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  • There’s Something Nasty in the Woodshed

    Wednesday, March 18th, 2020By Annablog3 Comments
    Sun, daffodils and an off-duty sheepdog

    At Stansted Airport a couple of weeks ago, a man on the Liz Earle concession in Boot’s asks: ‘How are we today?’. Me: ‘We is fine.’ Ignoring the grammatical boomerang, he persists: ‘Can I help you? What type of skin do you have?’ Me: ‘Medium.’ Slight furrowing of the brow. ‘I don’t know what that means.’ Me: ‘It means I’m normal (sotto voce) you moron.’ To be honest, I don’t actually need any Liz Earle Superskin Moisturiser with Natural Naroli because my pores will be clogged with mud and dog hair until mid-March, the reason being, I’m in Limousin playing housekeeper on a farm during the very hectic lambing period.

    Is that afterbirth the dog’s eating?

    For almost three weeks, I am Betty, Maid of All Works, aka domestic drudge. My daily duties are legion: I make breakfast for aged Ps, let the chickens out and collect the eggs, make breakfast, make cake, make busy with the hoover, put on a big load, bottle feed a lamb with a death wish, haul a tonne of logs in from the woodshed, make lunch, wash the boot room floor, clean the bathroom, assist with sheep tagging and vaccinating, fluff up the hay, stop the dog eating sheep’s afterbirth (it gives her the runs), make dinner, put aged P in the shower, and finally, put myself into bed, perchance to have nightmares about wiping my arse with Izal toilet paper.

    The mole man cometh

    Life and death are ready to smack me in the face whichever way I turn. For example, this morning, the mole man (squinty eyes and a long nose) gaily bonjoured me then skipped out into the field for a spot of killing. Then, I was interrupted during my morning mopping to help drag a dead sheep out of its pen ready for the knacker man to pick up. Meanwhile, next door, H. was elbow deep in a ewe’s fanny (big lamb, tight vagina). It eventually plopped out and I sang ‘Isn’t she lovely?’

    Poor lamb thinks I’m its mother. Must be the Icelandic jumper

    Yesterday, there was an ugly incident at the chicken coop. I was feeding the chickens when a 15-strong herd of hungry rams came at me from the next door field. They galloped into the feed shed and cornered me and my bucket. One particularly aggressive Suffolk flew at me with its ugly head. I shouted ‘fuck off’ and lunged at it with a kung fu style kick (not easy when you’re wearing Wellington boots two sizes too big), and the ram retreated with a poo/wee combo. Talking of poo, after my ram roasting, I had to go with H. to collect some sheep dung for worm analysis at the vet’s. H. only had one rubber glove on him but luckily, I had an old dog poo bag in my coat pocket so he was able to fashion a mitt and complete the dung collecting task (somewhat of a challenge as the dung was a bit sloppy). The receptionist at the vet was less than impressed when he plonked the poo bag down on her counter next to a complimentary bowl of lollipops. ‘Zut alors’, she seemed to be saying with her eyebrows but H. simply laughed. Farmers eh!

    Larry, the he/she llama who thinks it’s a sheep. Duh…

    New-to-me fact: llamas are exceedingly stupid. One on its own in a field of sheep will think it’s a sheep and adopt stupid herd behaviour. But put another llama in there and it will wise up and know that it’s not a sheep and start behaving like a llama. Fascinating! The farm’s resident llama, Larry, is a singleton and so believes itself to be one of the flock. Larry isn’t the only one that’s confused. For six years, H. & M. have been convinced Larry is a girl (despite having a boy’s name – given to her by previous owners). Then, one day recently, M. saw a winky-like protuberance emerging from Larry’s undercarriage. So, Larry would appear to be male after all. Whatever, he’s a bit miserable right now. With all the sheep residing in the farm’s maternity unit for at least two weeks, Larry doesn’t know what to do with himself. He spends his days wandering around the farm yard or standing mournfully by the barn entrance.

    It’s turning out day

    The lamb mobile has a funny looking occupant

    On my final day down on the farm, I help M. mark and tag the lambs. This involves dangling the lamb while using a staple gun to attach two plastic tags to its ears, weighing it, attaching an elastic band to its tail so that it drops off and, finally, spraying it with its ID number. M. does the dangling and I do the rest but when it comes to the spraying, the lamb is wriggling and I’m all of a dither with the can. The poor lamb’s number 35 ends up as a big blue blob while poor M. is left looking like a Smurf. Oh how we laugh! And finally, we pile all of the off spring into the lamb mobile and transport them to the fields for their very first taste of grass, closely followed in the cattle truck by their anxious mothers. Bye bye sheep, I’ve learnt a lot about you, your water bags, your afterbirths, your four stomachs and your prolapsed vaginas. It’s been a pleasure.

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  • Going Nuts for Brazil – an Odyssey of Five Parts

    Thursday, February 13th, 2020By Annablog3 Comments

    Part Four – The Big Trek

    It’s 7am and I’m rendezvousing with my trek group for a three-hour drive into the Chapada Diamantina National Park. It’s an all-French-speaking group. There’s one Belgian – let’s call him Hercule, one Quebeccy (or is it Quebecian?) – I’m going to call her Butch, and a French couple – Philippe and Marie-Claude. Butch, a PHD chemist and part time pole dancer, has very short arms and legs and a voice like gravel. Hercule is exceptionally brown and an ear surgeon. He once spent time in Eastbourne! Philippe and Marie-Claude are having an early life existential crisis; they think starving themselves of good quality cheese and wearing the same pair of socks for a week will help them pinpoint the exact meaning of their shallow existence (at some point, I will tell them it won’t). Meanwhile, our guide, whose name is unpronounceable to me but means ‘Little Willy’ in Portuguese, has a habit of gobbling his words so although he’s apparently speaking pigeon-English to me, his unenunciated words are lost on the breeze. We’re rammed into a small jeep driven by a gormless middle-aged man in board shorts and flip flops who insists on swapping my smallish backpack for a bigger one (more of this later). As promised by the trek organiser, en route we stop in a small town where there’s a bank which has actual cash in its ATM. Glory be! I replenish my wallet with Brazilian Real while Little Willy visits the market and buys all our food for the next three days.

    Me, desperate to get away from the incessant yabber

    We’re dropped off at the foot of a steep climb and Little Willy shares out the food. Apparently, ours is a basic trek, i.e. there are no sturdy porters, not even a small donkey to carry our bags. We are the donkeys. Rather conveniently, Butch and Marie-Claude have very small packs so can only fit in a few cheese balls and a couple of bags of pasta. Courtesy of our driver, I have a much larger pack and so end up with three days’ worth of potatoes. I’m also carrying 1.5 litres of water! We start climbing almost immediately. It’s two kilometres straight up, the sun is high in the sky and there’s no shade. After three hours, my spuds are taking their toll. I’ve got waggy legs and my head is on a rolling boil. Hercule, with his medical training, sees that I’m probably going to pass out and drop off the edge and comes to my rescue. He masterfully takes charge of my pack, carrying it up the last few remaining metres. At the top is a flat, scrubby plateau where I collapse. Little Willy gives me a banana and pats me on the back. For the rest of our trek, he will constantly ask me ‘tudo bem?’, which roughly translates as ‘don’t you dare die on me you lanky bitch.’ At first, I’m grateful for his concern but after a while I want to punch him.

    Little Willy, cheery because I’m carrying his potatoes (not a euphemism)

    There is precious little evidence of humankind in the Chapada Diamantina. There are no roads and only a handful of homestays dotted around. There aren’t even any other trekkers. Imagine, a beautiful, wild landscape of dramatic rocky outcrops, colourful orchids and deep forested valleys where the only sounds are the gentle rustle of the wind in the trees and the chirp of birdsong. And then, rudely puncturing the serenity is le blah le blah le blah of my four Gaulish companions. They never shut up. In their late 20s, and seemingly super fit (especially Butch), they can skip up a steep incline of switchbacks, with a backpack, in searing heat, and still have enough breath to guffaw and titter at each other’s travel deprivation stories. ‘Marie-Claude, cherie, do you recall the time in Umpalumpaland when we got lost in the jungle for three weeks and had to eat our flip flops?’

    Our patron, sprucing up the front yard before she makes the apres trek cocktails

    I catch up with Little Willy who’s striding on ahead – no doubt, he’s also desperate to get away from the eternal blether. At our first homestay (think 1970s youth hostel but without the lightbulbs and hot water) we rinse the sweat out of our smalls under a cold tap in the yard while Little Willy cooks our dinner, a strange combo of rice, fried potato, cheese balls (naturally), tapioca flatbread (too much chewing) and stewy stuff – all washed down by the local beer. By the time we’re done eating it’s dark. I leave the rest of the group to get pissed on the local cachaca (rustic rum) and retire to my 20 bunk room, of which I am the sole tenant.

    Fancy some synchronised swimming Hercule?

    The next day, after a thick slurry of porridge and black coffee, we’re off up the ominously named Prefecture Slit. It’s another vertiginous climb involving lots of scrabbling around on rocks and a hazardous crawl through a dripping cave. Marie-Claude is afflicted by claustrophobia and Philippe has to cover her head with a travelling tea towel so she can’t see how low the ceiling is and freak out. We make it through to the other side and the trek culminates with some staggeringly scary views down a sheer cliff face. Under Little Willy’s direction, we inch on our bellies to look over the edge. Apparently, a few years ago a freak gust blew a trekker off the edge so he’s taking no chances. And knowing my propensity for falling over, neither am I.

    You don’t want one of these down your pants!

    That night at the homestay, the Gauls are on the cachaca again and Butch demonstrates some of her pole dancing moves. ‘It’s not sexual’ she growls flinging herself into a Martini Spin around the corner pole of the veranda. The boys, evidently feeling a prickle in their testicles, then have a press up competition. I leave them to it. The next day, we have a long 24km trek across the plateau back to the beginning of the trek. En route, we see a humming bird bathing in a creek and some wild horses. Oh yeah, and I’m so tired, on one of our periodic rests, I narrowly miss sitting on a lizard. It’s time to go home. We descend the same way we came up (so much easier without the potatoes), meet up with our driver and make our way back to Lencois where we celebrate our safe return with a can of Coke. I’m gagging to get back to Paula’s Pousada for a big old lather but my backpack (the one I’d exchanged for a bigger one at the start of the trek) has disappeared, as has our driver. I have a row on WhatsApp with the trek organiser (very difficult as a. his English is shit b. the mobile signal keeps dipping out, and c. he’s not even sure who our driver is and I don’t know how to say ‘gormless’ in French). Needless to say, at 6am the next morning said driver turns up at Paula’s and thrusts my backpack at me with a scowl. There’s no mea culpa forthcoming, nothing. Time to move on I think; before I kill. Next stop – Salvador.

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  • Going Nuts for Brazil – an Odyssey of Five Parts

    Thursday, January 16th, 2020By Annablog3 Comments

    Part Three…..the Bus to Lencois

    At Brasilia’s interstate rodoviaria (why so many syllables – it’s only a bus station!) I’m bewildered by the vast concourse with its multitude of ticket desks, each one for a different coach operator. It takes me a few abortive attempts using a combination of pigeon Portuguese and charades to establish where to go to pick up my ticket to Lencois. Eventually, I find a jolly man in a Hi de Hi blazer who directs me to a self-service machine where I tap in my reference number and print the ticket. Bingo!

    The ubiquitous Brazilian cheese puff

    I’m feeling peckish so I cross the concourse to a Lanchette (that’s a caff) where there’s the familiar ‘brown buffet’, a long counter populated by cheese balls and a mass of insipid looking pies and pasties. As my body is now a meat-free temple, I go through the usual rigmarole of trying to negotiate something ‘sim carne’ but despite smiles and nods from the dollies behind the counter, I end up with a mouth full of ‘con carne’. I wince and swallow like a good girl.

    Chapada Diamantina, Brazil’s number one trekking destination

    I spend the next 22 hours on my arse on a coach heading north to the state of Bahia, home to the Chapada Diamantina National Park. The highway runs through a flat, sandy landscape; there are scrubby hills in the distance and scary looking roadside cacti. Huge birds of prey hover ominously and every so often there’s a dead dog to swerve around. Onboard, we’re kept entertained by a middle-aged mama who lolls across two seats while shouting into her phone and then playing us tinny renditions of her fave samba ditties. She sings along, loudly and badly, waving her phone in the air. Thankfully, as night draws in and we close the curtains, she runs out of steam, wraps herself in a blanket, and the coach heaves a collective sigh of relief. The next morning, bright and early, we roll into Lencois, an old colonial diamond mining town.

    Nice colours but the cobbles are a killer

    I get off the bus and, whether my legs have gone a bit waggy from all the sitting around or I’m delirious from lack of proper sleep (thanks loud bus lady), I somehow manage to immediately fall flat on my face in front of a man selling coconuts. He helps me up and while I dab my bleeding knees he directs me to the centre of town. Lencois is a pretty town of shady squares and brightly coloured houses. I hobble up the cobbles in search of a hostel before alighting on Paula’s Pousada, a somewhat down-at-heel terraced house with multi bunk rooms and a small, windowless dining area. Paula is a chirpy young woman who dresses like a rapper and has a dicky eye. We converse via Google Translate and she shows me my room – clean but basic. Within a few minutes, following a major evacuation, I’ve broken the toilet flush but on the plus side, Paula has made me scrambled eggs for breakfast. Never mind her brioche is stale – I’m eating my first eggs since leaving the UK. Bloody marvellous! I spend the day booking a trek and trying to get cash out of the town’s solitary bank; the ATM says NO and the trekking company doesn’t take plastic but I’m informed by the French dude in charge that there is one bank in another town that has cash on a Monday! And since this bank is en route to the park and tomorrow is Monday, I should be able to draw some money out so I can pay the trek guide. Allebloodyluia! My evening is spent celebrating in a pavement cafe singing along to Bob Marley’s greatest hits while nursing a pint of caipirinha. I scan the menu – it’s very meaty but I’m heartened to see that the cheese is ‘artisanal’. I do love a bit of culinary bullshit. That night as I lie on Paula’s rock-hard bed looking forward to another egg dominated breakfast, I wonder: Will the bank really have cash tomorrow? And do I come clean with Paula about my toilet incident? And if I do, will I mime it?

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  • Going Nuts for Brazil – an Odyssey of Five Parts

    Wednesday, January 8th, 2020By Annablog3 Comments

    Part Two….Going Solo

    I’m all omm’d out

    I float away from my hillside yoga retreat full of bon homie and wind. This is the new Anna. I embrace serenity; I shun cheese on toast. When I close my eyes, my internal chatter is gone; all I hear is the low rumble of a didgeridoo entwined with the ‘orchestra of nature’. FOR GOD’S SAKE, WILL SOMEBODY SLAP ME?

    I prepare to come down to earth for some good old fashioned trekking. But where am I going to stay for the next couple of days? Diaine, my friendly pigeon-English-speaking taxi driver has a suggestion. She picks me up in her clapped out Vauxhall Cavalier and takes me to Donna Didi’s (pronounced GiGi), a pousada on the outskirts of town. Didi, a plump Grannie type with a twinkle in her eye, has clean but VERY basic rooms. The socket flashes when I try to plug in the TV and the sink tap has just two settings: irritating drip and flash flood. I elect to wash my pants in the shower. It’s all mod cons here; there’s a bin for bum wipes, a fridge and a picnic table with plastic flowers. There are also three beds, plenty of room for an orgy but Didi tells me no men are allowed in the room; with this she winks and blows me a kiss. I think Donna Didi may be verging on lesbiana. She certainly can’t be getting much action from Signor Didi, a snowy-haired indolent individual whose arse seems permanently glued to a rocking chair by the front door.

    Having spent the last week screen-free and alcohol free, I decide to go crazy with a beer and a spot of tele-visual low-culture. This being a Sunday evening, Brazilian TV delivers meagre choice. There’s a spiritual smorgasbord of preaching ranging from Evangelical i.e. delivered by men with slimy hair and ill-fitting suits to Catholic i.e. delivered by men in fancy hats and dresses. I flick channels to watch a teary-eyed young woman and her mother talk to camera about how she’s been cured of a hideous dermatological condition by the power of heavenly belief (well I’m guessing it was Jesus not steroid creams that had done it for the scabs). She looked pretty peachy now but boy does she bang on about her boils. Strangely, I also discover three channels devoted to cattle, that is lots of humpy white cows with excess neck skin wandering around in a field. I keep with it for a good half an hour but there doesn’t seem to be a storyline and there were no people or other animals, just cows, just hanging, in a field.

    It’s a bigger drop than it looks

    The next day, I’m fancying a bit of a yomp so Diaine hooks me up with her mate Lady, an English-speaking guide who sidelines as a yoga teacher. Lady offers me a day trek and vinyasa combo and we set off for the nearby Chapada Veideiros national park. In searing heat we hike through the rocky, scrubby terrain to two canyons where we eat bananas, sing the praises of Greta Thunberg and slag off Bolsonara and Prince Andrew. Then I cool down with a swim in a beautiful waterhole while Lady strips down to her bikini and goes through her flow on the rocks above me. I decline her invitation to join in the dogging. The water is super refreshing plus my hard skin is getting a chomping from some tiny but very hungry fish. I could do without the leeches joining in the party but this is Brazil after all; there’s always something around the corner ready to eat you.

    At this point I am oblivious to the leeches swarming around my downstairs

    The next morning I pay Donna Didi (who, despite advertising that she DOES take credit cards, in fact DOES NOT take credit cards at all which means I am now down to the last of my cash). Luckily, I have enough to pay for my shared taxi back to Brasilia and have used my credit card for my onward bus ticket to Lencois in the neighbouring state of Bahia. And so, at the crack of dawn, I find myself wedged into a very small taxi with three strangers. My knees are around my ears and the middle-aged man next to me keeps making heaving noises with his Eustachian tube. The most ominous part is when everyone crosses themselves as we lurch from the dusty high street onto the Brasilia highway. My seatbelt doesn’t work so I’m already visualising us in a head-on collision with a juggernaut whereby I’m catapulted forwards pushing the dolly on the front seat through the windscreen. Thankfully, after three hours ploughing the busy highway punctuated by a visit to a roadside caff for a breakfast of vile coffee and yellow things, I’m despatched at Brasilia’s rodoviaria, ready for my 22 hour mammoth coach journey north. Bahia here I come…

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  • Going Nuts for Brazil – an Odyssey of Five Parts

    Wednesday, December 11th, 2019By Annablog3 Comments

    Part One….the Yoga

    After a 1.30am start, 18 hours’ flight time, two manic lollops through Charles de Gaulle and Sao Paolo’s Duty Free zones (scattering perfume and giant Toblerones in a dash to connect with ongoing flights), I arrive in Brasilia.

    Let’s get ready to yoga.

    I meet my fellow yoga gals and we pile into shared cabs for a three-hour long journey north to the edge of Chapada Veadeiros and our hillside retreat – a large adobe villa that comes complete with tarantulas and hippies. There is danger and tofu wherever I look. What there isn’t is alcohol, fags or twiddling about with the virtual world. I gird my loins for random sharing and possible weeping.

    Get your hair out of my kitchen!

    Everything in the retreat is open plan – we can wander hither and thither, thinking, sharing, being – yeah! But – we’re banned from the kitchen for hygiene reasons. If we do feel the urge to stick the kettle on at 5am in the morning for an invigorating mug of boiling water, we have to wrap our head turban style to prevent loose hairs getting into the cabbage. As I’m permanently moulting, I take this as a sign from the Gods of Vegan to keep the hell out.

    The shala is where we do our yoga. Three sides of the shala are open to the elements which means we share our practice with the birds (in the morning) and the chicadas (in the evening). At our opening ceremony we gather in the shala to get ‘smudged’ with sage leaves and to burn our ‘intentions’. This is less painful than it sounds. We have a mini post-it note bonfire then join in a spot of low wailing, and then there’s a kerfuffle involving a disorientated cricket who has probably got blown off course by the didgeridoo and rainstick symphony that we’re all grooving to (I use the word ‘grooving’ in a loose way as we’re actually lying comatose).

    ‘You are exactly where you need to be’. Yeah, in agony!

    Twice a day we converge on the shala for our vinyasa and yin classes. We omm a lot and sit in tangled agony while trying to ‘let go’. No one trumps. This I find surprising because during our retreat we are sustained by a lot of beans and wind-inducing plant life. The kitchen hippies throw in a few cheese balls here and there (cheese balls are big in Brazil) but it’s not real cheese and the ‘milk’ has been squeezed from a cashew nut. In between yoga, we explore the surrounding countryside, splash around in waterfalls and swim in deliciously dark water holes. There are toucans in the trees and snails the size of cricket balls slithering across the road.

    One day, I ramble five kilometres to the nearest beauty spot. It’s pretty scorchio so by the time I get there, my head is a big, red hot blob and my pants need wringing out. There are a few Brazilian tourists hanging around laughing and splashing. They appear to be holding their heat better than me. They are very casual in their tiny briefs and flip-flops, even the lardy ones. One man is so casual he’s eating a sandwich and admiring the idyllic view while having his back spots squeezed by his girlfriend. Nice!

    It’s a jungle out there

    Down town is hippy town

    When we’re not down at the waterholes admiring Brazilian bottoms, we’re sampling the delights of the nearby town. The whole area lies on a bed of crystal which apparently, gives it ‘special’ energies (there have been several alien sightings). We amble up the main street with its parade of shops selling dreamcatchers and cardboard cut-outs of ET. We marvel at the bank that has no cash in its ATM because it keeps getting raided by the crystal meth brigade, and compete to try and find a single shop assistant that speaks English. We fail. Thank the lord for Google Translate!

    Every evening we do our yin which basically means bending bits of us backwards and then holding it until the point of dislocation. I spend most of this class with my nose squashed sideways into the mat while the sweat runs down my cheek into my mouth. After that, we gorge ourselves on a feast of green things and then retire to our forest chalets hoping that nothing undesirable has crawled into our underwear while we’ve been out.

    By the end of the week we have bonded – there have been tears, screaming (at spiders mostly), and lots of deep, meaningful conversations. I have been ‘ridden’ by one of the retreat masseurs and let everything go in an episode of ecstatic dancing. Time to move on…..

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  • Stockholm Syndrome – Top 5 things to do in the Swedish capital

    Tuesday, October 9th, 2018By Annablog, food, health, keep fit, time off3 Comments
    1. Hurl oneself out of a high-rise apartment

    This being Sweden, suicide is always top of mind. Our Air bnb apartment was on the 14th floor of a Soviet style tower block that smelled of drains. Its main feature, apart from the dust and dead plant, was that it had large, fully-opening windows – without any security bars. This gave us wonderful views of the city but also the chance to kill ourselves if we leaned over a bit too far. Needless to say, when taking in the gorgeous sunsets, Rosie had to hold my ankles.

     

    1. Join the Temperance Society

    In Stockholm, as a foreigner, getting even a bit tiddly is a game for fools. On the terrace of an anonymous looking bar, we scanned the menu for affordable alcohol and ended up ordering the house red for the gargantuan sum of £14.50. Never before have I made a drink last so long (approximately two hours). Rosie suggested we could stretch it out with a bag of crisps – but they were £5.50. Sweden is definitely the place to go for the Go Sober October brigade.

     

    1. Talk politics with your Air bnb host

    I had a strange feeling about our Air bnb host from the start. His profile photo showed a man in a motorbike helmet and dark glasses. What was he hiding? A strawberry birth mark? An extra ear? In the flesh, Alex had a lip ring and a nasty leaning towards the right, the Far Right. On the day we were leaving, he came to take his keys and, while stripping the sofa bed, launched into a tirade against foreigners, no doubt emboldened by the Sweden Democrats’ success in the previous day’s elections. He was of the opinion that Serbian immigrants were solely responsible for all his country’s killings while Kosovans did all the ‘rapings’. Before we left, I’d originally planned on giving him visitor ‘feedback’ – like suggesting he buy a new plant and water it, as well as invest in a pair of ‘curtains’ that were wider than 6″ so they actually met in the middle – but thought my top tips, coming from a foreigner, might go bad and result in us both being hurled out of the health and safety less window.

     

    1. Reject the ABBA museum

    Everyone we knew who’d previously visited Stockholm, recommended we take in the ABBA museum but when we arrived at Djurgarden and saw that it was no bigger than a garage yet cost £25 to enter, we changed our minds. Instead, we sat outside on a bench next to the ABBA photo wall and ate a £7 cheese and lettuce cob while I regaled Rosie with all the fascinating facts I knew about ABBA, like the circumference of Agnetha’s legendary bottom, and the fact that Anni-Frid is not even bloody Swedish. Then we sang Chiquittita and took photos of each other with our heads in the ABBA photo wall.

     

    1. Swim naked in a lake

    In the Time Out guide to Stockholm it suggested a sauna in the Hellensgarten, a nature reserve close to the city centre. It said nudity was compulsory in the sauna and that to cool off it was the Swedish way to jump into the nearby lake, also naked. We duly took a bus to the nature reserve, went into the sauna, stripped off and sat on a flannel in a small wooden box. At the point when the heat was singeing my nostril hair (about 10 minutes in), we decided to take the plunge, in the lake that we’d assumed would be right outside the sauna. It wasn’t. Red faced with panda eyes, bare feet and nothing but a towel around our lady parts, we stepped out onto a terrace full of middle-aged, fully-clothed Swedish men having a jolly. We nervously scanned the scene; the lake and its jetty seemed to be way over yonder by way of a cinder cycle path, a grassy knoll where people were picnicking, and a pine needle-strewn copse. We scurried off, gingerly picking our way through all the obstacles to reach the jetty which annoyingly, seemed to be the finishing line of a triathalon so was heaving with swimmers and their fully-clothed supporters. We murmured a few ‘excuse me’s’, threw down our towels and jumped into the icy water, screaming, as you do. We swam around for a bit until Rosie said her ‘lips’ were tingling and that she wanted to get out. Therein lay the rub. The jetty was way too high for us to lever ourselves out and there was no ladder. So, I directed Rosie to swim towards the rocky shore where  a young couple were playing with their children.  She swam over and, stark naked, climbed out onto the rocks, slipping over twice in the process. Then, careful to avoid eye contact, she circled the family, got back onto the cinder path, bounded over the grassy knoll and skipped through the pine needle-strewn copse to the jetty. She ran very, very quickly in a sort of hunchback stylie. It was only later, when I too had scrambled my way out of the lake onto the rocks – where Rosie was waiting with my towel – that we noticed the jetty that we should have headed for, the one with steps, only a short walk from the sauna! With our prudish English sensibilities, we imagined every one of those Swedish nature lovers was aghast by the sight of our wobbly pink flesh, dwindling bushes and coat peg nipples. Of course, in reality, no-one batted an eyelid. The Swedes eh – so modern!

     

     

     

     

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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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