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!

January

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. 

February  

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!


March 

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. 

April 

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.

May

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.  

June

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.


July

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.

August

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

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.

October

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.


November

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.

December

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 caf├ęs, 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.

















Monday, 15 December 2014

The Christmas Round Robin

When I was growing up I vividly remember the heavy thud as bundles of cards landed on the doormat in the lead up to Christmas.  Times have changed - this year we've received two.  One from my sister in law and one from Jayden, one of my students!  Hopefully this is a reflection of our increasingly digital world, rather than our lack of popularity.  Back then, Christmas cards from distant friends and family were often accompanied with the inevitable 'Round Robin' letter.  These letters appeared to be a legitimate way for people to gloat about their idyllic lives and their children's successes over the course of the year, while meticulously glossing over any negatives.  I remember mum and dad chortling away about what positives they could possibly find to write about us when I had just been 'bust' for smoking, Tom had been discovered instigating spitting games at school, and Ben had been caught photocopying our neighbour's porn collection.  Personally, I think that would have made a far more entertaining read than boasts of marvellous Martin passing his Common Entrance and super Susannah achieving her Cycling Proficiency.

Anyway, in place of the 'Round Robin' letter, I am adapting this into a 'Round Robin' blog to update you on the year that has almost passed.

January
Living in a city that is celebrated for its impressive firework displays, it seemed fitting that David and I should completely miss them having collapsed jet-lagged in bed by 9pm.  After the excitement of missing seeing in 2014, we were straight back to business with me starting my English teaching course and Dave heading to China to work at a boat show.  January was a 'heads down' month.  My course was very intensive and I threw myself into the teaching, loving every moment.  Meanwhile Dave took full advantage of staying out of my way with a pint in his hand at The Phoenix, loving every moment.
My teaching course

February
February started with Chinese New Year and yet another impressive firework display that we both missed.  Dave, because he was taking part in a yacht race to Macau, where the naughty crew went swimming in the canal at The Venetian on arrival.  Me, because I was in a pub with a long-awaited cocktail in my hand celebrating finishing my course.

I took on my first paying students in February and started earning money after a couple of months of contributing nothing to the bank account.  This was also the month where I suffered the most humiliating experience of my life, turning up for a job interview and being told I had to teach a class. Completely unprepared I floundered around like an idiot singing 'Hello, hello what's your name?' to the tune of 'London Bridge is Falling Down' to a wall of blank, unsmiling faces.  I didn't get the job.


March
Finally I found a job teaching pre-school children.  In retrospect, what was I thinking?  I have never been baby and toddler friendly.  To be honest, they scare me!  Therefore, being trapped in a classroom in charge of 10 toddlers was hell on earth.  Place me on a stage and ask me to present on healthcare marketing to 100 people - no problem.  Place me in a classroom with a handful of toddlers and I'm a quivering wreck.  Within a week, I'd resigned.  Leaving my exasperated husband wondering if I would ever manage to hold down a job again!

Besides, finding and losing a job, I also participated in one of the worst sailing races I have ever experienced in my life.  You know the expression, 'by failing to prepare, you're preparing to fail'? Well, we did that spectacularly.  The Pedro Blanco race was a windy overnight race with uncomfortable seas.  One crew member disappeared down below after eating a 7/11 sandwich, never to be seen on deck again.  We had forgotten to do any proper catering or arrange a watch system, and we had a near-miss with the Pedro Blanco rock we were supposed to be rounding.  I have never been so relieved to get off a yacht!

The highlight of March was a visit from my brother Tom and our first outing to the amazing Hong Kong Rugby Sevens.  Dave sadly missed out as he was at K-TV in Sanya.
Hong Kong Rugby Sevens


April
Despite the horror of the Pedro Blanco Race, it wasn't sufficient to put me off taking part in the China Sea Race to the Philippines over Easter.  Although we had a terrible start to the race, having picked up a large mooring line around our prop, we were finally off albeit at the back of the fleet.  Over the next couple of days we managed to creep our way up from last position and were sailing pretty well.  However, as the Philippines coast came into sight, the wind died and we spent hours and hours going round and round in circles.  It got so desperate that eventually the rum was opened and when the wind finally filled in, a rather inebriated crew finally managed to cross the finish line.  There was a great sense of achievement having made our way all the way from Hong Kong to the Philippines simply under the power of the wind.

Once we had delivered the yacht safely back from the Philippines, it was time for David to disappear to Singapore and me to start another new job.  This time teaching at a kindergarten until the end of June, in addition to my tutoring work which was building up well.

May
May marked the month my weight started to increase and our bank balance started to drain as M&S Food opened by the Mid-Levels escalator.

June
The highlight of June was a visit to Hong Kong from an old work colleague, which was a great excuse for me and two other old work mates from MindShare who live here, to get together.  Even though 10 years had passed since we had all worked together, we had a fabulous evening reminiscing about our London days.

David abandoned me late in the month to take part in a sailing regatta in Penghu, Taiwan.  And as my kindergarten prepared for its Graduation Day, I prepared to find a job a bit closer to home.  Having heard that a friend was leaving her job at a lovely little kindergarten in Happy Valley, I put out some feelers and secured an interview at her school.  This time I was warned I would need to teach a class so I avoided a repeat performance of 'Hello, hello, what's your name?'
Little Munchkins

July
School was out for summer!  I was supposed to be teaching in Beijing over the summer but unfortunately it was cancelled at the last minute.  Rather than lounging by the yacht club pool every single day, I managed to motivate myself to find some more adults and kids to tutor and a summer course to teach.  I did manage to squeeze in a little bit of pool time and lots of sailing, but I must try harder next summer.  Yet again, my husband, realising that I wasn't going to be kept fully occupied over the summer ran away to Singapore again to escape from me.  While he was gone I booked us a summer holiday and as a punishment, I arranged us a holiday at a boutique resort that was also an animal sanctuary.  My idea of heaven, David's idea of hell!
School's out for summer

August
This was a special month as I inflicted my immense karaoke talents on not just one, but two groups of lucky people!  Both groups quickly worked out that I do NOT share microphones under any circumstances, and I like to have full control over the music choices as well.  I am a self-confessed karaoke hog.

At last, it was time for David and I to go on our animal sanctuary holiday in Langkawi.  David took the news that he might just be sharing his room with a few cats quite well.  He also resigned himself to dog walks being part of our itinerary.  The holiday started with David shooing cats out of the room every few minutes, and ending with him sharing a sun-lounger and our bed with four lovely cats.  Naturally, I managed to fit a dog walk in too.  Langkawi is a beautiful place for a summer break, made all the better for animals.

After we got back from Langkawi, David escaped from me again - this time to Italy and England.

September
At the beginning of September I started my new job teaching at Precious Blood Kindergarten in Happy Valley.  It quickly proved to be an absolutely lovely school to work at and there was a huge sense of relief at finally finding a school where I genuinely felt very happy and settled.

Shortly after returning to school, it was Mid Autumn Festival and a naughty visitor, our troublesome friend Sophie, came to visit.  Sophie came to see us solo, leaving her husband cleaning the house and walking the dog back in England.  It was great fun showing a good friend a taste of Hong Kong and we covered everything from sailing, to hiking, to beaches, to shopping.  Unfortunately I couldn't keep up with her drinking prowess and had to leave her in David's very capable boozing hands.

Once Sophie left Hong Kong, Dave fled to Indonesia.

October
I had been looking forward to October for months as this was when my mum and dad were going to come and visit us.  We spared them the pleasure of sharing our tiny apartment with us and booked them into a flat just down the escalator from our home.  A lot of time and effort had been put into building an action packed itinerary for them and they had barely dropped off their suitcases before we were dragging them to enjoy a lychee martini and chinese feast.  This seemed to remain the theme for the week - drink, eat, drink, eat, drink!

Their visit coincided with the start of the Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations so they were able to witness first hand a historic moment in Hong Kong's history.

It was wonderful to give mum and dad a glimpse of our lives here in Hong Kong and to reassure them that despite the difficulties of the previous year, we really are settled and happy now.  The worst thing about having my parents here was that there would be the inevitable 'goodbye' at the end which was a little tearful.

David forgot to abandon me in October so we celebrated by going to the Hong Kong Open Golf together and drinking far too much rose.

November
A month of firsts.... My first Thanksgiving dinner, my first Hong Kong Round the Island Race, my first Asian music festival - Clockenflap.

The highlight - Clockenflap - but it wasn't quite the same without my badly behaved UK festival buddies to spike my drinks and trip me over in the mud!

Once more David forgot to leave the country.

Clockenflappers

December
Holidays are coming, holidays are coming!  And now, here we are in December.  The flat has been transformed into a grotto, the fridge is stocked with M&S party food and the mulled wine has been on free-flow.  We have been Christmas partying and Christmas sailing.  This weekend is my school's Nativity and Dave has front row seats - yes, he's forgotten to flee Hong Kong again.

We have a quiet Christmas arranged, with just the two of us which will be really weird as we're both used to large, noisy family Christmases.  It could be our first and last Christmas a deux!  And we're counting down the days to our holiday to Cambodia and Vietnam between Christmas and New Year.

2014 has been a great year for us both establishing our lives in Hong Kong and roll on 2015!


HAPPY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE.




Wednesday, 9 July 2014

It's not me, it's them

Since I left my PR job last year, I have had a niggling worry.   I knew the woman I reported to on one of the particularly stressful accounts I directed during my time there, lives around the corner from me.  Conscious that I have been holding back a lot of pent up anger about the lack of support and understanding I received at the company, and shame about my failure to make my role there work - I spent considerable time mulling over what I would do and say if I were to bump into her.  

Last week, literally dripping in sweat from a particularly humid hike, I was almost home standing at the traffic lights waiting to cross the road and there she was.  For a fleeting moment I thought about turning around and taking an alternative route but I chose to face the situation instead.  When she saw me I couldn't detect ill-concealed alarm or antipathy towards me, in fact she broke into a broad smile that reached her eyes.  Her first words were "Wow!  You look amazing, so happy and healthy!".   Typically I might have dismissed this as a fake greeting but as I was mid-detox and feeling pretty damn good post exercise (despite my sweaty face), I took the compliment as I believe it was intended.

We stood on the street for a long time chatting about the company and what has been happening there since I left 10 months ago.  Hearing that practically the entire account management team has left in the past few months, and that she too was leaving imminently for a new job, despite having been an evangelist for the business, was a revelation.  Suddenly I didn't feel like the freak who couldn't hack it working in PR in Hong Kong, instead I realised the problem didn't lie with me, but with the company.  In therapist talk I suppose I have finally found peace and acceptance and can at last close the door on the entire episode.

When I got home, I immediately received a whatsapp message from her saying how great it had been to see me and suggesting we meet up for a glass of wine when she returns from travelling in a couple of weeks time.  Regardless of whether a meet up materialises or not it was a considerate gesture.

It is strange how these moments you dread often take an unexpected turn.   What I had imagined may be a confrontation had morphed into a reconciliation.  It also stressed how much my life has changed in the past few months.  All at once it struck me that I genuinely am happy, content and fulfilled and for the first time in years I don't feel stressed... at all!  And it shows on my face.  People who I haven't seen for a couple of months keep telling me how happy I look.  Eeyore's rainy cloud has shifted and been replaced with sunshine and long may it last!

That was then

This is now