All posts by Sev

Final Round Up – Get the tissues out

Unless John suddenly comes up with something inspirational this will be the last post for this blog. It feels really strange just writing that. The end of an era.

Time has gone fast and yet slow at the same time since we arrived back. So much has been going on! It’s been lovely to catch up with those of you we’ve seen and we can’t wait to see the rest of you.

The next step for us will be our big move up to Edinburgh, can’t wait! We’re furiously looking for jobs at the moment and very giddy about our trip up there to flat hunt next week. It’s a bit weird for John as it will actually be the first time he’s visited the city. So even though our year of carefree travels is over we’ve got a lot to look forward to and life seems as exciting now as it ever did.

But, of course, it’s still good looking back and so we’ve come up with a list of top 5s for your amusement, or perhaps boredom depending on what mood you’re all in.

Funniest Moments:

  • The entire three weeks of Rightee’s stay with us down at Koh Tao, Thailand, well John can only remember some of it
  • Too much tequila and my salty meat birthday cake turning into a towering inferno in Chiang Mai, Thailand
  • Various naked co-workers in Madagascar (Lizy, Tom and Pete)
  • John deciding he’ll surprise me when I exit the loos in the depth of the Australian night by chanting ‘Attack, attack, attack’. Only funny in hindsight.
  • A drunken Chinese waiter being in complete hysterics at our pathetic attempts at his language. He was practically rolling on the floor.

Most amazing landscapes:

  • New Zealand Mountains and thermal areas. Truly breathtaking
  • Namib desert in Namibia
  • The Great Wall of China
  • Karst mountains in Southern China
  • Table Mountain and Cape Town

Favourite birds:

  • Myna birds in Koh Tao (also in Southern Africa, New Zealand and Madagascar)
  • Gannets in New Zealand
  • Secretary birds in South Africa (huge great things with fancy hairdos, they like stamping on snakes)
  • New Zealand Robins and Fantails (very curious little fellows that follow you around and look at you)
  • Pukekos in New Zealand (purple dudes that live in little family groups)

Favourite animals:

  • Meerkats in Namibia (so tame)
  • John likes giraffes so that has to go in
  • Green tree ants in Australia and their cool nests made of leaves
  • Chameleons in Madagascar
  • Lemurs of course!

Viv’s favourite plant places:

  • Forests of Tree ferns on the North Island of New Zealand
  • Amazing Fynbos plants of the Southern Cape
  • Fascinating succulents and other salt tolerant desert plants in Namibia
  • Fields filled with Pitcher plants in Madagascar
  • Rainforests of North Eastern Australia

Nicest people:

  • The Japananese. Helpful, respectful, polite and accommodating. You are really looked after well as a visitor in Japan
  • The Vietnamese. Resourceful, friendly, lively and inspiring. You can’t help but admire and adore them, they’re a pretty good looking lot too, especially in the North.
  • The Malagasy. Easy going, welcoming and warm. Nothing can stress out the Malagasy, well except snakes, it’s so easy to relax and feel part of the community in Madagascar.
  • The Kiwis. Laid back, friendly and pretty cool. Like a home from home but with less w**kers around.
  • The Thais. Efficient, friendly and open minded. The Thais just get on with things with little fuss. It’s a great and very easy place to travel in.

Worst toilets:

  • New Zealand’s got to be up there I’m afraid. The ones out in the wilderness were badly designed so that when you go in they’re totally sealed leaving you trapped with the evil smells and flying army of insects.
  • Tianjin in China. I’m singling it out because the rest of the toilets in China were not nearly as bad as you might imagine. The train station toilets in Tianjin however were unspeakable! No doors, and a very liberal approach to where the waste was supposed to go. In each case the entire cubicle was a toilet and nobody bothered to flush.
  • Azafady bush toilets in Madagascar. I have two words to describe them: Maggot farms. Nice eh?

The rest were OK, Japan’s are little complicated but still functional.

This could go on for ever and I’m getting bored now. If anyone has any requested top fives I’ll be happy to include them. In the meantime, thanks for reading and bye for now.

Jiv xx

About to go back in the bush, minus a phone

Yes guys i’m afraid our Madagascar mobile phone has been stolen so nobody can call us for the time being. John still has his British phone for texts (07940 513969) but we’re not sure how he’s going to keep it charged as our only charger was also taken. Ah well, these things happen, we’ll see if we can arrange something when we get back from the bush.

Since John wrote we’ve been hanging around town asking passers by about their awareness of AIDS. Azafady are worried about AIDS in Madagascar even though the rate is pretty low in comparison to mainland Africa. The evil mining company John mentioned, Rio Tinto, are planning to bring in hundreds of workers from South Africa where the AIDS rate is about 1 in 4 compared to 1 in 90 here. The workers will be a long way from their families and so it’s not difficult to imagine the potential consequences if the locals are not aware of the risks.

The AIDS rate in parts of Africa, especially Swaziland, is truly incomprehensible. It’s really weird when you look around you in an African internet cafe and know that maybe four or five people you’re currently sharing a room with will die of AIDS.

Anyway back to Madagascar and the surveys: they were pretty interesting and caused much hilarity about town. Most people knew about sticking to one partner and wearing condoms but changing behaviour is a different thing entirely. Many people still don’t believe in AIDS as they’ve never met anyone who’s had it. There is clearly still a lot to do here if we want to stop Madagascar going down the same route as Africa. We’re not scheduled to do any more work on the issue here but Azafady is bidding for some funding to continue.

What we are going to do next is to rebuild some damaged rain forest, build a well and some accommodation for midwives at a remote village further up the coast. The accommodation for the midwives will be invaluable as it means that expectant mothers who get into trouble will actually have some help near by. There is no transport to speak of around there so mothers and babies have died in the past trying to make their way to help situated miles away.

We’re also going to build some more efficient stoves to keep fighting against the need to chop down forest for fuel. More silly dancing for John then!

And finally. The maggot tally is currently 5-0 to John. He is now officially a complete scrubber, don’t worry they’ve all been successfully prised away from the inside of his feet.

Take care all!

Sev/Viv

Thank You Again!

This is just a quickie to say thank you so much to all of you who have donated so far and especially the people who have kindly helped us to raise money. So far our joint efforts have raised an incredible 1484 pounds. With the Jiv donation that makes it 2484 so we’re not far away from the total.

Special thanks to our parents for their help and also to these fundraising stars :

Mary Booth
Rachel Hobson
Gabrielle Porter
Lyndsey Potter
Nicola Shires
The irrepressible Gran T (you need to meet her!)
and last but never least Andy Wright.

For those of you who still want to donate, you’re not too late. We’ll be closing the donation page on Wednesday 27th September, the deadline for cheques will be a week before on the 20th.

Also for anybody interested in exclusive John Hobson photographic art, Andy Wright (with help from his selection panel) has been squirreling away producing photographic prints as well as Christmas and Birthday cards. All in aid of Azafady of course! You should be hearing more about this soon but let us know if you’re interested in a mounted print or set of cards.

It’s now only just over two weeks before we head off for our life in a tent where we’ll be working on projects to improve sanitation, to help create vital maternity health infrastructure and to continue to survey the flora and fauna of the region. How exciting!

Take care to you all again and

THE BIGGEST THANKS EVER INVENTED!!!

Viv xxx

Poor Old Mozambique

Hello All,

We’re back in Maputo now and to the best Internet cafe we’ve found in Africa so far.

This post is full of raw emotion as well as stuff that John and I have spent a lot of time philosophising about. Before I published it I considered toning it down and then changed my mind. After all, this is not a holiday brochure but a collection of our personal thoughts and experiences on our trip of a lifetime. A trip that is as much about learning and understanding as it is about seeing and enjoying ourselves.

Mozambique has given us a lot to think about. It came out of a decade long civil war in 1992 and looking at most of the buildings we’ve seen you’d think it might have been two years ago, five at the outside.

Maputo, as John mentioned, is an extremely friendly city, the people really are absolutely lovely. It’s wonderful to be able to walk the streets at night again without feeling paranoid about being robbed. Maputo is sprawling and crumbling though, really sad to see. There doesn’t appear to have been any buildings erected since the war and hardly anything has been restored. The pavements and roads are still very damaged and there are countless buildings that are just empty shells, no roof, no windows, no doors.

The signs of the Marxist government that took power after independence from Portugal in the 70s are clearly in evidence in the streets, they’re all named after left wing leaders. Lenin, Stalin and Ho Chi Mihn need no introduction but we’ve also spotted Allende, the victim of General Pinochet’s infamous coup in Chile. It’s hard to explore Maputo really as it’s very large and the places of interest so far away from each other. Tomorrow we’re going to do that in earnest though, this is no ordinary city and there seems to be so much to learn.

Last Monday we got up early to travel by bus to Tofo. Tofo gets John very excited as it has one of the world’s top dive sites. It’s about 500km North of Maputo, apparently around 6 hours.

The journey was a classic travellers experience, although we arrived at the bus station for a 6.30am departure it didn’t actually leave until just before nine. As with many of the poorer countries we’ve visited no bus moves unless all the seats are filled. This bus does only fill the seats, apparently the other bus heading North will fill the bus in a much more literal sense. Apparently with people, livestock, vegetables and whatever else needs to go up there. To be honest we’re not surprised, not many people have their own vehicles and the transport infrastructure is severely limited. I don’t know how some of those buses make it up there as some parts of the road are more like four wheel drive territory. It’s only tarmacked part of the way and is Mozambique’s only major road.

The scene on the way up was fairly consistent: flat grassy planes, derelict shells of buildings, straw huts and roadside market stalls (mostly fruit).

The journey took 10 hours in all and the bus was smelly. We were utterly exhausted by the time we arrived. In hindsight the journey was amusing, I’m not sure whether it was a bus journey or a very long shopping trip. For the two and a half hours we were waiting at Maputo bus station there was a continuous and noisy rabble of people banging on the windows trying to sell all sorts. The bus also must have stopped at least a dozen times for people to run to the bus selling their wares. In this respect it reminded us both of Asia, Laos in particular. Although, as far I’m aware, the goods were more conventional things like oranges and tomatoes, we weren’t too disappointed not to see the bats on sticks!

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At Tofo we’d booked a hut to stay in. That’s what it was, a straw hut with no windows and several large holes. We had two mattresses on the floor and a Mosquito net. We enjoyed the novelty of it although it’s certainly the most basic place we’ve stayed. Needless to say, the mozzies had a feast on us.

While we were there John was not disappointed with the diving. He swam with Manta Rays, Whale Sharks and numerous other wonders. I myself went out in a boat and saw whale sharks and mantas very close, truly amazing creatures and I can’t believe how big they are. I was too much of a scaredy cat to snorkel in the open sea though, I hate it when I can’t see the bottom and I don’t know what’s lurking.

Tofo is amazingly under-developed, there’s hardly anything there, it is like a tropical paradise. Unfortunately for us we were a bit unlucky with the weather and although John still managed to dive all other trips were cancelled for the first 5 days after we arrived. Not wanting to sit in the bar all day and the beach being too wet and windy I spent several days sat in the hut reading and getting bitten by Mosquitos.

Already feeling affected by the destruction and poverty in Mozambique I delved into a history book about a girl and the Vietnam war and read a supplement about global warming and energy that Andy Wright gave us from the Guardian. With the solitude and depressing reading, confusion reigned in my head. The confusion centres on a revulsion for humanity but a love of people. I’ve been prone to that sort of thing from a very early age, being the kind of kid that at ten worried about everyone dying, in my early teens about nuclear war and in my late teens about the environment. At Tofo it all got a bit overwhelming and I had the urge to give away everything I’ve ever possessed but had no plan what I might do with myself after that.

I was walking around Mozambique feeling guilty for being so lucky in where I was born and starting to loathe myself, I didn’t want to go out and face the world. Argh, what am I doing? John to the rescue, he acknowledged all the ills in the world but let me know that I wasn’t on my own in my thinking. I know I’m not, and thank you John (a man that genuinely understands and to whom I owe much, permission to puke granted.) We have now hardened our resolve to help as much as we can, turning angst into action. It makes all the struggles with our thoughts seem worth it. We need to figure out ways of keeping it that way when we get back to Britain, where it’s easier to forget about the world beyond our doorstep.

Five days into our stay I reluctantly travelled to Inhambane, a local town crumbling even by Mozambique standards, the school has broken windows and every other building is derelict. Weirdly, unlike Maputo, the place was very unfriendly, smiles were only returned by hostile glares. Given the recent history of colonialism and interference in the civil war by the South African apartheid government, it’s not really surprising. It turned out that unlike Maputo it had a pretty large part in slave trafficing, particularly to the French colonies of Mauritius and Reunion island. John and I have had plenty of discussions about why the people of Inhambane and Maputo are so different but without being able to speak to lots of them we can only speculate. I really wanted to ask but didn’t have the courage.

‘Travelling back from Inhambane we caught the same style bus as on the way in, while deciding which bus to catch a guy had stamped on my foot and gave John a really good push. We were polite to everybody so didn’t deserve that treatment and were feeling pretty glum when we got on the bus. There were no seats for us so I sat between someone elses feet. The more people that were squeezed in when it didn’t look humanly possible, the more I giggled. I couldn’t see John anymore, he’d disappeared at the back somewhere. We all squeezed up ever tighter and held each other’s shopping. That’s when everything changed. It was a bus full of smiles, me with my bad Portuguese and they with smatterings of English. A woman was carefully extracting the hair out of my eyelashes every time it blew in, people were saying thank you lots and telling me I had ‘lively eyes’.
What a relief, I can’t tell you how good that felt. I suppose the difference was our role, the bus was a real leveller and made everyone the same. That way we can all be friends and we, the visitors, are not walking around in a bubble.

On our last day in Tofo we had a sunny day on the beach, we had intended to travel further up the country but with the weather delays we ran out of time. The little boys who sold bracelets on the beach were watching us play backgammon. We really warmed to them even though there are limits to the number of bracelets we can buy. One of them was called Fernando, he had something different about him, a bit more talent and spark. I hope he’s getting enough education so that he can live up to his potential. He’s very good at selling bracelets but could do so much more.

According to what we’ve read, people with too much education and talent were sought out and shot during the civil war. I hope that this country can rebuild itself enough to allow people of Fernando’s ability a better chance in life. I would like to come back to Mozambique one day and see how it’s faring.

Take care all

p.s. If this post is depressing, blame it on James Blunt, maybe we should buy this internet cafe another CD?!

Floods and roaches

It sounds like something biblical doesn’t it? We’ll it’s not all that bad, quite entertaining when you look back! A lot has happened since we left gorgeous Cape Town.

Our first stop on our way up the coast was Nature’s valley. It absolutely poured it down and we spent most of our time cowering under a duvet reading books. It’s good to get rid of some of them as they don’t half weigh a bit. All of the rain caused a huge landslide which cut the road and our electricity off. John was happy happy happy. It meant he got to play with his brand new head torch all of the time. We also had a nice log fire and lovely home cooked food. We were the lucky ones, 10 people were killed in the flooding when bridges collapsed and lorries spun off the road in the worst rains that South Africa has had in decades.

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When the rain finally stopped the walking trail we wanted to go on was totally destroyed. The kind family we were staying with drove us around the area to see all of the best bits. It was stunningly beautiful.

Our next destination was quite a way away so we broke the journey up with a day in Port Elizabeth (known as PE locally), it turned out to be rather odd to say the least. We arrived at ‘Backpackers base camp’ to find it was actually just a house full of renting tenants. We were to stay in the landlord’s (Monique’s) bedroom. In there we discovered plastic bats and thigh length platform boots amongst other odds and ends.

Monique appeared to greet us on the first morning by trawling John out of bed to grill him. She talked at him for a good five minutes while he stood freezing in his boxer shorts on the landing. Then it was my turn, she invited herself into the bedroom where I lay naked under the duvet with just my eyes poking out. Monique asks: ‘Do you like motorbikes, I like motorbikes.’ I say ‘..err…not really.’ We are then talked at about motorbikes.

As soon as we were dressed we ended up in the back of her truck being driven around the flood damage with her father. The back is sound proof so her father told us all about Monique’s marital problems. Getting more and more surreal. We were eventually deposited at the snake park in town.

PE itself is surreal too, it has the air of a dilapidated English beach resort in winter except even more dead. The only life was the cheesy eighties music blasting out of the loud speakers of a deserted bar. We looked at snakes and listened to tainted love. Hmm. It was too weird, if John wasn’t there too I’d be convinced I’d dreamt it.

The next day we travelled inland to the magical village of Hogsback, so called because the mountains look just like a wild boar’s back! Cool eh? The weather was good enough for us to hike around with four random dogs following us. We saw enough waterfalls to last anyone an entire lifetime. I’m sure you’ll guess that John took enough waterfall photographs to last several lifetimes, that’s where he’s a hero you see, he’s deleted enough of them to save you all from a waterfall photograph medley so long that it would be likely to slow your pulse to hibernation pace. The dogs certainly raised our pulses though when they all decided to bark a bull into a raging stampede. We climbed a nearby tree.

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At Hogsback we had a free upgrade to a little cottage with a real log fire we could make. John likes making fires, he feels very manly. Luckily the electricity was off again so he had to make the fire wearing his new head torch. Such a happy John!!!!

Hogsback was perfect until a couple of members of the staff started making homophobic comments about the owners of our next destination. They tried to recommend somewhere else but we stubbornly refused to change our plans. What made us even more livid was that when we arrived in Port Edward and met the man they were referring to (Micheal) he was one of the nicest people we’ve met on our travels. Micheal’s guest house was very busy and the town was also lovely with whales and dolphins in the bay and vervet monkeys running tight rope style on the telephone wires.

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We’re almost up to date! Between Port Edward and Durban John did a couple of dives and I’ve been horse riding. I now understand why John Wayne walks funny, I’ve used muscles I didn’t know existed.

Our backpacker at Durban came with last minute warnings from our bus driver. It was too late in the evening to change our plans so we crossed our fingers instead. When we arrived it was situated in an inner city tower block and had the feel of a cross between an old junior school and a prison. The room didn’t look too bad compared to some of the places in Asia. It was only when we turned out the lights we discovered the problem. You could hear them scuttling around in our bags, our food, our dirty clothes and all over the spare bed. Urgh, ginormous cockroaches, lots of them and they didn’t run away when we turned the lights on either.

I must admit that I usually take pride in not being a pathetic girlie with insects, indeed we’ve slept in rooms with the odd one, but they weren’t interested in us or our stuff and just scuttled away. This time I absolutely froze, said nothing and did nothing. John made a fantastic effort and managed to de-roach everything and get us moved into a more sealed room after hunting the buggers down in the new room too. It goes without saying that we hardly slept a wink and moved to a nicer place in the suburbs in the morning.

This weekend we’ve got loads of internet work to do. John and Andy W are preparing some unique photographic pieces to sell in aid of Azafady. The Sheffield Star and Matlock Mercury (no less!) want to speak to us about our aid work tomorrow. We’ll be famous!!!

Chilling complete, back to the travelling

And we’re really looking forward to getting on with it again, we fly to Cape Town tomorrow to explore the southern reaches of Africa. We are both very excited indeed and it’s thanks to a couple of weeks chilling with Rightee that the travel magic’s back!

Under our collective, Mary style, name of VAJ (Viv, Andy and John of course!) we don’t half know how to chill out. Jody(same style) really know how to bloody drink too, they slip into a nocturnal existence as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I try but I’ve clearly not had as much practice as these two.

That makes us sound really wild and crazy doesn’t it? Maybe if you discovered the amount of time we spent playing dominos and backgammon you might change your mind.

The island of Koh Tao is a great holiday spot with miles of beaches and it’s lively without being too busy. We found the dogs really interesting. They all have their own personalities of course but they were not like the pet dogs you’d get in Britain as the island has a collective dog community which doesn’t seem to feature people all that much. My favourite was only one that liked to play and enjoyed trying to catch handfuls of sand when you were in the sea. She wasn’t much interested in anything else you threw but if it was sand she was there. I liked the way she wagged her tail when looking at the fish, pretty cute. ‘Jon’ the dog from next door is an abnormally short legged and not particularly pleasant dog (John was mortified when he discovered the similarity in name). He (Jon not John)picked a fight with the old dog at the bakery every afternoon. If this didn’t happen you’d wonder if something was wrong, the poor old dog was absolutely paranoid. As I said after the last post the Myna birds are ace too, we could even recognise individuals. There was one that always sang really nicely to us and was followed around by his scraggy girlfriend, another had a bent beak. show_random($num=4, $tags=’kohtao’); ?>

We did do some useful things, like trying to sort out the fundraising but I’ve also been applying for University in 2007. Back to student hood for me and a working life dedicated to conservation (hopefully).

I’m not going to do a round up of Thailand as we’ve not really ventured off the beaten track and have been holidaying rather than travelling which, believe me, are very different. Holidaying is more like relaxation and travelling, for us, is about broadening our understanding of the world.

Here’s a few comments about Thailand though.

It’s true, there are ladyboys around
Thai people are pleasant, straight forward and well organised.
I love Chaing Mai
Thailand is a good place to go on holiday – Hooray for that.

Oh and just one more minor detail. South America is off and we’re coming home for Christmas. Hooray for that too!

Thank you!!!

Yes, I am officially reet old now! Reet reet old!

My birthday was absolutely amazing and that’s a big thank you to loads of people for making it that way!

The day was great, I wasn’t born until seven twenty in the evening and as we’re 6 hours ahead here I could have a great birthday without actually having to be thirty until the following day! Bonus.

John will soon (hopefully) be writing a post about our journey from Laos to Thailand and what we’ve been doing since. (don’t hold your breath just yet, he’s a bit hung over at the moment). While on our 3 day border crossing we made friends with Mey and Dave. They live in Berlin but Dave is Irish. Both joined us for crazy golf and dinner on a boat floating down the river. We had fantastic fun and thanks to John for the surprise boat trip, it was wonderful.

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Later, the four of us gathered around my birthday cake from John. After i blew the candles out John divided it up between us for a bite to eat. YUK. It was like a beef jerky cake, all salty and meaty. Perhaps he bought it from a pet shop instead of a cake shop? (c Mum). Too revolting to eat but very funny. We decided to stick the rest of the candles in to give us a bit of extra light, it was a bit dark out on the guesthouse balcony. Boy did it burn! It was like a fuel cell in it’s own right, it just kept going and going and going and going! The more tequila we drank, with the lime scavenged from local bars, the funnier it got! It was one of those kind of evenings. A great birthday! Thank you John, Mey and Dave for making it that way.

We’re now down in Bangkok, I was sad to leave Chaing Mai and our 10 days of fun with our new friends. We were very excited about meeting Andy (Wright, to save confusion from all of the other Andys) at the airport. Eventually he arrived and we began an evening of drinking, of course. When we sat down for our first beer I was surprised and delighted by the amount of cards and presents Andy had brought from you all back home. Thank you so much! It was like having my birthday all over again. On the run up to the big day I was missing you all, much more than usual as it was I time when we’d all get together if I was back home. It was so nice to read all of your messages and receive lots of lovely pressies. I can’t list them all but there was a good mixture of really useful things and a nice bit of luxury that i’ve had to do without while we’ve been at large in the big wide world. Although – RUTH – thank you for the incontinences knickers but they’re too big so I think i’ll have to let John wear them.

Thanks again and a special thanks to those two sweeties John (for conspiring with alarming efficiency) and Andy W (for offering to carry undisclosed packages through customs).

J and A had a late one last night, sitting on a traffic roundabout. Obviously the place to be!

Take care, missing you all.

Viv xx

Laos – Straight to the roundup

Sorry guys, I did half write a post a couple of weeks ago but then managed to get a mystery illness and didn’t quite finish it. In truth the pair of us have had sensitive stomachs for our entire time in Laos. We put it down to the heavy handed use of spices. There’s nothing subtle about the cuisine, a typical menu item might be stir fried ginger with chicken, note it’s not the other way around. Some of the chili dishes will blow your head off.

The following opinion of Laos is mostly mine as John doesn’t feel quite as strongly as I do. I’m sure he’ll make his own comments on this post.

Laos is largely rural, very beautiful and the way of life is idyllic. There are cows, chickens, goats, pigs and water buffalo running around freely. It sounds absolutely amazing doesn’t it? Well it is. but……..

It drives me mad!!!

Everyone is asleep all the time, quite cute at first but when the restaurant waitress actually has a bed in the dining room and you have to wake her to pay the bill you realise Laos is in an alien universe compared to surrounding Asian countries. In the South hardly anything is ever open and if it is then it will be closed for about two and a half hours at lunch time. Our 7 hour bus to Vientiane set off an hour and a half later than advertised and then stopped after half an hour for an hour long break! The first boat we got to the Thai border took 12 hours instead of 9 and we ended up hiking up a sand dune in the pitch black with our heavy back packs on. None of the locals bat an eyelid at this.

The South of Laos is different from to North. We found the people in Southern Laos much more interested in talking to us and much more likely to say hello and smile in the street. So, although Savannakhet was that sleepy you had to check its pulse it was more charming than frustrating. Although the people seemed to have little ambition in life, other than doing as little work as possible, they seemed happy. We’re sure this is how Southern Laos has managed to keep it’s innocence from the money making obsessions of much of the rest of the world. So I suppose if the people were not so irritatingly slack and unambitious the country would be in the same kind of rat race trap as everywhere else.

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With the exception of our wonderful trek to a traditional village (more about that later) I found Laos like watching a film of a place rather than being there. The people are friendly enough but difficult to integrate with. We didn’t meet any real interesting characters who enjoyed talking to us and wanted to hear about our lives back home. It’s difficult to describe but we’ve been to Laos but only seen it and not really felt it. I found the experience a little bland to be honest.

The capital, Vientiane, had a nice balance of being relaxed but not in a coma. We only spent a short time there but it had a really nice vibe to it. It had some stunning old temples too. I wish we’d stayed longer. It was nice to drink a beer by the river at night where we both witness the most spectacular thunderstorm yet. show_random($num=4, $tags=’ blog_2006615a’); ?>

When we headed North, passing through beautiful mountain scenery, we found a very different Laos. A Laos overrun by western tourists and although still very pretty I found it soulless. There were just too many tourists and too few Lao. Not to say the place was packed with people but nine out of ten people you passed in the street were westerners. It was pleasant and very relaxing, I cannot complain about that. There was just nothing to get excited about really, again, there was virtually no integration between visitors and locals. I’m pretty sure that Northern Laos has gone from being a hidden gem to a tourist hangout in a matter of a couple of years. Time will tell whether the South goes the same way. That would be a shame.

Now that you’ve had a feel for the place it’s time for the usual good and bad list, I’ll not repeat any of the stuff from above.

GOOD

Our hands-down highlight was a two day trek to a remote village of Ban Phonsim in the South of Laos. It was a truly amazing experience. The village is seldomly visited by westerners so we had a very special welcome and a great time interacting with the locals. I ended up weaving cotton in a rather hopeless manner and John went out in the evening to play football with the locals. All was hilarious and the villagers were absolutely charming.

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In the evening all the village elders gathered for our welcoming ceremony. All came to us individually to pass on their best wishes which were sealed in knotted cotton bracelets and tied around our wrists. This all happened while we held up a roast chicken on a china plate, it got a bit heavy after a while! After a toast with the local fire water our host asked us to translate the contents of his unicef medical package. He didn’t know what half the stuff in there was! Perhaps a weakness in the aid plan!?

The following morning, kitted out in traditional Laos dress, we went to give alms to the village monks. An experience that John found amazing and I found terrifying. We’ll certainly not forget it in a hurry.

Bad

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He was our young guide and translator from Savannakhet on our visit to Ban Phonsim. Fortunately we didn’t allow him to spoil such an incredible experience but he was lazy, disrespectful and self obsessed. He constantly talked down to me and never addressed me directly, only John. He couldn’t be bothered to tell us about anything we were seeing and rarely translated. We ended up using what little French we knew with the older villagers, which was actually fun and better in the end. Annoy was constantly complaining about how far he had to walk on the treks and stopping to sleep for an hour, leaving us stranded. We have a list as long as John’s arm (yes, much longer than mine) about this guy. It would get far too boring to write them all down. I’m sure John might want to mention another couple in his comment.

YOUNG CHILDREN(apart from the ones in Ban Phonism)

Yes, it was back to screaming and tantrums. There are some unbelievably spoilt children in Laos! What a difference a border makes, someone at a university should go and find out why. Come on Universities! Get on with it!

Vietnam Round up

No prizes for guessing that we really enjoyed it! We spent almost a month there and will be back like a shot if the opportunity presents itself in the future.

The usual roundup’s been harder to write this time as there were so many good things it’s been difficult to group them.

GOOD

Hanoi and Hoi An

There’s something about these places that make you feel relaxed and at home. People are friendly and helpful so nothing seems like a chore. As John said earlier, the staff at the little Hanoi hostel are among the nicest people we’ve met on our travels and really couldn’t do enough for us. They treated us like friends and after China it was so welcome. I’d also like to give a special mention to our cookery teacher in Hoi An who was just adorable. Always smiling and chatting. Such genuine warmth radiated from all of them and our time in both places was an absolute pleasure.

Apart from being bustling, yet relaxed, there were some more obvious advantages in these places. We were not influenced by the lovely draught beer that only cost six pence a glass. We were also not at all interested in the perfectly tailored clothes we could buy in Hoi An to our own specifications at a quarter of the cost of high street clothes in Britain. Of course not, we would never be that shallow 😉 he he. OK, we’re human.

Butterflies

Any slightly green area was filled with the most beautiful and diverse butterflies you could imagine. Sometimes there were just clouds of them. Amazing.

Thunderstorms

They punctually appeared almost every evening about 5pm. For many people this might not seem greatest thing in the world but we really enjoyed it. There were so many sheltered areas you could sit with a beer and watch the lightening, it was very impressive. The only problem is that when it continues to rain too hard then you have to stay for another beer until it calms down a bit. What hardships we endure.

Children

For those that know us well this may seem a bit of a strange choice. I know that I’m never going to win the maternalistic woman of the year award. Children in Vietnam were well behaved and very friendly. At no time did we ever hear a child having a tantrum, screaming or crying. We saw only smiling faces waving and saying hello, almost all of them did this even if you were only walking by on the street. They were absolutely adorable.

Vietnam is just an interesting place

There’s just so much to see and do there. The American war is obviously of interest but there’s so much more to Vietnam than that. It’s a welcoming country that offers all the modern conveniences you might expect while maintaining a strong cultural and traditional identity. Traditional dress is routinely worn (and pyjamas strangely!), the old fashioned fruit and floating markets are fascinating and the architecture is interesting (either wooden stilted houses or old french style colonial buildings). As an outsider you are encouraged to visit more traditional areas of the country and to join in activities. It’s easy to arrange trips to almost anywhere and as it’s so cheap you can ask for a personalised guide if you’re interested in something less popular (like Cat Tien National Park). The public transport is also pretty decent so nowhere is out of bounds.

It’s just a great place to visit and we only have one major gripe this time:

Bad: Rip off merchants

Some people in Vietnam like to take advantage of tourists in vulnerable positions and try to charge you ridiculous prices for things. We always expect to pay a little ‘foreigner tax’ and don’t actually mind as long as it’s reasonable. In China or Laos locals are likely to round prices up to the nearest larger number. This might add about 20% or just over and we can live with that. In Vietnam some people will go for 500% or more of the local price, and refuse to allow you to haggle, they will not budge.

One of the more surprising places where this consistently happened was in the post offices. We were charged almost two pounds to send a single piece of paper to Japan and asked to pay around a pound to send each of our postcards, we know this is not the going rate. Other incidents were with taxi drivers who refused to use the meter, people trying to sell baguettes for three times the price you’d pay in waitrose, someone also tried to get John to pay $20 for a piece of rubber that might cost a couple of quid back home and of course there was the con of our minibus to Hanoi which was 600% of the local rate. It’s not that this would bankrupt us but we just don’t like being conned. Nobody does. Once you’re aware of this you can avoid it most of the time but it remained an irritant.

The last two distinctive things about Vietnam are firstly that it’s a country dominated by scooters and motorbikes, nobody walks even the shortest distance they’re all on those bikes! The second is the breathtakingly astonishing amount of weed being grown quite openly. It’s everywhere, you wouldn’t believe it!

That’s it for Vietnam, we would recommend it as somewhere to visit!

Ho Chi Minh City (or is it Saigon?)

It’s supposed to be HCMC but none of the locals actually use it and prefer Saigon. Ho Chi Minh was a hero of North Vietnam and it wouldn’t surprise me if the persistent use of the name ‘Saigon’ is part of the North-South divide that still clearly exists in Vietnam. Our guide from Cat Tien National Park, Dao, blames it on French colonial ‘divide and conquer’ tactics, obviously the American war wouldn’t have helped either!! Who knows? It’s clearly very different down here compared to the North, the people are far less relaxed and the pace of life and streets seem more akin to China than Hanoi.

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Saigon is huge. I think it has 8 million inhabitants, most have migrated here from the countryside since the war ended in 1975. Virtually all of the buildings on the outskirts have sprouted up since then. It’s thriving and industrialising with break-neck rapidity. Just like China again!

Since our rather less than optimal first morning here we’ve enjoyed it much more. Our temporary home is a tiny and shabby room above the Gon cafe on one of the main backpacker streets. Tiny and shabby it may be but, blimey, not sure if the air is drugged but we sleep so well in there. In truth it’s quiet and the bed is comfortable. The great thing about the Gon cafe is the food is the cheapest and nicest around and the internet is really fast. This place makes the most excellent STRONG (‘oh yeah!’ She says rebounding from the walls) coffee milkshakes. Gon cafe rules!

We’ve really used Saigon as a base to travel out from and so have spent most of our spare time here milling about eating,drinking and sitting at computers. We made a point of visiting the War remnants museum though. Before we entered the museum we wern’t really thinking too much about what we might discover there. Even though we’d seen a fair few people with deformities (usually the legs, feet, arms and hands) from the evil Agent Orange, Vietnam has bounced back and got on with life. Most of you will already know so apologies in advance: Agent orange is the dioxin used to destroy the vegetation cover of the Viet Cong. It was sprayed in huge quantities by the US Air force. It was strange to walk around Cat Tien National Park where the outskirts were less than 30 years old after being totally destroyed in the war. It would make an interesting ecological study to see how much residue from Agent Orange still exists there and how it has affected the recovery of the plant life……..Yawn, OK, I’ll stop it.

Anyway, recovering from the tangent I’ll tell you about the museum. I went in mentally unprepared and so had a tough time of it yet again. The museum is small and dedicates most of it’s space to photo journalism from the American war. This photo journalism helped to fuel protests which eventually resulted in the withdrawal of US troops. One room was dedicated to the work of photographers that died during the war, about 20 of them in all. Looking at some of the appalling images it’s hard not to think ‘what the hell were you doing? Stop exploiting these people for photographs and get stuck in helping!’ This was particularly the case for a photo of a mother desperately fleeing across a surging river, struggling to keep hold of her children. However, as John rightly points out, the photographs raised awareness and saved many lives in the long run. We’ll never know what the actual circumstances were with these photographers as they’re all long dead. The room was a nice tribute to them and they certainly didn’t die in vain.

The second photographic exhibition was much more graphic. Appalling agent orange symptoms usually suffered by children born just after the war to exposed parents. Children who are now about the same age as John and I. There were also some indescribably horrendous images of US brutality to Men, Women and Children. How could they?

The same sick feeling appeared again, just like Hiroshima. Although this time it was different. Hiroshima was utterly horrendous cruelty but it was cruelty inflicted from afar where the perpetraitors couldn’t see the damage they’d done. This was pretty hands on, committed by seemingly ordinary folk in some kind of crazed state. The Vietnam war is so recent though, it’s scary. I wonder what was going on in Iraq. I would like to believe times of changed, I really want to believe that.

Humans are evil and nasty and beautiful and wonderful. We are strange creatures. OK, I’m feeling confused as usual. Maybe I should get another coffee shake!

Right, I’m going to write about our fun trip to the Mekong Delta now. The delta area is huge and takes up the majority of Vietnam South of Saigon. We spent most of our time on boats, as you’d imagine. Six different boats in all. We went to floating markets, through water coconut groves and to a coconut candy factory. Plenty of photo opportunities for John and good clean fun. I got to hold a rather rotund python (who knows what they were feeding it on, hopefully not coconut candy!). Really really love snakes so I was grinning from ear to ear. Yippee. Lots of local culture too, not as interested in that though (I’m so naughty, I ought to be!) They started singing songs though, urgh! I was trying, very unsuccessfully, to take photographs of bees.

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Another thing we saw was a hen with a couple of chicks and four adopted ducklings. How cute, so sweet to see! It might be because someone had steamed duck for tea but I’ll pretend I’ve not thought of that! One really sad thing we saw was a gibbon on it’s own in a small bare cage. I’ve never seen an animal look so sad (maybe except Josh the dog when he knows you’re going out and leaving him). John was really upset, the gibbon just looked at you and liked holding your hand. After seeing the really giddy happy gibbons and their aerial acrobatics at the Cuc Phuong sanctuary it was quite a contrast.

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One subject of amusement though was our guide ‘Dong’, that’s the name of the currency here. It’s like being called, Euro, dollar or stirling. Interesting……. He likes to make insinuations about things. He said that too much local rice wine made everybody go to bed early, nobody knows what they do in bed but they all end up with 14 children. He also told us the story of the coconut religion. Apparently a coconut monk ate nothing but coconut and drank only coconut milk. He liked to sleep with 9 naked virgins too apparently. He proved his goodness buy not making any of them pregnant. Very impressive, I hope he wasn’t making condoms out of coconut husks though…….ouch! And last but not least our guide annouced the f*ck music we were going to listen to. Ooh! is this going to be reggae……… Ha no. He repeated it about 5 times. ‘F-O-L-K, f*ck music NO! F-O-L-K, f*ck music.’ Everyone laughs and Dong grins like a Cheshire cat.

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Vietnam is great.

Love to all, hope you’re still awake.

Viv xxx