Sunday, 22 February 2015

Safely Home

Yes, I'm back in the bosom of Wiltshire. My house is warm and welcoming (once I've lit the woodburner). Snowdrops gather in hopeful clumps in the garden. The man at the market remembered me.

It's always disorientating, coming home. Everything seems the same, and it's easy to slot into the same old ways. Yet each trip I do is enriching, and I come home with questions and memories that I want to cling on to. It is a privilege to travel as I do, and would be wasteful to cast it aside as I slip on the coat of normality back home.

I will, in time, put photos here on the blog. Just sorting them out will help cement memories. But give me time - I've only been home a couple of days. I'm still recovering from the journey.

It was a bit of a marathon, from Singapore to Bangkok (woops, I forgot to check that both airlines used the same airport ...), from Bangkok to Abu Dhabi, from Abu Dhabi to London - and then home.

The route taken by that last flight was the most tortuous. We headed straight up the Red Sea (keeping well away from Yemen), then north of Basra and south of Baghdad, then a significant detour to avoid Syria and parts of northern Iran, turning west to make sure we stayed out of Ukrainian airspace ... I know it was necessary. But what a dreadful reality it reflected. It underlined, for me, how the world feels increasingly dangerous.

While I am settling back into my market town, where the biggest grumble is about the road works making children late for school, more and more people must live in war zones. I sit and read by my fire. While others run in terror from the guns and the bombing. There is food in my markets. I have shoes on my feet and clothes to keep me warm. If I am ill I can go to the doctor. My grandchildren go safely to school. And millions of people - as innocent as you and I - are swept into conflicts that are not of their making. Their homes suddenly under rubble and who knows when, or if, there will be food in their markets.

Surely, if there were more women in positions of power, we'd not allow such bloodshed? We might sit up all night over endless cups of tea (or glasses of wine) but we'd not see people go hungry. We'd not see children murdered. We'd not see women raped in the name of war. If our menfolk carried guns we'd withhold the conjugals till they came to their senses. (Oh I do not it's not as easy as that, but it does feel as if everyone has stopped listening to each other and reaches for weapons without thinking.)

And so, as I gather my corner of the world together after my weeks away, I can't help thinking of those whose world is forever in pieces.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

When travelling plans to awry ...

I've been doing this travelling thing for a few years now. I've met a hazard or two. I've taken a risk or several. But at the back of my mind I've always thought, if I was really stuck, I should get to a comfortable resort, sit by a pool, and decide what to do next.

For the first time - and in Malaysia which is basically a safe country and easy to get around - I've done it. All the planning before I came, and still I stumbled up against an insurmountable or three.

Firstly, the weather. This is partly my fault: I knew it was the tail-end of the monsoon but I hoped it would have blown itself out by now. It hasn't. Winds still hammer the east coast unpredictably. The ferries to Pulau Tioman are worse than unreliable. They were running, it seemed, about one day in four. I could have gone to Mersing and waiting for the right day, in the hope of reaching my beautiful island (and then sat on the beach to have sand blown in my eyes). Who knows if there would have been a ferry to bring me back in time to catch my plane home.

Then - the Chinese New Year. The streets are decked in finery. The dragons are practising. The fireworks ready for firing. And every Chinese man and woman is taking to public transport to go home to their families. I met a couple who were unable to get a ticket on a long-distance train for three weeks. The interstate buses are frequent, but filling rapidly. I couldn't rely on turning up at a bus station and buying a ticket. I came across the same problem in Vietnam a few years ago and had to take night bus with blocked toilet and people sleeping on the floor. It was funny the first time, stupid to do it again. I needed to be somewhere I could stay for a few days before the razzmatazz really set in.

Then - a big political trial in KL was reaching its conclusion. The Leader of the Opposition was appealing his conviction for sodomy. If upheld (which it was), then he would be imprisoned for five years. I had no way of knowing how this would play out. I had several conversations with students, mostly young waiters, but we talked about their studies and I didn't feel I could drop the odd question about sodomy into those conversations. I don't know KL well enough to make sure I could stay out of the way of any demonstrations. So it seemed like a good plan to stay well south of the city given that I was flying home from Singapore.

It felt as if all three were conspiring to limit my choices.

So I've come to a resort on Sentosa, the island just south of Singapore. The pool is fed by spring water and fringed by palm trees. I can swim and read and read and swim. And eat. There are, I admit, worse solutions.

But one day I shall have to come back - and not in February - and catch the ferry to Pulau Tioman, to sit on the beach with the monkeys and monitor lizards.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Miss Jo from Malacca

I love Malacca. I love Malacca even more than I love Penang, but for the same reasons. It is a melting pot of cultures. Chinatown is getting dressed up for the Chinese New Year. A stone's throw away is Little India. Mosques remind the visitor of the city's Islamic foundations. Intermarriage between ethnic groups has led to distinctive subcultures each with its own traditions and cuisines. On top of that, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British all had a hand in its architecture.

And it's small enough that getting lost is only ever a brief experience.

I first came here eight years ago. I stayed in a hotel in Chinatown, in an building that was once an old mansion; much of its old character is still treasured. There is heavy wooden furniture with pearl inlay. I eat breakfast in a courtyard with a fountain and bamboo rattling in the breeze.

Eight years ago I chatted with one of the cleaners here - Miss Jo. She'd been a lecturer at a university but retired with no pension and so worked as a cleaner to support herself. We were delighted to share a name. She took me to a celebration at her Sikh temple and I shared a meal there.

We talked every morning, about her family and my family and whatever we read in the newspaper. She glanced continually at the young women on reception. She was in permanent trouble for talking when she should be sweeping.

I'm here again, at the same hotel. And, that first afternoon, when I saw a small woman in her green cleaner's overall hunched over a newspaper I knew it had to be Miss Jo. Our mutual delight was wonderful. So much has happened in the past eight years and we had to cover it all. Her sister has died. My grandchildren have arrived. Hers have gone to university and are successful young people.

But what pleases me most is that she is still here. She is over eighty now. She always has her broom with her. I've seen her wave it round the floor just once. And occasionally she walks around looking purposeful. But she spends much of her time reading the newspapers (provided for guests) or talking with visitors. It seems that her employers have given up trying to insist she attend to her work and have taken a more compassionate attitude. This, the Hotel Puri in Malacca, is one of my favourite hotels in the world.

And someone is doing the cleaning, because the place is spotless.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

From One Jungle to Another

I've left the trees behind and made it to the jungle of Kuala Lumpur. It's not my favourite city - full of new skyscrapers, glass twinkling in the sunlight, with echoes of the old city squashed into precious corners. The traffic clogs the streets and belches fumes. The main escape, for people who live here, is in the air-conditioned shopping malls, where you can buy Levis, and pants from Marks and Spencer's. I've been up the Petronas Towers, to peer down on it all. Green space is precious here.

I miss the jungle of Fraser's Hill. I spent hours walking the trails, tramping deep into the rainforest. Although the leaflets suggest the paths are wide and easy - they fib. There is much scrambling, over tree roots, down banks to cross tiny streams that race down the hillsides. Everything smells damp - with occasional whiffs of animal.

For the jungle is teeming with wildlife. I was rewarded by the sight of two young gibbons playfighting - too far away to even think of a photograph. Besides I was mesmerised, as they threw themselves around in the trees and never fell to the ground - how did they do that? And I saw wild boar - from a safe distance. I saw the holes where tarantulas hide, ready to prey on unsuspecting birds. I saw an ants nest hung high in the trees. I saw wild ginger - that was the only plant I managed to recognise.

And yes, I was bitten by a leech. There's a first time for everything. I can tell you that the thought of it is far worse than the reality. It doesn't hurt - though it does bleed a lot. And it was worth it to see the gibbons.

The morning before I left, I has a long conversation with the Chinese cook a the hotel. We talked about food, and about the jungle:

'Did you see a tiger?' he said.

'What tiger?'

'Only once, last year, tiger was seen here, at Fraser's Hill. Mostly they live high in the mountains.'

Note to daughters - I promise, I never knew there might be tigers. Being bitten by a leech feels insignificant when I could have been tiger-tea.