When in Madrid…

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One of the slight inconveniences of living in Madrid is that you cannot leave the house without being immaculately dressed, perfectly groomed and in full makeup.  After spending 26 years here you would have thought that I might have learnt that important fact of life, but no.  This afternoon I made the rooky mistake of taking the dog for a walk in our vast local park dressed in an extremely holey T shirt which is really only fit for making dusters out of,  and a pair of old cropped jeans which snagged on something as I got out of the car leaving one bum cheek exposed.  I was wearing nice knickers but that is besides the point.  When I heard the unmistakeable sound of ripping fabric, I should have got back into the car and returned home to change into something charmingly casual but sporty, done my hair and checked my makeup, not carried on walking into the park thinking “It doesn´t matter.  I won´t see anyone I know”.

I headed off the path into the wilder part of the park and was walking along while the dog was snorting and bounding around in the long grass when I heard someone calling me.  To my horror I realised it was one of my neighbours.  She of course, was perfectly coiffed and made up to the nines and after casting her eye over my less than perfect outfit asked if I was alright.  What she was really saying was “what on earth are you doing out of the house looking like that”.  I decided to follow my grandmothers advice of “never explain, never apologise”,  gave her a beaming smile and said  “yes I am fine” and marched off deeper into the park with my bum cheek burning in shame.

It is sods law that in Madrid if I leave the house looking anything less than perfect I will be seen and judged.  Not so in London.  I could go outside dressed up as Jack Sparrow or even in my pajamas and nobody would bat an eyelid.  There I am quite happy to pop down to the local shop for a pint of milk with no makeup on, whereas here it would be social suicide.  Grooming is very high on any self respecting Spanish women´s  agenda including regular mani-pedis, a weekly blow dry and the most vicious waxing regime it is possible to imagine.   England is definitely more relaxed about such things.  Having been to a couple of weddings and parties in England recently, it was interesting to see many cracked heels and acres of rough skin being paraded around in summer sandals, a complete nono in any social event on the Iberian peninsular.   In the UK it is quite acceptable to stop dyeing your hair and go grey while in Spain it is unthinkable and even some men dye their hair well into their seventies.

The school run here is a sartorial minefield as well.  All the mums appear dressed to kill with Gucci and Versace being paraded around while they seem amazingly comfortable in the most vertiginous of heels.  I as a newbie, frequently used to turn up fresh from the stables in breeches and boots.  The looks of incredulity and wrinkling of noses I received were no doubt deserved as I am sure the aroma of “eau de cheval”  followed me around, but pretty quickly I realised that if I was going to make or keep any friends I had to toe the line and turn up looking vaguely put together and not as though I had been mucking out five horses and galloping hard across country.

Which way is better?  I am not sure, there is something to be said on both sides.  The spanish way forces you to maintain minimum standards of grooming which has to be a good thing and on the UK side it is lovely to think you can be a little more relaxed when leaving the house.  I have come to the conclusion that “When in Rome…”, so in Madrid I try to blend in by keeping up with all grooming appointments, getting my clothes ready for the next day and generally wearing a reasonable heel.  While in the UK I can relax a little and can be seen in Waitrose wearing flats and minimal makeup.  Today´s  encounter in the park has just reminded me not to get my countries mixed up and to chuck out any items of clothing that are better suited to being made into rags than shocking the residents of  either Madrid or London.

(Image from theglamoroushousewife.com)

 

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Tuk Tuks and Temples

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Ta Nei

 

Our first day in Cambodia began at the  fairly reasonable hour of 7.30am.  Luckily the Coffee Fairy had flown in with me and was on duty (see earlier posts) which made the daunting task of waking up and staggering down to breakfast a little easier. Our Khmer guide Manay was waiting for us at reception and with a peremptory wave of his hand he summoned our tuk tuk for the day’s excursion. The tuk tuk, driven by its owner Mr An, was extremely smart with frilled, white satin cushions and a cool box filled with bottles of cold water and jasmine scented cold towels to wipe our hands and faces after each temple visit.  Husband of course insisted on giving himself a full flannel bath whenever he was handed one of these towels much to the amusement of Mr An.

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Husband, Mr An and Manay

 

We set off into the morning rush hour of Siem Reap. The roads were buzzing with hundreds of mopeds, tuk tuks, bicycles and the occasional car and pretty quickly we realised that there are no road markings, no give way signs or traffic lights at any junction or intersection. All the drivers just go for it, keeping a close watch on everyone else and weaving in and out of each other. It is all done with great good humour and politeness and there is very little hooting. The mopeds generally had more than one occupant and I regularly counted four and once five people on board, including two small children.  Mr An carefully wove his way through the apparent chaos and after twenty minutes we arrived at our first stop.

I have wanted to visit the temples of Cambodia ever since Lara Croft in Tomb Raider crept through the ancient stone door which was overgrown with unworldly looking tree roots, and the first temple on our itinerary was the very same one.  Ta Prohm is  amazingly well preserved with wonderful doorways and corridors still intact. The element that makes it unique are the four or five Spung trees which have insinuated themselves between the giant blocks of stone and whose roots resemble the tentacles of some  giant alien. Above us in the uppermost branches were five or so enormous beehives, hanging like brown banners, each at least two metres long.

After fully exploring Ta Prohm we climbed back into the tuk tuk and headed off to a much less visited temple called Ta Nei. It is down a dirt track only accessible by bike, moped or tuk tuk so the tour buses don’t reach it.  We were practically alone as we clambered over giant fallen blocks of stone and walked through passageways full of ancient carvings.  By this time, the temperature must have hit 38 degrees C  and Husband made full use of the cool towels and water offeredby Mr An on our return to the tuk tuk.

The next temple was much larger and had been well restored by the chinese. We decided to climb the ancient stone  staircase to the top which frankly scared me to death. All the temple stairs that we encountered in Cambodia are very tall and narrow so you have to go up and down sideways. It also makes them extremely steep and the staircase in this temple was at least 20 metres high.  Going up was nervewracking  but worth it. We scrambled to the top to find an amazing view of the jungle and we were able to visit the towers on its summit. In one we found a golden Buddha and a little old man who offered us some incense to burn.  Having paid our respects it was time to gird our loins and go back down the near vertical stone staircase. Husband and Manay started down apparently unmoved by the fact that any misstep would lead to instant death. I on the otherhand, had to descend like  an arthritic crab, shaking and clutching onto the stone blocks at the side, trying not to look down.  After what felt like hours, I reached the bottom in one piece albeit with very wobbly legs and was feeling extremely proud of myself when Manay mentioned conversationally that monks in their seventies would think nothing of zipping up and down the same staircase on a daily basis when the temple was in use.

In all we saw five temples that day. Each different from the last but still staggering in their scale and state of preservation.  It had been hard work climbing steep steps and scrambling over ruins and even Husband was  looking a little wilted when the tuk tuk suddenly veered off the road and after bumping down a dusty track came to a stop on the banks of the enormous moat that surrounds the ancient city if Ankor Thom.  Manay motioned us towards a gold leaf adorned gondola with our own pilot who would scull the boat along the moat as we sat under a small awning.

As the sun set over the water, a million cicadas began to sing and Manay handed me a stiff gin and tonic and Husband a cold beer.  It was the best possible  end to an extraordinary  day.

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Sunset over the Ankor Thom Moat

 

Bangkok in 24 hours

 

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We landed in Bangkok after a fairly uneventful flight apart from endless hours of turbulence. Husband as usual slept through it all, snoring delicately while I clutched the armrests and whimpered whenever we hit a particularly vicious air pocket.

We breezed through immigration and baggage reclaim and were whisked to our hotel in an airconditioned van, weaving in and out of the gaudily coloured tuk tuks and shocking pink taxis until we arrived at the Hotel Siam right on the Chao Phraya river.  Stepping outside is exactly like stepping into a steam room fully clothed. I thought Madrid was hot in July, but it has nothing on Bangkok in May!  Luckily our hotel was fully air conditioned and after Husband had gone to the gym and I had accidentally fallen asleep while checking my emails, we jumped on the hotel’s boat to take us to dinner.

The restaurant had the rather unprepossessing name of Steve’s Bar but had been recommended as a good local Thai eatery.  Husband’s head began to loll as we sped up the river, inspite of  the amazing view  and my sharp intakes of breath due to a few near misses with small ferries and a couple of enormous barges. Steve’s Bar turned out to be a rickety shack on the river bank and after clambering off the boat, we left our shoes outside the door with thirty other pairs and sat down to some outrageously good pad thai and even some wine.

The next morning we were picked up by our smiling guide Ta, who made sure that we were correctly dressed for visiting the temples with covered shoulders and over the knee dresses for the women. Luckily you can rent a sarong if you only have shorts.

We began the day at Wat Pho and after buying our tickets crept into one of the temples where sixteen monks were chanting. They sat to one side on a slightly raised area facing the stunning golden Buddha.  The complex of Wat Pho was delightfully empty and it was easy to appreciate its extraordinary beauty. Around every corner is a gallery of golden Buddhas or an exquisite statue or temple. Gold leaf is used everywhere and the level and intricacy of the decoration is astounding.

Our next stop was the Grand Palace but in contrast to Wat Pho it was heaving with people. The majority were groups of chinese who were clutching a forest of umbrellas against the sun and selfie sticks.  Ta squared her shoulders and warning us of the danger to our eyes from the umbrella spokes, forged a path through the masses, batting at the odd aggressively wielded umbella or obtrusive selfie stick.  She even told off a young american woman who had bared her shoulders.  “But it’s sooo hot!” complained the tourist, to which Ta replied “Yes, well we are all hot. Cover up!”.  Once we got used to the crowds, the Grand Palace was no less beautiful and we enjoyed Ta’s tales of the various kings who had built it and the mythical creatures that are depicted on the walls.  Our visit to the Emerald Buddha was greatly enhanced by the spectacle of the diminutive doorman smacking a tall american man on the bottom with his sign for inadvertently sitting on a donation box.

Leaving the Grand Palace, we walked in the punishing heat through a bustling market to the river and jumped into our own long-tail boat for a trip along the Klong which is a canal that becomes quieter and more peaceful the further along you go. We passed small floating markets with women cooking and selling food from their tiny boats to the local people doing their shopping. Then as the canal became narrower, we saw ramshackle  wooden houses on stilts often leaning precariously over the water while their inhabitants went about the daily business of cooking or washing.  At one point an enormous monitor lizard sat on a wall sunning itself as we chugged past.

We just had time to visit Wat Arun with its marvellous spires covered in chinese porcelain and rows of chinese lions.  Ta then took us back to the river where we caught a ferry to the opposite bank and made our way to a restaurant.

Lunch consisted of a delicious green curry in an air conditioned restaurant back on the bank of the main river which felt like the height of luxury after the gruelling  heat outside. We had time to properly cool down and rehydrate before we said goodbye to Bangkok and Ta took us to the airport for our onward flight to the next part of our trip, Siem Reap in Cambodia.

 

The Correct Dose of Caffeine

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After many years of drinking coffee in the morning I have passed the point of denial and can freely admit I am addicted.  The ironic thing is that I used to loathe the taste of coffee and only started drinking it to thaw out my hands after riding outside in sub zero temperatures in winter.  One thing led to another and now 20 years later it is the first thing I crave in the morning apart from another couple of hours sleep.

There is now a well established protocol which involves me blearily checking my watch as I try to surface from the depths of slumber at what I consider an ungodly hour, while the Coffee Fairy formerly known as Husband, cheerily bustles round the bedroom and asks if I  would like a cup of coffee.  This is generally met with an affirmative grunt unless it is before 6am in which case it is met with a groan.  There is an understanding that the Coffee Fairy does his job in return for certain favours which sounds rather exciting but normally means sending anything he has forgotten to the office or taking his road bike to be serviced.

This first shot of caffeine is completely necessary to turn on the lights in my befuddled brain and get the show on the road.  It is quite a small dose as it is always instant coffee with a splash of milk.  However, once the Coffee Fairy has fluttered off to the office, I have had breakfast and walked the dog, it is time to proceed to the main event.  Every weekday at 8.50am,  I drive to the local cafe and order myself a cafe con leche (long on coffee and short on milk), sit down with one of my closest friends and discuss our children, potential business opportunities, the state of the world and the length of our to do lists. This takes about an hour and we normally get through two coffees each.

This doesn’t seem like much, but two cafe con leches packs a mean punch and over time my body has come to expect it.  If for any reason we only have time for one coffee, the morning seems perfectly normal but I don’t seem to make much headway with my usually endless list of errands and I have noticed that everything from filling up with petrol to writing emails seems to take longer.  A two coffee morning, on the other hand, seems to fly by with me manically driving from errand to errand, talking 30% faster than I would normally and zipping round the supermarket in record time.

There have been mornings when for reasons seemingly beyond my control such as meeting another friend after my usual coffee stop, I have had three cafe con leches.  This unfortunately crosses the line of what my body is prepared to put up with.  On three spanish coffees, I am unable to stop talking, I drive everywhere over the speed limit and my whole body seems to hum.  The good side is that my kilometric to do list is normally taken care of by 11am.  The downside is that anyone ringing me up to arrange to come and fix the washing machine will get my entire life story and later I am unable to get to sleep until about 2am probably because my heart rate is double what it should be.

The opposite problem to too much, is too little.  These are the times when for whatever reason I don’t get my caffeine fix in the morning.  This does happen sometimes if Coffee Fairy is away or I am in London.  Life will appear to carry on as normal but by 3pm I start to get a pain behind my right eye and by 5pm my eye is twitching and I am in the throws of the headache from hell.  It is about this point at which I realise my foolish error but by then it is too late in the day to remedy the problem with a coffee so a large ibuprofen has to suffice.

Every so often I consider going on a detox and joining the ranks of sensible people who sip herbal teas and are probably fifty times healthier than I am, but frankly I enjoy the buzz that my coffee addiction gives me and as long as I get the dose right I think it is a positive contributor to keeping the household running smoothly.  It also keeps the Coffee fairy on his toes which has got to be a good thing.