Monthly Archives: January 2015

Uninvited Guests

I have an apology to make. Tim Newton – I am sorry I ever laughed at you for being jumpy about insects and other creatures while we were in Peru.

There, said it. So why?

I am not the most unflappable girl I know. I do not like things that slither, scuttle or jump but I can cope with spiders and creepy crawlies quite well. Having been owned by cats for many years I had got used to dealing with their flapping, scurrying, screaming gifts. I do get startled by unexpected movements but I’m not exactly a nervous-Nancy. In Peru, Tim often made me laugh because he would jump at the tiniest bug (remember the creature in the bananas?) while I found I was able to cope with most surprises confidently. Even when a bat flew towards my flashing head torch in a toilet in Yarina I didn’t make a sound. I just dodged and continued to make my water! I later laughingly described it as something out of a slasher movie but it was just a good story, I wasn’t really bothered.

Then I moved to Myanmar. At first, it was just the mosquitoes. The tortuous buzzing in my ear at 4am drove me mad. I tried to get the landlords to put up a mosquito net but instead I got new window covers and some of the gaps around the windows stopped up. It didn’t work! I have to spray my rooms on a near daily basis and its essential if the maid’s been in as she opens all the windows and doors while she’s cleaning. I have a mosquito tennis racket thingy (pretty rubbish) and a little machine that I put on an hour before bed that is supposed to neutralize them (also pretty poor.) More often than not, I still wake up half eaten-alive, itching and swearing!

Again, I have to apologise to Tim. When we debated the killing of poor, harmless insects and I accused you of murder, I was wrong. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than squishing the blood-sucking, bitey little bastards. Although if I get a blood-filled female I do gag a bit.

Next came the lizards. I admit I wanted a lizard to act as pest control for the insects. When I finally got one I was pleased and named him Squishy (#Pixar) but I found him difficult to live with. He took up residence in the kitchen and every time I went in there and turned the light on, he would scuttle for protection and I would quietly jump. I learnt to manage this by announcing my presence before entering the room (a mad cat woman trick learnt from years of living with a nervous cat) and being prepared for movement. And it worked.

Recently, he startled me again when I nearly stepped on him in the TV room. Then, on closer inspection, I realized he wasn’t moving. On even closer inspection (once I’d got the nerve up) I realized he was belly-up, stone-cold dead, in the middle of the room, almost like he’d had a heart attack mid ceiling-crossing and dropped where he stood. He was unceremoniously binned and removed the next day, poor thing.

Now when I go into the kitchen I still jump, as a new, tiny Squishy has taken up residence in the tiles by the light switch. Oh well, back to square one!

Then there were the bats. Having survived my bat encounter in Peru unscathed, I thought that would be an end to it. However, twice, I have returned home and switched on my bedroom light to encounter a startled bat circling my room like a toy aeroplane on a string. The problem with bats is that they do fly straight at you until the sonar kicks in and they swerve. It takes a braver girl than me to try and dodge that while trying to open windows and provide an escape route for a creature who mysteriously entered the room in the first place. Frustratingly, the first time it happened I called my neighbor in for support but when we returned the bat was gone. We searched my sparse bedroom high and low for it but it had vanished. I’m pretty sure my neighbour thought I was slightly hysterical as I squeaked and dodged my way around the room.

The second time it happened, witnesses were closer to hand, and I was vindicated because the bat did the same disappearing act again. We concluded that it must have crawled through a hole in the wall next to the air-con. Not a very big hole but certainly big enough for a bat. I have since stuffed the hole with plastic bags and am (thankfully) yet to receive a third visit.

The straw that broke the camel’s back though, was the mouse.

I had had a dark, mysterious stranger (not the nice kind) visit me for the first time in October. Something moved across my floor, just in my eye line, and entered the kitchen. I wasn’t much bothered and assumed that it was Squishy. But then it scuttled into my darkened TV room and peaked out at me from behind the TV stand. Maybe it was the darkness, or the film that I was watching, but I admit it, I was freaked out! I made a fast, girly exit from the room and closed both that and my bedroom door firmly behind me, spending a nervous night in the relative safety of my bed.

After an anxious morning checking behind the TV I decided it was a one off and forgot about it. I was only reminded of it when something similar scuttled at me from under the shoe rack, just before Christmas. Again, my neighbour was nearby but not witness to the reason for my squeak, and again I put it down to Squishy.

It was only when I returned from my Christmas travels that I discovered who my uninvited guest was. The truth is, I may have continued to live innocently alongside the bloody thing for much longer if I hadn’t been too lazy to put my things away properly. I couldn’t get my wardrobe door to shut properly because of the strap of my rucksack. Instead of dealing with it properly I just kicked it, which resulted in a small, furry bullet shooting out from the pile of bags in there and ricocheting off my foot before retreating under my dresser. I’m ashamed to say that that did elicit a scream from me. Not the stereotypical Tom and Jerry woman, standing on a chair, holding up her skirts scream, but a scream nonetheless. It got the same scream an hour later when it did it again as I put clothes away in the dresser. This time it went behind the headboard, so I bravely stood on the bed and shone a torch down the gap to check my suspicions were right. Yep. I had a mouse.

Since then it has been a running battle to get rid of it. The manager has been slow on the uptake and claimed he couldn’t find the hole it used to get in. He has finally put down poison but it remains untouched while the little rascal is getting bolder by the minute.

Last Sunday I was sitting on my bed relaxing, having just returned from Golden Rock, when the creak of my wardrobe door made me look up in fright. Creeping out of the cupboard was the bloody mouse. My ‘Gasp. Oh Shit!’ sent it running for the dresser, while I huddled on the bed clutching my knees.

During the week, the feeling that I was not alone in the room, has repeatedly wakened me.

Last night I was woken again. This time I distinctly heard squeaking and scuttling. It was dancing the fandango on my dresser and rattling my jewelry on its china dish. I shouted and switched on the light to glimpse the bloody thing streak up the mirror and over the top. I continued to hear rustlings for sometime to come but couldn’t bear to go and look. I was too nervous to put my feet on the floor or switch off the light and go back to sleep. If it can get on my dresser, it can get onto my bed. And me! I barely slept for the rest of the night.

This morning, when I was confident I was alone in my room (it had probably sidled past doing the two-fingered salute earlier) I went to get a cup of tea. I ended up cleaning the whole kitchen from top to bottom as I found mouse droppings everywhere. I also found that the devil had scaled my stand-alone fridge freezer in the front room and helped itself to an apple from my fruit bowl.

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I admit I don’t have it as bad as some. Another neighbour discovered a rat running loose in her kitchen, a third had a cockroach in her bed (the insect kind!), and a friend in Mandalay has rats and snakes to contend with, but I’ve had enough. Every rustle, creek, and rapid movement caught out of the corner of my eye has my hairs standing on end and a cry on my lips. I’m a walking wreck through lack of sleep and I’m about ready to pack my bags and find a new place to live. I’ve never missed owning a cat so much in my life as I do right now and I’m annoyed that a rodent has the better of me.

I promise I will never laugh at those who are nervous again. But feel free to laugh at me and my pathetic inability to cope with life in the Tropics!

Going Postal

Until recently, I’d had nothing to do with the Myanmar GPO, and had had no desire to do so. While others had enjoyed the old-school thrill of post and packages, I had neither sent nor received any paper communications, preferring instead to rely on web-based technology to get my messages across.

However, a kind ex-colleague endeavored to reunite me with my Leavers Book – signed by my old work family back home on my leaving, and hurriedly left behind as I jetted off to the first of my adventures in Peru. I had provided an approximation of my address (I’m still not entirely sure I know what it is!) and she’d advised me about Marmite as prevention for mosquito bites. (You eat it not wear it, for those of you who just thought about that!)

That was in September, and I feared that that was the last I’d hear of it.

In early December I received an A4 page of paper, covered in Burmese, from one of our receptionists. I recognized it as a missive from the Post Office having seen the other expats waving similar slips around on previous occasions. My initial reaction was fear. Had my mother acted on the polite email I had sent her providing contact details to send me yet another Cats Protection League calendar? I desperately hoped not. I hoped it was my Leavers Book, as promised, but two months down the line I’d all but given up hope of ever seeing that again. Still, the next morning I set off Downtown with my slip expecting to encounter Myanmar officialdom at its best.

I was to be disappointed. Having arrived extra early at the sorting office I was first in the queue and dealt with extremely quickly. Apart from the oddity of having to watch my parcel being opened for me, to reveal, not only my Leavers Book but also a jar of Marmite from my St Paul’s friend, everything went like clockwork. Amidst the emotional response I had to the lovely messages I had received in my book I had to hand over a small sum for the ‘handling’ of the package and that was it. Done.

I proceeded to go next door to the official Post Office and bought a stamp for a Christmas card for my Mum. Also easy. A man at a window labeled STAMPS dealt with my request. He also informed me that I couldn’t send an envelope addressed in festive pink pen, and made me re-write it in blue biro!

After that, I thought my dealings with the Myanmar GPO were over. That was until my very best friend managed to leave items of clothing behind at my flat during her Christmas visit.

Having packaged up said items, alongside a little extra I thought she might like, I headed back Downtown one afternoon after work having recently learnt that you can’t post packages on a Saturday in Myanmar!

When I arrived I walked in and kept my distance from the counters labeled International where crowds seemed to have formed, with the intention of watching the process before engaging with the chaos. In two beats, a friendly lady had grasped my hand and led me to the front of the queue, chattering rapidly in Burmese to the woman behind the counter, having seen me hesitate with the package in my hand. To her credit, I think the counter lady told the other woman to make me wait my turn as she was already serving another customer, but as is customary in Myanmar this was all done with smiles and laughter while I stepped back to queue in true British fashion, with my cheeks slightly pink from embarrassment.

Soon enough it was my turn and the counter lady called me over. She wanted to know what was in my carefully cello taped package, and I told her, but that wasn’t enough. I had to show her. I protested, but she handed me a new box to put the items in and presented me with a slip of paper to fill in (with carbon copies attached). Of course, I couldn’t open the package without ripping it so I had to use the box and then rewrite the address on the slip. The contents were then inspected (sorry mate!) and passed along a line of women, all of whom had a quick look through the box before the contents were logged in another book, also stuffed with carbon paper between its pages, then the box itself was briefly marked in red crayon. I tried to watch the progress of my box, worried that items could fall from its unsealed bottom. However, a greater concern became the problem that it was placed next to an identical box, also unsealed and unlabeled, waiting for attention. I watched with increasing agitation as both boxes went to the men employed to seal the packages. Expertly they bound the boxes so that nothing could escape and placed them, side by side again, ready for the next step.

By this time, I had been called over to pay, my slip having been processed by the man in charge of accounts, who took $18 for the package. In true Myanmar fashion, they have a set-pricing table according to weight so anything up to one kilogram is all charged the same rate. They grinned at the expression on my face and jovially commented ‘expensive?’ as I grimaced and nodded my agreement. They then tried to charge me for the box and packaging. At this point, I laughed in their faces and pointed out that I hadn’t required that service as my parcel had been ready to go when I arrived and that they had forced me to use the box. Of course, I did this in a light and friendly manner but my meaning was clear and they didn’t push the point. I suspect they had made more than enough profit from my initial payment to cover the packaging on this occasion.

Finally, I was given a receipt with a number on it so I can track my package. Initially, it was a ‘computer number’ until I asked which website I could use, then it became a phone number I could call, in spite of the fact that it has letters in its combination. I insisted that I check the box, now fully sealed and correctly addressed as well, and the receipt, and they seemed to match up. At this point, I simply had to let go and decide to put my trust in the simple fact that regardless of the labour intensive and invasive methods used in this country, things like this simply manage to work out. Don’t ask me how. I have no idea.

So now I wait in hope. I hope the right package with the right contents reaches the right person in the right place, in one piece, in a reasonable length of time. Here’s to hoping!

Temple Run

The aim of the game: to see as many of Bagan’s ancient temples and pagodas as possible, maneuvering the hazards and gaining merit as you go.

Level 1: Getting Started

Getting started is very simple. Step out of your hotel and choose your mode of transport – taxi, e-bike, horse and carriage etc. Negotiate your price and off you go.

We elected to do the horse and cart. Our driver, Aung-Aung, and his young, bitey but much loved pony whisked us off at a brisk trot to visit all the major attractions of Bagan.

Level 2: Temple Running

Running the gauntlet of hawkers is usually the first hazard you encounter. Our first stop was the Shwezigon Pagoda. We were greeted by ladies directing us to the entrance (via their shops of course) but Aung-Aung had already pointed us in the right direction and informed us the wifi here was better that at our hotel, so we avoided our first hazard and gained the wifi bonus with ease.

I can’t say we were so successful at other stops. I’m a bit of a sucker for a smile and a joke and the pagodas are full of helpful people directing you to the best bits in exchange for a visit to their stall full of job-lot souvenirs or sand paintings. I’m afraid I lost a few lives by stopping and shopping with nearly everyone I spoke to. I didn’t always buy but I did make a considerable contribution to the economy during our stay. I’d like to think I was gaining merit instead!

Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoyed the exchanges. Stock phrases were delivered with charming smiles and it was in no way the aggressive selling I’ve experienced elsewhere. It’s also the only income the people have, as the ticket for the archeological zone, purchased at the airport, finances the Government not the local people or their families, and the only source of employment is within the tourism industry; so I was happy to fail and repeat this level a number of times.

Level 3: Left or right?

This bit is always tricky, choosing which way to turn to see the best bits of a temple. Again, Aung-Aung, in helpful hints mode, explained the significance of the temples we visited and told us which way to turn to see the best paintings or statues of Buddha. Although his English was limited we always got the gist, and his twelve years experience of guiding certainly enabled us to see the best bits. Serene Buddha’s, cartoon like paintings and dramatic, dusty vistas abounded on our first day exploring Bagan.

Level 4: Hazards

Of course, there are many small hazards to be aware of here. Taking your shoes off to enter temples means stones, bat poo and, on one occasion at a lesser-known site, snakes.

Then there’s the stairs. Most of the temples are out of bounds for tourists and some are just too eroded to attempt but a few are prime locations for viewing the 50 square kilometer archeological area. However, to get up them you have to navigate the steps. These are often steep, narrow and oddly leveled to create an uneven rhythm when climbing. Sometimes they are on the inside of temples, resulting in pitch-black leaps of faith, or, they are climbed in the dark before sunrise or after sunset.

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When allowed to navigate them in a timely, cautious fashion they are surmountable but throw in gung-ho Americans with no brakes, narrow spaces with no handrails and people jammed in, heading in both directions and it becomes a terrific feat of balance, especially in the dark. Thankfully, my accident-prone companion and I both managed to survive these hazards with (some) grace and humour!

Level 5: Increasing the challenge

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Our second foray into Bagan was by e-bike. Neither of us are big fans of bikes, roads nor traffic as both of us are a bit accident-prone but these electric bicycles presented us with an opportunity not to be missed. We managed to find a repressed, reclining Buddha and a fantastic view of the Ayeyarwady River by simply heading off the beaten track and wobbling our way cautiously down unfrequented tracks. Sandy routes, other inept riders and unpredictable traffic did keep us on our toes but we survived this challenge unscathed and saw plenty more of Bagan as a result.

Level 6: Rewards

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Apart from the fact that we got to explore an amazing archeological zone, the rewards from this experience were plentiful. Dusty, leafy vistas and red brick stupas were everywhere we looked, the sunset was only marred by other people(!) and the sunrise was truly breathtaking, and only enhanced by the twenty or so balloons floating majestically over the misty landscape. We met a wonderful array of locals and had fun chatting and bartering with them. We challenged ourselves, treated ourselves, and rested too. The greatest reward of this visit was Christmas Day by the pool with a book, a real treat!

All in all, I think we mastered our version of Temple Run, and we certainly had fun playing!

The Road to Mandalay

So, I’ve finally found my way to Mandalay. Not by ‘the road’, which, incidentally, is actually the Ayeyarwady River in Kipling’s poem, but by train.
The adventure began when we hailed a taxi to the station. Actually, we hailed three who either a) refused us point blank b) tried to overcharge us because we looked like tourists or c) did not understand what we wanted. Eventually an English speaker offered a fair price and we were helped on our way by a couple of the Orange Shirt Assistants from work, whom we’d met in the meantime.
At first I was concerned that we had found another cabbie who hadn’t quite understood us. The route he took to the station was not one I’d ever used before. The roads he used were like the stairs at Hogwarts, changing our direction until we were disoriented, glimpses of familiar landscapes passing us by before discovering yet another unfamiliar part of town just seconds later. However, we arrived at the station in plenty of time and were directed to Platform 1 (not 9 3/4) to wait.
Our tickets (which I’d purchased three days before) were simple slips of paper which were handwritten with our name, passport number and seat then stamped in official blue ink. To our amusement the price of the ticket was four times that of the life insurance our purchase also included. Apparently, we were only worth 3000 kyat (£1.80) each!
You may wonder why we would need life insurance on a simple train journey. Well. The train, and the tracks, have definitely seen better days. Our carriage was rusty, our seats grimy, the wooden bunks looked rotten, spiders and cockroaches hitched a free ride and everything rattled with the movement of the train. It could be said we were taking our lives in our hands by choosing this method of transport.
We did have a toilet to alleviate the discomfort of this 14 hour journey. I had been warned that they could be pretty gross and envisioned it to be like Glastonbury on springs. However, the toilet itself was fine. A typical, stainless steel, western toilet over the tracks. Positive luxury as long as we didn’t stop to wonder when it was last cleaned. Of course, remaining seated was a challenge and probably the reason we needed life insurance. That said, we were at greater risk of either getting locked in there by the dodgy lock or exposing ourselves to the compartment if the door rattled itself open over particularly bumpy sections of the track.
We were sharing our sleeper with a Dutch couple who were following a similar itinerary to us over the next few weeks so we spent the first hour of the journey discussing Yangon and Thailand. I felt quite the traveller as we shared experiences about Yangon and I offered advice for their return trip there.
Night fell quite soon after we set out. The purple and blue sunset gave way to a canopy of stars. If I stuck my head out of the window (avoiding passing trains obviously) and looked up, I could see all the familiar constellations of the Northern Hemisphere. Although Orion’s Belt was ‘hanging low’ according to my companion.
Bedtime also arrived quickly. The lack of sufficient beer, lousy snacks, a rather grumpy co-traveller and the typical Myanmar mixup of lights to light switches left us preparing for sleep around 8.30. I had the top bunk, which I was initially grateful for having witnessed the broken nature of the lower one. However, I revised that opinion quite early on when I found myself bumping around like an over enthusiastic teenager having bad sex!
Sheer exhaustion and a good sense of balance kept me up on the narrow bunk for most of the night, shivering under a thin sheet and my travelling scarf until I could lie there no more. Bruised and battered I clambered down from the top and managed to witness multiple sunrises as the train bumped around a ridge of hills to the east, that re-revealed the golden sun to me time and again.
A few hours later and we had arrived in Mandalay: sleepless, bruised and hungry. But we had arrived, in one piece, ready to explore Mandalay and beyond.

New Year in Chiang Mai

Janus looks both fore and aft, reflecting on the events of the past year while anticipating the next.
While I am fortunate enough to be able to look backwards and forwards with pleasure and confidence this year, it has not always been the case. Crippling misery and bleak misgivings about the future have often made me wary of celebrating the change of the years. I have never really understood the need to wave off the old by having as much ‘fun’ as possible before turning over a new leaf and starting again the next day. It always seems such a monumentally impossible task which usually ends in anticlimax, with absolutely nothing changing.
Over the last few years I have grown to understand that the only useful change is the mindful change you effect for yourself. That comes with time, trial and error and cannot be pinned to a particular time or date. So this year, when faced with New Year alone, I embraced the fact that it was time for me to please myself.
So I went to Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. A place famed for its chilled out, quiet New Year and just went with the flow; quiet, reflective and chilled out.
I spent December 31st at Doi Inthanon, the rooftop of Thailand, looking out at forested hills in a perpetual mist. At 2565 meters above sea level it wasn’t quite as breath taking as Punta Union Pass in Peru but it was good to be high up out of cities, dust and heat. In fact, it was all a bit of an anti climax as the highest point is marked by a tiny brass plate and surrounded by trees and rammed with people. The view actually came at the pagodas of the King and Queen, which were also not-quite-something to a pagoda weary traveller. Still, I spent the last day of 2014 doing what I enjoy most, exploring new places with new people, opening myself to whatever new experiences present themselves. I’m glad I went.
The evening arrived and I was conscious of the pending ‘event’. I almost didn’t go out. Radio 4’s adaptation of the Gaiman-Pratchett collaboration Good Omens was waiting for me on my phone and I was tired after all my recent travels. However, I wanted to see what it was all about.
I went down to the Night Markets anticipating crowds of intoxicated people celebrating in the streets. In fact, it was virtually deserted, peaceful in fact, with daily life continuing on as it always has. I wandered around the colourful stalls without fear of crushing or asphyxiation. Even when I found the heart of the celebrations along Sunday Walking Street people were promenading with calm reverence, following an unspoken one way system of movement along the stalls, voices barely raised above a friendly hubbub. No pushing or shoving, no drunken idiots having ‘the time of their lives’.
I can only put it down to the Buddhist influence all around us. Every temple was bright with candles and streams of Chinese Lanterns rose silently into the cloudy sky, decorating the night with the fiery orange dots of people’s hopes and dreams.
Of course I sent my own lantern up, scribed with my wishes for us all in 2015. A young monk helped my light it and then took a dozen photos of me and the lantern. I felt very blessed!

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I could have hung out by the moat or along any of the streets in the walled city with the gentle revellers and abundant fireworks but I felt I’d done what I needed to do and the creeping exhaustion of continued travelling was present in my bones, so I took myself back to the hotel and flaked out to Good Omens.
I woke to a flurry of bangs and flashes as midnight was marked with the customary fireworks and lanterns and I watched contentedly from the window of my room, an observer rather than a participant.
I then returned to bed and fell asleep to the voice of Mark Heap as Aziraphail, safe in the knowledge that (even if the Apocalypse does happen!) 2014 had been everything I’d wanted, and made it to be.
Everyday, every year, is what you make it so, like Janus, I will look back on the lessons learnt over the years and look forward to the adventures I will have in 2015.
Happy New Year everyone.