Parisian hospitality

So often I have heard people complain  that Parisians – more generally, French – are rude and inhospitable; up themselves. I’ve not encountered this. In fact I’ve been pleasantly surprised and delighted with how friendly and customer service savvy they are. You can’t enter a shop or department store or indeed any section of a store or a cafe, bar or bistro without people saying hello. Bonjour Madame. So nice. And they look you in the eye and are all too happy to engage with you no matter what your level of French or their English. And there’s always a friendly bonjour, merci, au revoir at the end. I love the French. They don’t make me feel like an outsider; they make we feel welcome. I only wish I could speak the language fluently. I would so love to be able to banter and converse with them. They have a sense of fun – a joie de vivre.

Back in London I found myself saying “Bonjour monsieur” etc only to realise I was in a different country now and nobody really greeted you or cared. Somehow saying bonjour/bonsoir monsieur/madame has a nice ring to it.  Its not just ‘hello’ its an acknowledgement.  But I can’t imagine anyone in Australia saying “good day madam”.  Just doesn’t have the same ring to it.  So vive la France!

Holidays- lazy days

On holidays and feeling a bit like a widow. My husband has his head buried in one of his devices – either reading the news on his iPad or a book on his kindle. We sit at breakfast and he reads the news. This is nothing new – Michael will read anything – even the back of a creal box – and generally we don’t talk at breakfast but either read the papers – I still like to read the printed papers on the weekend – or do whatever people do on their iPads (I shop/browse for all those things I really don’t need).
But here on holidays when the weather is wet and we’re limited in our activities I find that where I want conversation, Michael is happpy to read. At night, when I get tired of reading I go to bed. Michael stays up late reading. In the morning I find him out on the balcony – reading.

At breakfast there’s chatter all around us but at our table all is silent. Even my head is silent – there doesn’t seem to be any point in having a conversation even in my own head. Perhaps my brain has taken a holiday and retreated into peace. Except that I don’t feel at peace. What I need is some yoga to restore balance. There’ no yoga here. Sure I could do my own practise but truth is I’m feeling lazy. I don’t even go to the gym every day despite having packed enough gym gear for the entire stay. My intentions are good – each night I am determined to wake up and do a workout before breakfast. But on waking my body feels too tired. Lazy. Still, I go every other day. And given the amount of food we eat – breakfast, lunch, dinner, pool side snacks, this is the least I should do. Then again, I’m on holidays and alternating gym with massage seems reasonable.
Holidays – my goose is getting fat.

Lost & forgotten

Each time I travel I make lists of the things I need to pack and carry and try to be very organised.  I try and pack light. So yoga tops can also be worn with a skirt; gym shorts can be washed and quickly dried for re-use without having to take them to the laundry every other day.  A couple of dresses, a pair of thongs, Birkenstocks (for walking), a pair of nice sandals and my runners.  Jewellery I keep to a minimum also – its all mix and match.

My carry on luggage consists of a Kindle, iPod, iPad, noise-cancelling headphones, a pair of socks (for the plane) a cardigan and a wrap.  Plus an eye mask, eye balm, lip balm, hand cream, foot cream (perfect opportunity to give yourself some pampering). I try to dress for comfort on the plane.  This is my biggest challenge: I never know what to wear on the plane.  I get cold on planes but I don’t want to look like a bogan in sweat pants and hoodie.  And then I have to consider what time of day we’re arriving.  I remember one time landing in Vietnam from Canberra where it was freezing cold and stepping out into the mid-day oven of Saigon to feel like I was melting.  I couldn’t wait to get changed.  So now I try and incorporate layers that can be put on and taken off and leave me comfortable.

This trip I got to the airport to find out that I had left my wrap on the bed at home.  I love my wrap – its a wonderful soft Alistair Trung double wrap (ie, two pieces of cashmere laid on top of each other – one is a pale corn colour, the other black.)  Being cashmere its light and easily carried but its also large enough to wrap up in and use as a blanket.

Its freezing in airports.  I suppose they deliberately keep it at icy to stop people from falling asleep and missing their planes. I scoured the airport for a replacement wrap but couldn’t find anything.  There were no wraps, only a few (not very nice) scarves.  I did find a large Coach cashmere scarf but I didn’t really like the choice of colours and didn’t want to spend all that money on something I knew I would never wear again.  I hoped there was an ample supply of blankets on the plane and I thought I could find something at the other end – Melacca.  So while exploring the city I kept my eyes open.  As luck would have it, while walking on a tour in Harmony Street (so called because there exist almost side-by-side, four different places of worship:  a Hindu temple, a Chinese Temple, a mosque and a Catholic Church) I noticed a little Kashmiri shop with shawls.

Determined to go back, once the tour was over and we’d had a beer, we wondered back down the busy streets to the shop.  And there I found a lovely cashmere silk wrap in shot yellow/mauve (one side was lilac, the other a beautiful pale lemon yellow colour, through which you could see the purple weaving.) I also saw another darker more traditional shawl in a heavier cashmere.  Choices.  The lovely man in the shop didn’t (as I would have expected) suggest I buy both – he merely said that they each suited me.  In all of the Indian shops I had been to there was never a moment when the salesman didn’t try to get me to buy more than just one item.  They would always offer a discount for two or more.  But why buy two when you really only need/want one?  That’s not a discount in my books. Merely opportunity for later regret and you find yourself looking at purchases you will never wear/use.  Holidays – an opportunity to buy things you normally wouldn’t.

So finally I decided on the pale yellow/lilac wrap as it would go with my travelling wardrobe and folded up into almost nothing.  We spent 20 minutes chatting – mainly about M’s time spent in Dharamsala which the Kahsmiris knew well.  I knew I could bargain down the price (which I generally do) but this time I didn’t want to.  I was just happy that they weren’t being pushy and that their merchandise was well priced and of good quality.  Funnily enough, when it came time to pay, the shopkeeper brought the price down for me!!  I know that in India I would have paid much less, but I wasn’t in India now and I really didn’t care.  I needed the shawl, I liked it and I thought it was a good price.

So balance was restored.  I had the wrap and could get on with my holidays.

Our holiday ran smoothly; we didn’t misplace anything or loose anything or need to buy anything (except for one eyeliner that I think fell into the bin next to the bathroom basin at the hotel in Melacca).  It felt good not to be at the mercy of shopping – the constant need to find the things you want/need.  Though I must confess that I had a short list of things to get, but they were easily obtainable in KL just next door to where we were staying (among them a replacement MAC eyeliner).

On returning home however I discovered that I didn’t have my Kindle.  Damn.  I suspected that I left it behind in the airplane seat pocket.  And one of the earrings I had taken off at night and thrown into my bag was gone (fortunately I have a spare as I tend to loose one of these earrings often, so have replaced them a number of times.  Inevitably the lost one turns up). Oh and I lost my SIM card. I had purchased an Asian SIM and very carefully folded up my Australian one in the used packet.  (I will remember to pack something for SIM cards next trip).  So here I am without a phone for a few days.  Which has brought with it not a few frustrations:  I can’t ring the dentist to arrange an appointment for my broken tooth (courtesy of a pistachio nut in Melaca); I can’t ring anyone to verify my appointments; I seem to not be able to log on to my online banking and can’t ring them to verify my details, and I can’t contact my husband to ask where he is after I’ve been waiting for him for 2 hours (having taken my car and keys).

Patience grasshopper.  I will learn to live without my phone (we don’t have a landline ) and can make any necesary calls from work and await the arrival of my SIM by mail. Everything else can wait – appointments, retrieval of Kindle, banking.  Clearly I’m still in holiday mode.


Homecomings – the journey’s end

Holidays are as much about the excitement of travel as the destinations:  the anticipation of  the flight out, the unknown destination, exploring, finding places to eat and drink, shopping, packing, unpacking and packing again, flights and connections; journeying. Very rarely are they about being homeward bound.

While we were sad to end our holiday we felt we’d had a wonderful time and were relaxed and ready to come home.  We were also glad that we booked the return flight to arrive on Friday morning, thereby giving us an extra day to recover before going back to work.  Even if its not such a long flight and time differences, there’s still the lack of sleep to cope with and all the unpacking, not to mention the inevitable need to shop for essentials once home.  Monday seeems to come around much too quickly – the desire to just do nothing and sleep and laze is weighted against  the need to shop and attend to all the other little things that are necessary to ensure that getting back to work is smooth (like checking the 3000 emails on both the home computer and the work webmail).

We arrived home early Friday morning having been whisked through the airport courtesy of an ariport wheelchair operator.  She even wheeled us out to the taxi stand charging to the front of the queue.  We were home an hour after having landed.  Now that’s service. A  quick and cursory unpack, shower and into our own bed.  Despite the fact that the bed was freshly made and the apartment nice and clean, it felt a bit strange. I missed the wonderful big bed at the Grand Millenium and the fabulous huge duck down pillows. They were heaven-sent and one of the things that keeps me coming back to the hotel; pure luxury (that and the turn down service which also includes a quick tidy up and towel refreshment).

So sleep, wake, shop for essentials to re-stock empty fridge and something for dinner and then back home to a very late lunch  (a bottle of champagne to celebrate return, oysters and some seared scallops) and a laze before dinner.

As I was preparing our little repast I found myself at the clean and empty sink  thinking:  what’s a sink?  I hadn’t been near one in 21 days.  It was a strange sensation. Going back into the bedroom I wished that we had turn-down service at home.  Making up the bed and tidying the bedroom I was acutely aware that our holiday was well and truly over.  It would be me who had to make the bed, tidy the room, clean the bathroom and wash the towels from here on in. Ah, holidays.  Its the little indulgences, the small luxuries that make them so worthwhile. In the hotel in KL I fantasized about how good it would be to just book in and do nothing but stay in the room, sleep and order room service and have everything with  a quick call to housekeeping.  It sounded like the perfect way to re-charge. The reality of course would be very different – for me, anyway – I would go stir crazy and need to get out – to the pool, to the gym, to the shops, to my favourite little Chinese eatery.  But it is a nice fantasy.  If only air travel was less expensive here in Australia.  Perhaps I’ll put it on my ‘to do’ list – the list ofindulgences  and experiences that are always possible but never acted on.

Mad fish attack white man in KL

A strange phenomena has occured in downtown KL in the heart of Bukit Bitang.  Fish are attacking and eating people. Well actually they’re tiny fish in a water tank and people pay for the privelege of having them eat the dead skin off their feet and legs.  Ewwww!!

Along with places offering foot massage and reflexology, places also offer this unique form of… not quite what to call this: Entertainment?  Grooming?  Whaever it is, its weird.  First you wash your feet and then sit with your legs immersed in a kind of trough witih all these tiny fish swimming about.  As soon as you immerse your feet the fish swarm around and start to nibble on your skin.  At first this sensation felt rather ticklish, but watching the fish (and some of them seemed quite big to me – like gold fish) eating away is a bit unnerving.  And finally it just creeped me out.  They reminded me of leeches and conjured up images of the tiny fish getting bigger and bigger taking larger and larger pieces of my skin and finally flesh I kicked them away a couple of times but they kept coming back.  But at lest I didn’t have as many surrounding me as my husband; his feet were covered in them, all of varying sizes, all munching away.  He didn’t seem to mind; in fact he said he enjoyed it. I  tried to wait it out for  minutes but then couldn’t stand it any longer.

Obviously my well maintained and pedicured feet left very little for the fish to feast on – but they were voracious in their attempt.  Finally after 10 minutes I had enough.  We had paid for 30 minutes but I couldn’t bear it any longer – rather the painful foot massage than this.

I confess the first time I came to KL I tried this and quite enjoyed it – perhaps the fish were smaller, perhaps they were a lighter colour or perhaps I’d had a couple of cocktails already.  One time  there were 4 of us celebrating my birthday and after a long day and evening  of food and drinks we walked into one of these places for a laugh.  And laugh we did.  The ticklish sensation and our squealing at it made us giggle and then roar  with laughter.  Maybe the alcohol helps, or maybe it just requires a group and an enormous amount of levity.

Back then I had also tried the foot massage/reflexology (what’s the difference here?  They all seem to be doing exactly the same thing to each person).  It was intensely painful “ah, that’s your liver” was the response to my wincing in pain (its always the liver).  I couldn’t believe that people were actually sitting back and enjoying this experience – to me it was all I could do not to cry in pain.  Since then I have learned that for reflexology to be effective   it doesn’t need to involve hard pressure (pain) – the application of pressure is just a very old fashioned (and  Chinese) interpretation.  So this time I specified that I didn’t want it too strong and presto: a perfect foot massage.  As for my husband he now has very clean feet.

Have iPad can blog – but maybe not upload

One of the things I’m finding difficult while travelling is posting my blogs.

Working on a mini iPad creates its own sets of challenges, especially if you want to upload photos in a particular sequence or create bullet lists or in fact anything that requires using html.  The tap screen keyboard is just too difficult. To an extent I have resolved this problem by purchasing a little Logitech keyboard (I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to discover they made them for minis) but its hard to get used to the small (tiny) keyboard and it makes the tap screen function not work properly.  It also drains the battery on my iPad (because the keyboard connection is via bluetooth).

The other difficulty is being at the mercy of hotel wifi connections.  Often they’re either too slow or not available in certain areas.  We stayed at a lovely Balinese bungalow in Ubud set at the back of a rice paddy.  It was a gorgeous setting – we had to walk through beautifully laid out gardens with little shrines and ponds and fountains to reach our bungalow but it meant that the wifi didn’t reach that far, so we were limited to the lobby area to do anything wifi connected (pardon the pun).

Here in our hotel in KL up on the 14th floor the wifi is slow, so uploading things takes ages or else just doesn’t work “bad connection” or “unable to connect to server”. grrrrr.
So I’ve been sitting in the rather plush and very comfortable lobby deeply immersed in trying to rectify upload problems while my poor husband sits patiently opposite me.  Truth to tell, he’s always got his head in his iPad, reading news and commentary.  We must look like a strange couple, sitting not talking to each other, merely tapping away or staring at our devices.  Or perhaps not.  Perhaps we epitomise the modern couple: ensconsed in our own little worlds, communicating via one or another iGadget.

The worst thing about this was that we had ordered a lovely bottle of New Zealand pinot and I was most of my way through my second glass without even noticing!  What a waste.  I made sure my last glass was duly attended to.

Progress in paradise

Nobody seems to walk anymore. In Melaka the streets were congested with cars; their one way systems didn’t help but I was astonished at how many cars there were on the road and how few people walked. And even more surprisingly how the city was designed for cars, not people. Most of the main roads didn’t have pavements that people could walk on – as we discovered. And whenever we asked people for directions they actually didn’t know how to get to where we wanted to by foot. They could give us directions to drive but to walk? Not only did they have no idea of how (so inevitably we took the long way round instead of the pedestrian shortcuts which we soon discovered for ourselves) but how long that would take. Invariably everything was just 20 minutes away.

In Ubud the thing I notice is how many scooters there are: everyone rides a scooter, locals and tourists alike. And the locals have scooters that are huge – they’re like the Cadillacs of motor scooters (not big motor bikes but those wide, motor home type scooters). At the Yoga Barn there are often signs advising there is no more parking and on some days they even have a parking attendant! You can see this endless line of parked scooters. Even one year ago this wasn’t the case.

With the increase in motor traffic comes the increase in noise; sitting in a cafe in the Main Street conversation is almost drowned out by the interminable loud drone of bikes going past. Occasionally you see someone riding very fast (unusual here where top speed is usually less than 25 kph), more often than not a Westerner. What strikes me also is the number of big 4 wheel drives on the road and how immaculately clean they are. I imagine they’re the pride of people’s possession and indeed it must be a sizeable chunk of investment, in a place where the average wage is $50 per month.

Just like cities the world over, development has come to Ubud and it is no longer the tranquil little village it once was. We met some people the other night who have been coming here for years and they have noticed the extent to which rice paddies have reduced: 3 out of 4 rice paddy blocks across Ubud (and probably the same across Bali) have now gone to development. Hotels and villas and mansions and gated enclaves are emerging, yet they’re not filled with people and nor are they available to the local Balinese – they can’t afford them. Its a sad indictment on progress. On the one hand you want to be able to visit a country to experience its unique cultural heritage and way of life, on the other, the more people who want to do this, the more it places demands on the locals and gives a green light to developers to make money and build more resorts, more expensive villas and in turn ruin the very thing that people once sought. Still, people will continue to come and the Balinese will gain employment and hopefully be able to send their children to school. And if progress results in better education and more opportunities for the local, so be it.

Tania Layden

Gili Island and the SS Minow

A disparate group of people board a little charter boat for a three hour cruise: a movie star, a millionaire and his wife, a professor and a country girl called Mary Ann.  The weather turns rough and the little boat is tossed and finally washed up on the shores of a small island in the South Pacific.  And here for the next 96 episodes these castaways make this island their home.

I always found it strange that a group of people with nothing in common should all be on board this boat.  Sure maybe the professor and Mary Ann, but the movie star? And the millionaire and his wife?  Wouldn’t they have their own luxury liner or at least be on baord something more salubrious?  The other thing that never ceased to puzzle me was how it was that they all came – for just a three hour cruise – with so much luggage.  The professor seemed to have an entire laboratory with him, Ginger had  suitcases full of glamourous gowns and Mr and Mrs Thuston Howell (the third) not only had enough things to furnish their modest cabin but all that money and jewellery.  The only people who seemed to come as they are were Maryanne (same outfit day in day out) and the skipper and Giligan (diito re outfits).

I come to be writing about Giligan’s Island because in many ways the place we’re staying at on Gili Island is the same: simple huts with bare essentials right at the waters’ edge; beautiful beach and…. well really just that and the fact there’s nothing to do.

Today after breakfast on the beach we progressed to lazing on the beach lounges, reading and sipping G&Ts.  Then we ordered up a pony cart and took a trip around the island.  All of 10 minutes (Gili is only 2 kilometres wide) wandered around the busy part of Trawangan (full of beachside cafes and bars) and found a nice place to have lunch (they served a lovely tuna tataki on a bed of rocket) and a magarita and then hobbled home along the shoreline. Thta’s the extent of the activities, except for diving and snorkelling.  Must say, I’m very content not to have to do anything very much and just like Mary Ann i wear the same outfit day in, day out (bathers & sarong).

middle-aged madness (folks are dumb where I come from)

We’re staying in a gorgeous boutique hotel in Melacca – built in the 1920s by a Chinese tycoon named Leong Long Man who had 4 wives.  Wife no 1 entered through the grand front entrace while wives 2, 3 & 4 had to use the smaller side entrace.  Wife no 1 ruled the roost.  In 1955, following the death of Leong Long Man the house was sold to Lim Heng Fan who converted it to a hotel.

Lim Heng Fam was an inmporter of fine liquor and the hotle became a major stop along the Bunga Raya streetway for global travellers, merchants and dignitaries as well as a meeting place for British residents of Melacca.  It closed down in 2000 and was doomed to be turned into a multi level carpark for the adjacent hospital but for the intervention of a UNESCO classification of Melacca as a world heritage site and the subsequent acquisition of the property by YTL Hotels in 2006.

The Majestic is old-style grand while being small enough to be  intimate and service-conscious (I’m amazed everytime I go to one of the  toilets that the toilet paper is folded into a V-shape.  Who does this?  And how often do they go in?).

In our room we have a beautiful old claw-foot bath complete with one of those bath tray that rests across the bath (presumably to hold your soap, washcloth, book and wine glass).

It contained a lovely little wooden box with bath salts so I thought it fitting (being my birthday) to have a bath and drink champagne: colonial style.  M had gone out to collect laundry from the washing -wallah.  I filled the bath, discovering that the thing that looked like an old-fashioned telephone was acatually a separate shower nozzle – there being a switch you needed to turn – otherwise, as I discovered, water soon spurted out onto the floor).

I set to filling up the bath – except that I couldn’t budge the hot water tap.  Oh well, the cold was mildly cool and not so bad in the tropics.  I was just about to step into the (tepid) bath when my hero of a husband returned and  turned the tap  the other way!!! Yes, iindeed it would seem that folks are dumb where I come from.  But who could have known.  All sorted, I had a lovely warm bath to immerse myself into.  And this wonderful tray to hold my things.  I got in and thought something was wrong.  I couldn’t actually rest against the edge of the bath beacause of the taps. I needed to be sitting the other way.  (see reference to dumb folk above). As for the handy tray over the bath I discovered that if you fill your bath too high this device is useless. But the champagne was lovely.

Cripples Abroad

Travelling with injuries is no easy thing. Having a leg injury is incapacitating in more ways than one. Getting around an airport, standing in queues to check in, get through customs and board is bad enough.  Hobbling with a walking stick is both inelegant and cumbersome.  Then there’s the flight: not being able to properly bend my leg makes a 9-hour flight uncomfortable and arduous.

The tantalising thought of an upgrade to Business class where I could recline in one of those wide and comfortable seats with extended foot rests was uppermost in my mind when I contacted the airline and advised them of my injury and need for leg room.  No go.  All they could do was offer me a wheel chair.  Oh well.  At least that would get me through the process quickly (i’d be  sped through queues and customs and boarding with express priority).

What I didn’t factor in was the problem of shopping duty free while wheel chair bound.  For this I had to rely on my ever so accommodating husband to wheel me around to various makeup, nail polish and perfume counters (just to look see) and then to other more pressing needs (such as purchasing a replacement wrap for the journey, having left mine neatly folded back on my bed).  Nothing doing.  Why is it that you can never find things that you really need at airports?  You’d think these things would be readily available for all those people who forget to pack much-needed things. Too logical perhaps.  Airports are all about pandering to people’s misguided holiday-spirit logic: because its (slightly) cheaper it doesn’t really count as spending “ooh look, they’ve got Bobbi Brown/Chanel/Christian Dior:  I’ll get another lipstick/mascara/foundation.” Kids in a candy store.

Hobbling around Melaka has brought its own set of constraints – like the pavements that either a) don’t exist; b)require a huge step up and down each short section; or c) abruptly end at a wall. And then there’s always the danger – even for the abled – of the huge drains and  broken concrete paving that need to be negotiated. Oh, and the traffic: chaotic, endless and not pedestrian friendly.

Still, I have managed to walk around – slowly. All that is left to do is relax poolside. G&T anyone?image