Thursday, 31 October 2013

Celebrating Halloween in Asia

Halloween in Asia does not even vaguely resemble it's origins in the West. I've only found one fancy dress shop in the whole of Kota Kinabalu (a decent sized city) where you can buy outfits, but for some reason it's all in pre-teen sizes. Asian pre-teen sizes - that's pretty small. Deciding we would have to celebrate this annual excuse for mugging strangers for chocolate in other ways, we bought a pumpkin.
A previous pumpkin

Can I just mention that my pumpkin carving skills are pretty damn good. I mean I've done some fairly intricate vegetable carving work before. Because it turns out those brightly coloured (do they inject E-numbers at birth?) supermarket pumpkins are bred for you to decapitate with a sharp knife. The pumpkin I found was not so well genetically modified - it had walls three inches thick! Which meant cutting it was really hard. Which meant that the elaborate fanged mouth I would normally do was going to be really tricky. I suspect the reason it was such a fleshy vegetable is because no Asian person in their right mind would waste a whole meal for their family of 12 on a goopy mess that's going to be covered in bugs approximately five seconds after you put it outside - so pumpkins here are actually for eating.
A prunken Drumpkin

Also, this dock I'm on right now has at least THREE kids on it and none of them have been trick-or-treating; they're probably inside killing old grannies on the streets of GTA, or whatever it is kids are playing these days.

Despite the lack of children dressed in scary masks based on cartoons that I'm too old to recognize, there are benefits to Halloween in Asia. Here are some of them: 

Today the weather was 30-something degrees.
Right now it's around 26.
I haven't seen a drop of rain, or a cloud in the sky.
I went diving this morning at around 10am wearing a thin dive skin.
...I went diving.
No one here has any idea what a good pumpkin should look like, so they think mine's great!
If none of the kids gets their act together and realize they can come and beg for candy, I get to eat all of it myself. Mwa-ha-HA-haaaaaaaaa

Also the nightlife is probably the sole exception to people who don't care about our pagan festival - most clubs have a prize for the best costume on the night. Hopefully we'll have a good chance of winning, as we've had a lot more experience creating fancy dress from scratch than I think they have!

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Sound of Silence

During my travels, I met several travellers who mentioned an interesting type of meditation. Some of them had already experienced it - for others it was an urban myth. They told me what they knew - that the course was held completely in silence, and lasted a minimum of 10 days. The idea of spending 10 days in absolute silence really intrigued me. I didn't know much about meditation, so I decided to explore the idea of joining a course. Eventually I got the spelling of "vipassana" correct, and did some research.

Vipassana is the true and original form of meditation - as taught by the Buddha some 2,500 years ago. It became so popular that at one point in time, the majority of people in India were practicing Vipassana. Over time, this true teaching became diluted by other teachers, promoting different faiths, and other techniques to meditate. The form that the Buddha taught was kept alive by a group of Buddhist monks in Burma. The Buddha knew that one day, someone would learn Vipassana from these monks, and bring it back to show the world again.

In 1955, S. N. Goenka attended a 10 day course, where he studied and eventually became proficient at meditation. He travelled to India, to teach his parents, and gave them the greatest gift any child can give to their parents - the path to liberation, peace and happiness.

 On 29th September 2013, S.N. Goenka passed away, aged 90, at his home in India. He left a legacy behind - throughout his lifetime, Goenka-ji has helped hundreds of thousands of people study and benefit through Vipassana, either directly, or through the use of videos at his courses - and pioneered the idea of a centre where anyone was welcome to attend, whether they had money to pay for it or not. As long as they lived by the rules of the centre for the duration of the stay, they were welcome, in exchange for nothing. His idea was to create a system where you could donate to the running of the centre to pay in advance for the next student. This was only possible once you'd finished a ten day retreat. From a single orignial centre in India, this 'pay it forward' method eventually opened 227 centres worldwide. To promote the same experience for students worldwide, Goenka has produced a series of discourses, shown on video every evening. Here he tells stories, explains the practice, and is generally very interesting and amusing for an hour.

I was fortunate enough to attend a course in Bali, in April of this year.

Although I won't describe the technique or practice in the hope that you'll go yourself to find out about it, I will explain how following this method has made me feel - immediately after the course, and now, 6 months after finishing it.

Do you remember how you felt as a child? So free, full of energy and without worry. If you've ever spent any time with young kids, you know how much energy they have - they can run harder, jump higher and laugh louder than you - easily for twice the amount of time you can, before they get tired. After some of the meditation sessions I finished at the centre I felt a degree closer to re-achieving this feeling. Lighter, with less weight on my shoulders pushing me into the ground. Having said that, some of the sessions were physically painful and intensely difficult: when your limbs go numb - at the end of one such session I literally could not get up to go to lunch because I had such bad pins and needles.

I don't know if everyone has the same feeling, but without a doubt practicing Vipassana has made me calmer and more peaceful. I'm more aware of my emotions, and I'm working at having better control over them. Although Vipassana was not an enjoyable experience, I hope I have an opportunity to attend a second course sometime in the future.

A great aspect of the evening discourse (easily the best part of the day) was that Goenka does not expect nor want blind devotion. In fact, he asks you to challenge every belief he puts before you. He wants you to test the theory, check the idea is sound and consistent with your life and experiences before you accept it. If you do not find any evidence to support the idea you should not accept it. This is something I agree with so acutely - in my mind, blind following without questioning is one of the most dangerous things we actively encourage in our society.

There is a strict timetable:

One of the individual rooms at the centre
4am: wake up bell
4.30-6.30am: Meditate
6.30-8.00am: Breakfast break                         
8.00-9.00am: Group meditation
9.00-11.00am: Meditate
11.00-12.00am: Lunch break
12.00-1.00pm: Rest and interview with teacher
1.00-2.30pm: Meditate 
2.30-3.30pm: Group mediation
2.30-5.00pm: Meditate
5.00-6.00pm: Tea break
6.00-7.00pm: Group meditation
7.00-8.15pm: Teachers discourse
8.15-9.00pm: Group mediation
9.00-9.30pm: Question time in hall
9.30pm: bed

It was fairly exhausting, until you got into the swing of it. When I finished the course I found that the practice had stuck fairly quickly - although I wasn't waking up at 4am without a bell, I was conscious and alert by 7am, which is very unusual behaviour for me. I must admit I'm glad my sleeping practices have gone back to normal since then...

Students also have to observe noble silence - which means not attempting any sort of communication with other students. Although I didn't expect it to be, this was really challenging - how can you ignore a fellow student that is crying or obviously has a problem? I never thought I would struggle with this aspect: I didn't have any desire to talk or gossip, but not being able to comfort someone was difficult.

When you arrive at the centre you're asked to hand over a long list of personal items you might have: any books, other reading material, writing material, cameras, laptops, phones, cigarettes, non-prescription drugs...pretty much the contents of your average traveller's entire backpack. In fact, some of them did just that, after taking out the clothes they would need for their stay.

I paid too much attention to the list of "what not to bring" and not enough to the list of 'suggested items' - it was easy enough to hand over a pack of paracetamol I'd forgotten I had in my bag, but not so easy to acquire a torch, once stranded on the side of a mountain, miles of winding roads from the nearest town (a shop could have been next door, but it wouldn't have mattered as we weren't allowed to leave the premises anyway).

View over the valley from the centre.
The other thing they ask is that you don't kill any living beings during your stay (and also abstain from sexual conduct and taking intoxicating substances to help the mind become clear).This might seem easy enough, but unfortunately, mosquitos count as living beings. And while we're at it, the use of bug deterrents (and any deodorant with a smell) is also banned. So if you're unfortunate enough to get a blood sucker inside your mosquito net, you're doomed. Unless you're very good at meditating!

And when you're finished? 10 days of silence and introspection will affect a person, whether or not they learnt anything from the meditation. On day 9, the students are allowed to speak again. It was interesting to see the reactions of the group - although no physical contact was allowed, the students generally responded by laughing and joking with each other and chatting away happily about their experiences. Strangely, I didn't feel like this. I'm not really sure how to describe my emotions, but I wasn't ready to be released into the wild. If there had been an option to stay longer, I would have. Maybe it was just my quick adjustment to the strict disciplinarian life - like a convict finishing their sentence and struggling to adapt to life on the outside when they are finally released.

I went to give my thanks to the teacher on the last day. As soon as I met with her, I burst into tears. This is very unlike me. I still don't know why it happened. I was grateful for the experience, happy that I'd done it, and yet I was sobbing my eyes out in front of this woman who had given me so much. Perhaps it was a build up of emotions needing to escape. I think it's hard to look into the eyes of any experienced vipassana meditator without feeling the pure love they are sending you.

I can't stress this enough: for me, the meditation was really, really, really hard. There are so many reasons to not do it; lack of food/sleep/freedom, too many bugs, boredom and distractions. Even with all these reasons, nothing would make me happier than to hear someone else has given it a chance. If you want to do something really good for yourself - take 10 days from work and book yourself onto the next vipassana course. It might not be immediately obvious when you're tired and hungry after sleeping through lunch on the first day (like I did), but the benefits will become clear. You probably don't even realize how much mental chatter you have going on, how disturbed your mind is, all the time.

And what's 10 days to stop your future suffering, for all eternity?

You might not become a meditation guru in that time (ok, you probably won't) but you'll notice a change in yourself for the the better.

Have a look for a vipassana course.

With my unconditional love.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Begin at the Beginning

Some of you may be wondering: how did that strange girl that writes too much get to where she is now? From rainy old London to a boat in Malaysia in the middle of a storm. In a nutshell, this is how it happened: My parents had sex around 24 years and five months ago.

Well after working enough to save up a little bit of money (my thanks to Cote Brasserie and the Foxman!) I was wondering how far around the world you could get for the lowest amount of money. Skyscanner helped me with this - they had flights to Bangkok from London for 300GBP. Kate had given me a wonderful book for my birthday - pictures and a short description of every country in the world. I flipped to the page on Thailand: beautiful beaches, stunning lady boys and strange food. It sounded like a great place to start! I booked my ticket, singular, that night. I didn't really consider how much* time you need to get organised for a round the world trip - I figured one month was long enough for me to give my notice and have some jabs. Apart from missing one of the shots, I just about made it to the airport in time! 

In the local supermarket...
My adventures in Thailand were as much as to be expected - and more! I overdosed on temples pretty quickly, found that although there are some beautiful lady boys out there, there are also some pretty unfortunate ones too, started couchsurfing, met loads of cool people (more on all these adventures later) and before I knew it, my first month was gone! In this time I'd also got my open water and advanced PADI qualifications, attended the obligatory full-moon party and successfully navigated the Bangkok public transport system, on the way to the airport for my second month on the road - in Burma!

Burma was very special - this is where I was adopted for the first time, met some truly incredible and inspirational individuals, saw the temples at Bagan, went swimming in lake Inle, got into trouble with the immigration officials at Naypyidaw and went back in time, to a place where the locals didn't bother with modern inconveniences like tractors, or electricity. I also had the most fun I've probably ever had - before or after - during Thingyuan (Burmese New Year festival) which was pretty much a nation wide water fight. It was a short flight back to Thailand, but such an extreme difference in the development of the two neighboring countries. 

Teaching colours, using Twister

Back to Thailand, then, for some air conditioned 7/11 treats. I took the train up north, and spent some time hanging out in Chiang Mai, before taking the bus to Chiang Rai, and settling here for the next 10 months or so as I found a school that was willing to let me teach their students (I'm still not sure why they let me). I had a fantastic time here, learning a lot more about Thai culture than you could ever find in a book, making friends, adopting families and hopefully teaching somebody something. 

I had some holidays in this time - a month I spent in Lao, making new friends, and meeting some old, whilst kayaking, rock climbing, visiting waterfalls, sustaining the worst injury of this trip so far (broken finger - thanks to the excellent Nurse Lauren, it's only slightly wonky now), tubing, doing some cultural stuff, like going to Phonsavan and seeing the plain of Jars, plus the caves at Vieng Xai. I was lucky to be in Vientiane, applying for my Thai visa, whilst the beautiful Lao Loi Krathong festival was in full force. I made my way back to Thailand (in time to see the festival all over again) and back to school. 

Riding a water buffalo, of course.
"Gravity works like this..."

I started to make plans for moving on - a fellow traveller had told me about, and I eagerly set up a profile, although I didn't have much of an expectation - I thought it would be another of those things I am endlessly signing up for, only to unsubscribe six months later when you realise your inbox is full of junk emails you've stopped opening. Happily, I couldn't have been more wrong if I'd tried. I got in touch with Captain Brian, of Furthur - we met up at New years in Phuket, and I delayed my return to school so I could join the trip to the Similan Islands for diving - something I am very glad I did. I met some other crew whilst here - Julie and Anya, my first companions on the boat.
Beautiful beach at Koh Raja

That beautiful holiday ended all too soon - back up north for another few months of 'teaching'. When school had finished for good, I made the 24hour bus journey - 1000 miles! - back down to Phuket, where the boat was waiting in Royal Phuket Marina, ready to cruise again. New crew this time, but the journey was just as fantastic, as well as some more incredible diving around Koh Ha, Racha Yai/Noi, Hin Deang and Hin Mueng and on, towards Malaysia. 

The rest of the last eight months have flown by - we've done some amazing things, met awesome people - not to mention the diving! - and cruised down the length of Malaysia, past Singapore all the way to Flores in Indonesia, before changing direction to head up around the coast of Borneo. 
"Room for one more?"

Boat travel suits me very well - I'm a lazy backpacker, and being able to sleep in one bed, yet have a different view nearly every day is incredible. It's a fantastic way to get around, especially all these archipelagos that are made of thousands of islands. I can't wait to get to the Philippines and see another new country, both above and below the water. Making a profile on find a crew has been one of the smartest things I've done on this trip so far. Maybe the best part is that long bus rides are now optional!

Now you know where I am, and how I got here. I aim to write about everything that I've previously done on this trip, as well as all the exciting new things.

*There's so much else you have to do! 
- Vaccinations (I got rabies, Hep A and B, yellow fever, a tetanus booster and unfortunately, a completely pointless and expensive Japanese B encephalitis shot. I also picked up lots of anti-malarials).
- Start a travel blog (Ha! Who has time for that before you leave?) 
- Go shopping. Seriously, I barely had any of the necessary stuff: a good first aid kit, walking boots, a big backpack, a raincoat, travel proof clothes - e.g. quick drying, wrinkle proof lightweight clothing. If you can find something that looks good and also has UV protection built in, you get extra points! Also a travel towel - mine is an attractive shade of puke green, but was a bargain. Most important on your list: a sleeping bag liner - if made of tightly woven silk these things stop bed bugs from biting you, and anyone that's ever been bitten will tell you what a horrific experience that is.
- Some things I took that I've barely used - a sleeping bag, waterproof matches (actually I used those up really quickly lighting mosquito coils), and the new raincoat.
- Organising travel documents - visas etc, making sure your passport has enough pages/years left on it. It's a good idea to scan and save an electronic copy of all these things in case you find yourself in a situation without your passport. 
- Changing money - there are some bank accounts you can set up from home that allow you to exchange your money before you leave so you won't be charged with a terrible rate every time you hit up an ATM when you're on the road. This is probably most useful if you're going to the US, Australia or New Zealand (I didn't find them in any other currencies). Otherwise it's a good idea to travel with some back up cash, in case you get stranded/have an emergency/lose your bank card. 
- Saying goodbye. Organising one big party/event and hoping everyone can be there would have been a sensible way to do it, if you can spare some cash from your travel budget.
- Planning an itinerary. Although this is definitely optional, and I've never been very good at it, it's nice to know where you're heading from the airport at least. 

Good luck and safe travels!

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Would you make a good crew member? does an excellent job of allowing boats and potential crew to get in touch with each other. Before you get on a boat however, this is just a short survey to find out if you will do well at sea. I've seen from Brian's point of view how hard it is to know what makes a good crew member based only on a profile, when the crew has no experience and idea of whether they can do it or not. It can be a frustrating experience for crew too, if they travel a long way only to get to the boat and realise they are not so well suited to the nautical life. Hopefully, this questionnaire will help you and potential boats from making any commitments if this isn't really your thing. Write your answers on a piece of paper (scores are at the end). And no cheating!

1) Have you ever worked in a bar or restaurant (and been good at it)?    

2) Can you read a book in a moving vehicle? (Don't try this while you're behind the wheel!)  

3) Are you allergic to fresh air or sunshine?  

4) Can you swim?      

5) How many miles, on average, do you like to run every day?
a) Less than 1        
b) between 1 and 3 
c) More than 3

6) What is your opinion of books?
a) I hate reading, unless it's Cosmo.        
b) The only reading I do is this blog while I'm connected to the internet.
c) Reading books is my favourite hobby

7) Which statement is most true of you:
a) A quick wash once a day is enough
b) I shower when I notice that I'm starting to smell
c) I shower three times a day if I have time.

Plus some questions specific to this boat - 

8) Which of these mugs can you not use, ever, on pain of death?
a) Furthur Adventures (left)
b) Best Crew Award - Sam 2013 (middle)
c) Breakfast in the Buff, Boulder Colorado (right)

9) When is the best time to play a prank on Brian?
a) when he is sleeping     b) I would never do that!            c) Anytime.

10) Which statement best suits you:
a) I enjoy watching tv and get angry if someone disturbs my concentration.
b) I fall asleep during anything I watch.
c) I have no short term concentration at all. I have to constantly be doing something. 

The results:

1) Yes = 10     No = 0 (I've noticed the crew we've had who have previously worked in a small bar/restaurant/close team atmosphere are much better at looking around and seeing the jobs that have to be done, and getting on and doing them. It's a nicer environment for everyone if they can all work together and do some jobs without needing to be told)

2) Yes = 10     No = 0 

3) Yes = 0     No = 5 

4) Yes = 200 No = - 50

5) a) 5 
    b) 0
    c) - 5 
Although it's good to keep fit, if you're a gym junkie you'll struggle to find enough exercise room on a small boat. Yoga would be a good thing to take up before embarking on that month long passage. 

6) a) - 5
b) 5: You get points for having excellent taste, but you might find it difficult being in remote areas with little connectivity - and not knowing when you will have a good enough connection to look at all those cat videos on Youtube.
c) 10

7) Which statement is most true of you?
a) 10
b)  20 (unless you smell so much that everyone else can notice it)
c) - 10
Water is a limited resource, especially on a boat!

8) Which mug can you never use?
a) 20
b) 0
c) 0

9) When is the best time to play a prank on Brian?
a) 15  
b) - 10
c) 50

10) Which statement best suits you? 
a) 10
b) 10 (as long as you don't snore)
c) 0 (fidgets don't want to hang around while Brian is getting his daily t.v. fix. Go upstairs/downstairs and clean the boat, or read a book).

Well done for finishing! 
Top score: 340 : Congratulations if this was you!
bottom score: - 80: Maybe you shouldn't go near the water.

If you did well and have decided that being on water is the place you need to be, there is a key question you should ask your captain before you embark.

Your trip sounds incredible and nearly too good to be true! I hope you won't be offended by me asking this: Do you have the funds to complete this trip?

A good captain should not be upset by this question - it shows you're an intelligent person, aware of the dangers of getting on an unknown boat. I've heard some horror stories of crew being stranded in a really remote place when the boat has needed to be fixed, the Captain has run out of money, and asks the crew to give financial assistance or to email their parents if they don't have enough. Although you might have an agreement with your captain that you'll cover your costs for food etc, you probably don't want to be in a position where you or your parents are asked for hundreds, or thousands of dollars just so you can get to the next port. It's worth asking, just to avoid future difficulties.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Beautiful Bali

Recently, I took a break from the boat to do some land exploration with my best friend, Kate, who came to join me in Bali for a two week holiday. It was great to see her after such a long time - she's been busy teaching primary school students in South East London (while I've been busy doing not so much...).

I went to the airport to meet Kate (complete with sign, in case she didn't recognise me!) and quickly packed her into a taxi to take us to Ubud, our first stop on the whirlwind tour. We stayed 5 nights at Shana Bunglows, on Jalan Guatama - set back from the road with a beautiful garden. 
Shana Bungalows

 We wanted to make sure we used all the time we had - we quickly booked up white water rafting, a Legong style dance show (actually we intended to see Kecak dance, but went to the wrong theatre!) plus an early morning hike - to the top of Mount Agung in time for sunrise and a boiled egg, freshly cooked by the volcanic heat. 

There were plenty more tasty treats to be had in Ubud - one lunchtime Kate and I just gorged ourselves on delicious cakes. I also introduced Kate to my favourite Ubud eatery - 'Masakan Padang' which is world renown Indonesian food, best enjoyed without the use of cutlery. Kate had a great first attempt at this new eating style. 

The beautiful Legong style dance
In between these activities, we explored Ubud on foot - wandering into Monkey forest, for a full on dose of 'monkey 
babies!' (it was pretty hard getting Kate out of there), finding the local expat population hanging out in 'Betelnut'. We joined the scene for a few nights - The Gong Show was a regular production, with this 'episode' raising awareness to campaign against an intended McDonalds in the area. We did the Capuhan ridge walk - or at least half of it, twice (we turned back as a local told us if we continued on the mapped circuit we'd go back to town on a road, rather than the open fields with beautiful views). 

On Indonesia's Independence day we hit Betelnut again (thanks for the tip, Nicolette and Frank!) for a fascinating documentary, The Act of Killing on the troubled past of Indonesia. I'd recommend watching this film if you have a chance; it's interesting for a variety of reasons - a horrible episode that's successfully kept hidden by the current government (the same government that was responsible for the atrocious 'communist killings' of 1965), and it uses a very clever and twisted idea of asking the elderly criminals to 'play' themselves whilst they make a film of their past crimes (even with all of this evidence, and the thousands of murders they themselves admit to committing, nothing has been done to hold them to account for their actions) despite this it is somehow bleakly humorous - although we know the main characters are the villains, you can't help but identify with some or all of their struggles and characteristics, as the cameramen follow them around in their daily activities. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film is in the credits - many of the Indonesians involved anywhere in the process have opted to remain 'Anonymous' rather than reveal their names and risk persecution. They don't have the credit they deserve for their seven years of hard work on this project, and perhaps they never will. 

Kate and I, freezing our butts off at the top of the volcano

Although it's true Indonesia has this sad history, we tried not to let this from spoiling our opinion of the Indonesian people: a warm, generous and hospitable nation. Everyone was keen to meet us and have photos with Kate (white skin AND blue eyes?!?). I'm sure many of the men are suffering with broken hearts right now. I made a special friend in Sukadi - a 50-something bemo (minibus) driver who had the misfortune to spend a day driving us to Tampaksiring and Gunung Kawi (a spectacular spot to visit, plus the best shopping bargains to be had in the whole of Ubud!) who called every day after that to find out if we needed him again. Even after repeatedly being told that we were leaving Bali, he kept on calling!

Somehow we found time to have a short lesson in the art of batik, go to a Kecak dance (we made it to the right temple this time!) and visit the gorgeous rice terraces that are the backbone of Asia. We also squeezed in an obligatory spa stop, a cycle around Ubud and a great birthday party. Many happy returns, Nicolette! Also a quick visit to catch up with Hannah, who I'd left on the boat at Gili Air. Phew! I'm exhausted just remembering all of that action!
Dancing on hot coals at the Kecak dance

On to the beach then: Seminyak, chosen mainly because we wanted to meet up with Ronnie and Del, and they'd found an excellent place to do it: a good value hotel with a beautiful pool, fairly close to the beach. All our adventures had caught up on us, as we stayed firmly out in the sun for most of the next three days. Apart from one day trip - a taxi to Denpasar, for Del's visa and some batik-related shopping for me followed by the beautiful temple of Uluwatu for sunset monkey mischief then Nusa Dua for a nighttime crab catching session. Uh, beach crabs, that is.

Catching crabs...or not in Nusa Dua.

We all flew to Flores together (massive panicking about the weight of our bags on the night before. 15 kilos? That's clearly not enough for a backpacking girl). The group joined the growing list of fantastic Furthur crew members, went on a hike to see the most exciting Komodo dragon trek ever on Rinca island and the lovely people of Komodo village, had a discovery dive on the boat each as well as enjoying the town of Labuan Bajo and the scenery of Komodo National Park, whether from the sea, the boat or the kayaks. We also went to one of the best snorkeling sport - pink beach: we were rewarded with a turtle. Kate also managed to spot two baby sharks from the shore! This was an excellent reward for working so hard at cleaning up another beach!

It was great to be with Kate again, even for such a short time. Her amazement at all things Asian was refreshing - I've long since stopped being surprised by four people and a chicken on a single motorbike, but for Kate it's still a novelty. It was also nice to be able to share with someone from home the wonderful lifestyle that's easy to have here. And it gave me an opportunity to show off my limited bahasa skills - although that stopped soon enough as we met up with Del and left all the important interaction to her! 

It was so great to see everyone, same again next year? 

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

My Favourite Things II

There were a lot of things that should have been on the last list, but were somehow missed out. Here's a few more of my favourite things we've done in the last 8 months on Furthur:

1) Swimming with a turtle. We'd anchored the boat for the night out in the Similan Islands, and finished diving for the day. This giant turtle appeared (possibly looking for dinner to be thrown overboard) and swam around the boat for over an hour. We watched, delighted, as he stayed in the area and came close to check us out. Eventually, I slipped quietly into the water to get a closer view as he passed by. A very special moment for me.

2) NYE at Patong Beach, Phuket - hanging out at Paris Hilton's party, stealing life jackets, drinking whiskey on the beach at six am, going to a special adult's show, having our hair sprayed full of silly string and generally acting like teenage delinquents. What a night!

3) Penang - Rosie and I were shown around Georgetown at night by an infamous ex-crew member, Troy, (oh the stories I've heard!) who was an absolute gentleman in the way he  helped us climb over the fence of a temple we broke into (not that I'd encourage that kind of behavior, but the twilight vistas from Kek Lok Si are absolutely fantastic), politely introduced us to the local mafia, gallantly helped us to get drunk, offered his arm as we stumbled around Little India and escorted us back to the boat, all before 4am!

4) Practical jokes, especially the ones that surprise Brian. He's a great target during nap time. Unfortunately these things work both ways, so I'll use the photo of the only successful prank Brian's played on me - waking up with a face covered in shaving cream, to the laughter of Sandra, Anna, Rosie and Venus. Thanks for the support, guys. 
"It doesn't count if you do it before 9am!"

5) Spending all night star gazing, with the help of a neat little Stargazer app on Venus' tablet. It cleverly uses GPS to work out what you're looking at, and helpfully labels all the constellations, planets and some individual stars. There is nothing so fantastic as doing this on the deck of a ship, in absolute darkness, miles and miles from the nearest source of light pollution. 

6) Komodo village - visiting this extremely poor area, where we make a donation to the school, stroll around the houses built on stilts and of course, make balloon animals for children. Brian starts this process - everyone else quickly becomes involved as demand far exceeds output.
"Well how do these things work anyway?"

7) Helping the students from SMK Marine School in Labuan Bajo study. Although they have the strongest desire to learn the skills needed in the nautical world, the school doesn't have very good resources and can use any help they can get. Which is why they let Brian teach some classes. Only joking! He did a fantastic job, and even took out several groups of students on the boat, giving them an opportunity to navigate and steer by themselves - they were thrilled. 
A selection of kids, teachers and crew

8) Flying a pirate ship kite from a boat. One of the neatest purchases to be had in Bali - 50,000 IDR. And worth 10x that in terms of the fun we've had with it. Because we're six years old. And obviously way too cool. Kate, Del and Ronnie.

9) Finding out what was the point in the packet of mustaches my mum sent. Like I said, very cool six year olds. 

10) Watching dolphins fly through the waves beneath the boat. Along with all the other wildlife we get to see on a daily basis, like sea eagles, whales, flying fish, monkeys (swimming monkeys!), Komodo dragons etc 

Hopefully there will be some equally amazing activities, fun crew and more dolphins in my last few months here on the boat.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

My Favourite Things

Other than mittens, kittens and brown paper parcels tied up with string, these are a few of my favourite things (in no particular order):

1) Sending a message in a bottle which I still hope we'll hear back from, one day twenty years from now. We wrote the note in 4 languages (to increase our chances of it being found and understood. Italian, Greek, English and a poorly translated Indonesian, that probably means something like: "You bottle look. Email deliver. Before thanks you." I did try though.)

2) Something the inner child (which is not kept so inner) had wanted to do for ages: Build a den on the deck from all our scarves, blankets, flags etc and spend the night camped out there. Or as much as I could manage before I got too cold! The rest of Team GB managed admirably though.
Rise and shine! Delina and Ronnie

3) The Indian festival of Holi - a little late and a lot more naked than the original. Partying on the beach with Laura, Rosie and Brian.

4) Another example of being in the right place at the right time: Pulau Derawan, where we wandered around the sandy roads and found ourselves in a hotel which had discovered turtle hatchlings in their grounds. Emily, Siem, Lo and I managed to convince them to let us help with the release.

In the same night we also rescued a beautiful moth that had been attracted by the light in a shop and was damaging itself flying into the walls. This was also our first meal on shore, in what felt like weeks! Actually, maybe it was just the one.

It was unfortunate we didn't get to stay longer at Derawan - it is a beautiful island with well maintained moorings and plenty of dive sites on the surrounding islands. I will hopefully come back some day.  

5) Koh Hong - which must be one of the most perfect destinations in the world for early morning beach yoga - after kayaking with Rosie through an 800m cave entrance to the hidden lagoon in the centre. Completely sheltered by the surrounding karst mountains it was a blissful experience to be there before the hordes.

6) Watching Rachel's incredible fire stick dance on the beach at Gili Air.
Miss Rachel

7) The Great British Beach clean-up! Unfortunately no pictures of this back-breaking, feet-scorching work, in which we cleared half of the long stretch of beach of discarded flipflops, lighters, plastic cups, bottles, lightbulbs, toothbrushes and many other assorted types of junk. Well done Delina, Kateface and Ronnie!

8) Becoming proficient at various arts and crafts - carving coconut jewellery, henna and making batik (and all the tidying up afterwards!) Thanks to all the people that let me practise henna on them :-)
One of my first attempts at Batik, turned into a cushion!

9)Sail Komodo. Getting involved in this rally was great fun and an opportunity to dress up for once! We went to a dinner with the President of Indonesia, plus all the other local bigwigs.

Being part of a sail pass during Sail Komodo.

10) Owning part of an aeroplane thanks to a big adventure in Bali with a nutty Italian, Laura!

On the navy boat with our new friends.

The Lion Air jet wreckage at Bali
These are just a few examples of all the boat-related activites we've done in the last six months. Obviously I haven't included any diving otherwise I'd still be writing now.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Teaching in Thailand: Things to expect

One of the best experiences I've had on my travels so far has been teaching English in a primary school (4-12 year olds) near Chiang Rai, Thailand. Culturally, it was a fantastic opportunity for me to be immersed into Thai society, religion and way of life. There were barely any other 'farang' (westerners) in the town which meant I was kidnapped on an almost daily basis, with no idea of where I'd be going and with whom, as the plan tended to change as soon as the group found out they had a hostage. Desperate to show off their local traditions, attractions or food, or even just drink beer with an English person, everyone wanted to get to know me and make sure I had a good time.

Recently a few people have asked me about my school year, so I've compiled a list of some information you might not get from your school directly.

Things you need to be prepared for whilst teaching in Thailand:

Almost definitely NOT what you're used to at home, but as soon as you practice your squat, you'll do fine.

You might not have a lot of free time.
Teaching aside, Thais are incredibly social people and also don't seem to have the same ideas about personal space/free time/privacy as you might. For example, one of the teachers at my school spent Mon-Thurs nights alone in her house because her husband went away to work. She was forever trying to abduct me, her theory being that I must be lonely as I also 'sleep alone'. I have generally no problem sleeping in a room by myself. Apart from the time I found that giant spider...Anyway for the Thais it is probably something to do with their religious beliefs in spirits and ghosts - the idea of staying in a house by themselves is terrifying.

An awesome eating spot I was kidnapped to. Ok, so it wasn't such a hardship!
The kids are not the same as whatever you're used to at home. Because of course, Asian kids are so much cuter, but they're also better behaved. They even clean their own classrooms! Be prepared for when you suddenly start getting friend requests from your eight year old students on Facebook; before you have a heart attack you should realise that all of the other teachers in the school have already befriended them. But maybe you want to clean up your page first, or make a second one. (It's a great way for them to study English outside of the classroom if you write simple posts.)

It's possible the kids are better behaved because the threat of a slap on the back of their hand/head/shoulder is pretty real. This is an interesting point, because it divides people. I was pretty shocked in the beginning, when I saw (in my opinion) how freely the teachers gave out a quick smack. It's difficult to see if it's affected them at all negatively; they're definitely a lot nicer than the little monsters at home. The first time I had a student misbehave in my class, I was absolutely baffled by the rest of the class holding up their metal rulers. Obviously they fully expected me to grab one and give the naughty kid some disciplining. Hmm.

Your hours might not be obvious in the beginning. Even if somebody tells you which days and for how long you're supposed to be teaching, in my experience that was fairly flexible - nobody remembered to tell me about festival days, for example, so I would turn up on Monday morning with the lesson plans for the week only to find out there was a festival to prepare for, which meant normal lessons would be cancelled, so the kids could spend a whole day making a floating flower arrangement to set on fire and put in the river, or something. Also, even though I was only supposed to be teaching three days a week, if anything even vaguely school related fell outside those days I was fully expected to attend if I was in town. eg. sports days, parades, scouts camping overnight. Or even during school hours - like the countless times I was actually pulled out of class to go and have lunch with some government officials who would be inspecting the school. I was pretty much the marketing tool for the school: 'Hey look, we've got a girl farang. Send your kids here!'

Thai people take their competitions seriously!

The pay might seem terrible, but you have to realise that although you could get more working in McDonalds at home (probably, I've never asked what the rate is) to the Thais you are earning A LOT more than they are. I found out the minimum wage in my area was around 30Baht/day (with accomodation and food included). That's insane. Maybe they were illegal Lao immigrants, but still - I rarely manage to leave 7/11 without spending three times that in one visit! Most teaching positions will also offer your accomodation, food (at least school lunches) and some form of transport along with your salary. So in theory, all your living costs are taken care of.

You can earn extra with private tuition. If this appeals to you, you can take on individual students, or even small classes for an extra charge, outside of school hours. This is probably only going to work in an area where the parents have got some cash to spare, or you're big hearted enough to do it for nothing.

Don't speak Thai to your students. This is a hard one, because Thai is a difficult language to learn, so when you start to understand your students talking to you in the playground in Thai, you really want to show off your new skills. Bite your tongue!!! It's so much better for them if they are forced to use English to speak with you.

You need to learn how to drink beer and whiskey. Apparantly, Thailand has only got two alcoholic drinks: beer and whiskey. Beer is consumed with ice and whiskey can be mixed with water/soda water/coke/ice/any above combination.

All of this could be completely different for a school in a big city. The above is just my experiences, working in a small town an hour's drive from the nearest big city, way up in the north of Thailand. It could also be completely different in the next province/age group/government school etc.

Kru (teacher) Newii knitting during a lunch break. Teachers are called by their first names in Thailand.
Whoever and wherever you end up teaching, one thing is for sure - your Thai students will quickly win a place in your heart, and will be a very sweet memory you can cherish years after you leave.

The next adventure

The next adventure came sooner than we would have liked – sailing from Kudat towards Kota Kinabalu around the northernmost tip of Borneo in the South China Sea.

A small problem of the engine completely stopping, whilst in rough waters…also with a squall, giving us 45knots of wind to go against. And to make things even more interesting, we were drifting uncontrollably whilst perilously close to a pinnacle that jutted out of the water, some 50metres away. 

Honestly, I don’t make this stuff up. 

An image of the squall on the radar which we were right in the middle of. Everything yellow is lots of wind, rain and big waves. Plus the rocks to the left, of course.

Luckily for us, Furthur is installed with a ‘Get Home’ system – or APU which allows the propeller to be run by power from the generator, rather than the engine in situations like ours. In flat, calm waters it should manage around 4knots – or about half of what we’d normally cruise at.

In this mess, we found the system worked, although a bit slower than promised given the conditions. We quickly devised a system – as soon as the engine ignition switch light went off, the engine would stall, (despite our threats and pleas) which meant Brian would run down to the engine room to turn on the get-home while I waited to steer the boat as soon as we had power. Emily watched the small engine ignition switch light like a hawk, and would shout out the second the light came back on - the engine would run again. This happened somewhere between 15 and 20 times throughout the rest of our 70 mile journey to Kota Kinabalu. Every time the light came back on, we’d be back to battle stations – Brian in the engine room, turning off the get home (you can't run both systems simultaneously), and me at the helm, trying to avoid the worst of the 3-4m swells and re-starting the engine.

Emily decided that bed was the safest place to be in the rough stuff!

Some 14 hours later, we limped into the most beautiful marina I’ve ever seen – Sutera Harbour Resort, which is just what we need for a month of well-earned R&R. 

A spectacular sunset from the marina
If you need me, I’ll be at the pool.