my journey to health and well being via exotic destinations

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Hati! Hati! Biking round Borobudur

Lame lady on bike - Hati! Hati!

Lame lady on bike – Hati! Hati! – danger! danger! too right!

Surely it can’t be almost a whole month since I last wrote a post? But I check the blog and it is a fact. And, no, its not because I have been doing anything fascinating; rather more prosaic than that – just head down, writing, getting an agent and finishing the book!

I had two offers on the table and was weighing up the pros and cons of each, when the little voice in my head (ie the Society of Authors and former agent and friend, Jo) kept niggling at me to give the agent one more try. So I sent off an email and received one by return saying he would take me on. Ian Drury at Sheila Land, v respectable agency. So now we wait…it’s the story of my life!

Also been busy putting the finishing touches to the website, with Ross’s help of course, which I launched about 10 days ago. It’s a slow build and I keep it out there by publishing a recipe every day. It will be word of mouth, or click, and I think it will gradually grow as nothing gets people going like cancer. If you haven’t looked at it already, click and see. Would love to hear any feedback. Continue reading


May Day in Singapore springs a surprise or two


Now back in Singapore after a smooth trip over. It’s been an eventful week with a public holiday, hard work for Ross and an unwelcome health scare to boot.

May Day takes us by surprise and with an unexpected free day on our hands and nothing planned – seemed naughty to take a long weekend after so much time away, as most of Singapore does – so we decide to visit the extraordinary Haw Par Villa, as recommended by one of Louise’s friends. Continue reading


in which we walk with the elephants in Mana Pools, Zimbabwe

Having a Big Vic (not me, idiot, the ele) moment with Stretch just outside the camp on the first day

Having a Big Vic (not me, idiot, the ele) moment with Stretch and Fi, just outside the camp on the first day

Mana Pools is my idea of heaven. Goliath camp is a collection of seven guest tents, bar, open-air dining room and braai/seating area overlooking the fast-flowing Zambezi. Simply furnished, each tent boasts a flush loo and wood-burning shower.

The camp as seen form the Zambezi - discreet...

The camp as seen form the Zambezi – discreet…

A far cry from my earliest memories of camping with my Dad in Tanganyika, where the showers were from buckets and the loo a hole in the ground, or better still, the open air. On one occasion I had just made my post-prandial visit when a pride of 12 lions calmly walked in front of us! In those days, my Dad would build a little fire in the park, and do a great fry up…such memories fuel my great love of the bush, and Mana, a world heritage site where you can walk, seems to approximate my recollection of a carefree childhood more than anywhere else.

our lovely bedroom, bathroom through the flap...

our lovely bedroom, bathroom through the flap…

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Gladys not too impressed with the visitor outside our tent

This is the fourth time we have stayed in Goliath camp, with living legend tracker and guide Stretch Ferreira, a huge man with a laugh like a hippo and a mane like a lion, who is best known as an elephant whisperer. The Stretch ‘experience’ consists of ‘moments’, as he calls them, up close to elephants and lions, not without some risk and excitement. One such shared moment a couple of years, when we were charged out of nowhere by One Tusk, Stretch says is up there with one of scariest he’s had…I concurr!

Lovely Zebra

Graceful Zebra

The typical day starts with drums at 4.45, tea and porridge by the fire, then a scramble into the landrovers to see what tracks are fresh. Stretch and Reuben, the other guide, noses glued to the roadside, will say things like ‘fresh leopard/lion/wild dog here, only an hour ago,’ and we will disembark, don water bottles and set off for our early morning walk through the bush.

We're going on a lion hunt

We’re going on a lion hunt – I am looking very purposeful!

On the second morning we were lucky to find the local pride, the Spice Girls and their two litters of young cubs, plus their five adolescent males; the Back Street Boys are absent on a mission.  We hear them roar during the night. You never approach a lion in a straight line, so we zig-zag from anthill to anthill until we get close enough to be able to sit and watch them quietly. The next day they kindly stopped by the road for us! ‘Cheap lions’, as Stretch says.

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The no 2 Back Street boy with one of his sons and a Spice GIrl

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This young guy is going to be impressive

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Two watchful Spice GIrls with their litters: two a-piece, a few months in between. They had not eaten for a few days at this stage and were looking thin

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I can see you!

our wilderness area coffee spot

our wilderness area coffee spot

On another day, as we sat at Vundu point, a man appeared from nowhere, toting an MK47. ‘Do not be scared’, he said, ‘I am human.’ He was a ranger, part of the anti-poaching squad whose job it is to patrol the park and ‘shoot to kill’.  He spoke excellent English and we learned a lot about the career path in National Parks!

Lovely Flo joins us for coffee

Lovely Flo joins us for coffee (Rick left and Ross right)

Coffee and cake under a tree at about 9 am, beside the river, by a pan or in a shady spot. On the second day we had been tracking the wild dogs in the Wilderness area, and as we sat down a tray of bacon and avocado sandwiches arrived as if from a local take away!After brunch we might go for a swim in the Zambezi with a glass of wine; the Zambezi mud is an excellent exfoliator, and if you stay in the shallows the risk from crocs is minimal. Elephants and hippos splash in the distance, the carmine bee-eaters and fish eagles swoop and call to each other, the pied kingfisher hovers and dives.

Feeling chilled! it was 38 C

Feeling chilled! it was 38 C (me, Fi and Rick)

In the late afternoons we set out again, often on foot: searching for buffalo; the elusive Boswell, the old bull who stands on his hind legs to reach the acacias, but who on this trip remained elusive; lions and elephant ‘moments’.

A car load of enthusiasts

A car load of enthusiasts (Siraaj at the wheel, Diego next to him; 2nd row Tim, Annie, Diane; third row Nick, Jean and Catherine)

Our elephant moment proved to be devastating: we came upon the corpse of an elephant, perhaps only two hours old, being guarded by one of the Backstreet Boys and his girlfriend who were mating. Drawing near, despite the mock charges and snarls of fury from the angry male, we saw that the elephant had been shot clean through the skull.  Stretch was incensed, he knew the young bull and could not imagine what had happened. He attributed it at first to one of the many visitors who were on an official game count, and who had been allowed to carry guns much against his better judgment.

the dead elephant bull, the lions have been attacking his innards

the dead elephant bull, the lions have been attacking his innards

Big Vic again...the young bull could have grown up to be a great boy like this given the chance...

Big Vic again…the young bull could have grown up to be a great boy like this given the chance…

We found out later that it had been shot by a guide, who claimed it had charged him. But the story did not hold water and the word was that the guide had panicked and made up – literally – a cock and bull story about the elephant chasing him from behind a tree. There was not a tree in sight of the carcass…

TEam canoeing: Ross, Fi, CHristine,Annie, Reuben (leader) Jean, me, Siraaj

Team canoeing: Ross, Fi, Christine, Annie, Reuben (leader) Diane, me with flowers, Reuben Tom, Siraaj, Richard.

Canoeing and fishing are other afternoon activities. Rick and Diego caught two huge Vundu (catfish), the largest weighing up to 40kgs. They were returned, of course, being protected.


Diego with the first fish he has ever caught! 30kgs or so of Vundu!


Rick delighted with his tiger catch

Rick over the moon with this fella

Rick over the moon with this fella

Each time I visit Mana I return to the spot, an island mid-stream, where we sent [our daughter] Louise’s ashes on a final journey to the Indian Ocean. This time Siraaj, one of the camp guides, had prepared a beautiful driftwood boat, loaded with flame-red combritum and fragrant white caparis blooms. As a small croc slithered into the water, I waded in to launch our bouquet, which bobbed merrily downstream. I thought of all my lost loved ones – Mum, Dad and LouLou – as it caught the current. As we paddled on down the mighty Zambezi, we could see it in the vermillion sunset, like an ancient Viking coracle going to its Valhalla.


Combritum and caparis on a piece of driftwood


on the island…


launching our tribute, flanked by Reuben and Siraaj

One evening we went and sat by Mochumi pan, sipping chilled white wine while elephants and baboons frolicked in the murky water. Sometimes the cows and calves – the most dangerous of elephants as the mums are extremely aggressive – are a bit close for comfort .

Sundowners await us on return to camp, or by the river bank. Dinner is a delicious braai with Stretch doing the honours, or a civilized sit-down affair round the huge wild mango table. Flo, co–owner of the camp, and now a good friend, has trained the two camp chefs, Richard and Nicholas, well and the food is delicious. Sarah, a delightful Zimbabwean girl, is our hostess and looks after us beautifully

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Oo-er – they crept up silently! Michael and Tim think breathing in helps! Ha!


Christine is baboon watching, I am reading my bird book!

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Even the tinies like a good wallow and a shower

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The carmines nesting in our camp

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Sunset at Long Pool….

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shy Nyala buck and his lady at the pan

Let's get serious'...Nick, Jean,Catherine (hidden) Tim and Annie

Let’s get serious’…Nick, Jean,Catherine (hidden) Tim and Annie

Stretch looking with disdain at his 'football team'; l-r - Reuben, Rick, me, Christine, Nick, Diane, Tim, Annie

Stretch looking with disdain at his ‘football team’; l-r – Reuben, Rick, me, Christine, Nick, Diane, Tim, Annie

This visit we had taken over the whole camp and filled it with friends, many of whom were celebrating birthdays. Quite an undertaking planning a trip for 14 people, chartering planes from the hugely efficient Executive Air, booking hotels, pick-ups, restaurants, briefing the team on essentials…and trying to enjoy the holiday as well!

After our wonderful week in Mana, 11 stalwart souls continued on Unwin Tours to Lamu in Kenya, arriving in the day that the Westgate siege started. But that’s for the next blog….

Thanks husband Ross for supplying professional photos – one up from the normal iPhone adornments.

Sunset over the Zambezi...

Sunset over the Zambezi…

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in which we enjoy the mountain air

The glorious Dents di Midi early morning from our apartment

The glorious Dents du Midi early morning from our apartment











This week finds us in Champery to brief our Swiss team for our up-coming trip to Zimbabwe and Kenya. Like the rest of Europe Switzerland has been basking in warm sunshine and the mountains are heavenly – clear blue skies, a hint of morning chill in the air, and a heavy due on the grass. Our tubs have survived the summer and the geraniums and petunias are a blaze of red, pink and purple.

self in walking gear

self in walking gear

This goat liked posing!

This goat liked posing!

Saturday finds us venturing into a new area for walking: we drive over to Les Mosses on the other side of the Rhone, near Leysin and Les Diablerets, and choose a steep path which takes us up a steep path for 600m, levelling out at 2000m before dropping down again to the lake and lunch.

The farmhouse

The farmhouse

Just before we find the path we come across a traditional farmhouse where a smoking chimney in high summer indicates they are making cheese. Inside the barn nothing has changed for centuries as the friendly farmer boils up his milk in a huge brass cauldron and turns his large alpage. We buy some; it is delicious, fresh, salty and tangy.

This is how you make cheese the traditional way

This is how you make cheese the traditional way

M le fromage

M le fromage

The views are stunning, and we are surprised to find a herd of Llamas on the trail, my curious admirer a gorgeous chestnut colour with eyelashes to die for.

Fields of wild flowers up at 2000m

Fields of wild flowers up at 2000m









All that remains is for the Sunday BBQ on our little garden terrace to brief the team; another gorgeous day, beef satays to show off my Singapore skills and jerk chicken.


The Swiss team of Christine, Diego, Annie, Tim, Nick Diane, Jean, Catherine and Michael debate the merits of malaria prophylaxis over many glasses of the finest reds and we animatedly anticipate our close encounters with elephants and lions in just over two weeks time.







Roll on Mana Pools! The next blog will relate our adventures but won’t be for at least 2-3 weeks as internet will be hard to find!

Briefing for AFrica BBQ - hoe made satay and jerk chicken

Briefing for Africa BBQ – home made satay and jerk chicken

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in which I go it alone in Shanghai – well, almost!


view from our hotel towards the Bund

Who would turn down a week in Shanghai, staying in a suite in Le Meridien in the centre of town, with free cocktails in the Club Lounge every night? And almost all paid for by the company…the only snag, as accompanying spouse, is that you have to fend for yourself during the working day. And in Shanghai’s heatwave – each day registering between 38-40 C – that’s quite daunting. Especially when half way through you get food poisoning, rendering each expedition a major feat of planning.

A Selfie of us all, true Chinese style! Love you jess!

A Selfie of us all, true Chinese style! Love you Jess!

Following my own guideline number one for a successful ownsome trip – go somewhere where you have a chum – here we were lucky to have Louise’s dear friend and neighbour from Clapton, Jess Lehmann, in Shanghai on a WPP scholarship and working for Ogilvy. Firmly ensconced in the French Concession, Jess has become an expert on Shanghai eateries and tips on how to make the most of it. Like having

Amazing grace and agility on display

Amazing grace and agility on display

an after-work foot, neck and shoulder massage, which is de rigeur in Shanghai I learn. Or knowing which of the Acrobat shows we should go to; we went to Circusworld, (no animals, honest). It was truly spectacular but its staging clunky and low budget. And pretty unsafe, not many safety nets or wires in evidence, and seven motorbikes in a wall of death is pushing it! But the spontaneous joy of all the children was uplifting just as the noise in the theatre was unceasing.

The extraordinary skyline on the BUnd

The extraordinary skyline on the Bund

Having had a grand reunion on the first night and a delicious meal (probably the best of the trip – but there will be a separate food blog so no more on food here), suitably primed and raring to go, on the first morning I foolishly set out to walk to the Bund, the famous promenade where all the finest merchant buildings of the early 1900s are found. Shanghai was a freeport and it attracted traders from all over Europe,

Chinese tourists taking the air...note umbrellas

Chinese tourists taking the air…note umbrellas

and after the Russian Revolution there was an influx of rich Franco-Russian aristocrats and Jews; and again during the Second World War. Sadly all my efforts to see the synagogues and the Jewish museum were thwarted by lack of time, high walls and heat.

Victor's art noveau cafe in the Peace Hotel

Victor’s art noveau cafe in the Peace Hotel

Sticking to guideline number two, have a clear plan, I had my Lonely Planet neighbourhood walks guide, so resolutely set out to follow the North Bund route, melting all the way despite the breeze, which turned my brolly inside-out (Chinese always shield themselves form the sun with a brolly, as I did, until I found a stall which sold straw hats and a fan!). A fine iced coffee in Victors, the art nouveau bar at the Peace Hotel set me to rights.

The mobile hat lady who saved my life

The mobile hat lady who saved my life

Rather deterred by this experience, I thought, aha, guideline number three now – take a tour! The afternoon therefore found me on a bus tour, with only me, the guide and a driver in a posh car. Despite some good ‘sights’, I soon discovered that in Shanghai the sole

Reclining Jade Buddha in Jade Buddha temple

Reclining Jade Buddha in Jade Buddha temple

purpose of a tour is to take you to places where you will be parted from your cash…so the Jade Buddha Temple (jade effigies); Confucian temple (tea, although the tea ceremony thrown in was delightful and I wavered and bought some fine ginseng oolong, chrysanthemum and jasmine teas,

Confucius Temple a haven of tranquillity amidst the skyscrapers

Confucius Temple, a haven of tranquillity amidst the skyscrapers

where the flowers unfold – interestingly all teas can be topped up at least 7 times so they are good value!); silk factory (silk quilts and clothes); pearl factory (pearls) and so on!

The tea-lady - well it was a ceremony in fact, note unfolding jasmine blossom in foreground

The tea-lady – well it was a ceremony in fact, note unfolding jasmine blossom in foreground

In between all this hard-sell, we managed to take in various points of interest; the French concession, the house where the first Communist Party Congress took place in 1921, and some streets in the old town, where the little stalls were preparing their snakes, bull frogs and all sorts of other indescribables for their fate. Most of these houses still have no running water or lavatories, and you can see slop buckets being carried to and fro or left out to dry, as I saw the following day on another old town wander. There are in fact very few old alleys left intact, but on our superb sidecar tour (a joint activity, and highly recommended!) Sammy from San Diego took us inside some of the shared tenements, where the tiling is pure early 20 century, there are communal washing and cooking facilities, and intricate

Preparing for the onslaught - or slaughter should I say

Preparing for the onslaught – or slaughter should I say

Snakes and bullfrogs at the ready....

Snakes and bullfrogs at the ready….

Old house with shared washing facilities

Old house with shared washing facilities

and shared cooking facilities, note old furniture ad floor tiles

and shared cooking facilities, note old furniture ad floor tiles

carving and old furniture is gathering dust and decaying quietly. Soon all these will go the way of the rest – knocked down for mega apartment blocks.

Rather jaded (haha) by this commercialism, I decided to spend the next couple of mornings wandering about by myself. Due to the heat, almost all of the normally crowded places like the YuYuan Gardens were practically deserted,

YuYuan Gardens

YuYuan Gardens

so I enjoyed ambling around, taking in the serene Chenxiangge nunnery; winding streets; food markets; the Bubbling Lanes; the house where Mao stayed when he first came to Shanghai in 1924 (fascinating photos); the Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect Market

The Chianxx

The Chenxiangge Nunnery

(not for the faint-hearted, although these are all destined for pets, including cicadas,

Cicadas pre-packed to be played with by children - a sort of rattle, I suppose. What a racket

Cicadas pre-packed to be played with by children – a sort of rattle, I suppose.

they are kept in very confined spaces; one hesitates to wonder what happens when they get past their sell-by date).

should you want to choose your cricket...these are alive!

should you want to choose your cricket…these are alive!

Gorgeous kitties in the market

Gorgeous kitties in the market

Talking of pets, dogs really are a fashion accessory here – not uncommon to see dogs with little shoes on, and men in particular mince around with tiny lap dogs on long leads – Chihuahuas, schnauzers, all shorn of body hair. Nothing can beat the pink-eared poodle that whizzed by me in her mistress’s motorcycle basket though.

Gambling in the park...

Gambling in the park…

In the afternoons, more gentle local walks down the E Nanjing Rd, round the People’s Square, past the Park Hotel, watching young and old playing cards and Go, gambling furiously (illegal in China), taking in a strange exhibition celebrating 10 years of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Typical street in Old Town

Typical street in Old Town

A vertical garden, very popular, in the Peolpe's Square

A vertical garden, very popular, in the Peolpe’s Square

Talking of Art, also visited the area known as M50, a hub of Shanghai art galleries. Apart from it being broiling and impossible to get a taxi back, it was a disappointing expedition. I know Chinese art is big ticket these days but, with one exception, Yang Xiaojian, I found it tacky in the extreme.

The Bubbling Well Lane, 1930s and very picturesque

The Bubbling Well Lane, 1930s and very picturesque

So how easy is this to do by yourself? Well, it’s fine if you have a concierge or friend who can write down all your destinations on various pieces of paper (don’t muddle them up though, as I did at one point!); then the taxi driver takes you to where you think you are going. Often it bears no resemblance to where you believe you are headed, so quite a lot of ingenuity is involved to locate yourself as you are unceremoniously dumped on a busy pavement, somewhere…

This was the start of my off-piste excursions....through an old archway, so enticing!

This was the start of my off-piste excursions….through an old archway, so enticing!

Can't resist showing you a Tang horse

Can’t resist showing you a Tang horse

Then there’s the safety issue: having been told Bali was perfectly safe and was then promptly victim to an attempted mugging, I was slightly wary. But here there are so many people, it’s a safety in numbers feeling. The only time I felt slightly on guard was when I went off piste in the old town, pursuing exciting food stalls, and found myself in a down-at-heel area, surrounded by labourers and unsmiling bare-chested men, no women in sight. So I upped the pace and headed off in what I hoped was the right direction (it was!).

Bet you never knew about Tang camels?

Bet you never knew about Tang camels?

At the weekend, Ross became free, so as well as our side-car tour, we visited the Shanghai Museum, tastefully arranged with riches galore – bronzes, porcelain and intricately carved jade. Not as much as in Taiwan – but then, as the Chinese will tell you, Chiang Kai-Shek stole the best

pieces! We also enjoyed an early morning trip to Zongshan Park to see the elderlies doing Tai Chi, despite the fact the place was a building site, so we decamped to the much more tranquil Jing’an Sculpture Park.

Jing'an Sculpture Park

Jing’an Sculpture Park

It made me think about modern China, seeing so many old people enjoying Tai Chi, in contrast to the large numbers of mainly young people at the completely renovated Jing’an Temple – it was only rebuilt in the past 10 years, and in the Cultural Revolution was converted into a plastic factory before being burned down in 1972 –  who were enjoying throwing coins into the vast cauldron, rather as you would at a slot machine.

The elderlies doing Tai CHi in Jongshan PArk on a Saturday morning

The elderlies doing Tai Chi in Zongshan Park on a Saturday morning

Consider that in 2007 40% of Chinese people were under 40 years old; and 20% under 15 years of age; therefore half the country has grown up NOT KNOWING Mao (and the percentages will be higher now). Then remember that most middle-aged parents will not have been in a car or had access to a private phone until well into their 30s. Look around you in the heaving streets (Shanghai has 24 million inhabitants and is the largest city in China) and all you see is people glued to their tablets and androids; every sight you go to, click, clunk, whizz – the sound of camera phones (one woman I saw in the Shanghai museum was taking snaps of every single porcelain exhibit!) taking photos and selfies, fingers posed in the ubiquitous V sign. Jess tells me that digital companies are having to re-strategise how to make money from mobile technology as no one phones or sends texts anymore. Fascinating stuff.

on the side-car in the French Concession

on the side-car in the French Concession

And now suddenly Buddhism and Confucius are back in fashion, having ‘disappeared’ during the height of the Revolution. It must be very confusing. Cynics say that adherence to these old customs can be expedient for business – certainly the monks were pocketing their red envelopes with alacrity at the cleansing ceremony we witnessed in the temple. I don’t think that’s what is meant however!

The Nine Nos, just to remind you this is an authoritarian state! (Don't do this, Dont do that!)

The Nine Nos, just to remind you this is an authoritarian state! (Don’t do this, Dont do that!)

The cleansing ceremony at the Jing'an Temple

The cleansing ceremony at the Jing’an Temple

Take the one-child policy, largely misconceived in the West (it appears more damage was done at a local level by over-zealous implementers than the policy actually set out) as there were always exceptions – for instance for the 54 minorities; now if two single children marry they are allowed to have more than one child.

There is, no doubt, a major concern about the aging population and the in-balance of men and women.

A slop bucket drying in the sun, a reminder of how everyone lived and some still do...but not for long I guess

A slop bucket drying in the sun, a reminder of how everyone lived and some still do…but not for long I guess

Add to this the modern Chinese phenomenon of the Superwoman – she does not want to marry and have children, but wants to have a mega career and be super-rich and successful. It’s a big problem for the government, along with the Four Es, as Jeffrey Wasserstrom puts it: China has four main challenges – economy, environment, energy and endemic corruption and, in many ways, they are linked.

There is little doubt that on the surface China is booming, consumer goods are everywhere – no self-respecting Chinese middle class girl would buy a fake Louis Vuitton – and surfing the net is an addiction. However, there are restrictions on what you can access as I found when trying to write this blog – even with the hotel VPN which allowed us access to google and twitter,

Wells are still in use for washing water in some areas of the French Concession

Wells are still in use for washing water in some areas of the French Concessionwordpress crashed every single time.

wordpress crashed every single time. Yet there is a concern over the level of creativity compared to the other Asian tiger, India. While naturally entrepreneurial, recent history has rendered the Chinese very good at following orders and beavering away, but less so at taking the initiative. So which of these two will win out in the end remains to be seen.

Cant have a blog about China without Mao making an appearance - this is at the house he stayed, in 1924

Can’t have a blog about China without Mao making an appearance – this is at the house he stayed, in 1924

Experts say that China is – successfully it would appear – managing the expectations of the young by carefully balancing their economic aspirations with a modicum of control. For that reason it is unlikely that you will see a Chinese Spring or another Tiananmen Square in the near future.

Exquisite jade funerary rings, between 10-12,000 BCE. Amazing

Exquisite jade funerary disc, between 10-12,000 BCE. Amazing

The next blogs will describe our outing to Tongli Water Town and all the food we ate.


in which I visit the largest slum in Asia

Curious slum child - head shaved for lice

Curious slum child – head shaved for lice

Mumbai is certainly a city of contrasts. From the moment I arrived and saw Katherine Boo’s airport slum as described in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, it was impossible to escape all the pavement dwellers and beggars. The wretched of the earth, Frantz Fanon called them. It is heartbreaking to see hundreds of people camping on the streets, cooking, eating, sleeping, playing, and even laughing and joking. And yet a recent survey shows that Mumbai is ranked  6th in the world’s billionaire cities, with 26. Probably the richest of these is Amitabh Bachan or ‘AB’ as he is fondly known, who has built the most expensive tower block in the city – just to live in.

AB's monster billion dollar apartment dwarfs everything around it

AB’s monster billion dollar apartment dwarfs everything around it

Then there’s the Bollywood aspect. Everyone is star-struck: queues of people mob Shah Ruck Khan’s house (just below where I stayed at Bandra); he is the most popular star in the world  – his fans run into billions, as does his fortune!

extras - or starlets? - on set

extras – or starlets? – on set

When we came across a film crew on the sea front, the traffic (including us naturally) stopped to see who was there. ‘Ah that’s Abhay Diol – not a big star yet’ observed driver Mehtab, as we were chased away by officious security guards. I think he meant on Shah Ruck Khan scale as his bio reads as a major success story for a 37 year-old!

the sewer that features in Slumdog Millionaire, running out of Dharavi

the sewer that features in Slumdog Millionaire, running out of Dharavi

My week in Mumbai would not have been complete without a visit to Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia and where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed. We went with an NGO Reality Gives (, who invest 80% of the fees charged into projects to help women and children in particular, to provide schools, medical advice and care (especially on childbirth, birth control and disease). We are allowed into the slum only because we are with the charity – as a result there is a strict no photo policy although friend Cindy as a three-tour veteran is allowed to take surreptitious shots so long as she doesn’t look through the viewfinder…so some of the photos here are taken from waist height and through pot luck!



Our 19-year-old guide, Deya has his own sad tale: mother desperately ill and he was being laid off the next week, prior to the monsoon. Life is tough in India.

After an early breakfast at Leopold’s, made famous by Shantaram, we met our fellow visitors, a South African couple, the Butcher of Hermanus and his wife, both died-in-the-wool Afrikaners; totally uneducated and therefore interesting they had chosen to come. Many comparisons all day to Khayelitsha…of a rather superficial nature it has to be said.

the dhobi ghats

the dhobi ghats

Our route to the slum took us via the dhobi ghats where the city’s laundry is done by 5000 migrant men in tiny booths, earning $3 a day; and the red light district where we craned our necks for prostitutes, obvious through their fancy clothes and heavily-made-up faces. 9 am is a little early for a working girl, however, and those we did see were camera shy.

We learned that a girl is bought for Rupees 30-40,000 and then spends her life trying to repay her buyer with her work. With a fee of as little as Rupees 250 a time it can take forever, and their forever is now about 39 years old. HIV ad AIDS is endemic; we learned from a Canadian woman, who works with their children, that they have had to give up on the mothers as they are simply not interested or able to be helped.

snapped these two shy prostitutes

snapped these two shy prostitutes

But their kids at least have a chance, although once the stigma of being a prostitute’s child is known, they often have to change school.

Deya knew his stuff all right and the facts are incredible. Dharavi is over 170 years old and was built on a mangrove swamp; it covers an area o175 sq km and is home to over 1m people. As 55% of people in Mumbai live in a slum it is not surprising that Dharavi contributes $665m to Mumbai’s productivity a year, thorough 10,000 businesses. How? You might well ask.

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Plastic being sorted on the roof ready for melting down and being made into tiny beads for re-selling

If you have read Boo’s fascinating account of life in the airport slum (Beyond the Beautiful Forevers) you will know that recycling is the key to it all. It seems all Mumbai’s waste (in fact 80% is recycled) arrives in Dharavi – bottle tops and aluminum for smelting in giant vats; plastic – not just bottles, but chairs and large items are made into tiny beads and are put in enormous sacks; paint tins are painstakingly stripped of labels and scrubbed; iron is put in cauldrons over a furnace and is made into ingots. All of this is carried out in dingy, airless rooms, with toxic fumes and no mind to health and safety.

sorting the aluminium

sorting the aluminium

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Sitting in a sea of plastic recycling

The workers are peasant farmers from Uttar Pradesh who migrate to the slum for 9 months of the year, returning only during the monsoon for planting. They work 12 hours a day, eat and sleep in these cells, leaving only to defecate, either in one of the disgusting public loos, or in the ‘air-conditioned’ toilet in the mangrove swamps. Plastic workers earn $2-3 per day; the iron crushers $4. But with 2012 seeing the worst drought of recent years, these men have little choice if they are to support their families and buy seeds for the planting season. The rate of suicides in agrarian communities caused by debt has never been higher.

There are other industries too – cloth dyers, potters, tailors and tanners – the largest leather works in India is in Dharavi.

Leaving the industrial area for the domestic quarters seemed like a relief – at least we were not being roasted by open fires and by the sun, which was burning in the high 30s. First we entered the Muslim area, where there were home industries such as bakeries (supplying the whole of India and even exported!) and a disgusting black soap made from unmentionable ingredients judging from the smell. But the streets were narrow, over open sewers and, in some cases, completely dark. Kids were everywhere, including a smiling but severely handicapped boy who reminded us of ET, with bulging eyes and shrivelled legs. He was being lovingly cared for by his older sister.

The elder siblings are often the carers

The elder siblings are often the carers

On the odd street corner there was a tiny shop, its plastic glittering in the dark. We wound round and round until we came to an open area – which was in effect a rubbish tip of smouldering, stinking detritus, with young boys playing a boisterous game of cricket and some even younger kids playing shop, making little pies out of dust and piling them high. Facing on to this nightmare were the public loos; the smell was stomach turning.

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Kids playing ‘shop’ on the stinking rubbish heap

On, on we went, stopping to step over two dead rats, over open sewers, alleys awash with rubbish and stagnant water, pausing by the slaughter house which even the Butcher declined to enter – the smell of rotting and recently killed meat proving too much for him. ‘I don’t actually kill the animals – I only cut them up’, he told us.

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Muslim boys on their way to Friday prayers

Now we were in the Hindu area, houses slightly larger – these are the homes of the millionaires we were told. Larger than the standard 10sq meters, which rent at $60 pm or can be bought for the equivalent of R1m (£12,000), some had several floors. ‘The millionaires are happy here as the authorities don’t come; they don’t pay tax, and they choose to live here because of the sense of community; many have lived here for generations,’ Deya told us. In fact only 4% of the population pays tax, but some of these guys probably should!

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Bicycles are about all that can pass in the streets

The Hindu women’s home industry is papadom-making, rolling them out after expertly snipping just the right amount from the long dough sausage using a toe, one hand and some string. Then they are put out to dry in the sun. While we watched a small girl decided to squat over an open drain and do her business, right next to the drying papadoms; father then came to rinse her off – meanwhile she started helping herself to some of the drying condiments. ‘These are sold all over India’. Yikes! Never will I eat one again without ascertaining where it is made. We were all rather revolted by this episode it has to be said. But it is normal life in Dharavi…

Pots drying in the GUjerati area

Pots drying in the Gujerati area

Ironing is a profession

Ironing is a profession

From there we made our way through the Tamil area, which was mostly shops, including those selling alcohol and, finally, to the Gujarati potters, who are churning out earthenware water and milk containers on their wheels, which are then baked in extremely hot kilns. Again a cottage industry.

It’s hard to describe the vibrancy of it all – the people milling around, the naughty children giving you high fives: ‘Hi, Hi,’ they all shout and wave as we wander by. The women, whether in Shalwar Khameez or sari, looking colourful, but most appear careworn and tired, either thin or with the obesity of poverty. I am not surprised – a woman’s life is very hard, whether on the street or in the slum. They are hugely outnumbered by men, and seem to have an endless supply of children who all need looking after, and all of this in addition to their work.

goats are everywhere; ghee tins on right ready for recycling

goats are everywhere; ghee tins on right ready for recycling

Animals are everywhere – goats, chickens, cats, rats – dead and alive; the occasional vicious dog rushing at us. Satellite dishes abound, and many houses have TV blaring out at us. In modern India it is a must-have for family life, and brightens the lives of the generations who share one small room, complete with a washing area and a cooking area, leaving room only for nose to tail sleeping.

Dharavi is an extraordinary place, a city within a city, self-sufficient in all ways, with no need for its dwellers to leave. But it is unsanitary and filthy, a poisonous hive of activity, however much its inhabitants purport to love it.

PS I added a few of Cindy’s nice shots into the Gallery – thanks Cindy for letting me use some of your photos for this blog. It would have been dull without it. And thank you for being such a good hostess!

outskirts of Dharavi

outskirts of Dharavi

a rather wider slum street!
a rather wider slum street

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in which we go to Pulau Ubin on May Day

vickybikeMay Day is a public holiday in SIngapore so we make a very Singaporean outing to local island Pulau Ubin. Cheated and got a taxi to Changi ferry terminal then queued up for 5 minutes or so before we hopped on to one of the many bumboats that plough the waterway between the two islands. Journey time about 10 minutes; cost $2.50.

Bumboat at Changi

Bumboat at Changi

Ross with the bikes

Ross with the bikes – note wet shirt

On arrival we hire a couple of mountain bike look-alikes ($13 for the day). Brakes good (important after I broke my toe last year in Kerala due to faulty brakes and a resulting crash into the back of Husband’s bike) but gears challenging. It was blisteringly hot and humid and the island surprisingly hilly, so by the time we reached the nature trail – a boardwalk over the swampy mangrove area – we are both dripping.

Tide was out and we spotted several salamanders and crabs with huge lobster claws; amazed to come across a herd of wild pigs with nine piglets just by the bike park! It’s pretty wild – tropical forest – for somewhere so close to busy Singapore.

Little piggy wiggy

Little piggy wiggy

If you read my Bali blog, you will recall I was daunted by the scooter mayhem that is ubiquitous. Here in Singapore it costs $50,000 to get a licence to own a car, and there are very few scooters or motorbikes and no-one cycles – too hot. As a result there are comparatively few people who have passed a driving test or have any road sense.

So when the crowds flock to Ubin for a day out and hire bikes by the hundreds, it is truly terrifying. Whole families cycle side by side, babies front and back, chatting, looking at the scenery, picnics precariously balanced on the handlebars. It is quite obvious that many have never ridden a bike before: they come at you face on, no notion of keeping left; they park their bikes broadside, to make an adjustment to the chain or whatever, no pulling over; they come to a grinding halt at the merest incline, wherever they happen to be. We saw a nasty spill on a flat piece of road (lots of blood) and surmised that the injured party had simply ridden into one of her friends! Another girl fainted at the crest of a tiny hillock as she tried to get off her bike! It was worse than Bali as at least there you felt there were unwritten rules and a kind of highway code of conduct.

A well-deserved Tiger

A well-deserved Tiger

After 2 plus hours of this in the baking hot sun, nerves shattered, decided enough was enough, and we repaired to a local seafront restaurant for a Tiger beer and a steamed fish. Shared our table with five delightful elderly Singaporeans who had come just for the food – no cycling (bravo!). The jolly man loved a good acronym: when he heard we are going to india on Friday he said, ‘Ah India, terrible place, I N D I A – I’ll never do it again!’

This afternoon we bought the guide book – Hyderabad here we come!


Boats going in and out – our restaurant is in the background


in which we go to the zoo, zoo, zoo


Gosh, Singapore never ceases to amaze me! I am not a fan of zoos normally (obviously when the children were small we did the rounds) but I was recommended to visit this one, renowned for its design and the relative freedom of the animals.  And SIngapore zoo is host to two new guests, Kai Kai and Tia Tia. (Can’t tell which is which tbh)


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and the gorgeous red panda – Ross says the last time he saw one of these it was a delicious beer in Bhutan!

Singapore zoo is green and luscious, here is Ross walking (mind you it was 33 C yesterday and sticky as hell).


Most of the animals seem happy enough (apart from the white tiger, who paced around his island, while his mate slept – we women know how to relax – though we did catch him having a bathe which was fun).


The monkeys  are kept on islands and swing around with abandon. So much so that these little buggers (squirrel monkeys btw) bit a poor girl who was walking underneath them. Feeding time takes on a new meaning!

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Some plus points for this zoo: one: its research programme, here into the amazing Proboscis monkeys.

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This is the alpha male, you can tell by the size of his…nose!

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Juvenile size nose!

Two, the largest freshwater aquaruim in the world. Here is my one and only photo contribution, a banded sea otter like we saw in Kerala in the lake, here playing with a coconut as we watched underneath. The rest are Ross’s as you really need a proper camera, not an iPhone for wildlife – but this is quite good for an iPhone methinks (apart from my finger!)


Three, a simply fabulous collection of orang utans – again free-ranging. We were lucky enough to get them at feeding time and were two feet away from them.

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So I leave you with a selection of Ross’s other photos and one of mine – the bum of a Hamadryas baboon. BTW a full selection of Ross’s photos can be found here