The Importance Of Being Idle

Vang Vieng Rice Paddy, Laos

“It is important from time to time to slow down, to go away by yourself, and simply be.”
 – Eileen Caddy

I’ve become so infuriated by organised group activities and general ‘tourism’ that today I decided to break away from the gang. We arrived into Vang Vieng in the monsoon rains last night, so this morning I indulged in a lie in, which was absolutely glorious. Eventually emerging at around eleven, I donned my hiking boots for the first time since leaving home and strode out in a general ‘countryside’ direction.

Vang Vieng, being essentially a backpacker haven, is mostly known for tubing and kayaking tours. I don’t find either option remotely appealing, largely due to the fact that I’ve done both a number of times with far more freedom and with far fewer crowds. One particularly fond memory is of heading out across the French vineyards near Carcassonne, one summer, fully equipped with all of the inflatables from the pool. We floated down the river on assorted lilos and rubber rings, occasionally getting caught on the odd bit of shallow water, having a hilariously good time. In comparison, heading out with three tour guides, full instructions, routes mapped, proper equipment etc seems somewhat less spontaneous.

Exploring the local area, however, was incredibly rewarding. The general landscape out of town is absolutely breath-taking. Limestone ‘karsts’ are dotted about the place, very much like Ha Long Bay but with vividly green rice paddies replacing the ocean. You can wander out on the magical little paths through the paddies, with precarious bamboo bridges and rivers that you have to jump across (almost inevitably resulting in mud splattering all the way up your legs). Mesmerising arrays of butterflies and dragonflies are chasing and courting each other all around you and the soothing noise of the running water pouring out of bamboo structures creates the epitome of tranquillity.

Vang Vieng Rice Paddy, Laos

One of the more lacklustre of the bunch...

One of the more lacklustre of the bunch…

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Vang Vieng, Laos

After ambling down a dirt road for a while I decided to follow a very poorly translated signpost which pointed towards a cave “where you bath”. This took me down a tiny little path winding through banana plantations and lush wilderness which was actually a little disconcerting as there wasn’t a soul in sight and the tight turns resulted in very poor visibility. What’s more, the screeches of the crickets were quite alarming; they were exactly like that horrible sound you make when you scrape cutlery across an empty plate. Round one tight corner I spotted an incredibly bizarre snake – around a metre and a half long but so thin that it can’t have been more than a centimetre or two wide. It reared up, with some little creature in its mouth that was screaming its heart out, and darted quickly into the jungle. I’m not sure what it was exactly, but having looked online the closest I’ve come is a ‘painted bronzeback’. By this stage, my stomach was obstinately reminding me that it was lunchtime, so I decided to give up on the rather unnerving trail and head back to the open space!

A small herd of cattle, blocking the route back to the road - thankfully they were very docile!

A small herd of cattle, blocking the route back to the road – thankfully they were very docile!

Calf seeking shelter from the heat.

Calf seeking shelter from the heat.

Vang Vieng , Laos

Rambling about the place was such a fantastic opportunity to get a sneak peek into the genuine lives of the locals: families gathered in the dark of their bamboo huts around a pot of steamed rice, farmers tending the cattle and paddies, little kids splashing about in the mud whilst the fishermen work their traditional nets in the rivers, young boys proudly sporting their smart uniforms as they cycled to and from school. One boy, perched up on a tiny little branch at the top of a tree, like a sparrow, shouting out ‘sa bai dee’ (hello), jumped down and ran over to me to offer his half eaten guava, which was rather adorable. Such a shame that I was unable to communicate in any way – hello and thank-you are the extent of my Laos linguistic abilities, unsurprisingly!

Bridge across the fast-moving river.

Bridge across the fast-moving river.

Vang Vieng River

Laos fisherman

Vang Vieng road

 

Boy in tree Vang Vieng

I’m getting to grips with the local street food increasingly as time passes – the basic concept initially was just entirely foreign to me and nobody explained it, so it’s taken a while! You get the basic ‘canvas’ of the meal given to you, most often rice noodle soup, and then you’re able to choose all the flavours and seasoning yourself from the things available to you on the table – what I initially mistook for a salad is pot of fresh herbs: here it’s mint and a strange lemony tasting leaf that looks a little like basil. Then there are sauces – in this case an additional delicious thick peanut/chilli sauce, chillis, garlic, curry powder etc

The basic 'noodle soup' has morphed into varying forms in the different countries.  Here in Vang Vieng it came with a sort of dark gelatinous tofu, a side of fresh bean sprouts and topped with fried garlic.

The basic ‘noodle soup’ has morphed into varying forms in the different countries. Here in Vang Vieng it came with a sort of dark gelatinous tofu, a side of fresh bean sprouts and topped with fried garlic.

Rice Paddies, Vang Vieng, Laos

 

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Sun Rise, Light Flies

Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Cambodia

We woke up this morning before the birds. A 4.45 departure time wasn’t particularly welcome considering the long travelling day to Siem Reap, Cambodia from Bangkok yesterday combined with the fact that I’m still on the wobbly side of full health! However, the aim was to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, which seemed worth the effort. The only problem was that every tourist and his dog seemed to have the same idea. Apparently it’s the ‘thing to do’. Unfortunately it does rather diminish the experience being crammed in with a pack load of tourists, ravenous for good photos. It was still spectacular and calming nevertheless.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The crowds didn’t die down after breakfast. We headed first to ‘Angkor Thom’ (Angkor simply means ‘city’) which was a vast collection of ruined temples – like the rest of the site they were originally built in the 12th century as largely Hindu temples but being renovated into Buddhist temples in the late 13th Century. What was striking to me was how much the site reminded me of the various Mayan ruin sites in Central America. The blatant difference being the crowds of people and the hype! Don’t be fooled by my photos – I painstakingly tried to avoid snapping random tourists. There were a lot more people than it seems!

Entrance to 'Angkor Thom'

Angkor Thom

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Traditionally dressed Khmer children

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Angkor Thom jungle

‘Ta Prohm’ was similarly breathtaking but, again, rather obscured by excessive tourists.  What was so beautiful about this temple (where tomb raider was shot, I’m told) was how the jungle was interwoven with the ruins. Colossal, twisting roots and trunks clung to the walls – simultaneously holding it together and breaking it up as the roots made their way into the gaps in the structures.

Ta Prohm

Monks visiting the top of 'Angkor Wat' (City of Temples)

Monks visiting the top of ‘Angkor Wat’ (City of Temples)

I think you’d have to give up around three days to properly explore the complex as just whizzing round the highlights took us eight hours! A long time when you’ve been up at 4 am!

After heading back into Siem Reap for lunch, a couple of the girls in my group and I decided to visit the local ‘Acodo’ orphanage. It was shockingly small, with just two small buildings for the 76 girls and boys to sleep in and only a couple of English classrooms. However, the people running the place seem to have a clear set of aims and objectives for the project and are doing remarkably well with the money donated to them. Again, I made a comparison in my mind – this time with ‘Goroka’ school in Papua New Guinea where the money isn’t so much the crucial issue as how it is used – with large sums frittered away on teacher’s parties and gifts etc. Here they’ve built several structures including a kitchen, water filter system, a couple of class rooms for English lessons and have separated the boys and girls dorm rooms. They also send the elder children in their free time out to the Acodo farms to learn useful farming techniques whilst helping to reap the benefits of the land to feed themselves and the rest of their fellows.

If you’re remotely interested in volunteer work in this part of the world then I really think Acodo orphanage would be a very worthwhile destination, instead of volunteering through a travel agency. They do take on volunteers on a regular basis but are often short and the results are immediately visible.

We tried to make ourselves useful by bringing along some treats and bits and bobs for the kids and helped some of the older girls to practise their English. The younger children were pretty entertained with our cameras for a while which was amusing.

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”
 – Mother Teresa

 

Let’s Go Fly A Kite/ Watching And Waiting

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Making carnival masks!

“There is nothing safer than flying – it’s crashing that is dangerous”.
– Theo Cowan

After the usual, urine related, antics at the crèche this morning, things proceeded to go downhill. Very literally in one some cases.  The major time theft of the day was my hang-gliding expedition. I say expedition as I arrived at 11 and didn’t leave until past 5. Basically I was sat at the top of a mountain in my harness and helmet for six hours whilst crowds of gliders gathered, waiting for the cloud to leave a gap so that we could jump off the mountain. I think it would be fair to say that I’m not the most patient soul in the world, so after many false alarms, each involving rushing to the glider and buckling up only to see another swath of cloud roll in, I was getting increasingly pissed off. I was convinced that we were just going to end up having to drive back down. In the mean time my instructor shared some interesting stories. The two that come to mind are: him taking his dog hang-gliding and his ex-girlfriend turning out to be a man. Both stories accompanied by pictures.

                Of course, the actual flight was incredible. A particular highlight was flying alongside a native hawk! It really did make you feel ‘like a bird’.

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However the two hours which followed were occupied by sitting in solid traffic during my lift back to the hostel. I then rushed to Copocabana on the tube to pick up my costume and the centre was shut and I’m not sure if it will open again as the holiday season starts tomorrow – I paid a deposit. Yet another pointless waste of money it would seem. (Although not all hope’s lost yet –  I’m going to check whether it’s open in the morning – fingers crossed!)

I’m getting irritated by being constantly ripped off here. It’s actually an incredibly expensive city, particularly considering it’s apparent state of poverty.

The icing on the cake was coming back to ask around if anybody had a laptop with a cd drive for me to offload my gliding pictures from, of course nobody did, and then noticing an hour later that I had dark purple açai juice smeared over my face.

p.s. I apologise for this rant. I know that I shouldn’t be complaining but it’s hard not to have a little moan after sitting around for six hours in a heavy ‘bib’ and oversized helmet.

Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time

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“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”

– Rudyard Kipling

Rio, depending on the district, smells of food, sewage and sweat, with undertones of tropical humidity. Despite the surprising state of dilapidation that the majority of the city seems to be monopolised by, the landscape is incredibly beautiful. Small mountains and outcrops covered in lush green foliage are scattered around the city and the hills form a patchworks of the multicoloured brick houses which make up the slums.  The metro travels above the ground, so is a great way to get a glimpse of the different outer regions as you fly through. My commute out to the crèche today gave me a little insight into what life might actually be like living and working in the city. However there is still one major barricade: People keep assuming I live here so start jabbering away at me in Portuguese whilst I stare at them blankly, eventually getting the chance to feebly pipe up: “English!” To which they respond “que, entende nada?” Which, being similar to the Spanish, translates as “What, you understand nothing?”  What I find quite amusing is being able to shout “Oi!” at people and for it to be received as an enthusiastic greeting.

I felt rather superfluous at the crèche today. It’s well run and well staffed. I’m not really sure why they’re recruiting extra volunteers. However, it was interesting to see how they go about the day and the toddlers, although admittedly annoying at times (one little boy peed in the ball pit), were generally adorable and, being around two years old, didn’t hesitate to climb all over me.

The afternoon was when things started to go slightly haywire. I arrived back at the hostel at midday to find no update from the airport. In the absence of my luggage I seem to have gone slightly mad and went out on a bit of a spending extravaganza. I headed first to the Botafogo bay area which has views of the Christ statue and sugar loaf mountain. As a bonus the harbour water isn’t great for swimming so the beach was completely empty. After pottering about in the shops I headed down to Copacabana which was the complete opposite end of the spectrum. However, saying that, it wasn’t quite as busy as I’d expected it to be. My ridiculous purchase of the day was a beaded Brazilian carnival outfit which was pretty expensive but I couldn’t resist. They even fitted it to my exact size. In hindsight, I’ve got to go back to collect it tomorrow at some point, which is inconvenient, and it’s heavy and mildly bulky so not ideal for carting around for three months…but it will make for fantastic fancy dress!

P.S. I discovered that they do fantastic fruit juices here, with stalls/shops everywhere. My favourite is açai with strawberry which is mixed with ice, like a slushy.

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Stuck In Guacamole

“Most travel is best of all in the anticipation or the remembering; the reality has more to do with losing your luggage”.
Regina Nadelson

I could not agree more. In fact, I have lost my luggage. Well, TAM airlines have any way! NOT a good start. I waited in Sao Paolo airport until the baggage belt stopped. No joy. It gets better: The airport staff didn’t speak a word of English. My kindle having run out of battery before I even got to Heathrow (the major disadvantage of electronic books), I haven’t had the chance to look up even the basics of Portuguese. Luckily an elderly Brazilian man was in exactly the same position as me, also having come from a stopover in Frankfurt, so we were told to see if it arrived in Rio. It didn’t. They’ve told me that they will deliver it to the hostel when it turns up. Brilliant. I’ve been wearing stinking aeroplane clothes, complete with dirty socks and walking boots, around all day. It had better be here soon or this is going to get interesting!

At least these disasters are occurring in small manageable chunks (touch wood). Bite-sized fiascos are easier to manage. I did, at least, have all of my important documents, electronics and money in my hand luggage. The main things I would desperately miss from my backpack are the highly expensive Malarone (anti-malarial) tablets.

My first impressions of Rio were that the ‘favelas’ (Brazilian slums) were completely overwhelming, stretching as far as the eye can see; in contrast, the iconic ‘christ the redeemer’ statue seemed incredibly small! Today has been pretty overcast and rainy so I’m afraid I haven’t bothered with any photos yet.

When I arrived I agreed to go straight over to the volunteer project to introduce myself. The crèche turns out to be around 40 minutes on the metro and then a further 20 minutes walk, which I am now expected to have memorised and be able to do again solo. Hmm. The staff at the crèche are all Brazilian and, again, do not speak English. Ideal. It is so frustrating having such an impermeable language barrier. Don’t be fooled, it is not as similar to Spanish as you would expect. I just spent half an hour trying to explain to the cashier that I didn’t have change for a 50Real note (well that’s at least what I think she was asking about, I really can’t be sure). I was also told that I would have to, as in Papua New Guinea, wear long skirts/trousers for the work. I would have appreciated being told in advance; I can’t really get away with wearing my pj bottoms here. So one revolting dress and a pair of havaianas later, I’m settling down in the hostel which fantastically has free wifi! Yay!

The Beginning Is The End Is The Beginning

The Beginning Is The End Is The Beginning

So my time in Papua New Guinea is finally over. Phase one complete. I’m currently in Brisbane preparing for my flight to Auckland tomorrow…re-shuffling my bags with completely different clothes suitable for ‘normal’ civilisation. I had a look in the … Continue reading

Whispers In The Dark

These people are out of their minds. I’ve spent the whole day on the road with the C.C.C (Crazy Christian Clan a.k.a the headmistress’ family) driving to Madang, on the coast of PNG. The drive itself was spectacular. The culmination of different textures and colours in the foliage here is extraordinary. We eventually descended from the highlands into thick rainforest. Imagine bouncing along at 80 k along a dirt track through the jungle whilst trying to eat a watermelon out of the window. Hilarious. Anyway, Mrs Nomino had told me that we would be staying in a Lutheran guest house in Madang. It transpires that this was just what she hoped to do. The guest houses were all full due to the approaching Christmas holidays and the hotels and lodges were obscenely expensive (around 500 Kina a night – around £250). The C.C.C was moving at an incredibly glacial pace considering the situation, for example spending an hour chatting to an old friend on the phone… I plucked up the courage to rudely ask if we could stay with Mrs Nomino’s sister who lives in Madang (honestly I’d been wondering why it hadn’t been suggested three hours earlier). They eventually came to the conclusion that this would be OK.

Seriously. It was like the meeting of the Ents in Lord of the Rings.

So, we got back into the car when Mr Nomino proceeded to tell me that this was a very dangerous place and that we needed to wind up the windows in case some of the strangers from other provinces try to shoot at us with guns, which is happening very frequently at the moment.

That really calmed me down.

I was then scanning the road whilst trying to shove down some food and getting indigestion whenever I saw a man or group of men at the side of the road. To exacerbate things the C.C.C where then explaining that this is the most common place for road accidents as the roads and bridges are very bad, probably due to angry spirits. The cherry on top of this escalating state of terror was Mr Nomino telling me that Margaret had asked the headmistress for money and that “there is something possessing that woman and the whole community knows it.” Oh MY GOD!! I’m now sat on the floor of Mrs Nomino’s sister’s house (if you can call it that) in the middle of the PNG WW2 cemetery. I’m sweating so much that I could be mistaken for a water feature – it’s ridiculously hot here and the entire clan are sleeping on the floor around me…

Sunny Afternoon / Madness

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It was my last day at Mando today. The kids put on a spectacular show! Groups of them had dressed up in various local traditional costumes: Mud men – covered in mud, giving them a ‘white’ appearance and then fairly creepy masks with real teeth; Moko Moko men – orange and white mud striped, with a dance consisting of smacking their backsides whilst singing “moko moko; sinahime men – covered completely in pitch black mud and singing a chant whilst they walk around in a line and lastly the traditional bilas which they dressed me up in the Saturday before last. It was breathtaking! The teachers had actually made the effort to come in today. Even the board members were there to see me off. They each gave long speeches and then asked me to give one. Unfortunately there was a black out mid way through my improvised speech cutting off the (pretty crap) microphone and leaving me in the embarrassing position of having to just shout through the rest. The children then came up to me one by one and piled presents on me: various shell and bead necklaces, bilums, spears, mud men masks, mud jewellery!, traditional clothing etc. I was really overwhelmed by the whole thing! We then waited around for three hours (this is still PNG, after all) and then had a feast with the staff where they gave me yet more presents and then I finally made my way home with my hoard! Yet another incredible day.