The art of sitting

Sitting for Stamford Portrait Class

Sitting for Stamford Portrait Class

I’ve never been much good at doing nothing but I know it’s good for me. Nevertheless, the older I’ve got, and the wiser (!), the more I recognise the value of mindfulness. But it’s harder than ever these days since the SmartPhone. Whereas I once would have sat in a waiting room in contemplation, it is now nigh on impossible not to reach for my phone and flick through Facebook while I wait. It is harder than ever to allow my mind to wander freely.

Then my mother asked me to sit for her portrait-drawing class. I must admit I was dreading it. I am not good at sitting in one position for long. I’m a leg-crosser and uncrosser, a fidget. I also can’t stop myself from staring at people. Still, it was only an hour or so, and I thought it might do me good.

So, this morning, I joined her at the Indoor Bowls Club and allowed myself to be positioned in a wicker chair, as you would move one of those wooden articulated artist’s dummies into position. One leg bent, one straight, one hand on the chair arm, the other on a knee, slightly to the side, with my face tipped just so. My view was of a no smoking sign on a window, just above the head of a lady with a striped top. As silence fell, and 10 grey heads bent over sketchpads, the 45 minutes ahead of me looked interminable. How was I going to pass the time?

The no smoking sign soon lost its appeal, but then I noticed the sprinkler that was turning pirhouettes on the perfect green lawn outside. The branches of the yew trees arched upwards, arms in first position and a grey pigeon darted in and out of the lilacs. Was it building a nest or feeding young? He flew exactly the same route, diagonally, over and over. It was not long before I was mesmerised.

There was no wind. A weak sun warmed the windows and I began to listen. The tea urn had been gurgling unnoticed until it went silent, which was when the clock’s tick lurched into focus. To my left a bangle, sounding silver, clanged repeatedly against the formica table-top like birdsong. Pencils switched positions in a wooden box with the call of a kookaburra. Sleeves brushed artpaper, bottoms squeaked against the plastic upholstery of discarded dining chairs. Feet shuffled. Mine could not. I tried to meditate, counting five breaths in and eight out, but with my eyes open it was impossible. Despite my narrow line of sight I kept my gaze straight. My senses became fascinated by the infinite sounds and sights that filled the poet in me with a richness of inspiration I rarely feel. Was the shadow to my left a painter who was standing up? Who wore the bangle? Was something pale and yellow moving on the green? If I were blind, would it be even better? Likewise, if I were deaf?

An itch began to the left of my mouth. I could not scratch it and so, impotent, switched my thoughts back to the pigeon until I realised the itch had moved to my eyebrow, where again I had to leave it be until it disappeared. I managed to surpress both a sneeze and a cough. Was this a metaphor for dealing with mosquito bites and anxious thoughts, best left alone to dissipate alone?

My left hand filled with pins and needles. The tension in my neck burned hot as chilli. I tried to concentrate on my ear instead and soon it was aflame and thus my neck and hand left my attention. The wind picked up. The sky went grey. The clock still ticked loudly and the ladies began to whisper and stretch their arthritic arms.

ARTCLASS1Time for coffee and a welcome walkabout. Some went out into the sunshine for cigarettes with their furry-kettle coffee and milk chocolate digestives. Some perused the second-hand book stall. Some, like me, noticed that the sprinkler had stopped and instead a chap with a mower and a mongrel took over the lawn.

Again, I was placed back in position for another half an hour. It flew so fast I hardly had time to notice a thing. I had reached the peaceful place that comes after deep relaxation.

I was handed £15, yet, frankly, I’d have paid for the lesson in mindfulness. The poet’s inspiration I had received by simply being forced to sit completely still for three-quarters of an hour was priceless. I was also given two remarkable portraits to take home.

If you too struggle with mindfulness or meditation, then maybe you too should try to sit for an art class?


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The shifting sands of the expat empty nest

It’s taken me almost five years to write about my empty nest. It’s a surprise, particularly to me, someone who has no compunction about revealing my vulnerability. It is five years now since Josh left home for university and seven since Sam left before him.

Living in the Netherlands at the time, both our boys moved to London a month after receiving their A Level results, as is the British way. So, when they left they moved abroad. We’d already been there five or six years. We had great friends, fulfilling work and felt totally at home. Their absence did not leave the gaping hole I had been anticipating. What’s more, their proximity meant we saw them often. I always remember hearing ‘Superwoman’ Shirley Conran speak at the Savoy. She told us women with kids not to put our lives on hold for the children because one day they would leave home and then, where would we be? I think I did a pretty good job of retaining my professional identity to avoid this. Maybe too good?

I knew I was not unaffected by the loss of young men raiding my fridge frighteningly fast, but I thought I was coping fairly well. Also, I was kind of waiting for things to settle down to a new normal. Only, that hasn’t happened. My empty nest keeps changing. It changes size and shape month on month. Like the sand dunes in Dubai it moves and shifts, gently morphing imperceptibly into something new.

Then, almost three years ago, Ian and I moved to Kuala Lumpur and left both boys in Europe. After 28 years on the move we’re used to being a short plane ride from family and friends but being a long-haul flight from our offspring was a big deal. I think this was when my empty nest really hit home.

Moving to Malaysia was a different story in other respects too. Here we were in our fifties and with no social network, no support group and for the first time in decades I was not going to set up a business locally. I would keep working but do so wholly online. So no women’s business networks for me. No school gates. No clients. No kids.

It was time for me to take note of what I’d been preaching for years and put my own advice into practice. It was all very well having a huge global network – now I needed a local one more than ever. And that has taken time. Being defined for so many years by my work I was distinctly uneasy at coffee mornings. I didn’t do morning events; that was when I worked. I preferred evening business clubs with an inspiring speaker and networking with people like me. I tell you, it’s been a learning and what’s more, it’s been slow going. Where it used to take me a year when the kids were at home, to settle in a new place, this time it’s honestly taken two. As usual I’ve set up a writers’ circle. I contribute to the British women’s club magazine and have made friends via a yoga class and the condo we lived in for the first two years. Oh how glad I am that this empty nester picked a condo to start with. I’ve even joined a book club!

Apart from the impossible time zone difference between SE Asia and Germany, where Sam is now living, there have been unexpected benefits to our new childfree status. We go away every bank holiday weekend, usually taking a low cost airline somewhere pretty exotic. In fact, I wrote this on the plane to the Margaret River knowing that we wouldn’t return home to a kitchen sink full of dirty dishes, dirty plates in bedrooms and the dishwasher still needing to be unloaded.

By living somewhere exotic and having lots of wonderful friends who also find their nests empty, instead of the weekend visits with the family we used to enjoy, they come for a week, or two, or even three and we get to go on more trips with them too.

These days, now the boys are grown up, we also get to go visit them in their own exotic locations. Josh is now in Jogjakarta and, as I said, Sam is in Berlin.

The biggest surprise has been the joy of hosting young strangers in our house. We regularly open the door to a range of lovely young people we have never or scarcely met before. This is the age of the backpacker, the perpetual traveller, the wwoofer and couchsurfer.  It usually begins with a Whatsapp message from Sam or Josh asking whether we are in on such and such a date. Then they say they have a friend who just happens to be coming through KL and on a tight budget and… and…

kitchen help

kitchen help

And so they visit and in a flash our nest is full of life and smelly feet again. We enjoy the company. In a way they become proxy children. They arrive, rather smelly, turtled with backpacks, yet without agenda, history or emotional baggage. They ask our advice. They listen to us. Recently, Geraint, an Aussie cycling from Down Under to England, called in on his way through, with the British cyclist called Tristan, he’d met en route. After I had frog-marched them to the washing machine, they asked if they could help cook dinner, lay the table, wash up. Ian and I went out for a while and when we returned home, they had mopped the kitchen floor. A week later and Josh popped home and ‘accidentally’ brought his French friend Léandre with him. Overnight, we ran out of pillows.

Entertaining one of ours and a spare!

Entertaining one of ours and a spare!

Nests, I realise, have different degrees of emptiness. Making sure they, like beds, never get completely cold, is definitely my preferred coping mechanism. I feel privileged that the kids consider us ‘okay’ enough to spend time with their friends and welcome the fillip these impromptu visits provide.


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No worries on our first ever trip Down Under

Forest of Karri trees

Forest of Karri trees

We didn’t see a single kangaroo. Nor a wallaby. Nor a possum. Not a single bush hat strung with corks and though we found lots of gum trees there was not a koala in sight. Was this really Australia?

I never really believed I’d go Down Under. Although I have plenty of Australian friends and knew from the way their accents made them sound like they were always smiling that their country might be fun, but part of me also doubted it really existed. I’d seen the YouTube clip where a Brit is taught the Aussie a lot of useful words. A can of beer, becomes a ‘tinnie’. A cool box, an ‘eskie’, a booze shop, a ‘bottleshop’ or ‘bottle-o’ , a laptop a ‘lappy’ and so on. I reckoned I’d cope without the aid of Google Translate, but still, setting foot in the land of Aborigines I expected an alien nation. A land made up of surf dudes who called their women Sheila and women who looked like Kylie Minogue.

I never expected it to be that clean. I never expected the road signs to actually help us to find where we were going, nor the maps to work.  But they did, which was a jolly good job because our SatNav didn’t. Our first night took us to a B&B run by a lady called Kandy, with a K,  called Greenskape. I was not hopeful. That first night, Kandy suggested we head to the Tavern in the town of Capel for dinner as most places closed at seven in the winter. It looked like a Little Chef, shared the parking lot with a bottle-o  and was entered though a bar filled with darts players, their eyes fixed to a big screen showing footie. When I saw a door marked with the word Lounge, I relaxed. But the lounge, decorated in shades of mint green and terracotta and with plastic flowers on the paper-covered tables did not bode well. Our waitress had a curly perm and tattoos peeked out from the sleeves of her fleece. I think her name too, began with a K. We asked for a table for two, casting our eyes round the cold, soulless, empty room.

“No worries!” she said perkily.

We asked for the menu.

“No worries!” she said perkily.

We ordered fish and chips.

“No worries!” she said and when the fish was fresh and meaty and the beer served scarily cold we knew for sure we really were in Australia.

The following morning Kandy served us homemade granola and a range of homemade jams, concocted by her husband, Peter, in the ‘thermie’ – that ubiquitous pricey piece of kitchen counter kit it seems no self-respecting Aussie household is without. Apparently it takes the place of 12 other pieces of equipment and is able to cook, steam, blend, whisk and weigh all in the same small space. And so we learned that Aussies are not only civilised and eat healthily but streets ahead of the Brits, not least because they fine any citizen who does not vote in an election.



The vines on the slope

The vines on the slope

We were making for Margaret River, a wine region that lies a few hours south of Perth and is found in the very southernmost, westernmost tip of the country, its well-drained slopes blown by the breezes from both the Indian and Southern Oceans. A terroir I had never heard of until recently, we were lucky sods in that I’d recently met a vineyard owner who asked her estate manager to give us a private tour. Despite the drizzle, the Cabernet Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignon we sampled that lunchtime were the finest of our whole trip. Our guide, Col, even let Ian have a go at pruning, which was possibly rather stupid of him as he’d had a glass of wine and wasn’t wearing his glasses!  Col taught us so much, not least the fact that vineyards appear to offer great investment potential and a lifetime supply of great wine. But not until we had driven as south as we could, through the Boranup forest to Augusta and its lighthouse, to work up a thirst.

LIghthouse at Augusta

LIghthouse at Augusta

Convinced that we now needed to sample a few more varieties of wine, just to be sure the first one really was the best we signed ourselves up on a day-long Bushtucker tour.

Our leader was called Bart, had the lean physique, tan and long tawny hair of the surfer and wore the hat we’d expected – minus the corks.  A jolly fellow, he drove our yellow bus between three fine wineries (aka wine-o), with nutty names like Woody Nook and Knotting Hill and looked on while we got quietly sozzled on at least 8 wines in each place, then five beers in a brewery (no, they did not do anything other than freezing cold beer, shame on them but at least we managed to sit by a fire), cheeses in a dairy, chocolate in a choccy place and then, now nicely bonded with the rest of our party, goodness knows how many spirits at a place I can’t even remember the name of. Bemoaning our lack of roo activity, Bart told us we’d not be disappointed at the spirit place as we’d be bound to catch sight of the drop bears. Kirsten and Morgan tittered behind us in the bus.

“They fall out of trees onto tourists,” he warned. “Somehow they know to avoid the locals.”

“That’s because we know to put Vegemite behind our ears,” said Kristen.

“Oh dear,” I said, merrily into the swing of things. “I only have Marmite on me!”

Morgan tutted. “Drop bears can tell the difference.”

As we arrived at the distillery, Bart warned us. “Now, Steve, the guy here, may be offensive. He doesn’t mean anything but he has a very dry sense of humour. Very non-PC and permanently pissed. Oh, and watch out for those drop bears!”

Ian gets into the groove at Knotting Hill

Ian gets into the groove at Knotting Hill

Walking, or should I say, weaving, in the drizzle towards the bar, Bart indicated the gum tree above his head. We looked up and sure enough, there on the branches were a collection of white bears, nailed on and ready to drop. Spirits remained high as we approached the bar and the notorious Steve. He poured glasses fast, holding two at a time down firmly with his large hand, flattening his fingers against the wood to stop them shaking.

“Where are you from?” he asked us.


And from that moment he referred to us as Brexit and shook his head. The Irish and the Scottish chaps were accused of drinking too fast, the Malaysians of being too slow. Nevertheless at a rate of about a glass every two minutes, some of which had to be downed in one, looked like a brown tequila sunrise and tasted like Irish coffee, others had recently won awards, we did as we were told. It all went by in a flash of hilarity and then, seven hours after we had started we were back in the tranquility of our hotel and desperate for cups of tea. I think I had five in a row.

We spent two nights at the Basildene Manor in the town of Margaret River. A 19-room mansion, it stands in rolling grounds filled with peppermint trees (no, not another of Bart’s jokes, it is a kind of eucalyptus) and a variety of wild parrots. They serve a breakfast like no other, with a range of spiced and fresh fruits in a glorious conservatory overlooking the garden. But it was not just the breakfast that set it apart. I have never before stayed in a hotel that while it serves no meals apart from breakfast, expects the guests to make themselves at home in the two firelit lounges and the conservatory. You can bring your own food, order in a pizza or drink the wine you bought during the day. Glasses and board games are provided. Tea and coffee are permanently available as are homemade cake and fresh fruit.

Basildene Manor's glorious garden

Basildene Manor’s glorious garden

Our final night was spent in the wetlands of Busselton in a B&B called Martin Fields. Ironically, the owner, Pattricia, was Malaysian! Our view was exceptional, as were the local sausages.

Martin Fields

Martin Fields

We only spent four nights here in total, leaving Malaysia for the Hari Raya celebration that comes at the end of Ramadan. But in this short time we fell a little in love in Western Australia. Without exception, we found the natives to be warm, welcoming and amusing. The landscape, made up of more gum trees than I knew existed is fairly flat and very green, somewhat shrubby and gorsey with expansive Norfolk pines, funny squat walking haystacks with black trunks that we discovered are called grass trees and the grey leaved wattles, dripping with yellow laburnum-like blooms. The sunsets flamed amber and the weather was more changeable than the Netherlands, moving from sunshine to showers several times an hour. Middle-aged women are mostly blond and may have piercings. Young man look splendid in wet suits and still jump the waves in the winter, wandering barefoot, sleek as neoprene seals.

The grass tree

The grass tree

Everyone, but everyone, seems to be smiling.

But we did not see a single kangaroo.



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The trouble with the tropics

is it me, or is it hot out here?I suggest men and the faint-hearted now look away…

When we first arrived in Malaysia I’d look at the number of umbrellas that the Asian women used here when it wasn’t raining and hurrumph. How vain were they to protect their already gorgeous olive skin from the sun?  You’d never get me doing that!

So there was I, with what my doctor calls Type A skin (which basically means the vulnerable, moley, freckly, blotchy kind that never goes a decent brown) and told to wear sunblock ‘”every day. I mean it. Even if it’s not sunny. Even in the car.” But he didn’t tell me to use an umbrella.

Being a good girl I did as I was told and always put some on my face before going out. OK, maybe not if I’m popping out in the car to a mall, but always if I am going to be exposed for more than a minute or two. If I sunbathe, which I do only rarely because it’s boring, I wear factor 50 and sit under a sunshade. If I have to wander about for any length of time I wear a hat, even though it makes my head sweat.

But now it seems I’ve reached ‘a certain age’ and it is as if someone has put on the central heating. Everywhere. Inside the shops. In the car, with the fan full on. In the middle of the night when the a/c is on arctic and Ian’s wearing winceyette pyjamas. What’s worse I am getting sweatier and sweatier, yes, even with deoderant. I have developed the habit of pressing my arms against my sides whenever I meet someone. I wear nothing with a waistband that clings to my waist. I realize that trousers are cooler than skirts because the feel of my damp thighs touching is frankly, revolting. Sorry, folks TMI. But it’s true. Until recently I had no idea how much a forehead nor the tops of feet, can perspire. I’m sure menopause must be bad enough for women in a Norwegian winter, but out here, with the temperature in the 90s and humidity often up near 100% it’s not funny.

Maybe it’s not just me?

Recently, we hosted a couple of chaps who were cycling from Australia to the UK. They arrived on my doorstep, complaining of prickly heat, left their putrid shoes outside (thank God), availed themselves of my washing machine and flung themselves up against the air conditioner.

“We’ve had this painful rash night and day for four days,” said Tristan. “We looked it up on the Internet and the advice for getting rid of it was to be in an air conditioned room until we could get completely cool. We’re on the road or camping out all the time so it’s impossible.”

“You’ll enjoy our pool, then?” I suggested, telling them to make themselves at home and giving them pool towels.

Two days later and they had still not left the house unless it was dark. Not even to swim.

“We can’t,” said Geraint. “The moment we step outside the prickly heat comes back.”

It took them three days to recover. I know how they felt.

It is equally hard for me to cool down to the core for any length of time living here and particularly with this dodgy internal thermostat I seem to be landed with at the moment. I wish all it would take for me to recover was three days indoors. I too only swim when the pool is in the shade. The water is cold and for the first time in my life as a complete wuss, I’m delighted.

Luckily there are measures I can take to help myself cool down without recourse (yet) to standard HRT. And while Dr Christiane Northrup’s book, The Wisdom of Menopause is packed with advice I’m testing my own brand of Heating Reduction Therapy…


my HRT kit

20 ways to reduce what the Chinese call call ‘body heatiness’

  1. I now drink iced coffee and wait til my builder’s tea is cold before I dare drink it.
  2. I’ve started drinking sage tea (sounds disgusting, but actually it’s rather nice).
  3. Always one famed for an asbestos mouth and wolfing my food, I wait til it’s stopped steaming before daring to take a bite.
  4. I keep my hair off my neck. I had no idea that the back of my neck would suffer most from this midlife affliction. Now I ensure there is always a hair clip or a bobble in my pocket.
  5. I’m trying to exercise more, so there’s a fitbit step counter in my pocket.
  6. I’m cutting down on sugar and try to satisfy the craving with a date.
  7. I always bags the seat under the fan or nearest the a/c if I eat out.
  8. I know that it is wise to keep a wet towel in the freezer. Oh the bliss of it on the back of that pesky neck. Sometimes I keep a wet towel beside the bed too! Oh, take tissues or a small handtowel out with me. I think of them as my ‘mop’.
  9. I put the a/c on in a room a few minutes before I spend time in it.
  10. Not only do I have pairs of reading specs in every room of the house these days, but now I have a fan too. And, more important of all, there’s one in my handbag at all times.
  11. I engineer Ian to agree to holiday destinations that are experiencing winter if at all possible.
  12. I’m embracing every alternative remedy that others swear by (yes, I did check with an expert that I’m not going to overdose!) and wait patiently for them to take effect:  geranium essential oil in the dimples in my lower back, clary sage and geranium oil on my soles, wild yam gel rubbed into my wobbly bits.
  13. I’ve discovered vodka has a less adverse effect on me than wine (yay!). And yes, I am cutting down on booze too. And yes, it does make a difference. Bugger.
  14. I put ice (to cool down) and soda water (no sugar) in the vodka!
  15. I’m following my wise consul, Siv Harestad’s, body reflexology treatment three times a week. You can find it here on YouTube.
  16. I’m doing a grounding yoga practice, as recommended by my friend and yoga teacher, Cecilia Gotherstrom, as often as I can.
  17. I have a Headspace meditation App on the iPad and use it.
  18. I’ve booked in for a six-session program of acupuncture with the wonderful Mrs Ju. I’m two sessions in and hopeful. Honestly, she said it would only take six!
  19. I also use a thing called a Ladycare magnet but you’ll have to look up what I do with it because explaining is maybe way TMI.
  20. And finally, you guessed it? I now take an umbrella whatever the weather and use it. You can get them with a UV protective layer and you know, it does make a difference.

So maybe, the women who carry umbrellas are not protecting their skin after all?

Oh, and by the way… I’m still hot!

PS the Chinese swear by chrysanthemum tea. Shall I check it out?

PPS Please share your own remedies with me. 20 life changes appear not to be enough.

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Blue for the EU

Happy accident?

Happy accident?

June 25th 2016

It was a blue day yesterday.

With Sam living in Berlin and desperately wanting Britain to stay in the EU and the majority of bones in my body agreeing with him, I spent the final minutes of the referendum vote-counting in Boudoir nail parlour. I’d been given a manicure and pedicure as a birthday present and decided for the first time ever to take iPad and headphones with me. We’re seven hours ahead of the UK here. Over there it was 3.30am. I wanted to see and hear the action unfold. I’d been confident we’d remain, albeit by a narrow margin and wanted to know the outcome immediately.

I don’t normally do manicures. This is because I find it hard to be without the use of my hands for very long and am so uncoordinated that it is nigh on impossible for me to manoeuvre my drying nails so that the wet polish does not smudge. This means, I can’t drink the free drinks that came with my generous gift. I can’t answer my phone. I can’t turn the pages of one of those vacuous magazines that take five seconds to flick through and I can’t scratch my nose. I’m one of those people who can’t look at something at the side of the road while I’m driving because if I do, the steering wheel miraculously turns along with my head. So, if I have my nails done I need to sit still a statue, eyes down.

The situation made a perfect opportunity to sit down, plug in and watch BBC Live before the polish descended. I know how hopeless I am so picked a pale pink varnish for my finger-nails and then for no particular reason, other than that my dress yesterday was navy and white, chose a blue for my nails.  Then it was eyes down. I have no idea what the two nail technicians must have thought (yes, you get nails and toes done simultaneously here) as I couldn’t help myself emit a series of groans, sighs and mild expletives from the moment Brexit had just 377,000 to go to secure a victory. My heart was sinking fast. I’d lived in France and the Netherlands for ten years of my life. I spoke some French, German and Dutch. I had friends living all over EU, most of whom were not British. I felt more European than British in many ways. I’d certainly spent more of my adult life on the continent than in England. As a mostly-expat I feel more ‘at home’ among internationals and those who recognize that their passport does not define who they are. Yet I am British and our exit from the EU made me feel like I was betraying my friends, being a hypocrite, a traitor.

I was alone in the salon. When the vote was final I could not bear to look at the screen. I glanced towards my fingers. Instead of the innocuous pale colour I’d chosen, they were bright primary blue! After the initial horror I saw the irony. All they needed were some circles of stars and I’d be able to wear my heart on my toes. I shrugged and told the nail girl that it was okay. I was happy to make a statement today.

As my mood sank into a dark hole I decided there was nothing for it but a spot of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers on James Cordon’s Carpool Karaoke and this time could not contain my laughter. The show finished and my nails were done. I’d taken my mind off the country I was born in for a few minutes.

Four expats came into the salon and sat down.

“Oh God, what about Brexit?” was the first thing to be said. My mother thinks it will be like a divorce, messy. My accountant says we ‘are in interesting times’. My old friend says she wants to leave Britain now.

I’m not sure the future’s bright for our children though my toes certainly are. Like them, I’m rather bluer than I’d hoped.



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Silent in Sandakan

Sandakan Bay

Sandakan Bay

Many confuse Sandakan with Samarkand for no other reason than the names sound similar. I knew Sandakan as the Land Below the Wind, thanks to the writings of American author, Agnes Keith in the early part of the last century. Ian knew Sandakan as the location of WWII allied Prisoner of War camps and the start of many forced death marches from Sandakan to Ranau. Marches of POWs that left only the six who managed to escape alive out of more than two thousand is cited to be the single worst atrocity suffered by Australian servicemen at that time. We both knew that this was the place to go to explore both the Orang Utan Sanctuary at Sepilok and the wildlife of the Kinabatangan River and that it was two and a half hours away from KL, in Sabah, back on our beloved Borneo.

The sign

The sign

We flew to Kota Kinabalu and hired a car, driving the five hours or so across the country to Sandakan. Much of our journey took the Sandakan Death March route. Breaking for lunch at Ranau, we visited the tea plantation and discovered the poignant Quailey’s Hill memorial to those who lost their lives and that overlooked the lush landscape.

View from Quailey Memorial, Ranau

View from Quailey Memorial, Ranau

With thoughts of cruelty in our minds we drove the rest of the way in silence, incredulous that such a gentle landscape, peppered with kampong-style houses on stilts, banana, mango, coconut and papaya trees swaying in the breeze beneath a wide blue sky, could have seen such horror.

We stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel, located slap bang on the waterfront in Sandakan, with a view over the Sulu Sea to a string of islands in one direction and overlooked by Agnes Keith’s house behind.

View up to Agnes Keith's house from Sheraton

View up to Agnes Keith’s house from Sheraton (you can glimpse it behind the trees towards the top)

Sandakan feels stuck in a fifties time warp. Many buildings remain and few, apart from our hotel, rose higher than three or four storeys. Like I said, it’s a gentle landscape and one that feeds my soul. Somehow it feels a couple of degrees cooler and less humid here than KL and though Keith claims it lies ‘beneath the wind’, we enjoyed surprising wafts of cool air that crept up unexpectedly.

Of course our first day had to be spent with the orang utans and we arrived at opening time the next day. As a rehabilitation centre for motherless babies, the wounded and abused, it’s another gentle place and our silence was requested as we wandered the board walks, necks on swivels craning to look closer at any rustle among the leaves. We saw plenty of macacs at feeding time and a lone orang utan swinging calmly on manmade ropes made to resemble liana and that had been strung around the viewing area. But it was in the nursery that we witnessed magic in action as humans taught their young and timid charges to climb, swing, and forage for food just like their mothers would have done. At lunch time the youngsters held out their hands ring-a-roses style to be escorted off for nap time.

It was about now that I was too thirsty to stay and follow the trail, but Ian and our friends, Paul and Helen, were keen and so I bid them goodbye and headed off for a large a/c unit and a big bottle of water in the café. Of course this was the time that the wanderers came upon a lounging female, flopped on her back, chilling against a pile of leaves. Not only that but she soon found herself an entourage and gamely led them off down the track and posed for selfies. Typical.

Ian and his new BFF

Ian and his new BFF

After a quick detour to the canopy walk (yay, no stairs to climb!) at the Rainforest Discovery Centre, we opted to go straight to Agnes Keith’s house and miss out the sunbear centre en route. There is something for the whole family in Sandakan.

English Tea Garden

English Tea Garden

Beside her house, renovated only a few years ago, stands a Cameron Highlands style, black-and-white English Tea House, that serves excellent fish and chips by the way, and cold beer too on terraces that have stonking views across the harbor to the sea. We could not resist.

What expats eat on holiday

What expats eat on holiday

Her house, for me, the highlight of our weekend, did not disappoint. Keith lived here from 1934 to 1952 with her husband, Harry, Conservator of Forests, and a pet orang utan. Only, it was here that Ian’s Sandakan and mine combined. I have also read her second book, Three Came Home, that tells part two of her astounding story. In 1942 Agnes, Harry and their young son, George were captured, along with many of their friends, and interned at the POW camp over on Berhala Island, by the Japanese. And though, against all odds – malaria, typhoid, near-starvation – they survived, and, after the war and few years in Canada, returned to the same spot. The Japanese had commandeered their house and the family returned to find it destroyed. However, at her request, a new one was built on the same spot. Keith found the new house to be haunted by the old. I’d have been haunted by the silence, save for birdsong and the horror of recent painful memories within the reach of my sight.

Agnes and Harry Keith's house

Agnes and Harry Keith’s house

Visiting the Sandakan Memorial Park on the way to Sukau on the Kintabatangan River was a given. We simply had to go, despite only having a spare half hour. It was so worth it. Again, silence seemed to be in order as we wandered the green, meandering park, looking up at the soaring trees where, then, only a few protruded from the devastation. As I searched the air for birdsong, I was reminded of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and how, when life was nothing but bleak, the sight of a bird and the sound of it singing could lift spirits. I hoped those desperate men found moments of brightness in their tragic lives, felled like trees years before their time.


Sandakan War Memorial

Sandakan War Memorial

Agnes’ War

What have they seen,
these soaring trees?
The leaf-litter, heaped
like piles of bones,
pushed to the edge of our rememberering.
Trunks, hacked short,
like the futures
of those
brave young men,
who came to fight
for their Australian homeland and their lives.
Here in Sandakan,
flowers bloom red
as blood.
Sunlight filters gently down
through straight-backed trees,
bathing us in silence, sorrow.
We march forwards,
because we choose,
towards the flat black stone
that is their memorial.
How then, did Agnes feel,
standing on the thick green lawns
of a house haunted by ghosts of people whom she never knew?
Did she look down across the Sulu Sea,
past wide acacias, palms and pines
to Berhala Island, where,
interned, she suffered and was starved?
For her no days of death march
that slaughtered thousands and
left only six alive.
Her journey east to Sarawak’s Kucing
robbed her of the light behind her eyes,
but not the drive
to write this down
for us
Scraps of paper, sewn
into her toddler’s toys,
her fragile hems and soft worn seams,
stitched truth and death
into the corners of her desperate life
so that now we stand
on her beloved hill
and look down
and out
and back.
Lest we forget.

Sandakan May 2016


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The inside scoop on what to eat in Ipoh

With Elaine and Tina at Sin Yoon Loong

With Elaine and Tina at Sin Yoon Loong

Ipoh only really came into its own at the end of the 19th century with the growth of the tin-mining industry. Fleeing famine and poverty in China or as indentured slaves, countless Hakka families moved to the city in pursuit of a better life. Able to marry several times and to take concubines, the population of Chinese grew exponentially, creating a city in the shade of the Cameron Highlands that was predominantly Chinese in character. Under British rule until 1960, at first glance, arriving at the elegant railway station, Ipoh appears distinctly British too. Vast white wedding-cake buildings flanked by columns and laced with balconies rise up to greet you with a charming colonial atmosphere. The black and white timbered Royal Ipoh Club sits beside the padang (grassy, square parade ground) where once cricket was played, looks every inch a cricket pavilion. Yet, away from the station, designed by Hubback, the same chap responsible for the station in Kuala Lumpur, roads narrow, trees disperse and instead rows of Chinese shophouses fill the streets. This is where real life happens in Ipoh. This is where we want to spend our time.

It is Ian’s birthday weekend and, after two and a half years in Malaysia, it is the first time we have visited Ipoh. We travel by train, after work on a Friday, purchasing First Class tickets for less than 30 quid return, for both of us. The journey takes about two and a half hours, which is probably about the same, if not less, than it would take to drive. Having driven up the dull, straight and boring E1 twice already in the last month, we can’t face it again, particularly on a Friday night. We made the right choice and take ourselves some vino and crisps and embarrassingly stinky guacamole along for the ride.

Our hotel is M Boutique, a funky looking choice that is tremendous value. What we don’t know is that it overlooks a main road and is slap bang in the middle of rows of second-hand car showrooms. It is also too far to walk to the old town, which is where everything worth seeing, and eating, is located.

Concubine Lane

Concubine Lane

During the two days we spend here we follow the Heritage Walk, picking up a guide in the tourist office beside the padang and following the fat yellow footprints that have been painted on the pavements to show us the way. We gawp at buildings that are majestic, impressive and have fascinating histories to tell. The church of St John the Divine that was taken over by the Japanese in World War II and turned into a laundry, Mosques, temples and clubs. Malaya’s first multi-storey car park; just two floors high and built in 1962, the law courts, the first HSBC in Malaya. Everything is worth our attention. Even the lack of mopeds buzzing around like mosquitoes gets our attention, the lack of traffic, the quiet streets, the ability to walk around on pavements under the shade of the five-foot ways typical of Chinese shophouses without having to dodge broken storm-drain covers, skirt parked cars and motorbikes and people whose shops spill out as far as the road. Street art has arrived there too, like in Penang, and as in Penang, it draws a crowd.

Thean Chun

Thean Chun

Our Ipoh priority is to eat. A UK Masterchef fan for many years, I had been thrilled to learn that 2014’s winner was a Malaysian and that she won the final with a refined version of one of my favourite local dishes – nasi lemak. Even better I know that Ping Coombes hails from Ipoh. She has a cookbook, entitled Malaysia, out on May 5th and has been in the papers because it’s promotion time. In last week’s Star she had declared that she always ate pork balls and hor fun at a place called Thean Chun and so, of course, it was my topmost priority of all to do the same. Day one and we were there for lunch.

hor fun at Thean Chun

Hor fun at Thean Chun

As is typical of street-side open food-court cafés here, the building seems to belong to the chap who sells the drinks and then punters order what they want to eat from a choice of hawker stalls in the vicinity.

Ipoh is known for its special blend of white coffee. This is coffee made with margarine, roasted beans, milk and sugar. Ours comes slopped into the saucer, dark and rich. I’ll stick to my cafetière, thanks, but when in Ipoh you have to do what the locals do. Hor fun, we discover, has nothing to do with spending time in the Red Light District. It is a soup of pale chicken stock served with flat rice noodles, prawns sliced down the centre, skinny slices of chicken and two-inch strips of spring onion tops. It comes in an orange plastic bowl with plastic soup spoon and chopsticks along with a vinegary dipping sauce, dotted with discs of green chilli, which lifts the dish a little. It is impossible to eat it without decorating my chin and tee-shirt too, but much-enjoyed. The pork balls are dense and gently spiced like a good British butcher’s sausage, again with noodles, with yellow mee this time, again with soup, again with spring onions. Also very slurpy. This time our condiment is an orange peppery sauce into which I very much enjoy dunking my pork. We are delighted with Ping’s recommendation.

Our taxi driver tells us that Ipoh is famous for its beansprouts and that they are fatter and juicier than any other. We must try them with chicken. We make a mental note. Their chicken rice is famous too, says another driver. Another mental note. And there is some North Indian cuisine better than anywhere else in Malaysia. Oh and white toast with kaya (a kind of lemon curd made with coconut milk) for breakfast. There is no way we are going to be able to try all this and still be able to walk. And it’s Ian’s birthday and birthdays mean one thing – cake!

By three o’ clock we are dripping hot and desperate not just for cake but an a/c when, oh joy, we stumble upon a café with a door on it. Everyday Lifestyle is at 29 Jalan Market and weirdly has exactly the same décor as our hotel. They provide unlimited free iced lemon water and so we are sold. Two birthday affogatos and a sharesy of a hazelnut torte and at last Ian can celebrate properly.

That evening though, as it is Ian’s day, he gets to pick where we eat and inevitably he picks Indian and so we ask Tripadvisor for its recommendation and find Tandoor Grill. This time our taxi driver tells us the beansprouts are nothing special any more and made with ordinary tap water. He also says he can recommend better places for our dinner, and as he’s Indian, we tend to believe him, but we’d heard tell our first choice has a/c, tablecloths and beer so I’m afraid there is no contest. We are not disappointed.

Sunday and our agenda is mostly filled with food again. TripAdvisor recommends another street-side café for breakfast and we head off again in another taxi. Before you think we are either lazy or rich, let me set you straight. This weekend there is an Uber promotion and all taxis are free. Also, Ian has a bad knee. Also, a face that sweats so much your sunglasses slip off gets old quickly.

Roast pork

Roast pork

Sin Yoon Loong

Sin Yoon Loong

And so to Jalan Bandar Timur and Sin Yoon Loong. It’s time to try those beansprouts and sample another Ipoh white coffee. This place purports to be famous for its coffee. When we arrive the tables are heaving. We are asked if we mind sharing, which happens a lot here. A Chinese lady is already at the table and she doesn’t mind sharing at all. Nor does she mind sharing her tips on what to eat.

“Roast pork, very famous,” she says, showing us one of the hawker stands at the front. “Five ringgit, small bowl, ten ringgit large.” We discover her name is Elaine.

I look across and start to salivate. It’s ten thirty and we want our breakfast.

Elaine’s friend, Tina, joins us and between them they recommend what seems to be everything on the menu. Ian and I make suitable noises and before we know it our Tina is ordering hor fun again, prawn soup, beansprouts and more white coffee. We get to choose our own noodles. I ask for kway teoy again because the flat rice noodles are soft and melty and my favourite. She looks at us slightly sniffily.

“Mee hoon and bee hoon better. Or you can mix.” Mee hoon are the yellow ones you find in Pot Noodle. Bee hoon is a really skinny version.

I plump for rice noodles for the hor fun and a mix for the prawn soup. She seems satisfied.

Food arrives at the table from all sides and while we gasp in awe at the vast quantity in front of us our new friend pays our bill. We complain. She waves us away.

“You try kaya?” she asks.

“I love kaya.”

“Very good here.” I expect it too is famous.

A toasted sandwich oozing with caramel appears on our table. Not normally a fan of white bread I find myself eulogizing about this and before I know it, I’m being told the recipe. Equal quantities of sugar, coconut milk and egg, flavoured with pandan leaf for colour and taste. Cooked over a bain-marie, preferably for four hours.

The coffee, when it comes is, I have to say, richer and nuttier than the one from Thean Chun the day before. It’s the same cup and saucer though and also slopped. The hor fun has a tastier broth and the prawn soup, full of chicken and a peppery broth that tastes of bouillabaisse is quite delicious. The beansprouts are fat after all, and though served simply in soy sauce with fried sliced shallots on top, are wonderful.

Our two friends swap phone numbers with us and promise to take us on a proper tour next time we are in town. Sorry, Ping, but Sun Yoon Loong beat your choice.

Two museums on Jalan Bandar Timur, side by side

Two museums on Jalan Bandar Timur, side by side

After breakfast we head to Ha Chin Pet Soo, the home of the Hakka Tin Mining club, recently restored by Ipoh World. To me, the name Ipoh World sounds like a theme park, so I prepare myself for disappointment. What I find is a fascinating trip into the lost world of tin-mining, hardship, coolies panning tin ore out of the rubble and silt and people working frighteningly hard in a hand-to-mouth existence in the baking heat. Possibly my most fascinating fact is that the Chinese avoided cholera because, they believed, they drank tea. Of course, it was not the tea itself they had to thank but the fact that the water was boiled first.

From here we move next door to Ho Yan Hor, the home of a pioneering tea seller. Nothing could be more fitting a follow-on. Ho Kai Cheong was a trained Chinese medical doctor, who, after the Japanese surrendered, had to begin again with nothing. Thanks to the only $4 he had in his pocket he decided to make a large vat of tea, which he then sold at 5 cents a cup, making a healthy profit from his first day. Reading the information boards in the museum I am at once struck by the systematic way the doctor went about growing his modest business into an empire that now sees his tea exported worldwide. Tea to relax, tea to cool you down and tea to heal, it uses 25 different roots and herbs. Back then his tea stall was in the part of town with the highest population of Chinese, proving again that a success can be achieved if you can operate close to your target market. From his stall he moved to buy a bicycle, make up packets of his dried tea concoctions and peddle up and down the Malay peninsula delivering (it is hundreds of miles). Later, he bought a van, then a factory. He used branding, marketing and advertising, was a whizz at PR, inviting celebrities to visit his factory, using his skill as a poet and calligrapher to write a poem in praise of tea. The business remains in the family to this day and Ho, whose motto was ‘Work hard, play hard’, achieved a degree in divinity at the age of 87.

Ipoh may be sleepy but it is in no way dull. Its heritage is rich in flavour and pioneer spirit. We leave inspired and sated and vow definitely to return.





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Christmas in my suitcase

Four Parfitts with stockings, hats and Tree of Thanks

Four Parfitts with stockings, hats and Tree of Thanks

Jogjakarta? Yes, that’s right. It was a surprise to us too. This time last year the Javanese city known for its temples at Borobudur and Prambanan meant little to us.

But it has come to pass that Joshua is on the Dharmasiswa scholarship at Gajah Mada university in Jogjakarta, studying Bahasa Indonesia and Sam landed in KL for six weeks at the start of December to work as editorial assistant for a major book project of mine.

And then it was Christmas…

So there we all were, randomly, in SE Asia in December. We had a gorgeous new villa with a ‘party terrace’ and it was the perfect place for a family Christmas… or so we thought.

But then Josh discovered he’d not get his passport back in time (it has been in the Indonesian Embassy getting him a student visa since August!) and so, on 20th December we switched plans. Instead of a turkey with the trimmings, a swim and a ping pong tournament in our garden overlooking the Petronas Towers and we’d pack a portable, homemade Christmas and take it with us. Our ‘local expert’ spent a day searching on Airbnb and found the perfect place. Hand-built teak bungalows, open to the elements, with plein air bathroom, four-poster (with mosquito net) and its own terrace, set in a permaculture garden, surrounded by padi fields, where we would be served organic breakfasts by a friendly staff. All this within half an hour of the city. And so it came to pass that on 23rd December a mother, a father and their 24-year-old son, travelled with AirAsia to Yabbiekayu  in the small village of Tembi. Arriving after night-fall, they were happy to discover that there was, indeed, room at the inn. The staff could not do enough to help us and never once stopped smiling. I think it was this first evening that Josh and Sam ate the majority of the pies.

Christmas could not have been more different nor more unplanned.

Portable Christmas

Christmas had to fit into a suitcase, so, in case this ever happens to you this is what I took:

  • A Christmas tablecloth
  • Four Christmas stockings (and no gift too large to fit in it)
  • A cracker making kit with paints, glue, paper, ribbons, fabric
  • A cloth advent calendar, which we converted into a Tree of Thanks
  • Four Christmas masks/reindeer headgear
  • A Christmas cake
  • Two dozen mince pies (made by Sam)

On Christmas Eve we headed for a beautiful waterfall at Sri Gethuk, taking Josh’s housemate, Delta, with us, and drank hot, smoked coconut water out of the shell. Later we went out for dinner at a superb vegetarian restaurant in the city called Milas before Sam and Josh headed off to the fair.

ianjoshsamsrigethuksmalljoshiansmokedcoconutsmallOn Christmas Day we made crackers, filling them with a homemade jokes and ordered a special dinner from our homestay of light, fragrant and delicious fish soup, gurnard in lemon butter and three 100% fruit ice creams served in a coconut. We later learned that Iput, the cook, used to work at Milas! We opened our stockings,  wore silly hats and filled the 24 pockets of the advent tree with notes of thanks. Josh then introduced us to his girlfriend, Noya, and we all shared our notes of gratitude from the Tree of Thanks while introducing her to the delights of an English Christmas cake.

ianjosamjoshpadifieldwithstockingssmall samjoshmakecrackerssmall joshshowsnoyapicsmall

On Boxing Day, Josh was to perform in a Pencak Silat (Indonesian martial arts) display at the governor’s residence so we all got up at an unearthly hour in order to be there, as stipulated, at 8.30 am. This was when we learned about archipelago timekeeping! People were there from 8 am, sure, but Josh’s fellow martial artists did not arrive till 9.45 and the event did not open till 10. Yet, we were given seats among the dignitaries and judges and fed and watered royally. We were getting used to sticking out like sore thumbs, pasty-white and tall compared to the locals and always the only foreigners in sight (apart from at Milas).


On 27th, after a quick trip to Prambanan we left Sam behind in Jogja for an extra week and Ian and Jo headed home. Josh headed out on his motorbike with Sam to buy him a mattress and pillow.

prambananfromhotelsmall joshbuyssammufcbeddingsmall 

How to make Iput’s Indonesian Fish Soup

Ingredients (you’ll have to guess at the quantities)

Shallots (sliced)
Garlic (sliced)
Turmeric (peeled and sliced)
Lime leaf
Indonesian bay leaf called salam, apparently it has a similar taste to thyme or oregano (finely chopped)
Lemongrass (finely chopped)
Spring onion (chopped)
Coriander (small bunch, chopped)
White fish
Fresh tomato (in eighths)
Juice of fresh limes


  1. Grind the shallots, garlic and turmeric in a blender or with a pestle and mortar
  2. Fry in oil in a pan that will be large enough to hold the finished soup.
  3. Add the water and bring to a simmer.
  4. Add the lemongrass and bay leaves.
  5. Simmer for five minutes.
  6. Add the spring onion and coriander.
  7. Add the fish and the tomato and simmer until fish cooked (five mins).
  8. Add lime juice to taste.
  9. Serve



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Ten Ticks in Two Days in Penang

Penang street art by Sue

Penang street art by Sue

It was our fourth trip to Penang in a little over a year but our first as tour guides. I derive great enjoyment from revisiting favourite places. I find that it is usually only when I take it upon myself to show other people round that my love for a place truly embeds.

Fourth trip and fourth hotel. We’d first succumbed to the lure of a great deal and free access to the Executive Club Lounge at the Traders Hotel and then, the next time, submerged ourselves in the heritage restoration of the Seven Terraces deep in George Town. I’d had a few nights in one of the suburbs and now it was time to sample the boutique hotel that comes out top on Trip Advisor, with a massive score of 9.7. Campbell House.


Past reviewers had all raved about how wonderful the hosts, Nardya and Roberto were but frankly that kind of put me off. I didn’t see the point of getting to know other expats like me. Further, I don’t go on holiday to meet hotel owners. But still the reviews had grabbed me and I took a punt and booked for two nights’ visit with our great friends, Sue and Pete Valentine.

luggage pulley

luggage pulley

It’s a small hotel, just on the fringes of George Town. Only about ten rooms over three floors and a quaint pulley system that helps them get your luggage upstairs. It has a restaurant where we would take our breakfast but I have to admit to being disappointed that it was Italian. We were in Penang for God’s sake and this was the place where you came to do two things – see street art and eat local food. I’d compiled a list of must-dos. Admittedly, they are my must-dos, but I thought our friends would approve. They included, in no particular order:

Jo’s Top Ten Must-dos in Two Days in Penang

  1. Street art for photographs (allow several hours spread over few trips because it is hot)
  2. Chinahouse for lunch or coffee and cake
  3. Cocktail at the Eastern and Oriental
  4. Tek Sen for Chinese local food eaten by locals
  5. Seven Terraces for dinner
  6. Blue Mansion aka Cheong Fatt Tze
  7. Penang Hill for the view
  8. A street market
  9. Nutmeg juice
  10. The clan jetties to see where the original settlers arrived and many Chinese families still live

But arriving at just before 3 pm as we did, it seemed the local restaurants were closed and so we were forced to eat at Campbell House’s own Il Bacaro, which means a back street restaurant, apparently. We thought at least we could share a pizza and salad.

“We do cicchetti, if you fancy that,” suggested Nardya. “A sort of Italian tapas. You know, lots of little dishes.” She was bright and engaging. Olive-skinned. I thought she might have been Italian, brought up in London. She was nice. But then she asked if I was the writer.

“I saw your website on your email to us, so I had a look. Read your blog too,” she said. “You just went to Beijing, didn’t you?”

I was stunned. Never, in all my experience as a traveller have I known a hotel be that interested in their guests. She should write a book on hospitality.

The cicchetti sure looked good and so we ordered the ‘large’ one, made up of nine dishes. We expected that one would be olives, another bits of salami, a marinated aubergine if we were lucky. What we received was more food than they could fit on the table. Garlicky steamed clams, red pepper purée, duck patties, fish cakes, tomato bruschetta, mozzarella, rocket and turkey ham rolls and more. It was utterly delicious. Roberto came over to see how we were doing and we soon learned that it was his brother who led the kitchen. We also learned that Nardya was actually half-Malay but had grown up in Essex. Not only were they friendly but they were interesting too and totally genuine in their ability to be the gracious hosts. Hosts we wanted to be our friends. Hosts who offered food we were hard-pressed not to have at every meal.

as many cicchetti as I could fit in the viewfinder

as many cicchetti as I could fit in the viewfinder

But this blog is supposed to be about Penang. So, Sue and I forced ourselves to have a wander among the streets and street art in the afternoon before the inevitable thunderstorm arrived. We left Lebuh Campbell, crossed into Love Lane, then Lebuh Muntri and onto Lorong Stewart and home. It’s probably well under a kilometer but took us two hours as I expected.

Funny street art

Funny street art

Sue stopped every couple of steps to take another irresistible photo while I basked in the bliss of looking at the beauty in real time, not through the lens of a camera. We also found an artist with the entrepreneurial spirit so typical of Penang, selling her mother’s homemade nutmeg juice from a cooler outside her gallery. It had been a ‘two tick’ afternoon.

The E & O that evening was magical and I was able to extend the nutmeg theme by exploring a cocktail that contained nutmeg cream. Not unlike a Baileys, it was dangerously drinkable. Another tick.

Sue and Jo at the E & O, by Pete

Sue and Jo at the E & O, by Pete

Ian’s plane was late and so we opted to hang around on the roof terrace back at our hotel and wait for him with a bucket of beer. It was quiet and delightfully shabby-chic up there, with plumped up cushions, rough-hewn tables and benches and pretty cut-out candle-holders that glowed on every table thanks to the mosquito coils that burned inside them. But when he arrived, full of good intentions to take him out for dinner, the smell of garlic that wafted up from Il Bacaro made it impossible to leave. My fettucini with mushrooms, proscuitto and cream was unbeatable and though we planned to share dishes, Ian found it hard to part with his squid ink tagliatelli with seafood, while Sue’s tagliatelle with pesto and prawns was divine. Reluctantly we passed each other a spoonful. The salad caprese came complete tiny anchovies and a soft ball of tender, flaky, buffalo mozzarella that they import themselves. Then Nardya and Roberto brought limoncello and sparkling conversation to the table and before we knew it midnight was about to strike.

Chinahouse cake

Chinahouse cake

Let me not bore with you with how wonderful breakfast was at our hotel, nor share about the homemade yoghurt and granola. It was time to head out and tick street market, more street art and Chinahouse’s salted caramel ice cream and cake off the list. This time we explored the daily morning market that stretches from Lebuh Campbell to Lebuh Kimberley along Lebuh Kuala Kangsar, better known as Chowrasta. We indulged in more street art along Lebuh Armenian before heading for the relative cool of the Chinahouse courtyard. A quick trip to the Blue Mansion for the final 3.30 pm tour (tick) was squeezed in before it was time for dinner at the Seven Terraces, beginning, inevitably with their iconic Georgetown Cooler cocktail that is made with gin, lime, nutmeg (again), grenadine and soda. Sue and Pete declared this their signature 120 RM set dinner ‘the best meal of the trip’. Big fat tick.

At Seven Terraces

At Seven Terraces

Sue at the funicular

Sue at the funicular

Sunday and we’d planned for the Clan Jetties to start and the hill to follow, but ever-attentive, Nardya advised we do these trips in reverse order to avoid the rain. She booked our cab for us and off we went. We made it up Penang Hill along with hundreds of locals, for this, oh dear, was the first weekend of the local school holidays and it was heaving. There was nothing for it but to pay double the fare for a fastpass on the funicular. Thank goodness for our host’s advice. The view was bathed in sunlight when we arrived in the coolness of the peak but the moment we headed for a café and a drink the clouds swept in and the view disappeared completely. It had been quite something to look down on the streets we had all come to love, the island shoreline and then across the water to mainland Malaysia. And so we made one more tick so just two remained on the list.

The view from Penang Hill

The view from Penang Hill

Tek Sen, by Sue

Tek Sen, by Sue

There was nothing for it but to head to Tek Sen that’s found at the top of Lebuh Carnarvon. It was the third trip there for Ian and me and we’d always guessed at the menu or pointed at what other people had on their plates in this simple yet permanently crowded eaterie. Again, Nardya came to the rescue and recommended the salted fish with aubergine dish and the duck. The duck with ginger fell off the bone and the aubergine, served in a claypot, was soft and succulent. Boy oh boy, had we eaten a lot! And all for less than the price of supermarket sandwich. Tick.

Rain at The Clan Jetties

Rain at The Clan Jetties

Sadly, by the time we made it to the Lim Jetty the rain was falling. When we headed for the Chew Jetty, the larger one, it was bucketing. There was hardly room for brollies between the makeshift awnings that lean in over the narrow walkways of this stilted community, so Ian, Sue and Pete opted for the steamy, clamminess of stylish two ringgit pink ponchos. And, like marathon-runners haring for the finish line, we’d raced back to Campbell House during a lull in the thunderstorm and collapsed, dripping onto the seats in the lobby. We’d made it – ten ticks in 50 hours.

Later, back home in Bangsar and eating a simple salad for supper, I asked Sue and Pete what their favourite things had been.

“What, apart from Campbell House?” asked Pete. “Just being there. In the streets. It’s authentic. Not contrived.”

“The streets,” agreed Sue.

Like us Sue and Pete had first visited Penang almost 30 years ago and, like us, been disappointed. Ian and I only went back because we’d come to Malaysia and it made sense. Now, you can’t keep us away and every time I visit I leave a bigger piece of me behind, on those streets, just wandering around, stopping to eat or drink and looking, looking, looking.

And next time we’ll be back to see Nardya and Roberto, for sure and eat in Il Bacaro.

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Bundled up in Beijing

We climbed up here!

We climbed up here!

It’s not that we hadn’t expected it to be cold in Beijing. We’d read the long-range forecast and knew to expect temperatures of 1-12oC. The day before we left we realized we couldn’t find any of our warm clothes despite having unpacked everything that had been in our wardrobes prior to our move to the villa. As with the Great China Visa Hunt of a recent blog post, we had to resort to looking in unexpected places. At around 10.30 pm the night before our departure we found them – in a dark storeroom under the stairs, inside a suitcase.

It’s funny how impossible it is to imagine a temperature before you actually experience it. Two jumpers, four vests, a pair of jeans, some leggings and a coat would surely do it? That and some nice clothes for evenings. How wrong we were.

On the sixth of November, when we arrived, it coincided with the city’s earliest snowfall ever. We arrived at 2am, with our warm gear in our cases, of course and it was not until we stepped outside and into our taxi that we remembered, suddenly, what cold really feels like.

At that hour of the night we did not expect the hotel’s communal areas to be toasty warm. It was chilly in our hotel bedroom and the bathroom floor was icy to our bare feet but hey, it was the middle of the night. Maybe no other guest had just moved out of our room and so it had not had a chance for a warmthrough. The next day we discovered the air conditioner had a warming function so thought no more of it. When I felt the need to keep my coat on during breakfast the next morning, I didn’t really think about that either. Later that day, sitting in front of the lounge logburner, still wearing our hats, scarves, coats and gloves, did seem a little unusual but it wasn’t until the second day that we discovered that the government decides when the heating goes on and it was not scheduled for a good few weeks yet. Now we understood.

Our trip to China in the winter had seemed like such a great idea when we’d booked it, and arranged to meet up with our great friends, Sue and Pete Valentine, during their own SE Asia trip. We’d assumed it would simply be less crowded. Apparently, it was. Though you could have fooled me. Those Chinese are hardy, patriotic, folk, it seems. Our queue to see Mao’s tomb was an hour long at 9 in the morning. Our ears froze, the soles of our feet froze onto the Tiananmen Square and the slow-moving throngs of people meant that it was impossible to put a spurt on and warm up through power-walking because that would have caused us to crash headlong into other people every few seconds.

Unfortunate hats in Tiananmen Square

Unfortunate hats in Tiananmen Square

Luckily, the furry hat vendors were making a killing. Ian succumbed to a rather Eastern European furry job with ear-flaps, while I bought the first one I found out of desperation. Later that day, I replaced it with a rather nice purple knitted number. By now I had discovered that the only way to survive the freeze was to wear two pairs of socks, leggings under my jeans, two camisoles and two thermal long-sleeved vests, a cashmere polo-neck and one scarf under my coat and another over. And even then, I had to get into bed fully clothed for two hours back in our vaguely warmed bedroom for two hours on our return.

Or was it just me? Has our blood thinned after too long in the tropics? I wished I’d put a hip flask in my luggage. That would have done the trick.

Despite the misery of feeling like an iceblock, the trip was simply fascinating. Not least because of the passion the Chinese have for visiting their vast, glorious monuments out of season but for the very fact that those monuments are vast and glorious. The scale of them has to be seen to be believed.

Tiananmen Square is several times larger than I could have imagined. It’s 109 acres and one of the five largest squares in the world.

Crowds in the Forbidden City

Crowds in the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City, with its acres of rough-hewn marble bridges, terracotta walls and blue, green and gold rooves, ceilings and fascias stretches a massive 180 acres. It has 980 buildings and is more than 500 years old.

But it was not until the Temple of Heaven that I fell in love. It seems the Chinese tend to be prescriptive and it is here in this sprawling garden with its painted covered walkways you are supposed to engage in ‘spontaneous singing’. And so they did. Clusters of folk singing everything from what sounded like Chinese opera to gospel, without training, led simply by someone who could keep time. It was here that senior citizens clipped cloth onto a bench, sat astride it and played cards or checkers. Some even brought their songbirds in cages along for the fun of it. A lithe chap, dressed in black with a  gold, jangly, skirt, belly-danced along to his stereo. Others did tai chi or qi gong. The energy of the place, this time covering almost 3 km of parkland, appears to make everyone who experiences it to burst into spontaneous smiling. Yes, even me, despite the cold.

Belly dancer at Temple of Heaven

Belly dancer at Temple of Heaven

And these three were seen in just one day. It’s an incredible place, packed with surprises on every corner and photo opportunities, from the apparent love of eating insipid corn on the cob like lollipops, to baked sweet potatoes, to the pop up stalls selling heaps of vegetables under flyovers. Oh and the bicycles.

Of course we visited the Great Wall of China, only this inclement weather forced us to choose between a foot of snow or dense fog. We chose fog. Even as a warm-up mechanism, climbing thousands of steps of uneven depth (some almost the height of my knee) was not quite as appealing as it would have been had we actually been able to see the view once we’d scaled a hill.

Jo, Pete, Sue, Ian at The Great Wall

Jo, Pete, Sue, Ian at The Great Wall

For me the pinnacle was not the wall, but the Summer Palace. Even on a chilly day, a day where weather had washed all colour from the sky leaving it like a monochrome, hand-tinted photograph, the experience was life-changing. Slightly larger than Temple of Heaven, three-quarters of which is water, the place has a magical, ethereal quality. To see such calm, such organized peace, trees as uniform as soldiers and landscaping as precise as a zen garden surrounding a lake of insurmountable beauty, was a gift for which I will forever be grateful. It was here that I forgot the cold for several hours and drank in the view.

Summer Palace Zen

Summer Palace Zen

Five days into our trip when we’d discovered the hotel’s Tempranillo to provide the best central heating we awoke to a surprising warmth. The government had relented and the heating had been switched on.



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