Reflections On Southeast Asia

R: We haven’t quite come to the end of our time in Southeast Asia: we have two more days left and two more updates to come, but time is tight so we need to crack on. As a result, these are perhaps more ‘knee-jerk reactions’ to Southeast Asia rather than ‘reflections’.

So, how do you summarise more than six months of travel in Southeast Asia? How do you boil down to a few choice paragraphs all that you have seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched? Well…

Sight. The number one ‘experience’ listed in our Lonely Planet guide is traffic. Yes, traffic. And it’s true: from the moment we left Bali airport right up to our time in Bangkok we have seen more motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, buses and trucks than we will probably ever see again.

Let’s take Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon to you, me and Mr Kurtz). In HCMC there are five million motorbikes. That’s one bike for every person in Scotland. And no photograph quite captures the scooter-thick streets; you need to see it to believe it. Crossing the road is a test of both your own nerve and the competency of your fellow man. All you can do is edge forward – never retreat, that would spell disaster – and trust that the approaching two-stroke swarm will weave around you.

In Kuala Lumpur, opposite the Thai Embassy, we stood for a full fifteen minutes waiting to cross the road. This was not a motorway but a road in the centre of the city. No pedestrian crossing, no traffic lights, no islands to break up the perilous four lane crossing. If it had not been for a sympathetic embassy guard we would have been there yet.

You see, in SE Asia pedestrians do not have the right of way – not on the road, and certainly not on the pavement. Instead, pedestrians inhabitant that strange netherworld between the pavement and the road: the gutter.

The pavement is a place to park your motorbike or your car, or perhaps your truck; it is an area to lay out all your goods and chattels; and a place to eat your evening meal on Lilliput plastic tables and chairs. It can also be a place where the local authorities choose to plant huge pedestrian-scuppering trees, their massive roots eventually pulling up the surrounding pavings. Whatever the use, just don’t expect to walk there.

But why would you be walking? In SE Asia, if you are wealthy you drive a jeep. If you are upwardly mobile you have a Japanese or Korean sedan. Failing that you have a motorbike; a two-stroke upon which you carry children, dogs, potatoes, huge six-feet high signage, fifty live chickens, a wardrobe, a satellite dish – anything that takes your fancy, really. And if you are old or poor – or both – you may have a bicycle. But walk? Only the poorest, the most pitiful people walk. Or backpackers, which, let’s face it, amounts to the same thing.

But despite so much traffic, so few pavements and the absence of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings, it seems to work. It really does. We saw no examples of road rage throughout the whole of our six months. Not one. And little in the way of accidents. We witnessed only a single incident – in Pakse – and heard two others – in Phnom Penh and Nha Trang.

Sound. Traffic, obviously. But more specifically tooting, or honking. In SE Asia you drive with one hand steering and the other hand on the horn. The air is continually filled with the blaring and bleating of competing horns. But it is not done in anger, as it is in the UK; or for no apparent reason, as is the case in New York. It is done as a polite declaration of your presence. It is the soundtrack to safety rather than a prelude to motorised apoplexy.

Dogs barking would be another favourite. Wherever you are in SE Asia you will always be able to make out a dog howling in the distance. And the shuffling of sandals. Yes, it is a strange feature that a lot of women (it doesn’t appear to be a trait of men here) shuffle rather than walk. They rarely lift their feet. Too hot, I guess. Who’d want to use up all that energy raising a leg unnecessarily.

Smell. Probably best summarised as a heady brew of petrol fumes, incense, warm sewage, honeyed lemongrass, mothballs (think benzene and vomit), the sun-baked earth, cigarette smoke, fried chicken (fried anything, in fact), bubbling rice, chargrilled corncobs, coconut oil, and what I can only describe as the smell of catnip. The proportions and predomination of one over another obviously varies, but you get the general idea.

Taste.We’ve been reasonably adventurous. No, we haven’t trapped a live monkey under a table, forced its head up through a hole, removed the top of its skull, and eaten its throbbing brain while it still hoots and hollers. But we have eaten at a number of roadside shacks. And in Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia this is arguably more dangerous than chowing down on simian cerebrum stew.

And although we’ve enjoyed many SE Asian dishes over the last six months, our ‘go to’ cuisine has undoubtedly been Indian. We’ve had some amazing curries in Malaysia, Laos, and Cambodia, and probably the best ever in Hoi An (New Way Restaurant). A life without lamb madras or aloo gobi would be a poor one indeed.

But it’s not been the content of the SE Asian cuisine which has surprised us; more the delivery. Perplexingly, the majority of our dining experiences have followed this well-worn pattern:

  1. Upon sitting down we are handed a menu as thick as the London telephone directory.
  2. We are given approximately twelve seconds to make our selections.
  3. Pleas for more time ensure that a waiter or waitress looms over our table with pen and pad poised.
  4. Once ordered, we wait no longer than two and a half minutes for the first plate to arrive (rather embarrassingly this is almost always my dish).
  5. Twenty minutes later Sophia’s dish arrives (I’ve usually finished mine by this stage).
  6. If we decide on a dessert (a rare treat) we usually eat from a table still cluttered with empty plates and dirty cutlery.
  7. Once finished it can take up to two hours to attract anybody’s attention and to pay the bill.

We have never managed to establish why this should be. We have asked countless people; but the question itself seems not to register, far less any answer. Perhaps there is some catering school buried deep in the mountains of the north, a secret school which teaches all chefs and cooks The Way Of The One Dish – an ancient, mystical rite which rejects modern-day multitasking. It would certainly explain why Cambodian weddings last three days.

Touch. I realise that I’m flirting with fromage here, but I’m genuine when I say that it’s the people that have touched us most. Cheesy but true. Two standouts for us have to be the children of Grace House, where Sophia volunteered for a month, and the people of Laos (although we didn’t meet them all).

After six months in Southeast Asia returning to Scotland may well prove a huge cultural shock – that low leaden skyline, the empty streets, the wide uncluttered pavements; but perhaps our month in Laos will have helped us acclimatise. Certainly there’s not much between the two countries in terms of population and geographical size; and worthy of reflection is the fact that Laos is one of the poorest and friendliest countries in world. I guess a lot like Scotland after independence.

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Reflections On The South Pacific

The South Pacific. The phrase often evokes blissful images for cold souls in the Northern Hemisphere. Limitless vistas of azure skies, verdant vegetation and bone-white beaches dominate the mind. Tales of shipwrecks, mutinies and cannibalism excite the imagination and only add to pull of the place.

Our three months in the region, like our time in South America, was not spent mapping every inch, traversing every mountain range nor combing every beach. It consisted, in the end, of four weeks on New Zealand’s North Island, three and a half weeks in Fiji, and four and a half weeks heading north from Melbourne up Australia’s east coast. But our time there was long enough and varied enough to forge strong impressions of the area, an area which for many in colder climes has become something of a modern day Promised Land.

We will start with what made the greatest impact upon us: New Zealand. In its favour was certainly the fact that South America had preceded it, that what had been a tough and challenging adventure dissolved quickly into an easy-going English-speaking home from home. But even if we had gone straight from London to Auckland the overall effect would have been the same. Quite simply, New Zealand was amazing.

That New Zealand was amazing came as a surprise to us. So much is spoken about Australia that New Zealand is invariably and unfairly overlooked. To us, it seems to be a land constructed by a Deity who, upon scrutinising the Earth cradled in the palm of his hand, has plucked from its crust his favourite parts, fusing them together to form New Zealand’s unrivalled topography. The effect is incaptivating: massy mountains soar, glassy rivers roar and beaches and coastlines glitter with the incandescent light of the southern sun.

It is also a land which appears to have been created solely as a playground for backpacking, camper vanning adventurers. Its size – not as small as you perhaps would first surmise – is perfectly suited to the rhythms and syncopated beats of the nomadic spirit; and its towns and cities are of such a size that they neither overwhelm nor dull the greedy senses of the traveller. Its people, too, seem to exhibit just the right balance of character: an air of relaxed openness, easy approachability and steady guidance. Never before had we met a friendlier bunch.

Aside from New Zealand stealing the show, one theme which dominated our time in the Pacific has to be that of internet access. This may strike the reader as a mere trifle. But free and easy access to the World Wide Web is quickly become something of an inalienable right in the 21st century. And it is a right which is defended with passion by the travelling masses. Fiji can be excused at this point from any further scrutiny. Even on some of the most remote islands the internet was made available – via satellite – for a small nominal fee. In the Yasawas, where mains electricity and a fresh water supply still remains an ambition, the Fijians should even be applauded. But in Australia and New Zealand the situation is no less than scandalous.

In both these countries the situation was very often the same. Access to the internet came at a price, and even then surfing was slow, patchy, unreliable, and often limited in terms of time or data. It is rather embarrassing that only an oversized clown with orange hair and yellow dungarees had the wherewithal to provide ‘free Wi-Fi’ to much of the antipodean population. We are ashamed to admit that never before had we dined on so many Fish Fillets, Chicken Burgers and Cheese Quarter Pounders. These were the sacrifices that were made in order to keep the blog running.

To put Australia and New Zealand’s crime into perspective, we had free Wi-Fi access in the middle of San Pedro de Atacama. Yes, that’s the small town in Chile situated in the driest desert in the world. We have also had free and easy internet usage in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Bali, Java, Singapore, Borneo, Malaysia and Thailand. What’s going on? This is surely a case for the investigative powers of John Pilger.

Once again, food was a theme which left a big impression on us. Fiji was a touch disappointing, proffering rather bland root vegetables and tasteless fish and meats; even the home-cooking of the more rustic retreats failed to provide in freshness what they lacked in variety. It was strange that, on islands which had fruit literally falling from the trees, life-affirming juices were in scant supply. Still, between us there was only a single episode of food poisoning. Happy days.

Australia had promised much with its legendary fusion of Western and Asian flavours, but it was probably undone by the crushing relationship between the British pound and the Aussie dollar. Although we gave ourselves double the budget of South America and triple the budget of Southeast Asia, many of the more salubrious eateries were simply out of our reach. And even when we could have invoked our Emergency Treats Fund (ETF), we simply refused to pay 25GBP for fish and chips. We may not have jobs, but we’ve still got principles.

But perhaps most tellingly, Australia was undone by New Zealand. In almost every conceivable example of gastronomy New Zealand excelled. It wasn’t just in the fabulous Michelen-starred style meal we had in Martinborough, accompanied by fabulous wine and surrounded by sun-soaked vineyards; it wasn’t just in twice or thrice weekly restaurant treats where we experienced the best-ever nachos, the greatest gourmet burgers, the most fabulous calamari and the world’s finest example of apple pie and ice cream; and it wasn’t just in the frankly phenomenal cafes – particularly in Wellington – where we devoured unparalleled pumpkin pie, sublime chocolate and cherry cake, marvellous muffins and first-rate flat whites. What brought home to us the glory of New Zealand’s larder was in the everyday sweets and snacks that punctuated our travel. Take a bow Pam’s Burger Hoops, soak up the applause Whittaker’s 72% Dark Ghana Chocolate, and start your lap of honour RJ’s Chocolate & Raspberry Licorice Bullets.

On a more serious note the South Pacific, like South America, is a region where the echoes of indigenous cultures still reverberate. We are no experts on this subject, and visitors can often be blind to what is clearly visible to residents; but we can only comment on what we witnessed. And we can only apologise if other people’s experiences are different and our remarks unwittingly cause offence.

Of the three countries Fiji has the largest proportion of indigenous people, especially in the Yasawa Islands where a great deal is being done to preserve Fijian traditions and culture. On the mainland there is a greater presence of Indo-Fijians, which is a legacy of Britain’s policy at the end of the nineteenth century of sending indentured labourers from India. There has been and there still exists tensions between these two groups but some sort of fragile harmony seems to have been established.

New Zealand’s attitude to the Maori people, its culture and its traditions, is without doubt the most progressive and enlightened that we’ve experienced on our travels. Everywhere we went in New Zealand we were exposed to the Maori way of life, its history, its people, its traditions and its culture. Whether of European or Maori descent, the vast majority of people seemed to take great pride in this vital element of the country’s history. The Te Papa Museum is probably the greatest example of this. A massive building covering four huge floors, Te Papa is the most modern and most interactive museum we’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. It houses exhibits on New Zealand’s wildlife and natural habitat, recounts the migration of Europeans to its shores, and showcases Western art and Old World artefacts. But its main purpose is to preserve and promote the rich cultural history of the Maori people. And this is a history of which all New Zealanders seem to feel part. Granted, all is not perfect between Maori communities and other parts of the population; some feel that this minority is unfairly disenfranchised while others believe they have more rights than the majority. But if ever there was an encouraging example that historical enmity can be overcome then New Zealand is surely it.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Australia. We saw very few aborigines during our time there, and virtually none in any meaningful jobs or positions within society; what little exposure we had to aboriginal museums, galleries or any other forms of cultural representation, we had to work hard to discover; and the Australians we met spoke fleetingly of the past and seemed embarrassed or awkward when discussing the subject. Australia’s was certainly a much more brutal history than that of New Zealand’s, and perhaps the latter has had an opportunity to learn from the former’s mistakes. Whatever the reasons, the difference between the two countries in this regard is glaring.

As way of an example, let us compare New Zealand’s Te Papa with Australia’s Museum of Sydney. On the day we visited the MoS, there hung in different parts of the first floor two paintings by indigenous artist Gordon Syron. Below each were comments by the artist which included stinging criticisms of what he described as the ‘British Invasion’ and the ‘denial’ and delusion’ that has followed ever since. On the very same floor, and occupying considerably more square metres than Syron’s work, was a large exhibition on the history of surfing. This stark and jarring juxtaposition perhaps told us more about Australia than a hundred documentaries ever could.

You may be thinking that we didn’t take to Australia. You are partly right. It had a lot to live up to after we had enjoyed New Zealand so much, and perhaps it would have fared better if we had gone straight from the rollercoaster that was South America. That said, Melbourne was something of a revelation – helped in no small part by the tennis – and without doubt it is a city that would be a joy to live in, especially if that life was in South Yarra. Sydney was sabotaged somewhat by the weather; but again, inhabiting a penthouse overlooking Manly Harbour would be a wonderful way to spend one’s evenings, and the ferry a delightful means of getting to and from the office. Brisbane, too, was of a sufficient size and – dare we say – sophistication to make it more than adequate spot to set up home.

And so we will remember the South Pacific with much fondness. Fiji will always be recollected for the dark times but warm hearts of the undeveloped islands; it will also be remembered as a place where we eventually reached paradise and fell helpless but happy into the ten days that followed. Australia will always be associated with Marvellous Melbourne and nearly-marvellous Murray, as well as a Sydney which eventually yielded and offered up some of its delights; we will also never be able separate the Land of Oz from memories of our road trip up its rough and tough northeast coast, a journey made in a haze of tarmac-melting and hothouse-humid temperatures.

But our hearts will forever remain in New Zealand. And it is a beautiful twist that one of our biggest regrets may well turn out to be one of our greatest joys. For now we have a great excuse to go back and visit the South Island.

Reflections on South America

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We realise that these reflections are perhaps a touch belated, but they are supposed to be reflections and therefore some passage of time is required. As for the ‘South America’ component of the title it should be pointed out that we didn’t visit all the countries of South America, and even the countries we did visit we didn’t see all of those. So these reflections simply relate to a ragbag of recollections and the thoughts, sensations and feelings that they provoked.

It must be said from the outset that two features more than any other dominated our time in South America: soaring peaks and plummeting valleys. And they do not relate exclusively to the geography of the continent either. They are just as apt a description of our spirits during those two turbulent months.

Going on holiday to some strange and distant land can be disconcerting enough upon first arrival. But landing in Rio de Janiero and realising we had ahead of us 12 months of strangeness in strange lands was almost impossible to get our heads around. There were no precendents with which to compare. It was a truly original and overpowering sensation. Gradually, though, we became familiar with the unfamiliar, and the time it took to adjust to each new country, city or bed-for-the-night became less and less.

The shock and at times profound feeling of dislocation made us also realise that back home we had often lived life at 60 per cent. There is no shame in this. It is a natural consequence of the daily, weekly, monthly rhythmn of a regular and well-established life, a life of productive routine and reassuring cycles. But when that life is exchanged for one where new sights, sounds and sensations are presented on a near-daily basis, it can fade into monochrome and narrow to single-channel sound. Whether we were scaling Machu Picchu or laying prone in a lodge in Bolivia, everything seemed to come at us in needle-sharp high-definition, blinding technicolour and booming surround sound.

These were our overriding impressions. Now some facts.

A cast-iron constitution isn’t essential in South America but it certainly helps. Health, or rather lack of it, was another factor which dominated our experience. The main culprit was the Altiplano, the high altitude plain which dominates the border of Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Our some three weeks there – in Cusco, Puno, Bolivia’s Copacabana, La Paz, the Salt Flats and San Pedro de Atacama – took there toll, and we were able to count on one collective hand the number of days when we were both well. The causes were manifold – altitude sickness-induced headaches, stomach bugs, fevers, chills – but the effect was often the same: low immune systems and even lower spirits.

Crossing borders by plane is much easier than by land. For someone based in the UK – an island with a strange collection of countries within a country – this may come as a surprise. But believe us, if you’ve ever tried to cross the Chilean-Argentinian border by bus, and at the Andean pass, and on a public holiday, then you will know that it is not a straightforward matter.

A six-hour wait is not unusual. First you have to negotiate your way through the Chilean border control, then the Argentinian border control. There is much shrugging, screwing up of faces, monosyllabic grunts and aggressive passport stamping. Then comes the fun part of the bag search. Here a rogue banana seems to carry more censure than thirty grams of Bolvian marching powder. Some lucky souls manage to escape with little more than a salutary rummage from the official, while others have to suffer the humiliating ordeal of emptying out the entire contents of their luggage, and in full view of their fellow passangers. Suspicions seem to hang on little more than a certain shape of nose or cut of gib.

The Brazilians know how to put on a breakfast; the rest of South America does not. In Rio, Paraty and Iguazu we were treated to morning buffets that would have embarrassed a western head of state. Freshly-squeezed fruit juices, just-baked breads, several varities of cereal, cakes that were fit to grace afternoon tea at Claridges, recently-picked fruits so fresh it made us cry inexplicably, and freshly brewed teas and coffee – you name it, they put it on a table and let us have a number of runs at it.

In Peru or Bolivia, regardless of location or accommodation type, we invariably received two bread rolls with butter and jam. The bread had the same moisture content as sawdust (and roughly the same taste) and the jam hadn’t even heard of a strawberry far less been touched by one. And this was every morning. And it seemed to be the same two bread rolls. And the same butter and jam.

So to avoid disappointment don’t go to South America solely for the food. It is not a place where one finds culinary enlightenment. Granted, the steaks in Argentina are pretty damn good but that’s about it. In Peru their big boast is that they have around 40 different types of potatoes (you know the food is bland when the locals can differentiate between that many kinds of spuds). And as for Bolivia, each meal seemed to come with its own unique take on gastroenteritis. Don’t get us wrong, we had some nice meals in South America but invariably their success was due to an Italian twist or an Asian angle.

What South America may lack in food it makes up in alcohol. Chilean wine is cheap, plentiful and always eminently quaffable. Argentinian wine seemed to us to be of a remarkably high standard – and not limited exclusively to the red Malbec grape: the white Torrontes was a great discovery. And the South Americans know how to brew a fine beer. We can’t make any claim to have sampled them all, but Peru’s Cusquena comes out on top. Tesco, take note.

Architecture has a profound effect on mood. Travelling from city to city in South America brought home to us the influence architecture has on the soul. Whether at the top of a mountain, in a middle of a desert, or in the midst of a tropical rainforest nature rarely let us down. But once we stepped into a city our mood could lift or dip solely depending on how man had shaped his environment. Paraty, Cusco and Buenos Aires are just three examples where we immediately felt at home and at peace; while in Rio, Aguas Calientes and Puno we could feel our stomachs knotting at the sight of half-finished houses, corrugated iron shacks and graffiti-ridden shelters. It wasn’t the underdevelopment of these urban areas but rather the maldevelopment which so depressed us.

You may at this point be thinking that on balanace we had an awful time in South America, but you would be a long way from the truth. It was amazing. Even when it was horrendous it was amazing. Looking back, the whole seemed greater than the sum of its parts, which is impressive given that these parts included the likes of Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls and the cosmopolitan boulevards of Buenos Aires. As an introduction to travelling, South America ticked all the boxes: it was challenging, it was dangerous (or at least we assumed it was), it was new, it was exciting, and it was memorable. Not bad for the first leg of our trip.