Follow Amanda & Rob around the world for a year. From 30 September 2005!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Winding down

Well I thought it was about time that I tried writing a blog entry again as Rob is getting far too many compliments on his writing :-)

We are currently in Beijing, staying with a friend of Rob’s and gradually preparing for our return home by buying up half the DVDs in China. In fact the total is at 250 right now...well at 40p a go, it's hard not to!

Since we last wrote, we have been up to quite a bit. We spent some time in Laos after Vietnam - Laos was a beautiful country. After Vientiane, the capital (where we learned to weave), we spent one week in Luang Prabang, spending two days trekking in the wonderful scenic hills, our overnight stay being in a small village where the people are pretty much self-sufficient, working in the rice fields and building their own houses. We were honoured to stay in the Chief’s house, Rob even managing a round of Laos wine with him (a bit like schnapps), which certainly helped sleeping on thin mattresses on a wooden floor. The houses were made of bamboo, the village shower was cold spring water coming out of a bamboo hose rigged up so it poured into the stream, and the land in amongst the houses resembled a clean(-ish), dry farmyard, with pigs, chickens and dogs running around causing us both much entertainment (yes, even though I grew up on a farm!).

After Laos we headed back to Thailand, to it's 2nd largest city, Chiang Mai, where we went to 3 days' worth of cooking classes at a fantastic school, which we thoroughly enjoyed. It wasn’t only cooking, but also presentation and the fine art of vegetable carving. This provided much entertainment for me as I watched while Rob aggressively gouged his leaves from a piece of cucumber instead of daintily carving them (as I did, of course). In any case, we really hope to cook ‘proper’ Thai food for our families and friends as soon as we can when we’re home. Which, as many of you already know, is not far off now….

As well as learning whilst travelling, we have also developed certain habits… well I have anyway. You may even call them addictions…

Scarves. And cappuccino.

The scarf thing came about only recently when in Luang Prabang – having learned to weave and seen scarves being woven, I became suddenly interested in buying as many as I could carry in all sorts of designs and colours. Rob even talked about getting a second job to fund my new obsession…
But the cappuccino thing, well anyone who knows me will know that I am a tea-lover and have never drunk a cup of coffee in my life… but now I can admit that I am fully fledged coffee lover as well (well Rob claims that cappuccino isn’t as ‘manly’ as coffee, but it’s the best I can do right now). In fact, because you can’t really get a proper (by my standards) cup of tea here, I search the menus instead for coffee. And I cannot believe what I have been missing out on all my life! No Nescafe for me though, only the proper stuff ;-)

We are in Beijing for a little while, going camping at the Great Wall of China this weekend. Completely illegal apparently but will be a fantastic way to see the wall, although I’ll have to go without the luxuries of a bathroom, bed etc. Soon we fly to Frankfurt to see our old offices and colleagues, before finally returning home….. and I’ll be in touch with everyone as soon as possible!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Close Shaves in South East Asia

Well it has been a while, and it is peeing it down with rain here in Luang Prabang in Laos, as it does most afternoons here, so I am a sorry, soggy figure typing another blog entry.

Our last update involving anything not on wheels was from Thailand. Since then we have been through Cambodia, Vietnam and we are now in Laos, heading back into northern Thailand next weekend. We have seen many many temples, often accompanied by monks wearing bright orange, which makes for great photos. Angkor Wat in Cambodia was truly spectacular, great fun to explore the ruins a la Indiana Jones.

Cambodia is still a very poor country, still recovering from the atrocities of the seventies and eighties. It is frankly unbelievable that the trials of the leaders are only just starting – at a time when most of them are dead or on their last legs. Most of the country lives on less than a dollar a day. Despite this though, they are really a friendly bunch. I know one shouldn’t generalize, but we were much more comfortable in Cambodia than in Vietnam, where we found people to be pushy and aggressive, and on many occasions they would actually tell us bare-faced lies.

But traveling through such poor countries can be tough. Obviously, it makes us realize again how lucky we are to be born when and where we were, but there is also the question of what you can do to help these people. Giving money to every child begging is not going to help, and actually makes the problem worse because, if kids can make money from begging then there is no long-term incentive to get off the streets. In Phnom Penh, and elsewhere, there are plenty of restaurants which take kids off the streets and teach them to cook or be waiters and give them a chance for a new life. So we were more than happy to help out by eating at these places. We have had some excellent food here – some great French restaurants in Vietnam, and some curry houses in Laos which, dare I say it, are on a par with Bradford (and cheaper!).

One moment that really hit me hard was when we were in Hoi An, having a vastly overpriced coffee and a cake in a café catering to Westerners. A little boy appeared trying to sell a newspaper to each customer, but each customer politely refused. No surprise really as you are approached every five minutes by someone wanting to sell you a newspaper, and once you have bought one, you don’t really need another. Anyway, this kid was ushered out of the café by a waitress and when I next looked up he was stood in the doorway crying his eyes out. Not fake tears, but you could see they were tears of absolute desperation. It must be so hard for an 8-year-old to see all these white people with so much money, and not one of them wants to buy a paper so that he could buy a baguette to eat. However, when I tried to buy a paper from the same lad the next day, he ignored me and rode off on his bike. There’s just no pleasing some people.

I am also trying to support the locals by never shaving myself, but paying barbers to shave me instead. OK, it is more about me being lazy than helping the locals but at 30p a go, it is worth every penny. Ten months ago before we left, my Mum told me to take care of Amanda, to not drink so much as to make myself ill (this is her advice on most occasions when I leave the house) and to be careful and avoid tricky situations. And I realized the other day that maybe I have got a bit lax, as I am now sitting down in a chair and trusting a stranger who I have never met and cannot speak my language, and has seen my money belt bulging under my shirt, to hold a very sharp blade in very close proximity to my throat. My first shave was interesting as after doing a good job on my chin and neck area he proceeded to shave my forehead. I wasn’t aware that my upper face had become hairy but it is now as smooth as a baby’s bottom. After successfully de-fluffing my entire face, my barber said ,”Ears?”, to which I foolishly replied ,”Errr, yes”. Next thing I know he is sticking metal rods and small toilet brushes into my ears and pulling out dead flies and bits of chewing gum. A very strange feeling, but when he started prodding rods into the corners of my eyes, I called it a day.

We watched the world cup final from our hotel room in South Cambodia in the wee small hours. We will remember it not for Zidane’s headbutt, but for very different reasons, as Amanda woke up in a whole world of pain just before the game. We thought she had been bitten on her arm by a particularly viscious mosquito, but about an hour later spotted a small scorpion on the wall who had obviously decided it might be nice to cuddle up with us in bed. We caught it in a glass and gave it to the guesthouse owner the next morning who informed us that it wasn’t poisonous, and probably popped it into a curry for lunch. I am pleased to report that the pain finally subsided about 12 hours after the bite, and Amanda is fully recovered and still has both arms fully-functioning.

In Hoi An, the tailoring capital of Vietnam, we had whole new wardrobes made. It got a little out of control actually, but at 5 pounds a shirt and 25 pounds for a suit it was rude not to. Such good customers were we at one tailor, that we were invited to her daughter's wedding party, which was fantastic. A much more basic affair than in Europe, in a kind of covered car park with plastic chairs and tables for 400 people and a crate of beer under each one. And so we drank and we ate and they played incredibly loud europop techno music and the happy couple appeared and said something and we drank and then the karaoke started, and guests of varying musical ability sang (complete with a dry ice machine - now that is classy) and we drank some more. Now, we had read of one tailor on the internet (I won't write his name just in case he 'googles' himself and finds my tale), who is apparently a little shoddy and is a bit of a legend because, well, let's just say his favourite part of the job is probably the inside leg measurement of his male customers. We decided to avoid that tailor, awarding our multi-billion dong clothes manufacturing contract to two other tailors. So imagine my joy when, out of the four hundred people at the wedding, I introduced myself to my neighbour and it was none other than the afore-mentioned tailor. But, we had a pleasant evening. He seemed to quite like me in fact, and offered me a lift back into town on his moped. It would have been impolite to refuse, so I clung on to him, looking straight ahead, avoiding the knowing winks of the crowds of Westerners lining the streets.

We spent a day in Vientiane learning to weave on a traditional Lao Heath-Robinson-esque weaving machine. Was interesting, but hard work and was the most we have had to concentrate in months. By the end of the day, we were proud to have produced a couple of truly magnificent, if not very sizeable, works of art. When we get them home, we hope to sew them together to make a drinks coaster.

Anyway, I realise that, again, I haven't written too much of what we have seen and done, but hey, it won't be long now until you all get the 3 hour long multi-media photomatasmical phonofantastical show with knobs on. So there is something to look forward to......