Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Things I Miss About England #9 : Galleries (again)

Yes I know I did "galleries" before but I wanted to post a link and this seemed a good series to post it in.
Some years ago, when it was located on the South Bank, I paid my first visit to the Saatchi Gallery, which has since it's move to Chelsea become one of my firm favourites.
There were exhibitions there by many of the luminaries of modern art - Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Rachel Whiteread and so on but one of the outstanding shows, for me at least, was Ron Mueck's gallery. Mueck, for those who haven't encountered him, does hyper-realistic sculptures of people. They are so realistic that from any distance, even a few inches, they look like real, living people... or they would if not for one thing. They are always done to a different scale. So you get half size people lying naked on the floor, or faces that occupy entire walls but all of them riveting in the detail and the amazing quality of execution.
Some modern art I see and forget, some I see and remember.
Ron Mueck's work is unforgettable.

And now, loathe as I am to post a link to the Daily Mail, here is the link to an unexpectedly good article with a lot of pictures.


Ron Mueck

Monday, 30 December 2013

A Review of the Year

Well, it's certainly been a year of ups and downs. Pity it's ended on quite a lot of downs but that's how life goes sometimes.
So let's begin at the beginning back in January when I had a holiday in Beijing which feels like a lifetime ago. It was a great holiday and even though I've visited the place half a dozen times now it never fails to be interesting. This time the highlights were seeing a deserted section of the Great Wall covered in snow, finding a few excellent beers and some amazing pizza, wandering round the Summer Palace – again covered in snow, finding an English Language bookshop and filling my suitcase with cheese to take back to Baiyin.

After that things chugged on like the Grand Old Duke Of York's Men – neither up nor down –   until May when I was introduced to Teresa and life started looking up. Soon my western friends were saying what a great couple we make and my Chinese friends, as Chinese friends are prone to do, were asking when (not even "if") we would get married. This is the first question on most Chinese people's mind apparently. Say “hi” to a woman once and everyone wants to set a wedding date.
Well sorry to disappoint but we are happy keeping things on the boyfriend-girlfriend track right now.
Summer saw me teaching summer school and visiting Yangshuo, where the school was located, was a high though discovering that a mix up meant I would only be paid half what I thought and would end up losing money dampened the end a bit. Of course Teresa came down to stay for a week which was another high but our only serious argument to date marred the end of that a little.
We sorted it out though and life in Baiyin resumed it's normal course with the addition of some new teachers to the City – Kelly and Anthony. That brought it up to five with me, Carol and Megan – Ben and Jess having already left.
A dark undercurrent started to flow in around mid October with rumours that next year the number of teachers would be cutback to two. As always in China getting hard information was – and still is – difficult. No one here will ever come right out and tell you bad news. They hint, they suggest, they offer tantalising clues. What they never do is tell you anything straight. It's cultural and to us seems a very odd – and extremely frustrating – way of going about things. They are completely direct with personal remarks – like my student telling me I'm too fat – but with something important it can be like pulling teeth to get the necessary answers.
The end of October had an up that turned into a down with Carol's Hallowe'en party. This was an event that she organised at a cafe where the kids paid a small fee and had an evening of English games, fun and dressing up. It was fun but afterwards, when planning a similar Christmas party it was made clear to us in no uncertain terms that this is something we cannot do. We can organise no events – and especially no paid events – without the express permission of the school. Permission that we would be unable to get, so no point in asking.

The dark rumblings continued. Our administrator had a “secret” meeting with me and Carol indicating that we would be staying next term but all the other teachers were likely to be gone. This was secret until ten minutes later when I called the other teachers and told them everything that had been said. We do things differently in the west and I don't like keeping secrets that affect people's lives. The trouble with this new plan was that it involved a fifty percent increase in workload, one of us living on campus in the west of the city and no pay rise.
No one was happy.
Two teachers were officially told they would be leaving – and given that one of them, like me, now had a Chinese partner, this was not welcome news.
A little rise in fortunes came when I was asked to go back to Yangshuo during Spring Break to do some teacher training – an area I have long been interested in.
Then I slipped and broke my knee.
Then my girlfriend was put into a new post at work which means we hardly ever see each other.
Then my gout returned.
As lovely a string of “downs” as you could hope to end the year on.
The resulting plaster cast will however be off in time for me to still to the teacher training.
Now the third teacher's departure has been confirmed but with the slight good news that both Carol and I will be staying and the workload won't increase because another school has decided to do without. That's lucky because if it had I would be put in the impossible position of choosing between an intolerable job in the city with Teresa or a tolerable one in a city without her.

And that is how everything stands as the new year races towards us.
As I said, a year of ups and downs. 
But the ups were good enough to make the downs seem unimportant, and you can't really ask for more.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

And a Merry Christmas To Me Part 6: And...

And... the water supply to my apartment is off.

And A Merry Christmas To Me Part 5:The return of Tòngfēng*

Never ever allow yourself to believe that things can't get worse.
So, where were we - leg plastered, finger splinted, ears cleaned, moderately annoyed at having to unexpectedly teach primary school. Yes that's about it. 
My weekend was, of course, not especially pleasant but nor was it entirely intolerable. I was in my apartment with my computer and TV, people visited me. I visited the hospital. 
On Monday I had to go to school for four lessons. It proved possible with the aid of taxis and a lunchtime spent in the coffee shop instead of going home.
What hadn't proven possible was putting a sock onto my right foot so I went without one.
During the day my foot became more and more painful which I attributed merely to the cold.
On Tuesday I enlisted help to put on my sock and taught again.
Same on Wednesday but the pain was becoming worse.
On Wednesday evening, when my friends were all having a jolly Christmas dinner at one of the teacher's apartment I sat and ate an OK dinner of mince, veg and potatoes and watched TV - but my foot was getting worse. 
I was cheered when my girlfriend arrived unexpectedly and even more cheered - though perhaps I shouldn't admit it - by the prescription of ibuprofen in her bag.
I took some but it didn't help. 
We peeled off my sock and looked at my foot. It was a) swollen, b) red and c) shiny.
I realised almost immediately that my gout was back, perhaps exacerbated by the poor circulation in a plastered leg and the cold on my sockless Monday.
Over the next hour the pain increased to the point where I knew I needed to go to the hospital for better pain medication.

And so I spent last night in hospital again.

Now I am back in my apartment - under orders to walk no more than the few steps from bed to armchair and wondering how things will get worse.

Because I know that they can.

*Tongfeng is Chinese for gout but it sounds so much better in the title.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

And A Merry Christmas To Me: Part 4: Nothing Like Sympathy

Although I had left hospital and returned to my apartment I still had a few days when I needed to visit as an outpatient, have the plaster checked and spend another hour receiving medicine from a drip that could be administered in five seconds by injection.
No matter. It's an hour sitting on a bed reading. 
So while that was going on my administrator - who I am becoming increasingly less impressed with - called and said a car would come for me. To take me home, I thought.
It turned out that I was wrong. She had decided to send someone who had fractured his kneecap three days earlier to do an (unpaid) days work in a primary school where the kids were having a Christmas party. It involved walking and standing and entertaining five-to-nine-year-olds for about five hours. The only respite was a sit down lunch which, though rather nice, was up several flights of stairs including some ice-covered exterior ones.
When it became clear that I couldn't do any more they took me home and on the way asked what time I could come next day.
I was quite firm in my statement that I couldn't.
L later discovered that she had asked one of the teachers who said she couldn't do it because she had flu, asked another who couldn't do it because she was out of the city, asked another  who couldn't do it because she didn't feel well and then , as a last resort come to me but in my case she didn't even ask. She just arranged it and sent me to struggle through.
The Chinese, or some of them anyway, have odd notions about sympathy and convalescence. 
It should also be noted that I was talking last night to the teachers from my school. It seems that what started out as a polite "when will he be able to return to work" inquiry by the school was filtered through her brain to arrive at me as "you must return to school on Friday" - less than two full days after the accident.
In the past she's been pretty good but this year things are far less rosy.

And A Merry Christmas To Me Part 3: Ear Wax

So, there I was, in plaster, in bed, in hospital, in Baiyin, in China and it occurred to me that now might be a good time to see to another very minor but rather irritating problem that had been bothering me for a while. Ear wax.
Every few years ago the wax in my ears begins to build up and I go to see the nurse at my local GP to get something done about it. She gives me ear drops that I use for about a week to soften it and then one more visit and a syringe full of warm water squirted into the ear washes it all out. Hey presto, done for another few years.
I mentioned it to Doctor Hu who arranged a visit later thta morning to the relevant department. When I arrived I was a litt;e disconcerted to see a large tray filled with long thin knives, spoons and needles.
They proceded to use these implements of torture - and I am choosing my words with precision - to poke, prod and scrape all the way down to my ear drum. It took about twenty minutes and I will admit that it was so painful I was screaming out like a baby. For the whole time I was terrified that one small slip could render me permanently deaf.
Eventually the looked again and declared my ears to be a wax free zone. There was however, they said, always the risk of infection from this non-too-gentle process so I would have to use ear drops for a few days to prevent it. The handed me a bottle. It was very clearly labelled - in English - "EYE DROPS". I pointed this out and they told me that it's the same thing. It's rather concerning that they think eyes and ears are the same thing, though they probably meant that the drops are the same, or at least will both do the job of preventing infection.
All the same, next time I feel myself going deaf I will wait till I can go see a nurse in the UK.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

And A Merry Christmas To Me Part 2: Random Observations from a Hospital Bed

So, I spent a couple of days in hospital until they were happy that - cast and all - I could function in my apartment. I noticed a few things while I was there.

1. The traditional hospital visiting gift in these parts isn't flowers or grapes... it's milk. Every visitor seemed to bring me another box of it. If I'd stayed in a few more days  could probably have opened a dairy.

2. One of the teachers who visited me later gave my phone number to his whole class so that I kept receiving text messages and phone calls from students. One of the, in the middle of the conversation, said, "Forgive me to say this - I think you fall because you are too fat."

3. My doctor's name was Doctor Hu.

4. Although I've only been getting western style treatment - no acupuncture or weird TCM concoctions - there are still differences. For example injections are almost never administered here with all drugs necessary being given by IV drip. This may have sound medical reasons but it leads to a very boring hour of lying flat doing nothing.

5. And speaking of which... when, On Sunday, I had the last of them they communicated this fact to me with a sentence translated by a phone app into English. It read, rather ominously I thought, "your liquid has no tomorrow.".

5. Having never fractured my patella in England I don't know the normal length of time someone would take off for such an injury but given that people sneeze twice and take a week I'll bet it's more than I got here. I did it at 2:17 on Wednesday and was required back in class at 2:30 on Friday.

6. Although smoking is supposed to be banned in the hospital whenever doctors or nurses came into the room the smell of smoke was detectable as soon as they opened the door. These visits were frequent as just about every member of the hospital staff wanted to come and see the foreigner in their midst.

7. You should not, no matter how much it is needed, ever get the wax cleaned out of your ears in a Chinese hospital... and you will learn why in the next post.

8. The nine-year-old girl who is my private student was, so her father says, so worried about me she made him bring her to visit. She brought flowers... and milk.

And a Merry Christmas To Me: Part 1 - Ice can be slippery

The title of this piece, as will rapidly become apparent, is meant in the spirit of irony rather than sincerity.
It all started last Wednesday at 2:17 p.m.
The walk from my apartment to my school is a short one, a mere five minutes amble so, as is my custom, I left my apartment at 2:15 to be early for my 2:30 class. My step was jaunty, my coat was warm and I had a tape recorder for the lesson firmly grasped in my hand.
I went down the five flights of stairs, round the block, through the gates and exited onto the street. There my foot collided with the curb and I stumbled forward. I might have recovered had I not stepped onto a patch of ice. I slipped and was pitched through the air by my momentum. The cassette recorder went flying from my hand. I put out my arms to break my fall. It was no good. My left hand and my right knee hit the floor simultaneously.
Passers by hurried to help. My leg was scraped and two fingers were bent at angles that fingers are not designed to bend at. Two kids from my school - though not my class - helped me to the school premises and then went off to fetch a teacher.
For the moment any pain was being masked by the shock.
Teachers came.
Kids departed, taking my cassette to the office as they went.
A taxi was called.
Five minutes later I was at the hospital.
They cleaned up my knee and examined me.
The escorted me to X-Ray, explaining that they thought my fingers were dislocated rather than broken and that my knee was only grazed.
It turned out that they were half right - the wrong half.
My fingers were indeed dislocated but my knee was another matter. There was a small fracture in the patella.
The fingers were rapidly, if painfully dealt with and a finger guard placed over them to be removed in three weeks when the muscles had healed.
As for the knee they told me not to worry. It was small and would heal easily - given about  six weeks in a plaster cast.
So there went my plans for Christmas and the New Year and there went my plans for a holiday in Shanghai.

Thailand and Laos 1998 - An explanation

It hadn't occurred to me that people might read these posts without noticing the "1998" in the title until a friend asked me about my recent injuries. I was puzzled. I'd had no recent injuries so I didn't know what she was talking about.
When I asked it became clear that she was talking about the "recent" injuries in 1998.

So let me explain.

I tried a month or so ago to access my old web page only to discover that it's no longer there. The excellent waybackmachine  will however let me recover the content which I am posting here a bit at a time so that there is a current record of the stuff that has disappeared.

Any heading with a place and a date is likely to be just such a reposting.

Sorry for any confusion. I'll include an explanation at the top of any similar posts.

Monday, 16 December 2013

The importance of taking your own advice

I should learn to follow my own advice.

When I am training teachers or observing teachers I always stress the importance of having a back-up plan for your lesson. Doing a whizz-bang, super-duper computer based lesson? Have a back up in case the computer fails. Using audio-visual materials? Think about what you'll do if there is no power. Teaching in an unfamilar classroom and want to stick things to the board with magnets? What will you do if it's not magnetic? Even think about what to do if you have no board at all. Always have a back-up plan.
Pride goes before a fall.

At the weekend I spent a lot of time preparing a music lesson - finding and recording the songs I wanted to use. Planning in detail how I would use them and what I would do.

Trouble was I was feeling a bit under the weather and didn't feel well-enough to do the extra effort to make a back-up. Things would be OK, wouldn't they. I've had no difficulties at that school before.

Except that I got in, plugged in my tape player and discovered that the power has been off for three days.
Without the recordings I had no lesson.

Luckily there were a couple of pages in their Chinese book that the teachers said they wouldn't be using so I taught those instead.

Note to self: always follow your own advice.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

A "Things I Miss About England/Put Away Childish Things" crossover

While talking about Christmas television and which bits of it we do and don't miss with a colleague here in China I suddenly realised what I miss most about Christmas TV are the Christmas editions of the Radio and TV Times.
Moreover, what I miss isn't the way they are now because in my head - if not in reality - you have to buy both because, and younger readers may find this hard to believe, once upon a time there were only four channels (three if you go back before 1982) and the Radio Times gave listings for two of them and the TV times gave listings for the other two. All of the other TV guides that clutter up the newsagents shelves didn't exist at all.
So, to get a complete picture of what you might expect to see on TV, you had to buy two guides. They always came out a few weeks before Christmas and sometimes some of the programs were marked as "to be confirmed" but you could take them and put them side by side on the table and work out which programs you wanted to watch.
They were always double issues covering Christmas and the New Year so it could take some time but I remember that I always used to diligently go through them with a pen marking all the things I wanted to see and trying to choose where there was a conflict.
This was, as you may have guessed, not only before the "watch again" features on the internet but before TiVo, before DVDs and even before VCRs. Yes, children, there used to be a time when you couldn't record shows and watch them later, a time when, if there were two shows on different channels, you had to choose which one to watch.
You are right of course - there was never a time before repeats.

Still this isn't nostalgia for television, it's nostalgia for television guides and those magazines, by the time the Christmas period had ended, had been read through and checked so many times that they had fallen to bits. Christmas was the only time of year when every day's programs from the start of broadcasting to the close down was checked  (and yes, there was a time when TV wasn't on 24 hours a day). Who knew what old movies, or unusual series, or interesting cartoons might have been slipped into the schedules at peculiar hours of the day. The only way to be sure you didn't miss something interesting was to check the guides.

Later both magazines started listings for all channels and almost immediately on the heels of that change the shelves seemed to be full of TV guides. You could choose one from about a dozen and use that to plan your seasonal viewing but it wasn't the same.

It wasn't the same at all.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

I appreciate the advice...

I recently posted on Facebook a comment about a student in class here in China. It was nothing very unusual, just the issue all of the teachers here face every day – students doing the homework from other teachers in their class. What made this a little different, and a little amusing, was that the student, instead of trying to hide it, as they usually do, had actually had the cheek to ask me to help him.
A trivial anecdote to be sure but that's what Facebook is for.
It drew a response from an acquaintance who deserves a public acknowledgement of his contribution. He is an unfailing source of inspirational input who never lets his total lack of knowledge on a subject prevent him giving you his opinion the facts. With that in mind, of course I don't feel even slightly insulted by his opening remark that the student clearly finds the other teacher's work more engaging than mine. Why would I? After all, if he suggests that I am not a good teacher, who am I to argue?. He has never seen me teach but why should that matter?
Similarly there is, to my mind, absolutely no hint of passive aggression in his assertion that I must find it “quite difficult to make language teaching interesting”. My teaching qualifications and my years of experience weigh very poorly in the balance when compared to his deductive reasoning skills and his conclusion based on a single paragraph about slightly amusing incident.
Now I don't wish to seem ungrateful, after all I value his input every bit as much as everyone else he interacts with does, but I would like to expand on it a little.
It's clear that the Chinese school day which is, at my school anyway, eleven and a half hours long followed by a minimum of two hours home work each night (and six days a week) will have no influence at all on whether the kids try to do their homework in class time or not. The merest suggestion is ludicrous. If the class is interesting they will be too absorbed to do anything other than listen, won't they?
And if I gave homework (which I am not allowed to do) I am sure that the other teachers would be so interesting that there would be no temptation at all for the students to try to do it in their lessons. In fact it would probably be so dull that they wouldn't do it at all. And who could blame them?
Later he goes on to suggest that as my classes are intended to focus on speaking and listening I could make it a rule that only English is to be spoken in class. It is brilliant in its simplicity. I wonder why I never thought of it. Get them to speak in English. It's quite breathtaking. Of course there would be no difficulty at all in a class of eighty in making sure that everyone speaking at once is speaking English. I shall certainly have to try that.
I might also think of some more rules – don't carve your names in the desk, don't read comics in class, don't set fire to the bookcase, don't play cards. Why this stuff is revolutionary. I must remember to tell the Chinese teachers about it. I'm sure they have never even considered it. I know I haven't.
His support for my difficulty is well expressed when he goes on to say that he “can appreciate the challenge with a class of that size”. Of course he has never tried to teach a class of eighty eleven-year-olds but his theorising is, as always, welcome input.
So to summarise, I am inexpressibly grateful for these invaluable suggestions. As it will take me some time to implement all of this groundbreaking stuff though, I'd appreciate it if there were no more suggestions – at least for the time being.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

10 Things I've done in China...

...that I didn't do in England (and the reasons I did them).

In no particular order.

Play dice games in bars.  (Because everybody does)

Drink tasteless 3% lager.  (Because there's nothing else available.)

Eat out more than half the time (Because there are at least twenty good restaurants within five minutes walk of my front door... and all of them are cheap.)

Take taxis everywhere. (Because they range from fifty pence to a pound for anywhere in the city.)

Walk out in front of cars and hope that they will stop. (Because if you don't it is impossible to cross the street.)

Use Facebook (Because it's the only way to communicate with SOME of my friends.)

Take a 140 km round trip for a pizza. (Because sometimes you just gotta have pizza.)

Sing in KTV - the Chinese version of Karaoke (Because entertainment possibilities in Baiyin are limited.)

Dress up as Gene Simmons for a Halloween Part. (Because it seemed like a good idea at the time.)

Eat "century eggs" which are green, black and slimy. (Because I was at dinner at someone's house and it seemed impolite not to.)

Saturday, 23 November 2013

To (Never) Put Away Childish Things: Doctor Who

I have to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Doctor's travels somehow - no self-respecting fan with a blog could do otherwise... but how? 
Ah, that's the question isn't it?
I've watched a few of the tribute programs - or, to be more accurate, watched a few minutes of some of the tribute programs and discovered in all but one case that a few minutes was about all I could take. The exception was An Adventure In Space And Time - the dramatisation of the Hartnell years. It was pretty good though I thought the Matt Smith cameo was self-indulgent and pointless and the casting of Reece Shearsmith was no more than blatant and ludicrous croneyism. Still he was only onscreen for about thirty seconds and it was, all in all, a decent showing.

But what about me? How should I mark the anniversary?
I could point out that I am old enough to have watched it from the start and that, indeed, since that start I have never missed an episode (apart from the whole of  The Season That Does Not Exist - some of you know the one I mean).
I could arbitrarily choose a doctor as fans are wont to do and say "this was my doctor", but I like them all. They are all "my doctor" from Hartnell to Smith. 
I could choose a few favourite stories and praise them above all others but throughout the entirety of the show there have been good stories, indifferent stories and bad stories and on the whole I've enjoyed all of it.
I could search my memory for anything that is specific to me as a fan but I have never really been into the whole fandom scene and so my memories of the show are the general public's memories of the show and there are no stand out memories for me. Never did want to be a talking head for the show anyway.
I could tell you that I have been having my own private celebration for the last couple of weeks, listening to a bunch of Big Finish audios for all the various incarnations available. Some of them are very good indeed with the sixth and eighth doctors being especially well served by the audio format.
I could, I suppose, write a poem.

But I shan't do any of those things.

Instead I shall just say that I hope to live to be 106 and to repost, trembling geriatric fingers permitting, this entry on the hundredth anniversary.

I wonder who the doctor will be then. Perhaps the actor who will be playing the role has yet to even be born. I have no doubt that the show will still be around.

Happy Birthday Doctor.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Thailand And Laos 1998: Day Nine

The Road to Laos was rough and unpaved for much of its length and we bounced along it uncomfortably for several hours, with only a very brief stop to buy drinks and stretch our legs, before reaching the border post at Chiang Khong. Here we went through the rituals of getting our exit documents stamped before the tiny ferries took us over the river and into Laos where we disembarked at Ban Huay Xai which was another border town, not unlike the one we were leaving. We went through the rituals of getting our entry documents stamped. These formalities were a little more time consuming. Laos has only a short history of allowing tourists into its borders and the communist government still likes to keep a reasonable check on who they are and where they are going. This means that every time you pass from one of the seventeen provinces into another your documents must be endorsed on both sides of the 'border'. Those of us who managed to get through the queues quickly said goodbye to Wit and hello to our new guide, the remarkably named Lamb Pie before wandering down to the tiny window where the local money changer was struggling to cope with this sudden rush.. There were a large number of backpackers about, the first independent travellers I had really noticed and we chatted to them for a while until everyone was ready and then hauled ourselves up the hill to the nameless thoroughfare that forms Huay Xai's only street and along it to the most flea ridden and disgusting hotel that it has ever been my misfortune to encounter.
As we entered the 'lobby' - which was open to the street as were all of the buildings along the road, words failed almost everyone. It felt like being in a film about a group of ill-matched forsaken characters meeting in a shabby hotel at the ends of the Earth. There was a wooden desk upon which the room keys were scattered like dead leaves. In the corner a television set flickered without sound, its picture breaking up and reforming in random cascades of static. A threadbare and torn leather sofa sat at the bottom of a wooden staircase. I could imagine Sidney Greenstreet sitting on it mopping sweat from his brow with a grimy handkerchief as the wind from the street stirred the dust up around his feet. It simply oozed with the feeling that we must be real travellers because no tourist would ever put up with this.
If the lobby made us into travellers then the rooms made us into explorers. I was sharing with Robert. Entering our ground floor room was like entering a prison cell in a third world gaol. The only window was boarded up with a piece of dirty wood and covered by an ineffectual metal mosquito mesh admitting a minimal amount of light through a gap of only a couple of inches at the top, too high for us to see through. The furnishings consisted of two beds that were both dirty and uncomfortable and a small metal table. One corner had had a wall built separating off the 'bathroom'.
"En suite, I see". I commented with what I deluded myself was a world weary and sardonic tone.
The 'bathroom' consisted of a toilet bowl and a sink both of which would have been considered a health hazard by the dirtiest rat in the filthiest sewer in the world. The walls in there were even filthier than the ones in the bedroom. I would have suggested that even the bugs would refuse to live there if not for the fact that so much of the wall was covered in spiders' web.
I entered and prodded at the bed.
"I wouldn't sleep in this if I could boil it in disinfectant first."
Robert, who had had more foresight than I, was already digging his sleeping bag out. I had no bag but my plastic rain cape formed a suitable insulating barrier and I determined immediately that I would rather sleep in my clothes than risk the blankets.
Having made our preparations for later we went out for lunch. Across the street was the restaurant. This too was a dirty and fly blown establishment. I joined the unenthusiastic group already there and ordered Basillic Chicken. While I was waiting I examined the bizarre array of condiments on the table. These consisted mainly of pastes and sauces. Each newly opened jar or bottle revealed an even more disgusting concoction than the previous one. One proved to contain a thick brown paste with probably the most revolting smell on Earth. This I decided was most likely Naam Paa Daek, a disgusting concoction made from fermented anchovies. A similar smelling bottle of a thick clear liquid was Naam Paa which is the most commonly used condiment in the country. By the time my food arrived I had lost all appetite.
Ban Huay Xai is described by the Lonely Planet Guide as

'...a bustling riverside town whose main commercial
district centres around the passenger and vehicle
ferry landings for boats to Chiang Khong.'

I noted with interest that it was boats to Chiang Khong not boats from Chiang Khong.
After my unappealing lunch I went to see how far I agreed with the rest of the assessment and was surprised to find that it was not all that far from reality. Although it consisted only of one main street running parallel to the Mekong it did boast a fairly large school and a post office and a market. On the other hand as it bore only the vaguest resemblance to the map in the guide I wasn't sure that we weren't actually in some completely different town with a coincidental name.

I watched the volleyball game at the school for a while, then went up to see the obligatory Wat before heading back to the hotel to read and to position my camera ready for the 'sunset over the Mekong' photograph that was just screaming out to be taken.
We all reassembled for Lamb Pie to give us the run down on the exciting prospects for a night on the town. They amounted to exactly two. As we had already sampled the delightful bistro across the road we ventured north to the town's other restaurant. On the street were dozens of people selling various roasted meats from grills over hot coals. Although the source of the meat was probably better imagined than known they smelled delicious and soon we had an appetite. The restaurant turned out to look surprisingly good and we sat down, ordered our drinks and consulted the menu. Nothing was very appetising and we all chose our own strategies for dealing with it. Robert took the bold gamble strategy and ordered Sukiyaki. I chose the cowards route of the vegetable omelette. The most amazing strategy of all though was Frances'. She read once through the list and decided, not unreasonably, that she didn't like any of it. She summoned a waitress and with Lamb Pie's help explained that what she wanted was for the waitress to go down the road to one of the food sellers and buy her half a roast chicken. Ellen, having seen that this was going to be successful asked for the same and the waitress duly trotted off. I was amazed. It struck me as like going into MacDonald's and asking for them to nip next door for a thin and crispy pepperoni from Pizza Hut. When the food arrived my opinion altered. While their Chicken looked delicious my omelette was pale and bland and the condiments included nothing at all that I would be prepared to eat with which I could spice it up. Robert's Sukiyaki though was the piece de resistance. It bore no resemblance to the usual version of the dish, indeed it bore scant resemblance to anything usually defined as food. It was a bowl of grey greasy water with assorted unidentifiable bits floating in it. He dipped in the fork and fished out something green and vaguely organic. A second attempt speared something that might once have been alive but left strange strands of an almost transparent slime dangling back into the liquid. These may or may not have been the clear noodles that are usually a part of the dish but, if they were, they had been cooked to a very unlikely consistency.Bravely he tried to eat it but after only a few forkfuls pushed it away. I could imagine the waitress in the back saying quietly
"Got somebody with the old Sukiyaki gag again"

Monday, 18 November 2013

Thailand And Laos 1998: Day Eight

Had I realised that today's excursion would turn out to be a series of shopping opportunities I might well have chosen to stay in the hotel again. As it was I was misled by the descriptions and went along with everyone else. It started promisingly enough with a visit to a stupa which was old and grey and not vastly interesting to look at in spite of its impressive size. The accompanying Wat was, unlike others I had seen, open on three sides and had inside a kind of raised platform at the closed end upon which various images of the Buddha were standing. This was a little more interesting as we sat cross legged and shoeless on the floor while Wit tried to teach us the basics of meditation and to explain something to us of Buddhism.
The posture was uncomfortable but Wit spoke entertainingly of the concept of Karma, good deeds being rewarded and bad deeds being punished. I had assumed previously that the punishments and rewards would be delayed until the next life but from Wit's description I gathered that they might be a little more quickly forthcoming.
"Perhaps," he said with the slight hesitancy and bobbing of the head that we had come to know, "If I do good things everything will go well. Uh-huh. Or perhaps if I do bad things my trips will not go so well. You see."
I considered the concept.
"So," I asked eventually "You do bad things on one trip and the next trip doesn't go so well ?"
He nodded at my simplistic explanation.
"I wish you had behaved better on your last trip."
He looked puzzled.
"You drink a little too much whisky last time and I fall down the stairs this time. It doesn't seem very fair does it ?"
After a few moments he worked it out and howled with laughter.
"Uh-huh" he said "Yes perhaps I will not drink too much whisky again."

Outside the stupa was a small market which, had I but realised it, was to be the most minor shopping opportunity of the day. I looked around for a while but found little of interest and soon we were on our way to the Golden Triangle. This is the name given to the region where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet at the confluence of the Mekong, the Ruak and the Sai Rivers. Of course the Golden Triangle is famous in the west for just one thing, Opium. Although the Thai government have spent enormous amounts of money on trying to destroy the opium trade and introduce other crops this has largely resulted in pushing it more and more into Myanmar and Laos. The annual output of the region, mostly from Myanmar, amounts to about 4000 tonnes. Much of the crop from Thailand and Myanmar simply crosses the border into northern Laos where there are many Heroin refineries.

We arrived at a one street town whose name I didn't catch which, in addition to its street had a steep climb up past a Wat to a viewpoint overlooking the river. Once there only two choices of entertainment presented themselves - standing under a sign saying Golden Triangle and having your picture taken with the river in the background or shopping in the row of stalls selling carved goods and clothes. Having climbed painfully up the hill I arrived just in time to climb painfully back down to eat lunch in one of the riverside cafes. Then it was back into the bus to drive on to Mae Sai. The descent into a shopping trip continued unabated as we had a ten minute tour of a jade factory followed by a compulsory visit to the very large and, to my mind rather expensive, factory shop. Clearly other people didn't share my aversion to enforced shopping as almost without exception the group started to bargain for goods. I left them to it and wandered up the road to have a look at the border post. Perhaps my perceptions were being coloured by my aching foot and sour mood but I found it to be an uninteresting feature in an uninteresting town. After about half an hour, with some considerable time left before we were due back at the buses I was getting bored and fed up and starting to wish that I had stayed in Chiang Rai. It was a considerable relief when it was time to go and even more of a relief to realise that we were heading straight back to the hotel.
Back in my room I massaged half a tube of anti-inflammatory gel into my foot in the hope that it might relieve the swelling and ease the pain and then went to the bar for a couple of beers with exactly the same intention.

Having been less than impressed with both the quality and the service during last nights meal tonight I went with Robert, Paula and James in search of a restaurant from the guide called La Cantina. The building where it was marked on the map proved to be opposite a garishly lit and blatantly sleazy sex club. It also proved to be closed. As we had been intending to meet quite a few others at the restaurant we decided to look around in case we had missed it somehow. We had hardly turned the corner when a plump man came running from his pavement restaurant and by sheer force of his salesmanship hauled us in. It was a pleasant enough place even if the TV was playing a Spice Girls concert (thankfully with the sound turned off). We all ordered pizzas from the menu and we were already tucking in when the manager came running over again with a large bowl of cooked diced tomatoes apologising for having forgotten to include them when making the pizzas.
Afterwards we went to an almost empty bar (not one of the sleazy ones) which Paula and James had visited the previous night. Here we met up with all of the others we had been supposed to meet in the restaurant. They informed us that had we walked another twenty yards we would have discovered that La Cantina was simply marked in the wrong place on the map and had a much better, although perhaps a little pricier, meal. While we drank and chatted a band played more bland versions of western pop songs. It had been a depressing, dull and unsuccessful day and after a very short time I decided to cry off and head back to bed. Tomorrow we were going to Laos. I wondered exactly what changes that would herald.


I sometimes have a lunchtime coffee with Megan, one of the other foreign teachers, at the Scha coffee shop on the way home from school. Today as we were drinking the owner walked in carrying a Pizza Hut bag with a pizza in it. We lookde at it and speculated where it might have come from - the only foreign food outlet in Baiyin is a branch of KFC.
Seeing our curiosity the owner gave us both a slice of free pizza. With the aid of the translator on the phone we asked where she had got it.
Sadly the answer was as expected - Lanzhou, the provincial capital which is seventy km away.

It was a nice surprise lunch though.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Thailand And Laos 1998: Day 7

Mr Tah, it turned out was quite an important man locally. He had been leading or assisting with treks for many years as the photographs all over the walls of his home could attest. I was getting the star guest treatment having once more travelled by truck with him. We had about an hour to wait before the others arrived and he was showing me his house. Even as we had driven up it was clear that he was very prosperous by hill tribe standards. It was built on the same basic principle as the huts with the main living area off the ground and reached by steps but that was as far as the resemblance went. Instead of a bamboo construction it was built mainly of wood and whereas the huts were raised about a yard this was more than double that providing what amounted to garage and shed space beneath it. It was also about six times as large as the largest hut I had seen. He invited me in and showed me the mementos of his years as a guide. The earliest showed him as a much younger man in a black T-shirt and sporting shoulder length hair.
"You used to be a hippy then." I commented.
He grinned.
"Yes. Hippy. That was me." he said happily.

All of the walls of the largest room were covered in photographs of him and his family. A couple of closed doors led off - presumably into bedrooms - and a third open one led out onto a balcony which from my brief examination seemed to be the kitchen. I went back downstairs, putting back on my shoes which I had left at the door as is the polite custom. We were only a few yards from the town and I walked down to find the others arriving. Soon everyone was there and we had transferred to minibuses to take us back to civilised lodgings in Chiang Rai.
The hotel, the Lan Kum, was large modern and comfortable and - most important of all - with a shower in every room.. The door of the room displayed a puzzling notice in Thai and eccentric English.

wellcome to Ian kum hotel quests are requested to co operate
withthe hotel's directions here under

1. please deposite the valve belongings with our hotel safty box-
2. we will not be responsible for any artesies lost or stolen ~
in the room
3. iffleage arties are not allowed in the room or within the
premises of the hotel
4. any danger caused to thehotel property during the pestrol of
stay shall be responsible by guests
5. gambling are prohibited in the room
6. please do not disturb your heighbours
7. check out time in 12 hours

thank you
I pondered for a while what an 'iffleage arty' might be, worried in case I might have inadvertently brought one into the room. If not for rule six I might have gone next door to ask the heighbours. 

Showered and changed into clean clothes I left the room, heedless of the artesies that I might lose and went down to the bar to ponder what I might have for lunch. Robert joined me and we decided to go on a quest for western food. Forty five minutes later we were back having failed spectacularly to find any. We had however seen the King Mengrai Monument. As King Mengrai is mostly known for moving his capital out of Chiang Rai and setting up in Chiang Mai it's curious that they honour him here so prominently. More curious still is the vast number of elephant statues that surround his likeness. I can only imagine that he was fond of them in life for he has at least a couple of dozen on hand filling up the end of the street where the monument is located.
Back at the hotel Robert and I decided to eat in and we discovered that they did western food of a sort. I had tomato soup - which was sort of pale pink and creamy but had no obvious tomatoes in it - and ham and eggs which was okay if a little nouvelle cuisine in its portions. Afterwards we wandered around the town fairly aimlessly before splitting up, Robert back to the hotel and me to continue my wanderings in the market. This was mainly a food market and had eggs and meat and bread as well as more esoteric dishes the only easily identifiable one being whole dried frogs. I paid a quick visit to a pharmacy where, with the aid of a note in Thai that I had had Wit write out for me earlier, I replenished the dwindling supplies in my first aid box but by now my foot was throbbing badly and a retreat to the hotel seemed in order so that's what I did and retired to my room with some painkillers and a paperback to spend the rest of the evening doing nothing at all.

Bored of the Dance

My girlfriend loves dancing.
She goes to dance class three evenings and one morning each week. She would really like me to love dancing too but anyone who knows me can take a guess at the likelihood of that happening. To say that I have two left feet would be to ludicrously understate the matter. I am - there is no getting away from it - one of life's clumsy buggers. Nature blessed me with the normal quantity of good qualities but a sense of rhythm and a sense of balance aren't among them. At the age of fifty-six I have barely mastered the skill of walking. I walk into things (and people), trip over paving stones, fall down holes and generally stumble through life with the grace and elegance of a three-legged hippopotamus.

Still, one does what one must and when she asks me to go along and sit in the corner and watch - almost certainly in the hope that I will be moved to join in - I go and sit in the corner and watch and then we go for a drink afterwards.

It's relatively painless, though pretty boring. She did it again last night - asked me to go with her to her dance class at the dance studio I haven't been to before. It was a small room and I stood (there being no chairs) at the back and waited. Occasionally I took a stroll down the dimly lit ninth floor corridor or spent a few minutes gazing out of the window at the lights of Baiyin* but the time passed slowly.

As I mused on the concept of time, I came to a realisation. While you are waiting for the expected end time of something tedious the boredom is of a manageable order. You look frequently at the clock and note with satisfaction that it is moving inexorably  towards the end of the ordeal.
From one second after the expected end time things are a hundred times worse. Now the time drags like a lead weight around your neck. You have nothing to aim for. You cannot mentally say "twenty minutes to go" and ten minutes later say "well, half way there then". They might continue dancing for another five minutes or another five hours. So last nights lesson was, in theory to finish at nine and when it passed nine I found that I was pacing like a caged animal, restlessly marching up and down that corridor, sitting on the sofa that I found tucked in an alcove halfway along, staring uncomprehending at posters written in Chinese and generally wondering what I was doing there at all.
At nine twenty she came and asked me if I was bored. I admitted that I was but assured her that I would be happy to go on waiting as long as was necessary. She said that she would be a few more minutes - twenty more to be precise and even then she was leaving primarily because she had taken pity on me - the others in her group were still dancing.

I don't think I could dance if my life depended on it so I'm hoping that eventually she'll accept that my watching her practice in a group is unlikely to change the situation.

To Put Away Childish Things: Alpine

A facebook page dedicated to seventies and eighties nostalgia posted a picture of an Alpine pop bottle. Until I saw it I had completely forgotten about those. They used to be delivered regularly on a lorry (just as milk always used to be, and still is in some places) and the pop man would take away the empties and leave the new selection. We always got through our bottles (three each week, if memory serves) by the middle of the week and eagerly awaited the next delivery like the little sugar junkies we were.
When he came we would go out and look at the array of improbably coloured liquids on offer, choose this week's flavours and my mother would pay for them. Though the page is about the seventies and eighties I remember them well back into the sixties and according to a little internet research they continued trading, though rather desperately, into the nineties.
I remember some of the flavours - the vivid pink cherryade, the not-quite-clear lemonade, the even-more-not-quite-clear cream soda, the startling yellow pineappleade and, of course the almost black dandelion  and burdock.
I'm sure that they were full of ghastly chemicals that made us into hyperactive monsters and the flavours were as bright and unlikely as the colours. The cream soda (which I think was called Ice Cream Soda) and the dandelion and burdock were, at least in my memory, particularly odd-tasting.
I can still imagine the tastes now.
What I remember especially is that it came in large chunky bottles that were too big for the fridge and were lined up on the shelf in the corner of the kitchen making a psychedelic light show of rippling stripes when the sun shone through them.
I have a vague recollection that we also bought squashes and mixers from the same lorry in the run up to Christmas, but that may just be my imagination.

Seeing it on someone else's nostalgia page brought all the memories back.

Well that's different #12: Crime And Punishment

I had a particularly bad class last week. They were noisy, difficult to control and generally badly behaved. As I sometimes do I gave them some homework as a punishment. They had to write fifty words about "Why I was bad in class today" (they're only eleven!).
On Friday the class monitor handed me a pile of papers. Later glancing through them before I threw them out (well I'm not going to punish myself by marking them, am I) I came across this in one of them

"Teacher, I am sorry I am naughty. If I am naughty again please hit me."

Interesting mindset these children have.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Thailand And Laos 1998: Day Six

I slept better than the night before – albeit in twenty minute bursts that came suddenly and painfully to an end each time I turned my head onto the side with the bandage. Nevertheless in the morning I was feeling less of a prat and more optimistic about the remainder of the trip. The only thing that I was not looking forward to was the removal of the stitches. This, I had been instructed, must be in exactly seven days. In seven days time I would be in Luang Prabang in Laos. I always find the Lonely Planet Guides to be invaluable reference works when travelling and yesterday evening while waiting for dinner I had checked out what it had to say about Laos' medical facilities.
"...the availability of decent medical services is practically nil."
"...the state run hospitals are among the worst in South East Asia in terms of hygiene, staff training, facilities and medicine"
It wasn't an experience I was looking forward to but for the moment I tried to put it out of my mind.
The clinic seemed to have made a neat job of the stitches although the wound was still oozing quite a lot of blood. My foot was considerably more painful than it had been and the bruising more extensive. It was clear that today I would need to be in the truck again.
The trucks are of an unusual design. They have no cabin and virtually no suspension although they are unbelievably robust and more like a tractor in their construction. The most unusual and unnerving feature for someone riding in the front is that part of the engine consists of a large metal flywheel which protrudes up through the floor of the foot-well and spins rapidly and dangerously mere centimetres from your leg.
We drove past the others on our way out of the village, waving to them as if we were royalty, and soon were bouncing along the dirt tracks to the next village. Yesterday I hadn't really been in a position to look about me but today was different and although the motion of the truck was too extreme to allow photography I could at least sit and appreciate the scenery. It was pretty rather than beautiful and pleasant rather than spectacular but naturally when Mr. Tah asked me what I thought of his country I was a little less reserved in my praise.
It was less than an hour's drive to the Akha village which was tonight's stop. We drove into it through a gate surmounted by a wooden cross. I wondered if perhaps the villagers were Christians. The guide book gave no indication of this and when I asked I was told that they have a predominantly animist religion. Mr. Tah couldn’t explain the cross.
I was sitting reading when everyone else arrived, saying that the walk had been hard and hot, but a late lunch and a few relatively cold drinks soon perked them up. One of the village women laid out a number of handmade items - hats, bags, purses and so on - for sale. She was clearly making them for the tourists but the designs were identical to the ones the villagers used and the materials authentic. For example the small white beads that looked for all the world like plastic were actually, investigation revealed, the dried hard seed pods of one of the local plants. She also didn't really try to sell anything, simply laying them out on the table and leaving people to express an interest. It was a strategy that worked. Soon she had sold most of her stock and was busy on custom orders for those who had missed out.
A group had decided to go down to the river and I thought that this would be as good a time as any to check out how well my foot was getting on. So with half a dozen others I started down the trail. It was quite a long way but apart from the occasional sharp pain when I stepped awkwardly I could walk reasonably well if not very quickly. By the time I arrived, Paula and James had already waded across the water and were sitting in the shade on the far side. Ian, Don and Ellen had changed into swimming costumes and moved downstream into the deeper water where a group of about half a dozen naked Thai children were watching them with curiosity. I paddled around in the shallows letting the cold water ease my foot and bring out the bruising. The whole area around my little toe was almost black but not especially painful. We stayed for about an hour before heading back. On the way down I had seen the village schoolhouse and now going back I decided to take a closer look. It was a single room building which was presently unoccupied. Inside there were all of the usual signs of infant scholastic activity. The walls were covered in drawings and paintings that could have come from any English school with matchstick Mommy and matchstick Daddy towering over tiny trees beneath improbably coloured skies. There was a blackboard and desks but not very many books. One book, which was hanging on the wall on a string I examined more closely. It was a picture book without any words and looking through I realised that it did not need any. It was a morality tale that was only appropriate to the Eastern world. The pictures showed in sequence a village man selling his daughter to a stranger in a suit and the gradual degradation of the daughter in the city until she was arrested for drug possession and prostitution. The final pictures showed her grieving parents as she died, presumably of Aids. It was a sobering thought to realise that the situation in the villages was such that this kind of cautionary tale was needed.
There was to be an 'entertainment' for us this evening. When I had heard this I had my usual churlish thoughts about cultural shows but in the event the 'entertainers' turned out to be half a dozen village girls aged about seven or eight who sang and danced some traditional Akha songs while their proud parents and teacher looked on. One parent who was not as proud of her offspring was the mother of the four year old boy who could not be kept off the 'dance floor'. He showed an amazing ability to slip from her grasp and join the dancers who became increasingly irate at being upstaged. Try as she might his mother simply could not restrain him and could only retrieve him with difficulty. Her embarrassment grew more or less in proportion to the dancers irritation until she finally took him away to put to bed.

Well that's different #11: Music Interludes

The end of lessons here is not usually indicated by a bell, as in England, but but music played over the school announcement system. Some schools play the same music at the end of each lesson; others, like mine, play different music at the end of each lesson.

Mozart is popular, as is Beethoven. Richard Clayderman is inexplicably more popular than the two of them put together. My school, in addition to the aforementioned trio, likes in the afternoon to end the three twenty  lesson with a taped lecture - in English - on the subject of "Ambition". This has replaced last year's taped lecture on the subject of "Why Books Are Your Best Friend".

The thing that's different is the piece of music that is now being played at the end of the four O'clock lesson. Quite why the school has chosen Carl Douglas 1974 disco hit is something of a mystery but it undeniably qualifies qualifies as different.

I'm hopingto persuade them to use "We don't need no education" next year.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Things I Miss About England #7: Sunday

There are precisely five foreigners resident in Baiyin and we all get together at very frequent intervals to have dinner, drink beer or sing KTV. It's all very good but, honestly, there's something about it that is just a little bit lacking. Something that's not quite right. Last night, however, was different. I called Carol but she had tonsillitis. Kelly was off  in some fantasy world killing Orcs or whatever it is that she does in her Multi-Player, Online role-playing Gaming experience. Megan's phone was turned off.
That left me and Anthony. So we went to the bar. And we stayed in the bar from 8pm till 2 am drinking the pale yellow liquid that is is labelled as beer in these parts, in spite of bearing only a passing resemblance to anything I know by that name.
Over the course of those six hours the conversation was rambling, incoherent and very wide ranging. We touched upon Margaret Thatcher, educational theory, Marvel and DC comics, Indiana  Jones, Australian vs Gaelic Football, Guinness around the world, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Prague, the Edinburgh festival, Big Bang Theory, amusing toilet anecdotes, the very large semi nude painting over he bar, the psychotic artwork adorning the toilet, North Korea, Chinese health and safety standards and whether Prince Philip is really a giant lizard from outer space.

And it made me suddenly think of something else that I miss about England. I miss Sunday afternoons. To be more precise I miss rambling, incoherent, wide-ranging pub conversations on a Sunday afternoon. I miss wittering on in the White Rose, talking bullshit in the Black Eagle and pontificating in the Post Office Vaults.

It was so precisely like a typical Sunday afternoon pub conversation that I almost started to hallucinate that the beer tasted good - if only that were true!

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Thailand And Laos 1998: Day 5

It would be untrue to claim that I slept badly for that would be to imply that I slept. My locally hired sleeping bag was tissue paper thin and would have been inadequate to even the mildest of chills. As the night was freezing it was worse than useless. Even sleeping in my clothes failed to generate enough warmth to allow me to fall asleep. If the temperature alone were not enough to keep me awake then the constant noise of the pigs and the frequent but random crowing of a host of roosters was certainly up to the task. Occasionally I would hear others tossing and turning or grumbling and, for a while, the opaque square mosquito net in the corner which housed two of the women was lit by a torch as one of them decided to try to read. There was also a weird rustling from one of the others - wrapped in a foil 'space blanket' that made him look like a turkey ready for the oven - whenever he turned over or adjusted his position or breathed a little too heavily. It was a cold miserable and uncomfortable night and as soon as they greyish light of dawn started to penetrate the cracks in the walls I struggled from my bag, climbed over the bodies and went outside onto the balcony. I pulled on my shoes and approached the steps.

What happened next is a little vague.

I looked down at the steps and noted their position and stepped down. At the crucial moment something must have distracted me for the next thing I knew I had missed the step and was pitching forward with my arms instinctively flailing up towards my head for protection. It did no good and even as I heard myself scream I felt my head hammer solidly against one of the pillars supporting the next building. Wit came rushing out to see what calamity had caused the noise which had woken the whole village. I could feel the warm stickiness of blood as it ran down the side of my cheek which was already turning cold with shock. Others emerged to see what was happening. Someone started to organise cleaning me up and repairing me. I know the symptoms of shock but I've never felt them so clearly as then. I was cold and shaking and disoriented and distantly aware that I was babbling nonsensically as my brain tried to sort out what was happening. Gradually I started to pull myself together as I realised that my limited first aid knowledge was about the best the group had and that my first aid kit was certainly the best stocked. I sent someone for it as I sat wrapped in a blanket, shivering and sipping at a cup of hot and unbearably sweet tea that Pat hat pressed into my hands.
It soon became clear that I was going to need a trip to the hospital. There were several small shallow cuts and grazes above my left ear and on the back of my head and two rather deep gashes - one immediately behind the ear and a second on the front of it which had torn down a triangular flap of skin which was hanging loose. It was this cut that was bleeding fairly profusely. We cleaned it up and dressed it. Meanwhile I was checking myself for other injuries. My left foot, which had twisted under me as I had fallen was extremely painful and starting to bruise. The toe felt broken. I immobilised it with tape and then set about persuading Wit that while the others could walk I certainly needed at least a check up at the hospital.
It was no easy task but finally he agreed and when the truck departed I was lying in the back. Wit and our truck driver, Mr. Tah , were in the front. Every now and again one of them would ask me how I was feeling. I was feeling tired, hurt and very like a complete prat. The ride was uncomfortable and sweaty - about two hours in the morning sun over very bumpy dusty roads until finally we came to a main highway and fifteen minutes later arrived at the hospital.
I am not sure what I had been expecting but the reality was a pleasant surprise. The building was a single storey modern structure not much larger than a town clinic but it looked clean and hygienic. There were a large number of Thai patients waiting but Wit overrode my feeble protestations and marched me to the front of the queue. Five minutes later a nurse had removed the dressing on my ear and cleaned it up again. She said something in Thai. Wit translated.
"She says you need injection."
"What for ?" I asked wondering if I would need to break out the sterile needle and syringe that I was carrying.
Wit asked.
"Tetanus." he said.
I was relieved.
"I don't need it. I had a tetanus shot only about a month ago."
He translated for her. She wasn't convinced but eventually decided that if I didn't want it she couldn't force me to have it. The ear was a different matter. It was obvious even to me that it needed stitches. Ten minutes later it was done and we could take a look at the foot. I hobbled into X-ray and gasped in awe that a piece of equipment so old could still be operating. Nevertheless it was and the picture that was brought out barely five minutes later was certainly a foot although I couldn't swear that it was mine. The senior nurse examined it and explained to Wit that it was not broken, just badly bruised. She wrote out a prescription and I took it to the apothecary window. It turned out to be six prescriptions. One for sterile dressings and swabs, one for iodine solution, one for sterile saline solution and three for assorted drugs. Of these the one a day capsules were clearly antibiotics. I had no objection to taking those. The others were another matter. One packet contained aspirin sized fluorescent green square tablets and the other tiny bright orange oval pills. I asked what they were and Wit checked.
"Painkillers" was his uncertain reply.
I resolved to throw them down the nearest toilet and take paracetamol if I was in any pain and we climbed back onto the truck.
As we drove into town Mr. Tah tried to cheer me up. He rolled up his sleeve and showed me two scars on the front and back of his forearm. They were ragged six inch strips of dead white flesh with poor wide stitches criss-crossing them.
"I have done at same hospital." he said smiling as I looked in horrified fascination at the scars.
"What did you do ? " I asked.
The truck bounced over a rut in the road as he replied in mime, raising his arm and bringing it down towards the top of the piece of metal tubing that was securing his seat to the vehicle.
"Truck roll over !" he said with equal pleasure.
I groaned and closed my eyes.

 The others hadn't reached the Lahu village when I got there so I could pick my spot in tonight's bedroom. The Lahu are another hill tribe originally coming from Tibet. There are fewer of them, about 60,000 and like the Karen they are subdivided into smaller groups. A significant difference in the village was that not all of the buildings were elevated. Tonight we were to be divided between two huts, one of them on the same basic pattern as the previous night and the other built on the ground with only the sleeping platform raised and that only to a height of about two feet. I chose a corner position in the low hut. There was no sense in taking further risks. That done I limped painfully outside and took a look around the village. It was smaller than the Karen village with only about a dozen buildings that were all crowded together as if for security. The people were friendly and curious about why I was there. Several times I explained in mime to the amusement of the village children exactly what I had done. After an hour of wandering about taking pictures I sat down at the table to rest my foot. Immediately someone appeared with a large bowl of noodle soup. While I was eating it he appeared again with a metal plate piled up with chips. I ate it eagerly. My accident had had no adverse effect on my appetite. While I was finishing off the chips the others all arrived. There was some sympathy and a lot of piss-taking but a general sense of relief, that didn't even come close to matching mine, that I seemed to be all right.

Well That's Different #11: Streetside barbers

I could, should I choose to do so, go to any one of the several dozens of barbers shops that line the nearby streets. The windows are covered with posters of young men and women with very unlikely haircuts and peering through the windows reveals that the staff usually have even more unlikely haircuts. The kind of thing an extra in a post-apocalyptic Mad-Max-style movie might wear.
I choose instead to go, as I have done my whole life, to a rather more old-fashioned corner-shop establishment where I get a normal haircut and a wash and dry for the ridiculous sum of five yuan. In case you don't feel like converting it yourself that's fifty pence or about 83 cents.

While the salon places charge ten, twenty or even fifty times as much I could go even more down the barbers who don't even have premises. Along the street that runs at the back of Goldfish Park there are, on a sunny day a dozen or more people with a chair, a comb and a pair of scissors each cutting hair. I have seen the savagery with which they attack their chosen profession and I wouldn't risk it if they were paying me but they do seem to have a steady stream of Chinese customers.

This morning, returning from the supermarket, I saw one in the middle of the pavement on a nearby street who was, without any sign of hot water, giving a customer a shave while pedestrians diverted left and right around her.

I shall continue to pay a monthly visit to the little shop on the corner - inspite of those high prices.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Thailand And Laos 1998 : Day 4

Today the hiking section of the trip was to begin. Our main luggage was heading on to Chiang Rai without us and in five days time we would catch up with it. For our first day on the trail things were to be relatively easy. It started with a jolting bruising ride in the back of a vehicle that resembled the Filipino Jeepneys both in design and complete lack of comfort. We were not intending to start walking until shortly after lunch which was taken at the 'Cabbages and Condoms' restaurant.
'Cabbages and Condoms' is as peculiar a venture as its name suggests. It is a chain of restaurants where decent Thai food is served and where the associated shops sells condoms both in a usable form and made into a variety of tacky and tasteless souvenirs. The intention is to raise awareness of family planning and protection against disease in a country where overpopulation and Aids are both significant problems. The off-putting nature of the name is as nothing compared to the downright surrealness of the shop. T-shirts and ties with a variety of condom designs printed on them are the most tasteful items on sale. Others include artificial flowers made from coloured condoms, condoms wrapped up in papers and disguised as sweets and small, intricately made paper swans constructed entirely from empty condom wrappers.

We continued our drive for another half an hour after lunch and disembarked at the village where the walking would begin. Here there were vast sheds filled with root ginger waiting to be loaded onto lorries and taken to the city for export. The people of the village seemed curiously indifferent to our presence ignoring us completely apart from one or two of the children who came up asking for sweets. A woman carrying a child in a sheet wrapped around her shoulders glanced at us as she passed but there was no real curiosity there it was no more than the momentary gaze of someone whose eye has been caught by a motion or a colour but whose mind a moment later dismisses it as irrelevant.
After a few minutes of waiting around we set off along the trail. It was a clear wide and dusty track that would have been suitable for rugged vehicles. Indeed half a mile along it was a motorbike leaning against a tree with no sign of its owner or anywhere that he might have gone. We turned from the main track onto a lesser one and meandered our way across a field.
"Hardly off the beaten track." I remarked noticing that the crops were being watered by an elaborate sprinkler system worthy of the gardens of an English stately home.
After no more than an hour we came to a stream where we took off our shoes to wade across, Wit making the crossing in a more spectacular manner with a barefoot run up the bank and a prodigious leap that landed him on the opposite side just barely clear of the water. He grinned at his own success and pointed up the hill for us to proceeded. Half a mile further on we reached the Karen village that was to be our stopping place for the night.
The Karen are one of the hill tribes that populate much of Northern Thailand although national borders mean little to them and they are spread in greater or lesser degree throughout the whole region. The total population of such tribes is around half a million. The Karen people who are the largest of the hill tribes but nonetheless number in total fewer than 300,000 are subdivided into White Karen, Red Karen, Black Karen and Pwo Karen. Our village for the night was White Karen. It consisted of a group of about thirty wooden buildings, mostly raised by wooden pillars so that the floors were about four feet from the ground. Under some of the huts domesticated pigs were taking a siesta, under others there were ducks or dogs or cockerels. A group of women sat in the centre of the village weaving. Children were playing with rather incongruous plastic tricycles and trucks in the dirt. After a few brief words with one of the village men Wit showed us to our luxury accommodation. It was a single-roomed hut with a bamboo floor. Wooden steps led up to the bamboo balcony which ran along one side of it. As is the custom we left our shoes outside and went in to set out our sleeping bags and mosquito nets. With that done everyone seemed to simultaneously realise that it was still only late afternoon and we all wandered around looking at people and animals and rather obtrusively pointing cameras everywhere until I felt sure that the villagers must think we were lunatics.
"Yes I have very fine pig. Every month many English take his picture. In England they do not have such pigs."
"Ha, your pig is fine but my latrine - everyone takes picture of my latrine."
With all the pig and latrine photographs out of the way we sat around drinking beer and waiting for dinner which we ate at a table outside the hut lit only by the light of a dozen small candles. The food was excellent but when we had eaten it we realised that it was still only nine O'clock. One or two people went to bed. The rest of us stood around talking until it became obvious that our increasingly eccentric conversation started to border on the manic and we too retired.

Monday, 14 October 2013


This week's senior lesson is on the subject of ambitions and dreams and part of the lesson is to ask students about theirs.
Of course the usual crop of  "I want to be a doctor/teacher/successful businessman" crop up but I was startled when a fifteen year old girl assured me that it was both her ambition and her dream to be a famous killer. She even spelled out the word to make sure I understood.

Boys in the class beware.

Well that's different #10: The popcorn man

China is, as I have remarked before, a very loud country with fire crackers and blaring music and hideously noisy tractor like vehicles. There is, however, a noise I haven't mentioned before - the noise that woke me this morning.
As I drifted through my dreams there was a loud bang from outside my window - a bang like a gunshot.
It brought me suddenly to a startled wakefulness.

A few seconds later I was awake enough to realise what it was. The popcorn man had chosen today to set up his stall outside my window. 
The popcorn man is a singularly scruffy individual. His clothes always look dirty; he looks about two hundred years old; he wears a particularly shabby cap. He sets up in a different place in the city every day. Whether this is because he is plying his trade illegally, or simply to widen his customer base, I couldn't say.
He sits on a stool turming over a metal drum below which is a fire. A long black fabric tube is laid out on the ground beside him, attached to the drum at one end.
The drum is, as you may surmise from the title of this piece, filled with corn ready for the popping. As he turns the heat builds up inside until there comes a point where it all pops at once resulting in that gunshot effect and a sack full of popcorn that he shovels into plastic bags and sells.

Given the apparent standards of hygiene - and the undeniable fact that I don't actually like popcorn very much - I doubt that I shall ever be sampling his wares but at least it has provided me with another sight that I am never likely to see in England.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Thailand And Laos 1998: Day 3

It was a restless night. First there was the problem of the noisy drunk Germans in the opposite berth swigging whisky, making passes at the stewardesses and generally being loud and obnoxious. They settled down though and I started to doze but another problem stopped it being more than a light and frequently broken sleep. The bunk was actually pretty comfortable and I found the motion of the train soothing enough, apart from at the stations. There it was a different story. While the train in motion was fairly smooth it stopped and started with the elegance and grace of a Goony bird. Every arrival pitched me to the front of the bunk and every departure to the back. If not for the leather straps everyone would have ended up on the floor a dozen times. All the same I managed to sleep in twenty minute bursts until about four O'clock when an early riser in a nearby bunk got up and dismantled his bunk so noisily that he probably woke the whole compartment. It certainly woke me. Afterwards I found it impossible to drift off again so that by the time we arrived in Chiang Mai at six thirty I was feeling fairly wretched.

We transferred to buses which drove us to our hotel which was bright and modern with a heavy preponderance of dark wood in the lobby and a small swimming pool at the rear. The rooms were clean and comfortable if nothing out of the ordinary. After a break to freshen up we met up for a short walking tour of the town. This led us through a clean, modern and unremarkable market, round several streets of shops that apart from the language seemed identical to their western counterparts, past a couple of temples that we didn't stop to explore and finished up at the uninspired 'Three Kings Monument'. There seemed to be little of interest and by the time we boarded our bus for the ride to Wat Phra Doi Suthep we were all glad to be on our way to somewhere else.

Wat Phra is a temple built on the peak of Doi Suthep and named after a hermit who lived there before King Keu Naone ordered its construction.  According to legend the king released three elephants saying that he would build a temple where they rested. I had a mental picture of the hermit jumping up and down frantically trying to wave the elephants away from his home so that the king would build somewhere else.

After running the gauntlet of the souvenir salesmen and ascending 300 steps, the Wat itself is small but interesting and the views out over the plain are marred only by the perpetual heat and pollution haze. Several of the group had their fortunes told. In this numbered sticks are placed in a cup which you shake gently until one falls out. The fortunes are written on numbered papers and the one that matches is yours. Either the fortunes are obscure or Wit's translations were inadequate as none of them made any kind of sense at all. By now I was however already beginning to tire of temples.

We arrived back at the hotel with just enough time to eat lunch locally before the optional visit to a 'crafts factory'. I went, with Robert and Ellen, to a tiny local cafe on the opposite corner of the street to the hotel. I had been prepared to choose dishes randomly by pointing at Thai words but the menu contained English translations although no-one seemed to speak the language. I toyed with the idea of 'Spicy Frog Chilli' or 'Jungle Curry with Frog' but eventually asked for the marginally safer choice of 'Wild Boar Green Curry'. The wild boar, I was informed in mime, was off. My reckless moment had passed and I ordered one of the many chicken dishes. Ellen went for a very hot curry and Robert for the only western dish on the menu - steak. The whole thing, complete with four bottles of beer between us came to £1.50. I was already getting the idea that spending money in Thailand and Laos was likely to be difficult.

The idea of a visit to a 'Craft Factory' is only ever appealing to someone who intends, or least is willing to consider, buying the crafts on offer. I wasn't so I opted instead for an afternoon by the pool, drinking, reading and - just occasionally - swimming. It was all most relaxing and followed by a hot shower prepared me nicely to go out for our evening meal. A group of us had decided to find a restaurant called 'The Riverside'. This was highly recommended both by our various guidebooks and by Wit. We strolled down to the river and over the bridge. Initially we turned left but soon realised that we were wrong. At a restaurant called 'The Shallott' we asked directions. It was a large clean, well lit and well decorated place with a band playing anodyne versions of western pop songs. It was also completely empty. We felt so guilty at asking directions to another restaurant that we stayed and had a drink. As we drank twelve waiters hovered anxiously nearby as if the force of their will power might convince us to order a meal.

When we had drunk up and paid we went back the way we had come and continued on down the road through an area that was poorly lit and distinctly unpromising. Suddenly a large wooden building loomed up on the right and we realised that we had found 'the Riverside'. Inside it was crowded and lively. A much better band were playing note perfect copies of western rock music. As we entered they were performing an Eric Clapton song.
We sat and ordered and the food when it came, barely fifteen minutes later, was excellent. Conversation died to a minimum as we all ate appreciatively. Once again a two course meal complete with beer and wine turned out to be less than five pounds a head for one of the nicest oriental meals I have ever eaten. Taking our drinks we moved downstairs and out onto the terrace. The band had now moved onto an extended set of Pink Floyd numbers which were indistinguishable from the originals. The beautifully decorated terrace was filled with people, both western and Thai, all having a great time, the lights of the city could be seen across the river, everything was just about perfect.

Thailand and Laos 1998: Day 2

Day Two, Tuesday 3/2/1998After a filling breakfast from the Thai buffet we were ready to start our official tour of Bangkok. This began with what , by and large, a repeat of yesterday's boat trip but this time with fifteen of us on two boats. This morning the light glinting off the temple roofs made them look like gems set in the green and brown of the banks. Having taken my pictures yesterday I could relax and just take in the view. The riverside community was busy about its morning tasks. In spite of the surface scum and the floating rubbish people were bathing in the water and even washing the breakfast dishes. We came to one of the talàat náam, the floating markets. This was not Wat Sai market which is the one illustrated on all of the postcards but another less tourist oriented one where goods were being sold from a mixture of buildings built out over the water and long narrow boats moored at the edge. It was still early and not very busy although there were a few customers, also on their boats, doing their shopping.
We went on, eventually returning to the main river and docking at Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn on the western bank. This temple, which looks extremely impressive from the river even with the scaffolding being used in its renovation, is a little more drab close up. Nevertheless it is still fairly grand. Outside its grounds there is a thriving market of tacky tourist stands and photographers with snakes that, for a few baht, they will drape around your neck. If reptiles don't appeal you can pose instead with alluring Thai women wearing traditional head-dresses and costumes. Should you prefer to buy something there are plenty of cheap pieces of jewellery or masks or carvings.

I strolled along chatting pleasantly, if inconsequentially, to the guide. As we talked the others gradually gathered around us and when everyone was there we took the ferry across the river. Here we walked through a noisy, smelly food market where the stench from great wicker baskets of fish combined nauseatingly with smell of blood. When we were finally through it, it was a relief to be out into the dust and the petrol fumes of the street. Across the road from us was Wat Pho, a substantially more impressive temple than Wat Arun had been. Wit led us around the side and into the main entrance. Inside he gave us a quick run down on what we were looking at. Here, he told us, we would find the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand, the largest collection of Buddhas in any single temple and the national school for teaching Thai massage. Before we went off to explore he took us into the wihan where the reclining Buddha is housed. It is certainly impressive. Forty nine metres long and fifteen metres high - the foot is twice the height of a man - it is made from brick and plaster and covered in gold leaf and mother of pearl. It completely fills the wihan leaving just a narrow footway around it for worshippers and tourists. The rest of Wat Pho is no less impressive. There are dozens of incredibly ornate towers and what appear to be thousands of statues of the Buddha filling the galleries between them.  

In the afternoon I wanted to see the Grand Palace, a structure that I had so far glimpsed only over its tall white outer wall. The temperature had climbed another couple of notches and combined with the humidity the heat was stifling. I spent fifteen minutes trying to cross the road and then walked down to the Palace. Inside it was magnificent. I ignored the guide book and just wandered round taking pictures and looking at the architecture. This random strategy has its good points and its bad points. Chief among the bad points was that I didn't get to look at any specific attractions, in particular missing the Emerald Buddha entirely. On the plus side motion without purpose leads to the pleasure of the unexpected. On a series of galleries that most other visitors seemed to have missed there were walls filled with murals of epic mythological scenes of battles and palaces, heroes and princes, demons and animals. These depict the story of Râma rescuing his abducted wife, building his Empire, battling evil magicians, waging war on his enemies and so on. All of them were executed in a painstaking stylised form that appealed to the comic collector in me more than the art critic. As for the architecture, well all Thai temple architecture makes the most ornate of western cathedrals look drab and the Grand Palace is ornate enough to make even Thai temples dull by comparison. The predominant colours are red and gold with a substantial amount of green and white. The overlapping roofs look like the scales of some great animal and the statues and carvings are so abundant and so detailed that any individual piece becomes a work of art. With a shock I realised that it was three O'clock. I had to be back at the hotel for four to drive to the railway station where we were catching the overnight sleeper to Chiang Mai. Reluctantly, and with four fifths of the palace unseen, I hurried back.