Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Are we really celebrities?

Growing our adopted global family, Lucknow.  
Yesterday we were sitting on a bench when an Indian woman with a gaggle of friends and children strode up to us, demanded where we were from and asked if she could take a group picture with us.

This happens a lot: once a day at least when we are at tourist spots. And even though we have learned to pick up the pace as the next group of admirers approach, we mostly don't mind. In terms of attention, don't they say it's better to be talked about than not talked about at all?

We had the same on our Africa trip, except no-one had smartphones then so a photo wasn't an option. We thought they just wanted a dab of our Western stardust. In those days this translated into your phone number or email address, not information you're inclined to give. Sadly when this wasn't forthcoming, or after to our shame we had given a false email, it transformed into a request for money. At least nowadays the photo seems enough.

"Left a bit, that's it, give us a pout, love. Beautiful!"
Without exception this trip's selfie requests have been friendly and well-meaning, if sometimes abrupt because the person making the request is nervous. When it's a group of boys, I sense it's almost always the result of a bet!

So why are they doing it? I used to think it was just a minor form of celebrity worship. In the same way that if you saw [celebrity of your choice] on a nearby bench you might jokily request a selfie. That is if you were less a timorous Brit and more a robust Indian.

Normal Western behaviour,  Burma 
But this theory breaks down a little if you look at Jo and me, well me mostly. For sure we have the trappings of the rich West - the white skin, the camera, the ineptitude at waggling the head - but in every other department we fall down. We have street urchin hair, our clothes are gently disintegrating,  shoes are uniformly dust-coloured, and it's not as if we bear any resemblance to Posh and Becks or demonstrate any talent for sport or stage.

I'm developing a better theory. In Sri Lanka I got down with the locals and bought myself a traditional wraparound longji (as photo) . When I arrived in Burma I continued to wear it. They wear longjis there too, so it seemed OK. But it transpired over time that mine was seen as ridiculously garish compared to the local version and moreover I was tying it at the side, as women do, instead of at the front, as men do. So imagine a man walking down the high street wearing a purple polka-dot dress. That was me.

I only found this out because the locals couldn't stifle their laughter. Thankfully two nice people explained the situation after they had caught breath.

But it's made me reconsider the whole celebrity thing. What other cultural faux pas are we committing? Do my sideburns mean I'm up for something unmentionable? Is Jo's hairclip the icon of the Allahabad Monster Raving Loony Party? Should we never sit together on a bench? Individually these things might be small but as an aggregate... we probably look like complete clowns.

We got our own back on these friendly rogues in Kolkata 
So I propose this: we aren't Brangelina. We're Laurel and Hardy. We are touring India and giving everyone a good laugh. And the bolder locals can put the evidence on their mantelpiece.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Why to visit Burma in 2019

From a tourist's perspective Burma has a vibe like Sri Lanka's: genuinely friendly, simultaneously laid-back and energetic, and on the road to recovery from horrific recent events. The memories here are raw, and it ain’t all over yet, but you know that some locals are loving seeing tourists for the first time since the start of World War II.

Where it all Bagan
Unless you are of a more adventurous disposition, we suggest you hold fire on a visit. Why? Because getting anywhere takes an age as the roads are still being sealed (the commonest roadside sight is villagers breaking rocks). Hotel demand sometimes exceeds supply, which sends prices up. Several parts of the countries are off-limits to tourists. And standards generally need to come up a notch or two.

Here are some reasons why we think you should eventually come. If it's not obvious, we loved the place.

The people

No bribery was involved in this pose
While generalising about nationalities is something we normally discourage... we found everyone in Burma cheerful, guileless, hospitable and polite, seasoned with a dash of mischief. The little children in particular are imprinted on our memory: their exuberance on seeing a couple of sweaty white foreigners was a wonderful thing.

We were met with two-handed high fives and enthusiastic greetings of  "Bye!!"  wherever we went. Never a request for money, sweets or even pens.... just the unadulterated joy of an exchange with Whiteys. In less tourist-visited areas this resulted in us assuming a Santa Claus persona whereby kids would rush from their homes just to wave and catch a glimpse of our talismanic forms lolloping by.



We have travelled a fair bit and have never seen a sunset like a Burmese sunset.

The clouds seem to catch fire.

There's work here for someone
Imagine London's Oxford Street 20 years after a neutron bomb attack and that's pretty much what downtown Yangon looks like, except there are also lots of very-alive people, dogs, cats, pigeons and occasional rats.

Yangon has the most complete set of colonial buildings in southeast Asia, and the streetscapes are a delight if fading grandeur is your thing.

The country's flagship tourist site is Bagan - a dusty plain punctuated by over 4000 stupas and temples.

The view to the horizon from one of the higher temples is unforgettable if you can see past everyone else's mobile phones.

The beaches in the south are a simple extension of Thailand's beaches. Only they have never seen a reclining chair or Singha beer. We found the most beautiful, clean and empty beach of our lives and stayed there three days. In two years I reckon it will still be the same way, unless they have upgraded the road. Contact us for details!

The food

The Myanmar people are masters of combining flavours and textures in a single dish: soft but crunchy; spicy, salty with a hint of sour - so perfectly encapsulated in the tastebud-awakening breakfast staple, Mohinga (spicy fish broth with soft noodles and crispy chickpea fritters; it may sound disgusting but tastes sublime).

Tea Leaf Salad - it'll give you wings

And then there is the iconic fermented Tea Leaf Salad with its assault-on-the-senses overdrive so perfectly summarised by Emma, one hotel host's eight-year old daughter as having "Too much taste!".

This is the only salad we've ever eaten that needs a plain rice accompaniment. I could go on but Dave rations the words in this bl


Where to start? Just five minutes' walk down a Yangon street is guaranteed to throw up a bizarre object/behaviour you cannot fathom. Among the top head-scratchers are:

The capital's motorways. I think the man on the bike needn't worry.
The new (2006) Myanmar capital, Nay Pyi Taw. Have you ever wondered what a city designed by someone with no qualifications in town planning might look like? Here it is. Nay Pyi Taw allegedly covers 2700 square miles, has empty eight-lane highways, perfectly manicured verges, world-class hotels, conference centres and ministry buildings and no people to speak of. The place is devoid of character, charm and personality and it is fitting that it is the beating heart of the Military-majority government. Only one embassy (Bangladesh) has succumbed to the pressure to relocate from Yangon.

Popular now in Burma
Buddhas. There can never be enough, and the bigger the better. We witnessed not only the world`s biggest reclining one but also the outline of its half-built replacement on the opposite hill. It brought to mind Star Wars' Death Star in scaffolding phase. Weird enough, one might conclude, but the presence of a monstrous Frank Sidebottom looming out of the nearby canopy (left) sealed the deal.(Video and photos on Flickr)

George Orwell was a policeman here in the 1920s. No doubt his witnessing of colonial racism and brutality fed straight into 1984 and Animal Farm. A curious thing is that he wrote his angry, semi-autobiographical Burmese Days while an impoverished bottle-washer in Paris. And then went to live in sleepy old Southwold. Great writer. Odd bloke.

We actually don't want to see this again

An important rule of Burmese kickboxing is you can kick your opponent anywhere. Anywhere. No surprise then that several boxers we saw collapsed in a heap after a knee-ing in their soft parts. The monks in the audience seemed to take particular delight.

Burmese festival music. Sorry but this sounds like someone has taken a screeching parrot, a set of drums and several xylophones and pushed them off a steep slope, with bumps on the way down. There's no rhythm, melody or accuracy that we could tell. It is cacophony. But judging by the delight in the onlooker's faces, the loss must be ours.

Click for copious illustration of the above

Monday, 16 January 2017

Egypt versus Sri Lanka

No, Egypt haven't taken up cricket as far as we know, and we're not sure they've played Sri Lanka in anything, ever. This is just a contrivance so we can cover both countries in one blog post*. Be aware that the following comparisons are based on brief observation and pretty much no knowledge.

Essex girls pass on some tips
Steering and accelerating like someone who wants to die,  and who wants to take everyone with him, is standard in both countries.

But Egypt gets special status for driving at night with the lights off, unless drivers think oncoming traffic should see them, in which case they give them a blinding flash of headlamps on full. 

Winner: Sri Lanka.


Great Sri Lankan locations can't make up for bland Hoppers
A classic Full Egyptian comprises floppy flatbread, crisp and moist falafel, delicious fried vegetables, savoury mashed beans ("Foul Mesdames", unfortunately), fresh juice and eggs. At least. Each dish is gorgeous. 

A Full Sri Lankan meanwhile is String Hoppers, which are soft packet noodles wrapped around sweet coconut and Hoppers, which are sweet crêpes, then dahl and fruit. Whatever.

Winner: Egypt.     

Tourist costs
No backpackers in the crazy queue up Sigirya
Our hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings cost £50 for the two of us. Hotels were £15/night. Entry into the Necropolis, Abu Simbel etc - Egypt's big ticket items - was so cheap as to be unmemorable.  Public transport and food were pennies. The country is a bargain.

Sri Lanka hotels and public transport were the same but, boy, the big ticket items were so much we sometimes didn't go. $30 each to climb a big rock (Sigirya)? No. The same for an afternoon at an ancient city (Pollonaruwa)? Just, yes. £175 for another hot air balloon ride? Sri Lanka is a seller's market right now and sometimes you feel you're being fleeced.

Winner: Egypt.
Old stuff
Tranquillity in granite. Pollonaruwa, Sri Lanka
Egypt has the antiquity - there's stuff over 4000 years old, some of it mint. But there's a familiarity to the sights and not so many surprises.

Sri Lanka has rain (unlike Egypt), so things haven't weathered so well, but few of us could put a name to any of the island's fabulous Hindu statues. And those Buddhas carved from stone are more mesmerising than the Donald Trump of ancient Egypt (Ramesses II at Abu Simbel). And then there are Dambulla's painted caves that hold more atmosphere and mystery than the brightly-lit tombs of the Kings.
Winner: A tie.

Tourist hospitality
Jo braving an expert
Several times in Sri Lanka we had to go up to parked tuktuk drivers to ask for a ride. Shop owners smiled politely from behind distant counters. My gentle haggling intimidated the car hire guy.

In Egypt meanwhile the horse-and-trap drivers, stall owners, and the alleged cook from our hotel (our hotel clearly had an infinite number of cooks) spotted us from three miles and were advertising their or their brother's services in seconds. Relentlessly. Agonisingly. Almost viciously. Just Please Go Away.

Winner: Sri Lanka.

Natural scenery
Lakes, hills, monasteries, monkeys, Jo, Sri Lanka
The Nile is nice and its banks are classic. The desert is beautiful if you like that kind of thing (Dave yes, Jo no). The Red Sea coast is stark but of course, lovely underwater.

Sri Lanka meanwhile has jungle, savannah, high mountains, Scottish highlands (if you squint), strange rocks, pretty tropical beaches, and its own coral reefs. No competition.

Winner: Sri Lanka

Daylight fills the room...
Internal doors
The things we take for granted. Egypt has internal doors like ours, you know, two bits of plywood half an inch apart.

Someone has sold in a different concept to the Sri Lankans. Their doors and door frames are made of just-strong-enough plastic.  They let light through.  But, perhaps significantly, they fit snugly enough to keep mosquitos out. Maybe they are onto something.

Winner: Sri Lanka. Why not?

Overall winner
A silly concept I suppose. Both countries are amazing, as most countries are. Go to Egypt. It is suffering and it needs the income even more than Sri Lanka at the moment; its tourist industry is on its knees while Sir Lanka's is up and running. The sights are timeless and amazing and the place is currently a bargain. And this is how to deal with the hassle.

* Laptop broke in December and we couldn't bring ourselves to blog by smartphone. The replacement is a £200 Lenovo MIIX 310, with which we are very happy despite its Thai bamboozling. Still looking for the hash key, and always forgetting where @ is.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

We ditch the car

Africa in 2003. We wouldn't put Nellie through that again.
In case it's not obvious from previous posts, I'm slightly obsessed with our car, Nellie*. She's 25 years old, has seen us safely through the wilds of Scotland, jousted with endless London buses, blanked tail-gaters all over Europe, and best of all carried us safely the length of Africa.

She has the heart of an ox. Despite losing her Ardennes Green gloss a long time ago, and random bits dropping off, she has not broken down once. As such, and as more discerning people understand, she has stately charm akin to a favourite, solid aunt.

So with a trembling lower lip we consigned her last week to a big hangar two hours out of Athens, surrounded by speedboats that are picked up by their German owners every August. Maybe between gritted grilles they swap stories about their absent owners.

Jo keeping it all in
I think she'll be OK. The owner promised to put her on blocks (saving the tyres), the tank is full (saving on condensation), we changed all the fluids (saving the engine and transmission) and I'm hoping the solar trickle charger will preserve the instant start when we return in X months.

This wasn't the plan. We were going to drive to Iran and then ship her to India. However an examination of rainfall, sunshine and temperatures (embarrassingly our main spurs to action) convinced us that we had to move pronto to India for a relaxed winter. Maybe we'll visit Iran on the way back.

Athena eat your heart out
And so we have morphed from Overlanders to Backpackers. Jo bought a new Chinese backpack for 30 euros in Athens that may or may not last three months of Indian public transport. We bounce along the road carrying a weight of only 25kg between us, which is a liberating difference from Nellie's 2015kg, and we quite like the change.

6 December: we are in Egypt, enjoying a cheap and warm side-trip, with our plane booked to Sri Lanka for Saturday.

Inevitable photos of Indiana Jones tombs and dodgy hot air balloons to follow. In the meantime here are some new snaps from great places in Greece like Olympia and scary Athens back streets.

* Full name Lady Nelson II. Happy to bore with full explanation over a pint one day.

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Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Taken for granted: loos (graphic warning)

The biggest surprises when travelling aren't people, sights, tastes etc. They are when your day-to-day reference points crumble.

This is the first of a series on this theme, and we will start with loos. In this instance I speak only for the Ladies (except - you have been warned - the last photo!).

1. No loo paper
Seatless + stinky bin
Not the greatest shock, this can happen in the UK, but still a shock. Men, this is why women have handbags. You think they are full of junk but in actual fact we keep a month's supply of loo rolls in there.

2. You aren't allowed to put the loo paper down the pan
Again, not exceptional. But when in a reflex reaction you have broken the rule, and not fed the stinky bin, what do you do next?(!)

3. No toilet seat
In a French campsite toilet block there were signs on the doors indicating the ones without seats. Being the sophisticate that I am I naturally veered to a seat-equipped cubicle to discover that they meant the toilet has a rim, not a seat. Who, intentionally, sits on the rim? On the plus side the skiing pose must be doing good things for my thighs.

No paper + wet floor
4. No lock on the door
Why have a lock for goodness sake? Doesn't everybody do the same thing in there, what's all the embarrassment about?

 Regardless, I class the toilet cubicle as private space and prefer to keep it that way. This isn't too big a deal if the cubicle is small and you have a seat to sit on: you can lodge your foot against the door. More stressful is when there is only one unisex toilet and the door is sprinting distance from the pan.

5. Mystery wet floor
What is that? Has water leaked from the cistern? From the toilet bowl? Is that water? ..... Time for a different cubicle, if there is one.

6. All the above
This configuration happens when you are truly desperate and all other toilet options have failed. You have no choice other than to adopt an advanced yoga pose to keep your foot on the door, get the tissues out of your bag and minimise contact with the toilet rim, and the floor, and the stinky bin.

7. Beyond contemplation
The below was in a church in the Men's.

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Saturday, 12 November 2016

The tiny guide to Albania

An absolute one-off, Albania combines glorious scenery and a savage history with a big, crazy heart. Pretty much everywhere is...

A Londoner staring down the locals
You won't get caught in gangland crossfire and you won't be robbed. Bournemouth is scarier. You're more likely to be suffocated by kindness.

Just be careful crossing the road (Flickr video).

Albert Einstein - CC
Albania = lovely x lovely squared
Albania is the only occupied country that ended World War Two with more Jews than it started with. It also helped Einstein get to America some years earlier.

This is explained by a deep cultural obligation to help strangers, and we saw that first-hand in the hospitality of our Airbnb hosts and the friendliness of every soul we met. Aww.

Albanian coastline, beach
Where are the hotels?
Most of the country is mountainous and some peaks in the north and south are gorgeously immense, if you like that kind of thing.

Then there are the sweeping white beaches with no hotels (yet). And then the rivers, lakes (Flickr timelapse) and islands.

It's the original pocket-sized Eden.

Ksamil demolished hotel, Albania
Another government-demolished hotel. Aha.
In 1950-90 the place was, basically, North Korea. Every third person was detained, there were only 600 cars, 170,000 bunkers dotted the countryside and still do (Flickr photo) and then the place went bust*.

The effects are clear to see in attitudes, infrastructure and sights - and 1990s prices.

More snaps and videos from our 15-day visit (Flickr)

*Thankfully it is getting back on its feet now.

Friday, 4 November 2016

The power of Montenegro

Durmitor National Park, Montenegro
We're not tired of the gorgeous views yet

Having seen Casino Royale we were understandably very excited to be entering this country with its cosmopolitan mountain, lake and casino wonderland. The fact that those Balkan scenes were filmed entirely in Italy is by the by.

This wee country  is certainly mountainous and the speed restrictions appear somewhat drastic.... until you get an appreciation of the condition of the roads. No wonder Bond's Aston Martin rolled 11 times.
Unplanned offroading. Click for video and Jo's whimpers
Montenegro's currency is the euro although it has yet to join the EU, but it is at the top of the list now and things are looking good if it's a one-in, one-out policy.

If you like smoking, it's the place for you: inside, outside, cafes, restaurants, waiting rooms, shops, no-smoking carriages in trains. Whenever you want to light up, go right ahead.

The food is tasty, extremely affordable, and dominated by meat or pizza. Oh and they really like salt. One night we started to dehydrate.

Strong again
Lovely Montenegrins, hic
It also promised to be the location where we could get some welding done on our car, Nellie, to tide her chassis over for another year or two.

Vlatko, our genial Airbnb host knew of a few mechanics who could do the job and so Dave with a spring in his step and a hopeful disposition headed off with him to engage in a spot of car fixing.

Two hours later he returned rosy-cheeked and jolly from the three glasses of home-made Rajika that was "thrust into his hand" while Vlatko and he waited for the elusive mechanic to return.

Long story short, no work was done to Nellie... But Dave did return with a little bag of pears he was given, so not entirely a fruitless expedition.

Nellie's chassis Before and After. It will do.
However three days later, all the worst holes in Nellie were welded up with long slabs of steel. She is now a quarter Montenegrin. All-in for £130. Dave reckons the same work would have set us back around £1600 at home, and without three free shots of Rajika.

This saving has not as yet translated into a week at a five-star hotel but I'm working on it.

Apologies for the slow progress with the blog. We've had several adventure since and are currently in the former North Korea of Europe, Albania, which we are finding gorgeous, utterly safe and delightful. Updates to come.

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