Wednesday, 31 August 2016

5 days 3 strips and a bit of a shock: Bangkok - 27/04/2016

Back in Bangkok and with 5 days left before I departed, I checked myself back into the Hostel that I had been staying at before I had headed back to Vietnam in order (in part) to collect the things I had left there in storage a couple of weeks before. I planned to stay there for 3 nights initially in order to keep the cost of accommodation down and under control before then moving on to a hotel close by for my final 2 nights to give myself space to sort out the 6 months worth of acquisitions that I was now lumbering around with. I did however have a slightly more pressing issue to contend with.

When I travelled to Thailand in 2013, I remembered seeing "Freestyle" blood testing strips aplenty in the mainstream chemists such as Boots. I remember this specifically as when I awoke on that first morning there some 3 years prior and completely disorientated in my surroundings, I nearly had a meltdown as I was unable to the blood testing kit I had travelled in with anywhere in my baggage. Even though this did indeed turn up at the time, I took reassurance later that day that the same testing meters were seemingly widely available. Unfortunately in 2016, this was no longer the case.

I had been conserving my test strips since I left Hong Kong, which had been the last place that I was able to find any of that particular brand. I had been checking in chemists all through Vietnam and Thailand since then and looking online in the hope of finding somewhere that I could replenish my stocks. Unfortunately no matted how had  I looked it was always the same results, old information and possible leads ending in dead end after dead end after dead end.

so 5 days, 3 strips and not a video parody in sight. With no luck find new strips it was creeping into the consciousness that maybe the only other way I was going to be able to test a reasonable number of times over the last few days was by investing in one of the other systems on the market, none of which were cheap. It was still possible I reasoned (albeit risky) to make it through the 5 days left with very limited testing if I stuck to a regime. If I ate the same amount of the same food at the same time every day, if I exerted the same amount of energy, if the heat stayed the same, if I sweated the same, if I drank the same, slept the same and stayed in tip top perfect health then and only then, well there might be the slightest chance of getting through all of the remaining days without too much damage. Even then I would still have more than 14 hours of air travel back to the UK to contend with, across changing timezones, body clock adjustments and food intake times in order to make the transition back to the U.K as seamless as possible. At the end of this I would still have to make my way to Bristol at the other end before I would be able to buy another box of 50 strips, and that was then assuming that the place that I went to had them in stock. My head as usual was contemplating more scenarios than were likely to occur, a muddle of problems and negative slants on scenarios that might never happen. Optimism is a great quality to have only when you have nothing to lose by not being realistic. As a traveller with a health condition which means things can "go south" fairly quickly, optimism alone without any real thought behind it is a sure fire way to get yourself dead.

The food court found on the 5th Floor of the infamous and now familiar MBK is probably the place I have eaten at more than any other on my travels and it was here that I found myself once again, passing money over the counter in order to load up a payment card to use at any of the food and drink counters located within. I went for the Pad Thai as I had eaten many times before and then loaded up further with a "Kiwi Kiss" smoothie which had worked its way into becoming another favourite of mine. I garnished the Pad Thai with the usual spring onions, beansprouts and chopped peanuts, but as a cheeky extra for once I also added what I assumed to be a little bit of red chilli onto the side. I sat in the same seats that I had done many times before, thought the same things I had done many times before in the same clothes that I had worn many times before. I took my time with my meal savouring each morsel, each tender mouthful chewed over to extract the maximum amount of pleasure whilst firmly committing to memory the taste of the Thai national dish, aware that my time here was now drawing near to it's end. By the time my plate was clean and my glass empty, the day light had fallen outside and the city was dressed in it's night attire and my thoughts returned once again to blood testing, test strips and where I could possibly find some more.

With the chemists not seemingly stocking what i needed my thoughts turned to trying something a little bit more left field, namely the 2 big supermarket chains that I had seen around Bangkok, "The Big C" and "Tesco Lotus". Google maps revealed that the latter of those 2 had a store conveniently located just a short walk away from my current position, so I headed off in that direction to chance my arm, my leg and possibly my right 'tock.

The walk to the store took me along the usual Bangkokian style concrete path which lined a busy multilane carriageway split down the middle by regularly interspersed thick grey concrete pillars. The air, heavy with a mix of car fumes and dust made the walk an undertaking rather than a pleasurable stroll and I slowed my pace en route to try and prevent myself turning into a "glistener". As I neared my plotted destination a brief break in the traffic flow allowed me to cross over sans any form of "derring do", and as I entered the building shortly after I noticed I felt a little warm despite my efforts to stop my temperature rising en-route. The interior lights were also noticeably harsh and I squinted under their gaze as I scoured past the restaurants, coffee shops and small independents looking for the supermarket entrance I knew was within, pausing only briefly whilst walking around to look at the contents displayed in a medicinal cabinet of a small pharmacy store I was passing by. Again, there was nothing visible inside that I was currently after.

At the top of the gently sloping escalator I was faced by 2 chemists situated on an obtuse angle side by sde to one another in a rank of 2, a "Boots" and a "Watsons" and though both stores were open for the sale of general cosmetic goods and pills, the blinds had been drawn over the pharmacy counter in each indicating that those parts was no longer open for business. A few steps further on I approached the square desk at the entrance to the supermarket, passed my bag to an assistant to store away safely before heading into the large main shop to take a look around. I immediately noticed here that my body was starting to feel a little itchy, tingling all over as though it was being jabbed lightly by thousands of tiny needles. It was a peculiar feeling to be sure, but not anything that would cause any immediate alarm on it's own and I moved further in through the store, past the toys, games and general electronics sections, moving deeper in to the store with a odd sense of......something.  I couldn't explain what it was exactly, but I had become aware that I was started to feel off and I skimmed over products in the medicals and cosmetics section with a bigger sense of urgency. By now my head was starting to pound, I noticed my stomach was feeling uncomfortable, the cheeks on my face were starting to burn so much that it felt like they were drying out the moisture from my eyes. Anxious to leave I approached the Pharmacy counter to ask the lady whether they had the test strips I was having trouble finding, showing her the "freestyle" pot from my pocket as a visual guide as to what I was after whilst trying to speak clearly despite my lips, throat and tongue that by now felt swollen and numb. I was faced by the usual blank look I had been getting in everyplace I had tried for the last 2 months all but confirming what I thought would have been the case, but the strips had now become a secondary concern.

I'd had numbness of the lips before, it was something that had occasionally manifested itself when I had been suffering from low blood sugars, but I knew that having eaten that this was unlikely to be the cause this time.  Starting to panic a little bit I now tried to explain the current symptoms to the lady to see if there was anything she give or recommend, but the combination of language barrier and my now overwhelming desire to leave the store meant that I was soon making my way to collect my bag from the entrance counter as my condition worsened trying to get outside for some air with a mild sense of panic. A few steps after leaving the service desk with my bag back on my shoulder, I realised that quite simply, I wasn't going to make it that far.

Within direct sight of the entrance to both The Boots and Watsons storefronts I put my bag on the floor and dropped onto one knee, the searing pulse in my neck, head and chest feeling like it was going to explode out at any time. TSCH TSCH TSCH TSCH TSCH TSCH TSCH TSCH was now clearly audible inside my ears, the rushing pulse going as quickly as you could speed read the words. Blood was now undoubtably being forced around my body at high speed and high pressure, my face felt like a roaring fire, my eyes were sore and the itch on my deepening red skin was attacking me everywhere from the base of my feet to the lobes of my ears, the back of my head, my flabby pecs, my non flabby legs and lengths of my arms. Everything was being subject to absolute sensory bombardment. My lips and tongue were on the edge of death and my tongue felt like it was continuing to swell and with it my mind was conjuring the up the now very real possibility of being unable to breathe if things continued going as they were, which was of course if my pounding heart didn't give up first. By now I was unable to count how fast it was going. I simply didn't have mental capacity or will to be to carry out mathematical calculations at this time. I checked my blood sugars. All was okay on that front at least.

I was trying to think clearly. I was trying to think rationally. I was trying not to panic. None of these things were easy in the current environment.

On my phone I searched on the internet for the symptoms I was suffering from as quickly as I could, soon narrowing down the number of likely causes to "1". With one site mentioning a "Weak Pulse" which I wasn't suffering from, all the other pages I looked universally had the same clear, defined list that I could completely check off against my current state. Everything was pointing towards Anaphylaxis, or Anaphylactic Shock and I was pretty sure that this wasn't good.

Luckily though I had a lifeline.

On the end of my open Messenger application, Vicky (who was now safely back in Australia) was aware of my situation and trying to establish from her contacts in Thailand the best hospital to get to if things got further out of hand and was also offering to talk to someone to relay my condition if need be. I was obviously still hoping it wouldn't go that far,  being the optimistic type as I am. On my phone settings I took off the screen lock so anyone could gain access to it if the worst happened and be in contact with her immediately,  in my wallet I moved my Diabetic medical card to the front inside window on left side and slotted my Bumrungrad Hospital registration card* in the front slot on the opposite side. My position by the chemists was as good as it was going to get for now, intended to make me clearly visible to those inside in the hope that if anything transpired from here on in,  the staff of either of the chemists shop might just about have the wherewithal to at least come over and check for info or call an ambulance for help.

And that's where I stayed for an age, 5 minutes or 15 until the feeling of immediate danger had passed. The first thing that calmed was the pulse which had gradually come down from it's peak of "11" to about an 8 on the "Spinal Tap" scale. Still beating at a fast gym rate, but no longer moving headlong towards Global Thermo Nuclear War. Once that had started to regulate itself, I picked myself slowly from the solid tiled floor ensuring my balance was stable not wishing to risk a late collapse and moved myself gingerly over to the side of the hall to a bench located at the top of the escalator that I had come up on a little while before, sat and took stock of the situation.

Slowly it seemed that things were improving, the decreased heart rate was followed swiftly by the throat, lips and tongue returning to normal. The itching and the redness on my skin took longer to dissipate but eventually after a while on the bench I decided it was time to try and get back to the hostel. Vicky was urging me remotely not to try and walk it, but I knew that in my current state of mild discombobulation that a walk of a couple of miles outside in less than comfortable conditions wasn't really going to be doable anyway.

Downstairs I stopped at the pharmacy, the same one whose medical cabinet I had looked in earlier that evening and with the pharmacist speaking a more coherent form of english than I was able to at that point, she managed to conclude from my clumsy descriptions that I had suffered an allergic reaction. Dutifully she checked to see if I had any other allergies that needed to be considered to which I knee-jerked that I "once had a mild reaction to penicillin". She then prepared and passed me over a packet of tablets, urging me to take one as soon as I could, 3 times a day until the tablets were finished. I did what she said. I knew from the information that I had devoured off the internet whilst dropped on the one knee upstairs that there is sometimes the danger of a secondary reaction following the first, and that wasn't something I wanted to risk occurring. You can only rely on so much good luck.

In the nearby refuge of an air-conned McDonalds I swallowed down the first of the pills with a large Coke Zero, waited a short time to recover some more and left to continue back on my way. A short walk to the BTS "National Stadium" station on one end, and an even shorter walk from "Sala Daeng" station at the other soon had me nesting down in my curtain drawn bed, but not before I had explained how I felt to the owner of the hostel who seemed unnervingly pleased to see me.

Tonight there was going to be no bottle of lager night cap or pre bed witty banter.

Tonight there was just going to be sleep. a long, washed out, deep recovery driven sleep.

*from the treatment I had received on my broken foot on the 4th February 2016

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Last days in Vietnam: 25-28/4/2016

The last few days in Vietnam were a bit of a mixed bag, like trying to kill time in the worlds largest waiting lounge with choice of things available to do, but with one eye keeping a check of the time to make sure that the departure gate is still within reach. My flight back to Bangkok was only now a couple of short days away and Lan was off back to Danang the day before that,  it was now down to how to make the most of our time as appropriate.

Early the on Friday morning, Lan went off early to sort out some personal stuff, leaving me to head off to  find the nearest branch of Highlands coffee to get fuelled up on Vietnamese coffee and a rock hard Banh Mi before meeting up once again at mid day. Lan was rightfully desperate to go get on with the day, and despite a slight miscommunication that initially had us heading the wrong way across town to the museum of History, we were soon back on course and heading up towards the correct museum that Lan wanted to take me to. It was getting hotter by the step and I could feel my head starting to burn up under the afternoon sun. I cursed my hat for leaving me when I got off the bus a couple of days before, As I followed behind Lan as she powered on without struggle I cursed the lack of shade and lack of liquid. I cursed the pavement and my foot. I cursed at anything I could because I could, whether it was justified or not. So imagine the joy that was had when we finally arrived after a good half an hours walk at "Bào tàng lįch su' Viêt Nam" (Vietnam Military History Musuem) to find it was shut. Fridays it is always apparently shut.

As Lenin watched over us from the park opposite, we peered back over the wall towards the inaccessible museum that now lay just beyond reach whilst sinking an ice cold diet coke pertained from the shop we had stumbled past just before. It was obvious that I was annoying Lan with my behaviour, but I was having a hard time trying to explain that it wasn't anything to do with what she was doing, more the fact that I was just seemingly worn out from the months of travel, the injuries and now the heat. It wasn't one thing that was causing me to behave like I was, and it certainly wasn't down to Lan trying to make the most of our time left in Ha Noi. Personally I was grateful for all that she had done and what she was trying to do. It just wasn't coming across that was at that particular point in time.

Just a couple of streets to the south of our location (and open on a Friday) was the "Temple of Literature", a place of learning founded in the 11th century and home to the first National University of Vietnam. The grounds lead you along paths through several well procured gardens, under old arches and around large manmade ponds before you reach a large courtyard. Here you can find examples of early writings on stone tablet held up by stone turtles, with the turtles uniquely distinguishable in style according to their age and dynastic era that they fall into. It's a place of tranquility in the centre of a bustling city and well worth a visit if you are passing. By the end of the time spent there I think Lan was beginning to forgive me for my earlier tantrums. It's sometimes tough to cross over the small obstacles and mis understandings that that can exist between different people and different cultures, but it can help a lot if you can refrain from being a bit of a dick in the first place. I'm still trying to get to that point.

The rest of the time left was spent looking for gifts or souveniers back home, either side of watching Disney's re-telling of "The Jungle Book" in the nearby shopping mall, neatly giving me a cultural insight into the cinema experience that exists in yet another country (people just talk and walk in and out all the way through) at the same time as wrapping up my Vincom Mall Tour 2016. It's a simple thing to be part of, but was nice to experience that even though the first language of the audience was not that of the audio track being played (English with Vietnamese Subtitles), the emotional responses were the same throughout, despite the obviousy linguistic barriers.

It's nice to know that despite the many differences you might be able to find in those from different cultures if you choose to do so, we some things that make us all the same.






The next day Lan was gone and maybe, a bit weirdly it was not as emotionally painful as the first time that we thad said goodbye just a few short weeks before and there didn't seem to be that sense of finality to it all despite it being no different. The Day after Lan had gone, I returned to Bangkok myself in order to prepare for the final flight back to Blighty. I now had only 5 days to lose some serious weight from my baggage and somehow I had managed to pick up yet more stuff during my last few days spent in Vietnam.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Back to Ha Noi 24/4/2016

back at the Khách Sạn Thịnh Vượng (or Prosperity Hotel in English) Lan had been in contact with one of the bus operators that ran a service between Ha Long and Ha Noi and with our hotel placed directly on the side of the main route through (Highway 18),  she arranged with the driver for us to be picked up outside just a short while after. We grabbed our bags from the hotel lobby and waited outside by the edge of the carriageway whilst a barrage of vehicles raced frantically by, spewing dust clouds up into the air ready to be inhaled into our lungs. Just before 4:30pm a coach came roaring up the road and then broke hard to a screeching halt. Our bags were then grabbed and thrown on board and we were hurried onto the bus, the vehicle already moving away again before my foot had made it onto the first of the steps.

We were led down through the aisle to the back of the bus, bouncing off the arms of the people and chairs as it weaved its way back onto the road and accelerated back up to speed. Our bags were propped up and crammed wherever space could be made behind us and the steward gesticulated for another man to switch from his seat to another so that Lan and I could at least sit together. At this point the exchange that had been ongoing between Lan and the steward seemed to be getting more heated, apparent to me only by the look of nervousness shown on the faces around and Lans frustrated demeanour.

The trouble with Vietnamese is that to my ear it's often difficult to decipher the underlying emotion of a conversation. As the words rattled back and forth faster and faster and faster it became impossible to second guess what was actually going on, the whole thing reaching the point where the speed and the tone of the volleys being fired back and forth bore a striking resemblance to the alien dialect in Tim Burtons Mars Attacks. With the shots of verbal gunfire now rattling dangerously close overhead I ducked down for cover and waited for a break in bombardments. It was fair to assume by this point that Lan herself wasn't happy, and I was about to find out exactly why that was.

The bus that had picked us up wasn't the bus that Lan had arranged for us to be on. The reason this bus had roared up so quickly and then rushed off again twice as fast was seemingly down to the fact that the driver had taken the opportunity to "passenger grab" from the bus that we should have been on that was trailing up behind. When the bus had pulled up outside of the hotel earlier, the steward of the bus had lied and bullshitted to Lan, rushing us on board before it was too late for us to do anything about it simply in order to cheat the fare from the bus driver following. What a bastard. Whilst Lan continued to seethe she took the time to phone and explain the situation to driver of the bus that we hadn't managed to catch, before then engaging with a lady across the aisle in Vietnamese in order to clarify exactly what was going on and make sure the destination was the one that we wanted to get to. I swilled out my mouth from a bottle of water in order to wash away the dust and the dryness and slipped down a little further in chair in order to try and find comfort where little was forthcoming.

Highway 18 between Han Oi and Ha Long is described by one particular writer on Trip Advisor as "One of the ugliest, least scenic roads in Vietnam", and it's hard to mount any serious defence against those words. For the next 3 hours and 48 minutes as the light faded from the sky I felt nearly every bump and dip of the road with nothing visually to distract me through the dirt covered window. It was a relief when the the barren darkness outside eventually gave way to the brighter welcoming lights of Ha Noi, on the signs, on the the buildings and even the traffic.

After a short taxi ride from the bus drop off to the Old Quarter and getting checked in to our hotel, there was just enough time for us to head out and get some food. At just before 10:30pm whilst we headed the  short walk to the small convenience store close to the hotel, the sky was lit up blue by a  flash of lightening, shortly followed by another, and another. Our window of being able to stay dry was closing fast.

With the nighttime snacks and drinks bagged up we hurriedly started to head back to the hotel, getting a minute into a 2 minute walk before our fortune for the day finally decided to run out. A few seconds after the first drop of rain had seeped through the cover of cloud above, the heavens fully opened and the torrential downpour began. Lan in her wisdom decided to make a run for it leaving me and the bags to fend for ourselves.

A few seconds out in that kind of rain is all it takes for you to be as wet as if you had been strapped to a stool by angry villagers in rural England a dunked into a pond and for that reason I looked to take shelter under the overhanging canopies of the buildings nearby. These provided only slim cover from the rain with frequent gaps between the current refuge and the next as well as the occasional rip leaking water directly down as though it was coming from a fully opened tap. There was no cover however from the pools and streams that were beginning to flow under foot and each time I stopped it  would only be a short time until I was forced to move off again.  With bikes lining the pavements in front of the buildings it was impossible to get close to the hotel without occasionally having to jump out over puddles and into the street to get around them, or occasionally just clamber over if there was no other way but with no sign of the weather letting at all, desperate times called for desperate measures.

It took me between 10 and 15 minutes to navigate that last 100 meters or so to the "Lucky 2" hotel and by the time I arrived I was completely sodden, maybe even more so than if I had just bitten the bullet and just walked back initially when the first droplet fell.

But the way I did it was a little bit more fun and gave me another experience to commit to memory, and finally to paper incase that bit ever fails.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Yen Tu Mountain - 24/4/2016

.......or "Khu di tích Danh thắng Yên Tử" to give its Vietnamese name.

I knew nothing about this place before we arrived. We got there within a half hour taxi drive from the busy roadside mosquito ridden hotel at which we had stayed, through long and wide country roads with only the briefest of stops on the way to buy some Banh Mi for breakfast in what turned out to be an almost wholly deserted cafe. I thought we were just going to see a temple before heading back to Ha Noi.

At the base of a hill surrounded by stalls selling everything from brushed off lumps of root ginger to hats and keyrings we left our taxi and caught a little electric buggy to the entrance proper. Here, inside a large pagoda like entrance were more items available to buy, mostly aimed and maximising tourist revenue but also local delicacies such as duck eggs and coffee. I definitely needed the latter.

With the heat already beginning to rise into the late twenties and the sun beating viciously down, I thought about buying a hat to replace the one that I had lost the evening before. Lan however was not hanging about and before I had the chance to signal my intent she was halfway around the courtyard housing partially completed large temples and was making her way out of sight. Dusting my heels to catch up with her I just had time to have a moan at her about dashing off without me before we reached the bottom station of a cable car system that was in place to carry tourists such as us up the hill. We brought a couple of tickets from the trip fund, joined the "no queue" queue and then entered into the barrel shaped carriage to begin the long ascent.

It didn't take long for the view to blow me away, the canopied tops of the green trees against the steep slope of the hill passing far underneath. In a lift encapsulated by glass as the scenery fell away below, my enthralment was a stark contrast to the feeling that Lan was now experiencing. It seemed that my vietnamese buddy had suddenly developed a case of acrophobia, or a "fear of heights" for anyone who can't be bothered to access Google.

We exited the station at the top of the ride onto a small stone courtyard, layered with the occasional waft of smoke that drifted across from the offerings being burnt in front several statues off to the right. At the far side a small exit led onto another small yard where a set of crooked stone steps led up to another level behind, the elevation crowded with people of all ages and ability ascending and descending its steep variable curvature, some with the aid of sticks and supports, some carrying food, some carrying others, almost all wearing hats. By the time I had made hard work of the climb to the top I was already starting to sweat profusely and and immediately went about seeking some shade from the sun and and a wall to support my tired legs. I then grabbed my bottle from my bag and took the opportunity to take on some much needed fluids at the top of the  climb. Except it wasn't the top. It was pretty far from it.

Walking up and around to the right of the temple we passed more small refreshment stalls, selling such things as sausages, ice cream and drinks. The pathway sticking to the contours on the side of the hill took us up and down steep sets of steps and wound around taking in natural waterfalls where people could use the fresh flowing waters to cool themselves down and clean off a little. 5 minutes walking later and half a gallon of dispersed sweat more, we arrived at the base of the second lift, jumped into the available car and one of us looked out again as we gracefully slid up against and above the side of the mountain, over the trees before being completely engulfed by hillside cloud. The other one sat with her back pressed against the back of the seat inside waiting for it all to be over.

At the top station everything was glum and wet, the cooler air causing condensation to drip from every available beam on to whatever object happened to lay below,  be that concrete flooring, wooden tables or an uncovered coffee cup. Outside we walked through the grey blanket air along the well kept path lined with long grass and flowers as it again followed the lie of the land, with each climb that followed on from the previous dip becoming more tiring than the one before it. Eventually, we wearily came upon a small crop of crooked buildings that lay amongst the scattered remnants of ones that had stood there before, with the outlines of walls still visible with exposed tiled floors, all under the gaze of a giant bronze buddha that looked down upon them. In the still standing buildings refreshments could be brought, sweetcorn was being boiled and consumed whilst a man brutally hacked sugar cane to size to be fed it into a press for squeezing every last ounce of juice from within it. Lan took the smart decision to take on the liquid required. I however as a diabetic decided to give this one a miss on this occasion, partly playing it safe due to the "sugar" tag in it's name, but also partly due to the fact that to me, well, it really just didn't look all that appealing.

Looking up from that point past the buddha you could just make out the top of the mountain menacingly cloaked by the shifting mist and cloud that caused it to be often more than partially obscured. We debated the option of going up for the few minutes, Lan seemingly torn between tiredness and opportunity and with me no stranger to walking away from things (that don't really matter), the odds were probably stacked against us carrying on, but the opposite happened. Having spent so long getting up to this point and with the likelihood of neither of us ever returning we decided we would push on as far as we could, accepting that it was probably going to be a painful last push, but also harbouring the notion that sometimes it's better to live a fuller life rather than just a long one.  Personally I have no idea why you have to choose!

It didn't take long to question the wisdom of our actions, as Lan started to struggle up every new set of steps which had started to come upon us increasingly frequently and my two top system of t-shirt under polo shirt became increasingly heavy and wet due to the combination of the moisture in the air and my own perspiration, The mood however was being markedly lifted by the almost constant greetings that were now being extended, sometimes in English, sometimes in Russian, sometimes in Vietnamese but always conveying the same tone. This wasn't the the kind of greeting you might get elsewhere, where friendliness can be used as the doorway to sell you anything from a hat to a suit to tour. These were everyday normal vietnamese people being everyday normal vietnamese people and I was non vietnamese person doing something not many non vietnamese people do away from the normal tourist trail. After the feelings of frustration that had started to creep in over the previous few weeks in some of the more the built up areas and cities, this was probably the kind of experience that I needed to have to bring everything back to reality. As seemingly the only western person to be on that mountain at that time, the warmth from the Vietnamese people that I crossed that day wasn't because of any desire to monetise, exploit or use me for their personal gain, it was just simply just to make me feel welcome, to extend the hand of friendship and occasionally have the chance to have their photograph taken with a real life giant.

The final push to the very top involved clambering up over steep angled rocks, carefully using infrequently placed carved foot holes the further the climb agains those that were beginning their descent. At the very top was a limited space where the Dong Pagoda sat and people could take time to offer up prayers against the smoke fronted alter whilst the whole place somehow purveyed a sense of calm chaos, people perching upon the raised up verges as they waited for an opportunity to worship.

On the stones below groups of people sat, talked and ate the food they had dutifully carried up, some enduring the trek all the way from the base of the mountain without the need for cable car assistance to reach the peak. No matter how we had managed to get there though, many of us displayed the same traits of exasperation and contentment. The view from the top is as breathtaking as you might expect and the feeling from being there is almost that of stillness and enlightenment, which just happens to sit neatly between those of achievement and exhaustion.

Now all we had to do was get back down.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Images of Asia and Indonesia

I'm trying to write up the last entries of the travel blog, to amply wrap up a project 2 + years in the making, It's not as easy as you might think, well, not for me anyway. This is something that has consumed me for a long time and now spat me out decisively from the other end, but even as I jot this down I'm not entirely convinced that this thing is completely over, but without funds or a way of making money at the moment, it's fair to say that it's definitely over for now.

It's a struggle to hit the right notes, the correct tone to truly convey the final part of this journey. I want to reflect on the experience as a whole and not on the feelings that I have been battling against since my return, a cocktail of frustration and exhaustion mixed with coffee and junk food. Luckily I don't have any Gin nearby. That I feel....would be bad.

Anyway this isn't a supposed to be a full entry, but rather a brief update to point towards the inter web location that I have uploaded some of the more interesting images that were captured on my (now expensively broken) camera. I have tried to add a mixture of content, add keywords, and break it down into region in order to make it interesting and varied and it's been incredibly difficult to pick out the ones that I think others might find appealing. In just 5 and half months of travel I took far in excess of 10,000 photographs, entranced by the places that I found myself in, the objects, the people, the life. the imagery.

This started out as an adventure and became a labour of love and I think that comes across in both the images I have uploaded and in the words I have (often clumsily) written. It has by no means been a smooth ride. It has cost me all of my finances and left me with little unscathed, has broken me physically several times and has been mentally taxing but if I could do it again I would.

Because for every tough moment, there were dozens of positives. For the one confrontational Burmese man there are the legions who made me feel welcome in their respective countries regardless of nationality or religion. Every physical break has repaired, everything material I lost I can live without.

The struggle is now finding what to do in the here and the now......and that's the bit that is causing me an issue.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

ha long bay day - 23/4/2016

By the morning the weather had lifted enough to make a trip to Ha long Bay a possibility for a few hours. Perhaps a bigger factor however was the fact that my mood, soured and angry from a run of bad luck seemed to have lifted over night. My camera, broken, was just that, a broken camera and whilst frustrating to the extreme that it had come this far and then failed so close to the end, I was determined that it wasn't going to spoil the journey. Besides I still had a 24mp on my replacement z2 which would be good enough for a few snaps, and that of course was going to be better than nothing.

I still kept playing though, in the morning it received more hair dryer treatment over the course of a few hours, and I played around a with it in-between packing up to see if there was any life in the old dog at all. My mind was now set in a tech, experiment mode, devoid from frustration and emotion, but still unable to give up fully on something that was again starting to show slight signs of life.

At first it was whirring, vibrating and clunking, displaying a generic "camera error" screen on the inside, but over the course of those evaporating hours it was showing signs of changes, if not improvements. By the time it came to check out of the room, the vibrating and whirring had stopped, but looking through the viewfinder the camera would only last a short while before the view dumped downwards and the error message was once again displayed. However, occasionally it would stay on long enough for me to get a picture or 2 and I'm well aware that it is just a camera, a mostly inanimate object without it's own heart or soul, but I started to get the impression it was really trying to get there, almost like it didn't want to get left behind. It was like the camera was determined to show that it had been it's journey too. I was willing to give it a chance and placed it into the rubber, waterproof bag that I was taking out for the journey to the bay, leaving the rest of the luggage in the hotel reception after checkout to pick up a few hours down the line.

The bus we caught a little down the road took us directly to the boat station, a different place that we had disembarked the night before and thanks to some calls that Lan had made earlier that day,  we were rushed through the ticket buying process before then being escorted through the packed hall and along the quay to wait a short while for our boat to arrive. A longer wait then presented itself as we waited for the boat to accommodate it's allotted fill of passengers and the tour operators moved busily outside sorting what they needed to sort, organising what they needed to organise until it was time for us to set sail without sails. By the time our boat slipped it's moorings and floated lopsidedly, I quipped that our 4 hour boat trip was now down to just over 3. It wasn't all wasted time though, the Korean "lady" on one of the tables opposite using the extra minutes here to fill up her phone with a couple of hundred MB's of seductively styled selfie shots, complete with mid session "check" and push up before he friend finally joined her and helped her get things right.

Out on the open waters our boat moved effortlessly over the flat, calm waters, gliding towards our first port of call. It may have only taken half an hour to reach but this was plenty of time for more selfies to be taken by Korea's finest and for the 2 middle aged Japanese fellows sat on the same table to sink a few cold bottles of beers, each one seemingly better than the last. I was just happy to have a coffee. Instant, black and with sugar, the one available (but not completely diabetic friendly) option, it was still coffee and filled one of  my 2 needs at the time. An Insulin injection boost now needing to provide the mean to process it being the other. The camera worked, then failed, then failed before failing again. I packed it back into my bag as the boat came into dock.

We were given an hour to wander through network of caves, the occasional drip on the head causing a brief distraction from the spectrums of colour used to highlight the enclosing attraction, as well as the winding path to lead you through safely. For a brief moment when the power failed the caves were plunged into absolute darkness and you could hear by the sudden silence that  everyone had completely stopped, as though playing a giant game of musical statues with the trigger being the absence of light as opposed to music and with motion only resuming again when power was restored. This provided the most excitement that the caves had probably seen for a while, closely followed by trying to guess which Korean "Pose" would be waiting for you around the corner. Somehow, no matter how many times we managed to pass them through the often narrow pathways, they always managed to end up in front of us again.

The second cave we were due to visit was closed for maintenance so we sat in the sun on the harbourside benches, taking in the unique views and waiting for the rest of the time to pass by before departure. With a few minutes to kill I again pulled out the camera from it's waterproof bag, opened the battery and memory card flaps and set it to sit in the sun for a few minutes. This was one of the few chances that I had been able to give it to dry and, no matter how fruitless an endeavour it might have seen, at this point I had nothing else to try. It sat there for 5 minutes in the strong natural heat before it was time to disembark. The sun in these parts is powerful, but maybe I hadn't appreciated just quite how much.

Back on the boat I flicked the camera on. It didn't grumpy or whine, nor did it error or fail. The rear panel was still as dead as ever but the camera had again performed an act of Lazerus like proportions.  Tracking was little iffy and autofocus was not as responsive as it should have been, back in body but not in mind maybe, but it was enough for me to do what I wanted, and that was just to capture a little bit of the waters on which we floated, the boats, the life and the scenery around. I resisted the temptation to give it a coffee to help bring it around.

As we sailed the waters over the next few hours, the camera improved, the Japanese drank and the Korean models carried on shooting each other, complete with mid show costume changes, Ha long Bay itself is much as you would expect it to be, with t's still waters edged with limestone rocks and cliffs giving the place it's famed look and feel. One of the criticisms you might hear is that the place is too busy with a crowded feel, but personally this isn't an opinion I shared. Busy I guess is correct, with the tourism industry naturally feeding off the desires of people to see these places of outstanding natural beauty meaning a steady stream of boats ferrying people along the same stretches of water, but crowded it isn't. The islands around may prove to be quieter than the tourist hotspots, and as I had witnessed the day before, were no less stunning. If you want a tourist trip, well you get that here but you want to get to something maybe more quiet and serene, well it's possible to find that here too, or only a very short distance away. It had taken me over 2 years to get here from my last failed attempt, and I stand by the sentiments I felt at that time, It's sometime more about the journey than the destination........

Although.........sometimes the destination helps too..

After we had safely returned to port, we made our was back to the hotel and collected our bags from the lobby for the bus trip to our next destination 50 km's west.  A small hotel on a large dusty road that would eventually lead us back to Hanoi, I only woke from my sleep twice on the hour long ride. Once as I nearly fell off the seat as I cusped my bag dozily between my tired shorts dressed thighs poised on the edge of the bench, the other as the driver shouted out that we had reached our destination, with me then hurriedly gathering my bags up and sloping off the bus rather haphazardly on to the side of the highway outside.

As the bus pulled away into the distance and I hoisted my bag again onto my shoulder. It dawned on me that my cap, my trusted servant for over 2 years which I had purchased over 2 years before in Cambodia had now carried on it's trip without me.

I wish it all the best on it's future travels.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Cat Ba - Ha long 22/4/2016

In the morning when we all met down stairs for breakfast, the colourful blanketed clear skies from the night before had been replaced by a duvet of grey and drizzle. Due to business commitments, Duong and his family were going to be heading back to their hometown of Hai Phong, where as Lan and I would be catching the bus to the ferry point on the island, to then catch the ferry up towards Ha Long bay. Over the course of the next half hour or so, as Lan booked the bus and I ate more rice, the rains went from light to moderate and then to "not very nice at all".

The first bus we were shepherded on to, we were shortly shown back off again as it wasn't the right one for us and we waited for a further twenty or thirty minutes as buses came and went, with everyone asking the same questions to those in charge*. "Is this our bus"? Nobody seemed to know.
Finally a big, old, dirty bus parked outside and everyone was rushed towards it, their luggage slung into the baggage compartment below with the exception of mine, there was simply not room.  Patiently outside, everyone got wet a party of Chinese tourists were led from the hotel and escorted on first, followed by everyone else no matter or age, sex or physical ability. When the seats were full, everyone else had to stand, and when the was no more standing room, I was given one of the front seats at the expense of a guide who then crouched in the footwell infront pushed against my backpack. With everyone then uncomfortably on board, the signal was given and we embarked on the half hour trip to the harbour.

Reaching speeds upwards of 4 mph as we traversed up the steep slops out of Cat Ba and the occasional gear shift down not going quite as the rally driver in the seat had hoped, the challenge was now on to make up for lost time on the rest of the journey. With the windows inside starting to mist up and the windscreen being increasings battered by every harsher conditions, the flats and the downhills gave the driver every opportunity to prove his mettle, as he slung the coach from left to right and back again in order to keep the coach on the tarmac away from the steep drops that at times lined the road. I've never been on a coach where I have felt the wheels sliding out through lack of traction before, but I'm sure this wasn't a new experience for all. The guys at the front all remained chatty throughout where as I just kept looking at the map on my phone and accompanying GPS position, relaying this information back to Lan who was lost somewhere further back, sat next to someone wearing Eu du stale tobacco. When we arrived at the ferry point the rain fall had made "Torrential" and everyone jumped the puddles outside the coach steps to get into the shelter a few steps away. Most of the bags followed shortly after the people had made land, I had carried mine with me before hand, being as to leave it in it's position at the front of the coach would have meant it surely being trampled by the heard of Chinese tourists that would be shortly coming through, probably before everyone else had a chance to move.

At the ferry point we were told that we would have to wait for the rain to lighten before being able to board the waiting boats, so I took this opportunity to get all my electrical items into a waterproof bag inside my rucksack just in case. It was a bit of a rush as the Vietnamese don't tend to be much good at giving you notice of when it's going to be time to move, just that it's time to move but now with everything re-packed and my new 30,000 VND red emergency poncho donned, I was ready whenever.

It took a while, but the rains halted we were shown to our smaller "link up" boat that would be taking us to the larger one which was floating out just a small distance away. With the rain now stopped I thought it safe enough to get out the Camera and try and get some photo's, noticing a little bloom as i pointed up towards the bright outline of the rock above us. With the odd bit of water now splashing in only from man pushing his canvas roof up on the boat moored to the side of us, I put the camera away waited for the off on the wet wooden benches. Poncho's are marvellous things.

After waiting for what seemed an exorbitant amount of time for the little bit of paperwork apparently needed by the captain, we bobbed on over to the bigger vessel and scrambled aboard, first being shown along a narrow corridor on the base of the boat before being then turned around and shown upstairs to the larger, dining area surrounded by glass windows and filled by a number of different tour groups. After I managed to stop swearing and cursing about the complete lack of organisation skills, and as a Vietnamese Spring Roll Cookery Class was starting for one of the groups I unpacked the camera again, ditched the poncho and headed outside to watch the journey unfold from a better vantage point. 

Halong Bay and it's surroundings are renowned for their landscapes. The pillars of limescale rock rising and reflected in the still waters around. As the boat moved slowly through some of the smaller gorges, it was hard to not be impressed with the scope and the scale, even against the faux dramatic backdrop of grey. The sky's lightened up for a while, before darkening again, bringing that damp chill feeling with and as we made out way to port we all knew that the rain was coming back with a vengeance. 

And vengeful it was. As we sat in the room waiting to leave, we were told that there would be a wait again until the rains lightened up. With no stay yet booked and the likely hood of the weather continuing in the same manner for the rest of the day, we booked up a hotel online and waited for the time to disembark so we could get a taxi outside and just get to where we were going for the day.

After 30 minutes the rains were harder than ever, and at this point we were told it was time to go. As we left the boat onto the steps outside, it was clear that this was a very bad move.
There was no taxi rank, no shelter, in fact nothing but muddy roads and a signs of delayed construction opposite. Apparently in order to get more people to visit the area in which we now found ourself, the disembarking area had been moved from it's old area in Ha Long itself to this area about 10km away, deciding to worry about little things like shelter and transport afterwards. With Lan trying to call a taxi on the phone, I decided to walk on in the hope of finding some shelter, my feet now soaked from walking across roads that were rivers and the rest of me and my belongings being swamped from the deluge above.

We found a shelter abut 5 minutes walk away, and huddled under there to wait with a large number of others. The taxi that Lan had called eventually arrived, handily parking with it's passenger door in front of a lake sized muddy puddle but I guess that was not his problem. Twenty wet minutes later we reached our hotel, checked in and headed up to the room to dry off. 

It's a funny moment when you unpack you bag and everything is wet to different degrees. from the "better wring that one out" of the items nearer the surface, to the "it's a little damp but I can wear it" stuff that was more protected in the middle. With clothes hung up or airing my attention turned back to may camera, which in the rush to disembark had been placed inside my smaller rucksack, not thinking that I was going to be stood out in the downpour equivalent of Niagra Falls with no where to hide. It's felt damp and as I switched it on it vibrated in my hand, a motor trying to do something inside maybe, but whatever it was wasn't normal. I quickly flicked it off again hoping I hadn't caused it further damage, but realising that it was probably in a very bad way. I dropped the battery out the bottom to cut any power, and it was damp with signs droplets of water. I did the same with the memory card and the same conditions applied. damp with visible signs of water.  I think it was here I swore, but I'm not sure If I had actually stopped swearing for the last 4 hours anyway.

So the camera was dead again, I was soaked and there was no heating control in the room in order for things to air properly, clothes or electrics. It's seemed the the trip had just been lurching from bad to worse for the last couple of weeks and it was difficult to keep sight of anything positive at that time. Maybe it was tiredness or exhaustion, but I seemed to be unable to deal as well I should with this run of bad luck, my mind stuck on the patch of negatives of the recent past rather than the wealth positives from the trip as a whole.

I mounted the camera on it's tripod. opened it's doors and flaps and then turned on the hairdryer on cool settings with t's hose blowing hair from below. The dryer would shut itself off after 30 minutes max and I would then let the camera to stand and rest. 

Do not rinse, just repeat. 

And resign yourself to the fact that from now on in, it's camera phone time.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Ha Noi -> Cat Ba 20/4/2016

In the morning, my friend Lan arrived on an early flight from her home town of Da Nang, and promptly accosted my room for a quick sleep while I went out and got some coffee. A short while after we met one of her friends "Duong" (pronounced "Yung") on the outskirts of the Old Quarter who then drove us to his home town of Haiphong 60 miles west of Ha Noi, where along with his wife and young child we would be continuing our trip towards Ha Long the following morning. That night we ate food, drank beer and stayed in the opposing wings of a hotel that, from the inside at least was like The Adams family mansion. Stairs going off in all directions, with no logical layout of the rooms and floors.

The next morning started with rice, as it usually does for people in Asia, followed by a quick trip to Highland coffee for drinks to take with us before Duong drove us another 10 miles to Dinh Vu Ferry point, where we caught the hourly car ferry first across to the nearby island of Cat Hai, driving the short distance across island before then catching another ferry across to to the next island and then onto the harbour town of Cat Ba. Arriving there in the early afternoon before we were then taken by boat to a small, floating restaurant where we ate fish freshly raised and killed from the waters below, the head served in a soup, the rest eaten with yet more rice.

I like to experience new things and was willing to go along with the food that was being enjoyed by all, but at the same time I was starting to feel a little off colour. The last couple of meals had now consisted of fish and rice at which I had merely picked, making an effort to eat as much as not to offend appreciating the effort of those around that had brought me here, but at the same time it was impossible to ignore the signs that my body was now telling me that it needed something more. The feeling of nausea had started to creep in,

The afternoon consisted of a short trip around the picturesque bay, with its floating bars, restaurants and colourful houses set against the backdrop of still waters and jutting rock formations. When the light started to fall we watched the sun settle from a raised cliffside observation point with a couple of beers, the bays blanketed orange slipping off the edge as darkness fell. The evening meal consisted of chicken........and a bit more rice.

I finally cracked. After Duong and his family had retired for the evening and Lan and I sat enjoying a late night coffee, I ordered a cheese and ham sandwich to eat a little later on,  something to soak up the rice and give me a feeling of eating something of bulk. I needed to start feeling normal again quickly and I hoped this would help everything settle

Tomorrow we headed for "the bay".

The calmness of the air belied the weather conditions that the next day would spring upon us.

Hanoi 15/04/2016

I had been to Hanoi before, very briefly in November 2013 for an overnight stop as I escaped from the predicted path of Typhoon Haiyan. That typhoon had devastated the Philippines, and although when it did hit Vietnam the power had diminished from what had been previously forecast, at that time the city was in preparation for the worst with things being sured up and branches lopped to minimise the damage from the storm. I had seen little before my flight back then, but what I had I remembered clearly enough.

The general consensus that you hear from people (or sometimes read) is that people in the north of Vietnam are not as friendly as their southern counterparts, but I didn't find a coolness at all. At almost every point I was greeted warmly where ever I went, from the care and attention at the hotel when I first checked in to the multitude of street vendors and the student I talked to by the lake, all were perfectly helpful, polite, funny or charming. It leaves me to draw a weird conclusion that I must have lived for the last thirty years of my life in one of the more unfriendly places on earth, despite numerous pieces of propaganda that is now regularly put out by "The City of Bristol" telling you about it's proportted greatness in one area of another. I love my home "town" to be sure, but it certainly makes you think that maybe it's time we said our goodbyes when I return in a few days. I will have to see what develops from here.

The other thing of course is that even if I wanted to, I don't think I can afford to live there anyway unless I can get a better financial grasp of things......but that's a whole different can of worms which I can't be bothered to open right now.

Hoan Kien Lake lies just below Ha Noi's Old Quarter with it congested narrow streets, restaurants and night markets. Much has changed in the last few years, with more conventional cafe's, restaurants and ATM's prevalent throughout the area, but there remains enough traditional food stalls and shops along the sides of the roads to retain it's old unique feel and identity. The changes in Ha Noi feel smaller in comparison to those I saw in Saigon, where big building projects and contractual partnerships with other countries contractors look to be powering it into the 21st century at breakneck speed. Here it's not so much about a change in the construct of the city that's makes it feel different, more the convenience of things that we maybe take for granted in some parts of the world now being more widely available. The infrastructure rather than any large skyline changes.

The Roads to the south of the Lake are a stark contrast to those just that short distance away, it suddenly all gets very French again. The roads (think boulevards) are wide and lined with grand old colonial buildings that wouldn't be out of place in Paris itself, but the abundance of cars as well as the more familiar bikes now parked up on the often crumbling and/or uneven pavements mean that you end up walking on the road with the traffic more often than you would ideally like to. Many of the roads around this area are designated as one way which should of course make stepping out less haphazard, however as one way streets (and traffic light signals to the same extent) are still seen more as guidelines rather than rules by some drivers/riders, you can never be too careful if you want to avoid getting the mirror print of "Honda" imprinted on your bottom.

There's a misconception here amongst foreigners that everything just works as far as traffic goes, and whilst it's still awe inspiring to see so many vehicles travelling in so many directions seemingly without any incident, a quick look at the parked bikes along any stretch of road will tell you a slightly different story, with many sporting parts with the numbers still written upon them, replacements for those that have been damaged or broken. The lack of serious incidents in built up areas considering the amount of moving traffic in a confined space is still admirable though, with small bumps that would have anyone back home reaching for the insurance details given hardly any more thought as long as both parties can carry on their way.

This doesn't mean that roads in Vietnam are safe, far from it, but I can only assume that many of the more serious injuries and deaths occur on the faster larger roads rather than inner city areas.

I spent a few days in Hanoi trying to get the camera working for me again, visiting museums and reading up on the french colonial history and the struggle of the vietnamese people during this time under their rule, all the time sweltering in the higher humidity and low 30 degree heat that engulfed the capital city.  In the evening as i tried to get a night time shot of the lake and it's surroundings I was approached by a smartly dressed man who talked briefly about travel and where I was going before moving the conversation onto the subject of selling me drugs or some other vice. I politely declined as I always do, but I suspect that rather than any straight deal he was trying to make, he was more about trying to snare, entrap and then maybe extract more money from those that might not be that unsuspecting, or a little more gullible

I love a lot of Asia to bits, the cultures, the foods and for the most parts the people. But it's these other things, the darker sides, the exploitation or underhand nature where people seek to profit from others naivety or simple oneupmanship that after a while, really just starts to get on your tits.

Why can't we all just.......Get along?

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Bangkok to Hanoi (the goods, the bad and the mugsme) 15/4/2016

There's definitely something to be said for the theory around the balance of pleasure and pain needing to be equal. What had been the one of the funniest, most enjoyable days I can remember became soured somewhat by the realisation that around 4000 Thai Baht had been lifted from my wallet at the hostel, but the second realisation that I was also no longer in possession of my trusted hard drive which had been with me since the start of the trip left me with the feeling of resigned defeat. Not only did this contain all my music and film files that I had been using to help me relax when such time was needed, but more importantly it also had stored on it a bunch if personal documents that are going to be difficult to replace, as well as my "raw" image files for all the pictures I had taken up until the end of Vietnam, having stored them all externally due to Apple being remarkably stingy with hard drive space on a machine that retails for 1250 gbp in the UK. But no matter how you look at it or who ever you try to blame, the fact of the matter is that while the loss of money is annoying, the pictures and 5 month of "work" irreplaceable, both are now gone and there's absolutely nothing I can do about it.

I can't tell you the amount of times I almost apologised for my own actions on not hiding these things better, stopping my self before (or sometimes just after) the words "it's my own fault I guess.." slipped through my lips. It's an attitude or thought that somehow we have allowed to become normal in the way we think or view

victims of crime, and I for one from now on refuse to take any of the blame. I can't be 100% sure that my hard drive was stolen, but with money going from my wallet as I took a shower in the morning , thoughts leads to the possibility that maybe it wasn't a one off. We're always told that we need to be careful with our possessions, keep things locked up  or hidden from view. I have a better idea. Why don't we try putting the ownness onto the people who stand to profit from their actions at the expense of someone else no complicit in the plan. Just a thought.

Until there is a directional shift in the understanding who is at fault, everything remains the same. we remain having the shit kicked out of us and then continually try to justify it to ourselves with the reflex start of  "it's my own fault I guess.."  

I continue to check with hotels and airlines from the last part of the trip in the minutest of hopes that it got lost somewhere in transit, but seeing as I recall seeing it at the hostel then unless that is a mistaken memory (not impossible with the amount I have moved around) the chances of that are slim to none. 

I'd love to be the better person here, to be able to turn the other cheek and say that the other persons need was greater than mine, but I just can't.  If you took my hard drive (a 1tb Toshiba hard drive in a clear plastic water tight bag) and my money, no matter the reason you think you can make for justifying it, I wish you severe personal injury, misfortune and a very painful and unpleasant death. You know nothing about me, what I have done or what I have been through, and you have absolutely no right to take anything away from me in the thought that you deserve it more. If you've taken it in error please return it. If you don't I won't hunt you, I will not find you and I doubt very much I would kill you. but all of the vitriolic language I spouted above will still very much apply.

Things don't get much depressing than taking a double kicking, or do they?

Well, challenging maybe.

Arriving at my destination in Hanoi it was soon apparent that my camera had finally given up the ghost, advancing somewhat from "glitching a little bit" that it had been the night before. The rear panel was now dead, a couple of buttons ceasing to work and then finally the electronic viewfinder also stopped  working, looking pretty much like it was finally game over.

The prognosis from the Camera shop was bad. What sounded to the western ear like "The main bolt is broken" turned out to be the much more expensive "The main board is broken", carrying with it a $500 to $600  estimated repair bill. I thought about it, trying to argue the for and against in my head while the man in the shop waited on the other end of the line for my response. I had been travelling for 5 months, had spent a lot of money that I would never recoup by photography sales (I've never sold one to date), but this this was more of a project anyway, and the thought of missing the last few weeks, especially in the part of the world I had been trying to get back to see for the last 2 and a half years was a strong point in favour of the repair, but the cost and the lack of funds now available made it hard to justify the expense, especially seeing as the potential for how and when I was going to be earning again when I get back to the UK is not yet clear. 

"Leave it" I finally blurted. It's too much really, leaving it an hour before I went to pick it's lifeless body back up from the camera morgue.

but I couldn't give up. I have a problem like that. Each time I switch the camera on I could feel it jolt, it wanted to live. I just needed to find out how to get it there.

Stopping in the electronic shop a little later I picked up a micro HDMI to HDMI cable and then went about plugging the camera up to the TV back at the hotel and turned both items on. The image from the camera burst onto the TV, which was more than I was expecting, and with this small breakthrough I was able to access the menu items and go about changing some of the items I thought could make a difference, setting the rear panel to off to try and force the image through the eye piece amongst other things.

It only bloody worked. 

Progress,slow, but progress.

I reassigned some more buttons in the menu to give me quick access to functions that I had lost due to further failure, and then I was all set to go and test. Auto focus was far from perfect initially, tracking was not so great, but the more I used it, the more the camera seemed to learn and adapt. Considering the overwhelming feeling of defeat that I had been feeling over  the previous couple of days, it was a small, but massive development.

I may have lost more than I would have liked in a short period of time, but at least I can now hopefully finish the picture project I started a little while ago, and this, at least mentally for me, is a absolutely huge turn of events.

It's been an epic journey of highs and lows. For now though I just need to get through this  next couple of weeks without anyone taking a fence.

Just wish everyone else would extend me the same courtesy.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Songkran (worlds biggest water fight?) - 13/4/2016

In the days leading up to the Songkran festival I had gone out and picked up the essentials. Firstly a fully waterproof bag (the type used in white water rafting and the like to keep your things 100% dry) to keep my camera, wallet and blood testing equipment out of harms way. The 11 litre bag (which could be folded down to fit the contents to stop things from bouncing around too much inside) was on offer at 555 Baht, an amount which wasn't as random as the price might first seem. Songkran is an opportunity for Thai people to unwind and have fun whilst welcoming the start of the new year and after I pointed out the price on the receipt to the shop assistant that served me, she started laughing before excitedly thrusting the recipe into the face of another member of staff. He started laughing too, but this time it was expressed more verbally than the girl, but both were obviously very tickled. "555" is, after all, the way that Thai people physically write down "Ha Ha Ha".

The second item I brought was a water pistol, although maybe "water assault rifle" might be a more appropriate description. I spent ages looking at the different options available, with the sole aim of getting the biggest, gnarliest looking weapon I could find. What I ended up with was a bright yellow  and red affair, with a pump at its base allowing you to increase the water pressure inside to man canon levels. Red and yellow were obviously chosen because they relate to the colours used in nature to other creatures that the creature sporting them is unpleasant in either nature or taste. It was in no way whatsoever because it was the only colour scheme I could lay my hands on.

So in the morning I pondered on my course of action, and slung my camera in my bag before heading out to the main street in Silom without my gun, leaving that behind as not to draw attention to myself. As I wanted to get some pictures of the coming days events, I wanted to see whether I could slip by the water fights unscathed, hopeful that i might be granted the same kind of special privileges or allowances that are often shown to war photographers in the field. At 11 am there wasn't much sign of the carnage I had been warned of, and I slipped down the road and into the Bon Au Pan at the corner of the Lumpini end of the street for a light breakfast and morning coffee, watching the opening parade of beauty queens in the air conditioned comfort, raised up slightly from the street below and safely shielded behind ceiling to floor glass.

After the ceremony had finished, I went outside to get a few quick pics, watching the people outside spray each other with the light mist that comes from the handheld bottles more often used for watering indoor plants. but this is where the dainty approach ended. Pretty soon carnage descended.
Under the BTS station, a Red Bull stage housed a DJ playing thumping tunes and girls dancing on stage. At certain points the crowd would shout and fire their pistols in the air, driven insane by the man on the decks and bouncing like crazy as the music dictated. Past here it was soon apparent that my non antagonistic approach wasn't making any difference to being a target for water, infact it was probably to the contrary. A 6ft 1 foreigner, unarmed? The only thing missing from me was a painted bullseye.

I made it up to the first junction, taking hits from all angles, from guns, hoses and small buckets before finally taking a pasting from a guy wearing a smile 3 sizes too big for his face. That was enough for me, and I put the camera away safely in the bag and headed back to the hostel to get armed. It wasn't going to stop me getting wet of course, but at least I would get the satisfaction of being able to give back as good as, or better than I was getting.

Back at the hostel, I tried to work out the mechanics of trying to wear my weapon to allow me to both carry and shield my camera from the elements and fire off both items at will when required. My gun strap got hoisted over my neck allowing my gun to hang to my left and be fired by my right thumb, leaving my right hand to be completely free to handle the camera which was set up to focus and lock onto the object which I pointed. Less time exposed, the less chance of damage to the camera but also the more spontaneous I was going to have to be when getting the picture. This was going to be a challenge.

I got soaked before I got back to the main street, but at least this time I could get a shot back, startling some with the power of the shot that was coming back their way, dissuading others that were eyeing me up when they saw me smiling back at them manically with my red nozzle pointing their direction. but still, the onslaught was almost relentless. Water came from ever direction as I searched for shelter and shade in the 40 degree heat, the only respite from both coming as I sat down to check my sugars and eat some food from a stall. The rest of the time I was firing, or being fired at. Soaking or being soaked. Laughing at, being laughed at or just laughing because. It was genuinely the most fun I have had for the longest time. I stayed out a couple of hours before I called it a day, retiring to the hostel to let my muscles seize up again. 

In the evening I attempted to get to the massage parlour I been a couple of night before, getting right to the door before a young lady appeared and just emptied small bottle of water down my top. Wetter than I had been 2 seconds before I made my way inside and indicated to the lady at the counter which parts of me were in pain so she could tell me what I needed. I was then led upstair, given a pair of giant waisted pyjama and left to get changed. holding up the pants defeatedly when the masseuse came up to begin my treatment. Amusedly she pointed out the string at the back of the bottoms, which should be at the front to enable them to be fastened. I spun them around, tightened them up and led down on the matt as directed, her english limited to just enough to be able to direct me accordingly. 

My thighs and calves were agony, especially when she applied anything other than the gentlest of presses, and this was obvious enough through my facial expression that she soon started pressing and working those areas more gently than she had done initially, after a little while she ordered me to turn over and set about working the back of my legs, pulling and moving them about and getting more movement out of them then they had been able to do for a while. At this point, feeling the immediate benefits of the magic she was working, I made the mistake of asking for an extra hour in order to maximise the benefits. being led on my front, I didn't realise the bar that ran directly above.
Gently she placed one foot on the back of my thigh, before placing the rest of her weight on her other and shifting her weight from side to side, in the same way a cat does when prepping your leg for a nap. She then proceeded to moved up and down my legs, onto my calves bringing such extreme pain that I pressed my head into the pillow to stop myself showing any signs of pain. I still have no idea how she was doing what she was doing, how she was pulling my leg up with one while still standing on the other still balancing on thigh, but despite the pain I could tell it was working. After my legs she proceed up my back, pressing down on my chest, standing lightly on my shoulders before stepping back and pressing down onto my chest again. It was starting to feel like a bit of work out.

Before I finished she sat me up and sat behind me, wrapping her leg around me one side, and then the other in between twisting and pulling me into angles my body has never been twisted and pulled. She was seemingly not worried about the multiple cracks a groans that my body gave out, and surprisingly neither was I, occasionally giving out a relieved laughter when it was apparent that after everything she was doing, I was still able to move. More than that though, immediately after she had finished and I had changed, I could feel just how much difference the last 2 hours had made. It was like being touched by a miracle worker.
You have to give credit where credit it due and in my time on this planet I have battled with and punches off people much bigger in size and weight than the diminutive frame that this lady possessed, but I have honestly never felt so much pure power from anyone, nothing has ever come close. Just absolutely awesome.

I left the hostel at way past 10pm and started heading back to the hostel, moving freer and easier than I had for a very long time. Surprisingly outside I managed to stay dry for about 4 steps before some saw fit to pour a bowl of water over my head, continuing to do so until I was soaked back through. At this point in time though, as weird as it sounds, I really didn't care too much.

I was amazed that I was able to walk