Monday, 19 January 2015

The Rocky Road Rollercoaster

Guest blog from number 1 daughter which goes to prove two things: firstly, 
that she is a much better writer than me, and secondly, that I may not be 
having the best fun in the world but she certainly is! Love it! 
After six weeks of cetacean stranding in the sun, rubbing well-oiled and rotund 
bellies with Machiavellian glee whilst our brain cells dehydrated one by one, I 
woke up by the pool one day and could not remember my name. It was time to 

(Our time in Phuket was not quite like this, more on this in the next blog).

Armed with a backpack and a rucksack (no points for figuring out who carried 
what), we flew domestic with Air Asia from Phuket to Chiang Mai, taking all 
aviation tips learnt during the Christmas break - resisting texting our families 
"Goodbye forever" or asking for a plate with our nuts.

Too soon? Sorry.

When we arrived in Chiang Mai, we flagged down a tuk-tuk for 200 baht. This 
was Alex's virgin ride with a tuk-tuk which required him to pull roller-coaster 
selfies and inspect the mechanics of our vehicle at length - largely in our mate 
Tully's honour. Surprisingly, this was the smoothest and best behaved ride I 
have taken on a tuk-tuk which leaves me feeling uneasy about our trip to India 
in the coming months.

Bypassing the centre of town we arrived on the outskirts of Chiang Mai at the 
Swiss-Lanna lodge - a wooden chalet building owned by yes, a Swedish-Thai 
couple. Our room consisted of two single beds, at opposite ends of a long room 
so we opted to communicate via buddy sign language developed during our 
Open Water diving course in Phuket. Mature.

Hiring a hot pink motorbike and wearing matching helmets (there was no 
alternative), we rode into the centre and lunched on enchiladas at the Cat Cafe, 
which had no feline decor, no pets and the chicken tasted decidedly of, well 
chicken. We then took a walk within the old walls of the city. It has been 7 years 
since I last stepped foot in Chiang Mai (with the previous boyfriend) and it feels 
larger and more modern than I remember. Whilst the green leafy streets (or 
sois) remain narrow and guesthouses and bookshops nestle together, small 
modern coffee shops and art galleries now pop up on each corner. Traffic has 
become much more four-wheeled and I got turned away for a second time from 
the largest Wat in the city - for wearing shorts. After a brief stop for some supper,
 we retired to bed early - the room thankfully too dark for us to resume our 

Saving much of Chiang Mai and its sights until our next visit, we got into a 
minibus provided by 'Travel Hub' the next day which was jam packed with 
Chinese tourists. They have an unfortunate reputation for being as loud as a 
foghorn and this was only proven right for our eight hour trip to Chiang Kong 
which rests on the Thai-Laos border. We stopped several times on this trip, 
once at the 'Full-House Guesthouse' which sat precisely half-way between 
Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in the middle of nowhere. Here was an orange PVC 
swimming pool and shocking pink bungalows, surrounded by farmers working on 
paddy fields. Its name was somewhat inaccurate, given that we saw nobody else 
excepting the tourists that decamped from the minibus to buy snacks before we 
jumped back in to continue our journey.

Our next stop found us outside a glistening white palace, 'Wat Rong Khun', 
where one could walk over the 'Bridge of Rebirth' up to the 'Gates of Heaven' 
and a temple interior which has murals depicting the Terminator, Freddy Kruger,
 Michael Jackson enflamed in orange amongst other devil faces. Other images 
there were Harry Potter and Hello Kitty, which added to the whole confusion 

The border crossing was thankfully relatively pain free and we were happy to see 
the majority of tourists leave at this point, choosing to stay overnight in Chiang 
Kong before crossing the border in the morning. The reason for this is that the 
most popular route to Luang Prabang is a two day, one night slow boat, which we 
agonised over doing and eventually rejected - in part due to a horror story in a 
blog I found online. Once in Huay Xai in Laos, we climbed into a large VIP bus 
shared by only six Lao passengers and travelled to Luang Nam Tha - our first 
destination in Laos. Using a torch, I read my book whilst Alex muttered in Lao to 
the karaoke television under his breath.

The road winded through the Luang Nam Ha NPA (national park) smoothly and 
after four hours we arrived in dark in what looked like a deserted town. Only 
eight degrees and wearing shorts and t-shirts, we huddled into the nearest 
guesthouse and booked the last room available - the double VIP suite for 
100,000 kip (around 9 pounds). We then took our starved selves into the only 
open restaurant at this hour, a garish flashing fastfood diner and listened to, 
bizarrely, Eiffel 65 "I'm blue, da ba di, da ba die" on repeat whilst munching on 
noodles and pizza.

Luang Nam Tha is certainly what one would call "off the beaten path" as we 
discovered in the morning - a sleepy town with one main street surrounded by 
the mountainous forests of the national park. Mists swirl in the morning and 
evening and rise to a blazing heat and blue skies at around noon. Ramshackle 
corrugated iron garages sit next to cement block houses and wooden shacks 
with thin strips of bamboo covering the exterior walls. We hired mountain bikes 
and rode up the hills past a wat overlooking the town, nodding to orange-robed 
monks and passing tiny villages and construction sites before reaching another 
wat - and climbing 175 steps to the top. A narrow track to the left took us past 
the airport strip and to the Boat Landing Guesthouse where we feasted on 
Kaeng Sen Lon (soup) and a noodle dish Mee Haeng.

The afternoon found us on the tiniest and bumpiest of tracks I have had the 
fortune to ride on, past acres of fields with huts on stalks provided for shade. 
The few locals we passed stared unapologetically, but all with a smile and 
the greeting "Sa Ba Dee" - hello. I caused a traffic jam by refusing adamantly 
to ride over a precarious bridge crossing made of only nine thin rows of 
bamboo and where gaps showed a rushing river below. This was only made 
worse by two motorcycles following behind me making the bridge more 
concave than convex. By the time we reached the sadly unremarkable Bam 
Nam Dee waterfall, after over 30 kilometres of cycling, our buttocks were on 
fire which could be observed by the wider strides we took for several days 

Tourists here are unmistakably older than usual, retired couples and nomadic 
gangs whom all - and I mean all - have dreadlocks and those disgusting baggy 
pants with elephants on them. We steered clear of them by taking a kayaking 
trip down the Nam Ha river the next day. Dining on a breakfast at our new 
guesthouse - Zuela, scrambled egg with tomato and onion and the lightest hot 
baguettes I have ever had the fortune to eat, we bundled up warm and walked 
along the main street to "Jungle Eco-Tour Adventures", paying 280, 000 kip for 
the day's experience.

Kong, our guide was like us - 29 years old, spoke pretty good English and bore 
no likeness to the famous primate. Around 5"3 tall, bundled up in a black puffa 
jacket, football shorts and a Liverpool FC baseball cap, him and Alex could have 
been brothers from another. He also has 9 siblings which apparently is 

We jumped into an open backed truck and went to the morning market where 
Kong bought some dubious looking food that was mashed together in plastic 
bags. He also bought sticky rice and oranges, so I knew I wouldn't starve. 
Following this, we shivered our cacks off heading south past the airport strip to 
a derelict looking guesthouse where a kayak, an inflatable kayak, helmets and 
life jackets of a murky pooey brown/grey sick pallor were thrown in.

A few kilometres down and we vacated our handsome ride and bravely 
shed our warmest clothing in the chill and stood by our inflatable kayak 
whilst Kong gave us a 30 second instrumental talk on the use of paddles. 
I gave up with my broken lifejacket and we both climbed into our kayaks.

As you remember, Alex and I are not the best of kayaking partners and 
we had a considerable number of rapids and rocks to avoid with all the 
knowledge that Kong had imparted to us. The first part was relatively 
peaceful but the inflatable left little wriggle room and freezing water was 
splashing on bare legs leaving for hot bouts of temper and a consistent 
bellicose repartee back and forth.

Luckily, five kilometres down the sun came out and we stopped at a Lancen 
tribe village where we saw carpenters building wooden joints for a house, palm 
being knitted together for the roof and a well provided by a German funded 
water project. We also met the wife of the tribal chief who had ruled for over 
twenty years - unusual as a new one was usually voted in every three.

For dedicated birdwatcher and father, Sean O'Hara

Back in the kayak, we hit some steamy rapids where I did not steer the back 
of the kayak to Alex's satisfaction and left him soaked with water and the boat 
semi-submerged. It was glorious! Trees soared above us and Alex clicked away 
with the camera, documenting kingfishers and other sights. As the river curved 
around, we parked the kayaks on a sandy bank of stones whilst Kong climbed 
up a banana tree and hacked down some leaves which would serve for plates 
for our lunch. The dubious plastic bags were emptied onto the palm leaves 
alongside some river seaweed (dried and bought at the market of course) and 
sticky rice was dumped in front of us. I waited patiently for the chopsticks but 
apparently the Lao eat with their fingers and so we dug in. The questionable 
food in front of us turned out to be minced meat, some noodle vegetable 
mixture and this creamy green vomit which tasted better than it looked. Drinking 
water, eating satsumas in the sun - it was a gorgeous moment.

The final section of rapids done with rather full bellies would definitely be 
considered 'white-water' and Alex who has never done white-water rapids before 
sniffed his nose at the hungry river and sharp pointed rocks whilst having a 
complete paddy. At one point, we completely misangled the kayak and went 
plunging into the banks ducking branches and plants before the river finally 
subsided. Such an incident did not go corrected by Kong, rather he just waited 
patiently as we pulled twigs out of our hair and we were left praying that we 
would not make the same mistake.

The evening found us dining on BeerLao and more pizza (they seem to love their 
pizza here) before jumping in another truck to the bus station outside of town and 
climbing into a VIP bus with numerous Israeli (?) and Chinese tourists for the 
overnight trip to Luang Prabang. This was the hairiest ride either of us have ever 
taken in our lives, where the driver saw no cause to slow down for potholes or 
avoid any narrow crevice as we descended down the mountains. Getting any 
sleep, between the Israeli tourists playing musical chairs and the bus teetering 
on every curve was nigh impossible but I managed to catch a few nods before 
we all had a hair-raising moment with a jolt that left us suspended in mid-air for 
several seconds. Alex spent the whole night after this, with his back ramrod poker 
straight praying for our lives whilst I, hearing aids off, buried under my sarong and 
tried to pretend the whole thing wasn't happening.

So at 4am in the middle of no where, knock-kneed, we climbed out of the bus and 
entered Luang Prabang by tuk-tuk. Every place was closed and an unearthly 
silence greeted us as we walked down past closed guesthouses by the river 
under street lights. At 5.30am, we peered round the open door of a bakery, 
where the owner took pity on us and served us early with hot coffee and Pan Au 
Chocolat. We cried big hot salty tears over our breakfast, incredibly luxuriant and 
delicious whilst thanking the heavens that we were alive.

Next time, we may well have to choose the slowboat route. But all in the life of a 

Monday, 12 January 2015

Granny Gin

All my children refer to the intrepid granny as 'Granny Gin' - no need to ask why! When number 2 child was asked when very small what she thought Granny Gin's surname was, she thought for a moment and announced gravely: 'And-Tonic'. 

Since number 1 is away gapping, she wrote this for my mother for her birthday present. Enjoy! 
I remember walking at the house, tucked away on a pretty lane outside the village of Barford, Warwickshire. Stepping out of the white doors of the living room with the hand of my grandmother, past the smell and rows of lavender, down the endless beds of roses before reaching the greenhouse, climbing carefully over the precipices of paved stones. Tucked under a tree, I would be propped up onto the second fence in my wellies and there would be the donkeys, Phoebe and Clover. If I was lucky, they would come gamboling over to us, so I could almost reach my hand over and touch the rough tuft of hair that stood between their alert pointed ears. Sometimes, we even gave them a carrot or two. And I remember being plucked off the fence once more and with the safety of my grandmother’s hand, toddling back to the house.

A picture stands on the family’s notice board in the kitchen, well worn, of my grandparents standing next to me as a baby. I wear pale pink and two happy fresh young faces look straight down the eye of the camera, beaming and proud. Being the oldest, I have been lucky to have a vague memory or two of Little Grandpa when we were young, our favoured name for him, but this picture stirs something in me - of his gentleness and a twinkle in his eye. The hard grip he would clasp you with. He was the apple of everyone’s eye. I still remember my mother coming home, having held his hand before he died. She fiercely adored him and I remember how important it was to her, to make her parents proud. That is something I will always carry with me.

I remember when I put my face close to her, the feel of my Granny Gin’s skin, soft and velvety and the smell of talcum powder mixed with perfume hits my nose. Now I enjoy coming home at Christmas, seeing the tree stacked up, heaving with trinkets in a glowering cascade of colour; feeling the smack of Granny’s pursed lips on my cheek welcoming me home. As a teenager, I would work hard to be naughty - the stern look occasionally being replaced by her irrepressible rocking laughter. It shakes off any awkward atmosphere - and we often had those with the coming together of relatives on Christmas Day. 

At parties in Barford, Granny would make canap├ęs of smoked salmon sandwiches served with swathes of butter on soft brown bread cut into squares with the crust kept on, sprinkled with black pepper and always, always served with a slice of lemon. This was the only fish I could enjoy for eighteen years, my despairing mother would disguise a fish pie with ketchup in the mashed potato and a mountain of peas. I would succumb to fish and chips easily, usually only eating the batter. And the chips. Now I’m an adult, I eat fish now and again. But I absolutely love smoked salmon.

She could sing sweetly - ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ from Oklahoma and when I was little, learning to play the piano, I would open the top of the piano stool and lift heaps of papers down onto the carpet, exploring her sheets of music and matinee programmes from when Grandpa had directed, and she had performed. Whenever we visited Stratford upon Avon, she would take us to the RSC - Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, a Midsummer Night’s Dream. Later, when I would start acting professionally and read reams of Shakespeare with my speech therapist, I would remember sitting in the blacked out theatre:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.” 

I fell in love with Shakespeare five years ago, but the root of that most certainly came from Granny.

The intrepid granny, as our family also call her, always used to go on these grand holidays, occasionally taking us along as well - but always separately. Egypt and the Nile, the heart of Africa and safaris with elephants. She took me to New York when I was coming into my rebellious streak as a teenager, and I remember standing in awe at buildings that you could not see the top of, the yellow taxis honking in deadlock traffic, the blurred faces of people walking past and the strange smell of rubbish, fast food, the foreignness of it all. Even though I had been to London a few times, I had yet to grasp the sense of a city - to stand in awe at a 360 panorama of vivacity and I will never forget those few days - seeing musicals, getting lost in FAO Schwartz, climbing to the top of Empire State Building and waiting for ages to come down again, the pleasure of meeting a most remarkable man - Edward Finch and his wife Polly. His building had a doorman standing outside. I still have the bright pink boots with heels that Granny let me buy. I could stride right down Fifth Avenue in these, but it didn’t have quite the same effect in Harrogate. I know I was difficult on that trip and probably didn’t show much appreciation, but it was an unforgettable experience.

Ibiza on summer holidays is another place inundated with memories of Granny Gin and Jack the Crack. Jack the Crack was the first bald man to come into our lives, a long-time friend of Granny’s. He had perhaps one or two hairs on his head, and my sister and I would make the most of this by putting our vast collection of hair bobbles on his head. Long before Ibiza became the hotspot for clubbing-fuelled adrenaline, we would sit in this restaurant above the sea, jumping off the cliffs and learning to play bridge with Granny Gin. We would also meet the infamous Auntie Jean - always greeted with one finger on the side of the nose and a low bow much like the Thai welcome. Auntie Jean was famous in my mother's youth for a television programme with two koalas - Tingha and Tucker. 

Nowadays, I don’t see my Granny Gin all that often, though she comes home to Yorkshire more than I do. When I try to imagine her, I picture her on the sofa watching cricket with my brother - this being one of her most favourite pastimes as the Warwickshire cricket club well know. Or I picture her with a gin and tonic, standing staunch and proud as the Queen, the same age as Granny, reads her speech on the television on Christmas Day. At first, this would make us giggle but it’s always a lovely moment when we, as a family, stand with my grandmother still and silently on this chaotic day. 

When I was little and Granny was sixty three, she was always thirty six when I asked her. Now at eighty six years of age, reversing the numbers is probably not quite so flattering but I can and will say she looks and acts remarkably younger than her age. All six of her grandchildren are counting on having her genes.  

Three days short of my own birthday, Granny’s birthday always brings about a reflection into the past - into my own achievements, memories and trepidation about the next year. If I have accomplished the things that she has, and continues to, then I will be a happy woman by the time I reach thirty six and sixty three. 

Happy Birthday Granny, from 6196.31 miles away, your loving and oldest granddaughter,


Friday, 9 January 2015

On the R Road

It is a strange thing to admit but when I am actively involved in treatment I am in a better mood. December was a long, hard haul and trying to at least appear jolly when I felt anything but was a tough call. It also felt like the lull before the storm as I knew I had three weeks of going to St James' (Jimmy's, as it is known hereabouts) in Leeds daily for radiotherapy. An hour's journey each way coupled with other stuff - bone density scan, herceptin injections, seeing the oncologist - all packed into 21 days. But weirdly, it is easier to deal with (so far, I may change my mind...) because I feel I am actively addressing the problem.

The Festive Season felt anything but and I am an absolute fan of Christmas in normal years. I looked back at my blogs from last year, knowing already that we started Christmas 2013 with my beloved's stepfather passing away on Christmas Eve (at midnight for added drama) and aside from all the other stuff, my beloved's stepmother passed away in mid-December this year, meaning that we started Christmas week with a funeral and a wake in the nearest village. So there has been a certain symmetry to our year. Both these sort-of in-laws were kind and supportive of me and in a family which has more than its fair share of steps, halves and exes, they were definitely the good guys. Other folks important to our lives left us too last year. Didi, who was my Yorkshire mother and from whose home I was married 30 and a bit years ago left us earlier this year. She played a big part in my Yorkshire life that I will never forget and her constant love and care for her family made her an impressive role model for me. And Kieran, fellow Acorn member with whom I spatted regularly until just a few months before the end. I think of her daily, remembering her feisty ways and her marvellous (and shared) sense of humour. These are losses not just to be sad about but to be grateful that they came into our lives. Never forgotten.

So not the best Christmas and by the time we reached New Year I was exhausted and, by 11.30pm, a bit tearful. Despite my beloved being dressed as the new James Bond (blacked up and complete with potato gun!) aka Idris Elba, he kindly took me home, making our most discreet exit yet whilst the rest of the guests (mostly dressed as members of Abba or the cast of The Sound of Music) sang along to Waterloo. I could say this was an early celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo later this year, but actually it was just more Abba.

Yesterday, surprisingly, was a really good day. Especially surprising because it included radiotherapy in Leeds and a blood test - what could be more fun!? But in the rota which I have organised with the cooperation of family and lovely, lovely friends to take me to Leeds, yesterday's team comprised one of my two singing dancing doctors (definitely the better singer of the two!) and Mrs O'Polo. Chauffeur-driven, lots of girly chat, a quick in and out at Jimmy's and then lunch at an Italian - excellent fun! Half way through lunch, the singing doctor decided that going for a blood test would be a good thing to see if my white blood tests were up to snuff so I could start going out a bit more. So appointment booked whilst I ate my salad, we headed straight to the surgery, did the blood test and yippee! the news this morning is that my white cells are in great form. Once the radiotherapy is over, I'm coming out!

So as I write this, nice nursey is sitting on my sofa having stabbed me in the thigh with herceptin and is here for two hours in case I have a fit (one look in number 3's bedroom and I might). Number 2 child is heading over to do her first radiotherapy stint and then... and this for me is beyond excitement ...we might go and look for wallpaper for our bedroom. Only 26 years since we last decorated in there - we don't like to rush into things!

So feeling more positive than I have for weeks (and better, actually) it's onwards and upwards. Look out, world, here I come!

The amazing skies earlier this week when I was walking the dog in the early morning. Hard not to feel optimistic when there is so much beauty in the world.