The New Zealand: A Review

(Life update: I am a Copywriter now. Don’t act so surprised. And ignore all previous bad writing, misplaced commas and general imperfections of previous posts. They don’t matter, BECAUSE NOW I AM A COPYWRITER.)

The New Zealand was new and extremely Zealandy. It had approximately 33.3% more zeal than I had expected. And 1110% less people.

Just kidding. FEWER people. I’m a Copywriter, yo.

It gave me the heebiejeebies. The New Zealand, not being a Copywriter. It (The New Zealand) is so far away from the rest of the world. Tiny, deserted, prone to terrifying earthquakes. I’ve always lived in towns or cities surrounded by other towns and cities, themselves surrounded by cities and towns and still more cities. Sure, in Leeds Beloved Leeds we were close to hills, to countryside, to long walks and fresh air… but also to people and action and movement.

In The New Zealand, not so much. It’s all space. Mountains. Rivers. Grass(es). Birds that sound like prehistoric creatures. The towns are binary: you’re in them, and then you aren’t. The in-between spaces are enormous. To get from one populated area to another, you have to drive. No people (action, movement, buildings, events, life) for miles. Nothing.

The New Zealand is unsettlingly empty.

Let’s have some context. Numbers don’t lie (Copywriters do). The New Zealand, at 267,710 sq km, is slightly bigger than the UK (243,610 sq km). It has a population of around 4.5 million people. The UK, slightly smaller, has a population of around 64 million. Sixty four (64). MILLION (million). It is 59.5 million people empty.

Astound.

 

 

 

On the road again

I am still in Bangkok. Honestly, it’s amazing how quickly adventures can morph into mundane daily life when you’re not looking. One minutes you’re all goggle-eyed gazing around like a newborn and taking every opportunity to expose your miserable, cave-dweller skin to the sunlight, and the next it’s just another Monday morning and you’re grizzling over the 14.54 minutes you have to spend outside sans aircon. And you don’t even notice that the moon is the wrong way around any more. Welcome to Taking Things For Granted 101.

BUT! Guess what! After many months – too many months – of being stationary, Enid’s Adventure Blog is going back on the road again. This time we’re off to that most recent of Zealands, The New Zealand (famously explored in gripping 3-part documentary series, The Lord Of The Rings). We’ll hang out with The Beard’s friends and family, hit up the north and south islands for beaches and shit, skate with NZ roller derby teams and checkout NZ skateparks, have goodfuntimes with adored lifepals and fellow adventurers, NicandRob, eat “fush und chups”, head out for long walks and generally be Going Around. It’s going to be good, people.

Yes, it will mean leaving beloved cat-bastard Mr Miaowgi with a friend for 2 months, but I count it as payback for all the times he’s bitten me in the face in the past. Little angel.

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So! Help a sister out, gang. What should we see, do, eat, stay or avoid? Any and all pro-tips welcome!

Songkran. [Photos pending]

It’s been one year, one month, and 29 days. I’m still in Bangkok and – inconceivably – I’m still not dead.

This time last year I was studying for my CELTA. Man alive, I remember that month of insanity as if it were only a year ago: the late nights, the hysteria, the stress, the constant stream of food, the pool that looked so inviting but that none of us ever had any time to use… and before that – SONGKRAN! Thai New Year, water festival, public holiday and city-wide water fight. The craziness of Chiang Mai, the 3-day long water battles, dance music throbbing in the streets, foam sprayed from stages in the square, buckets of ice water paralysingly cold in the midday heat. Wet and wild it certainly was.

Songkran this year couldn’t have been more different. We finished work on the Thursday and went straight from the school to the station, boarded the train and settled into our seats. The others hated the journey – I adored it. We got the cheapest tickets – 11 hours on hard seats, 4 of us squashed into a space that would be comfortable for 2, slightly awkward for 3 and laughable for any more than that. We drank beer and roared laughter playing Cards Against Humanity. Of the countries represented – England, the US, NZ – I can confirm that us Englanders have by far the best sense of humour, boasting a heady absurdism utterly unappreciated by our companions. The chumps. It got late and the train rattled on through the night. The others attempted fitful sleeping with limited success, but you know me and trains out here. I stayed awake, listening to the tracks, watching inky countryside sweeping past Having Moments and writing bad poetry. The trains out here. They’re special.

We reached Chumpon as the sun rose, and from our coach to the ferry port watched the morning colours wheel across the sky, turn to golden light, caught our first glimpse of the sea – the Gulf of Thailand – dream-blue and calm. By the time we boarded the ferry, the fizzy hysteria of sleep deprivation was setting in and we’d collected our 5th group member, well-rested and smug from his earlier, more luxurious train journey. An extended game of CAH and we arrived.

The first thing we learnt on our PADI Open Water Diver course was that the number one rule of scuba-diving is this: breathe consistently or YOUR LUNGS WILL EXPLODE. I immediately broke out into fear-sweats. Unconsciously holding my breath is a little weird habit of mine. I don’t know why. Sometimes I suppose all this Doing Life Things gets a bit complicated, so I decide to momentarily suspend one of my essential bodily functions in order to focus properly on whatever important thing is happening, such as having just stubbed my toe or dropped a glass or seen a DRAGON in the park (oh, it’s “only” a monitor lizard? Whatever.) You know, the big stuff.

So, after the first HELLISH day – the day of Songkran, in fact – when we were in the pool for 8 consecutive hours doing skills in the searing heat, skin burning and chafing from the BCDs, dehydrated, eyes and nose burning with chlorine from doing mask removals, I had absolutely no fear whatsoever about the normal concerns (running out of air, getting the bends, having an equipment failure, having to make an emergency ascent, panicking underwater, being eaten alive by sharks), I was simply afraid that I’d see a pretty fish, get distracted, forget rule #1 and do an innocent and accidental breath hold, thereby EXPLODING MY LUNGS.

As it happens, I didn’t EXPLODE MY LUNGS. Not on the first day when we did our first two dives in REAL OCEAN and saw a white-eyed Moray eel at The Twins and a lionfish and a porcupine fish and a giant pufferfish at The Junkyard. Not even on the second day when we dived at White Rock and saw prawn gobis and where I took the longest piss EVER in my wetsuit, and when we went back to The Twins and saw a Ribbontail ray and did our emergency ascent skills. I did explode a bit on the 5th dive – our first dive as qualified divers and where we didn’t have to do ANY skills at all – but it was my LPI hose and not my lungs, and it was after we’d surfaced and not on the bottom so there was no reason to worry whatsoever. The 6th dive, however, when we went back to The Junkyard and – being qualified divers now, thank you very much – did a free descent and swam through the tunnels and saw all the usual fishes. Ah, friends. It was a glorious time.

We’d been on the island for 5 or 6 days and people were leaving to get back to Real Life. I moved from our accommodation – we’d stayed with the superb people who ran our course, Crystal Dive – and found a room in a 70s porn den. I liked it because the smell of the plywood walls brought back memories of the old caravan in Gma’s garden that was always filled with fly corpses and that we’d sometimes sleep in if we were lucky enough to be allowed the adventure. My island holiday was blissful. I’d get up early, walk along the beach to the north and get breakfast, then head south through the town, across beaches, through woods and over rocks to get to two small bays that were quiet and had excellent snorkelling and an incredibly relaxed restaurant overlooking the sea.

The first time I saw the sharks, it was with fear and fascination in near-equal amounts. It was immediately obvious that they were only juveniles but, even though they were small, they looked already like killers, gliding lazily through the water, looking all shark-like. Black tipped reef sharks. Those fins. I’ve never been so close to something in the wild that I felt was a threat to my life. And, wow, did I feel it, right the way through and into the marrow. My body tensed. ‘THREAT! THERE IS A THREAT!’ But they didn’t come close, didn’t want to. I popped my head up to look around – was it safe? did people know there were SHARKS here? There were a few people snorkelling in the bay, one or two kids. It was probably safe, right? I mean, there were adults, they knew what they were doing, right? I decided not to run screaming from the water.

The juvenile sharks became almost normal. I was still filled with apprehension every time I saw them – they just look so damn DANGEROUS! – but there was less fear. There was so much other life under the water and it made it easy to forget the sharks. And the sealife changed the deeper you went, and the deeper you went the more you realised that the different kinds of fish lived in different stratas. Yellowtail barracuda near the surface, parrotfish at the bottom. There were shoals of tiny fish, flashing silver in the light, and shoals of different types of coral-eating fish that would descent together on one place, chow down for a while, then move on.

I twice saw the muma shark. Huge. Distant. There was no fascination then, only fear. I would freeze in the water, keep it in-sight until it disappeared. Both times I swam back to shore, slightly shaky from the adrenaline.

And once, thanks to pure and perfect luck, I saw a sea turtle. Like a dream. She was on the bottom, chomping on coral. She didn’t seem to mind me watching from the surface. After a while I dived down to touch her, put my hand on her shell. She looked at me, black eyes glintingWhen she left the bottom, she swam more gracefully than you’d imagine. I thought of a spaceship – an unlikely shape, bulky but gliding effortlessly nonetheless. I swum with her until it got too deep, and I trod water, watched her surface to breathe, her leathery face wrinkled and lipless, and swim away. Magnificent.

The next day I bought an underwater camera, but the photos are terrible and I didn’t see her again anyway. I didn’t really expect to. Once in a lifetime is good enough for me.

But that was a week ago. I’ve worked a week since then. Right now, I’m on my balcony drinking a coffee and enjoying the breeze that occasionally wafts its way through the washing that’s hanging out to dry. This morning I awoke to distant sky rumblings. Though it’s still obnoxiously hot, it’s cooler today than it’s been in a while. Hot season – finally – might be coming to an end. The heat these past weeks has been intolerable. I am ready to be cool again. I am ready for rain.

 

To sunlounge is a verb

Swings and sea

I left the city. It’s been a while and I thought it was time to get away. And, WOW, did I get me some Away. I got ALL of the Away. I went into the Away store and I was like, ‘Hey, I need to get Away’, and they were like, ‘Ok, but we’re quite low on stock as there’s been a spike in Away-getting recently, can you wait for a few days while we order you some in?‘ and I was like, ‘Oh. Right. Thanks for your assistance. I’ll wait over here’.

I went to Koh Chang, an island East of Bangkok and near the border with Cambodia. It’s the second largest in Thailand, or so a woman told me furiously one afternoon, and then she pointed to a plastic chair and made me sit down until a taxi came but it never did. While I was sitting down, her 5 year old son looked at me and said, in perfect English, she looks like a man. I smiled in what I fancied was an aloof manner but really I wanted to skud maguggin the little bastard.

That happened by White Sands Beach, which was full of rubbish and choppy waters with bad secrets that made swimming inadvisable due to the risk of getting carried away. Nobody wants to get carried away on holiday, right?, and certainly not by hostile undercurrents – that’s not what it’s about. It’s about R&R: rastas and ragdolls, rambutan and raddishes, roses and red wine. Or something.  There was a red flag and a shed-load of accommodation on the beach, and I stayed in a ramshackle room above the sea whose balcony jutted out over rocks. When the tide came in at night the sound of the waves against stone was so loud it was as if the sea was in the same room, the hissing and sighing and crashing filling up the space with no room left for thoughts. It was the best night’s sleep I think I’ve ever had.

Apart from that night I stayed on a half-deserted beach with accommodation and beach restaurants but no people or 7-11s or Tesco Lotusi. It was a shock to the system. The 7-11 situation in the Big Kok is eye-rolling. It’s like some kind of culty food church. They’re EVERYWHERE. One on the corner, and another opposite. And don’t worry if you leave and realise you forgot to buy something, there’s one more just up the street, and another across the road from that as well. They’re the most convenient of convenience stores. They sell sour milk and Chunky Kit Kats and a variety of crisps with fishy flavours. Phone credit, face cream, prayer candles, and assorted tamarind. If you need an emergency pot noodle, or pizza toastie or edible seaweed, or just to stand in aircon for a while to cool down, your local 7-11s have got you covered. They’re the fifth emergency service.

On my holiday it rained every day, and I sailed in a sea storm and imagined I was a pirate and a sea witch, and I was attacked by dogs twice but didn’t get bitten. I snorkelled and swam and sunlounged. I walked along the beach and picked up shells and held them for a while and then dropped them again. I drank beer and ate often and watched films at night and read books by day. I daydreamed, looked toward the horizon, gazed into the middle distance, listened to the sound of the sea and watched storms roll in and swam in the rain. And then suddenly it was over, and before I knew it I was back at work, teaching and having a birthday and leaving my twenties behind forever.

And I’m 30 now. I live in Bangkok. I started my own roller derby team and I’m a teacher of English. It is inconceivable to me that I’ll age another decade. I can’t imagine myself at 40. There’s no hiding, you HAVE to be a grown up at 40, and at 39 and 38 and maybe 37. But 7 years is long enough, isn’t it? To play roller derby again, and to have bad ideas, to be silly and mess around and to SKATE and maybe even to write again, like I promise myself every year?; and to be brave and daring, and to travel and see the places I never honestly thought I’d see with my own human eyes; and to try and be a better person, and to be – finally, eventually – mind-peaceful and gracious, open and honest and courageous. To rediscover curiosity, creativity, and another noun beginning with ‘c’ that would complete this rhetorical device but that didn’t roll off the fingers at the exact moment I wanted it to and thus leaves that sentence open, hanging, incomplete. Alliteration. Rule of three. Chris Bachelder’s Bear vs Shark. Read it, it’s wonderful and weird and clever.

It’s likely that what I’ll ACTUALLY do in those 7 years is eat cornflakes from the box and get unproductively lost on the internet for hours. But that’s OK too, right?

Day 45: Songkran in Chiang Mai

I am in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, and somehow I’m still not dead even though in Bangkok I ate at a rat-infested streetfood place at the train station.

I’m flying solo again. Callie and Hartley left Cat Ba to be swindled in Laos (but also to have many funz). My dear son Keegan left for a 40-hour bus journey to Ho Chi Minh City. Tom and I left for a couple of days in BRILLIANT Hanoi before my flight back to Bangkok and his trip north to Sapa.

I’d planned to stay in BKK for a few days before coming north to Chiang Mai – I was going to chill, upload photos, catch up on life admin and studying. I went to the train station on Tuesday afternoon to pre-book my ticket and discovered that all the trains were full because of Songkran, except for one leaving that night. Booked it. Done. An emergency 14-hour journey in a 4-berth sleeper coach. Utter joy (YOU KNOW HOW I LOVE TRAIN TRAVEL OUT HERE!). The beds were comfortably firm. I woke a few times in the night only to be rocked back to sleep by the movement of the train, the clacking of the tracks. In the morning I had breakfast of glutinous rice soup – like rice pudding only different, salty, peppery, and with “pork” balls floating around, and watched the sun rise over mountains.

Right now I’m staying in a dorm room with 5 others for 100 baht (£2.50) a night, no towels, no hot water, no in-room wifi, no toilet paper, no air-con. It’s everything you need. The hostel has a huge covered balcony area on the second floor with bamboo mats, benches, cushions. I’m there right now, at almost 11am, trying to memorise English verb tenses and thinking about getting some breakfast, and about heading out into the streets to cool down. It’s too hot for life here. People are melting in the streets, leaving nothing behind but fanny packs and globules of person-melt. Like candle wax or glutinous rice soup. Bit gross. People who haven’t melted yet are in the process: features sliding down their faces, dripping off their chins. Everything is sticky. Luckily it’s Songkran, Thai New Year, and the city is engaged in a gigantic water fight that takes over the daylight hours. Everyone has water guns or buckets – often both – and nobody is shy about using them. Families are on the streets outside their houses or shops with water butts and hoses, soaking anyone that comes within range; they travel around the city in trucks sloshing water over everyone they drive past; tourists form gangs outside their favourite bars and wage war  in the sun with the music up loud and the beer flowing. It’s all friendly. Everyone’s grinning, thrilled to bits to have a stranger run up behind them and dump buckets of ice water over their heads. It’s nearing 40 degrees so it’s exactly what you want to cool down. The whole thing’ s crazy-fun, frantic, phallic and an excuse to make masses of goodbad puns and act like a kid for extended periods of time.

At nights people gather on the balcony to dry off and drink, chat, chill. Sometimes people play guitar, uke, sing. And they’re not all the shit, pretentious types either. Makes me want to buy a uke and learn how to play it – if there’s one thing that travelling has taught me it’s that I don’t have enough life skills to bring to the table. You go for food en mass. My favourite places are these ace little street food areas by the main road, a collection of stalls run by different people and each serving different dishes, plastic chairs and tables all set up, mystery water ready to drink if you dare. It’s where the Thais go to eat, and though sometimes you get food different to what you thought you’d ordered, and the hygiene standards are lax as fuck, it’s the best kind of experience. And the food is DELICIOUS and cheap. Last night I had crispy noodle soup – really thick, glutinous broth with huge slices of pork and the crispy noodles that exist in all your best food-related dreams. It cost 30 baht, less than a pound.

I’m bloody loving it out here. Different places and cultures and FOODS and people all the bloody time. The more you travel the more you discover that you want to do. I HAVE to go to Myanmar. I have to see Laos, especially the underground city. I’d love to go back to Vietnam and check out the off-the-beaten-track places and the stuff I missed first time around. I want to go to the Cambodian island that Hartley and Callie worked on because it looks like paradise, and I guess I could cope with seeing some pristine Thai islands as well. And that’s just the places right next door. China is a must now – it sounds like a fucking hard slog but hard is GOOD, right? It pushes your boundaries, tests you. Also Japan, South Korea, Nepal. Indonesia. I want to see (my old school chum) Penny in Malaysia. But I want to go to stranger places, too; places not everybody would go to: what’s in Turkmenistan? Can you go through Central Asia then the middle East and down through the African continent overland? Without facing death, rape or torture? That’d be pretty fuckin’ ace, right?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about travelling and studying and not as much tourism as you’d hope in Chiang Mai. Gotta prioritise, though. Can’t fuck up this course. I did go to a Wat having a celebration, and played out during Songkran, and had some damn good nights out with some good human beings. Tonight we’ll go see some Muy Thai fights and I’ll do a cookery course in the next few days, and me and a girl in my dorm are going to trek it up to a hill temple just outside of town even though I haven’t exercised in a month and a half and I’ll probably die. I met someone who went out with a girl who played roller derby and was thrilled to be able to chat derby for a while to someone who already had an interest. I mostly want to meet another roller girl and see if I can set up a team, or at the very least get some kind of roller skating back in my life. I can’t cope with all this non-skating that’s going on. Never thought I’d miss being forced to do more push-ups than my body can take, but apparently I do. Maybe I’ll take up Muy Thai instead and learn how to become aggressive – grrrrrrrrr! – and add that to my roller derby repertoire when I eventually find some people to play with/for.

I’m rambling. Excuse me. Blame the OBNOXIOUS heat, and the fact that I’m procrastinating. OK. Back to it. A couple of hours of study and then back out into Songkranland for the final day of the celebration. Get in.