We’ve been in India for 6 days now, and it’s hard to know where to start with this stunning country. It feels like we’ve experienced every extreme in that short time, but we know we’ve only just scratched the surface. India is a crazy beauty that stimulates all your senses, and gives rise to a full gamut of emotions. Its people are beautiful and intense, with a vibrancy that is reflected in the rainbow of colours they fashion. The landscape and buildings provide a feast for your eyes, it’s impossible to pick up a book on a train journey, however long, you just want to drink in the sights as you pass though cities and countryside. On top of this we have arrived in the middle of a commercial revolution; the boldest demonetarisation undertaken in any country in the world, which has brought commerce grinding to a halt.
I had insisted on India being included in our itinerary. Many years ago, I read ‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth. It captured my heart and imagination. The film ‘Lagaan’ added to my wanderlust. Dean was less keen due to an unhappy transit through Delhi airport a few years ago. He landed back in England swearing never to set foot in India again. George, who owns and runs our favourite restaurant in Newark ‘Koinonia’, is from Kerala and over the last few years has whetted our appetite for the south. We’ve committed, and failed numerous years to make it to Kerala for Christmas, and I think George had given up on us. This trip gave us the opportunity to put that right. One of the first things we agreed on, when planning the trip, was Christmas in Christian Kerala. But for me the palaces and forts of ancient Rajasthan still called. So, we settled on 3 weeks in the North of India and a flight to Bangalore for a 3-week trip through Kerala to finish our six months. Ever since we’ve been nervous as hell. However, the benefit of having India at the end of our trip is we’ve not only become more experienced travellers, but also met other travellers who have shared their wonderful Indian adventures and prepared us for our time here. Mark, who we spent 3 weeks with on Koh Lanta Island, and Richard our friend in Canberra, have both spent many months in India over the years. Other travellers we met had years of India experience between them. By the time we stepped off the plane at Delhi, we had become excited and were ready to be thrilled. We took Richard and Mark’s advice, and agreed we would not dismiss and shoo away the locals, but instead embrace them with warm smiles and open ourselves to engagement and conversation. What great advice they gave us, and how easy it has been to follow it.
Our arrival in Delhi was eventful from the start. Happily, Dean was let into the country despite his appearance being radically different to his passport photo. He matched his India visa, which seems to be the hardest document in the world to obtain. So only a smile and a joke from the Immigration Officer held us up. Our bags came off quickly and we entered the hall to find huge ATM queues. We ignored them assuming we could pick up our Rupees easily in Delhi where we would spend 2 nights before moving on. Big mistake, but I shall come to that in due course……. Our hostel driver was not there to meet us, but eventually turned up. We had to wait for another couple who had still not appeared from the hall, due to ATM queues, for another hour. More accurately after an hour we gave up and Dean called the hostel, miraculously another driver appeared in 10 minutes and took us on our way. We never got to the bottom of that one. We left the quiet boulevards of the airport approach roads and soon hit the horn honking gridlock that is Delhi. As we did so, tiny children appeared at our windows doing cartwheels in the inches between the cars, and mothers with babies offered up cheap plastic toys for sale. Our driver turned out of the traffic and we were soon in a rat run teaming with monkeys and lumbering cows.
We were staying in the heart of the old bazaar. It was an utterly insane place. Tiny streets lined with the old buildings of Delhi, were a slow-moving mass of Tuk Tuks, Rickshaws, cars, motorbikes and lorries. People somehow squeezing and weaving between the vehicles, the odd cow trundling along, roaming free. All this accompanied by the ever-present cacophony of horns. There appeared to be no traffic rules at all, and 6 days on we still have no idea about the protocols for horn usage. We pulled up, rather ominously, in the heart of the bazaar. There was no sign of accommodation and I was loathed to get out and be dropped amid this insanity. A man suddenly appeared from our hostel and we set off with our backpacks. After a few steps, we turned off into a narrow lane to be hit by the stench of the open latrine that served as the public toilets. My confidence in Dean’s booking waned dramatically as we picked our way to the stares of the back-lane shopkeepers. But after a few meters we arrived at our hostel and to our relief it was an oasis in the middle of the madness. Dean had come up trumps again.
After an explore of the roof terrace and a shower we set off to find some food somewhere that would take cards, as we had now established that we would not be able to get cash from an ATM. They were either empty or the queues were 5 hours long. Dean changed $20 of our emergency dollars with the hostel owner to see us through the next day. The bazaar was hair raising to walk through, Fred clutched tightly as we tried to fathom a route between the traffic, people and cows. None of the restaurants the hostel had said would take cards did. We eventually landed on Madan’s Café a narrow haunt with tables packed in. They didn’t take cards either, but the owner, Pau, insisted we eat there, we could pay anytime, whenever we could get cash he said. He meant it. We ordered Lassi’s to drink and Thali to eat, and Fred overwhelmed and emotional after a long and testing day dropped his head on the table ready to cry. Just at that moment I spotted a boy nearly his age. The boy’s mother got up and invited Fred to come and say hello. Within a few minutes Fred had made best of friends with Eli, an Australian 10-year-old who had been travelling for 6 months with his parents. Hope, his mother, came and joined us. Like us, Hope had no cash, and having been in Delhi for a day already confirmed that it was unlikely that we would get any without hours of queuing at an ATM. Also like us she was eating on tick at the invitation of the owner. As the boys chatted animatedly, Fred fully recovered and bolstered by finding a delightful English speaking traveller his own age, we discussed the money situation and swapped travelling stories with Hope. Her husband Rob was in Australia to attend his brother’s wedding, returning in a day, so she was having to manage alone but would have Australian dollars to exchange in just over 24 hours as Rob flew in. Raul from Holland joined us on our bench. Every year this well-worn impoverished looking traveller spends months in India. He had managed to get money that day and we picked his brains on where to go to try.
All through this meal and travellers’ tale telling a microcosm of the bazaar played out in front of us. A man sat outside the Café on the floor sorting rubbish. Raul had brought him some old jumpers from his hostel room, its winter in India and the nights are cold. Gloria, a 70-year-old American lady who spends 6 months of every year in India, brought him a black bin liner of water bottles she collected from her hotel for him. He gets paid by the KG for these bottles which are then recycled. Someone else bought him a meal. Tiny, dark, silent, and birdlike he crouched on his haunches watching us. Pau had left the restaurant and returned with an elderly western woman wearing a sari that still revealed her jet black dyed hair. She scowled and spat out words in fluent Hindi, bloated crimson hands bringing her cigarette to her lips. Pau accidentally spilt a small amount of Lassi on her and she slapped him and violently let forth a volley of Hindi expletives before scurrying into the back of the café to mutter to herself. We found out the next day that she arrived in India in the 60s and strong opiates were responsible for her distended feet and hands. We marvelled with Hope that she was still alive. Beggars stopped but we offered only food. None was taken. Mafia rings run the begging and begging spots are ‘owned’ by the rings. The rings want cash not well fed beggars, emaciated yields better profits. After wonderful food and hospitality, and an eye opening 2 hours we retreated from the madness to our hostel, with arrangements made for Hope and Eli to join our trip around Delhi the next day. An elderly lady lay sleeping on the floor, no bedding and no blanket, wedged up against a parked motorbike. She wasn’t part of a ring. It is singularly the most heart wrenching thing I’ve seen.
We had hired a private car through the hostel, which we could use a card to pay for, to take us to the sights. At breakfast, we put the bananas and packaged muffins in our bags to give to the old lady we had seen asleep on the floor the night before. After collecting Hope and Eli from their hotel we set off, cramped in the car, giving instructions to our driver that we could only visit sights that were free and needed to find an ATM during our day out. Our first stop was the beautiful main Krishna temple. Shoes and cameras were locked away before we entered. The architecture was decadently decorative, pinks and golds adorning every inch. We explained to a shocked Fred the appropriation of the swastika by Hitler, 6 days in and I still struggle when I see it everywhere, wondering why on earth Hitler would choose a symbol from a peaceful Indian sub-continent religion. I need to find some time to research that. We were given a wonderful talk by one of the monks receiving offerings for Shiva at a shrine in the temple. We earnt a grey Bindi for our foreheads, leaving with some good old fashioned advice for the boys on working hard, and a better understanding of the Krishna faith. Next stop was an ATM. The first machine we came to had some people outside so we pulled over. However, it was empty as many are now, but those outsides were filming for India TV News, the main 24/7 news channel. Our driver was asked if we would be happy to be interviewed for the lunchtime news. We said yes and trooped out for our moment of Indian fame. Arranged in a tight semi-circle, Hope, Dean and I were each asked a question on the situation, the boys excitedly beaming at the interviewer. It was all quite thrilling but unfortunately we would not get the opportunity to see our piece to camera on the midday news.
Finally, we found an ATM with cash on Connaught Square. With hope in our hearts and Hope by our side we stood in the queue of 30 or more people, and the boys made friends with some Indian men who were hanging out. The queue moved at a snail’s pace, a slow machine, and people using ATMs and cards for the first time. It was here that we learnt the detail of what was going on. Modi is the working class Prime Minister from an impoverished background who has a successful reforming track record as Chief Minister for the Gujarat region. His party won an overwhelming majority in the last election, ousting the corrupt ruling class Congress Party that has been led by Indira Gandhi’s descendants since her assassination. Only 1% of people pay tax in India, and like Argentina it is a black / grey market cash economy. To address rampant corruption and the lack of funds for public services; education, development and sanitation improvement, Modi has committed to overhaul the commercial system. He needs to flush out the black-market cash hoarded at home by rich Indians and get tax paid on it. To make this money visible, collecting tax on it retrospectively, he has abolished the old 2000 (£25) and 500 (£6) rupee note, replacing it with new notes. All the old notes must be turned into the banks by 15 December or they become invalid. Indians with money therefore must bring their money to the banks to change for new money, in this process they should provide evidence of where this money has come from and tax paid on it. If there is no evidence of tax paid they must pay the current rate of tax on it. The practical impact is the banks have long queues of people waiting to change the old notes, and when new notes are issued it is largely the new 2000 rupees. However, the new notes are a vast sum in India and change for these notes is now running out. The central bank underestimated the requirement for more 100 rupee notes to keep the system liquid, providing change for the new large notes. To spread the cash distribution everyone is limited to a maximum 2,000-rupee withdrawal a day (tourists 2,500). However, as a tourist, even if you get your hands on 2000 rupees you struggle to use it because the everyday traders don’t have change for that kind of note on a 20-rupee transaction. Despite the chaos being caused, people not buying and having to queue for 5 hours a day to get cash out, the vast majority of Indians support this, only the rich or corrupt object. Queues are patient and there is a real acceptance that they are prepared to suffer real hardship for a few weeks to build a better India.
We successfully got 2,500 each out at the ATM, and feeling flush with cash we set off for our next stop the Lotus Temple. A long queue nearly put us off, but it was moving fast and we were inside the elegant grounds in 15 minutes. Like Sydney Opera House, the Lotus Temple is made of cream tiles that shine like a white plastic in the sun. You follow the long beautiful path up to the holy waters that surround the Lotus Temple before circling up into it. It was here that we got our first taste of Indians wanting a selfie with us. Fred with his blonde hair and radical haircut is a hit. My blonde hair and pale skin, comparatively as I’m sporting quite a golden tan, is a favourite with the sari clad ladies. Dean doesn’t do too badly looking like a white Sikh, he’s been asked several times if he’s from the Punjab. As a holy place, where you can take a camera, lots of Indian tourists visit. Consequently, many visitors from rural areas have not been around, or met, westerners. Requests for photos doubled the time it would have taken to do this visit otherwise. We felt quite sorry for Hope and Eli having to linger for us. Hope is half Philippine and half white British, consequently after 6 months travelling her and Eli look almost Indian, and since her blonde husband Rob left for the wedding they’ve not had to stop often for photos. We did our best to keep moving but it was slow progress, we didn’t want to offend parents throwing their children at us for a photo op. In the temple, we got some respite and sat quietly in the pews enjoying the silence. The temple is home to a new religion ‘Baha’i’ with a wonderful central aim to unite all religions to bring harmony. All faiths visit this temple and all are considered equal. By now starving we made our way back through the crowds, being stopped for more photos, and let our driver take us to a restaurant that took cards where he would get a free meal and commission. Five of us ate for £15, a wonderful but expensive meal for India, however we got the use of western toilets and left restored.
Our final stop was The Red Fort, the place you’ve got to visit if you come to Delhi. As a tourist, you pay 10 times that of an Indian for all attractions, still a paltry amount compared to the UK. It was £6 each for adults and children were free. In Jaipur, we met some people from the North West of England grumbling about the ‘thieving Indians’ and the inflated entrance fee for foreigners. We felt embarrassed at their ignorance and wondered if they had any appreciation of the tiny amount of money locals earn and just how rich we are compared to them. The Fort was stunning and wonderfully unkempt. Colonial barracks had been constructed during the days of the Empire, sitting alongside the open rooms of the Maharajas palace. It was a Sunday and family day for Indians. Immediately we were besieged for photos, often starting with shy requests that you are only too glad to oblige. Fred was warming to the theme, smiling on cue and deciding that he rather liked fame. I suggested he see how he felt about it at the end of 6 weeks. We spent a gorgeous 2 hours exploring and only touched the surface of the site, you could spend a day here. On the walk, back out at closing time we passed the vacant colonnaded Commanding Officers residence, long grasses and rusting iron garden furniture left in situ. It was all so romantically evocative of bygone times. Just what I wanted to experience. Exhausted, grimy, but fulfilled we drove back to our hostels to repair ourselves before dinner at Madan Café again with Eli and Hope.
The next day was a 5:45 start to walk the deserted streets of the Bazaar to Old Delhi Train station. The sun had not risen and cold of Indian winter nights still lingered on the narrow dirt main road. Our only company was a handful porters pulling empty wooden carts, and Tuk Tuk drivers who woke bleary eyed from sleep in their open cabs to call us for business. As soon as we hit the station the bustle returned, but we found our platform easily and sat on our backpacks to wait for the Express Train that would take us to Jaipur. Around us people waited and station porters slept on their carts with just a blanket for warmth. Perfectly on time our long train emerged, 30 plus carriages, and we climbed onto our luxury seating in 1st Class Air Con. Staff brought us trays with newspaper, cups and bottles of water and we settled down to enjoy the 5-hour ride. It was as we pulled out of the station that we got our first real sight of mass poverty. People sleeping under railway arches among dirt and rubbish, those who were awake picked through the residue of the lives of others, searching for food or something to sell. Lining the route out of Delhi shanty settlements of plastic sheeting and other materials made for more luxurious dwellings. Beyond the makeshift housing decorative rendered houses painted in multi colours were waking up. The sun rose as we emerged into verdant green countryside. In neat fields the women were out tending goats and crops clad in vibrant sari’s, heads covered by orange shawls to shield them from the sun. Breakfast arrived, breaded deep fried vegetables with peas and rice. It was delicious. We caught up on the news reading The India Times, dominated by news of the cash crisis and the government’s response. It is the season for farmers to buy seeds and fertiliser and Modi has directed cash to the villages for the next 2 days to enable them to trade. He has also given permission for agrarian merchants to accept the old notes and can swap them in at later dates. This huge experimental overhaul is requiring the government to adapt implementation daily to the challenges being thrown up. I just can’t imagine any government in the developed world being this bold and brave for the benefit of the poor and long term health of a country, challenging the establishment and corporate norms.
On arrival, our driver, organised by our Airbnb, found us after a 15-minute delay. We’re at the wrong exit. As we’ve waited men come up to us looking for business. We stick to our plan and engage in conversation. They are respectful and curious. Fred and his hair is the main conversation point. We have fun with them, leaning in to their intimacy and lack of boundaries. Sabir Ali is our driver, extremely tall, beanpole thin, and very dark skinned. As he takes us to the Explorers Nest he offers his services for sightseeing, producing a beautifully bound notebook full of handwritten endorsements by tourists of all nationalities. We agree a price for the rest of the day and the next of £25, and he promises to help us find cash. He sees us to the home of Lt Col Arvind and his wife. It’s a leafy cul de sac in the heart of Jaipur, walking distance to the Pink City, set over 3 floors with a roof terrace that has view of the Amber Fort in the hills above the city. We relax for a couple of hours on the cool first floor balcony before Sabir picks us up, chatting with Arvind as his Nepalese houseman serves us toasted cheese sandwiches. We learn more about the support for Modi and his reforms, and the endemic corruption that has hindered the lives of ordinary Indians. Things are hard even for this household, they don’t have the cash to replenish their stocks of vegetables and drinks for guests, his wife make daily visits to the bank to wait in line for ATMs to dispense the money that is like gold dust.
Sabir picks us up in his white car and takes us around the city sights. Far less polluted than Delhi, it is nevertheless packed and progress is slow. We start by driving through the Pink City, more orange than pink, it is nevertheless a confectionary of juicy concentrated food colouring and moulded fondant icing. Noisy and packed, men sit in groups at the front of each shop reading papers, playing dominos, and chewing the cud to the backdrop of honking horns. Our skin has dried out, dust is everywhere, the dry heat of India is a contrast to the humidity of Thailand. We decide we need to find baby oil to smooth our scaly skin. We decamp from the car at the oldest palace in Puskar and make our way down a narrow lane. A fee of £25 buys us all a 2-day pass for all the sights in and around Jaipur. We take the marble steps up into the main quad of the Maharajas palace which has an elaborate fountain in the centre. Carved pillars support the balconies above from which hand worked edging cascades. There are 365 small windows in this palace that is built over 5 floors, each one smaller than the one below. We make our way up through the floors until we stand, like the bride and groom, at the top of this wedding cake admiring the view of the city and the hills surrounding it. At every turn groups of young men and women, families, and school groups stop and ask for photos. The trick is to keep moving, when you stop someone plucks up the courage to ask and before long a hoard of people have gathered, moving in for ‘Just one photo please Ma’am’. It never is just one photo; members of groups and families are rotated until a whole album has been created with every member of the family appearing in combination with us.
Next up, the Prince Albert Museum, a multi-national collection of antiquities housed in a palace built for a visit to Jaipur by Prince Albert. We admire the ancient coins, art, weaponry, industrial art, painted panels telling the story of Hindu Gods and prophets, amongst other displays. It’s an impressive collection that we can linger over in the cool of the interior, at least we linger if we dare but not long enough to appear in more family albums and Instagram pages. But of course, we don’t escape, and we smile broadly for each photo.
Sabir takes next to a Maharaja’s mausoleum on the outskirts. Its stunningly beautiful with not a soul in sight. The monument, more open pillared buildings set in beautifully tendered rose gardens, covers 5 acres. It’s in the hillside and the fortified walls of Jaipur, which extend out and up the steep hills from the thick outer walls guarding the remains of a past ruler, remind you of the Great Wall of China. Stray dogs have made their beds in the courtyards and wild peacocks take flight when we appear. Fred has acquired Henna on both his forearms from a friend of Sabir, a 10-minute job to decorate has cost us a ridiculous amount (£12), but for Sabir we don’t negotiate as he’ll get 50% commission and we’re being too polite. Fred walks around with his arms extended allowing the thick goo to dry for at least an hour.
Our final stop is the Monkey Temple. We refuse the pressing offer from hawkers to buy monkey nuts but take up one of the young guides to show us around. We can pay what we like, a neat trick that always makes you pay more than you could. We forget his name but he’s a delight. We climb up the narrow winding cobble stones covered in monkeys, there are hundreds here in large troops. Mothers carry babies in their arms, some nursing them. Youngsters bound along, sticking close to their family groups. Some ride the pigs that are everywhere. Litters of piglets snuffle the walled edges of the steep path, moving out of the way of roaming cows. We see our first genetic mutation, revered in India, a cow that looks like its half way through calving. It isn’t, instead it has an extra 2 stunted legs protruding from near its tail. A man in robes offers us a photo for money, we decline. Our 17-year-old guide indulges Fred in some parkour, they run up the smooth rock face that lies between the hairpin bends of the cobbled path. We finally make it to the top where an open flat roofed building sits and admire the most stunning views of the city. Fred has disappeared with our guide; we are called out of the cool to see them atop of the building waving for photos. I gulp at the sight but remain calm, the temple children in tattered clothing have danced along the walls we’ve climbed with kites held aloft and survived. We sit down, the four of us, and wait for sunset. Jubilant clashing music drowns out the horns of the city, it’s a wedding party taking place in an arena the size of a premiership football club. We can see it from our vantage point. This is wedding season, a disastrous time for this de-monetarisation, but despite stories of weddings being cancelled we will see many wedding horses trotting through city streets. This one is a grand wedding and we are told it will last 5 days and cost over £100,000. As the sun starts to go down the arena below is lit up, neon pink and bright white lights illuminate the festivities. There must be over 1,000 people at the wedding party. The sun starts to set and we make sure we put down our cameras to enjoy it. It’s wonderful. In the dusk, we descend, two robed temple monks are sat on a roof top chatting. They smile and wave and let us take a picture of them surrounded by monkeys. They don’t ask for cash and our guide tells us that they are real holy men, not one of the pretend hawkers that hang out around the city. We pay our guide 200 rupees on the way down because he doesn’t want his boss to know how much he got. The £2.50 we paid him puts a smile on his face and we say goodbye, avoiding calls to buy food and drink from stall holders.
Back at our retreat a Thali was cooked for us and we wolfed it down. Arvind and his wife joined us for dinner. We discussed Indian politics, relations with Pakistan, and the monetary crisis. We move on to their experiences over the last 9 years of running Explorers Nest. They have us in fits of laughter at the story of a 45-year-old Englishman who arrived 3 years ago to buy a camel and ride it across the Indian desert. He had been on a camel safari when he was in his 20s and decided to fulfil his dream of making a solo crossing of a desert by camel. His family had clubbed together to provide the £800 for a camel and provisions. Arvind and his wife decided to join him in making his purchase, and allowed him to park his camel outside for a night. A night turned into 3 until the camel ran away. It was tracked down but it was too young for the task. Another camel was bought and Arvind sent the Englishman on his way. He eventually heard that his dream of being Lawrence of Arabia ended after 6 hours when he fell off his camel and had to finish the journey on the wagon provided by a guide he had eventually hired when he realised the task of making the trip solo was beyond him. To top it all Arvind tells us that India has no desert to speak of, it’s a narrow strip of arid land that runs from Jaipur to Jaisalmer, villages and dwellings every half kilometre. An ill-conceived midlife crisis that entertains us all.
Arvind’s Nepalese chap makes us scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast which we take on the cool terrace with the company of chipmunks and a pair of colourful doves that have built a nest in a hanging basket. Sabir picks us up and takes us to the tallest tower in Jaipur, it’s a narrow construction without steps that we struggle to mount in our slippery footwear. We are thankful that there are no other visitors to this hidden gem as there is only room for one person in the passage. A dead gecko protrudes from a light fitting having overestimated the space available. We climb the 100 meters mostly in the dark finally emerging into the bright light. Thankfully a high mesh has been erected around the space at the top, Dean still manages to mistake a man-sized gap which runs through the middle for a step, narrowly missing a fatal fall at the last minute. We enjoy the peace, high above the busy city, before making our way down the polished floor that turns it into a helter skelter. The only way we can do this and stay standing is to use the walls on either side as a prop. It’s amazing how much fun you can have without Health and Safety regulations.
Jaipur has one of the oldest astronomy centres in India. Giant instruments for navigation, star gazing, and time telling constructed in the 16-1700’s by subsequent Maharaja’s and still standing today in the palace grounds. It’s nearly midday and we watch the sundial, measuring 50 x 20 meters, until it is noon. The heat is blistering and we retreat to the shade. We can’t do the site justice and after half an hour we head out to find Sabir and his car. His uncle is there telling Sabir where to go for cash. Sabir buys us some pineapple from a stand to keep us going, we’re running a tab with him and he’s already lent us 2,000 rupees. Our running joke is that he is both driver and banker for us in the current circumstances. We park up outside a bank, more than 200 people are pressed up against the gates, women on one side and men on the other. The police are letting batches in and the scrum is robust. We muscle our way near enough to catch the eye of the police and they come out to give us safe passage inside. I fear crushing in crowds, avoiding them at all costs, but we brace ourselves and Sabir takes care of Fred as we make for the gate. We’re ushered into the bank manager’s office and are brought water. A negotiation with a British national, of Indian origin, is taking place. He holds a wodge of £50 notes in a silver clip, but leaves empty handed. With a roomful of people standing, us seated in luxurious leather chairs, we explain our need for cash. A long exchange between Sabir and the Bank Manager takes place, at the end of which we learn that the ATM is around the corner being refilled as we speak. When we get there, there is a queue of about 20 waiting but they smile, welcome us and usher us to the front, delaying themselves by 15 minutes. We get our maximum of £80 of cash out and feel like we’ve won the lottery, and when we emerge triumphant from the small booth they cheer. The cheer is because, as the first customers of the replenished ATM, we confirm it is working, and they also cheer for us. All through this testing time Fred is experiencing things that make him understand just how lucky we have been in Britain since rationing ended.
Lunch is in the carpark at The Amber Fort, young boys find Sabir a space and we go over to a stall run by a friend of Sabir’s. Few children go to school after the age of 10. We get Chai, sweet milky masala tea that is divine and our regular drink in India. Samosa’s and vegetable Pakora’s, freshly made and cooked by the owner, are served. A stop in the public latrines is a test, but Fred and I pass it. The fort itself is astounding. We climb 50 meters up the walled cobbled winding path to this stunning hilltop construction. I cry as I walk through the mirrored halls, this is what I came to Rajasthan to see and it doesn’t disappoint. We clock up more selfies, I’m sure we’ve been photographed more than Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in the last few days. We stay only an hour at the fort but again you could easily spend a day. For me it should be on anyone’s bucket list and I’d even come back to admire the formal lake gardens and wonderfully preserved interior again. The views of the region from towering windows are simply stunning.
We let Sabir take us to a fabric factory, we know we’re likely to get conned, but we feel we owe him. True to form we are subject to a piece of theatre; walked through a fabric dyeing space, past tailors, and carpet weavers, and up into a sales area. We know all but the sales area is theatre. Drinks are produced and fabrics laid out. The salesmanship is amazing and we buckle, 10Kg of bedspreads, tablecloths and scarves later we slot our credit card into a machine and let go of £200, plus £50 for shipping to home. I wish Dean a ‘Happy Christmas’ and Sabir beams, he enjoys the joke and I suspect can’t believe his luck (he’ll get 50% of this sale). Exhausted we arrive back at Explorers Nest with another day agreed with Sabir, this time into the countryside. We stroll out for dinner 5 minutes away in a local roadside eatery. A tiny ragged child begging catches my eye and my emotions. We ask the owner to get him some food and a dish is placed on the table behind us. I ask the owner to bring it to ours so we can eat with him but the child is terrified of us and refuses, and so he sits behind us and eats. Another table pass a Lassi that they’ve ordered over to him. I’ve no idea if he is a genuine beggar but my guilt is satisfied and I know he has a full belly that night.
I wake early and get up to catch up on blogging. We’ve been doing too much to find time to write, and I have so much to write about. I get about 20 minutes in, herbal tea made from plants in the garden is served before fellow guest Mona (not her real name) sits down. She is a beautiful woman in her 50s from New Zealand, but speaks with the accent of her German homeland. I adored meeting her from the start, but this is the first time we have had quiet time together. She leaves India in 2 days after 3 months here travelling and studying Ayurveda Medicine. She spent yesterday helping a young Indian woman get money, giving up 100 rupees of her last 800 when they failed. Mona must leave today, she met an Indian man on a train in Bikaner, romance blossomed as he took her sightseeing, and he is coming from his home town to consummate the passion that has developed. No hotel will take a booking from a westerner and an Indian unless they are married. She spent a day trying and our Airbnb host must comply with the rules. They have found somewhere, through a friend of a friend. She knows it will be one night only together, but she lives her life as though every day is her last. We’re going to New Zealand in the future and I will visit her, she’s a special one.
Having achieved no blogging, but had a great time with Mona, we set off with Sabir. We’ve chosen the location, the Sambhar Salt Lake. Sabir is not very happy, it’s in the middle of nowhere and he has never been there, we suspect it’s because there is no chance to earn commission. Dean insists and there is a tense moment when Dean leans into the car, where we and Fred are buckled in, and says he’s calling the day off as Sabir tries to negotiate on price again. Sabir caves in and quickly works hard to make sure we are all friends. We get over this hiccup by the time we are out of Jaipur, it takes an hour. We pass a big road smash and policemen scratching their heads. Sabir pulls over to check everyone is ok, they are. Then the countryside opens, no traffic, just ladies in the brightest of saris on foot often herding goats between grazing. On the small homesteads trees are grown in straight lines, crops are green, and there are hayricks that Turner could have painted next to the mud walled homes. All this set against the ever-present bright blue sky. We pass a small bazaar taking place away from any dwellings, it’s like a car boot in an English village but without the cars. An hour into the countryside we see a wedding taking place. The thick red and gold stripes of the marquee walls hang down from the community open building and a white wedding horse, resplendent in jewelled saddlery, stands in the shade. Sabir asks if we want to visit it, we say we’d love to if it’s not rude, he assures us they would be honoured and we reverse up.
At first the vast wedding party is cautious wondering, like us, about the protocols. They’ve never met westerners we learn. I put my hands together and greet them with ‘Namaste’s’ which they return. The smiles suddenly grow and I am pulled over to the women and a tiny baby, its eyes Kohl rimmed to protect against flies, in the arms of its mother. It unites us all and I’m given the baby to hold. For a tense moment it looks like it’s going to dissolve into howls but rhythmic rocking calms it, smiles and clapping come from the women. The wedding photographer appears, looking like he’s won the lottery. I’ve lost Fred and Dean by now in the melee, but when I turn still holding the baby, I see Fred atop the Wedding Horse. An intended 10-minute stop turns into an hour; we are shown the stash of wedding gifts, taken through to a small dark room inside a house that has been cleared to view the brides (there are 2) and grooms, and posed for photos. We gift 200 (£2.50) rupees to each bride which brings howls of delight from their families. The brides themselves look only 13 or 14. Their faces are covered by elaborate veils, but for our benefit they are drawn back so we can gaze at their beauty. Like exotic creatures only just captured from the wild they are shown off, surrounded by a noisy insistent crush of people. They look terrified and are anything but the Bridezilla’s of the West. This is most definitely not ‘their big day’. We retreat from the dark cool room, feeling rather claustrophobic, and are posed for more pictures. I’m surrounded by small children now calling out ‘HI’. I have to say ‘Hi’ and shake hands with each of them. It feels like being the member of the royal family without the bodyguards. I’m acutely aware of this as I feel sharp pains in my head and realise that I’m having hairs pulled out as mementoes by the children behind me. One of the older villages clips them around the ear. We finally say goodbye and walk to the car. The whole wedding party follows us. The car is surrounded and Fred and I struggle to get in, I peel fingers off the door frame terrified of shutting the door on them. We leave to the sound of the car being slapped, and as we look out of the rear-view window we see the colourful clothes chasing us despite the dust of the road. We can’t believe the wonderful experience we have just had. Sabir is beaming.
After a few wrong turns, Chai tea at a cross roads, and directions from motorcyclists that we stop, we arrive at a deserted religious retreat ‘Dhani’ next to the lake. Ancient Rajasthani white buildings surround a man-made lake, a mini Pushkar. No one comes here now and the water is green and stagnant, nevertheless it is stunning for its silence. A man appears and ushers us into his home, its divine, bright bedding covers mats on the floor and a small child plays with a metal bowl and spoon. He takes us through his home to his terrace that overlooks the lake pulling up chairs for us, his wife brings us water in metal cups. His mother is sitting cross legged on a mat in the shade reading a book in large print. They ask us for nothing, just want to share the beauty and tranquillity of their home. Sabir finds us and is worried that we are drinking water that is not mineral, Dean and I had given it a go out of politeness but stopped Fred as we were unsure. We leave with grateful thanks and pictures for posterity. A gentle and heart-warming time. The salt flats are a weird experience. We’ve come in the wrong way and we’ve arrived at the salt production side rather than the wild wetlands. It’s a pre-industrial revolution way of working that takes 3 men who are currently sitting in the shade. We wander through the square sections of salt water, a broken down wooden cart is rusting on the ancient railway tracks that are no longer used. Fred and Sabir wander off between the square mirrors of water chatting. We explore quietly for half an hour and take pictures of the eerie perfect mirrors and strange colours. By the time we are back in the car we are more than ready for home. That night Dean has succumbed to a virus and stays in bed as Fred and I go out to meet Hope, Eli and Rob for dinner. We catch up on adventures and places visited.
We have our final adventure on the platform of Jaipur station. As we get our seats in Second Class non-AC (padded bench seats that Indians use but not usually westerners), there is a fuss over seating. A man in his 50’s wearing a suit is indicating that he should be in the seats we think we should be in. Dean gets his ticket out of the wallet which he carries his passports in. Suddenly Dean notices that the man making a fuss is no longer there and he pats his pocket. The wallet with passports is gone. We’ve fallen for the classic distraction con, one that we had read about but forgotten. With the train standing in the station, Dean charges off down the carriage and jumps onto the platform. A fellow traveller points Dean in the direction that the man has run and Dean follows in hot pursuit. This takes him across the platform, into a train and out the other side where he jumps down onto the tracks. He runs across 2 lots of tracks, climbs back onto another platform and up the concourse to the station building. He spots the man, carrying a bag that he recalled, and shouts at him. With 2 police officers at the exit the man drops his bag. Dean picks it up and remonstrates with him. He returns to the train holding the wallet aloft and limping with a bloody knee. The train applauds him and pass him anti-septic cream. We feel for our passengers who are all Indian, we can tell they are terribly embarrassed. Amazingly, given the time that the whole incident took, the three of us pull out of the station with all our bags. Dean’s virus is long forgotten and he seems to have a whole new lease of life.
In our first 6 days India gave us everything and more, as did its people. A huge, complex, multi layered society that we’ve only seen through a crack in the door. Its left us hungry for more and as I write, its continuing to deliver, but I know even now that I’ll be back many, many times. If you’ve not been yet, book your flight, it will be the best experience you ever have.
We left the hustle and bustle of vibrant Chiang Mai and an eye-opening trip to the Elephant Nature Park in search of an island retreat. With 3 weeks before flying to Dehli, to start 6 weeks in India, we wanted a slow pace of life chilling in a hammock on the beach. Abbi, a volunteer at the Bangkok Bed and Bike hostel, had interrupted my migraine inducing search for a destination. She had spent some time at Bee Bees bungalows on Koh Lanta, one of the islands in the South Andaman Sea, only leaving because she had to make her way to Bangkok. She knew what we were looking for and her description sounded perfect.
We took a late afternoon flight from Chiang Mai to Krabi, Dean had ordered a taxi and booked one night in a cheap hotel, making for an easy journey. The young Thai on the desk was wonderfully sweet, delicate, and quietly spoken. He showed us to our room, apologising for his English despite it being perfectly adequate. Like most young Thais he wore the obligatory brace on his teeth, further broadening his already impressive smile. Our room could have been a studied homage to the 70s; nylon quilted bedspreads in bright primary colours picked out the detail of the 6 flying ducks arranged diagonally, in flight across the wall. We suspected Hilda Ogden had been commissioned to decorate. We booked a minibus and ferry service to the island of Koh Lanta via the front desk and set in for a good read and an early night.
In the morning, wary of island mosquitos, Fred and I went in search of more spray and a few additional supplies. Although inland, we could smell the sea on our walk and started to get excited. The bus came on time and we set off on a round of collecting other backpackers. We were soon full to bursting, the driver miraculously finding ways to squeeze in another huge pack and passenger, just when we thought there couldn’t be another pickup. Our final stop involved the driver reversing up a motorway, realising he had missed a layby. None of us could quite believe it and, seated in the middle of the bus, I was dearly thankful we hadn’t got into the back row when we had the pick of the seats. We’d spent enough time in Thai vehicles and traffic to know it was unlikely that his reversing lights would be working, and we all held our breath as lorries bore down, missing us by centimetres. We survived, prayers answered, and our final pick up was made.
The journey took us through country lanes, past stall holders dressed in tunics and hijabs. The south of Thailand is predominately Muslim with a wealth of Mosques dotted along the roads. A small ferry took us across the narrow strip of sea, mangroves lining the coast, we imagined crocodiles lurking in their dark corners. As we crossed a final bridge onto Koh Lanta we spotted hoards of long tailed monkey’s playing on the mud flats of the estuary. My shriek of joy ensured everyone’s cameras were pulled out and blurry shots were captured. We soon came to the coast that Thai Islands are famous for, long white sand beaches and distant horizons dotted with craggy islands. In December and January the water will turn crystal clear, but for now the typhoon and monsoon seas are still churning. It’ still a stunning sight, the bright blue sea disappearing into the horizon.
We were the third drop off and, in the hot mid afternoon sun, we put on our backpacks to tramp down a narrow muddy lane to find Bee Bees Bungalows. The promised 3 minute walk was thankfully just that, and we were quickly in the middle of bamboo huts with roofs woven from palms, colourful hammocks slung on the balconies, surrounded by embroidered scatter cushions. Ann, the Thai owner greeted us, deeply tanned with long floppy jet black hair that fell over his beaming face. I’d called that morning to say we were coming, Bee Bee’s doesn’t take bookings, but Ann had held a room for us, turning away another family. He is always full, whatever the season, so it was a lottery as to whether we would get a room. We did. His wife Karo, Japanese by origin, showed us where to stow our luggage until our bungalow was ready. A sand floored, open sided roundhouse forms the centre of Bee Bees, tattered books slotted into the floor to ceiling library, roughly hewn fixed seating circling homemade tables covered in colourful cloths. The bar is an honesty bar, drinks stored in vast ice boxes just outside the shared space. We opened a large bottle of Chang beer and walked the 20 steps to the sea. It was bliss.
Before long our bungalow was ready and we were blown away by the multi floored adobe that we would call home for the next few weeks. Fred had a double bed, suspended above ours, which he accessed by a vertical wooden ladder. Mosquito nets gave the place a fairy tale quality. Outside our balconies were on 3 levels, each with a hammock and reclining cushions. Our bathroom was a cold water shower and sink, the loo was flushed by pouring a bucket of water into the pan. Back to basics, and an escape from modern life and comforts. As Ann said to us later, “I give you Thailand when you come here”. Apparently its not to Thai tastes, too close to regular life for Thai’s, but us Europeans love it. With bags in our bungalow, we pulled on our swimmers and took to the water. The beach is golden sand, but below the high tide is a dead coral reef. When the water receded we were treated to the sight of the exposed blackened coral, the result of the 2004 Tsunami, that is slowly reviving. A richness of weird and wonderful ocean creatures have returned, making for great rock pooling. We all took a stroll down the beach in the early evening, passing other accommodation and bars that had yet to open, its still low season. A harbour of longtailed boats greeted us at the end of our walk, a newly built boat was on dry land getting its final coat ready for its maiden voyage.
We had all sorts of plans for our Koh Lanta stop, there is plenty to do on the 22km long island. But instead our plans have ground to a halt and the days have raced by as we’ve fallen into a routine of doing very little except chilling out and making friends of strangers. As it would be monotonous for me to write about each day; early morning breakfast of omelettes and black coffee, sea swim, occasional run, Pad Thai lunch, reading and writing on the beach, more swimming, and dinner with Chang and cocktails, serenaded by Ning on his guitar, followed by bed, repeated day after day, I thought I’d delve more into the people we’ve met and the friendships forged. The fifteen bungalows have become a community of people, some here as long as we are; neighbours we speak to daily and share our time and food with, others passing through bringing fresh conversation and perspectives to those of us who have decided leave our backpacks unpacked.
Ann and Karo head up our family. Always smiling and promising the weather will be better tomorrow. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. When it’s raining, which it often has been, he joyfully tells Dean that it is just for him. He knows that Dean is here to escape the oppressive heat of the interior. On beautiful days, when the clouds have cleared he apologises profusely to Dean but celebrates his miraculous workings with other guests. Everyone’s a winner here. Two brothers Ning and Nong, yes these are their real names, are the man Fridays for Ann and Karo. Long jet black curly hair frames their delicate faces that host wispy beards. Ning is tiny, short and slender, Nong is strappingly tall for a Thai with a supermodel look. They tell you they love their work; waiters, barmen, playmate to children, and night fall turns them into musicians who strum the classics with a reggae beat, lyrics laden with thick Thai accents. An army of others look after us all and re-build the bungalows that are eaten away by insects within 2 years. We say “Sa Waddy Car / Cap” every morning to the ladies of the kitchen, hands together bowing, and they giggle back at us. In return for our customer loyalty they occasionally feed us sweet treats that are not on the menu. They are mysterious glutinous sticky black blobs wrapped in singed banana leaves. Chief engineer, plumber, electrician and builder is a toothless older man who wears his sage coloured baseball cap back to front. A cigarette permanently suspended on his bottom lip. A new shaded platform was erected in a day, including electrics. If you plug your charger in and hold the end of the cable you get a lovely feeling coursing through you; no earth to have an earth cable here. Bee Bees is truly built on sand. Of course a place like this has its own massage veranda. It’s £6 for an hour long Thai massage with oil, and the grandmother who kneads you between her fiercesome[Fh1] fingers has lost none of her strength. She spends most of her day sitting Buddha like on her platform in the shade, gazing at the sea, until one of decides we need a work out to correct our postures from too much lazing around.
A multitude of nationalities make up our fixed community. A Swiss family with 2 children are at the start of their 12 month trip, figuring out what they enjoy doing and relaxing into the start of home schooling and travels. They’ve been trying to leave for 4 days now, after 10 days they wanted to see a smaller island that is only accessible by a longtail boat. The first day they were too late in booking, the second day the boat was full, on the third day the weather was too bad. Last night we had a stunning storm and all boats were cancelled again this morning. We’ve started to call this place ‘Hotel California’, you can check out but you can never leave….. We’re convinced Ann is conjuring the sea Gods every night to keep this wonderful family here.
Mark is English, here for 30 days to write a book on mindfulness and self inquiry. He left his Executive role at EMI as head of music for music more than 1 year old, to find something more grounded. For the last few years that’s been yoga, coaching, working festivals and stuff he enjoys. We spend hours with Mark chatting about life. Our politics align and he has a refreshing optimism about the future. He sees young people all around him who have compassion, emotional intelligence, openness, and a healthy disregard for ‘Little Britishness’. Mark makes me think about my drive to always be doing stuff, I decide to give myself permission to do nothing productive, unless I want to. I decide that doing nothing has become my exercise for this leg. I’m living in the moment, enjoying conversations and inactivity. I’m exploring the boundaries of boredom and refusing to weigh up the success of the day with asking myself “what have I achieved”. Dean and Mark spend late nights, long after I’ve gone to bed, talking about TED talks, papers on psychotherapy, achieving fulfilment and whatever. I pump Mark for music industry stories and am left slack jawed by some of the things that he tells me, I understand why he left. We’ve all got to know one another well, Fred is disappointed on the nights when we venture away from camp to have dinner just the three of us. A new tribe has formed quickly in this place.
Michael is Austrian. A leathery tan is the canvass for heavy tribal tattoos. In summer he is a surf instructor, in winter a ski instructor. Bright blue eyes bulge out, contrasting with his gingery sun bleached eyebrows and hair, when he talks. His energy is enormous, like a child he is constantly in search of adventure, finding it daily and having us in fits of laughter at his exploits as he retells them in great detail. His English is excellent, no more so than when he is swearing. Every story has several “This bloody fucking shit…..” in it. Spat out in a heavy accent, he experiences joy and frustration in extreme measure. We live the moments he has lived, enthralled and amused by him. He has a single minded certainty and absolutism to his thinking that is admirable. His bluntness engages me rather than offending. He walks by having an ADHD moment, just now as I sit here typing, to say he doesn’t know what to do. I tell him that when you don’t know what to do you should do nothing. He says normally when he doesn’t know what to do he smokes a joint and then he knows what to do. He went on a cave walk a few days ago and the guide gave him a joint. He’s only just smoked it “But the bloody fucking shit joint, it was like nothing, like maybe it was bloody, fucking shit green tea, I don’t know”. He’s wandered off down the beach, maybe in search of a mushroom shake. He’s been threatening to leave for days, but it’s that Hotel California vibe again…..
Drugs are abundant here, a joint for sale behind bars (not at Bee Bees) on the beach. It’s illegal but a blind eye gets turned and a few Baht are handed over, which is what inflates the price of the below the counter joint apparently. Mushrooms are not illegal, and bars serve up Mushroom Shakes “bloody fucking shit weak” according to Michael before he has one, “bloody fucking amazing shit after he has tried one”. One of our camp is experienced in drugs, they have accidental encounters with locals and expat residents; Italian girls, Spanish girls, other girls. They always seem to be a pair of girls. We become educated, vicariously in their merits, properties, effects, and the detail of the trips they get. Acid is dropped one night. In the morning we are told that the bleary eyes are a consequence of too many Changs. Camp gossip reveals it was the acid taken with a couple of Italian girls the night before. A lovely couple, transient members of our tribe, impress us with their non- drinking. We find out, in the course of the evening as I order another Mojito, topping up the rum with the bottle in my bag (one downside of Thailand is they don’t ‘free pour’), that they are actually stoned on Tramadol. You can buy it for £1 at the pharmacy if you say you’ve had a motorbike accident. I’ve a strip of legitimately obtained Tramadol in my pharmacy bag, but reserved for strict medical emergencies that require extreme pain relief. I don’t tell anyone in this conversation, I want to avoid being coerced into being a dealer or exposed as a party pooper. The Tramadol will be going home intact if this trip is successful.
A German couple are here with their 10 month old baby. She never stops smiling and practicing her wave. She’s passed around the camp, held, clucked over, and played with. Her parents are a delight. Mum’s a peace worker, with experience in Lebanon and Syria, we have conversations that shock and educate us. Lebanon is a tiny country with 4M population. In the last 5 years they have had 1.5M Syrians and 0.5M Palestinians settle due to conflicts. The country has absorbed a 50% increase in its population without violence. The charity she works for supports interaction between Lebanese youth and those of migrant countries. The objective is to sustain the assimilation and prevent prejudice in the younger generation through exposure and education. Friendships are formed and compassion is established. We reflect on the trauma and media hysteria that less than 1% of immigration causes in our wealthy, vast, European landmass. Not seen the Daily Mail or Express report on that success story. We learn about the rise of the far right and nationalism in East Germany, once the cause of so much angst to West Germans, as they had to fund the integration of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The rescued become the persecutors. By contrast we learn that in Dachau, infamous for the horrors that took place during WWII, the community has volunteered to host immigrants from Syria and Libya. A town hall meeting attracted 70 residents who quickly decided that their new residents needed small groups formed to help with the practicalities of settling in their new country; how to set up a bank account, clothing for the families, learning German, finding long term housing, sourcing employment etc. The volunteers spanned generations, making amends for the horrors of the past by opening their arms to the vilified of the present. It would be erroneous to label their individual motivations, but the past is determinedly not being repeated in Dachau, there is no ‘bogeyman’ that they fear, only people in need who the town chooses to help.
Hannah and Kieran were our new Georgia and Ed (who I’ll come to in reverse order). They’ve just left us, a 2 night stay turned into a 3 night stop, Hotel California again…. Hannah was a sassy, fun, joyful companion. Without a doubt her start in life had privilege and excitement, thanks to her father’s profession. She surprised us with her thoughtful and original thinking. She did not understand the concept of ‘nationhood’. She considered herself a global citizen, as did Kieran, an Aussie who had lived in London since he was 19. They both wanted to live wherever they wanted to in the world. Money, education, professional qualifications allowed them to do this. If she could, due to circumstances, live anywhere in the world, then why shouldn’t others? Global citizens not identifying with ‘nationhood’, I liked the concept and the thinking. It rang true. There are people I know who have family that have emigrated that hate immigrants and vote UKIP. They have no issue with their family that emigrate, but have an issue with immigrants. What is the distinction? Creed and colour I suspect. Hannah told us that her parents split their time between the South of France and Oxfordshire. Dinner parties at her parents were international affairs. Within the wealthy ex-pat community a few voted ‘Leave’, not her parents. Hannah highlighted the irony that those expanding their footprint, living outside their ‘nation’, were voting for a narrower vision of Britain. A Britain that isolates itself politically and economically from its nearest neighbours and allies, driven by a fear of losing its identity.
Before Hannah and Kieran we had Georgina and Ed. Another well educated and well travelled couple in their 20s. They are emigrating to New Zealand for 2 years, maybe more if they like it and get accepted. Ed plays rugby with Fred on the beach; coaching him in dummy runs, tackling, and other manoeuvres. Ed didn’t chose banking or a high paid commercial job, instead he worked with underprivileged children in inner city London coaching them in rugby. More great stories about kids who unite across tribal boundaries of race, to form a coherent school team. The Somalians, Traveller, Eastern European, Asian, and UK white kids stop fighting for a bit and play rugby as a team. One of the them is interviewed for an England Rugby video about the project. Asked what he thinks of Rugby his answer is “Well its better than fighting isn’t it?”. Ed gets good news when he’s at Bee Bees, it looks like he has secured a job in New Zealand rugby coaching as part of a community project. How lucky that group of kids will be.
Georgina has left her job working for MIND in London. I mistake her for a Grammar or private school girl. But no, she went to a tough comprehensive that has now closed down. Well read, well travelled, open, and inquiring, she makes me think about my anxiety over the poor secondary schooling in Newark if we don’t get any of our choices for Fred. We play cards at night with Ed and Georgina, talk mental health policy and funding, ruminate over the state of political choice available to the electorate, share a sadness about the disconnect between the elderly, who want to save ‘Great Britain’, and the young vote for an inclusive society. They tell us great stories about India, which they’ve just left but will be returning to after Vietnam, before they finally arrive in New Zealand. Fred’s appetite begins to be whetted for adventure in this strange land.
Mark has started to teach a yoga class on the platforms at the front of the camp, at the water’s edge. Lithe young women from all over Europe join in. He shows them the bars at night, and I tease him about his coterie of ever changing devotees. You can find him sitting crossed legged most days or nights, when not writing or teaching, with at least a couple of young women wanting to learn about yoga and mindfulness. So we have our own guru, not self made but appointed by the tribe.
Throughout all of this peace and harmony we’re counting down to the US Presidential Election. We were in the US for the Democratic and Rebublican Conventions, we watched the speeches and late night analysis in motel rooms. Fred is as enthralled as us. As election and results day approaches we make sure that we have a live feed we can play through the day. Fred asks me the night before what will happen if Trump wins. I start to answer, but stop because I can’t even think about that being a possibility, something churns in my stomach at the thought. I say there is no point discussing it because it won’t happen. I’ve convinced myself that the pollsters have got it wrong and that Trump and his divisive politics will herald a Democratic sweeping victory; Senate, Congress, and Presidential.
We rise to our 7am alarm, the first results will be declared at 7:30am. We sit at our regular table on the beach, bamboo roof providing shade, and our jolt inducing electrics available to keep us fully charged. There are 5 Americans that have arrived at Bee Bees. The three middle aged athletic adventurous ones are leaving today at 1pm, so they will get the results whilst still at Bee Bees. The others, two wonderful ladies in their 50s, have only just arrived. We get ourselves coffee and breakfast and ignore the first round of results, we all know the electoral college system well, there are only a few key states that will decide this race. Optimism is high, but I’m surprised that my game changing Democratic sweep is not materialising from the start. As the Americans emerge from their huts they huddle around too. Everyone of them is rooting for Hilary, some because they cannot countenance Trump as their President. We were expecting to be done by 11am, but as 11am arrives concern is setting in. Trump is ahead, but it’s to be expected. The Mid West, Central and East Coast states are in, with the exception of Pennsylvania, a swing state with a large number of electoral college votes. When Florida is declared for Trump the first shock starts. Florida is a swing state that has voted for every elected President, except 1964. It has voted red. The Americans that are leaving get another beer, they’ve been drinking beer since 9am. They leave to pack and lie in a hammock to read a book, a distraction technique. When they’ve stopped thinking about it and concentrating on it, it will all come right.
We watch the percentages by state as the votes are being counted, across the board the swing states and the ‘firewall’ states are too close to call, it looks bleak. Isa, the German who works with refugees, comes out with Paulina here daughter in her arms. She looks like she’s going to cry. Paulina reaches out to us and sits on my lap, Isa stood at the side of our table watching the live stream. Paulina all giggles and smiles, clambering onto Fred and nestling into him, distracting us from our anxiety and horror. We agree that even for the atheists at the table we should try a prayer, it’s a joke except it isn’t.
We aren’t watching Fox, the Daily Mail / Express / Sun of US television news only worse. We’re watching the more moderate Murdoch fare of Sky News. The mood amongst the diverse group of pundits has changed; voices have dropped, they look pained, and rather stunned. The atmosphere in the studio is mirrored by us. A couple of young women are interviewed in Time Square, they so eloquently get to the nub of the issue with Trump “If he is elected, we have a President who admits he sexually assaults women, and that tells every man in America that its ok to sexually assault women”. A heavily accented man, who is part of a group of middle eastern origin, is asked who he supports. The reporter is stunned when he says Trump. She asks what he thinks about some of the anti-Semitic statements Trump has made during his campaign. He laughs, and smilingly opens his mouth to speak. His friends pull him away before he can answer. We sit at our table slack jawed at what we’ve just seen, so are the pundits in the studio.
Democrats and Republicans at their headquarters in New York are interviewed. Sarah Palin comes on, beaming through her interview. After the interview a pundit reports rumours that she will be a candidate for Secretary of State. I tell the Americans at Bee Bees. They shake their heads in despair and order more beers. They’ve huddled together now, away from our table, talking intensely, heads shaking as they speak. There is a lull in the results coming in, we leave the feed running, and I draw Fred diagrams, teaching him the structure of American government. The role of the Executive (President), Legislature (House of Representatives: Congress and Senate), Judiciary (Supreme Court), and how the Founding Fathers set out to create a ‘balance of power’ between these three arms of government. We cover the Electoral College system, and in it discuss the merits of proportional representation, or not. Today it’s a rounded Political Science seminar, more hours of it than we expected. I eventually give up. It’s looking like Trump will triumph. I pick up my detective book “A child killer stalks the frozen streets of Aberdeen”, it comes to something when a novel about paedophile serial murderer is more appealing than watching the results of the Presidential election.
The election is called, decisive states have voted Trump, and we cannot believe it. To make matters worse, the majority of Americans voted for Clinton. She won the vote but, for only the 2nd time in 120 years, the Electoral College system has delivered a President who did not have a majority of the vote. Al Gore lost to George Bush Jnr on the only other occasion. Fred tells me to stop swearing. I tell him I will, its just that “I cant f***ing believe it”. I say this many, many, many times. The Americans apologise to us, we tell them its OK. They tell us they feel so embarrassed, we tell them it’s OK. The couple, that are part of the group of three leaving today, say they’ve already emailed their financial advisor to see what they would have if they liquidated their US assets. They’re not joking.
We don’t watch anymore. We swim, play, read, and then go out for dinner. Mark, us, and the two American ladies. We don’t talk about the election, but we drink a lot of wine and talk about nice things. We stop thinking about Stevie Wonder’s thought for the day “it’s like putting me in a car and asking me to drive”.
The next day I wake early and lie in bed watching the speeches. First Kaine and Clinton. Fantastic, thoughtful, authentic, measured, and utterly heart breaking. Then Pence followed by Trump. Dean had said to me that Trump was reported as being quite moderate in his acceptance speech, I’m curious to see this change. When I watch Pence and Trump I’m utterly thrown. They are both appalling, shatteringly appalling. It’s a rambling mess of homespun nonsense, chants of “USA USA USA” in the backdrop. The satirical puppet film ‘Team America’, from the South Park team, comes to mind instantly. Pence, to his shame, says he is proud to support and serve Trump. No he’s not, and we know he’s not. He says a lot more than that, words that could have been written and delivered by a small town bank manager at a Rotary Dinner, not the Vice President elect of America with a team behind him that should have written a worthy and noble speech.
He introduces Trump, weird music plays in the background, really really weird trash opera music. For 2 minutes everyone is left waiting, cameras pointed at the staircase down which Trump will descend. Hilary was introduced by Kaine and walked on the stage immediately. Trump apparently does this a lot, like a band at a gig, leaving the crowd waiting allowing the anticipation to build. The Queen is never late. Eventually he appears, descending the stairs painfully slowly. Was he worth waiting for? If you like South American soap operas then yes. We watched them occasionally in Rio, Santiago, and Cordoba, with Fred, giggling at the bad acting, poor delivery, over the top make up and dress, and obvious absence of any plot sophistication. The cast of one of these soaps follows Trump down the stairs. They look like they’re going to a wedding dinner and took a wrong turn. The speech itself is a rambling mess of non-sequiturs, pointing out people, praising the secret service then randomly acting out how he’ll throw himself to the floor of the car when they tell him to “coz these guys are tough, they’re really really tough, and you do what they tell you”. I could go on, but just watch it for yourself if you haven’t already.
As I watch Trump, I wonder if the Republican party is dying inside. It’s like your most embarrassing relative turning up uninvited to a party and dominating proceedings. I cheer myself up by thinking that this is actually the best thing that could have happened. The Republicans now have to manage Trump, 50 key Republicans signed a letter saying he was ‘dangerous’. Did they hope he’d lose? Did they expect to win Congress and the Senate, but have Clinton as President, making her a lame duck President by killing her policies in the legislature, just as they have done with Obama? Now the dream scenario for political parties has turned into a nightmare for Republicans. There will be nowhere to hide for Republicans for the next 4 years. Everything, good and bad, will be at their door; a Republican Congress, Senate, Presidency, and Supreme Court (due to a vacancy Trump will nominate, and Republicans will endorse, the deciding judge). The figurehead, in the President, a narcissistic psychopath, sex attacker, hater. The Republicans will either have to manage Trump, who has shown himself to be unmanageable to date, or civil war will break out in the Republican party. I smile a bit when I think of this. But like a rapid cycling bi-polar sufferer, it makes my despair even more acute. There is no ‘balance of power’ as envisaged by the Founding Fathers. I swing between the two emotions for the rest of the day. Over Mojito’s we raise our mood, reminding ourselves that the young will right the wrongs in the next few years.
Koh Lanta and Bee Bee’s are our island paradise. A beautiful setting that has been fabulous because of the people we’ve met and spent time with. Our only common threads, tying us together, are that we are travelling and like things basic. We differ in many things; some people here do drugs, some of us don’t. Some of us believe in God, some don’t. Some of us have kids, some don’t. Some of us have employment, some don’t. Some of us are rich, some aren’t. Some of us are old, some aren’t. But without exception we do not fear the strange or the different. We wake in the morning to the sounds of Muslim Prayer, broadcast over the tannoys that line the streets. We are served by Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Atheists on Koh Lanta. We all learn the three genders that the Thai language has, female, male, and transgender (they had these long before Caitlin Jenner) for our humble Thai greetings. Collectively we share a disbelief at the result the Electoral College System delivered. We console the Americans amongst us, who are bereft. We remind ourselves that young people, in both the Brexit referendum and US elections, voted for inclusion. But make no mistake, if we look to history, avoiding disaster will be either a miracle, or the result of sensible souls in the world ensuring that we have a compassionate culture that is unafraid to challenge and stand up to hatred. I’ve quelled my anger and anxiety. Let’s have a revolution of compassion that people hear, see, and feel through individual and collective behaviours. My blog was going to finish here but……..
……..Last night I checked my Facebook page. A former work colleague had devastating news. Her 18 year old only daughter died suddenly in the early hours of Sunday morning. It’s heart breaking. The fragility and preciousness of life came into sharp focus. I sent her my love and let her know I will be thinking of her, a paltry token given her loss. Two things will get her through the tough years of grief; the love of those around her, and her own resilience and fortitude. She has these in spades. Love, resilience and fortitude……….
Shine on you Crazy Diamond (Thailand Part 2)
We arrived into Chiang Mai in the darkness, sharing a communal Tuk Tuk with a charming chatty crew of solo young backpackers. Our hotel for the next 4 nights was a short shared ride away. Sri Pat was the number 1 Lonely Planet recommendation as a ‘Flashpacker’ hostel, and we got it at a great rate. Our room, with a roll out bed for Fred, was on the top floor with a balcony overlooking Chiang Mai. A small pool was squeezed into the courtyard, perfect for cooling off after a day’s sightseeing. We found a refreshing salad bar for dinner, after a short walk, navigating the mad traffic wizzing through the narrow streets. Sultry spicy air was all around us and we could see why Chiang Mai captivates its visitors.
We committed to making the most of the day, and set off reasonably early, skipping breakfast, in search of the famous Wat’s. Old Chiang Mai is quite compact, and we took less than 15 minutes to arrive at our first stop, The Lanna Museum. We took in the exhibition slowly, reading about the Lanna culture and its rich religious content. Comparative religion was todays educational subject, specialising in Buddhism. We followed this up with a refuelling of pancakes, smoothies and toasties (picking up an intricately strung Buddhist fresh flower charm from an elderly lady who came into our café selling them) before making our way to Lilia Massage. This fabulous social enterprise retrains female Thai prisoners in massage. There is a terrible amphetamine problem in Thailand, addiction leading to petty criminal activity to fund the habit. Stigmatisation of released criminals makes it impossible for them to return to their families and communities, or gain employment. The Lila Massage provides the way for them to progress; the committed ones pass the selection process and training, finally working in one of the several parlours they have set up. In beautiful purple and gold silk uniforms the women stood in the teak lobby bowing as we entered. We sat and chose from the menus before being led to seats where our feet were soaked and carefully washed. Fred was to have an hour long foot massage, whilst Dean and I had opted for a full body oil massage. We would have this together. The signs in the hall way listed behaviours that the school expected of its masseurs, and those it wanted reported; poor service, talking during massage, lack of interest in the client. They clearly ran a tight and disciplined ship. Dean and I slipped on our massage pants and hair nets, I don’t think either of us have looked less appealing. The massage however was amazing, careful, thorough, and utterly relaxing. Still dazed we joined Fred in the lobby, he was smiling beatifically. It was another ‘best experience of my life’ for him. We bowed to our ladies and thanked them in Thai and wished them all well, glad that we had spent our money here.
It was temple time, and we set off for the most significant Wat in Chiang Mai just around the corner. We couldn’t go into the main temple, a conference for orange clad monks was underway, but the grounds and a smaller temple were all we needed. Massive gold statues in the gardens astounded us, and the smaller beautifully decorated temple we could enter was a feast of Thai religious art. Most monks are only there for short periods. They earn ‘merit’ for themselves and their families by taking orders for a month. There is huge prestige for a family when one of their sons does this. However the fast pace of modern life is taking its toll and many now short cut it to a weekend, or week. I’m not sure how this works in the eyes of Buddha, feels like a bit of cheat to me. It was amusing to see most of those not in prayer wondering the gardens with smart phone in hand, quiet contemplation seemed quite absent. None of them looked terribly happy, they probably looked the least happy Thai people I had seen.
The heat was quite overpowering and we had had a pretty good tour, now ready for the pool, so we headed back. I had decided that I could no longer put off a waxing session so found a small shop and left them to make their way home. A neatly dressed middle aged Thai lady took me through to a bed, drawing a curtain around us and turning on the wall mounted fan. We were not, apparently, going to reveal my body one bit at a time, tucking tissue paper into my pants to deal with my bikini line. Instead I was to strip off and lie naked on the bed so she could see the extent of the renovations to be undertaken. She put her glasses on and peered at me and, like a plumber, sucked in hard. The pot of wax was on and she set to, methodically working from my lower leg up as I lay naked on her workbench. When she got to my bikini line there was no discussion about how I would like it. The scissors came out first, every hair trimmed back. Then came out the clippers for more trimming. Finally the wax was ready. I was put in positions usually kept for the nurse every 2 years, and fingers dexterously found folds no western beautician has ever been near. Judging from the time taken, and the places visited, my beautician in England has been rather negligent. When we were all done and I stood to get dressed I saw bits of flesh I’d not seen since before puberty. Miraculously it had all been rather painless. I paid my Bhat (£14) and left feeling, I swear, lighter.
At the bottom of our lane we had spotted an outdoor pizza oven servicing a corner plot restaurant. Wine, a rarity in Thailand, was on the menu which sealed it for me. The food was delicious, excellent service, and we ended up with the delightful company of a German family backpacking with their scarlet haired 18 month old daughter. An early dinner turned into a late night fed by great conversation.
Desperately in need of a clothes wash I woke early and dropped a big bag at the laundry next door, picking up an iced coffee for Dean and I on the way back. Made with condensed milk they are a total meal, or two, but gorgeous. We wanted to head out of the city into the countryside to escape the city for a day. We’ve missed the campervan and the freedom to drift into small places, a Tuk Tuk, we hoped, would give us the chance to explore a bit. I passed an older driver parked up on my way back with the coffees and we agreed a price of £6 for him to drive us around for the day. We gathered our things together and joined him 20 minutes later, the three of us squeezed into the back with a couple of bags of picnic food and swimming gear. As we cleared the city, picking up speed, we were cooled by the open vehicle, infinitely better than an aircon taxi. Fred beamed as the small vehicle gave a false sense of tremendous speed, though he did seem to be overtaking vehicles of all sizes. I started to wonder, not for the first time this trip, if this was to be our last experience of life. I’ve found that the only thing to do in those situations it suck up the experience, if it’s going to be your last you might as well enjoy it. I’d hate to die anxious and unhappy. The Thai countryside is wonderfully lush. We turned off the highway and at ground level it was like being in England of old. Thick rich green grass covered untamed verges, ditches were full of water, running off the jungle hills that surround Chiang Mai. We climbed through the lanes, making our way to Sae Mae waterfalls. Several times we politely declined his offer to take us to the Tiger Sanctuary. Sadly none of the tiger centres are sanctuaries. Tigers are taken from the wild, kept in captivity, and drugged to keep them passive. Second generations are bred in captivity, never knowing freedom. Its dispiriting that monks are responsible for many of these places, tourists understandably believing that ‘sanctuaries’ run by monks must be ethical places. They aren’t. If you can pet and lie against a tiger it’s drugged, unseen cruelty having been used in its ‘training’. We also enschewed the ‘Monkey School’, ‘Cobra Show’, ‘Crocodile Circus’ that we passed for the same reasons. Instead we made our way to the Insect Museum and Zoo. The website had promised the largest collection of insects and butterflies curated from across the world.
We arrived to a warm welcome and few visitors. The staff could not have been more enthusiastic in their desire to educate. Rare, madly coloured, butterflies flew through the air in the especially planted butterfly garden. Chrysalis hung from branches, some moved to carefully arranged twigs so they could be viewed. Several huge moths had hatched in the night, apparently it’s rare for visitors to see one still hanging on to its redundant shell, we saw three and they were enormous moths. We got to view the incredible display of pinned insects, numbering thousands, from all over the world. A challenging array of insects were on display to handle, Fred took some persuading but overcame his primeval instincts and worked his way through caterpillars, centipedes, beetles and stick insects. He rejected the millipede, 100 legs were ok but 1,000, he decided, was too much. We were glad he got over his fears, and learnt a lot, however it wasn’t lost on us that we were creating a hierarchy of what creatures should be kept in captivity and handled and which shouldn’t. This was brought into even more sharp focus when we were offered Bearded Dragons and Geckos to hold. They were also for sale.
Ready for some really wild nature we took another 20 minutes to get to the falls. As it was Sunday the locals were out in force getting relief from the heat of the city. Mae Sae is a series of 10 waterfalls that you climb up a path to get to, each one higher up. We heard them before we saw them, also feeling the cool they gave off from a distance. We climbed up the steps that have been cut into the hillside, stopping at Waterfall 7, third from the top. Deep pools overflowed with the water crashing from above. Pretty streams carried the foaming water down to the next fall. Young bucks were doing tumble dives off the rocks, we sufficed with navigating the slippery flat rocks that led into the pools. We soon had a game going of swimming into the falls, being submerged by the foam, finally emerging with the current into the large deep pool. It sure beat the CentreParcs rapids for excitement, but required a watchful eye despite Fred being a strong swimmer. It wasn’t long before Fred had found some local kids to play with, then a Dutch family. Around us families picnicked, children swimming whilst parents enjoyed the cool of the spray and relief that the higher elevation provided. It was just beautiful, surrounded by jungle green, peering through the canopy above the falls to see the vibrant blue sky. We headed back to our Tuk Tuk, greeted cheerily by our driver, after a couple of hours of fun. He wanted to take us around more of the sights, so we settled on the nearby Karen village. The drive there was more gorgeous countryside, past farms and homesteads, buffalo grazing freely. The village itself was a disaster. We walked for a minute up the entrance path, past small food outlets staffed by bored unsmiling villagers. At the entrance, we were asked for £10 per person, a vast sum in Thailand. We declined. We could see it was a coach tour construction, villagers lounging around like lost souls at the zoo waiting to perform for the cameras. There was no interest as we left, perhaps they were drugged too. I suspect they had no sense of self beyond that of freak show. It was desperately sad. We started off the drive home in a muted reflective mood, but ‘Captain Chaos’ our driver cheered us up with small detours through the lanes before taking us home. We showered off the jungle before Fred and I set off for a foot massage at ‘Silver Hands’ just around the corner from us. Side by side we sat in the small parlour. It was a lovely time together, Fred is the perfect massage companion holding hands as our feet, legs and thighs were worked over.
That night we got a Tuk Tuk to the famous Saturday night market, weaving through the traffic at speed, until we hit the queues on approach. Spread out throughout an entire district, the narrow streets were packed with visitors moving along the stalls on either side. More cooling clothes, especially for Dean, and lots of street food were the order of the night. We picked up some pretty trinkets, and much to my later regret didn’t purchase a beautiful necklace made from moulded incense. I jangled my way through the market, adorned with a delicate ankle bracelet that hung loosely. I hoped it gave the impression of the racehorse ankles possessed by my grandmother which genetics failed to pass on to me. Dean finally found some light clothing in a shop run by a delightful older Thai lady. Her English was pretty good, and she was very honest about what would fit and wouldn’t, even if it did her out of a sale. As everyone is covered in sweat at the market you can’t try clothes on, so we held shirt seams to his back and loose trousers to his waist. Shorts and shirts were selected in fabulous colours; the trousers were trickier. My special moment was her poking Dean in his stomach telling him, quite earnestly, that he needed to lose weight. He responded telling her she needed to make bigger clothes. She then proceeded to tell him he needed to eat less, and set about demonstrating the abdominal exercises that would benefit him. I loved the searing honesty and lack of obsequiousness, I’d take the first over the second any day. We agreed what we wanted and she kept discounting it, bartering herself down at every stage of the sale, without a word from us. We left happy and amused, apart from Fred who was outraged that anyone could criticise his Dad, whatever compliments had come his own way. Great food, refreshing fresh fruit smoothies, and live music along the way completed our market experience. We left the hustle and bustle at 9pm for home, we’d leave the late night party market for others.
A slight hitch in the booking of our visit to The Elephant Nature Park needed sorting on Sunday morning. Dean had accidentally booked the following Saturday, which whilst not disastrous, did mean we would have to go up to Pai, or somewhere else that we weren’t planning to, to kill 5 days before returning to Chiang Mai. A late night brain wave was to turn our one day booking (for the following Saturday) into a two day plus overnight stop this Monday, the website was showing vacancies. It would be quite a bit more expensive, but we weren’t liking any of the accommodation options to stay in the North. We headed over to the office in the city and thankfully they could accommodate our request. We got a sense of what ENP would be like as a small blackbird hopped on the desk, guarded a calculator jealously (it was clearly his and his alone), and sat on Deans shoulder watching the proceedings. Rescued dogs lounged under the tables, including a Pug, Fred’s favourite breed. After sorting out our ENP trip we grabbed a very late breakfast before heading back to chill out at the pool, packing for ENP, and sorting our flight to the islands. A late lunch was Japanese across the lane from our hotel. It was fabulous and ridiculously cheap. We got our jobs done, ran out of time for a massage, but walked to the Sunday Night market 5 minutes away.
Fred got his long awaited fresh coconut, Chiang Mai sausages on sticks filled us up before we tucked into dumplings cooked in front of us. We didn’t buy anything else, just soaked up the atmosphere of the vast market of local goods. Our walk home took us through the heart of backpacker party town, on the corner of a cross roads a VW camper had been converted into a bar. We stopped for a Mai Tai for me, Sprite for Fred, and a virgin Mojito for Dean. With elephants calling the next day we sensibly decided one was enough.
The mini bus arrived at 8am and we soon had the company of a young female vet from Ottley, Yorkshire, who was volunteering for 2 months at ENP, in the dog sanctuary they run. They have 400 dogs that they rescued, mostly from the 2011 Bangkok floods. Only 40 a year get rehomed in Thailand so a group of 80 dogs were being sent to Colorado with a charity that had sent volunteers to pick them up and fly them to the US. On the hour long journey we discussed farming, veganism and animal ethics. As a local farm vet she was a firm supporter of the small farmer, desperate not to see them eaten up by big industrial farms servicing the supermarkets. As a family we are grappling with our love of meat and starting to struggle to reconcile it with our view of what our relationship should be with animals. As we educate ourselves, and I’ve been pretty close to farm life, its becoming more difficult for us to justify buying meat that we haven’t farmed and slaughtered ourselves; with full control of the experience that animals have. It was a good conversation. By the time we arrived Becky had offered Fred the opportunity to come and visit the dog sanctuary so he could help out during his stay.
Our companions on the 2 day, 1 night stop were Alisha and Jake from Colorado. We couldn’t have wished for more lovely people to spend our time with. Both were civilian nurses (intensive care and emergency care) who had served in the Navy. Jake had been deployed in Iraq twice and they had met when stationed in Italy. In their 30s, they were well travelled, funny, and thoughtful as we discovered over the 2 days and a beer or more. We arrived with Jake and Alisha for mid morning feeding time. The elephants here roam free, accompanied by a Mahout which the elephants ‘choose’ when they arrive. All the elephants here have been abused, traditional elephant ‘training’ is by its nature an abuse of them; physical and psychological. They therefore need to have a totally new experience of humans. The Mahouts are drawn from the local tribes, some of whom only speak their own language, who are traditional elephant Mahouts. They have been trained by ENP to use positive re-enforcement and leave behind methods handed down through the generations. We stood on the balcony handing out watermelon, bananas, and squash. The elephants came over to us and used their incredible trunks to take the food from us. Until you see a trunk operating close up you don’t appreciate its dexterity. Containing over 1,000 muscles, with a tip that works like an opposable thumb, they sniff out and carefully take the large, or tiny food, from you. The teeth are set deep in their mouths, but the vast tongue makes an impressive appearance. We were already in love.
After feeding we walked along the river that runs through the park, elephants wandering in their family groups. Lone elephants have made new friends, others have arrived as small families, and a few new babies have been born. Naughty teenagers ventured across the river to the other banks, loathe to return, but coaxed back by a Mahout. Heartbreakingly there are severely disabled elephants hobbling along. A female, always close to the visitor centre, had a crushed rear leg, the result of a logging accident 10 years ago. We wondered if Stryker, Johnson & Johnson, or another orthopaedic trauma supplier could tackle the challenge with a bespoke solution. Land mines left behind after wars accounted for other injuries to limbs, so whilst free they were not pain free, their vast weight placing unequal pressure. There were elephants we didn’t see. Too traumatised by humans they are on another site in the park. Some can’t even be with other elephants, so they live alone with their Mahout to care for them.
In Chiang Mai dozens of elephant riding, trekking and training centres advertised. Driving in we passed people on elephants in rigid baskets, or bare back riding. When you come to ENP you wonder that it is still legal. Elephants do not have the physiology to carry humans, their bones deforming over time. Like the tigers, monkeys, crocodiles at the other attractions, they have been taken from their habitat and subject to discipline to train them to do unnatural things. Thankfully the commercial success of ENP has led to 2 other local operators moving from riding and chaining to free roaming. The park is confident that if visitors to Thailand, and other countries, choose to spend their money in ethical ways, all parks will be driven by the power of money to rethink their offer. Ultimately its in our power to influence what happens to those elephants and other animals already in captivity. The bigger challenge is to ensure that none of the 1,000 remaining wild elephants are brought into captivity.
On the first day we bathed the elephants that had been led to the river for a cooling bath, one elephant for the 4 of us to bath. After discussion with Jake and Alisha, we decided on the second day we would give this up. The success of the park means that more than 50 visitors (there is a limit) a day visit, paying the significant cost of buying the elephants that need rescuing and paying for their ongoing care, which is huge. The consequence is a dozen elephants, who are the most well integrated and placid, experience a lot of human contact at bathing time, surrounded by groups of 10 throwing water on them. We stepped back from our second bathing experience so the larger groups of day visitors could share our elephant.
A wonderful Thai vegetarian buffet was provided at lunch, and afterwards we walked around the park again. We got close to some of the elephants, others we kept back from (those who want to play their way which is just a little to rough for a human to survive intact, or those who just need their space). We watched them rolling in the mud baths, made for them daily using diggers and a hose, and tossing cool dry dirt with their trunks onto their backs. We all decided that watching them, whether close up or at a distance, was rewarding enough. A skywalk from the visitor centre was impressive, again giving the elephants space. We hoped that one day visitors to ENP will find it sufficient just to watch them.
Our rooms were surprisingly luxurious, and most wonderfully situated over the elephant park. A compound housed those with recent injuries who needed to stay immobile for a bit. It was right behind us. At night we were serenaded by the flapping of ears, shaking chains as they tried to undo the gate using their trunks, and the odd trumpet to family roaming elsewhere. Not even elephants like to be in hospital. Before we went to bed we found Cat Kingdom, the cat rescue centre that is on site. Fred was in seventh heaven as dozens of cats roamed free, low gates surrounding the Kingdom only to keep the roaming rescued dogs out. One section was for newly rescued cats who were enclosed, a holding area that they would be released from once ready. With both the rescued cats and dogs all, but the sick and new, roamed free. The vicious ones wore a red ribbon to warn visitors. We liked that. If their aggression was the consequence of human abuse, they would not be punished by being imprisoned, instead the rest of the human race would have to take their chances, but fair warning had been given. A few doggie skirmishes took place over the course of the 2 days, territories being established daily as they claimed temporary ownership of day visitors. Alisha and Jake were claimed by a dog who snuck into their room with them. Snuggled down they let him lie as they went for dinner. No trouble until they went back at night and a second snuck in. We chuckled on our balcony as we listened to the sounds of them trying to separate and shift the intransigent squatters. Dean picked up his own dog. She had sat at his feet all night in the bar as we chatted with new friends. She growled if our feet threated to tread on her, Thai dogs are far more assertive than their South American relatives. As the night set in, fireflies came out, and Chang beer was drunk, she made her way to his side, quietly ignoring the occasional pack warfare that broke out on the decking. Bedtime came and she followed us also sneaking in to our room. Like Jake and Alisha we let her be on the sofa.
We had gatecrashed Pat and Marissa’s table at dinner. They were volunteering for a week as part of a 2 week trip from Toronto. Fred found ‘Walking Dead’ fanatics to chat to, and we found more delightful company. The six of us, plus Fred, passed an easy evening of new friendship and common values. Its one of the pleasures of travelling that there is always fresh conversation, we’ve learnt to move on when there’s no connection, but here we found it and were sad it was so short a stay. Once again we thanked Mark Zukerberg for his creation.
Our second morning at ENP was a delight. The day visitors don’t arrive until 11am, so we had the park to ourselves and our guide, and got to walk around the grounds quietly watching the Elephants. Excitement came when we had to make a run for a treehouse as an old elephant decided we were too close to her extended family that included the baby. Aunty coming to see us off. Not content with our retreat, she climbed the tower and decided to pull part of the roof off. Not a word of anger from the Mahouts, instead we were asked to leave, which we did. In the afternoon Fred went off to the dog sanctuary, lovely young volunteers giving him jobs to do and letting him help out. The four of us made rice balls for the old ladies who had no teeth. We mixed a concoction of nutritious ingredients, under careful instruction, rolling them into balls. With a sack truck Jake wheeled the heavy basket quite some distance. As a rather grumpy old lady was our customer, we were imprisoned behind a bamboo enclosure in the park, and she trundled over to us to be fed. We liked that. Humans behind bars, elephants free. We fed her by turn, her trunk decending and sniffing out the food. She slowly munched her way through the meal, preferring a small banana inserted in the rice ball to sweeten it. Elephant snot, deposited by her trunk, covered my legs, I didn’t want to wash it off.
With it nearly time to leave I walked down to get Fred from the dog sanctuary. He’d had an amazing time and the volunteers had been so kind to him. We chatted about the dogs as we walked back, and he told me their stories. As we left, we all agreed we’d had a special time. The 2 days and 1 night was definitely worth the extra money, and our booking error turned into another blessing in disguise. Our only challenge was the further dissonance it created for me about our human relationship with animals. We had vegetarian pizza that night and I lay in bed reading the PETA website. This trip has been life changing, but in ways we’ve not expected. As we waited for our flight to Krabi the next day, in Chiang Mai airport, we researched ‘Gourmet Vegan’ cookery courses in the UK. It’s that or we’re going to have to move to a small holding to rear and farm what we eat, I’m struggling to see any other way forward.
For me this trip is all about having a great adventure with my family. Its taken years for us to finally stop talking about it and do it - simply because it both excites and frightens the life out me! So I'm stepping out of corporate life, where I singularly failed to achieve a work/life balance....to experience different cultures and spend time with those I love xx