Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | December 23, 2013

Christmas: Baby, there’s a cake outside

Cocktails: The best way not to have a hot and itchy Christmas. Or even avoid it altogether

Cocktails: The best way to get through a hot and itchy Christmas. Or even avoid it altogether

Christmas is a strange thing in the non-Christian Tropics. But even in Malaysia, there is no escaping Yuletide festivities. There are carols in the supermarket, tinsel-covered trees in malls, and even Burka-clad women are liable, for no reason, to suddenly start singing Jingle Bells.

This year I am spending Christmas Day in Penang with friends, cooking, eating and drinking (not necessarily in that order). Other Christmases have been spent in various places, including South Africa, Italy and Nepal. I have various memories of Christmases in Australia too. Eating seafood with friends in someone’s backyard (good). Being anywhere near my depressed, alcoholic, neurotic relatives (bad).

One year my sister “did” Christmas at her house and her cross was heavy that day. She envisaged a Mediterranean buffet, which I’m sure featured olives and sun-dried tomatoes and plenty of sliced deli goods on plates, and she embarked on a meltdown because it wouldn’t be ready at 1pm.

“It’s OK,” I said. “No one will die or go to jail. Don’t say anything and they’ll think it was ready when it was meant to be ready.”

“You don’t care about this family!” she screamed, and went off to cry somewhere.

The guests didn’t care; they had salty snacks, strong vodka tonics and padded furniture. They really didn’t give a shit if they had to wait another 15 minutes for cous cous and festive Pinot Grigio.

It was a very contemporary Christmas menu-wise, and the guests were a bit post-modern too. My sister’s current amour was there, along with the father of her child plus girlfriend, and his mother who was perpetually on the search for “something tasty and delicious”. (It remained to be seen what she thought of grilled vegetable salad.) Then there was the amour‘s ex-wife, who came in from next door with her new husband, a grandmother and her Valium, a father who got drunk and fell asleep in the corner, and a mother who was collected by some man friend to go to a “dinner-dance”, which sounded a bit 1975, but no one could be bothered arguing about it.

Later, my sister had recovered sufficiently from the trauma of feeding people to go down the street to a party where the hosts served nothing but candy and alcohol. As far as my family went, that was a good day.

Christmas in London tended to noted by the increased consumption of mince pies and booze. At one cocktail party, the talk naturally turned to family hatred during the holidays.

‘Oh yes, I want to kill my family,’ laughed Jens, the Danish florist. ‘But at Christmas we drink a lot and light candles and that’s nice.’

“Nothing depresses me more than seeing my family at Christmas,” I said.”The whole things is such a waste of energy. And I really hate my mother.”

“I don’t hate my mother, she’s the only I like,” Jens replied.

“At least you like someone.”

“It’s just too much, there’s this endless discussion about who’s doing what,” sighed Matthew, who had a full-time job and was writing a Master’s thesis in psychology. “My mother rings me in a panic saying, ‘Aunty Doris is making  a pudding,  but there’s no cake yet’,” he sighed. “I mean who cares? Except Michael. He’ s decided to make a cake and he has it on a strict feeding schedule and it’s taking over our lives. It’s become the child in our relationship.”

“Feeding it with what?” asked a puzzled Jens.

“No idea. Brandy?”

Well I had a story about cakes.

“I knew someone at college who fed a cake. He kept it in a plastic tub and gave it bits of fish and things he stole from dinner. It was kind of mouldy.”

Ignoring the looks of disgust, dismay and concern I continued. “When he wanted to torment the cake he’d drop a few blobs of antibiotic cream on it.”

Matthew grimaced. “That is the weirdest thing I ever heard.”

“But if dinner was shite you could always look forward to seeing how the cake would handle it.”

Jens looked a bit worried, I don’t think they do that kind of thing in Denmark. Too busy eating herring.

Anyway, may your Christmas be free of psychosis, and amply filled with co-operative cakes, meals and bottles. Ho, ho HO.

Christmas 2012 in central India. Not hot and itchy here, as about to freeze to death

Christmas 2012 in central India. Not hot and itchy here, as about to freeze to death

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Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | December 21, 2013

Myanmar: Ayeyarwady revisited, part one

The "national" highway of Myanmar

The “national highway” of Myanmar

Three years ago I visited Myanmar and spent a month among its gentle people and on various not-so-gentle rattly, bumpy and decrepit methods of transport. Then there were elections and Aung San Suu Kyi was released, and there was some government reform. Many changes have taken place in the “Golden Land” in the past two years, as I saw when I recently returned.

Some changes are good – the Burmese seem less fearful, more cheerful and better fed. Some changes are less welcome, such as the increase in traffic and the soaring prices. Myanmar was comparable to say, rural Thailand price-wise when I was there, I don’t think there are any $7-a-night guesthouses left any more. It’s now considered an expensive destination, and in peak season you need to book ahead. The first visit I went at a hot, damp time (September) and there were about ten tourists in the entire country. I ate in one restaurant near Bagan and the owner almost cried he was so grateful to have a customer (I was the only one).  I felt bad for him, struggling to keep his business going, but I think it’s easier now.

On my second visit, it was still hot and damp, being August, and the country was a bit busier tourist-wise, but up north, foreigners were still definitely a novelty.

The assignment

A magazine asked me to go to Burma and write a story about the Ayeyarwady River, the “national highway” of Myanmar, partly because I already had some experience with this mighty waterway. In 2010 I went north by railway from Mandalay, the main city of Upper Myanmar, and was the “only tourist lady on the train” – only one foreigner but several accidents. Despite the train falling over and having to get off it and hike to another one, I reached Myitkyina, capital of Kachin state.

A report of that trip is here on the site – this train journey is probably not a good idea for nervous travelers, or those who don’t like being deprived or air-con and dining cars, those who don’t enjoy being incredibly hot and uncomfortable – well most people really. But I was literally treated like minor royalty, which generally only happens when you are writing a story about something and people are sucking up to you because you are a journalist.

No one on the train knew I was a journalist, and I had no plans to write about it, but after the unpredictable course of events, how could I not?

On the way back south I experienced a local “ferry”, boarding by a gang plank to a ledge, inching round to the open sides while holding onto the roof (with luggage) then sitting on a plank above eddies of dirty water and next to monks wanting cash to buy cigarettes. Needless to say, I was the only foreigner aboard. That day ended by a night sweating on a hard mat in a village with two hours a day of electricity, in a guest house with dirt floors, no bathroom and yet a shrine to Avril Lavigne and Britney Spears. Still the stars and the electrical storms – and the fireflies! – made up for that. Well nearly, I was pretty tired the next day for the next chunk of river time aboard a “canoe” with a pig, bags of sticks and far too many passengers, bobbing about in a storm I did not think we would survive. Some travelers pay thousands to go on “adventures”, that day of excitement cost about $12.

I was glad to arrive in Bhamo, a trading post 50 miles from the Chinese border, which was full of mud and pushy tuk tuk drivers. Having had enough of boats, I wanted to get on a bus. But there are no buses for foreigners out of Bhamo, so considering the state of the buses I was allowed to take, I can only imagine what horrors on four wheels these were.

Choices out of Bhamo were limited. There was one flight a week – four days away – or the public ferry to Mandalay. After 30 hours sitting on the ferry deck, I was mighty glad to reach the city, and the Royal Guest House, which in 2010 was cheap and friendly and was a safe place to leave things. I’ve seen recent reviews criticizing this place, and sadly due to increased prices everywhere it is probably more expensive than it should be. But I stayed here three times, and left my computer there when I headed north. One review was whining about lack of Wifi, which indicates to me this idiot understood nothing of Myanmar: internet is still in the Dark Ages there, but that doesn’t stop you appreciating the country. If you have a problem with that then don’t go. Of the six weeks I spent in Myanmar, I probably used the internet about six times. Most of the time it simply wasn’t available. Many websites are difficult to access, though gmail and facebook for some reason usually work.

Anyway, the ferry had departed at 6.30am, so of course departure anxiety kept me awake most of the night in the mouldy-bathroomed Friendship Hotel. Still, as a foreigner (again the only one), I had a choice chunk of deck against a platform where sleeping men framed my head with their feet; when it rained the poor sods at the edge of the boat got wet.

Ferry good: View of the deck from where I was sitting, I had a prime spot

Ferry good: View of the deck from where I was sitting, I had a prime spot on the journey to Mandalay

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | December 20, 2013

Pie, interrupted

There are a lot of strange people out there and the joy of the internet is that it makes it easier for them to find you. Luckily this one lived a bit too far away to be a fully fledged stalker, though he did his best by email. It just shows you should never respond to the advances of strange men, even the ones who just want you to accompany them overland through Afghanistan.

Late one night it had seemed like a good idea to register myself on a website for people interested in finding like-minded companions for overseas trips no one you knew was interested in. I was bored, had some wine … you know how it is. However there were no like-minded people, so I forgot about it. Having described myself as “can cook, sing Petula Clark songs, will go to war zones”, I wasn’t sure whether to expect many replies anyway. The website wanted money to show details of others to get in touch with, and it was all too much trouble. I did receive one email from a bloke who wanted to take me on “an all-expenses paid trip to watch football in Germany” (like Germany, but not football), so rejected that. But then there was Travelman.

He decided that I was “the one” to accompany him across Iran, Afghanistan and a few more dangerous countries because they are there. He was of the opinion that just because the Foreign Office says stay away, that’s no reason not to chug on in, over or through. To be fair, the trip sounded interesting, but I’d just committed to various things that demanded constant injections of money.

I’d said I would go to war zones. But if you’re going to a war zone, you want to go with someone fun. I didn’t think he was much fun when we first met, and he just became less fun as time went on.

“He’s deranged,” said a colleague by way of assessment when I showed him the emails a few weeks later.

By then Travelman emailed me constantly, up to half a dozen times a day. I started to curtail my replies, leaving longer and longer between them to calm his frenzied correspondence a bit. Apart from anything else, I was tired of his hackneyed expressions and his annoying use of quotation marks to delineate anything he thought was a “challenging phrase”.

The initial meeting was in a large railway station, in the wake of some recent terrorist activity in Central London that had made everyone a bit jumpy. I had approached one wrong strange man, so was naturally a bit wary when I approached strange-looking Travelman. I was also perhaps a little constrained by something in my subconscious that hoped it wasn’t him, while unappealing evidence indicated it probably was. He later accused me of not being very friendly when I came up to him, though I wasn’t entirely sure I had the right person. And this was England for god’s sake, no one bounds up to anyone like a Labrador puppy there, and many would say good thing too.

Balding but beardy, he was rumpled and nerdy yet exuded a kind of frustrated belligerence. I knew in the first five minutes I didn’t want to to go anywhere with him, let alone Pakistani hinterlands and Taleban strongholds. We spent an hour or two together, where he flapped large maps around, talked manically, apologized for talking manically, then talked manically again. And he gave me a huge pile of books to look at. Some he described as gifts, like a large coffee table book on Rajasthani palaces he said he had picked up at a fete for a pound. I didn’t know how to refuse without being rude, and having declared myself to be interested in Rajasthani palaces, I couldn’t claim indifference.

We parted, I went to a job interview, then he started ringing. He complained that I hadn’t spent enough time with him. Out of guilt I offered to come to Sussex on the weekend and discuss it further. I don’t know why, I couldn’t see in any way that I would change my mind. But he kept hinting mysteriously that he had solutions for my problems. So many problems … I am such a sucker for people who say they can solve my problems.

I’d tried to fob him off by saying I couldn’t take off for six months in the next few weeks like he wanted me to for minor reasons like a job, a car, a lease on a flat, possessions … As an expat in the UK there was no one to take care of these things for me.

There was an argument because he didn’t want me to come to his country town in southern England when I had time. When I didn’t have time and had to work he insisted that I make the journey and then sulked when I said I couldn’t abandon my colleagues. He hinted that this was a grave betrayal, a test I had failed that would rankle in his mind as he wandered the village talking to homeless people and scavenging for free stuff.

Eventually I went, bundling up the books he gave me, except for a couple I thought were “gifts”. When I arrived he told me my sense of humour needed development, my appearance did not live up to expectations, and later he yelled at me when I didn’t want to let a friend down (whose father was dying of cancer) and cancel all my arrangements to help him re-organise his attic. Well, his mother’s attic. He lived with his mother and she was going away for the first time in four years. The first time in four years. The mother was alive – I saw her – so he was no Norman Bates, but it was a bit creepy. I mean, what would we be doing with the stuff in the attic that we couldn’t do when his mother was around?

One of his “solutions” was that I could put a few boxes in that attic. And I should quit the job, because job security was a fantasy, and sell my car. I wasn’t very impressed with these “solutions”. “You don’t need a car,” he announced airily as drove me to the station in his mother’s automobile. Houses, indeed possessions of all kinds, were a simply a hindrance to an interesting life according to Travelman, who had full use of his mother’s home.

He wasn’t fond of the police, and I got another rant  about them when I arrived, in particular how he felt uncomfortable yelling at them when they carried weapons. Walking along a country path he enthusiastically described his foraging ways, ie searching for food and who knows what else in public areas. Later his eyes gleamed as he relished the tale of how he smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, threw the butts in his mother’s garden, roamed the garden and collected the butts when he’d run out of tobacco, and then made another rollie out of them. “That last cigarette,” he  confided, “is the one that tastes best of all.” As he told me this I wondered desperately where I could find a copy of the train timetable and thought the subtle flavors of train catering on the way back to London would be the best taste of all.

He seemed to be one of those men who spend way too much time alone in their bedrooms with a computer. You think, poor sods, they should get out more. Then they do get out, and you wish they’d go back in.

We went on a “nature walk” during which he took it upon himself to quiz me about things we saw and the countryside in general. If I didn’t know the answers he would say: “Come on Carolyn, you can do better than that!”

Maybe I didn’t want to. Scuffing my toes I entertained evil thoughts of pushing him into a blackberry bush while he stripped it of berries and then making a dash for the nearest police station.

Between rants about the constabulary, he also quizzed me about baking. Then he manouvred me into making pastry and I wasn’t even allowed to see how it turned out. The apple pie was delegated to his mother while in the oven, then incarcerated in the freezer where it stayed. Later he wrote he hoped I’d come and eat it. Who makes a guest construct a tart for no reason and freezes it? I thought we were making it for consumption. But it seemed that as I was there, I was required to provide some form of domestic service. Or maybe it was another test, another one I didn’t care about passing.

Next on the agenda was looking for badgers (there were none) and an agonizing drink in a pub where he expressed his many disappointments regarding my inadequate person, and told me what a colossal beast I was for insisting on visiting the friend nursing a dying father instead of dragging cartons around for him.

He ranted more about my various shortcomings in the car on the way to the railway station, and said he’d be happier going to Iran on his own because people there were very hospitable.

“You’d only hold me back,” he snapped.

“Fine,” I replied, thinking please hurry, I don’t care about trains in Turkey, I just want to get on the locomotive that will take me away from here.

When we did get to the station he stopped looking angry and went all sad puppy. I was terrified he was going to try and kiss me. While he clutched at my torso I submitted  to being lightly mashed against his cheek.

I escaped from him then but there was no let up in the emails, whether complaining about cleaning the attic on his own, or being affronted I’d kept the “gifts” – whining that the chunky coffee table book was in fact a “shared resource” to be taken on the journey, despite being extremely heavy and mainly photographs. He demanded I send it, and some other volume, back. After wrapping them, I labelled them, took them to work and left them at security, informing Travelman that he could collect them on his next trip to London. This was another test I failed to pass. Several times a day I was updated on his dealings with the security staff and those books – all two pounds’ worth – and how I was the cause of an unending and distressing saga of woe and pestilence. That was when I showed the emails to a friend.

I stopped writing back, even when Travelman triumphantly re-embraced his books and found other people to travel with, all much more attractive and useful than me, including someone who owned a canoe. I really didn’t care, after all, we’d only met twice. Weirdly, dealing with him was like enduring a bitter ex, except there had been no relationship, just a miserable ramble in the woods. And one pie, interrupted.

The last time I heard from him was when he invited me to come to Stonehenge to see him off at sunrise at the start of The Trip To The East. I really thought he was deranged then, for all kinds of reasons. Anyone who knows me is fully aware I do not do early mornings. TTTTE, as he called it, would commence without me. I wasn’t even tempted.

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | December 10, 2013

Malaysia: Going up in the world

KL skyline from the pool at Aloft

KL skyline from the pool at Aloft

As a former theater critic I see the parallels between a good show and a good hotel. Both take people into a different realm. Compelling theater can take viewers into all kinds of spaces mentally, though they should generally be physically comfortable. A great hotel should provides respite from the road and be hopefully free of insects while providing the kind of reality entertainment derived at the interaction of travelers, staff, food culture and design.

Returning from Bali I stopped off in Kuala Lumpur, a city that irritates me as only a traffic-clogged mess of lost opportunities can. Zoning is weird (from the monorail across the center there are vacant lots and huts next to 30-storey buildings …), much of it can only be reached by car, and if a city has been mostly constructed in the past 20 years and has little character left, then at least it should be efficient.

As the hub of Air Asia, KL is a mandatory stop. It’s not a terrible place – especially if you like malls – unless you are in one of those traffic jams where you are ten miles from the city and it takes an hour to go round the block.

So I quite like Sentral, which is slightly southwest of the city center and the best connected spot in town.  It’s a tangle of ongoing development and highrises clustered around a massive transport hub, but  it is easy to reach from the airport, and to reach other places (though why the monorail terminus isn’t inside the station I’ll never understand, along with why there isn’t a simple link between Bukit Bintang and KLCC. Ours is not to reason why, or we start frothing at the mouth waiting for the LRT.)

There hasn’t been a new hotel in Sentral for about eight years, but Aloft Kuala Lumpur Sentral opened earlier this year and it’s fun – a bit like an immaculate nightclub (but with quiet rooms). It has perky, friendly staff (or “Talent”), bright colors (lots of lime green at the breezy breakfast) and plays the latest music video clips in the elevator (a chance to see what Britney Spears is up to while going up yourself).

The concept is well established in North America, but there are only around a dozen Alofts in Asia, and this is Malaysia’s first. With 482 rooms and suites over 29 floors, Aloft KL is the largest in the world.

The outlook is futuristically urban, with skyscrapers, highways and rail terminals. Ascending to the rooftop for a swim with a view of the central KL skyline, cocktails from the bar and a bouncy soundtrack, the atmosphere was rather LA pool party.

DSC_0443But if the streamlined check-in/check-out and DIY minibar is too much efficiency, the lively Indian community of Brickfields is a few steps down the street, and as an antidote to all the concrete and man-made structures, Lake Gardens with the National Museum and a deer park are a short walk away. Being KL, it is impossible to describe how to get there on foot – the area is a jumble of car parks and large roads to accommodate vehicles rather than pedestrians. The easiest thing to do is head for Le Meridien outside the station and ask someone.

That’s what I did. Essentially you head down a car park ramp, get onto the highway, look for the steps … you really just need to do it. The good thing is, it isn’t far and the park is green and quite calm – even on a weekend there was hardly anyone there, except a bride and her small photographic entourage.

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | September 3, 2013

Indonesia: Getting juiced in Ubud

Flaming attraction: This cremation was big news when I reached Ubud. The body, already buried in the Monkey Forest, was exhumed and placed in a decorated bull, as has been done for centuries, before the lot was set alight.

Flaming attraction: This cremation was big news when I reached Ubud on my first visit. The body, already buried in the Monkey Forest, was exhumed and placed in a decorated bull – as has been done for centuries – before the lot was set alight

The first time I went to Bali I liked Ubud. It’s friendly, and unlike most parts of the island, you can walk around and there are things worth walking to, like cafes with good coffee and places to have a facial or a foot massage. Plus there is the Monkey Forest, where I and the rest of Ubud witnessed a cremation three years ago.

This time around Ubud is a bit busier and there are more tourists, but on the positive side, the pavements have improved. At least walking up Jalan Monkey Forest is less of an agility test and more a simple aerobic workout.

The place for decent cheap food (no msg) and to meet other travelers, along with Balinese men who like to meet other travelers, is Dewa Warung, Jalan Goutama. Here I met a man who owned 26 roosters. They slept outside his door piled in bamboo baskets, but as they never shut up I don’t know how he ever got any rest. The Balinese have a special relationship with the rooster; not that they use the word rooster. Rooster apparently is an American word. To the Balinese it’s all chicken (ayam).

Mine's prettier than yours: Balinese men and their roosters. Ayam bagus!

Mine’s prettier than yours: Balinese men and their roosters. Ayam bagus!

Chickens are good (bagus) for eating, and cockfighting. Cockfighting is not just a great way to lose all your money really quickly, but is also an offering to the Gods. The women spend hours each day lighting incense, making bamboo baskets and collecting flowers and snacks to put in those baskets and the men make friends with noisy chickens. Ayam bagus!

Once you start looking, there are men playing with their roosters, or taking roosters for playdates, everywhere.

I also find myself drawn to Soma Cafe in Dewi Sita with its organic, vegan “high vibe” scene. It does that irritating thing rampant in Bali of stating a price then adding tax and service, but I like the fresh juices and “superfood” drinks and this is where I head when I feel a cold descending and banish it in a couple of days with some potions to boost immunity and strengthen the digestion. If you are into nutrition, Ubud is a great place to be.

That tax and service thing was taken to new lows at another vegan cafe called Alchemy (sitting right under a communications tower) where a slice of takeaway cake costing $5 in a third-worldy place had another 15% tax and service added. (But not all the cakes – just some of them.) When I asked why, I was told it was because someone had to slice it and put it in a bag. But isn’t that why you have staff? I would have thought if you work in a cafe then taking something out of the fridge and putting it in a bag was your job. Does that mean if you buy a pair of earrings, service should be added to that too?

The desire for harmony and beauty is everywhere in Ubud

Harmony and beauty are everywhere in Ubud

I hate that. Service should be optional – for good service, not to top up inadequate wages – and tax is the proprietor’s problem surely, not the customer’s. If the tax is compulsory, then add it in. State your price and be done with it, dammit. Setting out a price then adding to it to me is a pernicious practice amounting to low-level fraud.

Sari Organik farms and serves fresh organic food in two lovely restaurants and they even manage to sort out their own arithmetic too, so hurray for them.

There is fraud of a different kind taking place at the market: Idiot Tourist Fraud. I go to buy a cheap pair of sunglasses (as I lose and break them regularly). The stallholders want $15. Uh huh. Last time I bought a pair like this they cost $3. As I laugh and walk away, the price tumbles. I don’t want to rip anyone off, I want a price where we both get reasonable value. In the end I get a pair of cotton trousers and some glasses for $10. My rooster-loving friend approves. I know some tourists pay 10 times what a local would pay and stallholders like that, but they should regard this as a bonus rather than a regular event.

Outdoor dining at Mozaic: Wagyu beef cheeks with oxtail tortellini and rendang spices

Outdoor dining at Mozaic: Wagyu beef cheeks with oxtail tortellini and rendang spices

For a treat I venture to Mozaic, a world-class dining experience in Jalan Raya Sanggingan, and the best in Indonesia according to the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013. Here French-American chef Chris Salans creates memorable Franco-Indonesian fusian dishes, such as roast duck breast with kluwek puree and hazelnut-orange salad.

Sommelier Cok Bagus Senajaya chose great wines to accompany the six-course degustation (tasting) menu, accompanied by attentive but never overbearing service. The evening began with a drink and a canape in the stylish lounge, then the serious consumption took place outside in the tropical garden. With soft lighting and a relaxed atmosphere, it’s a great choice for a romantic assignation, a special occasion or simply the need to indulge in quality.

New Hotel Round-up

On my way back to Malaysia I also sampled a variety of accommodation. Alindra Villa with its collection of wooden buildings from different parts of Indonesia has friendly staff and a lot of character and just relaunched after refurbishments and adding a spa. It also offers private pool villas with butler service, and while I had never felt the need for my very own full-length pool and jacuzzi area before, I now understand the appeal.There were seven places to shower in my large, two-bedroom villa, three of them outside.

The almost brand-new Le Meridien at Jimbaran is sleek and sassy with a bouncy soundtrack, stylish contemporary rooms and “lagoon access” from those on the lowest level. I went exploring by wading through the farthest reaches of this meandering waterway and felt like Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen, but without the leeches or having to drag a boat around. Sadly, there was no Humphrey Bogart.

The rooftop bar is perfect for watching the sun set over the bay, and Bamboo Chic serves a great breakfast (with some delightful French influence). The restaurant’s signature marinated pork hock is a mighty serve of meat. If you haven’t eaten too much in the hotel, you can always try the seafood cafes on the beach, but I had a great massage in the spa instead.

Kuta's famous surf beach. I'm not sure what the red flag was for, no one paid any attention to it

Kuta’s famous surf beach. I am not sure what the red flag was for, no one paid any attention to it

Never a great fan of Kuta, its noise and tourists are absolutely no problem when you can retreat to the Sheraton Bali Kuta Resort. Perched on top of the similarly new upmarket Beachwalk mall, the resort itself only opened in December 2012 and is designed to make the most of sea views from the pool, the breezy foyer and lounge, and classically styled rooms which all have their own balcony.

To be honest I hated Kuta the first time I went, but if I was staying at the Kuta Sheraton I’d be happy to return. The spa is also seamlessly soothing with a gentle sauna, and the bathrooms are very smart with freestanding tubs. This is Sheraton’s debut hotel in Bali, and they offer some deals on booking rooms, so there are affordable options. And as you would expect from a hotel like this, you can eat your own weight in food at the huge buffet breakfast.

Kuta Sheraton: Or watch the beach from here

Kuta Sheraton: Or watch the beach from here

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | July 6, 2013

Indonesia: Sleeping and not scratching on Bali

Nakal sekali monkeys on the streets of Buduk

Nakal sekali monkeys on the streets of Buduk

Maybe the nomadic life is catching up with me and not in a good way, as I feel eternally sleep deprived. Part of it is due to constantly waking up to scratch. After years of co-existing relatively happily with tropical heat, as long as  a fan was part of the deal, I am now scaley, itchy and cranky. Plus I don’t feel good for other reasons, not helped by permanent, foggy fatigue.

I felt very bad for quite a while, but hopefully that is now behind me. Although I think I tore a muscle in my shoulder lifting my bag.

Bali: Hotel gardens are fabulous

Bali: Hotel gardens are fabulous

Anyway, a friend with a school on the outskirts of Denpasar, capital of Bali, needed help so I flew over there, where it was miraculously cooler and the itching and scratching began to diminish. Of course now I had headaches most of the time because the kids were so loud, but at least I was awake enough to hear them.

Every time I went into this school someone was ill. With no teaching experience to speak of I found myself solely in charge of 12 children, spanning bewildered six-year-old, through to very bright six-year-old and onto very bright seven-year-old. A vast range of abilities in a small class. Trying to keep all of them engaged at once was rather challenging. The ceiling fan wasn’t working and we were all too hot, but somehow I managed to teach them something every now and then. And improve their English, which was the main reason I was there. I never had any desire to be a teacher, and while I liked the kids when they weren’t shouting, I still have no desire to be a teacher.

In between, I did some writing and wandered the streets of Buduk, an obscure village where tourists do not venture. I was staying at the home of the friend – who was in Crete – who owned the school. Three years previously I had stayed there, when she was commencing renovations; at least putting in a Western-style bathroom and enclosing the top floor to make a large living area. The project is still not finished.

There was supposed to be hot water in the newly finished shower and every day Agus the handyman came over to tinker with things, uncross them, cross them, I never really understood what he was talking about. Deaf for most of his life, I don’t think his Indonesian was in great shape, let alone his English.

All I knew was that steaming hot water could randomly materialize for up to five minutes, then vanish. Usually this happened when I was trying to clean a mug in the kitchen, or wash my hands at the basin, so I would burn myself, curse a little and then of course be chilled thoroughly trying to shampoo my hair in completely cold water.

The next day Agus would come over, fiddle a bit more, get all excited that everything was all fixed, tell me things I didn’t understand and later on I’d have another scalded hand trying to rinse a carrot. The kitchen only had one tap and I was never sure what was going to come out of it.

None of that stopped me sleeping at least. And I got some work done. Tried to figure out why my shoulder hurt so much. Then it was off to Ubud.

However I also managed to learn something useful: nakal sakali means very naughty in Balinese.

Stylish statues: Everyone wears flowers in Bali

Stylish statues: Everyone wears flowers in Bali

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | March 16, 2013

Malaysia: Sleeping and meditating

Raising the red lanterns: Hainan temple in Muntri St, Georgetown

Raising the red lanterns: Hainan temple in Muntri Street, Georgetown

After six months in India I was exhausted and in need of respite in a quiet, clean, not overly crowded place.
Penang was calling, the food, my friends and the stuff I had left there. For various reasons I ended up staying in someone’s unused office near a rather noisy mosque and then had the trials of Chinese New Year to face, but when I stepped off the ferry in George Town, Penang seemed an oasis of heavenly quiet and calm with drivers who stopped when you were crossing the street, or at least slowed down a little to avoid splattering you over the road.
The train from Bangkok is quite good, especially if you get a lower berth. Because it crosses borders, the ticket is a bit tricky to purchase abroad unless you use an agent. But in the country itself it is quite easy. I’m not especially large, but I find a lower berth quite spacious and because they make up the bed for you with a little foam mattress it is quite comfy for a train. Quite comfy for a cheap guesthouse too. The man in seat 61 likes trains of all kinds and has advice on train travel in Thailand. But it is super simple to get a ticket at Hua Lamphong, the rail terminus in Bangkok.
The train offers beverages of dubious quality, but some French people brought a small electric jug with them so they could make their own coffee.
The first couple of weeks I was back I slept a lot, caught up with some work and felt like a zombie. I tried to shake off a cough that started on December 27, but it tenaciously hung in there, dry at night and irritating my throat during the day. Constantly clearing my throat was driving me mad and probably everyone around me too.
At the beginning of February I went to see a Chinese Western doctor. I told him I’d been in India and I probably needed to be tested for parasites. He’d spent five years in India so he knew what I meant, but he didn’t think I needed to be tested for wriggly wormy things.
After talking for a while about the subcontinent, he gave me cough syrup, antibiotics and anti histamines. He said the anti-histamines might make me drowsy, but no such luck. I’d been staying up late Skyping friends in Britain and new friends in India would start texting me at 10 or 11pm their time which was well after midnight. This was far too much encouragement to develop strange nocturnal habits. Anyway, the doctor thought I was probably allergic to something and as I was leaving he said to drop in any time for a chat.
I took the medication, started to feel better, then packed myself up to go on a Vipassana meditation course – ten days of no talking, 4am starts and vegetables. Plus ten hours of meditation a day, no phone, no internet, no alcohol.
The night before I went I was feeling great ambivalence; I knew the course would be good for me but those 4am starts were putting me off. I did ten days in a Thai monastery once, so I knew what to expect. In the midst of this I was emailing one of the travel editors at the Huffington Post and he said I should write about the experience. I wasn’t intending to, but it turned out the teacher, SN Goenka, is quite pleased if students use whatever skills they have to further the Vipassana cause, so here is the result:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carolyn-odonnell/vipassana-trail-meditation-vacation_b_2828015.html

Wat Ram Poeng in Thailand: With lotus flowers for Budhha's birthday. White is not my colour

Wat Ram Poeng in Thailand: With lotus flowers for Budhha’s birthday. White is not my colour

This was followed by Part Two, a diary of surviving not only the Vipassana, but the dormitory living that went with it. Phlegm, honking, dentures, I was tested in many, many ways. However Vipassana is all about maintaining your equanimity. I had a gut pain that lasted for nine days, my legs throbbed and my cough returned, but my equanimity took on new life, like raw dough rising in warm sun, or sea monkeys dropped in water.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carolyn-odonnell/part-two-diary-of-a-mad-m_b_2828361.html

Ten hours of meditation a day is not on the cards in the normal world. Two hours a day is what we are supposed to do. I aim for an hour and am quite pleased mostly with that.
My friends at Areca books also published a new volume on Penang’s early history under the East India Company, and I interviewed the book’s author, Marcus Langdon, when I wasn’t coughing. You can read the interview (and order the book) here:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carolyn-odonnell/penang-history_b_2809578.html

This looks like I am trying to sell a gaudy display home, but it is actually a Chinese opera set used in one of the many performances that take place around Penang

This looks like I am trying to sell a gaudy display home, but it is actually a Chinese opera set used in one of the many performances that take place around Penang

Meanwhile dear friends in Bangkok had a vacant slot – no, not a dopey friend but some space in their guest bedroom. They are so popular they need to put all their visitors on a spreadsheet, so I booked a train ticket from Malaysia to the Big Mango on the pleasing Thai train service.
Just before I left my friend Ang Huah took me to the Buddhist free clinic for another bash at getting rid of this cough. It would be nearly three months old soon, and while that ls a nice milestone for a puppy or a pot plant, it’s less exhilarating for an ailment. For an RM2 donation I saw the doctor and she gave me pills and a tonic to “get rid of my phlegm”. Then I could come back and see her about my increasingly weird sleeping patterns: I just feel tired all the time.
The night before I got on the train I had a creative vision when I went to bed, which was rather pleasant, but it kept me awake for about 2 hours. I wish I could have creative visions at a sensible time, say 2pm in the afternoon, which would perk me up a bit during the hot part of the day.
Still, writing down the details of my writing of my creative vision would keep me busy during an afternoon of rail travel, and as Oscar Wilde wrote, it’s good to have something sensational to read on the train.

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | March 12, 2013

Words that wind me up

This is not about physical travel per se, but as I seem to spend most of my life at the computer either fiddling with this website, getting distracted by Tweets and junk email or organizing to actually go somewhere, I am roaming far and wide.
And while I am doing this, I am getting annoyed. Very annoyed.
Bad writing makes me annoyed. Sloppy sentences make me annoyed, and there are some phrases that have me chewing the keyboard in disgust.
Let me list some so I can get them out in the open and annoy other people with them in a constructive way. We could go interactive on this; I’d love to know what words or phrases get others frothing at the mouth. venting is so soothing.

Floods of tears
Dear God, anyone using this hoary old cliche should be strangled with the cord of their smartphone charger to give them something to really cry about. Tears don’t flood, they trickle mainly. It’s the literary equivalent of hiding a pizza box under a cushion.

Trendy. Not

Many of the worst offenders seem to be generated by someone trying to describe just how unbelievably groovy something is. But when these expressions are used my eyes just glaze over. Instead of saying why it’s raising the bar on what you can stuff into a chicken cavity they torture me with:
Bang on trend. Is a trend a drum? I don’t think so.
Achingly hip. This makes me think of the kind of operations the elderly complain about.
Unapologetically hip. Don’t apologize for being hip, just apologise for being annoying.
So hip it hurts. Does this happen when minimalist design attacks someone?

The Anti-Fashionalist

This was the name of a shop I saw in Tokyo once. They know how to put English to good use in Japan. Whereas these expressions just make me want to stab myself in the eye with a stiletto.
Killer heels. Kill me now.
Putting on the glitz. This is always trotted out for features on what to wear at office Christmas parties. Give me those high-heeled shoes.
Fashionista. Anyone who seriously uses this word should be forced to wear nylon for the rest of their life.

Food crimes
Veggie. Don’t vegetables deserve some respect?
Yummy. No one over the age of five should use this word when writing about consuming something pleasing. It’s what I would expect from someone who thinks wearing bunny ears makes them more attractive.

There will be more.

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | March 9, 2013

Thailand: A short, efficient bite of the Big Mango

Green chicken curry: One very good reason for visiting Bangkok

Green chicken curry:Just one very good reason for visiting Bangkok

I’d never thought of Bangkok as being particularly clean, quiet or pedestrian-friendly, but after India it certainly seemed that way. It was blissful to be on streets where motorists drove more or less silently and on even attempted to run me down.
Pus you can eat pretty much whatever you fancy on the street and it won’t make you sick. I did a two-month trip in Thailand in 2010 and ate street food all the time, and apart from a couple of hangovers – these days I stay away from Chang – I always felt fine.

Futuristic: The SkyTrain is a great way to zip around town and avoid the traffic

Futuristic: The SkyTrain is a great way to zip around town and avoid the traffic

That’s one of the great things about Thailand – you are never more than about 20 meters from a food cart. This was a short stopover, time to decompress after India, finally buy a Smartphone at MBK and have dinner with a friend who has become a diplomat and has been posted somewhere where I can get at him.
I discovered a great hotel – the Park Plaza Sukhumvit – which gives excellent value for money. It has what urban travelers need: comfortable rooms, a great breakfast and efficient Wifi, along with a pool. No shops with crystal roosters or dry-clean only swimsuits.
There is more about the stopover here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carolyn-odonnell/bangkok-thailand-hustle_b_2637554.html
More food: Coconut icecream at Chatuchak Market. I know what readers want

More food: Coconut icecream at Chatuchak Market. I know what readers want

Though I’d probably get lost if you plonked me down in the suburbs somewhere, I’ve been to Bangkok so often it feels comfortingly familiar. I used to stay near Soi 11 so I usually cruise up and down that party street to see what has changed. It was good to see the cambodian guy who sells BBQ for 10 baht a stick was still there. Villa Supermarket is still there too, where expats hunt for cheese and ryebread. I used to shop there until I realised it was easier and cheaper just to eat on the street than to try and prepare food myself.
In India I had constant comments and offers to buy my sunhat, which can be purchased at the huge weekend Chatuchak market. I have fond memories too of the sparkly sandals I bought there for 100 baht (a bit more than $3). No time for big shopping expeditions.
Cosy: The khlong travel experience

Cosy: The khlong travel experience

In my blog for Huffpost I talked about traveling by river taxi up the khlongs (canals). And I found a photo from last year. No one looks terribly happy, they are all scared of being sprayed with khlong water, which will probably give you TB, bubonic plague and AIDS. Only joking, it is very dirty water so it would probably only challenge your washing machine and give you bubonic plague. It is interesting to see the city from the khlong though, and I like taking Bangkok first-timers on it. I discovered it on my own, thinking there had to be a better way than driving of getting across to the odl part of town. First time I went, the Red Shirts were camped out at the other end, and it was so crowded I couldn’t tell what direction I was walking in and had to give up and return to Sukhumvit to sit in an air-conditioned room with a large gin and tonic.
Someone will probably accost me with a horror story now, but I always feel very safe in Bangkok. There are just too many cute Thai girls in hotpants wandering around for anyone to ever bother me.

Park Plaza Sukhumvit: Rooftop pool with Bladerunner view

Park Plaza Sukhumvit: Rooftop pool with Bladerunner view

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | February 3, 2013

India: Sex tips from statues

Lake Kabini

Lake Kabini: Life at a gentle pace

Leaving Lake Kabini (though not on an oxen cart) I boarded another rattly bus destined for Kalpetta, one of the main towns in the northern Keralan district of Wayanad. Not that many tourists make it to hilly Wayanad, on the edge of the Western Ghats.

There are no backwaters and houseboats here, but there are coffee and tea plantations, spices and palm trees in an area that is a bit wild yet has a relaxed rural atmosphere. With the fourth-highest rainfall in the world, it is also greener than Kermit.

Bottom line: Take that JLo, this washerwoman nymph had the goods first

Bottom line: Take that J.Lo, this washerwoman nymph had the goods first

It was warm and languid in Wayanad, so I spent a couple of relaxed days eating cuisine featuring lots of coconut and staring at ripening coffee beans. Except I had had a late invitation to spend Christmas in Khujaraho, which is not that far from Delhi but a long way from where I was. Making arrangements to get there was not relaxing at all. Flights were really expensive, train tickets difficult to obtain, and Indian websites are maddening and almost impossible to book anything on unless you are using an Indian credit card. If the country does want tourists it really should make arranging travel a little easier for them. It is exhausting enough doing the travel without getting an ulcer just trying to organize it.

Tricky position: Now who said we couldn't work as a team?

Tricky position: Now who said we couldn’t work well as a team?

Leaving Kalpetta for Bangalore, the bus was late and it just got later. We were four hours later by the time we reached the capital of Karnataka, and Silicon Valley of India. I didn’t see any computer programmers, but I did see the dust, traffic and evidence of the ongoing saga of trying to construct a metro there.

According to a friend who has moved there, Bangalore has lots of shops. I saw a few from a distance, but I only really had time to eat, sleep and then get myself to the airport for a flight to Delhi. This took most of the next day. The cashews on that SpiceJet flight should have been gold-plated they were so expensive, but it was either eat those or instant noodles (so no prizes for the food). But everything else was just like a normal flight and compared to other forms of travel I’d done recently hygienically relaxing.

On reaching Delhi I stopped off at Haldiram’s for a raj kachori (fried bread ball filled with yoghurt and mysterious crunchy things) then made my way to Hazrat Nizamuddin station for an overnight train. While sitting on a pile of boxes with a sleepy dog, I chatted with a young woman about the brutal gang-rape that subsequently led to the death of the 23-year-old student in the capital.

Elephants can learn new tricks

Elephants can learn new tricks

“There is no respect for women in Delhi,” she told me. I never felt unsafe there, but I am a large, cantankerous foreigner who would kick the crap out of any man who started molesting me, and I guess they can tell. I’ve often been surrounded by groups of curious men, but most of them look too scared to even speak. The only aggressive people I’ve encountered (apart from the usual pushing and shoving) were some kids in Jodhpur who threw things at me. But that made me cross rather than scared and I dispatched them fairly quickly.

The train was meant to reach Khajuraho at 6am, but it was a couple of hours late, which was fine for me though a bit boring for the driver sent to collect me. Khajuraho is a small town in Madhya Pradesh mainly famous for its World Heritage-listed temples.This part of Central India is not that far from the southern part of Uttar Pradesh where I spent a sweaty night in Chitrakut, the town electricity forgot. But there was no chance of sweaty nights on this trip.

All in the detail:

All in the detail: Intricate Vishvanath temple

They were frisky, the dudes that commissioned these temples. Technically they are “superb examples of Indo-Aryan architecture”, and there are panels featuring depictions of life a millennium ago, which tends to indicate this lot were rather fond of sex. Ganesha the elephant-headed god makes a few appearances but there are lots of women, lots of sex scenes and quite a few “smiling elephants” looking on who I guess were happy to be learning a few things.

I for one saw how (if I were a bloke) how to have sex with a horse, and the kind of help I would require would I wish to perform the act on my head. Also the J.Lo of a thousand years ago was sticking her bottom out, and frankly I think the one carved in stone is a tad more shapely.

There are eight main clusters of temples to see in the Western group, which was a pleasant afternoon of temple-tripping. Then it was time to retire to a cafe – at Raja’s you could get a decent latte, which was probably a good thing to tank up on before the temples. I once had a friend who edited an art magazine and he would have a strong espresso before entering a gallery because then, he maintained, he had at least one alert hour before he began to feel sleepy. There’s something about galleries that makes me want to nap too – must be the lack of fresh air.

Being Christmas, one of the hotels has a display of Christmas trees and snowmen, with a painting of Santa and his reindeer. Jesus and the Wise Men do not make an appearance. But turkey and a very strange cranberry sauce/gravy made an appearance at the Christmas Eve buffet dinner. Along with a various curries, pasta and a chocolate Yuletide log cake, bless them. No brandy butter though. And it is just the weather for brandy butter, ie freezing cold.

When it comes to weather in India it’s always about the heat; wilting English memsahibs who need to be carried to a hill station or bathed daily in mango juice to survive the all-baking sun. I wouldn’t have minded a bit of baking sun actually, because it was bloody cold.  And when I returned to Delhi it was even colder. I stayed at my friends’ apartment and we were wearing thermal underwear and huddling over heaters. I was never that cold in the UK in 12 years. Indian construction doesn’t help here – draughty housing with marble floors is designed to deal with scorching summers – I guess they think shivering for four months is fine. The floor was so cold I was wearing slippers and socks and my feet were still chilly.

As it turned out, northern India was having its worst winter for 70 years and everyone was feeling chilly. Worse, a great blanket of fog was sitting over a chunk of the country delaying everything. The train back to Delhi was supposed to take 12 hours, it required a further 9. And when I took a train to Kolkata to fly out of the country, the train was delayed by 11 hours. The good thing about that last train is that they kept bringing us meals (it was a Radhjani Express – politicians use these). On the Khajuraho train I couldn’t even buy a bottle of water.

The unfortunate thing about that train was that I was looking forward to a final day in Kolkata, to reacquaint myself with that strangely compelling city. And feel a bit warmer. I was meeting a friend in the evening and he was worried about what I was going to do with myself in the afternoon. Sitting on the train took care of that. I thought he was picking me up, then he said catch the airport bus, get off at a certain place and he would collect me there. The last airport bus departed at 9pm.

The train was meant to arrive at 7.30pm. Then 8pm. Then 8.30pm. At 8.50pm we were sitting outside Howrah station somewhere. Then finally it started moving. At 8.58pm my friend texted and said it was a pity I’d miss that bus. At 8.59pm I staggered onto the platform and started running. As I said to him later, I am nothing if not determined. I’d seen something that looked like a bus and I was lumbering towards it.

It was a bus. It was even the right bus. I felt very triumphant, though as it went rumbled along MG Rd (and only one door at the front) it became crammed with so many people I thought I might never be able to get off the bus.

But obviously I did. Thank you India – even my last night there had an element of high drama. I could never say it hadn’t been memorable.

Once the sun never set on the British Empire, but it does at Khajuraho

Once the sun never set on the British Empire, but it does, rather scenically, at Khajuraho

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