Tuesday, August 22, 2006


Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China.

After a short train journey from Hong Kong we arrived at a deserted terminal in the midst of a renovation project. We exited the station through what appeared to be the back door, and entered an uninhabited commercial zone. The skyscrapers and the infrastructure were in place, but the people were not. We found our way to the metro, purchased our plastic buttons and stepped into what we hoped was the right train going in the right direction.

The carriage was clean, comfortable and empty, apart a few bemused schoolkids and the occasional curious pensioner. No spitting, which was a relief. Where were the teaming masses that we had expected ?

30 minutes later we dragged ourselves and our 30 kilo backpacks off at the central railway station, made our way to the escalator, and headed for the exit. Another world was waiting for us.

This was where the people were. Tens of thousands of them. The square in front of the station was the size of six football pitches laid side by side, and the every inch was packed with people. Then the heat and humidity hit us, intensified by the cloying pollution that cloaks every Chinese city and its inhabitants. We could see no sky, no cloud, no sun, just a dirty bleached cover without any real form.

This was the day our travelling really began.

Langmusi and the Tibetan grasslands, Gansu Province, China

The bus finally crawled into town just after 9 pm. We had been making good progress, but due to an unknown mechanical failure, we had been restricted to a maximum speed of 30 kmph for the last leg of the journey. There were no street lights, no-one to be seen, and the Tibetan café serving anything you want provided its Yak, appeared to be all that was open. After ordering my Yak soup with noodles and a bottle of Yak beer, I stepped outside for a smoke. As Jakki stepped out to join me a horse and rider hurtled past at full gallop. If only the bus could have matched his speed.

This was definitely not like any place we had been.

A one street town, with sword carrying, horse riding, Yak fur clad Nomads, Bon worshipping Buddhist monks, high heeled Chinese tourists and DIY karaoke. The Wild East.

The town was circled by craggy peaks and rolling hills, upon which the infamous Sky Burials take place. The dead are fed to the vultures, who, with the help of nature, spread the deceased over the surrounding hills.

The next leg of the journey was across the grasslands, high up on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. Grass covered plains stretched to the horizon in every direction, the emerald green punctured by the occasional group of nomad tents. And, of course, Yaks. The isolation here was tangible, but it felt liberating. There was no TV, no 7-11’s, complete peace & total tranquillity. Weeks pass without notice. Wouldn’t want to live there, though.

Mount Everest

A 5am start after a night in the worst hotel imaginable. Our tiny room slept four; smashed windows, damp, unwashed blankets and broken beds. The toilet block was truly disgusting, the stench and filth so bad that no-one used it. Some unpleasant encounters were had in the pitch black of the night.

The walk along the desolate valley towards base camp was slow. We were at 5400 metres, and oxygen was in short supply. The mist slowly receded and as we rounded the final bend, the cloud broke completely, revealing Mount Everest, Chomolungma, the Goddess Mother of the World.

The morning sun reflected off the snow covered slopes, the peak breaking the clear blue sky. An amazing feeling, to be on the roof of the world, looking up the highest point on earth, an awesome and beautiful vision. I would say breathtaking, but due to the altitude we didn’t have any to spare.

The Hansada Yoga Ahsram, Janagal, Nepal.

Up at six in the morning for a full yoga workout, 2 hours of meditation and lectures on spiritual philosophy. No alcohol, no tobacco, no hot water, and a diet of vegetables, rice and dhal. Sounds like a nightmare, but at the end of the week I felt fantastic.

Guru Panchasheelji, two Yogis, plus a cook and a novice, run the Ashram, all serving and supported by the local community. Various guests come and go; recovering alcoholics, local politicians, kids from the nearby village, the mentor to the Crown Princess of Thailand, any-one who has issues, problems, needs advice or just wants to start the day with a bit of yoga and relax in the Himalayan foothills.

It’s easy to be spiritual when you have a great climate, beautiful scenery, and no stress, but I hope I am able to keep hold of some of the knowledge and insight I discovered in that week. Not all journeys start at the airport.

If you really are in need a holiday, this is the place to come.

Ohm Shanti !!!!


Angkor Wat and the Khmer.

There are many ruins at Siem Reap, Angkor Wat being just one. Some, like the enormous Buddha faces at the Bayuo rise high above the jungle canopy. Others are barely visible, hidden by the dense foliage, the jungle still claiming possession.

The massive face of King Jayavarman VII, carved high above the huge Angkor city gates, watches over all who enter. Intricate carvings at Angkor Wat depict worship, war and trade, so detailed you can count the teeth of the courtesans.

We spent 2 days exploring here, but it could have been a month. Sometimes we were fighting the tourist hordes, others it was just us, the ruins and the jungle. Most of the temples are relatively un-restored and because of this, and despite the tourists, they have a very special atmosphere, a real sense of the people who lived and died here 1000 years ago.

These testaments to the past greatness of the Khmer make their recent history even more disturbing. The people of Cambodia were possibly the friendliest we met and until very recently were committing genocide on themselves. We saw very few people over 40 in Cambodia, but we did see many amputees. The countryside is littered with unexploded mines and bombs, courtesy of America, Vietnam and sadly, themselves.

As a tourist, and that is what we are, there is not much you can. We gave blood, tipped big and stayed on the paths.

Wudan Mountain, Hubei Province, China

After breakfast in a high-class brothel and a short but sweaty train ride we arrived in Shiyan. The Chinese think westerners are stupid and smelly, and after trying to buy tickets for a non-existent train in the heat and humidity of central China in August, we knew why.

We washed in the hotel across from the train station and with directions from the staff, headed off to catch the minibus to Wudan Shan, one of the 7 sacred mountains of China.

There is no limit to the number of passengers that minibuses are allowed to carry. We had more people in a 12 seat minibus than you would normally fit into a London double-decker. Plus we were not actually sure it was the right bus.

After a 4 hour journey along a deserted, but beautifully manicured motorway we were deposited at the side of the road. Fortunately, someone was waiting to take us up the mountain to the hotel. Unfortunately, he had just picked up his new car and could not work the demister. We had a terrifying 40 minute drive up the twisting mountain road, the driver being unable to see through the windscreen. He was able to chat on his mobile. Maybe he was taking precise directions.

The next morning we set out for the 2,200m peak. It took 3 hours, climbing the ancient stone steps through the mist shrouded forest that covered the mountain slopes. We passed through each of the 7 gates to heaven, before, exhausted, we reached the Taoist monastery perched at the top of Wudan mountain. Smoke billowing from huge incense burners mingled with the mist as we looked back down the mountain through the clouds. Despite the obvious encroachment of the modern world – plastic bins, pot noodles and satellite dishes, it felt like we had stepped back in time to some mystical place of legend. It felt like a sacred mountain.

Sailing, Phang Nga Bay, Phuket, Thailand

It was the final day of our coastal skipper training and we were heading back to the Marina on Phuket after anchoring over night at Kao Lak.

We reefed the mainsail, just in case, and and had settled in for an uneventful journey home when the weather turned. The rain came down and the wind picked up.

Before long we were soaked to the skin, battling a 20 knot wind and 2 metre waves. The gusts nearly took us over a number of times, but thankfully Graeme, our instructor, was in charge of letting out the mainsheet. There was little room for error, as Jakki found out on an attempted jibe, nearly taking out the boom on a 360 degree spin. We were sailing as close to the wind as we could, but once it was behind us we had the yacht at full speed, riding the tops of the waves.

It took us 8 hours to get the Hunter 295 back to the marina and safety. We were exhausted but exhilarated. Not exactly G&T’s at sunset, but we didn’t sink (unlike 2 other boats in the area), although we did break the boat (a bit).



The 3 months we spent in India were not all good. In fact, at times I hated the place. The culture can be, from a western view, almost despicable, but we saw and experienced some amazing things there. Every negative is balanced by a positive.

Here are my favourite things to see and do in India:

The Tal Mahal, the most perfect, beautiful building I have ever seen..

Rajastan: the massive forts and opulent palaces, the old towns with their the narrow streets and smells of exotic spices and the fabulous colours of the silks and saris.

The ruins at Orcha – a reminder of the days of the Raj.

The Kailasa temple at the Ellora caves in Maharashtra, cut from solid rock.

Drifting along the backwaters of Kerala by houseboat.

The erotic temple carvings at Khajuraha.

The warmth of the people, sharing food, exchanging gifts.
It’s a bit of a cliche, but it is very true - If you want an experience, rather than a holiday, go to India.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Left pic; a typical day at our school.

Hello, again! We've had a relatively exciting time this last week, including a small earthquake and, finally, our long awaited trip to the famous Pacaya volcano.

The earthquake was just a minor 'tremblor', rather than a more serious 'terremoto'. It woke me up at about 2am on Wednesday. It was an odd experience because I knew something was shaking, but it wasn't the bed, or even the house. It felt like the whole of reality was wobbling, for about 30 seconds, and then it suddenly stopped. I was expecting car alarms and wailing sirens, but there was total silence. It didn't even wake Richard. When we got up later that morning, I wondered if I'd dreamt it - luckily our teachers confirmed that they'd felt it too.

The volcano trip was (and I apologise for this, but I can't think of a better word) 'awesome'. Yes, this was the very same volcano that began erupting and was evacuated last week, which gave us some pause for thought. But the tour agent said that it wasn't 'very dangerous', and thus reassured, up we went. I'm glad we did, because we got to stand next to 12 foot high 'streams' of glowing red, semi-molten lava, simmering at about 2,000 degrees centigrade, give or take. Plus we looked down into the crater of a real, live, quietly erupting volcano. Which isn't something you get to do every day...

We'll post photos next week - look out for the burning stick shots (if you poke molten lava with a piece of wood it instantaneously combusts - an effective tool for controlling noisy classrooms perhaps?) On that subject, I've had a few encouraging responses to my teaching job applications...hopefully more on that next week :-)

Finally, we have a vague plan for the last 2 weeks we are in Central America. We will be visiting Mayan ruins in Copan (Hondurus), Coban and Tikal (Guatemala), taking in a bit of El Salvador and a few days snorkelling and bumming on the beach in Caulker Quay (Belize). Then we'll head back to Cancun for what promises to be a very enjoyable flight back to London via Miami (!?!?).

Sincerely hope that no one reading this has been affected by the recent airline chaos. Seems ironic that being here, rattled by gun-toting bandits, earthquakes and erupting volcanos, seems much safer than being at home...

Adios for now and take care of youselves,


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Just a quick update - check out the links on the right sidebar for more photos, if you are interested. On the left is a picture of a cultural show we stumbled across last weekend. It looked like the Guatemalan equivalent of Morris dancing, except some of the dancers had bulls masks on and the one in the middle had the head of a donkey. I wish I could tell you more but the significance of these cultural events is a bit of a mystery...

Laters, Jakki

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Richards Occasional entry 1

The flight into Miami was great – lots of movies to choose from, comfy seats ok food, no arseholes. We didn’t want to get off. The transfer through Miami was a nightmare- 1 hour 30 minutes queuing for immigration, a stressed out dash across the airport, back through immigration in less than 30 minutes. Why ? America is THE most paranoid country in the western world, so why insist that transit passengers pass through immigration? Do they not have enough finger prints ? At least the connecting flight had not left without us.

Mexico was ok, boring scenery (very flat), but no hassle. We had overnight stays in Cancun and Chetumel, both of which were ok, without being remarkable in any way. Very Mexican…..I guess.

We travelled down to Antigua by bus; comfortable, if slightly dull. A bit like working for a corporate. We spent 26 out of the next 48 hours on the road, although sometimes it was more of a dirt track.

One of the unexpected benefits of spending days on a single journey in Asia is that travel time seems to shrink. I recall 2 hour train journeys in and out of London that seemed to last an eternity. Now anything less than 6 hours and I don’t have time to settle into my seat.

The border crossing into Belize was livened up by the Japanese American telling the immigration officer that no, she did not have to pay for a visa. One thing I knew even before I left the UK is that it’s not a good idea to argue with immigration officials. Not if you want to enter their country. They let her in, eventually.

Belize was very odd. We only ‘passed through’, but it was a ghost country. We crossed the border at 8 am and entered the twilight zone….no people, no cars, no dogs, nada. We did not see anyone or anything for about 3 hours. Until we hit the metropolis of Orange Walk…….

We were met at Flores by a couple of chancers and a minibus at a gas station outside of town. They were there to take us to our hotel, which was dubious enough, but we didn’t actually want a hotel as we were leaving for Guatemala City that evening. Rather than be stranded 10 km from where we did not want to be, we hopped on and hoped for the best.

It turned out ok, apart from cruising around Flores for an hour, stopping at every hotel, each of which was full. Flores is about 1km square, so after circling the town 5 times, nausea kicked in. We bailed out across from the pick up point for the next leg of our journey.

Bus stations in Guatemala are low security detention centres – 10 foot iron fences, shotgun carrying guards and locked gates. No observation towers, or none that we could see. After negotiating our release from the Guatemala City bus station, we taxied in to Antigua, about 50 km away, arriving at 7 in the morning. The town was slowly coming to life, which was good as I had 3 hours to find a venue for the England Portugal fiasco.

Antigua is an ‘authentic’ little town, about 3 km square, resting under the shadow of the enormous, dormant (and hopefully it will remain that way) volcano Agua. No building has more than 2 floors, most only have one. Earthquakes are common, one large one every 25 years. The latest quake is about 6 years overdue. Reassuring.

Ruined churches, destroyed in the last big volcanic eruption of 1773 are the only reminders of Antigua’s past, the capital of the Central American Spanish empire. Antigua is now the party town of Guatemala. There are plenty of bars and restaurants of varying quality, and every weekend the fashionable young of Guatemala City hit the streets. The translation for ‘lets party like we did in the old days’ is ‘lets go to Antigua’. Honest. I saw it on the TV subtitles !

‘Antigua’ really does mean old fashioned, which is a good description, but when they named it in 1524, how did they know it would stay that way ? Was it old fashioned already in 1524, or did they have some serious foresight ? And when the town was destroyed in the 1773 earthquake, did they rebuild it in an old fashioned style ?. Do all new buildings have to meet ‘old fashioned’ building requirements ? These are the things you think about when you haven’t worked for a year.

Talking of subtitles, we can now understand most of the Spanish subtitles we see on the Hollywood films on TV. Unfortunately, we have no idea what people actually say to us. Unless they speak….really……..slowly………..

Antigua, and Guatemala generally, is quite a dangerous place. There really are shotgun toting guards outside every bank and all the shops that sell anything of value – TV’s, fridges, argentinian steaks (not joking). We laughed at all those security obsessed North Americans, warning us of the dangers of walking home after dark. Until 2 girls we had been out drinking with were mugged at gunpoint 5 minutes after we said goodnight, just around the corner. We have now developed a healthy sense of paranoia. It’s a real shame as most of the people are very friendly and helpful, and the countryside is fantastic. Unfortunately an armed police escort is required just to walk up to the top of the hill. I guess that’s what happens when you have a 30 year civil war, which ended less than 5 years ago. It wasn’t like this in Cambodia though, and they really know how to torture, maim and murder each other.

You never really know what to expect with the travelling thing – what will be enjoyable, what will not, what’s going to be good, what’s bad. And sometimes exciting, even when you could do without the particular brand of excitement on offer. At least it’s nearly always interesting. Just not in the way you expected.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Hi there! We finally sorted out our photos so here is a shot of Antigua, with Agua volcano in the background. This is not the vulcano we attempted to visit, by the way. That one, Pacaya, started erupting last week and nearby residents had to be evacuated. So, maybe we had a lucky escape...

Spanish classes going well; we tend to have one good day, when we can happily chat about subjects like God, family life and culture, followed by a bad one, when we can't remember our own names. Apparantly this is quite normal. Its particularly bad when we learn a new verb tense, and all the previous ones kind of get pushed out. Also, we've both found all our French coming back, and inserting itself inapproriately in all our conversations. It causes a good deal of confusion.

We had an interesting outing last week. We went to a nearby village, to a temple devoted to Maximon, also known as Saint Simon. He is a very peculiar 'saint', however, usually represented as a seated man in a black suit and broad-brimmed hat, smoking a fat cigar. Many people worship him, offering candles, rum, cigars and even animals (including chickens). In return he helps people, but not always by doing good...he will eliminate an enemy, for example. There are many conflicting legends about his origin, but the most common one is that he was a Mayan magician who became a deity after he died. When the conquistadors arrived, they tried to absorb him into the catholic religion, identifying him with Judas Iscariot. However, the church wasn't really prepared to accept the strength of faith that Maximon continued to evoke, nor the fact that he is clearly not a good catholic, being ambivalent in matters of sin.

In the catholic church nearby we saw a notice outlining the reasons why Maximon is not a God, nor a saint, and is not worthy of worship. There were a lot of people in the temple, however, and many brass plates adorned the temple walls with notes of thanks to Maximon for petitions granted. Outside a 'shaman' was performing a strange ritual involving a fire, lots of rum and chanting in a Mayan dialect. Afterwards the 6 or 7 witnesses smoked fat cigars, sometimes two at a time, and drank. This was all part of the ceremony, apparantly, although the purpose of it was not clear. We didn't see any dead chickens either, but we might have missed that part. The spookiness of the whole event was enhanced by the fact that once the ceremony ended, the heavens opened and we were treated to a major thunderstorm, right above the temple.

Well, I guess thats all for this week, hasta la semana proxima!


Monday, July 24, 2006

Well, we managed to not go up the volcano again last Saturday...for the second time the bus just didn't show up. Its nothing personal - our new friends Karen and John from Miami had arranged to go the following morning, at 6am, and they got stood up as well. We're speculating that maybe there is no volcano, just a lot of fraudulent travel agents and gullible tourists....

In fact we seem to be jinxed on activities lately. Last Thursday our hill walk was rained off. On Friday we just arrived at the 5-a-side football match when the heavens opened and we all got soaked to the bone. Ironically, there was a river running down our street when we got home, but no water in our apartment for most of the weekend. This level of rainfall is unusual for Antigua, something to do with deforestation.

We have had some interesting cultural experiences, though. Every Saturday afternoon a Charismatic Catholic group hold a 2-hour service in our building - there's a lot of singing, laying on of hands, public confessions, that sort of thing. We were also invited to a Baptism 'fiesta' last weekend (it would be rude not to after they installed a sound system loud enough to shake the whole building outside our bedroom door). These family parties are big (40 or more friends and relatives) and loud but not in any way wild. There's no alcohol for a start, and everyone over 18 has at least one 'nino' (small child) in tow. It is not unusual for girls to get married at 15 or even younger, and they start breeding immedietely. One local couple have 18 children! Needless to say, the fact that Richard and I are practically middle aged and childless is a topic of much incredulous discussion.

Anyway, back to our verb conjugations, until next week,

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Buenas noches,
Well, we didn't get to go up the volcano as there was a bit of a mix-up... we'd arranged to be picked up at 1pm on Sunday(we thought) but the minibus arrived at 6am. Needless to say we weren't ready to face the day, let alone a 5 hour mountain hike, so we hid under the duvet until they gave up banging on the door and went away. We'll try again on Saturday.

In fact its been a bad week for excursions - everything has been rained off. We found out today that it is actually Winter in Guatemala, does that mean we are south of the Equator? Shameful to be so ignorant of a country we have lived in for 3 weeks. Does explain the damp, musty, chilliness though. We've used up 2 whole bottles of Fabreze on our apartment already. Meanwhile, England is sweltering in a tropical heatwave. Typical!

Spanish is going well. There are many similarities with English and French but also some strange anomalies. For example, Spain has 2 verbs for 'to be', one for so-called permanent states and one for temporary conditions. Interestingly, your job is considered permanent, but death is temporary...I'm not sure which is more disturbing.

Spanish is also full of peculiar idioms and 'false friends', words or phrases that sound like something in English but mean something entirely different. What do you think 'estoy embarazada' means? 'I'm embarassed', perhaps? Nooooo, it means 'I am pregnant'. Obviously.

So although there are aspects of this language which makes it a pleasure to learn, it is also clear that even if we study 10 hours a day for the next 6 weeks we will still be a long, long way from being fluent. Advanced beginners at best. But we remain positive, our plans have not changed - I applied for 8 teaching jobs in Spain this week and although I am still waiting for a response from any of them, I am hopeful. Please keep your fingers and toes crossed for me!
Adios, hasta manana,