Sunday, January 22, 2012


The days of cheap airfares to Europe are over it seems, and considering we paid twelve hundred bucks from KL to London return for two, in future people like us are going to wonder whether spending two or three times as much is really worth it (of course the ones who have no choice are screwed). Also, because our return flight should have been April 17, our immediate problem is that all AirAsia X flights from Europe beyond March 31 are now cancelled. In hindsight the signs were there two months ago, when suddenly and mysteriously all their European airfares seemed to double. We think it was AirAsia's way of limiting the damage by discouraging people with high prices, while at the same time keeping their impending announcement a secret. Of course our cynicism may well be due to the eighteen months in which we've had to deal with AirAsia's and Ryanair's booking systems.

In case you didn't know, or more to the point, if there is anyone out there still reading this blog, this post is coming to you from France. By way of England. By way of us one day realising that house sitting might be worth a try.

But let's back up a bit...

2011 was a funny kind of a year. A year of muddling along, experimenting, trying to make things work, being frustrated by things out of our control, receiving things from generous people, giving some back to others, and being lucky enough to catch up with friends and family in Oz and the UK.

The first half of the year was defined by the Wesley Mission Work A Few Months Travel The Rest Experiment-Cum-Debacle. Quite why this exercise in frustration ever got beyond the theoretical stage has more to do with money than any desire to reacquaint ourselves with a dysfunctional bunch of turkeys, whose collective ineptitude is matched only by their unfortunate predictability. But money's money, and Lucas felt at the time his inner-calm would be able to withstand a few months of known appallingness. It all ended in tears of course. Our inner-calm took a battering, and the end result, after eighteen of Wesley's months, was an incomplete software package and a failed project (a very loose description, and for want of a better word). On a positive note our bank balance became a lot healthier, but the hypothesis was tested and retested before finally being thrown out with the garbage - yes, it is possible to build a piece of software for a corporate client half way around the world, but not if their name sounds like Wesley Mission Brisbane.

In case you’re wondering about the photo at the beginning of the post, and whether it’s just our way of belatedly wishing everyone a happy Christmas, the reality is that it has more to do with the other big part of our lives in 2011. It’s difficult to believe Ann has been involved with PKKK since 2010, considering the plan was to be thousands of miles away by now. But the kids and the teachers have become a big deal to us, and every time we talk about doing something else with our lives certain people in Sungai Petani make us wonder whether we should.

So after it became clear that the aforementioned Never To Be Spoken Of Again Software Debacle was headed for the dustbin, Lucas decided to do something more worthwhile with his time and dedicate it to the school as well. Which led to the calendar. Kind of.

What started with a few snowmen, some flour, a bit of a laugh and an idea for a photo, rapidly morphed into an idea for a calendar. And before Lucas realised what he’d volunteered himself for, teachers and children were being prodded into action, projects were being created, photo shoots set up and a final proof was produced, ready for the printer.

As of late 2011, three and a half thousand calendars had been printed and were being distributed by the teachers, the local Rotary and other local businesses. It’s hoped the proceeds will help fund next year’s salaries for several of the teachers. You can download a copy of the calendar here (when it opens in Google Docs, select File > Download original. Then rotate it 90 degrees clockwise when viewing it in Acrobat).

Which brings to mind something else you can download. Something which blew some of us away last year. It all came about because Ann is a bit of a Sudoku tragic, and Lucas had some time on his hands as a result of the aforementioned unmentionable feeble-minded cretins at the place whose name shall not be uttered. You see because the best Sudoku games are online, and because we share an internet dongle, Lucas, acting out of a combination of boredom, self-interest, and an attitude of “How hard can it be?” decided to build a version of his own.

Meantime PKKK had been donated a few netbooks, which were mostly sitting idle in their boxes. Most of the teachers weren’t computer-savvy, and the netbooks hadn’t come preloaded with any educational software. So after extensive beta testing by Ann, and managing to hook himself on the game in the process, Lucas recklessly decided to let loose Sudoku – Mustard Edition on some of the kids at PKKK.

Which brings us to the “blown away” part. No one really expected the kids to be genius Sudoku players. In fact no one really expected anything at all. But we thought it was worthwhile to try to teach a few of the more advanced students and see how far we could go with it. Amazingly, several of the kids managed (with a bit of help) to not only finish a game, but also managed to hold their concentration for the three quarters of an hour it took to complete. We were all a bit stunned.

None of us, including the teachers, are trained professionals when it comes to special needs education. And if we were, then maybe we might not have been so surprised at discovering the potential of some of these kids. Or maybe we still would. Who knows? Nevertheless, it doesn’t change the outcome, and for everyone involved it was an incredibly positive experience.

If you’re feeling like a bit of a mental challenge yourself, you can download a copy of the game here (unzip and follow the install instructions in the release notes).

It’s a cold and miserable day today in St Amand le Petit, with a persistent drizzle so fine and misty that the only visible evidence is the moisture dripping from the roof tiles.

This however, is what Eymoutiers (four kilometres up the road) can look like when the weather gods cooperate.

So. House sitting. What’s up with that then? Well until the middle of 2011 we’d already been acting as de-facto house sitters at Thobrani’s house in Sungai Petani… huh? Oh, you mean what the hell is house sitting? Ok, here’s Wikipedia’s definition: 
House sitting is the practice whereby a landlord (or "homeowner"), leaving their house for a period of time, entrusts it to one or more "house sitters", who by a mutual agreement are entitled to live there rent-free in exchange for assuming responsibilities such as taking care of the homeowner's pets, performing general maintenance (including pools, lawns, air-conditioning systems etc.), keeping trespassers off the property, readdressing the mail, and in general, making sure that everything runs smoothly just as if the owner was at home.
Which is more or less exactly what we’d been doing at Sungai Petani, until Masyam turned up. Masyam, “our” new Indonesian maid, appeared out of the blue one day, with a brief hello from Thobrani and a “Well, there goes your privacy.” Sod.

Previously, until we’d spent a couple of weeks in Hong Kong, he’d been quite happy for us to come and go and use the place as a base. But the reality of organising one of his security guards to temporarily replace us seemed to change his mind. This was his prerogative of course, but living in a house in which we were no longer contributing did not make us feel particularly warm and squishy inside. Thobrani's emphatic reassurances notwithstanding.

Eventually, as far as the sharing of household duties was concerned, we came to some sort of a truce with Masyam (stubborn and cantankerous old cow that she was), and then Marnie, who replaced her after Masyam walked out unannounced one night. But by then the house sitting seeds had been well sown, and it was only a matter of time and persistence before an opportunity became available…

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