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Chapter 454

13 Nov

Pivotal moments. When they are happening, you don’t necessarily think to yourself, “Hello, pivotal moment alert”, but as past events become distilled into that narrative entitled Life So Far, they stand out, like chapter headings in a novel. Looking back, I can instantly recall a few classics from my own story: Chapter 8: The Day Dad Bought me my First Harmonia; Chapter 17: The Day I Nearly Cut my Tongue in Half and Blamed it on the Boy Sitting Next to Me; Chapter 421: The Day Jess Walked into the Workshop at the Christmas Decorations Factory.  

At the time, the significance of such an event is often drowned out by the everyday minutiae occurring around it. When I first me Anthony, I was newly married, newly emigrated and disconcertingly jobless. Fed up with the haphazard nature of agency work, but patently unqualified for anything else, I had found Anthony’s details on my agency’s list of ‘permanent clients’. Greatly appealing was the word ‘permanent’, as was the job’s location, one suburb across from my own. Everything else about this assignment was frankly terrifying. The list of medical issues in Anthony’s care plan ran on for pages: C1 quadriplegia, total paralysis from the neck down, unable to breath independently, permanent tracheostomy, unable to regulate own temperature, one kidney etc etc… In what I now understand to be a typically pathology-focussed medical summary, barely any mention was made of Anthony’s personality, personal life…personal strengths. I was very, very close to bailing out on our meet-and-greet session, partly because I felt I would be dangerously out of my depth, and partly because, if all you saw of Anthony was his care plan, you’d be forgiven for thinking that his quality of life must be non-existent. How pivotally wrong you would be.

For Anthony, there was no doubting it when the most pivotal moment of his life came along. At the age of 6, he was hit by a car whilst walking home from school. This was more than the start of a new chapter; it was the beginning of a whole new book, for him and for his family. His is a narrative in which Bad Luck and Good Luck constantly jostle for dominance. It’s bad luck to be hit by a car and to injure your spine at the highest possible level. And yet, if this is to happen, it is remarkably fortunate that it happens to happen outside a healthcare centre and that a doctor, seeing the immediate aftermath and instantly sensing the seriousness, commences CPR straight away. With a C1 injury, you stop breathing. If deprived of oxygen for more than 3 minutes, your brain becomes permanently damaged, which is why so few survive suffering this “hangman’s” injury. From the moment of impact until this very day, more than 30 years later, Anthony has not taken a single breath unaided. In this 30-year relay-race, with that doctor firing us out of the starting blocks, one person has passed the baton of respiratory responsibility to the next in an unbroken chain, and despite some fumbles, it has never been dropped.

It is also decidedly lucky to be equipped with an innate temperament of boundless positivity, and to be born into the kind of family who will fight tooth-and-nail on your behalf, endure years of sleepless nights and endless days in court to get you the things you need to thrive, and to instil in you an extraordinary sense of self-efficacy and resilience. Victimhood is not in Anthony’s repertoire of attitudes.

When I arrived for my interview, Anthony was still being positioned in his chair, but told me to go through and wait for him in his study. Shortly afterwards he joined me and we chatted, me sitting slightly awkwardly in what I think was a child’s rocking chair, him looming above me on his magnificent mobile throne. It wasn’t the longest conversation ever, but we covered a lot of ground, jumping from one topic to the next… did I like music? Yes. Had I ever worked with a phrenic nerve pacer? No. Would I be available to come on a trip to South Africa? Huh?? 

“He’s amazing”, I said to Jess on the phone afterwards. “We’re the same age, we have a lot in common. I’m going to give it a go”.

Nearly 5 years later, gazing through the wide lens of hindsight, it’s easy to see that had I not met this man, the very idea of a career in nursing would never have occurred to me. Suddenly, I found myself working side-by-side with nurses and learning, in the most practical fashion, about anatomy and pathophysiology, ventilation and perfusion, the internal logic and special quirks of the human nervous system, as well as the fine art of Keeping Someone Alive. Before long, the clinical side of things had transitioned from being frightening to fascinating, and learning all this stuff whilst caring for someone so downright enthusiastic about life was transformative for me. As I began my formal nursing training, I continued to have lightbulb moments, as a new concept learnt in class would suddenly cast light on a previously opaque idiosyncrasy of Anth’s condition. I clearly remember, for example, the day I learnt about the meandering miracle that is the vagus nerve…

“Anth! I now know why you can’t breath, but you can digest food! It all makes sense. You’re TEXTBOOK!”

“Tell me, Henry!”

“Well, there’s this nerve…”

 

The trip to South Africa was more than just a passing comment. The practicalities (health insurance, equipment hire, 24-hour staffing etc etc) and expenses (wages, flights, accommodation, film crew (!)) involved in such a trip had taken years to iron out. Indeed, a sizeable chunk of the funding came from Anthony himself, who, a couple of years previously, had entered the TV quiz show Millionaire Hotseat and bagged himself a cool $50,000. Drop into this video at 8 minutes to see him clean up. It’s pretty epic:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKxZP8JyC_o

So I came on board at just the right time and it was during this trip – this exhausting, life-affirming trip – with myself as the only non-nurse amongst 5 staff, that the cogs really started to whirr. And now, years later, with my Masters of Nursing Science all wrapped up and a dream nursing role awaiting me in the new year, I find myself working my last few shifts with Anthony. I’ve been just one of many hundreds of carers who have passed a period of time in his company. I hope I’ve done my small part in keeping him moving on his already remarkable trajectory, but for me, Chapter 454: The Day I Met Anthony, was one that pivoted me off on a new, exciting heading, and for that, Anth, I’d like to say: thanks mate.

 

*                 *                *

 

Briefly, in other news… back to things Nepalese. Do you remember I mentioned about that 14 year old girl, Samjana, who we brought down the mountain to hospital? She had a huge necrotic wound burrowing into her heal and a worrying growth at the base of her spine. Well, thanks to the donations that have come in, she has successfully undergone surgery, with no less than three surgeons in attendance. They removed a pretty enormous and angry-looking tumour from her spine and we are currently awaiting biopsy results to learn more about it. Raj and Kushab were with her beforehand and afterwards, and they report that she is recovering well. We are hopeful at this stage that she may not have to lose the foot, which is a far more optimistic prospect than she was facing a couple of weeks ago. There is still a long road ahead for Samjana, and financial assistance is sorely needed for whatever happens next, so if you feel like helping out, you can do so here:

https://www.gofundme.com/saving-samjana

 

In less than a week now Jess and I will be jumping aboard our budget airline flight to Sri Lanka, where a wedding and other adventures, no doubt, await. I’ll be reporting back.

Thanks Legends,

 

Hen x

 

 

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Nepal Week 2: Births, Deaths and the Bits In-between

3 Nov

In my early twenties I spent a couple of years working as an undertaker in South London. I was struck pretty early on by the contrast between the shear scale of the funeral industry (people will not stop dying) and its virtual invisibility. I had never seen a dead body before I started working there, and I don’t think this experience is particularly unusual. Funeral operatives have become masters of stealth, Men and Women in Black who slide around the peripheries of your awareness in unmarked vans, discretely ferrying the Recently-Departed from A to B, so that the Still Here can carry on their normal lives, unmolested by that most inconvenient truth of all: everybody carks it. Death really gets in the way of our plans, doesn’t it? So we don’t like to talk about it and we certainly don’t like to see it.

Things are different in Nepal. Here, death is something we’ve all been through many, many times before and each death is but a linkage point in an almost infinitely long chain of reincarnations. So death is visible, open–welcomed even–and inextricably woven into everybody’s everyday experience. It is certainly nothing to be feared, and this perhaps goes some way to explaining the atmosphere we encountered when we visited a Nepalese old folks home, at the start of our second week of placement.

The home was in Devghat, one of the holiest of Hindu sites, situated at the conflux of two holy, roiling rivers . The holiest part of this holy town is reached by crossing a wholly terrifying suspension footbridge. But vertigo aside, there was a beautifully calm feeling about this place. Everyone we passed seemed to be very old and very smiley, and all were dressed in the most optimistic shades of orange. When we arrived at our destination we were shown around to a backyard area. Plastic chairs were brought out and lined up, and hey presto!.. we had a clinic. Gradually, our bright-eyed, spritely new friends began to emerge.

And what a gang they were… sometimes, only pictures will do a thing justice, so I refer you to these, taken by my good friend Elsa, with her excellent camera and even better eye:

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Interspersed between dancing, hugging, eating and bicep-flexing, we managed to do a bit of nursing. But really, apart from some general aches and pains and a few athlete’s feet, there wasn’t a whole heap wrong with this crowd. In contrast to my previous experiences of nursing homes, I was amazed to find that everybody was apparently quite happy–not to mention ambulant, self-caring and (most refreshingly), continent. In fact, the whole experience was as much of an enriching tonic for us as it was for our hosts, and I, for one, skipped out of the building at the end of our visit feeling 10 years younger. (On our way back through the town even I stocked up on orange clothing, in the rather optimistic hope that it might help me secure a long and happy life).

We recrossed the mighty grey rivers by boat, passing the point, at the convergence of the two, where the dead are cremated and sent on their final voyage downstream. And if we follow the logic of reincarnation, then the immaterial, immutable essences that formerly animated the burning bodies set adrift here, will now, reembodied, be journeying down smaller, darker waterways as they are squeezed and coaxed into being born anew. Little did we know that the very next day, we would be lucky enough to witness this moment, not once but twice, as our adventures took us to the other end of the mortal coil…

Previously, during our stay in the mountains, we had had the pleasure of working alongside a very gentle and knowledgable obstetrician, who told us that before we left Nepal, he would love to show us around his hospital. The opportunity came the day after our visit to Devghat, and our friend was good to his word. Having placed his long queue of patients on indefinite hold, he led us off through the corridors, wards and departments of this heaving, hot and slightly oppressive public hospital, patiently answering our questions as he went. The last stop on the tour was Maternity. Here, we passed by a series of rooms, each containing women in progressively more advanced stages of labour, until, at the end of the corridor, we were ushered through a door on the left and into the Birthing Room. In this bright, concrete space, as curtains gently billowed in the warm breeze, giving passers-by a fleeting but candid view of proceedings, three women were reclined, legs in stirrups, actively, well… birthing. And so it was that before our very (wide) eyes, two new human beings popped into existence within the space of five minutes. Whilst obviously a routine occurrence for most people in this room, which typically stages around 60 births a day, for myself and some of the other uninitiated among us, this brief episode was as profound as it was unexpected. If I had hair, it would have been standing on end. I do have eyes, and to my surprise, when I blinked at last, I found they were leaking.

Having passed Monday with the Soon-to-be-Departed and Tuesday with the Newly-Hatched, we spent the rest of the week with humans who were somewhere on the road in-between. On Wednesday we were hosted by Raj and Kushab at the farmstead where they had grown up. Here, in response to the number of burns injuries we had seen in the mountains, we split into groups and had a go at making simple clay ovens; something people might be able to build in their homes instead of having open fires, into which it is all too easy to fall.

The huge diversity of experiences available within the nursing profession has always been one of its major appeals for me, but still, I never imagined that one fine day I’d be mashing up cow shit, mud and water with my bare hands, in the name of preventative healthcare. It was fun. An atmosphere of friendly–but nonetheless genuine–competitiveness pervaded proceedings as we broke off into our respective teams. I wish I could tell you that with the combined intelligence and ingenuity at their disposal, the two Melbourne Uni teams were able to revolutionise Nepalese cooking practices forever. Alas, the efforts of my team in particular, whilst admittedly more conceptual than practical, were broadly met with blank incomprehension, followed by great general amusement. We called our visionary creation the BamPoo Oven, in honour of its two chief construction materials: bamboo and poo. Despite the widespread skepticism of our colleagues, once the bamboo had burned away and the poo had hardened a little, we did manage to perch a cooking vessel on top of the oven and bring a small amount of water to the boil. But yeah, perhaps not a design classic.

On the other side of the farmyard, Raj and Kushab had teamed up with some Dutch volunteers and built this seriously impressive, fiery-eyed, double-stove topped affair:

IMG_1011

Having come up with a design that actually works, their team won and to celebrate, we all quaffed beer and barbecued chickens under the shade of the lychee trees. I spied my chance and grabbed a quick photo with Raj and Kushab, legends that they are.

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The final week was winding up, and the following morning we drove out to the next province along from Chitwan and there, in the blazing heat, we staged our last health camp with an excitable horde of 100 or so children. Standing knee-deep in a river, we went through hand-hygiene and toothbrushing, before performing an en-mass de-headlousing operation with combs, river water and a powerful brew of pulped raw mustard seeds. Here, we can see our friend Duane (another legend), gamely demonstrating the procedure and smiling throughout, despite having an excruciatingly stingy, mustard-clogged scalp.

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After this was done we set up another makeshift clinic and, feeling exceedingly nursey by now, did our best to deal with whatever was presented to us. Despite being without doctors this time, we put our heads together and had a pretty good session. It was an enjoyable, confidence-boosting end to an extraordinary placement, and I’ll say now that I couldn’t imagine a finer bunch of soon-to-be nurses to have shared it with.

And so we came to our final night together, with half the team heading off trekking and the rest of us sloping back to Katmandu the following morning. There was beer, a barbecue and an appropriately flamboyant/downright-drunken dance-off of between us and our infinitely more coordinated hosts. I think I may have pulled out the Angus Young scissor-kick dance more times than was strictly necessary, but it was that kind of a night. For Kerrie, our clinical educator/surrogate mother/all round magical person, we sang a  song we had been working on- “Nursing Queen”, sung to the tune of “Dancing Queen”. It made her cry, in a good way.

Goodbyes aren’t much fun, and neither is writing about them, so we’ll just skip ahead to the present. Assignments finished, job secured for next year and another exciting trip just around the corner, I have to say that life is passing through a pretty peachy patch at the moment. Plans are already being formulated for a return to Nepal, this time with Jess, hopefully early in 2019. In the meantime, I will endeavour to keep you informed of exciting/disturbing/amusing happenings, as and when they occur.

All the very best,

 

Hen x

Nepal: Week 1

17 Oct

Hello Friends,

Sometime I have a vague image of every person I know living in a very tall apartment building. As the levels go up, the people become incrementally more fabulous, until we find, in the penthouse, a very special collection of individuals who are so bloody wonderful that some of them are sprouting wings. This categorisation is, of course, entirely subjective, not to mention judgemental, but that’s ok: I’m the landlord. Whilst people arrive and shuffle around the lower and middle floors almost without my noticing, I always get the same feeling of certainty when someone moves in upstairs. In the course of this post I would like to introduce you to two of the newest residents…

Dragging my suitcase from Kathmandu airport into the dusty bustle of waiting taxis, I spied my name, scrawled in red biro on a crumpled piece of paper, grasped in the hands of a kind-faced man. This was Raj, the first of my new top-floor tenants. He hugged me warmly, like an old friend, and with reassuring words and gestures shepherded me into a car. The extent of this man’s awesomeness had not yet been revealed to me, but I had a pretty strong inkling from that very first moment.

Along with seven other lucky student nurses, I’m here in Nepal to complete my final clinical placement. Before heading to the hills though, we spent a couple of days in Katmandu. Kathmandu sits in a valley surrounded by mountains that are often obscured by smog. Its streets, alleys and passageways form a traffic-jammed mycelium web that threads its way below cracked, teetering buildings, some unfathomably ancient, some still being born. Post-earthquake repair is in full swing, but you get the feeling that this city has been breaking apart and patching itself back together for centuries. It is relentless, noisy, hot, smelly and wonderful.

In Kathmandu there’s a temple and a god for everything you could need in life, and for afterwards too. Hoping for an uncomplicated trip to the dentist? There’s a shrine for that. Want to usher a terminally ill relative towards a peaceful passing? The euthanasia temple is the place for you. And I’ve seen some hectic wiring in my time, but Kathmandu has to take first prize in the Most Hectically Wired City I’ve Ever Seen competition, with telegraph poles creaking under the shear weight of the crazy nests of black cable they support. But still…it all seems to work.

Breaking free of Kathmandu by road is a bit like trying to get out of Glastonbury festival on the Monday morning. Queues of buses and trucks lurch forwards briefly, kicking up clouds of dust, only to inexplicably stop again and sit idly stewing in their own exhaust fumes for extended periods of time. It took us around nine hours to reach our destination. Once we were free of Kathmandu’s suburbs, the going became quicker but exponentially more bumpy. Our nursing hive-mind, already keenly attuned to each individual’s bowel habits, quickly identified this journey as a very effective Intervention for Increasing Bowel Motility. Raj was with us all the way, jollying and cheerleading us along with periodic shouts of “My dear friends! Mind your everything!”

We arrived at The Hotel Mona Lisa in the town of Sauraha, nestled on the edge of the Chitwan National Park, well-jostled but also well-happy. We were greated by the hotel staff, who garlanded us with flowers, pressed red, gloopy rice into our foreheads and plied us with sprite. And at the front of the line of welcomers was the hotel owner, Kushab, who is not only Raj’s brother and virtual doppelgänger, but is also a legend of epic proportions and yes, you’ve guessed it, now lives in that exclusive residence at the top of my imaginary apartment block.

Kushab is gregarious, assertive, hilarious and jolly whilst Raj is s little softer and a little more shiny-eyed. Both men are masters in the art of the spontaneous bear-hug, and both are utterly tireless in their drive to improve the lots of those for whom life is a struggle in this, a particularly poor part of a particularly poor nation. The work that we are helping with here is but a tiny piece of an extraordinary puzzle of projects and initiatives that have already brought vast improvements to the lives of thousands of people in the remote, rural communities here. Through hustling and haggling, carousing and charming, but mostly through plain hard graft, they have been able to deliver running water, healthcare and education to a population who have been otherwise forgotten.

The very next day we rose at 5am and made for the mountains, alongside other volunteers, both local and international, and a troupe of wiry, tireless porters who bounded ahead of us, up treacherous short-cuts, with food and medical supplies for the community we were visiting. It was hot-going, but we all put in a solid effort and reached Kolbhanjyan in around 9 hours. We could see the small collection of buildings from across the valley, and as we descended the final ridge we spotted the welcoming committee, a brightly coloured congregation awaiting us on a raised platform of stone at the entrance to the village. As we each ducked through the welcoming bamboo arch we were once again garlanded and splodged with red rice, to the sound of generous applause from our hosts. It was enough to make us feel terribly heroic, even though all we’d really done was climb a big hill.

Feasting followed by singing and dancing around a bonfire was the order of the evening. The villagers sang a question-and-answer style song that went back and forth between the men and the women, whilst the young girls and boys spiralled their arms and shimmied their hips. For our part, we smashed out “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease, followed by a thigh-slapping rendition of “I Will Survive”. Both parties were suitably perplexed by the other’s performance, but the evening was a good ice-breaker. After a final round of hot potatoes and Nepalese-style barbecued chicken, we settled down for the night, 14 of us on the earth floor of the school house. We felt we had given a good account of ourselves and partied pretty hard. It was about 8.30pm.

The following morning we rose early for the health camp. People from near and far afield began filtering into the village at around 7.30am. In the morning, having been taught the Nepalese for “Hello”, “Sit here” and “Give me your arm”, we did nursey things like taking blood pressures and doing other observations. Sitting in with the doctors as they assessed the patients was a pretty eye-opening experience. There were lots of burns from the open fires that people have in their homes, plus plenty of broken bones and other orthopaedic issues that result from a life of hardship on a mountain. We also saw things like glandular tuberculosis and rheumatic heart disease that are pretty much non-existent in all but the most disadvantaged communities in Australia. We fixed people up as best we could and if they were in serious strife, Kushab was straight onto the phone, arranging for them to be brought down the mountain to the hospital. One girl in particular was in a fair bit of trouble. We’ve set up a gofundme sight for her, so if you’d like to find out more and maybe chip in, the link’s at the bottom.

In the afternoon we did an education session with the children, teaching them tooth-brushing and hand-washing. Raj was right there with us, being downright adorable with the kids, who were themselves downright adorable.

The whole experience so far has been an absolute privilege. Our little group was tight to start with and this first week has only made us tighter. After another, even wilder night of bonfire shenanigans I felt that the imaginary tower block in my mind had become dangerously top-heavy with goodness. It was with sore backs and heavy hearts that we bade farewell the next morning and tumbled back down the mountain to soft beds and cool showers.

I must apologise for the lack of photos in this post. Plenty have been taken and I will endeavour to stick some in next time. In the meantime, please have s quick squizz at this link about Samjana, the girl we brought down with us to the hospital:

https://www.gofundme.com/saving-samjana

I think that will about do for now. There’s heaps more to tell, and tell I shall, but probably when I get home and have a computer, because my thumbs are aching from writing this on my phone. Thanks for reading and please feel free to follow/comment/make suggestions. Or not- whatever blows your hair back.

 

Lots of love,

Hen

 

Back in the Saddle: Six Years in Four Paragraphs

6 Oct

Hello Friend(s). It’s been 6 years, almost to the day, since the urge to blog was last upon me. The original narrative–my over-land adventure from Devon to Korea, where I would become a teacher and possibly start a K-pop empire–abruptly lost its momentum, you may recall, due largely to my realisation that teaching was well-difficult and stressful. This realisation lead to visa-retractions and necessitated my beating a hasty retreat back to the UK, flying in one day the same distance it had taken me 3 months and many memorable mishaps to cover on my outward journey.

Back home, with all my carefully laid plans unravelled around me, I found myself at the loosest of loose ends. Happily, this was the moment fate chose to introduce me to my future wife, Jess. She was, and still is, Australian, and was living in London on borrowed visa-time. I was, and still am, impulsive and in love. These factors, combined with my being entirely rudderless, directionless and impressionable, meant that it was probably no surprise to anyone, except perhaps Jess, that 3 months later I was living with her and her parents in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

Since then we’ve been married -twice, for good measure. Jess is now–having completed a gruelling Masters program–a graduate architect and I, after a couple of false starts, think I might also have found my thing (for the time being, anyway): I am on the very verge of being unleashed upon the unsuspecting Australian public, as a registered nurse.

So here we are. I’m not sure where this will go, but the need to write things down has been simmering for a while now. In two day’s time I head to Nepal, where I have my final nursing placement, so the next couple of weeks will no doubt contain some noteworthy happenings and after that, who knows? Jess and I are off on some adventures next month, taking in Sri Lanka and Kerala on our way home to a Devon Christmas. I’ve also been making the odd bit of music over the years (odd, meaning both infrequent and weird). So maybe this will become an adventuring blog, maybe a music-ing blog, maybe a gory nursing blog…or maybe it will, after some initial promise, fizzle out like a disappointing indoor firework, leaving nothing but ash in the shape of a turd and some acrid smoke.

It’s too close to call…

 

With warm regards,

Henry

Episode 9. Just a song.

20 Oct

Here’s the link for song number 5: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21078029/henry%20mp3%27s/Waltz%202%208%208%2011.mp3

It’s a rainy evening kind of a tune and it’s the second waltz, so I’ve called it Waltz 2. Please enjoy thank you.

 

Hen x

 

 

 

Episode 8. Mission Abort!

22 Sep

Here’s something you might not have expected to read: I’m home. My plans have unravelled in the space of a couple of weeks and I’m sorry to say that it’s all down to one thing: Teaching. Now, who on Earth would want to do that for a living?

It wasn’t the kids – the kids were sweet, polite, adorable even. It wasn’t the school – it seemed a very happy sort of place, with a lovely principal, friendly staff, good school lunches and so on. And it wasn’t being in a foreign place – I LOVED Korea. No, it was just the shear amount of time, energy and stress I had to put into the preparation for and execution of teaching. Some people are clearly cut out for it, and I have a new-found respect and admiration for those people. For some reason I unquestioningly assumed that I was one of them, but I’m not, and the thought of spending a whole year doing something I positively dislike was simply not acceptable to me. So I quit.

Sadly, quitting meant having my Korean work visa revoked, which meant I had to leave pretty sharpish. So, from deciding at around midday on Monday that I’d had enough, it was less than 12 hours before I was on a plane out of there, and by Tuesday evening I was back where I started 4 months ago, in Devon. “Surreal” is a suitable word to describe the experience.

So there we go my friends, that little adventure has come to an end, and with it, my dreams of building a K-pop empire. The closest I got was singing inane nursery rhymes in front of a class of bemused looking Korean children. Such is life.

What now? Well, for the present I’m rather enjoying the novelty of eating pasties, drinking ale and meeting all the new babies that have shown up whilst I’ve been away. What next? Well, I have a few ideas. For a start, there are still 8 songs to give to you. So although this blog has lost all of its narrative, purpose and allure,  it still has a vague reason to exist. I shall therefore continue with the monthly freebees, and if  I think of things to say along the way, so much the better.

I’d like to thank you all for joining me on my travels. Reporting back to you made the whole thing feel far more purposeful and  I hope I managed to adequately express what a frickin’ amazing time I had, even when I was losing my possessions, freaking out on mountains, dodging landslides and getting the shits.

I’ll leave you with one image that for me, sums up the whole experience:

 

This month’s song is a synthy, melancholic little ditty called “Waltz 1”. Please follow the link below:

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/21078029/henry%20mp3%27s/Waltz%201%20.mp3

 

Fondest Regards,

Hen x x x

Episode 7. Dogs, cats and speedboats.

25 Aug

I had to spend another week in Bangkok in order to make final arrangements for my Korean working visa, so to make the most of this we decided to get ourselves tailored suits. This is a very pleasant way to spend your time, particularly if you fill the periods between fittings with Chang-towers, bowling alleys and darts boards. This is pretty much what we did with our remaining time in Thailand’s capital. My Dutch Planners would have despaired of me – the closest we came to doing anything cultural was when we stumbled, drunk, upon an international food fair and gorged ourselves on the international food fare.

Due to the inclusion of such essential items of baggage as a trumpet, some framed photographs, a piece of fossilized tree and a Sponge Bob Square Pants Whoopie-Cushion (I’ve still got it Satti – you’re right, it’s an ice-breaker), my wheeled holdall had been split at the seams since about the third day of my journey. The baggage-handlers on Bangkok Airways had very kindly tried to gaffer the whole thing together for me previously, but with the addition of my new suit I decided it was time to upgrade. So with my Korean visa finally obtained, I purchased a black luggage item with approximately the same dimensions (and weight) as a largish chest freezer, and, with my new travelling buddy Autumn, got the hell out of Bangkok.

See? Massive.

Our destination was a small island called Koh Lipe, recommended to us by our very knowledgeable tailor (Tailor On Ten – if you’re ever in Bangkok looking for a suit, look no further). It was a two day journey, the first of which wasn’t much to write home about, spent as it was entirely on a coach, but the second was a bit special. We were collected at 7.30am from our hotel by a very grumpy man in a Subaru saloon. My knowledge of Thai people is pretty limited, but I still wouldn’t mind hazarding a guess that our driver was The Most Grumpy Man in Thailand.

With just a scribbled receipt from a travel agent, we had no clear idea of where our stroppy chauffeur was taking us, or how long it might take. All we got from him were occasional barked commands, such as “Wait here!” and “Stay!”. In our back seat my friend and I chatted and speculated. I suppose we were “shooting the breeze”, passing the time with idle conversation, as I believe is not unusual for two people sitting next to each other in a car.

“Please!¬ Talking more slowly!” came a sudden plea from our driver, who had an expression of pure anguish on his face.

“Oh, sorry. Shall we talk more slowly so you can understand?” I replied, stupidly.

“No!! You two….Talking, talking, all the way! Sleep!”

He required us, quite urgently it seemed, to shut up, and although we were essentially in a taxi – that we had paid for – it seemed wise to do as he asked. It was very hard though – being told-off unexpectedly almost always triggers the giggles in me. In the end I just had to shut my eyes and pretend to sleep, struggling to contain the shudders of laughter that periodically rocked through my body.

I must have eventually drifted off, because the next thing I knew, we were at a port. I got out and heaved my ridiculous suitcase from the boot of the car, wondering what was going to happen next. Our ever-helpful driver jumped straight back into his seat and spun off, yelling a final “Wait here!” as he disappeared in a cloud of bad-tempered dust.

Well, it turns that our that our scribbled receipt now got us ONTO A SPEED BOAT! This was a totally new experience for me. I got myself right up front, strapped on my headphones, and for the twenty minutes or so before I started to feel horribly sick, literally had the time of my life. After that I slunk to the back and just tried to hold it together.

Sick.

When we finally arrived on Koh Lipe an hour or so later, my new suitcase continued to be the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever owned. It took two men to carry it ashore, and once placed on the sand it immediately began to sink. I was tempted to let it.

To get to the beach we wanted, our last mode of transport for the day was a small scooter with a side-car, driven by what I guessed to be a six year old boy. We somehow managed to balance 4 passengers plus our luggage onto this contraption, and although it was at first extremely reluctant to get us to the top of the island’s only hill, with a little persuasion we were soon wobbling our way down onto a beautiful beach, whose only inhabitants seemed to be a pack of stray dogs. After traipsing around for half an hour or so, my suitcase leaving what looked like tractor tire tracks across the sand, we eventually found an actual person, who said we could rent a bungalow from him for the equivalent of about £6 a night, which seemed more than reasonable.

Later that evening we found one of the few establishments that was open for business on the island. It offered Thai massage, which seemed like just the thing to end a day such as we’d had. As I lay on my front, drifting off to sleep whilst my back was softly pummelled and strolled upon, a stray cat came and nuzzled against my neck. After a few minutes it was purring happily and then it started gently nibbling on my ear. I had no idea whether this was part of the service, but lying there, with the sound of surf crashing on the deserted beach, dogs howling and scrapping in the distance, cat intimately purring and chewing on my lobe, vertebrae cracking; lying there it hit me that I had never been – in every possible sense – further from Devon than I was at this very moment. From a pasty on a chilly Tuesday morning in Plymouth Station to this, in two months. Lordy.

The prospect of my new life in Korea is looming distinctly and slightly nerve-rackingly on the near-horizon now. In order to try and un-addle my travel-addled brain, I set up a small office on the beach and spent some time brushing up on the little Korean I had learnt before I left England. It was a very nice office as offices go, and soon I had a dog too. This dog had obviously always wanted to be an office dog instead of a beach-bum dog, but hadn’t had the opportunity until now. We had a very nice little fantasy life there for a few days.

Our beach-office good-life idyll could not last forever though. Another reason we’d headed to this part of Thailand was that it was very close to the border with Malaysia. To extend our visa-waivers and continue our stay in Thailand, it was necessary for us to do a “visa run”. This is where you leave Thailand, enter another country, say a quick hello and then go back into Thailand again. So long as you get stamps in your passport confirming each of these stages, you get another 15 days. A whole industry has been born out of this technicality. All day, every day, air-conditioned mini-vans and taxis ferry tourists to and from the border. As with Russian beer bags, this is another fine example of good old red tape and loopholes keeping an economy ticking along!

So we had to leave Koh Lipe, and unfortunately I had to let the dog go. I gave her a glowing reference but I think she might have had enough of the office environment anyway. She said she’d probably end up going into business with that stray cat from the massage parlour.

Well, now I’m on another island, and as the fun clock ticks down on my Lovely Journey, each sunset seems to be a little more stunning than the last, each Chang a little sweeter. In a week from now I’ll be wearing a suit and standing in front of a classroom full of children. They will be expecting me to be knowledgeable and authoritative. Structures and schedules are in place, my name is on a list – I’m going back into the system. After all, this whole trip has just been one, very long, commute…

So next time you hear from me I’ll be in The Land of The Morning Calm. There, at last, I can start to make a real band, using the clay of young, innocent minds and the kiln of my bitter obsession. In the meantime, here’s another little ditty from the album. It’s title is “We’re Together/You Dumped Me”, which also happens to be all the lyrics. Handy, eh? No sleeve notes needed.


Hope you like it. I like you.

Henry x

The 6th Leg. Landslides, Beer and The Bacon Stone.

26 Jul

There is a significant sub-plot to my adventures that until now I have failed to address. This is The Beer Story. To my mind, the beer that is brewed and the way it is drunk reveal a lot about a country, so here is a brief synopsis.

As mentioned in a previous post, my last pint of real ale was enjoyed at Paddington Station, on the first day of my travels. I was right to savour this moment – the rest of the world is a distinctly lagery place, it turns out. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Lager can be a very fine drink, when it’s not completely awful.

Russia has a wide selection of lagers. Many of them are rubbish, but a couple of brands I found quite satisfying. The slickest looking and smoothest tasting is “ЖИГУЛИ”, pronounced “jigooli”, whilst a tolerable and more readily available alternative is “БАЛТИКА”, pronounced “balteeka”, which is numbered from 1 to 7, 7 being the most alcoholic. Drinking in parks is a great Russian past-time. Every night in every city there are huge gatherings of amiable drunkards in almost every open space, with impromptu live music and plentiful tomfoolery. The government have recently tried to clamp down on this outdoor boozing, and the result has been a new market in “beer bags”, brightly coloured paper tubes adorned with advertising slogans, that you can put your bottle into and thus not be, technically, drinking “in public”. Unfortunately for the government this loophole has, if anything, made al-fresco quaffing even more popular.

Beer Bags. If you can’t see it, it’s not there.

Beer is harder to come by in the Mongolian desert. Here the booze option tends to be limited to fermented camel’s milk or vodka, what with there being no fridges. Or shops.

China represents a slightly sad chapter in the Beer Chronicles, from my perspective at least. The general public’s general intolerance to alcohol means that it is impossible to find anything above 4% ABV, with the average being about 2.5%. “Light” and “Refreshing” (i.e. tasteless) are the most common adjectives adorning their glass bottles, and even familiar European brands are watered-down. It would be imprudent perhaps to brashly label a entire nation of 1.6 billion people – and an emerging world power- as a bunch of shandy drinkers, but the evidence is overwhelming. Of course as an upshot of this relative sobriety they get large helpings of longevity, health and emotional well-being, but personally I still hanker for the beer-bellies, heart-attacks and nonsense that seem to prevail in the rest of the world.

Thailand, beer-wise, couldn’t be more different, and it seems very appropriate that in such a devoutly royalist nation I should find what is, surely, the true King of Beers. If the Trades Description Act really had any real clout, they would force Budweiser to give up their claim to the beer throne. A more accurate description of their insipid product would be “The Coalition Government of Beers” or, “The Beer for People Who Don’t Really Like Beer”. Chang is the True Divine Ruler and Universal Emperor of Lagers, and should be worshipped accordingly. It is terribly tasty, unnervingly strong and worryingly addictive. All h-ale.

 

It should be noted here that I’ve never actually seen a Thai person drinking Chang. It’s production, I suspect, is driven entirely by the tourist trade which, being completely central to the economy, is one of the most dominant forces in Thai society, together with Buddhism and the Royal Family. So, like I said, you can learn a lot about a place from its beer. That, for now, concludes my beer sermon. Thank you.

* * * * *

My last week in China was a real adventure. After a couple of days in Chengdu (and upon the insistence of my proactive Dutch travelling partners) we took an 11 hour coach journey into the mountains, to a national park called “Juizhaigo”. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere quite so beautiful. Mile upon mile of turquoise pools and lakes – with eerily preserved ancient tree skeletons lying just beneath the surface – meander their way through misty, forested mountains. It is just ridiculous.

Nearby is another mind-blowing nature spot, a park called Huang Long (Yellow Dragon), where, over millions of years, calcite deposits from the river have formed into freakish natural pools. My powers of description are failing me, so I’ll just show you a photo:

Now is the wet season in this part of the world, and since 2009’s devastating earthquake, this mountainous region of China is very susceptible to landslides. Three hours from Chengdu, on our return from Juizhago, our journey was brought to an abrupt halt. A few miles ahead of us a landslide had blocked the road, taking out a bus and killing twenty people in its wake. We were forced to spend the night in a poky, damp hotel, 5 people wedged into a sweaty twin room, and the rumours going around suggested that we might be stuck there for days. My Dutch companions even called their embassy in Beijing, whose useful advice was to relax and “try to enjoy the experience”.

Thankfully in the morning the news came that a road had been cleared, but that our journey would now have to incorporate a 12 hour detour along what turned out to be the World’s Most Treacherous Road. To our left towered thousands of tons of unstable rock and mud, to our right was a dizzying shear drop to a wildly churning river. We drank wine and tried to talk about pleasant things, but the elephant in the room -i.e. our imminent obliteration – was hard to ignore.

At long last however, we rolled into Chengdu, where I had just enough time to grab my suitcase and bid farewell to my friends, before leaving for the airport. My Chinese adventure was over. Bangkok awaited.

* * * * *

The tone and focus of my activities in Thailand have been in stark contrast to those of the rest of my trip. Partly this is because I have parted company with my Dutch Planners, partly because in my mind I have cordoned off this last period as a Proper Holiday, before I start my new job and band, but mostly because Thailand is so utterly geared towards providing easy-going pleasure for its tourists (see Chang beer above), that it’s almost impossible to resist the lull of pure self-indulgence. I have absolutely loved it, I’m afraid.

So it’s been a nights out, Pad Thai, scuba diving, island hopping sort of a time for me, and to avoid descending into intolerable smugness, I won’t bore you with too many gory details. My good friend, former Rumbles drummer and all-round tall person Matthew Wheeler has joined me for the last couple of weeks, and from the outset it has been his expressed and earnest wish that we “rip Thailand a new one” – in as respectful and culturally sensitive a way as possible, of course.

This mission statement meant that when the full moon came around the other night, we found ourselves contractually obliged to attend one of Koh Pan Gnang Island’s infamous “Full Moon Parties”. Having taken the very exciting journey from our secluded bay on the other side of the island, through the mountainous jungle, in the back of a pick-up truck, we arrived at Hat Rin, the party location, feeling a little out of our comfort zone. To be more precise, we felt old.

Sitting outside a small bar, each nursing a tepid beer, we watched as an endless, noisy river of brightly painted young things rolled past us towards the beach. On the small TV behind us they were showing 80’s films, and we seriously discussed the possibility of just sitting here all night. Matt even produced from his pocket a small stone that he’d found, that looked EXACTLY like a piece of bacon – we were basically all set for a lovely evening right where we were.

The Bacon Stone

 But no, we hadn’t come all this way to watch D.A.R.Y.L. and admire naturally occurring objects that look like breakfast items. We’d come to make twats of ourselves on a beach, along with ten thousand other sun-burnt idiots.

In Thailand, booze often comes in buckets, so to enter into the spirit of things, I went and fetched us a bucket each. It’s probably best not to watch what they put into these things – there’s certainly a large quantity of Thai whiskey, as well as a good dose of the particularly loopy brand of Red Bull that is only legal in this part of the world. In any case, within the space of half an hour or so, we’d turned from shy, quiet, sensible types, into this:

So yeah…I think I’d recommend going to a Full Moon Party – but I can’t be quite certain. 

In the airport before our flight back to Bangkok, we decided to have a pint of Guinness in what must be one of the most incongruous Irish pubs in the world, set as it was amongst swaying palm trees and tropical gift shops in the 32 degree heat. In there we met the living embodiment of a particular urban myth – the one where someone gets a tatoo in a foreign language, only to discover that translated it actually means something quite different to what they had intended. This guy, as a symbol of commitment to his long-term girlfriend, had decided to have her name tattooed in bold  Thai lettering upon his right flank, leading up to his armpit.  He’d had it done the night before and was very keen to show us. The Thai bar staff, upon reading it however, had to break the news to him that unfortuantely, instead of “Ellie”, he’d had “Eric” indelibly inscribed on himself. It was a beautiful end to a hilarious fortnight.

There’s more to tell, but to be honest it’s been a struggle to get even this together in 3 weeks. Next week, as consolation for my blogging tardiness, I shall be handing you song number 3 – I hope you can contain yourselves until then.

It just remains for me to welcome our newest arrival, Audrey Potts, into the world. I had a good long skype chat with her the other day, and she seems like a good sort – politically she takes after her Dad, but she’s definitely got her Mum’s dress sense. So here’s to the growing Potts-Gorbutt Empire – I wish I could be there to affectionately squeeze each and every one of your cheeks.

 

Right, I’m going bowling,

 

 

Lots of love,

 

Hen x

The 5th Leg – Numbness, insomnia, vertigo and pandas.

5 Jul

Last week’s post, it has to be said, was a bit bereft of visual excitement. All I could muster after spending a week in Beijing, one of the world’s great cities, home to 16 million people and a thousand sights for sore eyes, where novelty and adventure lurk around every corner and a dull moment hasn’t been seen in literally weeks – all I managed to offer you from this exotic, tantalising cauldron of possibilities, was a picture of a brass bottom. I’m sorry, and to make up for it, I’m going to start this week’s instalment with some photos.

So here, for your entertainment, are some Funny Signs I’ve Seen In China. Well, some are funny and some are just perplexing. Oh, and I’ve just realised that if you look carefully you can probably work out exactly what I was doing when I took the last one…


I should probably mention now that my journey isn’t panning out exactly as I first intended. In my first post I talked about getting to Beijing and then hopping on a ferry to South Korea. We’ll, I’ve actually got quite a bit more time to kill before I start my new life and my new band, so there’ll be a few more weeks of travel stuff to get through I’m afraid, before we get into the real meat of the story. Just so you know.

 *                *                *                *                *

We left Beijing on a Sunday and took a 6 hour train to Datong. Datong is famous only because it happens to be quite near some caves. It has absolutely nothing else going for it, and after seeing the caves, which were full of old Buddhas and admittedly very impressive, we were so keen to leave that we settled for two beds and one seat between the three of us, on the 16 hour overnight train to Xi’an. This was, with hindsight, a mistake.

I heroically offered to take the first stint in the seat (the ticket was specifically for a hard seat and the description was accurate),with the plan that we’d revolve positions as the night wore on. It was soon evident that this wasn’t going to happen. The train was completely packed, with many people standing, and I was soon so wedged in that I couldn’t even reach into my bag for a beer to ease my discomfort. So I sat, bum benumbed, left arm dead under the weight of a Chinese man’s head, staring at the ceiling fans for 16 sketchy hours.

 The ceiling fans

Checking my Ipod for remaining Desert Island Disks podcasts, I groaned. I’d been putting off Lawrence Dallaglio for over a month, and now he was all I had left. It turns out I didn’t know the first thing about him though – it was really good! I think I was even moved to tears on a couple of occasions, but then I was feeling a little fragile. After this, to keep myself awake I spent the next few hours revisiting classic lively albums – Guns n Roses’ Appetite For Destruction, Rage Against The Machine’s eponymous first, Talking Heads’ ’77. Then I did some maths – I worked out that if you lined up everyone in China, and tried to count them all, at a rate of 2 people per second, it would take you about 25 years. At around 4am I discovered a cache of natural history podcasts that I must have inadvertently signed up for at some point. With my free hand I took a small empty plastic bottle, laid it on the tiny table in front of me, and rested my forehead upon it, ignoring the neck pains, whilst soothing BBC voices talked to me about nature. I must have drifted off, because when I looked up again there were paddy fields and daylight outside, and I seemed to have subliminally absorbed a huge amount of information about the mating habits of beetles. At last we rolled into Xi’an.

Xi’an is as different to Datong as, I don’t know, a pristine coral reef is to a badly run trout farm. It’s leafy, well-ordered, full of pretty things like temples and flowers, and the people there are mostly smiling. The original city wall is still intact, and you can cycle a 14k circuit, on top of it, which is very cool.

Since Irkutsk in Russia I’ve been lucky enough to have been travelling with three Dutch girls who are very organised. It’s been a bit like being on tour: every morning I wake up and ask what we’re doing today, and they give me a detailed schedule, including where we’ll be getting lunch and where we’ll be spending the night. Exactly what they get out of the arrangement is unclear, but it’s suited me very nicely indeed for the last month or so. On day 1 in Xi’an we cycled the walls, as mentioned above. Day 2 was a trip to see the Terracotta Army (for some reason I’d always imagined that they were about 3 foot tall, so I was suitably impressed when they turned out to be life-sized). On day 3 I was woken up very early and told we were off to climb a mountain. We were going to climb all day, stay on top in a hostel and then get up at 4am the next day to see a stunning sunrise. “Righto!” said I, and off we went.

This mountain was a beast: a beautiful, high, sheer-sided beast, with no less than 6500 stone steps snaking their way up its precipitous flank. For the past few years, I’ve harboured a suspicion that I might have developed vertigo in my old age, but I’d not had a proper opportunity to test this theory until now. Good grief, I was terrified. On one stretch known as The Dragon’s Back, the stone staircase straddles a narrow ridge with a drop of a thousand feet on each side. Iron chain bannisters are strung up,  as a loose concession to health and safety,but still I found myself almost paralysed with fear. To maintain any forward motion I had to focus intently upon the boots of the person ascending in front of me, whilst maniacally muttering nervous mantras to myself, such as “Phew, this this a laugh, isn’t it Clarky?”, over and over again until at last I reached some relatively solid ground. I mean, you never know for sure what your future-self might do, do you? Who’s to say that in a minute’s time a short-circuit in my brain might not cause me jump up from my seat and fling myself sideways? Surely it is sensible, therefore, to spend as little of your life as possible next to the edges of high things, like mountains?

But I made in to the top. Almost. This photo represents how close I got. To the left is an insane, sheer drop and no amount of persuasion would bring me any closer to it.


I did feel good about having made it up though. The scenery was incredible – when I could stop hyperventilating for long enough to appreciate it – and although the spectacular sunrise turned out to be more of a vague glow behind a thick bank of cloud, it was definitely worth the effort.

Our next stop was Chengdu, a 17 hour train journey (with a bed this time) into the very middle of China. Chengdu is particularly famous for its panda breeding centre. Pandas are HILARIOUS. They literally can’t be arsed to do anything apart from chew bamboo and lounge about. Apparently most species of animal are on Earth for about 5 million years. SOMEHOW, pandas are still going after 8 million years, despite showing not the slightest interest in propagating. They are on heat for about an hour a year, and are incredibly snooty about mating with anyone they consider to be below their station. The upshot of this is that most panda pregnancies come about through artificial insemination and often, when the cub is born, it’s so tiny that the mother doesn’t even notice it, or if she does, seems to find it vaguely annoying. So usually the babies have to be entirely reared by humans as well. Pandas are actually omnivores, technically, but are far too idle to hunt, preferring to munch bamboo all day, which gives them barely enough energy to crawl back to their beds for a good long kip. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going all Chris Packham on you. Pandas are very cute and entertaining, which has been more than enough to get them by so far. I wish them nothing but continued success,  the lazy, fluffy freeloaders.


Right, this week, as promised, is Music Week. For my first foray into the world of lyrics, I chose the well-worn topic of old people in old people’s homes. Here’s the result. It’s called Julie.

In band news, my search for members has only really turned up one possibility this past couple of weeks, and that’s this guy. If he was in my band, I’d call him The B.F.G. because he looks like a giant who’s stolen the pipe organ from a cathedral and is now playing it with his mouth. Unfortunately he was far too engrossed in Giant Chinese Chess to consider my proposals.

Next time I talk to you I’ll probably be in Thailand. Having carbon tip-toed my way across the globe for the last two months, I’m now going to don my carbon jackboots and take a freakin’ aeroplane for once. I’m hoping to be joined in Bangkok by the force of nature that is Matthew Wheeler. I imagine he’ll probably be arriving by private jet, dressed like the Man from Del Monte, with a cucumber down his trousers – I’ll let you know.

Lots of love,

Hen x

UlaanBaatur to Beijing, 1500 miles, 1 train. Bogeys, smog and scorpions.

27 Jun

This final section of my Bere Alston to Beijing journey found me yet again on my own in a coupé. This must be some sort of record – of the 6500 odd miles covered, I must have spent at least 5000 without company. I’m starting to wonder what the agency who booked my tickets must have said about me. “Special dietary requirements : must eat alone”? I mean, this train was rammed full of people: 3, 4 even 5 to a compartment, and there was I, lording it up in glorious solitude, lounging in my pants upon whichever bunk I chose…

This time however, my situation was an advantage rather than a hindrance when it came to socialising because, having friends now, I could invite people round to mine. Hey, why not pop over to my place in carriage 7? I’d say. It’s very roomy.

So I had visitors and we played cards and drank beer and it was very jolly. Again the border crossings took an age, but this time it was slightly more interesting because a) we were drunk and b) we got to watch people “changing the bogeys”. Whenever you enter or leave the territory of the former USSR by train, your entire carriage has to be lifted clear of its wheels, or “bogeys”, so that new ones can be attached. This is because Russian railway tracks are about about an inch wider than everyone else’s. The whole process takes a couple of hours, inside a giant shed and employs a good 30 people for each train.

So, with new wheels (and inexplicably, a new Chinese restaurant car) attached, we rumbled into The People’s Republic of China. The Gobi Desert continued to stretch on for a little while, but before long it was replaced by stunning mountains and rivers and soon we were in the sprawling outskirts of Beijing. I know I’ve already used the word “rad” to honour Moscow in a previous post, but Beijing is, if anything, radder. The food, the prices, the heat, the chaos, the funny signs, I love it all. And Beijingers are sweet, welcoming and disarmingly honest, as shall now be seen.

As you may have gathered, I have a great talent for losing my possessions. This time, somewhere between my hostel and the metro station, my wallet slipped from the extremely shallow and unsuitable pocket of my tasteless pink Bermuda shorts. I retraced my steps but it was nowhere to be seen. I had, of course, just stuffed it with about 100 quid’s worth of Chinese Yuan from the cashpoint, plus there was my bank card, driving license and hostel key – all in all, a nice little haul. I’m quite good at saying goodbye to possessions and not getting too upset about it. After all, if I let it sadden me every time I lost something, well, I’d probably be profoundly depressed by now. So I bade a little farewell to yet another wad of cash and stuff, and went along my way. But barely had I set foot on the metro, than my phone rang. This was partly strange because I didn’t know mobiles worked on the underground, but mostly because I’d only just put a new Chinese SIM card in it, and I hadn’t even noted down the number, let alone given it to anyone.

“Hello?” I stammered.

Hello, My name is Lu PeiWei but you could call me Sam. I have you pick-pocket wallet”

“You pick-pocketed me?!” For a moment I thought I was getting a call from a thief who’d had a pang of conscience.

No! I have you wallet. I think you were pick-pocket”

Ah! Well I was pretty sure it just fell out of my stupid pocket, but in any case, Sam had it and evidently wanted to return it. It transpired that his friend had found it on the street and going through it, had discovered the packaging for my new SIM, which had my new number on it. He then went to Sam, knowing he spoke English, and got him to call me. That’s what I mean about honesty. 1000 Yuan is a serious amount, a good week’s wage for most Chinese people. Sam point blank refused even to take any money from me as a reward, and later that day, when I sent him a text saying thank you again, this was his response, word for word:

“You are our friend and guest, Henry. We Chinese are always pleased if friend and guests come to see us. Have a good tour!”

It warmed my heart.

There are only two downsides to Beijing as far as I can see, and one of these I’m sure I would eventually get used to. This is the fact that rather than wearing nappies, kids run around with trousers that have the seat cut out of them, and do their business literally anywhere. It’s very odd, and although it would be obviously inappropriate to take a photo of a real child’s bottom, I did come across this statue outside a subway station that clearly illustrates the phenomenon:

But this is evidently just one of those cultural differences that take a while to get one’s head around. The thing I might not be able to deal with, long term, is the smog. A few times a week, particularly in the summer, a thick haze descends over the city, so that by the end of the day whole buildings loom up suddenly out of the foggy soup, having been completely invisible until they’re almost on top of you. On our second day we hired bikes and cycled up to the Summer Palace. As Katie Melua so aptly highlighted in her song “9 Million Bicycles…” (which was mockingly going round my head for the whole day)Beijing is perfect for cycling – completely flat, on a grid system for easy navigation, with wide cycle lanes everywhere – but by the end of the afternoon, one of our party had developed a hacking smoker’s cough, another was unaccountably crying, and I was laughing like Sid James (although that may have just been a coincidence).

So the smog is a bit of a drag, but the rest is pure goodness. On our third evening we went down to a place called The Night Market, that specialises in freaky food. As the heavens opened in a spectacular thunderstorm, I chowed down on skewers of scorpion, snake and monkey. I declined the offer of cat, cockroach and millipede though, as appetising a combination as they might have proven. (I don’t know whether I drew this line on some confused moral grounds -I guess I know a cat or two, but cockroaches? – or whether I’d just had enough weird shit for one night.) Walking home later on with warm rain streaming down my face, lightning forking above my head and scorpions wriggling in my belly, do you know what thought was going through my mind, Dear Reader? Not “Wow, this is a unique experience that’ll I’ll remember for the rest of my life”, or “Gosh, isn’t life profound?”. No, all I could think was “Ha ha, weird food – this is going in the blog.” It seems I am now a slave to this cyber-journal, and that I can no longer have meaningful subjective experiences without first working out how I’ll recount them here. Nice one.

I’m sorry that this week’s only photograph is of a sculpted child’s bottom – I forgot to bring my camera for the food expedition, although a friend did take some film footage, so maybe I’ll stick that up when I get a chance. In any case, next week is song week! So brace yourselves and your ear holes for the second instalment from my as-yet-nameless (any suggestions welcome) album.

Kindest Regards,

Hen x