The time for applying for visas finally arrived for Adam and I’s epic trans-Mongolian train ride home from Thailand. I was initially a little concerned about the Russian visa since I’ve heard it’s notoriously complicated to get one but I’d done my research and was pretty sure we were good to start putting things in stone and making them official. In order to get a Russian visa you must effectively provide the embassy with your life story, a detailed itinerary including all your train tickets and hostel bookings, insurance print-outs, invitation letters from Russian consulates – all that jazz. You also need to apply from your home country; unless you’ve been in the country you’re applying from for longer than 6 months. No Problemo; been here 13.
So, the day arrives, I walk up to the counter with my lovingly compiled tree’s-worth of paperwork that I’ve spent an entire year organising and planning and pass it over the counter with my passport to a lady with a face like a pissed-off stork. Clenching my sweaty palms I try and stop the excited grin from spreading over my cheeks as she flicks sullen-faced through the pages of my passport before closing it, placing it back on my pile of paperwork and pushing it back towards me. “Can’t give you a visa” she says and starts filing her nails (she doesn’t actually start filing her nails but in my head she is actually now Ghost Busters’ Janine Melnitz but Russian and evil). The room seems to have gone very quiet and there’s a buzzing in my ears.
“Why?” I whimper nervously.
“You’re on a tourist visa.”
I grab at straws; “but look, you can see I’ve been here a year on work visas – I’m only on a tourist visa now because I’ve just left my job so that I can travel… to Russia!”
“We don’t issue visas to people on tourist visas.” Then as an afterthought she adds, “your country and Russia have a… difficult relationship.” Well shit now we do! Daydreams of Russian ballet, tzars, Siberian tundra, lakes, palaces and vodka bubbled up in my head and unceremoniously popped. I stood there dithering for ten minutes unable to accept that the dissertation’s worth of work I’d put into organising that trip could be invalidated that quickly and easily.
In the end Adam and I spent an afternoon crooning into beer bottles and trying to work out an alternate fun way home that doesn’t involve Russia. The two options were; all the Stans and the middle east (not wildly appealing at this particular moment in time) and going the old Raj route and taking a boat around India, Saudi Arabia and through the Suez canal before crossing Europe by train (wildly appealing but also wildly unaffordable). Game over.
One of the things I’d been most looking forwards to was horse-trekking in Mongolia and I started to plan going as far as there and then flying over Russia to Europe. However – magic happened; Captain Planet never closes a door without opening a window etcetera. Whilst researching places to go trekking I stumbled across a job vacancy in Mongolia that called for horse-riding experience and teaching English as a second language experience. My little ears pricked up. Tentatively of course, didn’t want to get burnt again. There was a Skype interview and flights to sort out and… shudder… visas. However (drumroll please), I am very pleased to finally announce officially that as of this week I have obtained all of these things and am moving to Mongolia for a month! Ta-da!
I will be living in a proper Mongolian ger (tent) right out on the steppes, riding horses all day as an instructor for trekkers, drinking round camp fires in the evening, fresh air, no internet, no mobile phone, no nada – just me, my trusty steed and nature. Can’t wait! Eira Morgan-Jones: winning at travelling right now.
For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years people across south east Asia have celebrated their new year at the peak of the hot season by gently washing the dust from effigies of the Buddha (and generally having a good spring clean) with scented flower water. As a mark of great respect they catch the water that falls from the statues and trickle it over the shoulders of elders, which also doubles as a pleasant release from the 45°C heat. Statues of the Buddha are carried on ornate floats through the towns and local people toss water onto them to symbolise the washing away of badness. Traditionally this is also a popular time to make New Year resolutions. Over time the celebration became more relaxed and the young took the opportunity to toss water at each other playfully as a means to cool off. Then someone invented the super-soaker. And the foam party. And the wet t-shirt competition…
Songkran now is one of the biggest street parties in the world, a nationwide three day water-fight where every toddler to granny is armed to the teeth with hose pipes, a startling medley of water guns and enormous drums of water filled with blocks of ice the size of car tyres. Chiang Mai city in the north has become the Mecca of Songkran madness and is the most popular spot amongst tourists to congregate and take part in the festivities. The centre of the city becomes a flooded Brighton Pride festival complete with lady-boys in gold lamé hot-pants waving hose pipes and promo girls in next to nothing tossing free drinks to the crowd and dancing on podiums in outfits that on any other day of the year would be smashing Thai ideals of modesty to the ground. By midday of the first day the streets are knee-deep and stages playing ear-splitting Korean and western dance music belch foam onto the saturated dancers. Thai people and visitors alike set up posts in front of bars and cafes, where re-fills are readily available, and take to defending their spot by drenching anyone and anything that passes, often engaging in sopping warfare with their neighbours. A particular favourite for the entire strip is to run into the road whenever a song taew bus passes and toss dozens of buckets in through the open back onto the defenceless passengers.
Some friends and I hired a tuk-tuk to drive us around for an hour figuring we could do some novelty water-pistol drive-by but the plan back-fired when we realised that the streets were so clogged that we’d actually just made ourselves a perfect slow-moving target. After an hour of having bucket after bucket of ice water dunked over our heads we set up camp outside a seedy bar and reaped vengeance by doing the same to every tuk-tuk that passed us instead.
The whole experience was enormously liberating and some of the best fun I’ve had in south east Asia. Normally whenever I leave the house I am complete with satchel containing camera, notepad, pens, phone, ipod, wallet and all the other detritus that accumulates in the bottom of travel bags. Not for Songkran though; bit of cash in pocket? Tick. Done. Sadly I couldn’t take my camera out into the torrent for obvious reasons so I have no photos and all the ones I’ve used here have been slyly half-inched. That was a liberation in itself though since I have developed a tendency out here to view all major events through a camera screen instead of really engaging. I did have a three-second panic attack every time we left a place and I couldn’t find it however.
Songkran has come under attack a little in recent years, in part from traditionalists affronted by the greater emphasis on hedonism than Buddhism and in part due to the enormous casualty lists that always follow. Throwing buckets of water at passing buses and pedestrians is one thing but throwing them in the faces of people on motorbikes and mopeds is bound to cause trouble but seems to happen constantly anyway. This year the Songkran death-toll was in excess of 300 people; the vast majority of which were traffic-related deaths. The casualty list undoubtedly runs into the thousands.
At the end of the festival this year the sky over Chiang Mai grew fat and gloomy and just before the sun set it split open and emptied itself onto the crowd below, as if just to prove that it wouldn’t be trumped. At the peak of the hot season this was undoubtedly an extremely fortuitous omen for the coming year (as long as you weren’t riding a bike).
Since I’ve been in Thailand multiple people have asked me what exactly a Thai apartment is like. As such I’ve been meaning to write this blog for ages and am only getting round to it now that I’ve technically moved out! Here’s my apartment in Thailand that I shared with Skeeter/Scotty-Boo/Scott. I lived above an Indian restaurant right in the centre of Lop Buri’s old town so I never had to go far for anything which was brilliant.
First off – here’s my road:
Then there’s my bedroom which has a grand total of 16 windows completely covering 3 walls. This means that my room is kind of like my conservatory back home, cold in winter (heaven here) and roasting in summer (hell). No air-con! The light in the morning is gorgeous though and you get used to the heat.
Finally there’s the real seller – the roof:
Whenever I come down the ladder I always have to sit at the top ad have a think for ten minutes before descending. It’s a very calm little spot where you can see all the hustle and bustle going on below but its quiet and calm and there’s a nice breeze – a rare commodity out here. I will miss this place very much, I’ve made so many happy memories here but now it’s time for pastures new.
And so it is that my long year of being an English teacher for Kindergarten 1 at Anuban Lop Buri draws to a close. It’s been everything I thought it would be and yet also nothing like. Saying goodbye to my 300 pupils was very hard but I’m so glad I stayed with them for the full year. I suppose we’ve had oddly similar experiences; my 300 and I started school on the same day, nervous and excited and not really knowing what to expect and we’ve progressed from there. Getting to know our teachers, making friends, finding our way around and in the end having to say goodbye.
I’ve cuddled them when they cried, played with them, taught them and dealt with their occasional puddles, projectile vomit and attempts at armed take-over. I’ve loved them so much it ached a little bit and I’ve been more frustrated by them than I’ve ever experienced. Most of them have changed quite a bit over the course of the year, some for better and some for worse sadly. Chick-Chick for instance – the first lesson I taught her she was vivacious and engaging, constantly doing chicken impressions every time I sang Old MacDonald which is how she earned her name. Her class has the bitchiest cliques of girls however, who slowly ostracised her from their groups and now she sits at the back of the class and rarely raises her hand or speaks up. Little mouse however has had an opposite transformation. He has a face that always looks sad and to start with he would never get involved or open his mouth. After a while I brought him up to the front of the class for a game though and deliberately asked him questions I knew he could answer, slowly his confidence grew and now he’s reaching for the sky every time I need a volunteer and if he gets things wrong he just laughs at himself and tries again.
On the last day of school I thought I was holding myself together pretty well but as my favourite little group of girls were playing their best game and racing up to tickle me and then dash I felt tears start to threaten. I held them back until the children had filed to the bathroom to brush their teeth after lunch and then let them spill over right there in the corridor. One of the teachers walking past smiled at me and then ducked into a class room, barely a second had passed before there was a rousing chorus of “awwwwwww” from all the TAs so she’d obviously just told them about the sobbing farang in the hallway.
I decided to have all my children do British colouring-in sheets for their last lesson since Teacher’s going home there – and explained about England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales not all being the same thing (something which has driven me nuts whilst I’ve been here) and despite putting up pictures of all the images for them to see and stating unequivocally – “the dragon is red, the leprechaun is green etc…” I got some fantastically coloured zombie/smurf queens which amused me greatly being not much of a royalist.
Just as an aside, Thai 4-year-olds trying to pronounce ‘leprechaun’ is always good for a giggle. They all found it hilarious when I pointed to the picture and said ‘ne si mai dee!’ which means bad behaviour and is what I say to them when I catch them stabbing each other with pencils or trying to round-house kick their classmates in the face. For all that they’re lovely; classes with 40 4-year-olds, hardly any mutual language and teaching assistants who spend 90% of the lesson outside on their iphones do have a tendency to get a little out of hand.
One thing I did discover along with fellow teacher James was that it helps to say goodbye if you bring sweets for all your pupils in your last lesson. Then – whilst you’re trying to say a heart-felt goodbye and express how much you’ll miss them – they’ll be fighting over who got which colour, moaning that they don’t like the one they got and can they swap and shoving the ones they have in their pockets so they can come up and pretend they didn’t get any. That makes saying goodbye to the ling lek (little monkeys) much easier.
It’s been a good few days for me; I submitted my first visa application in Bangkok for my impending adventures (1 down, 4 to go), managed to find reasonably-priced farang-sized trousers in the land of size zero (wish that had happened 6 months ago so I wouldn’t have had to wear patched rags that are falling to pieces for so long) and then came home to find myself nominated by the lovely Karla of Traveller Soul (www.travellersoul76.com) for the Versatile Blogger award. The sun is shining on Eira! Although I wish the actual sun would chill out a bit – I’m pretty sure it’s trying melt my metal roof right now. Anyway, to the task at hand – thank-you so much to Karla for having followed me since I started and always having been so supportive!
So as a nominee, here are 5 very versatile facts about me:
- In addition to teaching, since I’ve been in Thailand I’ve also been re-designing an Indian restaurant and struck up a bit of a partnership with a local tattooist that’s seen me designing tattoos for half the farangs who pass through Lop Buri.
- My general philosophy in life is that if something terrifies you then you should probably do it; see previous blogs on descending Mt Sinai, getting lost alone at night on Malaysian hills, galloping at 40 miles an hour with my hand in a horse’s mouth, drinking with Yugoslavian gangsters and …shudder …performing karaoke. Ranulph Fiennes said something along the lines of “should you find yourself at the edge of a roaring river where a little dingy is tied up; get in the dinghy immediately and set sail. Don’t wait and ponder, you’ll only psyche yourself out. Just get in the dingy and see where it takes you!” Granted the man has lost half his fingers on his adventures and is probably certifiably insane, or at least undiagnosed ADHD, but I like his style.
- I am a part-Welsh, part-English mongrel and I like to refer to myself as just British. One of my biggest pet hates when travelling is this sentence; “British? So English right?” No-no.
- I am really looking forwards to getting back to my art business (www.bluefairyart.wix.com/eira) and finishing all my projects. Particularly a graphic novel I am currently part-way through and I get to work on with my brother and his magical computer skills.
- In precisely 1 month and 3 weeks time I will be leaving Bangkok from Hualamphong Station and taking the train all the way to Paris via 11 different countries. Then it’s just a nice relaxing ferry crossing to bring me home the night before my birthday after 443 days away from all my nearest and dearest. Don’t worry – it won’t be the end of my adventures though!
Here’s the 5 fabulously versatile bloggers I nominate:
- Rarasaur (www.rarasaur.wordpress.com); marvellous observations on life, the universe and everything.
- Toemailer (www.toemail.wordpress.com); bonkers pictures of happy toes across the globe interspersed with art and photography!
- Eating Kent (www.eatingkent.blogspot.co.uk); one woman’s amusing quest to do the locally-sourced, seasonal food thing. It’s not often a blog makes you hungry and laugh.
- Clotilda Jamcracker (www.clotildajamcracker.wordpress.com); dreamily illustrated blog full of colourful musings.
- Sotardalen Nokota Horses (www.nokotahorse.wordpress.com); probably my favourite blog ever – makes me happy every time I see a new post! But that’s mostly because I’m a horse nut. It’s been beautiful following these wild horses settle down in Sweden.
Just a wee little extra blog with a different motivation to the rest; that pesky little sin called pride. I just had to share this photo; low-light, moving target and look how well it came out! Fresh off the memory card with no tampering either, now I’m just shamelessly fishing for compliments. I hope you like it.
As is so often the way of these things, the end of this adventure seems to have rudely snuck up on me despite the fact it’s been waving from afar for months. Suddenly I find I have only 7 full days left with the children I have seen grow, learn and develop over the last year. Yesterday Rachel, who arrived on the very same day as me and has been with me right the way through, booked her ticket home to the states and every week seems to bring a new last. Yesterday was the last movie night, our Monday night tradition, and every week now will bring more goodbyes as term ends and things rapidly begin to draw to a close; everybody seeing to their own new adventures. My own adventures will see me visiting Burma and different places in Thailand for a while before I set off for home with my friend Adam Shoeneman. Flying seemed too easy though so we decided to get the train; shortly this blog should get decidedly more chaotic as we attempt to make our way through Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Mongolia before hitting Asian Siberia and powering our way through to European Russia. Then it’s on through Eastern Europe and to home.
Ah home. To more-or-less everyone here it has become like a tribal drumbeat increasing in intensity; ominous to some and longed-for to others. For me, it’s a little mixture of both. I’m so excited in many ways but now that the time comes to begin the (admittedly long) journey home there’s a sadness that creeps in and sets down deep roots. I find the only way to get through all these endings and goodbyes is to think of all the things I’m most looking forwards to about home and there are definitely several. Of course the people most of all, but here is a list of all the little things I have found missed the most over the last year. It’s never the things you think it’s going to be before you go.
- Booze: Ok, I hear you, I’m in Thailand. A 1.5 pint bottle of beer costs about £1.20, a bucket of SangSom rum and Red Bull £2-3, or a full gallon bucket of rum, vodka and gawd knows what else is about £6. That’s some good drinkings by anyone’s standards *hic*. What I miss is just something a bit, well, nicer I guess. What I wouldn’t give for an Aspalls cider or Stowford Press, a glass of decent wine or – heaven of heavens here’s the Brit in me – a tall jug of Pimms in the garden with ice and mint leaves and all that lovely stuff.
- My dog: Oh my lovely doggy! Cutest little fella that ever graced the earth. I’m so scared that he won’t remember me but he’s so fickle he’ll probably charge around and look really excited at a new person anyway. It’ll be nice to pet an animal that doesn’t leave your hand feeling filthy or have several hitch-hikers.
- Food: This one’s a given, there’s nothing in particular I really miss that much, once you know your way around you can get pretty much anything you want in Bangkok but my mum’s macaroni cheese I’m pretty sure is so amazing it could bring about world peace. What will be wonderful however is choice. As a vegetarian in Lop Buri I pretty much get to flit between pad Thai and fried rice. It will be amazing to have a few choices at the end of the day!
- Computer Games: Nerdy I know but there’ve been times I’ve had a real hankering for a bit of Skyrim or Dragonage. I’ll get home and be poor and unemployed so there’ll be plenty of time to scratch that itch!
- Art: Canvases and materials and resources amassed over a lifetime – can’t wait to carry on all my half-finished projects!
- English: I know you’re not really supposed to say this but it’ll be nice to be somewhere English-speaking after so long never really knowing if you’ve fully understood/been understood conversationally.
- The New Forest: Oddly, whenever I think of home in a nostalgic, wistful sort of way (happens to the best of us at times) it’s never actually my home I think of – it’s the New Forest, about 30 miles west of my home. The New Forest is where I spent a childhood playing in rivers and watching wild ponies and has become a sort of Shangri-la in my head whenever Asia’s driving me crazy. I think of how green it is, golden sunlight dappling the forest floor, cream teas, ploughman’s lunches, my family throwing sticks for the dog… when I’ve been homesick I’ve tortured myself with this image more than any other which would have surprised me to know before I left. Probably when I go back next it will be raining and muddy and shatter the image completely!
- Bed: No bamboo slats, no rock hard boards; a real mattress, a crisp, clean, thick duvet. Window open so the room is slightly chill but I’m warm and snug in my cocoon. Wake up in the morning and turn the pillow over to the cool side against my cheek. Heaven.
- Being Clean: No dirty nails, sweaty matted hair, filthy dusty feet, grubby clothes, whites that are never white, clean, clean, clean! Heaven.
- Grooming: Which brings me nicely to my next point – being well-presented! No frizzy hair, sweaty pink face, 9 million mosquito bites, scruffy clothes, shoes falling to pieces, make-up that stays on longer than 5 minutes before getting sweated off. I’m somewhat amazed to look at pictures of myself before I came here, it’s hard to remember a time when I did things as frivolous as wear high-heels and blow-dry my hair.
- Climate: Call me jaded but I’ve come to the conclusion that the south coast of England has the best weather in the world; never too hot, never too cold, it really doesn’t rain as much as people make out down in our corner and when it does its usually a gentle rain – not the stuff that’ll take the plaster off your building that they have here. Oh to wear a hoody and jeans! More than anything its climate that I’m looking forwards to, to walk and not be drenched in sweat, to have a gentle breeze swaying the trees and kissing your shoulders, to have the sun be a kind, benign thing rather than an aggressive dictator. It’s what dreams are made of.
So that’s it, my list; this is what keeps me going when I’m starting to get over-whelmed with sadness at the end of things – all that fabulous stuff to look forwards to plus the best friends and family a person could have.