Just a quick entry before I set off for my scuba diving tomorrow and bore you with bubbles. I've just been sitting talking to a cat.
Yes, odd that this should tempt me to write.
This morning I went to breakfast at the little Halal, plastic chair eating place near the rooms over the diving shop. I like it in there. The food is cheap, the ladies smile, and the iced coffee is perfect. I then set off for the beach before it got too hot.
It was already too hot of course. It was 36 degrees today but it feels hotter on my English extremities. I didn't take a camera and wished I had, because I went past the jetty where the longtail boats head off for the islands and found a small slice of paradise. The tide was just right for getting to a small tidal island, and I was, perhaps for the first time on this trip, completely happy. I really like Thailand, and I really like this beach.
As I walked back from the island and toward the jetty I was accosted by a group of schoolchildren, all smiling nervously and giggling. They were about 10 years old and formed a fuzzy group of about 15 kids in green uniforms. One of them was pushed forward and hesitantly said that they were learning English, and did I have time to answer some questions. Yes! I said. They asked me where I was from in uncertain, slightly garbled English, and seemed suspicious when I said England. I don't think they were expecting to have found someone from exactly the right place. Bullseye. Brownie points.
They asked me numerous grammatically incorrect questions. Did I like Thailand, did I like Thai food, did I like Thai people, what did I do in my spare time. One boy then asked if I like....something. I didn't know the word. He said it again. Still nothing. They all said it. Nope. Then the leader, a girl holding an iPhone, spelled it for me. T...O...W...E...L. Do I like towel.
Do I? Yes, I suppose I do. I told them I have a blue one, of which I am very fond. I imagined their school using The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as an English textbook.
Then they took a photo with me in the middle, and it was very sweet and wonderful. As I walked along the sand I saw lots of little groups of kids all having conversations with the tourists, and some had teachers with them. My group had clearly struck off, fearless, in search of educational opportunities.
I like Thailand. It's not at all what I expected.
Later I went to change up some Euros and the exchange rate had gone up since the quote of yesterday, resulting in a theoretically free breakfast. When I got back I read for a while, wrote for a while, then went out for dinner. I sat and calculated that I could live in this room and eat at the Halal plastic chair smiling lady eatery every day for the rest of my life without having to work. That's an interesting concept isn't it. Thailand is still fairly cheap. This room, which has everything a man could need, costs 12 euros a day. All of my food and water and nibbles (I seem to have developed a passion for oreo biscuits) come to 10 euros a day. I get more than 22 euros a day for doing nothing, so I could live by the beach and, well, do nothing. I'd be good at it.
I sat outside as the muezzin from the local mosque sang out the evening call to prayer. It's a sound I've only come to hear since travelling in South East Asia and in the hot evening air when everything seems to have quietened down, it's something I enjoy listening to. For some odd reason, I always end up with Roberta Flack's "The First time Ever I Saw Your Face," in my head. That's not a bad thing to have inside your head.
The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
With the sound of a single human voice drifting toward me, a single white cat drifted toward me too, rubbed itself against my leg and lay down beside me. I am an animal person, enjoying their company more even than towels, and it's the first "pet" that's come to talk to me since I left England. It was a day of communication, and when travelling alone, those moments are important.
You can buy sightseeing tours, which are, I think, quite expensive. Alternatively, you can get a taxi driver with no sense of direction and you get a free sightseeing tour, and he even drops the taxi price out of sheer embarrassment. A handy tourist tip. There should be a crap taxi driver app for the fiscally aware sightseer. It could be called CrAppSi.
But we shall get to that later. Firstly, the odd little place in the Malaysian rain forest ended, eventually. I discovered that the room had unusual acoustic properties in that every conversation from miles around were amplified within its thin walls, it filled with mosquitoes through the numerous gaps in the windows and I was invaded by geckos. I don't mind geckos. I do mind noise that goes on until 3 in the morning. And when the noise of other guests (entire families in one room) finally stopped, I discovered one more horror. Air conditioning units drip, and the dripping was onto the enormous tin roof of the car port. Every night was a constant bang, bang, bang, bang, bang (you get the idea).
I then took a lovely apartment overlooking Langkawi harbour. It was the best Airbnb experience ever, I think. I went from a hot tin water-torture box to a huge apartment, and it was more wonderful than a home-cooked meal for this weary man who's now been on the road for what, it seems like ever. Langkawi has some wonderful and popular beaches, and all forms of transport assume you want to go there. But just down the road is the public beach, right by a lovely shady park. A long stretch of golden sand and warm water and not a single person there. It was lovely.
I took the boat from Langkawi to Thailand. The internet told me that arriving by air gives you 30 days Visa on Arrival, but by boat or road gives you 15. I got 30 days. Internet, you are wrong, shocking though that sounds.
I stayed in a marvellously cheap place in Satun, the town where the boat docks. It was comfortable, quiet, friendly and deep down good. I can't say I was a huge fan of Malaysia and I decided from day one that I like Thailand. When I asked how to get to the bus station for my ongoing journey, the woman went to find her boss, who not only said he'd take me to the bus station, but asked if I like fish.
“Um, yes,” I said, never having met a fish I didn't like.
“I have some. I'll make you some fish at 7pm.”
Which he did.
The following day he drove me to the bus station and refused to take any money for it. He said that everyone in Satun feels like family, and as I stayed at his place, I was family too. What a very lovely introduction to the country.
I took a 5 hour bus trip north to Krabi. The bus was decked out like a travelling bordello. It had wonderful orange fringe curtains at the windows and a ceiling composed of some squashy material in orange, cream and magenta, bedecked with mirrors. It felt like a long-distance Beatles album.
Krabi, has some rather wonderful islands, is not too far from Phuket, and an hour or so by speed boat from the famous island of Phi Phi (pronounced, amusingly, as pee pee). That's where they filmed The Beach, with Leonardo DiCaprio. Pee pee isn't the only island of course. There are lots of them. Lesser islands dot the seascape and they look as one might imagine – tall spikes of tree-covered land popping up here and there. I saw them from the bus, and climbed out into the blazing heat of a Krabi afternoon. Being more interested in A/C than travel, I took a room in a hotel close to the bus station, and then made my way to the beach.
The hotel ordered me a taxi and after a while, a strange little contraption arrived, part motorbike, part car, part travelling circus. I sat in the back and we headed off at terrifying speed toward the beach. There is a famous beach here called Ao Nang, and that's where the driver decided I must be going. I mean, I'm white, therefore I am going to Ao Nang. The hotel girl told them where I was actually going, but this man concluded otherwise. I sat in the back holding onto my belongings and my breakfast as we defied physics on every bend in the road, and then I saw the sea and all its twinkly blue island festooned loveliness. Not my beach, obviously, but it was rather lovely.
I had my map app telling me we should go right at the beach and he went left. I banged on the window and he pulled over and I got out and we consulted the map and he did a U-turn. Amusingly, he did another U-turn a few hundred yards later and off we set again in the wrong direction. He really really wanted me to go to Ao Nang. I banged again.
He got out maybe 6 times to ask how to get to where I was going, and when someone pointed left, he went right. And vise versa. Eventually my map and his bike/car thing were in agreement and we were within seconds of my new abode. So pleased was he by this, he asked someone where it was, who pointed, and off we went again along the beach toward Ao Nang. It was lovely. A sightseeing tour de force. It took for ever.
But all good things must come to an end and finally he reluctantly stopped long enough to track down my hotel. He looked so ashamed of himself that he wanted to charge me half price, but I gave him full price anyway because his mistake was my absolute pleasure, and I was also worried about the health of his children, having such an easily confused taxi driver for a father.
This room is not much more than the dirt cheap room in the rain forest of Langkawi, but offers no water torture or unwanted nocturnal conversations. It is over a PADI diving shop, 600m from the beach that's just next to Ao Nang beach, and is clean, comfortable, safe and quiet. I booked 5 nights here, the longest I've booked in one go because I'm tired of constantly looking for the next place to go and thought I'd stop a while. I was very lucky with my random choice.
I walked along this beach yesterday and it's beautiful and quiet. At the far end is a small headland and then you get to Ao Nang. Ao Nang is land of the white man. It is wall to wall tourists. The beach is no better than here, but the tourist industry herds them there in their millions. I didn't like it and I'm glad I'm at the less well known part.
There are trips a-plenty to choose from, including Phi Phi of course. I was almost tempted by it, but some research tells me that Phi Phi takes over an hour by speedboat and when you get there, all you see are tourists. Not my idea of fun, despite how beautiful the place looks.
But didn't I want to try diving? Yes, I seem to remember that. I was snokelling in Bali and I thought...I'd like to try diving, despite having tried it 25 years ago and saying never again. And aren't I temporarily living over a diving shop?
I just asked about it, and for people like me who once said Never Again, they have a one-day try diving thing. They leave at 7 in the morning and get back in the evening. There's food. And snokelling too if you don't want the second dive. And a bit of sightseeing.
“Where do you go?” I asked.
“Phi Phi,” she said. "It takes a couple of hours on the boat but it's a beautiful trip."
So I booked it. I go on Saturday. On the water and under it.
If I live, I shall tell you about it.
Eagle Square, Langkawi. No idea why it's called that.
The empty public beach...
The sun going down on Ao Nang, Thailand
I really ought to write more often. So, where was I. Oh yes, hoping that Penang would be less challenging. In a way, it was. I caught a super cheap, super clean, super easy train from China Town to the bus station, which resembles an airport. The bus had huge seats and carried me in comfort for about 5 hours up through the slightly mountainous rain forest to Penang, an island on the east coast. Yes, it's an island, but served by a few big bridges and it turned out to be, sadly, a bit like KL lite. Lots of tall buildings in George Town, and once again, almost all Chinese. It's eighty percent Chinese, apparently.
George Town has a clock dedicated to Queen Victoria, and while most of the street names seem Chinese (what do I know), many are overtly British. I stayed in a Chinese hotel in Argyll Street. There's Leith and Cameron and Downing streets too. A fort Cornwallis. With everyone driving on the left and all the electric sockets of the British type, it feels like we never left.
So I stayed a while in Penang. I liked the hotel, which was older but oddly charming. The Malaysian man on the desk was quietly amusing and very helpful. He seemed to know everything and would impart information if he thought it was actually helpful. I returned from one punishingly hot walk through the streets of Penang and commented on the dangerous temperature, and without looking up from his paperwork he simply said...”It's the end of the world, I tell you.”
The food was good in Penang. I had, I think, some of the best Indian food I've ever had. And on one occasion I wandered past a large hall, full of old tables and cheap plastic chairs. A vast array of dishes were arranged at street level and I was interested in what these dishes contained. I recognised nothing. I wandered beyond the threshold to investigate further and was suddenly presented with a plate with a large mound of rice on it. “What do I do now?” I asked. Another woman came to my rescue and told me what each metal tray contained. Fish curry, tofu, some vegetable things, some unpronounceable things. I scooped some onto my plate of rice and was charged 3 ringgits. That's what, 60 cents. It was very good and very filling.
When I got back to the hotel I told the man I'd just had lunch for 3 ringgits and he said it was impossible to make food for that price, and what colour was the woman?
“Was she Malaysian or Chinese?”
“I think she must have been Chinese,” he said. “I bet you were the only tourist.”
He nodded. I'm not sure what the nod meant.
The breakfast room was on the top floor, a kind of roof garden, and it was managed by an Indian woman and Chinese woman, who fussed over everyone. The Chinese lady gave me a Vitamin C drink because I had a cold, and kept rushing up to me with slices of orange. On my last day she tried to give me aspirin which she said she got from her son in America. Later, she was going to the hospice to chat to people. That hotel was a small oasis of old-world charm, which is why I booked three nights but decided to stay for six.
On leaving Penang, I boarded a boat to the island of Langkawi just off the coast of Thailand. It was a boat, I think. The water was flat and the windows opaque and it was packed with immovable human cargo and their accompanying bags. I got on, squeezed into a seat and watched Jurassic World on a tv screen until we had presumably finished a sea voyage and got out at what looked like Jurassic World. The island is all stunning peaks covered in rain forest. On the boat I sat next to an Australian couple who were visiting Langkawi, as many seem to do, for the beaches and relaxation. It's billed as an island for honeymooners. I told them I wasn't staying at the beach, I'd gone for the Geopark Hotel because the picture showed a cable car up into the mountains and I thought it might be cool (as in temperature, not, you know, cool). While watching Jurassic World, I said, “That's where I'm going.”
It was a joke, but I was alarmed to discover that's exactly where I ended up. The Geopark Hotel isn't just in the Geopark, an area of wonderfulness that covers much of the island, but it's in the middle of a theme park! I have a natural hatred for theme parks and I found myself spending three nights in one. Admittedly, it's quiet at night because the park is closed, but during the first day I discovered that I'd have to eat as tourists do – badly and for a lot of money – and if I didn't eat before the park closed I'd have to go hungry or sneak out and bag myself a T-Rex.
The first day was horrible. All I could see from my bedroom window was hoards of happy holidaymakers and the music and announcements that go with the masses enjoying themselves. I went out and sneered at them.
But later in the day I discovered several things. There was a German restaurant that served Italian food made by a man from Algeria, which was too irresistible a combination. Also, there's a duty free shop. Yes. A duty free shop. Now all the bad things in life were affordable. And that cable car. It mocked me from my bedroom window because, as I discovered, it's the steepest cable car in the world. I know I use hyperbole hundreds of times in my posts, but this one isn't hyperbole at all. It really is supposed to be the steepest in the world. I am afraid of heights, I'm ashamed to say, but this thing challenged me with every little swinging gondola.
The second day was better. I got up, realising it was silly to be miserable in the middle of a theme park and I bought a ticket for everything. All I needed to do was conquer my bilious horror just looking at the cable car and learn to be a tourist.
It's not that it's steep. The cable car at Vogel in Slovenia is steep (it took me many goes on that to get over the fear of it and I'm still convinced it's steeper). No, it's that it's so high above the ground. Vogel never goes that far above the trees and you can almost pretend that you're not going up a mountain. This one dangles high over a rain forest. And if you're still alive when you get to the top, there's an added insult. You get from one peak to the next in a flat but terrifying cable car that really has no need to be there except to kill people.
So off I went. The gondolas take six people, but a VIP ticket can get you a gondola all on your own. Who, I wondered, would want to be in a gondola on their own? Isn't it bad enough with company?
Being a man travelling alone, I was invited into an empty gondola. The girl asked if I'd like company and I said YES!!!!! She just laughed, and as the thing never actually stops to wait for you, I had to get in. I set off, alone.
The first part is okay. The cable is a huge exponential curve, starting flat and then getting steeper and steeper as it reaches the final third. I filmed it. Sadly the internet here tells me it will take 39 hours to upload so you'll have to wait for that treat, but let me try to describe it. It was very very quiet. When I moved, it swung unnecessarily, and I clutched the seat and chose to film out the window without actually looking. And then, when it got to the final third and the near vertical part, the wind got up. I could hear nothing but wind and sweated my way through every little swinging horror. Miles below me, giant dinosaurs looked like ants. Yes, it was high.
I got out at the first peak and tried to look like it was all perfectly normal. I took photos, knowing that in a moment I'd have to face the long flat one that went from peak to peak.
I was alone for that one too. “Why am I doing this?” I said to my video camera.
I returned with company, thank goodness. Five of us came down and the chat made the whole thing so much easier. I hardly noticed the wind, but the man from KL said they had decided to return because a storm was coming. I had noticed it too. Flee is perhaps a good word to describe it from my own perspective, but I think all of us thought it was sensible to get down before the wind got too entertaining.
So having survived the world's steepest and perhaps most unnecessary cable car in the world, I went off to enjoy the other delights of the theme park. And I have to say, it's fun being a tourist. The 3D art exhibition was far more impressive and entertaining than I could have imagined, and one of the rides I wanted to do again and again. About thirty people sit in a kind of truck and are “driven,” into a world of 3D CGI dinosaurs which, in time-honoured tradition, suddenly decide to attack the truck. It gets thrown about, you get wet, you are chased by a T-Rex and almost killed by creatures that, through the use of 3D glasses and an enormous wrap-around dome, really do seem real. I loved it. I loved the theme park. I'd recommend it. I am no longer the man who sneered at the thronging hoards a mere 24 hours before. They know how to enjoy themselves, something I have never grasped.
And so I am up to date. After Jurassic World I headed off the a very cheap place in the middle of the rain forest. I am in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by locals. I haven't seen a tourist for a couple of days and when I walk along the road, heads turn and people wave. This is a Muslim country and it's the first time I haven't been surrounded by Chinese people. The majority of the women wear the hijab. I am surrounded by ready smiles, the little kids all wave and stare at me. Even groups of men, sitting at plastic tables under the shade of a tree, turn their heads and wave at this odd non-local walking along in 35 degrees. Only mad dogs and Englishmen, as Noel Coward used to sing. I seem to be the only tourist here. I did see a white guy on a scooter, heading for a beach, no doubt, that he's the only one I've seen.
When I arrived there was nobody here. Even the Chinese taxi driver got out, scratched his head and said...no people. I said I'd be fine, and waited for half an hour before I found someone.
Later, I wondered if I might die of thirst because bottled water is vital and I seemed to be surrounded by nothing but trees. Luckily, down the road is one of those dark places that sell everything. All but everyday items are covered in a slight coating of road dust. I found water and pot noodles and oreo biscuits and cheesey bread and coffee. I would live! The shop includes two old ladies who sit amid boxes, a cat which I think is still alive, and a young girl serving behind the counter who speaks excellent English. Today, my second water and pot-noodle run, resulted in a long chat about where I've been and where I'm going next and what I do for a living and basically, anything that isn't working in a dark shop on a lonely road in a rain forest. The old ladies smile at me. The cat doesn't move.
This evening I found a street food place that was set up like the one in Penang. I got rice and something that I think was chicken curry and a drink for next to nothing, and the two women kept looking at me as though I was conducting an experiment. Perhaps I was. I like to say that I ate where it cost nothing and I recognised even less. I like to chat to real people. I like that the tiny children look at me as though I were a T-Rex in a theme park.
I'm here for a few more days. I investigated the mangrove swamp tonight too, strolling amid monkeys and watching those fish that walk out onto the mud. I was happy doing that. I was happy telling the girl in the dark shop that I started this trip with Christmas in London and then a wedding in snowy Poland and I'm now in country number four. “Where next?” she asked.
“Thailand,” I said.
“I don't know. Let's see what Monday brings.”
I'll keep you posted.
The desk in the Kuala Lumpur hotel room has a list of things you can buy as a souvenir. It actually says “Souvenir Price List,” on the top in case you're in any doubt as to what it is. I can understand Coffee Mug, at a moderate 50 ringgits (about 10 euros, just divide by 10 and double it). Or how about a tumbler glass at only 10 ringgits? These seem like souveniry things and you could get a tumbler glass on a plane couldn't you. But there are no less than 47 things on this list, including a 32 inch television (2,500 ringgits), a sofa chair, a standing lamp, or how about a Queen-sized mattress for 1,600? If you bought all 47 items you could completely recreate this hotel bedroom anywhere in the world, if you could get it all home. You'd have a souvenir hotel bedroom.
My last week in Bali was a lot of fun. The place was half hotel half hostel so it had a good social area where I had my most social moments of the trip. One night Ben, who was busking his way around Asia, played and sang and it was a good evening. A young English policemen, Darrel, turned us into a kind of trio despite me shocking everyone that night by having 3 beers, and much fun was had by all. Different nationalities, ages, backgrounds, reasons for being there, we all found a common place to become temporary friends.
After a week of that I descended into hell. I got a car to Denpasar airport and discovered just how miserable it is making a semi-domestic flight in this part of the world. It took a full three hours to get in the airport entrance and onto the plane. Bags are X-rayed as soon as you walk into the airport. Then again (with walk-through detectors) to get the check-in desks. Then again before immigration. The queue looks, to the untrained eye, like a queue. There are red taped-off lanes just like we're used to. But hoards of Chinese people simply think this is a way of slowing their progress to the front. Not just Chinese of course, but it's been the Chinese New Year which last for ever and large numbers of Chinese tourists are abroad, abusing the British notion of forming an orderly queue. Other nations use other techniques. They make the queue move faster by pushing from the rear. The walk in a group through the walk-through metal detectors as if they simply aren't there. It was, in a word, horrible.
After those three hours I had a three hour flight to Kuala Lumpur through some notoriously bumpy skies (please don't let the wings fall off, please don't let the wings fall off) and finally we had arrived. To another two hours of queue fighting to get through immigration. Two hours for someone to say Welcome to Malaysia. When I got to the baggage carousel, there were only three bags going around and around. One of them was mine. I bet the other two belonged to English people too.
There is a window in this room. It looks out upon skyscrapers and endless traffic. Behind me is China town and the famous Petaling Street where market stalls sell typical stuff to tourists. The guy who drove me into KL from the airport was Chinese and he pointed it out. So I thought that China Town was back the road a bit. But in the other direction – the direction in which my window points – is the equally famous Low Yat Plaza, Malaysia's largest IT mall. I know, because I spent the best part of two days there trying to buy a new laptop from the 20 million possible choices. I am typing this on one of those choices because it took me two whole days to actually buy one. The point I'm making is that, while Low Yat Plaza is in the other direction, it's madly Chinese. Have you seen BladerRunner? Harrison Ford has the job of tracking down androids who look just like us, and amid all this high tech is a world of noodles and back-street Orientals cooking up fake creatures and other high-tech wonders. That world was based on Low Yat and its environs, I'm sure.
So for a week now I've been immersed in Chinatown and high tech. I also seem to be in a place frequented by prostitutes, which at first I found slightly alarming. I kept wondering why I was suddenly attractive. I kept wondering why surprisingly alluring women saw me and reacted as though I had made their day. Then I realised that as a man of a certain age, alone in South East Asia, I'm sure I do look like the kind of man who would make their day, at least financially.
In fact, the first hotel I booked gave me such an uneasy feeling that after two nights I booked into the somewhat nicer hotel next door. I felt instantly better. Everyone was nice. Nobody looked like they were going to love me long time.
The first morning in the new hotel (this one, where you can buy a Souvenir 32 inch TV and matching Queen-sized mattress) I went for a walk (to buy a laptop) and when I got back the cleaning girl was cleaning the room next door. Mine hadn't been done but I didn't need it, and all my worldly good are in there and I prefer a damp towel to robbery. So I asked if I could just grab some more bottled water and coffee of the room.
“Yes!” the girl said. “You want your room cleaned?”
“No, I'm fine, just water is great. And coffee. I do like coffee!”
“Well, if you need anything, just call me,” she said.
She then wrote down her name and phone number. Sam. Not very attractive. She looked like she had a comb-over and stubble.
Later I went out and Sam was cleaning another room. “You are so SWEET!” she said.
Later, she explained to me how hard it is being a transgender person from Pakistan in KL and she tries to save money and send it home and she can't explain to her family that she wants to be a real girl and sometimes she has to take money for sex because we all need money and she doesn't like condoms.
You know the long queues and terrible turbulence in the plane and then the extra two hours of queuing? That was more comfortable than having Sam the cleaner try to gain entry to my room. I am, I admit, out of my depth in the big city, and I look forward to the next stop. Tomorrow morning I catch a train to the bus station, and then a 6 hour bus ride to the island of Penang up north. I hope it's less...challenging.
Ubud, for me at least, was a living hell. For my birthday I did nothing at all because I didn't like the expensive hotel and I didn't like the crowds who are funnelled to the place looking for enlightenment and tourist tat. I walked through a small market selling enlightenment and tourist tat, and for a while, the narrow street was held up by a westerner lying down across the entire width of the street to photograph a sleeping dog. He wore a green boiler suit and cowboy boots (it's magnificently hot and humid, remember), a bandanna, his hair in a bun and his beard was festooned with beads. Everything about him said “Look at me, I'm pretty awesome and different and cool and if you won't look at me then I'll lie down in a narrow street to force a crowd to wonder who I am.” You don't need to do all that to photograph a dog. I've photographed dogs. You point the camera, click the button on the top, and you have a picture of a dog. He was a twat and I'd had enough. In the morning, I would catch the bus to the seaside.
There was no bus to the seaside. Or rather, I was the only person who wanted to go to Amed where my madly cheap place was, so no bus. A taxi was half a million and it would be almost a million to get a taxi back to Denpasar (a million is what, 70 euros or 75 dollars, ish). A change of plan was conceived. There's an island in the south east called Lembongan. It's in the right direction. Half a million would get me to the port, on the boat, back on the boat to the mainland. Then it would be cheap to get to Denpasar, and hey, I'd get a boat ride. And I found a place on the island that was also madly cheap. I cancelled the Amed place, got the Lembongan place, and bought my ticket to an island for the following morning.
An hour after the bus should have arrived, I was still sitting in the heat of the hotel I didn't like. Would Ubud be the last place I'd ever see? Was it my own personal purgatory? No, the bus arrived and I got on it.
It wasn't a bus exactly. It was a minivan with no A/C and some travellers who looked like they might be dead. I got in and we drove around and around Ubud, forcing more people into the hot tin can of Doom. We drove past the hotel three times and it was the Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave...
“Are you going to Lembongan Island too?” I asked of the girl next to me. I wanted an answer before she slipped into a coma. “No, the airport,” she said.
Ahh. I had paid the hotel guy half a million and received a small damp piece of paper which the driver never looked at. How, exactly, would I end up on an island?
Mysteriously, he stopped at a port and took me into an office and the girl stuck a sticky label on my chest and the driver drove his limp damp death-defying travellers away. Ten minutes later my bags were grabbed and I had to chase after them. I have one enormous bag full of wedding clothes and snow gear, and one bag which I never, ever, EVER, let out of my sight. I ran after it, then I was put in the back of a trailer and transported along a bouncing road to a boat. My wedding clothes bag was carried into the sea...
Slightly useful travelling tip. If you're going on a boat, wear swimming gear. Boats float. You have to walk into the sea to get to it. I did that and found a seat and for 30 minutes we smacked and bounced at great speed toward Lembongan, powered by 5 car-engine-sized outboard motors. The up and down smacking wasn't too bad. The rolling to the side, where all you can see is water at the left windows and sun at the right windows, was disturbing.
At the other side I was impressed to still be alive, and even more impressed that my sticky label was there to inform a driver where I was staying. Me and several others were dropped off in an assortment of huts and dingly dells and fields and holes in the ground. I was the last of them, and my hole in the ground turned out to be a very pleasant room in the middle of a field. It had A/C, a fan, a bed, a cold water shower outside and a sort of toilet! What more could I ask? Well, electricity would have been nice.
It gets dark very quickly in these southern latitudes – there is almost no twilight – and without electricity I wasn't sure what to do about the situation. The owners had informed me that they were away for a few days and I didn't know where I was. I had lights, but no socket power, no A/C, no fan. I wondered if a fuse had blown. Beyond my porch light there was darkness.
I ventured forth and followed the sound of humans. The town, such that it is, was oddly dark, but not completely dark. There were lights but not many.
A quick chat with a local told me that the power to the island stops when it's windy, or raining, or there's an R in the month, or if it's dark, or if anyone admits to liking bananas. The lights of town were from generators, as was my porch light. I grabbed food, where I was told all about the problems of power and how I should really hire a motorbike and go to the other island. There's a bridge where recently 10 people died and 90 people didn't, and I should go there. On a motorbike.
I like power cuts, actually. Facebook seems to think that social media brings people together, but it doesn't. We all see groups of people studying their phones and never speaking. But in a power cut, everyone talks to each other. There's a wartime camaraderie that transcends even battery-powered connectivity and the noise of a generator is the music that we dance to. People cheered when the power came back. They laughed when it went off again. They cheered when once more, the generator could be turned off and we all went back to being strangers.
I returned to the room and a good night's sleep on the hardest bed I've ever slept in. Slept on.
I had four nights in the cheap room and I loved it. It cost 48 euros for 4 nights and it was better than the expensive hotel in Ubud. The locals were friendly, the tourists weren't looking for themselves, didn't hold up traffic to photograph dogs, and Ratih who owned the place was gentle and kind. On my last full day I had my birthday treat at last. I signed up for a snorkelling trip.
I was a little nervous about it actually. The sea has been choppy, I last snorkelled over 25 years ago and I rarely swim. Looking at the sea from the beach suggests it contains nothing at all. Every reason, then, to go snorkelling.
It was about 40 euros for a boat trip to 3 places, then all the food we could eat and a bonus boat trip through the mangrove forest. Sign me up!
A guy collected me the next morning and we drove on an unmade road along the beach to a very pleasant location, where I was given fried banana and a coconut drink that looked like the final moments of harvesting DNA – a kind of white glutinous...gloop. After half an hour of waiting for others we set off in a boat and were given instruction – very good instruction, I have to say – on snorkel-related themes, and then we fell over backwards into the water. And there, despite my previous doubts, was coral and tropical fish and things swimming too bright and numerous to mention. At one site there were Finding Nemo clown fish, some fish under a boat so menacingly huge I swore when I saw the first one. Swearing with a snorkel in your mouth is a bit like having a cleft palate, but I couldn't help it. They were monstrous fish. The coral was healthy and covered in large blue starfish and all kinds of aquatic whatnot. A lone sea turtle flapped by. I dived as deep as I could, and it was all less life-threatening than the hot bus from Ubud.
It was a good day. Even the slow float through the mangrove forest was oddly charming.
The following morning it rained as I've never seen it rain before, and nobody came to collect me for the 12:30 boat back to Bali. I made my own way to the port and got on the 4pm.
And now I find myself in the last port of call in Bali – a very cheap place on the outskirts of Denpasar, the capital. It is not at all scenic here, but the room cost 105 euros for 7 nights. The room is huge, with the finest shower a tired human being could ever want, and the softest bed I've slept in since I lived in France. There's a real desk for my laptop so no more burning my leg by resting it on my lap. Free coffee all day long and the guy downstairs will even cook a good meal at a good price. I wanted this time for work, and it is perfect. While I'm away I'm writing a sequel to The Wonderful World of Linus Bailey, because people liked the first one and I enjoyed writing it, and hopefully, if there's time, the sequel to The Midlife of Dudley Chalk. That's a much bigger undertaking, so we shall see if I can get at least a working first draft done.
Next stop, Kuala Lumpur, which happens on February 8th. I shall keep you posted.
There are three small birds sitting in a kind of fir tree. I don't know what the birds are but they are soundless, small, and are the colour of cappuccino, with a milky breast. They are simply looking at me. I can hear the sound of a waterfall gently plopping into a pool. I'm wondering if the screeching sound is monkeys.
It is my birthday today. I have not been given monkeys as a present – as far as a I know even people who are not 58 today are being plagued by monkey sounds – but I have taken it upon myself to get a room in a rather nice hotel on Monkey Forest Road, Ubud, Bali. It is terribly hot. I'm getting through T-shirts the way you get through tissues when you have a cold. They are collecting in damp piles in corners of various hotel rooms up and down the island. Soon I'll have to find a laundry (of which there are many).
I arrived in Bali on Friday the 13th of January, just to make sure that good luck was on my side, after a long flight from a London that was toying with snow. An Airbus A380, the largest passenger plane in the history of flight, took me to Dubai, and then a plane that wasn't the largest in the world but still pretty impressive took me to Bali. When I got out of the airport I wondered why I had packed for snow.
Yes, dear reader, I am one of the few people on the the island who will look pretty comfy in a snowstorm and I hold out hope that any time soon the monkeys on Monkey Forest Road will suddenly look up and say...so that's what snow looks like! It might happen. I hope it does or all this cold weather clothing is just dead weight I'm lugging around in 30 degree heat and 100% humidity.
I left Slovenia mid-December packed for three trips. I had Christmas in London (quite cold), then a wedding in Poland where I landed in a snow storm after circling Polish skies waiting for them to plough the runways. Then I headed off for the equator. My bag is packed for Santa in Oxford Street, my son's wedding in snowy Sopot, Poland, and monkey-strewn humidity.
I had no ticket to Bali when I left Slovenia. All I knew was that London at Christmas would be wonderful, and my son's wedding would be something I would remember for ever. I'd get to London, enjoy it, then find my way down to darkest Kent and stay with my brother for a while. I knew things would be okay when I bought a bus ticket to Kent, not knowing if I'd find a local bus to my brother's house on Boxing Day. I didn't need to worry. The bus driver from London Victoria was my nephew Nathan, who, in the summer, had been an estate agent. He dropped off the bus and took me right to my brother's door, where he lives. There were no local buses that day, so the Universe was on my side.
I had no ticket to Bali but upon visiting a random travel agent in Dover, the girl gave me a good price, I gave her my details, and she turned out to be my niece’s sister-in law. Family, it seemed, were all over this story.
I had read about the complexities of Indonesian Immigration (outstay your welcome and you'll be imprisoned) but it was a simple affair.
"How long are you staying?"
"Twenty seven days."
I think it's when you leave they clap you in irons.
Outside I was hit by the humidity of a balmy 11pm and taken by pre-arranged taxi to a small hotel about 10km south of the airport in a place called Jimbaran. I settled in, I fell asleep, I woke up to the start of four months of travel around Bali and Malaysia. I pulled on shorts and t-shirt and hid away the clothes I'd needed for Polish snow.
Jimbaran is near the airport and only seems to get passing trade. Tourists head south to Kuta or north to – everywhere else. I stayed for a week. It has a long beach and while it's not the kind of beach that cubicle hell office workers pin to their flimsy walls, it affords a very long, slightly messy walk in the mornings and a chance to get a base tan without too many people staring. For me, a week in Jimbaran was a good start. I adjusted to the time difference (when I get up, for my friends it's still yesterday). I adjusted to the money (I'm not paying 10 thousand for that! Oh, ten thousand is 70 cents.) I adjusted to the heat and the humidity. Okay, I began adjusting. It's still a bit like living in a sauna.
One thing I loved about Jimbaran is a road called Raya Uluwatu. Imagine everything in the world with the possible exception of whales and snowballs. Shove it all into one street and sprinkle it with a coating of rubbish, then fill it with motorbikes and dig up the pavement. What you have is Raya Uluwatu. Every step you take has to be carefully considered. Shall I step into a hole, get hit by a motorbike, or wonder what on earth this shop is selling? You can't do all three, you have to choose. At one point I chose to watch a man on a scooter carrying two small children and two dogs. One dog got off to have a pee, then it hopped back on and off they went. The rules that not more than 15 family members and 12 pieces of furniture are allowed per scooter seem to be flaunted on Raya Uluwatu.
My first impression of Bali was mess. Everywhere is mess. In the morning, every dwelling has a little ritual to give the house and its occupants good luck. They place baskets of leaves filled with small offerings of food, sweeties, perhaps a cigarette, a flower or two and burning joss sticks. It's lovely, and fuels the new-age traveller with a feeling of harmony and tranquillity. About half an hour later it just gets scooped up into the ever-growing pile of crap that litters absolutely everything. Rats eat it. Dogs eat it. Cats eat it. It isn't the snow for which I am sartorially prepared, but it drifts in a similar way and gives the whole place a coating of...crap.
I didn't like it at first, but after a week I began to embrace a culture knee deep in junk. It's artful. It is bad the way that Pavarotti was fat. I saw a very pretty girl on a moped, as beautifully dressed as any Balinese girl could be. She finished her drink and simply dropped the polystyrene cup, letting it bounce and roll and become part of Bali's perma-crap. And in this alternative version of recycling, the Balinese people are incredibly happy. They seem to have little – at least the ones who peddle their wares in Raya Uluwatu – but from the heaps of junk that surround them they smile, constantly. They smile at me. All of them. Yes, most of them want to sell something, but the ones who aren’t selling seem to to think that smiling and saying hello is the best thing ever. I smile back. "Good morning to you and your spectacular pile of discarded plastic," I say, and they clasp their hands together and wish me happiness and good fortune.
After a week I took a guided tour that ended up where I was heading next – Ubud. The tour involved batik, traditional Indonesian art, and civet-shit coffee. It's true. I saw not only the civets but the shit that is so lovingly collected.
Let me be a little more factual. Civets, a kind of weasely creature, eat the coffee beans. Only the best best, mind you. Civets are choosy. Having eaten the beans, they partly digest them and then crap out the rest. The actual bean is unharmed by the most determined of civet bowel movements and the plucky harvesters scoop it up, process it, and make coffee! I drank some and then was invited to buy some. Frankly, it tastes like it's been shat from a civet. The people at the plantation seemed saddened by my not buying some. Where had they gone wrong, they wondered. I think involving civets in the process might be a place to start looking.
Ubud is a town writ large on the tourist map and contains the afore-mentioned monkeys. From an anthropological viewpoint, the monkeys are just part of the family of man that ends up here. I read that it's a bit like Sedona in Arizona; a place of crystals and alternative lifestyle. This concerned me because I've been to Sedona and I didn't like it. Ubud, it seemed, would not be my cup of tea. I'm here for 9 days. This is day 7. I've seen far too many westerners who insist on sitting on small mats to eat, who chose breakfast as a way of cleansing their soul, who think that being surrounded by monkeys and civet shit will stop them from looking like twats. Some of them carry heavy things on their heads because locals carry heavy things on their heads and therefore it must make them one with the universe. No, it just makes them look like twats. From what I've seen, if they are trying to find themselves they should look elsewhere, because they are only going to find an even bigger twat.
If Jimbaran was full of junk, then Ubud is full of twats. So far the junk is better.
A stroll through Ubud is a walk through a never-ending throng of people wanting to taxi you somewhere, or give you a massage. A walk through Ubud is:
"No thank you."
"No thank you."
(you get the idea.)
In two days I head east to the coast and a bit more sea and hopefully, less people who are trying to find themselves, rub me or drive me somewhere. I've found a place that is really cheap for four nights. I'm going by bus, and I half expect my nephew Nathan to be at the wheel. "Hello Uncle Pete," he'll say, oddly brown and hopefully not carrying something on his head. I'll report back.
Meanwhile, what shall I do for my birthday? Taxi? Massage? Wait patiently at the far end of a civet for my afternoon cuppa? Who knows.
Yes, I know, it was June when I wrote last. Stop going on about it.
November has snow on the peaks and watery sunshine that makes this time of year perfect for walking, a massage, or buying stretchy shorts for dance class. Right, I'm going to have to explain that sentence aren't I.
This morning I woke up with the promise of a chest massage. The temperature outside was minus 2 degrees C, the coldest since living in the Magic House, and all seemed perfect for having my pectoralis majors well and truly rubbed. I made coffee, stumbled about in my typical morning way, and got a call from Tatiana, my own personal inspiration, ray of sunshine and potential pectoralis prodder.
"I have to buy stretchy shorts for a teenage dance class!"
I smiled. The demands of teenage dance classes will always outweigh the most amusing of alternative suggestions, and I was actually quite happy by the idea. A Slovenian autumn is just too good to spend inside having your chest rubbed. Really. No, seriously. Come see for yourself.
By way of explanation, my chest really does need attention because, (and here anyone who knows me may have to sit down or firmly grasp an immovable object), I have joined a gym.
It came about because since arriving in this country and living with my own cooking, I've lost weight. I have also, partly due to cows and getting rid of my old BMW, been walking a lot. As my clothes became baggier I was tempted by exercise and had a little go at jogging. Now, I'm not a natural jogger. My theory is that my legs are the wrong length for the resonant frequency of my body and the result is an ungainly disharmonious joggle, rather than a jog. I told Tatiana that I tried jogging.
"Oh well done. I haven't jogged for a while and I miss it." The next day she jogged to my house, 17 km, without the need to stop or vomit and she looked so fresh and comfortable that I thought she must have been joking. She wasn't. She caught the bus home while I secretly hoped her car was hidden in a bush 100 yards down the road. I decided that her legs must be the right length for the resonant frequency of her body and therefore found it easy. Either that or she's very fit and young.
The practical upshot of this was joining a gym, where exercise seems to be encouraged yet jogging is avoidable. I walked through the door somewhat nervous. It's been 57 years since I last thought about going to a gym, imagining that I might have thought of it when I was born and never considered it again. I felt a bit foolish.
I had seen the place of course. It's in Bled, that famous and frequently visited tourist destination that's about 5km from my house. The gym is part of the sports complex where Tatiana's son plays ice hockey and when watching him a few months ago I saw..."Fitnes", the Slovenian word for Gym. I saw it the way people see "Airport," but don't entertain the idea of becoming a pilot. I could make out equipment and people in Lycra (presumably) through the sloping translucent windows. I imagined depressingly beautiful people becoming more beautiful with every stretch.
And so it was with a feeling of depressing un-beautifulness that I broached the doors of this place of beauty ready to be laughed at. Of course, I couldn't have been more surprised. I was welcomed with enthusiasm by a young man who was eager to show me the place and photos of his physical improvement since the spring. "Rok is the guy," he said. "Rok's the best." He showed me a photo of Rok. Actually, he showed me a photo of Rok's muscles because you can't fit his face and his biceps into a single picture. I got Rok's number.
The next day I returned to Bled with an appointment to see Rok and he proved to be the most likeable bodybuilder I've ever met. Admittedly, bodybuilders don't make up the core of my social circle (suspecting them of being nothing but muscle and banned substances) and Rok surprised me, as so many things seem to do. He runs the place, he said he doesn't want someone overly beautiful on the front desk because this gym is for normal people who want to exercise and feel better. He said how impressed he was that at 57, I'd decided to finally do something. Everyone — patrons too — made me feel very welcome.
I have been going to the gym for a month now, three times a week, and Rok has a plan. He is taking a man who's nearly 58, has never exercised, sits all day long at a computer, and is preparing him for the task ahead. It's been slow, sensible, planned and coordinated. Yesterday it was "chest day," but this time he meant business. It was incredibly tough and the protein shake that ends the session was almost impossible to lift. It was so demanding that I paid for another month.
"Do you need a chest massage?" Tatiana asked when I reported on my progress.
So we went, instead, shopping for stretchy shorts in Jesenice amid the sunshine and snowy peaks. On the way back we stopped for a McDonald's breakfast and chatted. Sitting in the booth she reminded me of a young film star; exactly the kind of girl you'd see in a light romantic comedy. She thinks I'm insane.
And while on the subject of insanity, I told her of the Minister of Police in Ljubljana. Or, rather, the house that he apparently owns in Bled. I walk home from the gym and so, three times a week, I walk past a huge empty slightly crumbling pile only a minute's walk from the lake: A lake which attracts zillions of visitors all year round. And here's a house big enough for several tourist apartments in a prime location slowly falling apart. It's also one of those houses that you fall in love with. Houses are like people aren't they? Some draw you in and you cant help yourself. It's a bit Sound of Music this place. Green balconies, shutters, broken windows and overgrown lawns. It should be full of children and butterflies.
I finally decided to discover the story behind the crumbling house and I began knocking on doors. Eventually I found a woman who told me how sad everyone is that it's falling into disrepair. It has been empty for years because it's owned by lots of family members (including the Minister of the Police) and, typical of Slovenian families, nobody can agree on what to do with property. And so it sits, crumbling. She said, "The roof is okay," in a tone suggesting you shouldn't go too near the walls.
Agatha Christie used to holiday in a hotel overlooking Lake Bohinj. It's beautiful still. It has a commanding view over the lake, the mountains, the ski runs. And it's empty. It sits doing nothing. The people who own it argue among themselves while beauty and heritage and opportunity wither before them. There are many such places that prompt tourists to say..."Why? Why is it empty?"
Tatiana and I have been trying to think of a business to do together. I have been drawing for 25 years and I was tired of it 10 years ago. She works for a company in Ljubljana that manages private jets and the egos that own them, and she wants something of her own. We both do. She, however, has a very serious business pedigree that took her all over the globe and apart from looking like a film star, she knows what she's doing. Anyone would want a business with her. I told her that I can't leave this empty house alone because it's a crime to let it rot. We talked about that. It's not practical without buying it and we can't buy it.
So we chatted about crowd funding and if that would work for a business idea (rather than a film or a book). Slovenia has recently been put on the map through the US election and it really is an undiscovered jewel. The time is right, I think.
So, dear reader, here I am with some degree of excitement and, as these things grow through the written word I think it's time to write something. This could be a new development that would benefit from an audience. A journal of progress. If nothing else, it would make a good story for a book, but I'd prefer a book AND a place full of paying guests.
I shall investigate the English-speaking world of crowd funding and Tatiana, being from Moscow, will look into the Russian equivalents. Somehow we two foreigners in a foreign land will resurrect an old beauty and fill it with people, even if the place is owned by 1000 people.
Watch this space. I shall report back soon. I promise.
There is a large vertical cliff running behind my garden. Between the cliff and the house is an assortment of healing plants, some rose bushes, things that you can eat if you're a lover of salads. To my right is a work area mad with wood, tools, some half finished tables, a metal calendar made in Yugoslavia, when there was a Yugoslavia. To my left is a barn where, in the summer, an art exhibition draws too few people, some of whom may want to use my toilet.
"They may want to use your toilet," Alenka said.
"And I'd like you to feed the cats."
Alenka provides the cat food. I just give it to them, and to be honest, they don't come round much.
The house looks like it was born from the febrile imagination of the Brothers Grimm. Everything is hand made and the floor is brick. It is rustic. It has murals of cats (on spoons) flying across the ceiling of the bedroom which takes up the entire third floor. The lower floor is a wet room -- a large expanse of shower and antique sink. One gets to the bedroom through the agency of a wooden ladder up through a hatch in the ceiling. From the outside, the house appears to be made of Gingerbread. Indeed, there's a witch hanging amid the pots and pans, its eyes lighting up when you touch it.
There's a garden that catches the sun most of the day, and chairs a-plenty. A place for a barbecue too. And, perhaps most surprisingly, there's a badger. It walked past me the other night while I was standing outside. We viewed each other with great suspicion. It may have seen humans before, but it's my first badger.
It's been a while since I posted hasn't it. Last time I posted it was a badgerless winter of skis and visits from my kids. Since then I've had my very own annus mirabilis, my wonderful year. Miracle year. A year unlike any other.
And I cannot tell you about it.
How does one write a blog post when nothing can be said? Ah, the challenge of writing. Too challenging actually, so I wrote nothing. I chose to live life instead of writing about it, and it's been everything I ever thought it would.
So here I am glossing over all the things I want to write about and leaving you with the crumbs.
This year began in Das Boot, the small apartment in Bohinjska Bistrica that served me so well for two years. But I needed a change and thought about travelling for six months, until I finally came to my senses and decided not to. I went to see my friend Ralph and told him I was having second thoughts about travelling, so he said "Don't go then." Aren't things simple when seen from another pair of eyes? I had told everyone I was going, and now I wasn't. I just cancelled everything and stayed.
I had given up Das Boot. Before I left I had to paint it, and painting a small apartment white isn't a great challenge, but moving a lot of furniture about and not ending up with white furniture is a challenge and it took me a week. Then I had to pack. I thought I owned a computer and two pairs of socks, but apparently I own more than that and it took me two days to haul it all to one of Ralph and Jo's gorgeous apartments. They run a tourist apartment place in a tiny village and it has a kind of serenity to it that's hard to describe. Like where the elves live in Lord of the Rings but without, you know, elves. It's nuzzled under a long cliff escarpment in the valley that runs from Lake Bohinj all the way up to Bled, just off the road and set back under the cliff. I stayed there for a few weeks while trying to find somewhere permanent.
Permanent felt like it should be Ljubljana. I wanted a change from Bohinjska Bistrica and a change meant the city. I mean, why swap a mountain village for another mountain village? Where's the change in that? So armed with lots of enthusiasm and very little knowledge, I set about looking for a place in the city.
I found only one apartment that I liked and it was far more money than was sensible but I thought I'd go see it. It was described as a bachelor pad, very Austin Powers, with Tiger rugs and somewhere to shake but not stir a Martini. I thought I might buy a black satin dressing gown and buy jazz records. I was going to see it the next Tuesday.
While standing on the balcony of Jo and Ralph's perfect apartment, looking out over the valley and imbued with a strange Elvish tranquillity, I began to doubt the sense of the Austin Powers bachelor pad. I wished I could just stay here. Jo and Ralph's place does that. It's kind of magical. I stayed in one of their places when I still had Tyson -- they said I should just get away for a bit and treat it like a holiday. It was like a holiday, even though it's only half an hour away from Das Boot. Can't I stay here? Nope. Tourists have it soon and I had to find somewhere. Sadly, this village is tiny and there was no chance of finding a place.
I walked Jo and Ralph's dog down to the river (tranquil, peaceful, Elvish, lovely, can't I stay here please?) and on the way back I began asking everyone I saw if they knew of a place I could rent. If anyone was foolish enough to be outside, I asked them. It was like being back in Greece, where you find a house by asking people, not by looking at adverts. It was fun, and Slovenians are so welcoming, so friendly, so other-worldly helpful, that I was soon on a kind of Greek-style treasure hunt, going from one lead to another lead to another. I met half the village that afternoon.
On the way back, Jo and Ralph returned from wherever they had gone and I said "I'm on a house hunt! I like it here. I didn't think moving from one mountain village to another could feel like a real change, but this place is a bit special isn't it?"
So they went to find Alenka.
"Kipica might sleep on the bed."
"And Roison only likes this food, but he doesn't come around every day."
"So you like the house?"
"I love it."
"What?" she asked. "Why are you smiling?"
To answer that question, you'd have to see the house. I call it Hobbiton. When I sent a picture of it to my daughter, she said "Is that a real-sized door or do you have to duck down?"
It is a real sized door. There's a tree in the bedroom. Not a real one, it's painted like the cats on spoons. There are old clocks that are stopped, things made from trees but retaining all their tree-like qualities. Dried flowers. Antiques. Stuff that I've only just noticed and I've been here over 3 weeks. Stuffed owls. Paintings that look like a cross between nice English watercolours and Hieronymus Bosch. A piano stool. Lampshades made of baskets or bamboo. Fairy lights and chalk boards, ancient things and state of the art speakers. It's stone and wood and cushions and might be an English country cottage over-run by eastern European elves. There's even a wood-burning range for cooking in the winter.
The cliff is at the back. From the front windows you look out over the valley and can see the mountains that surround the hugely popular destination of Bled, with its lake and castle. And the railway line passes in front of the house. There aren't too many trains. Indeed, at weekends one of the not-too-many trains is powered by steam and chugs tourists twice a day. When I hear the whistle I run to the window to see, all too briefly, a piece of moving nostalgia.
The cliff that dominates the area behind the house runs for maybe a mile parallel to the valley, and at one end of the village there's a rock-climbing area and waterfall. And a footpath which goes up the cliff. The Slovenians, sensitive to the fact that not everyone carries 100 feet of rope with them, have provided a handy vertical rustic wooden ladder which will get you up this obstacle in comfort and style. I went there because Ralph said "Have you been up the ladder yet?"
"Hmmm. Go up the ladder. None of my English guests can believe that it's part of a footpath."
I can't either. I love this country.
I love the cat-filled badger strewn Hobbit house too.
It is nothing like Das Boot which was new, organised, functional. It is Hobbiton. And it symbolises everything about this year. Jo and Ralph went to see Alenka and Alenka said..."Oooh, I've been meaning to leave. I've been meaning to make a move, but the time was never right. Now it's right, and you come along with an Englishman wanting to rent my house. It's good. It's good timing."
Every star in the sky has been in alignment from the very first second of this year and I am falling over wonderful things that have simply been placed before me. I've never had a time like it. And the most incredible part of this journey will, I hope, be the subject of another blog post. A blog post like no other.
One day I will write it.
And so, without being able to write the full story of my Annus mirabilis, I have chosen to do things and not just write about them. I bought a piano! Since childhood I've been able to play by ear but never learned (despite doing 3 gigs in Philadelphia playing the keyboard in a blues band). Now I have an electric piano, not a keyboard, and I'm learning how to play, at last. But a writer should be able to make the vegetables interesting even if he can't write about the meat, so here's the magic house, the magic village, the cats and the cliff and the badger. The first badger I've ever seen. I am not at all surprised that such a rare and seldom seen thing should casually walk past me. Not this year. As Ralph said, armed with every detail, your life is like a novel. It is.
My son has been here for a few days; he leaves in the morning. He came for the skiing and I told him to cancel for there was no snow. He chose to visit me anyway, and it snowed, and all was well in wonderland.
I love the local ski resort. It's beautiful, it's friendly, the views of snow-capped mountains would make an angel cry and they serve boar goulash and mulled wine. It's where I like to be in the winter, and the reason I wanted to go travelling in the spring. I wanted snow, crying angels, boar and warm herby wine.
Which is why it's a crying shame that Sabina, my neighbour, hasn't been there in the winter since she arrived on these shores 11 years ago. She has cows and children. Several chickens. A husband who's always working. A dog. All things that has kept her from the piste.
She's Swedish, and therefore skis. Well, that was my stereotypical assumption in the summer when I told her that this year we would ski. Yes, her. Me. Snow. Sobbing angels. Okay okay, she said, while it was still hot and the mountains were covered in grass and cow-pat.
My son David arrived for this, his second year of learning the art of elegant sliding. We went to Vogel on Wednesday in Andrej's van because my car is temporarily illegal, and spent the day sliding our way toward contentment. A perfect day of sun and snow, me kidding Andrej that "Valley" is not pronounced "Wellie," he and David discussing the mysteries of the Polish language (Dave's girlfriend is Polish), and generally being in a place which is intimate enough to feel like you're in some kind of reunion from summer camp.
I know people here, and I don't realise how many I know until I meet them on Vogel. I know one of the ski patrol men from cow-walking in the summer, and a guy called Rock shouted "Peter, enjoying the skiing?"
"Ah, yes! But I'm terrible!"
"Just have fun!"
I know Rock from his summer-time kayak business. I didn't know he teaches skiing.
It's lovely to be in a ski resort -- I mean me, in an actual ski resort -- and bumping into (sometimes literally), friends. The girl in the café. A guy driving a skidoo full of suitcases. Claudia who, for some reason, thinks it's funny to see me on skis (oh, wait, I do know why she thinks it's funny). Monica who, in the summer, helped me with solving simultaneous equations. All there, transplanted to that frozen but homely place.
It was, therefore, only right that my friend and first port in a storm Sabina should be there too. It was so much fun telling her that Thursday, she was going skiing. Have you ever seen an overly nervous Swede? I don't mean an averagely nervous Swede, which I image we've all seen at some point in our lives, but a Swede who appears to be on the very verge of explosion? I thought she might think...yes, that would be nice. I didn't think she'd hyperventilate and run around crashing into things. And that was before she'd hired some skis.
Thursday morning was a major event for Sabina. She grinned on the drive to Vogel with such energy that I feared she might melt the snow. She spoke continuously and then remembered to breathe. "I'm going to die! I'm so excited! I'm going to die!"
And so me, David, and a Swedish woman seemingly excited about imminent death, climbed aboard the 8:30am gondola to be hoisted up to where angels weep, boar go to that great goulash dish in the sky, and farmer's wives spin and laugh.
David went off to continue his mission to ski as well as his Polish girlfriend (he's learning to ski, learning Polish, and he's a man of whom I'm proud).
I stayed behind with a euphorically suicidal screaming Swedish woman.
She put on her skis and was going to tackle the kiddie slope. I was going to stay with her in case she fell over or exploded. But one push and she was off -- perfect, natural, irritatingly good. Clearly she was a great skier and it took only seconds for her body to remember. She went away on the flat, skiing in a fluid cross-country style, and came back beaming, the kiddie slope forgotten.
From the gondola station, the hotel, the numerous restaurants, you ski down to the main chair lifts. We got down there and she was ready to tackle the long blue slope -- the only one I'm capable of. The ride up in the chair takes maybe 5 minutes, maybe more, but it is a ride as surreal as it is beautiful. It's quiet. You are alone with your thoughts, the view, the tiny crystals of ice in the air, the blinding sun and the whole Triglav Range of mountains stretching snow-covered away toward Austria. You are carried from the happy families down at the chair lift station into something like orbit. A silent peaceful wondrous beauty.
When it's time to get off, you are jolted back to reality. There's a mad scramble for the safety bar, ski poles, getting ready to stand and not fall down. It's almost a shame the ride has to stop.
We met David on the way down and his skiing has improved immeasurably since last year. He had a lesson the day before with Andrej and the improvement showed. He was concentrating on control and style rather than the gung-ho speed of the previous year. I don't have lessons, choosing merely to count my limbs at the bottom of the slope and regarding the correct number as success. David, however, wants to actually ski, and he's getting there fast. Sabina slid to an expert stop when she saw him and then raised her arms and did a little dance. Imagine Rocky at the top of the Philadelphia Art Museum steps, but a girl and wearing a new ski jacket bought for this one moment. When we got to the bottom she was looking all around Vogel, a place unrecognisable from the summer meadows where she takes the cows.
"What's that slope? And that one? What about that one?"
"No," I said. "I'm responsible for you. You're not doing it. This slope is good."
So we did it lots more.
Then the three of us stopped at the top of the chair lift to eat hot dogs and chips and drink beer in the snow-blindness sunshine. Happy Happy Slovenian music plays, threatening to cause everything to joggle and bounce off the tables. All is colour. Skis and poles resting where they may in happy piles. Snow goggles and funny hats and bright people made ungainly by boots not designed for walking. Sabina phoned Igor, then friends, then anyone she had a number for. "I'm skiing! I'm having fun!"
I enjoyed her excitement as much as she. She's a farmer. She has kids. Time for fun is limited.
She had to leave around noon and before she went she hugged me and said thank you. I did nothing except tell her she was going to do it, but I loved that she thanked me. She's done so much for me since I've been here, and the mere thought that I'd contributed to her doing something she enjoyed made me happy. She left saying that she and Igor could do this together, and I hope they do.
Later, on this perfect day, David and I skied some more then returned to the top of the blue run for more beer and hot mulled wine, sitting in deck chairs looking out over more slopes, more mountains, more things than I have words for.
Beer and wine, and it was time to ski back down.
When we clambered from the deck chairs, David straightened up, got himself together, and said "Okay, we've had too much to drive, but we're okay to ski."
I laughed like a lunatic.
At the end of the day we caught the gondola down, ready to catch the ski bus back to Bohinjska Bistrica. After a minute of waiting, Rock wandered by and said Peter, you can come with me.
And so we did.
David and I skied today with my brother Frank. It was cloudy and the views of yesterday were gone. We enjoyed the day of course. David wants to ski and I love him being here. We've had quality time and no amount of snow or sunshine can compare with that.
But for the one big moment when Sabina got to do something just for herself, all the stars were in alignment.
And it was good.
I have been writing a lot of late. Writing so much, in fact, that I haven't had time to write a blog post.
No, that's not true. I've had the time, but when you write long fiction you get caught up in it. It takes over, it colours everything you do, it doesn't want the real world to break in. Recently, in one day, I wrote 11,000 words. I forgot to eat.
One day I became insanely happy. Happy beyond all reason. It was cold outside and the fire was lit. Brief Encounter was on the TV. I had written something I was genuinely proud of and I'd just put the kettle on for coffee. The combination of those things made me euphoric.
In the real world, my son and daughter came to visit and we saw the Christmas lights in Ljubljana, then spent a couple of days in Venice. It was perfect and I love to see them. While in Ljubljana I visited a travel agent and went back a week later. I bought my tickets to Bali. I fly April 21st and come back here in October.
On Christmas Eve, Sabina and the kids turned up with a tree, tinsel, baubles, a nativity, and in five minutes I was festive. Then they swooped off to do the 1000 other things she has to do.
Christmas day with my brother and his wife was quiet and nice, then they flew back to England for a bit, and Slovenia was all mine. I wondered what I'd do on New Year's Eve. Last year I was at Sabina's and it was lovely. This year I wasn't sure what I was going to do.
And then Bing Bong and it was Sabina at the door. "What are you doing for New Year?"
"I assumed you're coming to us."
Igor had asked her if I was going to be there and she had said yes. "Have you asked him?" he said. "Oh, no, I just assumed."
I hugged her. There's nothing better than becoming so close to the neighbours that they forget to ask because it's just assumed. I like it there. I like being part of the local celebrations, part of the family, part of Slovenia, which is how they make me feel.
I have finally admitted to being an incurable romantic. Dudley Chalk is a romance, dressed up as something else. Everything I've written of late is a romance, no matter how much I protest. I've recently bought myself an MP3 player -- the first time I've been able to listen to music while outside -- and it's transformative. I walked through the mountains with it, everything covered in frozen fog and looking like Narnia, with The Four Seasons playing. There were moments where I had to simply stop walking because the combination of Alps and Vivaldi was astonishing.
It's all a romance isn't it. Even when there's nobody for miles.
When I arrived on New Year's Eve the party was in full swing. All the kids were playing and the house was full of Slovenes, one Swede, one Englishman and five Russians. I love that. It isn't just that I feel special, but I actually love the fact that I don't know what people are saying. Really. You have to concentrate on more than words. But I also like it when a group of people speak English because I'm in the mix, and they are doing it simply to include me. Good people.
Matea arrived. Remember him? He got to fly in a helicopter when I didn't, and ever since we've traded insults. He rings the church bells during celebrations. "Peter! I'm ringing the bells at midnight!"
"Can I come!"
The church in Bohinjska Bistrica is old and lovely and I can see it from my balcony. Every fifteen minutes a bell chimes, but at moments of great import all the bells are rung by lunatic campanologists with a crazy free-form syncopated enthusiasm that can be heard for miles.
Just before midnight, we wrapped up and set off across the road to the church. Matea, me, Bostjan the farmer, Tatiana and her daughter from Moscow. In the churchyard was a drunk man and a couple I didn't know. Matea opened the great front door and we entered a completely dark church.
Flights of old wooden stairs lead up. And up. And more up. You have to crouch, you can bang your head on the ceiling, fall all the way down if you've drunk too much, which some of us had.
Up in the belfry there are three enormous bells, like Russian dolls with clappers. A huge one in the middle, medium and smaller to the sides (though smaller is a relative term). Matea and the drunk guy had a practice, Tatiana had a go and so did I.
And then, as the hour was nigh, Matea swung the giant centre bell back and forth to get it into a permanent rhythm and together, he and the drunk set-to with the other clappers. The drunk fell off his perch several times and was in danger of falling down the small hatch through which we had entered the belfry, but he gamely clambered back. You can feel the sound in your chest. There is nothing at all up there but the cold night air coming through the glassless windows and a deep down shaking coming up through your feet.
And then Bohinjska Bistrica exploded in fireworks. From the highest point in town, standing next to the very things that proclaimed the new year, the sky lit up and the bells got more manic and there was not one place in the world I would rather have been.
Champagne was poured into plastic cups and I learned how to say Happy New Year in Russian. Watching the fireworks, Tatiana and her daughter said we should be making a wish.
I couldn't think of one that was better than where I was, right then.
It's all romance, isn't it.
My writing of late has had a backdrop of Brief Encounter. To keep me focused, in the zone, I tend to put on the same film over and over, all day long. Like hypnosis. It's been Brief Encounter, partly because it has Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto running all the way through it and I like the way Celia Johnson says "Hat."
Brief Encounter is old, black and white, and at first you might think it quaint. Then you laugh at the accents. Then you wonder what all the fuss is about. Then you realise it's perfect. Every movement, every delivered word, every camera angle, the story arc. Perfect.
Like living here, really. All the same reactions.
We wandered back to the farm and there was much back slapping and shouts of Srechno Novo Leto.
Once again, a wonderful New Year at the neighbour's.
Happy New Year, wherever you are.
Slovenia, writing, other things