Doi Inthanon is a national park in northern Thailand an hour from Chiang Mai. If you are in a car. If you are on the wasp, a small yellow and black scooter, it is two and a half hours including a coffee and shaking-in-fear break.
It is not easy to write humorously about traumatizing experiences. But I didn’t know it was traumatising until afterwards. Until now really.
By the time I got on my scooter to hit highway 108 south of Chiang Mai, I had been travelling alone for five weeks. I was feeling isolated, and was in constant pain from my chronic back condition. In no mood to go out and meet people, I thought a road trip would be a great idea, as I did not need to speak to a soul. And I didn’t. For the entire three day trip, apart from asking in key words and sign language to switch to an AC room, no words passed my lips.
Apparently, when Neil Armstrong looked down from space, he saw something glowing on the face of the earth. When they zoomed in to see what he could see, they realised it was a structure in central Java, the enormous Buddhist stupa, Borobudur. I got up at 5 to go there before the heat and the crowds. I was prepared to be overcome, and I was.
When I read The Lord of the Rings the first time my favourite bits were the ents, the Wood-elves, and The Shire. I understood the Shire as I grew up in the Cotswolds, which had thatched rooves and flower gardens tumbling over warm walls. My childhood was not idyllic like a hobbit childhood by any means, but I can’t deny the rolling hills, the round pubs and the Morris men dancing on a Sunday.
There is something about The Shire that is pristine and nurturing. Tolkien wrote it like that to show that the starting point of anything is home – soft, nourishing and womb-like, somewhere we all belong. Many of us never had that kind of home but we still remember it somewhere in our sinews. It makes us feel a yearning for what life should be like, what it was like in some fantasy time, before supermarkets and war and Donald Trump.
I couldn’t put my finger on it straight away, at Nyambu Village in Bali, but there was this feeling that I was in The Shire. Not just a reminder, but actually there. The wistful unreachable feeling of what home really was, the warm pinchable centre, I was feeling it right there. Everything was dusted off, the surface peeled back, to reveal people living as they should. And lots of little houses.
When I was in my late 20’s and hadn’t yet passed my driving test, I bought a scooter. A cream Vespa, with a matching cream box and a 125cc nippy engine so I could zoom off from the lights like Evel Kineval. I wore a petrol blue PVC wet look mac and sixties boots and thought I was pretty cool. I used to park it up near the nursery. I would push Daisy’s buggy, laden with her baby paraphernalia, her lunch, my lunch, my bag full of teaching folders, up the hill in Brighton, all the way to Young Sussex Daycare. I would dump all the stuff and then peel off the rain cover of my scooter and jump on it and speed off.
I lost my cool a few times as I couldn’t reach the ground with both feet at once, so sometimes the scooter would tip from under me and slide over, sometimes on top of me, sometimes on black ice. Usually, I was wearing heels. I would cry then and have to get a passer-by to help me lift the scooter back up and then I would get back on it, a bit wobbly, with ripped tights. It was worse when it happened in the school carpark as year 10 would be watching and laughing at me. But in general, I was scooter-pro.
Almost 20 years later and here I am in Java, Indonesia. It is 35 degrees outside and I am staying in a house in a village which is not next to a row of shops where there is food. The only way to not have to walk for an hour in the heat is to use the scooter parked outside. How hard can it be I think – I was ace twenty years ago, on my cream Vespa.
I’m standing in the glaring heat, trying to explain in school French to three retired backpackers that they must wear a sarong to enter the temple, according to the woman selling sarongs. But I am trying to add that I don’t think they need to buy one from her. The strict 30 minutes we were given for the first temple on our Bali temple tour, is ticking away in the carpark . I sneak out my own (unfortunately bright orange) sarong , wrap it around my waist and sidle off without being noticed.
The first temple had three stone goddesses, ageless, washed away through time in dents and dints and crumbs. They were pouring water into a basin. I entered the grounds, ready to be transported into ancient holy peace. But it was the dead moon day, so the temple was full to bursting with bustle and chat – the women in bright yellow and the men in bright white.
In the monkey forest, I follow the other tourists past the smiling, green-clad guard and a grimacing monkey statue. I’m in the jungle – which for me, is a sauna and the Oxford botanical gardens and Indiana Jones all rolled into one. I am dripping with sweat. Austrailian twang, Spanish and French, American glass. Asian vowels I don’t understand. They follow each other with selfie sticks, and enormous-lensed cameras. Hushed somehow.
I was asked to write a guest post for boboandchichi.com about how to spend three days in Berlin. I don’t usually write travel guides, but I really wanted to write this one as it coincided with me packing up to leave this great city after living here for 5 years. It gave me a chance to think about all the good times I’ve had here, and how I would squeeze them into three days.
Freedom of movement in the EU is due to end for us poor Brits, so Brexit-related relocation beckons. It is time to move whilst I still can…!
Read about what to do in Berlin, according to me, here:
“Imagine you are doing karate and make a noise when you breathe out and then pull.” Sandra demonstrated, pulling on the rope that would hoist the heavy foresail, and Valerie helped her. Valerie was nineteen, and tough as nails with one side of her head shaved. Sandra was as tough as nails too, but also gentle, jolly and unflappable. She had the tanned face and horizon-scanning eyes of a sailor. Three days later, when the students were grappling with the ropes in the wind and spray, they seemed less effective and I didn’t hear many karate noises. Although, for teenagers, they were impressively willing.
Somehow, as a parting shot to a job I was leaving, I had managed to arrange my perfect holiday as a work trip. I hadn’t intended this, but here we were in an old flat-bottomed sailing ship, on our way to Amsterdam in the mist and sun and sea. Even Scott was there to test out if Manc-skills included able seamanship (they did), and Werewolf (they didn’t). The exchange was eleven teenagers who are so great they give teenagers a good name.
‘You do realise this place is not actually in Berlin?’ I asked Bernie on the phone. She said she did. And could she bring her friend Anna.
It has to be said that most of my friends who visit me in Berlin do not come for the culture. They might squeeze in getting confused in the Holocaust Memorial or a serendipitous walk past the Brandenburg Gate, but it’s all incidental. They come here to party, and the optimistic ones, to try to get into Berghain. I even had some friends fake a few photos on a two hour whistle stop outside the Air bnb, just before their Monday flight, so it looked like they had seen something of Berlin.
So Bernie surprised me when she asked for culture the week before her arrival. You’d be surprised too if you knew the Bernie I knew – she is a dazzle of bright orange human sparkler. She is Bernie who goes to Burning Man in those steampunk goggles, who burns the candle at both ends and mostly, always, brings the party spirit bundled into her hastily packed bag. I made a few suggestions and to my further surprise, she liked the sound of Sanssouci Palace, in Potsdam, an hour west of Berlin on the S7.