For liberté, égalité, fraternité

Moving to Paris four years ago turned out to be an unmitigated disaster from which I had to ask my mother to bail me out. (It’s a funny story, maybe I’ll tell it sometime) I have been thinking a lot about the recent attacks and what Paris did for me. All I can say, and it is no mean feat, Paris taught me to love. In no way is she perfect, yet being embraced by Paris delivered me the joy of embracing Paris.

 

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It was Autumn 2011. My then French boyfriend was concluding his brief visit to Scotland. We rented a car and made a hasty loop from Edinburgh through the highlands to Inverness. At the time, and still now four years later, I had not learned to drive. As I dozed quietly my boyfriend drove the 6 hour stretch alone, catching only a few surreptitious glimpses of the sleepy heathered glens.

Soon we were at the airport saying our goodbyes. Not to each other, for once, but this time to my mother. We flew from Edinburgh to the southernmost tip of England, from where we flew to Rennes, his hometown in France. As the tiny aircraft lifted from the runway my boyfriend turned to me.

‘Listen, I have to tell you, something…’ I listened silently. ‘So, my father is to collect us from the airport…’ His thought drifted out the window as we veered toward the Atlantic Ocean.

‘Your father?’

‘Oh, yes! Well… ‘, he confided, ‘he has a moustache.’

I cackled, loudly. The couple in the adjacent row glared as I struggled to contain my chuckles. He continued, ‘it’s a really really typical French moustache, I know I must to tell to you before you meet him. Please don’t laugh when you see him.’ Still sniggering, I contemplated whether my boyfriend thought his girlfriend was in fact a Francophobe.

The plane made it to the French coast. The forest green floors of my country were replaced by burnt sienna fields basking in the early harvest sun. A tawny sun blush replica of my boyfriend with a thick moustache collected us in the arrivals hall and drove us away. Thin, manicured pines which elegantly lined the country road. Beyond the roadside lay a peppering of posies and through the open window came an aroma of warm burnt lavender.

His parents lived in a house in a little cul-de-sac, with large glass windows, framed by a blooming garden. My French was complete rot so his parents and I settled into a friendly patter of likes and dislikes. His father and I pottered around the garden, speaking broken Franglish. He guided me to a corner bush and pulled from its branches a handful of matt brown shells. He cracked one open for me to taste. I still remember the front hall, rather than a bowl full of keys, there sat a wooden bowl brimming with unshelled hazelnuts collected from the garden. His mother asked if I liked cakes. The next morning she produced a golden sponge, 14” in diameter, finished with thick rings of pineapple floating over the surface of the cake. My boyfriend’s nieces braided my hair.

He introduced me to his friends, a mixed bag of artist artists, martial artists, and intellectual artists. We sat on La Rue des…. , on tables which spilled out onto the pedestrianised streets. Beers clinked with co-workers, preserved sausages were broken with friends, and laughter precipitated from the cobblestone street.

After a few days I left for Paris alone. Arriving at La Gare Montparnasse I was reunited with an old friend. We embraced while I relayed some continental bisous from my boyfriend. My friend guided me through the underground burrow of the the Paris Metro. We exited from … emerging finally into the Parisian streets. By now it was dark. Yellowing trees stood watch over the busy paved streets. Tenement buildings stood tall, wearing regal doors which reached high into elongated doorways, wearing the iconic medal of the Parisian balconettes. The the detailed stonework was feebly lit by the pale street lamps. Figures flickered behind backlit curtains like the shadow puppets of Paris.

We made use of the Parisian public bike scheme and rented two Velibs. We cycled up steep side streets puffing crudely at passers by in wool scarves and long overcoats. Three blocks further at the top of the hill I could see a gap filled with neon signs and the outline of a trashy red windmill. As we reached the plateau the intense incline gave way to a florid array of red lights. We left the bikes and carried on by foot. Wading through crowds of princes and paupers, we passed dark doorways obscured with bulky curtains promising good times. Bar floors were mobbed with people dancing and and drinking on this modest Wednesday night.

My friend lived at the top of a ridge which separates The Moulin Rouge on one side from le Sacre Couer on the other. After dumping my belongings in his petite apartment, we set off to join the flocks the among the luminescent noise. I exchanged kisses with strangers who would soon become friends. We laughed and we danced and we loved.

In the morning my friend’s flatmates, an Irish girl and a French boy, awoke early. The Frenchman left the apartment almost silently, allowing only the door lock to click abruptly into place. He returned within an hour with paper wrapped croissants and a single red rose. My friend explained the phenomenon.

‘He buys her a rose every day and asks her to marry him. He says he’ll keep doing it every day, until she says yes.’

It was in this way that I came to live in Paris.

Where do you want to go today?

I awoke, groggy, in a white washed concrete room. The only window faced a dark corridor. Hot viscous air was buffeted at my face in frequent intervals by a revolving fan. Reaching my limit of permissible heat I dressed and made an exit. The cheeky reception boys were entertaining the last few breakfasters.

‘Good morning!’ they chirruped together. Blinking at the daytime light, I sat down. ‘Where do you want to go today?’ one asked. Guiltily unresponsive I murmured something about a museum. After a quick coffee fix I was bundled into a flamboyant lime tuk tuk. Wearing a Jack Daniels emblazoned t-shirt, with a pony tail longer than mine, I warmed to today’s company.

He drove erratically through the teeming, overwrought streets of Phnom Penh and spoke little. He dropped me at a gated corner of the perimeter of an enormous concrete wall, adorned with plaited rolls of barbed wire. We agreed to reconvene in 90 minutes. He left me at the open gates of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

I knew astonishingly little about the genocide before arriving in Cambodia. I was aware of the synonymous name of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge yet the details of the event drew a blank. It had only been one week prior at the foot of the ‘Secret Lake’ that any details of Cambodia’s past had been divulged. We had hired a tuk tuk driver to take us on a short tour of the countryside surrounding sleepy Kampot. We stopped at the salt fields initially, and in well rehearsed English, our driver explained the laborious work of the salt collectors. He pointed at the dried out empty fields bordered by shallow levees and irrigation tracks. Not a single soul was to be seen. During wet season, he told us, many people work in the salt stores, but there is not enough work so most leave to work seasonally in Vietnam or Thailand. We drove on. He slipped off the uneven concrete road down a dirt track. Dust thrown up by traffic painted the wooden thatch houses, farmed fields, and playing children in a sheet of red mud.

We drove along a canal where buffalo chewed grass and butterflies roamed. Two boys on bicycles caught sight of the two foreigners in the back of a tuk tuk. They pursued us up stream on the other side of the water way, arms flailing amidst shouts of welcome. ‘They are good boys’ our driver mentioned. ‘They look after the cows for their mother and father…’ There was a short glitch in our driver’s speech. The tuk tuk trundled up the ascending road. A shining lake revealed itself just over the grassy fold. Our driver stopped at the foot. ‘This is the Secret Lake’ he informed, ‘it used to be small. But the Khmer Rouge came. They made all the people work to dig a bigger lake.’ A flurry of motorbikes drove by, stopping a few meters away. ‘For a lot of people, the work was too hard, they didn’t give enough food to them’, he continued, ‘many people died to make this lake’ The bikers made their peace fingers, took their selfies, and sped off. Their voices caught the wind as they departed unaware of the secret of the lake.

In 1975, shortly after the taking of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia closed its borders. The atrocities which bore the name of communism contributed to the extermination of millions who posed a threat to the ideology, all of it behind closed doors. The regime had few foreign visitors. The admitted few were fooled into believing that the Khmer Rouge had established peace, prosperity, and solidarity, in order to garner Western support. Refugee stories were branded as ostentatious and untrustworthy by reputable theorists, scholars and journalists. Only after the liberation of Phnom Penh, the irrefutable evidence contained within the S21 prison and the Killing Fields was unveiled to the international community. By this stage nearly a quarter of the population had been exterminated. The long term damage caused by less than four years of Pol Pot’s hard rule ensured that many more would fall from starvation and disease in the following years.

The disturbing neglect of the Western community in this case is nothing short of appalling. The West ignored the stories of the refugees, choosing to believe their ambassadors. Many of those visitors still maintain a pro Khmer Rouge stance, believing the evidence to be a fabrication of the Vietnamese or anti-communist sentiment. The genocide is still subject to denial in some circles, even in the West.

The Cambodian people however do not appear to bear a grudge. Recent history has left tell tale pockmarks on Cambodia. Parts of the country remain plagued with land mines. The economy began the slow road to recovery decades ago yet economics has yet to be kind. Most eerie is perhaps the seeming lack of presence of an older generation. Like most humans, Cambodians possess a tenacious capacity for love and laughter, and forgiveness, but particular to the Cambodian cultural narrative is the duty to educate about an unrepeatable past. The message from the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum rings clear. Genocide is not new. Genocide will happen and  since 1980 has happened again. But we need to put our ‘needs’ aside and recognise the early warning signs of a humanitarian crisis. We must respond more swiftly. We must learn from the mistakes of the past.

Writing about Cambodia has been difficult; I do not wish to sound egotistical in saying that. But I cannot help but relate my compassion for the Cambodian story to the ongoing crisis we face right now. There are approximately 4 million Syrians displaced by a conflict which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Reportage on the conflict fell quiet years ago and resumed only once dead children began to wash up on Turkey’s shores. We have the tools, the learning, and the compassion, yet we continue to ignore the cries of millions. Are we too busy, drinking Malbec in the comfort of our armchairs watching The Great British Bake Off, or are our governments too desperate to please in a first past the post system? Collective Western negligence already condemned Cambodia to suffer. By refusing basic asylum now, our negligence will again, unintentionally, contribute to what could one day be called the genocide of the Syrian population. Do we want that on our collective conscience? The only argument I have been presented with so far is that refugees will want to settle in our country but we do not have the capacity. Plainly, that is cold arrogance. I am sure if you asked any one of the millions of refugees ‘where do you want to go today?’, their answer would be home.

Anyone who is interested, here’s an article on what you could do to help.

Top 5 foods you can’t miss in Japan

When booking our flights to Japan I considered adding some elasticated shorts to my meagre wardrobe. With only three weeks to satisfy 4 years of Japanese food cravings, sacrifices had to be made. Mainly around the waistline. Japanese cuisine is more varied than one might think encompassing so much more than just sushi and tempura prawns. After two months of the battle of the chilli, I was ready for a break.

Four years ago, I lived in Miyagi prefecture, approximately 400 kilometres north of Tokyo. In the summer months I cycled to work along dead country roads bordered by rice paddies and vegetable patches, growing everything from aubergines to zucchini, each embracing the rising sun. Different prefectures have their own speciality produce, examples include Fukushima peaches and Aomori apples, which will set you back a penny or ten. But the quality of the perfectly formed, unblemished produce is extraordinary. The greatest fellowship of centennials is in Japan, where fish and rice are king. Fish comes raw, preserved, pickled, barbecued, fried, even made into a delicious fish cake. Japanese rice is a glutenous short grain breed, which is can be cooked or processed into flour. If rice doesn’t tickle you maybe noodles will. There’s a huge misconception that all Japanese food is healthy. The Japanese have a word which encompasses all of their fried food, ‘aagemono’, and the different styles of batters, crumbs, and coatings demonstrate just how seriously they are.

Itadakimasu!

1. Karaage

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Anyone who knows me will know I have a weakness for fried chicken. Anyone who lived with me in Japan will know why. Karaage is special. I often bought a stick of karaage on my way home from work as a cooking snack. Generally made from chicken thigh, marinated overnight, and fried in a rice flour batter, karaage always hits the spot. It’s also everywhere. At restaurants, bars, cold in bento boxes, hot by the convenience store check out, squeezed with lemon, served with Kewpie mayo, or naked, it is only too easy to get your hands on these juicy bites of tenderness.

2. Sushi and sashimi

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Sashimi (Top L-R Octopus, cucumber, yellow tail. Bottom L-R: tuna, salmon)

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Sushi plate (Clockwise from top left: rolled egg omelet, salmon roe, yellow tail, prawn, squid, tuna, snapper, salmon)

When I arrived in Sendai to meet my supervisor for the first time, I was 21. Naturally, I was also hung over. I wasn’t the only one. Sadistically I had managed to coax half of the new recruits of Miyagi prefecture to come out with me the night before. We gawked out the window avoiding shameful eyes. After one last group meeting in Sendai, we were separated, and protection of the herd was no longer available. My supervisor took me for lunch. I sat awkwardly on my haunches in a skirt. Our sets arrived. A tray was laid on the table in front of me. A fat white tentacle winked at me with its giant sucker. It was my first experience with raw fish which was quickly mistranslated as I was ’scared of fish’. Laughing, my supervisor ensured that everyone who we worked with, knew this detail. I eventually got over the initial mortification and over time eased myself in with sushi, eventually working my way toward sashimi. Despite getting off on the wrong foot, raw fish and I became close friends.

3. Donburi

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Unadon

There are many different types of donburi. Donburi, often abbreviated to don, is a bowl of rice topped with deliciousness. A few common favourites are;

Katsudon, a panko crumbed pork cutlet topped with egg

Tendon, topped with a tempura mix

Unadon, marinated grilled eel, similar to teriyaki

Oyakodon, which loosely translates as ‘mother and child bowl’, consisting of chicken, egg, and leek

My favourite has to be gyudon which is stewed thin slices of beef and onion, or butadon, the pork alternative. Load up on shredded pink ginger for a burst of liveliness, and shichimi (the red seasoning) for a touch of heat, and you have yourself a hearty and satisfying bowl. I always order an ontama (half-cooked egg) on the side so I can dunk my beef in the runny yolk.

4. Ramen

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The origin of the word ramen reputedly comes from the word lamein, a corruption of a Chinese word which means ‘pulled noodles’. Ramen noodles are traditionally made from flour, water, oil, and a type of mineral heavy alkaline water called kansui. Kansui can also be substituted for egg. Ramen typically has a richer flavour and chewier texture than soumen or soba. Toppings vary, most common are chashu pork, fish cakes, and fermented bamboo shoots. This sounds quite average on the surface, but the secret weapon is the broth. There isn’t only one flavour of ramen broth, generally speaking there are four main types, tonkotsu (meat bone), shio (salt), shouyu (soy) and miso. Ramen shops and local regions will have their own specialisation, such as the notably delicious butter ramen in Hokkaido. The flavourful savoury broth with the firm noodles is a treat, provided you don’t burn yourself. Ramen is always served extra hot, and slurping is mandatory.

5. Matsuri food

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Hashiyaki

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Yakitori

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Takoyaki

The best Japanese junk food can be found at pop up stalls, kitted with gas-powered hot plates or coal fire grills. Favourites include yakitori (skewers of marinated barbecue chicken), karaage (fried chicken), yakisoba (fried soba noodles), takoyaki (octopus pancake balls), and okonomiyaki(see below). On my last trip I came across something they called hashiyaki, essentially a griddled okonomiyaki pancake wrapped loosely around a pair of disposable chopsticks, topped with seaweed, ginger, kewpie mayo and sauce. Once the pancake begins to fall off the chopsticks, you split them to scoop up the rest.

Glossary

Beyond the five foods above, here’s a little list of other things worth looking out for

Aisatsu

Aisatsu aren’t food, but they’re an important aspect of Japanese culture. Aisatsu is a general term for formalised greetings in Japan. Nobody will blink if you don’t engage, but they will probably love it if you make the effort. In restaurant environments, the three main ones are:

Itadakimasu – before you begin to eat

Goshisou sama deshita – after you have eaten

Kampai! – for clinking glasses.

Gyoza

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Dumplings. Also known as the way to my heart. Filled with seasoned pork, wrapped, pan-fried.

Kare

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You can buy it in packets as a roux cube or a microwavable packet from the supermarket, or at any good junky restaurant. Japanese curry is repugnant in appearance, but the love it gives you will warm anyone up.

Konbini food

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Convenience stores (known as konbini in Japan) do convenience food much better than their worldwide counterparts. I wouldn’t normally think about a pre-made sandwich, unless I was looking for disappointment. But head to any convenience store in Japan and you can easily find yourself lost in the excellent choices available. Best picks are cold tsukemen (noodles served with dipping sauce), bento boxes (essentially a rice based packed lunch), onigiri (rice, shaped into various shapes, flavoured or stuffed) and anything from the hot counter (fried, steamed, and sometimes boiled in soup). Just close your eyes and point.

Konyaku

Konyaku or konjac is hard to describe. It’s a plant derived product which can be processed into a jelly like substance with little flavour. It’s not eaten for the flavour, rather for the texture and its low calorie properties.

Okonomiyaki

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Okonomiyaki is junk food at its finest and translates as, ‘grilled as you like’. It’s worth mentioning there are two distinct versions. In Kansai it’s a griddled pancake consisting of mainly cabbage, onions and whatever other filling you like (meat or squid are favourites, mochi and cheese is a great alternative). The filling is mixed into the batter and fried on a hot plate. The Hiroshima version is similar but often contains noodles and is built in distinct layers. Both served with kewpie mayo of course, a thick tonkatsu-esque sauce, seaweed and dried bonito flakes.

Oden

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Winter food. Essentially a light broth in which you stew konyaku (see above), daikon, and a mish mash of different fish cakes and beancurd items.

Miso

Miso is a salty fermented bean paste used in cooking as well as for soup.

Mochi

Glutenous rice is pounded into a lightly sweet substance somewhere between a marshmallow and a gummy bear. Often combined with other flavours such as peanut, seseme seed, red bean, mung bean, even strawberry or chocolate.

Shabu-shabu/Nabemono/Sukiyaki

The three are all related. A large pot full of soup is placed on the table on a camping stove. Your choice of vegetables, protein, and noodles arrive at your table which you cook in the steaming pot.

Soba

Soba noodles are a brownish grey in colour, made from buckwheat flour. Their flavour is earthier than white or yellow noodles. They are great served cold as they stand up better to the salty flavour of the salty tsuyu dipping sauce.

Tempura

The one and only. Tempura is a style of fried food with a distinctive pale yellow ultra light batter. Pumpkin is great veggie choice and of course you have to try the prawn.

Tonkatsu

Pork cutlet, coated in panko breadcrumbs, deep-fried, served with delicious special tonkatsu sauce. Tonkatsu sauce is brown, thick, and tastes not unlike condensed worcestershire.

Umen

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Umen noodles are a local speciality of Shiroishi city, Miyagi prefecture, where I used to live. The legend goes that a son had a father with gastric problems. The son produced a ‘healthy’ noodle containing no oil so that his father could continue to eat noodles. Umen look like a stumpy, creamier coloured version of soumen, and are often served with a warm dipping sauce made from cold tsuyu and hot nabe.

Yakinikku

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Choose your meat, and then your cut. Rib eye, sirloin, liver, tongue, and all other bits find their way on to the menu. The meat is prepared for cooking and you have the pleasure of barbecuing it on the table yourself. Find somewhere offering jingisukan, a variant of yakinikku, and you’ll find yourself in a completely unrelated hats off to the Mongolian mogul consisting of all you can eat mutton barbecue.

Thoughts from paradise: Palawan, Philippines

I’ve been struggling to decide what I want to say about the Philippines. I visited two places. Palawan island which is a long strip of jungle fronted by golden sands jutting out to the west, and Manila which is everything an antithesis ought to be. Ever since I built the Philippines into my Asia itinerary, everyone and their pet gerbil had whispered the name Palawan. By no unlikely accident I flew almost directly from Manila to Palawan after arriving in the Philippines.

I had been promised beauty unsurpassed and ‘the last frontier’ of this nation of islands. I was not disappointed. The last frontier is the nickname of Honda Bay, a curved speck of glory which had been discovered by tourists more than a decade ago. The place which stirs most excitement now is El Nido to the north, a sleepier version of the long famed Ha Long Bay of Viet Nam. A cacophony of lime stone secrets, scattered throughout a sheltered bay. I flew into Palawan only a few days before a typhoon struck to the east. Caged indoors by rain, I had plenty of time to think.

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The quiet beaches of a little known island

One morning we made a break for the beach. We lucked out that it was to be the only few hours of sun we would experience that week. The outline of my parrot bikini that was burnt onto my torso in just under three hours serves as a continuing reminder of turquoise clear waves clattering effortlessly over toasted sand. Idyllic, and almost comically so. Even the rain was beautiful. Low clouds strayed into the bay on whim, obscuring the nearby islands. The rain which caressed coconut shell plant pots, brought with it a cool breeze. The real beauty of Palawan, however, lay within in the audacity with which the people manage every day life. Keen to make a living for their children, many work hours unheard of in the western world, boasting a smile throughout.

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Tourism took a dive in Palawan over a decade ago after a highly publicised kidnapping took place from a private island beach resort. Terrified tourists abandoned plans for Palawan, leaving an economic blank on an island whose main industry is tourism. Recently, and exponentially from what I gather, recovery is underway. Prior to arriving I was informed that El Nido may now claim 24 hour electricity, although the reality is questionable. Electricity was intermittent on many evenings, and people often continued to use more primitive yet reliable means to conduct business. And though tourism is witnessing a resurgence, yet many aspects of the industry don’t appear to benefit from investment. Everyone peddles the same four tours and basic trinkets, unaware that the safety of sticking to what you know creates a problem with over saturation.

A lot of people are coming to Palawan. There’s accommodation and food to suit all budgets from five star resorts to basic fan room guesthouses; though it would seem that budget tourism sector is seeing the greatest expansion. There is even a boutique hostel being built just a five minute stroll from the beach front. There are a variety of food options, many of which are Western owned, creating an artificial dimension of diversity. The most popular spot in town appears to be run by a German. Her staff are polite yet inattentive. An indication that the western attitude towards hospitality seems to be a pollutive force.

I enjoyed my time in Palawan, though I can’t say that tourism has been as beneficial as it should have been. I spoke to a number of tricycle drivers about the situation. One driver told me that the average woman in Palawan still earns only 150 pesos a week. I eat that for breakfast. I dare not ask what the Western owned businesses pay their staff, but their attitude tells me that beyond being capable of waiting tables there is little onus to improve or excel.

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Though money is coming in, some parts along the beach front strip remain derelict.

The tricycle drivers face an uphill struggle. I didn’t realise until my last day that most of the tricycles are rented. Of that 50 pesos the driver charged you, much of that is given up for tricycle rent. If one wanted to buy one outright, the steel carriage would cost around 30,000 pesos. That’s roughly equivalent to what I was given for pocket money over one year. To buy the bike, it would cost 100,000 pesos. That commutes to 2000 jobs worth 50 pesos each. That is not including bike rental, petrol, nor living costs. The tricyclist is essentially priced out of improving his means to make a better living. One driver admitted that his home is two hours drive from El Nido so he often sleeps in the tricycle instead of retiring in the evening. With so much competition on the streets, missing a couple of jobs is not an option.

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It’s gonna be a long night

One driver picked Ali and I up and took us to the post office. I waited in the carriage with him. He is only two years older than me. We talked about his three children. Initially cheerful, his evident exhaustion began to escape, chained to his words. The burden of his world was worn his shoulders alone. He works day and night because he is ‘young and strong’ he said, and because he can. But he could not decide whether to stay in Palawan or to leave his family and work elsewhere. Not enough opportunities have been created in paradise for people like him. ‘I hope you come back to Palawan ma’am, I hope you come back and have a child’ he said. ‘People come here and they make a child because they are relaxed and very happy.’ Though they are the reason he never sleeps, he doesn’t see his family as a burden. They are a reminder of the happiness which created them, the source of his strength.

Many travellers feel disappointment when they are met by rising numbers flocking to their secret spots. Others talk about eco tourism as though locals need educating about the environment they have inhabited for generations. There are some penny pinchers who feel the need to coerce guesthouses into putting up with their shit for even less money. How is this fair tourism? If you’re disappointed that your sweet spots are no longer so sweet, that the exploitation of habitats is not inextricably linked to supply and demand, or that your budget should reflect the life of a local, you need to think again. Think about who you are and who you’d like to be. Then think about why so many locals still struggle to pay their bills.

An Urban Trek through Seoul

The road that led uphill insisted we were just over a kilometre from N Seoul Tower. The other seemed to wind like a loose grey curl of hair, down the western shoulder of Namasan Mountain.

’Do you need direction?’ An old man warmed to us. It was our first day in the capital of South Korea. We were just looking to have an easy day in Itaewon checking out the fabled antique street. Counting it as only three stops on the subway map, I was coerced into walking. We mimed uncertainly towards N Seoul Tower, the great half way mark of our unmapped path. The road we had mercilessly brought us high over a steep green ridge. We agreed Itaewon was still only three stops away and scampered on, deeper into the thick city park.

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So close yet so far…

‘The air is more fresh up here.’ Our new old friend’s eyes gleamed. ‘Where are you from?’ We parted with our narrative. ‘Scotland!’ he exclaimed. ‘I have been there once, but only to Ullapool’. Distracted by the lively fellow, we followed his footsteps. ‘Itaewon… yes, this way!’ He directed us down the long curl, explaining the virtues of city green spaces. Our friend, for half of the year, lives in Orange County, USA dealing in rental estate. In America he misses the easy freedom of the outdoors. Particularly freedom supplemented by well manicured paths.‘Do you know what this is for’ he asked, pointing at the yellow paving stones. ‘They are for the blind. cars are not allowed here, it’s very safe. It is a park for everyone’.

He walked us a couple of kilometres down that road. Stopping at another gap in the bushes, he reached into his pocket, pulling out a scrap of paper. He started to scribble. ‘You see, if you followed the road that way then it will take you 20 minutes longer. But this is a short cut…’ he began to ascend the tight wooden staircase. We popped out on the other side, at an identical junction. ‘I must leave you now.’ he burst, suddenly. ‘I am old and the stairs are too much for me.’ He continued ‘it’s not so steep. This path takes you to Seoul Tower. When you get there, just walk over to the other side, there are three paths. Take the one on the right, follow your eyes to the Grand Hyatt.’

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First impressions

We parted. The directions were intentionally simple. The stairs took us much deeper into the luscious hillside. The mellow steps escalated quickly, morphing into a painful succession of Escher paintings, punctuated by steep muscular gradients. Not so steep, he said. Our brisk footsteps slowed to a clomping crawl just as the trees began to break. A swarm of reflective windows began to bloom before us. We clambered on. Beads of sweat were briefly birthed on my chin, slipped, and splashed on my toes. My trusty Birkenstocks campaigned uselessly against the rubble beneath my feet. I was just glad one of us had brought a bottle of water.

We reached a plateau supporting a small wooden deck. A few older Koreans sat on stone benches. Each carried a small rucksack containing their lunch. They chirped quietly, pecking their food. We blundered on scene like lumbering yetis, underdressed, dripping in sweat, and fighting thirst. Rather than suffer the embarrassment, we aped gracelessly over to the remaining steps.

The end was in sight. A new opening revealed a new road, high above the city of Seoul. A chain of electric buses swanned along the final hundred meters leading to the N Seoul Tower. The tourists disembarked. They buzzed around in a haze of selfie sticks, bemoaning the heat, unaware of the soaking cretins that walked among them. Together we pushed on over the final hurdle. A family marched downhill with ice cream trophies, the hard earned spoils of their 50m ascent.

On top of that viridian oasis, set between a doughnut ring of skyscrapers, we came upon an observatory. Through the window, two men mended the paintwork suspended, mid-air, by thick cables. Behind them tiny cars hustled between glossy bricks and mortar. The even smaller humans bustled through a great silver ant farm. The noon sun had begun to wane, casting stretched shadows across the city. We slurped on ice creams bigger than our fists. A mirage of peace blanketed the city. Over three hours since we first set off from Myeongdong, we arrived at the half way point of our ‘three-stop’ pilgrimage. And, it was up there that we fell in love.

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View from the top

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Love Locks at N Seoul Tower

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Seoul Food: Top 5 Eats of South Korea

My arrival in Korea was a gastronomic breath of fresh air. Seoul has an incredible range of treats on offer, although is bit of a vegetarian’s nightmare, focussing mainly on meat and rice in various forms. Each meal is served with a hearty portion of kimchi and various side dishes, often pickled vegetables. Here’s a run down of the best five things I ate in Seoul.

Dumpling soup

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One big dumpling, one tiny bowl

I was starving. I’d skipped breakfast and at 2:30pm was beginning to regret it. I strode into the first open restaurant. Having tried some handmade soup dumplings the day before, I was excited for more. Spotting a delectable photo on the wall, I ordered. Minutes later I was greeted by a portable stove. I’m Asian enough to know this only ever means great things. Arriving at the table was a massive steel pot loaded with the biggest dumplings I have ever seen, perched perilously on top of a garden of vegetables, simmering in a belting kimchi broth. Served with the best kimchi I have ever tasted. Gorgeously garlicky, and piquant to taste. Soup, only better.

Oodles of noodles

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Ali enjoying his cold noodles

My love of noodles stems from my time in Japan. On hot days there are few things better to eat than a refreshing bowl of cold noodles. The buckwheat noodles in Seoul have a chewier texture and have a glossiness that Japanese soba generally doesn’t have. The broth and toppings were kept simple, allowing the noodles to do the talking. Partnered with a spicy bean paste and julienned vegetables, this dish is a summer treat. I ate a few kinds of noodles in Seoul, thin wheat flour ones, thick knife cut ones, all of them are awesome.

Chicken and beer

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Too. Much.

Chicken and beer is a winning combination anywhere, but never have I been to a place where entire streets are dedicated to the cause. The place I stumbled into wasn’t quite as outstanding as I had anticipated, but, you know, it’s chicken and beer. There’s little not to like. The chicken was marinaded in something intensely sugary, which post-fry caramelised and was left to perspire into the basket. But the thick crisp rice coating was bone crunchingly good, a great entry point to the serendipitous moist chicken. The portion size (there was only one) was stupendous. One and a half chickens had been butchered for the cause. I never ever imagined there could be too much chicken. But Seoul beat me. Extra points awarded for a solid range of tasty beer, and remember, Pale Ales are particularly good for degreasing.

Bibimbap

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Bad photo. Couldn’t wait to tuck in…

Undoubtedly South Korea’s most famous dish is bibimbap. Previously I’d only seen the dish served in a heated, heavy set stone pot. Bibimbap consists of a steamed rice base, topped with a plethora of vegetables, raw and cooked. This is topped with spicy red bean paste and an egg. I opted for a metal bowl serve; it was too hot for a heated stone pot. This one was topped with a gorgeous sunny side up-er, and resembled a salad more than a hot pot. Just what I needed in the heat.

Chicken gal bi

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Definite winner

I try not to go back to the same restaurant more than once, unless I really need Wi-Fi from them. But in a country where free Wi-Fi is almost a requisite for a building permit, I had didn’t need to do anything twice. But there was one restaurant we went to twice in Seoul, specialising in chicken gal bi. Much like Korean barbecue, we were seated at a table with a large hot plate. The vegetables; cabbage, pumpkin and onion, were fried first. The chicken followed, marinaded in a wonderful spicy red bean sauce. The staff do the cooking for you, all you need to do is don your bib and relax. The gal bi was delicious, but noted that most tables around us were enjoying a rice based dish. Curious, a couple of days later we returned. The chicken and rice were fried together in the same bean sauce on the same hot plate, but at the end a layer of shredded mozzarella was buried in the rice. The cheese melted and provided a creamy gooey contrast to the full on flavours in the rice. Delicious.

By now you’ve possibly noticed an lack of Korean BBQ on my list. I really enjoyed BBQ but it wasn’t one of the great experiences I had in Seoul. I have had barbecue of that calibre before. Contraversially I’d even say that (for me) nothing will beat barbecue at the Sapporo Beer Garden in Japan. Flavours are more important than hunks of meat, and there are better elements of Seoul cuisine which have much more going on.

Same Brain, New Look

I’ve been a little quiet for the last week or so, partly a result of location; good Wi-Fi is difficult to come by in paradise, but also because I’ve been busy. We crammed The Philippines and South Korea into just over two weeks which has been exhausting and, more importantly, I’ve been working on a new site! (Wahey, she’s not so lazy after all!) I admit, it’s a WordPress template which I picked from a list. The major time consumer was choosing a photo to summarise my current travelling situation. The photo I picked is pretty old, I took it when I first got my camera four years ago in Japan. But it seemed fitting as I will be returning there tomorrow.

Anyway. Nothing has really changed, I’m the same old crazy bat writing from my laptop. Just with a touch more class.

EDIT: Just a little update, rather than just letting my old writing rot I have hashed together a wee archive compiling the best of the old side. Find them in the links menu at the top of the screen.