The lid rises majestically as I approach, like a giant jaw yawning. The pressure of my bottom activates the water flow which stops and starts as I wriggle, getting used to the heated seat. They are a meticulous people, the Japanese, especially concerning cleanliness of the nether regions. A key pad allows me to select both the force and the direction of a water jet. Two rounded buttocks indicate the anal wash, a spurt of warm water that is remarkably – and eyebrow-raisingly – accurate considering the range of rear-ends around. Another button indicates ‘front washing’, for female use. Luckily I know the kanji symbol for ‘Stop’, as the jet does not decide when its job is done. I’d heard stories of unwary Brits washed from head to foot in their attempt to quell the water monster. The warm air blow-drier finishes off the job as an automatic deodoriser perfumes the air. Who needs toilet paper?
To my surprise, these elaborate constructions are found not only in smart hotels but also in ‘western-style’ public toilets. However, when away from home, the locals prefer the ‘eastern’ stoop variety where no part of the anatomy touches anything porcelain – a spotless version of old-fashioned French loos. That’s fine for those who have spent all their lives bending their knees. For the older Brit, where not only the upper lip is stiff, getting sufficiently low is a problem. And if the knees don’t flex enough, splash is an issue. Enough said.
After hand-washing, another problem presents itself – an absence of any means of drying. Far too unhygienic. I resort to waving my hands in the air as I don’t carry my own towel, unlike the Japanese.
‘Being in the hot seat’ has taken on new meaning. I emerge, cleansed, dried, perfumed and amazed.
As we drifted off to sleep under our mosquito net, there was a sudden, loud noise and flapping. I feared we had trapped a bird in our tent. It spooked me. But it turned out the flapping was the tent roof, blown by a fierce, rising wind. That, together with a loud frog, kept us awake. To be expected; we were close to the wild here.
It was our treat. When you’ve been married fifty years, you deserve one. A safari in South Africa.
It didn’t start well. At Johannesburg airport we found ourselves in the wrong queue at the domestic terminal and time was short. A couple of airport employees rescued us and checked us in for Hoedspruit. A tip was necessary – having no small change, we made their day (and probably their week!)
At Hoedspruit, everyone was met by local guides with transport to take them to their lodges. Except us. A few phone calls and forty minutes later, we were picked up. A confusion of flight numbers and arrival times, it seems.
Then things got better. Our lodge, Garonga, was perfect. It had only six ‘tents’, was intimate and super-luxurious. The tents weren’t the type you put up on an English camp site. Three solid walls, an open front which was fastened at night and a (potentially flappable) tent roof; indoor and outdoor showers, complete privacy.
We sat on our decking and watched elephants drinking at the nearby waterhole.
Our first safari was late afternoon, with our guide, Josia, an experienced, knowledgeable guy who loved his job. His skill in driving the Landrover was impressive. He would head off across the bush, leaving the track behind, down impossible slopes. Small trees were no barrier – he drove through them. Phineas, our tracker, would head off on foot, searching animals. He found us two male lions. I could hardly believe how close we got – about four metres away. We were told not to stand up. We didn’t. Apparently, a human can stare down a lion. He will back off. I wouldn’t like to try.
As sunset approached, we stopped for a sundowner and were allowed to walk around. The sky turned red as we sipped our gin and tonics and nibbled biltong. Josia had produced a table with a tablecloth and candles, decorated it with foliage and offered a variety of drinks. Magic!
‘Knock-knock!’ someone shouted. (There was no knocker.)
It was our wake-up call. The early safari left at 5:30. This time, we saw cheetah, stalking prey. We also saw the impala he missed – they lived on. Probably briefly.
We had a ‘sleep-out’ one night in a tree-house. A guide delivered us, gave us instructions and said he’d see us the following morning. We were alone. We ate our dinner under the stars, the darkness intense, our lighting a few oil and solar lamps. Scared? Amazingly not. The only wild visitor we had was a mouse.
We toasted our fifty years. There couldn’t have been a better way.
Kate slammed the study door. She did not want her words echoing around the house for Neil to pick up. She hated outbursts; never slammed doors.
‘Leave me alone!’ She cut off the call, grabbed her coat and car keys and left the house.
Her sports car made her smile: a Mazda MX5, a treat to herself, her “baby”. Anger ebbed away as she opened the door and climbed in. She leant back into the comfort of the leather seat and stroked the smoothness of the gearstick. It was January; the glitter of frost still adorned the bare branches of the trees. Not the weather for having the hood down but what the hell! She wanted to feel the wind in her hair. She pulled her scarf tighter round her neck and turned up her collar. As she accelerated, the engine roared. How she enjoyed that noise! She changed gear as late as possible, soaking up the power, feeling it in her bones. She headed away from town, away from traffic. These roads were familiar; she ignored the speed limits and put her foot down. The police were never around and she knew the sites of the speed cameras. It was risky but that was part of the fun.
The wind would blow thoughts of Jonathan and his phone calls away. Her mind emptied, her thoughts soothed by the rays of an ineffective sun. The tyres squealed as she took a sharp bend but she kept control. An approaching car flashed its lights and she saw a fist in the air. She thought the driver mouthed something rude. She didn’t care. Quite the opposite. Making her presence felt was one of her pleasures.
A rabbit ran across in front of her and she swerved on the slippery road. There was a bump, more felt than heard, and she saw the body in the rear-view mirror. She sighed and screwed up her face. A man appeared in front of her, emerging from a farm gate. She got too close, her eyes still on the inert mound of fur. ‘Shit,’ she cried, veering across the road. I could have killed him. The farm-hand jumped sideways and she earned herself another fist in the air. He looked like Jonathan: same hair, same height, same build. For a moment she thought it was him. I could have killed Jonathan. But she hadn’t and it wasn’t. No, she thought, I don’t want Jonathan dead. Do I?
She fought memories of their past, the pregnancy, her hopes and her hatred.
An icy puddle cracked as she drove through it, muddy water splashing upwards. Bugger, the car will need washing. Dirt did not feature in Kate’s life. She skidded at another bend and was glad to be the only car on the road. Pushing my luck, she thought, laughing out loud. Her cheeks were tingling and the cold air was making her eyes run. But it was like a roll in the snow after a sauna. Totally worth it.
She could cope with him now. The drive had worked. As she headed home, her mobile rang. She knew she shouldn’t answer it. No desire for a fine. Rashness, curiosity and the empty road won.
‘I’ll stop calling when we come to an agreement. You said you’d meet me.’
‘I thought you would come to your senses, Jonathan, and leave me alone.’
‘That’s the point. I have come to my senses.’
‘I don’t know why you keep chasing me.’
‘Meet me and we can discuss it.’
She changed down a gear so that the engine roared and she had to shout. ‘What is it you want? A quick fuck?’
‘Well, that’s an option, I suppose. Or even a slow one. A delicious sharing of pleasure, entwining our bodies together, the stroking of velvet, the steaminess of passion.’ Jonathan laughed at his deliberately extravagant words. ‘I think you know, much as I’d enjoy it, that’s not what I’m talking about.’
We knew little about Provence. But the kindness of a friend, lending us her apartment, changed all that. We stayed in Sanary-sur-Mer. It was Bournemouth-by-the Med with a few more palm trees. Easy on the eye, pale terracotta walls and roofs, wooden shutters.
I understood why the population was aged; a fine place to end your days. Bikinis on the beach were not confined to those with curvaceous, twenty-something bodies. It didn’t matter how old you were. Nor did it matter if you sunbathed topless, breasts hanging like dehydrated leaves, wrinkles a fashion accessory. Skin was tanned to a supple leather.
It was a café society. Little local places, unpretentious, always busy, or more elegant ones near the harbour where there was always fresh seafood.
We went to Le Provençal, a family-run restaurant with its regular clientele. Aïoli on Friday lunchtimes was the thing. We’d not have looked twice at the restaurant but for a recommendation. It was worth it.
The Wednesday marché is famous. The largest market in France, they said, taking over all the centre of the town. Cruise ships call in and the market is full of visitors for the day, Germans when we were there. We bought huge, sweet tomatoes, ripe figs and local cheese. It cost little.
We were close to a wine area, Bandol. It’s a famous area no-one has heard of. No-one who isn’t Provençal, that is. Furnished with a list from the Office de Tourisme, we set off to visit several vineyards for dégustations and a few purchases. Even with a Satnav, finding them was challenging and we were grateful our hire car was small. Roads were narrow, winding and sometimes steep. The vineyards ranged from small affairs with tastings at a little bar in the corner of a room, to far grander, more commercial places. Although many advertised ‘English spoken’, they were keen to speak to us in French, interested to find out where we were from and how we’d found them. Pale rosé was ubiquitous but Bandol is known for its reds, good, high tannin wines that keep well. We were told one wine we bought would keep for thirty years. Longer than I will. A 2004 red was delicious but at over €50 a bottle, a tasting was all we had.
We were able to bathe in the sea every day – just a few paces across the road from the apartment. The sea was 21˚ at its coldest, the air much warmer. Usually we swam in the early evening and watched the sun get lower in the pink sky. We lived in a little bubble, divorced from the news, enjoying life.
Mixing with the Rich
On the Cote d’Azur, it’s not difficult to find wealth. The evidence lies in the superb yachts moored in the bay, spotless after vigorous cleaning by the well-dressed crews, in the expensive restaurants and in the chauffeur-driven limos. Rich people are harder to spot. They look much like us, sometimes tattier.
We liked St Tropez. It was busy, hot, a place to watch people. It had a good feel to it in spite of being touristy. You could have a drink in a bar or a Plat du Jour without too much financial pain. The artists along the quayside still benefit from Brigitte Bardot although the landscapes pleased me more. The old part of the town was unspoilt. People lived here, hung their washing out from their windows, their cats lounging outside front doors in patches of shade. Dogs here obviously don’t poo – they produce ‘dejections canines’!
We walked up to the Citadel, an old defence against the English, for a panoramic view over the town and port.
We visited the art gallery – painters have always been drawn here by the quality of the light. We could understand that.
I saw a couple saying goodbye on the quayside. He kissed her lips several times, kissed both her hands and looked for long seconds at her face. Then he walked into town. She turned, walked along a pontoon to an elegant boat to be greeted greedily by another man. There must be a story there!
Monaco seemed more affluent, more frantic, more crowded and more complicated than St Tropez. The road system is a nightmare and we were glad to park in the first car-park we found. We saw ‘the most famous bend in the world’. Watching the Grand Prix will mean something now.
There was a yacht show in progress when we were there which added to the number of people and boats (and hospitality tents and restricted areas).We visited the royal palace and the royal collection of cars. I run out of sufficiently grandiose adjectives!
The famous Casino is a beautiful building. Suited men on the doors watched the tourists taking photos of them. I assumed they were there to prevent the riff-raff from going in. Wrong! Entry was not only permitted but free. We were able to go into the room with gaming machines but to go into the posh roulette area, you needed appropriate clothing. As my husband was wearing sandals, we were inappropriate.
No such restrictions on the bar, however. If you can’t have a glass of champagne in the bar at the Casino in Monte Carlo, where can you?
Provence is known for its ‘villages perchés’, little hamlets high up on the hillside. We visited a couple, Castellet and Bormes-les-Mimosas.
Hard to imagine what life would be like in these small communities – a mixture of isolation and tourism, depending on the time of the year. A day-long tournament of boules was taking place in Bormes. This game is taken seriously.
We went to the Gorges du Verdon for its spectacular scenery,
to Aix-en-Provence to see Cézanne’s studio,
to Villecroze for the troglodyte dwellings
and to Cassis for its ambiance and its walks around the Calanques. To our surprise, the blackcurrant drink, Cassis, is from Burgundy, not here.
Rough seas prevented us taking a boat trip to get a different view of the coastline. With my ability to be sea-sick, this was maybe a blessing. Something perhaps for another time.
We did long walks and got lost. Sign-posts were rare on the paths. On our last day, we got so far from our route, I thought we’d end up walking to the nearest town to get a taxi to take us to find our car. Time was running short. I wanted a last swim, a final drink at the restaurant by the sea, a proper farewell to Sanary. Fortunately, Tony and his map rescued us. I had time to do all those things.
Our kind friend has said we can return whenever we want. There’s still much to do and see. I think we’ll be back.
Katmandu sounds like a mythical place. But it is real, busier than London on a Saturday night and more cosmopolitan than Hong Kong. It is a cross-roads, a meeting place and the setting-off point for Everest. Most of the visitors are not climbers, however, but trekkers, those wanting a taste of the hospitality of Nepal, a sight of the unattainable and a breath of thin air.
Katmandu airport is chaotic. For new arrivals like us, there is much form completing and document checking; showy bureaucracy masquerading as efficiency. It takes forever but then it’s our first experience of Nepal and we are not inclined to complain. Being reunited with our bags is a triumph, finding our guide a bonus and meeting the fellow travellers in our group a notable achievement. We leave the airport for a brief sleep at our hotel, struggling through horrendous traffic that engulfs the town, knowing that we’ll be back in a few hours.
It seems just a blink later – we are in the departure lounge. Our group is heading for Lukla, a tiny airport at the beginning of the Everest trail. Well, no, actually we’re not. Not just yet. We are hanging around, eyeing with envy those who have managed to find a seat, occupying ourselves with our guide books and sighing. We are keen to be off but the weather has other ideas. If we don’t leave soon, I will be obliged to face the unpleasant loos.
‘Tara Air! Tara Air!’
The tannoy announcement causes a rush of people to the parked buses and we travel out onto the tarmac. A twin otter is waiting for us, sixteen trekkers and a stewardess. She is elegant in an immaculate uniform, a living travel poster. An anomaly. Her role is to hand us a boiled sweet each and some cotton wool for our ears.
‘How long have you been waiting to leave?’
‘About six hours. How about you?’
‘Four days. A bit annoying but there you are.’
We are the lucky ones. Nepal engenders acceptance; these guys would throw a punch if they had to wait even four hours back home. There has been fog; there is no radar here so the pilots have to be able to see for the whole of the 35 minute journey.
We belt up and the passenger alongside me calls the stewardess.
‘I’ve only got half a seat-belt.’ He points at the ragged remains of his safety equipment.
She shrugs and smiles. If we go down here, it is unlikely a functioning seat-belt would make any difference. Now is not the time to wonder about engine maintenance.
We watch two planes take off and I breathe more quickly. Then disappointment. It’s clear here but fog has returned to Lukla so the airport is closed. We disembark. Back to the terminal, to milky pre-sweetened tea, smelly toilets and sitting on the floor. We doze in uncomfortable positions wedged against the wall, do crosswords and observe each other, a rag-bag collection of nationalities and ages.
‘Tara Air! Tara Air!’
We get on the plane again. The fog has gone, but there is frosty air between one of the ground staff and a passenger. He wants to hang on to his enormous back-pack; she wants it in the hold. I really don’t care who wins as long as there is no more delay. This time it happens. Our guide says to sit on the left-hand side of the plane for the best view; there are no pre-assigned seats, of course. We take off noisily and press our faces against the smeared windows.
And there they are, the high mountains hanging from the blue sky like a distant white curtain. Nearer, farms and terraces look like balsa wood models of themselves; broken shoelaces of rivers wind haphazardly between the villages, catching the sunlight with the occasional diamond flash. The hills get steeper and closer, swallowing the little plane. It is noisy even with our ears full of cotton wool, as if the lack of oxygen hurts the engines as much as it will our lungs. We wonder about the landing. Not exactly a worry but in this terrain, an airport seems an unlikely finding.
Then the airstrip appears, a sloping ribbon of tarmac with a dotted line down the middle, 20 metres wide and impossibly short. It is just long enough for the plane to land, a wall of mountain rearing up behind it. There is no room for error; no chance of a second attempt at landing if the first doesn’t work. There is no control tower, no navigation aid. The town squeezes uncomfortably close on the hillside, a jumble of structures crammed together, blue roofs bright in the sunshine. We bump along the ground with buildings almost within touching distance, ears droning until we stop and everyone claps and cheers. The pilot has obviously done this many times and I’m grateful for that. A sign welcomes us to the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, built in the 60s with the support of Sir Edmund Hillary. Tenzing’s name was added in 2008, and I smile to see that he has prime position. I later discover that this is rated the most dangerous airport in the world. And the adventure has hardly started.
Six days later, laden with amazing experiences, local trinkets bought at the market in Namche Bazaar and plenty of tales, we face the return trip. Still unaware of Lukla’s reputation, I am excited rather than worried. There is a semblance of security, much activity and scurrying about but little actually being done. We are separated by gender and our baggage examined. I have nothing to hide – but as the enthusiastic but inept woman assigned to me cannot find the zip on my rucksack and gives up on the search, I could be smuggling anything.
Visibility is good so I am hopeful. I try to ignore the booming, incomprehensible tannoy and wait patiently. Presumably, our guide understands the announcements and will tell us when we need to do anything. The place is packed. Everyone seems to have a different departure time on an assortment of planes and airlines. It is cold. Doors are left open and there is no heating. Calling the area a ‘departure lounge’ is an unnecessary compliment. I dig out a woolly hat and a scarf. Even the closeness of sweaty, unwashed bodies doesn’t generate much heat. We are used to being cold. The lodges along the Everest trail provided us with unheated bedrooms although the beds often had electric blankets, a concession to tourists. Removing our boots, we got into bed fully clothed with the blankets switched on, an activity that scared us more than landing at Lukla!
The airport is a place for telling stories, relating experiences. How different from the starchily private behaviour of travellers in Europe! Some, like us, have been to the monastery at Tengboche for a clear-sky view of Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse and the pointed Amadablam – a unique panorama that greets the tired trekker as he reaches the end of a long climb and takes away what little breath he has left. The mountains line up against the blue sky, an almost uninterrupted view, a postcard that no-one who hasn’t been there will believe.
We arrived in the early morning and enjoyed being almost alone, chatting to the monks who wanted to practise their English and absorbing the peace of the place. Others have been to Everest Base Camp, a less pleasing sight, (or even site,) if a higher achievement.
There is a story of a broken ankle resulting in an uncomfortable journey down the mountain on the back of a willful donkey, a helicopter rescue and assorted illnesses. Sickness and diarrhoea win most points with headaches close behind, altitude claiming a few victims. Not everyone has tales of woe. I tell about being caught in a ‘yak jam’. These huge beasts have no time for trekkers and dominate the paths. We found ourselves sandwiched between one laden group coming up and another going down the mountain. As a close encounter is dangerous, we retreated to a tree on a small mound in the middle of the path where we were happily ignored.
But it’s not a matter of trying to outdo each other. We are all genuinely interested in each other’s adventures. For a few days, we have all witnessed what life is like for the Nepalese. To say we shared in it is untrue. I could not imagine how I would cope living here, sweeping the step of my unlit room with a bundle of sticks, the doorway covered by a ragged curtain embellished with a swastika – a sign of good luck in Nepal. Or bent double carrying enormous loads as a porter, the daily work of most of the men. We learn that the answer to any question we ask is ‘Yes’ – it is far more positive than ‘No’ – and they are a contented people who want to please.
The first plane due in is late. It had to turn back to Katmandu when it hit mist and this is its second attempt. There is nothing exceptional here, nothing to apologise for; it happens. We know all about it now. I’m getting to be almost relieved that the pilots have the sense to turn back. We discuss what we will do back in Kathmandu. Someone says they are going to Rum Doodle*, a special climbers’ and trekkers’ restaurant. They will sign a piece of card shaped like a Yeti foot, draw their flag and describe their experience. Then it will go on the wall or ceiling with hundreds of others, just ordinary people who want to commemorate what is, for them, an extraordinary adventure. We hear about the most exciting of all, the framed signatures of the summiteers – those special people who have reached the top of Mount Everest. Sir Edmund Hillary is there. Everest summiteers are rewarded with a free meal. That’s a hard-won freebie and one I’ll forego, but I would like my own Yeti foot.
There is the customary cheer when the expected plane eventually lands. People mill around it, airport staff and tourists alike. As no-one other than the police who guard the airport wears a uniform, it’s impossible to know which is which. In a short time – for this part of the world – we are on board. If anything, this plane is tattier than the one we arrived in, the seats battered, seat belts tangled and frayed and Velcro strips attracting an assortment of debris, their original functions long lost. I cannot guess when it was last cleaned. It was full, as are all the flights. The only other way back to Kathmandu is a long hike, five days at least. Most people are tired; it’s not the most popular option.
Taking off, I admit, gets my heart pumping. As we set off, the runway suddenly stops. We cover its 450 or so metres in no time and then there is just air. The engine roars and we become airborne. We are sailing over a 9000ft cliff. (For some reason, the height is always given in feet!) The passenger alongside me starts to tell stories about fatal crashes on this route. He’d made a point of reading up about Lukla airport. I don’t much like his timing. I console myself with the thought that even with all his research, he still took the flight. Back in England, I discover that everything he said was true.
We land uneventfully at Kathmandu airport. It has now become familiar. I feel at one with these wanderers. End of the adventure, time to go home. Well, not quite. It’s my birthday and I spend it at Rum Doodle, a prayer scarf wrapped around my neck by the waiter, my Yeti foot on the wall.
*The restaurant’s name comes from the fictitious, 40,000 ½ ft high mountain in ‘The Ascent of Rum Doodle’ by WE Bowman.
I wrote this account as ‘A Dangerous Glimpse of Nepal’ in June 2014 and it was published by Litro online. (A 300-word version has recently been submitted to Mslexia in their alphabet series as ‘K is for…’)
Out of season. Not a normal time to be in Méribel Mottaret but we needed to be there for the installation of a new kitchen in our apartment.
We broke our outward journey near Macon.
We were the only people staying there – they had only one room. Did we want to eat? A menu of Burgundy specialities and local wine, reasonably priced. Yes, please!
The starter arrived – a surprise, our host said. A choux pastry ball in a nest of salad. I cut into it.
As we ate, I realised that the mushrooms had sucker feet – they were snails. My husband, Tony, does not eat snails. He’s probably never tried them but dislikes the idea intensely.
Are you enjoying this?’ I asked.
I had a dilemma – should I tell him about the non-mushrooms? I decided I should, waiting until he’d cleared his plate. He was horrified. Our host asked if we knew what we had eaten, so it was fortunate I’d been honest. It was a Burgundy speciality. Fortunately the rest of the meal, Burgundy beef and a blackcurrant dessert, was less contentious and totally delicious. Tony is now trying to wipe the memory (and unfortunately I didn’t take the appropriate photo!)
It was around six degrees when we arrived in Mottaret. We piled on the sweaters. Between visits of kitchen fitters, there was the chance to do some walking. We wondered how far we’d get as there was so much snow remaining. What a winter it had been – metres of the stuff!
We walked over snow fields, firm enough at 2000 metres to take our weight. But when it came to walls of snow across the path we had to turn. We did not reach the Refuge du Saut, a regular summer destination, but got close.
Then there was the zig-zag walk to Col de la Loze. Snow piled at each of the bends and we clambered over it with difficulty, digging our toes in to get footholds. We hoped we weren’t being too adventurous. Sunshine and warmth at the top was our reward. But the thought of the return journey was bothering us – it would be more hazardous than the route up. So we chose the easier way back along the ‘Boulevarde’. It was totally covered with snow, a depth of a couple of metres at the start.
‘It’ll go on for half a kilometre or so, then it’ll be clear,’ my husband assured me. ‘Much the best choice.’
Two kilometres later, we finally left the snow behind, a twisted ankle and a jarred knee our souvenirs. But we made it.
Lower down, spring had arrived – it wasn’t all snow
A different holiday. Almost nobody around. Shops and restaurants shut. Peaceful. And we like the kitchen.