it was all downhill. Through bamboo, rhodedendrum and fir forests we followed the narrow zigzag path until we reached the Shangri-La hamlet of Gorkey, deep in a wooded valley surrounded by lush terraces growing everything from potatoes to spinach and a type of pumpkin along with climbing bowers of large mauve flowers. We played a rudimentary game of cricket with a couple of local boys that ended abruptly when I wacked the tennis ball over our dormitary roof and into the raging river running below. Later that evening we had a momo making lesson (dumplings) and then Amar plied us with a local tipple made of millet, then produced an out of tune guitar while I sang snatches of ‘Hotel California’.

    This morning, we completed out descent to the tiny village of Rimbik where we were picked up by a jeep and driven three and a half hours back to Darjeeling. I am tired, dirty but very satisfied. I have seen Everest and haven’t had diarrohea once.

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