Saturday, 19 January 2013

Christmas, new year and birthday

Three big celebrations in the course of a couple of weeks, that's my usual start to the year.

I've just finished two hours of washing up, the leftovers (as well as a few cupcakes) of my birthday party, this year a mad hatters tea party. I'm delighted to say that there were some very impressive hats.

When I was living in the UK my preferred birthday celebration was a walk, then coming back from the cold to warm up with soup, bread and cheese and carrot cake. Here the climate is not suited to walking and my parties are more traditional.

As well as impressive hats, we supplied some impressive tea cocktails, in teapots, one made with earl grey and gin and a green tea mojito. I made cup cakes and scones using Mary Berry's recipe and felt as though I could be part of the great British bake off.

I'm always worried I'll feel homesick, so far away from home, at the times I am used to being with my family and old friends, particularly Christmas. Last year we went to one of the Romanesque brunches Singapore loves with free flow champagne and enormous amounts of food. It feels a bit like a race to see how much you can eat and drink in a short space of time. I'm sorry to say I drank far too much.

I think I preferred this year. We had a barbecue at our condo and were lucky enough to be joined by a very old friend from the UK, someone I've known since I was a teenager, and her boyfriend passing through Singapore on their way to Australia and some other friends. I bought enormous amounts of meat - lamb and lovely grass-fed beef and marinaded chicken. How far my days of vegetarianism are behind me.

It felt festive and as though we were marking the occasion, but so different to normal British Christmas that I didn't feel homesick as all.

A couple of days later we flew to Hanoi where we saw the new year in.

Hanoi is in the north of Vietnam and was the communist stronghold during the war. It still has the reputation of being more communist than the south. You can go and visit Uncle Ho, embalmed and displayed in a mausoleum just like Lenin. We got up early on New Year's day to queue and pay our respects, the first time I've started a new year like that. As you file through there are guards checking that you're behaving yourself. Not talking, not putting your hands in your pockets and certainly not wearing shorts or taking photos.

Hanoi  is a tumble of crowded streets set around two lakes. There are lots of old buildings, left over from French colonialism and satisfying my appetite for old and crumbly. The classic Vietnamese building seems to be as tall and thin as it's possible to be on a tiny plot of land.

The old quarter, which dates back to the 11th century, was 36 streets and guilds selling 36 different products. It still seems to work the same way. One street is clearly bag selling street, another rope selling street, yet another material and scooter seat-covers street and so on.

The goods spill out from the shops onto the pavement in front.  The pavement is just an extension of whatever tiny shop or cafe sits behind it. It's not really meant for walking on. This means you find yourself dodging the scooters that speed around the streets weaving in and out of cars and pedestrians. It's pavement Jim, but not as we know it.

And there are people everywhere. Always people sitting on tiny plastic stools usually doing nothing, waiting for a sale, a haggle, a coffee or a beer.

Hanoi is famous for it's beer, Bia Ha, freshly brewed daily, brought into the city each morning and then drunk  throughout the day by the locals. It sits in big metal casks, is tapped out and drunk by the glass, accompanied by a saucer of boiled peanuts. It's very fresh and very good.

Halong Bay is a four hour drive from Hanoi. It's one of the places I'd been most looking forward to visiting in Asia, one of the new wonders of the world and a UNESCO heritage site. The more you see the more difficult it becomes to be impressed. I feel spoiled even writing this, but many wonders are a bit disappointing. Not so Halong Bay.

There is a photo, the classic calender photo, on the wall in every Vietnamese restaurant of Halong Bay. Six or eight of the huge standing stones, or islands, impressive and beautiful. I thought that was it. That view and maybe a few more islands on either side. In reality the islands stretch on for miles and miles throughout the bay.

We had booked quite a nice boat trip, two days and one night sailing through the bay. I'd splashed out a bit. The boat was a replica Chinese junk. We were one of about ten couples and ate all our meals together. The food was surprisingly good and we had fun chatting with the Australian's, Americans, Swedes and Swiss.

I have seriously limited the amount of photos I'm putting up, but believe me, there are a lot more.

So, that's me done for celebrating until next year. It's all dry bread and water while I try to get rid of the additional pounds I've gained. But I think it was worth it.

Halong Bay

The lake the old quarter overlooks

Uncle Ho's mausoleum

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Nursery 2

I have to teach two classes to very small people this year. K1 and N2, so 3 going on 4 and 4 going on 5 respectively.

This scares me. Very small children in large numbers frighten me a lot. They are unpredictable. If they all decide to get up and start dancing around the room singing 'I like to move it, move it', they will. Whether or not you are trying to do some drama game or poem with them.

(That happened. We had just got them settled, sitting in a circle. A moment of silence and one of the littlest girls started singing, 'I like to move it, move it' and one by one they all got up and started dancing around the room singing it. How do they know a 90's club hit?)

They often prefer going and looking at their tummies in the mirror to whatever exciting game I have planned. So I am justifiably afraid.

In fact, the N2's were impressive. Their attention span was longer than some adults I have met. But sometimes one would get a very angsty expression on their face and say ''I need to talk! I need to talk!'' Very impressive that at 3 they have already learned that they can't just say it. (More than I can say for the class of K1's.)

And when they do say the thing they need desperately to say, it's psychedelic.

"It was dark and I woke up and at the zoo someone ate it and I saw the otters and on the aeroplane I packed my pants''.

That kind of thing. And with a Singaporean accent and slushy speech it can be very hard to understand.

Of course they asked me why my nose was so big, so sharp and so pointy. I am used to it now. They also asked why I was wearing so much black colour. It's interesting because it isn't rude. They observe and they speak. So I get a genuine view of how Singaporean's see me. The adults may not be asking out loud why my nose is so big, so sharp and so pointy, but I bet they're thinking it.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Myanmar, Burma

Long time no speak. Busy, busy. Working then holidaying.

When I say 'holiday' I mean THE holiday. The holiday of a lifetime. The most expensive holiday I'll ever go on. The most anticipated, most planned, most looked forward to holiday. THE holiday. Burma. Or rather Myanmar.

(By the way, this is where the Burma/Myanmar name confusion originates. The British colonized Burma in the 1800's, bit by bit. The last bit was because the king, Thibaw, had signed a trade treaty with the French and the British didn't like that one bit. Burma was too close to their powerhouse, India. The Burmese were told they had to toe the line and not get too toasty with the frogs. They didn't, so the British invaded. and renamed it Burma instead of Myanmar.

Cut to 1989. The nasty dictatorship of generals, (the Junta) changed Burma back to Myanmar again. Usually I'd say fair enough, lots of countries have got rid of their colonial name eg. Sri Lanka. But in this case it was part of a political move against Aung San Suu Kyi and her newly formed party who were rising swiftly to prominence. Initially the UN and the New York Times recognized the renaming, but the UK wasn't so keen. Sour grapes?  Right on support for Suu Kyi? I'll leave you to decide.)

Back to THE holiday. First

The cast:

Me, clearly. My boyfriend, the DFP ( which stands for de facto partner, explained in the early life of this blog).

My parents. My father: one of the loveliest people ever placed on this earth. He particularly impressed me  on this holiday with his intrepid eating. At breakfast while the lazy breakfaster chose eggs, toast or yoghurt he would be trying out the strange, noodley soups. No dish at lunch or supper was left untried and at the end of the meal when everyone else was done there he would be, at the end of the table, quietly chowing down. The Gourmet.

My mother: My mum is incredibly friendly. She will start chatting to anyone, anywhere, regardless of age, culture or language. In Moscow when we were visiting Stanislavsky's house she had a very good go at be-friending the museum attendants, all ladies of a certain age, completely undeterred by the fact that they spoke no English and she spoke no Russian.

She did the same at a Pagoda in Burma. A group of old ladies asked our guide why she was in a wheelchair (She had sprained her ankle a month and a half before the trip but it was still sore and exacerbated by the bare foot pagoda rules). She asked if she could have her photo taken with them and my mum busily started be-friending them, again with no language in common. The Chatter.

My aunt and uncle. They are both professionally clever. My aunt is an Oxford Don and expert in South American economics. She is very clever and very good at subtly negotiating away possibly problems among people before they grow large enough to become fully fledged problems. We'll call her 'the Prof'.

The DFP thinks my uncle is a spy. When you ask him what he did before he retired he mummers about infa-red and says it was top secret. We know he worked for the MOD. We know he learned Russian. We'll leave you to decide the rest. Let's call him 'the Spy'.

So we have the cast in place. Next

The set:

Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest on 13th November 2010. Before her arrest she asked tourists not to travel to Burma. The country had been placed under sanction. Since her release people have started flooding in. It's changing and changing fast. A frequent exchange between travellers would be to wonder if we were visiting a year too late. Some places felt as though they are being destroyed by the surge of tourists.

This is a poor country (street lighting regularly disappears, you need a torch to watch your step as you walk at night on the cracked, uneven, pavements or you could disappear into a drain). It has been suddenly inundated by rich tourists and floods of them. The Burmese have experienced years of oppressive governing. As one charity worker we met told us she was working with people to help them to learn how to trust, how to use their freedom and make the right choices.

As a tourist you expect to pay a bit more for everything, the tourist tax. You want to put money into the economy and support people. What you don't want is for people to discover that ripping off tourists, or worse begging, is the best way to get money, better than doing whatever trade they were doing before. Or if they're children, better than going to school. Or if they're the children's parents, better than sending their children to school when their sweet six year old can earn more selling postcards to tourists than they can farming or whatever they were doing before.

Sometimes we felt like walking moneybags. Before going I'd heard how lovely the Burmese people were. There were places, mainly hard on the tourist trail where it didn't feel like that. But then we would find a way to turn off it and suddenly meet people, lovely people, who didn't want to sell you something, who just wanted to talk. Or who didn't want to rip you off if you were buying.

The amount of  English spoken is extremely high. As we walked through the streets in Mandalay people would call out 'hello'. The postcard sellers of Bagan would ask, 'hello, where are you from? Ah, English. BBC' Several of them I chatted with said they listened to the world service to practise their English and our tour guide said the same thing. It's the first Asian country I've visited where the people, like me, are world service fans.

In Mandalay the DFP and I were coming back from an afternoon exploring and three little girls, six, seven and nine, ran up from behind us, took our hands and started a stilted conversation  'Hello. What is your name?' My name is...., How old are you? Where do you come from?' And so on. We reached our hotel and off they went. 'Goodbye, see you tomorrow'. But of course we didn't.

The view sailing into Mandalay

Again in Mandalay, the DFP and I were out looking for street food, in one of the legendary blackouts, (the government just switch off the power on a regular basis) and met a young boy. Immaculately dressed. He asked if he could practise his (very bad) English with us. I was a bit suspicious of him, shame on me. But eventually he helped us find somewhere to eat and courteously looked after us while making stilted conversation.

We understood that he'd been learning English for three months and that he wanted to be a tour guide. He told us that he worked with clothes and was a sailor. It took us quite a long time to work out he wasn't a sailor, or a sewer, but a seller. He told us he was 19 and when he politely asked and was told the DFP's age exclaimed that his father was the same age. We offered to share our meal, to buy him a drink but, no, no.

Then he offered us a lift home on 'his older brother's motorbike'. We walked off the main road into an alley and he disappeared into a one-storey bamboo shack where a young girl inside was watching TV and a very shiny scooter was parked outside. Very carefully he pushed it onto the main road and someone from a nearby stall poured petrol from an old water bottle into the tank. Meanwhile a thin, quiet man, clearly his father, watched the proceedings like a hawk. He looked ten years older than the DFP.

And he drove us back, oh so carefully, through the blackened out streets of Mandalay, back to our luxury hotel. I felt embarrassed by the contrast. I asked if I could give him money for the petrol. No, no. He took our names and asked if we wanted to be facebook friends and we said goodbye.


We saw a lot of pagodas. A lot. And a lot of gold leaf on those pagodas.

Burma is a very Buddhist country. Buddhists work towards achieving enlightenment. You do this by acquiring merit, not only in the way you live your life, but also by building pagodas and by putting gold leaf on the pagodas when they are built. If you really want to ensure that you're a man in your next life and not just, say, a duck or a woman (though apparently being a duck is a step closer to enlightenment than being a woman) you really want to build a pagoda and get some gold leaf on it, prompto.

(However if you are a woman you're not allowed to apply gold leaf to stupas (pagoda dome's) or statues of Buddha. Pah! I say. Go and buy yourself some nice gold earrings instead and tell Buddha where he can stick it.)

There are pagodas everywhere. Everywhere. (I cannot italicize that enough). Even the smallest of villages have them. If you want to build a town you go to the monks and ask them if it's okay and then build a pagoda. There are probably as many pagodas in Burma as there used to be churches in Medieval Europe.

And where you find pagodas you find monks. Every Buddhist is supposed, at some point in their life to go and spend a month in a monastery. Throughout their lives people will return and spend time in monasteries praying and meditating. Religion is more alive and a more active part of the community than I have ever seen it before. This is in addition to the full time monks who seem to be mainly male.

The monasteries have a very broad spectrum role within the community. If people are travelling and don't have enough money for a hotel, they can stay at a monastery. If people are poor, they get food at a monastery. If they are sick they can receive medical attention there. We've all heard about the how the monks marched though I'm unclear quite what their role and influence is politically. However, while we were there they were protesting about a damn being opened.

Monks don't eat after noon. In the mornings they go out with their bowls onto the streets, barefoot, and are given food. They aren't allowed to ask and must taken whatever they are given. In Mandalay we visited a monastery and saw them having their lunch. They line up, eyes down in contemplation and wait until the signal to file into the dining room. Some of the monks are really little. Too little for such self control and solemnity. I was happy to see a water fight going on before the silent lunchtime procession.

Monks in Mandalay

If you are a pagoda lover the place you should head for is Bagan (or Pagan in colonial times). It's a 26-sq-mile area covered in pagodas built between 11th and 13th centuries. These are largely red brick and only a couple are gold leafed.

Pagodas in Bagan at Sunset.


I've bored so many people about this, but this is why I've wanted to go to Burma ever since I was a child. My grandmother was born in Rangoon, now Yangon, in 1902. Her father became headmaster at the newly opened school for the princes of the Shan state, sons of the Sawbha's (kings). She lived there until she was sixteen when the family moved to Bristol, and what a shock to the system that must have been.

She became a writer and among her books was one about her childhood in Burma, 'Quiet Skies on Salween'. Although I didn't know her, I knew her book. She and it seemed romantic, almost magical, and I wanted to visit the country she so clearly loved and made so alive in her writing.

We spent an afternoon at Taunggyi on our way to Inle Lake.

The fishermen on Inle lake row with one leg. But they're very hard to photograph at the right moment, so you'll have to trust me or visit yourself.

We knew from other people who had visited that the house and school are still standing and the minister at the Baptist church could show you where it was.
The house my grandmother lived in 1906 in Taunggyi.

When we arrive and started explaining who we were and why we were there. This is when everything started to get a bit surreal. The minister got an odd look on his face and rushed back into his house. He appeared again a few moments later with a blue covered book, a translation in Burmese of 'Quiet Skies on Salween' the book my grandmother wrote about her childhood there.

He took us onto the house she lived in over looked by the crag she described. It's still lived in by the head of the school. The headmistress emerged  wet headed to our unannounced visit, very embarrassed to have been caught washing her hair.

Then things even more surreal. She explained the book had been translated by an ex-headmistress of the school (and that the school children were given it to read!) and that, by chance, she was visiting.

In a sitting room with an enormous TV blaring away in a corner, drinking tamarind juice we talked to the translator and she gave us copies of the book. My favourite moment was when we showed her a kindle version of another, unpublished work by my grandmother. She said, 'oh, they spelt the name wrong. They forgot the e' (pointing to the name Thorp). We tried to explain that Thorp was the correct spelling, but she seemed dubious. In her translation the name appears as Thorpe.

I thought that this book was dead, unread, except to me and the people in my family. What was wonderful about all this to me was that her book is being read by school children in Taunggyi (whether they want to or not!) That it lives on and so does her memory.

Children singing at a pot making village. And a nastier more jowling sound I think I can honestly say I have never heard.

We cruised up the Irrawaddy river from Bagan to Mandalay in luxury. The DFP and I slashed the average age by about 30 years.

In the pot making village we saw a very swish house. Not the usual bamboo affair. Someone asked how they had got the money for such a big, solid looking house. The guide shrugged and answered, 'He sold a lot of pots'.

Longyis (a sarong like tube of material) are as common in Burma as jeans are everywhere else in the world. Everyone, men and women wear them all the time. Even on a bike. 

Laying out the snow at our hotel in Mandalay.

This woman is smoking a cheroot. 

This girl has thanaka, sunblock crossed with make-up, on her cheeks. Everyone uses it.  Usually it's just smeared on though clearly not in this case. Also you would see babies with lovely swirly thanaka designs on their plump cheeks. The prof pointed out that this is a great way to get small children interested in the idea of wearing sun block.