Monthly Archives: August 2014

Lessons in Myanmar #3

  1. Kiss kissing the waiter will get you the bill, not a slap around the face!
  2. Wearing a seat belt in the front seat of a taxi is not obligatory (but it’s scary when you don’t or can’t)
  3. A tiny black umbrella is impossible to find in the darkness of a club
  4. Local sandbag markets are goldmines
  5. Myanmar teenagers are sweet and adorable yet very much like the British teenager
  6. Blind man’s buff is an athletic game in the hands of Myanmar teens
  7. I quite like pickled tea leaf salad
  8. I can have a warm shower here if I want it, I just have to turn it onto cold!
  9. I’m starting to get my bearings around the city
  10. I’m getting much better at playing frogger with the traffic but I’m still expecting to die every time I cross a road
  11. It’s possible to find rural poverty 15 minutes from Downtown Yangon:

And that’s what we did today, on a little excursion to Dalah. This delta village is just 15 minutes by ferry from Downtown Yangon from the Pansodan St Ferry Terminal, a bustling building full of ordinary Yangon life. As some of the few white faces in the place we were herded past the local ticket office and given our blue return tickets in an office, by a nice man behind a desk. I suspect our 4000 kyat was twice the price the locals pay but was still only £2.40 in real money!

A ferry was leaving almost directly so we scurried down the gang way alongside men in longyis, women in brightly coloured two-pieces carrying a vast array of items on their heads, and bicycles, some with live chickens attached.

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The ferry was rusted and peeling, faded but functional and jam-packed. Down stairs was standing room only (and far too close to the poor chickens) and up stairs was not much better. Hawkers wandered between the seats selling everything from small boiled eggs or pineapple to gaudy shirts and children’s toys.

The journey from one side of the muddy river to the other took just 15 minutes. Long enough to see huge cargo boats bearing down on tiny wooden fishing boats on a river that must be half a mile wide. The buoys have a feel of the unkempt about them, rusting wistfully away in the swirling river, and even here the faded feeling that pervades Yangon is evident.

Disembarking on the other side catapulted us into another world. Crowds of people picked their way forward into the port area but it was the cacophony of sound that really hit us. Loud voices offering rickshaws, taxis, trucks and all sorts of tourist tat came at us from every direction as we picked our way forward over sandbags and through puddles with the other passengers. In Yangon it’s common to be offered anything and everything on the street with very little force, just smiles, but here the persistence was greater and ultimately successful.

Having wandered around and down to the river to look back across at Yangon, the seven of us doggedly followed by seven rickshaws, we eventually gave in and accepted the offer of a one-hour tour for 5000 kyat. It sounded like a deal and would certainly be more interesting than wandering aimlessly.

How right we were! The bicycle rickshaws were like something out of the 1930s. Gently rusting but sturdy bikes, with wooden seats and footrests on the right of the driver, one facing forwards, the other to the back. Cushions were provided and it was generally quite comfortable, if you have the narrow hips and slender frame of a Burman! If you don’t, it’s like forcing a square peg into a round hole! Andrew, who is tall and broad, faced an hour of sitting balanced on one hip until the driver pulled in and collected another cushion to rise him above the seat and provide some, elevated, comfort.

Our adventure began by navigating the port road. I was sitting at the back, low in traffic, facing the cars, motorbikes and people who followed us. At times we were very close to each other and I kept myself tucked very small into my tiny seat. I like to think that the locals who smiled at this were laughing with me! It was only seconds however before we got onto the quieter roads of the village. Then it was a gentler race between the rickshaws to bump us through the communities of small wooden homes and businesses of the area.

Shady routes with pretty lily ponds lead to a small pagoda. We took off our shoes and entered, to be greeted by a gaggle of teenage girls who seem to spend their time hanging out there. They tried their English out on us as we wandered around, asking questions and taking photos of the slightly crumbled compound.

Pagodas tend to conform to a strict style. The golden zedi or stupa towers in the middle, adorned with bells and intricate filigree decoration. Around it are stations of small shrines, associated with your lucky day, where you can pray, and of course there are Buddas, usually the younger, more serious version of him, seated in golden splendor at various points around the temple. This pagoda also had a shrine to a particularly legendary priest who seemed to be able to be in three places at once!

As we ventured further away from the port we learnt that in 2008 Cyclone Nargis had destroyed the area and left poor people even poorer. Most of the houses are raised on stilts and built with wood and bamboo. Water, mud and rubbish sit beneath them, as do dogs, chickens and children. Emerald paddy fields sit back from the river and sandbagged paths guide you through rural fishing or farming villages where the children have no shoes and no school.

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They do however get regular visits from tourists. In the village we visited they had lined up ready for our ‘contribution’ before we’d even realized what it was they were expecting. We bought them sweets and crisps and the little monkeys would take their gift, stick it up their t-shirts and then line up again, resulting in the bold ones getting plenty and the more reserved ones getting none. In hindsight we agreed that, had we known, gifts of medicine or rice would have been better for the community but the hilarity and pleasure our gift created was a joy to watch.

At this point the monsoon caught up with us and the heavens opened. Rain in Myanmar is like taking a shower, warm and completely drenching. We were given shelter in the tiny house of the sweet seller alongside granny, granddad and baby until the worst had passed and then we were shepherded back to our waiting rickshaws navigating mud, puddles and slippery bamboo bridges in the process.

We then bumped and splashed our way back to the busy port, arriving in soggy relief just in time to catch a return ferry to Yangon and its distinctive urban decay.

Cat Tails

Ally’s Tale

The naming of cats

It started with my desire to have a black cat named Jolson. I had liked the name and had not appreciated until much later the politically incorrect connotations it could have had. Luckily, my new kitten was not a big voiced creature, in fact he was virtually silent; Jolson would never have suited him. So I switched it to Al, Jolson’s first name, but then again a single syllable cat name never works either, when calling them they need to have a cadence that Al didn’t have but which Alley, as in Alley Cat, did. So I named him Alley. A bad pun. But ultimately Ally’s christening was also a spelling mistake. The name I wrote down for the vet was akin with a friend rather than a stray and when I realized my error I knew that it was the most appropriate name I could ever have given him. My ally, my comrade, my friend; just him and me against the world.

In the style of TS Elliot this was not his only title. Other nicknames developed such as Ali G (is it because I is black?) GG, AG, Jaunty Boy, Gumpy Cat, Baby Bear and several more. But always, deep down, he was Ally.

He became my companion by accident. I was visiting a friend whose cat had had kittens a few months before. She was complaining that she was unable to get rid of the final two kittens; a black male and a black and white female with a hernia. I had warned her that I wasn’t interested in getting a kitten. I was newly released into the world with a job and a disposable income and the last thing I wanted was to be tied down with responsibility. I certainly didn’t want a cat with health problems and a kitten with a hernia would be a 24 hour a day commitment, something I couldn’t give with my new teaching job and newly found freedom. I hadn’t considered a boy, I’d only ever owned female pets and a boy, so I thought, would just wander, fight and give me a headache.

My friend popped Ally into my bedroom the morning I was leaving. He arrived next to me, played with my toes and generally presented himself as so adorable that two hours later I was travelling home with him from Kent to Essex. That was probably the only time I heard him cry and even then it wasn’t for very long or very loudly.

It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Probably one of the most important relationships of my adult life and certainly a unique one. Unconditional love, from both parties, a deep understanding that did not require words and contentment with each other’s company that I will never experience again. He was my best friend, my greatest love and my loyal companion from beginning to end.

My silent cat filled a room with his presence. His luminous eyes were his best feature and ultimately his doom. Whatever I did I was watched, accompanied or supervised by a quiet authority I didn’t even recognize until it was gone. I spent 18 years learning to listen for the little noises he did make. Towards the end it was the cry he made before being sick and the tap of his claws on the floor but when he was a kitten it was the thunder of his paws as he galloped around the flat at 100 mph breaking things, the swing of the cat flap or the thump of his paws on the patio doors announcing his arrival and desire to be let in or out. Now, my home feels empty, and very quiet, as I get used to not listening for those things any more.

Kittenhood

As a kitten I discovered his love of leaping. A favourite toy was a fabric dice attached to elastic and tied to the telephone shelf. I drew the dice back, called his attention to it and then let go to watch his tiny body freefall through the air and pounce upon the dice. He and I could play this game for hours and he could leap in any direction with out hesitation. At the height of his skills he was leaping level with the shelf, a good 3 feet from the floor. I fear I honed his hunting skills and paid the price with all the birds he brought home later.

He also brought me worms. They were his first gift as a hunter and I remember finding them dried and shriveled under the inflatable mattress I was using at the time whilst awaiting the arrival of my new double bed.

When I was sick with chicken pox he brought me a frog. Such a thoughtful gift! I woke from a feverish sleep to the screaming of a small child. Groggily I looked around to see Ally intently watching the bookcase, slipping his paw behind it and producing the distressed cry of a child. Reality dawned. I had heard frogs scream before and my heart sank. I can’t cope with anything that scuttles, slithers or hops. So, at the height of my illness in the middle of the night I unloaded my bookcase and built a wall between me and the frog while attempting to ‘shoo’ it out of the back door. Ally was shut in the hallway and indignant that his gift was being much maligned. Eventually I got a pint glass and a piece of card and encased the terrified frog safely away from me. I then proceeded to do a girly run with it to the bottom of the garden, release it and run back in locking the door and the cat flap so that Ally could not repeat his offering. He was unimpressed by my ingratitude. He had only brought me the gift because I was unable to cuddle him. The heat (it was a warm May) and the severity of my chicken pox made it impossible for me to have him near me without itching badly, so he tried to show me love in the only other way he knew how.

Another time he brought me someone’s half carved roast and left it for me in the garden because it was too big to fit through the cat flap. We will never speak of it again!

He was a pest in many ways! Constantly walking with muddy paws on my marking, tripping me over whenever I tried to walk anywhere around the house, waking me up with his face in mine at some ungodly hour when he sensed I was surfacing from deep sleep and therefore should be awake to feed him. When he had the operation on his eye towards the end of his life he even head butted me with his cone early in the morning to ensure I was awake and aware of his needs.

This invasion of my pillow comes from an early habit that I could not have changed even if I’d wanted to.

My flat in Southend was very, very cold both in summer and winter and had an old and noisy boiler that could only be controlled manually from a cupboard in my bedroom. So I didn’t switch it on much at night. In addition, the back door was also in my bedroom and the flat did not have double glazing so drafts were common place. Ally and I kept each other warm by curling up in bed under hundreds of blankets with him curled around my head, his chin resting on my ear, purring me to sleep while achieving the most comfortable position on the bed for him. I still believe the reason I stay still in bed is because I never wanted to disturb him when he was sleeping. As time passed and I moved into places with decent heating he would still curl up on the pillow next to me and purr me to sleep, until he was banned from the bedroom by my partner of the time.

Not only did he sleep everywhere, he also trod on everything. Computers, phones, TV remotes, what ever lay in the way to me and my lap. He often risked a shove by attempting to commute over Jaye’s lap to get to me. Not a clever move but a highly amusing one!

He wasn’t Jaye’s biggest fan, nor vice versa, but each tolerated the other because they knew I loved them both. Ally got the raw deal though having been banned from the bedroom and the kitchen and often being removed from the furniture after many years of being free to do as he pleased. I often think that was a mistake on my part and I should have been more loyal to him.

Another adorable feature of his was his dog-like loyalty. He would walk at heel with me, come to me when I called even if he was mid cat-fight and when younger would dance for his dinner. He was even known to sit with his tongue out after washing, almost as if he had forgotten it was there, and he would let me tickle it! O2 have a campaign encouraging people to ‘be more dog’ which features cats doing dog-like things but I don’t think Ally could be ‘more-dog’ if he tried. He chose to be as dog-like as he wished.

When we lived in Aylesbury he would accompany me as far as the edge of the estate on the evenings when I chose to walk to the pub. He would wait in the bushes and then trot out to meet me on my return, walking at heel, or if distracted, coming when I called and patted my leg! My neighbours must have thought I was mad. Indeed, I was the mad cat woman of Aylesbury!

The Mad Cat Woman of Aylesbury

When I first moved to Aylesbury Ally and I lived in an upstairs flat. This meant shutting my previously outdoors alley cat in for 7 solid months. He coped admirably, never even attempting to escape, and developing the entertaining game of upstairs ping-pong where I stood at the bottom of the stairs in goal and he sat at the top and batted ping-pong balls down to me or interrupted my backspin attempts by fishing them out of my reach!

When I purchased my house he tolerated two moves in two weeks with no ill effects, until I landed the greatest indignity of all upon him: a new kitten!

I had obtained Shelly in much the same way I had gotten him. A friend had kittens he couldn’t get rid of so he got me to come and have a look, and I fell in love.

I moved Shelly in the same day as I got the keys and brought Ally along the following day. When I let Ally out of the cat box he was so interested in this new and larger blue space that he completely ignored her. This tiny ball of tortoiseshell fluff backed and advanced at him while he checked out the patio doors and practiced asking to go out in his customary style. He trotted past her as she waved her paw at him and went up stairs. She followed, a step at a time as her legs were much shorter than his. By the time she reached the top he’d turned around and was ready to come back down. As she tottered to go after him he stuck out his paw and swept her feet out from underneath her resulting in Shelley’s first trip down stairs being just that, a head over heels flat spin to the bottom. Ally then proceeded to investigate the second floor while Shelly sat dazed and confused at the bottom of the stairs. It was love at first sight on her part but sadly unrequited on his.

He tolerated Shelly but about a month later I added insult to injury by allowing my brother and his black kitten Salem to move in too. This was a step too far and Ally started to spend more time out and away. For the first time in a long time he started to wander and would disappear for days. On one occasion he’d been gone for about 2 days and I’d been wandering the estate calling him. I eventually found him sitting on a grass bank in an area we didn’t really frequent. I called him, he clocked me but he didn’t come when I called. I had to get closer to check it was him. It was, but he wasn’t playing. Eventually I was able to pick him up and tried to carry him home but he sunk his claws into me and resisted all the way. Something had spooked him and the presence of the dustmen that day made him increasingly nervous. I got him home, shut him in for a few days, fed him and spoilt him. He recovered himself and remained my cat but he would often disappear just long enough to worry me and keep me on my toes.

He had found an appropriate form of revenge that he continued to use until he died. By the end I was worried if he was gone longer than 10 minutes and he knew it, and played on it.

Feed me!

The arrival of the kittens also lead to a slackening of the feeding rules. Cats had always had a place to eat when I was growing up but when my brother Don lived with us Ally was fed wherever he was found so that he didn’t have to suffer the indignity of sharing with the babies. This often meant he was fed on the top of the inbuilt shelves in the second bedroom, a hiding place that the youngsters couldn’t get to for the first few months of their stay. Recently, Ally had the set place on the mat in the kitchen and Shelly was fed wherever I found her to keep them apart. Ally had grown grumpy and greedy and although Shelly is a fat little thing she always deferred to him when it came to food. It had got to a point where he bullied her off her plate and consumed the lot before bringing it back up again, so I kept them apart to give Shelly a chance!

Ally was a great one for human food too. It is said that whatever you feed a kitten in early life is something they always come back to. Ally was given Chinese as a kitten before I adopted him so whenever I had a take-away I found myself sharing it with him. I also shared soup; all my fish including smoked salmon; gammon, any other meat at all really especially if it came with sauce or gravy; cheese, omelet and my cereal bowl remains. If Mummy had it then Ally had it too.

Scientific research has learnt that many male cats are left-pawed and Ally was no exception, but I used to call it his ‘possessive paw’. At first, it was this paw that would draw the cereal bowl towards him once I had given him permission to have the remains and this paw that drew my hand to his mouth if it contained treats or delights. As he got older it was the paw patted my face when we cuddled and that got stuck out to catch my clothes if I passed him by without greeting, something I was not allowed to do.

When he broke his hip the veterinary staff reported that he would stick this paw out of his cage and catch at them too, a habit that, luckily, they found endearing.

In the week that has passed since I had him put to sleep I have come to realize that he was a terrific pest. I sleep better and later without him, I don’t get tripped up every thirty seconds, my marking is quicker and less hairy, I don’t have to open the door for him every couple of minutes for hours at a time, I get to eat my dinner without interruption or a possessive paw hooking my plate out from under me. I know I encouraged this behavior by allowing it but he was such a force of nature I never really considered any of the things he did as being any trouble, in fact they were all endearing and the reason I loved him so much.

I have shared so much history with Ally that I am sometimes amazed. I was a young, naïve girl when I got him and a middle-aged, and far more worldly-wise woman when he left. He shared half of my life with me up until this point. He was there when I got promotion, moved my life from one side of London to the other, when Dad died, when I met (and lost) Jaye, when I was sick and healthy, he even waited for me when I went away to Australia for three months and still purred when I came back. He wiped away many a tear with his tail and caused me much merriment in his time on this earth. His purr alone was enough to make things seem much better than they were before and to hold him, cuddle him, carry him on my shoulders or in my arms like a baby was a method of relaxation many people will never benefit from. I loved him far more than Jaye and while I knew that (and so did Jaye) it was a purer, less complicated type of love than human relationships develop. And I miss him…enormously.

Lessons in Myanmar #2

The people in Myanmar have your best interests at heart, at all times. Even when they don’t really know what your best interests are.

Take my adventure to collect my baggage from the airport as an example.

I had decided that the only way to ensure I brought everything I needed with me was to pay (quite a bit) for another 25kg to be flown as cargo out to me in Myanmar after I had departed. My bags were collected and paid for with ease at the British end and an email was duly sent confirming the action.

This is when things started to go a bit wrong because the Internet link they had provided to enable me to track my luggage across continents and into Myanmar didn’t work. I had no idea if the plane had arrived when they said it would and, without a working SIM and a non-existent grasp of the language, a phone call was out of the question.

I decided my best course of action was to rock up to the airport and find out, as I didn’t want to incur storage fees by leaving the baggage there while I waited for the British end to respond to my email informing them of their failed link.

So that’s what I did. Armed only with money, my passport and my not working phone, which had copies of the emails I had sent and received during the process stored upon it.

The taxi ride to the airport was typical. It was the first time I’d got a taxi alone out here but I felt perfectly safe, even when the driver pulled up on a busy road, got out and opened the bonnet and tinkered around for a few minutes before climbing back into the car and continuing on his way.

I was dropped off at departures and from there I started my quest.

First port of call was Airport Information where two pretty Myanmar girls with very little English interpreted my request as lost and found luggage, not cargo. I was sent to get a security pass (and part with my passport, which was stored on a shelf in the security office in exchange for a pass!) and cross into departures to ask at the lost and found office. Which was easier said than done because I couldn’t find it! In the end I asked a security guard who sent me in the right direction to look for the Myanmar Air Office. However, getting other people to understand his instructions as I repeated them took some effort.

A very helpful lad at the security gate before check-in (wrong way round I know!) took me up into the offices above the terminal. There I got to speak to representatives of Vietnam Air (who were the company flying out my bags) who redirected me to… Myanmar Air Office. But where was it?

This time I had to cross into check-in, which included bag check and body scan, and find the office in the far corner of the terminal. Finally, I had the right place. Or did I? At first, they produced a book that clearly said lost and found. I patiently explained (for the nth time) that it wasn’t lost or found but cargo, shipped out after my arrival. Eventually, I was taken to a lady at a table outside the office who was able to find my name in a different book and begin the process of … the paperwork.

Now, the problem was identity. I had had to exchange my passport for the security pass I needed to access the office on the other side of the security gates. Luckily I had my British driver’s license with me, which they readily accepted. Then, columns were filled in, numbers noted and signatures exchanged. I had the paperwork I needed to claim my baggage.

So where was it? Oh, up the road at the customs house, just a two-minute taxi ride away.

Throughout this entire process I had been extremely calm. I knew that eventually I would end up in the right office, talking to the right people and that I’d get my bags. I had been warned that misunderstanding was inevitable because the Myanmar people will say yes to everything, even if they mean no or ‘I don’t know’ or even ‘what the hell are you on about you stupid woman!’ Because they want to help, and they try really hard to help, even when they are not sure of what it is you need help to do. I simply had to trust that the cargo company had done its job and the airline had delivered the bags and that someone would eventually deliver me to them.

A taxi picked me up and drove me to the customs house just up the road. I feel guilty about that as I asked him to wait and didn’t pay him, little knowing how long it would take for me to collect my bags or that he couldn’t park and wait for me. When I eventually made it out he was gone with his fee, however minimal that might have been, unpaid.

The customs house was another experience all together. I lost count of how many people I was shuttled between; how many betel nut stained smiles and bemused stares I got; how many times I walked between tables and rooms; how many chairs I was offered to sit on while I waited for someone who could a) understand what I wanted and b) could help me get it. I got to the point when they said ‘one minute’ meaning anything from two to ten, I would simply smile and say ‘no problem’ and wait. Everything was done in triplicate, with carbon paper and at least 3 different stamps, manually adjusted and inkpadded, and signatures galore. It was a glorious lesson in good, old-fashioned paper work but, you know what, everything got done and eventually my bags were released to me, in tact.

Plenty of thank-yous in my awful pigeon Myanmar successfully communicated my gratitude and I headed out of the warehouse with several lessons learnt:

  1. Patience is a virtue
  2. Smiling is key
  3. Explaining yourself very carefully, with gesticulations and email back up won’t always get you what you want, but you will see lots of things and meet lots of people
  4. Always ask, ask and ask again until you are completely clear
  5. Expect them to do the same
  6. Know that misunderstandings can and will happen
  7. Relax and let it happen
  8. The people in Myanmar really do have your best interests at heart

Lessons in Myanmar #1

Things I have learnt in my first week in Yangon:

  1. Smiling is a thing here – smile and the world smiles with you
  2. Good manners are also a thing here – people are so polite I some times feel like an elephant lumbering through life
  3. Faded splendor is the architectural norm
  4. The language is tonal, and is all delivered through the inclusion of . or : or ‘ when written
  5. Mingahlaba = hello
  6. jay zu ding ba de = thank you
  7. Your post can be delivered by string and bulldog clip
  8. 1000 chat = $1 = 60p = everything is cheap!
  9. Half a crispy duck is served as just that, a duck cleaved in half from beak to bum
  10. Eating fruit is easy here, it’s everywhere and it’s fresh and seasonal
  11. I like real Asian food more than European food
  12. When it rains, it REALLY rains, but it’s warm so that’s ok
  13. Take an umbrella everywhere
  14. Humidity really does make my hair curl!
  15. Washing my clothes on fuzzy is ok!
  16. Everything (and anything) can happen tomorrow
  17. The mosquitoes can be vicious here
  18. The hangovers here are the same as hangovers at home: they hurt!
  19. Watch out for holes, sewerage, traffic and betel juice when you’re walking
  20. When crossing busy roads in heavy traffic, follow a monk; the cars avoid them
  21. Sniffing, clearing your throat loudly and spitting in the street are all totally acceptable activities
  22. Street hawkers have a strangely haunting cry to sell their wares, monks just shout (loudly at 6am while banging drums)
  23. Lotto tickets are always sold accompanied by loud music and flashing lights, even outside temples
  24. Buddha can also have disco lights

The lifestyle and culture here is gentle and unassuming. Culture shock is generally more of a small surprise; it washes over you and you’re left laughing at how silly you are to think it could have been any other way.

I think I like it here.

“There’s a hole in the boat” ©Bethany Conway

The day dawned greyly, matching my pessimistic mood exactly. I had been worried about white water rafting since the group had signed up for it over a year ago and the past few days had left me increasingly nervous. None of us knew what to expect and tensions ran pretty high with the jokes of some battling with the silent anticipation of others.

After a short journey in a cramped mini-bus we arrived by a muddy riverbank and were ushered out of the bus. This abrupt start left us a little bemused and was not helped by the language barrier of stilted English and rapid Spanish.

Slowly we gathered together and were given buoyancy aids and helmets and a short, stilted safety briefing, which was reiterated by Tim. I didn’t feel safe; my buoyancy aid didn’t completely do up and I wasn’t sure the group had followed the briefing properly but we were ushered into the waiting rafts with little ceremony and our adventure began.

Somehow I found myself at the front of the boat, NOT my plan as I could see everything. Unfortunately, so could Bethany. Some early cursing led to an alarmed cry of ‘Oh my God, there’s a hole in the boat’ when she noticed one of the drainage holes in the edge of the raft. Gales of laughter and some reassurances helped to calm her down before a few practice paddles and spins sent us flying towards our first rapid. It looked fast and bumpy but nothing like the rapids in ‘The River Wild’, which had been my greatest fear. We all paddled as instructed and hit the white water square on. Screams at the cold turned into screams of fear as Katie disappeared over the side of the boat and flashed past us, making us forget to paddle and turn sideways into the rapid. After a bumpy few seconds Tim and the guide rescued Katie and we were all soaked yet relieved to have survived our first white water rapid.

From then on it became a competition to see who could fall in. In our boat Gianni was the winner hitting the water twice from the raft and once from the rescue boat that we accidently capsized! But my favourite was Liam.

We were approaching a minor rapid that I pointed out to the casually chatting group. Liam had his back to it and queried my call but turned and paddled as instructed. He then turned round to me and grinned, as if to say ‘see, it was nothing to worry about’ at exactly the same moment as he slid, grinning and almost frozen in time, backwards into the water!

The other boat survived similar experiences, the highlight being Rachel’s disappearance under the boat only to resurface without her jelly shoes, a minor disaster compared to what could have happened.

It all came to an end too soon and everyone agreed that they’d do it again given half the chance.

Once a team photo had been taken and sweet bananas had been consumed we returned to the bus, now bathed in sunshine and smiles and returned to our hostel, ready for our next adventure.

‘We Need More Snacks’ – A Peruvian Food Blog

Snacks. A word I never really want to hear ever again. It is a word regularly used in Peru, they have snack restaurants that open at midday until their siesta at 3, that serve a 2 course meal for 7sol (£3.50). These meals consisted of some kind of meat based soup served tepid with a hunk of chicken on the bone and noodles floating like dirty dishwater in the bowl. This was followed by either a rice and chicken based concoction or, if you went veggie (a bemusing concept for the average Peruvian) pasta and liquid pesto.

Peruvian food mostly seems to consist of chicken and rice. Sometimes this may also include some lumps of boiled potato and (yes AND not OR) noodles/pasta. The carb overload is huge and may explain the rotund nature of most of Peruvians in the places that we visited.

Fried is also definitely a thing in Peru. In an attempt to add some variety to my diet I tried a vegetable tortilla. It came with rice (naturally) but it also came nicely fried, which is not generally how I cook omelettes!

Lomo saltado is not fried and is also a Peruvian favourite.  Strips of beef or chicken cooked with tomatoes and onions and served with rice. You can even get it extra spicy if you so wish. My first taste was in a rather unsavoury joint that was the only place open during Trajillo’s siesta time. All I really got was gristle and rice. Not to be deterred, my second attempt was a much greater success when I tasted a delicious version of the dish in Iquitos. I’m lucky I was able to enjoy it though as it barely touched the sides after waiting a very long time for it due to erratic service and sly ordering from some members of the group.

In Nauta I tried Salchepepa which is basically chopped up, processed sausage and chips with sauce, tomato ketchup and mustard. Unfortunately by the time we were served this time they had run out of sauce so I had sausage and chips, ketchup and mustard, which I could have had back home!

Of course I also tried guinea pig! In a restaurant in Central Downtown Lima, after a lovely pot-luck lunch (I couldn’t read the menu so I closed my eyes, pointed and got lucky!) the World Challenge team ordered two guinea pigs; one plain and one spicy. The dishes came whole, simply flattened and roasted, with heads and feet intact.

We proceeded to try and divvy up the dishes between those who wanted it, much to the horror of our waiter who vigorously mimed picking it up whole in our fingers and chomping on it off the bone. I was presented with a wizened paw and shoulder, which did make me think twice. But ever open to trying anything once I proceeded cautiously.

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First of all, there isn’t much meat on a guinea pig. It is mostly bone (hence the knowing mimes of the waiter). It’s quite a struggle to even find a taste of the meat but when you do: it tastes like fatty, slightly overcooked chicken. Quite a disappointment, but that lunch was a welcome change after 4 weeks of snacks.

The Peruvians are also big on biscuits. After years of consuming large quantities of sweet biscuits in the English Office I never believed I could have too many. But in Peru, when every lunch we had on the trek consisted of at least two packets of biscuits with at least three biscuits in each packet, in a multitude of lurid colours and flavours, I discovered I could have too much of a good thing. They are even sold by child hawkers on the streets. When a small girl tried to sell us biscuits to us at the beginning of our trek and we refused to buy Marcus translated her surprised response as ‘but it’s cold.’ As though it was ridiculous for us to contemplate a long walk in the Andes without such sustenance.

On the plus side, I did enjoy the fruit. Sweet bananas, some of them slightly pink on the inside; juicy oranges and, for the first time; passion fruit, were things I really enjoyed. Peeling a passion fruit to reveal the pulp covered seeds held in a tentacled embrace was almost as much fun as slurping them up while gazing at our mountainous view.

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One of my favourite meals was provided by the community of Yarina during our project phase. A daily lunch of rice and fish might sound bland but on this occasion the fish was marinated in a delicious mixture of spices and oil and was meaty with very little bone. It was Steph’s first attempt at eating fish after years of hating it and even she managed to eat some. A second dish was produced: raw fish ‘cooked’ in citrus and mixed with onion and spices to produce a mouthwatering flavour that I couldn’t get enough of. After consecutive meals of egg and pasta it was a blessed relief! I even tried pirana (tastes like chicken) and turtle egg, as fishing and luck determined on the day.

Snacks however, took on a completely different meaning in the hands of the challengers. Our itinerary required a lot of travel and the team was advised to purchase ‘snacks’ that would serve as breakfast or at least sustenance, for longer journeys. At first fruit was purchased, until we fell foul of the customs regulations and we were forced to consume our breakfast oranges as a late supper rather than travel with them on the bus. Soon, snacks simply became biscuits, sweets and crisps, things that were familiar and easily found in shops and supermarkets.

I did try to shake things up a bit by purchasing sweet donut balls from a man in the market in Yarina and we tried coconut water from coconuts in Iquitos, but the group did not take the hint.

One time Steph, Tim and I also chose to buy our own breakfasts for two mornings in Trajillo simply to avoid another morning of bread, jam and cereal bars. Some canny shopping gave us pizza-like rolls, fruit juice and bananas at a very reasonable price and helped lift morale when it was much needed.

I did hit an all time low when one breakfast consisted of dry cereal and tinned fruit. Even when I added stolen chocolate bits into the mix I couldn’t quite bring myself to enjoy it.

While I can’t complain about being catered for during the majority of the trip I did miss cooking for myself and being able to chose from a greater variety of food.

World Challenge offers a number of challenges to our students but my greatest challenge was definitely the food!

Altitude took my breath away © Kathryn Hackett

Trekking at altitude is a bitch! © Katie Parkins. If you go too fast you run the very real risk of altitude sickness, even death if you climb too quickly and ignore the symptoms. Certainly when we first set out on our trek in Santa Cruz keeping up with the youngsters as they raced ahead made my chest hurt and my breath short and I truly feared that my fitness was not up to the challenge.

Thankfully Katie bravely spoke up to the group and told them they were going too fast, resulting to her promotion to pacemaker. Her actions allowed us all to breathe and really took my breath away. A natural pacemaker she enabled us to walk consistently for 30-40 minutes at a time when before, every 10 minutes had required a 20 minute rest. Her act alone helped us to achieve the Punta Union pass at 4750 meters in a good time and with little altitude sickness between us.

However, we all felt the effects of altitude. With half a Diamox morning and evening our extremities fizzed at peculiar times producing numb fingers and tingling lips and toes. Yet headaches were still common amongst the group, coming mostly in the afternoon for me but tormenting poor Kathryn for almost the entire trek. But she managed to complete the trek with a sense of humour and perseverance that genuinely took my breath away.

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When Liam took ill on the third night and Steph and I took shifts in the freezing dark to ensure that he was OK I felt sure that our luck had run out. Yet, in the morning, with a weak Liam on the horse to make sure that he made it to the end, our team voted to complete the trek with him and condensed the last two days into one long 10 hour walk. Even at the end when I was limping far behind they stopped and let me go first so that we could finish the trek together as a team. Their care and concern for others and their team spirit certainly took my breath away.

Of course, the beauty of the Andes also took my breath away. It is a landscape I have never experienced before and really fell in love with. Snow capped peaks towered above turquoise lakes nestled in glacier-forged plains while steep rocky trails and dusty, winding roads led to dramatic high passes and spectacular views. We passed the Paramount Mountain, its distinctive shape used by the Paramount Company in its logo, camping beneath it for a night surrounded by icy streams and green, boggy ground. Everything was still and quiet, the air often filled with eagles (but no condors) and sub-tropical plant life reaching far higher up the mountains than our alpine equivalents. It was wild and heavenly and totally took my breath away.

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Wherever I Lay my Head

On July 6th I became homeless by choice. I know that I will always be welcome somewhere but, by resigning from my job, moving out of my recently rented flat, storing my significant past and giving away my beautiful cat I cut all ties with responsibility and domesticity and liberated my future.

Now, my home is wherever I want it to be. For one month it was Peru.

The Challengers were fascinated by the idea of my homelessness and referred to it regularly, joking at my displacement. But I found it, in turns, invigorating and nerve-wracking.

At one point my home was the Cordillera Blanca: a beautiful Andean region that was home to the mountain Huascaran, a jagged, snow-capped peak approximately 6,700 meters high. Camped beneath it in the thin air of altitude I revelled in the idea of mountains as walls, a starlit ceiling and donkeys as neighbours.

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Another wild and wonderful place I was able to call home was the Pacaya Samira reserve. Home to pink dolphins, turtles, Amazonian kingfishers, macaws, howler monkeys and the tiny community of Yarina, it was a beautiful place to live.

Over nine hours upstream of Nauta and only accessible by long boats that lay shallow in the water to navigate the low water levels and numerous hazards of fallen trees, the World Challenge Team stayed for 6 nights to participate in jungle treks, conservation and community projects.

At night the stars domed above us, unhindered by urban glow, offering us a clear view of the Milky Way and all too brief flashes of falling stars while we watched fire flies and glowworms glitter in the shadows of the encroaching jungle. The rainforest is as I had imagined; dense, soggy, very hot and riddled with biting insects. It is never silent; macaws, bugs, bull frogs and goodness knows what else all vie for supremacy with their squawks and screams, alongside the sounds of ordinary village life: cockerels, dogs, the shouts of the children as they play football and volleyball and the Columba beat of the village DJ!

While I was happy to visit I know I couldn’t settle in a place like that as the itching alone would drive me crazy and the noise, while novel at first, would become an irritation. Plus, going to the toile while attended by mosquitoes, flies and on one occasion, a bat, is not conducive to my peace of mind. Nor is washing myself and my clothes in a slow moving, mud coloured river that is the home to caiman and piranha.

On the plus side, dancing in the regular afternoon showers of fresh, warm rain was a highlight but the full drenching we experienced as part of our jungle trek , while novel, did nothing to encourage me to want to stay longer.

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Hostels were also home for me from time to time. Most were pretty grim: grubby, waterless, even slightly moldy with half working showers and repetitious bread/egg based breakfasts. Some were creepy. Roald Dahl’s ‘Landlady’ attended us in Trajillo and in Lima we were residing in something more like a museum or art gallery that a hostel, with enormous sculptures hiding around corners and bazaar paintings on the wall.

Midway through the trip a cargo boat became my home for two nights. Camped on the top deck (there was no space left to sling a hammock by the time we managed to get onto the right boat) our arrangements looked like a tent village in Glastonbury, crammed together in close quarters with a second World Challenge group. When the heavens opened I felt truly at home so I danced in the rain before retiring to my tent to let the shower pass.

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Sleep came easily here, despite the hot and sticky atmosphere we had created. The rhythm of the engine and the soar of the water past the boat sent me to sleep quite quickly and dockings and groundings barely registered with my consciousness. I was quite relieved not to be on the deck below with the multitude of hammocks and bodies being somewhat reminiscent of a refugee camp although tents on the top deck presented their own challenges: engine vibrations through the floor, some instability in high winds and close proximity to restless Challengers!

Overall, I find that travel frees me from life’s woes and worries; I am able to live in the moment and simply be. If anything, I’ve learnt that I don’t need the trappings of a ‘normal’ life. In fact, I’m at home with myself, and with the world, wherever I am.