New Zealand for starters

The decision not to christen their children was on balance one of my parents’ better ones, I’ve always thought. I’m grateful that they left it up to my sister and me to decide, even though since a very young age I’ve often found the internal debate too much for my mortal head to take. Most times I’m absolutely sure about my views, other times less so, and on nights like this – hunkered down in a motel room in New Zealand’s Lake Taupo, waiting for a cyclone to hit – I do wonder whether prayer might sometimes come in handy.

Taupo is on North Island, and we are four days into our tour of this uppermost half of NZ, a slow ride from bottom to top compared with the frenzied scamper of the last two weeks around South Island (blog postcards to follow). South was for tourist-trekking whereas North is to be reserved for slow catch-ups with friends and family. We’ve ticked off one cousin so far in Welly (plus his new family and tiny new baby), but thanks to Taupo’s current extreme weather watch I doubt we’ll see the friends that are scheduled to arrive tomorrow. After this it’s meant to be Auckland and one more friend, then on back to Singapore.

Anyway I’ve gone right off the topic, which was Religion, a subject I thought about a lot while touring down South, where Nature gives you a whole different slideshow. Not just daily but several times an hour, it has seemed, amazing sights took our breath away so that even Jonah, lately full of pre-teen angst, couldn’t help but gasp along with us as mountains dropped, peaks gleamed white, fields dipped and turned with unexpected mountain switchbacks, glaciers rumbled and dolphins leapt beneath us out of sparkling deep seas. Earth, Water, Sky splashed across our retinas in a palette of dazzling colours with no space to catch breath before the next snapshot appeared.

“It’s all just so Godly,” I remarked to Mr PC as yet another jaw-dropping vista hove into view on the road coming into Queenstown. And it really is, and that’s coming from a girl who hasn’t ever really had The Lord in her house, but it is the sort of landscape that makes you think about the Origin, the start of things, about prehistorical, jurassic, basic times, and what might have caused those insane angles to work their way onto the edge of mountain roads, to rise up from land to sky, pushing Beauty into your face so that there is simply nothing for it but to allow your senses to take that vertical teeter down the winding switchback trails, splash about in powder blue creek water, stuff mossy air into creaky lungs. If I’m sounding a bit trippy it’s because this country has so far been one massive eyeball festival, tweaking every sense into sharp awareness, an other-worldly, eerie series of days. We might possibly also be a bit tired.

Postcard blog notes will follow, from South Island at least, but they won’t do the place justice. No camera, no description can accurately shape into words just how stunning South Island is. I can’t yet fully comment on the North – having only just got here we’ve spent most of our time cuddling a tiny baby (gorgeous, again), poking around Wellington (gorgeous, again), driving through mossy volcanic deserts (gorgeous, again – I think we can already tell how North Island’s going to be, eh?)

And once the storm’s passed (oh please let it pass) we’ll get out from under the bed and go for a stomp around Taupo, our current spot, and no doubt have more eyeball festivals. Until then I’ll spend the next 24 hours holed up in my head recreating white peaks, mossy passes and stubby sun-shadowed boulders jutting out alongside those empty, empty roads. Hope I can find the words to get those dreams from brain to keyboard.

 

 

 

Between Clouds and Dreams

One month on, I am still deeply in China. I try and listen to snippets of talkshows on the radio in cabs (though I’m no closer to speaking it). I try to progress to tricky foods with chopsticks. I go to the Chinese bit of my newsfeed more often than before. I remember places we went to, and Google them. I find the little vocab diary I made – English / pinyin / Mandarin – and save it, don’t bin it. We resume Mandarin lessons and instead of feeling tired and apprehensive I’m glad. I put the kettle on in advance, warm our new green and yellow dragon teapot, put out the special redwood tray, spend half the lesson chatting to our laoshi about the trip. I will talk at length about it to anyone who is willing to lend me their ears; I’m sorry about that.

Thank you, then, for Phil Agland and his brilliant new documentary, Between Clouds and Dreams. I talked about him in my last post – I fell in love with his original Chinese documentary, Beyond The Clouds, in c.1994, and then forgot all about it, or perhaps life simply took over. And then years later when we booked our trip for October half-term 2016 it all came back, and I found him again, on Twitter. And not only that, but he’d gone and made a whole new documentary, which began screening just after we arrived home. We played episode one, Mr PC and I, with the living room in ‘cinema’ mode (lights down low, popcorn, feet up). Treat of all treats; didn’t want it to end.

Is it just me? Just me who adores adores adores the way this man makes his films? Both of us glued to the screen, watching how the camera had access into the heart and soul of who or whatever it was following. Phil Agland’s documentaries are captivating to the last detail, the voiceovers silky and mesmerising, the background music sweet and haunting. His previous documentary had a female Chinese-accented voiceover, a perfect match. This one is male, mellow, somewhat Clanger-like and equally comforting, settling you into things instantly. This whole series – two years’ worth of filming – is about China’s relationship with nature. Episode one follows a small band of schoolchildren researching a story for their newspaper, about an endangered bird. Then there’s Little Ray, deaf but loving her education under the tuition of a forward-thinking, enthusiastic teacher. And then there’s Living Buddha, a man who – frankly – we could all do with as an educator for our children.

I won’t say more. It’s all too beautiful. Thank you, River Films, for enabling me to go back sooner than I’d planned.

‘Welcome aboard the multiple unit’: nine days in China

It’s half term in Singapore, so we go to China, happy to tick off another Asian must-see. We fling ourselves from Beijing to Shanghai through five cities over nine days. It’s only five hours to the north and on the same timescale, so we reckon it will work out well. By the time we get back home we are completely ragged, but we have seen such amazing sights. Some people hate travel that’s too quick, but we prefer to just take what we can get. If it can only be done in that amount of time, well then let’s do it, and soak up every bonkers hour. So that’s what we do.

AIR
It is parky and crisp in Beijing, breath-fogging and extra-blanket chilly. It gets warmer as we head south, with bright blue skies for the Wall and a positively humid last afternoon in Shanghai. When we pull into Xian rail station on the train, I can smell burning rubber, and it’s not from our wheels. It’s foggy here, but that’s not cloud, it’s haze. Our tour guide tells us people pay more to live out in the suburbs than in town, the other way round to ‘normal’. But then on a car ride into the surrounding countryside to see the Warriors, there are giant smoke stacks belching out coal dust, so I don’t really get it. Pack a mask.

BIKES
bikeduvet
‘There are nine million bicycles in Beijing” croons Katie Melua, very annoyingly in my head the whole time I am in this city. I don’t actually know about that but there certainly are lots of bikes here, and mopeds, and rickshaws. Unlike in Vietnam, where you’re told that it’s fine to step out into the street because the bikes will simply move around you, the idea here is to STOPFORTHELOVEOFGOD because the bikes won’t stop. There are special bike lanes and no one bothers with green ‘walk’ lights and the lanes are also used by tuk-tuks and dust carts, so you’d better always look both ways. Because it is cold, the moped riders wear huge body-shaped blankets, torso duvets that fit over person + bike. I wonder how they steer but they do. Right at me.

CABS
What? Where? Ah, there. Going right past us, green light and all. Mr PC finally gets one by standing right in the road, and about time too. We are now precisely one hour late for a meeting with friends who live just outside Shanghai. If you know me you’ll know that I don’t really ‘do’ late. Thanks taxis, blood pressure nicely raised for our last night in China. On the way back we take the metro – smooth, easy and much less stressful.

CROWDS
crowds

Not until you step foot in this land do you realise why China calls itself 中国 – ‘Zhongguo’, or ‘middle nation’, or ‘centre of civilisation’. If your country was this enormous, you would also name it so. China is all about scale and everything is a superlative: biggest, strongest, widest, longest, and fullest. We begin to expect crowds, jostles at the elbow, pushing. With a country this big some residents might never leave, and those who travel might journey only within the country’s borders – so our tour guides tell us, anyway. And this explains why, at every tourist attraction, there are not only lots of people from other countries (like us) but also lots of tourists from within China itself. As well getting used to the crowds we also become accustomed to being points of interest – it’s not just the museum artifacts that everyone’s looking at. We become used to the open-starers who nudge each other as we pass and crane for a better view, because we know it is simply that many have never before been so close to such big-nosed, pink-skinned, cheese-scented families. Anyway, aren’t we staring right back? Perhaps a bit. Pot kettle black.

DRAGON, LION, PHOENIX
lion
Dragon is king, phoenix is queen, lion guards your house. This dragon has three claws so he belongs to a family, not an emperor. This dragon’s long back becomes the wall for the building. This lion has closed ears and that means he must not hear. He is bright gold, a colour close to the royal emperor’s yellow, so he must be very special. That lion is standing on a baby; she is a mother lion. My sign, rooster, is actually phoenix, which is nice, and those bamboo plants by the river are phoenix-tailed bamboo. By Day 9 we are exhausted but we can spot a dragon, phoenix or lion from a mile off. I knew a bit about all this before we came out, thanks to tour guiding, but it was amazing to see it all pan out before us in technicolour. Don’t ask me about the qilin, crane or bat, or we will be here for a long time.

FOOD – ‘Sauce explodes the dry flounder’
food

Belt noodles, juicy slices of duck, hits of sweet and sour, crispy steamed greens, soft potatoes in colourful sauces, chilli heat that prickles on the tongue. Food in China is universally splendid. It is all the foods you’ve always found on a good Chinese menu but fuller, richer, purer. We eat in good places but the few snacky foods we try are also fine and there is only one bad meal, chiefly because of the mean content – chicken hotpot was more like a bowl of claw and bones and no meat. We declined stuff on sticks, like the live skewered soon-to-be-fried scorpions (wriggling), the huge whole deep-fried crabs, seahorses and star fish. Also donkey. The mistranslation of the title above is not to be tittered over. That’s what the menu promised, so maybe the flounder did need a sauce explosion, who knows? Chinese is a practical language and the meaning is usually straightforward. Next time we’ll try the flounder and find out for ourselves.

FORBIDDEN CITY & TIANAMEN SQUARE
tianamensq
We enjoy taking pics of the standing soldiers and endless tourist groups following high flags across the vast grey concourse of the Square. In the security queue a soldier screams at a local tourist to get back in line, it’s all a bit like Oxford Circus tube at Christmas. Yet, nothing prepares us for the size of the Forbidden City. “Do you think this one is the main gate?” teases our guide every time we go through another grand entrance. After a while it becomes clear that the Emperor would definitely not have walked anywhere, not even to work off the biggest congee breakfast. This enormous complex with its yellow and red tiled roofs is a big one for me: splendid, massive and stately, a city within a city. But I’m happy that, unlike the concubines who sat around the gardens all day writing poetry, painting and hoping to visit the Emperor, I am allowed to leave.

JINGHSAN PARK
We stumble across this massive Beijing park on day one, just arrived in China and already turned loose from our tour guide. It is freezing and we are not prepared, so we walk to keep warm. Jonah spots the park on a map and decides this will be a good place to try some bottle-throwing (yawn, don’t ask). It is a hilly park full of big boulder rocks (from the building of the city moat, apparently) and we climb up and up until we get to a big pagoda at the top that is thronged with crowds taking pictures. We have timed this perfectly, as it is sunset, and what people are taking pictures of is the sun setting over the Forbidden City, It is magical, the perfect place for a family who has flown through the night, had no sleep, then walked two miles in a chilly daze. The next day, when we tour the Forbidden City, we see snappers in the distance, tiny ants taking daytime pics of the very same view.

GREAT WALL
greatwall
Someone on Tripadvisor writes that the Great Wall is simply this: truly great. I can’t agree more. It is a wonder, a work of majesty, on an awesome scale, and if by some lucky miracle you get the chance to go, you just have to. The first glimpse from ground level is heart-stopping – and it is at this point that if you’re scared of heights (like me) you’ll start to go all clammy. Since no one has mentioned the height thing I do my own homework, because surely if this wall is on a mountain then it’s probably going to be high. I’m therefore pre-warned, and not hugely surprised when I step off the evil cable car (almost vertical) and into the clouds. I’m not sure about it at first, especially when I gaze over to the left and see an insanely steep section going straight up like a stairway to heaven. Ah yes, says our guide, that is not a nice section, but luckily we are heading to the right. I do need a hand getting down the first steep flight because all around me is air, nothing else, but we press on and it’s so gorgeous and so much fun, and the weather is so lovely (coats off!) that soon we’re all scampering along. It’s not all about heights, there is history and storytelling in those bricks and we get a good idea of the building of the thing as we go, lucky to have a good guide accompany us. The route takes us mainly down-steps, with a few upward sections, and at times we have the place almost to ourselves. After strolling for 2.5km and passing through eight watchtowers, I have found my stride yet still decline the crazy toboggan ride back down to ground level. I opt instead to pop happily onto a ski lift with our guide and enjoy (I’m either cured or delirious with excitement) the gentle swing downhill, craning to spot my two boys bombing far beneath us on plastic sledges. Nutters.

HOTELS
hotel
A mixed bag, but on the whole good. One is down a hutong, totally Chinese, with a big mahogany bed and red lanterns everywhere, authentically wobbly doors and utterly freezing. Another has a nightly waterfall cascading down the front – the city square fills nightly with people to watch. Another has a breakfast room that smells of vomit and the last one has an impressive front but a back that looks out onto Shanghai slums. A tour that shows us every single side to the story.

HUTONGS
hutong
First built by Mongolians, says our guide (verified by Wikipedia), these are villages within cities like Beijing, once densely populated and now being torn down and built over. There are pockets still remaining, narrow alleys with grey walls giving way to tiny houses. Some are now dusty offices, some are shops, some are hotels (we stayed in one) and some are still dwellings. We thought Beijing had a really generous attitude to public toilets until we realised that these communal conveniences – dotted about everywhere – were used by hutong-dwellers who don’t actually have their own bathrooms, and there are many. We saw an old lady shepherding a little girl out of one down an alley one night, a tiny thing skipping along in her PJs with granny chivvying from behind all the way home to bed. Cosy.

MANDARIN
We try, OK? From day one on our own in a hutong restaurant, and on through every shop, eatery, museum, we give it a go. The longest sentence I manage is: ‘My husband is over there’ (it comes out as ‘our husband is here’ but the person understands). As with all countries the point is to try, and you need a few scattered words and the rest can be done with hand gestures. After 2.5 years of learning Mandarin, we are a bit sad to not manage long sentences, but also a little bit thrilled to have got to the point of being able to say anything at all.

PEARL TOWER
pearltower
I like a bit of warning before a proper crowd crush, especially when it’s our penultimate day in China and I’m tired and possibly a bit cranky. So taking me straight off a flight and shoving me into a 45-minute queue, then a squished lift and up several hundred feet to tip me out at the top of an equally crowded viewing room that’s far too high without really bothering to explain what is going on is not going to put me in the best mood. Poor tour guide, we don’t get off to a great start. Luckily, the sight of Mr PC and Jonah edging onto the glass-bottomed ledge then running back off again cheers me right up. And no, of course I didn’t try it. I’m not THAT cured.

RIVER LI
riverli
You know those big pointy mountains that you see on touristy black-ink pictures whenever the word ‘China’ needs to be illustrated? Usually with a big river running along under the misty skyline? Well this is what we actually see on our boat trip from Guilin to Yangshuo. River Li, you are beautiful, totally gorgeous, and so are your mountains and your green banks of fluffy phoenix bamboo and your clear, bubbling waters. It is busy, yes, with a whole chain of pleasure boats like ours chugging along the otherwise peaceful waters. Still there are places where you can only see bamboo boats, water buffalo taking a dip, farmers on the banks. It is really stunning and the whole time I think of a trip that the folks did a few years ago, apparently just as gorgeous. The trip takes five hours thanks to shallow dry season waters. I’m happy to get off in Yangshuo, where we cycle down a few country lanes with those needle mountains towering above. I’d be equally happy to return the next day and do it again.

SNOT
Day 9, our last day, and our last lunch, and Jonah is restless, tutting and sulking, but I have travel exhaustion and can’t deal with it. Only when he pushes his plate away and growls out: ‘Why do they have to keep DOING that?!’ do we realise that someone is routinely hacking snotballs a few chairs away and it’s putting him right off his beef cubes. Mr PC and I seem to have become completely impervious to the sound. This is a noise that’s totally commonplace here, though younger nationals with western educations agree it’s about time the habit is outruled. In the end it’s not until a meeting with some expat English friends that we find out quite how equally disgusting we are to the locals, many of whom think that the habit of sniffing our nasal waste into tissues is worse. No, I don’t buy it either, especially not when scaling the stone steps of Xian’s city walls and brushing past a huge gob of drool hanging off the railings. Bacteria anyone?

TERRACOTTA WARRIORS
warriors
As my friend, who visited not long before us, said: there are no words, and she’s not wrong. But this is a blog and so I must find some. Crowds make it very hard to understand what we are about to see as they throng the narrow entrance to the great hall, clogging up the viewing railings until a space suddenly clears, and then there it is. Or rather, there they are. Lines and lines of real, actual, proper, original stone soldiers, standing alongside horses, hands curled to hold imaginary wooden sabres and horse reins, long since crumbled and leaving the men holding nothing but air. They are beautiful and the scale is simply overwhelming, and after this is another shed housing warriors being patched up, and after that is another one with more horses, and then there is one with exciting looking mounds not yet dug up, the promise of yet more discoveries to be made. Our guide says this is a carrot-on-a-stick method of stringing out the discoveries so that people like Jonah come back in 20 years to see new warriors and spend more money. But we’re suckers for a bit of history and we totally buy into the whole setup, happy to be steered into the shop to spend money in a haze of feelgood warrior wonderment. Our three tiny soldiers now stand on the bookshelf, spotlit, and a bronze dragon is on our piano, claws poised to bash out a sonata.
Note: My father reminds me of something that I can’t believe I forgot to mention. Only in China can you then actually meet the man who discovered the things. On the way in he is parked in a bookshop ready to sign copies and pose for pics for a price. We decline politely, no matter how awestruck. And then we see the Warriors. On the way out we head back to the shop, take the picture, get the signature, buy the book. Insane.

TOUR COMPANY
We’ve done tours twice before – both times short trips with the same family as company. When it came to booking China I remembered how useful it had been, if time-poor, to have all that admin taken care of, so we booked with a well-known group and as a result had a different experience from our normal trips, but a very good one. From Arrivals in Beijing to Departures in Shanghai, we are met at each place by friendly guides and delivered to our hotel, taken around town, marched up and down walls and in and out of museums, urged through crowds to see Warriors, taken to lunch and, most importantly, treated to endless stories about the history and culture of China. The four tour guides – one for each city – wear their own clothes and have their own approach to the job and their own versions of the myths and legends. They vary in attitude, age, and usefulness, but are on the whole very good. It’s not for everyone, this tour thing, and I doubt we’ll do it again, but we definitely recommend the one we used. One guy uses his Subway loyalty card to get our van to the top car park at the Great Wall. Another bargains for a better bike for Jonah when we cycle through Yangshuo. One tells amazing tales of long-ago dragon ladies, and another discounts all those stories and instead talks about the current way of life in city and town, which to be honest is just as interesting. By Day 5 I have hit an information wall but I get my mojo back next day when the scenery changes. That’s the thing with dashing about – always another day around the corner.

TRAINS – ‘Welcome aboard the multiple unit’
trainstation
This is the voiceover delivered silkily every time we pull out of one of the 12 train stations between Beijing and Xian. In Beijing West station there are hints of Japan about the pointy bullet trains waiting nose-forward beside the enormous platforms, and also a certain organised code for the way it all works: station buzzer goes to signal boarding, neatly uniformed assistants help you board and get your bags sorted (nothing heavy on overhead racks please), and then patrol the aisles every now and then. From sunset and on through the night we whizz silently across 1000km at 300km per hour, a slight leaning shake the only clue as to speed. First Class cannot have given us a normal impression, but we do have fun sinking into the squishy red-velveteen seats, cracking open our funky snack boxes (plain bun, dry cracker, tiny bag of dried peas), signalling ‘more please’ to endless freeflow hot green tea from a huge iron kettle. The train stops at ghost towns, dark empty cities with skyscrapers trimmed in neon. I only wish I could try out all of the multiple units from here to Tibet.

XIAN CITY WALL
xianwall
Hire a bike and go round the top of Xian’s old city walls – all 13k of it. They say this is a great way of seeing the city but in fact you can’t see a lot. One side of the wall is too high, and the rest of the time you’re trying not to fall off or hit pedestrian tourists. It’s cobbled and there are ramps here and there. But it’s so much fun! Here we spot beautiful azure-winged magpies for the first time, powder blue and very fast. I don’t know exactly what type until I get back to Singapore, and emails, and message Dad. He says they’re only found in Spain, Portugal and China. Doubly lucky for us to catch a glimpse.

ONE MORE THING…
In 1994 I was obsessed with a TV documentary by a man called Phil Agland, Beyond The Clouds. Cameras had been allowed deep into rural China to film in a small town called Lijiang. The town is now a major tourist destination, but back then it was the China of olde, and cameras followed the doctor, police units, teacher and a handful of other characters as they went about their business. I was transfixed, longing to hear the haunting whistled theme tune each week and see what the locals were getting up to in their smoky, cobbled town. When planning our China trip this year, the documentary came back into my head so I tracked down a couple of episodes on YouTube and also found the makers on Twitter. They have been working on a new one, I am happy to say, and how eerie that they should let me know as I cruised the River Li. I didn’t see the message until I got back to Singapore: quite the best homecoming gift ever.

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Back in the room

Someone who shall remain nameless suggested, as I complained my way through the packing at the end of this year’s summer trip to England, that I should’ve sorted out our sons’ school shoes at some time during the “holidays”. How I laughed. At what point might I have found the time?
I write this on my first afternoon back in Singapore. I’ve had dinner out, done a morning at work, had lunch out (#lazylah) and, yes, bought those s*dding school shoes.
Thing is, there was a time when long-term expats would explain to me why they never did home visits any more. They’re tough. You zig-zag from picnic to pub, taking up people’s floor space with your exploding suitcases, refusing and then accepting endless puddings, having hurried farewells as you kiss the growing children on the top of their summer holiday heads and then waking up the next day and doing it all over again. Five weeks, five different beds, a million kisses goodbye and then a flight back through the night, holding back the inappropriate homesick tears at the end of the supposedly funny film on the flight, before hitting the heat of the taxi stand and having the first of a string of sleepless nights as your body struggles to right itself once more.
That’s the negative version. I concur, to a point, but I still think there is massive mileage in going back and seeing all those friendly faces, drinking all those cups of proper tea, getting all those bearhugs. The visit gives us all a large dose of happiness that stays in the system for a long time. Our 2016 version went a bit like this:
Cool air, late twilights, high blue skies, cups of proper tea, trees to climb, lawns, bacon, M&S deli, favourite old toys, trains, DELAYS, traffic, sirens, ROADWORKS, pub grub, festival fun, beach huts, car trips, park life, baths, chewing gum, fudge, familiar faces, bear hugs, gossip, scandal, the odd bit of appallingly bad news, more picnics, more bear hugs, much inexpensive but delicious wine, bus stop chats with strangers, thrift shop bargains, clouds that don’t burst, plates that are hot, more trains, washing up in old family sinks, neighbours who love you, kids playing nicely, curiously pleasing smelling laundry tabs, butter that doesn’t melt, more bloody ROADWORKS, intravenous familiarity and lots of love.

This year’s tune-to-wash-up-to, a bit tacky, goes to a hot road trip back from the lavender fields with Isabel, Chris, Cam and Georgie. Press play and clear the kitchen.

See you next time, Blighty

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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.

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!

Christmas on Mars

It still amazes me that simply by sitting down for 14 hours (12 without a headwind), we can transport ourselves from one planet to another. Well OK, to another country, but when you’re changing seasons as well as cultures, you might as well be arriving on a different planet.
Having not experienced a winter since 2011, popping out of the rabbit hole from boiling hot Singers into a dark and icy London morning was alien and magical. While SM pinched his fingers to keep warm as we pushed our luggage towards the Heathrow Express at 6.30am, I did a happy little shuffle, so glad to be back for the season, revelling in the cold against my skin (maybe regretting packing our coats deep within the bags, but ah well, lesson learned).
Alright. Now you’re going to tell me it was the warmest Christmas since 1248, but for us it was baltic, a shock to our systems. I bought a better jacket on day one, and proper socks, Grandpa took SM to buy gloves. We wore scarves and woollen hats, got dressed to go to bed, blasted out the heaters in every home we stayed in, kept the electric blankets on for as long as we could, and it was lovely – properly festive, sense-tingling and sparkly, with dark black nights, soft winter sunrises and a real use for mulled wine.
I’ve always championed a warm Christmas, because when you think about it, half the world can’t help having one, so we might as well accept them. Out of the other half, around 70 per cent probably think that it’s wrong to have Christmas in the tropics, and the remaining 30 per cent of us quite enjoy the blow-up snowmen bobbing against hot blue skies, curry dinners on the beach and celebratory dips in hot oceans wearing Santa hats. (For some people, you don’t need a hot sea to do this – the cousins went for a mad Christmas Day dip in sub-temperature seas, the chilly weirdos.)
Still, after four tropical Christmases on the trot, it was nice to have a proper wintry backdrop for the tinsel, to be dashing about under stormy* winds and fetching bags of goodies in and out of cars with the weather whipping rolls of wrap and scattering rain over our shopping. This is the proper way of burning off all those deeply bad foods trolleyed out in spades: meats soaked in naughty fats with sausages and spuds, fruity puddings and cakes, crisps, nuts, wine, stocking treats, and chocolates enjoyed at a slow pace with no fear of anything melting into the foil.
A London Christmas involves the same chores, visits and drinks as always but with a more thoughtful attitude to things like dress (tights and coats) and time of day (8am to 3pm and that’s it) than in sultry Singapore. In London, sparkles are reflected in colder puddles, heating is inside not out. Stuffed into a packed hire car, setting off for the wild west, I got SM to count Christmas trees in windows just as we’d always done when we were small (scoring a lamentable seven, distracted by the joys of high class snacking from posh service stations: never had THOSE in the oldene days.)
Put me in our Cornish cottage at this time of year and I am retro happy, sitting at my desk in the upstairs double room, transported back to the ghosts of Christmas past – legwarmers, rainbow jumpers, Wham! topping the charts and that first ever boyfriend Christmas card curling slightly in my happy hand.
These days, walks on the beach with cousins become double-layered: two sets of cousins from two generations, with us now falling behind and them now running up ahead, bobble-hatted and wet-ankled.
And these days it’s me tip-toeing into the smaller back bedroom, stashing a fat stocking at the foot of a bed and sneaking backwards, already two tired hours into the big day and covered in bits of tape and glitter from the snowstorm of wrapping, and just a few short hours before SM heaves his treat-laden stocking into our bedroom, just as we did with our own parents for so many years. To have Grandpa and Auntie in on it too – special, wondrous and well worth the night-time sit across many lands and seas to get to them.
We’re planning next Christmas already, no doubt a hot one, though I might try and recreate the chill as I’m beginning to think it does work a bit better. To start the planning now is a good way of padding out the holes in our hearts, gaps created when we make that long return sit to pop out once again in palm tree land, where the lights are still on the tree that we left behind some two weeks before. Traces of fat stocking debris leading up the hallway to a small back bedroom in this other world of ours tell us that it wasn’t all a dream, and grey monsoon skies outside are doing a fair job of helping me merge the planets so the distance is not quite so wide.
Happy New Year one and all, whichever planet you’re on.
* apologies to those who suffered in the real storms Up North. You would probably all have preferred a tropical one this year
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Food with everything

I didn’t want to like it, honest. I thought I would skim over the top of the activities, spend the entire weekend avoiding people, stay in our room, sunbathe in private on the balcony, make full use of the food and then come home again. I didn’t expect, when we booked another last-minute weekend break to cover a public and school holiday that I would spend my time learning Pilates, sailing on a boat steered by my son, going on a jungle walk and even getting some work done, but I ended up doing all that. It’s like that at #clubmed (there, I said the C word), you can’t help but get stuck in.
There would have been absolutely no point to NOT make full use of the facilities on offer: heaps of activities day and night; the best white-powder beach I have seen since Western Australia; the bowls of fresh curry, trays of fish, platters of carved fruit, mountains of puddings on tiny dishes and exquisite little salads on individual plates that changed on rotation every day, with a choice of four flavours per sitting – that’s four at lunch, four new ones at dinner, different ones again the next day, etc – yes, I counted. Plus free-flow cocktails at every bar you visited (three) whatever time of day, as well as snacks at regular intervals if you hung out at the right kiosk. All manned by the kind of hardworking, smiling staff you only see in the movies, ready to see to your every beck and call. Plus blue skies, white sands, warm sea. Yuk, horrible holidays, who needs all that?
Guiltily booked just a month after our flight back from Tokyo, what a change from Japan was this trip – far from Kyoto’s creaking teak temple floors, Nara’s sacred woods, Shinjuku’s sky-high neon, the point of this lazy ferry flop across the waters south of Singapore to an Indonesian island (no carbon footprints, just sandy ones) was all about leisure, aggressive pampering of every guest until we could do nothing but smile as we lay back on massage bed, beach lounger, Pilates mat, getting up only to head back to the buffet for seconds, even thirds.
Knowing that’d be me, I wisely packed my running gear and signed up for Pilates as soon as we arrived, happy to learn a new health technique since it was all paid for. This was a whole new string to my fitness bow, and while I wasn’t able to find my core, I did love how the instructor gave me an encouraging little squeak for doing good press-ups. I didn’t even know I could do press-ups. For the boys this was bliss. While I bent myself into interesting angles in the fitness block, they threw themselves into every single sporting event they could pack into three days. When I was chopping up and down in the sea, they shot arrows into targets. While I laced my trainers and went running along the sands, they climbed a tiny ladder and lunged forward on the trapeze, and while I signed up to an organised power-walk, they took kayaks out to the far buoys and back. My power-walk was a little under-subscribed, just me and the sports rep, so I got to hear all about life at CM, and I’m not sure whether I’m either completely gullible or just a bit stupid, but it really does sound like a great place to live and work. Or maybe by then I’d just been zen-ified into such a trance that I couldn’t tell fact from fiction. They all seemed happy enough.
SM avoided the kids’ club (wisely for him, those sorts of things not being everyone’s cup of tea) but signed up for everything he could with Mr PC happily taking him round in a sporting corona of happiness. A nightly football tournament took place on the gardens out front. We had to badger SM into taking part on Day One, but by Day Three he was hurrying to join. I’m told he enjoyed it; sadly the closest I came to watching was trotting past on the way back from the spa, and I also grabbed a(nother) cocktail one night and sat on the pool steps to catch the last 5 minutes. I did hear the comments afterwards, though, and one rep’s passing remark (“That boy’s got skills”) was just about the best going-home gift the boy could get, giving him some much-needed confidence to take back to his hugely competitive sporty school. Better than any candy-wrapped certificate (although he did get one of those, too).
Evening entertainments for two nights out of three consisted of stuffing our faces and then heading back to the room for family Netflix time. We caught the hotel show on day one – a Circus act, amazing, with beautifully toned bendy staff performing unbelievable swinging trapeze tricks that you would usually buy tickets to see. Until, that is, they grabbed SM and got him up on stage for the closing song. If you know SM, or even bothered to catch sight of his stony face as you pulled him by his skinny little arm onto the top stage under those spotlights, you would know that this was perhaps the worst thing you could do to an almost 11-year-old kid who likes football, fight scenes, ninja warfare and parkour. But there you go, it was about the only fault I could pick with the place, plus one portion of rather chewy lamb.
This is a good place to reroute yourself, away from the busyness of crazy old SingSong. You’re still busy here, just busy in a selfishly, fatly, utterly spoilt sort of way. Despite all the sports, two of us came back a bit larger than before. SM was glum on the ferry home. He said it was one of the best holidays he’d ever been on and let’s face it, he’s been on a lot. If this sounds promotional, I apologise. It was good, is all. Really very good.
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Big in Japan*

As a Londoner I have always wondered what it must be like to be a tourist in Oxford Circus Underground station, standing with all my bags piled up in the middle of the exits, straight off the train from Heathrow, impossibly in the way and trying to work out what to do with no knowledge of the language or even the alphabet.
Now I know, because this was us, just two hours off a flight from Singapore and delivered with an efficient click of our train’s smooth rolling heels right into the middle of Tokyo’s busy Shinjuku Station, where in one frantic second we had to exchange our pre-bought train vouchers, navigate the spaghetti metro with a crumpled map from Arrivals, work out where we were staying from the very organised airbnb man’s printout and do all that while propping up a tired child. We had been warned about the tangled train lines, lack of English-speakers, chaos of rush hour, and everyone was right. What was great about Japan, we’ve since found out, is that it was all entirely possible.
The build-up of city from Tokyo to Narita Airport extends for miles and miles, with suburbs stretching out just like they do around London, only multiplied several times. Millions of people live in the capital, one third of the entire population of Japan stuffed into one city, so we were told. The same friend told us the sea had been about five miles out of town when he was a boy. Like Singapore, the land has now taken over and the sea is no longer anywhere near.
Our week-long circuitous route would go from Tokyo to Kyoto and Nara then back to Tokyo again, taking in all of Japan’s capital cities in reverse order. We were lucky that we marked the start of our trip by seeing two sets of friends, local families both now relocated back to their hometown of Tokyo. They kindly showed us around, ordered our food, got us our first train tickets and gave us a load of useful info with which to arm ourselves for the next stop. Yes, in effect, we cheated, but so what? I’d do it again in a heartbeat, because that dash of local flavour got our trip off to such a great start. And what a trip.
It ended up having three distinct flavours: Tokyo was London in autumn, a crunch underfoot, metro bustle. Fashions were at once reserved and eclectic. If you weren’t in muted officewear or dark autumn styles you could well be decked out in a blaze of fake schoolgirl attire, stuck forever at 17 with dolly pink rouge and fake freckles, trilby hats, bold pairings of yellow and black, fake pearls and ruffles, all entirely intended and worn so well by hundred of girls around town. I’d not seen a ra-ra skirt for years, yet here they were in abundance, worn with no hint of irony and the whole effect magnified for me by a whiff of that very retro 1980s perfume Anais Anais, tickling my nose with a passing puff on a metro carriage, and giving me such a sharp Mum-pang that I almost dropped my bags. That scent always makes me think of the 1980s, and my cousin Kate, and us two trying on new ra-ra skirts from Camden Market in my bedroom with my Culture Club cassette jamming and de-ribboning as we played and rewound it to learn the words, spritzing each other with that funny floral scent (the first and only one Mum ever wore during my childhood) all around the room. See? That’s what Tokyo does – yanks you back to Nostalgia Town and holds you down while you drink it all in. When people describe something as ‘an assault on the senses’, Tokyo is pretty much what they mean.
The family theme continued with architecture. Kate’s sister Sadie is an architect as was their dad, my late Uncle Jack (also a boatman), and my sister also works with Sadie, and they would all have so loved our funky downtown airbnb rental with its bonkers bath and toilet. The bathroom was in a pod in the kitchen (a proper ‘head’ like on boats), and the toilet was in a pod by the door and the top of the toilet was actually a sink with a tap that ran when you activated the flush, enabling you to wash your hands and fill the cistern at the same time. Awesome! Every bathroom had some element of ‘pod’, which I thought Jack would have liked.
At times I wondered if I was enjoying the city so much because it was so, well, London-like, but then something funky would happen, like a woman in a kimono standing by the bread counter, or one of those ra-ra skirts hopping onto our metro carriage with no irony at all, and I would remember that it wasn’t a bit like my home city at all.
If Tokyo was nostalgia, Kyoto was a pleasing blend of two more of my favourite places, Bruges and Bali. Temples here were gorgeously orange, be-scrolled and towering, vast and wide, with flashes of gold to perfectly complement the red leaves and evening sunsets. Some were smaller, Bali-like, tucked up terraces and dotting side streets. Those temple-builders knew their salt, just like my uncle knew his pods, and to make those old buildings all the more wonderful the town had a romantic canal cut right through it, a perfect dash of old Bruges. That European city, in which Mr PC proposed (to me, of course) was instantly recognisable in the famous old waterway path known as Philosopher’s Walk, where gnarled trees hung over tiny riverside houses all stacked up above the waterway, and cats (real ones, for once, see entry on ‘Cats’) lolled about on benches. Thanks to being proposed at in Bruges, any canal walk reminds me of that wonderful weekend and so I spent the afternoon drizzling along behind the boys with a dreamy smirk while they scampered up ahead.
Autumn here had bluer skies and cooler nights. From the temples and canal we marched down to the city centre packed full of early evening shoppers, a chill settling on the town as the night lights came up, tinny music fluting from lamppost speakers in such a very Christmassy way that I came over all English again and nearly bought a scarf. I could live in Kyoto, I decided. It’s got things like the very trendy and laid-back Manga Museum, where uber-cool staff efficiently found a grisly book for SM that we didn’t even know he knew, occupying him for the entire time while we browsed the weird comic prints. Then there was a beautifully preserved Shogun castle with a wooden floor built to squeak with every single footstep so as to alert occupants of intruders. For once, SM attempted silence, only to find noise with every socked footfall. There’s a winding souvenir street just like somewhere Cornish, possibly Padstow or Penzance; an inky lamplit park just begging for crispy firework nights with a massive temple all lit up in the middle; then a whopping great modern station a la St Pancras, and a winding old abandoned rail track on the outskirts of town. What’s that all like, I ask you? I have no idea but the combination was brilliant.
After the supreme wonderfulness of Kyoto came our last stop, Nara, which was not so much nostalgic as fun. Parts of it looked a bit like Slough but it redeemed itself by having a pretty station plus a packed high street with great shopping, and a huge sprawling park, which was the reason for our visit. The park is notable for being sacred, and full of equally sacred dotty deer biting your bottom for crackers. They’re revered and protected so you can’t bite them back, you just have to do lots of of schoolgirl running and shrieking, which was fun, and when you tire of that you’ve got two arcades stuffed full of deer-related tat to add to what little shopping your bank has allowed so far. There is also an enormous Buddha, worth taking the long park walk and paying the entry fee just to gaze up at His enormous ears. You could have fitted SM from giant wooden lobe to tip.
Various observations made this an extremely different trip to all the others, more action-packed, buoyant, familiar and odd all at once as if we’d gone on a weird travel-hop like Alice, or out through a wardobe into a Narnia land of wonder. I’ve never felt all at once so far away and so close to home and because of this I’ve had to jot down all my ideas in snapshot format. I don’t want to forget a thing, because when we come to leave this bit of the world and I get to adding up what’s left to see, I must be sure to remember that Japan is big and beautiful and full of so much more for us to explore.

AUTUMN
I can’t mention enough how precious this was. I’m a heat lover and quite enjoy living in a sultry country full of Haze with no seasons and eternal daytime hours of 7 to 7. That is, I usually enjoy it. This trip reminded me just how enlivening it is to feel autumn on your skin, to get all excited about the changing seasons, to have that weird sense of fun about it getting dark at 5.30pm (how is that ‘fun’ once it gets to February in Britain, I know, yet somehow it just was). Trees turning to red, a run of high blue skies, some soft Cornish rain and a general crunch underfoot all reminded me so much of England as it approaches Christmas. From a practical stance we had forgotten how much further we could walk without humidity: we walked for miles, and couldn’t have done that in Singapore, not at all.

BUSES
Ever seen My Friend Totoro? Remember the cat bus? The town buses of Kyoto reminded me of these furry, friendly vehicles. Rounded, warm chrome havens, smooth as butter and politely picking up and dropping off inhabitants all around town. A man whispers announcements, and the stops flash up in advance. You pay when you get off, not when you get on, which somehow makes a world of sense. It’s all so easy (and spookily reminiscent of Trumpton).

CABS
Taxis come in Lada shapes with chrome emblems bolted on to the roof. Drivers wear gloves and official hats. Don’t shut the doors! They close automatically. Taxis are very clean and rather expensive, so we only went in one. In Kyoto the bolted-on rooftop emblems were often heart-shaped, and some had the letter ‘M’ in neon red dots.

CATS
Are everywhere – every-of-the-where – but I don’t mean real ones. They are on bags, dangling from key chains, folded into scarves, drizzled onto coffee-tops, pastried onto airline meal buns, hat-shaped, apron-decorating, stuffed onto the end of pastry rollers, using kitten paws as furniture protectors and tiny bootees for babies, inside and outside shop windows, hanging from menus, whiskering you from billboard ads, all over everything and everywhere. This is cat central. If you don’t like cats, there are a few pandas and some deer. But it’s mainly cats.

CHILDREN
I had read online that there were fewer women on the streets than men, and that a lot of men wore black business suits and white shirts, a la Men In Black, and both of those facts turned out to be oddly true. I also noticed fewer children dotted about, possibly due to the Asian trend for having a ton of homework. We found a playpark for smaller tots one day, went to a kids’ fun mall with friends, but other than that most children we saw were tourists. Said friends (four of them all roughly SM’s age) spent the first weekend with us, and to hear about their schooldays and lifestyles was interesting and (apart from those extra hours of tuition), not dissimilar to SM’s. Only once was a man in uniform stern with SM and rightly so, telling him off for using his yo-yo in a public place – when I say ‘using’ I mean swinging wildly sideways in a metre-sized arc. So yes, not such a great idea.
Let’s face it, boredom gets the better of ten-year-olds after one temple too many. If yours are old enough to manhandle a big camera give them the responsibility of taking all of the official temple shots. This means they’ll be hanging back to snap every two seconds but who’s in a rush? We’re still waiting to edit ours.

FACILITIES
Not all toilets in Japan are flashy. You’ve got your bog-standard flushers, your holes in the floor, and your zooty Shinkansen-type shiny ones with all the buttons and levers. The latter must be tried out at least once. Well, more than once. We’ve never been so clean. Let’s just leave it at that.

FOOD
The food here is good, and it’s not all cold fish and rice balls. There’s lots to explore but be sure to set off with level expectations. Expect not to find food easily. Expect not to be understood. Be brave and point and ask, otherwise you might end up with something you really don’t want. If you get it right, you could just be in gourmet heaven, as we usually were. Here’s where walking comes in. Know that you will often end up walking miles to find something that you want. Take a few tips off the internet and try to make some advance bookings. Pointing really will get you a long way, as will being polite and knowing how to say please and thank you in Japanese at the very least. Hand-wipes should be mentioned here: they are given out at the start of a meal, just as they are elsewhere in the world, but don’t wait until the end of the meal to use them. The idea is that you wipe before you eat. Makes sense, no? You can still use them again at the end.
We liked Yakkitori sticks, Japanese curry, and noodles, while SM particularly enjoyed one huge teppenyaki steak (expensive tastes, that one). Our top spots:
Hakata Ippodo Ramen, Kyoto for perfect gyoza dumplings and bowls of steaming ramen. This was an online recommendation. In all the best places you will have to queue, as with this place, but our queue moved fast and there was a bench to sit on. The website is in Japanese, sorry about that, but here’s a map. I have NO idea how we eventually stumbled upon the place (in fact I think that IS how) but how about printing out the link in advance and showing it to your hotel’s desk staff? It will be worth it.
M&C Café, Oazo Building, Maranouchi. Friends took us to this upmarket Tokyo cafe for plates of Japan’s famed hushed beef curry. This queue is inside the English section of a bookshop. Once at the top of the queue, ask (OK, gesture) for a windowseat that looks out over Tokyo’s train tracks, so you can watch the activity while you eat.

HOTELS
Don’t drag your bag across the tatami mats in a ryokan. There are designated places for your luggage, ensuring the mats stay undamaged and your room stays orderly.
Everywhere we stayed – hotel, apartment, ryokan – had pod-like bathrooms. Pod-crazy, I tell you.

MONEY
Japan is crushingly expensive, on a par with Singapore, London and Norway. I couldn’t buy proper presents, just small bits. I couldn’t bring myself to buy a kimono, tea set, lacquered tray, wall-hanging, any of those things I’d thought about bringing back. We tried to have street snacks instead of real meals but found ourselves hungry again at meal times. Just spend the money and eat, why don’t you – the food is so yummy you’ll forget you’re spending your pension, and you’ll walk it all off finding the next restaurant.
Notes themselves are predictably pretty. At shop counters money is given and returned via little plastic trays. No coin-dropping, no hesitation about who gives what and into which hand. There is a five-yen coin with a hole in the middle that is so olde-worlde that I wanted to keep them all, and the one-yen coins are so light they reminded me of plastic sweet shop money.

METRO
You know those film clips of people bracing under the flight paths of planes taking off for a buzz? Go and stand in the middle of Tokyo or Shinjuku metro stations at rush hour. Add a massive suitcase each, plus shoulder bag, plus ten-year-old. This is Japan, crazybusy just as promised, but eerily ordered. As with most city underground systems you will likely only get bumped into if you’re in the way, so don’t get in the way and you should be OK. There are methods of getting through: rights and lefts on escalators and stairways, arrows and signposts, colour-coded lines with numbered stations so it’s just a case of joining the dots, plus arrows on either side of station names (that are in English as well as Japanese) pointing out the stations before and after. Keep your wits about you and you can get through the crush. If you’ve been brought up on the Underground, you really have no excuse not to give it a go. By the end of our week we were cruising the tunnels with ease, at one point rousing SM from a lying-down-and-reading position. Totally at home.

MOUNT FUJI
The iconic shape of Mount Fuji is one of the big images of Japan, along with Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’ and geisha hair. When you go past that peak on a train travelling at 240 mph, you can see why. Fuji looms above the mountain range from afar, then comes up surprisingly close (at least on our Kyoto line, anyway) and hovers suspended between overhead cables for a good ten minutes. It is colossal and stately and truly, utterly beautiful. A friend had climbed it the week before – I can’t say that’s on my wishlist but when I saw it from my window I could quite appreciate her excitement.

TEMPLES
Are everywhere. All over the place. Big and grandiose, in silver, gold, orange and dark wood. Stacked behind one another down tiny town alleys, stuffed full of people cramming perilously onto its hillside wooden platform as with Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera Temple (see picture below), high up on mountains, and right in the middle of the cities. Some you can visit, some you can’t. The rules are the same as with most: Always take off your shoes. Always maintain order and quiet. You can ring the bell at the entrance if you like and sometimes you can light an incense stick. Some have views outside, some are awesome on the inside. Nara’s Tōdai-ji Temple contained the big Buddha, the biggest covered one in the world, stuffed under its roof. As I said before, you could fit our ten-year-old lying flat out on His outstretched hand. Behind the Buddha was a wooden pillar, at the bottom of which was a hole at floor level through which small children were invited to wriggle through to seek yet more enlightenment. Hoards of schoolkids were lining up to have a go, some getting scarily stuck halfway. The porkier ones who made it through looked relieved rather than enlightened, in particular one especially big kid who wobbled off having been coaxed through with great cheers and frantic tugs. SM, who could have slipped through like a matchstick, declined.
Local behaviour in temples varies. An entire coachload of screaming schoolchildren trod all over our feet through one temple, pushing past us to get to Buddha. In Nara’s Gangō-ji Temple, a senior group knelt quietly on tatami mats and answered questions from their host – I wished I had understood, because that tour looked a lot more fun.
The beautiful graveyard of Gangō-ji gave me another missing-Mum-moment, because she would have so loved the little stone lines with tiny figurines dotted about the grass, sculptural, serene and ordered, against the stunning backdrop of one of those autumn days. She gets around, does Mum.

TRAINS
Hauling up the platform steps at Tokyo to get to the Shinkansen, we saw a side door open at foot level and out scuttled about 12 women in pink uniforms, who then dashed on ahead as in some Pixel kids’ film, and spread out down the platform, waiting for the train just where the doors would open. We’d been told about them the night before by our friend – they are the Shinkansen train-cleaners, and they have just 7 minutes to get on board, clean the train, and get out again before you all pile on. On completion they pause at the door, make a three-cornered temple-style salute, then get off, head for the stairs and vanish back down the hole. Pure Disney. Or Alice. Or Narnia.
And boy do those Shinkansens move. The fastest, Nozomo, was’t covered by our tourist rail pass but the second-fastest Hikari spat us down to Kyoto in half the time it would have usually taken. As we whizzed smoothly through the countryside (with English announcements en route from a disembodied Hitchhiker’s Guide voice that sounded like that Julie Peasgood from 1990s voiceover advert fame (and don’t ask me how I remember her), we took slow-mo filmettes and speeded up clips that looked nonsensically quick when played back. “It’s actually not that fast,” proffered SM in a lofty attempt at indiffierence, but he only said it because he couldn’t feel the judder like you would do on normal trains anywhere else in the world (apart form Norway, whose trains are equally awesome in my book).
Train carriages are clearly marked, so there’s no dashing to the end of Platform 9 where you THINK carriage 4 is only to find it is carriage 18, then cursing as you lug your suitcase all the way back down the rocking corridors to carriage no 4. If it says carriage 4 on your ticket, simply stand at the appropriate place on the platform and you will magically enter the train straight into the right carriage. Splendid.
Finally: the art of folding. So much of Japan is to do with folding, it translates into everything, including train travel. You know when you buy a takeout coffee and pick up a paper cuff to hold it? When you buy a rail ticket the vendor passes you the little paper slips and you can then pick up a small paper folder from a stack on the counter and tuck your tickets inside. I loved this. Even inside train carriages the skill is apparent. We saw a woman get on, put her hand on the metal backrest of a double-seat, and shove it forward with a clang, so that the whole seating format magically changed for her from being a big double area to a compact twin-set facing the other way.
‘You know,’ said my friend as we waited on the platform on Day One, ‘we really don’t go on trains that often, and there is a word for people who love them.’ We worked out it probably translated as ‘train-spotter’. If that’s the case then I’ll gladly become one.

YUKATAS
Women wearing yukatas, or kimonos, are everywhere. Not to be confused with geishas (the women with chalk-white faces), these ladies are simply going about their daily business wearing kimonos. It took me a good three days to stop gawking every time one stood at a bus stop or glided onto the escalator in front of us. An entire table of matching kimono women sat beside us in a café one night. When I asked our friend if this was normal, she frowned slightly, and said: ‘well, yes’ – so I stopped taking so many pics. All the same: wow.

LEFTOVERS
So what did we not do? Lots: didn’t have an onsen bath or a tea ceremony, didn’t walk down Gion or have any ninja training, didn’t see a geisha, never climbed Mount Fuji (OK so it might be on the list, a little bit), and didn’t have eel. I won’t be going back for that one, though.

*TITLE NOTE: Well, I had to get it somewhere, didn’t I? And after eating our way around Japan it’s apt.

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