Sleep Pile

The Croods sleeping in a pile in their cave – how it sometimes seems when we're in a small room

The Croods sleeping in a pile in their cave – how it sometimes seems when we’re in a small room

Tonight I feel a bit lonely.

For the first time in many months of travelling with children, my kids aren’t sharing my room. In a bid to combat the travel weariness we’re all feeling, we have decided that it might do us good to stay still for more than 3 days at a time, so on arriving here in Hoi An, we have booked into a “bungalow”* for a whole week.

It seems huge. Me and Janet have our own bedroom. Our girls have their own bedroom. And what’s more, there’s not just a separate living room but a separate kitchenette, too! All very exciting.

Except I miss the snuffles and shuffles of my little girls moving around in their sleep. I won’t know if they wake up in the night. And when I wake up first tomorrow – as I usually do – I won’t be witness to them coming to.

Personal space is something I always felt I needed, but its necessity has faded somewhat in nine months of being squashed together with Janet and my kids in a variety of small hotel rooms. And all the tiny, single-room houses we’ve seen, sometimes with whole families sleeping in one bed or just on floor mats, I guess have normalized the experience.

So, while it’s nice to have some space, to be able to stretch out and not tip-toe around after bedtime… the thought of going home to a whole big house seems perturbing. What will we do with all that space? Will we drift apart?

It’ll seem lonely without occasionally hearing Evie fall out of bed, Jemima start sucking her thumb or Scarlett wriggling around as she struggles to drop off to sleep.

It’s undoubtedly trying to all squeeze in together – just the thought of all the evening spent reading my kindle in the dark while shushing overtired children in the next bed or sorting out the umpteenth argument over who’s elbow touched who’s bottom makes me feel awash with frustration. But it does have its compensations. I really appreciate our current closeness. And I’ll miss it when it’s gone.

PS. The title is a reference to The Croods, where the whole family sleep in a big pile in their cave. Not something I have much trouble relating to, having spent much of the last eight years covered in triplets.

* The term Bungalow is used very loosely by our hotel – we are on the ground floor of a three floor building.

Spot the Komodo

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Trekking across Komodo Island, our guide managed to spot every dragon we passed but  I have no idea how.They’re incredibly well-camouflaged against the dry forest and grasses of the island.

This was taken from the path we were following through a forest clearing. There’s a komodo dragon in full view here, using their preferred hunting technique – remain completely still and rely on camouflage until prey wanders close enough to leap at,

Spot the Komodo Dragon 1

Not seen it? How about a closer shot?

Spot the Komodo Dragon 2

No? Here’s another. Of course, by now, you’re well within leaping distance…

Spot the Komodo Dragon 3

Food, Glorious Vietnamese Food

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After a month of eating “Indo”, arriving in Vietnam has been such a relief. A relief I can describe in just two words: vegetables and not-deep-fried.

Indonesian food had some pleasant surprises. Tempe – fermented soya beans – is delicious, a much tastier, meatier alternative to tofu; I don’t know why it’s not more well known.

But generally it was an much more extreme version of other SE Asian cuisines we’ve tried. The fried food was very, very fried, anything with shrimp paste used so much that your cheeks imploded, the chilli paste served with most meals (sambal) reduced your tongue to ashes, meat was prepared using Malaysian-style attack-it-madly-with-a-cleaver filleting techniques… but what got really tiring was how difficult it was to buy any food containing vegetables or that wasn’t battered and deep fried. It was like being in a tropical Scotland, and after a while mealtimes began to become something of a chore as we pounded the streets looking for something that wouldn’t make us sink like a brick if we went swimming afterwards. When we saw deep fried ice cream on our last day, not one of us was surprised.

And the fact that food hygiene doesn’t seemed to have reached much of Indonesia didn’t help. Oily meat and fish prepared who knows how many days earlier sitting in the baking sun in tin trays amid small troops of flies made even my hardened stomach wary.

But here in Vietnam we’ve had not only veges but salad! And there are noodles that haven’t been immersed in oil! And fresh, light, balanced flavours! And the cafés and street stalls look clean. It’s heaven.

Plus, Vietnamese coffee is amazing. I had no idea before we got here, but coffee is massive in Vietnam, and apparently it’s the world’s second biggest producer. Coffees I’ve bought on street corners here have been some of the best I’ve ever drunk: rich, chocolatey, dark.

We loved lots of things about Indonesia, but the hassle and food got rather wearing; travelling with children there is tough for everyone. We’re only three days into Vietnam and but we love how chilled out and delicious we’ve found it to be so far.

Komodo Dragon Hunt

They always watch the children. Fourteen years ago, here, they got one child. He had been helping his father on his fishing boat then he went home and asked his mother for some money to buy sweets. She told him, “no”, so he went off into the forest and found a fruit tree. He ate and ate. But the fruit was not ripe yet and it gave him stomachache so he pulled down his trousers and began to poo.

But he didn’t notice the dragon behind him. It leaped from the bushes and bit him on the bottom. They have teeth like razors and slice off flesh.

Two other children heard his screams and came running but were too frightened of the dragon to help. Instead they ran back to the village. When the villagers came, the boy was gone but they followed the blood spattered on the bushes and grass. The dragon was carrying him away, still alive.

Some of the villagers beat at the dragon with sticks but it would not let go. Then some men grabbed the child by the arm and pulled him away and they ran, ran, ran back towards the village. But the dragon chased them. It grabbed the boy again, this time by the stomach and as the villagers tried to pull him away, it ripped him open in their arms.

He died thirty minutes later in his mother’s arms. He was only seven.

Our guide looked round at us, clearly pleased with his anecdote. Janet was wide-eyed and pale. I could feel the incredulity spreading across my face. In what way was it possibly a good idea to tell this story to a family containing three already-nervous children?

“What was that story about?” asked Scarlett. Thank goodness. She hadn’t been able to penetrate the guide’s thick accent.

“I’ll tell you later,” I assured her, rather hoping she’d forget to ask.

I really didn’t want to repeat the story, standing, as we were, in a remote forest clearing on Komodo island, out hunting for the largest lizards in the World. We knew already, of course, that komodo dragons could be dangerous, how their mouths are filled with over 50 types of bacteria so even a small bite is fatal, and how, as they’re a protected species, the guides who take tourists out looking for them are allowed only a forked stick with which to defend themselves and their charges. But out in the forest, several hours from the small ranger station we’d set off trekking from, it all seemed a lot more real.

I suddenly wished I had even a forked stick.

“How do you use the stick?” I’d asked the guide back at the station. His reply had not been encouraging: “We push it away. But better to run away. But dragons are fast. Up to 20 kilometres per hour. And they can jump, so not easy to climb tree. And swim very fast. But don’t run until I say or they will chase. Especially children.”

I searched the bushes around us with my eyes. We’d seen two dragons already and their camouflage and the fact that they stand completely motionless makes them almost invisible in the dry scrub of the forest. I made sure my kids were very close by and continued to catalogue which nearby trees looked climbable. One hour of trekking down, only two more to go.

He’d been right about them watching the children, too. The dragons we’d seen had stared at them, impassive, like looking at so much meat.

“If you go up this path,” the guide went on, oblivious, “you get to Padang Valley. There a Swiss tourist – Baron Rudolf von Reding– went missing. He was at the back of a group and stopped to take photos. They didn’t realise he hadn’t caught up with the group until they reached the boat many hours later. There was only a guide at the front, you see…” And he set off into the jungle.

In The Mist

Dawn in Tanjing Puting

It’s early morning – not even five-thirty – and I’m standing alone on the open deck of our klotok, the wide-decked, open-sided river boat we’ve hired for three days of travel deep into the jungles of Borneo. I feel a very long way from home.

All around, the river water is a peaty red, darkening to glossy black away from the banks where it flows smoothly past our mooring. The blackness is broken only by the reflection of the brightening sky and the occasional deep splash of a surfacing fish. With each splash I turn quickly, hoping I’ll see one of the crocodiles that ate the traveller who ignored warnings not to swim on this very spot a few years ago. I don’t see any but that doesn’t mean they aren’t nearby. The shadows, reeds and fallen trees along the banks could easily hide a dozen crocodiles.

My eyes search the thick jungle swamps on each bank. There are macaques here. I can hear their woo-wooing nearby but haven’t managed to spot any yet. Not that I’m surprised. Their fur blends perfectly with the soaring white-grey tree trunks. Nor have I seen kingfishers, fly-catchers, hornbills, tree frogs, proboscis monkeys or any of the other thousands of species that make this a “biodiversity hotspot”. Only the insects are visible this morning; dragonflies the length of my middle finger, bees, beetles and smaller, indeterminate creatures I hear as passing buzzes beside my ear. And if our trek into the jungle yesterday is anything to go by, I wouldn’t have to go far from our boat to find thick columns of termites or wild, dangerous scatterings of the fire ants that we all fell painfully prey to.

But I don’t mind that I can’t see anything just now. The forest is alive with life. I can hear it. And somehow, gazing out into the confusion of trees, vines, ferns, water plants and bushes, ears alight with whoops, clicks and bird calls, this feels like the most natural state in the World; in distinguishing the complexities of these sights and sounds, I feel my brain slipping into its natural gear. There isn’t a straight line in sight, nor a single colour that diverges from the forest’s natural greens, greys and browns, except with reds and blacks of the water below and the blue of the lightening sky.

I wonder if any of the orangutans we saw yesterday are nesting nearby. And whether this sensation of oneness and peace is how they feel. Their slow, measured gazes and the way they swing through the treetops at whatever speed each tree bends under their weight seemed to imply so.

We’re moored at Camp Leakey, the longest-running research station in the World, where for the last 40 years , Dr. Galdikas has been observing wild orangutans as well as rehabilitating captured ones.

These thoughts are heightened by the thrill of being so far from civilization. There isn’t a hospital for many hundreds of miles and few roads through the jungle on which to reach one… well, except the charity-run orangutan hospital half-way up-river. I guess they could probably set a broken bone at a push.

It took two full days to get here but today we’ll turn our klotok around and begin the return journey, stopping to visit one more orangutan feeding station on the way. This is the remotest place we’ll visit on our travels. From here on we’ll slowly be returning to modernity.

I was going to end there, leaving this post as an elegy on Man’s Primal Being, Oneness With Nature and other romantic daybreak thoughts. But then…

With a crash, a tree beside us swung forwards, showering leaves onto the river. For a moment I couldn’t see what had caused the sudden commotion. The jungle fell silent. Then, the tree snapped back, the leaves spread out into the current, leaving a single, large orangutan a few metres from where I stood. He watched me. I watched him. As entrances go, I had to admit it was impressively dramatic. Then he swung over to where our boat’s mooring rope secured us to a fallen tree.

Was he going to pull us to shore? Come aboard? He gave the rope an exploratory tug but our klotok is big and would have needed a much more serious effort to shift. Looking disappointed, he gave up and climbed onto a comfortable-looking tree, descending occasionally to pick a pandanas shoot or fish a discarded piece of fruit from the water.

Slowly, the rest of our family awoke, drifting forwards to join the mutual contemplation, orang1 and orangutan.

Then the other klotok moored nearby woke up, too, and began calling and throwing watermelon rinds into the river. The spell was broken; the orangutan moved off and we retreated inside for a breakfast of our own.

[1] In both Indonesian and Malay, orang means “man”. Orang utan means “man of the forest”.

Philippine Signs

You spend a lot of time while travelling staring out of the window of your bus, train or other, less comfortable transportation, so when you see something written in English it’s a pleasant surprise. I always feel like it might give me some insight into the place I’m passing through.

These three signs are all from the Philippines. I wonder what they reveal about the people who live there.

My Teacher My Hero

I saw this one outside a remote village school on Negros. Despite all the houses nearby being little more than ramshackle lean-tos ith ragged cloth or plastic sheeting for doors, the school was carefully painted, planted with shrubs, had cut grass and home-made, wooden toys in the schoolyard. Clearly someone had taken enormous pains to give the kids in that village somewhere pleasant to learn in. Then I saw the sign.

Drugs Cause Cancer

These signs were all along the road leading to a high school elsewhere on Negros. Clearly the locals are trying to keep drugs out of their school. And why let the truth stand in the way of a good cause.

The Chop

This was on a wall in Dumaguete. I have no idea what the words mean. And I really hope that image next to the scissors is a pointing finger.

The Equator

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Two very exciting events have just combined. For the first time in any of our lives we are south of the equator. And our hotel room has a bath.

Time to go and watch the water spin the wrong way down the plug hole.

Busy Days on Sequijor

After a long laze in Sipalay, we wanted to speed things up a bit, but – wow! – the last three days on Sequijor have been so incredibly full that I could fill a blog post about each, individually. However, it’s getting late and we’re packing up and moving on tomorrow so I guess I’ll just get it all down as best I can before my kids come running back from the coconut trees on the beach to tell me how starving they are and none of it gets written down at all.

On our first day here on Sequijor, we decided to go exploring. Wandering up to the main road, we hailed a tricycle (a Philippine euphemism for a rattle-engined motorbike with equally rattley home-made sidecar) and asked the to take us round the island, stopping at the sights. It was awesome!

We visited a local park in St. Juan with a “swimming pool” (pond) where the girls swam. We stopped at some beautiful, 4-level waterfalls where we all swam, including swimming right under the falls into a hidden cave behind.

Then a coastal resort where they had built water slides and diving boards into towering cliffs over the sea. The slides were closed and partially collapsed, an unfortunate testament to ambition over realisation, but the diving boards were relatively stable-looking, so we climbed up and had a look over the edge. It was a long way down. The kind of long way that made the 10m board at the Leeds pool where our girls took diving lessons seem like jumping off a curb into a puddle. The kind of long way that would give a Mexican cliff diver second thoughts. So, of course, me and the girls all immediately jumped off.

In between, we stopped at old Spanish churches, little farming villages, a 500 year old balete tree said to be home to a powerful spirit (and which Evie climbed most of the way up when our backs were turned — no curses have yet made themselves apparent, though, so I’m guessing the spirit didn’t mind), a co-operative dairy selling real cheese and pasteurized milk (rare luxuries nowadays for us) and a few pretty view spots, eventually returning home exhausted, stimulated and still rattling from hours aboard our guide’s bone-shaking sidecar.

The next day we decided to climb a mountain. There’s only one here on Sequijor (called Mt. Bandilaan) and details on reaching the top (both on the web and our guidebooks) were kind of sketchy so weren’t entirely sure what to expect or even how to get there.

In the end, it was a very easy walk. There was a narrow paved road all the way to the top. The greatest difficulty, in fact, was convincing the various Filipinos we met along the way that we actually wanted to walk. No-one could understand why we wouldn’t use a vehicle when we could afford one.

We did get a bit lost trying to find the path to the actual summit (the road only passes nearby) but when we eventually found it, the 360° view around the island was gorgeous.

On the way down, our trike driver came and met us near the top. Once more, it took quite a lot of explaining to get across the idea that we wanted him to go back and wait for us halfway up the mountain. As he drove away, he shot us the most astonished and puzzled look I’ve seen since telling a porter in Nepal that we wanted to carry our own bags.

As the mountain had proved so easy to conquer, we decided to spend the afternoon swimming in the sea. Under “suggested places for snorkeling” in our Lonely Planet, it said “strap on your mask and fins and dive in anywhere”. So that’s what we did. Swimming out from our resort (the lovely but only-just-within-our-price-range Villa Marmarine) we saw sea grass, hard corals, tropical fish, lots of sea urchins and generally had fun splashing around in the astonishingly clear, turquoise water. Me and Jem even swam right out to a bangka moored in deeper water where we could free dive down to even more impressive reefs.

For tea we got our own back on the trepidation that all the sea urchins had given us while swimming by ordering sea urchin spaghetti from the menu. Revenge, it turns out, is surprisingly tasty.

Day three. I wanted to do a dive trip and as there was no-one else at our resort who was a diver, we were able to hire the entire boat to ourselves. I would dive while Janet and the girls snorkeled.

I wasn’t sure whether to believe the guy at our resort when he said the local marine sanctuary (Tulapos) was just as impressive as Apo Island (a famous marine sanctuary 15km from here) but it was probably the best dive I have yet done. The soft and hard corals, rainbows of fish (too many to mention), sea snakes (yes, another banded krait but this time as big as a python), gigantic lobsters and surreal nudibranches alone they would have been enough to make for an amazing dive. But while under, I swam with not one but two massive sea turtles, fulfilling a diving ambition I’ve had since I learned at New Year.

After returning, as I still had plenty of air left in my tank, and the dive boat was moored in very shallow water, I gave Jemima and Scarlett an impromptu SCUBA lesson, giving them my secondary air source and sinking down to the sea floor to explore. They loved it.

All that alone would have made for a memorable day’s diving but on the way home something even more astonishing happened: a huge school of dolphins appeared near our boat, then, when the crew started clapping and thumping the deck, swam over and raced alongside us, leaping, twisting, diving, pairing off, skimming the surface… And all the while, the long, flat-decked nose of the bangka meant we could stand right out over the water, surrounded by dolphins playing on three sides. It was magical, and, according to the crew, incredibly rare in the waters around Sequijor.

Whew! Three days of intense and thrilling experiences and I feel both awed and exhausted. Tomorrow we move to a new resort with a pool. I wouldn’t be too surprised if we ended up being less ambitious and just spend the day recovering at the poolside.