My Irish father and mother were born in the last century, in 1911 and in 1914 respectively so my father would have been 7 years old at the outbreak of Spanish Flu in 1918 which appears to have been the worst global pandemic since the Black Death or Bubonic Plague which ravaged Europe and killed 25 million people between 1347 and 1351at a time when the world’s population was only 450 million. Back in 1918, approximately 20,000 people died in Ireland from the Spanish Flu while 800,000 were infected out of a population of about 4 million but I have no recollection of my parents ever mentioning the effect of the pandemic on their lives or that of their parents or grandparents.
And then there was WWII and my parents, along with most of neutral Ireland, survived that too, although my mother had stories of crouching, terrified, under the stairs when Germany bombed the North Strand in Dublin in 1941, only a few hundred metres from where she lived in Whitworth Road. My father, on the other hand, mentioned that while he was in theIrish equivalent of the British Home Guard or Dad’s Army, the Local Security Force (LSF) the worst thing he had to endure was the filthy language some of the men used!
Then in 1958, when I was 5 years old, the world was rocked once again by the Asian Flu Pandemic with 2 million estimated deaths worldwide but once again, I and my family remained untouched.
In 1967 I jumped out of the second floor of an abandoned building in Sea Point, near where I lived at the time, and broke three bones in my left leg and left arm and spend the entire summer, lying on my back, swathed in plaster of paris and the Hong Kong Flu Pandemic, with another death toll of one million, passed me by once again, although I do remember the public warning advertisements on TV of ‘coughs and sneezes spread diseases’.
HIV / AIDS struck in 1981 or thereabout but I was living in semi isolation in a kampong on the north-east coast of Malaysia at that time, without newspapers or radio (I didn’t get a telegram telling me of my father’s death until a week after he had been cremated) and was totally unaware of what was happening world wide where 25 million died of AIDS while millions more are living with HIV.
Then in 2000, I moved to Hong Kong to live and work when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was first reported in 2003, infecting over 8,000 people in a matter of weeks and taking approximately 750+ people’s lives. I remember being ‘inconvenienced’ in several ways then – my favourite Australian bar in Kowloon closed down, I had to wear a face mask when teaching and my new wife refused to accompany me back to HK in April 2003 after we got married in Perth, Australia but once again, the angel of death seemed to have passed me – and all of mine – by once again.
Although SARS did not claim a large number of lives, it changed the way the world responds to global spread of infectious diseases. Like today’s COVID-19, SARS was caused by the coronavirus, and was spread much like the common cold, through close person-to-person contact and respiratory coughs and sneezes.
In November of 2019, I managed to tear the Achilles Tendon in my (again) left leg and while that was getting better, I somehow ruptured the tendon in my other leg in late February 2020 and have been wearing an orthopaedic ‘moon’ boot ever since. So this recent COVID-19 pandemic, of which I took a fairly unalarmed view initially until my nursing daughter compared it to the Black Death, has once again passed me by as I am house-bound, barely able to hobble around the house and garden. Nevertheless, the extraordinary lock-downs and social isolations the world is experiencing, the incredible impact the pandemic is having on people’s lives and livelihood, the mounting loss of life worldwide and the ever increasing restrictions on daily life imposed by governments in an attempt to stem this tide of disease, death and destitution is impacting upon us all.
Home isolation is easy for me now, crippled temporarily as I am, as are the other restrictions but I wonder how well I will cope once I am mobile again.
Throughout history, there have been tumultuous waves of change (The Flood?) – from the wave of agriculture that transformed the world from that of hunters and gatherers to that of the industrial and later technological and communicative waves that revolutionised the way we live. Other waves too, of mass emigration for example, which so recently threatened to overwhelm Europes’s borders, have threatened to swamp us, ever since the first people left the Rift Valley in Africa and set out to people the world, and the barbarians broke through the natural frontier of the Rhine to bring about the demise of the Roman Empire in the fifth century but, like all waves, pandemics too typically slow and come to an end on their own, though the process may be accelerated through effective preventive strategies, such as the measures world governments are putting in place right now.
So, in the words of, I think, Winston Churchill, ‘if you are going through Hell, don’t stop, keep going’ and, above all, stay safe and well.
I love islands and island life, possibly because I was born on the far flung western isle (Ireland) or maybe because my childhood was suffused with island adventure tales – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five’s escapades on Kirrin Island (and the slightly more mature Adventure series – The River of Adventure, the Mountain of Adventure and, inevitably, the Island of Adventure with Philip, Jack and his parrot Kiki, Dinah and little Lucy-Ann) – and followed up with R.L. Stephenson’s Treasure Island and R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (which was the first book to ever make me cry when Bloody Bill, the pirate, died!).
Then again, perhaps it was the magic of flying on a two engine Fokker Friendship prop plane from Dublin airport to The Isle of Man with my parents for another childhood holiday. One time we flew from Collinstown, later to become Dublin International, and once, more exciting, left at midnight from one of the city’s quays on a ship that seemed to loom immense in the glare of lights. Magical gardens and bridges where a fairy toll is ‘demanded’, cats with no tails and a unique ‘Q-Celtic’ Manx language – sadly now extinct, the last native speaker having died in the mid seventies – Manx was related to Scottish Gaelic and Irish as opposed to the ‘P-Celtic languages of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. I still remember thebuzz and roar of the annual TT motorbike races around the island and the excitement it generated.
On the other hand, it may have been the summer picnics to Dalkey Island2 (the closest
island to where I lived in Dublin as a child) which seemed to require such advance planning on the part of my parents. The No. 8 bus from the heart of the city would go past our house on the corner of the Monkstown Road and on through Dun Laoghaire, Sandy Cove and eventually the terminus at Dalkey and from there the walk, lumbered down with tartan rugs, picnic baskets, flasks of hot tea, buckets and spades, to the harbour at Coliemore from where my father would bargain with brawny men to row us across to the uninhabited island of Dalkey Island* crowned with a Napoleonic era Martello tower. Uninhabited except for a few goats, a Martello tower, a freshwater spring and a ruined church. Family picnics, diving off the small, whitewashed rocks where the rowing boat left us off and picking up fresh mackerel for dinner on the homeward trip.
Whatever it was, it seems that those most magical times have extended into my adult life and have all been centred on islands. Simple man, simple dreams3, I suppose. By horoscope, I fall under Cancer – a water sign – and in the Chinese zodiac I am a (water) snake and despite having enjoyed myself in mountainous regions worldwide – The Himalayays in Nepal, the Andes in Peru, the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, the Pyrenees on the Spanish-French border, I feel my strength and vitality are at their peak when I am close to water, especially salt water!
With so many thousands of islands in Indonesia I have explored so few, Bali ages ago and more recently, the Gilli Islands off Lombok – an easy four hour direct flight from Perth here in West Australia and then a 90 minutes taxi ride to the port at Bangsal from where the public boats set out for the islands. Bali is a subtle blend of festive Hinduism and local traditions, Denpasar and Kuta being over commercialisedbut it is still easy to escape to central Ubud and the black sand beaches along the north shore at Singha Raja. Everybody seemed talented – whether it was in dance or performance, wood and stone carving, music or hospitality and fluent in so many ways. I had to buy extra bags in Bali to accomodate all the carvings and knick knacks I acquired the first few times there.I recently came across a few thousand rupiah from that time and when I produced them in Lombok last week, people laughed in incredulity at my crumpled bills. They have been out of date for almost forty years! I headed off initially to Trawangan, the party island, with plenty of bars and loud music and the furthest out from Lombok but after two nights of drinking cheap cocktails – two for the price of one – made with local spirits – I had a vicious headache and decided to try the delights of Menos, the middle or the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ island, the smallest and the quietest the three. Beautiful, semi unspoilt islands – no cars or motorbikes only bicycles and little pony and trap carts and a sunrise on one side and a sunset on the other side of the island. Three days on Menos and, with my time running out, I spent the last three nights on Air, the island closest to Lombok itself. All three islands were unique in their own way and were small enough to stroll around in less than two hours and all offered scuba training and day and night dives and probably excellent value if that is the kind of thing you like. I’m a bit different – I just wanted clear, deep water and that’s where the islands fell down for me as, for a hundred metres or so around all three islands, the water was shallow and while appearing to be sandy, was, in fact, made up of dead and broken white coral shards which made getting into and out of the water difficult and painful. Coral cuts tend to fester easily and reef shoes – which, of course I didn’t have – would be an absolute necessity. As it was, the water was so shallow that trying to swim overarm out to deeper water my finger tips brushed the broken coral with each stroke. Not ideal unless you want to lounge by the swimming pools most of the resorts provided.
A relatively new ‘discovery’ for me, Lombok is the large island next to Bali and, in theory, should be just as beautiful. Certainly a fantastic ride from the airport skirting the capital and rushing past small villages and up over a jungle clad mountain with monkeys on the roadside, attracted by heaps of durian on sale, glimpses of the coast as we head down to the port. I am sure there are gorgeous beaches there too but I was set on new island horizons, the three small islands off the north west of Lombok.
Samosir, on the other hand, was almost an island, in the middle of Lake Toba, near Medan in Sumatra, practically the far end of the Indonesian archipelago from Lombok. My son fell, fully clothed, off the dock once we arrived and I had to jump in after him. That’s all I can really remember except for some really ratty accomodation.
So, on to all my favourite islands and how to rank them – by cost? (Rottnest island off Perth in WA is hideously overpriced); by beauty? (most S. E. Asian islands); by ease / difficulty of access? (although that has changed with airports springing up everywhere); by people? (all of them!). A listing in no particular order and with distinct memories of times past and present.
Ahh, Asia, every other island paled into significance once I came across Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Samet.Those tropical paradises, first visited in 1981, originally by slow, flat-bottomed overnight ferry from Dongson to Koh Samui before a pickup truck ride to Chaweng or Lamai or Bo Phut beaches still represent earthly paradise to me. Back in the early 80’s, I’d pay something like a nightly 30 Baht for a beach-side hut on stilts and have banana pancakes for breakfast, Tom Yam soup for lunch and barbecued fish
for dinner, all washed down with icy Singha beer in cold frosted glasses and Mehkong whisky and soda water. Beautiful sandy beaches, relaxing beach massages and a gentle shelving beach so that you could run and dive straight into crystal clear waters. Now you can fly from most places into Ko Samui airport – one of the most appealing airports I have ever been in. Prices of course have gone up since my first visit and many beach side resorts also offer that abomination – a swimming pool! Koh Phangan was, I think, the ‘party’ island north of Koh Samui – the originator of the full moon parties? Koh Tao consisted of three tiny rocky islands connected by sand banks at low tide. I swam around the largest island once. There used to be just a handful of beach huts and a restaurant; now I believe it is packed but it must still be beautiful. All I remember of poor old Koh Samet are mosquitoes and ants!
I lived in Malaysia for three years and evocative names in Penang like Batu Fennenghi and Jalan Chulia where I bought my first ever SLR camera still stir me but it was off the east coast of northern Trengganu that the real tropical paradises of Perhentian and Redang lay. Deserted, at the time andused only by local fishermen for its fresh water supply – hence the name ‘Perhenti’ / Stop, in Malay. I used to hire a local fishing boat from Kuala Besut, where I lived for three years and would make almost weekly trips (on a friday) to the island and come back to the kuala, sun-burnt, salt bleached and dehydrated to revive myself with large bottle of cold Anchor beer, served from metal tea pots into heavy ceramic cups in the only Chinese cafe in the kampong. I camped on the island for nearlya week once while trying to study for my Graduate Record Examination into an American university, thinking I would have no distractions! Even further out than the Perhentian islands lay Redang. it was once used as a detention centre for Boat people in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. I much preferred the Perhentians where I swam with sting rays, turtles and small (leg-long) sharks in waters no deeper than three or four metres. Gorgeous!
A fast ‘coffin boat’ from Brunei Darussalam would bring me to Labuan, a duty free island off the coast of Malaysian Sabah in Borneo – an absolute haven away from alcohol-free, strictly Islamic, Brunei.I used to treat myself and stay in the golf course hotel. Alternatively, I’d go over with some friends in their boat, depart Brunei legally, arrive in Labuan, stock up with up to 50 cases of beer (ballast, we used to call it) and return to Brunei illegally after dark when the customs had closed, off load the beer on a deserted beach where other friends were waiting and then report to Brunei customs the following morning, claiming the Evinrude engines had been giving us trouble and we had only just arrived! Another world, another time!
And then, of course, there is Hong Kong and with this view from my rooftop, what more could anyone ask?
Lamma island, just off the bottom of HK’s
southern bottom, was such a laid-back spot off frenetic Hong Kong. ‘Draw-string pants, mismatched socks and guitar music’ I once heard someone describe the lifestyle there compared to HK’s bankers. One ferry from HK Central would arrive at Sok Kwu Wan on the north east side of the island with its fish-farms and quayside restaurants. I used to walk from there to the other side of the island with its ATM, bars and more seafood restaurants and a different ferry from Yung Shue Wan back to HK.
Lantau Island had the big Buddha (the biggest, seated, outdoor, bronze Buddha in the world,) as well as a great South African barbecue beachside restaurant with jugs of Margaritas. Cheung Chow, One of Hong Kong’s favourite suicide spots for some bizarre reason. Punters would rent a small chalet, close the doors and windows and light a charcoal barbecue and suffocate themselves.
Phu Quoc, off the most south westerly tip of Vietnam, looks closer to Cambodia and was fairly unspoilt and quiet when I was there about 20 years ago. So much so that the ‘resort’ I was staying in offered to sell itself to me after a night’s drinking with the owner! I choose what I would like to eat the following day from an ‘oral menu’ and he would make a trip to the local market just for me! The island boasted of its famed peppercorns and fish sauce which, locals zealously informed me, could not be brought on board an airplane lest the bottle break and its pungency imperil all on board!
Singapore was definitely my first ever S. E. Asian island! Gaping, like some yokel from the sticks, I went shopping along Orchard Road and bought my first – and only – portable typewriter – an Olivetti – there back in 1981.Do those things still exist? The incredible humidity in the air – like walking into the bathroom after somehow had a long, very hot shower with the door and windows closed and the coolness of the Long Bar, in the Raffles Hotel, surrendering to Singapore slings, was a blessed relief after the turmoil of shopping!
I did an MA in the State University at Stony Brook, half-way out on the north shore of Long Island, a long spit of land reaching out into the Atlantic from New York City and did my drinking in places like Setauket and Port Jefferson and my swimming in the creek on the northside and in the Atlantic on the south side.
I worked one summer on the island of Sylt, the jewel of the ‘German Riviera’! I was ‘ein nacht portier’ at Hotel Ursula in the main town of Westerland. Long, windswept sandy beaches where elderly people played volley ball in the nude and where I was eventually fired when it was discovered that I didn’t really speak any German but it took nearly three weeks before that was discovered!
The Île de Noirmoutier is not really an island as it is connected to the French mainland by a causeway flooded daily by the incoming – and fast – tide. Famous for its new potatoes, I remember it for lazy afternoons drinking white wine with a touch of Cassis with old friends.
Slow, laid back, very patchy wi-fi, Cuba offered differently aged Habana rums(apparently Bacardi sided with the Batista government forces against Castro and so signed their death warrant on the island) in generous mojito cocktails. Music in the bars at night – and everywhere – extravagantly old American cars lovingly tended (or rusted out heaps beyond repair), fat women squeezed into tight lycra and old men and women smoking cigars the size of a baby’s arm.
From Puno in Peru I went out to the amazing floating islands made of bundled reeds on Lake Titicaca, part of the border between Peru and Bolivia.
Trampoline-like under foot, the reeds were used for their shelters as well as their boats.
Half an hour by fast ferry off Fremantle in West Australia,Rottnest island is clearly visible from the mainland and like the Gilli Islands, there is no motorised transport – just bicycles and beautiful beaches, fresh octopus and, the island specific, quokkas (a type of small, short tailed wallaby). While beautiful and charming, the island is, in my opinion, mega expensive for what it offers..
Hainan island is China’s most southerly port and submarine base and I stayed in the same hotel where the Miss World beauty contest was once held in the southern city of Sanya. Parts of the beaches were cordoned off by the military, as I discovered when I ignored shouted warnings strolling along a sandy beach. Only the clunk-clunk of a pump-action shot-gun being cocked brought me to my senses.
Macau casinos held no
attraction for me but Portuguese food and wine certainly did in the area around the old harbour as well as crumbly old ‘Fawlty Towers’ type hotels. I’d return to HK laden with chorizo, olive oil, tinned anchovies and bottles of a slightly sparkling white wine.
Almost directly opposite the Chinese mainland city of Xiamen is Penghu County, a drab island claimed by Taiwan and reached by a three hour ferry trip from Xiamen itself. One of the most heavily shelled / bombed places after 1949 when the Nationalists retreated. The main culinary delight seemed to beoyster omelettes!
Next up, after the Thai Islands mentioned above must be Puerta Galera in The Philippines. A half day bus trip out of Metro Manila down to Batangas and then a ferry over to Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro. Fantastic! I stayed at the end of a rocky promontory with a floating bar a 100 metres away. Cold San Miguel beer cheaper than a coffee or a coke, mellow Tanduay rum, tiny, bitter little calamansi limes, green skin, bright orange inside with slippery pips, friendly people and crystal clear, deep water – perfect.
In late December, the sun rose around twelve noon in Reykjavik, Iceland and set again at about four pm. Ideal in some ways – use your imagination – the hotel in the small town of Hverageròi where I ended up for some reason, was overheated and I pushed the window open to let some air in and the window froze open overnight, as did the lens of my camera later that day. Amazing to come across hot houses growing bananas and tropic plants benefitting from underground thermal power.
So, a retrospecive look at islands sparked by my recent trips to the Gilli Islands, Indonesia.
Friday 16 February marks the 2018 Lunar New Year of the Dog, heralding spring. However, where I am right now the end of summer is approaching with autumn just down the road. I suppose that the Year of the Dog is related to the Dog Star, Sirius – so named as it appears to follow at the heels of the hunter, Orion. Dog days are also reputed to be the hottest period of the year.
I used to think the 12 Zodiac animals of the Lunar New Year matched with the Western horoscope of the dozen star-signs and I knew what I was in both systems – a snake and a crab respectively. A few years ago, when I lived in Vietnam, I realised that each animal had an aspect attached to it. I felt absurdly smug when I realised I was a water snake, having an affinity with that element, as opposed to, for example, fire, wood, metal or an air snake. And just as the 12 animals of the Zodiac follow each other in set order, so too does each aspect as they cycle through one or other of the five elements: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth
It is often referred to as Chinese New Year, which must rankle with non-Chinese people who also observe the Lunar New Year, much like, perhaps, people in South American countries resent citizens of the USA claiming themselves to be American.
Despite having lived in Hong Kong for a full cycle of the Zodiac, I only encountered the frustration and delays as a massive migration of people took place and never really experienced the almost frantic excitement in the build up to the start of the festival that I encountered when I lived in Vietnam.
Tết Nguyên Đán to give it its full name in Vietnamese, like the Christian Easter, is a movable feast, usually falling around the end of January and before the middle of February.
However, with Tet being such an important holiday, it is essential to approach it with suitable reverence and intense preparation. Much like a western Christmas when shops start to gear up for the festive season as soon as Hallowe’en is over, so too do Tet preparations begin in earnest not only in shops and businesses but also in every home in the country. Shops fill up with gaudy decorations, usually some variation of the phrase Chuc Mung Nam Moi, ideally wrought in fine gold on a red velvet background – red and yellow being the principle lucky colours for an auspicious start to the New Year – but of course all variations on that theme, provided the colours are maintained, is acceptable.
The Kitchen God – and every household has one – must be propiated with gifts and offering because it is he, and he alone, who will report back to the Celestial Jade Emperor on the family’s efforts over the previous year and it is the Jade Emperor who will decide the future prosperity of each household.
Once the home has been thoroughly cleaned, paying special attention to the kitchen, then it must be suitable decorated. Red and yellow flowers will predominate although orange marigolds may be included. Yellow forsythia branches must adorn the home while peach and cheery blossom trees are especially popular. Kumquat trees laden with small fruit are also popular, symbolizing fecundity and abundance, something everyone aspires to in the New Year.
The largest, voluntary, world-wide migration of people take place prior to the Lunar New year as millions of Chinese and other Asian people return to their home birthplaces, similar, dare I suggest, to the mass gatherings for the Haj which followers of Islam feel it is incumbent on them to perform at least once in their lifetime.
Part of the excitement in the build-up to Tet, of course is preparing to receive long-absent family members and to scrupulously clean the home before Tet, as once the holiday begins, no cleaning may be done lest one inadvertently sweeps or throw away the good luck one is due on account of the preparations you and your family have made.
Imagine, if you can, having your birthday, Christmas, Easter, Wedding, Anniversary, Valentine’s Day, Buddha’s Birthday, St. Patrick’s day and all other major belief systems’ days of veneration all rolled into one glorious holidays where everything can be devoted to a glorious extravaganza of eating, drinking and gambling. Add to that, of course, the annual rollover of age in that at the beginning of Tet, every single person becomes a year older, so in fact, it is your birthday so what is there not to celebrate?
It’s bit different where I live now – although I am going to a Lunar New Year buffet. Unlike China and Vietnam whereat least 10 work free days is de rigeur, here in Australia it is just another day at the office although the Asian communities here of course plan their celebrations and lion dances, but for the ordinary Aussie, it is no big deal.
So, tomorrow, Friday 16 February is the first day of Tet and is considered the most important as the first visitor to the family home will set the luck for the coming year and is reserved for the nuclear family focused on the paternal side of the family. Children dressed in their new finery, bow to their parents and offer traditional greeting – Sống lâu trăm tuổi (Long life of 100 years) and formally receive a red packet – a small red envelope, decorated with traditional wishes, containing assorted bank notes while friends wish each other Tiền vô như nước (May money flow in like water).
The second day of Tet is then reserved for the maternal side of the family and for respected friends and acquaintances.
Anyway, this is first year of the Earth Dog since the last Earth Dog back in1958. Communicative, serious, and responsible in work, it seems, according to the characteristics assigned to that Zodiac. Hmm … as opposed to an Intelligent, hardworking, and sincere Fire Dog or the conservative, desirable, cautious, and always ready to help Metal Dog or the sincere, reliable, considerate, understanding, and patient Wood Dog or finally the brave and self-centered, even seemingly selfish, well-versed in dealing with financial issues Water Dog! Wow! Hard to choose among them all. Why can’t they all be combined in one?
The Year of Earth Dog also means that we will not see another one until 2078!
Inspired, enthused and curious about the frequency of dog in current English, I present the following words that are badly written or expressed – Doggerel!
If you are bored see if you can match up the dictionary definition with the numbered and italicised phrases in the following. Answers some time later, if anyone is interested. Happy New Lunar Year of the Dog!
He felt his commanding officer had discarded him as someone worthless 1 and it really ranked. Who did they think they were to treat him like this, giving him menial tasks to do, as if he were a junior in some boring office .2.
He ground out the butt of his cigarette 3. under his heel and replaced his fatigues and military I.D.4. with a soutane and a clerical collar 5 before slipping his knife into a side pocket.
Despite the full heat of the last days of summer 6, he broke into a gentle trot7. This was a chance to redeem himself. Up until recently, his time in the unit had been less than happy, problems and unfair treatment 8. seemed to follow him wherever he went 9.
Worn out 10, he felt his luck had deteriorated 11 and this was just another period of inactivity or decline 12. He took out the small shabby notebook, the corners worn and battered with use 13. and looked at the directions and notes he had been given, knowing full well he had no chance 14. of making her change her mind 15.
A sharp bend 16. in the road ahead revealed the villa on the hillside and he knew he would have to emphasize how delighted he was 17 when he met the selfish 18. occupant there if he was to overcome her suspicions.
The old lady was wearing ridiculously smart and ostentatious clothes 19 but it was obvious that her health had deteriorated 20. Her skin was lined and wrinkled, soft and doughy but her eyes remained sharp, as did her long nails. She lay back, weak and exhausted as if from influenza or gastroenteritis 21.
He’d be disgraced and more than probably dropped from favour22. if he didn’t complete this mission. This was the last and least pleasing part 23. of something he had to do but it was necessary if he was to regain favour.
Distracting her with some debased form of Latin he vaguely remembered from his school days, he slipped the knife from his pocket in a fluid, easy motion and …
A. Dog days ^
B, in the doghouse
L. dog leg
M. dog’s life
D. dog end ^
N. dressed up like the dog’s dinner
E. dog eared
O. gone to the dogs
F. dog tired
P. like a dog with two tails
G. dog trot
Q. a dog’s chance
H. dog tags
R. throw to the dogs
I. dog collar
S. teach an old dog new tricks
J. dog’s disease
T. Dog Latin
^ Two distinct meanings!
OH! Almost forgot – It’s a dog’s life can refer to a life of ease and luxury as in these pampered mutts
The plan was simple – I would fly out of Saigon back to Hong Kong, clear some unfinished business there, catch up with some friends and then go into China. From there I would catch a succession of trains back into Northern Vietnam and then take the Reunification Express back down to Saigon. Two weeks, max, I thought and that was that.
Looking for a cheap flight from Saigon to Hong Kong involved the rather tortuous route of leaving Saigon on Tuesday 23 April at 9:00 AM for a flight to Singapore and a stopover there just long enough for lunch before the Singapore to Hong Kong leg, arriving there at 6:00 PM, a 9 hour trip for a standard 2 and a half hour direct flight. No such thing as a cheap flight, or perhaps no such thing as a cheap, direct flight.
But never mind, the whole point of flying to Hong Kong was to take a succession of trains all the way back through southern China and down into Northern Vietnam, stopping in Hanoi and all points south until I arrived back where I had started from.
Of course, such things as booking in advance and confirming trains and sleepers (not to mention hotels) didn’t actually occur to me. Booking in advance requires a bit of dedicated effort, organization and forward planning and while I enjoy the forward planning part as in where, how and when will I go, I never seem to get around to the grittier part of finding a hotel in advance in a place I’ve never been to before. Anyway, I have always been a great believer in serendipity and so far things have always worked out rather nicely. With a place the size of China – or for that matter, most places in the world, other than the eve of an world event like the Olympics or the World Cup – I have always been confident that I could find a place to stay without too much bother.
Furthermore, China has one of the largest and most extensive rail networks in the world, not to mention some of the fastest and most modern trains on some routes and I didn’t seriously envisage any problems in getting a sleeper given that I was being fairly flexible with dates. Arriving in Hong Kong on Tuesday night, I thought it might be nice to leave any time the following week.
So that when I fronted up in the China Travel Service (CTS) – a semi-government travel agent service for all of China – near Southern Playground in Wanchai, manned by smiling functionaries in attractive purple uniforms – looking for a soft sleeper, lower berth, please, from Shenzhen, just over the Hong Kong border to Guangzhou and from there on to Nanning, and then on to Hanoi, I was rather taken aback when I was told all trains were fully booked.
No problem getting a train to Guangzhou – I could either take the Hong Kong run MTR direct train from Hong Hom in Hong Kong itself, or cross over the border at Lo Wu and catch the high speed train – apparently they are so frequent that no booking is necessary – from Shenzhen to Guangzhou, but that was it, as far as CTS was concerned. Every train from Guangzhou to all points north, south and west, was booked.
“Impossible” I blurted, almost tempted to slip a few dollars across the counter to lubricate the transaction before I remembered that I was in Hong Kong and while such things may be commonplace in Vietnam or in China, they would be frowned upon, to put it mildly, in Hong Kong.
“Next Wednesday is May 01 and a national holiday in China, sir and many people take the opportunity to take several days off work. We call it a “Golden Week” for nearly all travel services are long booked up. The next available train from Guangzhou to Nanning will be on Monday 06 May. Would you like me to book that?”
Much as I like Hong Kong, after all, I had lived there for 12 years – so why had I forgotten about “Golden Week”? you’d wonder. I really didn’t want to spent a week there cooling my heels while waiting for a train, but I didn’t appear to have much choice.
Time for a beer and to revise my travel “plans”. I certainly didn’t want to fly and neither did I like long distance buses nor did I want to hang around in (expensive) Hong Kong, so what did that leave me?
The next day I decided to leave anyway and to hell with them all. Not on a real train, I suppose, just on the Hong Kong MTR up to the border at Lo Wu. Through immigration and onto the Chinese equivalent, the MRT and an hour’s ride down to Shekou, outside of Shenshen, the same ilk as the Fremantle of Perthor the Dun Laoghaire of Dublin.
At least, I am in China, I consoled myself and the hotels are cheaper and just as good and I know some excellent restaurants. Wandering out that night to one of my favourite bars I saw a small travel agent and on the off chance, went in to enquire. No problem, no explanations, but yes, I could get a train from Guangzhou to Nanning the next day, provided I could show my passport to the travel agency. Back to the hotel, grab the passport and rush back to the hole in the wall travel agency before it closes on Sunday night at 7:00PM and it is already 6:45.
Even more surprising – and pleasing – the price was significantly cheaper than the Hong Kong price quoted by the purple pups back in the Hong Kong CTS, even allowing for the difference in the exchange rate between Hong Kong dollars and Chinese Reminbi Yuan.
The next day, after a super spicy Xiangiang noodle breakfast, back on the MRT to Shenzhen and into the cavernous station outside Lo Wu Shopping Centre City. Teeming with would-be passengers, and über cool touts, offering copy watches, handbags and sexy DVD’s, all manner of bags, suitcases, bales and assorted bundles piled up, young girls swaying past on incredibly high heels, youths lolling on small baggage trolleys, old, wizened men crouching on their haunches, cigarettes cupped in gnarly hands, I began to wonder just how I was going to fight my way through the throng.