Friday, 17 May 2013

Three weeks in India - a long time in politics

Beginnings and ends inevitably go together. And the end of my world journey came sooner than I'd planned.

I arrived in India just a few weeks ago. I stayed with my friend Annie who has just emigrated. She met Badri, a lawyer, in London. Her engagement present was a rescue greyhound. They had two weddings, one in London and one in India - Tamil weddings are much smaller than the lavish Punjabi style Indian weddings we are used to. The lovely Theo was born within the year. Annie left her job and they all - including Henry (the greyhound) - moved to live with their in-laws in down town Chennai. A new life in India. Most certainly an adventure. Annie is one of the many people this year who have inspired me this year, making a bold choice to change something about their lives.

From the moment I arrived, it was the colours of India that struck me. Deep and vibrant - fuchsia pink, golden yellow, Christmas green and red and the brightest of blues. These colours dominate hand painted advertisements on every wall, the folds of women's saris - bellies on show, the tunic and trousers - Salwar Kameez - that younger women wear - less fiddly than a sari , the upholstered insides of autos (what the Thais call tuk-tuks) and the green coconuts and piles of yellow mangoes in season. Chennai is hot and humid in May, there are relentless mosquitoes kept at bay in Annie's house by staff with electric tennis bats. There are daily power cuts on a 2 hour rolling schedule across the city as well as some unscheduled ones. Thankfully Annie's in-laws run a generator which keeps the fans spinning and the air con available.

Chennai doesn't have really have a centre. It has few tourist sites and few tourists. For well-off Indians and ex-Pats there is a big 5 star hotel and club scene. And by club, I am not talking Heaven or Cargo, this is about clubs set up by the British and now the hang out of the wealthy, who lunch at the Leela or swim at the Cricket Club. I swam in the pool at the Sheraton and went to watch the fast paced spectacle of an IPL Cricket game - Twenty20 cricket -complete with cheer leaders and a pumping soundtrack. Annie and I discussed the difference between an ex-Pat and an immigrant. There are certainly connotations that go with both. One is white, rich and temporary, the other has negative associations - certainly in Britain the moment. Really of course both are labels for outsiders or others.

India is so vast and diverse that the understanding lies in the diversity. The population of India (1.3 billion) is four times that of the United States (316 million) though its is a third if its land mass. This makes India one of the most populous countries in the world - one crowded country. There are somewhere between 400 and 1000 mother tongues though 30 languages spoken by over 1 million people. Hindi is India's language in the constitution - Hindi and associated dialects are predominantly spoken in the north by 73% of the population. In the South people speak another group of languages similar to Tamil. Google India gives 9 language options - these dominate. English is spoken throughout the country and spoken incredibly well by India's middle class who still consider the best education to be one through English. India is a democracy - the biggest in the world - though there are some aspects of its politics that were far from subtle. Photographs of the chief minister of Tamil Nadu were posted everywhere around Chennai. Ironically at a time when India is under scrutiny because of the dreadful pattern of rape across the country, Indian women remain a big presence in politics. However it is social status, not gender remains the main determiner of destiny.

Annie used my visit as an opportunity to travel and organised for us to go and stay in a safari lodge on the outskirts of Mudumala - a national park. An environmental group is currently campaigning for the closure of this safari lodge as it is in the path of what they call an elephant corridor. Watch out! Elephants coming through! The owners of the resort argues that they have all the necessary permits to be on the land and that they employ 33 people, many of whom are 'tribals', a rather outdated term, meaning the people who have lived in the area longer than anyone can remember. We went on two safaris into the jungle. The landscape is sparse and dry - not what you would necessarily think of as jungle. We saw peacocks, elephants, bison, black faced monkeys and giant orange and black squirrels. (The squirrels were black and orange - there were no orange squirrels.) At night the watch man came to tell guests 'there's an elephant on the property'. Midnight, stars, cocktails and a tusked elephant - one of those magical moments.

All the other tourists at the lodge were Indian mainly professionals living a 4 hour drive away in Bangalore. It was here that I met the impressive Roohi - an Indian film maker who has just finished a film called Scattered Windows, Connecting Doors. Roohi spent a year interviewing 8 incredible women. They live independent lives and in their own ways all break the mould. A quote from the trailer resonated,

'The more we have fearless, strong women walking around on their own, taking autos, taking buses the stronger we are.'

This was in welcome contrast to the police commissioner in Mumbai - the area with the lowest conviction rate for crimes against women - who suggested women should not travel at night and asked police officers to fine couples for being in isolated areas after dark. Fortunately the Chief Minister got involved and police are going to have 'gender sensitisation training'. That said Mumbai is considered one of the safest cities for women amongst the Indians I spoke with.

I travlled very little by myself in India but I did meet other women who had, including Sue - the Halifax grandmother on her own career break. At home she provides respite care to young people with disabilities. She had volunteered in a children's centre and had loved her experience. She, like others I spoke to, found the reality did not match the media scare.

Education remained a theme of my time in India. Annie and I know each other through school leadership and education is big business in India. Anyone who is anyone is setting up a school. The discussion about which schools are best centre around the curriculum they deliver. India has just introduced a bill to ensure every child has access to education but the act has run into trouble and some schools are having to close as they are not meeting the requirements of the new law. So called 'slum schools' vary vastly in quality with low paid, less well trained staff. India is just beginning to benefit from the initiatives pioneered in the US and UK like Teach First and Teach America. Some states lead the way including Kerala which was the other state I visited.

Kerala has a lot to be proud of. It has a population half the size of the UK, the highest Literacy rate in the country 93%, the highest life expectancy (74 years), the highest ratio of men to women and the lowest murder rate. It has a strong economy, once built on spices, though now thriving on money sent back by Keralans working in the Middle East. Kerala is also one of the few states with an elected Communist government - albeit one that is part of a coalition. Perhaps it is the combination of wealth, education and the desire to create a society that looks after all, that gives Kerala a much more relaxed feel than other parts of India. A society that is better for everyone - rich and poor.

Kerala is also different from Tamilnadu in that it is lush and green, criss crossed by a network of backwaters. I visited Varkala with old Cardiff friend - Dan. A hippy town with several ashrams and a beach where a group of tourists don bikinis and sunbathe. This is of course not very Indian at all. Pale is unfortunately still the aspiration for many in India and cosmetic companies use subtle and not so subtle marketing strategies to sell their whitening products. I was delighted to see a British Dove advertisement the other day with women talking about the things they like about their friends' bodies. A celebration of difference? Proctor and Gamble are however the same company who sell these whitening products. It is just advertising - though at least Dove is a more positive message - you are beautiful as you are. The local people gathered at the other end of the beach posing for photos with their friends. Sometimes the cameras turn on me as a foreigner. I suppose this is pay back for trying to take surreptitious photographs of numerous people in Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia who looked amazing to me.

The next and final bit of my round the world trip was supposed to be further travel in India and then two weeks in Sri Lanka with my parents. I was in India when my mum sent me an email. She mentioned that the Labour Party in Cardiff North, was selecting its candidate for the next election. The forms were due in six days later.

It is not often your home constituency is on the look out for their next Labour candidate and hopefully Member of Parliament. I took a deep breath. This was a choice that could change the rest of my life. An opportunity. I spoke to some old friends. What was the worst that could happen? I thought about so many of the people that I have met and found out about along this journey. Like Albert Camus' L'etranger, their actions have defined them. Here are just a few.

In the United States - The homesteaders who upped sticks and moved across country to settle on a square in the middle of nowhere that became Kansas and their grand daughter Jo who still lives in their home. Kate who studied Russian, who met Todd and now brings her family up in Virginia. Dan in St Louis whose daughter had just started working for the Democrats inspired by her grandmother who campaigned for Kennedy. Meurig and Mary Lou whose enthusiasm for life took them to Indonesia for 10 years and more recently across the States in their RV. Delaine, the native American woman who continues to campaign for the rights of her people and is at the centre of the mixed community on the border of Utah and Nevada. Mike who took a job running a bar in the middle of Nevada as a different kind of retirement. Mary who moved to Hawaii from Scotland and now swims in the ocean with an impressive group of women.

In New Zealand - Lydia and Duncan who moved for a change of life and have thrown themselves into the community of the disaster hit Christchurch - manning life boats and communications if there is an earthquake. Andy who is happy embracing a new life in Wellington that involves family, cycling up steep hills and finding the best cafés in town. Tef who was a New Yorker to the core in asking for exactly what he wanted and had been bold in going to different places to work.

In Australia - Bill, Sharon and Marty who showed their value of friendship and kindness, helping me along the road to Sydney by making connections and checking I was safe. Friendship and loyalty defined them. James Grudgeon who took moved out to Australia following the well trodden path of so many 'Poms' looking for something different and set on making a life in Melbourne. Yvonne, the Brisbane hairdresser who at 19 was braver than me in her willingness to do things on her own. Her words have stayed with me 'We are born alone and we die alone. We might as well get used to it'.

In Brunei - Hilary who took up a job in teaching in an International School and was shortly followed by Tony who she married two years later. Mr Noorhaizamdin whose down to earth and sparky personality made him a well respected community figure.

In Thailand - 59 year old, super skinny, chain smoking Beatrice who left her husband at home in France to travel for the winter to buy goods to design her own jewellery. She sat drinking beer with the best of us in the disco car of the night train to Chaing Mai. Javier who set up a cafe business with a passion to understand what his customers are looking for and introduced me to the art of picking the best banana pancakes in Thailand. Summer, a 30 something American who cycled by herself along the Thai/Burma border - a task that I shied away from - before she returns to run her business - a popular summer café in Alaska.

In Vietnam - Van the lawyer, who works for Blue Dragon and whose work has rescued 100s of young people from slave labour and prostitution. Jo who spent months working in an orphanage in Vietnam and in the short time she was there tried to make a longer term difference.

In Malaysia - Kendra and Natalie, who were willing to try different things and be honest about their love of home. JJ who went to Britain to university before coming back to his native Malaysia and setting up a screening centre making a huge difference to his home community. Claire who had just fulfilled her dream of writing, recording and releasing her first EP on iTunes.

In India - Dave the investigative journalist who had to be smuggled out of Sri Lanka for asking too many questions. He was in Varkala investigating religious exploitation in ashrams. Oli who worked for his family's jewellery business. A business comprised 13 factories in India that make products using gem stones from all over Asia and Africa.

Cycling buddy James who made a choice and went home from the trip showing, through his actions, his love for his family and partner Helen. I learnt a lot from his company - 4000 miles gives you the opportunity to cover a lot of conversational ground. Somewhere close to therapy.

And Meurig and Gwendolyn - otherwise known as my parents, who after resolutely stating they would not be joining me on my world adventure, came to California and Australia to join in the adventure and now continue the journey in Sri Lanka without me.

This is just a short list of the inspiring people I have met along the way. So many people who have lived lives. And there are more whose words I find myself repeating, whose stories I have shared. I am sorry that you are all not mentioned here.

Recently I have also been hugely inspired by my friend Sacha. Her baby Boris (her partner is Bulgarian) was born in November. He was born with a large stomach and diagnosed with rare form of cancer. He has had to go chemo therapy and various treatments that have meant Sacha and her partner have spent most of the last 7 months in four walls in Great Ormond Street. Sacha is also writing a blog and it was these paragraphs that had me choked. She was writing when her cousin got married. She had expected to be able to go back to Australia but obviously times changed.

"Disappointment, and grieving for the loss of long held dreams of how things were meant to be are troublesome feelings that come to me every now and then, as you can imagine. But the antidote for these feelings is to become truly present and appreciate every moment for what it is."

"Of course the future is uncertain for Boris and there are many things for us to worry about, but isn’t this true for everyone? None of us know that when we say goodbye to our partner as they head to work whether or not that will be the last goodbye. Nothing is given, and you can choose to be oppressed or liberated by this fact. Each moment is precious and irreplaceable. Whether that is in Cubicle 14, Elephant Ward, Great Ormond Street Hospital or outside in some more carefree place."

Life is sometimes what you do and choose and we are lucky if we are in a position to make these choices. Sometimes things do not go as planned and sometimes we cannot choose what we want. I want, does not get. Sacha's positive and reflective response to her situation is humbling. And in a sense it is Sacha's response that defines her.

Opportunities do not come up every day and life is a one time shot. I decided I would give the selection a go. I filled in the form and as I did so I realised my experience in politics when I was younger, my record on campaigning and my ten years in the classroom and in school leadership were a reasonable record to stand on. People often talk about how they want people to represent them who have had experience outside of the political arena. We will see.

Two days later I was nominated by my home branch and one other. People had put their trust in me from afar. A week certainly is a long time in politics. It was time to get on the next flight back. The campaign is now well underway and Labour members make their decision on June 22nd.

After 9 months reflecting on the history and politics of the world, it feels absolutely right to be returning to my home to the lives of people in Cardiff, Wales and the UK. This year I have had experiences and time that have helped me to reaffirm my values.

All people, no matter where or to whom they are born are of equal worth. I believe society should be organised to allow people to flourish and that government has a responsibility to address as much as possible the inequalities they are born into. We all have a responsibility to create a society that is and feels fair so that working hard pays.

So many examples from my travels have confirmed this for me. In the USA inequalities in healthcare, the lack of democracy and freedom of speech in Vietnam, the lower life expectancy of Aboriginal people in Australia, the conflict of development versus environmental devastation in Malaysia, the distasteful sex trade in Thailand, the race to find energy from our planet to fulfil demand that causes so many frequent power cuts in India. So many different issues and so important to start somewhere and where I have the skills and understanding to make a difference. Where better than home?

So what I have learnt over 9 months? A few themes have reoccurred:
People are the same the world over. There are huge differences of course in culture, language and social norms but we are most definitely the same animal.

When James and I set off on our cycling trip we asked the people we met -What would you teach the world? And finally I come to answering the question. Although I think it is perhaps the wrong question as there is inbuilt an assumption of the 'teacher' being the expert. Nonetheless as I asked others to answer the question then I should answer it myself.

If I could teach the world one thing it would be to ... (slightly more than one thing)

Be bold. Take choices. Live and shape the consequences.
Know that you have influence and use it. All the time.
Be aware of your own prejudices, we all have them
The big picture helps understanding but also the smallest actions matter.
There is no point in looking for happiness in the future- the moment is all you have. Learn to appreciate life as it goes along. Each day.

In fact if I could teach the world one thing it would be that you can learn an infinite amount by talking and listening to others. Everyone has a story, if you have the time to listen.

It has been an incredible journey. Thank you for accompanying me along the way.

The end? Perhaps another beginning.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Such thing as society: Hanoi and Malaysia

This blog is about my time in Vietnam and Malaysia. Hanoi, Halong Bay and then Malaysia - Penang and the country's capital, Kuala Lumpur.

Being away from my home country I am not only learning about the places I visit but I also get a different perspective on events at home. When Margaret Thatcher died last week. I found out through a message on Facebook. Such is the modern world. I was in my hostel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's thoroughly modern capital.

Earlier this year I read a great book by my friend Tony Cartwright. The novel, 'How I killed Margaret Thatcher' is a poignant story of a boy growing up in a West Midlands community broken by the policies of the 1980s. Reading it I was reminded of the Thatcher years - years that I also viewed through child's eyes. The miners' strike, the Falklands War, unemployment and privatisation. The boy in Tony's novel hears his family talking about Margaret Thatcher and decides that the solution to his family's unhappiness could be for him to kill her. The book offers quotes at the start of each chapter. Thatcher had a way of making her ideology sound just common sense. In 1999 she summed this up.

'The root of the approach we pursued in the 1980s lay deep in human nature, and more especially the nature of the British people'. Effectively saying, it was not me, it was within people.

Certainly her policies were enough to get her elected in 1979, 1983 and 1987. Not only did she get reelected but she increased her majority, a very unusual accomplishment for a sitting prime minister. She won the support of thousands of working class people who liked her patriotism, her strong leadership and were lucky to buy their council houses and became property owners for the first time.

Human nature certainly looks out for his own. Human nature resents unfairness - working hard whilst others do all the work. Thatcher was about individuals working hard and making it for themselves. She waged a war against the unfairness of so called lazy scrounges, the miners and the unemployed who were told to get on their bikes as an answer to their plight. Yet this unfairness, under Thatcher did not extend to everyone. At that time remember the Queen didn't pay a pound in tax and the House of Lords included hundreds of men who had inherited their power and wealth. There was no minimum wage.

Thatcher knew that people we do not know are hard to feel affinity with. It is human nature to distrust 'the other'. Every time I arrive in a new town and especially a new country I am unusually nervous. I am on my guard. The streets always seem more threatening, the faces unfriendly and the connections hard to see. Yet once I begin to talk to people, the friendliness and commonality emerge.

In Vietnam, after many stories of scams and robberies I took a while to relax and enjoy the country. Life is everywhere in Vietnam. A country with 90million people - a third larger than the UK and with one of the highest rural population densities in the world.

From Hanoi I planned a trip to Halong Bay with, new friend, Sarah - a South African who had been living in London for the past decade. Stunning limestone outcrops, flat silvery water and misty mornings make this one of Vietnam's top tourist destinations and a magical place. We joined a classic excursion - over night on a boat, a spot of kayaking, a swim, a spot of Tai Chi at sunrise and a cave visit. Halong Bay is one of those places that despite the huge numbers of tourists it is still worth the trouble. Following two recent accidents, there are stricter rules for tourists boats. In February 2011, 11 tourists and their guides died as their boat sank as they slept. Horrible. In another, in October last year, 5 Taiwanese tourists died when their boat crashed with a larger vessel. Without being too aware of the details of these and hypnotised by the ethereal midnight water - and a few beers - I decided, with little encouragement that a night dip was too good to miss. My South African and Australian friend joined me. We had just splashed into the cold grey water when a big lamp beamed on, lighting up our exploits. Our tour guide did not look impressed. After briefly hiding under the boat I owned up, clambered back on board. Apparently if spotted by the police our whole boat would have had to go ashore. We would not have been the most popular guests. Suitably sheepish, the three of us headed to our cabins. Swimming in midnight water though was incredible. I have often said, you only regret what you do not do.

Back in Hanoi, I spent five days exploring the city. Here, society is on the streets. Teeming with people and motorbikes there are interactions on every square of pavement. Society fills your eyes. Being on my own I became more observant. Everyone is moving - perhaps part of the reason that everyone is so slim. Not an ounce of fat between them. There is choreographed mayhem at every turn, accompanied by a soundtrack of constant beeping with drivers and motor cyclists warning each other of their presence. Just a friendly, 'Beep - I'm here', not at all aggressive.

Every street in Hanoi is named after what could traditionally be bought - like Silk Street and Pudding Lane in London. However in Hanoi these shops are still there. Some sell the same goods: gold, silver, bamboo, paper or flowers whereas others have developed different specialities - children's toys, electric fans or mechanics. Shops are also people's homes and as I negotiated the pavements - usually an obstacle race of parked motor bikes, street vendors and pot holes - I wanted to try and store the images in my mind. Freeze frames of blacksmiths fixing tin boxes on their haunches and old ladies managing shops that have had the same stock of jade jewellery for 50 years. On the streets of Hanoi, I saw babies learning to walk, shop keepers absorbed in the day's papers, women on their haunches washing salad greens in big bowls and papery skinned old ladies delivering tea to neighbours. Every five minutes women with short sleeved shirts, cotton trousers and coned hats passed with shoulder polls, a basket suspended from each end. These women sold everything from vegetables to pineapples, flowers to doughnuts. Many of them came from the countryside where their paddy fields do not bring enough income to feed their families. In the South of Vietnam there are three rice harvests a year, but the colder climate means only one in the north. This is part of the reason why Communism took hold in the poorer north. Hanoi reminded me about the ideas of Jane Jacobs. I have written about her before in my blog about New York City. She wrote 'Life and Death of Great American Cities' and argued that the safety and life of a city comes from a mix of trades, housing and people being around everywhere - the eyes of the street. This is the old town in Hanoi. There are lessons here for Western towns and cities.

At sundown each evening, the lake in front of my hotel was mobbed with people out for their daily exercise. My favourite sight was a group of older women collectively stretching. One night when I crossed over the road I was faced with this group of ten ladies, all in a line massaging each other's shoulders. Lovely.

The lake was also the location for couples staring dreamily across the water and boys buying huge roses, over a metre long, to demonstrate their affection for girlfriends. At night young people gathered around the Cathedral and sat on nursery-sized plastic chairs to drink tea and eat sunflower seeds - the discarded shells strewn across the pavements like confetti to their modern courtships.

But there is always more than what you can see. Vietnam was a country that felt difficult to get under its skin. Partly because of the language barrier, partly because of the closed politics and partly because I had no connections in the country. To help me know more I visited the Blue Dragon Centre in Hanoi that I mentioned in my last blog. The centre does an amazing job getting children back where they belong with their families, in education or training. It has rescued children who have been taken to work in sweat shops in Ho Chi Minh to work in garment factories. One boy they rescued was locked up, never allowed to go outside for four years. Claire, their Communications Officer told me about how traffickers prey on the poorest people in remote villages. They send women to build trust with families, promise work, short hours and hand over $50. Sometimes it is months or years later when the families begin to question what has happened to their children. Part of Blue Dragon's work is to educate people so people are wise to the actions of the traffickers. They have also rescued girls, kidnapped for prostitution in China. They work with a remarkable lawyer, Van, who has gone to extraordinary lengths to get these children back where they belong. Appealing to human nature can be for good or bad. We all have the capacity to be greedy, mean, selfish and prejudiced and these are easy traits that can be exploited by others be it traffickers or politicians.

After 3 weeks in Vietnam, I headed to Malaysia for an elongated stop over. Unlike the Vietnamese, Malaysians speak excellent English.This is partly a legacy of colonial rule. Malaysia was ruled by Britain and won its independence in 1963. Being able to talk to many more people meant in a short time I felt I understood a little about this this rapidly developing country. Also this was my second visit after my ten days in Sabah, Borneo. Since then, an invasion by a group from the Philippines means that Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice is now not to go to Sabah. Travelling inevitably makes news much more real.

In Malaysia I spent 5 days in Penang. Malaysia is noticeably more developed than Thailand and Vietnam. It also has a much more noticeable mix of people, the three largest groups being the Malays, Indians and Chinese. The Indians were brought by the British to work on the railways. Indian Malays make up 7 per cent of the population. The Chinese population is declining but still forms a quarter of the national population although this is closer to half in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. The majority of Malay Chinese were brought as workers for rubber plantations and tin mines though some came to set up businesses. Jimmy Choo is probably the most famous Malay Chinese for us in the UK. Chinese Malays are disproportionately represented in the middle class and make up eight out of ten of Malaysia's richest people.

On the surface, at least Penang's mix of different groups seem to live harmoniously together. I was interested to know whether this really was the case. Certainly this mix of heritage give Penang the reputation of the food capital of Malaysia. Street food is generally excellent and roti, noodles, duck, dumplings, chicken and rice all have their special place in Penang cuisine. I met a guy on the plane out of Malaysia. Malay Tamil, he said that the current government made more of divisions. And there seemed to be more of made of the difference between Malaysians and more recent immigrants - often migrant workers.

I also was very lucky to have a great connection in Penang. JJ had been in the university Labour club at the same time as me. When he went to London he made a concerted effort to not hang out with other Malaysians but to get to know the natives. Back in Malaysia he first worked for two big companies. His work with Glaxo Wellcome introduced him to the medical industry and he began to see a need for low cost and accessible MRI scanning. Five years on, he now has a centre that provides MRI scans, X-ray, mammograms and smear testing. The centre is a business but he went further.

He had seen in other countries the effeectiveness of breast cancer screening. He set up a programme, convinced the state government to fund it, to screen all women over 35. What is different about the service is that it is not only free but that buses take women once a month, from their area to the centre on the same day. The screenings have become a local outing where women can bring their children and even do some shopping in the nearby shopping mall whilst they are waiting. JJ explained how this and other simple measures like having the top floor only for women decreases anxiety levels. The detection rate is one in a hundred patients. Breast cancer screening is not even free in all developing countries. JJ was a really inspiring guy. His work showed the difference an individual with an idea, conviction and a moral imperative can make. His work also shows that when we talk about development the picture is not always universal and the pace of change not always constant.

Whilst in Malaysia a friend sent me an article about Dubai. One of the most shocking parts of the piece was about the people who are treated as slaves whose labour that is used to build skyscrapers. I read the story of one Bangladeshi guy who had sold his land to pay to go to Dubai. On arrival his passport was taken. His work was long hours and his home a basic hut in the desert heat. He shared one room with no fan with a group of other migrants. He described how he was trapped here, not being able to earn the money to leave as his employers pay him low wages and have taken his passport. An average of 2 Indians a week committed suicide in 2012 and those are the deaths on record. I was discussing this with a researcher in Kuala Lumpur who was staying at the same place as me. She told me that in Malaysia the situation was the same. According to Human Rights Watch, foreign embassies and NGOs 'handle hundreds of complaints involving unpaid wages, physical and sexual abuse, and forced confinement'. The Cambodian government even placed a ban on women going to Malaysia for work such were the widespread concerns of abuse. One result was that more women were brought from Indonesia.

Malaysia makes no distinction between asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. It is one of only nine states that did not vote for an international convention on the rights of Decent treatment For Domestic Workers. It is common, though now illegal practice to take workers passports and the rights that native Malays enjoy - one day off a week, a minimum wage, annual holiday are not afforded to these workers. JJ also told me about the poor conditions on palm oil plantations. People live and die here - never leaving the place. 40% of women are single parents. They have poor access to healthcare, low levels of education and are entirely dependent on their employers.

Finding out more about working conditions and the politics in South East Asia has brought home the liberty we enjoy: a free and impartial judiciary with a system of jurors. Police who are held to account, most of the time through various checks and balances. And although we have the Mail and the Sun, we also have the BBC and Private Eye. We also have free education, healthcare and social support. Not that any of these systems or institutions are perfect, far from it, but at least in Britain there is a collective intolerance of corruption, censorship and cruelty. In South East Asia police bribery is often considered part of salary and political corruption at all levels have made me appreciate the standards we aspire to, though not always achieve, at home.

It was great to be able to discuss politics with people in Malaysia. Parliament had gone into recess and the election was announced the day I left. The ruling coalition has been in power since independence - a whopping 57 years. Interests loyal to them control all the media but like everywhere social media gives a forum for different ideas to spread and the opposition that includes the Rocket Party, an Islamic party and one other looks like it has a chance to win for the first time. The election will be on May 5th.

Politics was also a frequent topic for conversation when I stayed in Penang when I was lucky to share a dorm with two lovely Derbyshire lasses - Natalie and Kendal - salt of the earth. They were in Malaysia because they had come on a visa run from Thailand. They liked it so much, they stayed for over a week. Whilst I was there was a huge amount in the British press about benefit cuts and then Mick Philpott who killed his children. We ended up talking a lot about politics, though they wouldn't call it that. Natalie felt strongly about having a system that was fair. That people shouldn't scrounge off others. Their home town, Bolsover was one of Britain's 170 collieries that existed in the 1980s. It closed in 1994. Natalie talked about the poverty in the area and the people she knew who lived off benefits and had never worked and about those who got round the system. Kendal though told me that when she had briefly had to claim Job Seeker's Allowance when she moved to Cornwall, she had been sent on a course to refresh her skills that she found useful. Natalie helps her mum run a small business and Kendal aspires to run her own.

There are aspects of Thatcher's politics that would definitely have appealed to them - Thatcher's idea of a country where people can do well, make money and be successful. Yet they were very caring and knew a lot of people down on their luck. They also showed their kindness when we met up again in Kuala Lumpur they insisted on walking me home. Politics is not simply left or right.

In the discussion of Thatcher's legacy we must recall that for all her divisiveness she was elected - even after the Miners Strike, the Falklands war and privatisation. Thatcher appealed to some decent values of fairness, care for family and thrift however she also exploited the greed, distrust, blame and prejudice within us. Yet it was not until 1997 enough British people voted for change. Democracy does not always give the answers you want. At least we are assured of change within our system - unlike Vietnam or Malaysia. Now as a country we can boast better rights for workers, huge investment in education, a non hereditary House of Lords, the queen paying tax and a benefits system reformed to favour those in work. And despite the current cuts, the argument has shifted so that the National Health Service is supported across the political spectrum. Thatcher may not have done much for the rights of women but she was a role model despite herself. Calling any woman a witch, in the same week as 8 women were burned to death in Papua New Guinea shows there is still a long way to go.

I have now just 5 weeks left before I head home. Where did those 9 months go? When I wrote down my initial reasons for starting this trip one of them was

'To reignite my passion for changing the world'

Spending so long without working I have realised how much I enjoy doing something that I feel in some way contributes. Though I have enjoyed enjoyment for its own sake. I say this with some irony as I am sat by a rather beautiful pool surrounded by mountains in Tamilnadu, South India. Last night a wild elephant appeared at the bottom of the property. I can hear crickets, a squawking crow and the geep - cross between sheep and goats - bleating. That said, I am looking forward to returning to working stepping up my rate of productivity. However I have also learned so much from my journey from the places I have been and mainly the people I have met that has informed my politics, my understanding of the world and I hope, how I will live my life.

My passion for politics is not about the rules by which we live. For me it is about how discussion and stories come from our own communities and are shaped by people to become a collective understanding. And it is those stories which fuel ideas about how to improve things.

Because whether you fracture it or not, there is of course such thing as society. And each of us has the power to strengthen or sever the ties that bind us.

A power to use wisely.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Goodbye Thailand, Goodbye bike, Good Morning Vietnam

There are some moments when I hear my worldly wise 37 year old self giving advice to others. Over breakfast in my Saigon hostel, I was talking to Joanne, a south east London, sparky red head who is volunteering in an orphanage in the city. Our conversation was brief but in just those few minutes I was touched by her reflections.

'You should write them down,' I told her.

'And don't do that thing where you think, to yourself "oh I haven't written for ages so it's going to take such a long time for me to explain everything". You should just start writing'. As I heard myself saying these words I realised they were words more for my own ears. And so, I write.

The original plan for south east Asia was to cycle from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh. Not only am I flying - one environmental extreme to the other - but two weeks ago I posted my bicycle home in a box, along with all four panniers, cycling shorts and tent. I now have a small ruck sack and am sporting brown hippy trousers and yellow flip flops. I have dyed my hair back to brown and the only remnant of my former cycling self is the bicycle on the front of my T shirt. I am, as usual, struggling with this latest transition but traveling with a bike, rather than on a bike was becoming ridiculous.

A mixture of emotions motivated and follow this decision. On the one hand I feel a bit of a fraud. The whole trip was supposed to be about cycling the world. That was what made it different. I didn't want to do the same as millions of other 'travellers' and follow a well worn path from bus to hostel. If you feel let down by my decision to ditch the wheels, then I am sorry. Cycling for me has always been a more sensible way to travel to see the corners of countries and to meet people. Here though, where language is a barrier I decided it would just not be fun by myself in a small village trying to communicate with the locals and having no one who could share the experience. When I was cycling 60 miles a day crossing the States I always worried how I would sustain this level of fitnes. No bike means I have to seek out exercise but that can be fun in itself. One of my favourite moments in Vietnam so far has been joining in with a free open air aerobics class. A hundred Vietnamese women and me. Loved it. Why don't we do organise that in London?

Back to breakfast and Joanne. She told me about the children in the orphanage. Many are physically disabled, victims of the ongoing legacy of Agent Orange. The US dropped 20 million gallons of herbicide, 60% of which was Agent Orange in the Vietnam War between 1961 and 1971. The toxic chemical was dropped in attempt to defoliate the trees so the Communist Viet Con could not hide in the forests. The effects on both the environment and the people however were catastrophic, particularly in terms of long term effects on children. And the Viet Cobg dug a network of tunnels where whole villages sheltered underground. The museum in Ho Chi Minh showed some pretty horrific images of deformities including two Siamese twins, their foetus preserved in formaldehyde. The museum was certainly very one sided. Hardly surprising in the city whose name reminds everyone that the north won the war. There have since been many lawsuits by both American soldiers and Vietnamese victims trying to get American chemical companies to take the blame. Even at the time American students staged sit ins to try and prevent companies including Dow and Monsanto from recruiting on campus.

Jo said that there are also many babies who are abandoned, either at the hospital or on the doorstep of the orphanage. Although it is well staffed many of those who work there seem desensitised to their role, though they are the main carers for these children. She has suggested to the management that perhaps the staff themselves need some love, care and attention. She suggested they could run a day where they could bring their own children in, once a month for activities with the volunteers. She said she walks into the place every day and the children stretch their arms out from their beds hoping for a hug. She gives as many as she can. She may work there for six weeks and has thought a lot about the impact she can or can't make in that time. With an overwhelming situation she has resolved to make sure she just gives everything she can to each interaction.

Last week she picked up and cuddled a baby whose cry was particularly strong. The other staff told her he had just arrived having been abandoned on the door step. On his leg written in pen was his name - Kwe. She speculated on how the baby's life would change if she were to look after it, checking adoption laws and loop holes. I shared my idea about super powers. That everyone has a super power to change and influence the world around them through the people they meet. She quoted Gandhi. 'Be the change you want to see in the world'.

This and other recent conversations have strengthened my passion for education and schools. Also talking very proudly about my old school has reminded me how much a group of committed individuals can achieve if they all work together. In Hoi An, I ate in a restaurant run by the Blue Dragon foundation. Their work helps children get where they should be -with their families, in education or training. They have rescued 268 trafficked children. Some were taken to China for prostitution and others to work in garment factories in Ho Chi Minh. The charity was started by an Australian, Michael Brosowski who was teaching English at the university of Hanoi. One day he was supposed to be climbing a mountain on a tour but because his feet were hurting he stayed at the bottom. He was approached by two Vietnamese boys who wanted help with their English homework. He ended up teaching street children - shoe shine boys - English and along with a Vietnamese university student organised football games for them. Within 2 years he had quit his job to develop the charity full time. Reading the stories of these children reminded me of the gulf between tourism and the country you don't see. I hope to visit their centre in Hanoi and learn more about their work.

Vietnam is according to the World Bank, 129th out of 180 countries in terms of wealth. However it is 18th in terms of online access and the fastest growing number of Facebookers. It is aiming to be a developed country by 2020. However there is only one party in Vietnam and criticism is not tolerated. The government has recently taken a harder line on those who suggest freedom of the press or a multi party democracy. Five prominent bloggers, founding members of the Club for Free Journalists have just been sentenced to 13 years imprisonment. Another was forcibly admitted to a mental health institution and 22 activists were jailed for subversion and sentenced to between 10 years and life imprisonment. The mother of one of the bloggers self immolated in protest last summer. This was not reported in Vietnam.

Before arriving in Vietnam I spent 6 great weeks in Thailand. Those of you keeping up with the story know that my own Internet and online activity decreased substantially when I was travelling with Javier, the Spaniard. After Chiang Mai, we (one teacher, one chef, one bike) made our way slowly back to Bangkok by train. We stopped at Lampang which had a thriving night market and a swanky guest house with a family of cockroaches living in the plug hole of the sink. Eww. We saw the temples at Sukhothai, ate its famous noodles and for the last time, I cycled. Peddling amongst the ancient buildings was a suitable spiritual end to the bike part of the journey. After another stop in buzzing Bangkok and a rather long journey via Ranong, where I had to briefly stop to go to Myanmar to extend my visa, we reached the island famous for its Full Moon Party - Koh Phagnam.

Koh Phagnam was a relaxing spot to spend a week and the non party side of the island was lovely. The island has an odd patern because every month 20,000 people descend on it for the Full Moon Party. On the north of the island we stayed in Chaloklum. Each night fisher men would take the squid boats out to sea with their eerie green lights, then the next day groups of women would clean thousands of squid near the beach with the fishy juices running back into the sea and then carefully splay them on racks near the beach. They are dried out for a popular Thai snack.

Back in Bangkok Javier and I spent our last few days together. We went to the biggest market in Asia, back to the restaurant which apparently serves the best Pad Thai in Thailand - wrapped in an omelette and went to the post office and sent the bike home in a big box. We said goodbye late at night in a busy Bangkok street and I walked away feeling very sad. Funny how you can feel most alone when you are surrounded by hundreds of people.

But the trip goes on.

Frequent stays at hostels and eating establishments and hanging out with a café owner, have also made me think about what it takes to run a good organisation. Like a good school you can tell whether a place is loved the minute you walk in. If management care, staff care about customers and understand what they want. That comes through in every tiny interaction from the greeting, to the cleanliness of a place to the food.

I signed up for another cooking class in Hoi An. A pretty town on a river and close to the coast in the middle of Vietnam. Cars and motorbikes are banned and all shops have to hang pretty lanterns from their frontage. The cooking operation was run by Ms Vy. An impressive 40 year old woman who started cooking aged 10 and opened her first restaurant in Hoi An in 1992. She visited Melbourne soon after, a trip which opened her eyes to the west and what tourists were looking for. She now runs five restaurants in town incuding a bakery where westerners flock for a cappucino and croissant.

She told us about how Vietnam had rationing for 40 years so many people lost their cooking skills. The government one Christmas gave everyone a packet of MSG - Monosodium glutamate. Add a bit to water and you almost have stock. She also told us how in Vietnam it is the women who work and that was certainly born out by what I saw. Shops, restaurants and markets were run by women. Ms Vy explained her mother's view 'the beauty of a woman is from her work, her speech and her morality, not how pretty and made up she looks'. On a motorbike tour around the area it was also the women I saw working in the paddy fields, tending, harvesting and sorting crops. Fishing seemed to be for the men along with taxi driving and sitting in front of the telly. Not only is she running successful restaurants but she has taken on the bigger cause of promoting Vietnamese cuisine to the rest of the world. Just one woman, seeing the bigger picture and using her super power to make a difference.

Hoi An is also famous for its tailoring and although this has become a huge tourist attraction it was still a great experience to have a suit made. Odd though to be putting on a suit in the steamy heat with sweat dripping off my nose. The Vietnamese don't seem half so hot and sticky and look with amusement at us moist foreigners. So much so in fact that in one restaurant the owner rather inappropriately started wiping the hot face of my friend Sarah whilst her colleague joined in the mission by fanning her enthusiastically. The shop which made my suit was run by a family. I went back for my fitting were in the middle of eating lunch. I was, or course, invited to join and in a very Welsh manner was strongly encouraged to eat several delicious, freshly fried banana pancakes.

I have met lots more travellers since the bike and Javier went home. When I began this trip I was keen to avoid the 'Gap Ya' scene. Having taught for 10 years, many of these students were only 8 when I started teaching. Yes, I did meet a girl who liked pheasant shooting and who was pleased that she was going to be able to take her pony to university. She also defined herself as working class. I momentarily struggled with my own prejudices.

There is something however about people who choose to travel - especially on their own. I definitely wouldn't have had the guts to do it when I was Ellen's age or even when I began this trip. Ellen is taking a year out of Oxford University and is contemplating whether it is the place for her. After Vietnam she is heading to China. You go girl - but be careful!

I am on my way to Hanoi where I will go on a trip with Sarah a South African girl I met. She has already done wonders to combat my prejudices of white South Africans and I have enjoyed learning about how the country has changed since apartheid. She said how the richer areas remain gated but there is a growing black middle class moving in to these areas. I also learned a bit about the development of political parties as the ANC and the Democratic Alliance both try and appeal beyond their traditional supporters who were divided by skin colour. Once again it is still good to be reminded we are only one people and despite the differences in culture, language, custom or religion it only takes a smile, an exchange or gesture to make a connection.

Talking with many other travellers, I have enjoyed discussing unusual and sometimes controversial topics. The first traveller question is always, 'Where are you from?'. A potentially complex question. I met Dario for example who lived in Switerland, grew up in Spain and whose father was from Sierra Leone. We had a really interesting discussion about identity, how much is set by society and how much is self defined. Will people ever answer,

'I am a citizen of the world my friend'.

Yes, a world citizen. Unless Wales is playing rugby, then I'm Welsh. I am never English. Few non English speakers seems to recognise the word British. But now I feel more strongly connected to London and feel fiercely proud of our hip, cosmopolitan capital. I also feel more European since being in Asia.

On my first day in Vietnam I took up the offer of going to a water park with two fellow Europeans, a Swiss and two Dutch guys. Scary water slides with no reference to health and safety procedures are not normally my thing but I knew I would squeeze in a swim so said 'yes, great'. I went with Chris, the Swiss and Élon the Dutch one. Chris was a teacher in a pupil referral unit, a kite surfer, with an extensive history of drug experimentation and a tendency to be super, almost obsessively clean. He told me that when he has a party in his house he puts a notice up in his bathroom to tell men sit down when they wee. Finally a man who agrees men do not have good aim. Élon, the Dutch guy runs a family business in Amsterdam near the Reich Museum selling reproductions of old masters. VanGough's sunflowers, that sort of thing. They are painted in China with oil paints in brighter colours because that is what people like. Elon must also be credited for teaching me to cross the roads of Ho Chi Minh and helping me relax in the metropolis rather than expecting to be be mugged at every moment. Also met three British guys (John, Marcus and Kane) who looked after me in Ho Chi Minh. Had a great night out watching Wales beat England in the rugby 30 - 3. Met a couple from north Wales, she was also called Gwenllian. Special thank you to John that night for walking me home when his friends were ready for the night club. He said 'It's what I'd want someone to do for my sister'. Really kind. I also feel very lucky to speak English which is used almost exclusively as the language of travel.

Already it has been an amazing eight months. I think I will be heading back to London in June but nothing fixed yet. As the end of my adventure slowly approaches I want to make the most of it and although I may not be biking any more, I am still talking and learning.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Trade, food and love

A delayed Thai train. A perfect opportunity for catching up with some blog writing. Sitting on a bench on Chiang Mai platform gleaning tit bits of information from the Chinese girl who is good at asking officials when we might leave.

It can be difficult to keep up with someone else's travels. In the last six weeks, since leaving Australia I have been around a bit so just to save any confusion - a summary:

I spent the second two weeks of January on the island of Borneo. My bike stayed in its box. The island is made up of three countries: Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. I stayed in Brunei and visited Sabah, in Malaysia. I then flew to Thailand and have been here almost a month. I have cycled for a few days. My decision to slow the trip down has led to less cycling, more trains and buses, less blog writing, a greater appreciation of Thai food, its markets and restaurants and spending time with some lovely people. I have come to the conclusion that three of the most important things that bring the world together are trade, food and love.

Brunei is a small oil rich country of 400,000 ruled by the Sultan. I stayed there with my friend Hilary who is a maths teacher at the international school. She and her husband Tony provided a home from home. Brunei is an interesting country. An oil rich dictatorship, the Sultan rules by decree. Until 1986 the country was a British protectorate. On the one hand Bruneians, as long as they are ethnic Malays, enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. They pay no taxes, have subsidised cars with very cheap petrol - people do not walk in Brunei - everyone drives on the highways that criss cross the country. People are also well looked after with state pensions. I met a group of Bruneian students on a day trip to the jungle. The students were sixth formers studying travel and tourism. Many of them planned to go to British universities, paid for by the Bruneian government before coming back to work in the oil industry. My friend Jaime's dad benefited from a similar programme though when he went to Britain he was not obliged to come back to Brunei.

I was interested in the nature of the dictatorship. It is certainly a strict Muslim country. You are expected to dress discreetly, no alcohol is allowed. Although you can bring in two bottles of wine and 24 beers every 24 hours so there is a culture of booze cruises amongst the expats. Recent decrees include no dancing and nothing is allowed to open between 12 and 2 on a Friday. Hilary and I were also surprised to read in the museum that circumcision is considered 'noble' for a woman. Baby girls are circumcised at 40 days. Female genital mutilation is defended by many and though not as extreme as the type performed in some parts of east Africa still a horrible practice, though done with good intention.

This traditional, family orientated and conservative culture means expats and rich Bruneians live a very separate life. I spent an afternoon lazing around the pool at the Empire Club. An opulent palace built by the Sultan's brother Jefri - the former finance minister - with public cash. Eventually a scandal meant the Sultan had to sack Jefri who avoided prosecution by turning over all his weath to the state. Even in a dictatorship the public have limits. Another interesting part of the expat life is the hash. A legacy of empire, the hash involves men running through the jungle, following a paper trail and ending of course with many beers. So very British.

Malaysian Borneo was quite a contrast from Brunei. I took a ferry to the island of Labuan and then another to KotaKinabalu. Here I met up with friends Xenia and Grace who just happened to be there at the same time. I also met Clare Cave. We had a great time travelling over the next week together in Malaysia. I use Claire's surname because she is a singer songwriter and has just released her first EP - In all good record shops (well on iTunes) now!

For my 10 days in Malaysia I felt I had joined the back packer circuit. This is where people come to climb mount Kinabalu, see Orangutangs, dive with turtles and treck in the leechy jungles. In one hostel I met Danny the German and Nico and Natalie. Nico was Australian and was cycling. Nico had for a long time been on a diet of only raw foods. I learned a lot about Malaysian fruit. The infamous sick smelling Durian may be the king but mangosteen is the queen with a regal purple exterior amd a small green crown, the fruit has a lychee, sweet and soft inside. Natalie his girlfriend was from Denmark and was training as a sex therapist. She said she helped people to 'first love themselves' but unlike some practioners was not one for practical therapies. A fruit expert and sexologist. What a combination.

Britain's Empire on Borneo grew through the trade of hard wood and rubber. Using elephants and Indian workers the British trading companies thrived. It is now palm oil plantations which dominate the landscape and threaten the rain forest and its inhabitants including Orangutans and the famous big nosed Proboscis monkeys. Despite quite a few tourists and its British history walking down the street or trying to communicate often generated much giggling from the local people. This took some getting used to but felt very adventurous even without the bike.

After a few days in the coastal town of Sandakan, Claire, Grace and a German (Danny) headed to a little island called Mabah. Close to Sipadan - a diver's Mecca. No one is allowed to stay on Sipadan. In fact you need a permit to snorkel or dive there. Only a handful can go daily and the permits get booked out months in advance. We stayed in a really friendly, very basic place in the water village. Most of the people on the island were originally from the Philippines. People have moved here for a better life. Tourists bring with them a lot of cash. Trade moves money around.

Aside from a sleepless night caused by a rat in our dorm attracted by the two tiny bananas I had squirrelled away in my bag, the bed bugs that feasted on me for two nights and the trigger fish attack that left a fellow snorkeler with a bleeding toe - Mabul was a fun few days. Our last night ended dancing on the beach with a group of work chums from Kuala Lumpur and a glamourous group of lady boys under an almost full moon. A moment from the road I will try never to forget.

Thailand escaped Empire and has therefore a unique culture combination of vibrant and tolerant that has seduced so many Westerners. In Thailand people consider that women are more intelligent than men. Friends who are looking to adopt here told me adopting a Thai baby girl is apparently close to impossible.

Bangkok was high tech, buzzing and glitzy. Much cleaner and more modern than I was expecting. In Bangkok I stayed with Steph who is another teacher in an international school and her partner James. Once again it was great to see a place through the eyes of someone who lives there. Steph took me to her local floating market. Hardly any tourists and amazing food. I tried little fried quails eggs with soy sauce, green pancakes with candy floss filling and scallops still in their shells. Buying food at local markets is what made me think about the power of trade to bring people together. Both buyer and seller benefit and despite little or no language skills a small connection is made.

Inspired by Thai food, I signed up for two Thai cooking courses. The first was with a lovely lady called Poo whose cooking school in her own community in the Bangkok slums had been financed with a loan from an Australian charity that provides micro loans to fledging businesses. An inspiring woman with a teenage son and on her second marriage she was the brains and the graft behind the slick operation that had kept is soul and brought cash to her own community.

From Bangkok I went north, with still not on the bike. The night train to Chiang Mai was an experience and a half. I had to buy a first class ticket - I had a room to myself. I quickly got to know my neighbours - Tony who had moved from the States to live in Thailand and a Canadian couple on holiday. I convinced my new friends to walk through the train - through staff compartments and sparking tracks to the restaurant car. Opening the door to this carriage was like opening the door to a secret club. Hit by the muggy breeze from the open windows - no air conditioning here, chincy Fairy lights, music videos and the loud buzz of conversation over the roar of the train. I joined Beatrice, a 59 year old artist from France and 20 something Augustine from Argentina for a beer. The night took a more surreal turn when a Thai police officer glugging rum with the best of them joined the group. What a night. And if I hadn't met Beatrice then perhaps I would not have been in the same restaurant as 'Javier', the Spanish cafe owner.

After a few days of coffees, markets and more amazing street food in Chiang Mai I decided it was time to get back on the bike and take on some of Thailand's mountains. The fact that Javier was staying in Pai was purely coincidence.

The ride would take two days. Easy enough I thought to myself.

The road out of Chiang Mai was flat. Easy cycling. And then I turned off to Pai and soon the hills began. Time to stop for a coffee. I probably, as usual, spent too long drinking coffee and didn't realise how soon it would get dark. The hill was incredibly steep and showed no sign of ending. I asked two fruit sellers how far to my intended stop and they said it was far. One tried to get on the back of my bike and I realised he was a bit the drunk side. I stopped at the next place advertising coffee and asked if they knew of any guest house. Owner, Chuchai said I could stay over the road in someone's house. He went to ask the man and he said his wife would be back at 7pm so I could come them. So far so good.

Chuchai then cooked me Chinese duck dinner and cracked open a special box of banana cakes he'd bought in Japan. Seven came and went but no sign of the lady opposite. Chuchai said that when his wife came home I could stay in their house. Everything was getting a bit strange. Eventually his wife came home with another man and two younger females. I slept on the sofa - one of five sleeping in the same room. After sampling one of Chuchai's perfectly timed 25 second espressos (he learnt how on google) I was back on the road to cycle the remaining rather tough 66 kilometres.

Pai is a small hippy town that turned into an even bigger attraction when two Thai rom coms were set here. It is on the backpacker trail so the local pool is awash with tattoo branded 20 somethings. There is also a well established artistic community comprised of Thai artists, musicians and a fair number of older American hippies who have moved here for the low cost of living. Others are drawn by the authorities relaxed approach to cannabis. In fact doing nothing in Pai has become a catch phrase for the place.

After several days of doing not much in Pai, apart from finding a regular breakfast spot, recognising and greeting the locals, swimming in two diifferent pools and eating some beautiful banana pancakes to celebrate pancake day I headed back to Chiang Mai. This time though on the back of a motor bike. Those 742 curves were so much easier with petrol.

One teacher, one chef, one bike, one moped ... who knows where the journey takes me next. Trade? Food? Or ...?