The Calvert duo embarked upon a round-the-world trip last year, whizzing around in 3 short months. I had intended to return home with weighty tomes of writing on our adventures and experiences, but i only managed a few paragraphs. Until now, i had nowhere to put them, so i figured that as the recent owner of a joint blog, i could grab a little corner here to store our little stories.
An epic journey brought us to Hanoi. 3 flights sandwiching 2 time-warp airport stays. We have, however, arrived into luxury beyond our imagination. I was hopeful for a fan – we have a 3 storey house with 3 bathrooms, a/c, a maid who prepares all our wonderful food, and a host from Belfast. Having escaped the threat of quarantine due to swine flu, we stepped into our more than willing taxi, minus seatbelts, and were whisked along the open road, joined by hundreds of scooters bearing loads of well over 3 times their size, mostly flowers for the nearby sunrise market. Others had cages of chickens, a dead pig, or the entire family. We are full of anticipation for what this journey will bring.
Jet lag going east is truly awful. Sleep deprivation plus time shift led to, for me, a mild delirium when trying to get to sleep on our first night. Fast-paced and unconnected thoughts keeping me awake well into the small hours, together with the anxieties of the sheer unfamiliarity of our surroundings, made for a rude awakening into the reality of foreign travel. I imagine us sitting in the Glasgow travel agent last April, nonchalantly deciding to go to Asia, with no measure of insight into what that would hold for us. Right now, I truly cannot believe we are in Hanoi, Vietnam.
An assault on the senses. The relentless sounds, the cloying smells, street vendors selling pigs snouts, traditional hats, plastic plastic plastic, homemade beer, fake designer-wear. Hundreds of vehicles career in all directions down the chaos of the streets. Drivers carrying families of 4 and 5 beep constantly. Crossing the road involves hard eye contact with oncoming traffic, a confident stride, and the knowledge that no one stops. The white and black stripes connecting 2 pavements must be for decoration. The old quarter street names bear their content – sweet potato, bamboo, shoe, ladder, metal, silk. The mix of french colonial architecture, unfinished buildings, houses on stilts, western glamour and chinese grandeur gives the place a confusing incongruence at every turn.
Vietnamese people are highly superstitious, and although calling themselves Buddhists, their beliefs are a mixture of Confucianism, Taoism and Astrology. This weekend is the Moon Festival – people offer sacrifices to the Gods through fruit and Moon Cake – a sweet stodgy substance made from sticky rice. We ate at a traditional Vietnamese restaurant called Highway 4. Passing the tiny crowded kitchen hidden under the stairs did not leave one in anticipation of a hygienic dining experience to follow. But we were wrong – it was delicious. Overlooking the pigs intestines, fried locusts, pigs ear salad and baked goat on the menu, we sampled catfish spring rolls, fried peppered beef, sticky rice and chicken with banana flowers, washed down with ginger tea and rice wine. To follow, a foot massage. And to finish, an unsuccessful search for a Bai Hoi (home brew beer).
The heart of Hanoi can be found on its pavements. Families are gathered outside their homes eating, washing dishes, playing, worshipping their gods, plucking lice, bargaining, watching, laughing, playing cards. The toddlers run freely, without supervision. The older generation are weathered, gaunt, somewhat apathetic. The younger men sit on tiny stools playing games and drinking rice wine or bia hoi. Traditionally the rice wine is fortified with wild animals – snakes, locusts, shellfish, which is believed to give luck and strength to the consumer.
After 3 days in China, I feel no further to understanding this country. Its vast size makes the traveller feel immediately insignificant, a tiny speck in a great expanse or people and place. Indeed, i have felt very much ‘at sea’ since our initial crossing at the Chinese border. There are simply no landmarks whatsoever on which to anchor yourself. Nothing is familiar or known. The language is so complex, the people stare, the landscape is foreboding. Populated areas are notably dirty, whilst the rural terrain feels rough, ramshackle, grey. This is partly due to a custom in which old houses are not knocked down, new ones are simply built nearby when required. Oxen and motorbikes are the main users of the rural roads, which vary from concrete to rough rocks.
About 2 hours from the border, we stay in traditional wooden huts on stilts which are surprisingly hospitable, including air conditioning and hot showers. If it weren’t for the in-house wildlife, one might even have been able to relax there. Our worst encounter was with a multi-legged crustacean, around 8 inches long, brown, shiny, with pincers, resting expectantly on malcolm’s towel whilst he showered. Other large spiders lurked in or behind the taps, or around the light switch ready to alight on any passing hands. The moths could easily pass for birds.
These challenges however were easily forgotten by sitting down to savour the wonderful home cooking. Pork stir fry, cabbage and chilli, deep fried taro (potato), bbq sweetcorn in chilli sauce, sticky sweet peanuts, steamed morning glory, chicken and mushroom stir fry, and of course, rice. The only downside is the repetition of food groups in all 3 daily meals. Breakfast traditionally includes rice porridge, steamed bread and a noodle meat soup.
China is not a country that captures the heart. It is fascinating, intoxicating, overwhelming, but after 2 weeks i gladly anticipate our departure. In Yangshuo, we relish the tourist ‘comforts’ of good coffee, english language, non-fried food after 4 days of rural exploring. Chengyang and Lonji are the homelands of the Dong and Zhuang people respectively. One can’t help but wonder whether the early influx of tourism there taints their customs and traditions. Tourists simply mean money, which, in this country, means everything. The local people swarm around the arriving buses offering services, selling goods or trying to practice their english. In the rice terraces, old waxen-faced women carry baskets filled with tourist suitcases up to the guesthouses, while their owners arrive lazily in sedans. One german man remarked that it helps them by providing a trade. The visual imagery of it was enough to arouse my indignation, economic arguments aside.
Hong Kong from a police van
We gladly arrived in Hong Kong after an intense and challenging 2 weeks in China. Where does one go but Starbucks of course, for that first humble yet divine cup of tea. We perched ourselves merrily in the corner, out of harm’s way, and Malcolm ordered our drinks, leaving mine on the ‘additions’ counter for completion with first real milk in 2 weeks. Meanwhile, Mr camera-stealer has his sights set on our camera sitting on the neighbouring seat. Whilst i was momentarily gone, he pointed out some tomato ketchup on the glass near Malcolm, warning him not to get it on his clothes, thus taking his attention long enough to swipe the beloved article together with all our memory sticks, leaving us none the wiser until we were leaving and realised our mistake. We spoke to the barista who alerted security. Security arrived. They gravely surveyed the crime scene. CCTV cameras were located. Hushed tones were adopted. Starbucks was suddenly devoid of their usual busy custom. More security arrived. Pictures of the scene were taken from all conceivable angles. The tomato ketchup was studied. We explained our theory to the security chief, who looked quizzically at us, then continued in hushed tones to a colleague. Meanwhile, the police were called. 20 minutes later, 2 officers arrived. We sat down to relate our tale of woe. The theory of the tomato ketchup was explained once again to the first officer, as well as the details of the stolen goods. More questions about the tomato ketchup were posed. Was the thief already armed with the bottle of tomato ketchup? Were we suggesting it was an instrument to theft, or merely an unfortunate lapse of Starbucks hygiene standards? More puzzled expressions. Continued language-based miscommunications. Further detailed pictures of the table and 3 chairs were taken. The senior officer came over after his lengthy survey of the area, and repeated the same questions. The tale was related to HQ through radios whilst the first officer continued to press for information. What colour was the thief’s left sock? Would you say his eyebrows were evenly spaced?
To conclude our detailed interview, we would need to proceed to the criminal investigations department for further questioning, whose jurisdiction the incident would fall under. After a further interview, we stepped back onto the streets, knowing that it would be difficult to forgive this city for its harsh welcome.
So it was that we enjoyed our first views of Hong Kong from a police van.
Blessing for the Traveller
Travelling, for me, is as much about the journey inwards as the journey outwards. Removing all the comfort and familiarity of home, the daily routine, and the sense of grounding that comes with being in the one place, invariably invites a deeper look at self. I have felt overwhelmed and disorientated most of the time. Anxiety threatens to rob me of opportunities that i am unlikely to encounter again. I feel vulnerable, thoroughly in the hands of others to get me from a to b. The body protests its insecurity by offering a series of daily minor ailments – oversized bites, heartburn, coughing, nausea. This ‘blessing for the traveller’ by John O’Donohue captures it poignantly:
When you travel
A new silence goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear what your heart
Would love to say.
May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.
May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.
Buenos Aires – the friendly city
After 2 months on the road, being welcomed becomes more important. I had been told to expect friendliness, but what i found was more than that. The portenos aren’t jaded by tourism the way many other places we have visited have been. They love that fact that people want to visit, to enjoy the culture, and they welcome ‘the other’ with open arms. Standing on a street corner armed with map immediately invited a kindly old gentleman to our aid, firstly apologising for his fluent english, then enquiring of our day’s itinerary, and then helping us to implement it. We had no change for the bus; he arranged this with a street vendor. On the bus, we were short 5 cents; the next person in line immediately reached forth in readiness with the cash. When we strayed off the beaten track into a less than desirable area, 3 different locals ensured we were warned of our peril. Unlike europe, it is not a mortal sin to be hazy on the language, the customs, the ways of life.
On the downside, keeping one’s eyes glued to the pavement in order to avoid the multitudinous piles of dog shit does hamper an appreciation of the immediate surroundings. But once the feet are back on solid ground, the eyes can feast on decadent graffiti, designer clothes, shoes and bags, sculpted ladies laden with shopping, fresh-clipped dogs in designer booties or jackets strapped to their Vespa-driving owners. Once it all gets too much, simply pop into a coffee shop (there’ll be one within a few steps of any BA location) and sup espresso with tostados whilst contemplating the next city barrio (district). Each has a different history, culture, architecture, people, purpose. La Boca (‘the mouth’), for colourful zinc and wood houses, tango and tourist souvenirs. San Telmo for vast antique shops and markets selling the very best range and quality at steadily rising prices. Palermo for designer boutiques and hotels, european culture and the world’s best polo. Buenos Aires is an incredibly visual place – a photographer’s heaven!