Hmong Family Life

I spent two days with my Hmong guide, So, and her family. We walked the mountain trails around Sapa, meeting family members on the way, we visited the grandparent’s home and I stayed a night at her house where I met her husband and children. Everyone was welcoming and, although I only shared a common language with So, I felt very much part of the family.

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Before we set off on our trek So went to the market where she bought vegetables and chicken for lunch. She packed these into a basket, which she carried on her back. We walked for a couple of hours, on the way meeting Mai, her husband, who was gathering cabbage leaves to make into pig fodder. He took the basket and said he would deliver it to his grandparent’s house and warn them we would be coming for lunch.

We arrived at noon. The grandparents were both in their very late 80s and lived in the house that had been in the family for four generations. So and her husband had stayed with them until six years ago when they had built their own house. As the elderly couple are no longer able to farm (although they do have a vegetable garden which provided some of the vegetables for lunch) either So or her husband go each day and to cook and spend time with them.

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Grandmother soon got the fire back to life. From years of cooking the beams above were covered with thick black tar. The house was large with one door opening into the main room where the couple lived and slept.

At the other end the kitchen was well set out, simple and practical. There was a table to stand pots and pans, a frame hanging on the wall for the clean bowls, cups and chopsticks; numerous baskets and plastic containers of various sizes were scattered around. Part of the floor was raised on slatted planks and a pipe brought in stream water both day and night. There are numerous small streams that flow down the mountainous slopes. Some of this water comes from ‘occult’ precipitation – during the many misty days water droplets collect on the vegetation and fall onto the ground where they form rivulets that flow down the slopes.

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As So prepared, and very carefully washed, the vegetables she put aside the stalks and tough leaves to take to feed the pigs. While waiting to eat, grandfather pottered in the garden cutting sticks to stake his tomatoes. The vegetables and meat were quickly cooked (Mai had cooked the rice when he had visited earlier) so it was not long before we sat on tiny stools around a low table to enjoy lunch. What was left after we had eaten was covered and put aside for the elderly couple to enjoy in the evening.

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After lunch, we continued our walk, heading towards So’s family home. She showed my one area of land that was theirs but had been loaned to Mai’s brother and his new wife so they could plant their rice crop.  On the way we stopped to chat with a sister in law. She was on the back of her husband’s motorbike and the face of a young child peeped out between them.

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As we arrived at So’s house, as her two youngest children came home. Six year old La and four year old King had been out tending the family goats but, being young, had got bored and left it to an uncle to bring the animals back. The family’s eldest daughter, Tung, was at home. When I arrived we sat together and read English words on a set of cards and looked at a couple of books, which had recently been given to the children by an Australian visitor.

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While I watched families of ducklings and chickens scratching in the orchard and went to talk to the black pigs lazing in their stalls, So took a stool around the side of the house and had a quick catch-up with her sister in law who was also sitting outside her house just up the hill. Then it was time for sewing, something all the ladies of the household enjoyed. So was embroidering sleeves for an outfit she was making for her sister’s wedding, Tung was doing her own piece using bright green silk on a fine black canvas. Little La was not to be outdone and, helped by her sister, put stitches in a pre-used piece of canvas.

So told me that she makes about six outfits a year, one for each of the family and two for herself. The hemp grown one year will be used as cloth the following year. The women spin the thread as they walk, wrapping it around their waist and twisting it onto a hand. We had met one of So’s aunts (on her mother’s side) doing just that, as she walked through the rice fields. Most of the embroidery and sewing is done in the winter months but now that the family has electricity So can stitch at night by the light of a single, but powerful, globe. She does have a sewing machine to assemble the clothes but it was loaned to her sister in law and she would get it back when she needed it.

So used every opportunity to sew her sister’s wedding outfit, as the event will take place in June. While her needle went in and out, and she paused to rapidly count stitches, she told me about her own life before she married. There were six in the family, three girls and three boys. Her father had been orphaned as a child so, unusually, had gone to live within his wife’s family. None of the children had gone to school but a teacher had come to the house to give the lessons to the boys, but not to the girls, as it was not considered important for girls to have schooling. What girls needed to know they would learn from their mothers and then they would marry. So had met her husband at the annual ‘love market’ and had married at the age of 18. One sister was also married and lived nearby but the eldest sister’s life had taken a different path. At the age of 15 she was adopted by a Spanish couple, spent three years at school in Hanoi and had then went to Spain to university. She was coming back home with her Spanish fiancé to get married. There would be a day of celebration at their mother’s village and, the following day, a party at a Sapa hotel. About 90 people were coming from Spain for the event so there was great excitement and preparations.

I did meet one of So’s brothers as he popped in to get some ash to treat hemp fabric. A bowl and chopsticks were immediately put on the table and he shared the family supper. His visit was an excuse to bring out a bottle of herb-laced spirit and some small cups. I was told it was health giving as well as tasty and enjoyed a cup while the men each had three. The drink had been bought for a recent shaman ceremony.

When I arrived the main wooden doors of the house were shut and So explained that they had been kept closed since the shaman ceremony three days before, but would be opened that evening. Outside, leafy branches hung from the roof. It was difficult for me to understand why the shaman had come to do a ceremony but it was something to do with the spirit of Mai’s father. It had been a two-day event and a pig had been killed to feed the participants.

Once an animal is killed most of the meat is cooked immediately. Some will be kept in water for a couple of days and some will be smoked, hung in the rafters above the fire, or dried. So prepared the last of the meat as a breakfast treat. She rolled small pieces in lime leaves picked from the garden, pushed them onto a skewer and cooked them quickly over a hot fire. The pieces of succulent meat were delicious. The main method of preparing all food is quick frying over an open fire on the floor, using a pan or wok and homemade pork lard.

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So and her husband share the household tasks as she is often out all day guiding and they have many trekking guests staying overnight. Mai had prepared the filling for the spring rolls we ate for supper and had also cooked the rice. In the morning he set to chopping up greens to make food for the pigs. It was Mai who put the young children to bed while So stitched. He also does some of the shopping and looks after the children, especially little King who clearly adored his father. If So is guiding she is not there to help him with the farming and bringing in firewood.

The children were independent and used to looking after themselves. Ten year old Trung, was fully involved in cooking, keeping the fire going, putting spring rolls into the hot fat and stirring the cornmeal porridge to feed the livestock. She also laid and cleared the table and did the laundry. During the week she is at school, going on Monday and returning on Friday. She clearly preferred being at home and enjoyed the home cooked food.

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The house was large enough for a room for me, with a comfortable bed and mosquito net, a bedroom for the children and one for the parents. Although the family cooked in the main room there was also a separate kitchen with a stove, which they used in winter, and a stand supporting a metal basin used to dye the hemp cloth. The bathroom was connected to the kitchen and there was a squat toilet outside. The house was clean, airy and cool.

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It was very enjoyable to stay in a household where the sense was that everyone was part of an extended family and had a part to play. I remarked to So on the way so much seemed to be shared – land, rice for seed or food if a member of the family needed it, caring for the animals and use of the sewing machine – and she replied that sharing was an important part of their culture. Although their lives are busy and labour intensive, there is a sense of enjoyment and pride in being able to produce so much of what the family needs. The children have tasks from an early age but they do them willingly. There was much laughter and joking in the home, little King usually being in the midst of it. I did not feel I was an intruder into their lives, but more just a welcome part of it.

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In many ways the children are growing up much as their parents did but there are major differences. Both girls attend school and will learn to read and write, first in Vietnamese and then in English. Little King was the proud owner of a very stylish battery operated motorbike. Electricity had recently been installed in the house and a TV stood in the corner, while numerous mobile phones were plugged in to charge. So had recently gone with her daughter to Hanoi to apply for a visa for the young girl to go to the family in Spain. All these events could mean that the lives of the children will be rather different to those of their parents. So has already broken the Hmong tradition of the women working within the house and on the land. She is the one who earns money and has a bank account where her salary is paid.

 

 

 

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Amongst the Hmong

 

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So, a lively smiling woman, was my guide for the two days that I spent trekking in the Sapa area . As we walked, I learned about her life as a member of the Hmong people, one of the minority groups living in this area of northern Vietnam. Talking to So was easy as she understands and speaks English extremely well. She has learnt the language, not by going to classes but by working in the tourist industry, first in a hotel and, more recently, as a trekking guide.

To become a licensed trekking guide the women (men seem to prefer farming to guiding) take a training course but much of their knowledge on ‘managing’ tourists is learnt through the company they work for and by being apprenticed to experienced guides. Sapa town is at about 1500 meters but nearby Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam (and in Indo-China), is over 3000 meters, and some valleys dip down to as low as 800 meters. Sitting at the extreme eastern edge of the Himalayas, this is true mountain country with steep gradients and fickle weather. Tourists who trek are reliant on the local knowledge and experience of their guide, who must take into account the age and overall fitness of the walkers, along with the weather and terrain conditions. A clear blue sky can swiftly change to thick fog and the tracks can become very slippery when wet. It is an unwise person who ignores the advice of their guide or, even worse, decides to trek without one.

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The Hmong people, one of the last groups to come to Vietnam from southern China, arrived about 200 years ago. It is generally thought that they were originally from north-eastern China but migrated south. During the Qing Dynasty they were persecuted and moved further south into Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Here they settled in the mountainous areas as the more fertile plains were already occupied. They had to become farmers, as they could no longer rely on being hunter-gatherers.

Until it was prohibited in 1993, the Hmong cultivated opium, an important cash crop. As the area was near the Chinese border the French had a large garrison in Sapa and also a sanitorium in the healthy mountain air. In 1901 these three reasons persuaded the French administration they should build a railway from Hanoi to Lao Cai, the 384km taking 6 years to complete and claiming over 12,000 lives. The overnight train is still a favourite way to get to Sapa, but the new fast highway means the journey can now be done in 5 hours by bus.

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The railway, seen from the road

Tourists (both national and international) bring much needed income to the Hmong but farming is what sustains them. The staple food is rice, grown on terraces and watered by irrigation from mountain streams as well as rainfall. The terraces look picturesque at all times of the year, but producing a crop on them is hard, labour-intense work.

While we walked up and down through farmland, So explained the process of growing rice. The terraces, carved out of the mountain slopes have been re-used every year for decades (although we did pass one series of newly carved terraces).

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New Terraces

The land, owed by the family, must produce enough rice to last at least till the following year, as the climate will only produce one crop annually. Farming begins in late April and the harvest takes place in September or October. First a small seedbed is prepared and carefully leveled. The area is flooded and the pre-soaked seeds scattered. Once these have germinated the water is drained off to allow the roots to push down into the damp soil. When the seedlings are established the ground is again flooded. At this stage it is important to keep the water at the correct level so that the plants will grow but not dry out or be swamped. After about 20 days small bunches of seedlings are transplanted by hand onto the newly ploughed terraces.

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Germinating seeds in a seed bed

Early May is a busy farming time as this is when the terraces are prepared. Some families have buffalo to plough their land, but these animals are expensive and have to be fed and cared for during the 10 months of the year that they do not work. Other families have hand-driven motorized ploughs. Those who cannot afford either of these options use a long handled hoe and work in mud up to their knees.

The walls of the terraces are repaired and pig and buffalo manure is carried from the homestead to be ploughed into the land. As the rice grows the narrow winding paddies are watered, weeded and fertilized by hand. Harvesting, with a sharp, curve sickle is backbreaking work. Threshing and winnowing is also done by hand. Once the rice is dry and bagged it is carefully stored in the loft of the family house. This is the food that will provide the family with their staple of three bowls of rice each day.

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Corn is the other main crop, grown to eat when young, but mainly used dried, as food for the family’s buffalo, pigs, chickens and ducks. The crop is grown on steep, un-terraced slopes. As we walked we saw groups of men and women weeding their corn fields. Planting, weeding, harvesting and carrying baskets of cobs need strength and endurance. Each household also tends a garden, growing vegetables and herbs. Ducks and chickens, scrabbling for food under fruit trees, are kept for meat and eggs. During the growing season the pigs and buffalo are fed in their stalls, roaming free to forage for food only when the harvest is over.

Each household has a patch growing hemp and indigo. The tradition of making hemp thread and weaving it into cloth is a job undertaken by Hmong women. A young girl learns the skills from older women in her family. This video clip shows the process of making hemp cloth. Listen to the lilt of the Hmong language as you watch it. Indigo produces the traditional dark blue colour of the hemp but a range of hues can be produced by using natural or chemical dyes.

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Watch Hmong women dying hemp cloth The cloth is decorated with batik and embroidery. Both of these are time taking and skilled processes done mostly in the winter months when the harvest is over.

Finally, the women make four metres of decorated and pleated cloth into skirts, and jackets and belts are assembled. Many of the garments are now made from cotton cloth, while the hemp fabric is kept for the outer garments worn by both men and women.

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These three Hmong women are attired in jackets they have embroidered themselves. The various Hmong clans can be distinguished by their clothes. These women are from the Black Hmong group.

The Hmong are not big people but they are strong. Walking with So, I puffed up the steep slopes but she strode on in her plastic sandals, carrying a heavy basket on her back. Walking has been the traditional way for the Hmong to travel. When I asked So how far she was from where her mother lived she gave the distance as the time it would take (her) to walk. Now most families have a motorbike but they still walk long distances from an early age. Children will walk for over an hour to get to school.

The responsibility of house building falls to the men. The houses are made from wood, without nails, the floors are mud and the roof traditionally bark or rice straw but now usually molded sheets. Part of the house has a loft area for storing grain. Cooking is done over an open fire set on the floor. As there is no chimney, everything in the house takes on the smell of smoke, although the house does not seem smoky, as the fire is made hot for cooking and then quenched to glowing embers.

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What the family doesn’t produce must be bought in the market. Working as guides, the women bring in money to buy a few extras to make their diet more varied. Women who do not do guiding eke out a living by selling cloth and hand-made clothes in the local markets and in Sapa town.

The mountain climate is harsh, with the winter months cold, damp and misty. Occasionally there is snow. A couple of winters back the snow lay thick for over two weeks. This killed many buffalo, bamboo forests and trees.

The life of these mountainous people is hard but they are a proud, independent people who continue with their traditional ways producing their food, building their own houses and making their own clothes. They also live and marry mostly within their own group and, although many now speak Vietnamese, they always converse with each other in Hmong. In the past the Hmong have isolated themselves from the majority Viet people as well as from other minority groups. In this way their traditions and culture have remained strong. Whether much of this will change now that the children attend school, most houses have electricity to operate a TV and it costs only $15 to get to Hanoi remains to be seen.

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Travels in Japan

There was certainly more to Japan than the fabulous loos. In fact, during the two weeks we were there we had only one day of complaint, otherwise everything was perfect.

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I had a few days on my own to explore Yokohama. The clear skies and spring temperature meant that it was walking weather so that’s what I did. From our hotel I could walk undercover to Queen’s Square shopping mall and beyond.

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Yokohama

I discovered promenades with colourful newly planted bedding plants and blossom trees just beginning to burst into flower. I went back in time to the 1930s as I walked through the first and third class cabins of the Hikawi Mara, a luxury vessel carrying the wealthy and the poor looking for a new life across the Pacific where, from Seattle, they could continue east to New York by train.

I gazed up at the Grand Hotel where I knew through reading Edith Wharton’s ‘The House of Mirth’ that New York’s society used to frequent.

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I spent a morning in the Port Museum, tracing the history of this now gigantic port from when it was a lowly fishing village before the Europeans were allowed to trade. I sped up 69 storeys to the top of Landmark Tower and gazed down onto Tokyo and beyond to Mt Fuji.

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Yokohama port with the shadow of Landmark Tower

I ambled through Monomachi, the popular foreign shopping area of the 1930s, and into China town with its crowded streets and numerous restaurants. One day a Japanese friend took me to Kamakura, the capital of Japan in the 13th century. We went inside the body of the enormous statue of Buddha, visited Zen and Shinto shrines, washed our money in a pool to ensure us wealth and enjoyed the spring flowers and the bamboo forest.

Before coming to Japan we had bought a rail pass which gave us a week’s travel on most of Japan’s railways, including the fast, efficient and smooth Shinkansen with its speeds of up to 320 kph. For each journey you get a ticket with a carriage and seat number. Carriage numbers are written on the platform so when the train stops there is no dashing up and down the platform looking for the right carriage. The door is right there in front of you- so easy.

We travelled to the island of Kyushu, stopping first at Nagasaki, almost a day’s journey from Yokohama. We visited ‘ground zero’ where the atomic bomb vapourised everything and everyone in the area below where the bomb exploded. In the museum we saw horrific pictures of the effects of radiation. Hanging from the ceiling was ‘Fat Man’ – the name the Americans gave to the bomb. It looked small and rather harmless as a few young soldiers, stripped to the waist, loaded it into the plane that would carry it from the base on the Pacific island of Tinian. IMG_6997

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Remains of the cathedral

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A very different side of Nagasaki is Dejima, the historic fan-shaped trading station in the harbour. For 200 years from the mid 1600s only Chinese and Dutch ships were allowed into Japan and Dejima was the only port. Although Japan was effectively closed to foreigners, books, scientific instruments, knowledge and new ideas filtered in through the port, while goods from all over Japan were exported.

We took the train south to Kagoshima the ‘Naples of Japan’ with its sunny climate and puffing volcano.

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We spent a morning in the Meiji Restoration museum. Watching a reconstruction of the journey of the 20 young Japanese men who went to Europe to learn about industrialization and bring back the information to Japan was fun. They left Japan wearing kimono and sporting top-knots and arrived in London looking like English gentlemen. One of the group never returned to Japan, but went to California and became an oenologist. The Meiji period was more than bringing European ideas to Japan. It was the restoring of the power of the emperor and the end of the Shogunate rule.

We trained up the east coast of Kyushu for a night in Beppu, famed for its onsen, thermal springs. Our traditional hotel had two, one outside looking over the bay and another inside. We were extremely clean and refreshed when we left Beppu, having sat many times on tiny stools and scrubbed ourselves and then soaked in the hot mineral water. It was a memorable experience and made more authentic as we had a room with tatami mats, paper blinds and futons. We were provided with elegant yukata, which some guests, particularly men, wore to breakfast.

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We were sorry to leave Kyushu, famed for its fruit, vegetables, succulent pork and delicious shochu made from sweet potatoes.

Our final destination was Himeji in Kansai prefecture. We chose this historic city as we had been to Kyoto on another visit and Nara would be exceptionally crowded as it was cherry blossom time. The white walls and upturned roofs of the restored 17th century Himeji Castle dominate the centre of the city. Our hotel was well outside the city so we travelled in for the day. Here were our only disappointments in Japan. The gardens and buildings were stunning in the spring sunshine but I had left the camera in the hotel so there are no pictures to show. The other disappointment was the crowds of people in the castle. The five-storey building is made entirely of wood and to reach the top there are narrow wooden stairs going from one floor to the next. It was crowed to the point of being unsafe and we were just pushed forward by the crowd surging behind. When we were already inside, the number of people coming in was limited, but that was too late for us. However, we did enjoy the relative calm of the princess’s palace and the lake and gardens. We spent a good couple of hours wandering through Himeji’s interesting covered shopping market and made a few purchases.

What made our time in Japan so enjoyable?

The people who were always so helpful, smiling and welcoming. Language wasn’t a barrier as most signs are in English and Japanese, and many people speak some English.

The Japanese pride themselves in being efficient and orderly. For a traveller this is a boon. It is easy to find ones way around a station or city as signs are everywhere. It is easy to walk in a city and to cross the road as the traffic is well-ordered. The trains leave and arrive on time. The cities are clean. Japan is a safe and easy country to travel in.

Food does not make my world go round, but the food we had in Japan certainly did. We had noodles far and wide – from lowly ‘one man’ restaurants to ramen in a café in the Sangan Gardens of Kamakura, where the pork broth was divine. We had boards laden with fresh sashimi and plates of spicy dumplings. We enjoyed Japanese breakfasts with fish, meat and pickles and sweet Castella cake in Nagasaki, from a recipe brought by 15th century Portuguese traders. We bought  bento on the station to enjoy on the train.

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The gastronomic highlight was the dinner we had in our hotel in Himeji. We ate ten courses, each a very small amount, beautifully served, sometimes on china, sometimes pottery, sometimes lacquer.

I believe this kind of meal is called kaiseki (kaichu – kimono pocket, seki – stone). We finished this delicious meal with a tiny scoop of strawberry ice cream and green tea.

Now it’s time to plan another trip to Japan – perhaps to the northern island of Hokkaido.

Comfort

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On a previous visit to Japan I experienced “the Japanese toilet” but was too overwhelmed by the buttons, whose instructions I could not make head or tail of, to experience it fully. I only reveled in the welcomingly warm seat. This time around I was more daring, or perhaps they have become more user friendly with standardized symbols in readiness for the 2020 Olympics.

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Being more daring (and having an en suite loo) I tried out a range of features: the length and power of the flush; the length and power of the rear wash (spot on target); the bidet wash; the waterfall sound to disguise embarrassing other noises; the blissful warm-air behind dry.

 

The most thoughtful loo I experienced was the one with the lid that lifted up as the door of the loo opened – of course it shut again as you left. This particular loo had another splendid feature for men who do not appreciate having to lean over and lift the seat before their pee – all they have to do it press a button and up it comes. The ladies in the household will also welcome the unsplashed seat.

Some loos play music of your choice. Others just make a flushing sound to disguise any embarrassing noises coming from the little room. Some have screens to show the temperature of the seat and the force of the flush.

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Two weeks travelling in Japan entailed many visits to public ladies loos. They were a delight and child friendly too. There was a low urinal for the little boys and a mini-loo for the girls. Next to the adult loo was a pull down baby seat, so mum was able to do her business, knowing baby was safe. Then she could bring down the change table and make baby clean and happy too.

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In rural areas there must still be the ever-serviceable squat pan. Somehow, I don’t think these instructions were written by a Japanese person. They would have been more polite.

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It seems that loos have always been given special consideration in Japan. Here are soldies.

Loo humour is not new either. This one is about 200 years old, from the Edo period.

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None of the pictures are mine. They are all borrowed from the internet.

 

Beijing and Surrounds

In the past months I have had three memorable travel adventures. The most recent was to Beijing. Staying with a friend, I felt like a visitor and not a tourist. At every opportunity we avoided the popular spots, thronged with harassed tour guides marshaling their groups with waving flags, and found the quieter, more atmospheric places. Spring was in the air and the blossom was out.

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A night camping on the Great Wall was the start of an action packed week. A two-hour drive from Beijing city took us to the Badaling section of the wall. If you have been to the Great wall you may say, “That’s where everyone goes,” but we passed the places crowded with tourist buses and arrived at a village. Here our camping gear was loaded onto Donkey and our group of 6 set off with a guide. We carried rucksacks and fortunately I accepted the offer of a hiking stick.

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The Great Wall is not one wall, but (rather like the routes of the Silk Road or the Ho Chi Minh Trail) a series, the earliest dating back to 8th to 5th centuries BC. The walls were a barrier against the wilder tribes to the north, but also a roadway stretching in an east west direction and trade routes. The section of the wall that we walked on was built in 16th century during the Ming dynasty.

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The three-hour hike to where we camped was rugged and fairly tough going with steep inclines and sheer drops. The rewards were the magnificent panoramic vista, the spring blossom, the feeling of achievement, a sense of a depth of history and the awareness the human cost to build such a structure. We only saw two other people on the hike: photographers waiting to capture the sunset.

 

We did put up our tents, but did not have to cook. Faithful Donkey had brought us some beer and G produced a bottle of wine from her rucksack. Supper, cooked over charcoal, was tofu and vegetable kebabs, dainty pieces of lamb on long skewers, potato cakes and corn on the cob. We are hungrily and shared the (vegetable) remains with Donkey. G and I climbed into the tiny tent and slept head to tail. The sleeping bags were labeled as good to -10C but we were cold all night even though the temperature was nowhere near freezing. As a result the night was long, but compensated by a bright moon and a stunning sunrise.

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In the morning, I decided to forgo another 3 hour wall clamber, and instead followed Donkey back to the village through the blossoming orchards. While waiting for the others to arrive back I wandered around the village. There were small brick houses built in rows, a temple and a simple guest house, where we would have stayed if the weather had been too foul to camp. Many of the houses seemed empty. Perhaps people came for the fruit picking season as there were many orchards in the area. There were signs that the remoteness of the area would soon change as a resort was in the making. Before returning to the city we enjoyed a delicious and very local lunch eaten outside. The dishes were soon emptied as the lazy Susan was spun around the table.

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The following day we visited the Summer Palace, travelling there and back by Didi, a local Uber type service. The price was good, the drivers excellent and the cars comfortable. Getting around Beijing is not difficult for a city of 24 million people. The city is built on a vast flat plain and set out on a grid system with 6 ring roads surrounding the city. Where I was staying was near the 5th ring road. It took, by subway or road, well over an hour to get to the centre of the city. The subway is signed in Chinese and English and an inexpensive way to travel. One rush-hour journey was something I would not want to do every day; the carriage was packed and people pushed their way on and off. City bikes can be pick up and dropped off anywhere and are popular. Out of the city electric tuc-tucs are a cheap and practical way to travel short distances. Walking is easy as the pavements are wide and uncluttered. I went to two large parks – one popular for sports, ballroom dancing and thai chi; the other a pleasant wander through pavilions and gardens representing the 22 provinces of China.

 

IMG_7134Although we had reached the Summer Palace by 10.00am the place was heaving with people. We bought tickets to see all the main sights but went to none of them. Instead we bypassed the crowds (30,000 that day and 43,000 the previous day of mostly groups of Chinese people and a smattering of foreigners), and took a boat on the Kunming Lake to the Seventeen Arched Bridge. From here we walked through gardens along the West Causeway and in the Garden of Harmonious Interests (based on a South China garden of the Qing dynasty). Flanked by mountains, the Summer Palace was built by Emperor Qianlong in 1750 to celebrate the birthday of his mother (lucky mum). It burnt down but was rebuilt by the Dowager Empress Cixi in 1886 as a place for her to live. Some of the trees date back to the original gardens, but most are more recent. The new leaves of the willows blew in the breeze, the fruit blossoms were at their best and the soft perfume of lilac filled the air. It was a perfect spring day. I had been to the Summer Palace over 20 years earlier and remembered there was a long corridor. We walked along it again and once more I admired the delicate painting on the wooden beams and ceiling.

*****

A shopping stroll through the hutongs was planned for the following day. Hutongs are narrow streets, originally family residences with a front door leading into a courtyard. Now they are mostly shops, restaurants or small hotels but there are still some family homes. The original houses were built without loos so there are communal bathrooms on the street. To fortify us for the afternoon we had lunch in a tiny noodle restaurant – delicious. We then walked and shopped, strolled along a lake and finally refreshed ourselves with a pint of craft beer.

G and I then continued to our evening engagement: a visit to the opera. We sat at tables, drinking tea and eating snacks, for an hour of real Chinese entertainment, starting with one of the performers putting on make-up and costumes on the stage. Of the three short performances, my favorite was the story of the boatman who took a young nun across the river to her lover. She was frightened of getting in the boat so he poled it close and cajoled her on. The final story was a battle between a king and queen. The queen wore a headdress with long peacock feathers, which she twirled and twisted as she outmatched her opponent. The performers were part of the Peking Opera Company, started in 1780 for the Qing court. The costumes and makeup were stunning and music on traditional instruments added to the atmosphere.

*****

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The Ming Tombs are deep in the countryside. Well north of the city 13 of the Ming emperors (1368 to 1644) and their 23 wives are buried on the slopes of the Tianshau mountains. We walked the Sacred Way lined with white marble animals and then picked up taxis to go to two of the tombs that are open. The Changling tomb houses Emperor Chengzu and his empress. In the vast hall above the tombs is a glittering display of clothing, head-dresses and jewelry of the time. The Dingling tomb was built for Emperor Shenzondg and his two wives. These tombs are sealed with red lacquer in an underground chamber.

On my last full day we went to the 798 Art District. Named after the number of the 1950’s munitions factory, which was later taken over by artists looking for somewhere to work, it is now an area of galleries, shops, restaurants and exhibitions. Many countries have their cultural institutes in this trendy area.

My impressions of Beijing:

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A vast, throbbing, well organized city. I’m sure there are run-down areas, which I didn’t see, but I did see vast estates of high rise apartments.

Trees: parks, gardens and tree-lined highways throughout the city.

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Polite, friendly and helpful people.

A depth of history to explore.

Great food of all kinds (stomach linings and intestines were not dishes I chose)

Shopping: from luxurious silks to ‘Asian tat’ and everything in between.

The sky was blue and the air clean, but it is not always like that. There are many times when masks are essential and children are kept inside. The AQI (air quality index) is a topic of conversation. Modern buildings have clean, filtered air pumped throughout. Much of the pollution comes not from the city itself, but from the industrial areas nearby.

Before leaving for the airport I was treated to traditional Chinese tea, served in delicate china bowls. A fitting end to a memorable week. My taste of China makes me want to return to this controversial country.

 

 

 

The Waste Land

        …the grass was singing…

Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves

Waited for rain, while the black clouds 

Gathered far distant, over Himavant.

The jungle crouched, humped in silence.

Then spoke the thunder

                                T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

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‘Due to turbulence, there may be a few bumps as we descend into Mfuwe. We expect to land in about 15 minutes. The time now is 6.00 pm and the temperature in Mfuwe is 38 degrees or one hundred for those of you who prefer fahrenheit.” The pilot’s voice crackled over the intercom. I was returning to the Luangwa Valley on an October evening.

Since then it has become hotter, going into the 40s day after day, the sky cloudless and the heat hanging in the still air. The setting sun drops rapidly, a firry red ball sending out flames into the dust-laden air, but even with the sun gone all that it has touched remains hot and dry.

Only in the early hours of the morning does the temperature drop, but the respite is short and soon the sky turns red in the east and the warm-up for another day begins.

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The hot season here is not long – a month and a half perhaps – but it comes at the end of the long dry season as the last rain of any consequence fell in April. It is a hard time for the wildlife of Luangwa as both food and water are short.

For the grazers and browsers it is a full time occupation to find enough food. The hippos leave the river at sunset and travel far throughout the night to find sufficient food. The large pods of the sausage tree, brought down either by their own weight or by elephants, are a welcome addition to both hippos and giraffe when their usual diet

is difficult to find. Elephants are destructive eaters at this time of sparse food. They stand on hind legs and reach their trunks high, using their weight and strength to pull down branches. Large open sores appear on the trunks of baobab and mopane trees where the elephants have torn the bark with their tusks to get much needed extra nutrients. Walking great distances to find enough food and water, the animals become thin and lethargic. It is common to see elephants lying in the shade of a welcome tree or spaying themselves with muddy water to cool their hot skin.

It is the predators who eat well in the dry months. Impala and puku are forced onto the open plains to find food and it is here that the hunters – lions, leopard and wild dogs – seek them out. A buffalo may also become a hearty meal for a family of lions, giving the young cubs an opportunity to tear at the fresh meat. At the very end of the dry season the impala drop their young. An unaware and unsteady fawn makes a tasty supper for a leopard. It is easy for the cat to quickly haul the light carcass into a tree to escape the hyenas who are always ready to steal another animal’s kill.

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The ground is bare, with deep cracks in the hardened mud. The footprints of the last animals to walk through when the ground was soft stay frozen until the next rainy season. Most of the trees are bare and the leaves of the winter thorn, which has remained bright green through the dry season, now turn grey and fall. However some trees do not need to wait for rain to produce new foliage. Their roots are deep and their limbs carry enough energy to grow bright new green leaves. The spreading canopy of the sausage tree gives welcome shade to many animals and the deep red flowers are a favoured food for impala and baboons. The tall mopane trees produce new leaves that shimmer in the hot air, but the mopane scrub, stunted by brutal elephant treatment, has to wait until the earth is damp to lose their deathlike appearance.

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Fierce hot winds whip up the sand on the dry riverbed and fast moving kamvuluvulu (whirl winds) take leaves and dust high into the air. As the heat rises the cicadas start their high-pitched single-note orchestration, sounding like an endless whistling kettle, slightly off key (is that what T S Eliot meant by the line in the Waste Land, ‘the grass is singing‘?). Afternoon clouds build up in the harsh blue November skies. Low rolls of thunder tell that there is rain around but it falls in isolated showers, most of which barely wet the dry earth, just enough to cool the air and bring a brief respite from the intense heat.

 

The people living in the Luangwa valley, like the animals, struggle through the hot dry days. The heat saps energy making everything an effort. In spite of this it is still very much the tourist season as the animals are concentrated around the river and the few remaining lagoons, while the barren landscape makes the animals easy to spot. The Zambians cope better at working in the heat than the majority of soft Westerners, although many of their houses do not have the luxury of electricity or fans.

The school building where I work is relatively cool as it gets no direct sun, has windows on both sides to allow air through, and the tin roof is covered with thatch. It is fortunate that the building is cool as outside it is very different. The metal slide is too hot to use at all and the swings bearable only early in the morning. The children stay outside only till 8.00 am and even then huddle on the sandpit where there is shade from the grass fence. The mornings are long in the classroom so most days we fill a bowl with water and have water play on the shaded verandah.

My house gets a lot of sun and by the end of the day the walls are warm and everything in the house is as well. Two fans whirl day and night but only move the hot air around. As I sit in the afternoon with sweat running down my back I remember Mary, the character in Doris Lessing’s novel “The Grass is Singing”, who sat in the house her husband Dick had built on his farm. As the sun beats down relentlessly onto the tin roof Mary loses her sanity, her marriage and, finally, her life. To sleep at night I wet a chitenje (a piece of light cotton fabric) and place it over me. This cools the body by something I remember from school science is called ‘latent heat of vaporization’. Most nights I will wake soon after midnight and wet the chitenje once more.

This is a teasing time, a time of impatient waiting for the rain, the real rain that will fill the river, turn the barren wasteland into lush emerald-green pasture and bring a smile to the farmers who will then plant their crops.

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Backward Promotion

The Head Teacher was standing in the corridor talking to the Senior Amharic Teacher. Their conversation (on some obscure historical point) was coming to an end when the Grade 1 teacher walked briskly past, pausing for a friendly greeting before disappearing into her classroom.

Senior Amharic Teacher: She will retire at the end of this year and she is still teaching Grade 1. She can’t be very good at her job.

Head Teacher: What do you mean? She is an excellent teacher.

Senior Amharic Teacher: Then why is she still teaching Grade 1?

Head Teacher: That is her specialty. She is an Early Years teacher.

Senior Amharic Teacher: That’s very strange. Here in Ethiopian schools, an Elementary teacher starts with the lowest grade. If they are good teachers they gradually progress up the grades until they reach the top grade. It is only a poor teacher who stays teaching the young children.

*****

When I was a very new teacher (although it was not quite my first job) I was ‘The Teacher’ in a one-class primary school in Mzuzu, northern Malawi. There were about 8 children, aged 5 to 7, and I taught them the 3Rs, art, singing, PE etc. A friend came most days to listen to the children read and, once a week, we piled them all into the back of her ancient but elegant cream Bentley to go swimming in a the only pool nearby – a round plastic tank in the garden of a retired English couple. The 20 minute drive on a twisting rough road, about the same time in the water, biscuits and squash in the garden before the return drive back to school was the highlight of the school week. Field trips were also part of the curriculum, – the most memorable being a flip for each child in a 2 seater single engine plane (the kind where the body and wings were a frame covered with canvas and the pilot/owner kept a few bits of canvas, a pair of scissors and glue in the pocket of the door). The aim of the field trip was for the children to see their school and home from the air (and to wave to their parents). Each time the plane skimmed over the school building I wondered what had possessed me to propose this field trip, or for the parents to sanction it. However, each child returned to earth both safe and full of wonder. Perhaps they still remember the event.

The Mzuzu school building had started its life as a house built for a single woman coming from UK to work in the colonial service in the years following World War 2. There were plenty of unattached men working in the Colonial Service so many young women found more than an interesting job in a new country. Because the school had been a house it also had a garden. Once a week a group of prisoners would arrive. While their guard dozed under a tree with his gun lying beside him, the unfortunate men, dressed in baggy trousers and shirts printed with large black arrows, slashed the grass with sharp pangas. I was instructed not to communicate with the prisoners, but I did often look at them and wonder what crimes they had committed. None of them looked the least threatening or dangerous.

 *****

After almost half a century of teaching I am now ‘The Teacher’ in an even smaller school for even younger children (the average age is 3). This tiny school is in the Game Management Area (GMA), across the river from the South Luangwa Game Park in northern Zambia. The school is housed in a converted building.

 

It does not have a garden, but an area of grass (that we struggle to keep green in the long months of the dry season), a single mopane tree and a grass fence to deter the wildlife.

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Animals are unaware of the boundary of the park so the GMA is as much the larder for elephants, giraffe, lion, leopard and hippo as the park itself.

The highlights of the school week are visits by the animals. Baboons use the fence as their climbing frame, or as a grandstand to view the children playing on the swings. Elephants hanker after the green grass or a sweet mopane branch. One morning, an unusual sound made me look out of the window. Something long, fat and grey was coming over the fence. At first I thought it was a huge snake but then realized it was an elephant’s trunk. Finding this was not long enough to reach the ground over the fence, the elephant promptly made a hole and put its trunk through. On two mornings I have arrived at the school to find the fence broken and heaps of telltale dung on the grass.

On another occasion the children were quietly painting when we heard loud roars nearby. All heads came up. “Is that lions?” “Yes” I replied, “and they are very near.” However they were only passing by and soon the sound was more distant. We have had our first field trip. The transport was open safari vehicles and the destination a wildlife education centre. The children put their heads inside a hippo skull, and compared the size of their feet to those of lions.

IMG_5409On the way home we stopped to watch elephants and giraffe and to observe fresh lion prints in the soft sand.

It is almost all fun.

However, if the Senior Amharic Teacher knew the path my teaching career had taken he would shake his head in disbelief, “So many years of being a teacher and she has not progressed at all. She has gone backwards. How sad for her.”

*****

He would be even more perplexed if he knew that my very first job, as a newly qualified straight out of university 22 year old, was ‘Senior History Teacher’, responsible for the GCSE exam class. (I was promoted above the teacher who had far more experience and knowledge than myself because she lacked a degree qualification). Perhaps I should have felt honored at being given an exam class in my first year as a teacher, but I did not. That year in a school in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) facing 40 girls seated in four long rows, trying to instill in them the importance of the Balkan Wars, involving countries they had no interest in and facts I had swotted up the night before, was a nightmare. Outside the classroom there were piles of essays to mark, meals taken with the girls, evening assemblies, prep duty, and, worst of all, weekend duties.

It was not at all fun.

 I was certainly convinced that getting married would be a far more exciting prospect than being Miss Todd in this all-girls boarding school. After all, the only reason I had become a teacher was not because I was called but so that I could get a grant and a generous interest free loan to go to university. My part of that bargain was to teach for 2 years in a government school.

As I had only completed one year of that teaching, I had to repay some of the money. Teaching in the little school in Mzuzu earned me this money. During the afternoons I played golf and in the evenings my new husband and I drank beer with the parents.

 It was almost all fun.

 

A Doll’s House

Before coming to Kapani I was told that a furnished and equipped house would be ready for me. There was no photo but there was a list of what would be provided. I noticed that although tea towels were on the list, an iron or sweeping brush was not. When a queried this I was told that the house would be cleaned and my laundry done. With this sort of service it seemed churlish to ask for a photo of the house. It would just have to be a surprise.IMG_4602

 

IMG_4600On arrival at Mfuwe (International) Airport, I was met by Aubrey and within minutes he had my bags stowed in the back of the open safari vehicle. The airport building serves as the only bank in the area and there are two cash machines so I quickly got some money and we set off on the 30 km journey to Kapani. I had travelled this road many times, from when it was a rough dusty track, while it was being upgraded and we would have to dodge round road making machines or churn through slippery mud. Now it is a tarred road and the journey time has halved. This means that the growing number of vehicles travels faster, and the numerous cyclists and pedestrians have to keep to the extreme edge.

The safari lodges usually transport their guests to and from the airport in open vehicles. This makes what would otherwise just be an interesting journey into an adventure. I donned sunglasses to keep the wind, dust and insects out of my eyes but the black clouds above us meant that soon they were more effective as goggles. Aubrey stopped the vehicle and pulled out large plastic sheets to cover my suitcases and we continued on our way with rain blowing into our faces.

I was full of anticipation as the vehicle turned into Kapani. We passed the workshop, turned sharp right along a narrow track and came to a halt. There was my house. It was a child’s drawing of a house – simple, symmetrical and inviting – a door, two windows each side and a small ‘stoop’ or porch with two comfortable chairs and a table.

IMG_4603The manager, his wife and two girls were there to greet me (Aubrey had called on the radio as we had turned onto the Kapani road) and to usher me in. A great deal of hard work had gone into getting the house ready. It was complete, even to having a fresh clean tea towel hanging from a nail; tea, coffee and other essentials-to-life were on the shelf. Fresh paint covered the walls and there was a soft floral smell- lavender floor polish I discovered later. “Did I want lunch?” “No, I was fine.” They would leave me to unpack and return to show me around and in the evening they would collect me for supper. I felt welcome.

Exploring the house didn’t take long. The inside dividing walls came to just above the doors and there was no ceiling, just rafters and a roof of corrugated tin inside, and thatch outside. The windows, with no glass but netting (against animals) and mesh (against insects) with diaphanous white curtains, made the house light and airy.

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My 70kg of luggage had followed me in (I had sent two cases up by road) so I set about unpacking. This did not take long. I made heaps of my clothes (always too many) and piled them in the open wood and bamboo wardrobe. There was room for a chair in the corner of the room and here I put items to be hung up – where they stayed for the next month till I borrowed a few coat hangers. The bed was made up and I gave it a quick test – very comfortable. Large elephants walked around the bedspread passing under a giant sausage tree with spreading branches.

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Before I came, I had been asked what would be one thing I would really like to have. A good mosquito net was my reply. My request had been remembered: meters of crisp white mosquito netting almost filled the room making an impenetrable barrier against the insect invasion I would encounter.

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The other room (apart from the bathroom) was the living area. The furniture was new, made from a local Mukwa (Pterocarpus angolensis) – a heavy reddish-brown hardwood, by the Kapani carpenter. The couch had covers and cushions from Tribal Textile, a local company specializing in hand printed fabrics.

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I decorated the square table with a piece Indonesian cloth, found a few nails and put up some Vietnamese wall hangings, made a bookshelf where the table met the wall, unpacked my electronic gadgets (old and new laptops, Kindle, iPad and iPhone) and found a spot to hide the suitcases. On another chair, placed by the only door, I piled bits and pieces I had collected as being useful for the school and unobtainable where I was – a bag a brightly coloured ribbon, cream of tartar and bottles of food colouring (for making play dough), a hot glue gun, pots of glitter and smiley-face stickers.

 

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The kitchen area was simple but adequate, especially for a person who cooks from necessity and not for pleasure. A sink, a cooker, a fridge, crockery, cutlery and wine glasses were all there. Cooking utensils were spartan but I didn’t plan on doing cordon bleu meals.

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The house was soon ‘home’. Sitting in a comfortable wooden chair on the stoop drinking tea confirmed that it would be a good place to live.

*****

That was three months ago but it has proved to be true. Every time I come through the door from the stoop the little house welcomes me. I eat lunch with the Kapani staff so only cook for myself in the evening. I have not tried the oven yet, as the trays provided are too big to fit, but I have perfected a tomato sauce which is good with pasta, chicken or a piece of fish and I have remembered how to roast and salt peanuts.

Having been here for a while there are things I would like to change. My doll’s house has no view. True, it does have a fine wild mango tree with fruit loved by the elephants, but what I look at is a car park. The workshop is nearby and the high-pitched whine of the electric saw fills the daylight hours. If it stops the only slightly less deafening sound of the power hose used for cleaning the safari vehicles takes over.

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In Asia I was spoilt by cheap, reliable and fast internet and came to depend on it as a replacement for a dictionary and reference books. Here internet is expensive, unreliable and slow. I bought a costly router, many kwacha worth of ‘talk time’, which I then converted into ‘bundles’, to purchase a few GB. What I thought would last 60 days was finished in 10, so now I am more cautious about watching video clips and moving photos by airdrop. I love listening to BBC radio and fortunately my son showed me how to change the setting so that I did not gobble up bytes by having opera quality sound just to listen to the news.

As the sun goes down the workshop tools stop, the cars move out and the baboons and monkeys take to the trees. An intense quiet descends. During the night this will be broken by the call of a hyena or a lion, the snapping of branches as the elephants have a late night snack outside my bedroom window, and the mournful cry of owls. The clear winter sky allows bright starlight to shine through my bedroom curtains – these are luxuries to be enjoyed and appreciated.

An Auspicious Day

Tuesday 21st June was an auspicious day.

It was the day of the solstice – for those of us in the southern hemisphere, mid winter and the shortest day of the year. For me in northern Zambia it meant sunrise at 6.00 am and sunset at 5.30 pm. Between those hours the sky was cloudless and strongly blue. The early morning was (a chilly) 16 degrees but by midday the temperature had risen to 28 degrees – just right to lie by the pool with a good book before taking a plunge.

For the first time since 1948 the solstice fell on a full moon and the large pink orb rose as the sun dipped. I awoke after midnight in a room suffused with moonlight. It may not have been bright enough to read a book but it was certainly light enough to see clearly the elephants who were browsing noisily nearby. Although the grass and undergrowth is dry and brown, as the last rain was two months ago, some trees and shrubs have fresh green leaves that the elephants enjoy for a late night snack.

Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Narenda Modi, declared the 21st June International Yoga Day in an address to the UN General Assembly in 2014. It therefore seemed appropriate to focus on Adho Mukha Svanasana in my classes for the week. Mr Iyengar said of this asana, “Awareness should embrace the buttocks as snow covering the peaks of the Himalayas.” To move towards achieving this state of perfection in the pose we focused on extending the back. The broad straight trunk of a tree worked well in the absence of a wall, although the baboons in the branches above protested. We addressed Surya Namaskara towards the glowing sky of the setting sun and watched a business (or perhaps a mongaggle) of mongooses frolic on the dry riverbed.

It was an auspicious day.

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The Small Dominate

All of The Big Five are found within the Luangwa parks.

I am living is across the river from the national park but the river is just low enough for elephants to come across seeking the favored butterfly-shaped Mopane leaves with a side salad of recently watered turf. A few nights ago I awoke at 3 am to the sound of leaves rustling. My immediate thought was that it was my turn to be broken into by the thieves who are plaguing the area removing electronics and cash. I turned on the light thinking that would deter them but the sound continued. I lay and listened and realized that the heavy rhythmic breathing was not human but animal. A large elephant was on the other side of the gauze-and-chicken-wire window, pulling leaves off a shrub. He sounded chesty and there was only one so I assume he was a lone and lonely old man. He stayed for a long time and eventually his rasping breath lulled me back to sleep. Groups of elephants regularly come through the housing area so care has to be taken when walking around, especially at night. These huge creatures move silently.

One very early morning the baboons were making an almighty din, a sure sign a leopard was present. The throaty roar of lions is often a night-time sound and at dawn this morning three lionesses strolled across the area below the deck.

On my first night I ate dinner with friends while the most enormous hippopotamus munched his monotonous vegetarian meal of fine lawn grass a couple of meters away.

There are plenty of opportunities to see the ‘lesser’ animals. Driving home one evening, one of The Small Five, the Elephant Shrew, sped across the road, its large ears making it instantly recognizable. On the same road we saw a genet and a banded mongoose. A family of stately giraffe often browses contentedly near the roadside, and bush buck are brave enough to feed on the grass around the swimming pool while people are swimming. The noisy hyenas are around at night and a chorus of birdcalls starts before dawn. Baboons, nearly as big as me but far more threatening, are always lurking around hoping for something to steal. Their competitors are the less aggressive but secretive and more nimble monkeys.

It’s the animals that tourist come to see, but it is the very smallest of creatures, the ones that are not on the ‘must see’ lists, that make their presence felt with threatening intent and keep me constantly alert.

The Kalahari Ferrari, a creature that is neither a spider nor a scorpion, is aptly named. They dislike light so favour dark shadowy places and race across a floor or bare ground, their hairy legs traversing unsuspecting human feet in rapid strides. Some are about the size of a baby’s hand but not so inviting.

Scorpions are here too. Each day, before leaving the school building, I pick up all the cushions and the floor mats to prevent scorpions, and other nasties, making them a bed for the night. We have killed two scorpions in the school building – not the more painful orange variety but the almost as unpleasant black ones. They look like harmless crickets until a careful look reveals the curved tail. The sting, which I have not experienced, is very painful and lasts many hours.

I have sat at my desk and watched huge hairy caterpillars making their way across the floor and departing under the door. I did not mind them too much but when an 8 cm centipede came into my line of vision I lifted my foot and brought it down firmly. It took three hard stamps until the creature stopped its wriggling.

 

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Very hairy

Praying mantis, moths and grasshoppers cling to the outside of my mosquito net. I greet them as I pass and ask them politely to stay on the outside. House wasps fly in with small pieces of mud and buzz as they build nests on the rafters. An albino tree frog has sat for the past fortnight on my unused raincoat. His half closed eyes seem to say, ‘DoIMG_4814 not disturb, life is good here.” The game scout confirmed that it will stay there happily until the rain comes at the end of the year. It will grow fat on insects and then depart to breed.

Geckos scurry behind the loo when I turn on the light on the occasional cockroach shows its ugly face.

Apart from the scorpions and centipedes all these small creatures are interesting, and sometimes annoying, rather than hazardous. My main insect complaint, however, is ANTS (using this to cover true ants and termites). These creatures are (occasionally) interesting, always annoying and, for things so small, mostly hazardous. Construct a house and watch it systematically deconstructedIMG_4866

 

Level an area of ground and within days mounds will appear in it.

Plant some grass and watch as it is chopped up like green beans and hauled through a hole to an underground home.

A dropped crumb will within minutes turn black and move rapidly across the floor. Every cup of tea has a few floaters on the top. These busy bodies take delight in discovering sticky fingerprints or a dead body. They move in columns coming down from the ceiling or along the floor. Their lives are short and daily sweeping brushes out heaps of them, perhaps to be cannibalized by others outside. I have used numerous sticks of ant chalk, acquired in Indonesia, to draw lines on my kitchen wall and watch the ants drop dead onto the draining board. It must be powerful stuff to beat them off so successfully.

But it is the smallest of the smallest that cause the mightiest irritation. They are unseen and unfelt but they create on my body large red lumps that beg to be scratched. Resist this temptation and within a day the itch will go but scratch just once and for many days I will regret it. Their favoured area of attack is the soft parts of the body that are usually kept covered by persons of mature years like myself. They taunt me to expose myself as even the gentle rub of soft clothing makes the itching worse. I have smeared these red welts with tubes of anti-itch cream, in desperation borrowing from the first-aid box, but the most effective remedy seems to be a bottle of strong smelling stuff that I acquired in Indonesia. The Indonesians seem to know how to combat ant aggression.

For an entomologist all these creatures must be an endless source of interest, but for the rest of us they are a constant threat. The good thing is that with the dry months many will disappear but I have a feeling the ants are here to stay.