Thursday, 22 March 2018

I wonder how it feels to have a globular cluster on your arm

Moscow was cold.  It was also the October Revolution anniversary, so everything was shut, and there were lots of soldiers with guns slung about their shoulders.  As I couldn't get to the Kremlin, I decided to try something different, a Russian bath house.  I paid my money and was shown into a large lounge, which had banquette seating in bays around it.  Each seat had a coat hanger and most had a very aged Russian lady in various states of undress.  Usually I am too shy to take my clothes off in front of strangers, but at last I had found somewhere where I didn't look too bad in comparison and was able to whip everything off, don the strange, felt, Smurf hat and join a queue.  I wasn't entirely sure what I was queuing for, until the door opened and it turned out to be a very large sauna, with two floors of slatted, pine seating.  Women jostled for spaces, some lying down, some sitting in Buddha poses (it was hard to know where to look safely, I spent a lot of time admiring the ceiling).  The door slammed closed and a blonde woman of military demeanour, standing almost to attention, one had behind her back, started ladling water into a very large oven.  She got into a groove with this, and pint after pint was going onto the hot coal.  The heat hit me like a wall.  The women started languidly beating themselves with birch sprigs, sweat rolling down their bodies.  I had to move half way down the stairs when I thought my skin might actually start to blister.  The military lady put the ladle down.  I was relieved, until I saw her pick up a bigger one, and start rhythmically topping up the oven again.  She then picked up a towel and started to 'helicopter' it around her head, shifting the suffocating cloud of heat towards me.  Just before I thought I might faint, I headed out of the door, I thought I heard a mild tut-tutting behind me, but the ambulance people would have let out more of the heat.  The cold tub looked very inviting, and I eased myself in, and enjoyed bobbing around a bit.  After a shower, and marvelling at the women covering themselves in mud, or foaming suds, I tried the sauna again, but it really isn't my thing.  Give me that Siberian snow any day of the week.

While sitting in a cafĂ© in Moscow, I gazed out of the window and wondered why the view wasn't moving.  Then I remembered I wasn't on a train.

The hotel was wonderful, with great food, and the shops were full of fun things, like astronaut gear, intricate chess sets and Faberge eggs.  Sadly the Cosmonaut museum was closed, so one day I will have to go back, but I might give the sauna a miss.

I did manage to see the outside of the Kremlin and St Basil's Cathedral and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior the next day.  I also dived into a subway station to admire the architecture and visited an art gallery.  My favourite exhibit was a naked, plump lady lying on her front, a bronze sculpture.  I burst out laughing to see one of her buttocks had been patted so often, it had a wonderful shine to it.  She was a sight for sore eyes.

I left Moscow on the Paris Express.  Happily my Irish friends from the Trans-Siberian were in the next carriage again.  The Paris Express sounded so luxurious, but was pale in comparison to its Russian counterpart.  I also had to spend the first night sharing the cabin with an elderly German gentleman, which felt very uncomfortable.

I was surprised to realise that the journey from Moscow to Paris is half as far as the Moscow to Beijing leg.  We were going faster, but it was still a three day journey.  I enjoyed the views, mainly farms with meandering animals and occasional people - one vignette was of a mother looking down at a toddler, both bundled up in thick anoraks, and the toddler obviously having a tantrum and refusing to move.  You can go anywhere in the world, but people are people wherever you are.

Paris was even colder and a bit wet, and it was also their Remembrance weekend, so again lots of things were closed.  I did get to see the Eiffel Tower (which never seemed to get any closer as I kept walking towards it).  I enjoyed the Louvre, although the Mona Lisa was much smaller than I expected and not as exciting to see in real life as Klimt's 'The Kiss' was in Vienna.

I finally boarded the Eurostar to London, and was met by my neighbour and driven home. 

A comment many people made about the trip was how brave I was to do it.  I never felt threatened and found all the strangers I met to be helpful and generally friendly.  It was just a train after all.

One final memory I will recount is lying on my train bunk, somewhere in Siberia, looking up out of the window at night.  I could see Orion, and as I was thinking about his globular cluster (I did an online astronomy course once) when I saw golden sparks flying in an arc.  They were coming off the wheels and points, and looked magnificent.

It had been the journey of a lifetime, and I really understand now what it means to watch the world go by.

Watching the World Go By

On 1st November I made my way to Beijing Station, dragging my heavy bags along.  After some confusion I found the stately waiting room for the Trans-Siberian train.  Intrigued, I watched the other passengers arrive in ones, twos and threes.  Some were buying large quantities of instant noodles from the kiosk, others were trying to pacify bored children.  The train came in, and I had butterflies of excitement.  It was very long and a sort of racing green.  Once embarked, I was absolutely delighted by the cabin, exactly how I had hoped it would be with rich, red crushed velvet (worn) covering the seats/bunks and wooden panelling (mock) on the walls.  It was all a bit tired, but loved (which reminded me of something, but I couldn't quite place what). There was a tiny wardrobe, and a door to a shared washroom.  A slightly less than enthusiastic dribble emerged from the tap, but I didn't mind such trifles, I was on the Trans-Siberian railway!  Me!  The top bunk folded down and I could spread out on the lower bunk, like it was a settee.  A little table separated me from a single seat, with a traditional net luggage rack over it, which I stacked books and useful things on.  I strung my fairy lights up and unpacked - putting things in the under-seat storage and nest-building  - this was going to be my home for six days after all.

The train chugged out of the station, we were off!  I sat with my nose pressed against the window, and stayed there for about three days (well, apart from being in bed at night).  And what I saw, what I saw!

As the train moves away from Beijing, it passes through tunnel after tunnel.  Between the tunnels were flashes of deep gorges, valleys with waterfalls, sparkling rivers winding round mountains.  I'd just catch sight of something magnificent, when the window went black again..... and then flash, out into daylight again and another green valley.  As the sun started to set, I could see a regular pattern silhouetted across the top of distant mountains, against the pink sky.  I gasped when I realised it was the Great Wall again, stretching out of miles.

After some trying hours at the China/Mongolia border in the middle of the night, we journeyed on into the Gobi Desert.  Here were plains, with wild horses stampeding across the grit, kicking up sand clouds behind them.  Here were herds of camels, almost comic with their double humps, swaying gracefully as they sashayed along.  Here was the lone herdsman, riding bareback in traditional dress.  Here was me.  In the Gobi Desert. 

Time to pinch myself again.

What was truly surprising was that all this was as nothing to the views we were about to see.  The train climbed slowly up a great incline, and rounded a bend in the track.  As the train crossed the top of the ridge, the vista opened up into one of jaw-dropping beauty.  The sky was bright blue and almost shimmering, not a cloud to be seen. The mountains went on for miles, ridge after ridge, each in a different shade of brown, pink or ginger, or gold.  It was mesmerising.  There was nothing else to be seen, just mountains and sky.  No people, no animals, no buildings, no trees or plants.  Just the Gobi Desert in raw glory.

It was too good to last forever, and eventually we pulled in at Ulan Bator, the capital.  Weather-worn women were selling noodles and water from rusty supermarket trolleys.

The train carried on, at what felt like its cruising speed of around 30 miles per hour.  The carriages each had a samovar providing endless boiling water, and the wonderfully decorated restaurant car served good meals.  We each had a thermal jug, so could make endless herbal tea, and also use the hot water for washing at the basin.  The other passengers were pleasant company.  A couple from Ireland were particularly friendly, and some men from New Zealand further up the carriage.  A sort of train etiquette developed, where if people felt chatty, they would stand in the corridor, lean on the rail at the window and wait to see who wanted to talk.  Alternatively, people left their doors open, so you could put your head in and exchange the time of day.  A general topic of conversation was where we might be.  It was nigh on impossible to work this out after a day or two.  The train timetables were indecipherable as we kept crossing time zones, and all the station signs were in Cyrillic script.  One day I wondered why no one else was eating dinner, to find it was 4pm, not 6pm.

Anyway, after the Gobi Desert we had another disturbed night passing through the Mongolia/Russia border.  It was cold and annoying and we passengers huddled together in one cabin, hoping our passports would be returned and that we wouldn't be taken to a Gulag somewhere.  I eventually got to sleep, and in the morning, raised my blind to see..... snow!  From the blazing sunshine of the desert the night before, I had woken in Siberian snow!  The train inched its way around the southern side of Lake Baikal, giving us lots of time to admire the distant, snow capped mountains, and the huge expanse of water lapping quite close to the rails.  After passing the lake and brightly painted a shacks with half frozen streams weaving around them, we arrived in Irkusk, somewhere else exotic I remembered from the game Risk.  Never in a million years would I have ever thought to be there.  

We passed through more picturesque valleys and then came into pine forests, interspersed with birch trees.  I had been warned about this.  I think it was one forest, that went on for three days.  The snow was managing to blow little drifts into the joints in the train.  The guards were endlessly shovelling coal to stoke up the boilers, and boy, did we boil!  The train got hotter and hotter, and as the windows were sealed, the only relief was to go and trample on the little snow drifts at the joints.  This was a very noisy place to stand, and also slightly alarming, as your feet would involuntarily drift apart.  As I knew there would be lots of trees, I had downloaded podcasts and music to my phone, and sat and read, and drank herbal tea.  Occasionally the view was punctuated by a train passing in the opposite direction, but not often.

Eventually we stopped at the capital of Siberia, Novosibirsk.  It was a teaming, modern city with glass high rise buildings and curving motorways jammed with rush hour traffic.  It was also dark, and very cold.

From here, the views became more urban, with more freight trains passing, and industrial buildings cropping up.  We finally pulled in at Moscow, and none of us wanted to leave our cosy train.

Places I've Never Been

I grew up in a time when it was unthinkable that anyone would be able to visit China.  As a primary school child I remember we all once took part in a musical drama based around a green tea ceremony.  I enjoyed the songs and thinking how completely exotic it all was - green tea for goodness sake!  My only other awareness of things Chinese were some willow patterned china plates my parents had showing blurry images of strangely shaped buildings with curled up corners, and wobbly looking bridges, which were enchanting.

When my nephew sent an invitation to his wedding in Shanghai, saying he would understand if no one went, because it was so far away, I knew I had to go.  So it was that I found myself on a plane with several members of my immediate and extended family, all very excited as we flew into the unknown.

Apart from the joy of seeing my nephew get married, the other draw of the trip was the chance to come back on the Trans-Siberian railway.  Something that had hovered around in my head for some time.  Again, I remembered from my childhood people mentioning it in rather respectful tones, and it carried with it an intriguing mystique.  I decided to come back all the way to London by train.  What a crazy idea!

Shanghai was immense.  Our first view of it as the plane banked to land took our breath away.  It spread for miles in every direction, with massive sky-scrapers and blocks of flats as far as the eye could see.  I was expecting it to be big, but it exceeded all my expectations.

The wedding was wonderful - a real privilege to take part in a REAL TEA CEREMONY - who'd have thought it!  There was lots of fun first, with the groom having to persuade the bride to come out of her room, and completing challenges with his groomsmen.  The bride looked really beautiful in traditional costume, and my nephew very handsome in his.  Everyone was on good form and we enjoyed dancing the night away to a live band in the city somewhere - who knows where!

After a few days of great fun, visiting traditional markets and modern malls, eating weird and wonderful things (lots of tentacles and suckers - I wasn't brave enough for the duck's tongues), going up really tall towers and generally enjoying the views and sunshine, it was finally time to break away from my family and get on the train.

I went on the super fast train to Beijing.  Fields flashed past the window, telegraph poles, paddy fields, shacks, sheds, roads and distant tower blocks.  The sky was a weak yellow, giving way to darkness.

Beijing Station was very confusing, but as I came out with the crowd, a 'man in black' blocked my path.  A little scary until he tried to pronounce my name, then I knew it was OK.  On the drive to the hotel, I looked out at all the shop fronts with strange characters on the signs, and all the people busy with their lives.  The car pulled in to what I thought was a scruffy layby, but turned out to be the hotel drive.  I was very relieved to have arrived safely and was able to turn a blind eye to the cockroaches having a bit of a party in the bathroom.  After Ronald the Rat in Malawi, Colin the Cockroach was no problem at all and there were green tea sachets on the side, GREEN TEA!  Imagine!  Me!

There followed two really fantastic days sight-seeing with a small group.  The Summer Palace was just like I'd stepped into one of those willow pattern plates from home, the Olympic Park looked just like it had on TV some years ago, Tiananmen Square - I had to pinch myself - and the portrait of Mao.  The Forbidden City with its expansive courtyards, one after another, after another.  Most of all though, the Great Wall - how amazing was that.  Our feet skimmed the tops of trees on the chair lift up.  I could walk along the flagstones and duck down into the watch towers and admire the views of rolling hills disappearing into the horizon through the arch shaped windows.  I drank some jasmine tea while on the wall and took time to try to take it all in.  The Great Wall of China, me!

I wasn't too sad to leave the hotel after a couple of days.  The diet of soggy chips or soggy pak choy was a bit grim, and each time I loaded my plate I was worried one of Colin's friends would appear to wish me a good morning.  I mainly settled for the egg fried rice.

The other thing about leaving the hotel meant I was bound for the next stage of my adventure.......

Friday, 23 January 2015

On Feeling Smug

So I'm at the hardware emporium, buying coal at three for the price of two.  This means I have to buy nine ten kilogram sacks, which is about as much that fits in the boot of my car.

At the till, I was behind a man of similar age to myself, who was buying eight rolls of light and fluffy insulation.

I felt extremely smug that I loaded my 90kg of coal into the car in less time than it took him to faff around with his thermo fluff.  AND I was behind him in the queue so he had a headstart.  (All that time in the gym must be paying off at last).  I was flinging the sacks around with abandon.  I worry a little that my bargain £200 car has slightly dodgy suspension, and the coal takes its toll on the bushes (getting technical here, but I am sure that's what the garage man said was next to die).

When I got home, my neighbour was standing on his doorstep, looking very dapper as he does, and announced that he and his housemate were going out shortly.  This was my cue to zap the stereo on very loudly, with my favourite dancy tracks and continue my exercise by energetically bouncing around in front of the fire, throwing great shapes.

The good thing about having a £200 car is that it is virtually disposable.  You don't have to bother locking it, as no one in their right mind would steal it.  Everyone gets out of my way when the two lanes reduce to one, as there are significant dents in the bodywork that other drivers find alarming, for some reason.  I also know that if it breaks down there will be no repair bills, I can just dump it.  I've already travelled around 3000 miles in it, so it has been very good value indeed.

To blow away the January blues, I have started going to an archaeology class on Monday evenings.  The teacher is excellent, and it happens to be focusing on my favourite part of the world - the western isles of Scotland.  I need something to make up for the lack of Iron Age opportunities during the winter months.  It is strange how you can miss sitting in a roundhouse.  Who would have thought?

More worryingly, I have a slight sensation of itchy feet.  The prospect of going up the Amazon on a hospital boat is beckoning.  I'm fighting this off boldly.  Can I really face the prospect of the anti malarial tablets/mosquitos/ferocious wildlife/creepy crawlies and crocodiles again?  Not sure.  The jury is still out.  At least the Amazon would only be for two - three weeks so I wouldn't have to pack the house up again.

I'll keep you posted!


Saturday, 4 October 2014

Tarmac and Time

My drive to work each day is one that takes me past the end of the road where I was born.

It passes the house of my school friend, where we used to throw snowballs at each other on the pavement (in my attic there is a lantern slide of us in our brown school uniforms and brown rubber wellies, with the snowy backdrop and crumbs of white flaking off our belted, gaberdine macs).

It goes under the (now rebuilt) rickety wooden footbridge I used to stand on when I was very little and see the cars disappear under my feet, and be in awe of the enormous steamrollers widening the carriageway.

It goes past the shopping parade that used to have the sweet shop, where I remember being on my white 'reins' that had a little lamb etched on in silver.  I remember feeling secure that a grown up was holding the other end,  I somehow knew it freed me from having to make any difficult decisions.

It goes past the wall my nineteen year old self and boyfriend sat and chatted into the night on one of our first dates - and of being blissfully happy in the moment.

It goes past the tower block that looks old and tatty now, but was just being built when we moved to the area.  How there used to be a Fine Fayre supermarket with the 'Fine Fayre gee gees' outside (the coin operated rocking horses), and most fabulously glamorous, some fountains set into the concrete forecourt.  A little splash of sophistication in an otherwise unremarkable area.

Nearer home is the park where another lantern slide shows me in a romper suit, the same height as a tulip, looking at it with great fascination.

Sometimes you know you are going to remember a moment forever, but occasionally the dust needs blowing off.  I don't know why some things stay lodged in the recesses of our minds, and other things evaporate into the ether, but I do know that driving through the past every day feels strangely comforting.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Been an Even Longer Time

I've just watched a film about Einstein's big idea and am now wondering what I can do to add to the sum total of the universe.  

It's all a bit confusing though. Albert Einstein and Lise Meitner's were both pacifists, and yet their work enabled the world to have the atomic bomb. 

How did that happen? 

Maybe not having big ideas is a good thing?   

I'm still struggling with the fact I'm made up of star dust and any little part of me could blow up a small country, given the right conditions......  

I'm also struggling to imagine riding a sunbeam with a mirror in my hand, and becoming invisible when I reach the speed of light.

And time slowing down the faster you go?  If I'm on the end of my sunbeam, does everything stop?

My brain is overheating.

I think I'll settle for a copy of 'Hello' magazine and a cup of tea instead.  Much safer.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Been a Long Time....

Life has been a bit hectic since I got back from Malawi.  I have been job hunting, which is almost like having a job in itself.  As is the way with these things, after applying for tens of jobs (I can do an application form in around 40 minutes now), the job I finally got is the one I already have.  I was offered a position working in a different borough, but realised I really, really didn't want to leave my current workplace, as it does feel like a second home.  Everyone is so friendly, and it is a very good employer.  When my colleague said she was handing in her notice, I realised I had an opportunity to stay, so grabbed it with both hands.  The only problem is, it is part time, so I will be filling in more of those pesky forms again to find something to 'wrap around' it.  I will be earning enough to pay the bills, but not to have too much fun, so I am very inspired to find something else for the fun money.

I have also bought a car.  It only cost £200 from a friend, so I am enjoying having wheels again.  You can get so much done with a car.  Runs to the dump, stocking up the kitchen cupboards and going places the buses and trains don't reach.  A big surprise has been how I have got used to commuting to work on the bus and train, and even though I could now drive, I still rattle around with the morning crush.  I can read and watch the world go by and not have to worry about parking (worrying about parking is in my genes).  There is something soothing about the rhythm of the morning journey that gets me in the right frame of mind for work.

I am still missing the friends I made abroad, and every so often a little flashback of some wonderful moment catches me unawares.  Today I was playing my piano and remembered playing the grand piano in the hall in the middle of the redwood forest.  Sometimes I have to almost pinch myself to remember it was actually true, it wasn't all a dream.  One of the odd things to think is that everywhere I have been is still there, carrying on without me.  I suppose everywhere we have all ever been is still there, ticking along.  It makes your head feel funny if you think about it too much.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Random Writing

The journey to work is a bit dull, so I thought I would take a notebook and pen, and jot a few things down while I waited for trains and buses to do their thing:

At the station:
The metal bench is cold.
I can feel the harshness of it chilling my behind.
A cluster of commuters round the coffee stall.
Dainty cupcakes decorate the tables set out in front of it.
The vending machines stand proud, strong and chunky, like guards outside Buckingham Palace.
There is a display of postcards outside the newsagent's kiosk.  Union Jacks, double decker buses, red letter boxes and phone booths.
An 'A' board sign tells me water costs 'only 70p'.  I remember someone saying that selling water in Britain, where you can get it out of a tap for free, is one of the most surprising marketing triumphs ever.
Co-incidentally, the announcer reminds us all to carry water with us on the train.
I wonder whether they are in cahoots with the newsagent.
I feel annoyed that the announcer thinks I'm too stupid to remember to carry water in hot weather.
I've just come back from Africa.  That was hot.  This was not.
Smug travelling git, me!
There is a queue developing at the ticket machine.  Why do railway stations have the slowest machines in the universe, that seem deliberately designed to make people miss their trains?
The coffee barista is banging the coffee grounds and the coffee machine is hissing like the old steam trains must have done here once.
Everyone looks well turned out, the wealthy western commuters in 'business smart'.
The women look a bit like clones though, blonde hair, red lips, shoes with heels not designed to walk in.
The men are all in sensible suits with ties choking at the neck.

The people in the queue needn't have worried, the train has been cancelled.

I'm on the bus now, decided to try to avoid the crammed train due in another half an hour by going to another station.
Not sure it was a good idea.  Not sure where the stop nearest the station is.
The driver told me, but didn't open the doors.  I got confused so sat down again.  Then I had to get up and get out of the 'in' doors.

Worked well, the train came fairly soon after I arrived at the station, and there was lots of room to sit down.
The interior is a bit panic inducing, one poster features a dying woman telling me it's too late to save her, but not to save others.  The headline in a newspaper held by a fellow commuter assures me that we will all die from London's latest killer, 'THE AIR WE BREATHE'.  Another poster tells me I've probably got diabetes and might die from it, or just get lucky and have a limb amputated instead.  I try to smirk it all off, but somewhere deep inside my brain I am starting to panic THAT I WILL DIE FROM CANCER, DIABETES OR JUST BY INHALING THE AIR.  I am confused, because if I don't breathe in, I will die anyway, diabetes, cancer or not.

Arriving at work was much nicer.  Warm and friendly.  Well ordered and tea on tap.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

'Oh to be in England now that April's here' or 'Home Part II'

England is a wonderful place, really wonderful.  There might be no better time of year to see it again than in April.  Everything is iridescently green, almost glowing.  There is a refreshing cool breeze and fluffy white clouds playing in a powder blue sky.

I have been enjoying cycling along the tow path and am covering around 10 miles a day, feeling exuberant and grateful.  I am meeting family and friends in cafes and sitting outside some, sipping tea and watching the world go by.  Sometimes I come home after dark, and what joy that is.  The realisation that I can cycle safely IN THE DARK through local parks and along roads with no one waiting with a machete round the next bend.  Hooray.

The river is mirror calm in some places, and those fluffy clouds are reflected in voluptuous splendour.  The occasional boat drifts past.  The crew have no worries about being swallowed by crocodiles or mauled by hippos if they capsize.  It is all more beautiful than I remember, and I am grateful to live somewhere so lovely and, more importantly, so safe.

My father used to say that you should, 'make home the best place in the world, and once it is, why go anywhere else?'.

I am starting to understand that statement.

Sunday, 6 April 2014


What a wonderful word that is.


It is soft sounding and gentle.

It is like a whisper of comfort.

Being back in my home after nearly a year away feels very special.  The first night I lay on my bed I was taken aback at how comfy the mattress was, how soft the duvet and how like little puffs of cloud my pillows were.  I didn't have to unfurl a mosquito net, or bounce around clapping my hands around pesky insects.

I could leave something out on the kitchen surface, and not worry that rats would frolic and nibble around it.  I can open the door into the garden and not need to check for snakes.

Part of me still worries as the time gets close to 6pm, then I remember with a sign of relief that I don't have to be locked inside a burglar proof building as soon as it gets dark.  I can even walk around outside after the sun goes down.

There are buses and trains that run to timetables, and shops with prices on goods.

Best of all I like the cool air, the spritzer of drizzle and being able to expose little areas of skin and not be sun-burned.

I have changed through the experience.  My catch phrase since I got back is; 'if I can sit in an open sided vehicle in the middle of a crocodile infested stream, I can do ****' (where **** = difficult task of the moment).

I have met many amazing people, and have been overwhelmed at the kindness of strangers around the world.

Most people are kind.

I think it's important to remember that.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Singing Your Heart Out

On my last Sunday in Malawi I went with a couple of friends to a gospel singing afternoon.  As we drew up at the venue, there was a palpable buzz of excitement as crowds of people were wandering into a massive marquee.

Inside, the space was completely packed with families, teenagers, babies on their mothers' backs, it was standing room only.  The crowd spilled into the area outside.

It was extremely hot, but that didn't stop the good natured crowd from dancing energetically and singing their hearts out.  The bands were very professional, and the singers bounced in unison from one side of the stage to the other (one was wearing a jumper, I was full of admiration).  The singing was really loud, but then one of the men on stage said, 'Remember, you are singing for Jesus!' and the place went wild.  I wouldn't have been surprised if the roof had taken off.  It was a fabulous afternoon, and a great taste of the real Malawi, one I hadn't really seen yet.  Malawians certainly know how to have fun.  This event takes place every week, which is amazing.  We in the UK could really do with something similar, but I think we are probably a bit too uptight to join in so whole heartedly.

It was a great end to my stay in Africa, and made me wish I had discovered it earlier.

After a twenty hour journey, I have found my way back to the UK.  It is rather sad that my suitcase didn't feel like joining me, but that is the way these things go I suppose.  I think it is probably continuing the holiday feel somewhere in Africa.  The girl at the check in desk in Lilongwe was holding two luggage labels at one point, and looking confused.  I didn't say anything as she then looked decisive and attached one to my case. It's odd what I will miss, the main problem is my travel journal for the whole year was inside, and that is not replaceable.  Everything else can be re-bought, although at some effort (my driving licence is a particular bother).

It was wonderful to see my son at the airport, his first comment was, 'Don't you have a big suitcase?'.  We went off for a conciliatory full English breakfast which definitely helped.  The silly thing is, on the flight I was worried about whether he would remember to empty the car boot to fit it in.

I will be thinking a great deal about Malawi over the coming weeks, and try to make sense in my head of all the conflicting aspects of life there.  I will also miss all the warm and gentle people I met.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Big Ones

My roomie is into recycling, so one of our weekly jaunts is to collect used bottles from local bars.  Last week, Ny was emptying a cardboard box into the back of the truck and started screaming as she flung a bottle at a time into the back.

Ny is a hardy soul, and isn't freaked out by much, so I was rather concerned. There were quite a few OMGs coming from her.  When I asked what was up, she said, 'they're - very - big' as another bottle went flying.  I looked at the cardboard box she had been carrying and a long pair of antennae wobbled into view over the edge.  Then another three pairs.  Then the biggest cockroaches I have ever seen in my life started to emerge.

I told Ny to throw the box on the ground and pick up the bottles once they rolled out.  Bottles went rolling across the tarmac car park followed by the Armada of insects.

They were strangely beautiful.  They were a deep, polished red and segmented like a lobster.  Their antennae wibbled as they zig zagged in confusion.  I watched them from the 4x4, my feet safely tucked up on the running board.  This was lucky as a couple decided to run underneath me.  Each one wouldn't have left much skin visible if you held it in the palm of your hand.

One of the local men had been alerted by the screaming and the rattle of bottles flying, and came over and started trying to stamp on one of the cockroaches.  He picked the really, really big one, that looked like it was towing a trailer (I think it might have been a  pregnant female).   It took him a few goes, while the cockroach started moving like a bumper car on speed.  I felt a bit sad when his foot landed and squelched the poor creature.

Well, sad but relieved I suppose.

We had to check the bottles really carefully before bringing them into our accommodation, I really didn't want to step on one of those in bare feet.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Pesky things

I have had some interesting conversations this week, about pesky things in Malawi.  These started out mainly due to my fear of Ronnie the Rat.  Rat sightings are quite common here, apparently it is normal to see one in your house about twice a week.

I asked about termites, because there have been interesting, wood pulpy trails appearing in our accommodation.  The guard I was talking to helpfully went and found a bit of termite hill, and put it near my feet.  The termites came out to play a bit too close to my toes (which were exposed in flip flops) for comfort.  'Do they bite' I asked rather nervously.
'Oh yes, nasty bite' said the guard.
I shuffled my feet back a bit.

A few days previously I had had a chat with a colleague about snakes.  Had he seen any?  Turns out hehad been sitting in church the week before, and one had dropped off the ceiling into his lap.  He hadn't particularly enjoyed the sermon he said, with a wry smile.  Warming to his theme, he then told me about once walking through a door, and how something caught his eye and made him look back.  It was a python writhing around the frame.

This came back to me as the termites were enjoying their frolic.
'What about snakes?' I asked the guard (I still haven't learned, even after all these years TO NOT ASK QUESTIONS YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW THE ANSWERS FOR.

'Oh yes' said the guard.
Turns out the gardener found A BLACK MAMBA IN THE VEGETABLE PATCH last week.


The only positive thing I could think about the black mamba was that it would probably finish Ronnie off at some point.

I just hope it gets Ronnie before it gets me........

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Don't go walking after dark.....

Here in the suburbs of Lilongwe each house is built like a fortress.  The walls are high, around six foot, and topped with vicious looking barbed wire.  The gates are made of steel, and watched over by guards and hefty dogs.  No one walks the streets after dark for fear of being attacked.  If you do go out in your car, woe betide anyone who breaks down.  There are no roadside rescue teams here, and if you do get attacked, the police are unlikely to come, and there's not much chance of an ambulance either.  Occasionally you can see an 'armed response' team cruise past, watching over those properties that are wealthy enough to pay the premiums for gun-toting guardsmen.  The streets are dark, Malawi doesn't have working street lights, so any bandits can melt back into the shadows, safe from any inconvenient interruption by the law in any shape or form.

It means that you are essentially living under what feels like a military curfew, only without any soldiers on the street, because no-one is on the street.  People with cars are able to cruise around, but no-one is going to drive any distance after sunset.  I did hear of one person who left it rather late to travel cross country.  He saw a glazed-eyed pedestrian walk in front of his car.  He swerved to avoid the pedestrian, stopped the car but immediately was set upon by a gang.  His passenger was a local man and urged the driver to speed away, which he did.

The other thing to bear in mind, is that as Malawi is so close to the equator, sunset and sunrise are both around 6 o'clock all year round.  This means you have to seal yourself into your burglar-barred concrete bunker quite early in the evening.  It's a seriously weird way to live your life.  All the windows have burglar bars, so you feel like you are in a safe, which isn't that safe, because of course, if there is a fire, you are trapped.  Some gangs apparently have hydraulic cutters, which isn't great news.  If you do get a lift or drive out, all the venues have guards or guarded compounds for your car, so you drive from one hermetically sealed environment to another.

Malawi has a very polarised population.   Poverty has a strangle-hold on a lot of the country, which leads to widespread corruption, from the government (there has been a recent 'Cashgate' scandal) down to the garage mechanics who will mend your car, but swap all the accessories for inferior quality items in order to sell the better ones.

Malawi has beautiful scenery, wonderful people and amazing wildlife and is indeed the 'warm heart of Africa' - but only during sunlight.  Something metamorphoses with the daylight.  What I am not clear about is how real the risk of injury by attack is.  If everyone hides after sunset, and the streets are empty, they are more dangerous.  If everyone ran a 'reclaim the streets' campaign, and all went out to move the curfew to say, 10pm, might it not be safe again?  Could everyone not regain a little freedom?

Nice tree, shame about the barbed wire.
What is really alarming is that the local people think it is normal to live like this, 'Why would you want to go out in the evening and take the risk?' was one comment when I enquired about it.

I hope the UK never gets like this, I really enjoy the very normal act of walking back from places in the dark, at any hour, walking in my local park in the dark.  We mustn't all end up in fortified bunkers, we must love our communities and help each other.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Monkey Bay

Wow, what a weekend.

I went to Monkey Bay, towards the southern tip of Lake Malawi.  A very beautiful place, so beautiful, it looks hyper-real in my photo:

My host was the best host in the universe.  I felt like I was staying in the ultimate five star hotel, only it was nicer.  My bedroom had a large balcony overlooking the lake, and at night I could hear the occasional hippo making that low pitched, voluptuous belching noise hippos do.

Even though I was assured 'crocodiles haven't been seen since 2012', after last weekend, I decided against a swim.  When I stood at the edge of the sand looking out, I could almost feel marble sized eyes checking me out.

The garden was a model of perma culture excellence, and as a result, all the food I ate over the weekend was organically grown, fresh from the plant and displayed with a daintiness that made it even more delicious.  Breakfast included, amongst other things, a fruit salad made with dragon fruit, home made muesli, traditional curds and home made bread.  Lunch was home made hummus, bread, peanut butter, salad and the most amazing smoked fish pate, the taste of which I will remember forever.  The fish had come fresh from the lake.  I could write about the food for ages, but will not torture you further....

The sun rose around 5am, so this morning I was up early with my camera to catch the view looking towards Mozambique:
Walking round the bay it was wonderful to see the fisherman silently going out in their dugout canoes, the swifts darting low over the water for the mosquitos, and to see the local children playing in the water.

The house I was staying in (the beach photos were taken from the bottom of the garden)

On the way back, we drove across the Dedza mountain range which gave fabulous views from the top, of the rift valley and the lake sweeping away into the distance.

I am constantly bowled over on my adventure by the extreme kindness and generosity of strangers.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Safari - not for the faint hearted townie

Last weekend I went to Zambia for a safari.

It actually started in my accommodation in Malawi, when a lizard jumped on me as I moved something on a bookcase, and a large rat flung itself with abandon onto my kitchen surface.

We drove westward for miles, passing open sheds with tobacco leaves hanging to dry from the rafters, past shanty villages, across plains and round mountains.  It was an epic journey.

When we arrived, the 'welcome' sign warned us not to walk outside the camp as we would be eaten.  I thought this was a merry jape.  That was, until the manager gave us an introductory talk while we sipped our welcome drinks on squishy chairs next to the river.  'If a hippopotamus comes out of the water while you are sitting here in the evening, keep still, keep calm and keep quiet'.  I was spluttering on my iced tea at this point, and wondering why I had come.  Sure enough, at 3am, I heard an odd noise.  Looking out of my flimsy chalet window, I saw the world's biggest hippopotamus, grazing mere feet away from my wall.

I also had a bit of animal life in my room.  There were a lot of flapping noises in the night, and when I woke up in the morning, there was a baby bat attached to the inside of my mosquito net.  Although cute, this is a bit worrying as bats carry rabies.  I haven't started foaming at the mouth yet, so think I have avoided that.

We went on four game drives, in an open sided Landrover.  This became rather over-exciting, especially when we parked next to a leopard, lounging on a low branch in a tree.  As if that wasn't scary enough, it soon became worse when a pack of hyenas wandered round to check out the impala he had killed.

We came back to visit the leopard again, and he was sitting next to the track.  If I had stretched out my hand, I could have stroked him.

But I didn't.

This wasn't the moment for the truck to get stuck in the mud, right next to the leopard.  As the vehicle revved wildly and slid back and forth, I noticed the exhaust fumes were belching into the leopard's face.  I muttered a quiet prayer, and eventually we slithered on our way.

The 'fun' didn't stop there.  We approached a dip in the track, where a stream crossed.  In the middle of the stream, right in our path, floated A CROCODILE.  I assumed the driver would turn back.

But he didn't.


I could have reached out and stroked the crocodile.

But I didn't.

I was tightly curled in the foetal position, whimpering.  I had to be coaxed upright to take a photo, with shaky hands.

After that, the safari improved, and we saw loads of giraffe, elephants, impala, buffalo, wart hogs with their funny tusks and all manner of brightly coloured, beautiful birds.  Less beautiful was the flock of vultures, gathering round and starting to pick at a not quite dead impala.  It was a very dramatic scene.

Some of the views were astonishing.  Zambia is an amazing country.

A sobering piece of news we received the next morning was that two men had been killed while we were in the park.  One had been fishing on the bank and a crocodile had come out of the water and attacked him, the other was in a kayak, capsized and was never seen again.

Safaris, not really suitable entertainment for townies!
 Way too close
 Out of the water this time, but still too close
Elephants - bigger teeth but nicer personalities

Sunday, 16 February 2014


Yesterday I went to the mountains further south, near the border with Mozambique.  There was a rural village called Dedza, where several of the huts had been turned into art and craft shops.  It was fascinating to walk along the muddy track, and wander into the different buildings to see wood carvings, paper making and pottery.  One house had a maize grinder on the go, spitting chaff and flour out of the hopper.

The wood carvings were mainly of elephants and crocodiles.  The paper shop had paintings of giraffe and hot African scenes.  In the pottery there were plates with zebra prints, cheetah paw prints and more mud huts with removable lids for your biscuits.  I had to laugh at one sculpture of a four by four stuck in the mud, with a group of men heaving to release it.

Some young girls walked past, carrying firewood, they had long bundles tied up and carefully balanced on their heads.  They walked with the dignity and composure of super models elsewhere in the world.

A group of boys had a goat, and were pulling it along by dragging one of its legs.  It remonstrated a bit, but then started grazing happily on the plants in someone's garden.

Occasionally an overloaded bicycle would wobble past, slewing sideways in the ever present mud.

The backdrop to the village was of what looked like volcanic mountains, with pointed peaks and jagged slopes.

It all felt a long way from home.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Good Samaritan

Malawi is a place of contrasts.

In the suburbs, houses have six foot high walls, topped with barbed wire.  Steel gates on the driveway stop unwanted guests entering.  Every once in a while, the gates slide open, spit out a four by four, and quickly close behind it.

Like an airlock.

These fortresses protect a wealth of material possessions, as well as the inhabitants.

From what?

From the rest of the impoverished population.  Those made vulnerable by food shortages, those that can't afford clothes, those that see the inflated lifestyles of the rich and become desperate for a small piece of it.

The inequality is so difficult to digest, that perhaps it is easier to turn a blind eye.

I walked into the town recently.  I saw a woman sitting on the crooked stones, legs at unnatural angles, imploring passers by to help.

I had been given advice not to give money to those asking for it on the street, and had previously seen how difficult things get if you do.  You are quickly overwhelmed by the needy.

I thought about how this woman probably would like to be hugged, to feel human warmth.  I held back though - how could I hold her and then just leave?

I walked by.  Just like everyone else that morning.

The woman would continue to go hungry, continue to be in pain.

Later in the day, I remembered the parable of 'The Good Samaritan'.  When I first heard it as a child, I thought how awful it was for the person to walk past the needy - how I would always help.

When did life become so complicated?

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Partying in a Game Park

It's been an amazing weekend.  I went to a party in a game park near Lake Malawi.

When I arrived, I thought the organisers had put special lighting effects in the grass below the decking, but it was fireflies.  The intermittent glow from different places beats anything I have ever seen anyone do with electric effects.  It was mesmerising to watch.

The party was fantastic, but waking up in the morning to see the zebra and an ostrich in front of my chalet was magical.  Less magical was walking back to the main gate through the baboons - especially as we were carrying a food bag.  It made me appreciate the bars in zoos for the first time.

 Baboon patrol
Outside the door to my chalet this morning...

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Poetry Please

Yesterday evening I went to a poetry evening.  It was a bit intense.

One poem went on for ages and had mention of everything from cancer to the four horsemen of the apocalypse, another described in great details the trauma of abortion.

I had written a poem, well, more of a rhyme really, about 'smug travelling gits'.  I hadn't wanted to get up after a quite nice American lad had eulogised about finding himself on his gap year, but my friend had secretly put my name on the list.

There was no choice.

The Smug Travelling Git

We all know one, the smug, travelling git
Wherever you mention, they've visited it
You talk about your last holiday with great pride
Turns out they took their bike there, for a fancy ride.

Show photos of Bali, Bahrain or Bolivia
And smug, travelling git will say,
'Oh dahling, didn't we go there last yar?'

Whatever you did, they'll one up you with a smirk
Be it snorkelling, skiing or Cossack dancing with a Turk.

So when you next see them, this smug, travelling git
Buy them a drink and think
'I don't give a s**t'.

I got a good laugh and round of applause, so I am aiming to be the comic relief each week now.