Tour de France

Tour de France

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I have literally no idea how this stuff works. I can barely pump a bike tire, and the last time I had to do actual navigation was at Duke of Edinburgh’s at school where (no doubt due to my navigation skills) we constantly ended up in boggy fields being stared at by judgmental cows. My French is passable (Merci, Mme Taverner), but in the past three months I’ve spent approximately thirty seconds on a bike: enough time to realise that the bike I’ve been bequeathed needs both handlebars and seat raising, and brakes de-squeaking, and I that I only know how to do one of those things properly. It’s obviously the perfect time to plan a spontaneous ‘leaving in less than a week whilst working full-time’ solo first-time-ever cycle tour in France from Bordeaux to Toulouse down the famous Canal de Garonne and Canal du Midi.

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After a week of soul-sapping heatwave Lucifer on a major glampsite near Vias, deep in the south of France, my lovely sis-in-law drives me to the nearest station. I find myself standing in a murky carpark in Montpellier armed with three pannier bags stuffed with an array of potentially useful/less clothing, four packs of super noodles, a shiny new trangia although alas no fuel has yet been found, one of Argos’ cheapest and cheerfulest tents and, as it turns out, a non-waterproof waterproof jacket. I was ready. Drag-yanking-heaving my bike and a fellow cyclists’ onto the train (up three steps and through a teeny door), using international gesturing and French-sounding noises to a woman I later learned spoke perfectly acceptable American English and I was ready: my bike hooked upright, my seat found, free water grabbed, and mooching along the tracks on a five hour mission to Bordeaux where my tour would begin: I was following an abbreviated version of the famous route of ‘two seas’, from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean which runs from Bordeaux to Sète.

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A night at a seriously luxurious campsite near Le Lac, Bordeaux, and I’m feeling good. Fuelled up on carbs, my tent still reassuringly existent, I wake up to a golden light filtering through the whispering silhouetted leaves and bedraggled ducklings squawking for their mothers’ attention. It suddenly hits me: I’m alone, I have just my bike and my tent, and I don’t really have a clue what I’m doing. How exhilarating! I decide pedalling forward is the best policy and make it into the city centre by 7:30, and my heart fills with the sense of freedom, purpose and adventure. I cycle past the National Opera and the Parliament place studded along the River Garonne, breathing in morning-cold air and feeling the soothing early light play over my face. A final rations stock up at a garage and I’m off in search of the first part of my journey: the Roger Laperbie cycle path which winds from Bordeaux onto the start of the canal path.

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An initial panic seizes me as I read ‘derivation’ signs which I’m guessing means diversion, but I decide to ignore them: years of UK driving has conditioned me to assume that for every 10 diversion signs the crucial 9th will be missing, and I decide to trust in google maps. I make the right call and soon I find myself weaving onto the famous path, and I’m blown away. It’s an actual cycle path, just for cyclists, through forests and vineyard bedecked fields, not a car in sight, perfectly tarmaced and intricately sign-posted.

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This was not what I’d been expecting. Granted, I’d not really researched beyond checking that yes, I could cycle the route, but this was exceptional. I felt my worries melt away and a rhythm that would stay with me throughout the week slowly enveloped my body: onwards, but lightly, gently, feeling the wind through my hair and begin to truly absorb the ‘shirin-yoku’ or ‘forest-bathing’ therapy of the skeletal lime green light, the gossiping of the leaves, and the eerie trunks standing as soldiers defending me from the stresses of the outside world. I had expected this week to feel lonely and to need some distraction from my ipod: a week later I found it at the bottom of my bag, forgotten, unneeded. As a runner I struggle to motivate myself without music. On this cycle tour, my soundtrack was primordial nature accompanied by the rare beauty of a sole fawn, a lolloping hare, an opportunist squirrel.

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Through the week I fell into a natural comforting routine. On the road at the latest by 8:00am I cycled an hour before breakfast; a snack of whatever I had managed to scope out from the small village of the day before. By 10:00 it was time for another snack and a photo opportunity or a brief detour to a nearby sight.

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Most days by 13:00 I was at my next campsite and nesting in my lightweight home until 15:00 when it was time to head out, explore, and forage for an evening meal and some small town ambience. The routine was unplanned and unexpected but soulful and purposeful. I felt a great sense of calmness come over me as I awoke every morning and knew exactly what I had to do, what I would wear, and that nothing else was required of me. Total freedom, total independence, and total lack of responsibility.

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Gorgeous hours spent placing my faith in my body to move myself and my home, surrounded by the calm of water for endless stretches as the sole traveller, or the occasional exuberance of a fellow cyclist, a racer perhaps or dog walkers smiling a ‘bonjour’ at me.

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I learned that it was possible to just ‘be’, that I could carry my life with me in three bags, that slowing down was as important as going fast. I have no idea of my km/h, no idea of the weight I was carrying, just that I was undeniably moving forward towards a destination but utterly absorbed in the journey.

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The towns were special: I spent a little time in each, but the one that sticks in my mind most both in terms of actual beauty and in terms of lessons learnt is Moissac – it was a short cycling day, only 20km, and so the lovely lengthy afternoon I spent mooching around town is testament to remembering with cycle touring that quality is as important as quantity – I would be gutted if I’d missed out on seeing it. Beautifully French, with a stunning medieval abbey which is a stop-off on the famous Camino de Santiago, it was a real heart-nourisher and one of the few times that I wish I’d travelled with someone else who could appreciate it with me. Topped off with a hot meal that night and a good-sized Carrefour to stock up on it’s one of my favourite memories of the whole trip.

There were challenges, although not as many as I’d anticipated. In terms of weather I was undeservedly lucky: no self-respecting person chooses to do this kind of cycling in the middle of a heatwave, but the canal part of the route is frequently leafy and shaded, any wind I encountered was only the sort of blessed breeze that helps speed you along and not a major headwind, and I only had one wet day when travelling: although there were a few wet evenings, I was safely in my tent by that point watching the lightning dashing across the Garonne river whilst at La Reole, or out exploring in Moissac and Toulouse knowing that I was heading back to a dry home. The wettest day was, it’s true, incredibly damp, and involved about three hours of torrential downpour: the sort of rain that gets inside your collar, onto your eyelashes and somehow even manages to get your underwear soggy, but again I was lucky: the evening saw sunshine and enough heat to even dry out my trainers and my alleged waterproof non-waterproof (what lies you told me!!).

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Technical problems were extremely limited: one chain fall off due to a sloppy gear change up a stonking hill, crunchy grating brakes after the rainy day trapped sand on the brake pads, and one night praying that it wouldn’t be windy at Creon because I didn’t want the weight of a mallet and couldn’t jam my tent pegs into the ground. I think the only point I almost lost it was after a misguided decision I booked a campsite up a ‘hill’ 114m up winding gravelley roads: half way up I had a solo temper tantrum and seriously considered dragging bike back down and cycling on the next 20km to the next town. One of the (many) pluses, however, of touring alone, is that if one has a temper tantrum no-one else knows and I got over it by eating Haribo and using a few choice swearwords.

Cruising slowly into the gentle pink of Toulouse over a more rugged path, past small bivuoacs of temporary refuges for homeless people and winding my way into the city, I felt that special confidence and sense of expansion of self that overwhelms you when you’ve set yourself a challenge you thought was beyond you: I had made it, my life was richer for it, and the beauty of it would stay with me forever.

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Mexican Indulgence

Al fresco cafes and leafy parks form the backbone of my small corner of Mexico City, making it a fantastic location for an outdoors lifestyle, walking miniature dogs, sipping ruby red tinto de veranos and munching on tequila flavoured ice cream. However, Mexico City is not all sunshine and blue skies, and winters here can reach as low as 3˚C. When an ice cold margarita isn’t going to cut it, how can you get warm quick in CDMX?

One suitable pursuit would be to find a churrería, a café serving churros – blissfully crunchy deep-fried pastries. Most churros in Mexico City are coated in sugar and cinnamon, piped through a star-shaped nozzle to around 20cm long, and served warm. The history of churros is unclear: some argue that they are derived from the Chinese You Tiao, deep fried batter sticks. Others argue for a provenance from Spanish shepherds. But whilst the history is sketchy, their popularity in the present day is undeniable. They are sold everywhere: in bakeries, in supermarkets, by street vendors. But traditional churrerias take this to the next level by serving them with decadent chocolate sauces.

Bracing ourselves against the biting cold, my friends and I seek this traditional experience at El Moro. Founded in 1935, El Moro proudly claims to be the first to bring authentic churros to Mexico City. The warm cafe is adorned with traditional ceramic tiles and buzzes with the hum of chatter. A smiling middle-aged waitress dressed in a crisp blue uniform directs us to a table, and happily regales us with tales of the café’s street-cart roots. The business shows no sign of slowing down: a new branch is opening soon in Colonia Roma, dangerously close to my home. I ask her which chocolate she recommends. Her eyes sparkle as she answers: ‘The Español is very good. Very rich and dense and easy to cover the churros.’ I take the waitresses’ advice, whilst my companion orders the Mexicano, ‘the lightest’, deciding for the sake of our hip circumferences to pass on the Swiss with extra Chantilly cream.

Within minutes our waitress places our order on the table and we realise our rookie mistake: the plate is laden with no fewer than eight gleaming gold churros. My chocolate, which I had imagined to be a small bowlful, is instead a generous mugful of dark glossy liquid. I tentatively dip the warm-to-the-touch churros into the chocolate and take my first bite. My tastebuds are dazzled by the heady mix of cocoa, cinnamon and sugar. My friend’s ‘lighter’ Mexican chocolate is barely less indulgent. We are in sugar-chocolate heaven and murmur to each other in obscene raptures as we dip and crunch our way through the calories. Finally, we have to admit defeat, and ask to wrap our remaining goods up as a take-away. Clutching our precious greasy bags, we ride our blissful sugar cloud out of the shop, before being rudely blasted awake once more by the nipping wind.

Information:
El Moro is open 24 hours Monday-Sunday, and can be found at Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas 42, Cuauhtémoc, Centro, 06000 Ciudad de México, D.F., Mexico, phone +52 55 5512 0896, http://www.elmoro.mx

Templo Mayor

 

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Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god, was working overtime as I reflect glumly on my earlier fatally flawed decision to not bring along my umbrella. After four years of Asia, I’m too accustomed to the concept of deluge flipflop-stealing downpours which cease abruptly and unprepared for the constant chissywhissy of the rain here, which resembles far more closely that of my dear homeland: like the annoyingly insistent call for attention from a irritable five-year-old.

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Tlaloc, the malicious bugger, ‘Muhahaha’.

I have just emerged from the gloriously sprawling 80s metro system of Mexico City, a cornucopia of space invaders lettering and orangey-brown-pinkness, all for the bargainous price of 5 pesos.  Today I am playing tourist, and an uncharacteristic bravery has come over me which I think stems from a combination of exasperation of a lack of non-pagoda-y things to do in Myanmar, a greater affinity with the culture here, and a keener confidence in terms of language. I’ve decided to head to Zocalo, tourist site central, where in Plaza de la Constitucion one can find great hunks of touristness, including amongst other grandiose structures the national palace, the Catedral Metropolitana and my main focus for today: the Templo Mayor, which is, admittedly, not a million miles away from being a pagoda, but it’s old, so it doesn’t count.

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Templo Mayor complex against the modern backdrop of Mexico City

The ancient world geek in me is coming out in force as I gleefully recall the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode with the dodgy Aztec princess in it – I’m sure my own visit to the museum will be somewhat less eventful, but Aztec, Mayan and Incan cultures have ignited my imagination and I’m very much looking forward to learning more about them. I mean, come on, these guys practically invented chocolate after all.

 

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Not chocolate, but easily could be

The remains of the Aztec temple are sited at the location ‘the centre of world’: the point where the cardinal points of the earth converge and where apparently the Mexicas saw an eagle eating a snake on top of a nopal cactus: a cosmographic symbol of ‘this is totally the place, guys’. It was excavated in 1978 when engineers installing subterranean cables who struck a circular stone with a relief of the goddess of the moon, Coyolxauhqui. Not the average day at the office, the engineers cleared off bloody glad to get a day off no doubt, and let the archaeologists take over, who uncovered a complex built in seven stages, the earliest dateable to about 1428: around Joan of Arc time for those of you who know as little as me about stuff pre-Shakespeare. On reflection, my Joan of Arc knowledge is also basically limited to the Simpsons episode, so this doesn’t help me much contextually, but hopefully you will be better educated than me.

 

The templo itself is pretty cool: the different stages of the construction are clearly apparent in the stratification, and there’s some funky areas such as ‘skull wall’, which I suspect has a more official name, and some random sculpture dudes seen above, just hanging out.

 

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It’s a huge area, far bigger than I realise at first, and would have been around 60metres high, dedicated to Tlaloc (rain dude), and Huitzilopochtli, not only a great scrabble word when not playing with the fascists who won’t allow proper nouns, but also the God of War. I mooched round the complex, thrilled to be viewing it in the open air until Tlaloc got over-zealous and then I and another twenty tourists suddenly found the covered areas particularly fascinating. Squelching my way round the complex and gradually feeling my socks seeping up the rain, I decided to cut the ‘real’ stuff short for another day, and headed to the museum.

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Reconstruction of Templo Mayor – big, innit?

Some of the artefacts inside took my breath away: the museum is divided into eight levels, thematically aimed to juxtapose the themes of life and death. For me the most intriguing rooms were ‘Ritual & Sacrifice’, and the two floors dedicated to rain dude and war god. Ritual and Sacrifice is not a room for the faint hearted. Full skeletons are found there, disconcerting grinning skull masks, a selection of decapitated heads, many of young children or older women with human sacrifice being carried out in diverse ways to appease the gods, particularly to encourage favourable conditions when crops were dying in dry season.

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One of the less horrific displays

More aesthetically pleasing was the intricate turquoise dish in the ‘Tribute & Commerce’ room which shows seven characters on its circumference – painstakingly reconstructed tiny piece by tiny piece.  Assuming the archaeologist’s dog didn’t come and wag her tail over everything like ours does when we try to do anything detailed.

 

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Another artefact depicted God of the Earth, Tlaltecuhtli, who apparently had a rather modern approach to gender delineation and is sometimes depicted as giving birth. Seriously screwed over by two other gods, who ripped her/him into different pieces and tore his/her jaw off, his/her body became the earth, hair the trees, eyes the caves, and another random torso part became the sky. Understandably somewhat miffed, Tlaltecuhtli was the first to demand blood and human hearts in sacrifice.

 

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Friendly-looking

 

So, my first foray into ancient culture here and it was awesome, highly recommend a trip if you’re ever in toon, though you should bring a brolley in case Tlaloc is being a t*sser again.

 

Farewell to Inle

My time in Myanmar is drawing to a close now, and I’m down to fewer than three weeks in this beautiful country of contradictions. It seemed fitting, then, to return to where I started and head to Inle for a final farewell.

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Rainy season skies

Catching the luxury ‘Jesus bus’ at 22:00 from Mandalay, we arrived after a stomach-lurching journey at around 5:00am into Naungshwe. First major change for me over the two years is that 5:00am no longer seems like the middle of the night, but I’m sure all that will change once I discover a social life again. We stayed at my favourite hotel in Naungshwe, and serious kudos to these guys – I hadn’t been back there for a year but they still remembered me.  On reflection, I may have irrevocably etched myself onto their memories last time I was there, by crawling down to them gray faced and croaking at them plaintively to see they could feed me some plain rice whilst I focused on not dying of egg fried rice-induced food poisoning from one of the lake restaurants. They obliged, added some water, stuck it all on a tray with a pwetty flower, and never charged a penny. Myanmar customer service still surprises me, even two years later.

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Nyaungshwe town

Gratefully we crawled into our beckoning beds to catch up on sleep missed due to the bus driver’s fundamental inability to Just. Stop. Talking. and woke feeling groggy but – hurrah! not remotely sweaty! — to a breakfast of banana pancakes drenched in glossy Myanmar honey, general fried items of goodness, plump golden pineapple, and some serious caffeine. ‘Sir you want 3-in-1 or black?’ I probably should inform them that not everyone is ‘sir’ but I was more focused on the coffee decision. Black is obviously awesome, but as anyone who has tried Myanmar 3-in-1 coffee, it has its own magical powering ability, fuelled by god-knows-what, and rumour has it that even prisoners in Insein are given a daily allowance of it. Alas, as this doom-and-gloom article states, it’s not all good news for 3-in-1, but the list of ingredients including high sugar and trans-fats hints at just how amazing this product is when one is intensely sleep-deprived and slightly mentally adrift. Still, I chose life on this occasion and went black.

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Traditional boats – notably different from the tourist ones

Since it was my lovely companion’s first trip to Inle, we could hardly not do a boat trip, so we mooched up to the brown channel area which takes Naungshwe into the lake itself. Gearing up for a fight, our boat driver quoted us a very fair low-season price which we accepted without question, dodged the ladies intent on bedecking us in head-prickling bamboo hats, and ensconced ourselves firmly into the boat before it zipped off towards the lake.

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Umbrellas – reminds me of Bo Sang.

I think this was probably my 8th-or-so boat trip on Inle, but it’s still breath-takingly beautiful and one of my favourite places in Myanmar. I have seen the lake in glorious sunshine, and Dementor-esque fog at Christmas time with me mother bedecked in a jaunty Santa hat, but this was a new world again, in the raw earthiness of rainy season. Rich tones of brown, red and green and a distinct lack of tourists made this a rather other-worldy experience, despite the inevitable commission-born trips to silver makers, umbrella makers, and lotus weaving longgyis.

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This lady is showing lotus root – the fibre is more sought after and more expensive than silk

We chugged past bamboo huts on stilts standing precariously tall in the gently shimmering water, next to men burning and collecting in the rice harvest. Away from the gaggle of tourist high season, with so few tourist boats on the water, and none of the merry showboating of the Inle fishermen band of actors, it seemed more real, more indicative of every day life routine than last time when weather-battered fishermen had to negotiate their boats around the myriad of other tourists’ boats.   People have also grown more accustomed, perhaps even weary, of tourists here: last year I was greeted with shy smiles and curiosity. This year eyes flickered to us and then back to their tasks at hand.   Things are truly changing in Myanmar, both for better and worse, and I do feel privileged to have been one of the lucky foreigners to have witnessed this change at first hand in the authentic communities I’ve lived in, removed from the artificiality of the tourist industry.

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Myanmar Air Hockey…

The day passed in a gentle blissfully unstressful way and we decided to return to the town for lunch, once-bitten-once-shy in terms of food consumption, and found ourselves a Shan restaurant where I enjoyed a final glorious dish of Hin T’ok and some disappointingly watered down Shan noodles which in hindsight would never live up to the glory of the Shan Kow Swe of Hsipaw (although I suspect even the Shan Kow Swe of Hsipaw wouldn’t live up to it either now I’ve magnified it into a vision of true ambrosia). Feeling a bit worse for wear after aircon bus blasting for seven hours straight, we headed to the market for my friend to pick up some souvenirs before being bum-butted by a rogue horse and escaping back to our hotel. There we spent a sedate evening of Nepalese takeaway: paneer curry, parathas, banana and chocolate pancakes, ginger lemon and honey tea, discovering our sunburn in horror (despite spending most of the trip crouching under a hot pink Justin Bieber umbrella) and blithely eschewing the raging nightlife of Naungshwe in favour of comfortable beds and the girliest girly movie in the history of ever. As I finally closed my eyes and felt the swaying of my body echoing the swaying of the boat, I left Inle drift away in my dreams like saying a bittersweet goodbye to an old friend.

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Harvest

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Popping up Popa

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Taungkalat monastery, Mount Popa.  Here be monkeys.

I have never been the sort of girl to look at a mountain and think ‘I wanna get to the top of that’.  Having climbed Kinabalu in Borneo, a healthy 4000-odd metres ascent requiring actual head torches, these days I feel like I can rest on my laurels, so my response to hilly-like terrain is normally more related to visual appreciation and perhaps a nice mug of hot chocolate or perchance even a nice glass of vino.  Also being somewhat anti-religion, the idea of voluntarily heading to yet another pagoda was not necessarily on my top ten list.  These things duly noted, I was not entirely overwhelmed about the idea of travelling a bjillion hours to Mount Popa, home of Taungkalat monastery in central Myanmar, in a car driven by one of our [lovely] local drivers whose idea of a good road trip is to crawl along about 30km/h and play one single Taylor Swift song on repeat….and it’s not even that never ever back together one.

 

The rather daunting journey time of six hours down a Myanmar highway was another less than appealing thought.  Highways are, admittedly, never super interesting in any country.  I think the most exciting one I’ve seen was in France with the funky sculptures, or the Czech Republic motorway with all the Skodas dropping like flies as they overheated, although I also did enjoy our Germany school trip down the Autobahn when our teachers fell asleep and me and my friend saw the sign for our exchange partner’s town whisk past and were mildly perturbed that our bus driver may have been slightly lost.  Three hours later…  However, there is something just bewilderingly nothingy about the highways in Myanmar.  Here is a picture,  alas not my own, to make my point.  And yes, I know the reddish soil is quite thrilling, but you just give it two hours.

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Could be that a couple of Little Chefs would sort it out but as it is, a six hour journey down one of those roads was possibly not going to be the height of excitement for a Friday evening (although my standards have dropped waay low these days).  Still, it was my friend’s birthday and I was lured there by the promise of chocolate fudge cake.

 

My first reprieve came when I realised we were with the other driver who was evidently not a Ms Swift fan, and enjoyed the beauty of pure silence as much as I do (yes, I’m well aware that I’m living in the wrong country for that).  Another major plus was that we didn’t go the highway road, but instead some secret road that was of far more interest visually, mostly because of the cows and the banana trees.  I have always loved cows, but I have a special love for Myanmar cows because they just resolutely refuse to budge out of the way of anything, and everything has to drive round them whilst they burp lazily into the middle distance.  Cowz rulez.  Banana trees are another ‘one of my favourite things’ because I just get that frisson of ‘I’m living somewhere super exotic’ whenever I see them.

 

We yabbered our way through the six hours eventually, with the last two filling me with fear that the restaurant might have closed by the time we got there (this is literally one of my worst nightmares – I do NOT skip meals), but after yoiking the car reluctantly up a steep and winding hill, we finally arrived at Mount Popa Resort and I promptly celebrated with slightly soggy noodles.  Howling winds, mist and lashing rain greeted us.  This is, of course, categorically not the sort of weather one wants back home, but after months of sweating my actual face off in 40 degrees in powercutland, it was bloody awesome.  Our gang grew and by the time we shuffled off to bed in our slightly damp rooms there was a healthy party of 13 of us.  We engaged in some highly amusing present-giving to our residential birthday girl, which I will hold back on details for fear of offending, and then a brief discussion about climbing Popa (the volcano, not merely the monastery, oh no) for dawn to catch a beautiful sunrise ensued with four of us deciding to go for it, whilst everyone else mocked us for being utterly ridiculous when we could just mooch up it at a reasonable hour and enjoy sunrise in bed like every normal person.

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Teak.  Everything is teak in Myanmar.

2am came round rather more swiftly than one might desire after a night of being kept awake by aforementioned howling wind and lashing rain.  My companion and I agreed that it would be totally utterly crazy and pointless and cold and damp and that we should absolutely not go climbing a mountain in this weather.  We composed a text to the other two intrepid explorers.  Dammit, no reception.  Waggling phones around, I opened the balcony door to assess the extent of the climatic devastation.  The door smashed open into my face.  Yup, definitely a smidge of wind going on.  Ah well, we shrugged our shoulders, we would hope the weather might improve in a few hours, C’est la vie etc etc.  Five minutes later one of our elder-and-betters piped up in full mountain gear and demanded to get going.  Ah….Not being one to resist a challenge I…no, I didn’t.  I went back to bed, whilst the others went.  I am still being haunted by images of Everest the movie and decided to choose life.  Plus someone had to stay at base camp in case the others never made it back and I had to contact mountain rescue, right?  For punishment for my wimpiness slash laziness I then spent the next four hours having those blissfully surreal realistic anxiety dreams so beloved by epileptics where I had to identify frozen bodies of my companions who’d not made it up the glacier or had got stuck in an avalanche.  Given that Popa is a mere 1518m, the dreams were potentially slightly excessive.

 

Dragging myself out of bed at the far more civilised hour of 6am, I spent a blissful twenty minutes in the hot shower going ‘ooooooh’ (I will never take hot showers for granted again after two years of Myanmar), and scooched on down to brekkie, where a veritable feast awaited me.  Relieved to see that my intrepid pals had indeed made it down the mountain in one piece, although saddened to hear the weather was too crappy for a sunrise view, I had to find a way to deal with this intense complexity of emotions so chose food.  I shoved some rice, fried egg aka salmonella inevitability (please cook both sides, long time, very cooked thank you) and some deceptively spicy cucumber salad onto my plate, with a side of fruit feeling like I was having a virtuous start to the day even if I hadn’t yet climbed a mountain.  Feelings of virtue were, however, swiftly dispelled upon realising that there was gooey CHOCOLATE FUDGE CAKE.  An amazing creation by my friend bedecked in brightly coloured M&Ms, and that’s when I realised I’d been doing it wrong all this time.  Chocolate cake is by far superior when consumed for breakfast.  Awesome.

 

After an exceedingly lazy morning lounging about and chatting over chocolate cake and coffee so strong it didn’t need a cup, a second intrepid bunch decided to scale the dizzy heights of Popa and this time I couldn’t think of an excuse, given that the weather was actually perfect- a very pleasant temperature and no wind or rain.  We settled off, a smart band of seven, including one glutton for punishment eager to do it again.  Mission: to conquer Popa!

I was also too lazy to drag my DSLR up the mountain, so these are courtesy of Samsung….

And despite my shoes giving out on me at about 3 minutes in and having to scale the dizzy heights of the volcano in socks, and despite not really liking walking, and despite spending more than 90% of the time terrified I’d step on a death-crazed snake, I had a bloomin marvellous time.  The temperature was fabulous: a lush cool air with a soft breeze.  My two companions happy to take it slow too were great company, and well, couldn’t really fault the view:

 

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And finally, I made it.  The top, the pinnacle, the summit! Wow, what an amazing thing, surely the view would be fantast- well, no.  Deeply reminiscent of the time I climbed Snowdon.  it was still thick mist, I couldn’t see a blimmin thing and they’ve decorated the top of Popa with a sort of transmission tower aerial thing and ….a pagoda, naturellement.  I’m sure, however, that if the mist wasn’t there it would have been spellbinding! But the views on the way up more than made up for it.  We schlepped our way back down, taking a somewhat ill-advised ‘shortcut’ which involved some serious mudsliding, before arriving back at Base Camp Extraordinaire.

 

All in all, then, Popa was a fab experience, with great company, great views and, of course not to forget the added bonus of being able to consume vast quantities of guilt-free mountain climber’s calories for the whole weekend.

 

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Weatherspoons, Bagan

 

 

 

Pyin Oo Lwin

‘Where your sunglasses?’ The smiling teacher indicated to my head. ‘You had them on your head before you went into the river?’

Noooo! They were my absolute favourite TK Maxx bargainous ones. I must have lost them when I got swept undercurrent sliding down a mini waterfall. That’ll learn me to not be a poser wearing sunnies in water. Terrified she’ll run off and spend her hard-earned cash on some replacements, I lie smilingly, telling her they are in my bag and rush off before she asks to see concrete evidence. Losing sunglasses in a current 35-40 degree average whilst exposed in wide open countryside is not ideal, but I shake the thought quickly: I’m having one of those special never forget moments again: I’m swimming in glorious natural water, a gleaming rushing river, in Pyin Oo Lwin, an ex-colonial style hill station where George Orwell hung out for a bit, just two hours from Mandalay. It’s stunning, and the cool water lapping my body is exactly what 35 degrees plus calls for. Actually, on reflection, it’s perhaps just a smidge too cold.

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Small water area near Peik Chin Myaung caves…we start to get our feet wet 🙂

‘Brrr!’ chatters my companion’s teeth: she is one our young Myanmar students: feisty, no-nonsense, cute and built strong.  In mock bravado English, she challenges me to a swimming race. ‘I will be the fastest, much faster than you! I am very strong!’ she giggles. No doubt true, since I swim at the pace of a disorientated snail [and I’m not even sure your average garden snail can swim], but she has captured my attention.  Not many Myanmar people are able to swim as there is little provision for it when young unless they are brought up near the coast or a gushing river like this one. Certainly none of the other 35 of our party has claimed to be able to swim, and are now standing in the shallows of the river splashing each other animatedly in anticipation of Thingyan, the forthcoming water-festival. I’m interested to see her swimming. ‘OK, let’s have a race’ I grin back, ‘maybe four of us?’ – my friend can, I know, actually swim, and another shy Myanmar teacher, older this time, has already mentioned that she grew up swimming every day. The youngest teacher nods, ‘Yeah ok! 4 person race! Go go go!’

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House building on the way to the river

We line ourselves up, squelching our feet into the sediment of the river, a sensation best described as gross. The river has a strong unyielding current, and we watch as a small stick is dragged downriver, pulled this way and that. It’ll be a quick race, that’s for sure, but we can all touch the bottom of the river with our feet, and the rocks at the end should stop us from plummeting to a watery grave if the current proves too strong. We flex our arms and make cheering noises, pretending to psych each other out.

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Getting nearer to our river!

‘Ready Steady Go!’ Taken unawares, our Myanmar opponents take off, and grinning, we follow. It is a quick race, and I am an unremarkable third, the four of us a close match for each other over a short distance. Both Myanmar women are quick, although with frantic but effective strokes.  A cheer comes up from the riverbank as the others celebrate the swimming skills.   It’s another example of how I just have taken for granted something in my own education. I might not have enjoyed those cold November trips to the nearest 70’s style swimming where the chlorine stung my eyes and the dizzying array of brown and yellow tiles offended my young sense of indoor décor propriety: (the only positive being the 10p Highland Toffee afterwards), but it’s another reminder of how fortunate I am. Lucky that our education system sees the life-saving potential of being able to swim and insists that every child learns. I am officially crap, more doggy than Daley, but I can swim. I can stay buoyant, I know of three strokes reasonably well and can tell you whilst gazing longingly into the middle distance about those who have mastered butterfly. I can scull, I swam in pyjamas whilst being held down by weights, and I can do mushroom floats. Basically, I could, under reasonable circumstances, save my own life in water if I needed to. It’s a privilege, but perhaps a right, that most Myanmar people don’t have. I’m intrigued by these two who can.

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The still end of the river [we swam further up beyond the waterfall]

‘Where did you learn?’ I asked the older lady, a shy elegant woman of early 50s, one of those svelte effortlessly stylish women for whom the longgyi seems to have been created. ‘In my native village. When it’s hot in the summer, we play in the river.’ It’s the standard answer for those who can swim here: so many of my students come from tiny villages with no electricity and running water and the heat of the summer must have been unbearable without fans or, heaven forbid, aircon.  I’ve known two students who in later life have had serious kidney problems due to the impure water they drank as youngsters. I turn to the younger. ‘In rainy season in my village the road is muddy, very bad, so we can’t use it. So we swim to school. Sometimes swim swim swim.’ She laughs in a sing-song voice. And there I was, in my youth, feeling bitter about being taken to a swimming pool in a cushy comfortable coach with jazzy upbeat primary-coloured upholstery.

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Site of the great race of 2016!

One of the things that has most struck me in this country is how I have always been critically aware of the world’s inequalities: an upbringing under joint custody of Newsround and Blue Peter assured that, but seeing a young child on TV walking miles to the nearest school and without ready access to clean water is worlds away from knowing them really well, laughing with them in class, marking their essays and helping them to express themselves in a foreign language. The difficulties that some of my teachers endured as children seems much more real to me and much more shocking when I see them now arguing over past tenses and becoming unmanageably excited during the whisper game. It’s lucky I don’t work with children, as I would be far too indulgent.

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We are still averaging 5 pagodas per trip…

We continue to play around in the water, holding floating competitions and teaching each other some new strokes. Another tall young teacher swims over and wants to improve her swimming. We mistakenly assume from her swim over that she can stay buoyant, but she grows tired within seconds and starts to sink and cannot find the riverbed. ‘Crap!’ we squawk as we grab her and hold her afloat whilst we decide that learning now to drown would be the first technique to learn. Another instance of how I would love to have more time and more expertise to teach other basic life skills whilst I’m here: First aid skills, ICT skills, driving skills, and now, it seems, Learning To Not Drown 101.   I am beginning to understand the complexities of development project work: how do you prioritise? Which skills are most important? Learning English to access the global economy and lift the GDP?, or ICT to be able to use the internet leading to knowledge-gain and entrepreneurship?, or swimming, first aid and safer driving to save lives immediately? It’s a conundrum that I don’t have the skills or knowledge to answer. Lifting Myanmar up will be fraught with complexities and difficult decisions. I don’t envy the forthcoming months and years for the NLD.

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Time for lunch! A feast, as usual!

Noticing that our bystanders are getting bored and hungry, we decide it’s time to leave the river. Squelching our way up past the monastery, we enter the impromptu changing room and embark on a public contortionist display as we all try to dry off, redress and re-apply makeup without any semblance of having an actual body. My thoughts flicker again to my municipal pool where women strip off proudly underneath clouds of talcum powder with sagging breasts before doing some intimate jousting with towels. Having perfected the art of bra clippage with one hand whilst holding up a sarong with teeth we’re all finally done, and head enthusiastically onto buses towards a rich lunch, a promenade around the gorgeous botanical gardens, and a blissful ice cream.

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Goa

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Not too shabby…

‘I’m gonna get married in a white and gold sarong on a beautiful beach in Goa with palm trees and turquoise sea’. Thus proclaimed I, at the tender age of 13, having just seen stunning photos of palm-filled beaches framed by soft blue seas and deciding that the white meringue option in my local church was not for me. And here I am, categorically not getting married, aware of the immense impracticalities of wearing white anything, but nevertheless on a beautiful beach in Goa fringed with palm trees and lapped by a turquoise sea.

 

One of the huge privileges of my career is the ability to easily travel to those places that Thomas Cook bills as paradise. A mere four hours from Bangkok to Mumbai, and I’m on a beach in Goa within the same day. I’m staying at Patnem, allegedly Palolem’s more mature older brother, more suited to yoga buffs and older fuddy-duds like me, rather than the clubbing or cool backpacker crowd to which, I fear, I shall never belong. From the beach bar next door, soft murmurs of sitars patter over relentless drum beats, a melodic pipe echoes a call-and-response voice pattern punctuated over the top underpins the primal roar of the ocean as white foam rushes up the sandy slope before being dragged back, tumbling. Hitchcock’s murder of crows are hanging about, either waiting for the next corpse or just after some discarded fruit, who can tell? I swear one with a particularly evil looking beak just croaked ‘hello’ at me. Creepy. Next thing it will be saying my name and trying to peck my entrails. Either that, or it’s got crow laryngitis.

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Breakfast by the sea

I crunch into yielding golden pineapple and smile when my arm is nudged by the soft furry nose of my latest doggy companion. Yesterday I was the subject of amused smiles when I walked down the small street of tourist shops like the blimmin Pied Piper with two streetdogs in tow.   ‘You have new friends!’ guffawed one elderly Indian man pointing and laughing at a brown dog and white patchy dog trailing eagerly behind me (ever with the creativity I have named them Brownie and Patch). Their doggy loyalty even stretched so far last evening to get up and mooch over to where a tourist was handing them a tortilla crisp, crunch on it, before returning to mean old me who refuses to feed them despite their best Shrek Puss in Boots eye impressions. I swear I must give off ‘come hang out here doggies I will love you forever and we can be eternal buddies’ vibes. This morning I reward Patch with a perfunctory pat on his nose before he settles down under my table and snoozes in his best Asia streetdog fashion, feet flicking as he dreams of rabbits. He is probably worn out from his earlier antics of trying to catch (flying) crows. Admittedly not the brightest spark, but cute all the same.

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Patch, one of many new doggy friends. Ssh don’t tell my Myanmar doggy!

A slight feeling of ickiness is overcoming me, that post-flight feeling of having partaken in mass germ consumption at 30,000 feet, so I have ordered a fresh fruit salad and a papaya juice. Given I’ve also taken a multivit this morning this is probably overkill and I am missing the amazing lentil puree that was bestowed unto me for my breakfast yesterday, along with a cardamom infused cup of chai (real Indian chai!). Fortunately, it’s a good feeling to know I have twenty one more amazing meals here. Phew. Probably just about enough opportunity to get my daal fix. Yesterday’s lunch was a glowing red tandoori mushroom and onion kebab with perfectly withered golden chips and a feisty Indian salad. It felt a bit odd, eating it without having been totally hammered first, and took me right back to our local kebab shop in Boston, albeit much much better. Dinner last night was paneer butter masala with stuffed kulchi. Yes, I am actually in food heaven. It’s so refreshing to have vegetarian dishes listed first, and the non-veggy meals being an afterthought, and, indeed existing only as a negation of veggy- haha! And not a tofu burger in sight.

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Unbelievably awesome…paneeeeer

Yesterday, in the spirit of adventurousness, I’d bravely gone to enquire about a Goan cookery course three huts up, all geared up to brazenly do it on my own if no-one else was. ‘Closed this season now’. Ah. Not to be deterred, I headed to the yoga hut, thinking that maybe, just maybe, if I tried yoga for the 30th time and in India I might start to enjoy it. ‘Class for intermediates is tomorrow’. Ah ok, how about beginners then? Tomorrow, apparently, the teacher could show me modifications. Are there any other beginners? Not really. Ah. OK. I don’t attend the public shame session but do put it on my to-do list to find a beginner’s class back at home and give it ooooone more chance.

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Soft evenings: the best part of the day for me here

The evenings are gorgeous. I take a dip in the sea, spending most of the time trying not to drown under the not inconsiderable rollers and breakers, laughing with an older couple as we get repeatedly drenched in warm soothing waves. After de-oceaning, I wander up the beach as the shimmer of a sun preparing for sleep lights up the beach in a golden hue. A lithe and apparently unshy yoga girl does a full salute to the sun, her body a perfect silhouette against the soft tangerine sky, oblivious to a plump pasty British couple who decide this was a perfect photo op. A group of older men kick a football around. Bored Dads jump eagerly at the opportunity to flex some muscles and exhibit some brawn to their young sons as they pitch in with the locals to help push a beached boat over wooden rollers down to the ocean. Young local boys finish up their cricket game as the light fades, and walk home, dragging the bat behind them and hitting rocks with the wickets. Waiters place shyly flickering candles in hurricane lamps onto checked tables, the beach becoming a blanket of small tranquil lights.

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Fuzzy phone shot: a video would have been better, this girl was seriously bendy…

Finally gorged out on tikka masala and this feast for my eyes, I return to my sunshine yellow hut, and sprawl out on my bed.  I am under the safety of my mosquito cover, bathed in the sporadic light from my frantically swinging lightbulb caught in the variable current of the electric fan, crying over Monsoon Wedding.  The pathos is somewhat disrupted by the slightly off-key live music from the bar and the hacking-must-be-dying cough of the young guy next door.  My thoughts drift to my next destination: Mumbai. I am terrified and exhilarated in equal measure, and have already had a glimpse of the gut-wrenching contrast of the slums against the stately skyscrapers from my plane. I’ve always been a fan of Rohinton Mistry and this, coupled with reading more recently the heartbreaking true story ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ and am fully aware that this Goa week is very much ‘India Light’, and that I will likely have far more to think about than some dodgy music and loud respiratory hacking. It is a sobering thought and I am beginning to understand those who write that India will show both her beauty and her ugliness openly.

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Standard evening fare…

My thoughts return to more mundane things, such as who the hell just bit me inside the net, and I engage in an obsessive mozzy crackdown. I kneel up, poised, ready, peeling my eyes and remembering Jurassic Park quotes about vision-based movement. I hear the shrill ‘eeeee’ towards my right ear. I rotate keenly, and locate the bugger. I am just about to upset the Buddhists when, ‘bam’: powercut. Movie off, light off, fan off, dodgy live music off. I abort mission mozzy, and hope that once he’s had his three courses and is pleasantly full he’ll stop biting and go and sit down somewhere with a bloated stomach to watch Eastenders, rather than see it as an ‘all you can eat’ buffet opportunity. I lie back, deflated, and try to ignore the invasive movement of the vast quantity of beach I’ve managed to drag into bed with me. A wry smile falls over my face as I realise that I have defaulted to my Myanmar-nurtured ‘oh well night time powercut might as well sleep’ position. I fall asleep, cocooned under my sarong to the soporific roar-rhythm of the waves pummelling the sand.

 

 

Apologies for fuzzy photos! I forgot to bring my SLR camera cable so India is all on mobile 🙂 d’oh…