Scaling new heights in Vietnam

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Running around the streets of Jodhpur before dawn

I’m not on Facebook however, as of this week, I am on Facebook, thanks to a small voluntary organisation in Cambridge – called Fight Against Blindness – for whom I’m attempting to raise some funds over the next month.

Here is our combined “pitch” (just scroll down in the link) to anyone on Facebook, and interested in donating: https://www.facebook.com/fightagainstblindnessRP/?fref=ts

And for any non-Facebook users, this is the direct link to the JustGiving site I’ve set up, should you wish to get involved: http://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/saigonsays

Fight Against Blindness are a small voluntary organisation specialising in providing funds for Professional Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for children at Addenbrooke’s Hospital Eye Clinic Cambridge, as well as other clinics in the South East of England.

I was first introduced to them via friends whose son uses their counseling services, and for whom this has had profoundly positive effects (the JustGiving page provides a small window into their experiences.)

I can’t recall if I’ve doused these pages with ramblings about the event I’m under-taking?

Some time back I used to run marathons, and then for whatever reason, and after a long stretch away from running, 10 months ago I signed up for a new challenge. This one is quite a departure from anything I’ve done before: 70kms, and mainly in ‘trekking’ conditions as opposed to road running. The event in total involves climbing 3,000 metres.

I’ll be doing this in Vietnam, in some of the country’s northern highlands. It’s a 4am start and I hope to finish around 5pm.

So, I wouldn’t say I’m ‘fit as a fiddle’ at this stage, but I’ve definitely upped my game because of the impending event…

Training in the sweat-box that is Saigon, with its pollution, humidity, crazy traffic, and ruptured pavements, is not always an uplifting experience, but all in all I’ve really enjoyed being back on the running scene again. Last month, in the UK, I embraced exploring old routes down the River Thames, and then indulged in the open outcrops of green down at my parent’s house in the New Forest, catching the deer off guard at dawn.

I’ve been running as much as I can these past months, and on as many of my travels as possible. I wasn’t allowed to run in Gaza back in May, but everywhere else I’ve been this year I’ve tended to use the opportunity to see some sights: from dodging Jakarta traffic, running along the ocean (whilst koala spotting) in Australia, skipping down Colombo’s beach front, meeting elephants in Rajasthan whilst searching for Forts and Palaces, all the way through to jogging through the Old City in Jerusalem, in awe at the American flags on display at the time (the day before Trump arrived there) – some spectacular sights, and some memorable moments, have been had, for sure.

I wouldn’t admit, on the other hand, that my recent commitment to “stay off the booze for 6 weeks” to get “really fit” has totally succeeded. I’m leveling most of the blame here on Bombay Sapphire, which I recently discovered uses Queen Victoria as its brand ambassador (the only Royal ever to promote any product) after she once noted that it was “every Englishman’s right to drink gin”. Enough said.

However, regardless of my terrible will power when it comes to an evening tipple, as of today I’ve run 2,140 kms since first pacing around Raymond Island on New Year’s Day (which was followed at the time by jumping in the adjacent lake to cure the hangover). This morning I also managed to climb up 200 flights of stairs, as part of my workout, and in a vain attempt to practice “hills”.

I’m nervous, and just ever so slightly thrilled by the prospect of what September 23rd’s race day will bring for me (will I make it round the course “ok” or will it be utterly horrendous?) The thought of lining up at the start alongside, no doubt, a herd of wiry framed Mo Farah lookalikes, head torches glaring and pulses up, will be something that keeps me awake for the next four weeks, although I am sure it will be quite a special experience at the same time.

Your support and your solidarity behind me will give me that extra boost of confidence, I have no doubt, and, most importantly I can assure you that the Fight Against Blindness team will be hugely grateful for any funds or awareness you can raise for them in the process. Thank you in advance for either.

Wish me luck!

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Light show in the New Forest

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Have you got a minute?

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Florence and Martha summer holidaying in the UK, July 2017

I read a moving exert recently by the late Australian born writer, Cory Taylor, taken from a body of work reflecting on the time since her cancer diagnosis in 2005.

There are many inspirational and thought provoking sentiments conveyed in the narrative, and something about the way she informally yet intimately connects with you as a reader which I found to be quite profound.

So many quotes and clichés about dying have been handed down through the generations, you’d think society would be more accustomed and familiar with how to handle the subject than it often is.

I find whole weeks can pass without giving a second’s consideration to the topic of mortality, but then a trigger moment will ensure it blankets all other thoughts for hours on end.

A crystal clear childhood memory I have was being told by my Dad that his mother – “Ma” – had died. I was around 8 years old and remember running upstairs and standing in the corner of my bedroom in tears. I can picture the colours in the curtains and that sensation of how my body felt absorbing this strange news. I couldn’t tell you anything else about what happened afterwards, but each time I’ve evoked memories of my grandparents since, they are always ones which make me smile, and I feel lucky to have been old enough to have these sit happily in my subconscious.

As a parent with an 8 year old myself, I’ve also spent time with these memories imaging what it was like for my parents to lose theirs. Cory Taylor’s clear advice – upon her own realisation that the decade of writing she had always imagined she’d have “in front of me” was now being taken away from her – is to accept that we are powerless over our own fate: “as if any of us are in control of anything”.

Decisions and choices made in life of course make a dent on things, but what I take from Taylor’s reflections are the advantages – in many ways – available to us when we embrace our own powerlessness in the order of the world.

Is it possible to “embrace” mortality also? Maybe. It’s certainly possible to use the perspective which mortality can provide when it comes to prioritising that most sacred of commodities in the world: time.

Time with family, time with friends, time for oneself. Time invested in those pursuits which nourish and inspire, but which also open up contemplation. Time to be present, to be available.

This morning my girls went back to school, following a fresh dose of some quite splendid time spent back in the UK, reinforcing to me, as I pen this, how special the connections with family, in particular, will always be, and how they are somehow made and meant to stand the test of time. Seeing my girls engage so intuitively with their cousins and grandparents, uncles and aunts, only further underscores this.

One of Cory Taylor’s other observations that resonated with me was her view on the after-life. Assuming, as she does, that this is a concept unlikely to physically happen, she theorizes about how her after-life might be realised in a different way – an idea inspired whilst living in Arita, Japan, with her husband, Shin, an artist “who chose to paint on porcelain, instead of on perishable materials like paper or canvas”.

“Arita,” she continues, “is littered with porcelain shards everywhere you look, and my husband likes to imagine that four hundred years from now shards of his work might be unearthed and collected by some curious traveler, just as he likes to unearth and collect fragments of work painted by his predecessors. In that way, he says, he will have achieved a degree of immortality. I say that I feel the same way about my work. I like to think that, long after I’m gone, someone somewhere might read a book or essay of mine in a last remaining library or digital archive and be touched in some way.”

Instead of visioning continuity as a physical entity, Taylor rather describes these more “ordinary ways in which we cheat death” – and this strikes a chord. Indeed, her work is already doing that, breathing momentarily through the medium of this post.

Whether it is “the evocative power of the objects we leave behind, or in a form of words, a turn of the head, a way of laughing” – as Taylor puts it – perhaps it is actually because of the ordinariness and the brevity of these “fleeting things” that their effectiveness in linking us to something past is ensured?

Like a small electric shock, that flickering recall of something that is, in fact, very much alive, and will always be so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A ‘funny thing’ happened to me today

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This morning I went out running and an unusual thing happened to me whilst I stopped to buy water – a toddler took a leak on my foot.

Unusual, perhaps, as I stop to buy water in Saigon most days whilst running, and in fact at least twice a day I’m likely to buy something from a street vendor, yet not in the 6.5 years since living here, has a toddler peed on me during any of these transactions.

In fact, I’m 99% sure this is the first time anyone has urinated on me in my life.

I was as angry as I was crest-fallen during the experience – albeit an experience which lasted just the few seconds until I noticed what was happening, prompted as I was by another customer astride a scooter pointing it out to me. I was angry at the person selling the water – for it was her toddler. And crestfallen at the incongruity and farcical parameters which framed this, now documented, episode in my life.

To accuse a one year old of a roadside crime is clearly nonsense. Surely, I told myself just 20 metres away after marching off with my drink, this was a fluke coincidence of nature. A toddler needs to relieve himself and there, tree-like, stands a leg and a bright yellow trainer to take the hit.

However, once 50 metres away, I then recalled how, only moments before the act, the young chancer had tugged at the two inner soles I was carrying (my shoes were rubbing in the humidity and I’d removed the inners) but I’d refused him the chance of taking them from me. Perhaps then this was his way of having the last laugh, given I’d curtailed his advances on my tongue shaped slices of rubber?

As I’d marched off from the stall, snatching my change (and utterly losing face in the process, of course) the vendor yelled at the boy and started towards him. I started my run again but sure enough, as this quandary of speculation buzzed about in my head, I briefly turned to see the little guy bawling his eyes out, tottering about and looking just as confused as me about what had taken place.

So naturally I then felt the guilt of even stopping for the stupid bottle of water in the first place. I wished instead that I’d smiled more at both of them, found some empathy, rather than screwing my face up into the all-too-familiar incredulous ex-pat look, which somehow tries to convey, in one eyebrow scrunched-up stare, the words “seriously?!”

I invoke the “seriously” pose a lot in Vietnam – usually at 4×4 vehicles, driven badly or parked inconsiderately, however the pose is very adaptable, and works in restaurants, bars, taxis and generally in most walks of life out here. And each time the pose is deployed, I usually reflect afterwards what a waste of energy it (along with, now and again, some additional fist-pumping and gesticulating) ends up amounting to.

Another frequent “thing” concerns local dogs and their owners. I’ve often tried to take up roadside debates with dog owners here, as their mangy muts come hurtling up to me, yapping and biting at my heels.

Only this weekend, I was sprung upon by four dogs at once during a run, and the dog owner in question wouldn’t even look me in the face whilst I attempted to engage in a discussion about why they weren’t calling their dogs off me. Instead, the owner just swept their door-step. Their tactics and logic, I had to conclude, being that if they didn’t look at me they didn’t need to acknowledge the fact that I was stood there, with one of the snarling hounds attached firmly to my running laces, asking them to discuss their rather obvious lack of interest in disciplining their own dog.

After that encounter, I fantasized about picking up said dog, and hurling it into the canal opposite their owner’s house, only to then again wrestle with the guilt of doing such a thing when clearly, as pets, dogs who lunge at any passing stranger are probably reacting out of fear and might be being “disciplined” daily – in perhaps the same way that the young boy this morning experienced: more corporal punishment, than pastoral care.

What to do about something (whether you might believe I’m rightly or wrongly laying judgement down on these individuals) that is beyond your individual control or influence?

Well, social movements have proven to influence and changes norms, and are usually initiated and inspired by small numbers of people, so one answer to this question is to start a movement against….against what exactly? I am asking parents not to hit their kids and dog owners not to beat their dogs? Well, yes, and….

Cultural and social norms are clearly so pervasive that they remain complex tectonic plates to shift. Unless, perhaps, inside of a respective society there are consensual agreements about some of these topics and behaviours, shared by all. Schools, governments, civil society groups, employers, parents – a united front is required to make certain things really become binding. You’d think. But we know of course that just because a country signs on to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child doesn’t translate necessarily into all children NOT having these rights taken away from them.

And me living in a different country, thinking one thing and carrying my own set of values, does not translate very effectively (I’ve learnt) into me and my “way” having any credence or traction with other people living here.

Agree to disagree, move on and let it be? Maybe that is one answer, but it’s not really working for me (says the man who would throw a dog in a canal to win an argument).

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At a recent meeting with a local Saigon NGO, a colleague there talked very plainly about growing up in Vietnam.

“I was never allowed an opinion as a child” she explained, “not at home and not at school – kids here aren’t expected to have a view on things, or be listened to by their elders. So, I never did really talk to adults, except to do what they told me to do.”

Funny, how in this “modernising” part of Asia – labelled as such by many because of the region’s accelerated construction projects, bustling coffee chains and fast-food franchises, catapulting the middle classes into new and exciting public spaces, which will empty their wallets and fatten their waistlines – funny, how this changing face of Asia is, at once, scarring the streets of cities like Saigon, with an ugly new frontage of brands and plastic products yet, at the same time, does perhaps modernising bring with it a helpful scythe across the ankles of existing cultural and social norms, which may just be in need of some updating?

‘Funny’ indeed.

 

 

 

Rajasthani Rooster

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Smoke o’clock, Jodhpur

Indeed, the title of this post makes no sense really, without the additional footnote that, back in January during Chinese New Year (Rooster year) Issy and I took a trip to Rajasthan.

In fact, I’d set up these photos and curated that catchy title whilst we were on our flight home and yet had just not quite managed to write up some lines to glue the images and the memories all together – until now.

If my most recent work trip to West Bank and Gaza, earlier this month, already feels like a hazy memory, then the brain is really scratching around looking for the according nodules of recollection which house the sights, sounds and sensations that we experienced in India, four months back.

What does immediately come to mind is what a relatively seamless expedition we managed – 1,500 kms in 6 days from Jaipur to Jaisalmer, and back again – before closing out by dropping in at the Taj Mahal for a final day’s soak up of one of the world’s most iconic sites.

Getting around Rajasthan is fairly simple and affordable. The trains are a great experience, and we also lucked out with a wonderful driver and hire car for most of our trip “out west”.      Continue reading

Out of Sight

Perhaps the old adage rings true – it can be hard to keep the flame of familiarity burning after long spells of absence, and “out of sight” all too easily leads to “out of mind.” How often do we find ourselves thinking this at the chink of two glasses once again toasting a re-acquaintance, or, as we scramble to agree over the phone on the specifics of a last encounter?

But then, hands up, there is also the sheer laziness on my part of not tending to this blog for the past four months. This blog being one of the only portals I have of putting down a few etchings of my current life, in the hope of forming some vague picture – for the now, and for some day in the future.

And so, in the spirit of our all too often glossed over 24/7 news cycle, to the headlines…      Continue reading

Catching a breath in February

Happy New Year!

2016, and Saigonsays trundles on…

This weekend will mark five years since arriving in Saigon, when these pages first kept track of life and work out here and across Asia. Some defining moments within that particular half decade have been and gone, and the familiar confines of my apartment continue to provide a reliable anchor from which it becomes, then, and with a healthy dose of catharsis, a comfort and a pleasure to spin out these words and images.

Two months back, Boxing Day, and Issy and I were headed down to the coast after a tremendous Christmas Day hosting a cheery hoarde of festive revelers. A month ago I was off in Abu Dhabi meeting up with my best friend (and previous author on Saigonsays) for a weekend of “catching up”.

Last fortnight, and over the Chinese New Year period (called ‘Tet’ here) and I was side stepping down a sled run in France, propping up Flo as she skied solo for the first time in her life. And then this week, I’be been working across our closest border, in Phnom Penh.

Next Sunday I’ll fly to Ethiopia on an exciting new project. Bangkok, Hong Kong and Cairo are on the March itinerary also. Yesterday morning an offer landed on my lap to head to Timor Leste shortly after that. And so it goes on…

Too many details to catalogue since I was last peddling these pages (back in Vientiane in November) however the intention is that, hopefully, these two family videos (our Tet skiing holiday to France, and previous Australia visit back in October) might go a way to capturing some of the special experiences shared on both adventures. The photos below that then piece together December festivities and a window into life here since then, with two increasingly active little girls performing, as usual, for the camera.

Stay tuned for some more regular updates (a New Year’s resolution of mine) here and before you can say “where did the first half of 2016 go?”


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Christmas elf

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Christmas cheek

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Christmas gingerbread making

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Christmas Day

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Yellow!

 

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Dig in!

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Four minute Cinderella panto

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Robin Hood

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Boxing Day treats

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Boxing Day walk (in Vung Tau)

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New Year’s Eve boys (Saigon)

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New Year’s Day girls (Mui Ne)

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The view from…our bungalow

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Birthday girl (@ Park Hyatt)

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With Cake (@Abu Dhabi)

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Another year, another sports day

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Tet celebrations

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Poseur

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The view from…the de Groot balcony

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Layered up

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Catching the first powder and remembering how to ski again

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Mont Blanc (on the left)

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Sunrise back in Asia (Phnom Penh) this week.

 

 

 

Springtime in Saigon

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washing Even washing lines look better in Spring

It’s 2015. It’s mid January. And spring is here in Saigon.

In what has become my annual celebration of just how pleasant a time of year it is over here, when so many other parts of the world are either sweltering in their own juices, or snow ploughing their way to the office, I can’t resist once more in proclaiming the bleeding obvious: life is so much easier when you have the weather on your side.

Biking into work these days you are struck by the golden light, the intensely perfumed scents of the orchids and bogainvilleas, and the breeze. The fact that there is a breeze is enough to be thankful for, given Saigon’s notorious humidity track record. The New Year marks the lowest temperatures Saigon will experience until next January – somewhere in the mid 20’s – perfection in my mind…

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And off we go again

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Flo’s first day at her new school

It’s been so long since I wrote a blog here, that I had to remind myself of the correct address of my own site.

August 11th, and too much to fill in since my last post, but several fabulous weeks back in the UK recently – both girls had 6 weeks over there in total, having a blast up north, down south, in London and on the beaches of Cornwall and Devon – and then a new school term underway as of this morning, back here in Saigon, and we are off again, refreshed (partly, the jet-lag this weekend was a killer) and ready for the long run into the next break at Christmas…

The merry-go-round is in full tilt.

The happy and somewhat jaded campers (above) took it in their stride this morning that the summer holiday adventures were over. Bless them both, Florence and Martha just seem to take whatever is thrown at them and make it fun. 

Flo was not the least bit put out for example that it took me twenty minutes this morning to realise that her penguin stepping around the apartment in her new skirt/shorts combo for Day 1 at the Australian International School, was in fact because when she’d got dressed she had put both feet into one shorts leg, rather than what she was thinking to herself at the time, which was that her new school practice some quasi-Geisha ritual for their Year 2’s, by forcing them to hop about the classroom for the first term.

Nor did she seem intimated by the chaos of the busy new school gates, or the strangeness of her new surrounds. She was too busy taking it all in to kiss us goodbye.

Anyway, you’ll hopefully find me more prominent on these pages soon, but in the meantime I wish you all happy ends of the holidays when you get to yours.

Much love to all.