2015 looking back

Well its the first day of 2016 and I feel that I should recap on the last twelve months.

One year ago today we awoke in Pismo Beach on California’s pacific coast having spent new years eve driving up the Big Sur coastal highway, stopping to watch shoals of whales make their way to who knows where and later to watch the final sunset of the year disappear below the horizon.

Looking back, that alone should be sufficient for a reasonable person to regard themselves fortunate, but for Jane and I this was just to seem like the hors d’oeuvres for the feast of activity that was to lay ahead.
We have already described the amazing things and people we encountered travelling throughout Asia before returning to Norfolk (with some cultural decompression/reorientation in lovely Italy and surprising Poland). One thing that we may have not shared on the blog at the time was that we decided to set a wedding date and thanks to the wonders of the internet were able to book the service on line from Japan.

June found us back in Norwich standing in the dining room of Jane’s house, still stripped bare of our possessions as we had left it eight months earlier. When away we had talked about and planned the things we could do to the house “to make it ours”, in the event Jane turned to me and said, shall we just sell it and buy one together? That’s just what we did and I’m writing this sitting on the sofa in our nice little home. As readers, friends and acquaintance are well aware, I’m not averse to the odd four letter word, but Work is a particularly pernicious one that reared its head almost immediately.  Again good fortune prevailed, Jane was able to pick up another summer contract teaching at the UEA and I dropped on a project surveyor contract in King’s Lynn,  50 miles up the road.

With our house move happening at the beginning of September and wedding in November we were kept fairly busy and I know this probably sounds a bit pathetic but we were ready for a holiday/honeymoon when all the contracts had been signed and we were matrimonially homed!

The lovely little island of Madeira was our destination, a lump of volcanic rock that popped out of the Atlantic 850,000 years ago. Inhabited since the 1600’s after some Portuguese sailors discovered it after they were blown off course. The island is fertile, has abundant water and year round clement temperatures, a pocket sized Eden. We rented a fantastic apartment in the capital Funchal. The owner, Carlos had provided everything we could possibly need and some, a very special experience.

On our return, we just had a two week run in to the December holiday. We had a nice, though low key Christmas and celebrated the new year in style.  My W**k contract ended in December but fortunately I have picked up a new one for January, it means I’ll have to be away a couple of nights a week, but its a fucking job!

So what lies ahead for us in 2016, who knows? We have agreed that cutting out the flying would do no harm, so we are going to explore our own little island this year. We want to do some things to make our house into our home and hopefully some of the great folks that we met on our travels will come and share our hospitality. But plans are just a starting point, what actually happens will remain a wonderful mystery, till it happensâ˜ș

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P.S. Poland

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Did we mention we were coming to Poland? After the disappointment of our last helpx and some good final days in Italy we went home only to find that going back to my house felt all wrong. It was too big and felt like a backward step so we’ve put everything in motion to get it on the market, bought a car and done some house hunting. We achieved quite a lot in two weeks. But now we’re in Warsaw.

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We’d already arranged our helpx in Zabuze, which is a couple of hours west of here, and we’d organised accommodation in Warsaw, so we decided we might as well go ahead. So far Warsaw is lovely. It has an extensive and very attractive old town that has actually been reconstructed since the war as 90% of the city was destroyed. Today we walked around soaking up the atmosphere, had a Polish lunch of soup, herring, dumplings and pork and found some dancing fountains by the river. All very satisfactory.

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Marie Curie’s discoveries.

Tomorrow we’re planning on visiting a couple of museums and learning more about the history of the city.

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So what was the point?

Before we set out on our trip one of the things we were interested in was different ways of living. We wanted to see if we could work out how to get a balance in life, working, preferably at something we enjoyed doing, and travelling or doing other enjoyable stuff.

Thanks to the people we’ve met, we’ve come back not so much with ideas about how we can live our life, but living proof of the fact that it’s possible to live in the way you choose, rather than the way society dictates.

I always thought that people were far more important than places and our trip has confirmed that. We’ve met people who are living life in all sorts of different ways and I want to remember them all and the fact that it can be done.

Blair and Marc live their lives unconventionally in many ways but what was marked about them was their refusal to be trapped by fear over protecting possessions. They live on an upmarket estate in Queens, New York, that is patrolled by security cars paid for by the residents. But they never lock their doors or windows. Despite owning antiques and family heirlooms they are not sentimental about objects and refuse to compromise their lives for the sake of protecting their stuff. This was brought home to us when we borrowed their two bikes and they were promptly stole. We walked back contemplating our confession and the cost (maybe $1,000) of replacing the bikes. But when we told Marc and Blair they laughed and said as long as no one was hurt they didn’t care. They were only bikes after all!

Tom lives in a Mayan inspired house he is building himself in Louisiana. He’s been building it for about 40 years and has a heritage centre there. Tom is 80 years old and his knees are pretty much crippled with arthritis but he is full of plans for the future, for completing the house, for carrying out weddings in the beautiful setting, and for expanding the work of the heritage centre. It felt a real privilege to spend a week helping him and being inspired by his enthusiasm and tenacity.

Edgar is a young man (19) who lives on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. He comes from a large family in a society where education is not available to all and people marry and have families young. Edgar works in the herb garden of Maya Traditions, an NGO supporting women weavers. He takes a real pride in his work. He also has a job in an office, and is studying Agronomy. He doesn’t want to get married until he has a good job and a house of his own. It was great to meet a serious, focussed youngster who has thought things through and is making the best of life in a very difficult society.

Geraldo is a Dutch ex backpacker who runs Via Via hostel in Copan, Honduras. He’s full of energy and enthusiasm but what was really encouraging was that he employed local people on a fair wage and in no way exploited either the locals or his guests.

Heather used to work in Los Angeles as a PA to the stars. A few years ago she wrote a book about her experiences and made enough money to enable her to leave and return to the area she grew up in. She’s a single mum and she’s now teaching with enthusiasm and living the way she wants to live. It can be done!

John Thomas was an Anthropology lecturer. When he retired he decided he’d like to learn to play the violin. This proved more difficult than he’d thought so he started to repair violins instead. At the age of 64 he now has a thriving business. It can be done!

Americans are not perfect but so many of them were open, welcoming, generous and friendly to us. In the words of Barbara Kingsolver, why can’t America be more like Americans?  Keith springs to mind.

Sarah and Rhys were our hosts in Kuala Lumpur. They are a young English couple who have decided to make a better life for themselves in a country where they see more opportunity. Sarah is half Malay. They both work hard, Rhys is learning the language, they’re generous hosts and will go far.

Shade is a reformed alcoholic who married late in life, gave up his career as a chef and now lives in an idyllic spot on an island in the Andaman sea. He has a boat, eats fresh fish from the sea every day, coconuts from the trees and quite disgusting tea and coffee. He lives a tranquil life welcoming guests from all over the world as the perfect host. Inspirational!

Pedro and family are from South Korea. They have chosen to go against the grain by not sending their children to cram school and by moving out of Seoul to an island. Every school holiday they take their two boys on impromptu trips abroad so they are broadening their education in that way. We met them while staying in Shade’s bungalow. The money saved by not sending the kids to cram school will support Pedro and his wife in their old age so they are not dependent on their kids who, in turn, will be free to live their own lives. This seems a new approach for South Koreans and a courageous way for them to live their lives.

The Mancunian. We never knew his name but he advised us to go to Koh Jum. He has a big house and all the trimmings in the UK but he and his wife spend every winter on a Thai island living in a simple two room bungalow and travelling round on their scooter. His wife catches fish that she sells to local restaurants.

Raewyn is Australian. She married a Thai man in Australia 20 years ago. 10 years ago they moved to Bangkok and they now live in a oasis in the centre of the city amongst his family, renting rooms to travellers.

Alan was a man Sean struck up conversation about Tai Chi with in a park in Taipei. He was friendly and encouraging and happy.

Swallow runs a guest house in Taiwan. She speaks no English but her enthusiasm and ingenuity with Facebook and Google translate allowed us to communicate so she gave us lots of tips and advice to make our stay more enjoyable.

Linda is a Taiwanese ex English teacher, who now runs a guesthouse with her husband in a small village; and manages a pizza restaurant where her son is the chef, cooking in a wood-fired pizza oven built by her husband. The only one of two in Taiwan (the other is in their guest house).

Kiichi! Where to begin? Kiichi is an eccentric, ebullient, generous, funny Japanese man living on Okinawa, embarking on his second career (and second marriage) in his fifties. Until last year he was a DJ in his own nightclub. He’s now sold it and is working with a movie director friend to produce films in Okinawa. He loves hats, has a range of glasses, waistcoats, cut-off cords and interesting shoes. He loves babysitting his new grand daughter; he took us for the best noodles we tasted. And we all managed to communicate despite the language barrier. I would love to have his natural enthusiasm and appreciation of life.

Fumiki has clear ideas about what he wants from life for himself and his family. He used to be a singing teacher and musician and treated us to a very touching rendition of Danny Boy. He then decided to retrain as a nurse, something that he explained gives him the same satisfaction as music, through the contact with people. While training he and his family lived in a tiny apartment on a very low income but they have now managed to buy a house. Fumiki is adamant that he wants his two girls to grow up with an understanding of the international world and wants to introduce them to people and experiences from beyond Japan. He’s committed to working hard to achieve this, is devoted to his family and true to himself.

Adje, despite her faults, is an example of how life can be turned around. In her late fifties she sold her B&B in Holland and bought a farmhouse in Umbria. I wouldn’t say she has endeared herself to the local workmen but she has achieved her dream home and the lifestyle she wants through single mindedness, determination and courage.

Johnny was our host in Pisa. He is a Persian Physiotherapy student and hopes to study for his Master’s in England. After that he hopes to move to Montreal. I was impressed that he had this long term goal that he is steadily working towards and he will undoubtedly overcome obstacles (learning English, researching a different education and health system, visa regulations) that would make me give up in the early stages.

I am full of admiration for all these people who have qualities that I lack. I’d like to be more like many of them and will try to remember what they, and others, have shown me. All of them were trusting, open and welcoming and that’s a good way to be with other people.

As well as meeting people, we wanted to see beneath the surface and get a real feel for the countries that we visited. We hoped helpx and airbnb would help us to do this. We had a qualified success, initially marred by the setback of finding Maya Pedal to be a cowboy operation. The natural warmth of the Americans and the great helpx hosts we met there meant we did feel we achieved a connection with the people and understanding of the country. In Central America, too, we met and worked with local people. In Asia this became more difficult, particularly in Thailand, where we were perceived as ‘foreigners’ rather than people so we were given the tourist experience and found it difficult to share in every day life. Shade gave us a great taste of island life in Malaysia, taking us to visit a school, local cafes and his wife’s family. Kiichi helped us get to know Okinawa and Fumiki gave us a real insight into Japanese life but, perhaps inevitably, we felt more like tourists in Asia (and Italy) than earlier in our trip.

Seeing different countries has brought home to us the huge inequalities that exist in different parts of the world, the massive drain on natural resources, the huge waste that occurs everywhere (‘disposable’ water bottles and other items being most evident). We also saw widespread signs of how the rich parts of the world are keeping the poor in their place and how the wealthy sectors of society are looking after their own interests at the expense of those at the bottom.

But on a personal level we’ve been inspired by so many of the people we met and the way they’ve organised their lives. The challenge now is to use what we’ve learnt to put things in place so we can live our own lives in the way that we want to.

End of Part 2

We’re going home tomorrow!!

Part 2 has been no less eventful than part 1. We are more confident and relaxed than at the outset but we have become a bit more touristy than we’d hoped. We’ve met some more fantastic people and had some great experiences in Asia. Now that the trip has been somewhat curtailed and we’ve got used to the idea, I’m looking forward to getting home and getting some structure back into our lives.

Asia was amazing and varied. The design of Singapore was stunning; the variety, the food and the welcome in Malaysia was wonderful. Thailand was disappointing but we had a warm welcome from Raewyn and Charlie, and seeing the Burma Railway and Bridge over the River Kwai and learning about the experiences of those who worked on it was unforgettable. The Taiwanese were lovely people and we enjoyed our scooter experiences there. And Japan was unpredictable, cultured and a bit mad.

Sean and I have been together 24/7 for the past 7 months and we’ve learnt a bit more about each others’ bodily functions than is probably ideal at this stage in a relationship. But we’ve survived. In fact, we’ve done better than survived. The highs have outweighed the lows sufficiently for us to set a date for our wedding and we’ve got lots of exciting plans to make when we get home.

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These are some of the amazing people we’ve met since we left America:

John, Sarah and Rhys, Shade (Abdul Rashid), Pedro and family, Shade’s wife (Barakat), Antonio and Agnes, Peter and Arti, Mancunian guy (Cheadle), pink bus lady, NZ lad on bus, Korean girl on bus, Raewyn, Charlie, Polish family, Canadian/Hungarian honeymooners, young English couple on train, Rick, Alan, students on train to Taitung, Swallow, Linda and sons, Tom, Jim, Kiichi, Fumiki, Yumiko, Hana, Fu, Yuki, Chise, Adje, Filomena, Jack, Domenico and Vida, Johnny

These are the places we visited:

Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Pulau Dayang Bunting (Tuba Island, Kuah on Langkawi), Krabi, Koh Jum Bamboo bungalow, Koh Jum Freedom bungalow, Krabi (Railay), Bangkok, Kanchanaburi, Chiang Mai, Yonghe New Taipei, Taitung, Hualien (Taroko), Tamsui New Taipei, Taipei New Mayflower, Kitamae (Chatan) Okinawa, Sakai, Nagoya (Inuyama), Tokyo, Podere del Buongistaio Fabro Ficulle, Arezzo, Florence, Pisa

Lunch

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We’ve had an enforced break, and a few lunches, in Tuscany before returning to the UK and very pleasant it has been too.

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In Arezzo we had a wonderful penthouse room with glorious views across the rooftops of the beautiful city. And a fantastic lunch.

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In Florence we wandered the streets in the sunshine admiring the artwork round every corner. And had a couple of wonderful lunches!

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And in Pisa we looked at the tower, wandered the streets of the beautiful old town. And had a memorable lunch!

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The more I see of Italy, the more I love it. Yes, the buses (and sometimes trains) are crowded and late but everyone seems to take it in good spirits. Yes, they still allow smoking in restaurants and public spaces but it’s kind of refreshing to see people enjoying a glass of wine or beer and a cigarette unencumbered by rules and regulations.

Many of the cities are overwhelmingly beautiful in shades of terracotta and umber and ochre. The people are patient and friendly to the hordes of tourists (one old lady forced us to follow her through a series of changing buses and buying tickets to get us to our destination). And the language sounds beautiful. But best of all is the food, antipasti of salami and cheese, perfectly cooked spaghetti with just garlic and olive oil, tortellini filled with aubergine served with artichoke sauce, or filled with ricotta with asparagus sauce, fresh fish and meat with rocket and tomatoes, huge salads and delicate little tarts and cheesecakes for dessert. All the things we’d been missing but so much better.

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Dumped!

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We arrived in Italy 10 days ago. We had everything planned, 3 weeks or so helpxing and a few days off before flying on. It felt great to be back in Europe and we didn’t have to do any more searching or booking or decision making. And then we were dumped! By Adje, our helpx host.

She was a strange lady, adamant that we should do things our way while, at the same time, finding fault and imposing her way of doing things. This and a lack of proper tools for the job made things difficult and Adje was quite sensitive and kept asking if we were ok or if she’d offended us as she didn’t want things to go wrong. We suspected she might have had other HelpXers who had bailed out. We tried to get on with her and thought we were doing ok, working till about 3 pm on her beautiful Umbrian farmhouse, then going for a stroll in the afternoon. There wasn’t much else to do as it was miles from anywhere and we were totally dependent on Adje for getting anywhere.

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On Monday Adje invited a very nice Dutch couple for dinner and we had an interesting evening and talked about the festival on May 1. The next day Sean and I left for an overnight stay in Rome.

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Rome is beautiful, the weather was glorious, we had some great food and walked all over the city. On the way back we texted Adje to say our train was on time and got a very terse reply accusing us of being late, which we weren’t. When she picked us up at the station she was clearly angry and we were subjected to a stony silence for the 20 minute drive home. When we got there I asked if everything was ok and she insisted that we had come back late, that there were ‘other things’ that were wrong, and that it would be better if we left.

This was a real pain. We had nowhere to go, it would affect all our later plans and funds are getting pretty low. We spent the rest of the evening (with no dinner) on the internet trying to find somewhere to stay and to think what to do next. We ended up with one night in Arezzo, thinking of getting in touch with our next host to see if we could go to her early. We then realised she has another couple with her at the moment. After another day of agonising and working out the budget we realised that the best thing would be to go home. We can’t afford an extended holiday in Italy without working and, after the last helpx experience, we’re not sure if we can rely on the next one working out. Especially as the two women are friends.

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So we’ve made the decision, hopefully done the last bit of planning and booking, have 2 nights in Florence, 2 in Pisa and then home on Tuesday. We can’t get into the house straight away so will be staying with Dad and Pearl for a few days. It will be good to be settled again but it’s a shame the trip had to come to such an abrupt end.

Homeward Bound

One of the interesting things about being away for an extended time is that you start to see your own country (or continent) as others may. And to appreciate it. We’re heading to Rome now and it feels like we’re approaching home.

I’m looking forward to seeing beautiful, old historic cities again, to eating good fresh vegetables, great coffee, bread, cheese and wine. We haven’t had any decent chocolate for weeks, or even months. I’m looking forward to having easy access to fair trade and organic products, and to our clear and effective recycling policies.

When we finally get back to Norwich in a few weeks I’m looking forward to the familiarity of things, the people I’ve missed, our great bars and restaurants and getting back to work. Yes, really!

And to some long country walks.

We’ve been so lucky to visit so many wonderful places and, more importantly to meet inspiring people and make true friends; I’ve got used to living out of 12 kilos of luggage and moving on regularly; of learning the basics in yet another language. And we’ve gained some understanding of the history, traditions and humanity in different parts of the world. It’s not homesickness that makes Norwich look inviting now, but a readiness to start the next stage of our life and to try and retain and put into practice some of the inspiration and lessons learned on this trip.

We’re not home just yet. We’ve got a month in the Italian countryside, a week in a Polish spa and short break in Berlin before that so we’ve still got lots to explore and enjoy but it feels as though we’re homeward bound.

(Written in Abu Dhabi airport at 6:00 a.m.)
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