Tuesday, 31 January 2017

From A to B via F, N and P

I left Paradise yesterday and as there is only one way off the island, they arranged for a speedboat to take me to mainland Krabi. There I was to be met by a private car who would take me to my second hotel, Narima on Koh Lanta. Sounds simple enough right?

The speedboat took 20 minutes and we arrived at a quaint-looking fishing village with a rickety old pier. The boat skipper took my bags off the boat, waved goodbye and off they went. It was only then that I wondered if I had told them the right Pier. I mean my Thai accent is not the best so me saying Thalane pier to someone with minimal English could be bloody anywhere. I waited ten minutes and still no car came to pick me up. Life was going on around me; teenagers fixing mopeds, fishermen mending their nets, bored looking women sitting around fanning themselves and waiting for non-existent customers to buy a fizzy drink from their wooden stalls.
I approached one of the teenagers and said "Thalane pier, yes?", gesturing around me. "Yes" he said, "No problem". Oh you see, that worried me. Saying yes and stopping there, is a good thing, saying no problem afterwards always means there's a problem.

I decided to ring the hotel and then realised the number was on their website, and did I have internet access on my phone in the middle of nowhere? Of course not. So I approached the teenager again and by miming and pointing and writing on my phone, he understood I needed to use him as a go between, which he agreed to do, with a small bow. He found the number on his phone and rang them using mine (he's not an idiot) and after a very heated conversation with someone at my hotel, he gave me back my phone and said. "They come. You wait."  No more explanation was offered so I thanked him profusely and waited under a shady tree.

After another agonising 15 minutes a car showed up. The driver was laughing and said, "This old Thalane pier. Is where they drop off fish." He paused to giggle maniacally, "Haha, so you great big fish. Catch of day". More hilarity. I deduced, therefore, that there was new Thalane pier which was 20 minutes down the road, and old Thalane pier, which is where I had been dumped like a giant cod. At least I wasn't knocked out and put on ice!

We began our journey and I assumed that my transfer was only an hour or so but after a very un-scenic 60 minutes on a main road, I leant forward and asked the driver how much longer. 2 hour. Oh blimey. But it wasn't completely uneventful because immediately after I asked this question we got stopped by the police. There was a road block and we got pulled over. I suddenly panicked. I knew I had nothing illegal on me but you hear these horror stories don't you, where you are an unintentional drug mule and 2 tons of cocaine is suddenly found in the lining of your suitcase. Don't they shoot people in Thailand for drugs? Oh my god. What if they find my numerous bags of prescription medications and think it's illegal. Oh my god. So the door was flung open and the policeman just peered at me. He leaned in really close too and sniffed. I lowered my eyes because I thought this was showing respect and he moved my bags around a bit, looked in the boot and the glove compartment and waved us through. I honestly nearly pooed myself but then I thought, that was such a lazy search, he didn't even check my sponge bag! I felt quite put out that he thought I looked respectable or something.

Two hours later, after a very hectic ferry ride and some treacherous roads filled with mopeds and tuk tuks, we arrived at Narima. N for Narima. N for noise. Yup, my favourite sort of welcome.

Noise comes in 3 forms at Narima; babies, barking and buzzing. Narima is child friendly beyond being child friendly. They are so child friendly that I have a baby in each of the bungalows to my front and either side. Screaming babies. I think I arrived at a really bad time... nap time or feeding time because I honestly was thinking the worst and then suddenly it stopped. Today I positioned myself down the beach away from the swimming pool and that seems to be out of shrieking distance. The barking is not too bad if I'm honest either. Stray beach dogs wander from cove to cove and tell each other where they are or what they've found by barking. But they start early at about 6am. The buzzing is the never-ending stream of whining mopeds bombing past the hotel on the little road at the back. Luckily the beach is below the cliff so during the day it's only a faded whine.

Oh I almost forgot the call to prayer. Most of Thailand is Muslim so you would expect the occasional mosque. But the megaphoned Adhan was totally unexpected at 5am this morning. I sat bolt upright wondering where I was and who was shouting at me in foreign tongues. Just as I had dozed off again then another one started at 6am... along with the dogs, just to ensure you get no lie in at all. Grrr. This happened to my mother, sister and I when we were in Marrakech. We spotted a beautifully decorated minaret next to the roof of our Riad. The next moment we nearly fell over from the sonic boom emitting from the loud speakers just a few metres away, as the call to prayer started. Instruments of torture they were.

So that's the noises ticked. I was very perturbed last night after my long journey, but today, after some sun, some snoozing and some snorkelling, I'm amazingly chilled by the whole thing!!! Just wait until tomorrow morning, then we'll see how chilled I am.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

You fatty.

I have traveled quite a bit in Asia and it never fails to leave me utterly speechless when a complete stranger comes up to me and says, "You very fat," accompanied by a giggle and a big grin, as if they've just said something really complimentary.

This morning, I was limping down the beach and shouted out "sawade" (hello) to one of the female gardeners I see every morning. She came straight up to me, put down her rake, looked me in the eye, squeezed my arms and mimed a very large fish, holding her hands either side of my hips. "You big fat lady," she said with a toothy smile. She then grabbed my hips and squeezed them with affection. I was dumbstruck, which doesn't happen very often, and simply smiled and shrugged. I mean, what do you say to that?

I'm under no illusion that I'm overweight. I see it in the mirror every day and wonder how I can get back to the weight I was. I can barely limp up a flight of stairs right now because my knees still don't work properly, and it's doubly hard to exercise when I have to continually move around between several houses on a weekly basis, starting work early and finishing late, with no access to a swimming pool (my least painful physio) and no routine to speak of. It's just hard. Not impossible but tricky. I eat very healthily,  I don't drink much alcohol anymore (cries of horror from my friends with that comment!), I don't snack and I drink 2 litres of water a day. My body, funnily enough is probably the healthiest it's ever been. I feel fabulous in myself, I just can't seem to shift the weight.

I had my thryoid gland removed when I was 21, and was told by my surgeon that my body would never be the same again. I would struggle with weight and tiredness and I would feel the cold, because the thyroid gland's only job, but incredibly important job, is to figure out how much hormone to produce for your organs to work properly. Imagine it as a car engine, which sets the pace for your body to function. Without a thyroid, without a metabolism, your body shuts down, so I take 3 pills every day to fool my brain into thinking everything works just fine. What I can't do is raise my own metabolism through exercise, so the process is just that much more complicated. Anyway, I never lose hope, and once I have my new home, I can find my groove again, my routine, and all will be good.

But I digress. I worked in Singapore a few years ago and clearly remember a group of young teenage girls pointing at me and laughing behind their hands. We then had to get in the lift together and I basically worked out that they were laughing at how big I was, compared to them. I mean I do stand out in Asia being nearly 5' 10" but to be large as well, was utterly freakish to them.

In Vietnam, I had a guide that took me on his moped for a few days, driving through small remote villages where they'd only ever seen white people on tv. The whole village would emerge to see this strange pale-eyed, white-haired, fat person, clinging on the back of this tiny bike, boobs and bottom jiggling with abandon. I would have laughed seeing me, so I can see how amusing it would have been for them.

But when I was in India, over 15 years ago, being overweight was still seen as a status symbol. At that point I was probably a size 14 so not obese in any shape or form but to them I was huge. Their thinking was that if you are fat, you must eat lots. If you eat lots, then you must be rich, and if you are rich then you must be important or born of a high caste. Thank god this attitude has changed but when I was there, they saw me and made the assumption I was a rich important English lady. Indian tourists would ask to take my photo, as I was trying to take photos of palaces and shrines, so somewhere in India I am in the family photo albums of at least 30 people. Very odd.

In Cuba also, a country that still has communism and ration books, you don't see many overweight people. I was walking down the street with my guide's arm around my waist (Cubans are very tactile), when a man came up to us and whispered in his ear. They both laughed uproariously. I asked what he'd said and Roger, my guide, translated it. "Keep hold of that one, if she can afford to eat that much, maybe she can pay for you to get out of Cuba". Hilarious.

In Sri Lanka, I was in an Ayurvedic Spa for several weeks, and as part of the treatment process, a doctor spent the whole first day checking me over, and I mean checking every nook and cranny, in order to work out my treatment plan. I was handed a 4 page document, which was fascinating, but she then covered the papers with her hand and said, "Basically, you fatty, Miss Juliet". I was also told by the two sisters who massaged me every day, that massaging me was like making bread. Haha. Thanks.

I have always had comments about my size wherever I choose to visit, but they are never said in a mean way. If English had been their first language then I would expect a more subtle choice of description; Plump, chubby, chunky, well-rounded, curvy, big, even. A bit of tact goes a long way but as 'fat' is probably the only word they have been taught, then 'fat' it is. It's actually quite refreshing to be slapped in the face now and again by a three letter word.

I get judged around the world and there is no point trying to explain why's or wherefore's. I just smile graciously and hope they like me anyway. "That fat lady. She nice".

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Sensory overload.

When you have stayed in the homes of friends and family, and in airbnb's and guest houses for the last year and two months, you begin to crave only one thing. Quiet.

I've never been good with noisy neighbours, barking dogs or screaming children but now, more than ever, I yearn for silence. I lived on my own in London for 13 years and I always knew I could come back from work and switch off. I could wander around the flat naked if I so pleased. I could make up dance routines to silly pop songs, I could experiment in the kitchen creating exotic dishes, I could have a bath long enough to crinkle, and I could lie on my bed for hours on end and stare at the ceiling in my own little day-dreaming world. I could do anything I pleased in the comfort of my own home and not have to apologise or explain.

My last 14 months have been full of busy households and complex rules. I never know if a new airbnb will let me use their kitchen let alone if they have a terrible toddler hidden in the next door bedroom. There might be an over-familiar cat on the premises (I'm allergic) or a small yapping dog who likes to wake the residents at dawn. But there is never ever total quiet. There's always the noise of other present humans and sometimes I tiptoe around the spare rooms because I actually don't want my host to come and check on me and force me into yet another awkward chat about what I do or where I'm from.

I used to love small talk. I could small talk for England and yet now, when small talk is forced upon me in my after-work time, I just want to get as far away from it as possible. It's different at my parent's house obviously. They know me well enough that when I say I'm just going to read for a bit or tell them I'm doing my physio or write or do some work... it's a much bigger statement of fact because I'm actually saying, I'd just like to be on my own for a while please. And they get it.

My only other safe haven, my sanctuary and my chosen place to scream and shout and sing at the top of my lungs with no one to judge me, is my car... my gorgeous, gnarled, weatherbeaten, golden goddess of a saloon car, with her comfy fabric seats and a radio that only manages to tune into local radio stations when I twiddle the coat hanger aerial in the right direction. Here I can listen to audio books on an actual tape deck (young people, ask your parents what that is), I can swear at stupid drivers, talk to myself in funny voices and wind all the windows down and pretend I'm in an 80's music video, lip-syncing to classic rock!

So when I booked my trip to Thailand with my two friends, there really was only one requirement. Quiet. Quiet as in nature quiet. I don't expect the weather to turn off, for the birds to pipe down. I don't want the tides to stop or the leaves to still their rustling. I just don't want raucous beach bars and noisy neighbours.

Paradise resort is called paradise for a reason. It's tagline is 'back to nature' and that is exactly what you get. It's almost as if everyone that arrives here signs an agreement to shhh. Except of course the woman in the room next to me!! She didn't get the memo about it being back to nature, wasn't told to shhh, and could be heard by the 40 other guests from one end of the resort to the other. It's amusing to watch a middle-aged drunk woman make a fool of herself for a day or so, but after that it gets very tiresome. Having been in the room next to her for 2 hideous nights was quite the bad luck but I was re-housed swiftly, with many Paradise apologies and the day after that she left the resort proclaiming she was bored! The island and the guests sighed with mutual relief and now all is calm again.

My day is noisiest at 6:30am when I hear the first deep hoots from the hornbills in the trees surrounding my room. I thought they were monkeys at first and got quite excited until the manager told me, "No monkeys here", as he laughed with a similar hooting noise.
The hootings rapidly turn to squawks as the hornbills defend the female's nest from pesky squirrels. They flap and snap and hop from branch to branch sometimes miscalculating and landing with a thump on the thatched roof above my head. This wakes the tree frogs who beep beep their good mornings and then the rest of the bird and insect worlds join in.

As the day begins to warm up the rainforest quietens and I can hear the waves lapping on the beach. I don't put my air conditioning on because I would miss half the sounds but I have the gentle tick whir of the ceiling fan. The first human sounds I hear are the soft flip flops on the cement path outside as a few early risers head for the yoga pavilion. I haven't quite made the 7am class yet, preferring to lie with all my doors and windows open, a coffee in hand, and wake up gently with the forest creatures.

Around 8:30 I leave my sanctuary and have breakfast at the beach restaurant, then head for a tree-shaded sun lounger. And then that's it. For hours and hours all I hear is the sea, a few fishing boats and muted conversations in foreign tongues. No one is loud here. There are no rowdy beach games or screaming kids. There are no barking dogs or whining mopeds. There is nothing. I have ended up moving myself closer to a gorgeous gay couple because the sound of them speaking Italian to each other lulls me to sleep. I have told them this and they love that their language is a lullaby. I am also enjoying small talk again. Small and quiet small talk. There is the occasional creaking as someone eases themselves into a hammock or a splash might be heard from the pool. A kiss might come from one of the honeymoon couples, or the soft slap of hand on oiled skin from the spa. Pages of books being turned and the pft pft of sunscreen being sprayed are the loudest it gets. And then as people grow beach and sun weary, they pad their way back to their rooms for showers and siestas. The hum of air con units being turned on, doors being opened and closed, and the occasional swoosh of a brush as the gardeners sweep up dry leaves.

And then the heavens open. 4 inches of rain can fall in a single hour. It's loud and awesome. Solid sheets of water cascading through leaves and thundering onto the thatched roofs. Inside the room it's deafening and exhilarating and suddenly it stops as quickly as it started as if a giant tap has been turned off and only the drips and plonks and plinks remain. Once again the rainforest surges with life until the sun goes down and then only the cicadas are left, rubbing their legs together in the dark. Then the clack of shoes as guests head back out for dinner, jumping to avoid the puddles.

I stayed in my room last night, missing dinner, because I was trying to remember what this noisy silence sounded like. Away from the cities and houses. Away from cars and buses. Away from computers and mobile phones. And I tried to store it in my memory bank so I could bring it back when I next needed it.

I only have one more day left in Paradise and then I head for Koh Lanta. But let's hope paradise awaits me there too.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

It started with a bell.

Like Pavlov's dog, the tinkle of a little bell makes some of my sun-lounging neighbours leap up from their horizontal slumberings and head, zombie-fashion, to the little thatched beach bar for a happy hour tipple. Happy hour can be at 10am here so these are very hardy imbibers.

I am in a very small remote boutique resort built within a nature reserve, on an equally small island, surrounded by stunning limestone cliffs, in the Andaman Sea in Thailand. The individual bungalows and studios are dotted throughout the lush rainforest with only hornbills, tree frogs and black squirrels for company. My company, however, are two of my closest girlfriends, and as the resort is very dreamy and romantic, attracting many a honeymooning couple, we are rather an incongruous trio!

I'm not sure people have quite worked us out. We decided to splash out a little and got separate rooms rather than sharing. We also booked independently so our rooms aren't even close to each other. I then made up a very ill husband in order to get a hideous drunk guest to shut the hell up at 4 in the morning. It's so much easier to tell an inebriated middle aged woman to stop singing and shouting in the adjacent room, if you make up someone that is literally at death's door and can't take the noise. She can't get cross because it's not you that's complaining but your dying husband! The fact that the next morning my gravely ill partner was nowhere to be seen, just added to overall confusion.

I had complicated matters further by emailing the hotel staff a few weeks prior to our arrival, requesting a very quiet room but that was still in hobbling distance to the beach and restaurant. Not knowing which request to prioritise, I was given a beautiful room at the back of the property, right at the top of a hill. We realised, pretty quickly, that it would be impossible for me to limp up there several times a day, so they put me in a different room, on the flat and only a second's walk to the beach.

Unfortunately this second room was next door to the only drunk on the island and below another very active family. Quiet it was not. So after another reshuffle I am now in a one-storey room that's quiet, and on the flat. Hurrah. The drunk woman has also left the island. Hurrah hurrah.

But back to the little bell. I have now learnt that it is not rung simply to advertise cheap drinks, it is also rung by the cleaning girls as they approach your room, to warn you of their approach in case you are up to something in your room. No chance of that with us three solo travellers but as I mentioned before, there are quite a few honeymoon couples here. I'm sure it's so much nicer to hear the tinkle of a bell while you are in flagrante, than housekeeping just walking in unannounced.

The third type of bell tinkle is the turn down service. I have only just discovered this because I spent the evening trying to write in my room rather than at the bar and restaurant. My lovely partners in crime left the island today to do a bit of island hopping so I have another 5 days here on my own. By choice, I hasten to add. I wanted a bit of time before meeting up again on another island, to read and write and sleep and do yoga. Just a bit of time to switch off completely. So as I was scribbling away this evening, on my little patio, I heard a little tinkle outside my door. Then another tinkle, louder this time, before the door was flung open and in came a sweet young boy who bowed deeply, placed a lit citronella candle in my lantern, turned down my bed covers and arranged the mosquito netting. Never will a ringing bell be more appreciated.

I am going for my first massage tomorrow and as anyone who has followed my travel blogs know, I always love a local massage. Some are more successful and relaxing than others. I am hoping it resembles my luxurious Vietnamese or Sri Lankan massages rather than the traditional Chinese massage I had in Singapore, where the masseur literally wrestled me into unfathomable positions before I was slapped punched and pinched half to death.

I will keep you posted.