Going Nuts for Brazil – an Odyssey of Five Parts

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…..

Glitz and Grit – 4 nights in Berlin

 
I’ve been in Berlin visiting my mate Andrew Moomin. Andrew came to meet me at Tegel, a shed-like airport with a tin roof and undulating lino. Achtung! Somebody build a new bloody international airport for the city! Despite the fact that I know Andrew very well (you could say pretty intimately minus any genital action), on entering the arrivals hall, I spent the first few seconds waving at a complete stranger. Well, it was a bit gloomy and my right eye contact lens had got dehydrated on the flight over and stuck to my eyeball so I couldn’t see too clearly. Anyway, the real Mr Moomin eventually popped out from behind a post and we hugged our guten abends.
 

 
 
 
Andrew had an action-packed weekend arranged – a night at the opera (The Magic Flute), a visit to Sanssoucci and its glitzy Gloria palace, and, by way of contrast, a trip to the gargantuan Russian WWII memorial at Treptow. And, of course, we had a mingling with the hipsters in Prenzlaurberg where currywurst (so named because it’s the ‘worst’ thing you’ll ever put in your mouth – apart from SPAM), is eschewed for the global must-munch of avocado on sourdough.
 
Legs-akimbo
Now, I’d call myself a pretty brisk walker but Andrew has legs like a house spider – long, hairy and with 360 degree range. On the first day, we covered 18 km, starting in the west of the city in fancy Charlottenburg, where we had coffee in the gorgeous garden of the Literature Café, before hurtling at break-neck speed through central Mitte, by way of the ultra modern Potsdamer Platz, onto the seedy Alexander Platz with its iconic television tower, and ending up exhausted, back in the former eastern enclave of Prenzlaurberg in time for tea and some ironic Black Forest gateau in a shabby chic café. Of course, we could have taken a tram or the U-bahn or the S-bahn at any point during the day, but I was mindful of a friend who had recently contracted a nasty case of impetigo from a hanging pole on the Northern Line and I didn’t fancy coming home with a face full of suppurating sores. What I did come home with, however, was two enormous blisters on my heels thanks to my new ‘sensible’ shoes.
 
Andrew might be thrusting with his walking speed but like most Berliners, he’s a wuss when it comes to crossing the road. Unlike me! I love a bit of jaywalking so while Andrew lingered nervously at the side of the road waiting to be told when to move, I launched myself off the pavement, weaving defly between cars, buses and trams while my fellow pedestrians shook their heads in disdain. Thankfully, Andrew was there to bark ‘STOP’ when it looked like I might get mown down by a tram but on the whole, I think I taught him something about urban spontaneity.
 
That evening we went to see the Magic Flute at the wunderbar Komische Opera. The stage setting was German Expressionistic, the singing, glass-shatteringly high, and the audience, a mish-mash of middle-aged hausfraus, Australian tourists, and the usual sprinkling of homosexuals. There was a lot of bouffantary and an overpowering smell of Harmony Hairspray, and one poor girl was wearing, what looked like the doll dress my Aunty Kathleen used back in the day as a toilet roll cover in the downstairs loo.
 
What a gay day!

The next day we took the S-bahn out of town to Potsdam to see Frederick the Great’s Baroque palace at Sansoucci with its ornate gardens and landscaped grounds.  Unfortunately, we turned left at the Neptune Grotto instead of right which took us a mile away from the palace with only 25 minutes to spare in order to meet our allotted entry time. Luckily, I was now wearing my other sensible shoes and had Compeeds on both heels so was able to speed-walk my way through the gardens, vineyards and Baroque terraces just in time to marvel at Fred’s bed and his flute and some fine rococo detailing. Apparently, Fred liked cultivating plums in his summer palace and was fond of playing soldiers. His son, also called Fred, had a wife whom he didn’t much fancy, and he eventually ran away with a boy but not before hanging some lovely Chinese wallpaper.
 
Literary provocateur

The next day, Andrew, who has just published his second novel, a thriller called Ghost Nights (under his pseudonym Andre Mumot), took me on a bookshop tour. Ostensibly, we were simply curious to see his book in situ but really, I think Andrew wanted to tap into my ‘mystery shopper’ credentials. I didn’t disappoint. In Ocelot Books, we were pleased to see that the book was on the Top 10 October Reads gondola so no interventions were required. However, in two other leading bookshops, the book was just one of many Ms on a shelf. In one shop, I shoved all copies of the book up my jumper and then transported them to the nearest Hot New Reads gondola display where I plonked them on top of the others. Later on, in the other shop, I picked up Andrew’s book with a theatrical ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ and loudly exclaimed to my fellow shoppers that this was a terrific read and a hot contender for Richard and Judy’s Book Club. Of course, I couldn’t actually read the book; my German is limited to ‘Wo ist die bustenhalter’ (where is the bra!) and ‘das ist mir Wurst (that’s sausage to me). And I imagine, most German book buyers haven’t got a fucking clue as to who Richard and/or Judy are, but I’m confident sales will go up following my visit. It
 
That night, we met up with Andrew’s friend, Patrick the Pole (6’6”: bad manspread) at the Berlin Philharmonic. Kent Nagano was conducting Mahler’s 9th. This was a hot ticket. Kent was small and yellowing with floppy hair, and he left extremely long pauses in between his movements. The audience however, all bad wigs and walking sticks, loved him, and at the end, when we were all wrung out with the symphony’s final death-haunted notes, those who could stand up unsupported, gave him an ovation.
 
On my last day in Berlin, I had planned a trip to the Stasi prison for a dose of Cold War memorabilia but it was raining and I didn’t fancy the long bus ride so instead, Andrew and I went down to the gritty district of East Kreuzberg for a canal side coffee, and let the French hipsters on the next table (who no doubt, had been up all night banging each other in a dark room at some techno warehouse club thing), blow their post-party come-down dope all over us. Oh to be young again!
 
Time to go. I packed my bag, promised Andrew that he would be finding my hairs in his flat long after I’ve gone, and in the most peculiar places, and took my final tram ride back to the shed at Tegel Airport. Goodbye Berlin and if I may just give you one top tip – a nice cup of tea comes with COLD milk, not hot! OK?
 
 

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

  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!
 
 
 
 

Bugger Buddha – I've found Jesus!

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!

The Burma Campaign 2015 – 2016

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……