Category Archives: solo travel

In the wake of Typhoon Damrey.

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The sun was out this morning, hesitantly, briefly, still having to battle with persistent clouds…  Flood waters are receding and the tiny vegetable patches across the road are breathing again.  The mountains are  visible in the distance, wisps of cloud dressing their flanks.  It is three days after Damrey first made landfall in Southern Vietnam.  The unrelenting downpour of the last few days has fizzled out, yesterday a mere drizzle, heavy rains only rearing up their ugly heads once in a while…  Schools are still closed, the government is not taking any chances.  But we are a private school where profits have been hit hard by cancelled lessons.  Maybe today we will have our normal schedules again…

Strengthening to the equivalent of a Category 2 hurricane before reaching land, typhoon Damrey wreaked havoc and brought destruction to the Southern province of Khanh Hoa, and much of Southern and central Vietnam. At least 27 people were killed, 22 missing.  Houses collapsed, trees were uprooted and electricity cables snapped in its wake.  For two days, violent squalls of driving rain trailed ferocious gusts of winds, its effects extending as far North as Da Nang, and the picturesque town of Hoi An, which I visited just two months ago.

Quang Ngai City, where I live, is near the coast, in the centre of the country halfway between Da Nang and Khanh Hoa.  The town was not directly in the typhoon’s path, merely on the periphery and thus was spared the most damaging high winds that pummelled the more southern areas.  A few  sudden early morning gusts, strong enough to rip out a tree in the park, but no major damage to buildings, at least not in the neighbourhood directly surrounding the school where I work.

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But Quang Ngai City is in a low-lying region, hemmed in by the sea on the East and mountains on the West, and there was significant threat of serious flooding from the heavy rains accompanying and following the tropical storm.  And flooding it did.  Not only did the infrastructure struggle to cope with the amount of rainfall in the town, there was also the water flowing down from the mountains adding to the deluge.  Roads became quickly inundated, drain grills clogged with leaves and debris and unable to swallow the flow.   Street cleaners no match to the task…

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Floods are not uncommon in this part of the country so roads have generous kerbs, and houses and shops are built slightly elevated to avoid being swamped.  Luckily,  the waters did not burst into too many houses in Quang Ngai, but the normally bustling street market  was disrupted.  Street vendors moved to higher ground to sell their wares, whilst shop keepers sat forlornly at their shop fronts waiting for customers who stayed away. Only those with a real reason to be out, ventured through the flooded streets, fiercely pedalling their pushbikes, riding motorbikes at speed or slowly to escape stalling or braving the waters in the safety of their four-wheel drives..

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On Saturday, we – the teachers – stayed indoors, relishing in the unexpected day off.  No one had thought about stocking up on food; few of us make it a habit of daily watching the news or the weather, and let’s face it, there was hardly a reference to Typhoon Damrey on BBC World News…  We only learned about the impending storm when on Friday evening an email was sent notifying us there would be no classes on Saturday.  Cause for celebration, rather than shopping…  We played cards, read books, watched movies… a day of relaxation.

With no easing of the rain in sight, and the fridge looking distinctly bare on Sunday, we braved the tempest and walked to the nearby supermarket…  We waded through ankle  –  and in places almost knee – deep water, got drenched by passing motorbikes and emptied the pockets of our raincoats after the trickle and drip of rainwater funnelled in.  The supermarket was open, all but deserted but the shelves were still stocked…  We did not explore the older quarters of town beyond, where flooding was causing more serious problems, as we learned from Facebook posts from our Vietnamese colleagues.  Just getting in some basic staples to see us through the next few days was enough of an adventure.

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Monday saw better weather, a little respite from the savage rains.  After three days of leisure (Friday was my normal day off), it was good to get out and about.  With the roads to the supermarket quite passable, I wandered further, eager to explore different parts of town.  It quickly became clear that other areas of the city had suffered much more serious  flooding than my neighbourhood… But in these places, where insurance for natural disasters is probably unheard of, life has to go back to normal as soon as possible and livings have to be made…

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I went out again this morning, Tuesday.  The flood waters have dissipated, leaving roads damp and cluttered.  Piles of accumulated debris still litter the streets.  But the market is back to normal, maybe a little busier as people need to replenish their food stores.

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A new tree has already been planted and the uprooted tree chopped up and removed.  Workmen on ladders are repairing stretched and broken cables.  The kids are making the most of another day off from school…

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By tomorrow, everything will be back to normal in Quang Ngai, but maybe not in other parts of the country which have been much harder hit…

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Residents are transported by boats through floodwaters in Hoi An after Typhoon Damrey made landfall. Picture: AFP/STRSource:AFP

 

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Just two months ago…

In the touristy town of Hoi An, just 100 km further North, people had to be evacuated by boats from  houses and hotels as flood water cascaded through the town.  The damage there is much more widespread and the effects more long lasting.  We had a lucky escape, it could have been so much worse…

 

Travelling with the locals in Malaysia.

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After a short couple of weeks in China recharging my batteries, I was on my way again in mid August.  Malaysia this time and travelling solo.  After all the rushing around, it was intended to be the relaxing holiday, go-with-the-flow-and-see-what-happens.   A bit of culture in the main cities of Kuala Lumpur and Penang, catching up with some friends followed by a spell on the beaches of Langkawi and Pulau Dayang Bunting.   The perfect way to spend two weeks on my own.

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Hotels can be a little isolating for the lone tourist, so I stayed with friends and relied on airbnb instead to guarantee some human contact and guidance from locals along the way.  Apart from my flight to and from KL and accommodation, I left every bit of detail to the last minute…  I figured there would be trains, buses, ferries and even taxis to take me from A to B, so why worry…   Not having a fixed itinerary meant I could change my plans on a whim and see where sudden impulses would lead me.  It was an interesting and unexpectedly liberating experience…

Of course, not everything went swimmingly, to the contrary.  In Kuala Lumpur I got stranded at a bus stop near the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) after hiking on my own along cobra infested trails.  I admit, at the time I wondered about being the only one on the path, but I had not been able to locate the visitors’ centre and assumed that a clearly signposted track would have been safe…  I decided to turn back at the point where the path blended into the jungle and I had to clamber over trees and tree trunks and hoist myself up on ropes…  and a suspicious rustling in the undergrowth warned me of company ahead.   I was not brave enough to find out whether it was friend or foe, and retreated rapidly to the tarmacked road and other signs of civilization.

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In the afternoon, I took no risks and found a guide from the centre before  further exploring the forest and its waterfalls.  Despite an unpleasant encounter with leeches, it was a great way to learn more about the conservation and restoration of a little area of jungle just outside the Malaysian capital.  The guide dropped me off outside the centre, next to a nearby shopping centre.  ‘You will easily find a taxi here,’ he argued, but every taxi driver I approached, shook his head and refused the fare.  ‘Too far,’ they claimed.  ‘I am not going in that direction,’ another one insisted…  I plonked myself down on the bench at the bus stop, not sure how to proceed.  I had yet to work out how to use taxi apps such as Uber and  Grab…  Conversations in broken English with the locals were not very fruitful either.  It then dawned on me that if I were to change my destination to another local touristy spot nearby, Batu Caves, I might be in luck with the taxis, especially as from there I could easily catch the train…

‘No need for a taxi,’ a young man exclaimed, face beaming, ‘You can get the free bus to Batu Caves’.    ‘You mean ‘free’ as in ‘I do not have to pay’????’ I queried…   There is such a thing as a free bus???  As if summoned by magic, the free bus appeared within minutes and the young man immediately boarded to explain to the driver where I wanted to be dropped off.  It was a long journey; the free bus clearly did not take the most direct route but I certainly saw plenty of the not-so-touristy-areas on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur…  Feeling a little nervous, I kept an eye on good old Google Maps  (local SIMs and plenty of data are an absolute must these days…) to help me decide the most optimum point to get off and when I felt Batu Caves was within walking distance, I signalled to the driver that I had arrived at my destination.  I took a quick peek around Batu Caves and found ‘India revisited’ with its Hindu Gods, bright yellow garlands and Southern Indian food on sale: massala dosa and  parotta…  before sauntering to the train station to continue my journey …

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Most of my travel around Malaysia went flawlessly.  Kuala Lumpur itself had an extensive and efficient public transport system consisting of monorails, commuter trains and light rail transit, as well as city buses …. with rules befitting a predominantly Muslim population.  Taxi fares required some prior negotiating, but once I had figured out Uber and Grab, taxis were definitely reasonable.   In Penang, when walking was not an option, they were the best way to get around .  And with fares for internal flights at rock bottom prices, even flying to Langkawi and back was very affordable.

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I only spent a short while on Langkawi itself, opting instead to stay a few days on the quieter, neighbouring island of Pulau Dayang, in a small airbnb establishment, Barkatt Chalets.  After a hectic summer I was looking forward to peace and tranquillity, to lying in a hammock watching the ebb and flow of the sea, to being away from the hustle and bustle of tourist fare and noise.  The island was home to only 200 people, mostly fishermen;  a small hotel attracting mainly Malaysian visitors; and Barkatt Chalets.   Airbnb reviews had been glowing, describing Shade, the owner, and his wife, not only as perfect hosts, but also as perfect cooks.  I would be in for a treat…  if I could get there…

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Access to the island was by ‘local ferry’, a small fleet of speedboats shuttling the islanders back and forth for work or shopping.  ‘Let me know when you get on the boat, I will be there to pick you up,’  Shade had promised me.  ‘Just tell them you are going to Selat Barkatt, they will show you which boat to take.’   Having left the touristy beach stretch of Langkawi in the morning, I arrived at the small ferry terminal by taxi, but decided to first purchase my onward ticket for Penang to use later that week.  A fellow traveller at the Sweet Monkey Backpackel Hostel,  where I spent the previous night,  had had her ferry trip to Langkawi delayed because tickets had sold out.  ‘Better safe than sorry,’ I thought, as one of the shopkeepers in the small terminal offered to look after my suitcase whilst I trudged to the other, bigger building just down the road.    ‘Don’t worry,’ she put my mind at rest, ‘if you miss the early ferry, the next one will be around  2 pm.’

Of course, by the time I returned to collect my suitcase, the local ferry was a mere speck on the horizon.  With just an hour left till the next one was scheduled to leave, I sat down with the shopkeeper for a refreshing cold drink…  ‘No need to wait at the pier,’ she explained. ‘ I have already spoken to the ‘captain’.  He will let me know when everyone is ready to board.’  We whiled away the hour and were joined by the ‘local’ American lesbian who made it everyone’s business to know her business.  With no sign of the captain or life on the jetty, we had another drink and listened to the tales of woe of being an American lesbian at sea and living on a boat.  ‘Don’t worry,’ the shopkeeper kept on reassuring me, ‘the captain is probably waiting for some more people before he wants to leave…’

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It was a sultry afternoon and rainy season in Malaysia..  Outside dark, menacing clouds had gathered  and it did not take long for the rain to start.  A trickle at first, but soon it came bucketing down.  As the conversation with the shopkeeper had all but dried up, I ventured outside to keep an eye on things, just in case a ferry might make it across the water…  I sat patiently, resting my feet on my suitcase, whilst the heavens opened even further.

The advantage of being a solo traveller is the ease with which you strike up random conversations with random strangers.  So it was that I initiated a chat with a British couple who had recently retired to the smaller island, part-time I should add: winters in Malaysia and summers in the UK.  Their presence this summer was merely due to the building works going on at their new house, stilted to keep it safe above rising and receding water levels.  ‘Ah, yes,’ they explained, they had given up on the ferry service, and purchased their own boat…  You could be sitting at the terminal for ages waiting for a ferry to arrive or leave…  Unfortunately, as they were expecting a full load of wood to be delivered, there was no room for me in their boat to take me across…

Eventually, the downpour subsided and the captain gathered his passengers onto his boat…  I sent a message to Shade to alert him that my departure was imminent and it looked as if I would make it to the island at long last…   The ferry was not exactly the lap of luxury, but rather a small motorboat kitted out to take passengers.  We walked down the slippery steps on the quay side and the captain helped with my suitcase, whilst I negotiated the gap between the edge of the jetty and the rim of the boat…  By then I was already quite damp, so I did not care too much that the benches inside had rivulets of water streaming down the back and immediately soaked my clothes.  The tarpaulin stretching over the door was clearly not that effective in keeping out the lashing  rain…

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Shade, being a gentleman of his word, met me at the quay side and hoisted up my far too heavy suitcase…  Maybe for a trip like this, a backpack with just life’s essentials might have been more appropriate…

And if you are wondering whether getting off the island was any easier…  On Friday, Shade dropped me off early, at 8 am, in time for the first ferry of the day, at about 8.30am.  After a three-hour delay, watching more heavy showers before finally the sun came through, we were finally picked up.  At least I only needed to catch a ferry to Penang in the afternoon; the rest of the passengers would be very, very late for work…  No one worried, it was part of daily life.

Was a visit to the island of Dayang Bunting worth the endless waiting on the quayside…??  Next post…

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Kyoto: the mystery world of Shinto and Geishas.

 

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Of course, we didn’t uncover the mysteries of a geisha, nor could we even be entirely sure we saw a real one, but we certainly visited Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan which is considered the birthplace of the geisha culture.  The peace of Kyoto, famed for its ancient temples, traditional Roykan  Inns and centuries-old craftmanship, offered a welcome reprieve from the futuristic and hedonistic world of Tokyo.

Although our Airbnb accommodation in Kyoto did not pretend to be a ‘traditional Roykan Inn  complete with own “onsen” facilities’, we stayed in an old-style Japanese house just outside the centre of town.  Built at least a couple of centuries ago in an era when people were much shorter, even M and I had to fold ourselves double to make it through the front door.  Our room was located through a set of sliding doors, just off the main corridor.  As in many Asian countries, shoes were not allowed in in-door areas and slippers were provided at the entrance of our sparsely furnished room: a low table with cushions for sitting, a rack for hanging some garments, a chest of drawers and Japanese style bedding…  There was no need for a bed as the tatami matted floor was both pleasing to the eye and pliable to the touch which made sleeping on the soft ‘futon’ quite comfortable.  I am not sure whether we felt we missed out on the ‘onsen’ experience…  somehow, shared bathing in the buff is best enjoyed with the right company, so we happily made do with a normal, shared bathroom at the other end of the house.

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With only two full days in Kyoto, we had to prioritise and choose which tourist attractions to visit.  Taxis in Japan are on the expensive side, so we opted to  make ample use of public transport and Google Maps to navigate the town.  Suffice it to say that even with the help of Google Maps, it was a time consuming exercise and maybe with hindsight we could have covered more if we had been less stingy.  On the other hand…. with so many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the vicinity, almost three months on from my Japanese trip, it has all become a blur of red painted posts festooned with red lanterns and guarded by an army of dogs, foxes and lions..

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Japan has two main religions: Shinto and Buddhism.   Whereas Shinto is regarded as the indigenous religion of the Japanese people and is as old as Japan itself, Buddhism reached the island much later.  It was imported in the sixth century as a gift from the friendly nation of the Korean kingdom of Kudara.   After some initial difficulties and conflicts, Shinto and Buddhism have coexisted fairly harmoniously in Japan and most Japanese consider themselves either Buddhist or Shinto or even both.  In any case, religion is not that important in Japanese daily life and most people only visit temples or shrines to mark special occasions and festivals.

Shinto was, and still remains, a mystery to me.  I was made aware of its very existence and initiated in its vague rules and customs by the Swedish bartender of an Irish Pub, ‘The Man in the Moon’,  in Kyoto.  Escaping from the stifling heat, I needed a drink and when ‘Witte Hoegaarden’ was promoted by an Irish Pub, I could not resist.  As I was the one and only customer that afternoon, the ex-sailor who made Kyoto his home, was only too pleased to fill me in on the details of his adopted new religion.

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Without a founding figure, nor any dogmatic guidelines, Shinto is an ‘optimistic faith’ believing that people are intrinsically good and evil is the work of ‘evil spirits’.  Most traditions and rituals therefore focus on warding off the evil spirits through purification, prayers and offerings to the ‘kami’, or Shinto gods.  Kami are sacred spirits embodied by elements important to life: wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility and when people die, they are revered by their relatives as ‘ancestral kami’.    Shinto Kami are mostly shifty beings, flitting from one place to another,  and devotees who need their attention are often seen pulling the bells hanging in front of the shrines to alert the Kami and request their presence so prayers can be heard.   Not all shrines need bells, though.  Some shrines have been built in the midst of a forest, or on a mountain top where kami have taken up permanent residence and are always at hand…    However, one thing all shrines have in common are huge torii, vermillion painted entrance gates that mark the transition from the profane into the sacred.

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Of all the shrines in Kyoto, the most famous and interesting one is the Fushimi Inari Pilgrimage Circuit, the backdrop for some scenes in the film ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’.  Thousands of torii, donated by wealthy individuals and companies,  straddle hiking trails leading into the wooded forest of Mount Inari, which at just 233m above sea level is not exactly a challenge… although it involves a fair amount of steps.  The leafy tree canopies provide plenty of welcome shade and halfway up the mountain, at the Yotsutsuji Intersection, any hiking effort is rewarded with views across the city.  Not many visitors venture past this point, so the last stretch to the top is less crowded with more opportunities for photographs of the many dog or fox statues guarding a multitude of smaller shrines.

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Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are mysterious places, especially to the uninitiated, and whereas some of the rituals and traditions can be easily understood, others are definitely baffling.  At the main entrance of most Shinto shrines, a stone washbasin is available for purification, and devotees rinse their hands and mouth before approaching the deity.  Sometimes people gather around large incense burners and waft the purifying smoke over the heads.  Inside the grounds, small stalls attract visitors who buy a talisman to bring good luck or keep evil away.  Lucky charms, protective amulets and wooden plaques magically help students pass exams or sick people recover from illness.  And if fortune telling pieces of paper suggest a stretch of bad luck, the paper is tied to special racks where the flutter of the wind and time can disperse its spell.  But the ritual that perplexed us the most was watching devotees crawling through a hole in one such rack…   Had fate dealt them a particularly bad hand and was this best way to dispel the inevitable???  We did not ask…

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Not only does Kyoto boast a lot of shrines and temples, it is also one of the best places to get a glimpse of the mysterious geisha.  And ‘geishas’ we did see.  Plenty of them, only they probably were not real ones, but just tourists who dressed the part for their brief stay in town and wanted to have the pictures to prove it.  At every shrine and on every street corner, we bumped into ‘geishas’, dressed in colourful kimonos fastened with an obi (a large waistband), cameras or phones poised for selfies.  But rather than teetering around in okobos, the impossibly high platform footwear normally worn by maiko or apprentice geisha, they strutted around in normal flip-flops and certainly did not have the usual geisha make-up on.

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‘Your best bet for seeing the real thing,’ another tourist advised us, ‘is to go to the Gion district, around six or eight in the evening.  That’s when the geishas leave their okiyo (houses) to go to work.’  It sounded like good advice, so we checked our map and set off.  The place was crowded.  Not with geishas, but with tourists all eager to spot one.  And everyone was ready to observe the strict ‘don’t-touch-the geisha’ rule.  After all geishas have their jobs to do and are not a tourist attraction.  At the front of one of the houses, an older woman – most likely the kami-san or mother of the geisha house  – stood quietly surveying what was happening outside.

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Eventually, our patience paid off and a single geisha, dressed for work and lips pursed almost disapprovingly, strode across the street, meekly followed by her assistant maiko.  It is possible we encountered other ‘real’ geishas around that time, but without the tell-tale make-up it was impossible to be sure.

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And these ones, taking photographs of each other mid-day??  They may have been real geishas, fully made up and just indulging in a bit of me-time…  They certainly looked too much the part to be tourists in the act of dressing up.  We did not stop to ask, but were grateful to be able to take our own shots of what may have been two real geishas…

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Nightfall cast a mysterious spell over the geisha districts, both Gion and Pontocho.   Hushed lights warmed the brown hues of the wooden panelling along the traditional geisha houses, often punctuated by white and red lanterns.  Restaurants and bars were busy inside, where the A.C. kept everyone cool.  Outside the tourists melted away, leaving the area peaceful and quiet.  Geishas had reached their destinations and entertained their paying guests in the obliqueness of dimly lit rooms, barely noticeable through obscured windows.

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Our closest encounter with a geisha was in a restaurant, Issen  Yoshoku (Kyoto), the one with just a single dish on the menu executed to perfection and its notoriety as the restaurant featuring the boy with his trousers down…  And if that was not enough to entice customers in, there were plenty of geisha mannequins to keep us company, and a plethora of interesting plaques on the wall to keep us amused…

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A place called ‘home’…

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There comes a point when living out of a suitcase takes its toll…  Admittedly, my ‘living out of a suitcase’ may be stretching the truth a little.  I have always had a place to unpack and  call ‘home’.

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In India ‘home’ was the ‘far-too-large-for-one’ ground floor of a huge house nestled amongst the coconut trees.  Did I really need two grand bedrooms with en-suite, two reception rooms and a kitchen large enough to accommodate a handful of staff…  But for all the abundance of space, it lacked suitable, cosy furniture or useful kitchen equipment to make life more comfortable.  The walls remained bare, shelves unadorned.  I made do.  And even then, when at the end of my first year the time came to move location, the floor was scattered with heaps of to-be-abandoned belongings.  India taught me to live frugally, not spend money on unnecessary things because they will not all fit in my suitcase at the end.

During my first year in China, ‘home’ was an apartment on the 10th floor of a modern block of flats: spacious, bright and airy.  More wardrobe space than I could fill!  A kitchen with cupboards, but no equipment… not even something to cook on or in.  I invested in a few bare essentials,  and inherited some along the way.   For a whole year, I managed with one plate, one bowl and four cups – four cups definitely not a luxury as each coffee or tea brew deserves a clean receptacle and life is too short to spend it at the sink doing the washing up….  Not much crockery you think, but still I bought more than most: why dish up food on a plate when you have a bowl or pot …  Dinner parties were strictly ‘bring your own plate and utensils if you do not want to eat with your hands out of the cooking vessel’.. and who needs a glass when you can use a cup or mug??  Does beer not taste better straight from the bottle or can??  I tried to jolly up the place with a few hats and candle holders from Ikea, but the flat never felt like home, just a place for temporary residence… I never intended to stay more than one year.

My second year in China spurred on a change of heart…  maybe there was some merit in making a house into a home, even if I would only be here for a short while.   It didn’t need to cost the earth either and some small purchases could go a long way.  Having moved into a shell of a flat, still being refurbished by a new homeowner/landlord, gave me a little scope: I just might be able to encourage her to add the right comforts and luxuries…  With a little patience, and lots of prodding via my agent, I extracted hot water for the kitchen – definitely not something you should take for granted in a modern Chinese kitchen.  Windows have now been fitted with mosquito screens so I can let in the breeze.  A small electrical heater appeared to fight a losing battle with the damp and cold permeating the flat…  Luckily I have a few months to work on more lasting and effective measures to keep the room temperature up before the start of the cold and damp Chinese winter…

Rather than waiting for the big teacher exodus at the end of June when all things useful and Western can be bought at rock bottom prices from expats parting with China for good, I paired down the essentials of homely living to an oven…  I cannot  profess to ever having been the greatest fan of cauliflower cheese, but there’s something comforting about the version of bubbly cheesy sauce oozing around tender-to-the-bite cauliflower topped with oven-crisped breadcrumbs..  Or proper crunchy pizza; not the floppy, soggy variety reheated in a microwave…  And an oven has the great versatility of toasting bread, baking bread, cakes, and scones; roasting potatoes and decent portions of chicken; grilled asparagus and salmon à la Jamie Oliver…  Living in an affluent city in the shadow of Shanghai means that although not all Western tastes and flavours are catered for, there is access to a reasonable supply of ingredients to ward off the worst of food-homesickness…

When putting nails and tacks in walls is strictly forbidden, lifting the spirits of white and grey surroundings required a bit more inventiveness.  A white, old and smelly cupboard could be transformed into a display cabinet with the help of a borrowed screwdriver to remove doors, and a lick of paint courtesy of B&Q (yes, B&Q!!) around the corner…  I was even able to select my own shade of baby blue, choosing from a colour palette to match Dulux’s own in the UK.  Family snapshots and favourite photographs from my travels printed out at school now smile back at me in cheap and cheerful photo frames from the local Ikea store.  Shawls bought in Thailand last summer add a splash of colour; blankets and cushion covers conceal the dreary brown of the sofa-cum-sofabed… And although I have no intention of stockpiling Chinese mementoes in the coming months, maybe I will just buy a few interesting knick-knacks and spruce up the room with fond memories of the exciting places I visit and friendly people I meet.

At least for the next 8 or 9 months, my apartment will feel a little bit like a home to me…

China’s north-south divide of haves and have-nots.

Ever wondered why the children in my classroom wear coats inside when I am teaching??  I did when I first saw photographs and videos taken in Chinese classrooms… This was before I learnt about the Chinese north-south divide of haves and have-nots.

A mention of the north-south divide immediately brings to mind the line that separates the more wealthy from the less wealthy, or the economically developed countries from the less developed areas of the world, the haves from the have-nots.  In China, however, the north-south divide of haves and have-nots takes on a completely different meaning, especially in winter.   It is the great dividing line of being warm or cold in the months when temperatures dip to uncomfortable levels…  And Shanghai and Hangzhou are just on the wrong side of it…

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About sixty years ago, in the time of the Great Leader, a plan was hatched to provide Chinese citizens with free central heating in homes and offices and centralised systems were installed in residential areas, with the assistance from the Soviet Union.  Laudable you may say, and so it would have been if the offer had embraced the whole of the country.   But at those years, China was facing extreme energy shortages and the then Premier, Zhou Enlai, suggested the Qin-Huai line, a well-known geographical demarcation between north and south, as a cut-off point.  Buildings to the north would be provided with free or heavily subsidized central heating for four months each winter; buildings to the south would have no heating facilities whatsoever…  Rather unfortunate for those living below the line, even by just a mile….

I had been told by other Westerners that the cold in Shanghai and Hangzhou is different. Not that anyone could explain why.    Although freezing temperatures are not unheard of, the mercury seldom dips below zero and hovers somewhere between the low single digits and just above ten…  Like a British winter, basically.  But whereas in Britain we move from one nicely warmed room to another toasty area, here the only way to stay warm is to keep moving, moving from one icy place to another even icier place… There is no escape from the clammy penetrating cold sweeping in from the sea.  It flood your entire body and soul right down to the core..

So how to endure a winter here?  People are resourceful and adapt.  Instead of just wrapping up warmly to venture outside into the cold, people wrap up even warmer when entering their arctic homes.  Shoes and trainers are replaced with fur-lined boots and Chinese people wallow all day long in thickly padded pyjamas that make normal movement impossible…  And with an extra coat on top.  And yes, in school windows are thrown wide open to allow the more temperate outside air to circulate and ‘warm up’ the classrooms.  My days at school are spent in a state of permafrost…

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Living in winter pyjamas

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And then wearing long underwear underneath the pyjamas

In the meantime, I bought an extra woolly hat and special leggings and tights with fur on the inside.  Deliciously warm!!!

Luckily, China’s recent economic advancement has allowed for some improvement and newer apartments below the line of haves and have-nots now come with an air-conditioning-cum-heater units.  They are electrical, not very efficient and expensive to run, but at least they take away some of the chill.  For instance, my apartment has one located just next to the huge window, fighting off the biting cold permeating the double glazing.  But whilst the area around my window and bed easily reaches a sultry 25 degrees, the heat does not travel well and never extends to the bathroom at the other end.  Getting out of bed can be a trial and a frosty toilet seat is not exactly inviting; showers have to be kept short (not a lot of hot water in the small tank) and can only be started once the cubicle is misted up with hot steam.  I have been tempted to supplement my heating with a small electrical oil radiator; it’s all the rage… and probably more effective than the huge unit on the wall.  But with China trying to curb its greenhouse gases, maybe adding to them by generating the luxury of heat may well be frowned upon…

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Last winter, us foreign teachers were chastised for putting on the blow heater in our small office.  Why did we not put on our coats, like the rest of the teachers and students???  It was an alien notion to us then and at the point no one had explained the big divide which meant that heating was a luxury only to be enjoyed on very special occasions, such as a whole week of deep frost…

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I certainly no longer make fun of e-bikes fashioned with little blankets at the front to shield hands and body from the icy winds…You would do anything to keep warm…

Maybe  the solution is moving several thousands of miles to the south of the big dividing line…  Hmmm, and I have just signed up for another year in China, in Hangzhou…  I better invest in some more and warmer winter gear.

 

(drawings by Anna Z. and found on her blog post:  http://chinaslostpanda.com/how-to-stay-warm-in-china-without-central-heating/)

A matter of privacy, cleanliness and toilets…

Privacy is such a Western notion, or privilege maybe…

In the Western world, we take privacy for granted: a respectful space between the counter in the bank and the line of waiting customers; a discreet gap and hushed voices when talking to the receptionist in  the doctors’ surgery.  And of course closed bathroom doors..  it goes without saying.  Bodily functions belong in the realm of secrecy: we may not be able to suppress every tinkling and other unfortunate sound accompanying bathroom exploits, but at least there are no eye witnesses…  At least not in the ladies’…

In China, bathroom doors are clearly a recent addition.  Luckily,  living in the affluent Eastern city of Hangzhou, civilisation as I know it, is not too far behind.   Shopping malls and metro stations have cottoned on to the need for privacy and cubicles are neatly partitioned with doors.   Toilets are still mostly of the ‘squat’ variety and no handbag is complete without a generous stash of tissues, but a smattering of facilities now provide huge reels of toilet paper near the washbasins…  Sometimes there is even a soap dispenser!

However, the availability of doors does not mean that they are used and often women just  leave doors ajar or open and get on with their business in full view as if it is everyone else’s business.   Apparently, it is to do with cleanliness: opening and closing doors requires touching handles that may have been touched by hundreds of other people before you; sitting on a toilet seat involves a close encounter with a seat that has been sat upon by possibly hundreds of other people..  you get the drift.  Whereas the Western idea of cleanliness focuses on not spreading the germs we carry with us by cleansing us and all surfaces of those germs we incidentally pick up and leave behind,  the Chinese idea of cleanliness focuses on not touching anything that may be covered with germs in the first place, which is basically everything…

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During my travels to far flung Chinese destinations where Western practices and habits have not yet fully penetrated, toilet facilities have been much more primitive.  Of course, doors are completely missing and instead of individual squat or floor toilet pans, a mere gully divided by waist high walls provides opportunities for relieving oneself..  Sometimes even the little walls are missing,.   And flushing toilets??  Building the gully with a slant takes care of that problem…

I have been lucky in my school as the toilet block used by the teachers is pretty reasonable:  three individual toilets of the squat variety, complete with doors.  Not that I ever had a great need of using them, only turning up at school to deliver my lessons and then disappearing back to my flat.  But after my surgery, walking backwards and forwards between flat and school was going to be more problematic and longer days at school would necessitate making use of the bathroom facilities…  Not being able to bend my knee was going to add an interesting dimension to using a squat toilet…

Early inquiries about the existence of a Western toilet at the school, had been greeted with doubtful looks: no Western toilet that anyone was aware of.  But during my week’s absence, a disabled toilet had been discovered, tucked away on the ground floor near the Middle school.  Hooray… surely a disabled toilet would be a Western-style toilet; they certainly  were in the shopping malls.   And indeed, when I wobbled there on my crutches and found it, it was…

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but no way was I going to use it…

It would have been bad enough for a Chinese student to have to use it in full view, but can you imagine the stares I would have had as a foreign teacher…     One thing I could be sure of: cleanliness Chinese-style would be fully guaranteed.  This was one toilet seat that had not been touched by hundreds of others beforehand, and as it was not even linked to the plumbing system, had probably never been touched at all…

With a little bit of willpower, some ingenuity and the help of my crutches, I managed the squat toilets and just reduced the number of coffees I had..

Christmas. Made In China.

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Christmas sneaked up on me, like the eerie whisper of a soundless ghost.  Whilst I was following doctor’s orders and for a whole week only moved between bed and bathroom, and the following week manoeuvred between flat and school on crutches and using taxis, Wal-Mart shot into action.  The special offers which usually blocked the entrance to the store were shelved to make room for all things Christmas: Christmas trees and Christmas decorations, Santa hats and Christmas headbands, and cute, adorable Christmas cuddly toys.  In a country where the religious meaning of Christmas is taboo, Christmas – although still small scale – is as commercial as it comes… But then again, are not ‘all things Christmas’ made in China anyway…?

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Almost overnight Christmas trees had sprouted in prominent places and festive lighting along the streets filled Hangzhou with Christmas warmth.  The downtown bakeries offered Christmas inspired cakes, gingerbread houses and other Christmas goodies; Starbucks added a ‘Christmas Turkey Sandwich’ to the menu.  And Hangzhou opened its First International Christmas Market…  It was distinctly beginning to look a lot  like Christmas, in Europe…

This year I decided to enjoy Christmas, to rediscover some of the fun, the merriment that Christmas used to bring.  A tour de force, I knew…  As if positive thinking and wishing would be enough to disperse the dark, ominous clouds permanently lingering on the periphery of my existence.  I even fleetingly considered investing in a Christmas tree, to jolly up my pretty bare flat, but as I would most definitely NOT be spending Christmas Day at home, it seemed an extravagance too far… On the other hand, buying a selection of Christmas headbands to wear in my lessons in the week running up to Christmas sounded an excellent idea.  I would devote my energy on spreading Christmas cheer at school. Within the confines of China’s sentiment about religious festivals, of course, so no mention of the real message of Christmas, peace on earth and for all mankind.

 

We watched Christmas videos explaining  British Christmas customs: advent calendars with opening doors revealing stars and presents and other Christmas materialistic goodies; writing Christmas cards and letters to Santa; baking and eating mince pies; hanging Christmas stockings on the mantle piece ready for Santa and a traditional Christmas lunch including Christmas crackers which were probably made in China… We crafted reindeer hats in the English Club, and turned the Gingerbread Man tale (still Christmassy because it is the only time of the year anyone bothers to bake gingerbread biscuits) into a deliciously alternative play full of Grandmas and Mr Tigers and Mr Crocodiles and classrooms brimming with excited and smiley Gingerbread men!! Instead of subjecting the kids to a tame version of ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’, I taught them a super energetic Christmas song that had the whole class rocking and dancing (including me, which goes without saying.  Fun was an excellent anaesthetic for my knee…) to the jingles of my glittery Christmas hair band and frowns from the Head of English (who happens to be my assistant in some lessons..).  Let’s liven up the joint, it’s Christmas after all.  A time to be jolly, a time to have fun!!!!

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This just left me to cope with the dreaded ‘day’.  Did I want to party with the 25-year-old somethings, hanging out in bars and getting merry?  Or spend a fortune on overpriced food in the venues in town that were opening their doors to the Christmas cheer?  Maybe someone would throw an impromptu last minute Champagne breakfast, followed by turkey and the works??  Some people only get their act together within a whisker of running out of time, I hoped…

In the end salvation came in the form of an Italian chef in Shanghai who offered to cook me dinner on Christmas Eve and lunch on Christmas Day…  So I booked myself into a snazzy hotel in central Shanghai and on arrival found myself being upgraded to an executive suite!!!  An unexpected Christmas gift I was not going to deny myself.  After months of sleeping on a hard Chinese bed, I had simply forgotten the sheer pleasure of sinking into the opulence of a soft mattress and pillows, and the crisp white linen of top-rated Western hotels.  Christmas was definitely turning out to be a visit to the lap of luxury…

But even the best laid plans do not always come to fruition and my very efforts to avoid spending Christmas Day on my own were badly thwarted.  Christmas Eve dinner was spectacular in its simplicity: pasta cooked as only the Italians can, followed by delectable Italian biscotti (or cantuccini) dunked and soaked in our glasses of wine and a finale of Limoncello… Having been seduced by the pleasures of his Italian cooking, I was not surprised that my Italian chef’s culinary skills were in demand on Christmas Day after all.  With just one day’s notice, the chef had been asked to conjure up a Christmas lunch and dinner for 100 guests by a rather influential figure in Shanghai…  And if you want to do well in China, some requests are declined at your own peril..

So instead of enjoying a private Christmas lunch for two, I enjoyed the peace and tranquillity of my hotel room and indulged in the bliss of writing..  And after checking out, I simply moved location and joined the Starbucks army of Christmas singletons.  In a coffee shop full of people, with each and every one of them lost to their own mobile world, I would be guaranteed to have virtual silence and  no interruptions…  Perfect for letting the creative juices flow…

It was a peaceful Christmas after all.

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