Horny animals with big teeth

Ey up all!

It’s been a few weeks since Viv’s last post and about time for another update from the road…

We didn’t do an awful lot in Durban, just chilled out and spent a bit of time on the internet, got a visa for Mozambique, got lost on a bus and ate a curry in half a loaf of bread. We did manage to get lost on the bus and ended up with a long walk back through a fairly affluent part of Durban where the roads were lined with rather grand houses, each with it’s own security guard outside and the walls topped with electric fences. The streets were almost deserted. Crime really is a big problem here and this is reflected in the seemingly extreme measures that people will go to protect themselves and their property and that walking in city centres is almost taboo – everyone takes the car.

After Durban we headed for Eshowe and a dose of African culture that had been missing from the last couple of weeks. Oh yeah, that and FREE BEER! We arrived at our hostel when we went to have a nosey at the bar we were told that we’d have to wait until the bar opened at 12 till we could start drinking the free beer. “Free beer?!” we said in disbelief, but it was true we could drink as much of the beer that they brewed on the premises as we liked. It was actually very nice and as close as we’ve come to a proper British pint on our travels (still too cold and with too many bubbles for my liking) and it came in a pint glass rather than the poxy ‘continental’ measures you tend to get elsewhere – awesome!

Oh yeah, about the culture. We went to see a Sangoma healing ceremony up at a little Zulu village in the hills above Eshowe. We sat in this little rondavel hut with the assembled villagers and waited for the Sangoma healer to arrive and when she did the roof almost lifted off the place as she started a dance in front of the villages and they reciprocated with drums, shouting and dancing – an awesome spectacle to watch! After that we were plyed with whiskey, beer, a donut, some sweets and an apple. There was a group of blokes who seemed to be there just for the free booze, of which they helped themselves to copious amounts. After that there was much more dancing, chanting and drums during which a trainee sangoma woman went into a trance and seemed like she was possessed, it was a fascinating specacle to watch. The villagers then lined up to be healed or to ask the ancestors for help with court cases, money or blessings in marriage, one last round of drums and chanting and it was over.

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Our time in Eshowe was rounded off the following day with a pleasant walk through the woods where we had to tread carefully to avoid stepping on these huge locusts that were everywhere and looked pretty disgusting. Apparently if you do stand on one they release an awful smell so I’m rather glad that we avoided them! Eshowe is a very pleasant low-key town, it was nice to get a taste of what South Africa is like in a smaller and untouristy town where daily life goes on unfussily around you.

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Next stop was St Lucia where we took an excellent trip out to Hluhluwe/Imfolozi game reserve on an early morning game drive. On wildlife spotting trips we never expect to see half the exciting animals that you’re told live in a particular place but this trip we got very lucky with. It started with an early sighting of a white rhino up close and then loads of zebras including a really cute little foal. I then got my first sighting of the animal that I most wanted to see – a giraffe! Sod the ‘big five’ that everyone seems to go about I wanted giraffes and they were duly delivered! There was then a sighting of some lions who we witnessed prowling around a herd of zebras but eventually having to give up the hunt as the zebras had spotted them and wandered off. We were really lucky to see lions and even luckier to seem them hunting – it was an awesome spectacle. Another great sight was the fantastically quirky 2 foot tall secretary bird (yes, it looks like a secretary) prowling about the bush, eventually spotting a snake or lizard and going in for the kill by stamping on and then eating it. Secretary birds are ace and were one of Viv’s favourite sightings from the trip. We also saw the rarer black rhino, many, many antelopes, buffalos, warthogs, baboons, vultures and, eventually, elephants. We went all day without having seen an elephant despite numerous sightings and then when we had stopped for a toilet break a large bull elephant wandered right past us! On the way out of the park we even saw another two elephants. This day really was one of the highlights of our trip, we’d got so lucky with not only the variety of wildlife we saw but also how up close we got to see so much of it, not to mention the quantity too – it seemed there was an exotic creature around every bend. A truely, utterly awesome day and a far less touristy experience than we would likely have got had we chosen to follow the hoardes to Kruger game reserve.

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The Greater St Lucia wetlands were also great and provided us with some up-close viewing of hippos chasing off crocodiles and abundant birdlife (there were also loads of exciting birds at Hluhluwe/Imfolozi too). We went snorkelling in the sea here where the water temperature was rather cooler than comfortable but I got to see a cuttlefish swimming around, changing colour and going spiky when I approached it. A little further out to sea we could see dolphins riding the surf and beyond them whales sailing by the coast. Unfortunately we had used up all of our wildlife spotting luck so our St Lucia night drive did not reveal any leopards, genets, hyenas or porcupines but we did get to see, and hold, an endearingly cute little chameleon. I’ve wanted to see a chameleon since I was knee high to a grasshopper after reading The Mixed Up Chameleon so it was fantastic to eventually see one. They’re a lot smaller than I had imagined and have these funny little two footed feet and goggle eyes. Chameleons rule!

From there it was to Swaziland and Mlilwane game reserve where we had a little thatched rondavel all to ourselves set in the most idyllic spot inside the game reserve with fantastic views of over the valley with warthogs, impala and zebra grazing right outside our front door. This is one of, if not the, most peaceful spot that we have yet stayed at, it felt indulgantly relaxing and was so peaceful. It was a pleasure to listen to the light twittering and squabbling of the birds, the grunting and chewing of the warthogs and the wind rustling the leaves on the trees. In the evening we ate barbequed impala around a bonfire and set the world to rights in chats with other travellers, our voices lubricated by cheap red wine in a box. We were even treated to a spectacular electrical storm over the hills, a real favourite of ours.

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We went for a beautiful walk through the park on one day, again surrounding by all this amazing wildlife at close quarters. The real highlight for the walk for us though was the birds as we got to see almost all of the few remaining birds that we had not yet seen in our “Common Birds of Southern Africa” book – the ‘snakebird’ African Darter, a paradise bird and a bittern. There was a forest on top of the hill which had been almost totally flattened by the wind three weeks ago – it was quite a sight all these trees snapped like matchsticks and creating an obstacle course for us to clamber over.

Although we only saw a very little of Swaziland we very much enjoyed it and had such a relaxing time.

From Swaziland we caught a cramped bus to Mozambique and arrived in the capital, Maputo yesterday. Initial impressions are that it is quite a crumbling place, having suffered from a lack of investment for a number of years but that edge of tension on the streets that was palpable in South Africa is not apparent here and the locals seem friendlier. Tomorrow we head up the coast to Tofo beach where I’m planning my third bout of scuba diving for the trip, this time hopefully with whale sharks and manta rays for company.

One last thing to mention is that we have been playing copious games of backgammon, probably more than is actually healthy, after ending our long search for a travel backgammon set after Rightee got us thouroughly addicted to the game in Koh Tao. This infernal game has also brought out the worst bad loser streak in both of us, me after a continued bout of appaling luck resulting in me getting hammered almost every evening for a week and latterly Viv after the luck decided to even itself out resulting in Viv removing herself from the situation after exclaiming “ok, fine! you’ve double, triple, quadruple backgammoned me. I don’t care!”, which she clearly didn’t. It’s all good fun though and we always have a good laugh after one or other of us has thrown a tantrum after losing, at least nobody can accuse us of not playing to win!

And on that note I shall leave you after another rather mammoth post. All semblance of brevity appears to have deserted me of late.

Au revoir!

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!!!

Cape Town

Apologies all for the length of time it has taken us to get round to writing a post, we’ve just been in a lot of places where the internet is either non-existant or prohibitevely expensive, couple that with needing to prioritise sorting out fundraising for our voluntary work (still time to donate!) has resulted in minimal blog action.

We arrived in Cape Town on a crisp winter’s morning with the magnificent sight through the aeroplane’s window of table mountain rising above the city as we approached the runway. A great day for climbing table mountain as there’s a cold front on the way, we were told by the taxi driver who took us to our accommodation in the centre of Cape Town. We were too tired that day after after the long flight from Bangkok and in the day’s ahead the weather did indeed take a turn for the worse, not that it bothered us too much as we just wanted a few easy days to adjust to South Africa without much of an agenda.

Those first few days were spent relieving ourselves of the guidebook-induced paranoia and slowly becoming a little bolder and venturing further from our base. In those first few days we went to the theatre to see an excellent play, Sizwe Banzi is Dead, set in apartheid South Africa which proved a good introduction to that era in South Africa’s history. After also seeing a strange French film where there was wine served beforehand we were feeling very cultured, if only I’d remembered to pack that black polo-neck and cravat.

Just as we were about to start getting down to some serious sight seeing Viv was alerted to a little passenger that she had brought her all the way from Thailand. His name was Amoebic Dysentry and after a visit to the condescending and rude doctor, some sickness inducing pills and a diet of bananas and soup, Viv had at last seen the back of her unwelcome passenger.

Our first post-illness trip out was to Boulder beach where there are hoardes of African penguins waddling up the beach and nesting beneath the bushes. When you get close to their nest they waggle their heads at you in an inquisitive fashion, I waggled my head back at a few of them and felt that we had something of a rapport going. I stopped short of inviting them down the pub for a pint for fear that penguins, not being used to the drink, would end up spilling beer all over their feathers and I didn’t want to be the one responsible for what a pint of porter could do to a penguin’s plumage. Unfortunately the day was rather soured when we got mugged in Cape Town on the way back and this was at a time and place that the tourist office had told us would be safe. Fortunately the muggers didn’t get much, about a tenner in cash, and we were unharmed if a little shaken. We now don’t venture out at any time approaching dark and not at all in city centres. We’re really dissapointed to have to live like this but for the sake of our safety this is what we’ve chosen to do.

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We have also been on an excellent tour around the Cape Flats townships. The tour really highlighted the stark difference between the haves and the have nots – families living three in one room, one family to one single bed and seas of tin shack housing. Despite this the communities had a really buzzing vibe about them and the residents who we saw appeared to be happy and looking forward to a brighter future as the Government’s wheels slowly turn on the project of getting everyone out of temporary housing and improving their welfare. I would hazard to say that they are all thankful that such an abhorrent regime as apartheid is over for good and that their lot in lifemust surely be greater now.

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Our time in Cape Town was concluded with a fabulous walk up the stunning table mountain to see the other-worldly rock formations on top and equally as alien plants. The fynbos vegetation, unique in the world to this part of South Africa, is so striking when you see it in its natural habitat. The plant-o-rama was rounded off with a day at the vast Kirstenbosch botanical gardens, surely one of the biggest in the world and a superb guided walk to Cape point where we saw wild ostriches, lots of interesting birds, a whale that turned out to be a clump of sea weed and even more fynbos. As is traditional for this trip we also got piss wet through on the walk when the heavens opened, and then dried off nicely in the wind before getting piss wet through once again. The problem with getting wet in a South African winter is that because its warm almost year round nobody has heating so it you get wet, and it’s cold, you stay wet. A few extra blankets on the bed soon saw us warm up though.

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The final thing to add was the unexpected pleasure of getting to meet up with James, my housemate from University days, and his wife Sam on their honeymoon. I’ve little doubt that the highlight of their South African honeymoon will have been the night spent with Viv and I in a restaurant!

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We are quite a way up the coast from Cape Town now but that story will have to wait for another day for a feel that quite enough rambling has been done for the time being.

Thanks for the emails that we’ve received in the last few weeks, but failed to reply to thus far, rest assured a reply for each and every one is in the pile marked ‘to do’.

Adios!

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!

Your help needed! – John and Viv’s charity fundraising challenge.

In October we will be going to Madagascar for 10 weeks of voluntary work out in the jungle. During this time we will be living in a tent and will pretty much eat nothing but beans and rice (mmm, lovely beans and rice!). We also need to learn French, and fast, as that’s the only language spoken on the island. We’ll be working on projects to help some of the poorest people in the world and to protect the rainforest habitat of Madagascar’s lemurs.

As well as donating ourselves to charity for ten weeks, we’ve promised to raise 4000 English pounds for Azafady and we need your help! Azafady are a UK registered charity, more details below.

Being half way across the world makes it a little tricky for us to organise events and the like to raise the money and this is where we call on you, our esteemed friends, families and other assorted waifs and strays, to help us out. There are a number of ways in which you can lend a hand, most of which need not take up much of your valuable time or even money. Anything that you can do to help us will be rewarded with our eternal gratitude and beer. Anyhow, those options are:

  • Volunteer to sell raffle tickets (we can provide them)
  • Come up with your own (wacky or not wacky) fundraising ideas
  • Remember us for existing or planned charity events
  • Donate directly. You can donate your life savings through our special Azafady web page or send us a cheque (just email one of us and we’ll send you an address).

We’ve started the ball rolling ourselves by donating 1000 pounds. This more than pays for any costs Azafady might incur from us being in Madagascar and we’ve also paid for our flights and transportation. That means that any donations or help from you will go 100% direct to the charity.

Ok, that’s the begging letter done with, what follows is some information about Azafady and the work they do that our fundraising efforts will directly support.

WHO ARE AZAFADY? – They’re a UK registered charity (no 1079121) and Madagascar Non Governmental Organisation.

Azafady means ‘please’ in Malagasy. The charity aims to help the people of Madagascar by providing sanitation, clean drinking water and basic health care and the environment by promoting sustainable livelihoods and improving conservation research.

Last year alone Azafady gave access to clean drinking water to around 4000 people, access to basic health care to at least 10,000 people, planted thousands of trees, numerous gardens and created small income generating industries in 5 villages.

SOME FACTS ABOUT MADAGASCAR

About the People:

  • Most people live as subsistence farmers, their extreme poverty (70% living on less than $1 per day) drives deforestation as they clear land to grow crops.
  • 10% of children will die before they reach their 5th birthday, most from preventable diseases.
  • Only around one quarter of the population currently have access to safe drinking water.

About the Environment:

  • Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the worlds and sits 400 km East of Mozambique.
  • 80% of the plant and animals species in Madagascar are found nowhere else on earth, this includes the critically
    endangered Lemurs, two thirds of the worlds chameleon species and the cancer treating rosy periwinkle.
  • 85-95% of the original forest cover has been destroyed, mostly due to slash and burn agriculture.

To solve the environmental issues Azafady aim to tackle poverty and promote sustainable livelihoods to ease the pressure on the forest. To that end Azafady is as much a humanitarian charity as an environmental one.

Please help, we live pretty cushy lives compared to this lot. Even if it’s just one less bottle of wine or one less Chinese takeaway, the money could go towards helping some of the poorest people on Earth and protecting a habitat that’s really on its last chance. Without intervention it will be gone forever, extinction isn’t reversible.

And lastly……. Some quotes from famous people

SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH on Azafady and Madagascar in 1999.

‘Although this immense island has now lost much of its vegetation, its forest still survives on the South East Corner and it still contains spectacular populations of monkey like Lemurs and much else besides. At the moment the forest is gravely threatened by short-term development and by the risk of fire. Project Lokaro [a conservation initiative of Azafady] aims to save it.’

GERALD DURELL on Madagascar in 1994

‘It is essential that the world realizes the biological importance of the island and the plight of its people and hurries to the rescue of this extraordinary corner of the globe’

Chilling in Chiang Mai

What have we been up to in the last couple of weeks? Erm, not a lot to be honest. After over 7 months of fairly fast-paced travelling we decided that we were long overdue a bit of a break to slow things down a bit.

The three days of travelling to get to Chiang Mai from Luang Prabang in Laos was a test of endurance involving 12 hour days sitting on hard wooden seats on a noisy boat. It was the closest we’d come to relenting and opting for a flight instead but we have made it all the way through Asia without flying and it would have been a shame to have cracked now so the more environmentally friendly, but far slower, mode of transport it was. As it turned out we were glad to have taken the boat as the boat journey was interesting and we got to meet fellow travellers Dave & Mey on the boat and have since spent much of our time in Chiang Mai with them, having a lot of fun in the process.

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Last week we took a trip out to the Elephant Nature Park, a bus ride away from Chiang Mai. They do really great work rescuing elephants from lives where they have suffered unspeakable brutality at the hands of their owners. Although seemingly little publicised, cruelty to elephants is endemic in Thailand – an attitude that doesn’t seem to fit with a Buddhist country who has the elephant as a national symbol. What we learnt was that in almost all cases a working elephant is an abused elephant and most spend their lives in misery. On a previous trip to Thailand I have been elephant trekking, suffice to say that I would never go again and would implore anyone to do the same. The day itself was a fantastic experience – we got to meet the elephants and feed them crazy amounts of bananas, pineapples and cucumbers. Elephants are definitely clever creatures as they rejected the cucumbers – a sure sign of intelligence! After that we got to wash them in the river requiring the stealthy skills of elephant turd avoidance as the floating feaces drifted by. It was so much fun spending time with the elephants and seeing their different personalities and social groups – a really worthwhile and enjoyable day, even the bit where we got charged by a baby elephant and another elephant stole my shorts and swung them around with its trunk!

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That aside we did a significant amount of football watching (an unpleasant experience when England are involved given the crap performances), went on a day cookery course a nearby organic farm and otherwise spent a lot of time relaxing and drinking with Dave and Mey.

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One thing I feel I should mention here, as it was particularly prevalent in Chiang Mai, is the stupid squeaking shoes that so many South East Asian parents insist on making their offspring wear. The shoes have an absurdely loud squeaker (like in a dog toy) in the soles so that every time the child takes a step they squeak. They drove me insane especially when you’re lying in bed with a hangover and all you can hear is an incessant squeak, squeak, sq-squeak from downstairs. ARGH!!! They definitely top my list of the most irritating and pointless inventions ever.

Anyway, back to the story. After Chiang Mai we headed to Bangkok where we met up with Rightee at the airport and then spent the next couple of days being drunk, having hangovers, groaning at England matches again and forgetting to retrieve clothes from laundry shops once we’d left Bangkok.

From Bangkok it was down to the southern island of Koh Tao where we have done more drinking and relaxing as well as a great day’s snorkelling yesterday and not a lot else. Tonight we are going to have the usual tortuous couple of hours watching England.

And think that just about rounds things up for the moment, pip pip!

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

ANNOY(nearly bit not quite his real name) – The most rude and atrocious tour guide we’ve had yet. show_random($num=1, $tags=’blog_20060615b’); ?>

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!

Guns and goats

Since Viv last wrote we’ve left Vietnam and now find ourselves in a the laid-back capital of Asia, Laos. We should fit right in!

And so to bring you up to date on our antics since Viv last wrote….

We left Saigon and headed back to the centre of Vietnam on a loooong sleeper train. Managed to somehow get a compartment all to ourselves, it all felt very decadent until the train food arrived – Vietnam has the worst train food I’ve ever experienced. Yes, worse than soggy British rail sandwiches with cucumber in them, eugh! It is at least free but probably because there would be riots if they tried to charge for it. It’s actaully quite a cunning ruse – give the passengers some horrible food for free and then come around with moderately nicer food that you have to pay for. You buy it just to remove the lingering horrible taste in your mouth that the free muck left you with.

We got off the train in Dong Ha and the following day went for a tour round various war sites in the DMZ on the back of motorbikes. It was great fun bezzing around on motorbikes and a great way to see the countryside and rural life too. Almost every group of children that we passed would wave at us and shout “Heellloooooo!!” and then collapse in a fit of giggles when you shout back “Sin Jow!” over the hum of the motorbike engine. It was quite surreal viewing the war remnants and junk as it is all very peaceful now. Trying to imagine this place as a barren expanse of land, home to nobody and with the whirr of B-52 bomber engines from above and explosions and gunfire on the ground was hard. It really didn’t seem like the same place that we had seen war photos of only a few days previously such is the extent that life and normality has returned to this area. There were only occasional reminders of the war that was so recently and intensely fought on these lands: a bullet scarred bunker, a ruined bridge, bomb craters, a tank shell.

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One thing you can certainly say about the Vietnamese is that they are an incredibly resourceful lot. To avoid having their villages razed by bombers they built an underground network of tunnels and living quarters that entire villages would live in, they lived in them for 6 years. Seeing the cramped and dingy conditions that they would have lived in at the Vinh Moc tunnels was a real eye-opener to the lengths that people will go to survive.

The tour was a lot of fun and our guide was great for adding a bit context; he was a South Vietnamese veteran who spent 5 years at a ‘re-education camp’ after the war ended along with our guesthouse owner. We’d recommend the DMZ cafe in Dong Ha and their DMZ tour – the rooms are cheap and clean and the tour was fun.

There’s nothing much else of any interest in Dong Ha so we took a bus to the Laos border the very next day. The journey to the border was a little hairy at times, the driver seemingly deriving his driving ‘talents’ rather too much from the Indian school of vehicle pilotry. We made it to the border safely and getting through border security was a breeze – the most lax border crossing we’ve been to yet for sure which is great for us as it means no hassle and less queues.

The bus journey on the other side was an interesting experience too. The passenger bus also doubles as a goods truck and it seemed there was as much produce crammed on to it as you would usually be able to fit in a reasonable sized truck – sacks of potatoes stacked 3 high in the aisle, boxes under our feet and all sorts piled high on the roof. Not too soon after we had set off we realised that this bus probably wasn’t quite so dangerous as it first appeared being that it never got above 30mph and the roads were very good with barely another soul on them.

The bus journey really made us realise just what a difference a border makes. Almost all of the houses along the way were of the traditional wooden-stilted type and their inhabitants seemed largely non-plussed about tending to their arid and parched fields, instead choosing to sit/lie around chatting or sleeping. Laos only has a population of 6 million and we reckon there are probably more goats here than there are people, at least going by our 6 hour bus journey here – there’s shit loads of them! We both like goats – very comical looking creatures. If we ever have a lawn again we reckon that a goat is the order of day for keeping the grass short rather an lawn-mower. It would surely enhance our lives with many a comedy-caper to be had chasing the goat down the road and appeasing Mildred at number 32 when the goat had escaped and eaten all of her begonias, again.

We arrived in Savannakhet last night, the southern capital of Laos but with more of a small town feel to it, at about 7. About all there was time for last night was an gorgeous Thai-influenced meal and a Beer Laos by the Mekong looking over to the bright lights of Thailand on the other side. We’re looking forward to exploring the rest of Laos, it seems a really chilled out and fun place to be.

Until next time,
John