Memory cul-de-sac

A friend posted something online the other day, about her local beach. She has moved back home after living in London for years, and that ‘home’ is Cornwall, and that beach was my grandparents’ local beach, and they lived just above it in a modern (for those times) purpose-built bungalow that Grandpa built as a retirement place for them both, aiming for a nirvana setting where family would come and relax and enjoy the sea air and the stunning views. And that is just what we all did when we went to stay there, or visit for the afternoon: my sister and I spent a good deal of our childhood adventuring on the lawn with our two older boy cousins. Those were the days.

My sister went back there years ago; I think she was shown around, but this was quite soon after we had sold it. I also took a walk down the back path but I couldn’t see much, and what I could see I didn’t like so I didn’t hang around. Again, this was years ago. So my friend’s post made me instantly go online to see if my grandparents’ bungalow was still standing. You can do anything, go anywhere these days, without having to leave the house. Thanks to the wonders of online science, this time I went right up to the front door and on inside, all from the comfort of my Singapore dining table, to find that the place is now a rental holiday home, a four-bedder with stunning sea views, pictures of which appeared everywhere.

The views are precisely why my Grandpa bought this bit of land and built the bungalow right there on the cliffside, a house nesting in its own dreamy thicket of green, approached by driving down a beach road, then a cul-de-sac, then down an almost vertical drive. It had three bedrooms, an orchard, winding pathways going in and out of trees and an olympic-sized lawn that followed the cliff’s slope down to a gate. When we drove over to visit from our own cottage on the north coast, we would chant ‘I can see the sea’ as our old VW beetle nosed ever south towards the little front parking area. The prize once we had bunny-hopped to a stop was the unlocking of the big 1960s wooden door, a huge bosomy hug from Granny, and an apple-scented one from Grandpa, appearing from the orchard greenhouse to chuckle out a hello. Then us girls would sprint off to the garden to roll down the lawn and gawp, panting, at the stunning sea view. This ritual is the kind you find in magical childrens’ books, and the garden was the kind of prize that even small children appreciated – a piece of land so stunning that we never wanted to leave.

When we were little, passers-by walked the cliff path at the bottom of the garden, and would peer in through the iron gate, nosily entranced by the enormous upwards sweep of green. We would dance and twirl on the lawn, ostentatiously aware of onlookers, and enjoying showing off ‘our’ garden to the tourists. On that huge bit of grass, with borders of lavender and hyacinth, we sat and ate biscuits on plastic summer chairs during school holidays; we creaked the double swingseat higher and higher, and took turns on the proper single swing with its faded pink metal guard-poles (the one that couldn’t quite take Granny’s scone-happy weight so that she fell off, once, with a bump; she was fine, she couldn’t get up for laughing). This is where we watched the grown-ups pour tea, dark scented liquid making a pleasing bubble sound as it went into the china cups. It’s where we dutifully passed around the scones, and where the cousins chased us with pretend guns. Where water-play sessions got our frocks soaking wet and where, one rare snowy winter, we toboganned down the slope – and in all weathers that sweep of sea, gunmetal grey or glittery azure, could be seen from almost any room, any angle. What a clever piece of land.

So there I was, visiting online, musing about how it must be around 25 years since I was last there in person. No wonder, then, that changes have been made. They involve concrete, a lot of it, totally covering the old patio and (wince) half the garden. Inside, the moss-coloured carpets are gone and so is the pearlescent sliding room screen. The rooms are uniformly a pale Farrow & Ball shade of ocean grey, and there’s a little woodburner at the back where once a round brass-framed fisheye mirror, fixed high up on the wall, had me staring endlessly at the distorted reflection of my bulging face. The neat fireplace halfway down the wall of the sitting room – with a mantelpiece that had carriage clocks, and a chair on either side for Granny and Grandpa – is now just one big space, oddly huge. Four bedrooms, says the blurb, but I couldn’t work out quite how, and I also couldn’t find our old twin bedroom, a bed each for me and my sister and a high-up shelf full of china teapots in the shape of houses.

Oh, it’s OK. I suppose I can manage the change, and in any case it was my fault for snooping. I didn’t have to go inside the place to know that over the years things would be different. And if I ever visit the friend who lives nearby, I bet I’ll be tempted to take a walk along the beach path again to see what I can see. No doubt there’ll be no little girls twirling in their party frocks on the lawn…

There are two positives that I can take from this, and they are: 1) at least the place is still low-rise, still vaguely the same shape and still boasting the same vistas. And 2) I reckon Grandpa, so very modern-thinking in his design for the original bungalow, would probably be chuffed with this shiny new version.

Oh, and 3) you can’t take away a great view, so it was worth the online snoop just to see the sea once more.

My cousin, and one of those amazing sea views

 

Forecasting

Dreamed of repatriation last night. Everyone is getting ready to go, ’tis the season, so no wonder that my brain should go into overtime about the mass exodus. But then I had a little think about the dream and realised it had actually been about our impending summer holidays. There was a beach, a row of huts and a boat – typical Southeast Asian weekend getaway, yes? There was a cool beach bar full of twinkly fairy lights and chatty people – Indonesia or Malaysia, for sure. And a big group of kids running in and out of the sea – sun high above and each of them wearing nothing but a pair of boardies, right?
But no. The huts were fishermen’s huts, wet-roofed and grey against a stormy backdrop; the beach bar turned out to be my Aunty’s kitchen (which actually isn’t far off a Southeast Asian holiday beach bar, but still…); and the kids were kitted out in mini wetsuits and lifesaving jackets.
How funny that my brain should automatically translate what I have now for what I will most likely be having in July – good ol English drizzly summer hols.
We had a nice time, though, and I came away with a framed painting. As you do.

Bending

I’m about to have another First to write about. As well as running, Mandarin, bird-watching loom-ing (a brief phase to keep Jonah company during his equally brief craze), aquafit, macaron-baking (twice) and Scottish country dancing (F for fail), I will soon be adding Yoga to my list of learnings since arriving here in Singapore. I’ve had a terrible bad back for the last month and this opportunity to try out a yoga class has dropped out of the great fitness menu in the sky at the perfect time for me, as the chances of me getting into running gear any time soon are becoming slim (shame that’s not my waistline). My first class is tomorrow morning, with a friend who is just about to qualify and needs guinea pigs. I’m game! I only hope I’m still friends with her by 10:30.  Will report back from beyond the yogamat.

Next day:
Hooray, we’re still friends! In fact we’re more than friends, we are officially now Teacher and Student. Three of the four other people at K’s inaugural trainee yoga session this morning turned out to be mates of mine, so it was a very chatty bending session, which was nice. I met one friend in a lift and we both confided we weren’t a fan of the ‘om’ type of yoga. But not only did K have us blowing out noisily and bending our legs around our knees while stretching our arms out behind our ears (at least I thought that’s what she told us to do), she had us omming and ahhhing as well. She’s a gentle but confident teacher with a lovely, sure way about her, and a GoodSenseOfHumour (a vital component for things like this). There was a bell, plus yogi tea at the end, and a snack, and those lovely mates I mentioned before, and I felt truly wonderful at the end – refreshed, calm and stretched out in a good way. I immediately signed up for Lesson No 2.

At least 18 years have passed since my first – and last – brush with yoga, a disappointing trial of forced meditation and unreasonable twisting. It takes a certain maturity to admit you’re a bit rubbish at something, which I clearly was unable do at the time, when in fact I should’ve just called it a day. Well now I’m older, creakier and frankly could do with the help. Chilling out is something I’ve been meaning to learn for ages – this morning’s session felt like someone had caught my brain by the ankle mid-flight and held up a big STOP sign. I’m very happy to stop for a bit, and my back will be happy with all the bending. Plus I’m sure this means I get to buy a new set of ActiveWear.

Good v Evil: last one out switch off the lights

Following on from the hero-Dad-post, I took Jonah to see another hero today, at least he always was one of mine. Superman is in Singapore, appearing several times a day in various locations. I had two boys with me for a school holiday viewing, and enjoyed that frissance of fun that I still get when I watch anything during daylight hours*. We had a lot of popcorn, which – as usual – kept appearing long after I got home (down my bra, stuck to my skirt), and a big drink each, and we were all set for some tights-over-pants action.

There was a lot of talking. Some of it made sense but I couldn’t follow all of it – at least not while fishing stray popcorn kernels out from under my thigh. The man in front of me had a very smelly head, and left early. Jonah always asks a lot of questions, but today’s rate increased to levels that even his friend found tiresome: ‘JONAH, SHUT UP!’ For a while they both sucked bubbles loudly through straws. Sandals were kicked off and toes tickled the heads of the people in front – no one noticed so I didn’t mention it. While noses were picked, I found another kernel stuck to my left elbow.

About two hours into the film, Jonah needed a wee and disappeared off to the toilet, just as Superman’s head was clonged against a steel pylon for the 11th time. I squinted closely at the big screen to see if any bruises were starting to come up, because surely that was going to sting, but he just mumbled a bit. Once Jonah came back his friend needed to go, so off they went together – just as Superman told Lois he loved her. When the boys came back I updated them and I’m amazed that no one told us to shut up but frankly I think the whole audience appreciated the distraction.

When anyone mentions that cliched term ‘multitask’, it always makes me think of superheroes, and not the ones in kitchen aprons with office pencils behind their ears and nappies sticking out of their back pockets (although they deserve a round of applause too, especially as that’s Me, that is), but the ones in tights, holding up busloads of screaming citizens while KAPOWING a baddy in the goolies at the same time. Call me old-fashioned, but the superheroes of yesterday were just so much stronger, braver, and tidy as well, really thoughtful. No one brought down an entire Parliament including truckloads of innocent bystanders, because that’s too close to real life, and who wants to watch that? In the olden days they saved everyone and got out the dustpan and brush afterwards. Today’s film brought out my latent OCD (which, sadly, never surfaces in real life) – just who is going to clear up that little lot, I thought, as Jonah stepped on my toes while fumbling for his seat yet again.

As for Wonderwoman: great plunge top. I looked hard for signs of see-through shoulder straps or Sellotape sticking out under the armpits, but can only conclude that she got one of those clever low-back scaffolds or perhaps had a bespoke one made at Rigby & Peller, because she did all sorts of things with her arms (waving, thrusting, crossing one in front of the other) and nothing fell out sideways, not even once. You’d never find any popcorn down there, that’s for sure. She was a bit late, I have to say, but when you’ve got a big magic hubcap to lug around I guess you’re going to be hard-pushed to follow a schedule.

That’s the thing though – in the old days, Wonderwoman wasn’t late, and had much bigger hair. I like my superheroes to be good role models, strong and brave but neat and efficient too, because the magic superbras won’t put themselves away in the undies drawer. I’m being political here, obviously. I’ll get my coat of many colours.

*Daylight viewing was banned in our house. This is because Mum was brought up in a beach house on the north Cornish coast with a garden full of sand, and thought her own kids should be out GettingFreshAir just as she was. Frankly, I think her sort of beachcombing sounded scary – she was found ‘playing’ in the waves no less than three times, scaled high cliffs without her parents knowing, and spent happy hours tripping tourists with man-traps made out of dune grass. Conversely, I was brought up in urban Kentish Town, six flights up in the air, with dog poo pavements and, yes, the Heath to roam over, but, well, it’s not the same. While everyone else was watching Saturday morning telly we were sent out to get some of that FreshAir. So I always feel naughty if I watch things in the day, which is probably why I do it more the older I become.

Hero workshop

Those of us who have a good relationship with our parents can remember the time when we realised our dads were not, after all, heroes. I was around 10 years old. It was night time and we were coming back from an evening out, all four of us. It wasn’t such a huge incident compared with those who’ve been less fortunate: we’d parked and were walking to our apartment block when we saw someone being beaten up. We took him upstairs to our flat and my folks bathed his wounds and called the police. The guy couldn’t stop crying (stark memory of this grown-up young man sobbing) and nothing my parents said could calm him. I remember Dad looking so worried and I suddenly had the realisation that nothing had been able to stop the attack, and nothing would stop another one. The flat didn’t feel safe, and Dad was no longer wearing his pants over his trousers. (Actually, the same event taught me about the kindness of strangers, and another thing too – that if someone is too scared to thank you, it doesn’t mean they’re not grateful.)

Well, there goes my hero just now, packed into a cab after three weeks of top-quality Dad/Daughter time. He’s mid-70s, I’m mid-40s, and we’re neither of us too old to get a bit wet around the eyes on departure. SmallMonkey (reverting to diminutive name forms for sentimental moments) is sobbing in the shower as I write – proper small-boy sobbing – and I’ve had to sit down in a quiet room alone and take a minute or two.

I’ve talked about this business of minding the gap before, each time Dad goes – about how empty things are without him, how I miss his way with nature, his passion for education, the energy and enthusiasm that comes with him into our home and is unpacked all over the spare room, seeping into everything we do with a happy stain, and I realise I might be painting him out to be some kind of idolised Dr Doolittle, but I know he isn’t. He’s a good friend, though, increasingly so.

This parent-child friendship – those of us lucky enough to have it – comes later, doesn’t it, after the anti-hero teen angst has passed (if all is going to plan). By the time I was at college, and people were telling stories about their bonkers parents with cool habits and funny ways, starting sentences with: ‘Oh my folks are just SO HILARIOUS’, or, ‘Oh you know what parents are like!’ – I already had the strong conviction that no-one else’s parents would ever be quite like mine.

He’s not perfect, though, he has faults like everyone (the outdoor table still has a scorch mark from one of his experiments, and I’m happy to see the back of the bathroom bunting of pants, hankies and flannels), but the amazingness doesn’t seem to be fading with age, it just gets stronger. And delightfully, it all gets passed down – most noticeable this trip was the growing friendship between Dad and Grandson: proper chats, proper holiday room sharing, lots of shared schoolwork and the sort of general mellow hanging-out vibe that you see in feelgood films. Nice work, family.

You can’t really ask for more than a Grandpa who borrows your waterpistol to chase away oriole pests threatening the bulbul nest that’s just under your balcony, can you? Who else even notices there’s a bulbul nest under the balcony? We thought it was all just tropical squawking until Grandpa revealed there was a whole bird battle going on in the condo clearing, right under our noses, with bulbuls, starlings, mynahs and orioles battling it out for leadership. Who else has a Grandpa standing by to take a water pop right over the downstairs four-piece table set? I don’t think Jonah’s condo friend, popping round to play last Sunday, is ever going to forget the sight of one pump action Nerf and two smaller waterpistols all set up to go, aimed between the wooden railings at the big palm as the orioles hovered in wait. Yep, he’ll be back again, soon as his mum lets him.

Since we moved here in June, I’ve had no idea that the mad after-dark frog noise outside is a nightjar, and that there’s a dollar bird in the tree at the end of the road. The huge black bird dragging something stringy in its claws hadn’t caught something, it was just a racket-tailed drongo and that’s how they look. Nettles are like tiny glass needles, did you know that? Over at Haw Par Villa, those funny old tortoises in the pond are eating all the fish, so don’t feel sorry for them. And the carp at our own condo, meanwhile, are not sweetly coming up for feeding time, they’re gasping for oxygen, so I’ll need to get onto that.

I’ve talked in other posts – here, here and here – about how time with Dad helps me see things in a different way; how I spend the entire time quietly taking notes. You’re never too old to learn. And you’re never too old to crumple into a heap when your hero has to get in a cab to Changi. Better pull myself together, there’s a nest to look after.

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Leap Year

I can ask Mr PC to marry me (again) today. I can also wish my friend Scott a very happy birthday (married with two kids, he is just 9, or is it 10 years old). Today is Leap Year, the one time every four years that February has 29 days. I know exactly what I was up to last time round. I probably thought about all of the above at some point but mostly I remember very clearly that Mr PC had the day off work because something was being fixed in the flat. I was working at home as always, writing that novel that was never and will never be published (whispers: it was rubbish). The cats were probably being adorable and Jonah was definitely at school. It was Wednesday.

He had a playdate afterwards with a friend and, it still being the wintry months, it was after dark when I picked him up and started the long walk back uphill to home. I remember being unable to concentrate on his chatter as I led him along. This was because, at some point earlier that afternoon, my husband had stopped what he was doing with the flat to take an interesting phone call from work, during which a subject had cropped up that would change our lives forever.
I remember he put down the phone, came into the office room where I was thinking up another rubbish paragraph that would never be seen (whispers: it was really, really rubbish), and sat down on the couch behind me with one of those sheepish looks, as if to say: ‘stand by’.
‘So,’ he said. ‘Singapore’s come up again.’
And I turned around, ditched the Word document, and Googled: ‘S-c-h-o-o-l-s i-n-…’ etc.
Happy LeapYear anniversary Mr PC – four years but a lifetime of happenings. It’s been fun.

Sri Lanka Pt 2: One More for the Road

Just one more post on Sri Lanka and then I think I’m done. The further away we move from that frantic week, the more I realise that we probably did it a little bit wrong: way too much way too fast. A friend and fellow blogger has just moved to Delhi and is experiencing her first proper writer’s block, senses pulled this way and that as India absorbs her into its new adventures. She has managed her first post and there is going to be a lot for her to grasp. Sri Lanka being a neighbour of India, and sharing certain similarities, I find I’m undergoing my own case of tongue-tie. Just four more snippets.

Hotel/motel
My family tease me for being a WhiteFluffyTowel girl, a fact that I continue to reject: I do NOT need my towels to be white and fluffy, you can put me where you like, as long as there are marks of thoughtfulness, and as long as we get a solid base to decamp before setting off again. Good food and a peaceful night’s sleep are also up there on the requirements list and actually any old towel will do and I only need one, and I’m happy to share that one between the three of us, but it must be clean, free from stains and at least slightly absorbent. That’s it. Not always so easy to find.
We are a family who enjoy a bit of this and a bit of that – to ensure we maximise our travel lust we are careful with the cash, but mindful of things like bed bugs and rubbish quality sleep. Armed with those requirements, we found it hard to plot a mid-course through Sri Lankan guest houses.
Everyone we talked to had gone four stars or higher (apart from the 20-something backpacker brigade on Tripadvisor, making friends with bed bugs as they worked their way around the country). During the planning stages, our driver had generously insisted on doing all the bookings. First he read us wrong and took the top-star route, lavishly booking us into places with names like Cinnamon, Jetwing, Lighthouse – expensive boutique places that we felt weren’t necessary. Trouble is, once you’ve turned that lot down, there’s a whole different line-up of interesting experiences just waiting to bite you on the lower leg or rustle in your ear all night. When we asked him to tone it down a bit we found ourselves looking down the half-star barrels of places that had not – and will never – get anywhere near Agoda. We got there in the end, but it was a stringy assortment of places, some good, one really very lovely, and others notsogood.
It’s hard to plan for guests when you’ve never met them, and it didn’t always work out the way we all wanted. Most disarming was the two examples of us pulling up to the door of a great-sounding guest house (and we knew they were great-sounding because we had researched them all at home and then printed out all the details, as you do when you can’t quite leave the bookings to someone else) only to notice as our driver parked up and switched off the engine that the name above the door was entirely different to the one on our list.
‘Ah well,’ Gamini would wince, ‘in the end, very hard to get into that place so we are here instead.’
‘A little notice, please,’ seemed a completely foreign concept because, well, it is. Change is just how things happen in SL. Too bad. Here’s how it worked out in the end:

Night One, Kumudu Valley, Negombo: Neglected riverside shabby without the chic, the only good fortune being that we were in it for the least amount of time. Evil-looking guards, stained sheets, a rash of bites on Jonah’s legs and no guests. Dismal. Our worst night.
Night Two, Mountain Breeze, Kandy: Simple guesthouse on a mountainside road: peace & quiet, good food, great views and lovely people. Highly recommended.
Night Three, Araliya Green Hills, Nuwara Eliya: Not the Hill Club, then? No. Not the sepia-tinted, much written about fancy hotel, our token posh hotel for which we had packed one posh outfit for the one posh meal in the one posh restaurant? No. Instead this was a just-built, over-blown, faux posh layer of corridors and carpets that made it second to the bottom of our list, thanks to being unfriendly, uninteresting and unfinished with plastic food, zero ambience, guards swarming the entrance, minus points for unhelpfulness at Reception and a nasty wobble to the lifts. You can keep your white linen tablecloths, I was only after a map of the town.
Night Four, Ambiente, Ella Gap: Not the Ella Gap Panorama, then? Oh God, never mind – for Mr PC at least, this place turned out to be a favourite but got minus points from me thanks to serious mould and dilapidation and what seemed on arrival to be zero niceness. In fact we were soon won over by our awesome slow-cooked curry dinner and the loveliness of the staff. We’d arrived in the dark, in the rain, after the mother of all train rides and could only guess we were at a high altitude because of the way the car had been taking ominously tight turns on approach, and because of how we had all been pointing very definitely up on our ascent. Next morning when I drew back the curtains I was cross to find that we’d been given a room facing a white wall – but no, that whiteness was sky, miles and miles of it, with astounding views of tiny roads far, far below and elegant birds flying some way under our terrace. While Mr PC lost himself in curry pleasure (again) in the breakfast room, I took pictures of far-off waterfalls on mountainsides several hundred metres below us, and fretted about how on earth we were ever going to get down.
Night Five, Dickshon Campsite, Yala: Gamini insisted on us staying here, despite it having no write-ups anywhere. In the end a write-up suddenly appeared just before we left, and I talked to the guy who wrote it because he scored it rather low. Having been assured by the writer that it was a safe place, just not fantastic, we pressed on with plans to stay. It’s a newish place, that’s all, run by a kind family trying to make a go of life. ‘For once,’ said Mr PC, ‘won’t you just leave something to chance?’ So we did. And it was bonkers, and it was a bit half-ready, but, you know, it was lovely, actually. Jonah scored this place highest, because ‘the dogs were kind’. We loved its peaceful location by a lotus-filled lake. After four dusty days on the road, to unfurl among herons and waders, with bee-eaters playing chase through the trees, the sun setting over straw rooftops and Jonah throwing sticks for the kind dogs, was heaven on earth. Even massive holes in the mossie nets, scrappy curtains not covering the windows, dead things in the shower and flies all over the beds at night didn’t detract from its simple gorgeousness, and extra marks given for the super-nicest hosts of our trip.
Nights Six & Seven, Mama’s Guest House, Galle: Being a town girl this was my fave, the only one we booked ourselves, and the place we stayed at for longest (two whole nights). A rooftop restaurant with just two rooms, ours had a perfect view right down the street to the ocean. It was a bit noisy at night but so pretty, in an amazing spot full of cafes, little shops and buzzing with life, and with a yummy evening meal and fantastic roti breakfast, all with unbeatable views of the Lighthouse and walls, from both rooftop and room. Did I mention the location? Very recommended.

Food
Curry. Divine. Don’t have Western, at best you’ll get oven fries, at worst a wet tomato sandwich. Curry is what the country is famous for, so soak it all up. We also liked curd (a form of yoghurt) with honey, and naughty sesame candy. John gamely tried a weird stinky fruit that, rather like durian, tasted better than it smelled (he said). Jackfruit, rambutan and watermelon can all be found and papaya is everywhere. Our favourite roadside snack came in the form of salted husks of boiled sweetcorn sold in bags and so searing hot that you had to hang them from your fingertips before eating – if you’ve been foolish enough to self-drive, don’t do both at the same time.

People
I’ve not really noticed my femininity for a while. I don’t really do bikinis any more and I’m mindful of what I wear, but happy enough with my shape: it’s all I’ve got, it’s impossible to change and it will have to do. Luckily I live somewhere where none of this really matters – clothing in Singapore is minimal because it’s just too hot to wear very much, so legs and arms are exposed most of the time, apart from in air con (often) or when we go into temples (not often). The national costume is ‘casual’, and it’s not unusual to see professional and office workers in teeny cocktail dresses and short shorts. I’m speaking in general terms and don’t mean anything by it – I love the fact that I’ve not worn tights in four years.
Hit Sri Lanka and it’s a different story. The locals are marketed as being smiley, happy people, another sweeping generalisation, and it’s certainly true that we met some completely lovely people. My aforementioned Delhi friend has just written in her first blogpost after moving to India that she is getting used to going for walks all the while being observed by ‘silent starers’, something that just doesn’t happen that often here, and that’s something I noticed in Sri Lanka too. I felt self-conscious for the first time in ages. Fortunately I’d had an idea that this might be the case and had packed appropriately, taking sensible outfits like long sleeves and trousers, and demure calf-length dresses, and wearing shorts only when I knew it was completely OK. Even so, I spent most of the time feeling like I was walking around half naked.
On a sunset stroll in Galle, when the whole town comes out to walk the walls before nightfall, the boys left my side to go and look at something for all of two minutes. In the very short while that they were gone I was approached no less than three times by different groups of men asking where I was from and who I was with. I wasn’t wearing a bikini or juggling ping pong balls, just doing a very ordinary bit of fully clothed walking. Clearly, I have been spoilt, here in bare-limbed, casually-attired Singapore. I’ve forgotten that the lone female traveller must always keep her wits about her wherever she is. The lone *any* traveller. Common sense, I guess.

Tsunami
You can’t get around Sri Lanka without this subject coming up, it is the biggest elephant in the room. ‘I won’t ask Gamini about it,’ I’d said on Day One in a show of Touristic Magnanimity. ‘I reckon he’s bound to be tired of everyone asking.’ What nonsense. The Tsunami of 2004 has become so much a part of Sri Lankan history that to not talk about it would have been more hurtful, and in the end he brought it up first, not me.
The year after the Tsunami, he said on our safari evening, as we sat by the bonfire, there were virtually no tourists in Sri Lanka. He said it has taken the full ten-plus years to get back to something approaching ‘normal’ in terms of tourism at least. He and his family, living in Kandy, were fine but yes, he knew of people affected.
As we journeyed through Sri Lanka with Gamini, his job as a tour guide and driver involved pointing stuff out, birds, temples, events on the road (monk’s funeral, sports day, food stands). It was only as we drove along the south coast from east to west that the snippets became interjected with Tsunami miscellania: ‘there’s a memorial… there’s a cemetary… place where entire train drowned… ruins of houses… more ruins… ruins again…’
I thought about my O Level school trip to the Somme in 1984 where lines of white gravestones dotted Vimy Ridge, and how it had been the first time I’d come close to appreciating a school outing, possibly because it was the first time I’d been able to compare the theory of something written down with the awful reality of it having happened.
I caught a bit of WiFi in Galle and did some research – by the time we were driving north to Colombo and the airport, Tsunami facts were embedded in my virtual scrap book. View of the cricket stadium from the Galle walls? That’s where they were all stuck on the top floor until the waters went down. Beautiful train tracks right by the beach? That’s why the train toppled over. Piled high with passengers, few of them stood a chance.
‘No one had seen anything like it,’ said Gamini. ‘The fishermen – everyone – all came down to the beaches to see what was going on. And, then, the wave.’
During another story, he talked about what happened next. A few days later, he said, they all drove down south to see what they could do. Everyone wanted to help. What they saw… He waved an arm helplessly around the driver’s space, nodding at the land speeding past outside our car window and shaking his head. He didn’t need to spell it out.
You just can’t come here and not think about it, so go ahead and give it a bit of your time. I think everyone should.

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Sri Lanka Pt 1: Points of View

Don’t even try and do all that stuff on your list – that’s my first tip. Scrap half of it and play the rest by ear. We packed a lot into our seven-day half term, but we’re optimistic like that, and we came home exhausted. Standard. There is a way of getting to see all those hotspots – and that is to hire someone to take you bumping over the top of the country. You’ll end up seeing most of it from the back of a Prius Hybrid but you’ll go home with a series of intense snapshot impressions:

  • Fairy lights draped around a bank
  • Cows in the middle of a football game
  • Smells and colours popping out: putrid rubbish, hot pink saris
  • In Galle, somebody tap-tapping on an old typewriter from the back of a shop (hi, Mum)
  • In Yala, fireflies on a night safari, and a bird flapping around in the back of our jeep
  • Tsnuami memorial by the train track where an entire train drowned
  • Big turtle playing in surf. Elephant’s bottom disappearing in the darkness
  • Cheeky schoolkids asking for sweets at the rail station
  • Perilous-looking miniature ferris wheel powered by steam
  • Birds, birds, birds, curry, curry, curry, more pink saris

Roads
Just don’t do it. Roads in SL are hell. If you’re adventurous then take the train or bus – the former is cheap and wonderful but slightly chaotic, the latter is just chaotic. Otherwise, find yourself a good driver. Much better to have someone else threading you in and out of the clotted traffic, so all you have to do is sit back and relax, watching tuk tuks and buses come at you head on as you overtake on perilous mountain roads.

Drivers
We accidentally had two – the one I’d been talking to via email, who had insisted on also doing all our bookings and being our guide, only to suffer a diabetic slump a few days before we arrived (the email chain suddenly went quiet). All credit to him, he managed to organise a replacement for us, from his sick bed, but the first we knew of it was when we rocked up to the airport at 10.30pm to find that the man holding the sign didn’t look at all like the man I’d seen in photos, being a whole foot shorter, with a slight afro. (It’s quite funny now. It wasn’t at the time. And I do realise that having diabetes isn’t funny either)
In fact, Sunil turned out to be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, straight up, a gentle hard worker with no less than three major careers on the go: music teacher, rice farmer, tour guide. Endlessly kind, thoughtful and funny. We’d got used to Sunil when our original guy, Gamini, arrived to take over, well recovered and wisely avoiding all our travel sweets. He was more fluent in English so he made a slightly better tour guide, but they both drove beautifully. Worth the dollars (and not a lot at that), these guys bust a gut to get you places. Sunil dropped us at a leaky mountain guest house in the dark, caught a few hours kip, then was on the 5.30am bus back home where he then had just two days to perfect his students’ band music for the annual school sports meet.
Four days later, Gamini dropped us at the airport at 10.30pm then had to do a three-hour drive back home through night-time mountain roads. He’d sensibly planned the next week off, otherwise his next tour would have been directly after ours. Somehow they stay awake and do it all with a smile – well, the good ones do.

Safari
It’s said that African safaris are better, but when you’re 11 and spotting crocodiles from the back of a jeep, you’re not really going to judge. You’re also not going to care if there aren’t any leopards because you’ve just seen bison having a bath, a family of elephants throwing mud around, huge peacocks, several funny diggy little mongoose (mongi?), jackals, massive monitors, and those crocodiles. Plus spotted deer.

Camping
Well, sort of. My family will do an amazed ‘whoop’ but then there’ll be raised eyebrows when they hear that the tents were huts, and had a flushing toilet each. But, fairplay to fussy me, there was a proper need for the mossie nets and those we had were covered in holes, there was a dead cricket in the shower (yes alright there was a shower), a spider nesting above the toilet*, and no light once the generator went off (but yes, we had electric lights). But, you know, camping! Jonah love love love loved it until we noticed the beds were covered in beetles and flies at night (cue small boy horrified face and imaginary death music), but once the mossie nets were up that was sorted. Well, actually, no, it was only a little bit sorted but I’m not telling Jonah that, and none of us sleeps with our mouth open, so all good. Yes I would do it again. I’m just glad I didn’t hear about the baby snake until we left, which is also just as we spotted a herd of bison wandering through the neighbouring field. THAT close.

Farms
I like my farms spread out over hills in swathes of green like a giant furry duvet (tea country, check), or dotted with happy cows (foothills, check), or fringed with lush waving rice tips (lowlands, check). I’m not at all keen on squat metal shacks with penned-in livestock, stinking tiny calves and dirty rabbits lying in cramped hutches in the dark. I’m sure there’s a reason for that kind of farming. I have probably been eating it. Maybe I need to be vegetarian? Don’t bother with New Zealand Farm if you share the same preferences.
On the night we arrived, Sunil had spent the whole day farming his own rice paddy. He’d paid people to finish the job so that he could switch to being a driver for us. Sri Lanka’s main outcrop is rice, with tea also bringing in the rupees. Tea farms are dotted with the bright saris of pickers. You can buy whole boxes of the stuff and have it shipped home, and you should expect to drink it absolutely everywhere. Orange Pekoe, please.

Heights
Another of my numerous fears, and the prospect of spending approximately half of the trip some 1800m above sea level meant I packed a strip of Xanax. Thanks to our great drivers I didn’t need them for the car, in fact the views were delightful, but a waterfall walk didn’t go so well. Got halfway to the viewing point then requested to be left to wait, hanging on to the shrubbery on my left and avoiding the drop on the right. After 10 minutes my eyes had convinced me that I was on some perilous ledge, rather than the ample footpath that small children were scampering up and down, and by the time I was collected for the return meagre 20-metre stroll back up to restaurant level, my knees were playing the tom-toms. I really don’t need heights. I can see from the car, honest.

Train
Why, then, did the heights on the train not bother me so much? I can’t say. The whole three hours was so surreal, surely it wasn’t actually me flying through the sky in a weighty blood-red carriage around the very edge of the very top of a massive mountain? I’m a convert, I want to do it again. If you’re doing the train, (and I hate the word ‘should’, but you should), you should make sure that one of your journeys is the route that takes you high up into the mountains and beyond.
Mr PC was distraught when he saw that Gamini had booked us ‘First Class’ tickets, devastated at the thought of the promised ‘butler’ coming round and serving us drinks on trays, while air con froze us rigid. No, silly, this is Sri Lanka! And that website must have been written in 1548. First we waited for an hour. Then when the very late train strolled up we had to literally climb up the ladder on the side to get in. There was air con, yes, but it wasn’t switched on because the windows had all either been opened or had fallen open approximately 30 years before. Doors also stayed open for a purpose I will outline in a few sentences. What butler? There was a kitchen that looked like one of those Channel 4 programmes: ‘Hoarders From Hell’. Mr PC loved it, and made us both a nice enough cuppa in a proper mug, then hung out of the open doorway to drink it.
There were curtains – or had been, once, but I’ve no idea why the remains were still there. Tattered scraps simply got in the way of people sticking their heads outside, posing for pictures taken by someone else hanging out of the carriage door. A cheeky train guard joined in the fun by pretending to push a tourist out onto the track. Oh how she laughed. No, she really did.
Springs on these trains are as big as a large dustbin, so screaming around tight corners on viaduct bridges with absolutely nothing under you but air – well, that’s why those springs are huge. Honks of steam announced us at every station and road crossing. Walkers strolled along the tracks behind us, and when we finally chugged up to our stop in the dark, we had to get off onto the line itself then cross over and shimmy up onto the platform, helped up by fellow waiting passengers.
Our train was so late that the last hour of the journey was sadly in darkness, not sunset as planned, but this simply made it all the more atmospheric, and brought out the carriage’s bonkers golden-stencil patterns on the walls. There should have been a detective with a moustache and a 1930s love angst scene. We stopped in the pitch black at one point for a while, engine ticking in the quiet night, crickets chattering. I think there were cows on the line. Quite, quite bonkers and an absolute should-do.

Soundtrack
All the best holidays have one, and ours came from Sunil’s collection of ‘Best Of’ albums all weirdly beginning with the letter B: Bob Marley, Boney M (oh, those Russians), Buddha Bar and Best Deep House. Divine choices for whatever scenery we were passing, which was just as well since we had the whole lot on a loop. I’ll leave you with my favourite, which will forever remind me of a series of switchback mountain roads in tea country, through which we cruised gently with Sunil at the wheel, tapping his hands in time. I felt like Bridget Jones before her hair went wrong, and frankly, every girl should be treated to at least one car trip where she feels like that.

I’m so sorry, but there’s more. So so much more. I’ll do it once I’ve come down from tea land. I might be some time.

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*Just to say it was a very wobbly toilet with a curtain dividing it from the bedroom. I couldn’t see my feet in the dark. And a cockroach climbed into Mr PC’s washbag and came with us to the next guest house. But, you know – camping!

First Mud

The boys go on a hash run every fortnight, through various bits of jungle around Singapore on alternate Sundays. This is keeping it in the family for Mr Partly Cloudy, whose parents met through a regular hash run in Ipoh, Malaysia in the 1960s. He’s been enjoying a local kids’ version with Jonah, and they’ve both wanted me to come along too. ‘If you can do Bukit Brown,’ said Mr PC this week, ‘it’s not that much harder.’ I know, I know. We didn’t need a crystal ball to tell us that in this sort of weather, those might be famous last words. No matter, I’m now the proud owner of a pair of properly muddy post-hash trainers, and I’ve got vine splinters. And yes, there is satisfaction to be gained. And yep, I might even do it again. Talk about a baptism of fire, though. Or water.

You jungle-doubters, there is thick foliage here in Singapore, you just have to look for it. It helps to have a group of willing explorers happy to spend their free time trekking through the undergrowth, tying hankies around trees and bits of rope up steep slopes so that nutters like us can crash through a few hours later. The prize at the end is a back-of-the-van meal for kids and a beer tent for adults. Nice one.

It’s plain to see why the boys have been persuading me to join, but I have always had an excuse up my sleeve. This week, though, after Mr PC knocked his ribs in a game of football and began wheezing and slowing down, I decided that the only way to stop him running the course was to join in. Little did I know that my first ever hash would coincide with a whopper of a monsoon storm.

Stop a minute here and just take some time to think about what you need to do when marching through a bit of jungle. We’re told, don’t stray off the path, snakes are there. We’re told, don’t touch the tree trunks, you don’t know what’s perched on them, creeping along under them or slithering around them, and that’s before we’ve even started on the possibility of poisonous plants and huge giants crashing through undergrowth eating all the villagers. OK not that last bit, but the other stuff, definitely. Would you ever, in your stupidest moments, give a tropical trunk a full body hug, or lie down in thick jungle mud and slide your way from A to B? Course not, because that would be silly. But wet weather conspired against us and turned the course into a slipway, which meant that as cautious drops turned to full on downpour, not holding on would have been even stupider.

We all fell over, slipped along, tore our skin and got mud in our eye. Thorny vine? Give it here. Three-inch-thick mud slope? Sit right down and slide, why not? And actually, to begin with it was quite fun whacking through vines like Sylvester Stallone in First Blood, and Starskying across fallen trees in an effort to keep up. Fortyfive minutes of that, combined with comedy buckets of rain, and let me tell you I was limping along grabbing handfulls of sodden foliage wherever I could, crashing over trunks like a shot elk, pushing my shoulder into the bottom of the stranger in front as she limped wetly up an incline, in a desperate effort to just move the whole thing along. Time crawled, like us – it was all taking a wee bit longer than planned. My specs frosted over with rain; the kid in front of me noted the clouds of steam puffing up from me and Mr PC any time we paused. I began to wonder when it might get dark; if we’d ever get home. Jonah, at first a buoyant and proud guide, showing me the ropes, lost his bravado and took it in turns with me to alternate moods: one of us would nobly shout ON ON! while the other mewed about a sore foot or hurty shoe, and all the while Mr PC darted between us, helping us up and down steep banks and around spiky tree trunks. Fun for all the family.

All the normal people in our group took the short route, but Jonah chose the 5k signpost and so it was that we ended up sliding through thicker and thicker soup, wondering when the helicopters would start circling, and wishing we had opted for the home option, the one that came with telly and a nice cup of tea. I’d just been persuaded to stop sobbing for the third or fourth time when a big hoot went up from my friend up ahead, and out we popped onto the Green Corridor, an old train track and well known running trail. We ran the last 500 metres to the beer tent; Tiger never tasted so good.

I apologise to all the small children I pushed out of the way when I saw that patch of white sky as jungle gave way to clearing. I’m sorry to my friend and also to my husband for having a proper weep at that very tricky slippy bit. And most of all I’m sorry to my bottom for giving it such a very muddy afternoon when all it really wanted was to sit on the sofa at home. In the end we did a grand total of 2.4 miles. It took the best part of two hours. We forgot to pack bus cards and did not dare call a cab, so totally caked in mud were we, so we had to walk to a bus stop and pay a full ten dollars for the three of us just to go about 8 stops, standing in the pram space the whole way home, stinking slightly of mulch. A caterpillar appeared on my vest, and bits of mud fell off Mr PC’s arm every time the bus changed gear.

I might go back next time. I will have to think about it. I liked the crowd, the theory of it all and the beer. I do admit to feeling brilliant at the end, with that pleasing muscle ache a few hours later that lets you know you’ve actually done something with your body. Where would you ever see jungle like this if you didn’t follow such trails? I think the people who set the routes are amazing, and I love how they do it, and yes, it is organised, and yes, it is good fun. So I’ll be back for some more Rambo fun shortly. If it rains, though, you know where to find me: #sofaplease

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Bukit Brown for beginners

Several tours are recommended if you live on the Red Dot. Today’s tour of Bukit Brown cemetery had been on my list for a long time – especially as the whole place is currently being cut up to make way for a big road, with ancestors being dislodged and moved to stacked vertical resting places (or worse, but we won’t think about that).
‘Whoohh,’ said my Mandarin teacher last night when I told her of this morning’s trip, ‘is it still there?’ And when I replied that it was, she said with a note of suspicion: ‘Er, we don’t really go to cemeteries very often.’
I know what she means, it’s not an obvious choice for a fun day out, but when you think about all the famous cemeteries of the world (Highgate cemetery in London with Karl Marx, Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris with Jim Morrison) then the prospect of a guided tour around some tombstones becomes a perfectly sensible suggestion.
And that’s why we found ourselves on a morning ramble, my friend and I, threading our way through thickets and brambles with 16 other guests, crashing to scare off potential snakes while our leader, herself a relative of some Bukit Brown residents, gamely pushed giant morning cobwebs out of our way (meanwhile my friend apologised to anyone we stepped on by accident).
It’s because we are tour guides that we were invited on the morning tour today, although you can always go round yourselves (and there were people dog-walking, horse-riding and scootering). Isn’t it always a bonus to have someone guide you, though? And not just to chase off the spiders.
Some might say you actually need a tour guide here, because Bukit Brown is a proper adventure – a thick, bushy maze of partially obscured graves scattered over several hillsides. In these hallowed acres lie whole families, grouped war victims, famous local personalities. The person showing us around is also a guide at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, and it was invaluable to have her help decode the traditional Chinese lettering and point the way around the woody place. We found tombstones tucked deep in brambles. Other graves had been tidied up, untangled, so you could clearly see the stark geometric art deco carving, the orange brickwork and Victoriana tiles. Some were exposed all on their own by the road, others placed neatly side by side or dotted one over the other up and down the sides of the hills, backed with sweeping armchair-shaped walls and guarded by stone gods, creatures, figures.
Many had little rocks placed on top, some trapping a slip of paper. Don’t move them, we were told, this is a visitor’s way of telling the ancestors, I’m here – I’ve come to see you. I did a little Google of this when I got home and it seems it’s a Jewish tradition too. Some say it means the relative is anchored in place. Whatever the reason the stones looked reverential, thoughtful, an earthy equivalent to the cut flowers you see in western graveyards.
You’d need a hard heart not to have been moved by our visit but it wasn’t an entirely solemn morning at all, quite the opposite. Our guide lead her long-trousered chatty crocodile with energy: ‘This way!’ she would shout, suddenly off-roading to the left beneath a hanging curtain of lianas, with us scrambling along behind in a cloud of Deet.
She saved the best til last – the biggest grave in Bukit Brown. After a vertical stomp the jungle opens up to a clearing with the most enormous Chinese armchair-shaped memorial. This grave belongs to prominent businessman Ong Sam Leong, who clearly did very well for himself. Once surrounded by a fish-filled moat, the tomb covers 600 square metres, has its own skate-rink sized forecourt of beautiful tiles, and is guarded by stone lions and mossy soldiers. Most graves have their own earth stone deity off to one side – not this one: this one has an entire earth god tomb all to itself.
What a morning, one of the best tours I’ve experienced since moving here: fun, exciting, and very precious to be able to see the stones before the threatened eight-lane highway swallows them up. You can take yourself off to Bukit Brown; driving is best, and there are parking spots along the roads. There’s an unopened MRT station, but who knows when that will come into play (or if we ever actually want it to). Or you can hop in a cab and get dropped off for a stroll.
When I see my Chinese teacher next week I will recommend she pops by and says hello, before the ancestors melt away into history.
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