finding Myanmar III (2017)

 

Kipling’s “Road to Mandalay” was the majestic Irrawaddy river.  Her route north to Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city, was rather dustier – think long, poorly constructed roads clinging to the hillsides, with motorbikes weaving erratically between the traffic and the potholes,  carrying anything from a family of four to towers of vibrant flowers destined for market.

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It felt like the true beginning of their journey, leaving behind intensely populated and oppressively hot Yangon, to start getting under the skin of this fascinating country.  She’d never before been on a guided trip like this – two weeks where every minute is carefully itinerated.  It would be easy to write about it like a long tick list of places seen … we went there, we did this … but that wasn’t the point.  This was all about having the privilege of visiting a country that, after years of military dictatorship and ethnic feuding, was just dipping a tentative toe into tourism, so rare to find in a world where travel to far-flung places can be done at the touch of a button.

So then, it must come down to the memories that stay so vivid with the passing of time, that they are as clear as if they happened yesterday …

… the long line of saffron-clad bare-footed novice monks, dull eyes, heads closely shaven, queueing with empty bowls for their meagre lunchtime ration in front of a crowd of camera-totting tourists. A life of monastic discipline, cut off from their families and the outside world until they are old enough to decide for themselves which path they want to take.  For those considered fortunate enough to be here, an escape from poverty and an opportunity of an education – in the eyes of a western tourist, a life without freedom of self-expression, a childhood taken, and a uncomfortable insight into a cloistered life, prostituting itself for the sake of a tourist dollar.

… lying in bed in the early hours, listening to the night calls of unseen animals and deafened by the thunder of monsoon rains on the corrigated iron roof of their chalet deep in the teak plantations at Maymyo, high up in the Shan Highlands. Rains .. and sounds .. like she’d never heard before.

… the best part of a day sweltering on a rattan recliner aboard a paddle-steamer meandering it’s way down the Irrawaddy from Mandalay to the ancient city of Bagan, past under-nourished oxen working barren fields, golden stupa jutting above dense, jungle-clad riverbanks, endless rice paddies, and children splashing in the muddy shallows as their mother rinsed yesterday’s longyi, passing snapshots of rural poverty masked in the beauty of this untouched landscape.

… setting off before dawn for a hot air balloon flight over the temples of Bagan. An eerie silence broken only by the hissing of gas as the balloon serenely rose and drifted over this vast plain, over 2,000 buddhist monuments peeping through the early morning mist. And returning later to climb one of the pagodas to watch in awe the setting of the sun over this most ancient of worlds. … magical times.

 

 

 

 

… speeding across the vast serene waters of Inle Lake, fringed by marshes and floating gardens, stilt-house villages and buddhist temples, marvelling at the Intha fishermen, famed for fishing on one leg, and the curious Kayan people, whose woman consider their long necks encased in brass coils a thing of beauty. Such strange and foreign lands …

 

 

 

 

… most of all, the people.  It takes a trip like this to know what poverty truly looks like.  To know how fortunate are those who have running water, a roof over their heads, and  the certainty of another meal. These things so often taken for granted, when so many people in the world cannot.  And yet, they found people who were respectful, courteous and generous with their time … of course, just waking up to the potential riches a visiting tourist could bring, but nevertheless, grounded by their faith, and genuine with their smiles.

Myanmar, such a privilege, such a place … memories that would stay with her forever …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

finding Myanmar I (2017)

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Lao Tzu)

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How to begin to describe the trip of a lifetime?

Everything about it would be a challenge …. the place, the people, the food, the language, the climate … but that was the point.  Life for her was, these days, all about finding out about herself by being brave enough to do extraordinary things that she never dreamed she would be able to do, and pushing the outer limits of her comfort zone. Travelling in Europe, often little more than a 2 hour flight from home, had once felt so adventurous, but now she knew that she would probably find enough that was reassuringly familiar … a comfortable safety net wrapped around her travel plans.

So how far to push that comfort zone, how far to step out of Europe?  Well, South East Asia would do it!

Not one to follow the crowd, Thailand, beautiful though it looked, did not appeal.  It’s poorer neighbour, Myanmar, did. A nation whose people would still be curious about seeing Westerners wandering its streets – how amazing in this day and age, where everything seems so accessible, to have the privilege to visit a country still tentatively learning the huge impact that tourism would have on the very essence of its being.

As is often the way when we plan a trip abroad, it seems that suddenly that very place is appearing everywhere in the news. Is it that many of us are so absorbed in the mundanities of our everyday lives, that we are aware but somehow not aware of events in the world around us until they threaten to impact on our own.  How ridiculous that she had read everything from “The Glass Palace”, chonicling Myanmar’s chequered history since the reign and enforced exile of King Thibaw, to the diaries of Aung San Suu Kyi, yet, until she turned on the news a few weeks before their departure and watched in horror the footage from the Rakhine state, she had not registered the ethnic cleansing that had been happening there for years.  Not something you find in the tourist brochures, that’s for sure.

So the decision had to be made – to go or not to go.  Advice was sought, both official from government sources, and unofficial from friends of friends who had travelled there before, or who lived in South East Asia themselves. Safety was always a concern, though in troubled times, security can be far better and in a way, one feels safer for it.  What played on her mind was the political situation and if she still felt comfortable visiting a country in such turmoil.  It was not an easy decision, but in the end, it came down to the hope that, by going anyway, her visit might in some small way make a meaningful impact on the lives of the some of the people she would meet along the way.

And so, as temperatures in the UK started winter’s downward spiral , she and a friend headed to the airport with suitcases packed with sun hats, mosquito repellent and summer shorts. She’d never been on a flight so long that she somehow mislaid Sunday afternoon, on a plane so large that she had to go upstairs to find her seat ….

The adventure was about to begin ….

 

 

 

 

finding Lisbon (2017)

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Latterly known as the new Barcelona, she stepped from arrivals into Lisbon’s midday heat with eager anticipation, and as her taxi wound its way down into its sprawling suburbs, she wondered if it could possibly live up to that kind of reputation.

Choosing Airbnb was a deliberate attempt to be less of a tourist and more of a local, so home was a tiny apartment in a residential area just east of the Lisbon’s oldest district of Alfama, right on top of a hill.

The hills!  She had been warned about the hills, but these were some serious upward climbs!

Though hills, of course, mean stunning vistas. See from above, Lisbon’s faded beauty is picture postcard, terracotta roofs on careworn tile-clad buildings tumbling towards the sparkling Tagus, famous for sending intrepid explorers out into the big blue. The waterfront, to the east, already redeveloped and achingly cool. Centre stage, the long dining tables in Mercado da Ribeira, the converted food market now revitalised by Time Out, the place to lunch. A noisy, buzzing, anything-you-fancy eating experience, sitting in the middle of the historic food stalls, where market traders have sold local produce since the late 1800s.

Nevertheless, thank goodness for the trams. The famous number 28, clattering through the maze of the narrow cobbled streets of Alfama, inching past parked cars and oblivious tourists, was not for the faint-hearted, but far kinder on the feet and the lungs!  On the other side of town, the “hill” problem is overcome via the Gloria funicular or the slightly bizarre neo-gothic styled Elevador de Santa Justa, rising from the Baixa district to the top of Barrio Alto in seconds, so the views are the only thing to take the breath away!

Lisbon’s hills leave a lasting impression, that’s for sure.

As does the food. In any country, there are certain things that never taste as good as when they are eaten there … in Portugal, it’s sardines. Silver slithers of deliciousness sizzling on market stalls, best enjoyed simply with a fist of crusty bread to soak up all the oil. And of course the famous “nata”, a delicious custard tart, buttery flaky pastry, custard just slightly wobbly, and a dusting of cinnamon.  She could have developed a seriously unhealthy addiction – may be climbing the hills was a good idea after all!

She found herself addicted too to the heart-breakingly beautiful fado music that flowed through the open windows of tiny airless bars in Alfama, as the sun sunk low on those early Summer days.  Fado, from the Latin fatum, and the source of the English word for fate …. so profoundly melancholic, it haunted her still.

They say you have to love yourself before you can be loved. It felt as if Lisbon was just waking up to its potential, quietly hiding away its faded beauty like a secret treasure, still wondering if it could hold its place in the hearts of the tourist droves starting to wander there. She left Lisbon, unsure where this fascinating city sat in her heart, but may be that was because she too was still learning to love herself. She wondered if she had given it enough of a chance to show her all it had to offer …. or perhaps it just wasn’t ready to yet.

 

 

finding Positive Solitude

 

 

“Claim your space. Draw a circle of light around it. Push back against the dark. Don’t just survive. Celebrate.”

(Charles Frazier)

 

She had never heard the expression “positive solitude” until a few days before, but it described perfectly the place she was on her journey.  

When she left her marriage, she knew loneliness would be her achilles heel, so had, of necessity, taught herself to embrace solitude.  The thought of a day on her own still had the capacity to leave a dull thud in her stomach and an uneasiness which she couldn’t quite put her finger on.  But, for the most part, she could get through a day alone, in fact, more than get through….

She found that keeping busy, or at the very least, having a plan, was the key.  Yes, of course, those plans very often displayed all the symptoms of running away, to escape the day-to-day, to break the routine where the silence of no early morning message from him would break her heart again and again. And sometimes, those plans were the end result of anger and defiance standing firm together in a “sod it, I don’t need anyone” kind of way.  Of course, in an ideal world, she would have given anything to be with someone who loved her, simple as that. But there is a difference between wanting and needing.  It took all her strength, but it was that anger, disappointment and hurt that gave her the momentum finally to step out into the world and say “bring it on”.

Holidaying alone, of course, was something else altogether, though she found that fear, when you are brave enough to look it in the eye, has nowhere to go.  

Florence was her first solo trip.  Alone, she spoke less, noticed more … and those moments when it would have been so wonderful, later, to say “Do you remember when …?”, sat in her memory bank alone.  More than anything, she came home with a sense of achievement that made her spirits sour, and still the memory of speeding through the Tuscan hills on a Vespa, that life-affirming rush, that freedom of spirit, left her grinning from ear to ear.

And so to Lisbon. A last minute, need to get on with my life, kind of booking … without any preconceived notions of what to expect.  A deliberate attempt not to be too touristy, to step out of her comfort zone a little further than before. 

And so, she sat typing this story, in a sun dappled courtyard just east of Alfama, the hilly artisan quarter of the town.  A local resident, Jose, popped his head out of his window and offered to put on his favourite fado music to keep her company.  Hauntingly beautiful voices, mending all those lost dreams in a soothing wave of melodies floating through the lemon trees, the delicate blues of heady agapanthus and lavender, across the white washed terrace outside her tiny apartment. For all Lisbon had to offer, she would remember most the magic of that moment. It was perfect.

She realised how far she had come.  So terrified before of even being alone, here she was, in a foreign land without a single soul to turn to. For her, this was being brave beyond her wildest imagination, and she knew she would be fine.  That’s quite a journey!

 

finding Mykonos (2017)

It was certainly a bit of a Thelma and Louise moment.  It was probably the pink helmets that did it.

Three days in to their spring break in Mykonos, it became clear that the only way to reach the tiny unspoilt bay on the other side of the island, was to hire some wheels. Whilst a car was the sensible option for two ladies of a certain age, quad bikes looked infinitely more exciting.  And so it was that they edged their way out into the morning traffic, with nothing but a rudimentary map and a vague sense of direction to guide their way.

They had happened upon Mykonos purely because the right travel deal came up at the right time.  Its reputation as a party island preceded it. Party girls they were not … but pictures of the unassuming family-run hotel just outside Mykonos town, low-rise, white-washed and draped in vibrant bougainvillea, lured them to this tiny dot of a Greek island.

Mykonos turned out to be a surprise in every way.

The town itself was a short boat taxi ride across the bay … what a way to arrive! Chugging into the mooring, they got their first glimpse of the iconic paving that winds its way through the narrow streets of the Old Town, inviting them in to explore it’s maze of quirky local bars and high end fashion retailers … this tiny island certainly attracts the money.  Shopping is more about Armani than  trashy souvenirs. Standing proud on the ridge, the time-worn windmills watch the to-ings and fro-ings of this busy harbour, like they have done for centuries past.

The famous party beaches weren’t for them, but the rest of the island remained surprisingly untouched by mass tourism, and the notion of the romantic Greek island idle that Shirley Valentine gave us in the 80s, can still be found in its barren hills, dotted with white-washed rural hamlets and tiny chapels peeping out at every turn.

Giggling with delight at the absurdity of  how they must have looked to the locals, two English woman on a quad bike, pink helmets, old enough to know better,  they jolted their way along the dusty tracks across the island to Fokos, recommended by a friend for its not-to-be-missed taverna.  Just as they arrived,  the locals started to spill in, bearing gifts for the staff on this the first day of opening for the summer season.  They felt they were intruding on a secret party, but were welcomed like long lost friends and beckoned onto the veranda to enjoy their meal lazily sitting in the dappled shade overlooking what can only be described as an island paradise. For the people, for the food, for the place …. it was one of those “do you remember” meals. Total bliss.

Mykonos … one of those places that where time passes so slowly, but a holiday is over so soon.  A definite must-go-back-one-day ….

 

finding how to Face Your Fears

Funny thing, fear.

It has the potential to paralyse us, to insist we dismiss other options and go for what is safe, to stop us looking forward, to anaesthetise us from pain, to put the brakes on any ridiculous thoughts we might have of doing something wildly adventurous, to trap us in our comfort zone, to force a “no” from our lips when we should be squealing a “yes”. Tricky little blighter, fear, that’s for sure.

Unfounded or not, fear has different boundaries for each and everyone of us. And those boundaries are dictated by our life experiences, and how, having looked fear in the eye (by choice or not) … we have come out the other side. When we face fear, we reset the boundaries, which in itself is terrifying and utterly exhilarating at the same time.

None of us have any idea how our lives will turn out. But we all have a choice. Either to stay in our comfort zone, taking reassurance in the familiar, knowing that even if something does rock its foundation, in essence we can tuck ourselves back into the safety of its warm embrace and sideline change as best we can.  Or to recognise and embrace an opportunity, open our mind to the possibility that different might even be better, and take meaningful steps to live the life we want to live .

It all comes down to be brave enough to try.

She had discovered that, once looked in the eye, fear has little place to go.  And it was that realisation, more than anything else, that had changed her life.

There was no stopping her now!

 

 

 

finding that Eating Alone Isn’t Funny!

 

Laughter needs two people.

Laughing alone, tears rolling down her face,

because her book, the one that was meant to make it look

like she hadn’t been stood up

in the restaurant,

that book – well it was

side-splittingly, eye-wateringly hilarious!

And who, in their right mind,  would want to sit

anywhere near the crazy English lady

snorting in the corner!!

finding Florence II (2016)

Of course, it wasn’t challenge enough to solo travel for the first time. In a moment of madness, she decided to put something a little crazy in the mix, just to make sure this, for her, was the mother of all challenges!

So she booked a sight seeing tour around the Tuscan hills … on a Vespa!

Sound enough idea for an experienced motorcycle driver who had driven on the wrong side of the road before. She’d done neither the motorcycle or the side … ever!! Crazy or what?

That’s the funny thing about fear. Once she’d looked it in the eye, it had nowhere else to go. She’d realised that only way to find out how to travel alone, was to do it! It was a huge, life-changing life-enhancing decision … the icing on top of the cake that was her new independent grab-every-moment life. Hiring a Vespa? Just the cherry on the icing!

It wasn’t without trepidation however that she presented herself at the allocated time at the hire centre. Ten minutes later, after a quick run through of the essentials (basically how to start and how to stop), she emerged into the madness that is Florence’s mid morning traffic.

In the group of a dozen or so riders, some pillion, she was the only solo woman of a certain age. A object of some curiosity to the youngsters and the couples! She rather liked that … though they did collectively take it upon themselves to keep her in the middle of the pack out of harm’s way. Bless.

They wound their way up and up until Florence disappeared into a valley behind them. Clear of city drivers, with the dusty tracks to themselves, she began to relax, loosen her white knuckle grip on the handlebars and enjoy the Tuscan hills that stretched before them, just like they are in the movies. Cypress trees standing tall and straight on undulating hills, row upon row of vineyards ready to harvest, sprinkled with sun-mellowed terracotta villas.

The locals, intent on their daily tasks, watched bemused as a crazy English woman whizzed through their tiny hamlets, squealing with the freedom of it all.

She couldn’t believe she was actually doing it. She felt like she could fly. And life felt so, so extraordinarily good.

finding Florence I (2016)

She caught first sight of the Duomo while she was trundling her luggage along what had now become a rather haphazard route between the station and her hotel. A shock of green and white marble tantalizing her from the end of the street. It, quite literally, stopped her in her tracks.  She was to learn, during the next few days, that Florence has a habit of doing that …

The unpretentious family run hotel situated right at the end of Ponte Vecchio was perfect for a female first time solo traveller. Everything she wanted to see within touching distance, and a friendly face to come back to after a day’s “determined not to miss a thing” sightseeing.

A three night city break, particularly going solo, is more than enough time to get to grips with most cities.  With no-one else to please, she could focus on the things she wanted to see and do …. with the freedom to take, literally, a different path whenever she felt like it. The Florence must do’s – the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace,  the Duomo of course – called to her like presents that are so beautifully wrapped, it goes without saying that what’s inside will be something special.  Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Caravaggio … the names just roll of the tongue, all there, conjuring up a veritable cultural feast for the soul. The highlight for her, seeing the towering presence of the David standing tall at the end of the main gallery at the Accademia, took her breath away.  He’s quite something.

What she hadn’t anticipated was that the whole city feels like an architectural extravaganza, the most stunningly buildings at every turn.

But it doesn’t seem to show off about it. Florence waits to be found,  like a serene and beautiful woman, who is quietly confident in her own skin.

finding how to Travel Solo

She had her hand on her bag ready to go through passport control on her own.  With no idea what had delayed her friend, it was a choice of waiting and missing the flight, or going it alone and working things out.  Her friend made it, just …. but that decision to go anyway answered a question that had been playing on her mind for a while.  Would she be brave enough to travel alone?

The answer, to her genuine surprise, was unquestionably yes!

To a 50-something solo female first-timer, Florence seemed challenge enough for now.  A couple of hours flight (so not so far away that she couldn’t be “found” if she got into trouble, she reasoned), good weather (nothing worse than sitting alone in a hotel room if it was pouring), lovely people (she’d never met an un-friendly Italian), familiar cuisine (like a comfort blanket while she addressed the “eating on my own while trying not to look like I’ve been stood up” scenario)… and long on her bucket list.

Flying alone for the first time, the first thing she noticed, was that …. she was on her own! Tourists tend to travel in groups.  Excited huddles of giggly female travellers sharing “must-do’s” and “have I packed’s”, couples in their own couple-y world,  families trying to keep errant toddlers under control …. and her. It might just have been that flight, that day, but it felt as though everyone was staring at her”alone-ness”, as if she had a big arrow pointing down at her in the bustling departure lounge saying “she has no friends”.  She topped up her lipstick and tapped out a message on her phone …. signs to all concerned that she was being met at the other end by her Italian lover.  That would explain it, naturally.

Of course, in reality, no one was concerned at all about the pale slightly fidgety middle-aged woman sitting near the departure gate, passport clutched tightly in hand, ready for the off. Or that she’d checked three times during the wait that her currency and travel documents were still where they were … last time she’d checked.  Or that her hand never left the handle of her cabin luggage (can’t be too careful). Or that the message she was tapping out to her Italian lover … was actually a post on social media because she had to share her excitement with someone! Or that the seat next to her was … empty.  No one cared.  Absolutely no one cared.

And it was while she sat there getting used to the idea that, to anyone else, she was just another passenger waiting for her flight … that she finally got it!  Solo travel means that the only person you have to worry about is … yourself! You can do what you like, when you like, if you like, how you like – and no one gives a damn. How liberating is that!

So, just for the hell of it, she checked her travel documents, again …. and queued for the departure gate.  The butterflies in her stomach did an extra somersault.  Not nerves any more, but excitement. She boarded the plane, head held high, with a confidence that said to all those giggly girls, couple-y couples and frantic families, “look at me, not care in the world, I’m going it alone and I’m fine, I’m really fine!”

They actually didn’t care of course … but neither did she.

She was on her way …