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It’s been a sticky, restless night, punctuated by hourly alarm calls from the neighbourhood cockerel and relentless street noise, conversations that sound like arguments and angry wasp scooters. We are five to one room, with mattresses on the floor and a mouldy ensuite which has a window looking straight into the house next door. Our room has aircon but the only way to cut through the humidity is to freeze, and we’ve just got sheets. They are more grey than white, with stains, but I try not to think too deeply about that. Needless to say we wake up hot and grumpy and not in love with Saigon.

We emerge into the soupy early morning in search of breakfast. Down the narrow alleyway, past the offending cockerel and row of travel agents, one with a golden retriever flopped on the pathway outside. The cafe has tables on one side of the alley and a kitchen in a tiny shed on the other. We sit at a table and watch coffee being made across the path. It’s thick and black, the cafe man pours it through a butterfly net contraption into tall glasses. He adds ice, and a good slug of condensed milk. Sugar? No thank you. He stirs vigorously.

It’s cold and sweet, so strong that I can feel the connections in my brain buzz and whirr, a speeded up time lapse film of traffic in a city. Suddenly the air doesn’t feel so soupy and Saigon seems a little less exhausting. We seize the day.


 

Recently, a friend brought me some Vietnamese coffee. It tastes different to the coffee that we buy here, sweeter, though I don’t think it’s sweetened, chocolatey, it smells as warming as apples and cinnamon. When we had the heatwave a few weeks ago, I was dreaming of that Saigon alley coffee and had a brainwave. Ice lollies! So I made a small jug of very strong Vietnamese coffee, added a good slug of condensed milk and topped up with a little cows’ milk, poured into appropriately shaped rocket moulds and hey presto, the most refreshing, delicious, energy fuelling mid-morning snack ever. *bows*

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The seven seater taxi whisks us along the dual carriageway in the warm darkness, the children excitedly pointing out palm trees and Arabic signs.  It’s not long before we are driving through a narrow archway in the city wall and the open desert is replaced by alleys, enclosed by looming walls.

The alleyways are dark and largely deserted.  The taxi turns corner after corner, slowly gliding ever deeper into the labyrinth of the city.  Eventually we reach a street that’s ablaze with light, the taxi crawls past tiny hole in the wall grocers shops with towering piles of round loaves on the counter and bulging bags of crisps hanging from the shutters.  The driver valiantly pushes on but we are travelling slower than the streams of people flowing past us.

We edge past a donkey and cart, piled high with vegetables.  There isn’t room to fit a carrot between us, the cart and the shop on the other side.  As we overtake the donkey, a teenage boy peers grinning through the taxi window, waving as he shouts hello.

Just as I wonder if we are ever going to make it out of this street, because the taxi can barely move, the driver stops.  He phones someone on his mobile, talking in short, clipped Arabic sentences, then tells us to get out.  You are here now, he says.  We know we are staying in a house in the medina, but have only the vaguest idea where.  The street is teeming with people.  People hurrying with their bags of shopping, people gossiping at the tea seller’s on the corner, people cooking kebabs on smoky charcoal grills, people standing and staring at us, the tourists with the cumbersome back packs and the yawning children.

Out of the crowd steps a middle aged lady in Western clothes and headscarf, asking “Victoria?” I reply in the affirmative and she tells me in French that her name is Jamilla and she will show us to our house.  She sets off at a fair lick and we trail behind, dragging children and bashing bags into people hurrying past in the opposite direction.  We pass bakeries with shelves full of smooth, white, proving loaves, a mosque with men in jellabas and skull caps sitting in the entrance, watching the world go by, a stall selling sheep heads and cow tongues, a fluorescent lit tailor’s shop with an elderly man puttering on an ancient Singer, a doughnut stall, the smell of hot oil wafting through the dusty night.  Boys on bikes career in the opposite direction with alarming speed, laughing as we try to jump out of the way.

Suddenly, Jamilla darts down an unlit alleyway, opposite a bakery.  We follow her along the twists and turns, trying not to feel too scared by the tiny, inky-dark, passages leading left and right and hiding a multitude of possibilities.  After a couple of minutes, we reach a dark wooden door in a mud-coloured wall and she retrieves a set of keys from her bag.  We are here.  She shows us around our tall, thin home for the week then leaves us to wonder how we’ll ever find our way out again.

We’d been worried that Marrakech would be a bit tame.

Ned after three weeks in the Outback

I like juxtapositions.  They make you pause and think, jolt you out of the mundane.

One of the reasons I love travelling is that it constantly throws up bizarre contrasts.  Like washing with Jo Malone shower gel and cold water from a bucket in the middle of the jungle.  Or saying to the children, “If the boat starts sinking, grab one of the chairs to help you float”, and meaning it, when you’ve just spent months lugging car seats tens of thousands of miles.

You move from five star luxury (OK we only did that once) to tarantulas in the bedroom and no running water in the space of a week.  Or emerge, filthy, dusty and flyblown from weeks in the virtually uninhabited desert, shops a rarity, traffic lights non-existent, to wander dazed round one of the richest cities in the world, people hurrying like ants, sun glinting off sparkly buildings.

Some places are so rammed full of contrasts they’re a sensory overload waiting to happen.  Singapore with its beautiful, shiny, modern museums, and its Sunday pet bird showing off session, largely unchanged since the Island was more trees than concrete.  Bangkok is perhaps the pinnacle of juxtapositions, with it’s jaw-dropping temples to shopping sitting on top of the smoky, prayer filled temples where ancient rituals are performed in a continuous conversation with the past.

There’s nothing like lying in the dark on a sweaty mattress, in a bamboo hut in the jungle, watching The Good Life on a tiny iPhone screen, turning the volume up to hear Tom and Barbara over the cacophony of the jungle at night, to make you laugh at the ridiculousness of life.

When we travelled around the world, over a year ago now, we did some truly wonderful things.  We rode elephants, saw orang utans in the wild, bathed in Japanese hot springs, visited a real live, smoking volcano, ate bugs and camped in the desert.  We have a plethora of amazing memories to keep us warm on cold nights.

But there’s something fighting for space with these memories in my head.  Something I need to say about the things we saw and did.  I don’t now where I’m going with this, and it’s not a well thought out cry for action, more of a muddled, half formed feeling that it needs talking about.

When I turn on the tap these days, I often think about the family we stayed with in Borneo.  They live in a wooden house on stilts beside the Kinabatangan River, a wide, muddy rapidly flowing, croc infested highway.  Their entire lives depended on this river, for food, washing, toileting, drinking and transport. They don’t have running water.  They collect water in huge barrels from the river, then leave it until most of the silt has sunk to the bottom.  They don’t have taps.

They also didn’t have electricity until five years ago, and now it’s pretty ropey.  This is Malaysia, a country we tend to think of as being relatively developed, and it is in the cities.  But rural life in South East Asia is so far behind that in the West that it’s like stepping back in time hundreds of years.  Life is about finding food, collecting water, keeping the bugs out.  The children all go to school, and people aren’t starving, but life is hard.  Hard in a way it’s difficult for us to imagine.  Not only do people not have washing machines, or dishwashers, or microwaves or cars, they don’t have taps and roads.

And this isn’t a one off.  A single village in the deepest darkest jungle.  We went to rural Northern Thailand where things are a little better, but life is often about subsistence, and to Laos, where things are a whole lot worse.

Laos is a popular tourist destination these days, if you’re the adventurous type, primarily because of the stunning World Heritage city of Luang Prabang. We had a fabulous time there, drinking cocktails in restored colonial mansions and watching monks carving Buddhas in a UNESCO supported monastery.  But something has stuck with me.  The first night we were there, we wandered down the main street looking for something to eat.  All along the road, on both sides, were beautifully restored buildings, both Lao and French colonial.  There were shops, restaurants, a palace or two, guest houses and monasteries.  In the middle of the street was a large building with broken glass in the windows, a dusty, scrubby, front yard with bits of rusty metal on the ground and a cow tied to a tree.  The paint was peeling, the walls were mildewy and I remember thinking that it must be derelict.

It was the school.

Laos is one of the twenty poorest countries in the world.  Their hospitals are not as well equipped as my local GP.  They regularly don’t have blood or oxygen.  People die from easily treatable injuries because they don’t have blood or oxygen.  Malaria is a serious issue.  The schools have broken windows.

I don’t know what to do about these things.

But I wanted you to know.

This time last year we were in Vietnam.  We didn’t spend long there, only about ten days, so we stayed in the South, Saigon and the Mekong Delta.  We hired a guide and explored the tiny islands and obscure towns of the Delta, staying in uncomfortable but friendly and fascinating proximity with a local family, having cooking lessons and playing with coconuts in the front yard.  We got up punishingly early to visit the floating markets, bought doughnuts from a vendor outside a pig farm and shared a ferry with a cow.  I could write more about it, and perhaps I should, before the vividness of the tastes and sounds and smells fade like yellowing prints of Edwardian ladies at the seaside.

Because the trip is fading, slipping from my present into my past.  Not so long ago, I knew what I was doing this time last year almost on a daily basis.  Now my life is moving on, as it should, and it’s filled with work, friends and London.  It wouldn’t be healthy to live the rest of my life as the person who’s just got back from travelling.  But for today, my head is filled with pho and dentists and cockerels and communism and paddy fields and motorbikes and evening exercise in the park.  One day, we’ll go back.

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This post was written for Photo Friday at Delicious Baby

I came across this post today whilst looking for something else. Thought I’d share.

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Water drips in fat splashy drops from every leaf of every tree.  It stopped raining half an hour ago, but it’s never dry.  Won’t be for months.  We’re right in the middle of the wet season, after the humid, temper-inducing build up, and before the violent storms of the knock ‘em down season.  Over a couple of months, the heavens are dumping their annual load of rain on Australia’s tropical far north.  We fall asleep to the thundering of torrential rain on our canvas roof, which almost, but not quite, drowns out the crickets, frogs and other noisy nocturnal creatures.  We wake up to the gentle pattering of drops on the deck outside.   Throughout the day, rain comes in waves, sometimes a fine mist that settles on your hair like dew, sometimes so heavy that it’s like standing under a dinner-plate sized shower head on the needley setting.  Occasionally, the rumble of thunder adds a bass note to the music of constant dripping and splashing.

Nothing, is dry.  The grass squelches as you walk, noisily sucking flip flops from feet, mud splattering up bare legs.  Clothes remain damp, day after day and mould creeps furtively across any surface that doesn’t move.  Sometimes the fierce tropical sun burns its way brightly through the heavy grey clouds, scenting the damp, steamy air with warm eucalyptus.

The rain performs magic tricks on the landscape.  Grass seeds that lie dormant in the cracked, red earth during the dry, suddenly shoot into poker straight, rusty pink and pale green spears, taller than a man, obscuring giant termite mounds and providing shelter for venomous snakes.  Trickling creeks become swollen torrents, drowning bridges and turning a gentle walk into an Indiana Jones adventure.  Roads and swimming holes are closed, as crocs take advantage of the rushing water to make their way from the coast into the deep interior.  Tiny flowers of every colour bloom for a short season.  Earth that’s organgey red when dry, takes on the colours of ancient rust and livid purple bruises.

We have the place to ourselves, everyone else is scared off by the rain.  Mile upon mile of stunning impenetrable forest teeming with wildlife, the noise of flowing water the constant soundtrack to our days.  I feel very privileged to be here now, alone, in this beautiful place.  But I’m glad we’re not here in the knock ‘em down season.

Language is endlessly fascinating.  I’ve been hooked ever since I found out as a small child that Inuits have hundreds of words for snow.  In reality they don’t actually have many more words for snow than us, they just create compound words to increase their vocabulary, but the idea that a language reflects the experience of the people who speak it has stayed with me.

Sometimes I come across a word that I wish had an equivalent in English, because I know it would be useful.  Like the Japanese word Age-otori, which means to look worse after a haircut.  Why do we not have such a word?  I know I’ve had haircuts that could be described by this.

Other times, the foreign word has no equivalent because the concept is so uniquely of that country.  Take Arigata-meiwaku, another Japanese word.  It describes an act someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favour, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude.  For me this perfectly sums up my view of the Japanese as being hyper sensitive about social convention.

Another word that, to me, is uniquely of that country, is the Russian word toska.  It’s described by Vladmir Nabokov thus:  At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.  In England, we’re just bored.  In Russia, one has a dull ache of the soul.

In Indonesian there’s a word, jayus, which means a joke which is so unfunny, it makes us laugh.  This is presumably very useful for Indonesian parents of children under the age of seven and should definitely have an English equivalent.

When we were in Northern Thailand, we stayed in an Akha hilltribe village in the jungle.  The guesthouse manager had been helping an anthropologist to create an Akha dictionary.  It was fascinatingly full of words that have no proper equivalent in English, many of them jungle related.  But the one that stuck with me most, the meaning, not the word, which sadly I’ve forgotten, is to hold the hand of a person as they’re dying.  I would like to live in a society which has that word.