Tuesday, 27 March 2012

A Toast

At the weekend we celebrated my Grandparents diamond wedding anniversary. For all of you who are unaware—as I was—that’s 60 years. 60 years! It was a lovely party, totally heart wrenching, especially when they did a re-enactment of their wedding cake photo. In my life I’ve been lucky enough to celebrate with two couples in my family on their diamond anniversary. My Grandma was talking about ordering her telegram from the Queen, which reminded me that my great-grandparents used to have theirs framed on the wall, all those years ago.
I’ve done a bit of research on these telegrams: it seems there are only two ways in which you can get one, both of which invariably involve being very old. Firstly, as I’ve said, you have to have a diamond wedding anniversary. The other option open to us is to turn 100 years old. But the good news is that you get another one at 105, then one each year thereafter. I think my chances of ever qualifying for either option one or two are pretty slim. It seems the Queen has pretty high expectations.
I’m wondering whether a diamond wedding anniversary is going to become a thing of the past? Even if we don’t count only marriages but all relationships, I don’t know how many people in my generation will ever see that day even as a couple. In the world of ‘anniversaries’ (which of course I’m not even on the scale of yet because obviously it involves a rather minute detail called a wedding) I have made it to ‘iron.’ Not the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard. If I am to have a go at making it to diamond then I, or should I say we have only got 52 years left. According to a website ‘the history of the diamond anniversary’ (gripping stuff) diamond was originally for the 75 mark. Now that just seems unreasonable. I’m not sure it’s even possible. Get married at 20, celebrate at 95… Apparently it changed after Queen Victoria celebrated her 60th year on the throne in 1897, and decided to call it her diamond jubilee. Couples then followed her lead. So there you go! I think my favourite anniversary has to be 80, entitled Oak. Whoever made that up had a rather morbid sense of humour.  
When researching the names of the different anniversary years, I found some rather amusing website names, the most amazing being ‘women’s thoughts.’ Obviously I had to take a look, to see what it is I’m supposed to be thinking. It’s actually quite a sweet website for the forty-something woman, a forum in which they can chat and have their say. But, I ask you, is it really necessary to include a list of every Anniversary and corresponding jewel/piece of crap that comes with it. I mean, what a cliché ladies.
Anyway, what is the point in this random selection of musings? I guess I just think that making it to sixty years of marriage is something to be proud of and deserves a mention. That’s all.  

Friday, 23 March 2012

A short hop home

So here’s what happened on the way home from Laos. We booked a bus to take us from Vientiene to Udon Thani in Thailand on Thursday. Torn between whether to get the earlier or later buses, I decided to ‘throw caution to the wind’ and take the later bus, especially as the tour operator was more than confident that we had loads of time and there most certainly wouldn't be any problems. Isn’t that what people do? Loosey goosy and all that. So there we were on Thursday, waiting for a bus we'd booked at 1.30 that never showed. 2pm came and still no bus, so Lee went to see what was going on. The tour operator told him the bus is postponed till 3.30 because there weren’t enough people. What?! The next hour was then spent in an absolute panic, convinced we are going to miss our flight, whilst everyone around us seems so chilled out. It’s like, to them, this never happens. What a freak incident it is that the travel in Laos is not to be trusted!
Finally we got a bus to another town across the border, wondering the whole time if we were going to make it to the airport or not. At the border it turned out getting a mini bus is easy, fast and not too expensive. All that stress for nothing!

The flight from Udon Thani was pleasant, and wonderfully short considering by bus it takes a whole night to get from there to Bangkok. And it cost about 30 pounds each, a pure bargain. In the taxi from one airport in Bangkok to the other, we explained to the driver that we weren't catching our next flight till 10 the next morning. He pointed out the obvious- why didn't we stay in a hotel? But we were resigned to sleeping in the airport, so stubbornly, we did. 
It actually wasn't too bad. We parked up with our bags near a Family Mart, visiting the shop at least seven times to buy instant noodles, hot dog sausages and beer.
In the morning, when it was finally time to check in, we had to wait for ages in a queue: something that doesn’t seem quite right after ‘waiting’ all night. The flight was to Moscow. Now is it just me or do Russians look a little bit rough?!
Anyway…the 10 hour flight was painful. Bad service, no alcohol and (I’m convinced, consequently) no sleep.  I felt like a bit of an idiot showing up in snowy Russia wearing my sandals. Despite the fact that I didn’t leave the airport and therefore it didn’t really matter what I was wearing on my feet, people were definitely judging me. We bought a couple of burgers and drinks in Burger King there, which I later found out from my bank cost us 15 pounds! Yikes.

After that, a further joyous alcohol-free five hour trip with the wonderful Aeroflot to Madrid. We arrived there with the intention of spending another night in an airport. Seriously, I don’t know what we were thinking when we made these plans. Sleep deprived and delirious, it appeared that there really was no point in being in Madrid at that point, and an epiphany was born. Let’s go home!
Ryanair claim they only sell tickets on the day for 300 pounds one way, and Easy Jet had no seats left, so we sat on the laptop to look for options. Hours later, we took a lovely Lufthansa flight, complete with red wine, hurrah, to Frankfurt. From there a further flight, filled mainly with commuters coming from the business district back to England on a Friday night (a fun bunch I must say).

We arrived in Birmingham, to be greeted with major cancellations and delays on the train route back to Coventry. Feeling like this might be the final straw, I pushed my way unforgivingly onto an exceptionally busy train home.
Finally, no less than 60 hours and a total of two buses, two taxis, two trains and five planes later, we arrived back in Coventry to surprise everyone. It was good to be home!

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Life without a lens

I have come to the decision that the death of the film camera is a loss that should be mourned, as it seems to have led to the death of privacy and all things sacred. Well no, that’s obviously a bit far-fetched, but don’t you ever feel like cameras are in your face wherever you turn? Of course in this day and age where developing a film is basically obsolete, the quantity of photos we can take knows no end and has no cost, and therefore we seem to be obsessed with it. Of course, I am guilty of this myself, which is why it bothers me so much. Just like Facebook, it is a guilty pleasure that I love and hate at the same time. In Vang Vieng I walked past a beautiful temple, not bothering to look at it because I didn’t have my camera. Ridiculous really, but I think this signifies how things have become. Something beautiful, be it a night out, a mountainous backdrop or apparently a pre packed sandwich (why, people, why?), has become defined by the ability to encapsulate it forever and the ability to show it off to others.
The privacy thing really does drive me mad, especially when it involves others less fortunate than me. On the boat to Laos we went past some naked children playing in the river, and the sudden influx of tourists standing to get a snap of this ‘show’ was nearly enough to capsize us. Is it really right to have a photo of someone else’s child like that? Yes I appreciate the innocent wonderment, but I don’t think many westerners would be too pleased if the situation was reversed. And today, outside the guesthouse lobby where I was waiting was an old, worn, raggedy and dirty old woman who was slouched on the steps, clearly too tired and achy to move. Along came a tourist and shamelessly shoved his oversized Nikon lens (compensating for something, maybe?) in her direction, taking a couple of shots, checking them out, then doing it again. I mean, come on! To me that is too ridiculous to even go in to explaining why it is ridiculous. I know that preserving forever the joy and indeed the sadness of real life is priceless, but maybe we could leave photographing the unfortunate and needy to the professionals?
It also makes me quite uncomfortable when I catch someone in the act of trying to subtly get a ‘natural’ shot of something which happens to include me. Like a coffee shop in an airport at five in the morning. I’ve been here all night for goodness sake, give me a friggin’ break! Or the sights and sounds of the ‘crazy tubers’ on the river in Vang Vieng. Seriously, each and every tourist who went by on a speedboat (mainly Korean and Chinese, I have to add) had a camera surgically attached to their face. I felt like a sea lion at the zoo, trapped in my ring as people snapped me as if it was their right. I was actually quite a good sport as it turned out, suppressing my feelings of violation and instead waving at them like a happy lunatic. Again, it's the feeling of absolute shamelessness that  really gets me.
In conclusion to what turns out to have been a bit of a rant, I am challenging myself, and anyone else who is a little too much in love with their camera, to go out and see something without it. Just look, enjoy, and be happy to have whatever it is alive forever as a memory.    

Monday, 12 March 2012

Journey to Laos

The journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang in Laos took three days; one on a mini bus, then two on a slow boat along the Mekong river. On the first day, we stopped at a huge white temple, amazing for its mix of Buddhist beauty and arty weirdness, including severed heads hanging from trees, and hundreds of white hands reaching up from a pit to collect money.
The two days spent on the boat were lovely. It’s really interesting to watch the range of ways in which the locals use the river. We stopped overnight in Pakbeng, a crazy little town that seems only to exist to house the tourists in transit. We had to take a look at Hive bar, which claimed on the flyer to be ‘the best and only bar in town!’ Both of these things turned out to be true, and by best I mean a deserted wild-west saloon, with additional flashing lights.  
Luang Prabang is beautiful, sitting tucked where the Khan river meets the Mekong. It is a city saturated with temples, one in particularly impressive on the top of a huge hill behind our guesthouse. The amazing Kuang Si waterfall was well worth a visit, and also included a sanctuary for bears rescued from captivity. Apparently bears are imprisoned so that bile can be extracted from their stomachs—a process that is very painful—to be used unnecessarily in medicine.
Being in much need of some foot TLC, we decided to get a massage. When it came to it however, I was sucked in by the cheaper pedicure option (pretty much the same, right?) It was priceless watching the poor woman tend to Lee’s toenails. She’d obviously never seen anything like them and even had to get her friend in at one point to have a look too.
So, after what can only be described as a bit of an ordeal for Lee, I am now educated in the fact that pedicure means simply nail cutting. For some reason I had in my mind that it was something more elaborate. I'm quite shocked that people actually pay for this!  
The next day we tried again, this time indulging in a foot scrub. The hygiene element left something to be desired; Lee’s guy sat waiting patiently for mine to finish with the pumice stone, so that he could use it. Would it really be that hard to have two? Would it? We were left pondering exactly how many feet the stone had seen before. It had probably been in the family for generations, passed down proudly from father to son! Not a pretty thought. Nevertheless, the experience was worth it and our feet are now baby soft. 
Most bars in Luang Prabang close at 11pm, so for our last evening’s entertainment we went bowling, apparently the real hub of social activity in the city. I don’t know what I was expecting, a mini disco or some air hockey at least, but it really was just an old school bowling alley. The Laos guys next to us obviously agreed the place was the height of excitement. They were drunk, mostly topless and throwing the balls with such gusto that they fell over in the lane nearly every time. I’d love to see what would happen if this kind of thing unfolded at Megabowl in Coventry. I predict there would be a certain sense of humour failure on the part of security staff.
There was an advert on the table for prizes you could win if you scored well. For women it was 130 points for the lowest prize: alas still out of my reach, but I appreciated the gesture of being acknowledged as the weaker-and-therefore-more-rubbish-at-bowling sex. The prizes were varying amounts of packets of cigarettes, again something that would be brilliant to see back in Coventry. For your excellence in bowling, have a smoke on us!
And for the first prize, a motorbike! I was a little dubious about this, but unfortunately none of us were able to test out the sincerity of the offer with a score of 300.  
All in all I loved Luang Prabang, but if you ever go then plan to be there for more than two days, as it is simply not enough. 
My shorts were not deemed fit for the white temple

Thursday, 8 March 2012


On Lee's birthday we arrived back from elephant trekking exhausted and dirty and decided to have a beer in the bar. We were contemplating what to do for the evening when a guy walked over, boldly introduced himself and asked if he could join us for a beer. I'd seen Mike around the hotel already, chatting to everyone and everyone, it would seem. At first, his teenage, baseball cap wearing demeanour put me off, but I soon walmed to this nutty Canadian film maker, whose laugh was incredibly infectious. He nearly fell of his chair in hysterics when we recounted the story of the day, of Lee and the blind guy on the elephant. After finding out it was Lee's birthday, Mike, who'd been to Chiang Mai many times before, suggested the Muay Thai boxing. So off we went, and as I've recounted before, had a wicked time. Mike and Lee couldn't stop laughing for the next few days about the 'main event' French boxer Dennis, who looked totally camp on the flyer, and got completely annihilated in the ring.  
You must wonder why I'm telling you this, so I'll get to the point. 
On Monday, Lee went to get in touch with Mike on facebook, only to find a barrage of "You will be sadly missed," and "R.I.P" messages on his page. We still don't know what actually happened, but one thing is for sure- he died in Laos.
I felt compelled to write about this for a number of reasons. I know that we only knew Mike for a short time, but it is still a horrible thought that he is dead, at 29. And here we are following his trail to the place where we were supposed to meet him; the place where he died. Also I didn't think I could whole heartedly write about anything else until I got this out of my system. It just seems so wrong.
So anyway, sorry for such a depressing entry, I guess I just needed to say Mike, you were great and we will miss you.