Monday, 29 August 2016

The side of Penang most tourists don't see

I went for a walk.

That's all I did, and you'd think that wasn't a terrible crime, deserving of punishment. But as has been said in quite a few movies: "Deserve don't mean shit."

I went for a walk.

And then I fell.

This post has been a long time coming.

In late April 2016, I moved from London to Singapore with the aim of doing a lot of travelling in the region.

And in early June, I went to Penang for a long weekend. Thought I'd have a look at the art trail (as it hadn't been there when I last visited), eat a lot, and maybe burn off some of the calories by going hiking in the National Park.

I went for a walk.

My friend Katie was visiting with me, and Katie isn't really an active type (her idea of the perfect holiday is sitting poolside), so we picked the shorter, easier walk in the National Park, going out to Monkey Beach.

The view from a safer part of the path

The trail cuts along the hillside, a packed dirt track about 2-3 feet wide. Sometimes there's a lovely view of the sea, visible through the trees of the jungle. And sometimes there's a steep drop off.

I'm still not really certain how it happened. One second I was stepping over a large log that had fallen across the path. The next second my foot is sliding, and I'm starting to fall. I tried to catch myself and arrest my fall by sitting down onto the log. I don't know if the log rolled out from under me, or was too slippery, or if I just had my weight wrong. All I know is suddenly I'm falling, backwards, down the drop off, head and back first and my legs up in the air, trailing behind me.

That thing people tell you about time slowing down in an accident? It's true. I had time to think all sorts of thoughts as I fell: that I didn't know how deep the drop was, or what surface I was falling towards (was it jagged rocks? Soft moss?). I hadn't been looking over the side of the drop off before I fell, as I'd been sensibly keeping my eyes on my footing.

Then I hit the ground, mid-back first, shoulders and head second.

That slowed time effect meant I had enough time, after my back hit, to think: "Oh, crap, here comes the head!" right before my head hit the ground.

I remember my legs coming down on top of me, and I remember thinking that the landing hadn't been as bad as I'd feared: I could tell my head was still in one piece.

I remember my friend screaming my name, and looking up, to see her peering over the edge. I even remember calling up to her: "I'm okay."

What happened next isn't much fun to remember. I managed to get back on my feet, and climb back up to my friend (about 10-15 feet further along the path, the drop was less sheer, so I scrambled through the underbrush to that point and used tree trunks to help pull myself back up to the path). By this time it was obvious that I wasn't up to hiking back out of the park (we were several km from the nearest road), and neither of us could get a cell phone signal. So my friend left me there to hike out and get help.

With the help of some locals and another tourist, we eventually got me out of the park and into an ambulance. I was diagnosed with an unstable spinal fracture and related nerve damage, spent 2 weeks in hospital (a side of Penang I never thought to see), and had some fairly major surgery to screw steel rods into my spine.

I went for a walk, that's all.

Not the Penang food I was looking for: hospital food
(yes, that is copious amounts of mayonnaise)
Hospitals wards are not good places to sleep. Voices from the other rooms, the squeak and rattle of the meds cart as the nurses do the night rounds, the light streaming into the room from the corridor. Add in pain, and a tonne of tubes coming out of my body, and I spent a lot of time lying awake, staring at the dim ceiling, thinking 2am thoughts. What had I ever done to deserve this? Why did this have to happen to me?

The truth of the matter is: it was a million to one accident. That's all. But with more than 7 billion people in the world, one in a million must happen all the time, to someone. On 6 June, it was my turn.

There's no life-lesson here, I'm afraid (apart from this: always, always take out travel insurance).

I haven't found Jesus or my purpose, nor has this ordeal made me a better person (although I'm a big enough person to admit that I was lucky, in many ways. The injuries could have been much worse). So sorry if you were reading this, expecting a satisfying ending.

There isn't one.

It's now 12 weeks after the accident, and I'm healing, slowly. I still have to wear a massive brace, so support my spine (happily that comes off soon). I spend up to an hour a day doing physiotherapy. I'm not allowed to travel, yet, so all the adventures in Asia I had planned will have to wait.

And I don't know what shape my future travels will take - hiking has always been something I've done a lot on my travels, and I don't know if I'll ever strap my hiking boots on again.

I still get scared anytime I'm near a height, even if it's only a couple of feet. I hold on for dear life when I go down the stairs, not because I'm unstable on my feet (I was for the first month, but that's now passed), but because I'm too scared of falling again.

But I am walking. And I'm back at work, living a (relatively) normal life. And that's something.

And that's all I really wanted to say.

Take care of yourselves.

(And trust me about the travel insurance).

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The London cake crawl

What do you do on a grey autumn afternoon in London?

You can spend the day fighting through the hoards on Regent Street, Oxford Street, or one of the shopping malls, getting more and more frazzled and dispirited. Or you could visit one of the free museums, and soak up some culture with your crowds.

(Let's face it, London is crowded.)

Or, you could say "Sod it!" and go on a cake crawl. Which is like a pub crawl, only with a lot less beer, and a lot more sugar.

(Sounds like a winning idea to me!)

The plan? Hit up 5 bakeries and desert places in a cross-London odyssey, accompanied by my partner-in-face-stuffing Katie.

The rules? Drink lots of tea, and pace yourself. This amount of sugar will separate the women from the girls.

Stop 1: Lola's cupcakes, Lansdowne Row, Mayfair. 13:30

All dressed up for Hallowe'en (with a white picket fence adding just a touch of twee)
Pretty as a picture, the cupcakes in this tiny cafe / shop come in a wide range of girly flavours. Passion fruit, blueberry, rosewater and pistachio, chocolate mint. Plenty of the flavours are also available in mini sizes, useful for when you'd planned to share, but your companion is disinclined towards your choice of flavours.

Rose water and pistachio, passion fruit, blueberry - I'm sure these count towards my five a day....
I should say here that I've never understood the current fascination with cupcakes. Too often, cupcakes are nothing but dry rounds of plain cake, covered in enough overly-sweet buttercream swirls to give a bunny diabetes. What's wrong with a full-sized cake, where a larger baking volume reduces the odds of drying out, and then slicing and icing layers delivers an optimal cake-to-frosting ratio? Why mess with a classic?

But at Lola's, like at many other bakeries these days, cupcakes dominate the menu, so cupcakes are what we ordered. I had the mini version of the rosewater and pistachio cupcakes, accompanied by a pot of tea. The cake was pleasant enough although slightly dry, with a strong flavour of rosewater emanating from the so-sweet icing, but not any discernible taste of pistachios (apart from a few pieces scattered on top as decoration). Overall, a nice enough place to stop for a sweet, but not setting the world on fire.

How do I feel after eating?: My stomach is primed, I'm ready for stop 2.

Stop 2: Crumbs and Doilies, Kingsly Court, Carnaby Street, 14:30

Mmm... everything's better with bacon
Now this is impressive. This popular, small shop offers a range of trendy and innovative flavours - salted caramel pretzel, maple and bacon, key lime pie.

Just look at them - they're beautiful....

Not a boring red velvet or coffee and walnut in sight....
Making a decision here was hard - I wanted them all.

Finally, my partner-in-face-stuffing and I settled on sharing a large slab of fudgy chocolate cake, topped with salted pretzels. The icing was quite thin on the ground but sweet and had a nice, creamy texture. But the standout was the cake itself - so moist that the icing was barely necessary. This could have been a masterclass in how to avoid dryness.

Moist and fudgy cake, creamy and sweet icing, salty pretzels. Honey, I'm home!
How do I feel after eating?: I really hate to admit this, but after one mini cupcake and half a big slice, I'm starting to feel sugared out already. I'm starting to wonder if I'm going to fail. I'm weak. I'm pathetic.

Stop 3: Yauatcha, 15-17 Broadwick St, Soho. 15:15

Yauatcha came on the London trendy dining scene a few years back, making a big splash with their Michelin starred dim-sum and their weirdly French patisserie menu (matcha yuzu macarons anyone?).

Feeling we desperately needed a break from the sugar, we stopped into Yauatcha for some dim sum, with the plan to follow with a few macarons, once we'd recovered from our sugar OD.

I don't think I've ever eaten in a Michelin starred restaurant before, so wasn't certain what to expect - what makes a place star worthy? What does a star mean? As far as I can tell, it means a random and redundant fish tank running the length of the bar, a downstairs interior so dark you could pretend you were in a cave, and no mirrors in toilets (as we're now above such shallow concerns). Many of the staff were also surprisingly badly trained for a restaurant of this caliber. I suspect some of the quite pretty young waiters were hired more for ambiance than ability.

Dark wood, gilt and mirrored bar, redundant fish tank.... I guess that's what impresses "the book"
We'd only planned to share a pot of green tea and one or two dishes of dim sum (this was supposed to be a snack, not a full meal), but I got over-excited at their extensive menu, and ordered a bit more than intended.

Wild mushroom dumplings (£5.20), from their steamed selection, featured a well-textured thin green skin, wrapped around a forgettable filling. These supposedly contain three different types of mushrooms, but to be honest I found them disappointingly a bit bland.

Char sui buns (£4.80), however, do this classic staple proud. This isn't a dish I normally order, as I find char sui buns can be a little boring, but the friend I was eating with was practically a dim sum virgin, and wanted to try them. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed these.

I know I should be spending time on these photos, ensuring each is focused and well lit, but I'm salivating too much to bother....
And what about their famous venison puffs? (£5.30)

Imagine crisp pastry that dissolves on your tongue like spun sugar. Imagine a decadently rich, sweet and unami-filled meaty inside, one that will make your ears jealous that your mouth is having all the fun. Imagine dim sum, but made by Jesus.

I'll eat these again. As soon as possible.

In fact, can I have some more now?

Too full to order desert (although they did look mighty-purdy), and thoroughly stuffed with tea, dim sum and cake. we decide to walk to our next destination and see if we can face more sugar by then.

Stop 4: Laduree, Covent Garden. 16:45

This tiny and touristy shop was too busy to even get in the door, five people deep. We beat a hasty retreat.

Stop 5: Primrose Bakery, Covent Garden, 17:00

There's still some of plucky blitz spirit left in me, the unwillingness to admit defeat. So I drag Katie (by now becoming a bit of a reluctant participant in this sugar-driven forced march) to the final stop on my planned odyssey.

Primrose Bakery is another one of the "new breed" of bakeries, offering mostly cupcakes. If I'm honest, the cupcakes look a bit ordinary after Crumbs and Doilies - flavours are your standard classics: red velvet, vanilla, choc, salted caramel, carrot. It goes against my very nature to admit this, but I'm just not tempted.

Katie looks at me. I look at her. The acceptance is clear on both our faces.

We can't do it. We're sugared out. We're officially too full to eat cake.

(Silent screaming in my head... the eight year old me is bitterly disappointed in the grown up me.)

We admit defeat, and trundle off towards our respective homes after agreeing that we should do this again soon.

I feel a failure.

A stuffed, waddling, sugar-laden and oh, so very happy, failure.


London has seen a trendiness of walking cake tours in recent times. There's even a bus cake tour, for those determined to not burn off ANY of the excess calories. These are certainly one way to experience a range of London bakeries, and usually stop at places that offer mini cakes or taster-sized portions, to help avoid the dreaded sugar overload. These tours are not cheap, however - expect to pay £40+ pp.

But with a good map and a little will, it's easy (and considerably cheaper) to organise your own cake crawl.

Your sugar-rush awaits!


A final note: please forgive the low quality pictures in this post. I neglected to take my main camera with me, so these photos were all taken on my cheap(ish) phone. Plus I feel like such a doofus taking faffing about taking pictures of my food in public that I tend to rush through it (especially when the food might be getting cold, and I'm really eager to start eating).

Sunday, 9 August 2015

A short trip to Bobcaygeon

My secret's out now - despite all my claims to big-city sophistication and West-end posturing, I was raised in a succession of small Canadian towns.

(Oh, the shame!)

This summer, I took a short vacation to go visit my family in Bobcaygeon (pop 3500). Smack-dab in Southern Ontario's "cottage country," Bobcaygeon is known for it's large retirement community, as well as for a small but thriving summer tourism season.

Bobcaygeon scenery
Peaceful and pretty surrounds, and only 60 seconds away from a local swimming spot

What do you do in Bobcaygeon?

You can swim or boat on the lake or in the river (the town is built on a small island in the middle of the Bobcaygeon River, right where the river meets Pigeon Lake, so you're never more than a few hundred yards from water).

You can sit and contemplate the scenery.
waterpoint park in bobcaygeon
The aged Ps enjoying the view from Waterpoint Park

You can enjoy the local wildlife.
My nephew, Bence, otherwise known as the cheeky monkey

There are lots of birds, including herons, kestrels, and garden birds like goldfinches, cardinals and hummingbirds. Black bears are occasionally seen wandering on the edges of town, especially in winter when they can walk across the frozen lake from the nearby undeveloped and uninhabited islands.

There are camping spots nearby, and a few shops catering to tourists, and a few decent restaurants, plus a farmer's market on Saturday and a couple of grocery stores, so self-caterers can stock up on BBQ supplies. If you feel like a change, you could spend a nice half day driving to one of the nearby towns (like Fenelon Falls) to have a wander there.

But mostly, you don't so much DO things in Bobcaygeon as you just ARE.

You slow down. You watch the world go by. You breathe.

You remember what it's like to not live in a frenetic, hectic and noisy city.

That's Bobcaygeon.

view of Bobcaygeon River from Riverfront Park

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Real safety trips for women travellers (or, how to stop worrying and love the world)

I've been travelling solo for almost 20 years now, and one comment I hear time and again is: "You're so brave! I could never do that."


We live in an age of constant media inflation. Everything's dangerous, especially for women:

Getting into a taxi? The driver will rape and murder you as soon as look at you. Better text his registration number to a friend, in case you go missing.

Walking home after a night out? You'll get attacked; better take a taxi.

Except we've already established that the taxi driver is dangerous too.... do you spot the problem yet?

While I'm not denying that terrible things occasionally happen, the constant media coverage around those things, and the constant barrage of "how-to-be-safe" articles, both keep undue emphasis on a bogus message that travel, and life in general, is not safe for women.

Case in point: there was recently a Buzzfeed article on 46 Safety Tips for Women Travellers. It was garbage. most of the "tips" would apply equally well to men as well as women, and the rest were paranoid (again, that old chestnut: always take a photo of a cab's license plate and text it to a friend before you get in, in case you end up missing or dead).

These articles perpetuate the myth that travel is unsafe for women. You don't see articles on 46 Safety Tips for Male Travellers, do you? They're pretending to reassure while, like a 5th column, eroding confidence.

So, here's my own Real Safety Tips for Women Travellers:

1) When a stranger tries to talk to you on a bus, or when you're sitting on a park bench, try talking back. He'll probably recommend cool places to visit, tasty non-touristy restaurants, and show you pictures of his kids until you're blue in the face. There are a few scammers about, but the vast majority of people just want to make a connection and are curious about how you live on the other side of the world. They want to say hi, not hurt you. So there's no need to treat every stranger with utmost suspicion. Don't be an idiot, but don't be paranoid, either.

2) When a group of middle aged women invite you to sit with them for dinner in a restaurant, say yes. You'll enjoy pleasant company, another chance to chat with locals, and you'll probably get your dinner paid for too, as you're their guest.

3) When you get lost, ask for directions. Everyone you meet, pretty much, will try and help you. Ditto when you get scared by an aggressive soi dog. People will shoo it away from you and ensure you're okay.

4) When a teenager biker offers to walk you down a monkey-infested hill, because he can see that the crafty little critters frighten you, say yes. He's being a gentleman.

I've spent more than 4 months travelling around SE Asia, and in that time I've met one person who deliberately gave me bad directions for fun, two people who potentially tried to scam me (neither succeeded, and one might have genuinely been a mistake anyway), and about 57 people who went out of their way to show me kindness and hospitality.

The world is a big, beautiful place, and it's all waiting for you.

Get out there.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

3300 Temples, 1 Bicycle

I'm cycling as hard as I can in the heat, griping the handlebars with sweaty palms, trying to keep the ancient Chinese bicycle straight on the narrow dirt track. It's not easy, as I discover as my back tyre sinks suddenly into a loose patch of sand. I topple over sideways, ending up on my bottom in a newly-ploughed peanut field.

I can't stop giggling as I untangle myself from my undignified heap, and the local wild dogs scamper away in fright from the noise.

This is Bagan, Burma's ancient city:

Twenty-six square miles of arid farmland, dotted with 3300 temples.

Forty degree heat.

One old, gearless bicycle, and one slightly out of shape, middle aged woman.

How could I resist?

It's hot, sweaty work following dirt trails across the plains; I pass a goat herd, bells tinkling as the animals graze the thorny bushes, and oxen plodding slowly across the fields, dragging wooden ploughs that probably haven't changed design in centuries. The rainy season has just started, and the red earth is still dusty and desiccated but soon to be planted again. My tyres sink into the soft, sandy soil with alarming regularity, and sweat drips off my hands as I struggle to keep the bike moving on the gentle hills.

The tracks all looks the same, however, and soon I'm lost. I'm studying my map when a motorbike pulls up next to me. Two young Burmese men smile at me, and the driver asks where I'm looking to go. I tell him, and he says he'll take me there. I object, feebly, gesturing at his compact motorbike and my ancient Chinese bicycle. “You go fast; I go slow.”

“No problem,” he says.

They ride slowly next to me across the winding dirt tracks that criss-cross the plains, keeping the motor in low gear as I puff along, pedalling beside them. We chat – about where I'm from, and what I think about Burma. About how they're studying English in business school, and hope to be able to travel the world one day, “like Westerners.” They escort me to the temple, show me around, then wish me well with the rest of my trip before they ride off into the dust. Small acts of kindness are everywhere in Burma.

Another temple, further down the plain: fingernail-sized, bright red beetles with carapaces like crushed velvet scuttle around my feet as I struggle out of my hiking boots (you go barefoot at all Buddhist temples, even ancient ones). I'm nervous as they inch closer to my toes – bright colours are warnings, aren't they?

The key holder, a young local man who unlocks the temple each morning for visitors, smiles reassuringly. He tells me they're called Angel beetles, and they only appear at the start of the rainy season.

“Watch,” he says, and touches one gently with the tip of his finger. It stops moving completely. “Stay two, three minutes,” he tells me.

He shows me around, pointing out how the brick sizes that differentiate the original from restored portions of the building; many of the temples had to be partially rebuilt following the devastating 1975 earthquake. We climb up narrow brick steps that wrap around the back of one structure and allow us access to chamber below the roof. “Pyay, pyay” he cautions, warning me to be careful on the narrow ledge with my big, Western feet. Slowly, slowly. A newly restored sitting Buddha image watches over us, his bright white ceramic face beaming with child-like, rosebud lips.

I give the keyholder a small tip for showing me around; tea money, they call it. He smiles, and goes back to playing video games on his smart phone as I hop back on my bicycle.

Burma crawls with these contradictions – video games and smart phones, ox ploughs and ancient temples.

By mid-afternoon, I'm spent, stinking with sweat and covered in red dust. Dark clouds begin to cover the roasting sun, and the wind begins to blow. The monsoon rain is coming, promising a break from the punishing temperatures.

I stagger into a small, open-air restaurant that nestles outside one of the most popular temples, and order a mango lassi as the rain begins to hammer on the metal roof like an angry god. The owner sits down at the next table and turns on all the fans, bathing both of us in a cool breeze, as I surreptitiously wipe the sweat off my forehead. “I no like heat,” she tells me. “Burmese very happy rains come.”

We sit together, watching the deluge run in rivers off the packed dirt roads and enjoying the cooling effect of the fans. “You like Myanmar?” she asks me.

“Very much,” I tell her.