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Time to go, a’baht’ time to go…..

Posted by on April 6, 2013

20130402-173751.jpgAnd so we come to the (sort of) halfway point in our year long global adventure – our midlife crisis trip – as we prepare to head back into the western world. Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, USA and Canada await. And we are dead ready for them. But first, we must say a fitting goodbye to the continent that has been our home for the last 6 months, Asia. It’s been amazing and terrible, full of laughter and friends and lonely, cheap and expensive. In the words of Leeds United’s famous song, “And we’ve had our ups and downs (ups and downs)”! But one thing’s for sure; we wouldn’t have changed it for the world. 

When we arrived in Instanbul in October we weren’t able to enjoy it. If we’d just gone on holiday we would have found the strangeness and Asian-ness of it (it did feel more Asian than European) so exciting. As it was we were just too overwhelmed with the enormity of what we had done. After 3 weeks in Turkey we went back to Istanbul and loved it loads the 2nd time. That has been a recurring theme for our trip – we can get overwhelmed and panicked often by somewhere new; after a few days or a return visit we feel loads more at home. Mind you, we are old hands at finding our way round strange places now. Even so, as we left Kuala Lumpur to catch the train to Singapore a few days ago I remarked to Pat how even despite our newfound backpacking confidence, we would still find Delhi a total stress. We couldn’t have started our trip in Asia proper in a worse place for doing our heads in. Arguably it could only go one way from there….

Best bits…..

Petronas Twin Towers

Petronas Twin Towers

I think we were so culture shocked by North India and Mumbai that we felt us and India didn’t gel. We still think that, but it’s strange looking back. A friend emailed the other day asking what our best bits had been. Funnily enough many of them were actually in India – Shimla in the Himalayan foothills, the Taj Mahal which was truly unbelievable, New Years Eve in Mumbai and Asterix, the hostel we stayed at in Goa.

Malaysia also turned out to be our surprise hit of Asia. We had no expectations about it – all I knew about it was that my mum was born in KL. But we loved it from the start – from the quirky and strange Georgetown which was a total delight – Chinese, Indian and British all in one small city – to the beautiful Cameron Hills with its tea plantations and Scottish architecture, through to KL itself – developed and also still traditional, fairly clean, easy to get around, and boasting a building which, at night, rivalled the Taj – the Petronas Twin Towers. The population is so much diverse than anywhere else in Asia which we loved. And people so genuine and friendly. One night we were lost, looking at a map. A woman stopped her car to ask if she could help. When we said where we were going she offered us a lift. Just  lovely. We would recommend 2 weeks in Malaysia to anyone. Fabulous.

And then the piece de resistance – the roof infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore, booked for our last night in Asia in a moment of madness a few months ago. In my life, excluding my wedding, I’ve had some amazing moments I’ve been lucky to experience: Receiving a marriage proposal in the snow of Lapland on my 40th birthday; Getting the most applause whilst on the panel of Question Time aged just 25 or 26; Being right in the middle of the poll tax riot; Watching Leeds United with my brother Sandy score against Real Madrid in the Bernebeu; Crying tears of wonder in a helicopter over the Grand Canyon then winning shed loads of cash in Caesars Palace in Vegas; and of course the The Taj Mahal. The other day we loved afternoon tea at Raffles. But blimey – being in the infinity pool on the top of the MBS, especially at night was right up there for both of us. Life doesn’t get much better than that….

And the not so good bits …..
Although we loved our month in Goa this was more to do with the hostel we stayed in, Asterix. We got hostel spoilt and we kind of assumed it was typical. It wasn’t. At Asterix we had space to chill, facilities like tea and coffee on tap. We made loads of friends and had a social life, something that we found really hard in Thailand and Vietnam. Sometimes we could go weeks without really talking to anyone else. We hadn’t expected that. We realised that at times, as strange as it may sound, going round the world had made our world really small – just me and Pat and the day to day. Like the single room we would live in, where to eat, would there be a huge cockroach in the bathroom, that sort of stuff. Me and Pat like to pride ourselves on an ability to talk endless bollocks with the best of them, but even we have at times struggled –  conversation can get hard when you are together all the time and you do nothing to talk about! At home our horizons are wide – a wide group of friends, constant updates on the world and society, footy chat, loads of different stimulation. So British radio, particularly Radio 5 and Absolute, when we could get it would be our savour.  As, of course, was Facebook and Skype.

At the start of the trip we had assumed we would be able to be really spontaneous, making decisions day by day, drifting as the mood took us. However that’s not how it’s been. In reality much of our time has been taken up with what we call ‘pissing-about-idge’. Whenever we land at somewhere new the first full morning is generally taken up with hours of trying to find our new home – walking from hotel to hotel to see if they have rooms that we would be happy to stay in at a price we can afford. Only once did we have to do it with our rucksacks, but in the blazing heat it could be hard work – both physically and also in terms of resilience. Then there has the many hours I have spent on the iPad monitoring our money, checking flights, trains, hostels, possible volunteering oops, sometimes literally hours each day. Always thinking about the next place, which I’ve had to has taken its toll; it’s been harder for me to enjoy where we have been when you are worrying about arrangements for the next place. And then there’s been the arguments I’ve had with Pat about the fact that I’ve done all of this; that’s been our main argument on this trip as I keep asking him to actually help out with arrangements and plans. But the universe has been good to us and we’ve had only 2 minor travel or accomodation nightmares. Amazing!

Thailand is changing

900 baht a night and free foot long ghekko - rustic bungalows

900 baht a night and free foot long ghekko – rustic bungalows

In retrospect I think we spent too long in Thailand, a country I’ve visited twice before and always loved. Our first month, spent in Bangkok and on a small island Koh Chang was great. Generally not as social as we wanted but all in all really good. But the 2nd month, when we ventured further south to more popular islands we found a changing Thailand. In Georgetown in Penang we found this bizzare cafe, owned by an Indian hippy called Jim. He had covered the walls with his observations on life and the Thais! One said “Bahtism – the new Thai religion”. It really felt like that to us, down south it’s got so expensive somethings are nearly European prices. People just want money from you all the time, asking for more for every little thing. We often felt like walking cashmachines. We took to joking between ourselves, “You want to walk up the road, 100 baht”. “You want to sit in the beach 200 baht each”. It almost felt that ridiculous. One night we waited for a shared taxi (the back of a pickup truck). They would not move unless there were at least 6 of us each paying 200 baht (£25ish in total) to go about 2 miles. The same with accomodation. My cousin Eddy found a 3 person bungalow for us one night for 500 baht (about £11) a night. It had no hot water, no windows, no aircon. When me and Pat turned up suddenly the owner wanted another 300 baht. One place Pat found agreed 700 baht a night for a week. Then when we arrived the price had gone up to 900 baht. We asked for the aircon remote – that would be an extra 600 baht a night! We walked out; Thais,  it would seem, would rather have an empty room than lower the price.

It was clear that people could not understand the concept that we had little money. 900 baht is over half our daily budget for Asia. One day on Koh Samui we were waiting for the shared taxi. A driver for an individual taxi tried to persuade us to take his car. It would only be 300 baht (£7) each way more than shared. When I explained that we couldn’t afford that, that we had to watch every baht we spent, it was clear although he understood the words he could not compute what I was saying. Westerners have loads of money and will pay whatever.

People were also far less friendly than you think of for Thailand, in fact often sullen and even rude. On Koh Samui we had 2 hotels where we had leaks in our bathrooms. In one we complained 5 times as a leaking toilet that doesn’t flush is not great. The aggression and rudeness we received was quite unbelievable. Another hotel they were nice but the whole room shaked at night from the music next door until 4am every morning. I think the southern thai islands are going to have to watch out – westerners wont pay European prices when the facilities and customer service doesn’t match.

The other tourists weren’t much better to be honest. One morning I was really amused by a Facebook chat I had with someone I used to work with. 10 years ago he was known in our office as ‘young pup’, the youngest person there. Now in his early 30s he told me not to worry about the ‘snotty kids’ ignoring us on the Thai islands!! And snotty I’m afraid many of them were. The day we got a ferry to Koh Tao was very stormy, the boat packed and hard to move around. Most people on the boat were feeing sick. A woman sitting next to us had just finished a can of coke. A young European, wearing no shirt and a baseball cap backwards (no shirt is not great in Thailand) walked up the row of seats towards the door where the bin was. She asked him if he would put the empty can in the bin on his way past. He spoke perfect English. His answer – ‘no’!

But at the end of it all you can’t argue with the beauty of Thailand which is astonishing, with the amazing food which has to be some of the best in the world, and with the smiles and gentleness when it’s there. So even though its changing we have still left some areas unvisited for a future visit…

Dirt and toilets…. 
When I was 16/17 me and my best mate Anne Louise went to work in the south of France selling apple doughnuts on the beach. A few months prior we had met a man called Paul for a drink in the Town Hall Tavern in Leeds and he said if we turned up at the town of Frejus he would give us a job. We should go to find a small hotel called the Hotel Aviation and ask for a waitress called Claudine and she would know where to find him. So me and Anne packed our rucksacks, bought one way air tickets, and set off with just £30 in our pockets and only these instructions. This is totally true!! We arrive in Frejus very hot and sweaty, unused to carrying rucksacks, and we stumble upon said hotel. We ask for Claudine and are told yes, she does work there, but …. she is en vacance. Refusing to panic we find the local campsite, put up our tent and wait. And Paul from Leeds turns up and we have a job! We lived on that campsite all summer, working on St Tropez beach earning only just enough money to survive (I never once visited St Tropez town, to this day I’ve still never been). But somehow we managed to eat every day, pay our rent, even managed to save for tickets for my first Depeche Mode gig. Some friends came to rescue us – one of them now is a major player in the fight against film piracy, the other was one of the founders of the campaign group ‘Outrage’. We lived outside and in bare foot – my feet grew 2 sizes walking miles each day on boiling sand selling my beignets, boisson and glacé. It was so hot one man used to sell fried egg sarnies, frying the eggs just using the sun. I had my only ever experience of sun-stroke; it was like Top of the Pops when things turned into swirling colours. It took months after we got back for the dirt to come out from my knees.

Anyway – the reason for this story; I think it will take months now for our feet to be clean again. No amount of scrubbing is doing it at the moment. They are dirty from only wearing old scruffy flip flops when we wear any shoes at all. My toe nail colour permanently is rubbished by all the mossie spray and cream (I’ve given up wearing it on my fingers). And I won’t even try to describe Pats toe nails. Our feet are frankly, a disgrace! Lol,

Mossie nets, bunk beds, dirty toilets. A life of luxury!

Mossie nets, bunk beds, dirty toilets. A life of luxury!

We have walked dirt into toilets all over Asia. Honestly, if I never see a squat or Asian toilet ever again it cannot be too soon. I can’t for wait when going to the toilet is not scary. It’s been 6 months of toilet stress. Never knowing whether insects or reptiles will be in there. Whether the toilet will be all covered in water (or worse) which has to be wiped clean and dried before I can use it. 6 months of fear of big buckets of festering water next to the toilet, inviting in all the local mossies, placed next to wet bins of used toilet roll covered in other people’s excretions. Fear of wet floors which you’re never sure is piss or water. Lovely without shoes!

Even in our own private toilets I could never relax, especially at night. Every wee meant stress at what living things I’d find in the bathroom. So, its not surprising we won’t be missing Asian toilets 🙂 I can’t wait.

It will also be lovely to relax in a bath (I’ve had 1 in 6 months). To have a hot water tap in the sink when you get washed at night. And wonderful not to have to be covered in mossie spray all the time or to sleep under a net.

And most of all I can’t wait to wear decent clothes, to dye my hair, to be able to keep nail varnish on. And to not be at least twice the size of most women you see .  I am ashamed of myself how much this has mattered to me, but it has. I have really learned that my ‘look’ is not just external but a major part of how I feel about myself, my identity, my self confidence. Losing it had been really hard – I can’t wait to get it back.

It’s all in English
Being English though has made life so much easier. Everyone now speaks English and in all the hostels and hotels that was the common language. Even in India, or between Asians they speak English. In Vietnam a Chinese woman was worried the immigration officer did not give her back her visa. They discussed this is English. In Asterix the Indian owners talked to their staff in English. In the Hostels all the signs and travel details would be in English. This is having some strange side effects though. In Georgetown we met Michelle who is working on an English literacy project in Sngapore. English is the official language there and so many families speak it at home. But the parents often don’t speak it that well and the kids learn a kind of pigeon English. So now in Singapore there are loads of children who don’t speak any language fluently. We certainly overheard many conversations like that. Me and Pat have endlessly discussed the individual tragedy of this – how terrible and hard life must be if you can’t communicate in any language fluently.

We’re the kids in Asia …

As you know kids have been right at the centre of the reasons why we’ve done this trip. Combined with my years working for one of the government’s children’s agencies it’s no surprise I’ve been watching kids a lot. And I have to say this time has really opened my eyes and made me think again about so much to do with how we bring up children. It’s different here and in many ways so much better. Children walk so much earlier – they have to and there are no pushchairs. They don’t have nappies (though that’s changing). What struck me most is that we saw no tantrums. We’ve talked long about why. Is it because it’s not tolerated? It is because they don’t need to? It is because they are physically always just near their parents? It is their diets? After much consideration I think it’s a mixture of diet and freedom. Small children here seem to just be – they eat and sleep throughout the day when hungry or tired, they go to work with their parents, they sleep whereever the parents are. They travel on scooters with their parents. They are just there, taking part in every day life. By comparison in the west we give none of those freedoms to small children. We strap them into high seats, play pens, cots with sides, pushchairs and car seats. They eat when we say, what we say, often having it pushed into their mouths. Treats tend to be sugar and sweets and we use them as kiddie blackmail. They sleep when we say (nat bedtime, in their own rooms, on their own their in a little ‘prison’ cot. Is it any wonder that the only controls they have – tantrums, not sleeping or eating – are common? On the other hand, I don’t think children here get to play much, or get any special time all about them. On a ferry one day a small child was in the seats infront. I tried to play peekaboo with him. Every child loves peekaboo. He couldn’t get it at all. It was like he didn’t have a concept of playing, which I think is so sad. But overall I think they are getting it more right than we are. So when / if I get my chance I would like to see which of the good bits of the eastern way it’s possible to bring back to the west.

Funny enough though as we moved south to more ‘developed’ countries, through Malaysia and to Singapore this started to change. We saw loads of kids having tantrums, screaming, demanding. More kids in pushchairs. And loads of seriously overweight, obese children…..

Same Same

In Asia everything is a photo opp - but only if you do a hand pose

In Asia everything is a photo opp – but only if you do a hand pose

Regrets? Well we do have some. Because of our budget we didn’t get to do much actual travelling and sightseeing. In fact on Koh Samui we only made it to see the Big Bhudda because one of my brothers sent us some money for the taxi! Our budget was fine in Asia so long as we didn’t move – although travel is cheap compared to the UK it still costs. So we never went to see the bridge on the River Kwai or got to ChiangMai in thailand. We never crossed into Laos or Cambodia, or went up north in Vietnam (my big regret is not having done an overnight cruise in Halong Bay or going to Hoi An in Vietnam which people said was amazing). Pats never been to Hong Kong so I would have loved for us to hop across and even a little trip to Macau.

As we travelled from Thailand to Malaysia we could instantly see they were different countries but still same same too! Before we travelled we pondered if South East Asian countries would be as different to each other as France and Spain. Or do they just seem so different to us as Europeans and to an Asian feel the same? Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia did feel different, but in more of a Spain/Portugal kind of way. Is it as they say all the time in Asia, same same?

Jump… and the net will appear
So as you know our 2nd month in Thailand was tough. The constant demand and expectation for money we didn’t have really got me down and I got totally stressed out about money (along with everything else). Not doing anything, not having a drink in bars because we couldn’t afford it, living in the cheapest possible places and eating cheap, and then people assuming we had loads of spare cash. The pound is rubbish at the moment and even living cheaply our cash was disappearing far quicker than planned.

Whilst in Thailand we also got a variety of bad news emails from home and we received yet another rejection from an application to volunteer which we really wanted. And there was all the other stuff mentioned in or blogs. So for a couple of months I became pretty despondent at times. But coming home early wasn’t an option – we still have the easy bits of the trip to do (:-). We still have our mid-life emotional/life changing journey to complete. We still need to find answers to ‘what next’ before we can come home.

Facebook was tremendous support, family members were amazing helping us out and moving to Malaysia pulled me round. Although we don’t have the money to finish the trip at the moment we have decided we are not even going to consider not finishing the trip by just missing places out or not doing things like travelling around New Zealand. We are going to jump and hope the net appears. We’ll try to find travel companions, we’ll apply for more volunteering, we’ll check out other options. One way or another we will find the money and ways to make sure we can complete our journey. And if our experience in Singapore, where we did some amazing things we couldn’t really afford teaches me anything it’s that occasionally it’s good for our souls, for our personal journeys to do nice things that cost money, just occasionally.

And so it’s goodbye from here…
As I write this lying on a sun lounger on the top of the Marina Bay Sands its hard to believe its been 6 months since we left home. But it also feels like for ever. We’ve been places we never imaged we’d go, lived in ways I thought were well and truly behind me. We’ve had fun and laughter, and also had to really face some truths about our lives. We’ve had some of the best times of our lives too. Personally, having time out has helped me start to find inner peace, to feel more at ease with my thoughts. I will, for sure, continue to work this out through meditation. We would do it all again in an instant, but we know it’s time to move on, to different kinds of adventures. As we sat in our very posh luxurious hotel room this morning eating a 7/11 breakfast to save money we both smiled our excitement at Australia and beyond, agreeing that it’s like the last 6 months have been about coming to terms with our recent past and putting things to bed. The next part is all about our future and working out what next.  Hold on to your hats. Australia and the west here we come…… 

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