Category Archives: Every day life

Surabaya Storm

End of days skies loomed ominously over my apartments ahead as I hurriedly left work. The first roll of thunder was all the motivation I had needed to drop everything and head home; I figured I had a ten-minute window before the heavens opened for the daily downpour.

As I crossed the car park a clap of thunder exploded directly above me, reverberating through me like a shock. The crack was so violent I actually looked around to see if anything had exploded or if a shotgun was near by. I didn’t think my heart rate or hearing would ever be the same again as I hastened my steps.

Warm winds whipped around me, occasionally mixed with a shock of cold air that froze the sweat on my brow. Above me the sky was still blue, behind me the thunder growled again, and ahead the skies lowered angrily. Just as I passed under some power lines I saw the first shard of lightening flicker off to my right. I tried to move faster through the humid, choking air, closing my eyes to the dusty wind and listening apprehensively to the low whistle of approaching rain.

Just as I reached the lobby of my apartments the first fat drops descended, quickly followed by never ending strings of tropical rain. I’d made it!

Kicking around Krakatoa

When a merry band of colleagues departed from Surabaya airport for an adventure into the wilds of Indonesia I don’t think any of us anticipated exactly how the adventure would go. We had arranged a trekking and snorkeling trip to visit Anuk Krakatoa, the child of the famous volcano that erupted in 1883, obliterating the surrounding area and sending shock waves around the world. Anuk Krakatoa and its surrounding islands are the remains of the three original volcanoes, and are situated between Java and Sumatra.

Getting there, as with everywhere in Indonesia, was a bit of a mission. A late night pickup from Jakarta airport (seriously one of the worst airports in the world, you spend almost as long taxiing as you do flying to get there!) lead to us all piling into a small people carrier with our driver, guide and luggage to take a break neck, four hour journey to the north west coast of Java, where our tour would begin.

Manoeuvring Jakarta’s famous traffic was not a problem at that time of night but Indonesian roads are not smooth and random potholes, people and traffic can cause sudden breaking and a bumpy ride. I was seated in the middle with no seat belt and I know the speedo hit 120km on a number of occasions. Obviously I didn’t sleep, even though it was the middle of the night, as I was permanently braced for impact.

Of course, that also meant I could witness the eerie, alien landscape of the chemical processing plants that line the northern coast of Java. Illuminated, futuristic factories spewing out god knows what into the environment made me feel like I was entering a sci-fi movie rather than the action-adventure I was hoping for.

We got to our destination in good time (not surprisingly at that speed) and collapsed into our insalubrious accommodation at about 3am. We took little notice of our location at the time but in the morning we discovered we were holed up in a house on a semi deserted housing estate. Apparently, many of these second homes were empty because relatives did not know the owners had them when they passed away. Hasn’t anyone heard of a will? Still, our place was comfortable enough and was only a pit stop before we headed to the port later that morning to catch our boat out for our volcanic island adventure.

The port was actually a small pier opposite a popular seaside playground offering pumping techno and banana-boat rides at 8am. Our guide, Bonsai, got us all on board and we were on our way, heading west towards the Indian Ocean and Krakatoa.

Bumping along for a couple of hours was fun at first but quickly got nauseating, especially when combined with petrol fumes, rocky seas and regular drenching as the waves over took us. The weather was not perfect and necessitated a change in our itinerary right from the beginning, which ultimately created a very memorable trip.

Our first stop was to snorkel off Badul Island coral reef. The water was crystal clear, if a tad cool, and the reef was very interesting, teaming with tropical fish of all sizes and colours. Many I had seen before on my adventures around Bali and Lombok but the reef was none the worse for that and there were spots of colourful coral and some new varieties to wonder at. The reefs around Indonesia are suffering the same fate as others with much damage and bleaching occurring. Our guides were mindful when it came to anchoring and warning us not to touch the coral, and a greater awareness is growing in the tourism community about saving their beautiful environments, but they are a small minority and a great deal of damage has already been done. While there was much less litter in the waters here than around Bali and the Gillis the coral is by no means pristine.

After a fried chicken lunch we headed to our accommodation on the island. We were only there long enough to dump our bags and admire an amorous peacock that took a great liking to our party, before heading to Unjung Kulon to go hunting for Java rhino. Don’t get me wrong. The only shooting would be with a camera, if we were even lucky enough to find one as they are the rarest rhino in the world, but it was a lovely opportunity to take a boat ride through some tropical forest and see what we could see.

img_1045

Having arrived on the island we were eventually bundled into a small wooden canoe that we set about paddling along a murky green river, manoeuvering sunken tree trunks under an eerie canopy of rainforest green. Huge tree roots lined the banks and enormous seedpods from strange plants closed in on us from all sides. We rounded a bend in the river and were hailed by a canoe coming the other way. It was much larger than ours and carrying just two passengers, so the rangers decided we should swap boats mid river. By this time we had learnt that there were crocodiles in the area so I was already nervous about being on a river with only a small wooden boat between these frankly terrifying predators and myself. Moving seven people between two canoes was asking for trouble in my opinion. The canoes wobbled and bumped and I held my breath and prayed, ensuring I only trod in the middle of the boat and keeping my centre of gravity low. We managed without capsizing and continued on our way, stopping whenever we heard sounds of life on the banks. And we heard loads. Crashes, crunches and rustlings seemed to surround us until one of the rangers suddenly announced that a rhino was likely very close by. He shored the canoe and encouraged us to get out and go rhino hunting with him. Now, during the boat swap I had ended up moving from the back to the front of the boat, so I was the one who was expected to lead the expedition into near virgin rainforest and find the rhino. It was not a role I relished. Reluctantly I scrambled up a gully and peered cautiously into the undergrowth, more than a little nervous about what I was going to find. As everyone got off the boat behind me I had to edge further and further forward so they could climb up with me, until I was stepping into the unknown. Eventually a ranger overtook me and started carving a path through the forest using a machete; it was all very ‘Jewel of the Nile’. The going was very difficult, slippery and uneven. Most of us were not equipped for the adventure but it was one of the best experiences of my life. At one point we had to cross a gully. It was too wide to jump and quite deep, with muddy water flowing through it. The only option was to slide down the bank on my arse, step into the water and do a slippery scramble up the other side. The mud in the bottom of the gully formed a suction that dragged my shoes off and I actually ended up barefoot and mud coloured by the end of it. This could have gone on for hours, with not a rhino to be seen (mostly due to the noise we were making) but a group decision was eventually made to turn back as the light was fading and we had at least one hour of canoeing to do before we got back to the beach. The whole situation was hilarious and ridiculous and probably really dodgy, but very memorable!

On our return to the beach we ran into the sea to wash ourselves off as best we could before boarding the boat to return to our accommodation. Our captain (and chef) had prepared sweet potato chips for our return, and they were much needed. Delicious, deep fried chips of sweet potato that Bonsai (newly nicknamed Tarzan due to his vine swinging antics in the rainforest) then continued to fry in the bottom of the boat as we sped back home, using hot oil on a gas burner with the canister conveniently hidden in a cupboard held closed by the captain’s foot. It was a health and safety nightmare, but as with all these alarming scenarios in Indonesia, everything was fine!

It rained heavily that night but we were quite content in our accommodation, a kind of research station with rooms on a quiet island. We were fed fresh fish caught earlier in the day by our captain. In fact the spread was pretty impressive and all cooked in that little boat on a single ring gas stove.

The following morning we managed to escape to the boat before the peacock found us. We were island hopping, visiting another snorkeling site that offered yet more colour and variety before arriving at Peucang Island. The accommodation there was a bit more salubrious and our neighbours were deer, monkeys and wild boar, all of whom wandered happily on the lawn in front of our ‘villas.’ We arrived just in time as the heavens opened just as we were meant to head out and explore the island. I had my obligatory dance in the rain (I was already damp from snorkeling) then proceeded to sit out the downpour with tea and conversation on the veranda.

Eventually the rain eased and we set out to explore the island. Bonsai led us along a trail through the forest to a lookout at the other end of the island. Tropical rainforests after a downpour are magical places and exploring huge tangled banyan tree trunks and spotting deer, boar and more monkeys out in the wild is always a pleasure. Reaching the lookout at the other end of the island and being able to see clearly the reef below us, even though the waves were crashing against the cliffs, was also an astonishing site.

img_3538

Later we travelled to yet another island to see a herd of wild cows, unique to Indonesia. No one can really explain their presence on the island or say why they are the only herd of their kind. They are simply there, and another good example of the unique nature of the Indonesian archipelago.

The following day was our last, and finally we were going to visit Krakatoa. I’d been looking forward to this moment for the entire trip. 2016 had turned into a year of volcanoes for me so Krakatoa was going to be my fifth. Getting there was another matter though. Bad weather had already altered our itinerary back to front and the weather had turned again. What had been a bumpy sea crossing the first time was a heart stopping one on our return. Huge waves kept threatening to engulf the engines making them heave and splutter, leaving us at the mercy of the open water. Several times the boat stopped as the captain nursed the boat into a calmer patch to allow us to continue. At one point I was checking the horizon for other boats in case we needed rescuing, and we even put on life vests just in case (for all the good they would have done) while the Indonesian crew calmly rode the storm as though it was just another trip, although they all got soaked. Still, as we approached Anuk Krakatoa we saw that the cloud that had shrouded it a few days before had cleared so we could see its cone. We headed for the shore.

Anuk Krakatoa is yet another distinct landscape: red and grey, dusty and gently steaming. Volcanic bombs litter the slopes and in places the shoreline is actually cooled lava, with flashes of green where nature fights to return to the area. We were not allowed to climb to the top of the volcano, as it is still extremely active, although we did wander on the lower slopes. Even there the heat was palpable. In places the lava was only five meters below the crust of the earth and steam vents puffed gently, as did smoke from the top. I could feel the warmth through the soles of my feet and as we descended down an ash track I took my sandals off and walked barefoot, as it was more comfortable than having pumice and ash trapped inside my shoes.

img_1159

After one more stop for a bit more snorkeling in yet another crystal clear bay teaming with tropical fish, we turned our heads for home. The merry band was to part ways at Jakarta airport after a very memorable trip, in a year of very memorable trips around Indonesia. It certainly ranks as one of my favourite Indonesian adventures – so far!

 

 

 

Bumpy Roads

For the first time since I left the UK behind I find I am hitting a few road bumps in life. Sure, life in Myanmar was difficult, but I felt like those bumps were an integral part of the journey away from the UK and into International living.

Now I am living in Indonesia I am finding new frustrations that are not simply to be written off as a result of a new culture. In fact, several bumps seem to stem from UK sources and long term issues rather than being  new things I can blame on a different culture. As I head towards my first trip home after 18 months I find myself excited at the prospect of achieving a little ‘normality’ for a while, something I didn’t expect to feel.

My biggest frustration is getting out of Surabaya. I have been thwarted a few times by delayed flights and ticket malfunctions and I’m beginning to imagine it as a black hole that is sucking me in. I don’t hate the place. I’m happier here than I was in Yangon but I do need to get away from its bubble and touch base with other places. I don’t consider it comfortable enough to be my home. Yet despite the best laid plans I’m finding it hard to leave. This has never happened to me before so I am bemused by it and mildly anxious too. Am I getting lazy in my travel planning? Is travel here really that much more difficult? Or has my luck just run out?

Other stresses include a lingering ear infection that I simply can’t shift. Aggressive ear syringing, a range of antibiotics and anti histamine and an allergic reaction to prescribed pain killers have not removed the problem, and being half deaf but not sick enough to stay off work is very tiring when teaching. Especially when, ironically, I am teaching listening skills!

Additionally, trying to resolve UK banking issues when you’re half way round the world is also a mission, especially when your Internet is more unreliable than it was in technologically challenged Myanmar. Despite paying a fortune for premium service I am having a running battle to get any connectivity at all most evenings and several service visits from the provider have done little except prove that doing the same thing over and over again is not going to solve the problem!

Anyway, sometime last year Internet Banking regulations changed, and I missed it. I’d turned paper communications off, or so I thought, and my UK address certainly didn’t get any post regarding the matter and I didn’t receive any emails about it either. So when I tried to log in to transfer money to my friend after our epic Australian adventure I discovered I couldn’t access my own money. Which was weird, because I’d logged in before Christmas with no trouble.

Apparently the bank needs proof of who I am, despite the fact that I’d gone through all the security questions when I rang them to query the situation. Suddenly, I discover I have very few ways of proving who I am. Passport? Yes. Utility bill. No, that’s all managed by my employer in their name. Driving license. Not registered at the UK address I’d provided for my mail. I moved twice in the last four months before I left the UK and it wasn’t a priority to update it in the grander scheme of packing up my life and leaving the country. Stupid? Possibly, and I’d advise anyone preparing to leave the UK for a while to make sure all your documentation matches before you go. I hadn’t realised they didn’t, or that it mattered, but then I was setting out on my own without a clue as to what I was doing!

The solution? A Skype interview where they see me, my passport and a letter from work confirming who I am and where I live which will be photographed during the appointment. (They rejected my offer to scan and send these details, even though that is essentially what they’ll be doing live anyway.) When? February 25th, six weeks after the problem was found. I was advised that I’d get temporary access to my account in between times. I haven’t, and I’ve been too deaf and fed up to try and sort it out. So I’m currently hoping that my hearing clears enough for me to phone and the Internet issues are resolved in time for me to attend the appointment, although I’m not holding my breath for either.

These bumps are a test of my patience; not my courage or skills, and I’m finding it quite wearing. Having done all I can for the time being, I have to put these issues into the lap of the Gods and it seems to me, for the first time in 18 months, that they have deserted me.

Of course, another explanation is that adventure mode is finally being replaced by normal life mode and I am starting to tune into a more settled life style with all its regular, everyday problems.

And that, truthfully, is probably a good sign that I’m on the right road.

In need of a cat

One of the biggest sacrifices I have made, with my decision to pack up and see the world while working abroad, is the loss of having a cat in my life.

Cats are a serious responsibility and a long-term commitment. I should know, having spent nearly eighteen years grounded in the UK because two beautiful cats owned me. While thinking about emigration to Australia I baulked, because my older cat was getting too elderly and cats – let’s be honest – are not very welcome in Australia. I couldn’t see myself putting them through a very gruelling journey and quarantine conditions, only to keep them shut up at the other end. So I stayed put.

That’s not to say I didn’t travel. I spent three months travelling around Australia and made several other long trips whilst a pet owner. But I had a wonderful support system of cat sitters and a comfortable home for the cats to live in. I wasn’t up-rooting them or leaving them uncared for. And truthfully, cats don’t need a great deal of looking after as long as they have food, water and a cat flap. They can almost look after themselves!

But now I’m abroad and I find I can’t, in all conscience, accept responsibility for a cat again. The temporary nature of my position; the school-supplied accommodation on the 19th floor of an apartment building; the fact that I am in a place where I can go out and explore the far reaches of South East Asia with great ease, make that commitment a no-no.

And I miss it. I miss being greeted at the door with an indignant cry of ‘where the hell have you been? Where’s my dinner?’ I long for the additional weight on the pillow that pins me into the same position all night, whilst being lulled to sleep by the comforting purr of loving companions. I miss tripping over furry friends and having someone – who truthfully doesn’t give a damn – to tell my day to, just so that I can get it all off my chest. I miss the affection and rejection a cat gives; their contrary nature; their serenity.

I see the odd cat around the neighbourhood but they are flighty, unfriendly and frankly, not very beautiful. Runny eyes and stubby tails indicate a life away from humans that make any solace from them extremely unlikely. Still, I do the mad cat lady thing and have a chat with them anyway. They just blink at me from a distance, usually in a distrustful crouch, ready to escape if I make any kind of movement.

The next best thing is dogs. My boss has a tiny Yorkie who comes to work with her. I cuddle that dog at every opportunity and will greet her before I talk to anyone else! But I do feel this is slightly disloyal as a lifelong cat fanatic.

So, I rely on social media as a way of enjoying the complex nature of cat ownership, without the commitment. Simon’s Cat animations on Youtube, Buzz-Feed mash-ups, Tom Cox and his SadCat; anything that makes me laugh, cry or nod in understanding, to fill the gnawing absence that I feel every day. But it’s not much of a fix, I can tell you.

I even have a Tigger, velvet soft and the size of a small cat, which accompanies me to sleep at night. It helps, a little, but it’s not quite the same thing. Nothing is.

 

 

Testing times

 I had been in Indonesia for less than a month when I was informed that I was expected to take a Bahasa Indonesian proficiency test. My employer had been ‘invited’ (in a way that allowed no refusal) to send the expat employees along for the test. This examination was introduced a few years ago by the government for all foreigners living and working in the country but, as far as we were aware, had been scrapped earlier in the year. Nevertheless, one hundred or so expats were placed in a school gym behind exam desks and put through a Saturday morning of language exams.

Now I have no problem with being expected to learn the language of the country I am living in. I tried and failed in Myanmar, (languages not being my strong suit) but I arrived in Surabaya with the intention to learn, and I’m quite proud of my progress over my first few weeks of living here. Good morning ‘salamat paggi’ and thank you ‘terima kashi’ came quickly. I’ve been learning my numbers and can count to ten with the exception of seven and nine, as they keep slipping from my mind! I’ve been reading and interpreting signs while out and about. Dilarang, for example, is DO NOT (and there are a lot of those signs around I’ve noticed!) plus I’ve got the essentials: phone credit is ‘pulsa’,water is ‘air’, and beer is ‘bir’, all things I buy on a regular basis. But I’ve also been settling into my new life and job, meeting students and parents, planning lessons and learning my way around, so I haven’t been able to give much of my time to language acquisition. I’ve found going to the cinema helpful as everything is subtitled and I’ve started to see and hear other words I recognise. But still, after just 36 days, there I was facing a test of my proficiency in a language I barely understand. 

I first appreciated the rediculousness of my situation when we met with a trainer a few days before the exam so that he could explain the testing procedure. He had a tough audience, a group of teachers who knew that essentially, they were being set up to fail. Even the longer term colleagues who had picked up conversational Bahasa by going out and spending time with locals quickly saw how unrealistic and undifferentiated the test was. It went against everything we stand for in education. The session was disheartening and demotivating. Even though we were encouraged to try our best as the results were to be used for ‘data’ to help the government support expats in learning the language, we knew that the results would be skewed because of our short time in the country.

The test itself was equally rediculous. I suppose, after years in education testing children, I have a pretty clear view of how people should be tested (if they must be tested at all). 110 minutes of back to back exams with instructions in a foreign language (and some spoken translations I struggled to follow), using a multiple choice baked bean format is not my way to go about it, but that is how we were evaluated that day.

Candidates were wandering about, phones were out, selfies were taken (guilty). There was even the rumour that some people were using GoogleTranslate  to help them, but no formality was observed, except for the welcome speeches from people responsible for the delivery of the tests. We were encouraged to enjoy the experience, and I guess some people did!

But I tried, I really did, even though every fiber of my being screamed at the farcical nature of the situation. I followed my own advice to students in the listening test and pre-read the questions, listening carefully for keywords before making a (semi) educated guess at the answer. Let’s face it, I had a 25% chance of getting it right after all. I used reading strategies like skimming and scanning, key wording and prediction to attempt the reading paper until the length of the paragraphs I had to read became too much for me to process. I admit I used the old reliable snake pattern for the grammar seksi (section – see, I managed to extend my vocabulary while in the exam!) as I wasn’t even able to decode the questions in that one. And, I’m sorry to say, I failed the writing section completely as the 250 word limit exceeded my own vocabulary by about 225. So I wrote the phrase I learnt specially for the occasion ‘saya tidak mengerti’ I don’t understand. I also rated each section with emojis, most of which involved tears!

Now I simply await my result, and accompanying certificate, which will tell me what I already know: my proficiency in Bahasa Indonesian is very ‘terbatas’ –  limited!

  

Movie Magic

Cinema experiences in Myanmar are certainly memorable, although not usually for the film itself.

First of all, I have to find the cinema. That can be a challenge in itself as there are several in the city but even my students can’t always tell me where they are! It’s also quite difficult to track down which cinema is showing what film as the websites I know of are rarely updated and the censors are quite selective about what films they show. Hollywood blockbusters are available but they don’t stay for long and are only shown by selective cinemas, so I have to be fairly attentive to worldwide releases if I am going to catch a film I really want to see.

I’ve managed to see Mocking Jay, The Hobbit and Insurgent, all series I originally started watching in the UK. I dread to think what Indie gems I’ve missed by being here though, and I really miss my regular Sunday outings to the cinema in MK.

However, my first visit to a Myanmar cinema was to see a nice little French film, shown as part of a European Film Festival last October. I was so starved of cinematic experience at that time that I would have happily sat through anything, including the dull Myanmar short about a family separated by work, reuniting over Skype while the child did her homework. It was only later that I realised the poignancy of that film, when I learnt that it was not unusual for families to be separated in this way and that going to Thailand was often the only solution many people have to earning enough money to support their families.

On that occasion, a mostly Expat audience gave me a feeling of being at home, the only real difference being that we had to stand for the Myanmar national anthem before the film. I could get a Coke and a box of popcorn and the tiered seating and red, velour seats were like a poor man’s West End Theatre. A golden curtain, breathing gently in the air-con, even covered the screen. It was very 1970s!

My other experiences have not always been quite so comforting. When I stumbled upon a cinema showing Mocking Jay, I immediately took the opportunity to enjoy another cinematic experience. I’d arrived just in time for the 3.30 showing (nearly every cinema in the city show films at 10.30am, 12.30pm, 3.30pm, 6.30pm and 9.30pm for some strange reason), bought one of the last remaining tickets and rushed up stairs to the cinema.

Modern metal music greeted me as I entered and I found myself surrounded by a young audience, some of whom were ‘courting couples’ who were gently bringing back the meaning of ‘sitting on the back row of the cinema’ in the face of stringent cultural attitudes towards open displays of affection.

The trailers and adverts in Myanmar cinemas make me laugh. In some cinemas, after paying homage to the flag, film posters are displayed on the screen informing the audience of the films that are currently showing or will be showing soon. In some of the more modernized cinemas, real Hollywood trailers are shown as well, but it’s taken me several visits to learn this.

I still remember the amateur adverts for curry houses and electrical stores at Uckfield Picture House back in the day. Adverts in Myanmar can be very much like that. Or, even worse, a 1980s mixture that evokes cries of ‘Whoa, Bodyform!’ or ‘The Best a Man Can Get!’ that would get howled off any self respecting UK screen these days. Audiences chomp and chat and play on their phones during this time but I’d expect that anywhere, it’s not the film; it’s just the prelude.

I can also watch films in 3D. This surprised me, as I hadn’t expected any form of advanced technology here, but for a very reasonable price, you can see a film in 3D, with glasses provided. For additional reassurance, the little I-Dog comes onto the screen and I am transported back to the UK in an instant.

Finally, comes the film. At this point, I’m ready to absorb myself in the next installment of a series, or experience a unique story for the first time. I’m eager to know how the director has reimagined a book or idea, and decide whether it matches my imagination. I love the cinema because I can just drop into another world without the everyday interfering, and escape.

Not so in Myanmar. Often, I can’t hear the opening over the rustling and chatting that continues from the adverts; phones go off and are answered, in spite of the usual reminders to switch them off, and people regularly get them out, bright lights included, to play on them when they can’t understand what’s happening in the movie, which is, of course, most of the time. The films I have watched have always been in English but without subtitles (don’t ask me why, I have no idea!) and audiences are not always able to follow them fluently. Some of the more dramatic bits can be lessened by the over excited squealing of audience members (often American girls), or regular visits to the toilet (may be three or four times per film), by audience members in my row, can interrupt my viewing pleasure.

At times, I have felt like I am on the worst school trip ever, except I wasn’t the teacher and I was outnumbered by a cinema full to one. *Sigh.*

This is not unusual for audiences in Myanmar. I have attended several events, both public and within school, where the audiences have not paid the slightest bit of attention to what is happening in front of them. ‘Theatre etiquette’ is unknown here and I consider myself lucky if I manage to enjoy half of what I’m trying to watch. But I won’t stop going to the cinema because of it.

Cinema visits are still a very essential part of my aesthetic pleasure, and while they will never be completely satisfactory in Myanmar, my visits are better than nothing.

Cat Therapy

I go to Zephyr, a small cafe/ restaurant by the side of Inya lake, to see the cats. I also eat, drink, read, write and reflect there but mostly it’s the cats I desire. A colony lives there, so there are always kittens and heavily pregnant females wandering around, and even if you can’t see them you can usually hear them. I think they are cared for by the staff and they are tolerated by the clientele. It’s a peaceful place (except for the mosquitoes) and I go there for cat therapy. I miss cats and the solace that they bring and this is the closest I can get to them in a country where dogs rule the streets.

I had just sat down when I saw her, trotting between the legs of a nearby table. I tut-tutted quietly (I no longer kiss-kiss as that sound is also used to call the waiter) and she immediately looked my way, halted and meowed. I agreed with her softly and put my hand down, palm away from her and asked if she’d like to approach. Without hesitation she dotted her nose on the back of my hand and meowed again, a high pitched but friendly sound. Very cautiously I raised my hand and used the backs of my fingers to gently stroke the top of her head. She flicked her head back sociably in enjoyment and spoke again. This time I used the tips of my fingers to trace the soft tabby markings from between her ears to the valley between her shoulders. She moved her head slightly so that I could reach her chin. The ruff of fur beneath her ears, that should have framed her pretty face, was missing, most probably as a result of fleas, but the skin was clear and unbroken and it would have been rude to reject her.  She took a step forward and cocked her head to one side as she meowed again. It was the unmistakable demand to sit on my lap. I sat back in surprise, patted my lap and held my arms wide, expecting her to dismiss the action as desperate. But up she leapt, arriving softly on my legs and greeting me. She looked into my face and blinked, and I returned the courtesy, then she leant her light body against my clean white top (oh cat-hair covered clothes I have missed you!) and nodded her head back towards my fingers. Very gently I raised my hand again and stroked her as her claws lightly tightened on my thighs and her tummy resonated with a quiet purr that reverberated into my heart.

And then I felt it: a deep, peaceful feeling of relaxation, an exhalation of stress. An unspoken reassurance that, for that brief moment in time, everything was well with the world.

Then, she was gone and I was alone again, grateful for the brief respite in my constant yearning for a cat.

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.

IMG_1357

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!

Taxi!

Mingalar bah! Can you take me to the Airport? Airport? You know (mimes an airplane) Yes, airport! How much? Nooo. 4000. Ok, good. Let’s go.

Oh, a registration card. You’re a driver by trade? Not one of those guys who hires a car for the day and picks up unsuspecting albinos, gets very lost and then tries to charge them extra.

You drive a Corolla. Who doesn’t? Yours has seen some service though, it looks like it’s travelled from the 1950s. Oh, it did? That explains the holes then. The petrol tank in the boot is an interesting feature. I guess that’s only really dangerous in the event of an accident, or fire. As long as no one’s in the boot when it happens… ah, you can carry six. Two in the boot? No thanks, I’ll sit in the front.

Shall we get going then? Yes, I’m putting on my seatbelt. It’s the law back home you know. At least you have seatbelts. You don’t need the Angry Bird seat belt buckles that stop that annoying beep newer cars have. You know, the safety feature that makes you wear your seat belt? I do like what you’ve done with the dashboard though, cute decorations. Yes, Buddha and dancing flowers are very kitsch and the wooden seat covers don’t slide about or numb your bum too much. Well, who needs padding when bouncing over potholes anyway?

I’m glad you don’t have those horrid betel stains down your door. You simply open the door and hawk it up when you’re sitting in traffic. And when you’re moving? A plastic bag on the choke would do it, yes, better than the floor of your car anyway.

Mirror. Signal. Manoeuvre? You should have three mirrors but waving your arm out of the window and moving off has much the same effect I’m sure. The one in the middle isn’t simply for hanging decorations off you know. What about your wing mirrors? Yes, it must be difficult driving a right-hand drive on the left side of the road; that’s why mirrors are a good thing. Ah, that’s how you lost them?! Oh well, let’s just roll out and hope then.

Lots of traffic today. Well, every day really. Insein Road is just that, insane! Oh, a space. Let’s go for it. Just you and four other drivers, not to mention the fume spewing bus. Yes, please close the windows, one face-full of pollution is enough thanks. Oh, you don’t have air-con? Never mind, I’ll hold my breath until the bus has passed.

Finally, we’re moving. Oh, you know the New York Cabbie one-second rule? But we’re moving. Oh, I see, you’re not impatient; you’re letting the drivers without mirrors know you’re coming. A bit like jungle drums maybe? It’s quite a complex code you use.

Oh god, mind the pedestrians. I don’t think a beep is enough. No! I said mind them not swerve to hit them! Phew! They slipped between the cars before you reached them. That’s another reason to stay in lane, so you don’t hit the pedestrians dodging the traffic. In lane, you know, between the lines? No? Well I don’t suppose anyone else does either.

Ah, we’ve made it! One hour to cover five miles isn’t bad at this time of day I suppose. Thanks for opening the door for me. No, it wasn’t stuck, there just wasn’t a handle!

Kyei: zu: be:!