Making our way from Granada, we coasted into the beautiful city of Seville. Made rich and fat off the back of the slave trade and accompanying gold and silver wrenched from the hills of South America. We chanced upon a grand square ringed by tiled historical battles depicting the military history of Spain. Delightful! Seville also gave us that most Spanish of breakfast options, the churro. A deep-fried curly dough stick that you optionally can dunk into a hot chocolate drink. Nothing says “I love life” more that 1,000 calories in the morning.

A short BlaBlaCar trek across the border and we were in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal and another notorious slave trading nation. We loved it. It was stinking hot but that’s just another excuse to sink a tinto de verano. Ever since I read the Night Train to Lisbon I was enamoured with its narrow, steep streets and crumbling facades. In actual fact, the place is booming and a huge amount of development is taking place as Portugal emerges from its 2008 property crash. At a quick guess, the bulk of the renovations will likely convert to short-term stay accommodation like Airbnb but at least the salty buildings get scrubbed up. The place was rammed though so I’d suggest taking the shoulder season next time. Shopping was excellent and the food absolutely divine. S. took me to a spot owned by a fado musician. At a certain time in the evening he swung his Hogwarts black cape over and around himself and picked up a bulbous Spanish guitar and plucked out a lament accompanied by a singer and bassist. Fado swims around two main themes: love and loss. We scoffed inked risotto, wild boar croquettes, spiced octopus and of course red wine. We also managed to get to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, a true treasure trove of a collection put together by an Armenian who got rich by dint of Iranian oil. For the rest, we simply ate (sardines the national dish!) and quaffed wine.

We ventured west from Lisbon to Sintra, a beautiful small town renowned as the playground for the royalty and gentry of yesteryears. Our room was reminiscent of a homestead from the American mid-west but a stormwater drain being installed below our window added some much needed rawness. We hiked up to the Pena Palace through the lushly forested hill into a confection of turrets and colourful walls. A real castle in the sky with the tourists numbers to match. The surrounding gardens were welcome after so long in cities and we rambled about. On our stroll back down into town we were about a minute from being flattened against a stone wall by a tuk tuk which failed to take a corner with six tourists in the back. No serious injuries apart from the moaning driver grabbing his shins and a sorry excuse for a vehicle manifestly unequal to the task of ferrying fat tourists down steep, windy roads.

North we were driven, through some stunning countryside towards the city of Peniche, a surfing hotspot. We secretly wanted to test out the idea of surfing this behemoth but instead we ate and walked and visited the old fort. The fort had served the function of holding political prisoners during the Salazar dictatorship that ruled Portugal from 1933-1974. Diving into this history made for sad reading but ultimately Portugal is now a solid democracy! It is currently home to a museum, artists’ ateliers and a dance school. So the world heals itself.

Bussing further, we reached Porto, known of course for the production of port wine. Our apartment was in Vila Nova de Gaia, the riverside area choked with a forest of warehouses and port caves managed by the big port producers like Sandeman, Dow and Kopke. Due to some overcommitting we managed to miss out on a cave tasting tour but did manage to get quite well-treated by a Dutch/Portuguese port ‘pop-up’ bar run by Niepoort. We loved the city, the Douro River slicing the place in twain, the high bridges, the romantic bars and bustling riverfront. JK Rowling was inspired by the local bookshop to write the Harry Potter series and I can see how the city casts a special charm with it’s narrow alleyways and grand architecture. We will be back!

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Imagine, a very corporate headquarters shod in a slate just the right side of chic. Aggressive stainless steel rails and a swathe of muted ties and suits counting money and setting strategy. Ensconced in a leafy Dutch city and buttressed by a feel-good mission statement. A Very Important job title, a satisfyingly high payslip and a hollowness of purpose crouched behind a 16:9 widescreen sufficient for the most detailed of PowerPoints.

I feel confident that the majority of readers have been in roles they are not sure how they got there or where they’re going. Plodding along silently through the years with nary a light at the end of the tunnel. Grinding through, crossing off days till the next holiday. My own career has been happenstance and unaimed. Lady Luck and my good chat resulted in ‘good’ roles. Until the day I was sitting behind my computer thinking what the fuck am I doing here. It wasn’t a surprise. There are only so many mornings where the motivation to get out of bed and commute an hour became a thoughtless routine. The gaping hole at the centre of the most time-intensive activity of my life was obvious if I couldn’t even be excited when I told people what I did for a living. The pressure for change built slowly but surely. The decision to leave was hard. My ego was tied up in my job. Ultimately it wasn’t just about the job, it was the industry. I simply did not find the industry interesting enough to commit to. I should add that these things reflect on me and my interests, not on the company per se which is doing important work, well.

The need for change chimed nicely with S.’s desire to quit her job. To quit meant at the time that in some crevice of my mind, I had failed in finding ‘purpose’ in my job. Failure is one of many emotions that bubble up as you start doubting if you’ve made the right decision. Thankfully it’s one I didn’t listen to all that hard. Once I had made the decision, an enormous weight lifted off my shoulders. There was an irresistible beckoning freedom to getting back on the road.

I didn’t quit with another job lined up. Instead, I wanted to do something else. What, I wasn’t sure, but no worries. In the meantime I would undertake a long stint of travelling. I would hopefully be confronted by an apparition of some minor Saint of Job Advice and it would all become clear to me. I guess I was really thinking that I’d deal with all that when I got back to Amsterdam. Maybe daydream a little on beaches, read some career help books and websites, and bounce ideas off S. Not that I was worrying about the potential of being out of a job, I had experienced two other gaps between jobs. Though stressful at times, it’s also a good time to catch up on ironing, Mad Men episodes and old friends!

The one thing we did plan was book a course in Chiang Mai, Thailand at the very start of our journey. I fell into conversation with a bright-eyed Chilean co-participant. Upon asking him his profession, he replied, “I’m a life coach, I help people to make their highest contribution in life.” Somewhat taken aback (and looking for his halo), I endeavoured to investigate this unusual career. My selfish motivation was to see if he could help me in my search for a job with purpose. This was not happenstance, I was open and receptive to new things, and we were attending a ‘finding your purpose’ meditation course, so not exactly divine providence. I saw in life coaching a potential tool to help me figure it all out. Little did I know where it would take me!

I met Marcelo in the dusty, well-worn lobby of our hostel over an excellent mango juice. He explained what a life coach does and doesn’t do, and I reciprocated by introducing myself and my motivation. Most importantly we ‘clicked’ personally and that’s crucial when you lay your soul bare to someone. I am a true believer in the power of business to effect change for good. I was also not interested in something skin-deep. I needed a cerebral and structured approach. I wanted someone who could relate to my business background. I wanted a taskmaster but also a sense of humour. An international, modern outlook. Marcelo ticked all those boxes and more. The engagement was for six months via regular Skype calls and serious homework in between. A wonderfully fun exercise finding decent wifi in Myanmar!

The decision to push play with Marcelo was not hard. I had an open mind when it came to his methods and I was willing to trust him. I felt like I had been floating along in life long enough and it was time to try something bold and invest in myself. My expectations were quite modest (or so I thought); that at the end of this process I’d have a clear idea about what I wanted to do when I was back in the Netherlands. Perhaps some career guidance, perhaps some improved clarity and skill in choosing priorities and goals. Maybe even a job!

A life coach holds up a mirror to you and tells you to your face, stop buying your own bullshit and get on with doing something that matters. This may require some elucidation. In other words, a life coach is equipped to help someone undertake self-analysis of their past and present. They do this by pointing out both helpful and unhelpful behavioural patterns. The facilitate the creation of a structured approach to identifying a meaningful purpose or mission in life, and help kickstart a plan to get there. Along the way, they keep you on the straight and narrow. Uncomfortable questions asked and pushing you to be more honest with yourself than you’ve probably ever been.

For me, it was fascinating to look through my life with a different lens. Why had I ever thought job titles meant anything? Why did I subconsciously equate material possessions and the outward trappings of success with actual personal fulfilment? What did I actually think about money? Was it healthy? Why were elements of communication within my family so irritating? Why had I not taken great opportunities which in hindsight would have been awesome? It was liberating. I felt sad, guilty, happy, but also cleansed. A brutal process to uncover things I’d been ignoring.

I had realised that for example I’d been wanting change and talking about it but had never taken concrete action to do anything about it. I’d been ignoring it solidly. Next month I’ll have a think. I’ll read that book later. I’d love to do a course but perhaps I’ll do some research next year. Procrastination was deeply embedded.

Sadly a life coach is not someone with a magic wand ready to give you the answers. A life coach is not a therapist or psychologist to help you with past mental traumas or current mental health issues. These are best addressed by relevant trained professionals. A life coach won’t guarantee a result. The result is up to me completely (assuming you have a decent life coach). A life coach won’t give you happiness or the perfect career. Instead they’re likely to leave you with the realisation of how much work you still need to do to achieve whatever it is that will help bring you closer to your purpose in life. This blog post was hard work and time-consuming. Exposing my inner journey to friends and family is hard. Realising I’ve wasted part of my life is hard. Admitting that you’ve been lying to yourself is hard. Changing ingrained behavioural patterns, like being polite to others rather than honest, is hard. Change is hard, but oh so rewarding!

What do you need in order to take on a life coach? I think it’s most important to be open to change & new ideas and be willing to be honest with yourself. These will give you the courage to face uncomfortable truths and go against the expectations of society and those around you. There are two main motivations in life, fear and love. We are driven in some measure by both. By choosing to be less driven by fear, we choose to love ourselves and back our own version of how life should be lived. I was driven by many fearful emotions, like what would people think if I just gave up my job? The reality of choosing to love my happiness instead had a funny result. Virtually everyone supported my decision to quit and travel! “I’ve always wanted to do that”, one envious, workaholic 60-year-old general manager told me sadly.

Every life coach has their own models they use and I can only share my own experiences. We started with slightly metaphysical lessons. There is no objective reality we as humans experience. Everything we observe in terms of external stimuli we process into a subjective reality which makes sense to us, or in other words creates meaning. By understanding this basic truth, I was able to build upon that and start to question other long held assumptions. One example is the beautiful story we tell ourselves of being born, attending university (with attendant student debt), working for appropriately prestigious companies and finally retiring with a pension in our old age. A story reflecting the most worthy of pursuits and one our parents will be proud of. In our individual subjective realities this is a story we can sign on to and pursue. Alternatively we can recognise this story as one of many which may lead to a fulfilling life, one as equally valuable as the other.

We also discussed what I consider the most important elements in my life and covered some emotionally impactful events. We analysed these through different lenses. Once I held up a mirror to my actions, it was much harder to maintain these fictions I had created for myself. Which actions or patterns are helpful and lead to growth, and which actions or patterns are holding me back. Let me be clear, the hard work is done by me through self-reflection, meditation and daily diarising. All of which have become hugely useful to me as they’ve turned into habits. A quick 10 minutes in the morning using the Insight Timer app, and 10 minutes pouring reflections into a Moleskine journal.

The relationship with my coach Marcelo very quickly evolved to a friendship. He’s my cheerleader, supportive of my ideas and encouraging of action. Coaching is an ongoing process, a deep relationship which will likely be ongoing given we’ve shared so much with each other. I’m deeply appreciative of his insights and his enduring positivity of what the future may hold for me.

One visible result of my journey was a purpose statement (in bold). This reflects my strengths, values and interests and states the motivation upon which I will base my work and personal life for the foreseeable future. This is accompanied with a vision statement of my life in a few years. I had doubts about sharing this with the internet (have slightly edited it to withhold some elements relating to my personal relationships). As Marcelo quite rightly pointed out, making yourself vulnerable is a great way of encouraging personal growth so I’m curious to hear your thoughts!

My vision is that in five years I will be living my purpose. My purpose is to empower people to become aware of their impact on the environment so they can take responsibility in creating a sustainable future. I wake up every day and remind myself that I am living my own dream and am fully capable of creating my own reality, this gives me a feeling of empowerment that at any moment I can change direction. I am authentic in every interaction I have with others and myself. I decide how I spend my time, and am not pushed by others to fit in with their needs. I treat my body like the unique temple it is and keep it well-tuned with daily meditation, regular exercise and balance in what I eat. I feed my soul by regularly accessing nature and sourcing strength from this connection. I am selective in who I spend time with and have surrounded myself by loyal friends who contribute to my curiosity and philosophical questioning of the world and left other relationships behind which do not add to my life. I live my life with the realisation that this is the only life I will get and that this environment is the only one we have. I go to work in the morning full of enthusiasm that I am doing something worth doing. Something which makes a difference to one of the biggest challenges facing humanity today. I work with young, enthusiastic and intelligent people in an inspiring workplace where innovation is threaded throughout what I do. I earn enough to support a lifestyle free from financial worry and am driven by meaning, emotional wellbeing and am driven to serve a greater good. I am happy, tired perhaps but feeling good in my body. Mentally I feed myself by reading regularly and leaving the distraction of my phone as much as possible. I am aware of my autopilot/un-present self and try to remain as conscious of my behavioural patterns to see whether they add to my life or not. I am learning a new skill which exercises my brain. I diarise every day and have a creative writing outlet. You’re OK. You’re alright. You’re loved.

The purpose and vision translate into actions I intend to undertake in the coming years covering both my career and my personal pursuits. The career path will be driven by an intention to work in an industry driven by sustainability values and one which is creating change in the way we live on our pale blue dot. My plan is a structured multi-year series of stepping stones with a deliberate destination. It’s also flexible as I learn more about where I want to head to and as my own life situation changes. I may share more on this in the future as it becomes clearer.

Making a purpose statement is like making sausages. You really don’t want to know how it’s done. It’s messy, full of uncertainty over wording, misgivings over direction, fear about setting dreams down on paper and fear of committing to one thing only. I went through many iterations and it may still change. The point is I have something to aim at now. To give me guidance when I’m lost and reassurance in the low periods to come.

I wanted to also give you some headline benefits of my life coaching. As a result of the coaching I:

  • Feel empowered to do things I’d never have done before;
  • Realise that I’m in charge of creating my own experiences;
  • Have increased my self-awareness;
  • Have put life tools like meditation and daily reflection journaling into practice;
  • Am more honest with myself and others;
  • Have gained a clarity of longer-term purpose I’ve never had before;
  • Changed my career aspirations significantly;
  • Worry less about the future;
  • Care less about what other people think;
  • Care more about the people who matter; and
  • Love myself more.

My main long term expectation from this life coaching transformation process is that I will continue to work towards aligning my work and personal activities with my purpose on an ongoing basis. End result, net increase in aggregate happiness.

It’s an ongoing journey or process and there are no quick answers or easy wins. I am also aware that the above can sound like the ravings of someone who has just come out of a Landmark Forum seminar. I’ve spent the last six months reading books, writing self-reflectively and conversing with Marcelo, S. and a few friends. It’s been an intensely internal process with little external to show for it. I don’t expect people to say, wow you’ve changed! But instead to see subtle changes in how I see the world and what I choose to spend my time on. Over time hopefully the results will speak for themselves.

I hope you get something out of this post. Something that spurs or inspires you to take action of your own. You deserve it!

As Howard Schultz says, “onward!”

I’ve always wanted to see the Alhambra fortress. It has cast alluring glances at me from many an airline travel magazine. The Alhambra is located in the southern Spanish province of Andalusia, close-ish to the beach town of Malaga. It was the capital city of the Moorish Islamic caliphate in the Iberian peninsula until the last Emir surrendered the city in 1492 to the Catholic monarchs, who were undertaking the reconquest of Spain amid liberal stake-burnings and the imposition of the Inquisition.

The city goes back past Roman times.  We stayed in a really beautiful suburb overlooking the Alhambra called Albaicín, which is cluttered with small, cobblestoned lanes and hidden houses. This is partly the bequest of the Moorish inhabitants who built their houses in the Arabic style with interior courtyards and water features such as fountains and ponds. We stayed in an Airbnb from the 14th century with an original restored wooden balcony and doors.

The Alhambra is chunked on top of a promontory overlooking the whole city, the fortress part of it at the nearest city side, its cannons well able to dominate the lowlands below. The most beautiful aspect of the Alhambra is the series of Moorish palaces built by the Nasrid dynasty. All aspects are in tune with one another, rooms of delicate wall carvings, reflecting pools, balancing shrubberies, long colonnades opening into enticing vistas and everywhere the repeating geometric tilework so subtly decorative. We were funnelled along with the tourist crowds from one chamber to the next and eventually wound up at the ‘summer’ palace (Generalife) where the royalty retreated to in the heat of the summer. Here we came across a set of stairs where water gushed down three flights of handrails. Cooling in 38 degrees!

Granada is oozing in history and we only scratched the surface. Delicious food, museums, churches and monasteries, squatters living in limestone caves, a young, urban vibe but above all, everywhere you go, the beauty of the red stone of the Alhambra set like a pearl in its emerald green forests.

Hellacious heat has sapped my motivation to write but nevertheless, I have continued my daily diarising so can provide you with the highlights of our month-long sojourn in the land of tasty tagines, fasting Muslims and crusty camels. Morocco, as a deeply muslim country, begun observing Ramadan the day after we arrived and this means that nothing must pass the lips of a participant. No water, no food and no cigarettes so long as it’s light, roughly 4.30am-7.45pm. Rough in the summer months!

Taghazout. I will admit to a shameful secret. I can’t surf. I know, it’s embarrassing as a New Zealander. However, S. and I were keen to rectify this state of affairs so we enrolled in a 5 day surf camp, living in a lush surf house and were fed to bursting every morning and evening. It’s a very laidback spot and combined with a daily 7am yoga course plus a weight-adjusting stomach bug which swept the surf house, was a most envigorating experience!

Essaouira. We shuttled up the coast to this salty ex-Portuguese city and loved it. Superb food, hugely atmospheric windy alleyways, the continual cawing of seagulls and the smell of sea in the air. The small fort has starred in Game of Thrones and the  imposing walls have no doubt protected legions of fishermen and traders from marauding privateers in their day. The seafood available was a highlight.

Marakkesh. The big kahuna of Moroccan cities. We dived straight in having been warned about the shark taxi drivers and aggressive marketsellers. With this in mind we booked an incredible riad so reminiscent to us of the hotels in Iran. A gentle fountain decanting into a swimming pool in the middle of the lobby, a tiny 4 room hotel with lavish decorations including a small tortoise wandering about the breakfast area. The heat put a little brake on our programme but we hustled about visiting museums including the stunning botanical garden of Yves Saint Laurent which contained a superb small museum covering the desert Berber people and their customs. We also visited another Berber museum established by a Dutch anthropologist. One of my secret passions is well-labelled museum signage… We finished by heading to a cooking workshop which sponsors a cooking school for disadvantaged women. S. and I plumped for the chicken almond pastilla, a taste bomb of incredible deliciousness.

Toubkal. The great Mount Toubkal is the highest mountain in North Africa. Fancying ourselves fearless climbers we opted for a guided hike to the top. Our Berber guide was snaffling bread and the occasional swallow of water despite Ramadan. A cheeky lad of 52 (and five children), I have imagined him as a real ladies man in his day. He had non-stop stories until the heat put the kibosh on our patter. Once we reached the base camp (refuge) we encountered a group of Russians singing and drinking cognac, smart stuff at over 3,000m altitude! We woke up at 4am for our assault on the behemoth. We reached the summit (4,167m), sliding on loose scree and the odd snow pack, to survey the Atlas mountain range which extends its ridges through the whole of Morocco. On a good day we were assured a view of the Sahara desert and the Atlantic Ocean. It wasn’t a good day but we were almost the first climbers up the hill and down by 2pm. A serious saunter of 24km in a day.

Death. At this stage we experienced the most affecting moment of our trip. We were jammed in our train coupe with 6 other Moroccans on their way to Meknes with grandma, mum and new baby. What was a bubbly scene with a burbling baby being bounced from knee to knee changed with a phone call announcing the death by car accident of the son of the older lady. Quiet weeping and shocked, hushed conversation. As they departed at the next station, one of our other coupe neighbours was carried into the coupe after collapsing in the corridor due to a dramatic reminder of the death of his own grandmother. He was laid across the seats with his head in the lap of his wife, as she fanned him as he slowly regained his senses. We broke fast with them as the sun slid behind the hills, with sweet honey biscuits and milk, and improved the mood with broken talk in French and received an invitation to visit them in their village.

Meknes. To the west of Fes lies the relaxing town of Meknes which we quite liked. It is a former royal city and has plenty of sights to see like the stables of 12,000 horses (if you believe that), former royal gardens converted into an inner-city 9-hole golf course for the former king and a more manageable souk to potter about in and look for souvenirs (none purchased).

Fes. A little known fact, I own a small print by the NZ artist Stanley Palmer of a tannery in Fes. The image struck me as exotic and an old-fashioned ideal of how stuff used to be made. The souk (market) is a confusing rabbit warren of lanes stuffed with bric-a-brac, dozens of touts wanting to be your guide or alternatively aggressively promoting their own hash. The north of Morocco is the largest supplier of marijuana to Europe. The riad we stayed in was truly beautiful, a family home turned into a six room hotel. We ventured out to the woodworking museum, an ode to the excellence with which craftsmen have embroidered homes and mosques here for centuries. We also suffered from the heat, about 40 degrees C, plus a curious lack of decent culinary options in our budget. As I was moaning in bed from a dodgy stomach, S. stuffed me full of Imodium and dragged me to the bus station to Chefchaouen to escape the furnace of Fes.

Chefchaouen. Named the ‘blue city’ of the north due to the enthusaistic application of blue wash to the walls and floors of the walled city. Traipsing over the walls, the city bent under the stone massif at its back, it’s also a hub for hiking in the adjoining national park. To be honest, we just wanted to celebrate my birthday in a place with a pool and achieved this in spades. From Chefchaouen we barrelled in a bus to Tangier and onto a high speed ferry to Spain and Granada!

Our impressions of Morocco were coloured by Ramadan. The sloth-like inhabitants, the short tempers, the energy-sapping heat and the awkwardness of eating and drinking in front of those fasting meant it wasn’t our favourite country. Despite some excellent meals, the food became a little samey after awhile. However the culture is fascinating, with the Islamic influence on architecture and dress obvious given our Iranian reference point. The Berber people bring a unique twist to what is otherwise quite Arabic in culture. The natural beauty of this land is clear and it’s a shame we were not able to experience a trip to the desert.

A wrap-up of Iran, sorry for the length. The Great Internet Firewall of Iran prevented me from publishing while we were there. Now in Morocco. Expect stories involving surfing, tagine and camels to appear.
Rasht, Ardabil and Tabriz. The further north we went, the more minorities we came across. In Rasht we sat down for breakfast to eat some ash (soup) and with the translation assistance of a fellow diner. He was insistent in giving us a ride and so began an adventure where he took us to the fish market to select a Caspian sturgeon, took us to his home and proceeded to marinate it in pomegranate syrup and lemon as he told us his story. Three years of fighting in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, an incredibly brutal war with millions of casualties. He was captured and spent five years as an Iraqi prisoner of war. He suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and sleeps on average two hours a night. A shocking but not uncommon story. Indeed it may be fair to say that an entire generation of Iranians are scarred deeply by this conflict and want to avoid any more bloodshed in the future even if it means putting up with an authoritarian regime.
We liked Tabriz, visiting the bazaar there was a most pleasant experience and by pure chance we were introduced to Mr Sisi, an 80+ year old shoemaker who was still stitching shoes at 9pm on the Iranian equivalent of a Sunday (Friday). Suffice it to say I purchased some of his fine wares. We made an excursion to visit one of the oldest churches in the world, the St Stephanos Armenian church from 62CE which entailed us driving from Tabriz via Jolfa along an interesting border. The road runs along a twitchy border zone stemming from an obscure war called the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. A grubby war with awful consequences. The Aras river forms the border and has a road running along it on the Iranian side. We travelled through the rugged Aras Valley gorge past watchtowers, an abandoned train line and barbed wire first along the Nakhichevan Autonomous Region (occupied by Azerbaijan), Armenia and finally Azerbaijani territory occupied by Armenia whereupon we turned inland and headed to Babak Castle, a mountain fastness formerly occupied by a legendary warrior of the Azari nation. This part of Iran is truly stunning with richly forested hills as far as the eye can see, with little more than the occasional sheep herder and bleating goats. The trek up to the castle was vertigo-inducing but really worth it.

Isfahan. The Iranians call Isfahan ‘half the world’ and it’s certainly the prettiest city we’ve visited so far. It has the most beautiful mosques in Iran. The main Naqshe Jahan square is the second largest square in the world after Tiananmen Square but, unlike Tiananmen, is beautiful with gardens, fountains and rimmed completely with bazaar shops (no plainclothes police ready to grab a Tibetan protestor or Falun Gong practitioner). The square hosts the stunning Lotfollah mosque built for the wives of the Shah, a delicate, exquisite construction in blue, green and white. The south side is dominated by the entrance to the Masjed-e Shah mosque which is gigantic and once you’re inside, hosts a hundred different sparkling tile designs. In the south of the city is the suburb of Jolfa, home to an Armenian Christian minority who were forcibly relocated there in the 1600s to build up artisan industries. The cathedral is brightly and spectacularly painted and contrasts with the incredibly sad exhibits covering the Armenian genocide of 1915-1917 perpetrated by the nascent Turkish state. For an event that killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians, it’s important we remember it (unlike the current Turkish government).

The hotel receptionist took a shine to us and spent an afternoon with us as we interrogated her about how she dates guys etc. She studied economics, has a good job at 23 and is very prepared to give it up once she marries so as not to cause her husband any ‘worries’. Love works like this: a boy hears about her or perhaps sees her on the street, his family informs her family that he would like to see her. If the woman’s family agrees, he comes on a formal visit with his parents to the woman’s home (at which her whole family will be in attendance). The visitors bring sweets and flowers. There is discussion between the sets of parents to ascertain whether it is appropriate to continue. If so, they can see each other in neutral places like a cafe during the day. There is no sex before marriage. If they continue this chaste process at some point marriage is agreed on by the parents and dowry is paid. Marriage ensues, and sadly in Iran, more than likely divorce. Iran has a high divorce rate (unsurprising if you get married without getting to know each other beforehand!).

Shiraz. After Isfahan, it’s no surprise that Shiraz wasn’t quite as impressive but from Shiraz we took a day trip to Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the original Persians, the kings of the Achaemenid Empire such as Darius who so famously lost to the Athenians at Marathon, and his son Xerxes who spanked those naughty Greeks a few years later. Alexander the Great paid back the compliment in 330BCE and burnt the palace to the ground. The place is amazingly well-preserved and would have been a true wonder of the world when tribute flowed in from all over the empire. Intricate friezes, soaring columns, roaring marble griffins and two Tomb Raider-worthy tombs make this one of the most impressive archeological sites I’ve seen.

Yazd. Think Mos Eisely in the first Star Wars movie. A city in the middle of the desert, mud brick homes, domed roofs, lanes too narrow for cars and otherworldly mud chimneys (called badgirs) that operate as natural cooling towers. The mechanism works in conjunction with qanats (underground manmade aqueducts, some of which are more than 70km long!) which flow under the buildings. By circulating the air through pressure differentials they draw up the colder air from these tunnels to cool the lower levels of the house. In summer it gets to over 50 degrees. The design is over 2,000 years old, how cool is that! Our friendly Couchsurfing host Amir took us out into the baking desert to Chak Chak, the site of a Zoroastrian temple (one of the world’s oldest religions) located in a valley where a woman led her tribe members to escape death from their enemies. Water dripping down the wall makes a chak chak sound as it hits the ground, hence the name. Intriguing and of more interest was Kharanagh, a mud brick village more than 1,000 years old, deserted in the 1940s due to drought. Amir led us up onto the definitely-not safe roofs, gaping holes dodged as we gazed about, the architecture stunning in its earthy simplicity and eerie silence.

Kashan. We were on the direct bus to Tehran and our bus driver unceremoniously booted us off on the highway next to a road toll a few kms past Kashan. Rather bewildered by this un-Iranian act, we were waved hither by two truck drivers sitting cross-legged on a picnic blanket eating two enormous watermelons. No English but it was the story of Iran for me – incredible hospitality, genuine warmth and curiosity in others. We were picked up shortly thereafter by E. our Couchsurfing host. Kashan is a desert town on the way to Tehran famous for its restored merchant houses and gardens as well as a spectacular caravanserai in their bazaar. Our host E. and his wife were most keen to fatten us up with home cooked meals and we learnt a lot about Iranian culture staying with them.

A sign we saw in the old hammam (bathhouse) struck me as being a good intro to an elephant in the room; “In reality, Islamic veil is for women the equivalent of the oyster for the pearl. The oyster keeps the pearl safe from hazards therefore Islamic veil must be seen as a protection not an imprisonment.” In travelling, we must respect local cultural differences yet try to bring our own cultural lenses to bear to be honest and true to our values. S. and I do not agree with this statement and it represented the biggest aspect of Iranian culture that grated with us. The treatment of women through the guise of religious rules meant that we mostly saw men wherever we went. It’s too big a topic to write about here but it is something every visitor has to wrestle with. Our experience: the Iranian woman unwilling to ride her bike anymore (her passion) because she was warned four times by the police that she “attracted too much attention.” The woman unwilling to shake my hand in public as it would be assumed by men in the street that she was a woman of loose morals. The woman who smoked in secret as women who smoke are licentious (despite the Iranian menfolk in general smoking like chimneys). The Iranian women segregated on the Tehran metro in a woman-only carriage to protect them from leering men in rush hour. A society whose rules are dictated by a fundamentalist theocracy kept in power by a corrupt military regime. However, it’s always much more complex and for a country as large as Iran, with a history as old, and as intricate a sociopolitical tapestry, this culture cannot be deconstructed in a blog post. The day we left Kashan, the Iranian presidential elections were held and Hassan Rouhani, the most moderate of candidates was elected in a landslide with 56% of the vote. Most Iranians are the same as anyone else, they want progress, economic opportunity, liberalisation of political and social restrictions and an end to international isolation. Most of the young I spoke to decried the lack of opportunity. No jobs, no future prospects. Many want to immigrate. Of course a self-selecting group by dint of their English-speaking abilities, but the cusp of something moving in Iran’s very young population.

Tehran. Finally we ended our journey in Iran in the big smoke. We hit up the bazaar, dodging the shark pit of carpet sellers, the National Jewels Museum where the amassed wealth of the Shahs was on display under heavy guard, the Carpet Museum of Iran which is a sadly neglected but fascinating look into the diverse styles across Iran and finally shot up to the US Den of Espionage also known as the former US Embassy which is now run for propaganda purposes in the middle of the city complete with murals abusing the US and the inner secret communications machines from the 70s standing there complete with Thunderbirds-esque mannikins plotting the downfall of various regimes.

Food. Ok, you’ve got to have been asking what the hell are we eating? It’s like you never read about characters using toilets in books. Kebabs dominate Iran but as we’ve sifted through many menus we have curated some favourites for you. Khoresht fesenjan is a pomegranate and meat stew eaten with rice. The rice in Iran is often garnished with saffron-flavoured butter and barberries. Ash is a soup made from chickpeas and meat pounded together and eaten with bread. Kashk-e-bademjan is a dish made from ground walnuts, caramelised onions, yoghurt and grilled aubergine. Gheyme nesar is the special dish of the city of Qazvin, a lamb stew covered in a mound of flavoured rice. Dizi demands active participation and is a stew made from beans and meat. You are given a pestle and need to mash the beans to paste before eating. Our most delicious meal was the unanticipated Caspian sturgeon kebab marinated in pomegranate syrup and lemon juice. Tahdig is a hard rice crusting the bottom of the pan and went well with the sturgeon. Sangak is a thick bread grilled on river stones and a good accompaniment to any and all dishes. Doogh is a fermented yogurt drink which S. guzzled down on any occasion. Yadzi coffee is boiled like Turkish coffee with added cinnamon, cardamom and rosewater. Gaz is a nougat sweet from Isfahan whose main ingredient is ground pistachio nut.

Title note: English translation of the final line of a soul-rending live performance of this masterpiece we listened to.

I was wholly engrossed in the stress of acquiring a visa on arrival at Tehran Imam Khomeini airport as I happened to glance to my left and caught a flash of orange above a blue dress. The recognisable backpack triggered me finally, reunited with S. after a month and I hardly recognised her in her religiously-approved hijab!

I think there are few countries which have attracted as much misinformed comment from friends and family. Iran is, quite honestly, the most hospitable country I have ever been to. The Iranians themselves are keen to dispel international propaganda and showcase the reality of their culture. Iran is vast, three times the size of France, and very diverse with rugged mountain ranges, deserts and never-ending plains. The land of Iran is ancient in terms of human habitation with grand empires having risen and fallen over thousands of years. Howeverv, as much as I’d like to spend all day providing a history lessons, you shall have to endure my travel notes instead.

Tehran. Tehran is a city of ~12 million people, sprawling up against hills and possessing an intensity of traffic legion amongst travellers. Iran is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to drive in, not as bad as Namibia or Thailand but top 10. How people get driving licenses mystifies me. Lanes are but the merest hints of suggestion to dividing vast streams of traffic. A history of heavily subsidised fuel has meant that the car is the overarching master of this city. We were immediately impressed with the openess of the populace. Any person possessing any ability in English is keen to invite you to tea, to ask about your family life, to invite you to an upcoming wedding (as we were by a man we met in a subway!) or ask about how Iran is perceived in your country.

Qazvin. From Tehran we headed to the north west of the country where the people changed from Persian ethnicity to Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian or Azeri. This melting pot of humanity has been well-stirred by uncounted invasions and well-watered with blood. In Qazvin we saw a beautiful brick-vaulted caravanserai or overnight stopping and trading post for caravans of camels that formed the Silk Road of trade between east and west. Many of Iran’s bazaars (internal shopping malls/streets) are built on and around caravanserais hundreds if not thousands of years old. We stayed in one hotel converted from an old mansion built around a fountain. Due to heat, dust, security and privacy considerations, most homes are internally-focused with a high brick wall on the outside. Inside the place exuded history and beauty with stained glass windows, pretty brickwork and carpets to loll about on.

Alamut Valley. Famous today mostly for the castles of the Assassins, this rugged valley forms a barrier between the Caspian Sea and the rest of Iran. We embarked on a three-day trek with Razoul, a young buck of a guide with a face chiseled out of sinew and slate. His village is mud-walled and the roofs were 10cm thick layers of mud. He was working hard to provide for his sisters dowry. The valley was grim and foreboding but as luck would have it we were a group of six Dutchies put together and the laughter ensued non-stop. The trek was seriously taxing as we pushed straight up towards one ruined Assassin castle destroyed by the Mongols only after siege had reduced the defenders to starvation and disease. Surveying the valley we saw yet more bare mountains and straggly grass with strips of snow showing in the higher valleys. They grow mostly rice, fruit (e.g. cherries and figs) and nuts in the region. Climbing up further, we strained to catch sight of an ibex but had to make do with partridges squalling away in fright. I felt at times I was in a scene of the Sound of Music and expected some yodelling, instead we rushed to evade lightning and torrential rain as we hurtled bedraggled into a traditional family home for the night.

The next day we purchased plastic boots for those without suitable footware, turning the morning into the village fair as old ladies bent double under the weight of their years gossiped about us. We then pushed further up the mountain as the soft, crumbly rocks made the going tough. A truly impressive environment as we realised, yes, that rope we had been carrying would come in handy for impromptu abseiling and ascending scree-riddled slopes. At one point an avalanche in the opposite valley made an incredible amount of noise rushing down the hill. Natural springs bubbled fresh water straight out of the side of the mountain. The evening was spent in an empty walnut-farmer’s house above a roaring river. The final day was a little lighter as Razoul’s stated intention of pushing us to our limits had had its effect. We gazed far above the river at swallows dive-bombing each other in the air as they competed to create their nests on the cliff-face as Razoul noted the “path” we were following home had been used by traders for more than 2,000 years as the shortest route to the Caspian Sea from the valley. The peace of the mountain fastness gave way to the fertile river plain as we laughed about “Razoul hours” which are about 1.5 times normal distance estimates. My dinner of gheymeh nesar helped cap a true highlight of our trip. A lamb stew covered in rice and flavoured with pistachios, saffron, tumeric, rose water, cardamon and barberries.

Food. Food is core for S. and I in maintaining happiness whilst travelling. Iran has delivered, with outstanding simple breakfasts of cheese, honey, jams (especially carrot) lathered onto a flat bread called lavash. We have encountered one too many kebabs on rice but stews with pomegranates, walnuts, eggplants accompanied by different types of rice annointed with saffron spice (Iran produces +90% of world production, more costly than gold by weight!), tea and more tea, sangak (a delicious flat bread baked on a pile of hot river stones), sweet delicacies galore like gaz (nougat), biscuits and cakes and of course the crucial 0.0% malt beer.

Title note: friendly street sign translating a Persian proverb

A fair comment from a diligent reader, more people wanted! The countries we’ve travellled through have been deeply leavened with characters from all walks of life. Helpful, hospitable, scammers, non-English speaking (you’d have thought miming would work but don’t you know it, the meaning of hand gestures vary wildly over the globe!), weird, wild, lovers of life, those grinding out the work-day, entitled and egoistic, extroverted and introverted and most importantly (it emcompasses all) those we’ve learnt from. Some vignettes for you. Note some names have been changed. 

Everyone who asked me, where are you from? what is your name? how old are you? what is your job? how many children do you have? yes I love your country and I love you and damn I wish we could speak the same language so we could really communicate!

In Hsipaw, Myanmar, our 21 year old trekking guide whose had taken on as his mission in life, to build a one-room school in a mountain-top village he led treks through. At the time we saw it, just a roofless frame with a view. Teacher to be procured. Such vital determination driven by his own there but for the grace of God go I. The alternative was no primary education for any children (despite the law requiring this) and the children ending up plucking tea leaves on the hillsides. 

The hotel owner with a raucous laugh and a Snow White Pekingese dog. Pretending shock that her husband would get it shampooed and snipped in Mandalay for 20.000 kyat (13 euro). As far as I’m aware, that’s a husband who knows what’s good for him. 

The many poor Indians living off the generosity and gullibility of the street. The maimed making their living begging with artfully woeful stumps and twisted limbs. 

The unconcerned docility of the holy Indian cows chewing the cud in the middle of any highway. 

Beda, the owner of a resort on Majuli Island, India with his practical ideals about the island, its people and their potential. He created a woman’s weaving cooperative which is providing work for the poorest families on the island. As I stayed there, many disparate people came to talk with him. For such a laid-back person, he has a purity of intent which in its simplicity, inspires those around him.

The vegetarian, vegan and animal rights travellers making their cases persuasively. Don’t take those elephant safaris. The more I learn about ethics, the more it’s highly obvious to me, the meat trade is toast in the long run. 

The tattooed itinerant on the road for 7 years with a digital business and his Australian girlfriend pregnant with their first child, choosing a life rich in experiences and loose from society’s expectations, in lieu of one still comfortable materially, just wildly alternative compared with any normal Western standard. I think we spoke deeply for two hours before ever occuring to ask each others’ names. 

A French family with three kids I met in the lobby of a Kolkata hotel who had tired of not having time to connect with each other who had decided to travel for one year and home-school their 9, 11 and 17 year olds. Their idealism and practical approach to life education for their kids really immpressed me.  

Ali, a wonderfully generous Tehran-based man we met completely though happenstance, deeply into his gym work (supported by anabolic steroids) and treated like a king by his mother (calling many times a day) but also deeply concerned about our happiness and wellbeing as we travelled through Iran. Our one regret is not taking up his offer to accompany him to a traditional wedding. 

Our 24 year old trekking guide, R., a lithe jack-rabbit springing over the boulders in Iran, with little regard to ‘danger’ and quietly encouraging as we abseiled down cliffs and jumping roaring rivers. His determination to reject the prevailing social expectations of marriage (never or at least not before 30!), a deeply religious 80 year-old father and the burden of having to provide not only for his family but also gather together the marriage dowry of US$10,000 for his sister. 

Mohammad Reza, a 53 year old Iran-Iraq War veteran who offered us a ride and loosed his life experiences on us. Five years as a prisoner of war in an Iraqi prison, horrendous experiences, still suffering from PTSD, sleeping 2 hours a night, and a hero in his country. He took us to the fish market, bought a Caspian sturgeon and proceeded to grill a fish kebab over coals. From intending to catch the bus at 10am, we finally left at 7pm with impassioned pleas ringing in our ears to come back again and meet his family. 

The elderly Iranian man on the street in Tabriz, Iran who was giving marketing tips and English lessons to shopkeepers for the tourist trade. We met him outside Sisi Shoes, wherein the 80+ year old institution, Mr Sisi himself, was still handmaking shoes at 9pm at night. His rheumy eyes still sharp as his leathery hands caressed his latest creation (and yes I bought some shoes!). 

Our insistent hotel owner in Ardabil, Iran who simply had to have us in his place then placed us in the ‘master’ apartment, thankfully away from the lift shaft they were jackhammering out at 11pm at night. After the most delicious breakfast of cheese, honey and bread, we left without out passports and 4 hours away, he had them couried to us, free of charge. The man is perhaps mentally unstable, but his Iranian hospitality was top-notch.

I met a man in Nongriat (Meghalaya State, India) fervently admiring any and all bugs through an SLR camera at close range in all their otherworldly weirdness. There’s a joy to seeing the world through new eyes, the jungle alive with slithering and screeching insects. On the question as to why people travel, he answered, sometimes people run away. And yes, looking into his doleful eyes, that’s quite true. I have met many hurt people avoiding real life, hoping The Road will provide a solution. 

The planners and the precision travellers, and the penny-pinchers. I’ve met a lot of go-with-the-flow backpackers but also those who’ve planned every day like a military invasion. Deliberately measuring out the days and the Top Ten Must Do’s in the Lonely Planet. Sometimes a couple who’ve only got a week off their high-pressure jobs so they’ve got to fly from city to city (and miss out all in between). The penny-pinchers convinced everyone is out to scam them. Best illustrated by the over 45min it took an American in Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar to find a cold Coca-Cola for the “real” price of 500 kyat. 700 kyat was still too much (NB: 100 kyat is about €0.07). Where is the perspective?

That is simply a selection of the many people we have met who have made our experience so rich thus far. Both travellers with their stories and locals with an English-language ability sufficient to the purpose. I am still waiting for my Babel Fish.

Title note: Maori proverb in answer to the question What is the most important thing in the world? The answer: it is the people, it is the people, it is the people.

It’s been some time, reader. I have been distracted in incredible India! This vast land has played host to me while S. gallivanted off to the Netherlands.

My entry point was Kolkata, the former capital of the British Raj and cultural capital of greater India. A shock to the senses. My ears assaulted by wholly unnecessary blaring, instinctual tooting and an incessant cacophony as (wonderfully retro) yellow taxis, hand-pulled rickshaws and other traffic shoulder their way through the overloaded streets. I have considered deeply, this battle on the streets, and posit this is an extension of the way life in India is. You need to make yourself heard and known in order to survive and prosper. Let the rules or others (or Gods forbid, the government) define your path, and you’ll soon land at the back of the queue behind millions of others. Hence: I toot therefore I exist. An alternative interpretation of this cultural phenomenon could also be attempted for I was struck by the radically gendered nature of space in Kolkata, maybe 90%+ of the populace I came across on the streets were men. Horns as jousting lances? A topic for another day.

Below you see my laundered clothes drying, whilst hanging from a public urinal, and the everpresent traffic jam and yellow taxi cab. 

Darjeeling. Kolkata was a way station for my way to the far northeast. My stratagem was to get out of the heat in the rest of the nation (already +40 degrees) and (or so I thought) a bite-sized piece to discover in one month. I boarded an overnight train ride on the Darjeeling Mail (inspired by one of the better Wes Anderson movies) and soon I was jammed in a 4WD truck snaking its way up a hill to Darjeeling, an old hill station town famous for its tea and views of the Himalayas. The intention was to go hiking however mist and bad weather put the kibosh on that plan and I shivered in this surprisingly cold town draped over steep hill spurs. My homestay was a wonderful retreat with the Nepali-Indian hosts answering my many questions and feeding me gentle Nepali food after I was struck by the dreaded dodgy stomach. The vista on the day we had no mist was of a mountain range crowned by Kanchenjunga (world’s third highest at 8,586m). India’s mountaineering efforts are based here in the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and Tenzing Norgay’s cremated remains are entombed here. I also visited the zoo which is focused on breeding rare alpine species such as the snow leopard, Himalayan wolf and my favourite, the red panda. However it’s still sad to see the Victorian-era enclosures, wholly inadequate to hold these large animals.

There is also a significant Buddhist population with a number of modern but beautiful monasteries. The ‘toy train’ is a tourist relic leftover from the British era but still cool, though belching coal fumes all over the place. The frequent power cuts meant candles in the house were a crucial aid to making momos (Tibetan/Nepali dumplings). Tea was a must of course and that pile of tea is premium stuff. All hand-picked and sorted and retailing for R15,000/kg or ~215 euro/kg!

Meghalaya. My next destination was the state of Meghalaya, famed as home to the wettest place on earth, receiving between 11-12 metres of rain per year. To put this incredible number into context, Auckland receives on average 1,115mm, and Amsterdam 805mm. I squeezed into yet another shared jeep and we raced to Cherrapunji along cliff-edge roads. This tiny town plays host to some arresting landscape. The Himalayan plateau just stops here and vast quantities of water barrel over sheer cliffs, limestone caves abound and everywhere you look are steep, lush green hills descending towards Bangladesh.

I descended quickly to Nongriat, home to a marvel of human ingenuity, bridges formed from the roots of ficus trees! Incredible odes to human patience, these trees are trained with bamboo frames over years (the oldest bridge is more than 250 years old) crossing rivers which become raging torrents in the monsoon. I stayed out of Internet range in a dorm with three open walls and the soothing roar of the neighbouring waterfall lulling me to sleep. The area is crammed with insect life, I have never seen so many varieties of butterflies, moths, beetles and other creepy-crawlies including geckos and snakes. I visited incredible waterfalls and deep swimming holes with completely clear water. The cleanest India I have seen to date! Truly a magical realm protected by the fact you have to descend over 3,000 steps to get there. The porters schlepping 40kg bags of cement get R180 per trip (~2.60 euro).

The Noh Ka Likai waterfall dropping off the face of a cliff, more waterfalls, marching hills, double-decker root bridge and more root bridges! 



Majuli Island. Leaving Nongriat was a wrench. I had met some wonderful travellers there with fantastic stories to tell and attitudes to match. However, onwards and upwards to my present hideaway, the world’s largest river island, the sand bank named Majuli Island nestled insecurely in the mighty Brahmaputra river. Current predictions suggest it will be washed away in 20-30 years time. It’s in Assam state and the trip here in the ferry was wild as we ran aground on a fast-shifting sandbank. I ran into N., a German lad with a knack for politics, and we travelled to a haven of peace, Ygdrasill Bamboo Cottage. The cottage is bounded by rice paddies and overlooks a pond in which kingfishers fish. It’s heaven and I will while away my days here before I head to Kaziranga National Park to see the rare one-horned rhino. Coincidentally it’s Assam New Year and hordes of cymbal-clashing, drumming youngsters are overrunning the island as they perform at every house in order to bless it. They go all night and really set off the fireflies in my room!

View from my bungalow, the bungalows themselves, lush fields and talented local musicians and dancers.

Title note: Buddhist saying

Mandalay. Onward and upward as we left Kalaw to Mandalay, the former royal capital second largest city. It is dominated by the former royal palace fort which is surrounded by a large moat and filled with trees, a military base and a facsimile of the old palace which was destroyed during World War II. The palace itself is inspiring for its evocation of former grandeur but also somewhat empty. S. and I agreed Mandalay city authorities should create a Central Park of the east, an arboreal retreat in the middle of the city. Immediately to the north stands Mandalay Hill. The top is ennobled with a spectacularly-sited Buddhist temple and the flat plains of central Myanmar strike off in all directions. Low mountain ranges loom faintly through the haze to the west and east. For the rest, the lazy Irrawaddy river pulses slowly south, in a few short months to be awoken to its monsoon glory.   

Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw. These towns are known as hill stations in the old British vernacular. Retreats from the broiling heat of the summer and are dotted with colonial teak mansions. We took a train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw and crossed the famed Gokteik Viaduct on the way. This tottering steel lacework is set across a deep jungle valley and far below some trickle or other. First class train travel was a delight. Cushy seats with enormous open windows allowing food to be easily purchased on the station floor from the comfort of our own seats. The train shook from side to side as the rail gauge is less wide than standard. From Hsipaw we trekked into the Shan State tea-growing hills against the advice of our hostel in P.O.L., warning there was strife (shooting) between the Shan State army and the Myanmar army…


Our guide explained much as we puffed our way up the steep hillsides. The terrain was very different to Kalaw/Inle with lush green foliage, clusters of towering bamboo, verdant crops, burbling streams and the occasional soldier. The ascent to leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi (Nobel Peace Prize Winner and daughter of the Father of the Nation, General Aung San) has ushered in a slew of ceasefire agreements between many of the warring armies but it bubbles up now and again. Each village is protected by its own ethnic army often funded by drug production (opium, heroin etc.) who also replenish their ranks by forced conscription which is why young men like our guide are so keen to keep out of the villages! He is building a school for the village which had the most amazing view I think any school can claim. This to educate the children who otherwise have no education whatsoever. He himself had a primary school in his village and had to live in a monastery for seven years for high school. The monasteries in Myanmar function also as an open-to-all school for people who can’t afford otherwise to attend. The hillsides are dotted by the occasional tea plantation but for the rest lushly coated in jungle, hill after hill fading away into the distance like some Chinese watercolour painting.


Bagan. Home to the most famous of Myanmar’s tourist attractions, the ~4,000 temples dotted around the plains of Bagan stand mute testament to the glory of the civilisation spanning 1,000-1,200 A.D. Their fanatical building spree meant we, via electric scooter, were able to judder along dirt trail after dirt trail and uncover temple upon temple, I really felt like a tomb raider! The whole area covers some 13×8 km and we decided to go all in and plump for a dawn balloon trip to really get a sense of the scale. Just an incredible feeling of peace, soaring above into a cloudless sky, punctuated by the roar of the gas burner keeping us aloft, the dry bush below stippled by the stupas and pagodas of a fallen civilisation. Scattered villages with herds of goats driven out in the early morning, farmers scything obscure plants and the knowledge that at some time, in between all these isolated temples, a giant wooden city was once there and now no more.

Ngapali Beach. The beach paradise of Myanmar complete with the whitest of white sand, swaying coconut palm trees and incongruously expensive luxury resorts. Hands-down the best seafood we’ve had on our trip so far; red snapper, sea prawns, grouper, squid, octopus, shrimp, barracuda and king mackerel.

   

Now back to reality for S. and back to Netherlands for a month and as for your scribe, I shall journey onto parts unknown. Mountains, rivers, unusual animals, bustling hives of humanity and a kaleidoscope of ethnicities. To be continued…


Title note: Speech by Aung San Suu Kyi, 1990. 

We last left you hanging, as it were dear reader, on a sheer precipice of anticipation. Do the plucky couple make it to the safety of dear old Rangoon or are they waylaid by bandits on the coach trail round the desolate plains of western Mon State? Au contraire mon ami, we survive and my negligently late entry of record now appears.

Bago. Departing from Mawlamyine we hit Bago, a dusty and industrious former capital of some ancient empire or other which sadly did not excite and all I have to relate of this time was an anecdote. Peering over the railing of a small bridge spanning a rubbish-choked culvert (which no doubt delivers great benefit during the monsoon) we saw wonders performed as the dried-up football field for a horde of children. Woe betide the player who overshoots and lands his ball in the greenish, greyish slime trickling either side. The 2 hour train ride to Yangon was an experience in cattle class, an on-board policeman unceremoniously evicted some off-duty policemen and a few ladies and seated us together. The monk who was squatting on our reserved seat, was left in glorious isolation as he contemplated his smartphone. Monks occupy an honoured place in everyday life, VIP seats in buses and dispensors of wisdom. Steel shutters raised, we rattled our way to Yangon along the picture-perfect countryside, every square inch tilled this close to Yangon, the lack of cold storage for produce meaning time-to-market is key. Hawkers selling skewers of BBQ’d baby chicks and vague and frightening bags of uninterminable contents waded along the packed standing commuters.

Yangon (the city formerly known as Rangoon). Blasting into the furnace as we entered the commercial capital (and former country capital) of Yangon and its welcoming embrace of 37 degrees. The city is a grid, logical and easily navigable. The city is a ethnic mishmash with Indians, Chinese, western expats and the grand swathe of Myanmar ethic diversity. Glorious traffic jams of cars were noticeable as they have blanket-banned scooters and motorcycles. Sweating our way along the wide boulevards, we stumbled towards the shining 325ft stupa which dominates Yangon, the Shwedagon Paya (pagoda). Shwedagon is a golden Buddhist temple which rises above the flat city and the most important temple in the country. It is covered in 27 tonnes of gold and jewels (5,448 diamonds, 2,317 rubies, sapphires and other gems, 1,065 golden bells and a single 76 carat diamond at the top), belted by a ring of 64 smaller golden stupas which made for an impressive view as we emerged from the covered walkway into the blazing sun. Many smaller pagodas on the hilltop play host to dozing pilgrims, chanting monks and families stuffing cash into donation boxes in order to cast off karma for themselves and their families. We followed this with a visit to the National Museum where I share the description of the LP, ‘appallingly labelled and lit’, despite this it still showcased the historical grandeur of the old monarchies and the deep and diverse history in this land.


Weakening, we elected to treat ourselves to food which we knew we would like. Dinner with a local friend of a friend took us to the best Thai food we had eaten on our whole trip (including Thailand!), Green Gallery, and a cafe of stunning coffee and food artisanship, Easy, hosted us for a half day. Then onto a night bus to the north and cooler climes.

Inle Lake (Nyaungshwe). The lake is roughly in the middle of the country and is a delight of people living completely enmeshed and dependent on a shallow lake filled with fish and encircled with marshland. We arrived at 6am and immediately booked a day-long boat trip in a carved, wooden dart powered by two children steering a behemoth of an engine. They churned us at full speed towards a fisherman performing an acrobatic feat balancing one foot on the boat, one leg wrapped around his paddle and holding aloft a conical bamboo fishing net. Despite the beauty and the ‘classic’ nature of the iconic photograph, my hand was stayed by the cheapening effect of the row of boats before us lining up to stop, glide alongside as the fisherman showed us some flapping fish (a sort of carp) and asking for money. Grafting fisherman vs. performance fisherman. Does the viewer at home know the difference? More highlights included our Japanese companion with 120 countries under his belt and honking laugh, jumping cat monastery sans jumping cats, whole villages built on stilts joined by flimsy threads of bamboo bridges, whole vegetable gardens floating on marsh weeds, bobbin gently in our wake, narrow creeks grooved into the mud reminiscent of a journey to the heart of darkness in Apocalypse Now and our eventual destination. Inthein Paya is a stunning cascade of ancient stupas erupting from a small hill. We wandered in the heat amongst these monuments to piety, the occasional tree bursting out of the top, ruined and crumbling bricks and the occasional restored and freshly mortared devotedly with the help of an e.g. family Schwartz from Germany.


Kalaw and a trek. Embarking on the cultural mission of our journey, we trekked over two nights from Inle to Kalaw through farmland and gentlest rolling countryside. Guided by a physics student earning money for his university degree (US$500 per year) who also luckily had four languages under his belt, we were led into a dry land studded with the occasional tree, villagers toting slingshots (for snakes, three villagers killed in past few years), ochre-stained earth which feeds the whole country. Shan State is the most fertile region of Myanmar and grows ginger, onions, potatoes, chillis, mustard seed, eggplants, pumpkin, tomatoes … all of which we sampled that evening in the home of a villager. There was no electricity and the primitive conditions allowed us to more closely observe their lives as ruled by heavy chores; up at cockerels crow, ladling water to wash by hand, pounding wheat in mortars, threshing grains with reed pans, cooking with kindling cut and carried from deep in the countryside, bullocks harnessed to wooden carts hauling produce, furrows in the hard sunbaked fields prepared for rice season by hacking sharp hoes. All the time, development was apparent. The occasional house finished in homemade cement blocks, one lonely tractor, sun panels providing enough to charge a car battery for two bulbs and 5 smartphones, proud family portraits with children in academic robes and progress/it’s all worthwhile. I hope they can find a solution to the very apparent slash-and-burn approach to agriculture though as it seemed the scarcity of trees was not being increased by replanting. So long as they depend on wood to heat and cook I guess it will continue.

Kalaw itself was noticeably cooler and an old British ‘hill station’ meaning somewhere the British escaped to when the heat got too much in the cities. Delicious Nepali dinner, coincidental meeting of S.’s colleague in the market and a day of blogging and study in the Sprouting Seeds cafe where westerners go to chew time when they are waiting for a nightbus.


Title note: Burmese Days, George Orwell