Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Bangkok Post

So we're back in KL again, getting the bikes and ourselves ready for the trip back to Oz. Which, admittedly has nothing whatsoever to do with Bangkok, except for the fact that the decision to return was made here. So we'll probably remember it for all the days where we agonised about pros and cons, costs and benefits, logistics and quotes, and all the other unquantifiable, touchy-feely, emotional reasons for and against returning to Australia.

The reasons we found ourselves in Bangkok in the first place, are also complicated. But mainly stem from an unexpected end to our time at the house in Sungai Petani. We've since driven past the place, and it seems to have undergone quite a bit of renovation, possibly in preparation for a new tenant (family). But at the moment the big house is empty, as empty as it's been for the past six months.

We're still feeling a bit hollow ourselves, after saying goodbyes to friends in SP. There's a real sense of loss, a sense of what the hell are we doing, and a slow sense of withdrawal, because we know that once we land in Oz and begin to immerse ourselves in western ways again, Malaysia and SE Asia will begin to fade away.

The morning we left SP and rode down to KL, we stopped for a break at one of the rest stops along the main highway, and as we sat there in the shade of one of the shelters a woman came up to us and said hello. She was carrying a small plastic container, and popping it open to reveal a golden treasure trove of Ferrero Rocher, she insisted we each take one. She was curious about the bikes, and asking us where we were from, was astonished to learn we'd been living in SP for two years (her home town). We chatted with her for a while, before she made her way back to her husband and daughter, who were also travelling to KL that morning. This is a typical example of Malaysian hospitality. In fact this is so typical, we could have sat there and wept, knowing this is what we're leaving behind.

Take it from us, there are some real gems in SE Asia, no matter what your TV set tells you. And Malaysia is one of them. Or rather, the Malaysian people are. They're not perfect. No one is. And sure, we're looking at things through our rose tinted spectacles right now, but leaving behind the people we've been fortunate enough to call friends here, is our loss.

It's easy to sit there in your armchair and criticise a country like Malaysia. Because places like this are not true democracies. Different racial groups are not given equal treatment here. Religious dogma permeates all levels of society, government and the law. However, none of these statements actually means anything when viewed through the abstract reality of 24/7 news and current affairs media. The only valid way to understand any issue relating to somewhere other than where you live, is to go and live there yourself for a while. Forming a judgement about anything based on media reports is nonsensical, which is why at least one of us holds the view that the media is essentially worthless as a means of informing people about what is important in their lives. At its best, it exists merely to amuse, entertain, and provide a vehicle for advertising. At its most apathetic, it exists to disseminate the spin of politicians and corporations. And at its worst, it breeds ignorance by either twisting the truth or broadcasting half-truths, and spreads fear and hatred by sensationalising and simplifying complex issues.

Bloody hell! Where did all that come from?...  bzzzzschhht!... back to Bangkok...

You probably couldn't find a greater contrast between house sits than a farmhouse in rural France, looking after sheep and walking dogs on snowy winter mornings, and an apartment in the heat and traffic gridlock of central Bangkok, with nothing to look after (even the twice-weekly cleaner watered the pot plants). In fact there were many times when we wondered what we were actually doing there, other than using the place as a hotel. There were two pools, a gym, a library, and a private ferry which took residents across to Chinatown or the LRT. All of which we put to good use.

In fact the following photos were mostly taken near Chinatown, a dumping ground for cheap Chinese tat.

The sheer amount of plastic junk bought and sold here, which surely ultimately ends up in landfill, just boggles the mind.

There's an army of guys carting it from delivery trucks, through the narrow congested alleyways... a multitude of tat shops serving the eager buying public.

It's a bit like Hong Kong, where you see little old men scurrying across the busy streets, trolleys loaded up with cardboard boxes.

Obviously at least one us of couldn't get enough of these guys.

As you can see.

Running out of intelligent things to say now...

But don't worry. Because there's more delivery guys to look at.

The lazy ones use bikes. Which are a pain in the ass really, because you're constantly trying to avoid them. But maybe they use them because they're in a hurry? No that can't be right. The phrase "Time's money" doesn't seem to apply in SE Asia - labour is so cheap.

The tuk tuk drivers are always in a hurry when they've got a fare. However the rest of the traffic in Bangkok moves at about 5km/h. Which makes riding a big, heavy, single cylinder heat monster of a motorbike through the city a complete nightmare.

Coupled with the aggressive and corrupt Bkk traffic cops, the special rules applied to motorbikes (you must only use the left lane, you can't use overpasses when signed, and toll roads are a complete no-no), and the sheer volume of traffic, makes Bkk our second least favourite place to drive.

To put it into perspective though, it's probably a distant second. Which just goes to show how appalling Jakarta really is. And Malaysians complain about the KL traffic, but it's a doddle in comparison. But to give you some idea how bad Bkk can be, we'll leave you with an experience we had while riding to Tesco one morning...

That morning, we thought we'd just take a little trip to the supermarket to get a few things. Minding our own business in the unspeakable traffic, avoiding overpasses, toll roads and keeping mostly to the left like good little motorcyclist lemmings. But this wasn't nearly enough to prevent two farang on a big bike from being pulled over by the cops. And of course this cop wanted Lucas's license, so he handed him a copy of his international license (which is all you're required to carry). But he wasn't pleased. "Colour copy. Where original?" So he handed him his drivers license. "Colour copy. Where original?" You had to hand it to the guy there, it was definitely a fake. There's no way you'd give one of these cops your real license, unless you're prepared to hand over a wad of cash to get it back.

So anyway, this sort of thing went back and forwards a few times, with Lucas rapidly losing his patience. At one stage he even accused him of targeting us because we were foreigners. Which is probably not true, but if anything they should show a little more tolerance towards foreigners. It's a pretty daunting place to drive after all.

So he started jabbering away on his radio, probably to get someone down there who could speak better English. But Lucas had had enough at this point, so he attempted to start the bike. Which resulted in the cop trying to grab the keys. So Lucas swatted his hand away and managed to start it anyway. We then backed out into the traffic and took off down the road. At one point, as we were tearing off, we swear we heard him say "fuck!", the only funny part of the whole experience.

So as we were tearing down Rama IV, half expecting him to follow on his 250, Lucas spotted about twenty cops at the next intersection. So we pulled into a side street, and got lost in behind some rabbit warren residential area, in case he'd radioed up ahead.

The upshot is, because we didn't have our GPS with us, we were a bit screwed at that stage. So it took us over an hour to bypass the whole area and find our way back to the apartment. Lucas lost his bearings at one point, but it could have been much worse. We'd only been out on the bikes three times in a week and a half, and had been pulled over twice, and he swears he only stopped this time because the cop stepped right out in front of us. But for a split second he was tempted to just run him over. But he'd probably never do that. Probably.

Can you imagine any of this happening in your own country? Maybe thirty or forty years ago, when the average cop was as bent and incompetent as the average cop in SE Asia is today. We've developed a strong dislike for the cops here. There's no question a huge number are corrupt. There's no question they target motorbikes. And there's no question that in Thailand at least, there are a massive number of them standing around doing nothing. Maybe they're biding their time until the next outbreak of red-shirt violence? Who knows. In the meantime, it seems that to justify their jobs, they pick on as many motorcyclists for as many petty infringements as they can get away with.

So our advice... take the train. Walk. Get a ferry. But for god's sake leave the bike at home...

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Oradour has no more women
Oradour has no longer a man
Oradour has no more leaves
Oradour has no more stones
Oradour has no church
Oradour has no more children.

More smoke more laughter
More roofs more attics
More breasts more love
More wine more songs.

Oradour, I am afraid to hear
Oradour, I do not dare
To approach your wounds
The blood of your ruins,
I cannot I cannot
See or hear your name.

Oradour, I scream and shout
Each time a heart bursts
Under the blows of assassins
A terrified head
Two broad eyes two red eyes
Two grave eyes two large eyes
Like the night of madness
Both eyes of small children:
They will not leave me.

Oradour, I no longer dare
To read or speak your name.

Oradour shame of man
Oradour eternal shame
Our hearts will not find peace
That the worst revenge
Is hatred and shame forever.

Oradour no longer has form
Oradour, women nor men
Oradour has no children
Oradour has no more leaves
Oradour has no church
More smoke than girls
More evenings than mornings
More tears than songs.

Oradour is now nothing but a cry
And this is the worst offence
To those who lived in the village
And this is the greatest shame
Not to be more than one cry,
Name of the hatred of man
Name of the shame of man
The name of our revenge
That through all our lands
One listens shivering,
A mouth without body,
Howling for all time.


Apologies for the translation, which is a mixture of google and babelfish, and neither.

From the original poem "Oradour" by Jean Tardieu (1903-1995), a denunciation of the horrors inflicted by the Waffen-SS on the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944.

You can read all about the history here, here and here, but briefly, on June 10 1944 German soldiers murdered almost all the men, women and children of the village and set fire to all the buildings. There is some controversy about the reason why this occurred, but the commonly held view today is that the village was mistaken for another nearby, which the Germans believed was harbouring members of the resistance.

Oradour remains now intact, as it stood nearly seventy years ago after the massacre, and is a unique monument to those people who died.

We're not particularly interested in WWII history. We don't go out of our way to watch war movies, to read books about war, or to seek out anything that depicts or glorifies war. But while in Japan a few years ago, we purposely made the trip to Hiroshima and visited the Peace Park. And while that was a very moving experience, Hiroshima is a large, modern and sophisticated place, and the Peace Park and "Ground Zero" is now just another big park, almost lost in the midst of the surrounding city.

In contrast, the approach to Oradour-sur-Glane is through open countryside and other small villages, and the place still sits in its environment just like any other Limousin village. And so because the context seems right, while walking around the ruins today it is still possible to imagine what it may have looked like prior to its destruction. But it is still a surreal experience - possibly like walking around Chernobyl - and somewhere which demands plenty of time to be wandered around and made sense of.

Mostly it has been a luxury to upload large photos for this blog, but we have plenty of bandwidth here in France, so if you'd like to see any of these (and many more) a little larger, just click here...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Good Life

We’re sitting here in a rustic farmhouse kitchen in beautiful rural France, with the couch pulled up close to the word-burning stove, the fire going full belt and making a noise like a dishwasher on final rinse. In theory, this fire should heat the whole house, but in reality it struggles to get the place into double digits.

The kitchen has an authentic flagstone floor circa-whenever the place was built, and the cellar door, with its questionable hinges, doesn't keep the cold out quite as well as you'd hope. And just when you think the fire is roaring along nicely, all of a sudden it becomes too hot and the pipes start banging with superheated steam, forcing you to switch on a pump, which then dissipates the heat throughout the rest of the system. In a worst-case scenario, if you’ve been burning wet timber for example, or if you’ve been running the fire on low heat for a while and then suddenly stoke it up during a cold snap, you risk igniting leftover deposits in the chimney, and starting a chimney fire.

To Lucas’s naive Australian ways this is all like... “WTF??? Why doesn't this bloody thing just do what it’s meant to do and heat the house? I mean how hard can it be?” But Ann just looks at him with a "When I was growing up in Essex we didn't have central heating, and the curtains used to ice up and stick to the windows." look on her face. As if all this is just completely normal, and you really are meant to sit around the house in a beanie and six layers of clothing, under a thick bearskin blanket.

Lucas has the aforementioned beanie pulled down snugly over his ears, and right now is thinking this little black stretchy piece of material is the most precious thing he owns. Although when he pushes it up over his ears to give them a break, and in combination with his black turtle-neck jumper, Ann says it makes him look like the vicar of the local church, and has started calling him monseigneur. Bitch.

The two dogs are asleep in the corner after their walk this morning, which is about the only time Arthur - the Tibetan terrier - isn't thinking about food (he's probably dreaming about it though).

This is Jack. Butter wouldn't melt, eh?

Today's wood is piled up next to the stove and seems to be getting ever so slightly bigger each day, possibly due to Ann's natural winter hoarding instinct. Or it could be Lucas’s fault, because he's getting better at stacking the wheelbarrow each morning. Or it could very well be the fact that it’s minus ten degrees celsius outside, and has been every morning for the past ten days.

When it hasn’t been minus fifteen, that is.

Maybe this is payback for all those lazy weekends on the beach back in Oz.

The farmhouse is situated in a little commune called St Amand le Petit, which although it has its own church isn’t really big enough to be called a village.

The nearest civilisation is four kilometres away at Eymoutiers (pronounced ee-moat-ee-ay), which can trace its origins back to the seventh century and Saint Psalmodius, a Celtic Christian hermit, whose bones now lay buried by the banks of the river.

By the seventeenth century it had become a regional centre for the tanning trade, with twenty tanneries situated on the river Vienne. One or two survive today, and walking the streets you can still see evidence in the attics of some of the houses in the centre of town. These were used as overflows by the tanneries, to dry hides when business was booming.

“Blah blah blah blah blah blah… fermé, monsieur.” One of the staff at the Super U hurriedly explains to Lucas, on her way down the aisle. She shrugs as she says this, pointing to the trolley he and Ann have spent the last forty minutes filling.

Of course at this point Lucas is screwed, language-wise, and all he can think to do is point to the trolley lamely and say “Checkout?” Even English-challenged Malaysians understand checkout, so he assumes it’s one of those universal expressions.

She looks at him blankly. “Blah blah blah blah blah blah…, monsieur.” Her body-language is completely negative, and Lucas begins to wonder whether he and Ann have just wasted the last forty minutes of their lives, and will be forced to abandon their shopping mid-aisle. He hasn’t owned a watch for thirty-five years, but it seems it’s now 12.25pm, and the Super U is about to close for lunch.

Lunch is one of those sacrosanct institutions you don’t mess with here, and most businesses and government offices close from around midday until two or three o’clock. From an outsider’s point of view, this is either a quaint tradition or a complete pain in the ass depending on your mood, or where you find yourself and what you’re trying to achieve. Like buying petrol with a foreign credit card for instance. Or buying groceries at the local supermarket. You just wouldn't bother keeping track of the time anywhere else, but in rural France you’d best do what the locals do, and head home to your pâté and your loaf of bread.

Fortunately the harangued-looking checkout chick permits us to pay for our shopping, but she’s probably turfed out hundreds of shoppers over the years. So we get to keep our Santa Sack of bread after all, which we’ll add to the freezer-load of bread we’ve already stashed at the house.

Sorry? Santa-what? Freezer-load of bread? What the… ?

Because all the supermarkets here bake their own bread, and because the French seemingly refuse to eat anything that's a day old, there's a lot of wastage. So we've been turning up to the local Hyper Casino or the Super U (not bad, be we still think Florida’s Piggly Wiggly takes the biscuit for the best supermarket name) and grabbing bags of next-day bread for about €3-5. Ho-hum you're probably thinking. But considering the €5 bags must weigh at least 10 kilos and would fill most of a shopping trolley, and we're getting possibly 20-30 good loaves of bread out of one, and considering the rest, maybe a quarter, goes to the sheep and the chooks, well... why wouldn't you?

So we do tend to spend a fair amount of time thinking about what to eat with bread (or even just what to eat, to be honest). Soup, cheese, soup, pâté, soup, eggs, stews, did we mention soup? Inspired a little by Julia Child and a few good internet recipe sites, potatoes, onions, leeks, garlic, pumpkin, créme fraiche and of course oven-baked day-old bread have formed the basis of most of our lunches so far.

This isn't just us trying to be a couple of rural French wanabees either, but more a matter of survival, and trying to justify being here when the cost of living is so much higher than Malaysia. But we could imagine ourselves settling here, like countless English have done already, and creating our own version of The Good Life.

Checking out the local real estate listings in Eymoutiers one day, we find that the houses are rated for energy efficiency and consumption. Initially, we’re a bit surprised to see that wood-fired central heating receives the second highest rating, but if you live in the Limousin area it seems to be a real selling point.

Each winter, every household in this commune receives an allocation of timber from their local forest (it’s mainly oak here), which you are then responsible for cutting and carting back to the house yourself. Considering that enough timber to last through winter would normally cost around €1200, a word-fired stove definitely seems the way to go, financially. And, counter-intuitively, environmentally as well.

Apparently, as long as you’re sourcing local timber, from well-managed forests, which are replenished with new growth each year, and using an efficient wood-burner, it seems you’re doing the planet a favour. Well almost. Pollution? In a low-density rural environment like St Amand le Petit (pop. 110) this isn’t really an issue, but obviously if the whole of France substituted nuclear power for wood-burning stoves, the air quality might very well resemble SE Asia during the rice harvest.

There’s also a great system of recycling and garbage collection here, whereby everyone is responsible for separating out all their own garbage and disposing of it at local collection points. It’s all pretty civilised and clean (unlike Malaysia), and if you have animals and a bit of land, most of the organic stuff is recycled as well. In nearly a month we’ve not generated even half a garbage bag full of landfill.

The car we have the use of here probably has a larger carbon footprint than the stove, the household rubbish and everything else combined. It farts and belches copious quantities of particulates from its little exhaust pipe, and has a fuel gauge which seems to drop further every time you look at it. We swear it costs €5 just to start the little beast up.

It does have four doors and a roof which, after spending most of the last three years out in the elements, we initially thought would be complete and utter luxury. But in reality it is sooooo bloody cold! inside, that we’re missing the heated grips on our bikes.

Not that we’re really complaining. The car gives us some freedom, and enables us to make trips out to see Hugo, the ten year old French warmblood, who lives about twenty minutes away. Sue and Gilbert have been after someone to ride Hugo (or at least give him some exercise), because they don't ride themselves. And so over the years Hugo has been getting fatter, lazier and possibly more senile by the day, left in his paddock all by himself.

After some initial “What’s this all about, then?” from Hugo, Ann has him trotting - or lunging if you want to get all technical and horsey - around a ring, normally used for training sheep dogs. It only takes about fifteen minutes to completely knacker him though, and she wonders aloud whether a saddle will ever stretch round his girth.

But after a couple of sessions she still seems keen to ride him, so Lucas decides it might be the right time to let her know that while yes, Hugo was originally broken eight years ago, he's only been ridden once since. She’s undeterred though, and a week or so later decides to see whether Hugo will massacre her and everyone within the local vicinity, by attempting to ride him bareback.

It’s all a bit of an anticlimax when he turns out to be a real pussy.

But here he is looking all manly - almost like a proper horse.

The old Renault 4 coughs and splutters and threatens to die, again, at the stop sign ahead. Apparently the French cops, like their Australian counterparts, have been known to sit at these with stop-watches, eagerly waiting to bust anyone who under stays the mandatory three seconds (or is it five? Shit). As we roll up the hill to the intersection, Lucas alternately brakes and blips the throttle to keep the engine alive, while looking left (or is it right? Shit. No, it’s definitely left) for any approaching traffic, reefing the heavy steering wheel over with one gloved hand and shifting up into first with the other (or was that third? Noooo… goddammit… bastard, stiffly-sprung piece of junk dashboard gearshift… splutter, cough, silence… Fuck.He yanks on the handbrake, which is mounted under the steering column, the process of which threatens to rip off the entire plastic surround, and sneaks a glance behind at the driver of the Peugeot, who has been impatiently sitting on our back bumper for the last three kilometres.

But this isn’t exactly central Paris, and the T-junction isn’t exactly the Arc de Triomphe. There are worse places than Eymoutiers to get the hang of driving on the wrong side of the road again. However there are certain things we’ve been warned about – snow plows for example, and their apparently incomprehensible system of warning lights. And the snow and ice of course.

Ann has been banging on about black ice for years, and after nearly going arse-over several times walking the dogs (who have both gone arse-over themselves) and spending the afternoon trying to hack patches of it off the driveway, it's something Lucas now has a healthy respect for as well.

Something else Ann’s been banging on about, seemingly forever, is chilblains. Well ok, not exactly banging on. More like joking. “Ooh, you’d better watch out, you’ll get chilblains.” Which in Malaysia, is a little like someone warning you about contracting hypothermia. So like The Girl Who Cried Wolf, the whole thing went in one of Lucas’s ears and straight out the other. Apart from which, he’d always assumed it was just some sort of nineteenth century affliction anyway. A bit like gout. Only really affecting the elderly or the infirm.

Oh how wrong he was. Oh how very very very wrong.

And so this post is being typed with fingers which somehow manage to feel like they’re arthritic, and yet suffering from the after-effects of third-degree burns, with all the crazy itchiness that goes along with it, all at the same time. All brought on simply by running cold hands under a hot tap. Chilblains. Who would’ve thought?

It’s one o’clock in the afternoon and the temperature in St Amand le Petit has crept up to -8°C.

It’s the sort of weather which makes you feel like opening a bottle of Merlot at ten o’clock in the morning. Consequently, our quest lately has been to find the cheapest bottle of drinkable French plonk - something many of the English do every weekend at Calais. And while the record so far stands at €1.75, the problem is there’s such a turnover, even if you find one you like it’ll probably be gone from the shelves next week. Then again with such variety, it’s pretty rare we feel the need to splash out and spend more than €3.

It’s also the sort of weather which makes the stocking up of red wine in the first place a high priority, especially if you get snowed in.

Because whilst all the roads around here, even the minor ones, are kept well plowed and gritted, the icy little lane leading down from the icy little farmhouse driveway has the potential to cause a few butt-clenching moments for snow-challenged drivers like Lucas.

So while technically we might not actually be snowed-in after six inches of snow, it’s probably safer to pretend we are. Admittedly though, we have seen a guy patrolling the local forest in another Renault 4, and the car seems to eat up the unplowed forest trails like they’re nothing.

In fact, while the UK grinds to a halt every time there’s a coating of snow, France seems to carry on as normal. We’re a fair way out in the sticks here, and yet all the roads seem to be easily passable after it snows. On a recent episode of Top Gear, Clarkson had a bit of a rant about this, and so they converted a combine harvester into a snow plow to prove it could be done... and then did a lot of cocking about.

All very amusing and all that, but the thing is, the local plows here are just JCBs, with a plow attachment up front and a grit spreader hooked up to the back. After the snow’s finished for the year they’ll just revert to being plain old JCBs again.

But anyway...

In case none of the above gives you the impression, we are still pinching ourselves that we're actually here. In France. After everything that's happened these last three years, being here is a completely surreal feeling.

But we do have some animals to bring us back down to earth, and returning home later in the afternoon to feed them, we discover that Arthur (aka Bin Boy) has already helped himself, and is wearing the lid of the compost bin around his neck. It isn't the first time Bin Boy has raided the bin, so we leave The Cone Of Shame on him long enough to get some pics before finally, diverted by their insistent bleating, the sheep remind us it’s time to feed their hungry faces as well…