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Thursday, December 18, 2008

A conversation, reflecting on our trip

Please note we've uploaded two new blog entries today, so keep reading down!

H: What has surprised you?
Z: I'm surprised we haven't had any physical problems (recent events notwithstanding) as a result of all the cycling. We both expected knee pain and chronic nappy rash, but neither the distances nor the heat have ever felt like much of a problem. I'm also surprised how difficult we've both found it to modify our highly-strung responses to local behaviour; the impulse to impose our own values was powerful.

Z: What has surprised you?
H: I'm surprised how few westerners we've met and even seen, in all the countries. Apart from that, Sumatra surprised me – how awful it was compared with how I remembered it.

H: What was your favourite cycling day?
Z: Funnily enough our longest one (127kms, 8 hours of cycling), on the Ho Chi Minh Highway in Vietnam. We started very early and the morning light was gorgeous. We saw a church being built, covered in precarious-looking bamboo scaffolding. The scenery consisted of karst mountains, getting higher as we got close to the Lao border. There was next to no traffic. The dwellings became noticeably more basic, and it was impossible to find a cold drink as nobody had a fridge! There were even a couple of hilly stretches with no dwellings at all; most unusual in densely populated Vietnam. A very funny thing happened: you were gorging yourself on some peanut brittle stuff which you said was 'more-ish', but then I noticed loads of insects had got stuck in the solidified sugar syrup, presumably as the stuff was drying in the sun on the side of the road somewhere! It rained that afternoon which cooled things down before we tackled a huge mountain pass and descended into a stunning mountainous National Park stretching to the Lao Border. The first of many bits of jungle we've cycled through. I remember incredible insect noises, and there had been some dramatic landslides over the winding road. The final 20kms were a bit stressful as we had to cycle like the clappers to reach the town before it got dark. We almost got caught in amongst two bulls having a scrap on the road. We passed the 1000km mark that day. Finally we rolled into Phong Na, desperately hoping to find a guesthouse. As if by magic a guesthouse switched on its neon sign at the very moment we were approaching and two girls stood outside beckoning to us like sirens. The room was clean and we slept soundly after a couple of beers!

H: I agree. That was my favourite day too.

H: What was your favourite non-cycling day?
Z: Diving at the Similan Islands in Thailand and seeing leopard sharks.

H: We were off the beaten track about 90% of the time, which was fairly hard work. Describe one or two of the moments that made that effort worthwhile.
Z: Some of the incidents on the Ho Chi Minh Highway that we've already described on the blog are good examples, such as the time those teachers drove to the next town and came back with iced tea for us, bought with their tiny salaries. And the amazing evening with the young English teacher and 'the dove porridge' lady. Our journey up the Mekong in Cambodia was a visual feast, and there was that lady who brought us parcels of sticky rice as we sheltered from torrential rain there. Two thirteen year old girls stick in my mind too, one in Vietnam and one in Sumatra: both so self-assured and so genuinely grateful to practice their English with us. It's people like all of these that are the reason we chose southeast Asia for our trip.
H: I thought Vietnam and Cambodia were both more enjoyable when off the beaten track, whereas Indonesia was definitely more enjoyable in places where The White Man had been before.

Z: What was your favourite conventionally touristic thing that we did?
H: I can't choose one. The Great Wall of China was incredible. Near Ninh Binh in Vietnam we discovered a newly-opened place where we were rowed by a young woman (using her feet!) for two hours through a serious of lakes and incredible limestone caves. We were the only people there. Apart from that, in Sumatra I enjoyed our overnight jungle trek a great deal more than I expected. What about you?
Z: Yes, mine was the orangutan trek. And the warriors at Xi'an in China.

H: You love the sea best. Which was your favourite bit of sea?
Z: We swam from our diving boat to one of the uninhabited Similan Islands and walked along a picture-perfect white sand beach before swimming back to the boat through the turquoise water. It doesn't get much better than that.

Z: You love lakes and we've seen quite a few. Which was your favourite?
H: We took a boat across Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, from Siem Reap to Battambang. The photos you took show how visually striking that was, particularly the stilt houses whose residents have to adjust the level of the floor according to the season. We were there at the time of year when the Mekong river flows 'backwards' into the lake, so their floors were only about a metre below their ceilings - incredible. But my favourite lake of all was Danau Maninjau in Sumatra, because it's beautiful and tranquil and because it reminded me of being there with Katie 14 years ago!

Z: Say something about the bikes and our gear.
H: The bikes were an awesome investment, not least because Robin Thorn, Lisa and Andy were only ever an email away when we needed reassurance about how to maintain them. As for gear I'm very happy with the decisions we made about what to take, though in retrospect we could have managed without the tent. The two laundry bowls we bought in Hanoi were invaluable, weren't they, as was the kettle you bought in Haiphong. Let's do another blog entry specifically for prospective cycle-tourists, about our gear, our route and so on.
Z: OK, but Gabriel asked you 'what is your favourite part of your bike and/or carefully planned kit?'.
H: Hmm, good question. Maybe this laptop, which Gabe encouraged me to get. Every time I prepared a blog entry I felt really good. It was my way of consolidating the experience. It's nice to know people enjoyed reading it.

H: Which was your favourite accommodation?
Z: Anywhere that was clean was always a relief at the end of a long day! The most lovely place was La Noria in Siem Reap, where we had a little stilt house overlooking a garden and a pool. I reckon my mum and dad would love it there.
H: And the worst?
Z: There are many contenders, but the one that made me want to cry with disbelief was the filthy mosquito-infested truck-stop in Ipuh in Sumatra, after we'd cycled 111kms and I'd just been splatted by a cow pat run over by a truck.

H: Was that your lowest moment?
Z: Rather than a single moment there was a period of several days in Sumatra when I was at my wit's end. The people were awful; specifically I absolutely couldn't bear being the object of the sexist male gaze. At the end of most days the accommodation was also awful and laughably over-priced. It felt relentless and we had the prospect of maybe two whole months of it ahead of us. We couldn't even get a f*cking beer!

H: What was your highest moment then?
Z: Well I don't really do 'high', do I, but the moments when I felt most elated were quite random ones in the saddle, usually provoked by a combination of nice weather, nice landscapes, safe roads, smiling people and interesting stuff to photograph.

Z: What was your highest moment?
H: No question.. my highest moment was arriving in Thailand. I was quite literally punching the air. The tourist board slogan 'Amazing Thailand' is spot on. Goodness only knows what the other countries' tourist boards even do!

Z: What do you think was the funniest moment of the trip?
H: Things often seemed funnier in retrospect than at the time. We've been very good about keeping a crudely-written journal every day, and a couple of times I've sat crying laughing reading back over past entries.

H: What have you learned?
Z: A lot I think. I've gained a strong sense of my own mortality, mainly as a result of having seen so many road accidents along the way. It's also been amazing to see so many of life's basic processes laid-bare: family life, food production, even cremation. Stuff that's hidden from view in our own culture. It's been an education, a visual feast. It's a weird thing though, cruising through all these countries looking at people's shit-arse villages and feeling slightly superior and also slightly guilty. So are we going to do anything about it? No, we're going to go back to our nice comfortable lives, thank you very much. Does that make us awful and the village people the salt of the earth? Probably. Should we have done this whole thing 'for charity'? We've got some ideas on that front. We've spent hours talking about all this, and we haven't reached any conclusions. And, crass as it may sound, I fancy some touring in the developed world next, with the landscape rather than the way of life as the 'main attraction'. I fancy Argentina, with a big fat steak and a bottle of Malbec to look forward to at the end of the day!

The trip confirmed something I already knew about you, that you are a natural navigator. That's why I started calling you GPS Darvill Jnr. I also learned that – contrary to popular belief – you are surprisingly happy to go 'off-spreadsheet', as Allan put it.

Z: Have you learned anything about yourself or about me?
H: I've learned that I love the nomadic thing; the not knowing where each day will take us. I've learned something about you that I hadn't really noticed before: you are very funny.

Z: Anything you think other people will notice and be surprised about?
H: They'll notice that you are leaner and probably be surprised that despite our physical achievement I still have such a fat arse! They might also be surprised to see how many white hairs I've got, now that I'm letting them grow. Amazing, really, that so many people asked if you are my mother!
Z: Hmm, then there was the man who said I look like Elton John. I preferred the Balinese man who said 'Hannah is beautiful. Zoe is a tomboy'. Finally, recognition of my true identity!

H: Any regrets about the trip?
Z: Only that we didn't always manage to contain our bad tempers; we sometimes took out our irritation on local people who were only trying to be friendly.
H: You mean me, right?
Z: Well, I ended up doing it too. But right from the start you did seem to get irrationally angry sometimes. Occasionally it seemed like you weren't enjoying it at all.
H: I'm sorry about that. I can't deny I am incredibly bad-tempered at the best of times, and all the shouting really did my nut. But my dad says in the Buddhist way of thinking you shouldn't beat yourself up about things like this!
Z: What on earth will the two of us be like when we actually are grumpy old ladies!

Z: What about you, then? Any regrets?
H: I deeply regret having to fly from Beijing to Hanoi and from Jakarta to Bali. We wanted to travel overland. In a way I feel responsible for both of these cock ups. I also regret the time I spent not-learning-Indonesian instead of reading novels. Ironically once we got to Indonesia I thought 'sod you lot', gave away the 'Teach Yourself' book and started reading novels, and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Z: You're an obsessional planner but you decided not to plan the trip much. Was that the right decision?
H: On the whole, yes. I enjoyed planning as we went, and sometimes not planning. Anyway, it would have been impossible to plan the whole thing. Even the internet does not provide all the information we would have needed.
Z: And was it the right decision not to carry guidebooks?
H: Again yes. We had a city guide for Beijing which was useful for contextual information. For Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand we had only the 'graphic guide to southeast Asia' my brother had given us, which provided simple schematic maps and town plans and was completely invaluable. For Indonesia we had no guidebook at all, only the internet. Actually I found not having guidebooks very liberating.

Z: What about maps?
H: Ah. The road atlas we bought in Vietnam was excellent. For Cambodia, Thailand and Sumatra we had to make do with whole-country maps, which of course were insufficient. In Bali we had a more detailed one, which enabled us to navigate via minor roads and avoid the worst of the maniacs. Navigationally, getting out of cities was always the most difficult thing with or without maps; the compass was invaluable on those occasions.

H: Let's talk about our senses. Which music is most evocative of the trip for you?
Z: I think the compilations Tessa and Rich did for us. What about you?
H: A specific song by Joan Armatrading, which Julia put on her compilation, and 'Homophobia' by the Pet Shop Boys, which Adrian put on his. Plus (thinking of Sumatra especially!) the Zoe Lewis song 'Don't Touch Me', with Alison playing on it, and the whole album of oud music, which Diane gave us.
Z: Regarding other sounds, motorbike engines and beeping in Vietnam, mosques in Sumatra and gamelan music in Bali. Plus jungle noises everywhere: geckos, cicadas and frogs.

H: Which smell is most evocative for you?
Z: Nice evocative smells include the fresh cinnamon bark you found in Bogor Botanical Gardens, and the smell of the sea on the few occasions we cycled right next to it. My worst smell is that rancid smell you get in southeast Asian markets.. rotting fish or rubbish.
H: My worst smell is roadkill. In Thailand there were so many rotting dogs, and – unfortunately – lots of live ones too. My favourite evocative smells are rice paddies and the jasmine tea we bought in Georgetown to make with our little kettle.

H: My mum asked, have you picked up any good recipes for frog?
Z: Fry it. It really does taste like chicken.
H: My mum also wants to know which was our favourite meal of the trip?
Z: That would have to be one of the ones we had in Beijing. Dumplings with garlic sauce and fresh clams, maybe. Or the Szichuan hot pot that nearly blew our heads off but was somehow unforgettable! What about you?
H: I particularly enjoyed good meals we had after periods of culinary, er, compromise. For example, our 'Julia and Alison' meal at the Oriental in Bangkok after three weeks in Cambodia. And that excellent Indonesian meal at the posh mall in Jakarta, surrounded by well-to-do Indonesians minding their own business and not shouting 'hello buleh' at us.

Z: What about drinks?
H: In Vietnam and Cambodia we had fresh sugar cane juice every day and I still miss it. And Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk is to die for!
Z: What about juices? Favourite fruits?
H: Adrian, Gabe and Craig I think. They all emailed us regularly. Oh you mean fruit juices? Avocado is my favourite, with chocolate milk in. And banana. Yours is soursop, isn't it?
Z: Yes, and to eat I love salaks, mangosteens and custard apples. Mangos can also be amazing.

H: Gabriel asked us 'which western luxury do you miss most?'.
Z: That's easy. Red wine.
Z: He also asked 'what are you most looking forward to when you get back to London?'.
H: Friends! It's a good job the two of us get on well, because we've really been on our own for five months, haven't we.

Z: Your mum also asked which is my favourite photo that I've taken. That's really hard, but if I have to choose I'll choose the series I took in Cholong (Chinatown) in Saigon, because I really enjoyed taking those. My favourite portraits are probably of those kids in Cambodia.. the little cross-eyed girl and the rest of that group.
H: I like the pictures you took of rural scenes in Cambodia, because they helped me notice things more.

Z: Which aspect of southeast Asia would you like to import to England?
H: Cheap, delicious streetfood.
Z: And which aspect of England would you like to introduce to southeast Asia?
H: Where shall I start? Driving tests. Mirror-signal-maneuver. Not riding your motorbike the wrong way up the street. Not throwing all your rubbish on the floor. I'd like to introduce feminism and queuing to Indonesia.
Z: And not blowing your snot on the floor. Sexism and heterosexism are so much a part of the culture in so much of the world; we'll need to factor that reality into our next choice of destination I think.
H: No shit.

Z: Do you think we'll go back to any of the places we've visited on this trip?
H: Thailand, again and again. We both agree on that. Beijing and other bits of China too. I'd be interested to go to Vietnam in 10+ years time as it's changing fast. Cambodia and Indonesia, no, probably not in a hurry, though I'd recommend Angkor Wat to everyone that hasn't seen it.
Z: I liked Cambodia more than you did, I think. Maybe I'll go back there during one of my many long holidays.

H: Good for you. Finally, my mum asked what's the first thing you'll do when you get home?
Z: Reacquaint myself with the house, make a cup of tea, go up to the High Street and buy some food to cook, then pop over and see the boys and my heavily pregnant sister. What about you?
H: Eat the food you cook, and try on the jeans I couldn't fit into when we left. Maybe in the other order.


Unknown said...

This comment has nothing to do with this blog entry specifically, but is to do with your puncture count.

I thought you might be interested to compare the six months you have been away, in which you cycled (I'm guessing) an average of 50km a day and got one solitary puncture between you, with my previous six months of averaging 4km a day:

Last week alone I had two punctures and I would estimate a futher four throughout the remaining months. This is despite having metal mesh reinforced rubberised liners in my tyres.

Ah, the joys of broken glass!

Unknown said...

Also, I would imagine my vomiting count is probably roughly level with yours at once in the last six months but mine had nothing to do with dodgy food. No, it was to do with dodgy wine (honesht offisher)