Friday, July 19, 2013

Tragic bus accident, Lano, Savai'i, Samoa 06.07.2013

Lano, Savai'i, Samao. July 6th, 2013

The rain was heavy the previous night, and there was a thunderstorm. I got up for breakfast and met the others, our fale had been hit worse than Janas, the beds were a bit damp. I had had a dry sleep. The rain continued. About midday, a bunch of small buses pulled into the fales. He told us the road was blocked in both directions due to heavy rain causing flooding and blocking the roads. I asked Jana and Lotta if they wanted to investigate, Lotta refused but Jana said yes. We went off into the pouring rain, about 1km down the road. We got to where the river runs under the road, but instead of a road there was a raging torrent. People were standing about on both sides just looking at it. We took some pictures and generally larked about.

The state of the road

Crossing by foot was impossible, even for the locals

We met a guy who owned the house next to the river called Sai and chatted with him a bit.

Sai and the flooding in front of his house. River is to the right of the pic
The traffic began to pile up on both sides of the blockage.
The next thing a bus attempted the crossing. Jana was yelling at me to take a picture and I was trying to get the camera onto video mode. What happened next was a disaster. The bus got about 3/4 of the way across, but the current was too strong, and it slid towards the lower edge of the road. At this point people started screaming. There was a drop of about 1m from road to river, and as the bus went in it turned on its roof.

Press links

At this point I put the camera down, covered up because of the rain, and started heading towards the seafront where everything was being dragged to. The bus did another 90 degree roll so the roof was now facing me, and the force of the water ripped the roof off, exposing the people inside like terrified sardines in a can. People started jumping out left right and centre, the more able were able to scramble to the banks of the river, the less able were dragged out by the terrific current. I ran to the sea edge and waded in, looking for someone to help. There were a lot of people in the water, tourists and Samoan, many joined in to help. I saw an old samoan woman waving at me from another 20m out, I was already about 60m out.Luckily the water never got beyond chest height. A Samoan already had her by one side, so I got on the other, her arm around my shoulder. The woman was delirious and moaned constantly, and kept looking on the verge of unconsciousness. Her head kept lolling forward into the water, so I was half supporting her head and half carrying her, and trying to get her to put her feet on the floor, which sort of half worked. At some point during this I realised the arm around me had big hole in it. I now know what is meant by the term ragged flesh. It was horrible. Strangely it didnt seem to be bleeding to badly, but maybe I just couldnt see because of the water. We couldnt walk up the current it was too strong, so we had to go out to the side. We eventually got her to the steep rocks, where four strong samoans carried her up, At this point I noticed her other other arm was visibly broken, just below the elbow.I remember one of the Samoans pulling her wrist from her elbow, I guess he was trying to straighten it out, I winced. I scanned the sea again, but getting the old woman out had been so slow that there appeared to be no-one left. I climbed up to survey the damage. I had kept checking the coast for Jana, but she had been nowhere to be seen. The house next door belonging to Sai had been turned into a first aid station. Out the back I found Jana who was tending to a white girl who seemed in a bad way. Turns out she was German, so it was comforting for her to have Jana there She was white as a sheet and shivering. She had blood running from her head. Jana seemed to be doing a good job. I spied my camera behind her. From the time of the bus going in the water until the end of the movie it took was 15 minutes. I cant remember if I stopped it or if it stopped itself. I went on to the house to see what was going on. The old woman seemed to be in the worst condition, she was being cared for by some Samoans. I found out later that one of the woman present was a nurse. Everybody else either seemed to be in shock, have minor wounds and possibly a suspected closed broken bone here and there. I suddenly remembered I had a basic first aid kit back at the fale. I told Jana what I was doing and ran back to get it. The water was almost knee deep on the roads at some point. I had been barefoot for the entire time. I was never very good at walking on the jaggy road, but it didnt seem to matter too much this time. I got back the fales where life had been continuing as normal. I told the group, perhaps not audibly enough, that they should get their shoes on and follow me to help, there had been a terrible accident. I made sure Lotta heard me. She got ready and I found the first aid kit. We jogged back and on the way I told Lotta the situation. She started to cry and said she didnt know if she would able to handle it. I took her by the hand and told her she was going to be fine. We arrived at the house, having to wade through thigh deep water to get to it. I spread the first aid contents on a table and not sure what to do first, I offered ibuprofen to those obviously in pain. I said to Lotta maybe she should take the disinfectant and start administering it to cuts. She did this like a star, administered small bandages and generally had a great bedside manner. Jana was also now inside with the injured german girl Tina and was busy bandaging up her head and talking softly to her.  I surveyed the scene and everything seemed to be generally under control. The scene was actually surprisingly calm. I took this to mean that everything WAS under control and that no-one was obviously missing or dead. I helped get the old lady on to her back with a bunch of others. She was much quieter now, I wasnt sure how to interpret that, but she generally seemed calmer. It was still raining heavily outside. We heard the ambulance crews were on route, and after maybe 45 minutes, Lotta and I decided to return to the beach fales and leave Jana with Tina. We expected to be able to return to some sort of calm and take stock, but it wasn't to be. It was all kicking off at the fales too.
Part of the flow of the flood was coming directly past the main building, eating the sand away from underneath it. The corner of the building looked in serious danger of collapse.

Not good
Additionally the beach had been eaten away under half of our our fale (Lottas and mine) and the stilts it rests on looked dangerously exposed. I didnt know how deep they went, but just over a metre of beach was missing and I figured it couldnt be much more before they went over.

Where the beach used to be
Additionally the whole front courtyard, parking area was badly flooded. I couldn't believe it.

The front courtyard
I realised then that the flooding was more serious than I had estimated, and that actually we were all in danger. The luggage had all been moved by the the other guests from the fales to the main building, which, with the exception of our fale, looked in the most serious trouble, and was certainly the most dangerous. As we arrived, people were starting to realise the danger the house was in. Suddenly the owner barked something, and we were moving all the tables and bags to the opposite side of the building. The entire front of the building is open, the roof is supported by concrete pillars. It was starting to look like some sort of precarious refugee camp. I checked the weather forecast on my phone and found that rain was predicted for the next couple of days. I smoked and contemplated. there was few ways out, boat would actually be the best way. The road was blocked on both sides. Peope started slowly to get into action, a few of the boys, both Samoans and tourists, started trying to redirect the torrent of water from the house, using debris and corrugated iron. A dam was erected at the front gate to try, with limited success, to stem the flow of water. An operation was also started to divert the water away from the toilet block. At this point I met the owner, who looked curiously unperturbed by the days events so far. We had a quick conversation and he said come, come. His sister was lying in the back room with a badly swollen wrist. She had movement in the fingers so I dont think it was broken,but she was clearly in a lot of pain. She had been on the bus, I recognised her from the triage. I had no idea she was there. I called Lotta and together we got the only cold things we could find, bottles of water from the fridge and Lotta set about arranging them around her wrist. We didnt administer anymore painkillers as she told us she had had some, and seeing as there had been a nurse present at triage we didnt know the strength of what she had already received, or what. I left Lotta to it, but told her if she heard the building creaking or groaning to get everybody out the closed rooms asap, as the building was unstable. I had already tried to talk the owner into it, but like I say, he seemed fairly non-plussed. I returned outside and helped with the effort of digging channels to keep the water away from the toilet block and causing further damage to the beach and therefore the fales. The boys digging round the house seemed to have a plan and I left them to it. The corner of the house was slowly subsiding and by this point the corner was starting to break.

Makeshift barrier was set up to stop people getting too close
Half the concrete stairs had already fallen off due to there no longer being anything underneath them and the black and white checkered floor surface was noticeably broken. Assisted by a Samoan girl I set about filling a washing up bowl with sand and using it to create a new channel for the water. There were others doing the same. After a while I decided to move outside the partially effective perimeter dam and try to stem the flow from that side. That would leave us only stagnant water to deal with afterwards. I took my bowl outside and started doing the same thing again, trying to block up the holes enough so the water would eventually flow round the toilet block and straight into the existing gully on the other side. I did this for about half an hour and in the meantime saw Lotta and a string of followers moving the injured woman across the street to the safer building, much to my relief. She had finally managed to talk them into it. Passers by smiled and probably wondered what the hell I was doing. I noticed that the waster was starting to subside, the rain had stopped about the time I changed sides. By the time I was done, the flow towards the fales had stopped and the road was already noticeably better. Unless the rains came again, the situation had stabilised. I called a day and returned to the main building, the washing bowl more a ribbon of broken plastic now than a washing bowl. We all stood around, and took stock; a bond had been formed between us all. The fear was noticeably reduced. The corner of the building was now a gaping chasm where the floor had given way. Remarkably, the roof was still holding. I asked the owner if I could get beers and waters for us all from the fridge and he said yes, so I filled a crate and we all got stuck in. At this point my thoughts returned to Jana, who still hadn't showed up back at the fales. I told Lotta I was going back to find her and she joined me. We walked the kilometre down the road again, back to the accident site. The bus was in the river, the right way up, with no roof. The slogan across the side of the bus "Paradise in Heaven" seemed like a cruel joke. There were still people milling about and cars had started to cross the previously uncrossable river again. There were two ambulances parked, and we could see the ambulance people in hi-vis gear. We deposited our beers on the street before going into the triage area, as Lotta pointed out it seemed like bad taste to waltz in with beers. Jana was still there tending the german, who looked much better. Jana was shivering with cold as she was still wet. We found her a change of clothes. I gave her a cigarette and a hug, and told her that whatever else she may fear, it didnt matter. She had been strong when it counted the most and I was proud of her. Our timing was good, as the ambulance people were ready to take the worst of the injured. The old woman was stretchered into the ambulance and Jana went with Tina to the hospital. I scribbled down my NZ number in case she needed to contact us, the only number I knew by heart. It seemed like the story was over. On our way back to the fale, Robbie and Anna, a couple who had been there the first couple of nights drove past, all smiles, blissfully unaware. We filled them in and told them we wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. They said they were going north and were happy to take us. We jumped at the chance. We headed back to the fale and packed quickly. The owners wife came out from the building and asked how many beers we have had. I was half-dreading this, that we (I) would have to pay for the beers that we took, after helping to save their livelihoods. I ignored the subsequent discussion as everybody grumbled and dug around for change. I got my stuff together until Andy turned around and asked me, hey Scott what did the owner did you say to you? All eyes turned expectedly to me and i said the owner said I could take the beers. His wife said did he say for free? And I said no, but he said I could take them. At this point I think her consciounce got the better of her and she said ah ok, you dont have to pay and gave everybody their money back. After that though the owners were shit for me. The owner himself had done precious little to help, and his wife had helped erect the perimeter dam, but that was about it. Im struggling to remember if they ever properly said thanks.We got in the car, and that was the first time I had stopped moving and thinking since the accident. My spirits crashed and I became quiet and morose. I basically stayed that way the whole evening, the whole incident kept replaying in my head. Most prominently the old womans face and moaning, the state of her arms, and seeing all the people in the bus as the roof was ripped off.I was nonetheless happy to be out of there and as we pulled up to Reginas Beach Fales in Manase, it seemed like a haven of tranquility and I was happy to be there. We talked with the host and told her about our experiences. She shed a tear, as she knew Tina and told us of two Australian girls who had also been on the bus. We hadn't met and didn't know what had happened to them. We sat around and Lotta told the tale to the other guests. We met Roberta again, who had left on the previous bus to the crashed bus from Joelan. After dinner I pretty much went to bed. Lotta came shortly after and we discussed the whole thing again. Andy sent me a msg to say Jana was safely back at Joelan. We talked briefly on the phone, and although she was badly shaken, she was OK.


The following day I found out that two little girls died in the accident. 12 and 5, related and from the same village. Sai was one of the unfortunate people to find the bodies. Tina eventually made it safely back to Germany after being taken care of by the German consul in Apia for just over a week. The driver was badly injured and the police are waiting for a new crimes act with harsher punishments before starting the legal process. He will most probably be charged with either manslaughter or murder and face life in jail. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013



Day 1 Apia 1st July
Arrival in Samoa evoked memories of my first arrival in Thailand...the smell of the thick warm air was welcome after the biting cold of NZ. Men in samoan shirts and lavalavas greet you at the baggage carousel with little ditties on their guitars. I found myself grinning for no reason, it felt good to be back in the tropics! I was waiting for Lotta to contact me, although it wasnt for certain that she would. Upon arrival I found I couldnt pick up a local network on my NZ SIM anyway, so i figured I was going to have to wing it. I had three addresses written down, and decided upon the Tatiana motel. I was approached by a dude after the usual offers of taxi, asking where I was going. I said a friend was coming to pick me up. He disappeared saying he would return. He came back and I told him my name, he said at this point ah yes yes he had been looking for me, a woman had told him to collect a blonde man. I thought the chances that thiswas Lotta was slim, I couldnt get anymore details out of him, but he was heading to Tatiana anyway so I jumped in. there were two young aussie girls in the shuttle too, who are possibly the only two girls I have heard discussing video games in depth. they barely even bothered to look out the window..bizarre. My first impressions of Samoa were a little like Burma. Due to the lack of streetlighting you could never see far beyond the main road. The houses were mainly open, with concrete floors and roofs supported by pillars but no, or few, walls. Not all but many. Also there were larger "houses" of the same style that were clearly meeting points of some kind. It was a little like driving into Rangoon but tidier and less urban. Anyway we arrived at the promised destination and the taxi driver dropped me off with a evil laugh and told me to behave myself. I had no idea what I should think now. However approaching Tatiana a woman appeared from the shadows and said "Hi Scott" with a smile. Bingo! Lady Luck shone upon me there, it was lucky the driver and I had found each other and even luckier I had decided to trust him. Lotta turned up 5 minutes later having collected dinner for the two of us. The motel was very run down, but it did the job and was reasonably clean. We decided to head for a beer but were too late to catch a bar. We got a taxi to the nearest shop and got a couple of bottles of the local brew, Vailima.  It is named after the village of Vailima, where Robert Louis Stevenson also had his house, also named Vailima! The name Vailima literally means Water-Five. Why, I do not know. An early night was had and Lotta and me settled into sleep, excited with the anticipation of the forthcoming adventures.

Day 2 Apia 2nd July
We had both heard that Savai'i was the nicer of Samoas two main islands (although there are ten in total), the other being Upolu, where Apia is situated. So we decided that we would head off the next day and get the ferry to Savai'i at 2pm.
We headed into town after breakfast for a look around and for me to get a haircut, buy beach shorts and flip-flops. there was the usual indoor clothes markets with stalls and stalls of very similar clothes. We dotted about town taking in the sights, of which we saw er, none. We searched quite hard for cheap food too, we eventually found it in the form of a chicken leg and wing for WST3.50 (tala is the samoan currency) which is about £1.25 for a big ol' slab of chicken. We basked in our success at finding cheap food, we had not seen anything under WST12 up until that point. We had made a resolution on the first night that we were going to try and keep the budget tight, Lotta had to anyway and me by choice, after the guilt caused by the amount of money I blew in Nelson combined with the desire to travel for as long as possible.
Unfortunately we missed the bus by seconds and spent half an hour waiting for it to come when it had just already been. We could have taken a taxi, but it would have cost a pretty penny at about ten times the price of the bus. We decided to stay another night in Apia and then catch the bus in the morning...which worked out nicely anyway because we would arrive nice and early and have time to find ourselves somewhere nice to stay. We decided to hit the bar after missing the bus so we ended up in a sports bar just up the road which was empty when we turned up. The woman behind the counter was lovely though and chatted away to us. We played some pool and darts and had a curry. I drank too much, think I managed 7 beers down me, and I still had my Nelson tolerance on so it wasnt making much difference...just damaging the wallet....first slip in the budget watching. The bar filled up eventually with mostly older Samoan dudes who minded their own business. Day 3 Apia,Upolu - Lano, Savai'i 3rd JulyOur first bus journey in Samoa...little did we know what an important part of our Samoan adventures buses would play. It was reminiscent of bus journeys in Belize. The buses are wider in the top than in the bottom and basically have a metal chassis with a wooden roof and walls. Hard wooden seats was in contrast to the old American school buses in Belize though which had big deeply padded seats. The buses are mostly brightly painted with bits of decoration of all over like eagles and flags etc. Most have slogans down the side and the front, some of them of a Christian slant. Samoa is a devout Christian nation, with about seven different variations on Christianity including the Mormons. When you see a grand building in Samoa, the chances are it's a church. They vary greatly in style and grandeur. The drivers play their music loud and proud, and its usually the same CD, with awful digitized vocals and drum effects, and they have massive speakers with subs front and back. There is precious little space for luggage, so backpacks are always a challenge. they usually end up getting rammed between the driver and the front passenger seat, just shy of getting in the way of him changing gears. There is a wonderfully undocumented self-organizing chaos in the seating arrangements. There are almost never enough seats on Samoan buses. Basically women and foreigners (so called palangi) in Samoa sit at the front. Old people and foreigners almost always have a seat. Kids can end up on sitting on just about any womans lap including foreigners. Both Lotta and Roberta ended up with kids on their laps at some point. I ended up with Lotta on my lap and a chicken in a bag, in a box between my feet at one point. Men sit at the back. When people get on the bus, people start to rearrange themselves, usually without a word, to maintain the seating priority and order It all makes for a jolly ride, including the tropical scenery whizzing by. With lightened hearts we arrived at the ferry ready for our trip to Savai'i.
The ferry proved to be more comfortable and spacious than i expected with an air-conditioned lower deck with aircon, and a covered upper deck for sightseeing. The journey was about an hour. Lotta had the final destination in mind, I think a friend recommended it, so we jumped on another bus and headed to Joelan beach fales, Lano beach. Fale is the Samoan word for house, but beach fale is the number one type of tourist accomodation here, its basically a wooden frame, no walls, with coconut leaf roofs and blinds out of the same material that can be pulled down in sections if privacy is desired. Usually two mattresses, mozzie nets and maybe a light is your lot. Its a very romantic, airy and depending on the view, spectacular type of accomodation! We arrived at joelan and it looked lovely. I wasn't immediately overly impressed, I think I was expecting something more along the lines of Tobacco Caye in Belize, but that is a high bar to set. We dawdled about and went for a swim in the ocean, spitting distance from our fale. The owner didn't exactly impress us with her welcoming skills either, she basically wrote us in the book and took our money. This wasn't the last time she disappointed us. Didn't even point out where the toilets were, but then hey, you'll figure it out when you need to go, right?
The standard fare for tourist accommodation out here is two or three meals included with the accomodation, for the princely average sum of £30 a night. No bad. This aint Asia baby. The quality of the food is pretty good, breakfast is usually toast and fruit (coconut, papaya - oh the papaya here! - and breadfruit being the main ones) and dinner is usually chicken or fresh fish straight out the sea, with taro, the main carbs beside rice here, a root vegetable with a bland taste. This country really is the bounty island cliche, one of the few places on earth where everybody has enough to eat. Even as a tourist you can knock coconuts off trees for yourself, assuming they're within the accommodation boundaries, and theyre almost always is, because theyre everywhere, and sometimes bananas are provided free and plentiful. Nobody goes hungry in Samoa!
Anyway we settled in and got to know the guests, a really nice bunch. A swiss couple and a ozzie and dutch couple, and a couple of other randoms. Later on a couple we got to know as Andy and Jana turned up. They kept themselves to themselves on the first night. We played cards and had a couple of beers but nothing heavy. Later on as we were going to bed Andy and a japanese girl Kanako were getting close. Jana was attractive and at this point I realised they weren't a couple.
Day 4 Lano July 4th
Up in the morning and I saw Jana on the beachfront practicing her stick swinging skills. I walked up and introduced myself and we went for a swim together. She's young, good-looking and boisterous, I liked her straight away. Meanwhile Lotta was getting friendly with the dogs in the area, she's a regular Dr. Dolittle. Put a little scrawny cat in front of her and she melts. We went for a walk to the shop to get beer and were accompanied by no less than 5 dogs trotting along beside us. They would keep the other dogs at bay, and get into the occasional scrap with the other dogs. Our own security patrol! Lotta and I hired snorkels from the fale owner, but they were in such bad condition as to be unusable. Both masks and snorkels were covered in mould and when you breathed throughh the snorkel you could taste it. We managed to cobble together two decent sets by asking the fale owner next door if we could hire theirs. The snorkelling is generaly not great around Savai'i, permanently shallow water makes for tricky navigation, and I didnt see a single big fish the time I spent on Savai'i. Other than that we messed about on the beach and generally enjoyed beach life. Later on I dragged Jana into the water again and we sat and talked at a little beach. That night we had a couple beers again and played cards. Andy joined us this time and it turned into a later night for me, the UNO cards came out and a little wacky baccy was smoked.

Day 5 Lano July 5th
Lotta went into town to try and get some money out. I looked for Jana to try and get her into the water again (not always easy!), but she was nowhere to be seen. I didnt realise she had gone to town with Lotta. I lay about until they came back then we had a nice day just all swimming, sunbathing and hanging out. We ended up in the water with a school class of local kids at one point, and as the kids thronged around the two blond girls asking the usual barrage of questions and touching hair and skin, I played catch the coconut in the water with some of the boys. The money mission had unfortunately been unsuccessful, but it wasn't such a tragedy, I still had some spare cash. That night we did the usual, played cards and drank a couple of beers. Jana decided to go to bed and seconds later we heard a scream. A big dirty rat had been feeding on some open food left foolishly lying in the fale, and Jana had freaked out. Jana was scared of thunder, rats, dogs, lagoons, I cant even remember what else. She came back to the the table as Andy, Kanako the japanese girl and I continued to play cards. eventually I realised Jana was at the table because she was too scared to go back to the fale. I offered her my bed in the fale with Lotta and went to sleep in hers.

Day 6 Lano July 6th
For this days events, the day of the bus accident, see:

Day 7 July 7th Manase
Sunday. In Sunday a few things happen in Samoa, but only a few. Everybody goes to church about 10am-ish. They have a traditional Sunday lunch, called an Umu. It can be several things, but the cooking method is always the same. Dried coconut husks are set in a mound with stones scattered between them. The hot stones are later spread on the ground and the food to be cooked is laid among the stones. Suckling pig is also sometimes on offer, I joy I have yet to experience. Afer that, basically nothing happens, working is forbidden, even going out and paddling about in canoes is forbidden. Walking between villages is also forbidden. It is a day of rest a la Switzerland, but stricter and often enforced. Foreigners (palangi) are given some leeway, but if the village chiefs catch their residents doing anything of that sort, they have to pay a fine.
Our host had invited us the previous night to church and for an umu. Church seemed appropriate after the previous days events, and we had heard the singing is quite powerful, so we accepted.
The morning found me in better spirits. After breakfast and lying about in the sun we first visited the two Samoans across the road preparing the umu. They showed us the preparation of coconut cream inside the talo leaf, which is then wrapped in another type of leaf whose name escapes me. We were told the palangi always find it delicious, I was looking forward to it. Their house was surrounded on 3 sides by pretty dense jungle, they had obviously cut out that little patch just for themselves. Chickens and pigs, as usual, ran free, snuffling about. We got to know Roberta better, we were already hatching half plans to spend the rest of the girls time in Samoa together, as it turned out both Lotta and Roberta had the same flight home. The bad news was that the fale owner came to us and said two little girls were confirmed dead in the bus crash. Up to this point I had thought the worst off were Tina the german and the old woman. That was depressing news. Additionally, she thought two old men were still missing.
With that sorry news we went off to church.
The church was quite an impressive affair. Over 100 years old, an imposing white and blue building. We had been told it was one of the most impressive churches on the island. The men generally wore white suit jackets and white lavalavas (basically a length of cloth fashioned into a simple skirt, im waering one as I write this). The women were more varied, dresses of all shapes and colours. The choir sat at the front. The pastor started with a little English for us "Welcome to Samoa. We hope you enjoy the beautiful people. And also quite good-looking". That was the last of the English though. It was a typically Catholic service with singing, sermon, and call and return between pastor and the faithful. What wasn't typical, was the music. Acoustically the church was great. The background music for the hymns was the same awfully produced stuff that we heard on the buses. The singing over the top of it was quite something. The men had deep rich voices, and the harmonies with the women were sometimes excellent. A couple of times we all had to stop ourself from applauding at the end of a song! The highlight of the service for me was the carrying of the bible from the back of the church to the front. At this point the background music took on a classic dance beat, boom boom boom boom, which seemed so inappropriate I had to stop myself from laughing. The pastor(?) walked slowly with the book held high over his head to the front of the church.
The service went on 20 minutes shy of me falling asleep, which seems about right. For part of it we were entertained by two kids a couple of rows in front intermittently slapping each other on the back of the head. We went back to find lunch on the table, I had actually expected to be sitting around with the villagers eating, but it turned out not to be that way. At some point in the day it came out that I had a video. An old feller staying there suggested I give it to the police. I said I thought they had enough eye-witness statements, Anyway the owners got wind of this, and certainly not for the last time, I showed the video to the entire family multiple times while they watched and discussed it and recorded the video with their mobile phones. The old fella suggested again about the police, and the owner agreed so the police were called, but strangely couldnt be bothered to come out themselves, so I would have to go and visit them if I wanted to hand over the video. This would involve going round the island the long way to get to our planned next destination, but I agreed to do it, I could also nip back to Joelans and pick up the stuff we had missed when we packed so quick the day previously, including Lottas only shoes, her expensive watch and my headlight. We agreed to go our separate ways in the morning, Lotta and Roberta would go the short way, and me the long way, and I would meet them there.
That night Lotta went to bed fairly early and Roberta and I sat up and played cards (Spit, Machiavelli) until the beer was all gone in the wee hours of the morning. Latest night I had had in a while!

Day 8 July 8th Manase-Falealupo
Up for brekkers and it was time to hit the road. Lotta and Roberta were westbound across the northern coastal road to the northwestern tip, i was east bound and all the way round the island to end up at the same destination. Savai'i is the third biggest island in the South Pacific after New Zealand and Hawai'i, so we are not talking a one hour trip ;)
It was an interesting feeling walking out of Manase with my backpack on, not sure I've ever walked out of anywhere, cycled yes, bus, train, taxi, yes. But walked? Anyway I'd probably walked about a kilometre when I decided i was going to hitch the first leg. The third car stopped after I changed my tactic from simply sticking my thumb out to turning round and showing my face and then sticking my thumb out, probably obvious to those who have hitchhiked before. A nice family picked me up and I squeezed in. The bus story came up, so the video came out. We discussed that and then had a fairly quiet journey the rest of the way. They dropped me at Joelans and it felt strange going back. There was no-one around, except a couple of staff. I got my stuff back. The corner of the house seemed in even worse shape than before. I left and walked towards the scene of the accident. The bus had been removed, and there were two boys picking amongst the rocks, obviously looking for lost treasures for the wrong reasons or right. I was chatting to them when Sai came out his house, the house that had been used for the first aid station. Jana and I had been chatting to him just before it all happened. I don't remember seeing him again after that. He recognised me straight away and greeted me like an old friend. He was very grateful for the help and said any time I come back to Savai'i I can come and live with him for free. He filled me in on a lot of details of the accident. He had been in the search party that found the girls body trapped under the bus, and he had found the other body that washed up on the beach the next day. The driver was badly injured and was in hospital. the two Australian girls had got away, almost without a trace apparently. He had managed to recover Tina's second bag, her camera and bizarrely, the photograph page of her passport. We walked for a couple of km and exchanged contact details at the end. I was really happy to have met him, it gave me some kind of closure. However, it isn't the last time I've thought that.
I hitched a lift on the back of a pickup to the police station in Tuasivi. That was a nice ride!
In the police station, there were lots of police around, apparently doing absolutely nothing. I told them who I was and what I had. The camera came out, the video was shown, the mobile phones came out to record it. Then apparently they remembered who they were, and showed me in to who can only guess was the chief of the precinct. A sterner, more senior man, but what really gave away his status was that he actually appeared to be working. We copied the video over to his PC and he watched it a couple of times. I asked him some questions about the crash, he told me the driver was probably facing life under a new Crimes Act about to come into force. He told me that they weren't sure if the driver had been drunk because chewing gum, a cigarette or even a lungful of water can muddle the test. Pretty sure the driver had at least the latter. Strangely he asked me very few questions, mostly just wanted my contact details and to know why I hadn't filmed the whole incident or taken pictures. He took no statement. I copied the video onto another PC, clearly this one was for the officers' enjoyment. They were jovial and chatty, didnt seem to be particularly engaged in an investigation of any kind! I took my leave and once again headed out on foot. I had half planned to go to the nearby hospital and get some antibiotics and perhaps even bandage my feet, I had a couple of cuts and lacerations that I picked up during the bus accident that didn't seem to want to close or get better. I walked another km or two, waving to children and the like. I jumped on a passing bus which got me to the main busstation. He told me on arrival at the station which bus I needed, in such a manner that I thought I had to rush. I ran over to the bus and sat down pleased in the knowledge I had made it, I was on the right bus and this would be the last leg of the journey before the beach reward at the far end. I sat there for two hours before the bus was so much as started up. Eventually we started making tracks on the two hour bus journey along the southern and western coasts of Savai'i and up towards Falealupo, which means literally House Of Fish in samoan. This was the first time I had ever experienced a quiet bus in Samoa. Roberta starting texting me saying it was paradise where they were. Sweet! As always, speaking to a couple of people on the bus ensured they directed me to get off at the right point. After a long dozy journey which towards the end was littered with signs along the street "Hurricane Evacuation/Assembly point", I arrived and went to the little shop at the top of the 5km road down to the beach. I talked to the samoan woman running the shop who had been brought up in NZ and had returned to Samoa for the easy way of life. She was funny, with a strong Maori english accent. Roberta had phoned me a taxi but it took half an hour to come, and th road was so bad another half an hour passed before I finally made it, but it was worth the wait! Spotless golden beaches, palm trees, our accomodation, a bizarre concrete paved "beach volleyball" court and precious little else. It was instantly relaxing upon arrival. The girls had been there for a couple of hours and we swapped stories about our day, the girls had also had a very interesting and warm hearted day, families that had picked them up hitchhiking had invited them in for food, offered them a bed, etc. They were both buzzing with the combination of the days excitement and the paradise we had arrived at. It really was something else. And it was called Sunset Fales, so our expectations were high for a spectacular sunset. It was really nice to see them again, after only a few hours apart, especially Lotta seeing as we had been more or less always together since the start, I was as excited about meeting them having spent a few hours apart and on our own little adventures as I was about anything. We messed about in the water and paddled about making the most of the good weather. It has been apparently Samoans rainiest dry season since, well forever. I suppose that balances out the fact that all 3 of us were in New Zealand for their driest summer since, well forever. We decided to go to the local shop just about dusk time to get some beers in. We arrived at the shop to find it closed, but as always in Samoa, you are never alone for long, and people began appearing out the shadows, until it felt like they were having a town meeting, and then the shop owner turned up and opened up just for us. We trapsed back to find a rather dry ensemble at the dinner table, two russians and two aucklanders. Ive spent long enough in new zealand to know there is a difference between a kiwi and an aucklander, and these two were just dry and mildly pretentious enough to be in the "Ignore" drawer for me. They were cycling round Samoa. Wasnt long until dinner was served and it was typically good, chicken and fish and even a salad with tuna through it, mmmmeat festival. After that we cracked our beers open and played some cards at the cute beach table with a light in the middle. I spent the night with about 30 moths hovering around me, but with ever day that passes my bug tolerance increases. Moths are anyway not really bugs, just big flappy buggers. We all hit the sack at a respectable time. It always feels about 3 hours later than it is in the night time here, because the sun goes down so early and dinner is usually fairly early. If you reach midnight you were having a good crack at it.

Day 9 July 9th Falealupo
Nothing to do today but laze about and enjoy the beach and the company. Lovely. We spent most of the day sunbathing. We went to the shop after breakfast, and i decided on a whim I was going to buy superglue to fix the cuts and lacerations on my feet, that I had mainly picked up at the bus accident. I had spent the previous days since the bus accident hobbling about when barefoot and trying to keep my feet dry as possible and out the sand. Everytime going into the water or the sand they werent getting better, and I was trying to live the beach life. I had tried blister plasters to seal them in, as I once had in Thailand, but as in Thailand, it didnt work. In Thailand (actually Burma) I let them get wet, and they puff up. But basically they take ages and the skin doesnt breathee properly, so if you take them off prematurely it rips all the temporary cover away with it, and youre back to square one. So I figured superglue must be the key. was. I cleaned and disinfected all 4 cuts, applied the superglue. within one hour all the throbbing and pain was gone, and I never thought about them again. Cuts are never great in the tropics, especially on your feet. After I had done it I looked up the internet to find out if its a smart idea (that was clever!), and apparently it is :) New essential tropics travelling item added! Along with a knife, a light, wet wipes (not essential but you will always find a use for them) and imodium for the more fluid moments in your digestion. Stops you up good and proper for that bus journey/encounter with a woman when you dont want your bowels letting you down.
Later on, the police turned up at the fales. I said to Lotta half-serious I wonder if they are here for me. They were! They had come to find out if we knew anything about the injured tourists. We told them about Tina who was staying at the German consul in Apia, awaiting "extraction". They asked me for a written statement which I gave them. Once again they asked me no questions and gave me no guidelines as to what exactly they wanted in the statement. They cadged a cigarette off me. I asked them if I could take a photograph of my statement and they misunderstood and got into pose mode around the police car! So I snapped that anyway. They told me I may be called up to court, and they took my email address and said they would make "arrangements". Witness in a Samoan murder/manslaughter case that would be aiming to sentence a man to life! Not sure I really want to be involved in that, but if I'm not half way around the world and the "arrangements" are suitable, I will do it.
That night was the usual, a couple of beers and cards. I ended up stoating about naked at one point much to the girls amusement.

Day 10 July 10th Falealupo - Manono
Roberta had heard/read about a little island in Samoa called Manono that she wanted to check out. It was going to be a fair travel to get there. It was a 5am start, to get a taxi at 6am up the bumpy road to the main street, then it was a two hours bus journey to get to the ferry to Apia, the 1 hour ferry journey across, another 20 min taxi to the Manono wharf and then a pleasant little journey on a small boat across the always-present lagoons of the South Pacific to get to Manono. Manono turned out to be very rustic and traditional, where the Samoan village-centric way of life was very much in order. At 16:00 every night a bell is rung signalling prayer time, and at this point Samoans are supposed to return to their housesto pray for 45 mins. Walking between the villages ath this time is strictly forbidden. A bell at 16:45 signals the end of the curfew. I was told by a Samoan later that crimes commited in the village are usually dealt with by the chiefs by means of cash fines. After 16:00 it can mean expulsion from the village for years. At 18:00 a shell is blown, signalling dinner. The accomodation was not as nice as previously, still a fale, but with walls and higher up on the hills away from the beach. There was also no beach to speak of, it had all been washed away in one of the recent natural disasters that this area is so prone to. It was 13:00 by the time we arrived so we had been 8hrs on the road and were all a bit shattered. Roberta had the most energy left so after lunch she went for a walk round the (small) island. Lotta and me put our heads down and didnt surface until shortly before 16:00 when the owners had planned a snorkelling trip out to the reef. The snorkelling wasnt bad, but not great, I think I'm spoilt by Indonesia and the Ghillie Islands! The evening proved to be more entertaining. After dinner we went for a walk along the cute village path to the shop. It was turning to dusk at this point. Within 5 minutes we had a throng of 4 village kids accompanying us, laughing and asking us questions about our families. They are usually surprised by our relative lack of siblings, 6-8 kids in one family is the norm here. I ended up racing the kids down the winding, dusky village path, steaming past surprised locals. A couple more kids joined us when they saw the fun we were having. We took some pictures in front of where the village was drying out coconut husks in prep for fuel. Was the highlight of the day! We went back and settled into our usual routine of cards and beer. The fishermen brought in the nights catch at some point and we all had a gander. The girls were starting to feel the last night holiday blues a little, especially Roberta. Just as we were about to turn in when Ace the fisherman turned up with a raw fish and asked if we would like to try. I said yes, and it was really good, like a fine salmon. I think it was called "Umbi". Lotta tried a little too despite having just brushed her teeth.

Day 11 - July 11th -  Manono-Apia
Up for breakfast and then straight back on to the little boat, we had wanted to stay a little longer, but they asked us to leave earlier because they had a pickup at 10am. I wasnt too fussed because there was nothing going on there anyway.
Back to Apia and Tatiana motel. I had booked myself into a different hotel for the next couple of nights, a good couple of steps up for only $10USD more a night. Stuff it. I wanted to regather my thoughts and decide what I was going to do next. I was considering American Samoa and Tonga. Rarotonga is too touristy as is Fiji as well as being pricey. But first I had to find out if the elusive Camp Samoa existed. I had seen this website back in NZ for it, its a WWOOFing place near Apia where you can work for very cheap accomodation. They also have a program called SWAP, Samoan Web Ambassador Program, which entails photojournalism and writing up a website about Samoan culture. It all sounded very interesting. I phoned the guy when we got to Tatianas.  He said he was close and popped by for a chat. He was a very strange character indeed. He talked alot, listened little, and had a generally very negative attitude. He went on about how Samoa was brutal and he didnt think twice about punching a Samoan if one gave him lip. He told us proudly how he beat his dogs and they were the happiest dogs in Samoa. Bullshit. He basically bad mouthed the locals, and then in the same breath tell us how much he wanted to promote their lifestyle and increase tourism traffic, he was friends with the Prime Minister and I would get to meet him etc etc. He seemed an intelligent but cold and confused character. He has written a couple of books about Samoa. He had a high opinion of me, perhaps because I had shown interest in the program, but in the same breath also slighted the girls, saying they would never know the real Samoa, but I would get to know everything. The more he talked the less I realised I wanted to learn from this guy. He left and left a cloud of mild depression behind him. He brought all of us down. I couldnt talk I was so bewildered by this character who seemed on the surface to be doing so much good, but had a thoroughly nasty undercurrent. Plus the program sounded great. Did I go for it and suffer him? Couldnt decide. He left and we moved to my new digs, which was loooovely. A little oasis in Apia, a garden, a pool, hot showers (!), proper reception with staff around to do your bidding. We hadnt exactly been roughing it, but it was nonetheless nice to be back in civilization. We spent a couple of hours copying each others photographs. After that we headed into Apia for cold beers and pizza, ah civilization! There was even a live band playing. The pizza took over an hour to come and by the time it did we were all half oiled after only a couple of small export strength beers, guessed at 6.7%, but they are never entirely sure. All feeling dozy after the pizza we hit the tequila shots to inject some life back into us. I played one of the locals at pool, I should have had him round my little finger, but I fluffed an easy black. We moved on to a different bar, where a better live band was playing and jigged our last night away. All too quickly it was over, we were back at the hotel saying our fond farewells, and then the girls were gone. I sat and smoked a cigarette with one of the security guards and him and one of the girls tried to recall a Robert Louis Stevenson song for me they knew when they were kids. It was touching.

Day 12 - Apia - July 12th
I decided I was going to use the time in Apia to write a Samoan diary and figure out what to do next. The weird guy from Camp Samoa had told me about that somebody had put a negative review about him on couchsurfing. I thought this probably sounded like a sensible person, so I read the review which confirmed my suspicions about his character, and sent him an email asking him to elaborate. He did, and that settled it for me, Camp Samoa was out. I sent an email to a WWOOfing place in Tonga, i think it was an organic coconut farm. I havent heard anything back to date. The last chance of a plan I had was to contact Andy who I met at Joelan, he had mentioned something briefly about going to one of the villages where the hurricane had hit hard, to help rebuild a church, or more specifically, one of the houses belonging to the church. I did and he said I should come down to Tafitoala to meet him. I spent the rest of the day just lounging about and made a start to this diary. At 12 midday the hotel told us they were going put on a traditional Samoan show for us for free. Sounded like a giggle. It was actually really good, they showed the traditional kava drinking ceremony. As there were only three guests paying attention yours truly was called up to participate, and I ended up distributing kava, dancing and weaking a skirt (lavalava), which I have been wearing every day since. I also got to know the other two guests because of it, who were a couple of english medical stundets who had been working at the hospital down the road. They were nice and pointed out what was worth seeing on Upolu seeing as I hadnt explored it yet. I got to know most of the other guests that evening, and of course the bus came up so the video came out. They were mostly nice with a few grumpyold ones in the mix, it was ll getting quite familiar quitefast, unfortunately everybody was leaving the next day. Travelling life! The only ones I didnt get to know were 4 young mostly Northern Irish girls who were also working at the hospital. They didnt seem up for talking much.

Day 13 Apia - Tafitaloa July 13th
1 week bus anniversary. I spent the start of the day just lazing about again and doing my diary.Went to the shop to get credit to call Andy. I had intended to head down the next day, but I forgot it was Sunday, which meant no buses. So I headed out at 1pm and said goodbye to my little oasis and its lovely staff. Taxi to the bus station and on to the long awaited Bon Jovi themed bus. Well, it had "Bon Jovi" painted on the sides, I didn't realise that his face was painted on the back until it was pulling away! Missed that shot! The bus was about an hour and a half and it was the first time I noticed there was an extra man on the bus who was essentially responsible for buying groceries at the shop and then distibuting goods to the villages, usually by quickly jumping off and dumping a box of groceries at the kerbside. The bus journey was over an hour, but I got to know the distribution guy, and he got the driver to drive me all the way to the fales, which was a good km off the main road. Upon arrival, I wasnt too overwhelmed by the place, the hurricane damage was evident everywhere, and the beach was definetly nothing special. There was also a slightly eerie quietness to the place, I guess its the disaster fallout effect. I found Andy and Kanako and we said our hellos. It was also about this time that Adam wrote to me from Nelson and told me his days story of tragedy and heroics. He had been out jogging at the harbour and a saw a car drive into the river. Him and another guy jumped in and managed two break two windows. The passenger escaped out the front door, and between Adam and this other guy they managed to save the baby in the back of the car. The female driver who had assumedly been knocked unconscious when hitting the water, despite the ambulances best efforts. Adam watched her die. Exactly one week since the bus, I can't remember a week in my life involving more death. Grim as fuck.
Anyways, I settled in at Sina beach fales, Tafitaloa the owner family are lovely with 6 happy and wild kids. We settled into the Samoan routine for the evening, cards and beer, not too much of both.

Day 14 July 14th Tafitaloa
Sunday. We heard the pastor was sick and wouldnt be able to receive us today, plus it was Sunday, not a good time to be disturbing anybody. So I got stuck into the diary again. The beach wasn't particularly inviting, and I couldnt be bothered swimming. Although at high tide was OK, I was tired of swimming in very shallow waters trying to not to touch the bottom and esp. corals all the time. My time at Sina fales was very lazy, and I was smoking too much. We got more beers in for the night, but the Vailima export is very unpredictable, it can make you v. tired or bring you up. It made us very tired that night. We wrestled with the kids a bit and taught them how to play Uno.

Day 15 July 15th Tafitoala
We went  to visit the pastor early afternoon to find out what was happening about the construction and if there was going to be a place for me to stay free/cheap. Andy and Kanako had planned to stay at the pastors. We were received by the pastor and his wife, the pastor although smiling had a bandaged up leg, and by the size of the bandage, I reckon his leg must have been in pretty bad shape. They told us there was no room for me at the house because they only had two rooms, and a lot of kids.  We discussed the other possibilities. They thanked us for our interest in helping, in fact, their words were, we love you. We moved on to a guy Andy knows, Otto,  from when he first stayed in the village down here. Otto said he could put me up but it was very crowded, and my instinct was he felt obliged to say yes, but actually didnt think it was a particularly good idea. He said he would talk to someone else. He was in the process of building a house that would be finished by the end of the week, where he said we could stay, but the end of the week was one week too late. I was having second thoughts about the whole thing, but decided I would stay until the next day when work should begin, and then take it from there. We went back to Sinas, and Andy asked me to superglue his foot wound up again, as it hadnt stuck the day before. It was looking a bit infected, so Kananko and me did our best to clean it out using rubbing alcohol, cotton buds, wet wipes and a pair of pliers. It was not a pleasant experience for Andy. Unattended wounds simply do not heal here! After that I superglued it up again. We decided to crack out the remainder of the beers from last night and play Uno, as there was bot all else going on. This was about 2pm. The beer hit us had this time and we were all pretty instantly drunk. Andy started to feel cold and tired, which seemed a little strange. The pastors wife drove up and came to talk to us. She said first there can be no playing cards, or drinking or music while staying at the pastors house.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Burmese Days - Hpa-an

Mawlamyine - Hpa-an Day 10

The Belgians went out to see the pagoda on top of the hill in the morning and something else (these guys never stopped), while Bob and me made the most of our comfortable room by doing precisely nothing, except for a bit of internetting. We planned to meet up and get a taxi to the bus station about 12:30, beside the bus station was a  hotel with a swimming pool, which we were looking forward to, havent seen a swimming pool since Bangkok! It never quite worked out this way, as there was some confusion with the taxi driver who dropped us at a closer place to get the bus, so we ended up straight on the bus and on the way to Hpa-an. It was a chankmobile, and Bob ended up sitting sideways to give his massive pins some room. I was at the window, so I could open it right up and get some cool-down. Unfortunately I couldnt keep my eyes open and there was no position to sleep in. I was afraid I would fall out the window if I passed out so I ended up doing the bobble-head the whole journey. I tried closing the window so I could sleep against it but it was too bouncy and I was denying at least 10 people cool air by closing it so I gave up on that. The bus journey was less than two hours though so I didnt have to endure this weird sleep deprivation torture for long.
First impressions of Hpa-an for me was its pretty scabby looking. Kinpun was very villagey and basic, but had a certain charm. This was more like a town, all concrete and mildew. The attraction of Hpa-an is what is to be found in the surrounding lush countryside and limestone mountains. Our room in the Soe brothers guesthouse was another super basic room. No air-con and very very small. As Bob said, "we're slumming it again". However, the place was pretty clean. We booked a room here because the Lonely Bible said it was the only place in town where the staff (or the Soe Brothers at least) could speak English, and would provide hand-drawn maps and guides or motorbikes for the surrounding areas. The Belgians had not booked a room in advance, and they were told the inn was full upon arrival. They went off in search of alternative accomodation. They ended up landing on their feet, with a room with working aircon and a communal balcony that had an excellent view of the river and bizzarely shaped mountains across the water. The Belgian met a Frenchman who described one of them as "little titty", and he was right. It's the closest you get to seeing any flesh in Burma!
Bob and me went for a wander that evening to scope the town out. The power cuts here are the worst we have encountered in Burma so far. The entire town goes dark in the blink of an eye, then a couple of beacons (police station, restaurants) light up eventually as their generators kick in. We went to one restaurant that the Bible sort of recommended and had a bite. Ive found that Squid is the only dependable seafood out here. I know its not fresh, but not fresh squid is better than not fresh shrimps and the like. Across the street was the only bar in town, but it was pretty bogging (one of the worst toilets Ive seen too), and when we actually went in for a beer Bob's throat started to sting from the petrol fumes from the generator, so we made a hasty retreat. We walked through the treacherously paved, pitch black streets using headtorches to reach another recommended restaurant on the edge of town where we had some beers and I did some diary. This restaurant looked better, a massive plate of garnish was put out and no fewer than 10 covered dishes of various dips and miscellaneous looking stuff. This was all complementary if you bought food. They had a generator in here but that gave out briefly at one point too and we found ourselves in the pitch black once again.
The walk home was surreal. the streets were dead and black, the only things you could see was the reflected lights of the streets dogs eyes watching you from the end of the road and the alleyways. We stopped of again at the first restaurant for a nightcap and a bite to eat. We chose a Fried Assorted Mix, which included everything Chicken, Eel, Squid, Prawn and I hate to think what else. It looked a Bob dream meal and a Scott nightmare meal. I picked at it a bit, but would come to regret it..
We got home to relatively hot room, but to our surprise the fan was working. It gave up the ghost at about 11pm, though, so it was another relatively sweaty night.

Hpa-an Day 11

I woke up the next morning with stomach pains and nausea. The runs had finally caught me. I popped an Imodium (my new favourite drug), but this time it was to prove ineffective. Whatever was in there, my body wanted it out. We rushed out that morning because we woke late and on to the waiting motorbikes with no breakfast and little to drink. We picked up a packet of Garibaldi type biscuits on the way to keep me and Bob going until lunch. I managed to forget about my stomach which seemed to have settled. We set off on our tour, with the Belgians, to see the sights dotted around Hpa-an. Bob once again got off to a false start with a flat front tyre, so we returned to base, and to Bobs delight he got a new-ish Chinese 110cc bike with much better suspension than we had encountered so far! So with Bob feeling like Denis Hopper, we tried again.
First stop was a cave "Kaw gon", or something like that, with loads of Buddha statues and tiny little buddhas carved into the rock in impossible places. More of a cavern actually. Mining in the area with dynamite had brought some of the cave crashing down, so it was past its original glory. We only stopped here for a bit and the old stomach gave me some gip.

Back on the road, and we stopped at another cave, a whole different kettle of fish. We climbed the steps to the entrance, to find a monk watching music videos on a notebook and smoking a fag. The view from the top was lovely.

 He pointed the way in, and we took off our shoes and ventured into the gloom. There were small lights scattered here and there, which although not enough to light the way, helped a little. Headtorches a must. This cave had Buddhas at the entrance, but once inside, it was undecorated. There were stalactites and those big kind of drippy formations you find on the walls of caves. Barefoot we felt our way through, and it was hot hot in there.

Weird glowing...leafage
 We emerged on the other side about 10 mins later to a great view across the countryside, all of us sweating like horses and a little surprised at the unexpected journey we had found ourselves on. We started back and lo and behold, the power went out. There was a bunch of screaming and laughing kids in front of us too, so we fumbled through the dark with their noise ringing in our ears, another surreal journey. By the time we got out, dripping with sweat, I was starting to feel worse. I felt weak and clumsy. Perhaps too much without a decent breakfast.

We set off towards the next stop, a big pillar of rock in the middle of a lake with a pagoda on it. We sat down for a cool drink when we got there and my stomach started to twist up again andI began to feel very tired. The others set off for the pillar of rock, and I lay down on a bench. on a bench
 The pillar of rocks name sounds almost exactly like the French pronounciation of "Chocolat", which the Belgians were very pleased about!

They returned and woke me up, having climbed halfway up the rock for a view.

...the view
...and from the other side
We set off again after watching a pickup truck load an insane amount of kids on to the back of it, towards our lunch stop, a kind of holiday destination for the Burmese apparently, which also had an outdoor swimming bit.

 The setting was dramatic, with a big cliff right behind the swimming area. By the time we arrived I felt like shit.  I began to worry at this point I may not be able to make it home on the bike. All sorts of alternatives were running through my head. I ate a mouthful of fried rice (the thought of grease at the time of writing is still making my stomach turn) and once again lay down in the shade on the ground to try and get some sleep, the only thing my body seemed to want. The others ate their fill and went for a swim in the "pool", Chloe wearing a tshirt and full longhyi, visible flesh not being an option here.
They woke me up again and I felt a little better. I said I was going straight home though, and Bob said he would come with. The Belgians wanted to stop off at the gardens at the foot of the mountain we were due to climb tomorrow. It was a nice ride home, more stop-start than yesterday; you could open the bike up, only to have to brake hard as a big pothole opened up in front of you, or the very real danger of hitting cow, chicken, goat or even wild pig.
We got back to the guesthouse and my mood brightened knowing I was home and could just lie down. I could feel my whole body rejoicing as I hit the bed. I went to bed at 7pm, and despite waking a couple of times here and there, slept until midday the next day. Something I haven't done for a long long time!
During this time, Bob went out for dinner, booked a flight to Kuala Lumpur from Yangon, booked accommodation in Kuala Lumpur, got informed about the buses to Yangon, and made it up a mountain. Nice one bruv :)

Hpa-an - Day 12: Last Day

As mentioned, I spent the first half of the day in bed. Bob was off at 8am with the Belgians on bike to scale the mountain and see a massive cave. He said the mountain was the hardest climb he had ever done. I got up and went to a wee place for breakfast. I don't think I will be able to stomach fried food for a while. This may prove to be problematic, we are in SE Asia after all..

various pics from Bob as he scaled the mountain..

At the top...last adventure in Burma.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Burmese Days- Mawlamyine

Kinpun to Mawlamyine - Day 6

Mawlamyine is the capital of Mon state, and was the first British Burmese capital of the country in the mid 19th century. Is the third largest city in Myanmar, population almost 300,000 and sits on the banks of the Irrawaddy. It inspired both Orwell who lived here and Kipling who wrote the famous poem "Mandalay" here. Mawlamyine is called Moulmein in English, and the opening lines of his poem are:

"By the old Moulmein pagoda
Lookin' lazy at the sea
There's a Burma girl a-settin'
and I know she thinks o' me"

Travel day. Down to the bus station with the hotel bus, which we managed to cadge instead of waiting at the unreliable pickup truck stop; Burma's answer to local buses. The bus station turned out not to be a bus station, just a bus stop at the side of the road. The bus was an hour late, Asia style, so I took a few snaps and mucked about with the camera to pass the time.

The trip itself was uneventful. I got tucked into "Burmese Days". It was a bit squashed for the first hour until we managed to get two seats each. We bought samosas and apples through the window at a bus stop from the ever-present Burmese smiling girls. All fried food in my experience in Thailand and Burma uses cheap oil that sticks to your mouth, moustache and fingers. Wet wipes are always a great thing to have.
We arrived one hour ahead of schedule. We got onto a rickety piece of shit three-wheeler with a small flatbed and metal seats to take us to the guesthouse. We passed some of the most decrepit old colonial buildings I have seen so far and through a shoddy, sparse neighbourhood. For once, our guesthouse wasn't there and we continued right down to the bank of the mighty Irrawaddy river. Score! The guesthouse itself was a bright blue old colonial building with a massive balcony on the first floor. We were shown our room and it was the most bizarre room yet. No windows,  tiled blue walls like a hospital and weird curved corners.

Power tower - we had to improvise coz the plug sockets were shoogly
We had our own bathroom though. We passed some pretty grim rooms on the way, little box cubicles with only one netted high window to the corridor. It was pretty clean and had aircon, so it was going to do. The sink had a blue tube that carried the water to a hole in the wall. Not a particularly nice place to hang about, but then we shouldnt be hanging about in the room anyway, right? We cooled down in the aircon for a bit and watched a bit of...well you guessed it. After that we crossed the road that separated the guesthouse from the actual river and walked for a bit, soaking in the peace and quiet of the Irrawaddy. It was still light, and we went to a restaurant hanging over the river for dinner and had delicious squid in oyster sauce for Bob and a prawn dish for me. We watched and photographed the sunset, the first I can remember for a while. Nice.

The river is dirty, but this is SE Asia after all. After dinner we set out in search of the beer garden, about a mile along the bank. We met a Burmese Muslim along the way who was hanging in the shadows. He stopped us and said he would like to practice his English, would we talk to him. We said yes, so he got on his motorbike and we met in the beer garden 10 minutes later. The beer garden wasnt a garden, but it did have ice cold beer on tap, the first I have seen in Burma. Score! We lapped it up and talked to the dude whose name escapes was something like Abdulissah. He was an aspiring writer having completed English Writing at a Burmese University by the tender age of 20. He talked a bit about this and that and listened to me and Bob yap. He earned $2 a day as a painter (houses, not artworks) and couldnt afford beer, so we bought him some. He refused at first but we insisted. He had Indian roots and very dark skin for an Indian, and was considering crossing the border to India illegaly to find work. He said the Burmese dont like Indians and he was having a hard time finding any other job. All in all he was a nice guy, perhaps had a little chip on his shoulder. He got a little vocal about the government later on after 3 beers and Bob was getting tired, so we called it a night before Bob fell asleep or our new friend  got himself arrested for dissidence. He invited us back to see his mum, but we politely refused. We walked home and came upon a billiard and pool bar we had clocked earlier, which looked open for business. As basic as it gets, it had a high roof with mildewed walls and no toilet. But the beer was cold and the tables in good condition (10ft by 5ft tables, full size snooker?). We were home again :) We played for a while, then the place started to fill up quick so we thought we would do the polite thing and give our table up to the locals. 58-35 is the running total for pool games for me and Bob so far. Thats really just a note for me. After that bed, and sadly the last episode of our downloaded Trailer Park Boys...

Mawlamyine Day 7

Up at 10, we got out into the street to find breakfast. I was a little sensitive to the heat today due to ahem beer consumption the night before, so we decided to have an easy one today, a wee trip to the internet cafe and plan the rest of our time here. Between 10 and about 14 here it really is uncomfortable to walk the streets, the heat is stifling. Especially with a hangover. We had a crap breakfast at a "Delifrance" (!) which of course was not a real Delifrance, but they had ripped off the sign pretty well. Was a really bizarre little place, garishly painted on the inside in yellow with lovehearts everywhere, and one curious wall-painting of a Cupid, face down in a pool of his own blood with an arrow in the back of his head. Somebody had written underneath "He's been dead since he day I was born". Weirdness.

Bob's shite breakfast face
Nonetheless, a nice change to see a fresh looking place instead of the general theme of mildew and concrete. We found out later in the day that our guesthouse served an included breakfast on the huge balcony on the first floor. They had failed to mention this at check-in, the bastards. Also they have nice rooms upstairs with teak flooring etc, not the dungeon we have been living in. I think they were fully booked, but nonetheless, bastards.We were directed to an internet cafe where we reached back to home via the usual mediums of facebook and email. Internet was sloooow. After that we melted home to grab the laptop and headed down to a restaurant we had clocked the day before to chill and so I could write this diary. Later on the Belgians showed up and we gabbed a bit and planned to spend the next day on the Island of Ogres together. A few beers were had, then the Belgians headed off and we stayed for one more so I could keep writing. A couple of games of pool and it was bedtime and Monty Python. It didn't cut it.I miss Trailer Park Boys already.

Mawlamyine Day 8 - Island Of Ogres

A peaceful breakfast on the balcony with a view of the lake, was interrupted by the guesthouse owner, who handed out laminate postcards of the Shwedagon pagoda. He told us a curious tale. 9am on a morning after a full moon, which has several significances in the Buddhist calendar, a bunch of people saw 3 monks fly over the Shwedagon pagoda. Right. Apparently our host had met the monks and he produced pictures of the monks (with their feet firmly on the ground), who were dressed up in what looked like velvet burkhas. Anyway, after this speech he launched into another, this time about the nature of Buddhism itself. It was a good speech, I imagine much rehearsed, and I recognised some of the phrases from previous encounters with Buddhism. It was a warming thing to hear at breakfast time. I could feel that 10 year old urge to go to a retreat bubbling up again. He handed out a pamphlet about Vipassana meditation retreats, in India, and talked a little about the ones around Mawlamyine. There are a couple there and they both offer free lodgings and food, the real thing, none of this monkforamonth bollocks. Apparently Burma is the place to go for meditation retreats. If you ignore the massacre of monks in 2007, of course. The belgian couple went to visit one of the meditation centres and got contact details for one in Yangon too and even a dude in Switzerland, which I now also possess.
Anyway after all that we met up with Mr. Kai, our guide for the day, who also works in our guesthouse with his twin brother, Mr. Anthony. We head out with the belgians and a taiwanese girl north along the river. We hadn't been up this direction before. It was a rundown neighbourhood that turned into a sprawling market, the chaos getting thicker with every step as we approached the dock. There was people everywhere, selling and transporting goods. We crossed 3 boats to get to ours which was jampacked, but Mr. Kai led us up to the deck and we got a bench put up for us in the shade right in front of the bridge :) Just like back in the Raj.

Bob and our belgian buddies, Thomas and Chloe, at the front of the boat
It was a beautiful day, and the views from there were stunning out across the lake, with palm trees on islands on one side, and in the distance hilly terrain speckled with golden stupas.

Two impression of boats on the Irrawaddy...the holiday shot...
...and the reality shot. Yuk.
Mr. Kai explained that Ogre island (Bilu Kyun) is so called because of its original inhabitants who were extremely ugly...and cannibals. They were wiped out a long time ago by an invading tribe, and the island is now inhabitated almost solely by the Mon people (yes, another language!). Thank you is "Dangoon-a". Its an interesting island because of its cottage industries, which is why we came.
The boat ride was cool, scenic and peaceful..perfect. As we approached the dock we could feel the energy from the other side of the shore bubbling, people milling about anticipating the boats arrival. We were greeted by the now familiar site of kids waving at the sight of our white hides. A jetty spanned wide mud banks where boats were lined up.

I think this part of the Irrawaddy is tidal, its not far to the sea from here. Once we had squeezed our way off the boat amid the usual bustle we were bundled into a covered pick-up and headed across the island.

 It started as a bustling red-dirt village with horse and carts aplenty,  and then quickly opened up into vast paddy-fields, water buffaloes bathing neck deep in irrigation canals at the side of the road. Everyone we passed was staring, smiling or both. This is not exactly unchartered waters, Mr. Kai told us that there is a group of foreigners similar to ours almost every other day to the island guided by him or his brother. I think they are the only people that do trips though.
It was a bumpy, bumpy road, luckily they had put sandbags in the pickup to sit on. Our first stop was at a small village, it was hard to tell where the individual villages stopped and started, where a group of locals were involved in making various article from coconut fibre. They would soak the raw fibres in hot water first to make them easier to work, and then roll them together by hand to make short lengths of thin coconut rope. These were then rolled around taut strands of longer coconut rope to make doormats. You know the type, thick, brown and very coarse.

Don't miss the cool little lady looking straight at the camera

And there she is again!
and again :)
There was also ladies rolling coconut fibre into twine, which was then rolled into rope after. Chloe had a brave try at it.

Bye smiley coconut fiber peeps!
We jumped back in the pickup and Mr Kai whisked us off to the next stop,

Didnt quite nail this..opportunity missed
A real money tree. They were collecting for something but I cant remember what
the rubber band "factory". This place was quite surreal, the first thing we saw was hundreds of luminous rods set out all over the yard. They were all day-glo, artificial colours and it was weird to see those colours in this extremely rural and dusty village. 

We walked through this jungle of neon and reached the workshop at the back where there was a maze of pulleys, wheels and diesel motors.

We saw the process from start to finish. The village owns a part of a rubber plantation, which along with rice are the most prominent crops on the island. The rubber is extracted from the trees by slitting the bark about 3am, sticking a small metal chute in to the cut, putting a small bowl below and collecting the sticky white latex in the morning.

One woman sits with a stick and a barrel and mixed the solution, i presume adding this or that chemical.

 The mixture is coloured and another girl dips sets of six rods into the day-glo mixture.

These are set to dry in the sun and once dry are removed and taken to the pulley maze. The removed rubber looks like a kinky coloured condom for a horse. They are set up on to a chute and gravity slides them towards a blade which can be worked by hand or by the aforementioned motor and pulley system. Voila, rubber bands.

I never figured rubber band productions to be so colourful and interesting :) Rubber bands are everywhere here and Thailand, they are used to seal food bags you buy at the market and for god knows how many other uses. The amount of rubber bands and plastic bags you can accumulate from one takeaway purchase at a street stall verges on disgusting. We said our goodbyes and thankyou's and moved on to my personal favourite, the woodcarvers.We were lead into a beautiful teak house (shoes off if you please) and sat down in this dudes living room and waited for him to appear.

He produced some beautifully carved walking sticks and tobacco pipes. Most of them were stained a wine red. I couldn't resist and bought a dragon shaped walking stick as a present to myself on my 60th birthday and a tobacco pipe shaped like Lenin's head. Yes, you read right. Brilliant!

 We also bought another faux bamboo walking stick for an as yet undecided person. This guy and his son carved everything in their tiny workshop in the barn beside the house and then distributed them across the country for sale at some of the bigger tourist spots like Bagan and Mandalay. We got them at 2/3 sale price, so we were told, and my attempt to bargain the price was waved off. Felt good to buy them at the source, the money going direct to the artist, and potentially without goverment levys being involved.

We stopped for lunch and it was one of the best meals we have had, still Bobs favourite to this day.

After that we went to another, slightly less impressive woodcarvers house who did small items. We bought some nicely stained cigarette holders and pens.
Our time was almost up so we headed to the bus stop and just had time quickly to visit the house of two women who were producing snacks. The Burmese love their sweet snacks.

We were given some free samples and jumped on the bus. The bus was sta cool kind of Havana old-timer turquoise with a funky yellow finish round the dials and was easily the most stylish vehicle we have seen in Myanmar so far.

Shots from the truck
Back on to a different boat and this one wasn't as comfy as the first. We ended up at the stern, outside, but the captain started the journey by doing rings, so it was a weird game of musical chairs as everyone tried to keep out the blazing, shifting sun. I ended up in the sun for the journey. I always was crap at musical chairs.

Sweaty and drained, we dreamt of a swimming pool as we often do at times like these. As usual though, by the time we got back to the room, rammed up the aircon and had a cold shower the desire drifted. We headed down to the restaurant from the night before, met the Belgians and had whiskys and $7 prawns to celebrate a great day.
Back to back on  a rickshaw with a 5 cent Burmese cheroot in gob
We took them to play pool afterwards at the billiard hall, Chloe and me were Burma, and we tanned the Belgium/Scotland team 2:0, Chloe winning the second for us nicely and very drunkenly.

Another Irrawaddy sunset

Mawlamyine Day 9 - Motorbikin

The day had finally come, we were going to get motorbikes. The plan was to drive 25km to the biggest reclining Buddha in the world at 170m long. We had tried to do a motorbike tour in Chiang Mai, but had to put it off twice due to me and Bob getting sick at different times.
I was apprehensive of renting bikes in Chiang Mai because of the heavy traffic (not compared to Bangkok, but crazy enough) and our collective motorbiking experience of nil. In Burma though, the roads are very wide with no lines at all, and the traffic is sparse, except in the middle of towns. The main hazards are potholes and animals, some roads look like the surface of the moon. The driving etiquette is simple. The biggest vehicle has right of way. You beep if you are overtaking close or if the other person looks like they might pull out. Slow to the right, and faster to the left. Easy. 100cc motorbikes/mopeds, so no chances of an accidental wheelie and embarrassing scars. Or so I thought. Bob and me had one each and Thomas and Chloe shared. Our first mission was to get to the Cinderella hotel just up the road, big backpacks and all.
We had decided to change hotels for the last night as our guesthouse was getting a bit too much for us. The room was a bit grim, but the worst was being woken up at 6am by the boys that worked there getting ready for the working day, hawking up massive gobs for an hour. Not a pleasant way to wake up every morning. Also I discovered one night trying to go out for a cigarette that at night you are completely locked in, the only way out would be to get to the balcony on the first floor and jump off. Cant remember ever being in a locked building before.
We set off, and the guide and me led the way and no sooner had we started we heard shouts. Bob had started his bike, revved too high in his change from neutral to 1st, lost control of the bike, drove straight across the road mounted the high pavement and hit the wall, the only thing separating Bob from the Irrawaddy. He was unhurt and had managed to stay on the bike. I was quietly angry. I was more worried about Bob getting hurt on a bike than I was about myself. So we set off, me very on edge. After that though, it was plain sailing. Thomas also didnt have much experience on a bike, so we were all newbies. In fact now I think about it, it was the first time I have ever driven by myself. In Burma on a motorbike, yaaas. Its alot more fun than driving in Switzerland, thats for sure! We all spent the journey getting to know our bikes. Stopped off at a "gas station" to fill up. A woman puts a jug in a large barrel of petrol and they pour it straight into the tank with a sieve. I lit a cigarette and took some closeup photos. The results were explosive. We dropped off the guide and drove to the highway, all the way to the side road to the buddha. The road to the buddha is lined with dozens of identical statues of monks, showing the way.

On the way we saw a massive unfinished "fat" buddha sitting behind a pond, an impressive sight in itself. More and more buddhist statues started to appear, a statue of a man on a high hill pointing at something we didnt know, pagodas here and statues there.

The first thing you see is the head. And its huge.

We climbed up to the buddha and explored its internals, which is one of the weirdest places i've ever been.

I think the various statues inside tell the story of Buddhas life, but inside was very poorly lit and the statues were very dusty. the pictures show the colours of the statues that the naked eye could not see. Some of the imagery was very graphic, with people being impaled, squashed, and generally tortured.

There was naked statue flesh everywhere, including an old lady showing her all. I wonder if this is why its so popular with the droves of young teenagers running about? Burma's equivalent of Hollywood and porn. I was surprised, in a country as conservative as Burma. There was four floors in all, and each floor was in a greater state of disrepair or unreadiness than the last. there were white and red clay unpainted statues and half-finished work everywhere. Various little peep-holes out of the body gave us a chance to see the excellent views down the valley.

Half of the whole place was a construction site. It was more like an unfinished x-rated Disney exhibit than a place of worship, didnt know quite what to make of it all.
We left to get outside and take a step back and appreciate the full size of the Buddha.

 It really is very impressive, and in a lovely backdrop of rolling hills and buddhist statues dotted about. The Budda looked a bit uncared for. The head is the cleanest and most complete looking part.

Spare Buddha eyes!
The arms are already very dirty and parts of his robes are missing. A sign at the bottom says work started in 2010, which explains why it is unfinished, but amazing that it could get so dirty in that time. If they cleaned him up a bit, completed it and lit the interior properly, it would be properly spectacular. Anyway, this is Burma.

After refreshments we headed off. The Belgians wanted to see something on the way home, so we split up and Bob and me rode home in the pre-sunset light. This was the highlight of the day, the wide quiet roads, which were in pretty good condition, the nice light and the opportunity to open up our pint-sized bikes! We made it back to the Cinderella hotel, the room was lovely with all sorts of complimentary bits and pieces, including fruit. There was working air-con, Wifi and a TV. Ahhhh such luxury was a welcome relief!

We settled on our beds and contacted home. We ate in the hotel restaurant with the Belgians that night. The service was impeccable, doors being opened for you, all bows and smiles. Class! Goodnight Mawlamyine.