I was there in the late nineties; we did all of those normal things people do there, and it makes me think that there is a bit of a formula thing to Sri Lanka tours… but on the stomach thing… my son was 3 years old, lived off poppadoms and profiteroles (he famously ate 11 for breakfast) and was never ill. We paddled in the sea and got swept off our feet from ankle deep in a couple of seconds by a big but apparently normal wave and I was lucky to catch him as we were swept out. The waiter in the hotel, of a certain age, reluctantly confessed to dying his hair because he would loose his job if he were ever to go grey. We broke the rules and brought a durian back into the hotel room. Some people love them, but for me it smelled and tasted like a sewer, or what a sewer would taste like – I have never tasted one … obviously. It was also a spiky devil that was nearly impossible to break into. Wish I had not have bothered really. My daughter at 4 had a massive fall out with our friends’ son of the same age over whether the sky was blue or grey and I loved the second hand book stalls in Colombo where the books were old and smelled of mildew. We ate vege curries and none of us were ill. On the drive up to Kandy our tame-adopted-taxi-driver told us on the way back that the road was very dangerous for walkers at night because many snakes came down to the warm tarmac. The elephant procession was impressive. We visited a Victorian machine-clanking tea factory and a herb garden on the way… saw toddy tappers climb coconut trees and walk along high suspended ropes and bring down the hooch and bought some gemstones. The elephant orphanage was cracking and Kandy was sublime. All in all I enjoyed it, although the tourist route did seem a bit formulaic. I’d like to go back again but this time travel independently.
- So you need to go and check this out for the first reason. I can not even begin to express how proud I was of her for these weekends.
2. My daughter told me yesterday that her friend at school (older by one year), with an incredulous look on her face, did not know who Barack Obama was.
3. Iona (nee Mollie) was delighted to see the Donald Trump toilet paper I had put in the bathroom. I had to tell her that she was rationed to one sheet per visit.
4. She was up for drawing pictures of Trump based on this (although I had not mentioned any Trump mistresses to her).
5. Iona also has a much better hit rate for countries visited to years of age than I have. At 55 years, I have 80%. At nine years she has nearly 266% (24 countries for 9 y.o.).
6. She has always understood, even from when tiny, when our wanderlust is kicking in…
She also loves her doggie (PHOTO BY NATASHA):
I had a dream last night and it was so vivid I just wrote it down as a short story. Please don’t analyse this!
TQ9ers – a Tale from Totnes
Hey Abs, meet me at the top of the wiggly path. Got something to tell you…
The message was from her best friend, Iona. It was strange. They almost always walked to school down in Totnes together in the mornings anyway. It must be important, if she had to make sure of it and leave a bit early this morning.
The girls exchanged a greeting as a determined, sliding drizzle began to dapple their faces from the direction of the river Dart. They headed down the zig-zag path that led from their modern estate to the river. Normally they would cut the corners and walk more directly down the hill, but today it was sodden and muddy, and theirs was a school that would not take kindly to them arriving covered in mud. Even if they were to arrive with muddy shoes they were likely to get a dressing down, and probably a phone call home. That’s the sort of school it was. The education was good, but the views were quite old-fashioned. The parents liked that. That is what they paid for. Smart uniforms and, on the face of it at least, exemplary behaviour and manners.
“Only our school thinks that it knows better than everyone else and ignores a bank holiday,” complained Abigail. “Pricks.”
“But get this: McGonagall isn’t even going to show up! She’s taken the day off, the sly cow.” This was what the girls called the head teacher on account of a vague resemblance to Maggie Smith who plays the character in the Harry Potter films, even though she was a good few years younger. “My Dad saw it on the web page.”
“How fair is that!” Abi watched a drop of water run down her friend’s cheek. It was getting heavier and they huddled up against the wind which was sending the rain at a forty five degree angle now. It seemed determined to batter and soak them. They walked more quickly and had to raise their voices against the moans of the weather.
“Listen, I’ve got a plan, that’s why I texted you. I’m going to throw a sickie. I intend to be gone by break time. You should do the same. I’ll act out a fever, I’m good at that, and you just say the English have landed.” The girls at Leatside Independent Day School had learned in French that this was an expression derived from the Redcoats’ bloody fights against Napoleon which means that a girl has her period. Abi frowned. She wasn’t sure. What would their parents say? How would they get away with it?
Iona Meehan was destined for great things. Her quiet intelligence was not apparent at first. But she was a shrewd listener who generally got what she wanted, simply by working out other people’s feelings and what the stumbling block was. Or what the sweetener could be. She had even got herself a false Facebook account so that she could get an invite to TQ9ers – a private residents’ group to which their Head Teacher belonged. This was for what she termed “information gathering purposes”. For sure Iona was destined for success.
She stopped and turned to her friend, putting one hand on her shoulder so that Abi had to stop too and look her in the eye, her back to the wind now.
“We could meet those Spanish boys.” They had exchanged mobile numbers with some of the language students who often came here to learn English, two days previously. Abi had been particularly taken by one of them. They crossed the bridge where the conversation had started and it was at exactly this point that Iona dropped this suggestion. She was aware of the extra persuasion the location would add. One of the boys had picked up a torn flyer for the anti-Brexit march and stuck it back on the wall using the gum he was chewing. He had smiled at them and said,
“We need you in Europe. We are friends.”
“I agree. But you do know that we are twinned with Narnia in this town, don’t you?” Abi had laughed. The Spanish student had enough cultural knowledge to understand the joke, or had been told about the place before his visit. It was indeed said that the town was twinned with Narnia and it was hardly surprising that views on Europe between the Spanish boy and the girl from Totnes coincided. There was even a man from the town who had declared independence, made EEC Totnesian passports and distributed them to people free of charge.
And that is how it had started. They had all ended up going for a coffee together and had swapped numbers.
“McGonagall can hardly complain, being as how she’s taken the day off herself.”
So Abi was persuaded. By mid-morning the two had executed their plan. The rain had stopped and the clouds were moving away. She had had little trouble persuading the school nurse that she was suffering a rather intense bout of stomach pains. Iona had dishevelled herself, spent the first lesson looking miserable and listless, then made her cheeks red with hot water before going to the sick bay.
As agreed, they met in the café by the market place. A warm aroma of Nag Champa joss sticks and patchouli, mingled with fresh coffee fell about her like a heavy blanket as Abi walked in. Iona was already sitting at a table. Her phone sat next to a large slice of banana cake and she was smiling.
“Hi, I’ll just get myself something.” Abi returned with a huge whipped-cream-topped mug of hot chocolate and a slice of cake. She sat down beside her friend.
“So you got out OK?”
“Piece of cake.”
“So, shall we ring them?”
“Let’s eat first.”
The phone buzzed. Iona took it up and swiped the screen. She frowned.
“I don’t know really.” She handed the phone to Abi to read the message. It was a post on TQ9ers Facebook page from their head teacher:
You would have been 10 today. We miss you and think of you every day. I love you. You were only three when you left us, but I thank you for every minute of your short life, for the love and for the joy you gave us. Sleep well, my darling,
In a shameless attempt to get over 5000 hits on my website before Christmas, I have made a little Christmas quiz. 1 point if you can guess the song, 25 points if you know who wrote it and 100 points if you can name the Norweigian winner of World Idol featured on the link (before going there)…
A little Christmas teaser:
Well, Shrek featured this song, considered as the “baseline” of secular hymns, and here it is sung by four Norwegians, including the winner of “World Idol”, who also looks spookily like Shrek. It was written by a Canadian and achieved little success when first released. He wrote around 80 draft verses for it, with one writing session at the Royalton Hotel in New York ending up with him being reduced to sitting on the floor in his underwear, banging his head on the floor.There are now over 300 released covers of the song.
Go here: https://wheatypetes.world/ and find the link on the word songs for the best version of one of the best songs ever…😀 Who got 126 points (you musical genius, you)?
We had to hire a car to see this country – and to escape the threats of violence along with demands for money from a man who targeted us and appeared every time we left the hotel. This hotel, where the package tour company sent us, was plagued by many of these rather aggressive “bumsters” as they call them… We asked the company rep to change hotels, but with no joy. Although she did arrange a part-time police presence for a couple of days outside the entrance.
Some of the European “ladies”, of a certain age would hang out in the bar up the road with young local men. They danced together. We did not hang around to see what happened next. It was a bit of a sleezy place.
We had been warned on the tourist bus from the airport to “take it easy” with the locals, but one young girl in the bar told us she had hooked up with a local guide. He had shown her around, even taken her to his village to meet his family. He was somehow different from the others she told us. Her instinct told her so. She just felt it. We met her on the bus back to the airport. He had just disappeared the previous day. So had her phone and cash.
The guide asked everyone to fill out a survey to win a free tour back to the Gambia. “Who wants to win?” he cried. At least three “NOT ME”s were heard from somewhere on the bus. The problems are caused by the incredible poverty gap between the tourists and the local population and despite the tourist bucks, the money mostly ends up back in the hands of western companies and the hotels they own. Meanwhile it is one of the poorest countries in Africa for the vast majority of Gambians.
Scroll through for captions:
This is me and my dear friend Jennifer, who for some reason didn’t like her vocals and swore like the Canadian trouper she is at the end of the song… personally I felt honoured to work with a singer like this.
Bien fait, vous l'avez trouvé.
Well I sort of liked Hungary. My first experience was when we had just picked up Peaches the campervan in the UK and drove back to Slovakia where we were living. It appealed to see some new countries so we went to Sopron (“Shop-ron”) for a bit. Hungarian pronunciation has and remains a bit of a mystery to me – much like Irish Gaelic. But anyway, we found ourselves in a pretty town on the southern edges of Lake Neusiedl/Lake Fertő near the Austrian border. The waiter was kind to our daughter in the café we ate in, but like any free-spirited two-year-old she was having none of it and ignored his efforts.
Who would have thought that in the end the Iron Curtain would be brought down not with a bang, but with basketfuls of sandwiches and hot dogs?
And yet that is what happened. On August 19, 1989 it was agreed to hold a “Pan-European Picnic” just outside Sopron, right on the border with Austria.
The idea was to open the border for about three hours and allow people to cross unchecked into Austria, taking a step further a process started two months earlier when Hungary and Austria, in the physical form of Gyula Horn and Alois Mock, had picked some notables to take some clippers and symbolically cut through the barbed wire.
The picnic organisers reckoned on a crowd of several thousand (it was over 10,000) who would come to enjoy the removal, albeit temporarily, of the once impregnable Iron Curtain. But they did not foresee about 600 canny East Germans who, hearing what was planned, thought they would take full advantage of the situation and escape to the West. The Hungarian border guards turned a blind eye and let the East Germans through. Although the border was subsequently resealed, a chain of events had been set in motion that led, less than three months later, to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Today the site of those dramatic scenes is touted as an “international tourist attraction”. A lone watchtower – from which soldiers were at one time authorised to fire – is a reminder of how things once were.
Sopron – a delightful town dating back to Roman times that contains a wealth of medieval, baroque and rococo architecture “second only to that found in Budapest itself”. Sopron has another unique selling point: very Liechtensteinian in its quirkiness. The town has some 300 dentists and, while much of the trade comes from nearby (much more expensive) Austria, many of the practices now cater for English-speaking clients. There are worse places you could go to get your teeth seen to.
And then for us there were frequent trips from Bratislava for weekends in Budapest. Budapest is beautiful, and the locals will tell you that the most beautiful women in the world are from Hungary. On one trip, our daughter ran off down the train into a carriage where I met my now lifelong friend, Eric, a worryingly tall Californian who ran a language school in the capital. He was hospitable and invited us back to his flat. We were staying in a hotel on Andrassy – a wide main street where you could imagine the military parades of the communist era, so vividly depicted in the “Museum of Terror” , which showed in graphic detail the sufferings of the local population under first the Nazi, then the Russian occupations. Here there is a whole enormous wall of photograph portraits of the “disappeared” behind a real live Soviet tank, and rooms depicting the various offices of the various occupiers. Well-written leaflets in several languages tell the whole story. At the end of Andrassy lies Heroes Square, replete with soldiers in unfathomably clean boots and teenagers doing tricks on their mountain bikes, along with Roma beggars and passing tourists. Cross the bridge towards the Buda side of the two cities (Buda and Pest) and there is a funicular railway up to the lovely city on the hill. The taxi drivers from the station we found to be complete sharks and would drive you around for a good half hour for what should have been a five or ten minute ride.
My Dad, who was dying from cancer and walking with a stick, and my mum came to visit us in Bratislava. I knew it would not be long so wanted to show them the best of the region: time in Bratislava, trips to Vienna and Budapest but most of all time together. He was famous for accosting any random stranger and having their life story, family history and occupation of their father within a few short minutes. He did this a lot. Including on our trip to Budapest where I had found “bargain” accommodation behind one of those doorways that always make you wonder: “I wonder what it’s like behind there?” Well the answer was that the doorway was ornate and the building was a rambling old set of apartments that, judging by the ones we stayed in, were poverty-stricken ex-grand residences with electrical issues that freaked my wife out for the sake of our daughter. We ended up fashioning an outside table to eat at in the courtyard from the building debris that was left around and actually did quite a good job of this. It was interesting to wonder up the spiral staircase to explore the rest of the ancient building and Tash took some fabulous photos of puddles reflecting the impressive buildings all around. Up in a restaurant in Buda some very accomplished classical/folk musicians came and serenaded us and my Dad made friends on the street. The subway system was fabulous and the trains there were reminiscent of miniature Victorian toy trains. The escalators ran so fast, clanking in a surprisingly pleasing way, that we had to hold on to my Dad’s arm when getting on or off them.
On another occasion we stayed in a hotel with a roof top pool heated by thermal waters. How amazing it was to swim on this roof top, overlooking the snowy tiled roofs of Budapest on a freezing winter’s evening. Some Russian businessmen were there also. They led the way in their swimming habits, afterwards going to lie on the snow capped “sun loungers” on the roof top terrace and rubbing the good white stuff all over the corporately corpulent bodies. No matter; there was always the Christmas market a short distance below where the delicious punches could warm you to your very boot-tips.
Taking the train down from Bratislava we would pass the Danube Bend, where you could see the impressive basilica at Esztergom, just as the Slovak train crew were being replaced by Hungarians. You can see it from all around. Here it takes nine seconds for the reverberation echo to cease if you shout into its dome. Not that you would want to embarrass yourself in that way. One weekend we took off from Bratislava and camped here. The site had no electrical hook ups, but the accommodating owners ran a cable from their office to help us out and I got bitten by a snake as I put my hand into the wood pile to restock the campfire.
On the way down to Croatia we stopped once at Revfulop (I think the Hungarian pronunciation may well be something like “Burnham-on Sea”) on Lake Balaton. The campsite was a perfect lakeside location and the people there seemed rather more over-fed than the misnomer “Hungary” would suggest phonetically. Another favourite haunt was the thermal swimming pool in Gyor (“Gee-yer”) where the thermal spring fed the inside pool and you could swim out of the archway to the outside, perfectly warm in the water, even in the snow. You had to remember to take Forint down with you as they did not have Euros there. Eric called me a common tourist when I mistakenly referred to the currency as “Florint”, which made a lot more sense to me. And then we come to the way in which we saw the Hungarians dealt with the refugees when we were working on the Austro-Hungarian border down there. Neither country came out covered in glory from this, although I do know that some groups were doing some very philanthropic work down in Budapest with the multitude of migrants who found themselves camping out around Keleti Station in Budapest.
My Dad fell down into the street in Bratislava. He was lucky it was a weekend. He stumbled, and spiraled downwards in slow motion, grabbing at a bollard on the edge of the pavement on the way and then fell into the (weekday busy) road still in slow motion; he had cracked a rib on his camera as landed on the tarmac. He was as stoic about the whole episode as he was about the dive we ended up in in Budapest when we went there together. And I think that if you are stoic then you will like Hungary. It has suffered a great deal from Russian and Nazi occupations. It treats minorities appallingly – Roma and more recent refugees. But for me, somehow it charms and fascinates.