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Episode 19

OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD – Sydney, AUS. and Waiheke, NZ.

At some point, overnight on the flight from Seoul, we must have crossed the equator. Unlike cruise ships, this major event in people’s lives is not marked, in any way shape or form. I would have thought, for first timers, like us, the hostesses and crew would have conga’d the length of the plane blowing all manner of party blowers and generally welcoming us to the club. But no, nothing. Just deep sleep. Thanks Asiana Airways!!

Sydney in two days was simply stupid. And to include the Blue Mountains was even more ridiculous. However, in true Ozzie style, because we were in the company of two of them, we did it and with some style. Thank you Kate and Cath for the whirlwind tour.

Sydney was quite special for us both. My love of the play, Our Country’s Good, was fuelled with seductive delight as we stumbled upon all manner of names of streets, road, places, to be found in Wertenbaker’s contemporary classic. The fact that all those years ago when it was just a rocky inlet, Captain Arthur Phillip landed with his cargo of convicts, on 11 ships, after months of a treacherous voyage from England, and here we were standing on the very same spot(s). The spot where Phillip planted the English flag for the first time was a tad overwhelming, but I contained myself among the other ‘walkers” who just wouldn’t understand. Campbell’s Cove, as it is now, at the base of the bay bridge, is just a wonderful open space allowing full view of the opera house across the bay. Did the intellectual Captain Phillip or the drunken Campbell ever imagine that such a majestic piece of architecture would dominate the landscape as they stood back and surveyed the new scenery that greeted him. This was re-living history. Touching the very anchor of the Sirius was a brief encounter. Again, intentionally so. Our walk took us to The Rocks, an affectionate term given to the trendy area of arts and craft, coffee shops and restaurants, that was once, indeed the home to all the convicts. The names resonated throughout our two hour stroll, except for that of SIDEWAY, who, in Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker, actually opened the first theatre in Sydney. Our guide had not heard the name previously which lead me to doubt either her knowledge, as an immigrant guide, working the tourists, or indeed my romantic notion that he did actually exist. I like to think he did. Especially after seeing him brought to life so theatrically by Phil Mace, in our production. We kept seeing the characters at every turn, with the faces of the cast. It was magical. Both the Sydney visit and of course the production.

The Blue Mountains was a whole new ball game, as they say. A spectacular display of nature in the raw, much like it would have been when the Sirius first landed way back in 1788. We have taken to walking, on our journey, as the simplest and easiest form of exercise. Not only that, but the related health issues are of obvious benefit. Furthermore, the pace that one travels is slow enough to gather information, take photographs, talk and share stories and moments. In short, walking is great. However, what we did, in the The Blue Mountains was more of a trek, or perhaps even a hike – a long hike! With only one and half knees and a broken toe, I think i did OK. It is a rugged region west of Sydney, known for dramatic scenery encompassing steep cliffs, eucalyptus forests, waterfalls and villages. Echo Point affords views of the storied Three Sisters sandstone rock formation. The view was well worth the trek, until you realise the need to go back! Our departure from Sydney was filled with a yearning to return. Our Country’s Good sits comfortably in the psyche.

New Zealand next. So excited to be seeing our friends of 36 years, once more. Christine and David moved, with their two children, to New Zealand some 17 years ago. In that time they have established themselves as the regions premier goldsmiths. We proudly sport both wedding and engagement rings fashioned by Christine. Her art in gold and other precious metals is quite unique. Each piece embraces its own narrative, told through the shapes, materials and rhythms created by the artist, Christine.

On an island, Waiheke (which means “cascading waters”) in the bay, off Auckland, they have built their own castle on a cloud. Well its not really a castle and its not on a cloud but when you stand in the lounge, come kitchen, come dining room, come snug, and look through floor to high ceiling windows and doors and gaze out over the sea at Auckland in the far distance, it feels like being in a castle on a cloud. We instantly felt at home.

This island has no traffic lights, numerous coffee shops, tasty restaurants, deserted beaches, delightful wineries, a couple of schools, really friendly people except for the “man in the hat” who chalks the time on the wheels of cars who are parked quite legally in bays on the road side. But he’ll be back to book you if you go into illegal, trust me. I know.

We took time to speed our way around the island, by car. It didn’t take long. It is a magical place and cannot wait to return for our final week. Island life appears idyllic. Finding new places to walk, be it the bush or the beach, is easy. There are walks galore, and each one very very special. I have been walking in borrowed shoes too and have become a Croc convert.

At home, Jo would be digging the weeds or planting new seeds, plants and flowers. I would be making furniture for the garden, erecting a gazebo and mending the fences. Well, like I said earlier, we felt instantly at home. Jo took to the garden and drive to help David and Christine catch up with these neglected areas. David threw me a hammer and saw to make a bush house for 7 year old Robert. Together, David, Robert and I took a week to design and build the first and best bush house I have ever built. Nestling deep in their 4 acre plot, found only by following a narrow trail through the bush from the back garden, it stands in a clearing which is also home to a swinging horse and large seat-log. With perspex roof, windows and two perspex walls, the house is big enough for both their “looked-after” children, Robert and Amara. The other walls are solid but for random two-inch holes drilled for even more light in the back wall and an opening in the front as the door. This is real famous five stuff. The look on their faces as they were introduced to the new bush house was just lovely. It matched the look on David’s and my face as we shook hands upon completion. It was a look of amazement!

Cascading Waters has drenched us in a torrent of positive charm. The appetite to return for more has been whetted.

Off to North and South Islands.

 

Episode 19

Chiang Mai – Northern Thailand

Our four days in this quite different and somewhat spiritual centre is worthy of its own page of notes. The difference is felt immediately upon stepping from the plane, a slight drop in temperature, and then stepping from the taxi after a short ride to the hotel, noticing a drop in the pace of life. Whilst still not slow, much slower from that found in Bangkok and Phuket. We enjoyed the afternoon amble around the streets. Turning left from the hotel and walking directly into the city’s centre, passing any number of massage parlours, where the delightfully looking ladies and some lady-boys too, much to Jo’s delight. It has been a goal of hers to see at least one lady-boy before departure. Box ticked, as it were. We did a couple more temples, and I have to admit to being all temple-out now. They are quite magnificent but one Buddha looks just like another after a while, even after a short while, truth be known!

We took an early night, following another delicious Thai meal, and looked forward to the next day which would see us playing and laughing with elephants, unchained elephants, more especially. We arrive at the banks of some river, up in the mountains north of Chiang Mai. We stripped to the order of “take off your clothes”. Our guide Jimmy, quite a character, from the Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary, had a super presence, extensive local knowledge of just about everything, and a sense of command that meant do as you are told or you are elephant meat. Elephants, of course do not eat meat, they are probably vegans, which seems to be a fad prevalent among the Andrews and Turner households at the moment. So we took off our clothes to reveal our swim wear. We trod very carefully down the muddy slope to the brown river’s edge, whereupon we embarked the bamboo raft, to be steered downstream by a handsome lad brandishing a large bamboo pole to dip into and out of the water in order to engage the bends and rapids along the two mile route through the jungle. This was not quite the white waters of the Colorado but nonetheless just as mesmerising. Bamboo, it must be said is just the most fantastically versatile wood ever created in nature. Our raft consisted of eight twenty foot lengths of this miracle wood, bound by other smaller and bendy miracle wood lengths. Quite special. If we were in America, this would be Huck Finn’s raft on a tributary of the Mississippi. We lazed our way comfortably downstream encountering the occasional blockage, created by other rafts, that had probably escaped their quite lax moorings or fallen disused bamboo bridges across the river. It was all good fun. At one point it was reminiscent of our Ardeche River adventures. The rapids were too rocky and difficult for the length of the raft that we needed to alight and tackle the rocks for about 50 yards before remounting the miracle wood for the final time. We beached at a convenient slip on the left bank. The rafts were lifted to a roof of a beat up old Toyota truck and our captains perched on top of them to go back upstream for a well earned banana leaf smoke and a nap. We, on the other hand, climbed into the back of another Toyota jalopy, which would take us further up the mountain, deeper into the jungle. The route as hazardous to say the least. The scenery beyond the steep drops to our left made the fear bearable until the mud track ruts halted our progress with wheel-spin. Versatile Jimmy strapped chains to a single wheel and we were off and spinning once again, en route to his home village, the name of which, sadly, at this time, I cannot recall.

A single track meandered through the many homes built on stilts. It was quiet, still, peaceful and humid. The menfolk were at work in the fields or in the surrounding towns, leaving the women, young and old at home tending to the young children and domestic chores, chopping wood and collecting rice bundles. The children were attending the local school, taken their, along with other family members on the family moped. Every home has at least one. This was a magical experience. On the porches of these wood and bamboo constructions sat young mothers breast feeding, grandmothers sitting with grandchildren, motionless, sad looking but seemingly content with each other. I spy a very elderly, frail looking lady lifting a felling axe to split wood, presumably for a cooking fire. She does it well and persists. Our western ways, on occasions like this, seem unnecessarily crazy. We chase status symbols, we allow ourselves to be manipulated by the media, we rely on conveniences. These charming people have only just installed electricity. I am not sure that is a good thing.

Our stroll through time took us to the elephants. The elephants. We had a quick Thai lunch as the heavens opened, changed into the required colourful garb, as seen in the snap above. The rain made the walk to the elephants feeding place, very interesting. The elephants know they cannot fall over. Should they lose their footing they would simply slide down the mountain, nonstop, at a rate of heavy knots! It was steep. The went very slowly, step by careful step. The trick, for us, to go up and down is to tread in their footprints. They compact the mud and make it solid. Avoiding the dollops of poo, we arrive eventless at where we feed them bananas. Oh no, Jo went base over apex! The atmosphere was spiritual. These splendid, prehistoric creatures obviously communicating with us as we touched them, hugged them, played with them. Their eyes still with intelligence, confidently quiet with a wealth of worldly knowledge within.

The feeding was followed by a mud bath. Both us and the elephants bathing knee deep in a mud pond, although they preferred rolling on their backs and snorting the muddy water over everyone. Such playful creatures. Not a care. Should we learn from that?

Another careful walk with the elephants, keep it up, two, three, four, to a waterfall and splash pool to wash off the mud, from everywhere, from everyone, achieved once again by the snorting powers of the big boys and girls as they lay on the backs and side in the water. Just very special.

That was the end of the elephant experience, although we stayed in the jungle for a while longer. We trekked, barefoot, along jungle paths to another more spectacular waterfall where we bathed and peed in the cool waters. The Chang beer was very welcome.

What a day? Certainly a most memorable 10 hours of wet, wild and wonderful.

Not satisfied with that, the following day we searched for the Baan Tong Luang village which is home to a number of hill tribes, including the famous long-neck tribe, Karon. Government funded, the hill tribes live in their own environments, pursuing their own styles of livelihood and cultures. Another eye-opener. We felt humbled by the nature of these folk, their simple yet effective life styles. Their unique cultures bonding with nature in mutual respect. I feel they will survive us when the western world is successful in destroying itself.

Our final exploit took us to a temple high on another mountain. I was all templed out but this one had to be done! According to the guide books. It was actually quite ordinary, in comparison to some we had visited, but suddenly there emerged a stream of saffron robed Buddhist monk trainees, chanting prayers and responses as they paraded around the circular walkway. It grabbed our senses. The monotony of the chants, the smell of incense, the colourful spectacle; we were tasting the religious culture and feeling moved. The event provided a new dimension to the temple experience. Before, temples were just places of worship visited by tourists.. This temple was now a working temple, much the same way as the hill tribe villages we had visited. Working, real and alive. Meaningful.

Chiang Mai was quite, quite exceptional.

Episode 18

Thailand…so far.

I have been putting off this moment because I have not known where to start. To add to that issue, I am not sure where I would finish. This country, formerly known as Siam, and I love the name Siam, conjures magical myths, colourful splendour, majesty and honourable people, it has so much to talk about and I run the risk of rambling and losing the readers attention. Although, I think primarily, this exercise is for the benefit of my immediate family, as a keep sake, as evidence that Jo and I didn’t disappear into a huge film set and make this whole thing up, and not for some random reader who perchance comes across my words and takes delight in them to want more!

So I shall make efforts, now started, to be brief, informative and without prejudice bring you the flavour I have tasted of Thailand.

Lemon grass is the smell and Masaman curry is the taste. I could finish right there, but that would be neglecting……..where do I start?

This place is filthy. This place is chaotic. This place is a mess. This place is mayhem. This place works.

Despite the mayhem and the mess and the very unfinished appearance of just about everything, excluding the exclusive resort areas and golf courses, it actually works. Society, these wonderfully natured, polite and respectful people make it work. Somehow. Much of our time has been spent on the roads. The roads are a swarm of moped users, each small motorbike carrying, on average, three people. Man, woman and child, young child, baby! Babies being cradled at the back, in mum’s arms with younger brother or sister in the middle and dad upfront driving, and probably on the phone. These bikes are everywhere. Weaving in and out, at speed, coming from nowhere they dart in front of you from the left and the right sometimes two from either side, in formation, very neat….but dangerous! Helmets? What helmets? Oh yes, they are stored in the very cleverly designed seat locker. Rules of the road are very different from ours in the UK, assuming they exist of course. The only policemen I have seen have been blowing their whistles, incessantly, like a new toy, and directing traffic with a silly, somewhat effeminate hand wave. Perhaps they are the famous lady-boys in disguise at their day job! These policeman wear helmets, sunglasses and mouth mask, so they could be anybody just having a spot of fun dodging cars and avoiding the swarm of mopeds, who incidentally, all line up at the front of the queue when the lights are red. The lights are great. Alongside the red or green light you have a countdown digital clock, the same of which you will have seen for pedestrians in major cities across the globe, which informs you of how long you have before to have to stop or, in the case of the afore mentioned swarm of mopeds, GO. And they generally jump the gun anyway. Twenty or thirty mopeds all with suddenly screaming little engines under the weight of their extra loads, with flattened rear tyres. Chaos. Orderly chaos. Accepted chaos. Charming chaos.

Bangkok is a place I have no desire to return to, the heat, the pace, the noise and the awful smell of the durian fruit on every street corner. I certainly enjoyed the experiences we crafted but an invite to return would be declined.

I would however certainly consider most other places we visited, to date (10th July) as a return trip. Although, I do question the idea of returning anywhere, when there are so many other places in the world to discover. I want to see the world before you put me in it. Shouldn’t one inspect one’s final home to be sure it suits? I think when folk say “I’d like to come back here” it is more a stamp of their approval rather than an inclination to return.

Thai people love their food. Me too. I love their food. I think there are as many street food sellers on the sides of the streets as there are mopeds on the streets. The pavements are a crowded restaurant. Open all hours and providing all manner of delicacies. I suspect everyone has their favourite spot, their favourite cook, and their favourite dish. The idea is, you rock up on your moped, no need to jump off, lean across, make your order, its cooked and ready, straight off the grill, or out of the pot, pay your bill (very cheap), and away you go, revving up as you re-enter the traffic munching on your chicken, shrimp or whatever gave you reason to stop. This is not fast food. This is very fast food. You have to stop at McDonalds, because of the queues. No waiting for this food. If your man is busy, go to the next. The streets, as I said, are lined with them. I did some tasting too. If you like spice, rich flavours, then the street food are for you. I imagine no-one has kitchens at home. Naturally the restaurants do a great job. Super foods at super prices. Our favourite has been BAANBURI, on Phuket. We eat their everyday. Cheaper than cooking at home. I come away from there wanting to open a Thai restaurant in Canterbury. Who knows?

Thailand is definitely an exciting land. The Land of Smiles, so they say. I am enthusiastic about that epithet, because it really is. Every which way you turn, and whoever you meet, you are greeted with a smile, a bow of the head, with hands in prayer position in front of the face, and even a smile accompanied by salutes, if the person is in uniform, be it car park attendant, policeman or security guard. This, I do feel, is a genuine gesture, not just a daily chore. In addition, the indigenous folk have a beauty about them that is quite endearing. They are a beautiful people.

We have explored islands, capes, atolls, waterfalls, tracks, roads that go nowhere, temples, palaces, beaches, mountains, rivers, seas and numerous view points, all by various means of transport. One of our goals was to see how many modes of transport we could use during our trip. At this point, I have to mention public transport. When it is available, generally in the cities, they do not tolerate food or drink. This is also echoed in the theatre, no food or drink allowed. Wonderful. Imagine our joy as we took our seats in Row U, five from the front, to have no distractions other than the show itself. And boy what a show! The auditorium must have held 2500 people; the stage was the size of Chilham Square, probably bigger. There was a cast of about 200 actors, singers and dancers, two full size elephants, 20 odd fly points, a ton of trucks, a river, yes a river, which an actor jumped into and disappeared, remerging as part of his morning wash routine. The story was that of Siam, its history and traditions, called Siam Niramit. The grid system then opened for us to experience torrential rain as part of a tropical thunderstorm. WOW; items in the river, thrown there as part of the previous scene, floated stage left and disappeared into the wings. So the river was flowing too. This was a stage-managers and tech-crew nightmare but an audiences dream.

It was simple spectacular…much like the Thailand story we are living at the moment.

Episode 17

Before you read any further, or indeed at all, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Thank you.

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Paradise Koh Yao – the hotel was booked on a whim. I had seen no details before arriving, my mind being more preoccupied with improving my chipping in golf having gone over 100 at the premier course Laguna. I was reminded that it was in 30 degrees and 90% humidity, but that really did nothing to alleviate the guilt of disastrous close to the green golf. Guilt was also the emotion that Jo was experiencing as we managed to cling on to the hand rails of the flat back taxi as it bounced its way through a national forest come rugged rubber plantation along a rutted, potholed track worthy of any off-road 4×4 competition. This is the track that Jeep could well use in their next commercial enticing us to leave the tarmac for a more adventurous drive. An important difference here being that it wasn’t a Jeep, I have no idea of the make of the vehicle, probably a homemade pimped ride, although that conjures the wrong idea. Nothing pimped about this little jalopy, and the other important difference…. I wasn’t driving.

In addition to guilt, Jo, now 25 minutes into this off road jaunt, was feeling like a hostage. She kept muttering to me, between seat departures, of our impending doom at the hands of Thai bandits. I made efforts to calm her by insisting this guy knows a short cut to the hotel and that it couldn’t be the only road in. There was no one going in the other direction, or indeed was there anyone else going in our direction. I could see how Jo came to the swift conclusion that we had suddenly become a prize and worth a substantial amount of Bahts.

Forty minutes into the unplanned, unexpected excursion, I was irritated. I had had enough. I kept peering through the window that separated us from the anonymous driver, expecting to see a clue as to where we might be, but the view was plastered with information inviting us to check the indentity of the driver. Too late for that I thought. And was that a gun on the bench seat next to him? The vehicle slowed to a halt. A chap in uniform and holding a clip board came to the back of the taxi. “Name please?” He said. It felt like checking into a Japanese POW camp. Not that I know how that felt, but that’s the power of the moving image for you!

After the bahtering over the taxi fare and finalising it we duly turned to witness, finally, a symbol of western civilisation, the golf cart or buggy as we might say in Blighty! Driven by a young Thai, in the same uniform as the chap previously, loose fitting turquoise trousers and a white T-shirt, carrying the Paradise logo. Relief. We shall not be witnessing each others demise at the hand of a crazed Thai kidnapper. The young driver placed his hands together, in front of his face, and bowed in reverence to our presence. We both responded with our own versions of hello and thank you, and so joined the ranks of pathetic brits abroad!

The cart loaded we took to the winding narrow path between the purpose built cottages. Some single others two storeys. Deep in the jungle vegetation I was reminded of Patrick McGoohan in the Prisoner series. I know that was filmed in England’s SW but it had that feel, although not now, a few days later, this is very much a jungle hideaway. We arrived at reception to more praying hands and bowing heads. I do like it and would want to take it home, but fear the intolerance and lack of understanding.

Once sat in the deep cushioned bamboo chairs with a glass of alcohol free cocktail I knew this place was special. I checked with the receptionist. She confirmed that our road was indeed the only road to the hotel. Special. The only other route, by boat. Special. There was a quiet serenity which enveloped me. No canned musac. No crying children. No loud guests. No phones blurting unwontedly. Was there a rule about noise pollution that we were about to sign into?

It was actually – peaceful.

With paperwork concluded our quiet buggy and allotted driver took us the short trip to our room. The road twisted and turned through the jungle. It was too quick to appreciate the myriad of plants. Later, perhaps. Our man opened up a new world for us. Special. Passing through the door, on our right, outside, stood a large vase with water, floating flowers and a coconut shell handle for dousing down your feet, following time on the beach. The air conditioning was on and the wall of coolness came as some relief. The four poster bed, was romantically draped with white netting. Presumably, to ward off mosquitoes. Hadn’t seen or heard any since we had arrived!

This was a delightful room. With the colour scheme of the uniform being echoed in the rooms, alongside faded blue and driftwood, naturally, the ambience created was once again Special. The shower was of particular interest to me. Situated down a couple of steps, it opened to a, what one would call nowadays, wet room. The biggest difference, which was the interesting point for me, was there was only three walls. You could, if the mood took, and it just did with me, take a shower, essentially in the open. There was a fourth wall, for all you theatre buffs out there, which folded out to separate you from the open patio with table and swing chair, if you declined the opportunity for exhibitionism. I actually felt quite safe as each cottage has a certain degree of heavy foliage and large leaved plants and trees to conceal such moments of holiday bravado.

The beach is a crescent shape, with pier at one end and yoga room at the other. In between is housed three small restaurants, two bars, infinity pool, dominated by folk who love to throw their towels down at first light, massage huts, a wonderful spa, activity centre, large lily pond, palm trees, beach furniture, bamboo hammocks slung randomly between trees. And that is it. Essentially, one way in and one way out. Long tail boat. This is an idyllic situation. A haven. It is called paradise, and aptly named. Whilst I contend that paradise is a state of mind and not a holiday resort, whoever conceived this spot to be what it is, the careful planning, design; interior and exterior has moved me towards that intended state of mind.

I would recommend, unreservedly, this as a destination for a complete short break. I am here in June, the off season. The weather has been very kind, naturally humid, but sunbathing and swimming has been the agenda every day of the four.

We are fully rested. All four core aspects of a healthy life have been touched, rejuvenated, enriched and enlivened. At this point, I must mention the Thai massage I had on the beach. Just the best thing ever. I was tight in places, stiff neck and aching back. Today, 24 hours later, I feel as loose as soup through a fork!

Thai’s can undo those knots!

Episode 16

Los Angeles is best experienced with your back to it and waving from your open top rental crawling along route 405 towards the Pacific Coast Highway Route 1. Nothing would take me back except perhaps a film role! The Pacific Coast is quite a spectacle. The ocean is a moving majesty. The rolling breakers curl into glistening foam as they find their temporary home on the shore. The route weaves in and out around the coves and finds occasion to be interrupted by settlements. Morro Bay is a pretty place which has a claim to fame, that being, it has an extinct volcano in the centre of the bay itself. It stands proud and as you stare at the fallen moulted rock down its side from the store-littered board walk, the chorus of elephant seals provides a constant fanfare.

Further along the coast, one is tempted to turn right and visit America’s castle. High on the ridge towering over all below, stands Hearst Castle. The unfinished dream of media giant William Randolph Hearst can be seen from PCH 1. It’s majesty, designed by Julia Morgan, and conceived by Hearst on his travels to European castles, matches the ocean over which it looks, in San Simeon. A trip there would take too much time out of our day. Suffice to say a glimpse in awe paid due respect to one man’s dream.

The coast road is so inspiring that stopping and starting can be an issue in achieving travel progress. Our GOal (I use two capitols by choice – no typo) for the day was downtown San Francisco but the beauty and spectacle revealed at each bend in the road had us leaping out to embrace such perfect little moments, all to often. It was decided to be more selective, erring on perhaps, perfect bigger moments, affording the time to make the required progress and enjoying the perfect littler moments from the vehicle.

One of those bigger moments was discovered soon after San Simeon. Thousands, yes thousands, of elephant seals formed an up-turned carpet of shiny blubber. The sight was amazing, shocking, surprising, spectacular. Most of all it was Nature, close to. The seals, huge, by the way, basked belly-up in the Californian sunshine. This was their territory. This is where they played, chased, rested and it was obvious some were breeding too. The noises were that, that you might hear, if you collected thousands of grandads, swung them in hammocks, to sleep, side by side in a row, about half a mile long, having first given them all a couple of pints of Guinness. It was actually a comforting sound. A carefree sound. A most natural and wonderful experience. Moving….which is what we had to do. This stop represented a perfect HUGE moment and as such we had invested more time than perhaps we should. But what an investment!

We arrived at Big Sur, in the characteristic mist, only to discover the road north was closed due to several land slides and heavy rain. It would not open until next year. Next year, my inner voice screamed! Having filled the tank and bought the obligatory “sticker” for Jo’s marvellous scrap book, we were informed the only way to reach our intended destination, at a sensible hour, was to travel back, south, for an hour, east for an hour, and north to San Francisco for a further four hours. How many perfect little or larger moments might we need to ignore to keep to the schedule?

Driving was easy, is easy, is enjoyable.

We reached San Francisco during, in-aptly named “rush hour”! Twelve lanes of motorcars dawdling in both directions is a stark reminder of how we, as humans, are living. What are we doing? What a total and utter waste! Something has to give. I reflected on the carefree lives of elephant seals. A horn blasted. Am I in the right lane? Good question.

San Francisco, much like its counterpart, from whence we came, was full. Filled with people, cars, skyscrapers, noise, smoke, steam, heat, commercialism and the race to survive. We did it in a day basically. Enough is enough. Cities and me are not friendly bed pals. Open spaces allow you to breathe, reflect and invest time in thought. The boat trip on the bay allowed some well needed respite. The sun, the sea, the spray, the easy movement through the waves. We motored under the Golden Gate, around Alcatraz and back to more elephant seals honking at the dock. A rather splendid hour, followed by a rather splendid meal at the Hard Rock, before bed and an early start back the LAX for the flight to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong gone.

Well what a place! The high-rise capital of the world, I would suggest. The city of over 7.5 million people, all of whom seem to be on the streets or on the MTR (underground) and so probably the most densely populated city on the planet. It is literally a 24 hours a day rush hour. Add to that the relentless heat and humidity, the curious absence of green spaces, the curious absence of space even, and one could be left with the distinct feeling of “Help! Get me out of here!”

The towering blocks of boxed apartments appear to compete for the ever diminishing ground space and so reach for the sky. Acres of the highly priced real estate are crammed with ever increasing multiple digits of domesticity that gasp for air with very new level of rented accommodation. Look anywhere, turn in any direction and you will see row upon row, block upon block of bland concrete monoliths each celebrating symmetrical , and yet untidy and busy patterns, of windows with clothes randomly hanging out to dry. This never ending sight was bewildering. I became transfixed with the vision of “so many”. So many. So obviously, many.

This “so many” transferred its presence to the Mass Transit Rail; their rather splendid and highly efficient underground system. It is probably the best way to travel around the entire area, Hong Kong, Kowloon and all stations north south east and west. It is quick, clean and and comfortable. No food or drink is allowed on the MTR. At first thought, my feelings greeted this law. Upon reflection, I wondered about it’s significance in the wider spectrum of the society. The stations are long, very long, multi-levelled, eminently signed, colourful, architecturally interesting and always busy with “so many”. The “so many” find their way around with great ease. They seem to navigate the escalators, platforms, twists and turns of passageways and stairs using a onboard navigation system as, just about all of them, have their heads down with faces glued to a small screen and thumbs twitching rapidly connecting with another world. Everyone travelled at the same speed. No one rushed. The multi headed monster manoeuvred reassuringly to its multi various destinations. Calling it a rush hour, which I did earlier, was a little in appropriate, that was by virtue of numbers, not the haste, hustle and bustle associated with the rush hours of London, Paris or New York. This was more an enlightened hour, or dare I say, a conditioned hour? The total reliability and efficiency of the system is expected. The service is expected to work. There is no need to rush. If you rushed it might appear that you are bucking the trend, you are not grateful for the service and the people who run it. The stations and platforms are littered with uniformed staff, gesturing with open palms and hand held signs, the direction to follow, ensuring your pleasant and safe, unencumbered journey.

An enlightened way to travel, perhaps.

Big Buddha sits 34 metres high. Made from bronze, the most impressive sculpture guards its people by looking north over China, high in the mountains on Lantau island. Situated at the Po Lin monastery, the dignified manner of the Buddha, whose hand is raised in peace to all, is perhaps a reminder that all will be OK. Peace. Have Faith in your God.

Our travels continue as the UK enters a scary time in it’s history. The country is home to a divided nation. The wrong result today will cause further division, anguish, dissatisfaction and deep social unrest. Should anyone be reading this, be reminded of Big Buddha’s right hand of peace to all.

Episode 15

Come Monday, when Chelsea just about clinch the title for this year, by winning over Middlesbrough, it will be three weeks to our departure from Fairhope, Alabama, USA. Curiously, those who know me well, just a few, will know that I challenge the concept of “hope” as being anywhere near a positive and helpful emotion. Rather it gives up on human potential and resorts to “fingers crossed”. Well we know ourselves to be far better, far richer in potential and abilities, than crossing our fingers to ensure something we want or need to happen, actually does. We can actually make it happen, whatever the it is. WHATEVER, THE IT IS. We can cross our fingers too if we believe that might have an effect. Why not? The Bible tells us we can “ask to receive” and yet, even more curiously, that very same book is riddled with “hope”….fingers crossed!

Anyway, the idea of naming a town called Fairhope is interesting to me. It actually sounds quaint, on the romantic level, but on another level it sounds quite disappointing. Contrary to that, however, my time here has been quite awesome. And I must say, I like awesome.

I wholly recommend extended stays, anywhere.

The time and space of being an a-responsible person is highly liberating. Being able to leave the humdrum of normal life and to experience a new life with new visions, in a different time zone, a different culture, a different climate makes way for new thoughts and quite exciting possibilities. It is rather like that tall wardrobe with the top shelf out of reach, you eventually fumble around in the dust and detritus and rediscover personal possessions. You give them new light, a polish-off, a clean-up and they become better than before.

It is happening here, to me in Fairhope. My spiritual self has been moved from that dusty old shelf and plucked into a brand new world, where it is going crazy. It loves the freedom and the disciplines of thought.

Many years ago I purchased a book by Norman Vincent-Peale. He was a man of the clergy who professed and evangelised from the rooftops of America THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING. I read that book over and over, highlighting quotes and sections until the marker ran dry. It seemed the answer to my problems, the worlds problems, everyone’s problems. My efforts soon took me into a new world of looking at “things” differently. My curiosity, however, was not satisfied. I wanted what I perceived to be personal power. Upon reflection, it became much too hard. Life in all its negative forms kept bombarding me, everyone, and so the results of what I had set out to achieve did not materialise. I looked at the martial arts and discovered I should repeat to myself  “the power of the universe” when punching a block in two. It would give me the power I needed to forget the pain and succeed at the block-punching. How stupid! My very good friend and I laughed at the very idea. Power of the universe indeed!

My search for personal power, success, wealth and so on, continued. I bought more “self-help” books. Book shops have row upon row nowadays. There weren’t so many, back then. Emile Coue, Napoleon Hill, Zig Ziggler, James Allen, and many other authors found their way to my shelves. Even the Bible was not overlooked as a wonderful source of inspiration, and still is.  What is quite absolutely wonderful is, they all say the same. But it was still too hard for me to actually practice what they all preached. Life, the world, the media was way overpowering in negativity that I caved-in and resorted to simple, as far as possible, positive thinking. I use phrases such as “Success Comes in Cans”, which folk attribute to me because I use it so much, but it was one Joel Weldon, an American Keynote Speaker, who created that. One of mine is “There is only one IF in life, between the L and the E” followed closely by another of mine “Results Not Excuses”. More recently, perhaps over the past 2 or 3 years, I have resorted to a simple statement “All News is Good News”, which, generally, doesn’t go unchallenged and discussions ensue. However, for me, it encapsulates a wholly positive and sunny outlook, and what is wrong with that?

Well, here in sunny Fairhope, Alabama, USA, I can report Positive Thinking doesn’t come close to what I have discovered. I admit thinking positively is a useful tool towards battling the negativity with which we are bombarded, however, positive thinking is very much a reactionary attitude. We are hit with situations, daily problems, and we react positively to them. That provides us with a wonderful way of handling them, turning them around into opportunities, just like all the positive thinking books advocate. But how cool would it be to actually NOT be a receiver of life but the creator of life? Not be a reactor to life but a pro-actor of life? To be able to create the life you choose? To have the control? To have that power? That inner power to create whatever you choose? This is not something saved solely for the wealthy elite, not by any means. And this is not pie-in-the-sky stuff either. This is very, very real and boy am I excited.

I think you would agree, we are, and our lives reflect, the sum total of our thoughts and experiences. We have to be, who else can be responsible? With that said, I am in my second month here in the US, with just three weeks to go, before jetting off to Hong Kong, Phuket, Thailand, Sydney, Australia, and then New Zealand (North and South Islands) for a further four months. It didn’t just happen. The thoughts have been there for sometime, finding the way for it to happen.

What I have discovered and what I continue to be amazed about, is that which my friend and I laughed about all those years ago. I am thankful, now, I have rediscovered that power.

 

Episode 14

If you believe that you are responsible for everything that happens to you, and I do, and that your life is the perfect reflection of your thoughts, again I do, then I am not sure what I was thinking when I was pulled over for speeding, apparently doing 64mph in a 45mph zone. Easy to do I might add, on these roads. Looking back at the series of events that occurred moments earlier, I now know why it happened and I should have known.

I was driving Hayley’s car, a black thing, much like my Honda at home. We had collected Jake from Steve and Kathy’s house. They had been looking after him whilst Jo and I did some gallivanting around Gulf Shores. We had taken the day out to visit FloraBama, a pub on the border of Florida and Alabama. A rather splendid establishment bedecked with bras and bikini top’s donated by willing customers, I presume. We did stay for a drink and I make the observation that we were not there long enough to witness the number of ladies attire increase. Or if it did, I must have been looking out to sea, across the wide expanse of beach, bathed in beautiful sunshine. The guy playing live on stage, to a limited number of audience, I hold responsible for our early departure. Even my lean knowledge of music enticed me away. The potential sight of a bra donation could not keep me in my seat any longer. One final long slurp of the ice-cold “bushwhacker” and we were gone. Next stop Alabama Point, a long strip of sand dunes and beach-head with the intention of it being host to our backs  for a spell of sun worship. To arrive at any beach, it seems, having parked the car, is along a boardwalk. Most meander their way across dunes, reeds and possible swamp to the desired soft and fluffy sandy beaches. Life is made easy to go to the beach. Some of these beach board walks have foot showers, full showers and even changing rooms and “bathrooms”. This current boardwalk, didn’t. It was just boards and we were walking. We found a flat spot OF sand near the water’s edge. Unfurled our Chelsea blanket, made from about 12 Chelsea flags, and nestled into the peace of the environment. And it was peaceful. Despite quite a few “others” the space was enough to accommodate at least a million more people. The gentle rhythm of the sea became mesmerising. I put my head down for tanning and mind work, mildly cursing the failed muso at the pub for clashing with our visit! All news is good news.

Laying in the sun is not, perhaps, a recommended pastime.  The benefits of vitamin D, however, are undoubtedly recognised, and this was an ideal opportunity to indulge in a little of what is good for you. My regulation factor 50 for forehead and nose was applied, whilst my torso and limbs quite happy with factor 15. The gentle breeze, the lapping of the waves, the warmth of nature enveloped me. I was at peace, both physically and more importantly, mentally.

Time has a tendency to be still on such hedonistic moments. The minutes passed with some ease and the enjoyment lingered through until it was snack time. A homemade sandwich of cheese, turkey and salad accompanied by some very tasty Chex Mix, all washed down with a bottle of the most recent Evian, a classic vintage option for lunch in the sun.

After a tad more post snack sun worship, the time had arrived for us to vacate our temporary heaven. Collecting our beach-clobber together we found our way towards the meandering boardwalk. En route, in an unpopulated area of beach, we found ourselves being unofficial witnesses to a beach wedding. The bride and groom stood side by side, in beach apparel, facing their chosen, just as casually dressed, “pastor”. He stood in front of a small table which was home to three jars, two filled with sand and one without. Flanking the table were two large lanterns. Not showing any signs of flame-life. Well it was mid afternoon on a blisteringly hot day on a beach covered with a cloudless blue sky. The lanterns were decorative. Not so their 9 year-old son who was in attendance, but busy playing in the sand at their feet. No guests. No-one else but us Brits…oh and the female photgrapher.

In reverence to the moment, we stopped and put our junk down and became involved in the romance of the occasion. We could not hear the words clearly but the actions of rings to fingers and the symbolic pouring of the two measures of sand into one told us what was happening. They kissed. We spontaneously applauded and cheered. It was indeed very special. We entered their ceremonial space and congratulated them, explained how romantic it was and how privileged we felt to be unexpectedly a part of their, what turned out to be, elopement. We wished them well and would love to find them on Facebook in due course.

Our smiles were as long as the beach. The sand-walk was made so much easier to the boardwalk. We were still smiling, 30 minutes later, as we arrived at Steve and Kathy’s house to collect Jake before heading home to Fairhope.

We naturally retold the story of the wedding ceremony before we loaded the boy into the car seat for the trip home. Chatting to Steve prior to departure, he asked how I found the roads and the driving. I explained how easy I found the transition and I felt “just like a local”. It was this phrase that determined the next passage of approximately 10 minutes. That very thought. That single thought, steeped in emotion of confidence, wrapped with the emotion of joy previously evoked by the wedding, dictated the next 10 minutes of my life.

Believe me, if you don’t think that your thoughts determine your destiny, change your thinking, because they do. Short and long-term.

There was a sense of urgency as I crossed the freeway at the lights, needing to be home before Jake woke up. I was being a local. I felt like a local. I was enjoying the feeling of being a local as I saw, on the other side of the road, a police patrol car travelling towards me. I didn’t think to check my speed, but as we passed each other, in the rear view mirror I saw him, I assumed it was a him, turn on the intimidating red and blue flashing lights as he swung the “black and white” around in the road to be on my side. He was now travelling towards us. Gaining on us. My immediate thought was, as I slowed down, that he had a call to attend a local incident, and he would sail by me and the sirens would make that change of sound noise as they pass. No. I was wrong. He was tailing me. This was a real life scene from some American TV series. It is rather strange that without any verbal communication, just the sight of a police car behind you, with its lights flashing and quick single whirrr of the siren is enough to halt you at the next convenient spot on the road. In this case, just past one of the many churches that litter this area. No help there, I thought!

I was parked, engine running, eyes focussed on the shadowy figure in the police car behind me. He hadn’t moved. Eerie. Threatening. Running checks? I stayed in the veeHicle, as one is supposed to do, according to Hollywood. He’ll like me. I’ll use my best and proper English accent, just enough to let him know that I am English, rather than Australian, which is a popular guess around these parts, and not too much to insult him.

It seemed ages. Time does not have the tendency to be still on these far from hedonistic moments. He finally made his move. His door swung open. He had found out what he needed to find out. He had the advantage. The knowledge. His steps were slow and deliberate. He moved to the passenger side of Hayley’s car. I fumbled for the swtich to send the window down. It went with the sound and speed of tension. And there he stood, sideways on, gun holster away from the car, right hand ready to move for it, left hand leaning on the door, straight armed.

“Did you know this was a 45 mph road, sir, and you were doing 64 mph?”

“I had absolutely no idea officer, I am so sorry.”

He then requested driving licence and insurance. With those in hand he returned to his car for another endless few minutes. During that time the air was rich with different scenarios about what would happen next. Instant on-the-spot fine? A warning? Ignorance can fuel imagination. Had we done enough to play the English card or was it a spell in Shawshank?

The square-shaped, powerfully built, black police officer, strode back to the passenger window, still open, engine running, keeping the AC blasting with cool, cool air, in this hottest of moments. Some papers flapped in his hands.

He assumed his previous position against the car. I noticed his name badge, Officer Martyn Nicely. He spoke again, clear and informative, with no room for discussion.

“Sir, I’m gonna let you off this time. Please read this before you set off. Enjoy the rest of your journey. Have a good one.”

He strode back to his patrol car. I watched him sink into his seat as I returned the window to up, putting a close to this event.

Martyn, nicely done. I salute you.