Matt’s Birthday!

After a gruelling 16 hour train journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, we were rewarded with a lovely room and a birthday cake for Matt. For he’s a jolly good fellow!

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Dr. Fish and the Tuk-Tuks

Tuk-tuk travel

Tuk-tuk travel

We flew from the sweaty heat of Singapore to… the sweaty heat of Cambodia!  Actually getting used to it now, we walked through Siem Reap airport where a man holding up a sign with my name on it (very exciting) was to be found waiting for us.  He was our tuk-tuk driver.  A tuk-tuk is a small four seater covered carriage pulled by a moped and was to become very familiar over the next few weeks.  Our man piled on all our luggage and we climbed in, we were then driven down to our new home, the Motherhome Guest House.  Our first tuk-tuk ride was a bit nerve-wracking as we witnessed the apparently random driving of the Cambodians, it seems like anything goes, with traffic flowing in all directions at once, narrowly missing each other in a kind of slow ballet.  Someone later described a tuk-tuk as being like a fish with all the traffic like water flowing around it.

View from the guesthouse.

View from the guesthouse.

 We were greeted at Motherhome by the friendly staff offering us cold fruit drinks and blessedly ice-cool towels scented with eucalyptus.  The staff were all beautifully dressed in red and gold tunics or long dresses and were very graceful and helpful.  At over three weeks our stay was pretty lengthy by normal standards, the average time anyone spends here is one point eight days, how they fit everything in is anyone’s guess. We were to visit the temples of Angkor and generally hang out in the city.
Siem Reap is a mainly tourist town aimed at accommodating all the hordes visiting Angkor, it has loads of good restaurants and markets, massage places (including the dreaded Dr. Fish Foot Massage – I tried this but felt like the fish were finding my feet just a bit too tasty! Fran, after persuading me to take the plunge kept her feet in for about two seconds and squeaked loudly, refusing to repeat the experience.)  There is also a night market where you can shop for silks and buddhas when it’s a bit cooler.
Those fish are too hungry!

Those fish are too hungry!

 We went on a trip to the floating village of Chong Kneas.  The huge lake, ‘Tonle Sap’, in the middle of Cambodia is home to several of these villages, when we went the water level was very low and the colour of buttermilk.  We went on a short tour to see the villages and few disgruntled looking crocodiles, finishing up with dinner on an old boat anchored in the lake.  We were hoping for a longer tour to explore the sunken forest a fews hour’s boat ride away but were informed that the forest hadn’t sunk yet as it was still dry season. (News to us – we thought it was rainy, but apparently the lake doesn’t rise until the mighty Mekong river reverses its flow later in the season.)
Girl, wash tub and snake.

Girl, wash tub and snake.

 Other things we did during our stay included a traditional puppet show given by local kids and a cello concert and lecture by the famous Dr. Beat Richner, fundraising for the local children’s hospital.  At the moment in Siem Reap, there is a terrible outbreak of Dengue Fever with many children being affected by this killer disease.
We also visited a modern Pagoda ‘Wat Bo’ near our hotel in the city.  There we met with a young monk who was studying at the buddhist school attached to the Pagoda.  He was a lovely young man dressed in stunning orange robes, he came over to chat with us and practice his English.  We sat in the shade of a tree out of the hot sun and after a while some more monks joined us, one of them, another young man grinning from ear to ear was even trying to chat Fran up much to her amusement! “You very beautiful!”
Monk chat

Monk chat

We’ve had a good time in the city, we even managed to gate-crash the British Ambassador’s reception cocktail party, after being tipped off by an ex-pat in our local bar.  “Just show up with your passport” he said, so we did.  Free drinks around the pool at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, lovely, darling. Adding to the delusions of grandeur was the mistaken feeling of being quite rich, we went out with wads of 100’s in our wallets, but alas 100 riel is  only about 2 pence.
You can imagine you're rich!

You can imagine you’re rich!

Watch out for Fran’s post on the Temples, coming soon…
Gallery pics below:

Singapore Sling

We made our way to our ‘home’ for the week, Sleepy Sam’s, the cheapest place we could find. We weren’t sure we were in the right place because the entrance was cordoned off with tape and inside the dark room was piled full of baggage. This was however the reception area, but we were told our room wasn’t ready so we dutifully trotted off for noodles and beer. We were trying to acclimatise to the sweaty heat and to the news that my sister has to have a serious operation and I might have to cut short our trip to be with her.

When we got back it still wasn’t ready, but what we had assumed meant cleaning the room in fact meant renovating the whole floor! We eventually were shown to our cubicle with a mattress on the floor which separated us from the dorm with a wafer thin wall so we were treated to the sound of every burp, fart and snore. Slightly more elevating was the sound of the call to prayer from the Sultan Mosque at the end of the road.

While we were here we tried to trace a photo taken by Matt’s dad when he was posted here by the RAF just after the war. The photo was taken in Raffles Place, the central business area of Singapore and now utterly unrecognisable from how it was in the forties, today it is full of dizzying sky-scrapers screaming their wealth.

We had a memorable visit to the Asian Civilisations Museum and were amazed at the richness and wonder of this continent we are now in. By happy coincidence we were there during an arts festival and went to see a ‘Centaur’ performance. A horse and rider showing an amazing amount of skill but unfortunately it looked more like control than harmony, and we came away much bigger fans of the horse than of the rider. Other outings were a walk to the Indian district where we drank Singapore Slings out of jam jars, and pretending to be rich and famous at the famous Raffles Hotel, drinking where Ava Gardener and Ernest Hemmingway once supped.

Next stop Cambodia…

More gallery pics below

Oz Blog

Now I know we're in Australia!

Now I know we’re in Australia!

2 April – 16 May 2012

Matt’s bit…

Leaving the earthquake damaged city of Christchurch we flew across ‘the ditch’ to Melbourne, arriving at the airport late in the evening.  We had booked a hotel in the city for a couple of days before our first house-sit in Woodend.  After being stung AU$34 for a bus ride into town, we trundled our luggage the two blocks up from Southern Cross Station to our hotel.  I had looked on good ol’ Google Maps for the location of said hotel and confidently we strode down King Street getting more and more concerned as the tenor of the neighbourhood seemed to get a bit seedy, with dodgy looking blokes lurking around street corners and nightclubs with names like ‘Golden Hands’ etc.  Luckily I had the address of the hotel and we realised we had been going the wrong way down the street, so we plodded back the three blocks to where the hotel was actually situated, having passed it 15 minutes ago.  The Kingsgate was a budget place but ok for a couple of nights and we had a quick look around the city the next day. We stopped into an old fashioned ‘Magic Emporium’ to buy a present for Asher, Fran’s cousin’s son with whom we were going to be staying later.  A great shop with loads of wonderful things under glass cabinet displays and old photos of famous magicians adorning the walls.  On first look we liked Melbourne City with its trams, art galleries, murals, busy streets and interesting buildings old and new.

Matt and mural

Matt and mural

The following day we headed by train to Woodend, an hour’s journey north from the city.  There we met with Denise and Steven, the hosts of our first house-sit in Australia.  They were a lovely couple with a beautiful house just out of the town, 40 odd acres of land with kangaroos bouncing through the paddock at sunset, a tennis court, spa and two delightful little doggies called Rosie and Pippa, not forgetting Pud the cat.  We loved our stay there and became friends with Denise and Steven too. Their house was situated near to the famous Hanging Rock, so we had to go there with a picnic.  It is a wonderful eerie place, high rocks riven with fissures and caves, one could easily imagine getting lost amongst them.  On the way up we encountered a party of young people coming down, one of which said to us that if we looked looked to our left just before we got to the top, we would see a koala bear up in a tall gum tree. Excited and pleased with this information from our ‘Koala Angel’, as Fran called her, we climbed up the hill and sure enough there was the bear sleepily wedged into the high branches of the tree.  We were having the genuine Aussie experience and had only been here 4 days.

Our sleepy koala

Our sleepy koala

The rest of the time at Woodend we whiled away the days playing tennis and relaxing in the hot spa and enjoying the company of the dogs.  Rosie was a jack russell chihuahua cross and full of energy.  She bounced on all fours and moved at extremely high speed down the tracks leaving a cloud of dust in her wake like Roadrunner in the Wily Coyote cartoon.  It was Easter time and we even got some chocolate eggs from our friendly neighbour Jenny, who lived in the small cottage next door.  We had a friendly night quaffing wine and watching the “Pies” and Carlton play Aussie Rules Football on the TV upon the return of Denise and Steven from New Zealand. The Pies, or Collingwood, were Steven’s team and got completely stuffed by their old rivals Carlton, still we waved the black and white scarves supplied by Steven (magpies) and fought bravely to understand the convoluted rules of Aussie Rules – a very big thing in Victoria especially apparently.  The next day we would be down in to the city and staying with Fran’s cousin Jay and her family.

Fran here…

We took the train to Footscray Station and somehow in the transition Matt’s wallet went off on an independent journey… it was a bit of a pain canceling and re-ordering his cards, but no real harm done.  Jay (my cousin) and her family picked us up from the station, it was great to see her again after seven years, the last time I saw her son Asher he was dribbling on my shoulder, he is now a fine young man who plays a drum kit. Jay and I had a good time reminiscing about the joys and perils of our childhood over a glass or two of chilled white. They took us to their local pub where a jug band were playing, great harmonies and fun stuff with ukelele’s and a washboard.

Paved Paradise

Paved Paradise

From central Melbourne we went to another house-sit in Point Cook, we were pre-warned about this one by watching people’s faces fall when we told them where we were heading. It was a pretty ghastly new suburb of Melbourne, built with speed and not much care. We spent a week here trying to find a green patch for the dogs to pee on and getting well acquainted with the ‘lazy-boy’ chairs and wide screen telly.

Next stop… The Great Ocean Road. We decided we had to see more of this vast country and hit the justly famous road. We stayed in youth hostels which were surprisingly sophisticated and not so youthful to be embarrassing.  We existed mainly on sandwiches as our finances were very precarious, Matt having no work for a month and the bookings on our house being very sparse, we only went out in the evening twice in the entire Australian trip. Still, we spent a happy time fascinated by the huge crashing emerald waves and the beautiful rock formations of the 12 apostles. One cheap and memorable drama for me was buying some bird feed for $2, expecting to tempt some sweet shy birds into my vicinity, what I got was more like a scene from Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’. A cockatoo landed on our balcony and then called his mates over, a whole flock of them were screeching and hassling, flapping their very big wings, when one landed on my back I beat a retreat leaving a giggling Matt taking photos.

Eek! Cockatoos

Eek! Cockatoos

After one stop at a motel with a nasty snitty owner, we dropped off the car at Melbourne airport and got ready to fly to Perth. We were picked up at the carousel by Rob, the long time friend of our buddy in Berko. He has a lovely calm house with a great colour scheme and a kitchen like something from celebrity chef. His cat Renzo was a very handsome chap but in a sorry state, having to sport a cone while he recovers from an operation. We all anxiously counted the ‘sleeps’ until cone-off day and the lovely beast was restored to dignity and freedom. We were sorry to leave this lovely refuge and say goodbye to Rob and his beautiful partner Monica, but Rob cryptically said he would leave our bed made up until we left the country…

The joy and novelty of house sitting definitely took a dive in the next chapter… the monster from Munster… We were left in charge of three dogs, one small, cute and looked a bit like Yoda, a medium sized lab who was no trouble apart from attempted sabotage of the fish pond, and one freaking great French Mastiff, bred for bringing down bulls. Luckily he was very good natured, but unluckily, young, boisterous, hardly trained and had a habit of jumping at you with his massive jaw looming in your face. He was so strong that he just yanked you around on walks and could slip his collar, we decided we wouldn’t take responsibility for taking him out in case he maimed himself or someone else.

Monster from Munster

Monster from Munster

We had a few nice outings while here, to Freemantle where we looked at the hippy shops and queued for free hot dogs at a May Day fair. We paid our respects to the glorious Ocean on Cottesloe Beach.

We had been planning to spend the last bit of the trip in Narrogin but spent some time calculating costs and realised that was not to be. We were going to see the beautiful Belynda, my buddy from our book group in Ulverston. Luckily the lovely Rob graciously took us back (he told us not to change the bedding!) and Belynda, her Mum and her lovely bonny boy Lachlan were able to come and visit us. We spent a peaceful morning reminiscing, catching up on the last 7 years, and delighting in Lachlan’s delight exploring the mandarin tree.

Contemplating mandarins

Contemplating mandarins

Another quiet high spot was sharing in Monica’s mothers day brunch, a lovely lazy Sunday with one of her daughters and boyfriend, and some gorgeous food. We have one more sleep here, and then we fly to Singapore, Asia is the last and most enigmatic leg of our year long journey.

Check out Matt’s “Water” video and more gallery pics below:

North to South, NZ

Waterfall

Waterfall

19th March to 2nd April 2012

We said a fond farewell to house sit no.3 after a wine filled evening hearing the tales of their 6 day horse trek. We have been so lucky with these house sits, we’ve chosen them mainly because the time and place fits, what we didn’t realise was that we’d meet such interesting and generous people into the bargain.

We were given a lift to Tauranga and waited in the rain for our bus to Auckland, we were running late and worried we’d run out of time to pick up our hire car. We charged to the car hire place to check there just as they were about to close the office. Somewhat travel worn we drove, munching trail mix, further North to an eco-village called Otamatea. I was chatting to someone back in Waiheke, mentioning our interest in natural building and he pointed us in this direction.

The bush

The bush

We arrived in the dark, with the rain falling and got lost. We had assumed our B&B would be easy to find, it being only a small village… but we were wrong! Eventually we got to our destination and had a warm welcome from our German and Chinese hosts.

The next day we had a wonderful brekky of eggs, fresh from her hens, borrowed some wellies and squelched off for a walk. There was a plot of land for sale and we looked around it, given a lot of interesting info about how the community was run. That night the community dinner had been re-arranged in our honour and we met some very interesting folk and ate some seriously fresh food, Matt had a jam sesh with the resident muso.

It was a short sweet visit, we were running out of time to see the South island, which we had been informed by pretty much everyone, was incredibly beautiful. On our way out we had to stop at an amazing sculpture/cafe, wonderfully bizarre and inspiring, we bought a book on how it was constructed (ferroconcrete) and I started hatching creative ideas….

We stayed a grey, rainy night in Auckland and then got up early to catch the train which ran all the way to Wellington. It was a great journey with ever changing landscapes and viewing windows provided. We were right at the back of the train where there was a 360 degree window to take in the wonders, it was only supposed to be occupied for 20mins at a time but some folk wouldn’t budge, using it as a pick up zone, which got a bit annoying. A nicer neighbour was a sweet little Indian boy who played peek-a-boo all the way down.

Dude

Dude

Staying the night in Wellington at a cheapo backpackers, the next day we got the 8am ferry across the Marlborough Sounds to Picton and South Island at last. The Sounds were beautiful and a great introduction to the wonders of South island.  From Picton we caught another bus to Kaikoura where we were to stay for a couple of nights at the YHA. A beautiful spot well known for its dolphins and whales, we decided to take a sea kayak tour down to the local fur seal colony.  It was great fun paddling in a 2 person kayak and we saw some seals and penguin too!  The owner of the YHA was ultra friendly and made us very welcome, the place had great views over the ocean and we sat in the sunny kitchen playing battleships. (For the first time since our honeymoon when to Matt’s eternal shame he cheated and looked while Fran was in the bathroom – boo!!)  After a walk around the peninsula it was time to get on the bus again and travel further south.

We arrived in poor brave Christchurch, with it’s boarded up shops and the centre of the city a no-go area, it was like a war zone. We stayed in a really nasty little hostel with a minging shared kitchen, our room was a health hazard but with a chirpy sign stuck on the window, our neighbour saw us blinching at it and said in a sexy Italian accent: ’It is a beeeoooteeeful room”(!) I managed to talk to my Sister in the morning to say happy birthday, then we got a cab and got the hell out. The taxi driver told us tales of sadness and bravery about the people and buildings that are still trying to survive the quakes. She said poignantly “There will be nothing left of this city soon”, as we watched a shiny office block being torn to the ground.

Hippie camper

Hippie camper

We arrived at the camper van rental place and hung around watching various folk pick up their vans, all of which were about 4 times the size of our Hippie van which came complete with purple flowers, yeah man! These flowers were a source of confusion for the bees who kept trying to land on them. We hit the road and drove through the remarkable Arthur’s Pass, with huge mountains and sparkling lakes all around. We camped up at Jacksons Retreat and scrambled up a bush path to see a waterfall. Next day into Greymouth to do some necessaries like post stuff home and buy warm pajamas, we also invested in some cheap rain macs, which of course meant it stopped raining!

We drove on to Franz Joseph glacier, it’s original name Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere meaning Tears of the Avalanche girl, so much more beautiful and poetic, and somewhat more appropriate than being named after some fat  Austrian, still you know these white folk have a habit of ‘claiming’ occupied places as their own. The glacier and approach to it was just stunning, the air fresh and clear, the rocks strange and magical. We found a waterfall which had a rainbow, small and complete which we crossed the stream to sit under. We walked to the lip of the glacier, as far as you can go if you’re skint and can’t afford the tour, still we were poor but we were happy to get close to this wonder.

Big kiwi

Big kiwi

We felt we couldn’t be in New Zealand without meeting a Kiwi, but being nocturnal and very shy, the chances of seeing them wild were pretty much nil. We paid a silly amount to creep into an nocturnal room to watch two birds grubbing around in their artificial forest. They are truly bizarre birds that look more like hedgehogs on legs that could belong to a rugby playing chicken.  We did have a rather more interactive meeting with another local bird, the Weka, who invited himself to our picnic!  Being the map reader in South Island was a really cushy job as there was pretty much only one way around. The roads were clear at this time of year and driving was a delight, with one gasp making view after another. We stopped, walked and picnic-ed at various stages en route, hampered only by some evil little sandflies. The sun had thoughtfully decided to shine on us, we hadn’t been relishing living in a tiny van in a soggy pile.

Matt contemplates a change of direction

Matt contemplates a change of direction

We got as far as Dunedin, which was an interesting arty place where we stopped for a gallery/music shop break and it was time to start heading back. We had a chilly excursion to gather and watch a penguin colony come back after a hard days fishing. The ‘colony’ turned out to be only two little black and white blobs in the far distance, but we chatted to some nice folk and had fun. There was a great junk treasure shop on the road and we spent some time foraging and came away with some good reading material.  There was a Gypsy Fair on the road and we stopped and enjoyed the travelers and their amazing vans that they traveled in, contemplating the life as there were some for sale.  A romantic time journeying the length and breadth of NZ selling your wares on the weekends…

Back to Christchurch and ta-ta to the Hippie, and farewell to New Zealand, for tonight… we fly!

Gallery pics below…

Dog Blog

Baskerville Hounds

We have done a series of house sitting jobs here in New Zealand, it’s been great for us preserving our meagre $$ at the same time as meeting some lovely folk and their furry friends. All three have been really hospitable and have even included a car for us to use during our stay, thanks to you all!

The first one we approached with a little trepidation, we were asked to look after the hounds of a couple called…the Baskervilles. But as you can see from the pic, they are far from being terrifying slavering beasts!  We had a pleasant week here in Cambridge administering to their aging cat, meeting the neighbours and playing with the adorable doggies. Poor Zeta and Matt had a bit of a trauma when we disturbed a wasps nest, one buried in her fur and another got Matt on the hooter, ouch! We visited a very inspiring sculpture park and arboretum, the owner being understandably very proud of transforming a defunct quarry into a place of real beauty.

The Bear and the Lion

Next for something completely different, multiply our last canine charges by ten and you get some idea of the size of Daisy and Fraggle, the bear (newfoundland) and the lion (leonberger).  These too were very sweet and we had some great walks along the river enjoying watching them splashing about. There were two cats who were very individual as only cats can be, Savvy thinks she’s a dog, and Fergus would love you until he chomped you. Clive, near Hastings, is wine country, and we were obliged to sample the delights, sometimes in the hot tub under the stars, it’s a tough job, but someones gotta do it!

Me 'n' Webster

Next to Te Puke (pronounced ti pookie), a reassuringly New Zealand name after Cambridge and Hastings! This was kiwifruit country (“The Kiwifruit capital of the World!”) and the house we stayed in was completely surrounded by orchards. The owners are really keen fishers and they told us of the monster catch Shirl had made the week before.  It was a 300(plus)kg blue marlin that took her an hour and a half to land. They had two chest freezers in the garage full of steaks and we got to sample its delights on the barbie. They are also horse people and we were looking after their lovely aging gent dog Webster and their two cats HT and Meg because they had gone on a 6 day horse trek. They took me out on a ride before they left, but my horse took a boot at Shirl and she had to stay and watch her leg change colour!  Whilst staying here we also walked up Mount Manganui, a wonderful rock promontory rising out of the beautiful blue sea at the top of the Bay of Plenty and visited a weird and wonderful garden called The Looking Glass Gardens – another converted quarry.  This place included an amazing straight path up the side of a hill called the Stairway to Heaven!

Gallery pics below

Waiheke – Island of hippies and millionaires

Valentine's Day

I had read about Waiheke in an English magazine, it looked beautiful, and it is!

It used to be only inhabited by hippies and artists and Aucklanders would joke you could see the smoke from that distance. The art is still in evidence but so are the millionaire mansions which have been going up in recent times, 70% of them uninhabited most of the time.

Our bach

We took the short and speedy ferry ride from Auckland and caught a cab with a very friendly driver to our home for the week. This was a little cabin or bach (pronounced batch) in a gorgeous lush garden setting with an eccentric old greenhouse to lounge around in. We shared the grounds with a Steiner kindergarten and were treated to the touching daily sight of the little kids in their bright sun hats walking through the trees, closely followed by a gang of excited ducks. These ducks became a major source of entertainment and we concluded we’re often happier doing these simple things than being ‘proper’ tourists and being herded around with a bunch of anonymous camera clickers.

We arrived on Valentine’s day and walked across the beach to a restaurant, we tried to capture this romanic moment on camera but had to abandon it as we looked like idiots! We spent money we don’t have but had a very nice time with lots of wine, we’d forgotten to bring a torch and ended up getting lost on the way back!

Sea dream

I’ve been busy arting all along our journey using a combination of digital art, photography and working in my books with my portable ‘studio’. This is a small bag with a selection of paints and pens. It’s an interesting challenge limiting your creativity to whatever materials are availble. I have put some of my work up for sale on Red Bubble, you can buy a canvas, a mounted print or a greetings card for a couple of quid. If you’d like to support a gypsy artist click on the link below and have a look.

http://www.redbubble.com/people/spiralfran

Thanks y’all

Gallery pics here: