Goa-ing Goa-ing Gone….

Monday in Ashwen. Sleeping alot. Like old lady in bed at 8 to the roar of dance music bedtime. Dead to the world. Waking for a moment around the witching hour then sleeping and dreaming till 5am. Time for old lady pee and a stretch as I am sleeping on an Indian mattress, aka board covered in cotton padding, aka torture….Today I forced myself back to sleep, skipping yoga and aiming for sleep olympic medal in the hope of making it to 10pm tonight.

It was, of course, trauma-town to get here. The first leg, home to Heathrow, involved some bus shenanigans, as the Heathrow Connect wasn’t running that early. A bit of a fib to the National Express coach man got me to T4 gratis. Thank you v much 😊.

Despite checking in online my need to not be late meant I still needed to arrive 3hrs before the flight. And thus I arrived 3.5hrs early. Time for some random hanging around, observing the excess baggage overload that was happening at Air France check-in desk for flights to Africa. I was allowed to check in 4mins earlier than my allotted time and thus get through an uber efficient security process and sit down for a breakfast before you could say shashuka for one.

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The blue moon setting over Heathrow.

KLM was super efficient and Schipol was bustling. The connecting flight was practically next door to where I arrived so no painful superdash across the airport – that was to come later in Mumbai….of course.

I had read online about delays of up to 3hrs at the airport as a result of e-visa introduction. Surely not still the case…but taking no chances and despite us landing 10mins early I muscled my way off the plane pretty sharpish and pegged it halfway around the airport to immigration. Time to get in my 10,000 step, elevate my heart rate whilst being dehydrated and needing a wee…winner.. .

It seemed fairly quiet, which seemed pretty hopeful. However the airport is huge, with plenty places for people to hide. However the reason for the quiet soon became apparent…all the passengers from other flights were already queued halfway out of immigration. Shit. E-visa queue was the worst with not even half the desks were open. Snail’s pace would be over-egging it as a description. I had 2.5hrs to get through, get my bag and get across to the domestic terminal. Seeing this tired, polite queue of sweaty folks I realised that I was potentially fucked.

A little kerfuffle of ‘you pushed in’, ‘no we didn’t’, soon kicked off in front of me. The lady who had instigated it rightly pissed off having spent 45mins (along with other fellow passengers from Toronto) in the wrong queue, then was told there had been a mistake and now was at the back of another. A sudden rush of people as a couple more desks opened…doing, as the best sheep do, I followed. Can’t say I really moved much further in line overall but my swollen ankles and potential dvt got a chance to move around a bit. I managed to pick out Toronto lady a bit further back and called her over and we chit-chatted. Tanzanian Indian her family had moved to the UK and 40yrs ago she had moved to Toronto as a new bride. She was back in India for a puja, husband or father or brother it wasn’t clear and I didn’t feel it my place to ask.

It was fairly low key in the queue, although many had connecting flights at 5am. A few people had family with OCI who were impatiently waiting the other side. Standard visa was also moving a lot quicker. We shuffled our way forward. Time ticked by. An hour gone and maybe halfway there, maybe not. Final corner of the queue to join the counter queue. Go behind the wheelchair or not? Not. Chose wrong…argh. Now getting agitated. Over an hour and a half going not very far. Immigration man chat chat smile smile to the woman in front…all the time in the world. Me next. Finally. Smile ‘yes, all good, flight to catch, please be quick’. The fingerprint machine is slow and not working well. ‘Left 4 fingers’…’Again’, ‘Ok?’, ‘Waiting for machine…’, ‘Ok’, ‘Right 4 fingers?’, ‘Wait for machine.’…all the time rictus grin of ffs and I need to get my bag. Finally thumbs…’ok, all good’. Hurray. ‘Thank you SO much’, quick hug to Toronto lady and running through duty free to baggage and queues all the way back to duty free for customs….ahhhhh shit.

The flight was gone off the board. And the bags were not at carousel 7 as we had been told. ’10 madam’….scan of the bags piled up…’KLM??…no not 10. ’11 madam’. Fuck, run to 11. I hadn’t had a workout like this since the Turkish Airline debacle at Istanbul that ended in missing my connection there, missing my flight to Goa and overall total fuckuppery thanks to that thwarting airline. Nothing personal, just never flying with them ever again.

Not in that pile by the belt. WTF. ‘Here madam’, a few bags left stacked in another pile. Of that is all that’s left then how did those other feckers get through so bloody fast??? Grabbed it and ran past the red channel, ignored the green channel queues. Headed to a moustachioed man in uniform ostensibly in charge of the queues. He looked at me ‘connecting flight’ I hoarsely explained. I queue jumped to x-ray hand luggage then out to prepaid taxi. 700r for a 625r ride which wouldn’t really be that in a normal taxi but hey it’s an emergency. Didn’t really listen to instructions as to where to find the taxi, muscle memory took me downstairs. The lifts few and far between, designed with space for a wheelchair, a man and a mop and one carry on bag. Perfect for an international airport then.

Outside I hit the heat of Bombay and a row of taxis. Found my way to the prepaid. 3.50am. 300rupees if you get me there by 4am. Challenge accepted. Seatbelt was working. I checked before I laid out the request, not a total nincompoop.

We got there with 4mins to spare. Check-in desk was calling for all passengers to Goa. ‘Madam, this is your ticket?’…well it was in my hand, so….’Yes, not this counter..this is Indi–Go. You need Go…’. Obviously at the other end of the airport. Nincompoop.

Bag dropped. Departures is obviously upstairs and obviously there’s people just standing on the escalator and not engaging their lower limbs to ascend it. The stairs it was. My beautiful shade of beetroot only served to accentuate my rapid dehydration. If I had gone to the loo likelihood is I would have pissed sand.

Not allowed in tbe short security queue because that was for men only. No…join the longer lady queue and mandatory frisking up on a podium but behind a curtain.

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Discretion is everything after all. Through that rather understated check, ‘ underwired bra?’ ‘Beeep’….’Bob on for getting that right aye?’ and after a rather long wait as the security guy’s job didn’t extend to utilising his arms to move the x-rayed items along the belt it was off to the gate and onto the plane IMMEDIATELY. No hanging around and we took off 20mins early. Not a flight for slackers.

An hour later we descended into Dabolim still in darkness. The flight a mix of early morning business men, Bombayite bachelor boys on a weekend away from mum, Bombayite single girls on a weekend guaranteed to be more debauched than that of their male counterparts, families utilising every piece of luggage allowance and finally the tourists.

My case was there and so was my driver and we headed off in the morning gloom and cool to my accommodation in Ashvem. It was a tad nippy out. As evidenced by business man running with a balaclava on his head that exposed his eyes and his bald head. Further along there was someone actually in running gear, and not office attire, in a similar mask – seemed to be an anti-pollution thing not abalaclava after all.

As we drove along it was evident there had been some progress on the road works that headed north. In 2015 it was mayhem, causing tailbacks to the airport. There was more of it on more stretches of the road and it was all very much work in progress. We wove past and through it creating two, three and sometimes four lanes of traffic in space designed for one. No overtaking signs acting merely as a suggestion rather than an actual requirement. Yep, I was definitely back in Goa.

Arriving at the accommodation about 7.30am I was entirely unsurprised to see anyone on reception. I was technically 5.5hrs early. Settling down for a snooze on the bench by the desk I just started to drift off when I felt rather than heard someone next to me. One of the staff, looking less awake than me. Without any preamble and presumably to remove the untidiness that was me cluttering up the space he shifted me up the road to their other site, a house. My room was looking out to the beach, there was a tele, spacious bathroom and a comfy mattress on a mahoosive bed. Heaven. Mine. For all of 2hrs. Then at breakfast I was informed I was in the wrong room and needed to move. Bugger.

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View left
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Er….view….right

Shifted back to reality of an Indian mattress (a paradox if ever there was one) and a room that smelt faintly of sewerage once the fan was turned off. Bollocks.

Mentioning it at reception I was told it would be sorted. It was. I was moved again. Turns out someone had thought the bucket next to the loo was purely for decorative purposes only and had thrown loo roll, plastic and all manner of rubbish down the toilet. Bell-ends. Thus I had arrived back, now it was off to go exploring and reacquaint myself with Ashvem / Mandrem.

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What is the sound of one boob clapping?

Very distracting…that’s what.

When you’re on a horse down on the beach, jungle on one side, and the sea on the other, you expect to hear lots of nature.  What you don’t expect to hear is the (disconcerting) sound of one boob clapping as you trot / canter back on the last ride of your trip.  Honestly, things that go through your head – ‘Why is it just the one?’, ‘How come it’s just the one?’, ‘If this keeps on it’ll have stretched and be down by my ankles’, ‘Can anyone else hear that?’, ‘Thank god, it’s just me, Shawna and two horses, so no-one else can get scared away’, ‘Please make it stop’, ‘Next time I’m wearing a better bikini top…actually, no, I’ll wear a sports bra and swim in that, no, I’ll just duct tape everything down’….

Still, it had been worth it, and took my mind off my ankle being rubbed raw by the stirrup – my own fault for being in cropped jeans. We had headed over to Esterillos Oeste, further south down the coast, for lunch and then the final ride of the trip.  Esterillos Oeste is home to a lot of ex-pats with a love of the golf cart, in order to get around.  Costa Rica does attract a lot of the retirees from North America who aren’t always the steadiest on their lower limbs, either that, or they are attempting to recreate life on a golf course, without golf clubs, a green or holes.

The beach was pretty empty, being a week day, and the tide was heading out toward the random giant mermaid statue away from the shore.  No-one seems to know when, how or why she’s there, and I seem to have forgotten what a camera is as I didn’t take any photos.

The horses turned up and today I was on the lovely Banjo.  Lovely most of the time, till it came to trotting, at which point he was very intent on ensuring that Shawna’s horse, the beautiful boy ‘Saffy’ wasn’t getting ahead of himself and taking the lead, so he’d cut him up or try and steer him toward the sea.  Banjo also seems to love seawater, particularly drinking it, and was all up for heading into the surf for a paddle and a slurp.

Whilst the horses waited to be saddled up they grazed on the spikiest tree I’ve ever seen.  You could see where it had been nibbled at before.  As long as there was an element of green attached to it, the horses would give it a fair old go.

Looking like butter wouldn’t melt….
Ouchy-ouch nibble-age
Even Banjo is going for it, thorny bark stripped bare

Apart from a lady laid out under a tree having a rummage (in a plastic bag on her stomach), the beach was deserted. Or so we thought.  Turns out all the hermit crabs were out for a get together.  Watching them, they were all headed in the same direction for a crab pow-wow, who knows what was going down.

Heading out for that crab pow-wow

We drew up for a halt, in order to have a dip in the sea, my first one since the morning we had gone to Manuel Antonio with the Epic Self gang.  It was beautifully calm and the sea was warm and still.  Shawna and me just floated about, getting shrivelled, chit chatting, watching the horses eating palm leaves in the shade of the trees.  What a way to end the week.

We’d spent a lot of time in the water, so had to hurry up to get back, so the horses could be loaded up and get back to the farm before dark, hence the speeding up and the resulting being let down by the swimwear.  However we made it back in time and after a quick photo op to prove I had actually ridden an equine they were safely back in their transport and us humans headed out for a final dinner at Los Almendros in the village.  Yummy food to top off a great day.

The last ride of the week – thank you Banjo and all at Discovery.

The whole week has been a real experience of spending time, not just with horses, but with two amazing big hearted people in Rod and Shawna.  They had taken on the task of hanging out and entertaining a random.  They have no idea who they’re going to get, and they couldn’t have been any more friendly and generous with their time, knowledge and friendliness.  Horses are amizzin’ and ‘umans are fab!

 

Surf’s Up, horses are ready and the crocs are not for wearing!

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Sun going down…first night at the beach.

I had been booked into a gorgeous little hotel Tortuga Del Mar which is right on the beach at Playa Hermosa.  It is run by a German lady who came here 10years ago to construct the hotel and ended up staying to run it. It is super cute with a lovely garden, an iguana that comes to visit and a host of bird life passing through as well as a newly resident cat who is both noisy and nosey, coming in to sit in the wardrobe and sniff under the bed.

 

The numbers of Scarlet Macaws flying overhead is pretty impressive, and I saw 7 all together one morning heading out for the day. Meanwhile it is a birdwatchers paradise wherever you are. Monkeys have been a bit absent down here although there are troops up in the farm, where I’d be riding, apparently.

As well as surfers, turtles also come to the beach to lay eggs, 4 species visit throughout the year, with Olive Ridleys visiting at the moment, but also Leatherbacks (hugely in decline because they ingest plastic thinking it is their natural food, the jellyfish), Hawksbills and Pacific Greens.

The new owners of the Discovery Horseback Tours arrived at 7:15am to take me to breakfast at a restaurant just up the road. I ordered what’s turned out to be a disappointing random veggie omelette of cauliflower and carrot and cheese, the coffee just about got me through. I was super polite and very British about the food, didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot. Thankfully, the next two morning’s feasts have more than made up for day 1 disaster, and Shawna and Rod have been beyond hostess and host with the mostess and most.

The first two mornings we headed out to the farm where the horses are kept. They have all been rescued from one form of work or another. There is a lot of unauthorised tourist riding that goes on and the horses are not well kept, are overworked and treated poorly. Discovery rescues them, doesn’t use any bad practices and keeps the horses even beyond retirement so they can live out their lives without fear of becoming dog food. The mornings consisted of a couple of hours of riding (pootling, really, poifick for a noddy no nothing like me) out into the farm, into the forest and around. The farm is a mixture of virgin forest, forest planted about 20years ago, grassland, and pasture. Cows are kept there, for milking and a small cheese production takes place there too. It’s  been a farm since 1830, initially for the quinine trees that helped to treat malaria. As with a lot of Costa Rica, the owners Jose and Maria are climate conscious, and the couple trained at the Earth University, running the whole place in such a way as to ensure it is carbon neutral.

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The view from Merlin
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Spot the coati tails in the grass
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The farm forest

Missy, my day 1 horse was a bit of a lazy moo, wanting to stop and munch rather than actually do much walking. I was certainly learning patience, and who was actually the boss of me – yep, it was those big-eyed equine folk with hooves.

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Soon disposed of the mouth cover which was to stop her grazing….

Shawna and me took the horses (or rather the horses took us) out into the forest and along the trail, past an old banana plantation, and bamboo and other trees, vines etc till we stopped for a snack and a full body covering of local volcanic clay, so we looked like slightly soggy avatars, before washing it off in a nearby little waterfall. It was really sweet, and the water was refreshing, then we mounted up and headed back for lunch at a little local restaurant for the Tico meal of rice, beans, mixed green veggies, and chicken. That was tasty.

At the jungle spa...
At the jungle spa…

To be honest I’d forgotten the whole set up of what I’d booked, so hadn’t realised there was also after riding events organised too. A handy itinerinarary was presented, so I could keep track (actually, so we could all keep track, Rod and Shawna have just taken on the business and have heaps of stuff to do, learn, keep a track of, as well as entertain this lump, it’s amazing what they are doing, full hats off to them).

So day 1 afternoon was Rod and me out for  Jose’s Crocodile Tour on the Torcales river. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it was about spotting the birdlife, the crocodiles, of which there were many, and any other wildlife hanging out and about, such as crabs in the mangrove. Before we even boarded we got to see a little raccoon family that hung out by the reception and a hummingbird doing less humming and more resting up on a bush.

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This time they’re not stealing anything,

The birdlife was astounding, as was the damage you could see had been done by Storm Nate, mainly ragtag bits of plastic bags caught up in trees, but also some full on wreckage of houses and a restaurant.

The crocodiles are, like pretty much all the wildlife, protected. It was uncomfortable being so close to them, and more so when the captain of the boat got out to feed them (which wasn’t really necessary, we got close enough to see them without that spectacle of him being approached by a large snagged toothed reptile). A little Chinese lady on the boat was eyeing up one particularly large fella (crocodile, not a local) and asking if they were eaten in Costa Rica. She seemed disappointed at being told no, as I’m sure she was also figuring out the handbag to reptile ratio too.

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Not sure where she’s headed but looks pretty purposeful
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Apparently this is a bask of crocodiles….maybe a fang of crocs would be better?

Day 2 we went out, me on Merlin, another muncher but happy to keep going as he chewed, and Shawna on Pulvera. Pulvera had been practically falling asleep after being saddled up and had rested on my shoulder following a particularly enjoyable ear scratch (for her, not me). She perked up once out on the trail (perked up even more on the next ride…but that can wait).

 

Merlin loved to trot, he was hanging back, and hanging back from Pulvera, his ears would go back to me and off he’d go, trotting to catch up, then slowing down again to hang back and off again.  We went out across the farm, past the cheese factory, and into a huge field of grass, we were surrounded by forest, and it was so peaceful to be there amongst the scenery, and fauna, as birds flew by or hid in a tree as Shawna pointed ‘Toucan, there, in the tree, see it?’….’er nope, still no, and yes, I need my eyes tested’.

The horses don’t have bits in their mouths and there is no forcing them to do anything in an aggressive way. To get them to walk you kiss kiss and run your hand up their mane (that’s why their manes are cut short). To get them to stop you pull the reins a bit and breathe out. So simple, and Merlin was certainly more responsive, putting up with the numpty novice giving it all a go. I could see him getting confused when I wasn’t doing it right (e.g. most of the time), ‘what….you want me to go backwards, turn and walk on forward all at the same time?!??’. Matching the horses to personality and (lack of) ability really helped!

For my day 2 excursion I could choose what to do and settled on an evening turtle tour, with the Ronseal (does what it says on the tin) of Turtle Tours non-profits, Turtle Tours. It turned out to be less turtle and not really a tour, more a 3km hike down a pitch black grey-black sandy beach on an overcast night, then back again. Still, it was nice to be walking and learning about these amizzin’ creatures even if I was blind as a bat and to be using other leg muscles other than inner thighs. Also, when the cloud lifted you could see the stars so clearly, it was stunning.

Raul, my guide and an extremely converted and long term volunteer who patrols the beach every evening, looking out for poachers was a turtle expert, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. He showed me where turtles had previously laid eggs, and how he had disguised one site to make it look as if it had been poached already. We also visited the government house where some eggs were relocated to and which are due to hatch. Each clutch only come out when all the eggs are ready, and temperature in the nest dictates sex of the turtles, the warmer it is then more females.

As I’d been unlucky to not see any turtles (it is coming to the season’s end for the Olive so no surprise really), I was invited back for a second attempt tonight but the communication was Costa Rican awry and last minute so it never happened, maybe tomorrow will be a better opportunity.20171212_171501_1513170874822_resized Gratuitous Sunset…every blog should have one!

Manuel Antonio here we come…

I slept nearly 11hours waking to practically silence interspersed by the occasional birdsong. It seems that it’s only quiet from about 5am till 9, then the human cacophony kicks off.

The day was fresh and windy, beautiful clear blue skies. Up on the roof you could see various mountain ranges but it wasn’t clear what was volcanic and what wasn’t. Took a few photos anyway. I’ll add them later, wifi here is spotty and not working today.

Thought I’d get ahead of the pack and get to breakfast early, rocking up at 7am. This is practically unheard of for me anywhere else – this going to bed early is transforming my days…Turned out that the Costa Ricans ate early risers too as I was presently joined by another 7 people, 3 of whom where policemen built like ‘brick shithouses’, who squeezed around my table. Breakfast was a disappointment, a small sadness of refried beans, egg and rice, some plantain and that was it. Least there was coffee.

The service and staff at the place were brilliant and the fact that the bed was hugely sleepable in made up for the plate of food I received.

A super quick run to the airport meant that I was, yet again, mega early. No departure boards in the domestic part of the airport, coupled with the fact that NatureAir have one desk tucked away hidden behind AirMexico right at the end meant asking someone where the desk was. Even then I didn’t really believe them, the desk had no signage. TripAdvisor confirmed that it was them….and that it didn’t open for flights until an hour before departure, then closed 45mins before, so was open for 15minutes???

Seeing Mr & Mrs Rohan with large waterproof bags turn up there about 90mins before the flight and start waving passports I tagged on the end. No bother, till….The scales read 34, and thinking there was an error – no way my bag weighs 34kgs, even with some hand luggage now in it. Check-in man points it out, and that I’m over the allowed weight. ‘Can’t be, the bag doesn’t weigh that much’, ‘well it is’, ‘what, 34kilos?’, ‘Pounds, it’s pounds’, ‘Pounds!?’ (What airline weighs in pounds?…) ‘That’ll be $20’, ‘Per pound?’, ‘Total, credit or debit card only’, ‘Phew’ followed by panic as failed to locate wallet with cards in. My debris was strewn around the desk, probably left half of it there, however the relief of finding the wallet outweighs any loss tbh.

There were a few people at the gate, where they’d come from I’d no idea as I’d been eagle eyeing the check-in desk for a while before I went up. Then, about 30minutes before take off a family appears and the clerk ushers the through, so we all get a bit excited…ok, I do, so go up and show him my boarding pass, aka a slip of paper handwritten with my flight time, gate and name, and he says, ‘not your flight, sit down’. But there’s no other flights on the board?!? He vanishes with the family, then comes back for an American couple and then vanishes again. Our flight was due to go at 10:45, it ticks by, there’s no change to the board, 10:50, no one, 10:55…a bus pulls up and then a few minutes later our clerk reappears to put us on the bus. And there’s loads of us, far more than were in the gate. He’s like the Paul Daniels of airport trickery. Who are these people? Where did they come from? And more importantly it turns out, is where are they going? When we drove round the back of the airport to the lil’ plane area only 4 of us hopped off for Quepos, which was the only flight on the board?!

Our plane was a single propellor seating about 18, so us 4 were huddled at the front, whilst the co pilot did a briefing on the four exits and the seat belts. Reality was, if this went down we were dodos. It was a surreal 20 minutes initially bumping along the runaway behind a jet then bumping along to take off. I think sheer belief that it could fly is what got us up in the air.

It was beautiful once we were up, minimal evidence of dwellings, except around the city area, and then greenery everywhere, forests and canyons, mountains and, well, scenery.

 

The occasional beeping from the pilot’s dashboard and the whirr of the propellor was all we could hear. After coming through cloud we could see the sea and then we banked a sharp left over closely packed palm, and there opening up for us in amongst them was the runaway.

We parked next to the round by the wire fence and clambered out. Departure tax was $3 (?), and there was Inigo one half of my Airbnb hosts waiting for me – result.

Cortisol’n’Costa Rica

Panic on the streets of London, panic on the streets of Birmingham, also the M25 in the early morning pitch dark as I careened across a lane nearly wiping out a lorry which swerved sharp left to avoid me. I had been scrabbling around for my bag with had my wallet, passport, money phone – my life basically – and as the adrenaline kicked in, negating any need for coffee for the next 48hrs, I decided to a) head for the hard shoulder, b) dig about the passenger seat a bit more, c) indicate left and d) not notice the large vehicle actually in the space I was thought I’d be headed to. Cortisol off the chart…Having survived that and his righteous anger, evidenced by full beam and horn I then found said bag, just as I was nearly at the point of turning around (by actually departing at a slip road and not just doing a full 180 in my lane of choice). However my brain appears to have departed from reality and these full on panics have become a thing very early on in this trip with 3 more happening in 24hrs, it’s no wonder I’m knackered by 6:30 every night at the moment.

The second melty panic happened on arrival my accommodation in San Jose. Couldn’t find my cash cash dollar dollar, which was in a separate (bum)bag to my small wallet containing a few dollars and some colones. My own colones nearly melted as I figured I’d left all my travel money at home and I’d have to explain to the non-English speaking Costa Rican that goodwill of $50 and a trip to a cashpoint would be in order. Cortisol going up….Then I remembered the secret hiding place where I’d stashed it….phew….cortisol rollercoaster as….the panic re-emerged about 10mins later when in my room getting ready for a shower I couldn’t find the (bum)bag. Fuuuuuuck, must have left it on the dining room table. Blind panic is not conducive to trying to get dressed, or to anything really that involves thinking or doing. You have to manually override it, kind of ctrl, alt, delete and then log off and restart. Hence then finding the money back in its original place, even though I’d rummaged in there a number of times previously.

Fourth melty was at the check-in desk for my flight to Manuel Antonio. Couldn’t find my wallet that time. Cortisol going up….Not the (bum)bag, and not the small one with a few bits of cash in it, but the fuck off travel sized one with the cards and other cash in. Convinced I had left it in the hotel room, and trying to do the arithmetic of ‘time there, time back minus flight departure equals not a scoob, I then found it in my rucksack. Cortisol going down….Meanwhile the contents of every other bag except my wheelie was strewn around the desk. I am on course for a heart attack.

After those panics at the hotel you’d have thought I’d have been awake till midnight but I was so knackered I was asleep by 7:30pm. Vista Los Volcanes was a stopover en route to Manuel Antonio where I’m staying for my whole trip here. It was a 30min or so bumper to bumper drive from the airport in rush hour, a complete contrast to the trafficless drop off the next day at 8:15am. Weirdly despite chaotic volume of cars it was a horn-free and mainly courteous driving experience. People waiting patiently to be let into the traffic would flash hazards in thanks, or face a full beam onslaught. I had wondered if I should have hazard lighted an apology to whoever I nearly killed on the motorway in the morning but thought he’d have probably interpreted that as a ‘Fuck you’.

The weather was warm but not swelteringly so. That was in contrast to the frickin’ freezing cold at home. At the car drop off it snowed, and the transit bus was nips too. Jeans and layers of warm clothes wasn’t cutting it in my world, but in others flip flops and shorts were….Even accounting for airports being so bloody warm you’re convinced you’re having a hormonal flush whatever your sex, it wasn’t Thai beach time at Gatwick South terminal. Certainly wasn’t on the flight – was excessively glad for the fleecy lined hoodie and my pashmina, darling.

I’d decided to go hardcore on the deodorant front due to my usual overheating at the airport and had Mitchum’d my pits. Normally this results in the backs of your ears sweating or between your fingers, but seemingly I’d gauged the layering levels about right, even with a carry on that felt way heavier than my 14kgs of checked in luggage to haul about for the whole 3hrs I had to kill at the airport.

My innate ‘don’t be late’ gauge means I’m always destined to be early, I’m compelled to it like a Pavlov dog with a bell. I arrived at the BA end of the terminal 20mins before the gate even opened, however as they’ve gone all AirAsia and as well as self check-in you also self luggage load it didn’t matter, and with no queue I was done and through security with my 3hrs intact. Joyous.

Travelling is therefore, for me in particular, a lot about sitting and waiting. And eating. Or wondering when to eat next and where. So after a brekkie at Jamie’s there followed pootling, sampling perfume till I smelt like a tart’s boudoir and then sitting waiting for the gate, sitting at the gate, sitting whilst they told us about the delay, some standing in mild expectation of boarding, then sitting for 11 &1/2 hours waiting to be fed and watered. I suddenly figured this is probably how the cat sees the cattery – in confined quarter between strangers, waiting for food and water, with your only freedom being when you decide to go to the loo.

It really was a rather dull flight, although we did make up time, in no small part to my arse and the constant farts I appeared to be unable to contain. I swear they served to propel us along somewhat. This is what comes of not asking for gluten free, however sausage and mash never killed anyone (although the lady next to me may have been ready to batter me as the windiness deteriorated into a somewhat stinkier phase later on in the flight). I also went on to scoffing the snack box presented 4hrs before the plane landed. I was thinking it was the last meal of the flight and BA were being tight. Tut tut….dinner was then served a couple of hours after that. The chicken makhani may have been a step too far, and it’s fair to say those around me (and me) were relieved to off that plane and away from the toxic fog hanging around seat 17D.

The joy off being upright and walking soon wore off in the immigration queue, although it was moving pretty quickly, the cross examination of where I was staying was slightly nerve wracking. No signs for where our luggage would be but following the masses seemed to lead me to the carousel. Twenty minutes in and I was starting to think that maybe the luggage tag I attached a Gatwick hadn’t been as well secured as I hoped. Cortisol going up…I was starting to wonder if I could describe the bag – was it black or grey brown….when it appeared. Cortisol going down….

Outside was a melee of men waving names, none with mine on. Bugger…cortisol going up….I’d emailed the hotel whilst at the departure gate requesting a pick up, and on landing had an email to say that they’d have a driver there (oh blessed wifi, what would we do without you?!) ‘You want taxi?’, ‘no, I have one’ (inner eye rollin for rip off a-coming), ‘where are you going?’, ‘it doesn’t matter’, ‘where, I want to help’. I told him and he bellowed the hotel name aand a man spring out from behind a pillar clutching a board with my name on…cortisol going down…how did I not see that? Doh.

In the room, calm and clean and thinking I’d hang it out till at least 9pm I decided to explore. This involved pulling the durtain pole down, then playing fan switcheroo, pull this string…nothing….pull again….nothing…pull the other string….nothing…pull again….oh, it’s actually stopping, and no idea which string gets it going again and then 9 switches in one room, guess which does what, I was in bed and ready to conk out. I was convinced the bed was going to be of epic Thai levels of discomfort but was proved soothingly wrong and slept for nearly 11hours, lulled asleep by the hum of the fridge, the thwack of fan bits hitting things it shouldn’t, dance music vibrating the walls, and cars turning up,at all hours. My first full day of living in the land of Pura Vida was about to start and I was hoping my heart wasn’t going to give out with anymore twattage from me.

 

 

 

A week on the White Isle

I recently returned from my annual trip to the north of Ibiza, a week of things that I love – yoga, good food, great coffee, meandering around markets and what I don’t enjoy….despite the above giving lie to it…frickin’ lashings of rain.

The time of year – end of April, is a good indication that all may not be bright and sunny on the white isle but the Instagrammers of Ibeefa had posted photos of the unseasonably warm weather so I went with a positive outlook but travelled with 5 layers of clothes on (just in case Ryanair did weigh my bag), which turned out to be good practise for the days of rain ahead.

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Bye bye England

Not sure what was going on with the Ryanair staff, but their previous rigorous response to clearly oversized baggage (and I don’t mean the fat birds on hen weekends) was as relaxed as everyone boarding and my concerns were waylaid, although the profuse sweating from layering wasn’t.   Travelling out in the day was a positive experience, less pissed party goers for starters and therefore a quieter flight, and less fighting and thieving going on – that might explain the staff’s laidback approach – they knew it was going to be less ructions in the air at this time of year.

Having removed 4 layers, and after a short loo break, it was a quick 40mins from the airport on the new road surface and around the newly installed roundabouts which were the cause of a lot of trauma last year (randomly shutting roads out of caminas for hours on end, getting shouted at for driving over newly laid tarmac, having to dump vehicles in fields in order to get home being a few examples) and we were sailing by the unlit side road to the yoga place in the pitch black as all previous sign posts had been removed.  U-turn implemented, we were soon arriving down the dirt track to the finca, set in amongst the fields of the local farmer.  Getting out the car you could look up to the clear starlit sky and remind yourself what the night sky looks like without light pollution.  It felt good to be back.  Then I went and laid down on my bed…dammit, the foam mattresses were as bad as ever.  Thankfully, I was boy scout prepared and had stuffed an inflatable air mattress in my bag to provide an extra layer of support to my already wrecked back.

Each day yoga was outside but under cover, and in the cool of the early morning we worked through our 90mins safe in the knowledge that a fabulous veggie brunch with Ibizan coffee awaited.  On day 2 we had torrential rain and howling gales, which resulted in avoiding the drips onto mats and a savasana inside on the various furnishings of the front room.  Eating breakfast under cover but outside, wrapped in blankets and all our clothes was an experience made smugger by having warm hands and fingers that worked thanks to my seemingly mad idea of bringing fingerless mittens.

As well as the discomfort of the beds, the other issue was the plumbing – the hot water took 15-20mins to arrive into the shower head and when it did finally emerge it was like being pissed on by fairies.  Cold, smelly and gloomy, we decided it was a good idea to get warm, get clean and hang out, and whilst there wasn’t a YMCA to head to there was a hotel / spa called Can Carreu which let you have spa access for €30.  Oh heaven is warmth, a hamman and a pool.

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The gloom of Ibiza… even the tree looks fed up.  The view from Can Curreu car park

Having scrubbed, soaked and relaxed to a wrinkled inch of my life, it was then a hot shower, soft fluffy towels, and a pootle back down the road for a snackage and coffee at Las Dalias Bar and Restaurant . Nothing like being clean to make everything in the world feel right and on track again.  In the meantime, the plumbing back at the ranch had also had a seeing too and we were rewarded with hot water and proper pressure for the remainder of the trip.

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A portion of the Las Dalias grafitti

Las Dalias is famous for its hippy market as well, and by the time Saturday rocked around the sun was shining and the weather was good once more, the site totally transformed from the muddy gloom of a few days before.  Tourists were everywhere in overpriced flim flam, crotchet or thin cotton, the sort of stuff that look amazing on lithe, modellesque ‘young slip of a things’ but which look 1664 on those that can actually afford it (16yrs old from behind, 64 in front), and who struggle to squeeze into it.  Whilst it’s nice to wander around in the sun, soaking up Vit D to stave off rickets, it’s also alarming to see the amount of overpriced tat, or overpriced skimpyness on offer and how much of it is being bought.  My friend’s approach to purchasing any item of clothing is to ask, ‘Would you wear it on the Tube?’, the answer by most would be ‘Not on your nelly’, but I’m sure a number of people have persuaded themselves that they would, as long as they were wearing a large mac over the top of their Ibeefa outfit.

We ate out every night, and for someone who had been told to eat dead animal on a plate with veg at the moment I was in the right place.  Ibiza seems to be the central place for the Neanderthal diet, if Neanderthals ate chips with everything.  Ordering ‘drumstick of chicken’ actually means getting half a bird with chips and some salad. Leg of lamb is precisely that – €12 and you get a whole leg all to yourself.  No wonder the waiter chuckled at the little person who ordered it – it was larger than her whole upper body.  You are spoilt for good restaurants in the north of the island, and we made the most of it, with Italian eaten at Macao Cafe, Santa Gertrudis, and where the waiting staff were super attentive and helpful, La Paloma, San Lorenc, booking essential for an uber cool setting and a menu providing something for everyone, no matter your latest intolerance and Ecocentro, Santa Gertrudis for all things veggie, organic or raw.  Thank heavens for the yoga to help burn off the excess calories!

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Squid, with onions and lemon – La Paloma

We even made it to a couple of beaches and pretend we were beside the seaside, beside the sea.  First up after an obligatory trip to San Juan Sunday Market, we headed off to Portineaux, which quickly disappointed, not just because it was windy by the shoreline but because it’s a tad naff, and then we got lucky on the by driving round to Cala Llenya, practically deserted apart from some Dutch families and a guy who seemed to be auditioning for ‘Rocky, the Musical’ in sweats and a hoodie.  Sun shining, the sand soft, clean and warm, the waves far enough away that you weren’t going to get accidentally wet and freeze.  The law of sod would state that the warm weather would hit just before you’re heading home.

Monday and it was a day at Benirras beach, surrounded by more Dutch (seems the kids don’t need to be in school) and the chance to soak up the rays for a full day.  We headed back there for dinner, dead thing on a plate and chips por favor.  Protein overloaded it was home for a final sleep.

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Benirras, obligatory sunset shot.

Returning to the airport was straightforward enough, despite the petrol filling fun – you have to pay before you fill up which means either making  a stab at what you think you might need to pay or you hand over your payment cards to be held hostage whilst you fill up.  All a bit random but we achieved and after an unrushed breakfast at the airport we were soon shuffling along in the queue to go through security to join a queue to board a bus to board the plane to sit for a few hours to then join a queue to be allowed back into the UK.  Gotta love a queue.

Roll on next year, but somewhere with better beds!

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Investigating Inle and its environs

Like Mr Soesoe I am gradually winding down. As I get to the end of my trip I’m slowly running out of energy, so I decided to take it easy on arrival and also have an extra day in Inle to do fuck all too. However I ended up doing a bit more than I bargained for before I left Inle.

I arranged a guide, Mr Htet Lien, for a three day itinerary covering various parts of the lake.  Having guides has been a real benefit, as otherwise I really don’t think I’d have got anywhere as much insight and information on the sites I saw without them. That does assume that none of them were talking bollocks for the duration of their time with me however.

It were nippy out in the morning, which made a nice change from the stifling heat and dust I was failing to get used to.  Being on and around the lake meant that even the jeans got a showing in the evening, as did the cold weather clothes for Korea.  Everyone is muffled up against the cold, the locals are in layers, with hats and gloves likes it’s winter. All the boatmen provide fleecy blankets and giant umbrellas for those sitting on the boats, to help stave off the breeze, however as the day draws on it quickly burns any mist off the lake and warms up in no time.  However once the sun goes down it is soon cold again, also pitch black, as they don’t have lights on the boats.

Here’s the bad news. There’s about 4000 boats on the lake, and the lake is at risk from many different factors, the diesel pollution from boats, invader fish species, declining fish stocks from overfishing, overuse of fertilisers on the floating island farms, rubbish and run off in the water, also the water table has dropped by over half to not more than 2mtrs in some parts and the lake has shrunk by about half a mile across its width in recent times. Mr Lien is part of a conservation group that is looking at how to come up with sustainable solutions before it is too late, as it is it’s already a depressing site. We spent a bit of time, as part of the trip, visiting some people to get them involved, this included an abbot of a small monastery who agreed to hold the meeting of the interested parties in a couple of weeks. The government wants to find the solutions to how to resolve the many issues impacting Inle but everyone knows that there is a balance to be had between ensuring it can continue to provide income for so many locals and recover.

When not using an outboard motor, the fishermen on the lake row using one leg. The legend is that about 100yrs ago a one armed man tired of waiting on mates for lifts decided to figure out how to propel himself and a boat across the water, and thus the unique leg rowing was born.

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Hands free fishing
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Fisherman on the lake.

Some of the guys on the water are not even fishing, they dress up in traditional Shan outfits and pose for tourists, then demand cash.  You could tell who the real fishermen were, as they were dressed in their work-a-day clothes.

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Faux fisherman waiting for tourists in the early morning gloom wearing his Shan outfit.

As well as fishing the biggest cash crop is tomatoes and other vegetables, garlics, gourds and rice.  People create floating islands from lengths of compacted water plants that have composted down creating a semi-solid mass. Long sections are cut and are floated to areas of gardens where they are pinned in place by bamboo poles. Water weeds are harvested to mulch and compost. Everyone was prepping for new planting, collecting the weed, clearing the land or transplanting seedlings.

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Collecting water weed for the floating islands.

Our first stop was a visit to the 5 day market happening at Indein.  The market works on rotation at various sites around the lake.  Guidebooks talk of the mysterious magic that ensures that all locals know where the market will be, and when.  Turns out it’s actually posted up on calendars everywhere, and the fact it’s written in Burmese means no tourist is going to know that the local person they’re asking isn’t actually doing ‘woo-woo’ when he’s staring into space before telling you, he’s actually looking over your shoulder to the right date.

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Market day boat frenzy

The channel to market was cluttered with boats, and a narrow walkway was equally full with stalls selling row upon row of tourist tat – jewellery, textiles, headgear made of teeth (whose teeth I didn’t discover), Buddha stories on dried palm leaves, wicker baskets of various shapes and sizes, fake silver, beaded necklaces, carved wooden dolls in couples that appeared to share a coffin, these turned out to be representatives of each tribal group.

Once you negotiated all of that and the hordes of backpack clad tourists all haggling with the stall holders through the use of a laminated card listing numbers up to 200, you came to the proper part of the market where the locals actually did their shopping.

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Shopping done, and heading back to the boat.
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Heading into town for a bargain.

The catch of the day was laid out on the ground with different varieties and sizes of fish gasping for breath, bunches of them were linked on strings made of banana leaf or something similar, eels writhed in buckets.  Not all were from the lake, some of the larger carp were farmed, and had been brought in from elsewhere.

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Fish for tea

Further into the market were snack sellers everywhere, both sweet and savoury.  Massive rice crackers at least 12” across were piled up in stacks 3’ high, skewered by thin bamboo sticks to keep them together, baskets contained various sweets made of brown sugar – peanut or sesame seed brittle, bright red chicken heads on sticks, thick pancakes, steamed sticky snacks in banana leaves. Mr Lien bought a crème caramel type dessert made of sugar, and some fried snack made of chick pea flour like you get in Bombay Mix.

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Looks like the puppet show has gone drastically wrong…

We had a cup of coffee at a small shack and Mr Lien told me about his daughter, 15 and at a private school about 40mins away.  Private schooling costs him about $4000 a year, however it was clear that he wanted to ensure his daughter got a good education.  He had dropped out of university in his second year when he realised the only way he could succeed was to be able to bribe his way to good exam results and he didn’t want to do that.

Education in Myanmar is extremely basic and only recently was free schooling introduced for children.  It’s apparent that many families send their children to school, preferring to send them out to work after the mandatory schooling stops around age 9.  Only 75% of children finish primary school in Myanmar. At the teashop across from my hotel were 2 girls of 12 and 16 working for the owner, they don’t receive a salary per se, it’s akin to indentured servitude. At least they are working in a legal trade, girls are also regularly trafficked over the border to Thailand or China, promised good jobs they are bought and sold by agents to be used in the sex trade.

On that happy note, we wandered back to the boat and headed south for about 60miles through a narrow channel past Shan, Intha and Pa-O villages to a manmade lake for lunch and a visit to Sankar. This artifical lake was created in the 1960s by the Japanese, and was created to provide power to a plant which serves Yangon.  It was a case of sit back and relax, and watch the world go by for the next couple of hours.

Everywhere something was being washed, pick-up trucks, motorbikes, oxen, kids, clothes, women. You name it, it was getting scrubbed.

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Washing day on the water.
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Buffing up nicely
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Stopping off for some water weeds, and a bit of oxen washing.

After lunch, a quick tour of the rice wine barn out the back we then walked up to the top of a nearby hill (complete with pagoda, and monk in a woolly hat that matched his robe, smoking a cheroot – no photo) to see the view and then headed off to visit the ancient stupas.

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View from the hilltop.

Some of the stupas had been renovated by benefactors of the previous regime, new brickwork, new whitewash or updated umbrellas.  All a bit out of place, but seemed to be a common theme across Inle, shiny newness was the order of the day it seemed.  It wasn’t just Burmese benefactors chipping in, at another site there had been fundraising for works by Singaporeans, Chinese and others.

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Spot the new kid on the block.
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Offered – stupa, major renovation required…

Heading back to Inle and we stopped off at Takhaung Mwetaw Pagoda for a bit more stupa staring. You can never have too many shrines to Buddha!

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Umbrella, ‘ella, ‘ella…
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Takhaung Mwetaw Pagoda – mixing the old and the new.
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Buddha at Takhaung Mwetaw Pagoda, just in case you’d forgotten what one looks like.

A quick tour of Naung Po, to watch pottery in action. One of many of the cottage industries I’d be seeing over the next few days.  It always felt a bit weird turning up and us being able to potter about and have a good nosey in what is basically people’s homes or villages.  Nobody seemed to mind, or if they did, they hid it spectacularly well.  It’s also disconcerting the way parents would encourage their kids to wave and smile and pose for photos being taken by the tourists.

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Sort of like the Generation Game but without Larry.

This village makes a variety of pottery items, but mostly large pots, which they produce to mainly sell to Karen State (where the ladies wrap heavy brass coiled around their neck, and sometimes arms and legs too) for their alcohol.  Sounds like quite a niche market!  The kiln was in the back yard, buried about 2mtrs down, the fire kept going for about a day before it’s left to cool for another two, before being opened up.

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Pottery field

The noise of the boat engine droning on was almost hypnotic, a backdrop accompaniment to the setting sun. It was an ideal way to end the first day on the lake, although being at the front of boat that had no lights in the pitch black and the cold wasn’t and it was a relief to be back on dry land 30mins later.

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Accidental decent sunset.

 

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Sleepy in Hsipaw and chucking up toward Inle

Meanderings beyond Mandalay

Day 2 in Mandalay and a full on tourist day with Mr Soesoe, from 9am till sunset. It’s a long read so save for when you’re having trouble sleeping or had enough caffeine, or just skip through ahd look at some pictures…

Being my usual attentive self I’d not read the memo on the day’s events properly. I knew we were visiting a couple of the ancient capital cities of Mandalay but that was about it.  Time seems to slip away each day, and it always feels as if I’m on catch up, trying to keep track of planning for the next part of the trip, downloading the photos from the day before, before you know it it’s bedtime and you’re still not sure what’s occuring the next day.

Mr Soesoe is not a Bamar (main ethnic grouping) but Yun, and he certainly stood out as being significantly taller and stockier than the little people I’d encountered so far. He’d started life as an English teacher over 25yrs ago and became a tour guide in the mid-1990s, just as people were asked to boycott the country. He was like a clockwork toy, start of the day, chatty, energetic, arms flying, stories coming and then as the day wore on he gradually wound down, quieter, lethargic.  Having gone through to identify our stops on through the day, it’s no surprise really – we had 19 different locations that we visited.  No wonder by the time we got to U Pein  / U Bein’s bridge (means Mr Skinny) he stopped entirely and I was accompanied by his son to watch another sunset. By the time we got back to the van, he’d had a nap or a beer or both and was a bit more with it, regaling me with stories of French tourists, elephant trekking, opium fields and militia on the way back to the hotel. 

First up (following a bit of Googling to remember), we went to Shwenandaw Monastery, a wooden structure built in 1880 by King Thibaw Min.  He decided to dismantle and relocate what was his father’s living quarters, believing them to be haunted by his dead father’s spirit. So when you’ve got a ghost in-situ it seems the best thing to do is move it with the building and let some monks figure out what to do about it. The building seemingly moved around a bit previously, having been part of the royal palace at Amarapura, before ibeing moved to Mandalay.   Today Shwenandaw Monastery is the single remaining major original structure of the original Royal Palace. There – cul-tcha for ya!

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Shwenandaw Monastery
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Shwenandaw Monastery

Mahamuni Pagoda, one of the most religious sites for Burmese.  A statue of Buddha sits here covered in repeated applications of gold leaf, now over 6” deep, looking as if he has a festering impetigo on his body or was morphing into Thing from Famous Four.  His face is kept clean of leaf, and every day at 4am there is a face washing ceremony to ensure he remains pristine.  Only men are allowed to apply the leaf, not just here, but at other sites where religious artefacts are held – in Inle  5 images of Buddha are so weighted with leaf they are merely bulbous forms, like snowmen.

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Mahamuni Pagoda, where only men (wearing checked shirts) can apply gold leaf to the statue of Buddha

Giant screens are set up around the site so you can watch the faithful close up as they apply the gold.  Across the way stand 5 Hindu-Buddhist statues stolen from Angkhor Wat are lined up, parts of them shiny bright from repeatedly being touched by locals who believe that if they have pain and they rub the corresponding body part on the statues they’ll be healed.

A quick looksee at a damaged brick monastery now used as a volleyball court by monks and then it was off to Amapura, ‘City of Imortality’, and the penultimate royal capital of Myanmar.  Amarpura is known for its silk weavers and off we went to the ubiquitous factory of about 15 looms.  Girls working in pairs were threading silk weft to create an extremely intricate patterned longyi.  They mainly produce bespoke orders for weddings, religious ceremonies etc.  The patterns are worked on the reverse so you need a mirror to view the actual piece.

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The underside of the weaving captures the pattern
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Complex weaving with multiple colours!

Gridlike patterns were set up next to each girl but how they managed to keep track of their patterns seemed headache inducing.  No wonder the prices were starting from $1000, which resulted in most people skipping the back of the show room where the good stuff was sat, and instead mooched around in the ‘cheap deals area’ looking at the bought in cotton scarves, Chinese factory made bags or silk mix cloth sold by the metre.

We headed to Mahagandhayon Monastery, which is home to several thousand monks and is renowned as a centre of Buddhist studies.  I thought that was why we were there, getting a bit of insight an cul-tcha and was therefore a bit confused as to why we went to see the kitchen which was full of other clusters of tourists staring into big pots on big fires and taking photos.  Big numbers of monks need a lot of food, so big pots of it makes sense.

Turns out that this is circus central, and everyone was brought here to watch monks line up for lunch.  The tourist obsessions with monks is obvious in Burma, but even more so in Mandalay due to the high numbers of monasteries, and therefore high numbers of monks.  People seem strangely drawn to wanting to photograph any male in a crimson robe just going about his business – looking at his phone, taking a photo, using an ipad, scratching his arse, sitting on a bus.  It borders on stalking in some instances.  It was therefore somewhat disconcerting to see hundreds of people all crowded, having bagged a ‘good spot’ to watch food being dished out.  It was a paparazzi style madness, everyone jostling for position waiting for the clock to strike 11am and lunch to be served.  The monks themselves arrived silently, bowls in their arms all in dignified receiving lines be dished out lunch by faithful donators who had paid for the privilege of serving.  They were themselves being filmed by their own camera crew, recording the event.  Even when the monks sat down to eat there was no respite, with long lenses loonies straining to peer into the gloom of the dining room to photograph men in robes eating food.  No wonder a number of the monks looked disgruntled, and some deliberately choosing to avoid the dining room due to the sense of discomfort.

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ooo ooo men in robes eating lunch, must take a picture…

It was a relief to leave and to head over the water, heading toward Sagaing, the capital of the independent Shan kingdom in 1315. 

We couldn’t just head there and were pretty soon stopping at Kaunghmadaw Pagoda, a very breast shaped temple.  Built in 1636 to commemorate Inwa’s establishment as a royal capital, the king was dithering about the shape of the stupa, until the queen supposedly ripped open her blouse and pointed at her breast saying ‘make it like this!’ I presume she meant the shape and not the size.

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Hopefully not to scale of the queen’s h’actual breast.

Soesoe and son were a bit peckish, and it wasn’t even 12noon.  They left me at the market to have a potter about and then lunch was at a little restaurant away from the market, choices were curry, or curry, 5 actually – pork, chicken, fish, something I missed, and deer (complete with mime of Rudolph). But it wasn’t just as straightforward as that, because no, you get your chow for you kyat. What turned up was a small dish of curry with two pieces of meat, rice, soup, beans, a fish tomato thing, cabbagey salad, chilies and raw veggies with the chili dip. If that wasn’t enough then you could refill and take advantage of your two bananas for dessert. Did I know Wayne Rooney? (Big premier league fans here in Myanmar), ‘Sure, and I’ll tell the big eared, potato headed overpaid boy-man to come eat here’.

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All this for less than £2…!

The Sagaing Hills are now home to over 6000 monks and nuns and we passed many who were finishing up exams, feeding the local dogs, or heading out to temples.  We visited Soon U Ponya Sin Paya, where a giant bronze rabbit was somewhat incongruously sat as a donation box next to the large Buddha image.  Nearby was the Umin Thounzeh caves which contained 45 Buddha images arranged in a crescent. Donors had recently paid for the glass mosaic that decorated the colonnaded space and their names covered the walls opposite the statues.

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Makes a change from a Buddha, I guess.
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There’s probably a song in there somewhere – 45 Buddhas all in a row…

Winding back down the hill we headed off to a brick monastery that had completely caved in following various earthquakes.

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The ruined monastery – more building site than playground

Around it some local kids and some of the novice monks were playing together, as the school holidays had started.  Attacking tamarind trees, playing football, clambering over the rubble, before they scooted off to harass a cow.

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Yeah, yeah, pictures of monks – I know! But how cute?

The harassment was short lived as they all got a bollocking from Mr Soesoe, at which point they all shuffled their feet, looked suitably contrite and one of the boys made a concillatory pat on the cow’s head. They then screamed off to their next adventure.  We were off to our next stop too, but with less screaming – Mr Soesoe’s son was a very calm driver, I don’t think we ever went over 20mph.

Next stop was Inwa another ex-capital city of Burma.  It had been the capital four times since .  Nowadays it’s a quiet rural location, with gardens of banana trees in the middle of what was the old palace city walls.  We left the van by a small pagoda complex and spent the trip around Inwa being transported by pony and cart.

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All aboard the no.25

It was a weird rush hour of tourist filled carts, lines of them outside ruins like a rural taxi rank.

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Please form an orderly queue.

The pony knew the routes by heart and set off at a brisk trot to the various sites, occasionally speeding up to the sound of the driver’s clicking tongue.

At the Bagaya Kyaung teak monastery, built in 1834 and supported on 267 pillars it was drama central.  A French tourist had gone arse over tit on his way out from the gloom of the interior and seemingly dislocated his knee.  He was surrounded by his tour group, a monk flapping a fan at him (someone would get mega-points for a photo of that), and a worried tour guide.  There was no way he was walking anywhere.  A British nurse popped up to assist although not sure he was going to be putting that bad boy back without anaesthetic.

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Bagaya Teak Monastery – be careful where you step now….
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There may be puppies in the way….

It wasn’t the only pratfall of the day (not me, amazingly been accident free to date) as later at U Bein bridge someone did a full on somersault down at a footpath at the river level.  I thought it was someone pratting about doing acrobatics, until it was clear they weren’t getting up and a whole heap of people were surrounding him and looking a bit perturbed.  We were rattling towards our sunset conclusion, after a quick look at the leaning watchtower of Nanmyin, the only surviving part of the royal palace complex.  It was on a wonk, and the earthquake of last year meant it was listing even more than ever, so no chance to walk up it.

Another monastery, this time brick, built in 1822, a trip to the city walls next to a Nat shrine and we were off ot the last stop of the day, U Bein Bridge.

Sunset at U Bein bridge is a thing so the place was HEAVING! Not helped by it being not very wide and no hand rails along it.  Just over a kilometre of teak footbridge going across a very shallow Taungthaman Lake from Amarapura to Mandalay.  People pay large £20 or so to be rowed into the middle of what’s left of the ever decreasing shallows to watch the sunset.  As it’s no more than knee high you could save yourself some cash and wade out.

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That’s what we like to see – nice neat rows…bagsy a good view.

Everyone was angling for the best position to see the bridge, and the sunset, and if there was a monk walking through the scene at the right time it was triple bonus points all round. I sat next to monks drinking sugar cane (nil points – no photo) watching the melee unfurl.  On the shore line a girl from Singapore or somewhere was being told to artfully wander up and down by a guy with a camera, she had to pause…pout, and look up a la Diana to the camera, repeatedly.  After about 15mins of flouncing and twirling, racing back and forth to check the shots, they were spent, and then one of the aunties in the group wanted a go too.  She got told ‘look straight to camera’, ‘click’, ‘you’re done’.  Obviously a face for radio.

It was a great opportunity to people watch, give blood (to the mosquitos buzzing around), and to accidentally get in the way of mega zoom lens fiends and their tripods.

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Ahhh shoot, no monks in the shot. And there’s people, ordinary people in the bloody way…

It was all over bar the return to the hotel, over 10hrs of non-stop touristic site-seeing, I was done in.  Least I had a bit of a lie-in, the cookery day didn’t start till 9am the next day and nopagoda viewing to be done.

 

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Malingering and Munching in Mandalay

And I am spent….lingering lurgy that started on the bus to Mandalay was a warning sign. As was the stiff calves and sore legs that made me walk like I’d poo’d myself for a couple of days in Bagan (definitely haven’t) – I’d put that down to the mileage I’d ramped up in Yangon. Sore throat and now a comedy cough so that I too join the phlegmy hawkers of spit coughing it up at regular intervals. 

I’m recovering in Hsipaw (no I didn’t sneeze as I said it, its pronounced Sipa, or Thiba, but the Burmese do like an extra consonant or two, or just have them sound completely different to what you’d expect, thus the currency of Kyat is pronounced Chat).

It’s no wonder I’m ill, the concept of a hand over your mouth when coughing seems to me, based on experience, to stop at a point prior to India and sharing your infectious spittle is done with aplomb till you get towards Japan, South Korea etc and your hand comes back into action once more. 

Due to getting my arse into gear for visiting Mandalay I had a full on itiner-inner-inary when all I wanted to do was sleep. Luckily the ‘Home’ hotel was amazing, a massive big room with a bed even bigger than the one at Campbell House Hotel, hot shower and a bath (which looked useable unlike the one at Betelnut in Bagan that looked like a large leftover slightly stained and rusting plant pot) and even more amazingly-wifi that worked, a lot of the time! Wowzers!!! I had to eat before bed and I cheated with a European bistro up the road dosing up on ginger beer and fresh lime juice to attack the lurgy and a small salad at an eye-watering £9 (Not really expensive but as a lunch spread of curry, rice, soup and salad plus veggies and a dessert will cost no more that £2 it seems a bit of a shocker).

Walking back, well hobbling, you could see that whilst a grid system was also in use in Mandalay traffic lights were less evident, so at every junction it was a case of majority wins when it came to right of way, a little cluster of vehicles would gather and edge, edge, edge their way forward till oncoming traffic stopped. Luckily most drivers seemed to cautiously edge forward rather than take a nihilistic approach to crossing but the motorbikes did have an unerring ability to cut right across corners thus being on the wrong side of the road after they turned. Still, it carried on like swans gliding across a pond and I didn’t get to see any accidents.

Drivers generally seem to help one another out, particularly on the major roads, probably because when it comes to overtaking they can see feck all as the driver is on the right side and blind to any oncoming traffic. Trucks therefore will use their indicators to advise when it’s safe to overtake, right meaning ‘stay behind’, left to mean ‘safe to overtake’. It did take some of the fear out of the shared taxi drive to Hsipaw knowing that the driver wasn’t always blindly taking a chance when pulling out behind the many trucks on the road. 

Back at Home, in my supersize, super comfortable bed I was woken early to the sound of amorous pigeons using my window ledge for a bit of wooing and cooing.  Meanwhile outside was pretty quiet on the roads as I headed east to the rendezvous point for the trishaw tea shop tour.  People were slowly coming to, seemed a bit slower paced to Yangon. The poverty was more apparent here in Mandalay than in Yangon too, or maybe it was just in a different part of town there. Running parallel to the main road were little hovels on the pavement where families were waking up, cooking over small charcoal burners, sweeping, washing or setting up small food stalls.  

Our teashop half-day was with Grasshopper tours, the same guys who I’d cycled with in Bagan. Sai was our guide and we were joined by a Dutch couple. We all wedged our arses into the teeny side car next to our trishaw drivers and set off. My driver had double bubble, with me at the front and tiny Sai at the back. If the driver was cursing under his breath for having to heft this portion around, I don’t blame him. It can be disconcerting being driven directly into oncoming traffic with only the tinkling of the driver’s bell to protect you and a man’s pedal power being the only way to keep you clear of lumps of metal hurtling hither and thither at speed. Shutting your eyes helps, alot.

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Our arses have to fit in those?!? Trishaws lined up and ready to go. Lucky those tyres are solid rubber and not pneumatic.

First up was veggie tempura, fried corn fritters,and little savoury dumplings and samosas. The place was doing a fairly brisk trade although we were the ony ones sat down. We were going to get our lard on today. Good lard though, we would certainly die happy and fat. 

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Choices, choices…
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Hopefully the chilli sauce will stop the arteries from furring

We were peddled off to a teashop next for samosas, more fried donuts and the ubiquitous chai. I skipped the chai as wanted to keep the enamel on my teeth, but the Dutch guys gave it a go – one sip and one wince and they were back on the jasmine tea.

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Samosas and plain doughnuts, keeping up the fried theme…

At the hastily found mohinga stall (the first one being shut) we were served up just outside the front of the family home. And family they were -2 middle aged sisters and their mum. The mohinga is noodles with with fried corn fritter broken up into it and banana stem in it, then you add your chili according to your heat preference. Doesn’t look the most appetising but is reet tasty and very filling. Not that we needed filling up much more by this point.

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Mohinga – might not be much to look at but tastes amizzin’

Sai like most Burmese guides had great English, the amount of things they’re expected to know, and the range of vocab is impressive. He was softly spoken so he had to repeat things a couple of times. What was funny was that he couldn’t help but be honest, if you asked a question, there’d be a momentary pause, he’d screw his face up as if trying to stop the words coming out, then he’d breathe out and start ‘well actually only in my opinion…’ 

We headed to Zegyo market for a wander around, and to taste a couple of desserts. Upstairs in the meat and fish section it was a tad smelly but completely fly free, with at least one contented cat having a wash by the fish and a couple of dogs milling around.

As usual it was nose to tail selling, chicken feet, and sheeps brains, blood, intestines, the lot. Sai confessed to not knowing how to cook, seems a common trait amongst most men here, although he did have a fair bit of knowledge of the market and the various oddities for sale, including the roasted rats that were outside.

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Snack anyone?

Apparently these were country rats, a far superior meat to town rat, (wasn’t going to find out) although there had been tell of town rats being passed off as their humble country cousins, so you never can be too careful. Check you origin of rat, folks, that’s all I’m saying.

The amount of snackage we were putting away meant that every time I sat in my trishaw seat I feared for getting back out as my arse was expanding at an alarming rate. The hour long walk back would hopefully counter the effects of the food, but at the rate we were going I’d need to do a full on marathon to achieve any rebalance.

Next up was lahpet, pickled tea leaf salad, a curiosity as this is the only country where tea is eaten. Salads in Myanmar are usually mixed by the recipient so they can blend the ingredients according to personal preference but as we are sharing the dish it was pre-mixed. Pickled tea leaves are covered in sesame oil and mixed with crisp fried garlic, peas and peanuts, toasted sesame, crushed dried shrimp, preserved shredded ginger and fried shredded coconut. The taste is almost meaty (I guess it’s umami innit?), and you get the nuttiness coming through, but what really stands out is the texture, which as with all salads is a blend of oily and crunchy, and definitely a Burmese ‘thing’. Often it’s also the inclusion of chickpea flour that coats the ingredients along with oil that gives it that texture.

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Pickled tea leaf salad with green tomato, peanuts and fried lentils

We thought this was the last stop but nope, two more…another teashop for Indian and noodles – big puffy puri with sambals, naan, and two types of noodles, along with pickles and some diced cabbage. More tea, this time ‘less sweet, more bitter,’ allegedly, which tasted as sweet, if not more that the standard chai affair.

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Last dishes of the day – noodles galore with naan, pickle and shredded cabbage

I was waiting for my lime juice at our final stop, a juice stall (helpfully) which was full of kids on their school time lunch break. We were back in the residential area of south east Mandalay, extremely wealthy judging by the size of the houses tucked behind gated entrances and the general quietness of the area. We were trishawed all of 50mtrs to the top of the road where we said our goodbyes, I was pointed in the right direction and I set off for my waddle back to the hotel – it was going to be a light dinner that evening. 

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