Thursday, 18 January 2018

Same same but different - part two

Following on from yesterday's blog 'Same same but different - part one' where I looked at the aspects of going alcohol free that I have found similar to my previous attempts at sobriety, today I am looking at the differences.
Bye bye booze!

So, what is different this time around?

Putting my story out there - Brené Brown states that 'owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.'  So, I have taken the decision to share my story - warts and all - and out myself as a fledgling member of the sober revolution.  Through revealing my vulnerabilities I am connecting with a staggering number of people who can relate to where I have been and where I want to end up.  I also hope to recruit a few others to join the revolution so they can share the same positive changes as me.

My support network - This comment was posted on Facebook about my blog this week - 'Stopping is one thing. Staying stopped is another. It is the hardest, yet most rewarding journey ever. I hope she finds the right people to support her'.  I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment as I am pretty good at stopping but pretty poor at remaining stopped and I know the importance of finding a supportive tribe to fight my corner with me.  This time around I have taken a different approach and I am shouting from the roof tops that I am no longer drinking, to rally the backing of friends. I am also using sober support networks to keep me on track.  For anyone interested in adopting a similar approach, Club Soda seems to be home to the most like-minded ex-drinkers for me.  What I love about these alcohol free groups is that they are ridiculously supportive and non-judgmental because we've all been there, done that and got the T-shirt.

Overcoming the stigma of being a non-drinker - Clare Pooley, author of The Sober Diaries writes on her blog'When I first quit drinking, I told no-one... I imagined that if I told my friends that I'd quit that they would judge me and assume that I'd been a terrible lush (partly true) and a terrible mother (not true, at least not most of the time). I thought they'd label me boring and stop inviting me to parties. I thought they'd worry that I'd become all preachy and judgmental (as if I'm in a position to judge anyone!)..'  Most of these thoughts have been running through my mind and it's apparent that there's something wrong with our society for us to feel marginalised for giving up an addictive substance! The more I have read, written and published, the more I realise that these prejudices and stigmas stem from systematic brainwashing and fear.  I am starting to see that there does seem to be a growing army of us who are calling bullshit on the 'boring'/'judgmental'/'raging alcoholic' labels attached to non-drinkers and I want to be on the front line of that army obliterating those stigmas and making it easier for others to make the same choice as me and to be able to talk about it with pride.

My resolve - I have stopped drinking a gazillion times before, but mostly as a temporary thing with a fixed end date so from day one I was always counting down to when I could drink again.  I know now that I don't want to leave the door ajar to the possibility of drinking and my resolve is set very firmly on this final break-up with alcohol.  Jason Vale states that 'once you make a firm decision [to stop drinking alcohol], you cut off any other possibility and doubt; so whatever happens in your future life, drinking alcohol is not just not an option but something that you have no interest in doing.  You have moved on and are free.'

And that really sums up how I feel about drinking right now.  It's over, once and for all, and I've already taken the first steps into my new life without booze and I feel free.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Same same but different - part one

I have now been alcohol free for more than two weeks - with the exception of the little splash of red wine I added to some Quorn mince, which quite frankly needed all the help it could get to taste of something.  I have given up booze many times and often reached this point but this time it does feel quite different in certain respects - although reassuringly familiar in others.

The familiar aspects are:

The chocolate cravings - Due to alcohol being converted to sugar in the body, when you quit drinking your body craves sugar. Last week I seemed powerless to resist the call of M&S chocolate & orange mini bites and giant chocolate buttons.  Damn you M&S and your yummy chocolate!  Research suggests that sugar has a similar effect on the brain’s levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter controlling the brain’s reward and pleasure areas, as alcohol. So this week my focus is on breaking the chocolate cravings before I replace one dependency with another.  So far.... not so good though!
Move away from the chocolate!

The deep deep sleep - After the first week of disrupted sleep and disturbing dreams, I am now sleeping ridiculously deeply.  I cannot over emphasize how blissful it is to wake up every morning feeling properly rested and raring to grab hold of the day ahead.  There is extensive research to support the fact that 'alcohol affects sleep, daytime alertness, and certain physiological processes that occur during sleep' - so it's no wonder that my sleep has improved so dramatically.

The increased energy levels - Without alcohol in my life and probably thanks to being well rested, my energy levels are off the scale.  Last week I hiked 60km, walked up 588 floors and stretched my way through three yoga classes - which can only be a good thing bearing in mind the vats of chocolate I have consumed!
Hiking, hiking and more hiking...

The weight loss - After I got back to Hong Kong after Christmas, I gingerly stood on the scales and nervously looked down to see the damage caused by a month being back on the booze again. I was horrified to see that I had gained 3.5kgs.  However, two weeks down the line and I've already lost all of that weight.  With booze being loaded with calories, it is not surprising research shows that the men and women consuming the greatest quantity of alcohol tend to have the highest BMIs.  As such, I'm hoping the scales will continue to follow a downward trend from now on.

The positive mindset - Right now I am nestled in a lovely warm, cosy, aura of contentment and positivity, although I am conscious that this may be what ex-drinkers call the 'pink fluffy clouds' - an intense feeling of happiness that moves in to replace the lows of drinking. Long may this feeling last! There are loads of resources on the DrinkAware website explaining the impact of alcohol on our mental health and I am relishing the lifting of my dark rain clouds without booze in my life.

The doubters - Those pesky little doubters and sober saboteours are still out there in force and the more drunk they get, the more persistent they become. On Saturday night I went to a pub quiz and at the start of the night I received nothing but praise and admiration for choosing to stop drinking.  However as the night progressed, the banter escalated.. 'You don't know what you're missing' 'Mmm, are you jealous?' How long is this going to last? 'I give you until April' 'What addiction are you going to replace the booze with?' etc. and it was revealed there is a sweep stake on how long it will be before I relent and drown myself in red wine.  All I can say is the more you doubt me, the stronger my resolve becomes!

So, what is different this time around? Read tomorrow's blog to find out.....

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Hope is the only thing stronger than fear

At the start of October last year I was feeling exceptionally low.  I couldn't really pin point why but I felt myself sinking into a very negative space where I felt angry and unable to cope.  I was aware that I was binge-drinking as a crutch which was counter-productive as it simply made me feel worse about myself.  One morning, I found myself hiking up the Peak - my go to activity to make me feel happy - in floods of tears and I decided that enough was enough and it was time to seek professional help.

I found a counsellor who specialised in issues around 'self' and binge-drinking and spewed my worries out on an email to her.  She instantly responded saying that my issues were well within her scope of work and asked me to complete a client in-take form, which contained some fairly soul searching questions.  After I sent back the form, the counsellor suggested some times we could meet but unfortunately none of them worked with my teaching schedule.  As I felt that she had the right skill set to help me, I didn't really want to see anyone else so I temporarily parked the idea of going to counselling.

However, the process of completing the in-take form did clarify that my relationship with alcohol was far from healthy, so I made the decision to quit drinking for a while to see if that improved my mental state.  To avoid the difficult questions and the potential sober saboteurs, I told my friends I was on a health and fitness regime and was looking to lose 10kgs before Christmas.  This worked well and I didn't experience the usual barrage of abuse and constant haranguing of 'don't be so boring''can't you just have one', 'when are you going to start being fun again' etc.

I stopped drinking for seven and a half weeks and in that time I noticed many dramatic changes.  I lost 5kgs, I went down a dress size, my skin became much clearer, I looked younger, I slept really well and people kept telling me how great I looked.  The most notable change though was just how quickly my mental health changed for the better.  My anxiety, anger and negativity were replaced with feelings of extreme contentment and positivity.

Slipping back into my drinking ways over Christmas, it was very revealing to see how quickly all of these positives could be reversed.  As a result this has helped to strengthen my resolve to make alcohol free living a permanent fixture in my life from now on.

Out of the blue, the counsellor got back in touch with me this week to apologise for not having been able to work out a time to meet last year and to find out if we could set something up now.  I explained how after I had originally contacted her, I quit drinking, my mindset changed dramatically and I felt better about myself. I told her how I've realised that I am much more stable and content without booze in my life and how I am using online support groups, self-help books and my blog to keep me motivated to make this change for the better.  I also sent her a link to my goodbye to alcohol letter which has now received almost 8,000 views.  I said that I didn't feel the need to see her now but I would be in touch if things changed.

She sent me back an amazing response asking if I would be prepared to speak at an event in the future, as she has many clients who are hooked on alcohol and she is looking to run a programme for alcohol.  Me...speaking as an ex-drinker!  Who would've thought it!  She ended the email by saying:

I share all this with you as it sounds like you are a leader and you may come across people who find it harder than you to quit. I am inspired by your story!

It made me feel so proud of what I've achieved so far and so hopeful, rather than afraid, of my booze-free future.

Today, I dug out the client in-take form I completed back in October.  On the form I stated that the goals I wanted to achieve through counselling were as follows:

'I want to be content and accept myself no matter what.  I want to stop comparing myself to others.  I want to stop thinking others are saying/thinking negative things about me. I want to feel 100% secure.'

I know without a shadow of a doubt that without alcohol in my life, all of these goals are well within my grasp.  I am no longer afraid - I am brimming with hope.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Learning how to celebrate without booze

Yesterday I had some fantastic news. After a six week wait, I finally received my DipTESOL exam results and I got 77%! Rather disappointingly this was 3% short of a distinction but at times I never thought I would even manage 50% for the written exam, so I’m really not complaining. Here’s my exam paper if you are interested in taking a look to see what all the fuss was about. This result combined with the results of my assessed teaching, my research projects and my phonology exam mean that I have achieved a distinction overall for my DipTESOL which I am ecstatic about. This is the culmination of a year’s worth of seriously hard graft and I’m really proud of my achievement.

However, the excitement of getting the result I’ve been dreaming of over the past year fell a little flat now that I am ‘on the wagon’. Normally, I would use an event like this as an excuse to go out for a some exotic cocktails and/or a glass bottle of bubbles. Instead, to keep me away from the enticing embrace of alcohol, I checked into my yin yoga class and meditated rather than self-medicated! Although the eight hours of blissfully deep sleep that resulted from the yoga was a welcome reward, it didn’t really recompense the 12 months of hard slog I put into getting my DipTESOL. So now that I am alcohol-free, I am going to have to learn some alternative ways to celebrate that don’t involve cracking open a bottle.

Therefore, on Friday night, the husband and I are trying an experiment. We are going out for a booze-free dinner together to see if we can celebrate in style without a bottle of wine or two. My concern is that although we will feel fabulous on Saturday morning waking up without hangovers, there will be a wine shaped void at the dinner table, resulting in us potentially feeling deprived and subdued. It is the flavours of the red wine accompanying the food that I will miss, even more so than the initial ‘and relax...’ feeling I get from my first sip of wine. Somehow, a bottle of San Pellegrino doesn’t have quite the same appeal as an Argentinian Malbec or a full bodied Cabernet Sauvignon. If I was in England I would try experimenting with dealcoholized red wine but although I’ve searched high and low for it here in Hong Kong, I can only find alcohol free beer and I’d never choose to drink beer with a meal. Perhaps we will push the boat out and try a fancier restaurant than we would usually go to and start off with some exotic mocktails to rev up our first alcohol-free celebration.

The reality is that over the years I have used alcohol as a reward, a confidence booster, an emotion suppressor, a special event marker, a comforter... and so on. As a result it is going to take time to erase these ingrained habits, to learn new behaviour patterns and make them become second nature. Learning how to celebrate without using alcohol is no doubt the first of many hurdles to overcome in the coming months.

I’ll let you know how my booze free celebration goes!

Friday, 5 January 2018

Day five in the booze free house

Today is my fifth alcohol free day and the idea of having a drink hasn’t crossed my mind.  However, I have made a few observations about my new booze-free lifestyle.

The first is that I have had four absolutely terrible night’s sleep.  My brain has been totally preoccupied with planning life without alcohol and won’t shut down.  The only positive to the sleep deprivation is that it has given me plenty of time to read about sobriety.  For anyone considering going alcohol free, I highly recommend reading Jason Vale’s ‘Kick the Drink Easily’, which is written in a similar style to Allen Carr’s ‘Easy Way to Stop Smoking’ and shatters many conceptions about drinking and has certainly helped me to alter how I see alcohol and its role in my life.  I have also read a book by Clare Pooley, an ex-colleague from London advertising days, called ‘The Sober Diaries’ and I’m half way through ‘The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober’ by Catherine Grey.  Both are well written and provide helpful advice framed in honest and often witty accounts of their journey to sobriety.  Knowing others have paved the way and their lives have improved immeasurably as a result is reassuring.

Apart from the lack of sleep I have noticed the varying responses I have had to my decision to give up drinking.  Mostly I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the tidal wave of support I’ve received since publishing my ‘Goodbye to Alcohol’ letter – thank you!  However, I have also had comments of dismay, inferring that I am now confined to a life as a social hermit missing out on all the fun.  Even my husband alluded to this by remarking that by going alcohol free we would spend less time together.  This is undoubtedly true in that we will spend less late night drunk time together when I would invariably speak a load of bollocks, get aggressive, possibly fall over and not remember much of it in the morning, so I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing!

Having read my letter, another friend asked me ‘Are you an alcoholic?’. This reaction is apparently fairly typical when people announce they are quitting drinking.  This is highlighted in Jason Vale’s ‘Kick the Drink Easily’ where he states:

“We have been conditioned to believe that you are either a ‘normal’ drinker or that you have lost control and are an ‘alcoholic.’ As a result, people who have finally woken up to the fact that they are not in control have to keep quiet about it for fear of being made an outcast. If they are brave enough to voice a desire to stop drinking, they are called alcoholics which suggests they have an incurable disease and would have to ‘give up’ drinking forever. This is an unwelcome and frightening thought for anybody who drinks. The truth is that the vast majority of people are never in genuine control of their alcohol intake.”

In short, I believe that I am alcohol dependent, alcohol often controls me and I want to change that.

My final observation occurred on my way to work this morning.  I bumped into a bloke I met in a bar a while back when I was watching rugby and knocking back vats of red wine.  Having not seen him for some time he suggested that my husband and I met up with him for a drink at the Foreign Correspondents Club and my knee-jerk response was an apologetic ‘Oh no, I’m sorry, I don’t drink any more’.  He looked genuinely surprised and said ‘You don’t have to drink alcohol.  I don’t care what you drink!’  How fucked up is it that I felt the need to apologise for not drinking and assumed that someone wouldn’t want to meet me if I wasn't quaffing alcohol?  It’s obvious I still have some way to go to fully accepting this new way of life.

So, overall what I have learnt over the last five days is:
  1. Not sleeping is really irritating but it is possible to use the time productively.
  2. By being honest and open you quickly find you have an army of supporters and that you are absolutely not alone... and that is just the best feeling!
  3. I’m not going to be apologetic for not drinking.  I’m going to be proud.  This is my new normal.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

I'm sorry alcohol, but it's over

After having spent last October and most of November totally sober and having felt absolutely great as a result, I have made the decision to go alcohol free for 2018.  I know it's not going to be easy but I am planning to use my blog as therapy to help me get through the tougher times.  Any support you lot can give me will also be very gratefully received.

Today, I have written my goodbye letter to alcohol.

Dear alcohol

We’ve been together for many years now – 30 to be exact.  I instantly fell in love with you and from our first proper encounter in a field in Dorset swigging from a bottle of Cinzano with school friends, I have been completely devoted to you.  From day one you instantly put me at ease, gave me confidence and made me feel better about being me.  As a teenager you made me feel less awkward, less worthless and able to compete with my cooler, more attractive and wittier friends.  With you by my side I could stand out and be noticed too and be the person I wanted to be.  However, even in those early days of our relationship you always controlled me more than I could ever control you and a little bit of you was never enough.

By the time I left school, I was utterly obsessed with you. I couldn’t get enough of you.  You were constantly by my side.  We created some amazing memories together, particularly during my first taste of real freedom and independence at Art College in Canterbury, during my hedonistic summers spent in Greece and in my early days in London.  However, before long you also coerced me into making dangerous decisions like provoking fights, getting into dodgy minicabs on my own  and going home with strangers.  Your pervasiveness resulted in trips to A&E for x-rays and stitches and you also started to erase some of my memories leaving me feeling paranoid, ashamed and disgusted with myself.  However, I brushed this under the carpet and I stuck with you, pretending our relationship was fine.

During my difficult times, like family bereavements, the break-down of friendships, the break-up of relationships, my four miscarriages and the cancer scares, I’ve leant on you more heavily.  When my job felt crushingly stressful and my life felt unmanageable, I’ve relied on you as a crutch.  Nevertheless, the more I’ve needed you, the more you’ve let me down.  Rather than wrapping me in your comforting security blanket like you used to, you’ve increasingly left me feeling anxious, fearful, incapable and overwhelmed with self-loathing and shame.   Our relationship has started to feel toxic and I need out before I slip down a more self-destructive path.

So alcohol, we’ve had some wild times together and I am walking away from this relationship with many good memories as well as the bad.  However, recently the bad have outweighed the good and it’s time to move on. You have been with me for all of my adult life and I am scared of the future without you.  I’m scared my husband won’t want to be with a teetotal wife having married a lush, I’m scared friends will find me boring, I’m scared I’ll never have the confidence to dance on a table or belt out karaoke again, I’m scared no one will choose to hang out with me... the list goes on.  However, I am also hopeful of a future without hangovers, without waking up with limited memory of the night before and without the paralysing remorse.  I am hopeful that I can find ways to like myself more and develop coping strategies that don’t involve opening a bottle.  I am hopeful that I can navigate my way to finding a bit of peace and calm without your presence in my life.  So, thank you alcohol for the fun times but after 30 years, it’s finally time to move on.

Lots of love


Saturday, 23 December 2017

The failed gundog

Yesterday David and I arrived in England for our first Christmas back home since 2013.  Of course, we are super happy to be home to celebrate Christmas with our family but above all, we are overjoyed to be reunited with our amazing dog daughter, Wonder Winnie.  For anyone who doesn’t know Winnie, she is our much loved black Spaniel/Labrador cross, who, despite being very beautiful and clever, has failed to deliver on David’s ultimate ambition for her - to be his very own world-class gun dog.
Wonder Winnie in her favourite spot

When we selected our little black bundle of joy, David was mentally gearing up to purchase a flat cap, tweeds and a shotgun, to join the shooting brigade with his trusty new gun dog by his side.  However, after a series of gun dog training sessions it became blatantly apparent that Winnie’s gun dog capabilities were severely flawed.  While Winnie was an exemplary retriever, impressing the trainer with the speed at which she mastered the concept of collecting the dummy dead bird, she was an extremely deficient deliverer.  Winnie is undoubtedly a smart and manipulative little dog and she immediately discovered that it was far more fun to taunt David than to deliver the retrieved item back to him.  So, while all the other hounds in the gun dog class were obediently following their owner’s instructions, Winnie was not.  The class witnessed her teasing her master with the retrieved stuffed pheasant dangling from her jaw and every time he desperately attempted to pounce on her to get it back, she adeptly side stepped him, like an All Black winger, while he got more and more irate before combusting into a tirade of expletives.

Besides this, Winnie is also terrified of the sound of gunshot.  It soon became clear that our dog had ultra sensitive hearing, picking up the sound of guns three counties away.  The impact being that she would be reduced to a trembling, cowering wreck, incapable of moving.  Time and time again, David could be seen carrying his quivering retriever, clinging to him like a koala on a eucalyptus tree, across Hampshire fields, back home from her walks, as she had detected distant gunfire somewhere in the region of Scotland and refused to take another step.  This was definitely not the image David had been looking to project with his little gun dog.

Nevertheless, despite failing to meet her master’s lofty aspirations for her, we love and miss her very much.  And, without a doubt, the best thing about coming home is the ebullient welcome our Winnie unfailingly delivers.  No one else gives us quite such an enthusiastic, affectionate and borderline deranged greeting as our gorgeous little dog. 

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Is there a glimmer of hope on the horizon?

Since finishing my studies, I have enjoyed having free time again and I’ve spent many hours hiking in Hong Kong, reflecting on the previous twelve months and looking at the goals I want to aim for in the coming year.  For me personally, 2017 has been about applying myself 100% to studying and expanding my knowledge as an English teacher.  It has awakened a desire to learn more and to continue on this journey into academia.  It has also ignited a general thirst for increasing my overall knowledge of the world and encouraged me to learn about and investigate many different areas besides second language acquisition. This year, I have also been reminded about the importance of not taking family and friends for granted, as they are the ones who will help pick you up during the tougher times.  David, in particular, has been incredibly patient and supportive throughout the year, and without his encouragement and love, I would have found it far harder to achieve the results I did.

Looking at 2017 more broadly, the world has seemed a pretty dark place at times.  With wars raging, terrorist attacks proliferating, nuclear annihilation threatening, the destruction of the planet persisting, right wing extremism rising and the gap between the haves and have nots increasing, it is hard not to feel fearful, despairing and powerless.  However, there are some glimmers of hope. 
Hope on the horizon?

For example, while Brexit has polarised the UK, it has also awoken many of us who were previously apathetic or ambivalent towards politics.  I have never read or listened to so much political debate as I have done over the past 12 months. While I certainly don’t profess to being an expert or to have any answers, there is a consensus that Capitalism is in its death throes and Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right are protests against globalisation, the status quo or cries for help.  There has to be an alternative to a world where we are driven to be ever-more productive, to work longer hours, to compete against each other - so that we can have more of the latest ‘stuff’ (that we don’t really need), to make corporations (who do not pay sufficient taxes) dangerously powerful, while systematically destroying our planet, breaking down communities and compromising on our quality of life. 

The glimmer of hope is that while the solutions haven’t necessarily been fully- formed yet, the tide is turning and people are beginning to realise that we can’t continue as we have been, we can’t return to the ‘good old days’ and therefore we need to create an alternative future.  There are many conversations, debates and investigations looking into alternatives – many of which could be achievable with sufficient momentum. While nothing is going to change overnight, these difficult times are our wake-up call to think big and join together to create a better sustainable world for future generations to enjoy.

So, while I know I cannot change the world single-handedly, my resolutions for 2018 are to contribute in a small way to improving the world we live in and start to alleviate my feelings of despair and impotence.  So, here they are:
  1. Reduce the amount of stuff I buy – particularly ‘disposable’ clothes
  2. Buy food and products with reusable or recyclable packaging
  3. Reduce my meat consumption to two days per week
  4. Volunteer my time to give something back to my community e.g. teach under-privileged children or adults
  5. Remain politically awake and get behind campaigns/movements that aim to change this world into a kinder, fairer, peaceful  and more tolerant place

I know it's not much and I'm sure some of you are doing all of the above already.  However, if everyone were to commit to making little adjustments, we could slowly start to change the world into a better place for everyone.  Wishing you all a very merry Christmas and a happy 2018!

Monday, 27 November 2017

Surviving the DipTESOL

Well, the past year has been slightly more intense than I anticipated.  Ignorantly, when I signed up to study the Trinity Diploma in Teaching English as a Second Language (DipTESOL), I believed it would be a breeze, however, it has been one seriously long, hard slog.  If the one month CertTESOL course is a sprint, the DipTESOL is an ultramarathon - and I've never been a keen runner.  However, I've survived (just), my marriage is still in tact (isn't it David?), I still have a few friends who have tolerated my elusiveness over the past 12 months and right now I am overwhelmed with a sense of achievement.  The course is split into four units (including a 3 hour written exam; phonology exam; three research projects and observed teaching) I managed to achieve a distinction in three of the four units and I'll get the result of the written exam (the final unit) at the end of January.  Provided I pass the exam I will get a distinction overall which would be amazing and make it all worthwhile.

A selection of the books I've read this year

Having not studied formally for over 25 years (besides my RYA Yachtmaster navigation exams, my MCA Long Range Radio exam and my CertTESOL), I have a few observations about returning to academia as a 'mature' student.

The curse of perfectionism
When I was studying for my GCSEs and my A Levels, I became quite adept at gauging the minimum effort I needed to apply in order to pass my exams.  I was very conscious that I could do better if I really studied hard and made sacrifices but I didn't really see the point as that would interfere with cider drinking, smoking fags, flirting with boys and being a rebel without a cause.  I always managed to do just enough to get by without completely pissing off the parents who had invested a lot in my education.  It did almost backfire with my A levels, which I still have nightmares about now, as I knew I had scaled back my studying a bit too aggressively.  However, I got away with it - just.  

Contrary to this, as an adult student, nothing but a distinction will suffice.  I have literally slogged my guts out over the last 12 months to get the results I've managed.  I have turned down invitations to parties, weekends away, sailing, hiking - basically to do lots of really super fun things.  I have obsessed over my studying and been utterly focussed and I've got so stressed at times, I've had panic attacks.  I have beaten myself up every time I haven't got a distinction for an assignment or an observed lesson and I've been angry with myself on the odd occasion when I've been too tired or hungover to study.  When did I become this perfectionist?  I swear, studying was a lot less stressful when I was the rebellious teenager.

Studying is different now
When I think back to studying at school, the most high tech piece of equipment I had to assist me was a tape recorder.  I remember someone telling me that if you went to sleep listening to something, you learnt it by some kind of weird osmosis. Naturally, this sounded like a great short cut to proper studying so I dutifully recorded myself reading the translation of Pliny for my Latin GCSE and slept listening to it, only to discover in my mock exams that nothing had been magically assimilated - rubbish! So back I went to my trusty latin dictionary, a pad of paper and a pen.

Nowadays, studying is a multi-media interactive experience, this has really helped me to retain an immense amount of information in a relatively short amount of time.  My coursemates and I have had the luxury of being able to communicate, share knowledge and debate topics on our online learning platform called Moodle.  We have participated in live online seminars with our tutors each week. We have been able to find academic papers and presentations to read online.  We have been able to watch conference presentations on YouTube.  We have been able to listen to Podcasts by key opinion leaders in the TESOL field.  We have been able to write our own online quizzes to help us learn important facts and quotes for our exams.  We have been able to co-create assignments using Googledocs... The list goes on...  Basically, technology has made studying much more effective and learner-friendly over the years.

Addicted to expanding the mind
Above all I have discovered that studying and broadening the mind are quite addictive.  Despite the fact that studying is, at times, very stressful, the satisfaction of increasing your knowledge and being able to apply it to real life has been incredibly rewarding.  I feel very confident now talking about how learners acquire a second language most effectively.  I believe I could efficiently design and deliver courses for both adults and children that would help them to learn English for their particular context, based on a very solid understanding of how learning works and what courses need to include to produce the best results.  I know I have become a better teacher as a result of the past year.  However, now I'm at the end of the course, I want to know more.  I want to keep learning.

Now the DipTESOL is done (assuming I've passed the written exam), the big questions is, what next?  I don't think I want to stop here - although I need to wait before broaching this (and the associated cost) with David.  So, I'm thinking to start with, a Masters in Applied Linguistics and then, well, maybe a PhD - afterall Doctor Walder has a good ring to it, don't you think!

Friday, 18 November 2016

Setting the mind to study mode

When I really want something I can be very strong willed and single-minded. Five weeks ago I decided I'd had enough of drinking and smoking and the effects they were having on me both mentally and physically.  I duly read Allen Carr's Easy Way to Stop Smoking and instantly knocked my smoking habit on the head.  Interestingly, while I was reading it, I realised that much of the logic he applied to quitting smoking could be easily applied to stopping drinking.  As a result I cut both vices in one fell swoop with remarkable ease and have been feeling nauseatingly smug ever since.  My mind is set, for the duration of my DipTESOL course, for a clear-headed and virtuous lifestyle.

When I did my RYA YachtMaster course, I effectively wrote off my life for 4 months and did nothing but eat, sleep and drink sailing (and a shit load of rum of course).  I stayed on the Isle of Wight or on various yachts and saw no one bar my instructors and fellow classmates.  By focusing on nothing but sailing, I managed to achieve my YachtMaster much to my family's amusement, who had rarely seen me up on deck during our countless childhood sailing holidays, where I hid down below, reading, playing cards and fighting with my brothers. I am determined to apply this same focused mindset to studying for my teaching course.  

One method that seems to be working so far is basically flicking a switch in my head to change my perception of weekends from free time to study time.  By doing this, any time I actually get off to do fun things becomes a bonus, rather than any studying time being perceived as a subtraction from fun time. So, for example, last weekend I read articles, chapters from text books and blogs until my head felt ready to explode.  At which point I took a break to walk up the Peak - a bonus!  I went back to work with a clear head, finally finishing at 4pm when I went to one of Hong Kong's many islands to a strange music festival.  Sunday followed a similar path, I studied from 10am to 3pm and then went for a barbecue at the Yacht Club.  By the end of the weekend I felt a huge sense of accomplishment having made a massive dent in my course assignments for the week, and I still felt I had had some free time to have fun and catch up with friends.

With my new healthy lifestyle and my focus set to study mode, I am overflowing with energy.  I feel upbeat, super motivated and completely up for the challenge.  Despite the volume of work I am currently facing I am really excited to be using my brain and improving my teaching. It's up to me to make sure that the switch remains firmly fixed onto study mode over the coming months.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

The trauma of making an intro video

Last week was the initiation week for my DipTESOL course and our main assignment was to make an introduction video about ourselves. I'm pretty good with technology so the technical aspect of this task didn't faze me.  However, the idea of filming myself and looking at myself on screen, filled me with dread.  Nevertheless, I knew I had to suck it up and get on with it, particularly as watching myself on film is going to become a major part of the course.

Although I saw that one of the students had been brave enough to leave his home to film his introduction on a stunning deserted beach in Spain accompanied with his gorgeous dogs, I was far too self-conscious to leave the confines of my office/spare bedroom.  I went to great lengths to try to artistically set-up my shoot and make the lighting as flattering as possible - after all this was the first time any of my course mates would see me and I wanted to make as good a first impression as I could.  Now all I had to do was work out what I wanted to say remembering to answer the brief of telling people why I had chosen to do the diploma and what elements of the curriculum I was particularly interested in studying.

On paper this sounded fairly straightforward.  I have very clear reasons on why I am doing the course and I know the areas that have piqued my interest.  The issue I had was communicating this concisely within two minutes and in one take - as I still need to perfect my editing skills.  So for around an hour, I sat in front of the camera attempting to appear unselfconscious, articulate and approachable. This took take, after take, after take, after take.  Even the final version exceeded the 2 minutes and I felt I looked desperately uncomfortable.  However, after some very minor editing and the application of a few snazzy (I love this word!) graphics I managed to pull together an introduction video that I could live with.

My main learning from the experience was that: 1) I will never make it in this world as a TV presenter, 2) Trying to film something in one take is practically impossible, 3) iMovie can make even the most crap video appear relatively professional.

Anyway, I thought I would leave you with one of my first attempts where 'Sweary Mary' makes an appearance.  If you're really interested, you can also see the final version.  It is a little tedious but the graphics are cool!

Sunday, 30 October 2016

A new challenge: studying to be a better teacher

I know, I know, it’s been ages since I last blogged – 10 months actually.  However I have made a new resolution to tie in with the start of a new challenge – to blog more.  And as for the new challenge, well I am about to embark on my DipTESOL (Diploma in teaching English as a second language).  This is the next step in a bigger plan I have been cultivating over the past year or so.

When I decided to take my CertTESOL three years ago, I really did see it as a stop gap as I took a breather from a 19 year career in advertising, PR and marketing and worked out what my next career move would be.  I never thought for one minute that I would thrive as a teacher and still be doing it three years later.  I didn’t think I had the temperament or patience, plus I swore too much.  Surprisingly I took to teaching like a duck to water achieving an ‘A’ in my CertTESOL and coming top of my course and toning down my ‘Sweary Mary’ side.

If you have read my blog before, you will know that my teaching career did have a few false starts – I still cringe thinking back to one of my first NET (Native English Teacher) job interviews I wrote about in this blog.  But despite the wobbly start I have spent the past few years gaining experience in teaching a range of age groups from 6 months old (ridiculous, I know!) to almost pensioners in a variety of settings from one to one tutorials to small groups to big school classrooms.  I have designed my own courses, delivered pre-designed courses and taught business English, conversational English, phonics, school curricula and even maritime English.  Despite the experience I have gained, I do feel slightly hampered.

You see I dropped out of university and never completed a degree.  I never saw the point at the time as I was lucky enough to get my first job in a very junior role at a sports marketing company where I worked on international golf tournaments and got to travel for the first time to Hong Kong and China.  This was followed by a temporary job at JWT, a massive very well-known ad agency, and through hard-work, long hours and sucking up to the right people at the right time I managed to get taken on permanently, promoted, and trained alongside all the milk-round super grads who had joined the agency with their Oxbridge degrees.  So I never saw the point of going back to uni to get a degree when I already had the job I would have wanted to get had I completed my degree!  The problem is though, that when you change careers and want to progress within the education sector, you really need to walk-the-walk and have some tangible qualifications and letters after your name. So, the purpose of doing my DipTESOL is three-fold:

1) To provide me with a higher level teaching qualification that will give me access to more job opportunities in the future
2) As part of a potential bigger plan to set me up for studying a Masters in Applied Linguistics or similar (if I decide I enjoy studying again)
3) But ultimately to make me a better teacher

So, from now until the end of next summer I am returning to student mode (while still teaching) and I am going to try to keep my blog updated so that I can document the highs and lows of studying for my DipTESOL.  I’m very excited to be starting this new challenge but equally slightly apprehensive. I’ve heard it’s quite tough at times so there may be some tear-y and tantrum-y blogs over the coming months! Regardless, the prospect of engaging my brain again and filling it with new information is quite exhilarating and I'm planning to embrace my inner geek.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

2015: My year in a nutshell (a rather large nutshell, maybe a coconut shell)

On Facebook this morning a memory popped up from last year.  It was the blog I’d written reviewing what had happened to me in 2014 and it was interesting to read it again, a year further into our Hong Kong adventure.  Above all else, it made me feel thankful for the, at times, challenging path David and I have trodden together, to eventually become settled enough in Hong Kong to call it our home.  Where 2014 was a year of sowing the seeds of new careers and friendships, 2015 has been a year where we have laid down our roots and built fledgling friendships into lasting bonds.  (For anyone who is interested, I published a blog earlier in the year about our, in retrospect, cringe-worthy quest to make new friends in a new country).  So, I thought I would kill two birds with one stone and assuage my guilt for not having blogged in months, and document 2015 so I can look back in a year’s time and compare the then and now again.  Make yourself a cuppa – it’s a long one I’m afraid!


David and I woke up very early and clear-headed on 1st January 2015 in Chau Doc, a small Vietnamese town on the Mekong Delta, bereft of a single bar (hence the clear heads)! However, while the final day of 2014 may have been a damp squib, the first day of 2015 was the reverse.  We spent the morning exploring one of the national parks on the Mekong Delta by boat, surrounded by the most exotic array of birds, in brilliant sunshine.  Just the most perfect start to a year.  For David, this was topped the following day when we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, the immense network of tunnels just outside Ho Chi Minh, used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat. David was like a pig in poo, shoe horning himself into the tunnels, crawling around underground and firing AK-47s on the shooting range. 

After a couple of days exploring Ho Chi Minh it was time to head back home to work and to kick-start a new healthy regime.  In preparation for the 2015 San Fernando sailing race from Hong Kong to the Philippines at Easter, I was determined to get fit and healthy.  So, I enthusiastically signed up to an outdoor boot camp, quit drinking and gave up cigarettes.  Unsurprisingly this also coincided with my notable absence from social situations involving booze. 


By February I was feeling virtuous and slightly smug after a nicotine and alcohol-free month of hiking and boot camp.  The muffin tops and bingo wings were diminishing and my halo was glowing brightly.  I was actually relishing my new healthy lifestyle and was leaping out of bed like a young gazelle every morning!

I did have a niggling concern over how I was going to cope with a trip to Sanya, on Hainan island in China, to see the Volvo Ocean Race, but I survived admirably without touching a drop of booze.  It was my first trip to Sanya and I was looking forward to a weekend of Chinese weirdness – Sanya didn’t disappoint.  My highlight was our final night when we went to the bar that all the Volvo Ocean race teams, management and supporters had been frequenting.  It was a Saturday night and the bar was themed as a children’s birthday party – helium balloons everywhere and waitress and bar staff dressed as slutty Minnie Mice.  Obviously not a child was in sight as it was late and not a particularly child-appropriate establishment.  This was until the Filipino band took to the stage with 8 year old backing singers who then started feeding grown men shots of tequila from baby bottles.  All kinds of wrong.

Sanya was swiftly followed by Chinese New Year where we participated in a sailing race from Hong Kong to Macau with our Wonderwall friends.  Despite rough seas, a lot of wind, nauseous crew and a ripped mainsail, we did rather well, achieving second place powered just by our headsail.  Once safely tied up in Macau the crew celebrated with some dubious baked goods which led to an interesting encounter at customs and a lot of laughter.  The trip culminated with one of our friends deftly demonstrating: 1) that pole dancing isn’t nearly as easy as it looks; and 2) it’s extremely difficult to leave Macau without a passport!


At the start of March all my hard work came to a sudden halt when I injured my back slipping while hiking, which was further compounded by me thinking I knew what I was doing at TRX suspension training.  Crippled with pain caused by a misaligned pelvis, sacrum joint damage, disk and tendon injury, most of March was spent at the doctors, orthopaedic consultants, osteopaths, physiotherapist or lying flat on my back.   While popping anti-inflammatories and painkillers went some way to dulling the pain, by the end of March (and just in time for the Hong Kong Sevens), I discovered alcohol offered the most effective pain relief.

So Hong Kong Sevens this year was not only memorable for the fact that our friend, Dean, left Europe for the first time in his life to visit us, but also for me falling off the wagon after almost three dry months. 


Due to my back injury I was unable to take part in the San Fernando sailing race to the Philippines.  This was a huge disappointment up until a couple of days before the race, when we saw the weather forecast.  A typhoon was heading directly for the race route resulting in the race being re-routed.  So, for the Wonderwall crew, this meant that rather than a sun-drenched cruise ending up on a gorgeous beach in the Philippines, they were to race around a rock somewhere in the South China Sea in choppy seas and high winds.  The tales from the returning crew reinforced the fact that my back injury may just have been a blessing in disguise.

After Easter I joined David for the weekend at the Singapore Boat Show, which gave me the opportunity to catch-up with an old school friend who was living there.  I didn’t see an awful lot of Singapore except for some very luxurious powerboats, the marina and the W Hotel so a return trip is definitely required.


By May my back was sufficiently recovered for me to be able to gently hurl myself back into exercise.  A friend and I came up with the idea of setting up a whatsapp group called ‘Fit for Fat’ to encourage non-gym bunny friends of ours to meet up to go hiking.  Therefore May was filled with sweaty evening hikes up the Peak and even sweatier weekend hikes further afield with mates.  


Every June is a busy month at my kindergarten, as the children prepare for graduation – a Broadway style production involving choreography, singing and speeches.  Fortunately my involvement was relatively straightforward – to stand on the stage and wave a heart-shaped light on a stick.  I excelled at my duty. However, prior to graduation I was given the taxing responsibility of making a presentation to all the new parents about what their children could expect from their English classes when joining the school the following September.

It quickly became apparent that my school’s mantra is ‘preparation, preparation, preparation’ and anything less than a slick performance is unacceptable.  My powerpoint presentation was scrutinized by a panel of teachers prior to the event, times were diarized for me to practice presenting, and on the day itself I had to be at the venue a couple of hours early for a dress rehearsal.  I am unfazed by presenting to big groups of people and I tend to perform better in front of a crowd.  Therefore my lack-lustre dress-rehearsal clearly panicked my colleagues who found it hard to disguise their disappointment and unease.  However, with an audience of around 300 and a microphone in my hand, I embraced by inner diva and managed to pull off a spectacular performance that was greeted with thunderous applause.  And I’ve even been asked back next year!

As the school year was drawing to a close, I received one of those phone calls that you dread when you live abroad.  I was out sailing and I saw I had a voicemail message from mum.  When I picked up the message, she was speaking in her ‘I’m trying to sound calm so you don’t panic’ voice saying:  “Now you don’t need to worry but your father has been in a car accident and he is in hospital.”  Naturally your first thought is ‘I need to be back home now’.  Suddenly that distance from home, that felt like nothing on Facetime, feels like an unfathomable expanse. 

When I spoke to mum she reassured me that although dad was very battered he would be fine and there was no need to rush home.  Fortunately school broke up in less than a week so I was able to change my flight back to England to help out with my very bruised but remarkably chipper father.


So in early July I arrived back in the UK for the first time in 18 months.  It was lovely to get back to England and to catch up with Winne, family, friends, and my invalid father.  I had a whirlwind six weeks of hen dos, weddings, 40th birthday parties, family gatherings, trips to the seaside and endless dinners and drinks with friends.  It was reassuring to see that nothing had changed, everything was more or less as it had been when we left – with the odd additional baby - and no doubt things would remain much the same until we come back home again one day.  I found this very comforting and reassuring.


In August I travelled to Piso Livadi on Paros (one of the Greek islands) – marking 30 years since my first ever trip there.  I stayed with my friend Lydia (who I first met when we were working in next door bars on Paros 25 years earlier) and her husband and kids.  We spent the most gorgeous week catching up, reminiscing, laughing and drinking aperol spritz together.  My highlight was getting the giggles while being serenaded by a man old enough to be my father while Lydia looked on aghast. 

At the end of August, I returned to humid Hong Kong, a good few pounds heavier, after an indulgent summer.


September marked the start of the new school year and 200 new names for me to learn.  It also marked the combined 35th Anniversary of three of our close friends being in Hong Kong and therefore a great excuse for a big party.  The party was held at a beach bar on Lamma Island and we were kindly lent Wonderwall for the weekend so we could anchor in the bay and stay overnight.  The party was one of the best of 2015 as the combination of a great venue, fabulous friends, wonderful weather and awesome accommodation were perfect.  The evening ended with an after party aboard Wonderwall and Ymir, drunken moonlit paddle-boarding, swimming, dancing in the cockpit, merkins, UDIs (not mine for once!) and lost rings.  Waking up the next day to glorious sunshine, on-board a gently rocking yacht and just stepping off the side for a wake-up swim was quite literally heaven.

September ended and October began with visits from our friends Sophie and Ben and a fun-packed week of tour guiding and silliness.


I love October in Hong Kong as the skies clear, the heavy showers stop and the humidity drops. And this October seemed better than ever as it turned out to be the month of the party.  There were junk parties, sailing parties, Hallowe’en parties, but best of all was a friend’s birthday party at a dai pai dong (street food market) in North Point. This place has a reputation for being a really crazy party venue and it didn’t disappoint.  As we arrived it was absolutely buzzing with loud music and loads of inebriated locals surrounded by empty plates, whisky and beer bottles. We were ushered to a large table in the middle of it all.  Once we had sat down our attention was drawn to the three local men on the table next to us.  They appeared to have finished their meal but they were literally so drunk they couldn’t stand up to leave.  One of the party then vomited on the floor by their table, this was swiftly followed up by him falling over into his own vomit.  At this point the least annihilated of the group attempted to pay the bill, while the puker decided this was an opportune moment to change out of his sick-splattered clothes into a clean outfit in front of us all. Watching him sliding around in the regurgitated contents of his stomach, while attempting to get his legs into his shorts was quite literally one of the funniest and most disgusting things I have ever seen.  North Point dai pai dong on a Saturday night is firmly on my Hong Kong tour itinerary for visitors from now on.


Having had a good nine months to recover from our previous trip to Macau, it was time to return for a weekend of gambling fun.  The weekend started in the vein it was to continue – by accidently upsetting people at the Macau ferry waiting room by welcoming them with F1 celebration style volcano of M&S sloe gin fizz –covering them all in sweet, sticky alcohol.  What ensued from this point was a version of The Hangover with the odd flashback to winning at roulette, lots of sangria and white port, being ushered off a bus by the police, dancing in the nightclub at The Venetian, and finally waking up dribbling on the shoulder of a bemused local man on the ferry back to Hong Kong at 4am.

November was rounded off by surviving Macau so we could go to Clockenflap, Hong Kong’s answer to Glastonbury!  I love a music festival and Clockenflap with its Hong Kong island backdrop, and eclectic line-up didn’t disappoint.  Watching Dave’s happy little face as he stood right in the front row for The Cuban Brothers and finally got to meet ‘his heroes’ was the high point.


And so we’ve made it through to December again and we’ve already done more than our fair share of Christmas celebrations – from mulled wine on the beach, to cookie decorating parties, to Christmas horse racing to carol singing.  And now I’m feeling rather jaded and more than ready for school to break up and for a long rest on the beach in Thailand over Christmas and New Year.  Then it will be back to a new year, a new health regime and time to do it all over again!

2015 has been an awesome year for David and I and we’re looking forward to seeing what 2016 has in store.  Thank you to all our friends and family who have helped to make it such a good one.  Merry Christmas to you all and Happy New Year!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

A Backpack and the Lonely Planet

For me, one of the most exciting things about moving to Asia was the opportunity to travel and explore the plethora of countries and cultures in the region. Over the past couple of years I have spent a vast amount of time trawling the internet and planning holidays, the majority of which I haven't followed through with yet. My hit list includes various locations in Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines, China, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bhutan.... the list goes on. One of the reasons David and I chose to stay in Hong Kong this Christmas was to explore some of these destinations during the Christmas break.

Inevitably, the holiday plan had to be a compromise. After tricking David into holidaying in a dog and cat rescue centre in Langkawi, I wasn't completely trusted to plan the holiday without his input! Once we had settled on Cambodia and South Vietnam as destinations, we debated exactly where we would go and what we would see. We both felt we should go to Angkor Wat, a complex of temples and one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. David made it clear that he wanted to visit the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh and the Cu Chi Tunnels and War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh. "How cheerful!" I thought. My suggestion of staying with a local family in Battamberg was immediately vetoed. "I don't really want to stay in someone else's house. Would you like a strange Cambodian family staying in our tiny apartment?". However, when we read about boat trips exploring the Mekong Delta, we both leapt at the idea. Me, because I'd be on the water and could see daily rural life passing me by while getting a tan, David because he could reenact Apocolypse Now. So, with our trip finally agreed upon, off we set, weighed down by back packs and armed with the Lonely Planet, like a pair of ageing gap yah students.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

First stop, Siem Reap, a low rise colonial style city nestled on the banks of a river with a friendly, laid-back feel, and the gateway to Angkor Wat. We were collected from our hotel early on our first morning by our driver and our tiny and very cheerful guide for our day at Angkor Wat. David looked like Gulliver with a Lilliputian beside him. Unfortunately our jolly guide's English was quite hard to decipher and he did not gauge that David and I are not desperately interested in ancient history and we didn't need to know every single intricate detail of the vast sculpted mural surrounding Bayon, the first temple we were taken to. David kept wandering off, leaving me nodding, smiling, feigning interest and desperately trying to work out what jolly guide was saying, while shooting daggers at my husband's disappearing back.

Angkor Wat

After Bayon I silently prayed there were no more sculpted murals to look at as the day was starting to drag and I didn't know how long I could maintain my 'fascinated' facade for. Fortunately the next temple was the Lara Croft one - Ta Promh - and I think jolly guide was slowly picking up on the fact that David and I were not culture vultures and liked to move through the ancient ruins at pace. The day picked up and we started to tick off temples at speed. I know, it's sacrilege, we were at one of the most beautiful historical sites on earth and we weren't lapping up every second. However, we had no problem lapping up our delicious set meal at a restaurant nestled among the ancient ruins, while jolly guide had a power nap and a welcome break from his philistine guests.

The afternoon was spent wandering around the stunning Angkor Wat. On arrival my heart sank to see it was surrounded by an enormous fresco. Visions of hours being lectured on each minute detail while David drifted off into the distance, flashed before my eyes. Jolly guide had definitely got the measure of us though and we enjoyed a pacey and educational tour around Angkor Wat and David managed to remain by my side throughout.

One of the sad things about the modern world is that there are few surprises when visiting a new place. With the glossy pictures in guide books, travel programmes, films, Trip Advisor, social media etc, it is hard to go anywhere without experiencing a sense of having seen it before. This is how I felt at Angkor Wat. While it was amazing to witness it in the flesh, part of me felt a slight disappointment that I wasn't able to see it with fresh eyes, untainted by the accessible images in the media.

Following a day at Angkor Wat, David and I had built up a thirst, so after a swim we were ready to hit Siem Reap. Jumping into a tuk-tuk we weaved through the motorbikes towards the brightly lit river and the night market. Living in Hong Kong with it's many markets and being so close to Shenzhen with the best fake gear market in the region, it was hard to get excited by Siem Reap's tourist market. So, despite being backpackers, we bypassed the baggy elephant trousers, tie dye t-shirts and Chiang beer wife-beaters and headed straight for drinks and dinner.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Another early start for a 7 hour bus ride to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Once we had left the city boundaries of Siem Reap, the scenery remained the same until reaching the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Dusty red roads lined with lush padi fields and huts housing hammocks for weary motorcyclists, along with the occasional village with dimly lit shacks selling soft drinks and snacks. Most villages would feature a roadside hut with battered beach style chairs set up cinema style in front of a television. A clear indication that television ownership is not as ubiquitous in Cambodia as elsewhere.

Phnom Penh itself was a pleasant surprise. This was somewhere I hadn't seen endless pictures of and I knew very little about the city itself besides the fact it was home to the notorious S-21 prison and it's boundaries housed the Killing Fields dating back to its brutal civil war in the 70s. I wrongly assumed it would therefore be rather austere and imposing. Instead it had the same friendly laid-back feel as Siem Reap and it was hard not to fall instantly in love with the place. Nestled on the banks of Tonle Sap lake and the Mekong river, it is dotted with historical colonial buildings and monuments, grand boulevards, and interlaced with narrow streets lined with cafés, bars, restaurants, spas and shops. Everywhere we went we were greeted by genuinely warm, smiley, welcoming Cambodian people.

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

Our first full day was spent with our driver and guide taking us around all the major sites of Phnom Penh. Our guide was amazing, a woman in her mid forties who had experienced the civil war first hand and still bore the scars emotionally and physically. She had been living in Phnom Penh with her parents when the Khmer Rouge entered the city and within 3 days they fled to the countryside to stay in one of the rural villages with relatives. Over the next few years she was separated from her parents and forced to work in one of the many agricultural communities. Even as a very young girl she was forced to work on padi fields. She spoke of suffering from malnutrition from a diet of only rice and water and being so thin that the wind would blow her over. She was made to empty the 'long drop' toilet with her hands and carry the human excrement to fertilise the padi fields. She vividly remembers the humiliation of not being allowed to wash her hands before eating.

I found her fascinating and remarkably frank about her experiences of life under the Khmer Rouge, as well as extremely willing to respond to our barrage of questions. Being a similar age to her I also felt a strange connection and she confided in me about experiences and memories when David was out of ear shot. It was traumatic listening to her terrible childhood compared to mine. I clearly remember Blue Peter's appeal in 1978, raising money to buy lorries, fuel, rice, fertiliser, vaccines and other equipment for the starving survivors of Pol Pot's regime - she would have been one of them.

Our visit to the killing fields and S-21 was a stark reminder of the horrors that man can inflict on each other and the futility of it all. And while the torture and tragic genocide is part of Cambodia's not so distant past, it is agonising that similar atrocities continue throughout the world nowadays. What is even worse is that the US and UK governments are complicit and have blood on their hands today.

After our thought-provoking day, we felt it was only right that we should treat ourselves to a massage - particularly at the enticingly low prices offered. There was no mistaking the fact that David and I had sourced a classy establishment. As we were ushered to our shared massage room we were each given a pair of loose fitting hippy trousers and top to wear - they wanted to keep our modesty well hidden. Beside each bed was a large sign stating ‘NO SEX’. There could be no confusion, this was somewhere people came for a massage with no extras, so I could close my eyes and relax, safe in the knowledge that my husband wasn’t getting a crafty happy ending beside me.

Emerging from the spa feeling blissfully chilled, we hunted down a bar playing 90's UK indie music and made the most of the bargain Happy Hour cocktails – US$2.50 each. It seemed rude to just have one so we sat watching the world go by, Dave necking lager and me passion fruit martinis. Before we lost the use of our limbs we went to find the restaurant we’d been recommended by our guide. It was an old teak colonial style building with a stream running through it awash with carp. I chose steamed fish, thinking I would get a small fish sitting on a bed of veg on a plate. Instead a large fish balanced over a wood fire was ceremoniously placed in the centre of our table. While David, a fish-hater, blocked his nose and made subtle retching noises for the next 30 minutes, I put in a sterling effort devouring the entire fish.

Chau Doc

The following day our Mekong Delta expedition began. At 1pm we arrived to find the boat which was to transport us down the Mekong from Phnom Penh across the border to Chau Doc in Vietnam. When planning the trip, I had had romantic visions of David and I being whisked down the river on a private long tail, hand in hand, watching the sunset. I hadn’t quite envisaged a narrow, ugly fibre glass barge crammed full of other tourists. Our ‘companions’ for the 5 hour cruise down the Mekong were a couple of socially inept French families with literally screaming toddlers, and a selection of men and women who had cloned into ‘travellers’ somewhere in South East Asia. It remains a mystery to me as to why people morph into stereotypes when travelling, with dreadlocks, rainbow coloured hair, tie-dye T shirts, loose fitting elephant trousers and sandals, being the uniform of choice.

Once I managed to divert my attention from the interior to the exterior of the boat, I had a wonderful 5 hours watching everyday life on the Mekong go by on the endless padi fields. Once we crossed the border to Vietnam floating villages housing fish farms, and small communities sprung up along the river banks. As the sun started to set we watched children swimming in the river while the women cooked the evening meal and the men chilled out in hammocks.

Cruising down the Mekong

On arrival in Chau Doc we were met by our smiley guide for the next few days who led us to our car. She proudly announced that we were VIPs as she pointed out the large Ford Silver Warrior mini van that was going to be David and my transport for our time in Vietnam. Once we had been dropped off at our fairly average hotel, smiley guide disappeared off into the night, leaving us to explore the wonders of Chau Doc.

As it was New Year's Eve, David and I were keen to find ourselves a lively bar to see in the New Year from. When we asked the hotel receptionist to direct us to a good bar, we weren't expecting the response to be "There are no bars in this town". David and my jaws dropped and we looked at each other wondering if it was April Fool's Day in Vietnam. Leaving the hotel, David adopted the persona of 'tracker' and set off with purpose along the dusty road riddled with motorbikes, on a mission to sniff out anywhere that sold booze. During 'Operation Find Booze' it quickly become apparent that Chau Doc was a bit of a shit hole. Although the people were incredibly friendly and we were greeted by choruses of 'Hello! Happy New Year!' from adults and children alike, it was a grubby, working market town that was not geared up for tourists. Eventually David's canine sniffing skills led us to a strip-light lit coffee shop which could have passed as a car mechanics workshop, selling beer, on the busy junction of a road. We spent the next 15 minutes, sitting on grimy beach chairs practically on the road, with motorbikes roaring past us. Even David couldn't be persuaded to stay for a second one and we went in search of a restaurant.

The restaurant was a slight upgrade from the coffee shop, as at least it was set back from the road. However, the food was decidedly average and the florescent strip-lighting attracted every insect known to man. After being repeatedly dive-bombed by vicious mosquitoes, it was time to call it a night. David and I were in bed by 9pm!

Waking up feeling abnormally bright and breezy for New Year's Day, we were glad to be picked up by smiley guide in our Silver Warrior and whisked off to the gorgeous Tra Su cajuput forest and bird sanctuary. The nature reserve is home to many unique water birds, colonies of bats and various rare animal, and Dave and I were going to be exploring it by both long-tail and rowing boat. As we were rowed through mangroves housing nesting tropical birds and their babies, and fluttering Kingfishers, all you could hear was the swish of the oar hitting the water and bird song. It really was the perfect way to see in the New Year and made up for a disappointing New Year's Eve.

Tra Su cajuput forest and bird sanctuary

During the morning we were taken up onto a viewing platform that looked down upon the 845 hectares of forest and waterways. As I was taking in the stunning view, I was spotted by a group of local Vietnamese girls. Although they spoke no English, they gesticulated that they would like to have their picture taken with me. One by one each of the girls lined up to have their photo taken while I pretended to be a celebrity. This has happened to me every now and again in Hong Kong. Being a cynical Brit I do wonder whether they are taking photos to laugh about later because I am freakishly large and odd looking compared to them. However I'd like to believe it is because with my blonde-ish hair and blue-ish eyes they think I'm Scarlett Johansson - after all I've been told that all Westerners look the same to Asians.

After a couple of hours David and I were driven on to a crocodile farm for lunch where we were served barbecue crocodile which David sulkily refused point-blank to try. Had I blind tasted both barbecue chicken and crocodile I don't think I could have tasted the difference.

The Crocodile Farm

Can Tho

Late afternoon we reached Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta Region, sitting on a wide section of the river. In contrast to gloomy Chau Doc, Can Tho was bright and buzzing and had a vast array of restaurants, bars, coffee shops and nightclubs. With our hotel located right next door to a lively bar, it was not a mission to find somewhere selling alcohol. Following a few days of a strict diet of Asian food, David was craving a steak and we easily hunted down a French restaurant by the river. David looked ecstatic as he tucked into a huge steak with dauphinois potatoes, washed down with a bottle of red.

The following morning we walked down to the river where we joined a narrow wooden boat to take us to Can Tho floating market - the largest floating market in the area. This was the destination for people to come to from across the Mekong Delta to sell their produce. Reaching the market you could see boat after boat laden with jack fruit, durian, pineapples, mangoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, bitter melon, casava etc. Each boat had a long pole reaching into the sky, onto which examples of its wares were hung, so customers on the water knew which boat was selling which tropical fruit or vegetables.

Can Tho Floating Market

Once we had experienced the floating market, we were taken to the covered market on the banks of the river where people were selling fresh fish, still flipping around in polystyrene boxes, and fresh meat and poultry. We watched with fascination as customers selected live fish which were put into bags and weighed, then bashed on the floor to kill them, before being descaled and gutted.

The indoor market at Can Tho

After a couple of hours it was time to get back into the Silver Warrior for our 5 hour drive to Ho Chi Minh city, our final destination.

Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh, formerly known as Saigon, is the capital of Vietnam with a population of 9 million people. David and I had been warned about the volume of motorbikes clogging up the roads of Ho Chi Minh and as we drove towards the city centre, it appeared that the majority of the city's 9 million inhabitants were riding motorbikes. If they weren't on motorbikes, they were sitting by the side of the roads on low stools selling coffee, ice-cream, noodle soup, tropical fruit etc. Despite the traffic, we quickly warmed to the city with its wide elegant boulevards and french colonial architecture.

Our first full day in Ho Chi Minh was to be David's 'Man Day'. David is very interested in military history, fuelled by his love of war documentaries on the History Channel, so he had been adamant that we explored the main sights of the Vietnam war. Top of the list were the Cu Chi Tunnels. This is an immense network of tunnels just outside Ho Chi Minh, used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters during the war. David had his perfect morning, shoe horning himself into the tunnels, crawling around underground and firing AK-47s on the shooting range.

David squeezing into the Cu Chi Tunnels

David shooting an AK-47

Once we had finished at the tunnels, we were taken back to Ho Chi Minh where it was time for us to say goodbye to our smiley guide and the Silver Warrior. Over the past 4 days, our guide had given us a real insider's view on life on the Mekong Delta which we wouldn't have benefitted from had we been travelling alone. We had enjoyed spending time with her and were impressed with her ability to keep smiling even though there must have been times when David and I irritated her!

We had a further couple of days on our own in Ho Chi Minh before returning to Hong Kong and the following day David wanted to visit the War Remnants Museum. Had I not been travelling with David, this would not have been high on my list of 'must-see' sights, however I am really glad I went. Having visited the Killing Fields and S-21 in Cambodia, I thought I had seen the worst of what people could do to each other in wartime. The War Remnants Museum proved otherwise.

The museum is spread across three floors with each floor housing three or four rooms displaying harrowing photographs from the Vietnam war, showing both sides of the conflict. The most shocking rooms for me, were those displaying the devastating affects of Agent Orange. Being fairly ignorant to the history and details of the Vietnam war, besides what I have seen in the endless American 'Nam movies, I am ashamed to admit that I knew nothing about Agent Orange. For those as ignorant as me, Agent Orange is a herbicide used during Operation Ranch Hand in the Vietnam War, employed to destroy crops, bushes and trees. The goal was to defoliate rural forested land and deprive guerrillas of food and cover. The chemicals used by the Americans contained dioxin, which is highly toxic and dangerous. Among the illnesses contracted by people exposed to dioxin are non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, cancer, type 2 diabetes, soft tissue sarcoma, birth defects in children, spina bifida and reproductive abnormalites. I found it hard to fight back the tears looking at photograph after photograph of children and adults suffering from horrendous physical deformities and mental disorders as a direct result of Agent Orange. What I found most shocking is that even today, over 45 years on, people are giving birth to babies with terrible birth defects as a result of exposure to dioxin. According to the Vietnam Red Cross, about 1 million Vietnamese have been affected by Agent Orange, including 150,000 children suffering from birth defects. This has to be one of the most heinous war crimes in recent times.

Once we had finished our morning at the War Remnants Museum our sight-seeing list was complete. Our final day was spent exploring the coffee shops, foot massage spas, bars, restaurants and boutique shops. We discovered a wonderful shop selling original communist propaganda posters dating back to the sixties and we bought a selection to decorate our apartment's bare walls. We also stocked up on the rocket-fuel strength Vietnamese coffee which I love.

Weighed down by our stuffed rucksacks it was time for David and I to head home to Hong Kong. We had the most amazing trip to Cambodia and Vietnam but we were looking forward to unpacking our bags and staying put in one place for more than a couple of nights. I totally fell in love with Cambodia and south Vietnam and the greatest thing I took from our holiday was a huge amount of admiration and respect for the people of these two countries who made us feel so welcome and helped to fill our stay with happy memories.