Exam stress: COVID-19 style.

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

This has been the most testing semester of my time teaching within China. When we look back on the spread of the pandemic from China outwards, we can count the tragic loss of lives, the social effects and far more damage to community. Many will look back at the economic impact with aversion. There will be hatred by some, about how governments and leaders globally have failed some and their nations. Loathing and abhorrence towards such matters as travel. There may be limited opportunity to flourish in this COVID-19 era. Trouble is already rife. How many people have lost out? How many people plan right now? Is there a disinclination to trust bug business? Has repugnance crawled around the globe like a thick mist? Do many feel a new kind of animosity?

My personal antipathy is towards the setbacks slung upon education. For many students and parents, they were locked in. Properly shut away. No outreaches and limits held over their head like a noose. Some students have been apart from one of their parents for so long. A mother in China here. A father over in Singapore, or Japan, or Korea, or France there. This isn’t a way for a kid to grow up. How many families are split up by the control of disease? Some will find their father or mother as close as Hong Kong to Shenzhen is, but to their tiny innocent minds, the distance may as well be as far as Kathmandu is from Sao Paulo. These are testing times as we approach the examination periods. Students are being drilled in test papers, exams, and assessments at a rate like bullets spraying from a machine gun in battle.

These poor little minds need protecting with less demands so early in their primary life. In China, students are tested mid-term, end of semester, mid-term and end of year. On top of this there are other tests, so many tests, and very little time to stop thinking about tests. Outside of the primary classroom, they may be assessed at extra learning and training centres, or even via online teaching assessments. I don’t recall seeing a test until I was in year 6 of Chapel Street Primary School. And then, year 9 of secondary school was key for testing. After that every secondary year, college and university year had tests. Yet, outside of England, and the U.K., testing can be little (like Finland) or frequently often (like China).

The pandemic claimed weeks of teaching, then came online teaching which many believed to be near-ineffective. The excitement and rush to the classroom was filled with joy, but soon the happy faces fell away as the weight of condensed programmes filled their tiny blossoming minds. A nine-year-old girl shouldn’t tell you she feels pressure. A ten-year-old boy shouldn’t break down in tears and worry about missing his drumming class. They should be playing in sand, building towers of Lego or shoving their fingers up their nose with not a worry in the world.

Last night’s defeat in the football game between City and Liverpool F.C.’s feeder team Southampton is thrown away. The perspective I have today is clear. These exams should be lighter and easier on the young minds of primary school kids. This is not a way to learn. My first foray into contact rugby on Saturday with Dongguan Bulldogs was tough physically but mentally it was far easier than what these students are facing in China. The gloomy feel of a pandemic lurking in shadows, worries about family and life are entering the world of children too early. Let’s be sensible and try to help them out. Less exams please.

The new norm.

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

The plague of the 21st century isn’t locusts or bubonic. Not at all. It is lies, rumourmongering and misinformation.

If I was to state that taking antihistamines for hay-fever will help your rheumatoid arthritis, I’d be right up there with Doctor P.O.T.U.S.A. Trump. I’m fairly certain, by his instinctive logic, a sticker plaster (band-aid) may heal a lost limb. Hydroxychloroquine is a mouthful to say, let alone take. Trump loves to say hydroxychloroquine. I think his instinct about the drug is overshadowed by his pride in the ability to say this long word. In my instinct, I think this psychopathic P.O.T.U.S.A. is enjoying every utterance of the drug’s name. “What have you to lose? Take it,” said the man claiming common sense wins him the right to issue medical advice. Trump tweeted about it, with 103,400 re-tweets and 386,900 likes, so at least nobody noticed him and won’t have to worry about the possible side effects list (four patients had liver damage and one patient severely worsened in Trump’s favoured French study – so from twenty, 25% had big problems).

The losses are probably higher than reportable. Doctors and nurses will have been approached about the miracle drug. Imagine all that lost time. Drug therapies are in their infancy because this new virus and the COVID-19 that it causes are only just being researched. As outbreaks go, it is a baby. Malaria and SARS CoV-2 are not that closely related. Twenty patients tested in France, in uncontrolled circumstances alongside another drug azithromycin, was inconclusive. Only a few patients shown a positive response. Like many other studies, things are in their infancy. But, remember, that as one drug becomes popular, its demand rises, and those who truly need it – battling malaria or for other uses may be short. And, what happens when the drug kills? Always use hydroxychloroquine responsibly.

There is a huge distrust of China globally.  The internet age revolution is finally being eclipsed by a very grey area of lies, untruths, and extreme bias. People like Jack Patrick Dorsey (Twitter CEO/co-founder) don’t ban far-rights and extremism of views. They believe in freedom of speech – at the supression of protecting everyone else from extreme views. Didn’t he and Twitter learn about World War 2? Because, should such a person do so, then populism, as needed by Trump (the P.O.T.U.S.A.) would have no secure place in our world. Fake temperature devices, faulty goods, corporate espionage, 5G battles, cybersecurity, and other such exposes are leaving China in a different light for many. Over here in China, I can see Chinese channels and media slamming the U.S., Taiwan (funded by the U.S.; and funding Hong Kong’s resistance?), Britain’s fragmented and gradually anti-Chinese stance. It’s a horrible place to be for an expat in China, knowing that one word wrong by one politician could ruin six years of working here.

Some guidance had been set by China on managing the virus, but has enough been done to understand how this drug and virus react together? The NHS now has several trusts giving trial to it. Everywhich way you look, there are many hoping to find the cure. We all look on and hope. Remember normality and a regular daily life? Wouldn’t it be nice to be there. I’m over here in China and yet I can’t see it. Not yet.

There is guidance knocking around W.H.O. on what to do, after relaxing lockdowns. The biggest point is that transmission should be controlled. China is definitely doing that! Even after quarantine, I have 14 days of temperature checks, swabs before I restart work (alongside all the staff and students), and a QR code showing a green tick to show that I am apparently clear of the dreaded buggy virus. Every supermarket and restaurant must check me, and all others on the way in. Any hint of too high a temperature and there is no admittance – and probably a report to the authorities.

Today, the Police and garden/village management took my details and gave me a form to fill in. On the other hand, today, I’d walked past a guy without a mask on, sneezing his cloud of nasal blobbery into the air. Oh, and a dozen others coughing out of masks. Even a twinge of my muscle or a slight hint of exhaustion and I worry. Anxiety is my bedfellow. Luckily China’s health system capacities are detecting, testing, isolating and treating as it suppresses this beastly vile virus. The essential places are being re-opened but by bit, yet cinemas stand empty, many shops and restaurants have gone for good and the country has severely controlled flights out of China: one airline, one country, once a week… so please don’t ask my summer plans and what I plan to do after this contract at this school. The only one thing I want to do, is see my loved ones, my family and my close friends – but I will not be coming home, endangering them now or later. It is time to stay home (or The Winchester), stay safe and save lives… and wait for this to all blow over. Or Chernobyl to burn and cause a global nuclear problem. Perhaps they’ll be a follow up series to HBO’s Chernobyl after all.

The virus outbreak has left many alone in their final hours but it has also gave many care in those moments too. It has left pets without homes and also gave many homes. Every exception, every aspect and every scenario seem to be at play now. Some are regional, some are national and some vary from culture to culture. Fear and humanity are battling. Art is out there in the shadows and beauty abounds, but the media and noise is loud. We mustn’t lose touch of who we are and what we are doing. What are you doing in the new norm? 

Thanksgiving Day.

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

“And I was taught to feel, perhaps too much, the self-sufficing power of solitude.” – William Wordsworth, The Prelude.

So, my trek in Nepal was over. I’d passed through up to 28 ethnic groups of people, notably Thakali, Gurung, Magar, Chhetri, Bhotia and some Tibetans. I’d seen Annapurna II, Manaslu, my favourite haunt of this trek, Pagunda Danda and other great mountains. I’d passed through areas housing maybe just 45,000 or so people in a short distance and across great swathes of area. The river Marshyangdi had been by my side from beginning to the end, and never more than a few kilometres away from my wanderings. I’d tread along a world-renowned trekking destination that needs great care, for peril lurks at every ridge. Remarkable waterfalls, dense forests, and other climatic wonders had lined the sub-tropical, temperate, sub-alpine and alpine bio-climatic zones. These imposing regions offered diversity in both mammal and bird species, and plants that I’ve never seen anywhere else before, and no doubt will never see somewhere else. The barks of musk deer, the swoosh of vultures, the tweets of life from tree to tree, and flashes of Himalayan Langur will stay in my memories.

I’ve met people connected with agriculture, animal husbandry, tourism, the military, conservation, Buddhist monks and other labouring forces. These stirring moments reminded me why I love to visit Nepal. There have been moments when I’ve looked in shame at crumbling mountain sides, ripped open by new roads, and power lines draping over great scenery. The price of a modern world has cut open a blend of people in need of the new age, with as many in fear of what will arrive. Can these ethnic groups survive the new ways in, and the new exposure to the outside world? Will everything change too fast for some to understand? Will education and investment bring new opportunity? Can the high pressure on natural resources be reduced? Will an unequal distribution of tourism wealth and benefits leave some people behind? Poverty is there, but can it seriously be eradicated? Will Chinese hydroelectric dam projects benefit anyone if they have mostly Chinese workforces? Will Indian investment be reduced as Nepal juggles the money of China over India?

With hunting, poaching, pollution, loss of habitat and humans getting ever closer to wildlife, can the Annapurna or Manaslu parks be improved to reduce these problems? Will climate change, flooding and increased tourism add greater strain to the region? I read that 18% of the world’s plant species can be found in the Annapurna Conservation Area. The project there highlights that 58% of Earth’s birds are present. A staggering 33% of Earth’s reptiles have refuge in the region. Amphibians (20%), butterflies (53%), and flowering plants (18%) represent significant proportions of Earth’s species too. There’s much more to Annapurna than snow leopards and possible yeti sightings…

To have walked through the largest protected park of Nepal was a privilege. I sat down to a cold coffee in Pokhara and stroked my sore head. I decided I would fly from Pokhara to Kathmandu. My friend Jodie was to visit Kathmandu a day or so later. I decided the long arduous coach journey was too much for me. Besides I like to fly and the price wasn’t too bad (732RMB) – and bookable via my Wechat money and Trip.com application. After a few wanders from the now ghostly quiet Pokhara, I was ready to fly.

Before doing so I took in the sights of Pokhara, a bat cave and the Gurkha Memorial Trust. Since joining the British Army in 1815, after showing valour in the battlefield against the British, the Gurkhas have enjoyed great connection with Britain and India. The museum itself was alike almost every museum and trust collection, with cabinets of medals, regalia and factsheets. Photos of hundreds of faces, stories and campaign information could be found throughout the large building. I was welcomed by two former Gurkha soldiers in full uniform and shown to the ticket desk, then set free to enjoy the words of regimental life, the sounds and read about Victoria Cross winners. A history sheet was handed to me and I spent a good couple of hours perusing the displays. I had passed the museum by chance, and prior to walking to Bat Cave in the direction of Mahendra Cave not even know there to be such a museum. I did not expect to be so detailed and well-constructed. The passion of many had created their space to inform, educate and celebrate. Here I learned the name Gurkha comes from the hill of Gorkha, and not from a specific race of people. Better to die than be a coward, is the Gurkha motto. Their history attains to that. Long may they have the welfare and care of those who respect them.

Now, Bat Cave is called that on every sign. I could see signs for the religious Mahendra Cave frequently. Those signs had Nepali Sanskrit and English on. The Bat Cave just had English. Bruce Wayne had no chance of hiding a Batmobile and Batwing in there. Green foothills surround the cave, but before you get there, a gate, with a kind of turnstile not out of place at a 1980’s football ground and a pay booth await. Here they try talking you into hiring a guide. I resisted that. I wanted tranquillity. He handed me a large lamp. I handed that back and shown him my simpler headtorch set. In I went. After a few steep steps, a dip and a ducked head I was in the main cavern. Alongside me were around 70-100,000 horseshoe bats. I dipped my torch and gazed on enjoying the cold humid chamber underground. The floor is slippery, the air is whiffy (it is a home to nature, after all), and my good footwear helped me a great deal. I reminded one small group to stay quiet, and they respected my wishes – and that of the bloody great big sign saying to be silent. There was a tiny passage for an exit, but I doubled back without trouble. I wanted to avoid a bump on the head.

After the 20km round-trip walk, I headed back to Obey Guest House. The family were really very nice. Sushil’s place had been recommended to Srirang and I by Livia on our first brief stop in Pokhara. Each time I’d stayed, I ended up the same room: up the stairs, first right turn, first room. The big clean room had a double bed, coffee table, hat stand, two small chairs, a bathroom with a steaming hot shower and a sink for a proper scrub down. There was a tiny balcony and the door would open to allow me to put my stinking walking boots outside. On the top floor, there are several levels to appreciate the panoramic views and a place to sit with a garden table. The family were really welcoming, warm and friendly. They check on you and make you feel at home. Sushil had washed some of my laundry before the trek, and it was waiting in a bag for me, alongside some trainers I’d left behind. The lodge is a tall pink building up a road from Lakeside. It’s easy to find. There’s Wi-Fi and the family pointed us to a simple and tasty breakfast place at the top of the road. Every morning I awoke to beautiful bird call, and at night I enjoyed peaceful ambience. I had several good sleeps there. Sushil pointed us to the nearby TIMS office, other amenities and gave great advice throughout. If you want to stay somewhere peaceful without hassle and worry, then obey me and look up Obey Guest House.

I do have to apologise to Obey Guest House because I stupidly left my smelly walking boots on the balcony when I left… I hope that they turned them into a plant pot! They probably couldn’t be repaired, and they certainly won’t be now! Sorry Sushil and family!

So, with the wheels lifting off the Pokhara runway, flight YT676, operated by Yeti Airlines departed, I assume. I’d been shuffled onto an earlier departure that eventually departed later. Not to worry. It was a good flight. The flight comfortably descended into the Kathmandu valley and once again I was in the cradle of rapid urbanisation. Here I enjoyed more days at Northfield Café and hotel, met a good man to embroider my travelling shirt, and enjoyed a haircut. With room in my bag, eight Lee Child novels filled my bag and that was that. I was ready to go. Goodbye Nepal. Thanks to Srirang and Livia for great company. Thank you to all of those people I met. See you again.

 


 

Almost 54 days later, I am writing this piece. I should have been in Hong Kong and heading over to Dongguan, China on the 15th of April. Here, I am in Dongguan, preparing to end my time in quarantine. If my PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test comes back as negative tomorrow, I will be allowed to go to Dongguan’s Changping town, to fill in more forms and scan a QR code to show that I am virus-free. I’ve penned a letter to the management and local government officials here. Maria and Waits translated it for me. It’s as per below:

 

二零二零年四月八日
8th April 2020

 

给相关人士 To whom it may concern.

 

诚 挚 地 感 谢 

T H A N K   Y O U   K I N D L Y !

我从心底里感谢你。谢谢你对我的帮助。就像一名优秀的曼城足球运动员一样,我会敞开心扉。我在这里的日子很艰难,但你们更加辛苦。Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you kindly for helping me. Like a good Manchester City football player, I wear my heart on my sleeve. My time here has been tough, but you have been tougher.

当你路过西湖的时候,不管是东莞的这家酒店,还是那片著名的杭州的湖,还是惠州的那座城市,你都一定能够感受到你所做的这一切带给你的荣耀,是你肩负起了这份重任。When you pass West Lake, whether the hotel in Dongguan, the famous lakes of Hangzhou or the city of Huizhou, you’ll be able to think of the pride that you made a difference. You answered the call.

是你让所有人一起团聚;是你给予了爱人、朋友和亲人们一起纵享新时刻的机会;是你,在保护我们,你在照看我们,是你放弃了你们自己的时间,而把精力全部投入到了我们身上。You brought people back together. You gave loved ones, friend and family the chance to enjoy new moments together. You protected us. You looked after us. You gave up your time and gave us all your energy.

你为我打扫卫生,检查我的健康,为我尽心尽力。你让我的肚子饱饱的,并激发了我不知道我能做的锻炼。每当我口渴的时候,你就在那里。You have cleaned up after me, checked my health and waited on hand and foot for me. You have kept my belly full, and inspired exercises I didn’t know I was capable of. Every time I have been thirsty, you have been there.

我是东莞的客人。广东的客人。来中国的客人。你让我很受欢迎。我非常喜欢东莞。这是一座充满希望、想象力和雄心的城市。就像我的家乡曼彻斯特一样,这里也有工业路线,但这里的工业路线也越来越多。I’m a guest in Dongguan. A guest of Guangdong. A guest to China. You’ve made me welcome. I like Dongguan greatly. It is a city of hope, imagination and ambition. Like my hometown of Manchester, it has industrial routes but here too has grown to be so much more.

我们是如此的幸运,生活虽有不便但我们还是在这儿。那些倒下的人、那些逝去的人和那些殉职的人——正是因为他们,我们才能好好地活着。让我们一起为他们默哀片刻吧。We are the lucky ones. We are inconvenienced but we are here. Those who fell, those who died, those who died – it is because of them, we can live well. Let’s observe a moment of silence for them.

 

 

Mr John R. Acton

 


 

TO THE HEROES.

To the NHS staff in the U.K.; and to those health workers, care assistants, doctors, nurses, specialists and all going about in essential jobs right now. I salute you. Keep fighting on. Never give in. You are true heroes. The world needs you. I wish you well. Good luck! This is your hour to shine. Inspire the next generation and those who can and should support you. Look after your neighbours and we’ll find a brighter day. Peace and love!

 

I’m not gonna give up.

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!

Before the climb, we’d stopped in Danagyu, at a lodge on the right-hand side. It was busy. A family were playing cards. Kids were running around and one managed to hit both Livia and I with first her walking stick and second a snotty finger. I was fully aware of the coronavirus outbreak by now. It was by now February. Hygiene was on my conscience but this terrible toddler was not sharing my concern. Bogies smeared down my leg. I used soap and water to clean it away. Eventually a teenage girl came over and shuffled the toddler away. We’d already ordered pumpkin soup and momos now. Having seen the soon to be altogether contour lines on the map, our engines for walking needed some much needed fuel. One trekker’s bar wasn’t going to be adequate.

After reaching a waterfall tucked in a tight ravine, Livia went right along the road, and I went left up some steep steps. Srirang was just behind Livia, with his sore leg, yet he soldiered on and never gave in. Tough lad. After only a few steps, I started to see speedy little Himalayan squirrels and the view backwards of the peaks nearby to Manaslu was marvellous. Upwards was very much that. Up, up and away. After some crumbly steps, that could have been made of Lancashire cheese of apple crumble topping, I managed to reach the road, and cross straight over back onto the pathway. Here the green trees folded outwards ever so slightly, to show stacks of natural compost on the forest floor. The air had a damp natural earthy smell and occasional felled logs rotted alongside the trail. The track would mostly rise and do little of a fall. Soon enough the mud and dirt track became covered in frozen snow. Not the fluffy soft and easy to trudge through kind, but the solid mostly with a metre drop inwards should I find the bit unable to tolerate my weight, kind. And it seemed I was in for many steps up, and a few deep into the partially frozen snow. Heave. Heave. Heave.

The snow pretty much didn’t want to convey me and with every drop my boots, and the best part of my legs disappeared. Out came the crampons. Out came the determination. Onwards I went. My imagination enjoyed the peculiar eerie silence. I imagined packs of wolves, snow leopards and bears watching me go by. Not your ideal range of animals to picture you pass by, especially if one of them was very hungry, but here I was in the territory of nature, and damned if I was going to imagine Minecraft or a rock concert.

The pine trees shed patches of snow and melt water dripped all around me. Glorious rays of sunshine broke the canopy and occasionally I caught glimpses of mountain tops here and there. Then, a sudden crashing sound in the trees ahead, had me at full alertness. I froze solid as the iced floor around me. Silence resumed. Then a larger and louder thump and crunch. Something was in the trees ahead. I heard a racket and a commotion. Voices yelled from the canopy to my immediate left. The thuds and thumps were accompanied by a disturbance in the snow maybe a few hundred metres away. Then I spotted a monkey, Himalayan langur, springing up and down in the snow, swiftly from tree to tree across a small clearing. They didn’t seem too perturbed by the snow, but didn’t hang around either way. I tried to shoot them. My camera wasn’t quick enough though.

Throughout this journey, I had seen many mammals. These included Himalayan langurs, Assam macaques, Rhesus macaques, Irrawaddy squirrels, orange-bellied Himalayan squirrels, Himalayan striped squirrels, voles, Himalayan field mice, Himalayan pika, shrews, a variety of bats, and some wild boar, I’d never seen many animals in the snow. It was a privilege to enjoy the monkeys and hear them move over the forest. It was a welcome break from the constant in and out walking motions of the snow. I also had chance to reflect about the fall onto my walking stick which had gave the stick a slight bend, or three.

After crossing many streams carefully, over tiny little snow-covered bridges, and occasionally playing find the rock over the odd crossing point, I reached a stretched out chain bridge. Snowfall and heavy damage had ripped one end of the supports from its foundations. The two guard rails fanned out, practically useless. It wasn’t quite and Indiana Jones movie, but it looked far more precarious than comfort. The river flow was about five metres wide, pummeling steeply down to the River Marsyangdi many metres below in altiiude. I decided to chance my luck at a bridge further upstream. After 200 metres, I realised that this was the only bridge. I hadn’t seen one downstream either. Whilst I could hear the river nearby, I couldn’t see it and no alternative route evident. The flayed and flawed bridge was to be my point of movement. A way like no other.

So, off came the crampons, and then I positioned my rucksack tighter to my back. I stowed my walking sticks. I pulled out my thin winter gloves with extra grips (thanks Black Diamond) and I stepped through the first pocket of snow on the bridge. I tested the bridge for movement. First with a little weight and then applying all slowly, readied to dive into the snow to the side of the bridge. Then, I did a kind of half-hop. The bridge was surprisingly sturdy – a real testament to the Gurkha builders who had provided so many bridges across the country. From that, I leant and tested the sideways cable to my left, uphill and in appearance the least damage of the handrails. I turned square onto it. I placed my left hand over my right hand and never left any motion rightwards without one very firm hand on the rail. By the time I’d reached the centre of the bridge, the rail tilted upwards, almost as it should have been and all the snow had melted in the sunlight. I gently walked up to the other side and looked backwards. Stepping off the bridge was a relief. Then I peered left at the small landslips dotted along the river bank.

The fallen ground and occasional uprooted tree didn’t prove too much of a challenge. The trail banked left and into an open field, which led onto a rock-cobbled road. Each rock was jagged and unwelcoming. It had a Lord of The Rings feel to it. Wild, and otherworldly. Onwards, I plugged until reaching the Hotel Royal Garden, where I met Livia aftera few minutes. Here, I also met Shadow. Shadow wasn’t his name but for that day he would be my little shadow and follow us throughout the village of Timang. After a great lunch, Srirang joined us, and we checked in for the night, just 100 metres down the road. Ahead of us the weather looked bleak and unsettled. So, a Sherpa family welcomed us, and we dropped our bags into a room each. The Hotel Manaslu View Point had a view of Manalsu in the distance and the panoramic view in all directions was a clear sign that we were now in the Himalayas, proper. Timang (2630m) was about 400 metres higher than Danagyu (2200m). The air temperature was much more-icy here. Clouds floated over the mountains behind us, disguising hidden peaks and over the River Marsyangdi to the opposite side, occasional matchstick-looking pine trees, empty of leaves and needles, stood like wooden stakes in a cemetery. There looked to have been a nuclear blast over the valley. Even the ground appeared clear of life.

This village was both sinister and beautiful. Firstly, the crows, those often billed in horror movie birds, were everywhere. They made themselves known with sharp piercing cries and occasionally softer sounds. The Kāga (काग Nepali for crow or craven) here were not Carrion crows. These were bigger ravens, Corvus corax tibetanus, with long grey neck feathers. Light on their feathers gave a beautiful purple-blue iridescence. Amongst the pairs of ravens, Carrion crows moved and foraging by jackdaws, and other smaller birds like sparrows could be seen through the village. Now, the sinister, I described wasn’t too much about the crows…

One single storey building with a shop front on the right of the road gave me new heebie-jeebies. Outside the front a man swapped tyres on a jeep. At the side of this passengers from the jeep waited patiently. At the rear of the building in the garden, an animal pelt hung from a washing line. From a distance I couldn’t work out if it was red panda, a dog or something of similar size. I know that the rules in Nepal are extremely strict regarding hunting, but I could not for the life of me understand what it was. It was, in all probability, a goat – and certainly unwelcoming. And, not far from that pelt on the washing line, a dead crow was tied up by its neck, flying in the wind like a grim version of a child’s kite. I expected haunted hillbilly music and a narrative from an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

After a great dal baht, in front of a warm fireplace, we all departed for bed. The matchstick looking cluster of spiders in the toilets gave an appearance of buffalo pubic hair [you know what I mean!] – and they seemed to detect the cold too, nestling together like brush hair in the corners of the long cold toilet room.

After a good night’s sleep, a great omelette and some defrosted ice-water, we three departed, bidding our farewell to Shadow the dog and a variety of goat kids in the nursery nearby. The road headed out, skirting around the brow of the hills beside us, never quite leaving the river below. At Tanchok village it doubled back inwards, crossing a frozen stream before lurching back into the river valley below. It slid gently up to the crossroads at Koto before nestling its way into Chame (2700m), complete with signs for yet more hot springs. Monkeys had been sighted in the forest’s brow by the village of Tanchok, by Livia and I stood watching them for some time. Here the valley started to tighten up and appear much steeper than previous days.

Chame is a colourful place, but in February, the sun sets early, shrouded by mountainous ridges to the west. Here a dozen municipal buildings and hospitals can be found. Derelict military barracks stand to the village’s north. It is a town of about 1200 people. In winter it is quiet with many people heading to Kathmandu and Pokhara. There are signs of the April 2015 earthquake having struck here. There were also some very good small supply shops and chances to get some much needed fruit into our diet. We checked into the cosy New Tibet Hotel and Restaurant sandwiched between a brittle looking cliff face and the river’s east bank. We then had a wander around the village which seemed to be many scattered lodges along a kilometre of two. An upper level village to the west looked more modern and functional, but less touristic. There were the usual array of schools and public facilities with prayer flags visible all across the high points.

After the walk Livia tucked into her billionth bowl of rice pudding, and probably ordered one for the morning too. Seeing Livia eat rice pudding in a wolf/koala/bear hat was quite a frequent sight on the journey. I often had scrambled eggs, porridge and buckwheat bread of chapatti. Always with a milky coffee or tea. Several bank machines were available in the village but there was no internet and sporadic power cuts for the two nights that we stayed. There was even a roadblock on alert for any walkers from China! By now fear and panic about COVID-19 had spread up the road. I kept news that I had left China over two weeks before arriving there to myself. I’d heard Chame described as an often crowded place. We met only two other trekkers, both French and both walking solo (with a guide).

Our lodge was less than two minutes of walking from a lovely spot. The hot springs doubled up as an open air launderette. Livia and I washed our clothing in the warm flow of water, as local soldiers soaked up the minerals in the neighbouring swimming pool. The spring itself was a dull green bubbling hole with pipes jutting from it. Nothing exciting to the naked eye. The miracle of life and fresh water was surrounded by man-made concrete and exploitation. Still, it was a good place to wash my underpants. Bloody warm too. Later I scattered my clothes on the balcony and added some socks to a warm chimney to speed dry them in the fading sunshine. Night was soon rolling in, complete with starry skies and ice-inducing temperatures. To be continued…


 

On the I’d booked a flight between Bangkok Don Mueang International Airport and Shenzhen for April the 1st. April Fool’s Day. Appropriately Thai Air Asia cancelled it yesterday. As I had used Trip.com to book it, I have to use Trip’s customer services. Flight FD596 is no more. On top of that, my visa expires here on April the 14th. I have been told that to stay here, I need to have a letter from the UK Embassy to say that travel to my country of residence is not possible. The UK Embassy won’t give such a letter for British citizens traveling to China. Thailand’s Immigration won’t allow me to stay because I can currently fly to the U.K. There are flights to Guangzhou at drastically hyper-inflated prices but even they could be pulled. Trip.com’s phone numbers ring a little and then hang up, all three of them! Their email reply reads as follows:

“Due to the huge backlog of emails caused by Corona Virus pandemic, we are sincerely sorry that your email won’t be able to get reply as usual. It will be delayed but no later than 30 days. Kindly recommend to manage your ticket online or though APP.” – modern day example of a crappy auto-response from a customer disservice centre, March 2020.

I get that we’re in a global catastrophe and the world is going mad buying excessive amount of bog rolls and shutting borders, but when you haven’t got much cash, or hope to get around, and your head feels like it is going to explode if it doesn’t release the bubbling rage and worry inside. I even paid for new cycle lights to allow me to break out of my body, and fly away, like a bat out of hell… or at least peddle fast from stray dogs and monkeys now coming out from the temples and sanctuaries in search of food. Next I expect to see chameleons on sun loungers, well maybe not see them, but at least know they’re there when the fly numbers drop down. That’d be more amazing because as I am aware, there aren’t chameleons in Thailand, but with current world problems, maybe they’ll bounce back like other wildlife – especially now people are talking more about wildlife trade ending. Or, will this COVID-19 world hide a debate about climate change?

Still, worries aside, it could be worse. It could be much, much worse. I worry for others. I’ll survive and money I haven’t got will add to other money that I never had. You can’t repossess from a hobo, right? Especially one trapped in Thailand… trapped, with just two bottles of Vimto and two frozen portions of black pudding. Nope, it ain’t all that bad! Stay strong. Survive. Beyonce and her mates told you to.

“I’m a survivor (what), I’m not gon’ give up (what); I’m not gon’ stop (what), I’m gon’ work harder (what); I’m a survivor (what), I’m gonna make it (what); I will survive (what), keep on survivin’ (what)” Destiny’s Child’s song was covered by 2WEI.

 

Pokhara footsteps.

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!

Kathmandu to Pokhara is a long and winding road. The Beatles didn’t sing about it though. The final stop of the 700NPR bus journey was on the edge of Pokhara (827-1740m) by the sports stadium. We checked in at 0100 on the 21st of January 2020, in the Obey Guesthouse, where Srirang had arranged to meet Livia, the angry hungry Hungarian from last year’s trek. I said hello, looked at the rooftop view and fell into a deep sleep. I slept like a baby. In the morning, a bit later, around 9am, I awoke. I stretched my legs, had a cold shower and dressed. I walked up the three floors to the rooftop. I looked south, trees and rooftops, east, a building obscured my view of more trees and rooftops. I walked up some steps to the next layer of the building. Standing on top of the building, my jaw dropped. I looked north, a little west and east. What a panorama! The prominent views of the tourism capital of Nepal are striking.

Pokhara is in the top left corner of the Seti Gandaki valley, if you look at the valley as football goalpost set. The mountains can rise over 6,500 metres across just 30 kilometres. You can see Dhaulagiri (8167m), Annapurna (6000m to over 8000m over several peaks), Manaslu (8163m), Machhapuchchhre A.K.A. Fishtail (6993m). Meanwhile Phew Tal lake sits at just 827m at the Lakeside area of the city. The moderate humid subtropical climate was just hovering around the low teens of 11°C, which made it feel very comfortable. At night, it fell into single figures. Very comfortable indeed. The World peace pagoda stands to the south, a cave full of bats lies to the north. Resorts, climbing shops, massage houses, spars, restaurants and lakeside boating are everywhere. Temples, shrines, gumbas, and forestry – serve the population that sits under half a million. The sprawling metropolitan city is far bigger than Kathmandu, and it feels far greener. This is a city that has survived much hardship losing the great India to Tibet trading route, following the Indo-China war in 1962. However, tourism has grown since. The British Gurkha Camp and Indian Gorkha (Gurka) camps are here. Many education sites are here. Some major businesses are based here.  The airport (soon to be replaced) and roads have regular and easy to find transport links across the country. Oh, and yoga is everywhere.

For dinner, I ate a masala curry, with roti bread. For lunch, I skipped it. For breakfast I tucked into omlette and a peanut dish with spices. Alu patthar was needed alongside the breakfast – a lovely potato bread. Just like the city of Pokhara, every area and every meal was geared for every kind and every taste. Pokhara’s lakeside area was akin to Blackpool lights in England, but smaller, and much quieter. By now the news of the coronavirus Covid-19 was emerging into Pokhara. Sellers on the streets offered a selection of fruits, “Sir, pineapple? Bananas? Ganga?” I declined all, before later watching City beat Sheffield Utd on my phone, as the temperature hit 2°C.

On the 22nd, we set out to the TIMS office, which doubles up as ACAP (Annapurna Circuit) entry – and the Nepal Tourism Board (all flanked by the ill-fated Visit Nepal 2020). TIMS and the ACAP are essential for trekking the region. The national park has strict control. On the day we visited, we were told that the highest we could trek, was Manang due to heavy snowfall – and missing trekkers on the Annapurna Base Camp trail. Under clear blue skies, and an air temperature of 20°C, we entered the doorway to news crews, cameras and stressed looking trekkers complaining that they were airlifted out of Annapurnas region without choice. They would have to pay once again, if they went in. And, they had to get their insurance companies to pay the helicopter rescue fees. The perils of trekking in full motion. Many trekkers seemed oblivious to the lost reported guides and trekkers. We answered questions with the ACAP and TIMS before passing over 2000NPR and 3000NPR respectively. We’d essentially agreed to take zero risks, and trek only as far as Manang. To me, I was fine. I just wanted to get onto the trail and see the sights, meet the people and enjoy a safe walk with good views. I decided there and then that not reaching the pass or completing the Annapurna Circuit was fine. It is what it is, as my older brother Asa, always says.

Pokhara is a very spaced out city. It’s relaxed and very green. There is so much to see and do. It is at the top of the league in terms of watching people go by, and enjoying the sounds of birdcalls. Nature is all around you, whether it is kites swooping overhead, tropical birds chirping in the morning or the croak of frogs. Then, there are many friendly and cute dogs, cats and the occasional free-roaming cow ambling along the roadsides.

With the terrible news coming out of Wuhan, of a pneumonia-causing virus, I became hyper-aware of people around me. Every sneeze and cough triggered a twinge of worry. The spate of deaths in China may have been a long way away, but in my mind, it could have been much closer. The spread of such trouble, just like heavy snowfall could easily have remained an ongoing worry for our trek.

On the 23rd, we checked out from the Obey Guesthouse (1000NPR per night), had breakfast and caught a taxi to the bus station in Pokhara. We departed Pokhara at 1135 for Besi Shahar at 1700hrs. Besi Shahar is only 760m in elevation. On arrival we stayed at Manange Chautara – Hotel Kailash. 200NPR a night, plus food and drink, we went to bed and readied ourselves for the walk. We were in no hurry, because we could only go as far as Manang. I had to leave Nepal by February the 15th, so that was settled. Take it all in, enjoy the walk. Rather than break the camel’s back, the next day, we walked just 7km to Khudi, staying at the Maya hotel, alongside the river and bridge. On the short 3 hour trek, we’d had brews at the ACAP check point, watched Himalayan Grey Langur monkeys for a while and not rushed at all.

 

The journey had started. How about your journey?

Sir IDS follows Sir Jimmy Savile

How do, alright?

49081107382_fa15e73c7cHere we go again… firstly Jimmy Savile was a vile and disgusting man who manipulated life and entertainment whilst preying on the vulnerable. Using his image was not an easy choice but it does carry an appropriate image. This man gained a knighthood in an Honours list selected by our state. Others have too. For less and for more. The Honours list is seen as a bit of a joke. Politicians and entertainers are put on a level field with those who do great things for others. Selfless acts placed alongside profiteers and pioneers of their own self-interest.

Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man. That was his party slogan, because Iain, Duncan and Smith, is and was a dull guy. Iain Duncan Smith celebrated as he passed welfare cuts to society’s most vulnerable people. This Conservative MP has previously claimed breakfasts as part of his expenses totalling around £39. School pupils, under his government were allocated just 7 pence. 557 children could have eaten something for the cost of his breakfast. Didn’t he know Gregg’s bakery do a bacon barm and coffee for about two quid. I doubt this Edinburgh-born former military man would ever be seen drinking a mug of coffee in Gregg’s with the small people.

IDS was caught out lying about his university education at the University of Perugia he later was found to have dropped out of the Università per Stranieri. Later his website claimed fictious qualifications from the Dunchurch College of Management. IDS has been eternally sceptical about the UK’s membership of the dictatorship-like EU (it lets terrorists in), and was supported by Margaret Thatcher, the original Darth Vader of politics. IDS sat with Americans following the September 11th terrorist attacks and backed the invasion of Iraq ( a nation that has dropped in literacy, food availability and domestic fuel usage since the allied invasion). The quiet man turned up the volume in Iraq. Still it kept his wife (the ostensibly impoverished daughter of the 5th Baron Cottesloe) in good money (see Betsygate).

Following his demise as Prime Minister, Iain Duncan Smith seemed to be doing something right. He soon became the Chairman of the Social Justice Policy Group in 2005. It’s reports Breakdown Britain and Breakthrough Britain. Breakdown Britain were noted by the European Court of Justice, as “unfit for a modern democracy” and “verging on frighteningly authoritarian”. Very 1984 indeed. Whilst he re-joined the political foreground he noted a worrying rise in Anti-Semitism in Britain, but on the other hand, called for more British involvement in Iraq.

In 2010, Iain Duncan Smith ended employer’s rights to use mandatory pensionable retirement at the age of 65. On one hand, good. On another, it would mean people working for longer, with fewer jobs on the market. So, to suit longer lives, people need to work longer. In the same year Universal Credit arrived. This was a man who could live on £53 a week, presumably £39 for a single breakfast was a weekly treat. But then, he would have been too busy battling human rights laws and forcing people into work for welfare – and taking wealthy pensioners’ winter payments back without an actual way to do so. But then, he never was good with numbers.

Under his watch, Iain Duncan Smith has seen a huge increase in the use of foodbanks. Non-governmental organisations and charities. Even Oxfam questioned why the seventh wealthiest nation on the planet is struggling to feed its people. And on the 2012 United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities, people on benefits were told they could lose their support. These people with disabilities or  illnesses ranging from cancer to paralysis or mental health would be forced by the UK government to work for free. This announcement came in December, to make for a lovely Christmas and New Year ahead. Personal Independence Payment would work alongside the Department of Work & Pensions, to ensure that being vulnerable could and would have meant death – around 2000 people died. Work your way out of poverty!

“We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” – Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative Party Conference, Manchester, October 2012

In 2016, Iain Duncan Smith quit the government. He didn’t like the “government’s austerity programme for balancing the books on the backs of the poor and vulnerable”. Presumably, it was because someone else had found a bigger and more aggressive axe than he could hold. But, forget all these minor problems, because in 2020, Iain Duncan Smith will be knighted for the for political and public service. He joins the late Sir Jimmy Savile (deceased so he is stripped of the title after death), [former Sir] Fred Goodwin, Rolf Harris, spies Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby, Sir Philip Green, Robert Mugabe (honorary knighthood, 1994-2008), Romanian Dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu (honorary knighthood 1978-the day before his execution on Christmas Day, 1989), Jean Else, television entertainer Stuart Hall, Benito Mussolini (honorary knighthood in 1923), Denis McShane, Bishop Donald Shearman, convicted child abuse photographer Chief Fire Officer Francis John Sheehan and Donald Tsang [曾荫权]. There are others including former Prime Minister David Cameron’s advisor Patrick Rock. Every single name in that list is inappropriate – and sadly many were not discovered for years, so who will join the notorious Honours list of shame next? Enjoy your honours.

Ta’ra for now!

Happy New Year NHS

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste,

Happy Christmas and merry new year to all, especially if you’re working for the state-owned National Health Service (NHS)…

“Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge.” – Sir Winston Churchill

No Time To Die is the name of the new James Bond movie. The greying secret agent is retired. Britain is on the edge of an abyss. This reflects the mood around Brexit and the new Conservative government to some degree. My biggest worry is the NHS. Why? Well, O was born in Crumpsall Hospital in northern Manchester. It is now known as North Manchester General Hospital and has swallowed many satellite and neighbouring services. My younger brother Paul was born in St Mary’s Hospital, now part of the Manchester Royal Infirmary and University Hospital. Aside from that in Manchester, there remains Wythenshawe Hospital, a few walk-in centres and many health clinics. Dentists are out there but the waiting lists and pool of choice is limited.

There are so many people that complain about NHS waiting lists, the quality of care and the quality of aftercare. The NHS is an ugly state. It has been there for many people throughout the years offering a safe gateway into life – and one for departure from this life. It has shown me a leg fracture, bacterial infections from bites and helped me to stay inoculated. It has reinforced my immune systems, like many other people and kept my eyes in working order. During our junior years it has ensured that we all have the right access to care, that many people around the world cannot imagine. I wonder how many people take advantage or overlook this wonderful service. It can’t be taken for granted, yet many do just that.

The Conservative governments of old privatised many industries and denationalised many services. Profit always over community. Social care shrank under every Conservative government and not surprisingly people suffered. Financial despair piled onto an already overwhelmed mental healthcare network. Now, many could argue that the NHS mental health network is a collection of scattered national loose threads, waiting to be blown away by the next passing wind. Every link added is an example of tragic failure.

Typhoon Johnson is here. The vulnerable are not his concern. Status quo: an existing state of affairs which means more of the same. How things stand will be austerity and graveness as per the last decade of self-denial and scarcity given to a nation divided in more ways than one. Dividing people on issues of immigration and Brexit has won his party power. The foreigners and those who come to the UK for sanctuary are apparently to blame. Small numbers in a big pond, escalated to sell newspapers and destroy what little harmony in multiculturalism has been sewn over the decades. The tapestry is torn open to take plenty from an economy and ensure the few rich get ever richer and those at the bottom of the food chain remain just that.

Damian Green MP has announced plans for an insurance-based healthcare system. Nicky Morgan announced 50,000 new nurses (but it should take a decade), and that the government does not have a plan to stop swathes of NHS nurses leaving at present. Boris the Butcher Johnson started the Brexit campaign in front of a red bus with a slogan about taking back £350 a week from EU funding to be spent on NHS funding. Will there be any NHS left to receive this bullshit figure? Probably not. There are campaigns and investigations underway with a disturbing amount of strength to say that the NHS will be flogged. In 2018/19, almost two thirds of NHS jobs were farmed out. Ambulance service staff in Worcestershire are will be replaced by E-zec Medical Transport staff in April, according to numerous sources. Savage spending cuts instigated under David Cameron as Prime Minister in 2010 have kept on going. Many senior Conservative MPs have made profit from various sale of NHS aspects and deals. Conflict and interest? Just ask Dominic Cummings. Or smoke it all away.

Not content with shuffling Premier League football around, even Amazon are cashing in on our wanted data. The NHS has many examples of outsourced failures. There’s nothing like malnutrition and dehydration when you go to hospital! Mitie, a massive capitalist cleaning organisation spent £111 million to buy a home care division. Five years later it sold it to Apposite Capital for just £2. Yes, two lousy pounds. They blamed the minimum wage and local authorities for causing them losses. Serco, Allied Healthcare, Circle, Viapath, Arriva, Care UK, Horizon Health Choices, BMI Healthcare, Virgin Care, Capita, Concordia Health, Vocare, Coperforma, Greenbrook, and other such companies head a list of bastards threatening or damaging the NHS. 40 new hospitals were promised by Boris Johnson, but none are financially sound.

Oh, and as the landslide General Election winners crack on… The government is looking at ways to axe current environmental protection laws. Workers rights? They’re up for the chop too. Merry Christmas.


Your Christmas Gifts & Presents:

This year I have made a donation to Come Together Community in particular sponsoring my colleagues Gerry and James as they attempted and completed the gruelling Dongguan Marathon. Both are no strangers to distance runs having completed dozens of half-marathons and a few full marathons between them. Come Together Community (CTC) was set up to assist three local charities. They are Lanjing Ling (LJL) – 蓝晶灵, Zhuhai Autism Society (ZAS) – 珠海市自闭症办会 and the Charity promotion Association of Zhuhai (CPAZ) – 珠海市爱心促进会. Over the last five years CTC has raised and donated money both legally and transparently. It’s won awards too. Hundreds of underprivileged children and orphans around Zhuhai city in Guangdong province have benefited, as have their staff and supporters. CTC has a continual relationship supporting some of society’s most vulnerable people. Some of the events to raise funds include music events and much more. If you interested in donating, sponsoring or becoming a volunteer, click their website here. My second donation will go to Classroom in the Clouds, in expectation that I can hand drop some books in Nepal when I visit in January and February.

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr / Dhanyabaad / Alavidā

Comedy Prescription

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste

I Think, You Stink! written and directed by comedian Nick Helm was surprising for many reasons. Not least the warning about strobe lighting and strong language (swearing) but the acting and singing. The dancing too. Amongst the initial audience participation of the B-movie spoof romp, it became clear we the watchers were in for a treat. The 10th anniversary of Helm’s earlier joyous show, was far from dead. The hypno-vision and giggles made the show in Assembly Roxy fly by. The special effects were underwhelmingly overwhelming. Beasts, beauty and great vocals drove the drive-in show far and wide, concluding with a standing ovation. Catchy melodies delivered by great comedy vocalists and teamwork for a simple stage show. Oluwatayo Adewole gave it a 5-star in his review purely because his writing captures the energy that the acting team throw at the performance. Rob Kemp, Jenny Bede, Katie Pritchard and the stunningly seductive Sooz Kempner all can lead a show wonderfully. This wasn’t just a Nick Helm show. This a was a Premier League of talents working together. If only they could be in Parliament – then the tiresome Brexit and poison chalices being banded about may be sorted by a proper organised outfit.

“Dark and twisted, but strangely sweet in the middle” – Mail on Sunday

A few weeks back I watched a Billy Connolly celebration. At first it seemed like a memorial show and I started to panic, thinking The Big Yin was dead. Luckily the 76-year old comedy star, folk rocker and actor has not left the mortal life. The show was simply a festivity of his works – with the feelings experienced by those watching over the years. Billy & Me was touching and sweet but one moment stood out to me. Narrated by Surrane Jones, one viewer said she had been suffering from depression and the doctor prescribed comedy. By watching The Big Yin, for an hour a day, her condition approved. Having not watched as much comedy during the last few years (accessibility and time issues, are my makeshift excuse), I agree. Comedy is a good prescription for a period of time with monsters lurking at the foot of the bed. Nick Helm’s how did just that trick. The world became a brighter place. On that note look up Danny Wallace’s book on rudeness, I Can’t Believe You Just Said That: The truth about why people are SO rude. On reading that you’ll start to think a bit more.

The importance of reading, comedy and thinking for yourself have been amongst civilisations since the dawn of civilization. Anyway, if it makes you think and smile, without making someone else sad, upset or offended, then why not? Our mental health is important. Go on, find a prescription now.

“Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. After that who cares? He’s a mile away and you’ve got his shoes!” – Billy Connolly

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr / Dhanyabaad / Alavidā

J5: University Challenged

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do,

The Marine Biology field course arrived, and with my tooth being so painful I really struggled with the work.  I submitted an incomplete report, managed to attend all the trips, but really struggled to motivate myself for the work.  It was not all doom and gloom, as I met Nicola Brown, well kind of.  I was feeling something completely different.  Her vibrant smile met my eye. I barely spoke to her but could not stop thinking about her throughout the field-course.  I felt I had to get talking to her somehow, someway, someewhere but chance never came my way, my injured tooth ruling out possibilities, and my lack of confidence to talk with her.  I did find her name via a friend, Rob Palmer, who was also in her Marine Biology field course group.  Nikki, Lisa Bates, and Rob soon hung around together very often.

 

My own football would go well for me, post tooth-extraction.  Having only managed three university Dig’s league games, a 4-2 win where I hit the woodwork twice! A 2-1 win, here I bagged my first university strike in ages!  And, a 2-1 win where I had to come off as my head was killing me!  On the 18th of November me and Rob, went to see Scouse comedian, Jeff Green (From A-Z) live at the Art’s Centre.  As comedians go he was the bee’s knees!  Rob later gave me the live at the West End DVD for Christmas, equally wonderful!.  On Saturday the 20th of November, I was working behind the bar, my first full night of being in charge.  The place only bloody had a fire (in the lounge bar, not the function room we were working in).  Anyway, Jonathan (Buzza), me and the two bouncers evacuated the Club house even though we extinguished the first fire.  Sadly, the fire must have reignited whilst we had been clearing the building.  Before long the lounge bar was devastated!  A sad day for the football club, and its interior decorated in historical memorabilia. I remember the sad eyes of Rhun Owens, then-long serving and devoted club secretary when he arrived to the smouldering remains.

 

On the 27th of November my-then brief ex-girlfriend Lisa Bates held a video night at her house in Borth.  She had provided enough of a buffet spread to serve a Glastonbury crowd twice-over, alongside enough spirits and wine to provide Borth with a new pub.  There was at one tsage twelve people watching movies in her lounge.  By sleeping time, Claire and Paul had gone to use Lisa’s bed, Lisa had gone to her spare room, Nikki, Rob, Rich and I were camped in the lounge.  I fell asleep the soonest; shattered by incessant tooth pain.

 

The funfair used to arrive in Aberystwyth on the last two Mondays of November, and the first Monday of December.  Never-the-less, Nikki, Rob, Lisa, Louise, Laura and Wyn joined me for the final two Mondays.  The Crazy Mouse rollercoaster (it claimed to be the largest mobile rollercoaster in Europe) and the extremely high G-Force were brilliant but I enjoyed going on other smaller rides, usually with Nikki, who was the most daring of the group! Our group being who they are we went on some fairground stalls and won some raffles.  I won three Caterpillars (of which I asked Nikki to mind one) and Rob, Lisa, Louise, and Nikki all won cuddly toys ranging from unicorns to monkeys. I never had luck with these stalls, usually.

 

The 7th of December arrived.  The day the tooth was to be removed.  I was so nervous I couldn’t eat breakfast.  At 12pm, the dental surgeon/devil was deep into the process of making me feel as uncomfortable as possible.  I have to say, that day was one of the scariest days of my life.  Did it hurt?  IT BLOODY WELL DID!  Half hour of X-rays, 15 minutes of assessment, 10 minutes of numbing my jaw off, and the final quick extraction, followed by a click as a crack in the jaw slammed shut, alongside me fainting on the way downstairs, did not make for an entertaining day.  The headache I had upon to then, for at least 4 months vanished immediately, and I will admit I was a tad dazed, confused, and physically tired.  Mentally I was shattered, but that didn’t take much.  That day I was driven back to Aber, via Bangor City versus Aberystwyth Town’s games (shhhh!), after all I just wanted my own bed, and to get back to normal.  On arrival back into Aber, I went round to Nikki’s and chilled with her and Rob.  I didn’t want to be alone.  I wanted to see Nikki, and get a good hug!  The next day I missed the 1-2pm lecture, favouring sleep.  I was going to for a gentle stroll in the evening, but decided on going to training with Penparcau FC.  You know how it is.  That was the best three-hour evening session I’ve ever done.  In reality, I was back, back and ready to go.  After that session, Nikki came around and gave me the best hug I had ever had, lasting a good few hours.  For some unknown reason we watched Santa Clause 2, The Aristocats, and GCSE Bytesize until 4am.  I let Nikki use Nige’s room (whilst he was away) for some sleep, as I collapsed in bed.  On Thursday night, Nikki came around again, which was wonderful, as she is great company and really friendly lass.  Yet again we watched DVDs into the early hours, but this time the hug was more warmly, and the urge to kiss her became overpowering.  However, all the signs were there for a kiss, but I didn’t want to risk our friendship.  I mean I’d fancied her since I set eyes on her in September’s Marine Biology field course.  Hands were close, arms wrapped around each other, heads leaning by each other, cheeks rubbing, and eventually the courage came to share a kiss.

On Saturday, I played for Penparcau out in Llanrhystud, scoring a crucial extra-time goal, we won 5-2.  That evening Nikki invited me to her friend Krissey’s roast dinner.  We went all the way to Trawsgoed.  The journey was a pleasant drive through the backs and beyond of Welsh countryside.  An excellent meal cooked by Krissey and her boyfriend later, a long chat with Nikki’s mates Harvey and Deanna before setting off back to Aber under the cloudless black sky. On the Sunday I missed playing football for the UWA Greens in the Dig’s League.  I took Nikki for Sunday lunch at Harley’s.  Things felt amazing.  I mean I’ve had strong feelings before for particular ladies, but at that time it was off the Richter scale.  On Tuesday night, Nikki made me stir-fry at mine.  It certainly beat the pasta I made for her on Wednesday night!  Ah, Wednesday night, a night of torture in training.  A 20-minute beach shuttle-run session, and long jog just to punish players for not turning up to training, proved to tire me out.  I could feel the aches and strains long into the evening!  I always give my excuses in well before not turning up!  But still teams get punished not individuals, but it does make you feel a damn bit fitter!

On Friday we went out for Nikki’s birthday, dressed as angels and devils.  Naturally I’m an angel, so I fancied a change and was as a devil (even though I hate red!).  We started at Nikki’s flat drinking Taboo etc.  In the Academy we met Gav Allen and a few other footy lads.  Not many drinks later we arrived at a heaving Varsity, where I lost my white-chocolate-vodka-virginity.  Interesting drink, looks like Rhino semen, tastes like rubber-chocolate.  In the Cambrian we had a few cocktails, as Laura and Debbie chatted up the bar stewards.  One taxi journey uphill later, and into the Union we went.  Good old Move night, and a great night.  Eventually 12am came And Nikki turned 22.  An amazing night and the Union managed an extra half hour of Christmas songs post-bar-closing.  On Nikki’s birthday we went for a cooked-breakfast, and then we strolled up the seafront and generally enjoyed the day.  I cooked a pizza (cheating with pre-made bases this time!) and we watched a film, and then Match of the Day. A leopard can’t change spots for stripes.  On Sunday, we separated for awhile.  Nikki had to tidy her house, and I had to tidy mine.  On Monday morning Nikki went home (Cornwall!) and so did I – for Christmas!   Over the Christmas holidays, I was mostly working on my University project work, and ringing the land of pasties to see how Nikki was. The easy thing about being with Nikki was we both allowed time to get to know each other and never rushed into anything.  The hugs and kisses we shared made me tingle and feel wanted; something I cannot claim to have felt before sharing these special moments with Nikki.

I haven’t really described Nikki, but even if I did, so I might as well try to remember her bac k then.  Nikki was kind, caring, interesting, articulate, cheeky as a monkey, lovely, warm, gentle, and everything a dream about a great partner would contain.  Nikki spent a year away from University working in New Zealand and seemed an expert on there!  Nikki and I got on so well because our interests were alike, she loves comedy as much as I do (but she quoted Little Britain more than I cared for!).  She was sporty (plays netball, watches rugby etc), and I’m football crazy, football mad!  There were lots of things for us to do, see and learn, and at the time I believed Nikki would be the one! At one time I was a city boy, lost in its vastness and devoid of any feelings for someone, but in the town of Aberystwyth I fell for Nikki.  That secluded spot revealed that I was no longer concealed behind a window, peering out at the views below and across. For then, I was free from that prison, free to dream once more, free to feel hope and push aside fear.  I didn’t feel like the luckiest guy in Aberystwyth, more like the luckiest person on Earth, or maybe the Universe, because somebody believed in me and cared for me, in ways that I hadn’t experienced.

Regular phone talk of when we would see each other again, and desires for the day to arrive carried us through the Christmas period.  We had arranged to spend the New Year in Aber.  The last hours of 2004, and the first few of 2005 were to be spent in the Glengower.  New Year’s celebrations at The Glengower’s Western Night were quieter than we all anticipated, however with me and Nikki, Rob and Lisa, Laura and Wyn, and Susan it was a fun night.  I was content with spending those moments in Aber. Back home, my one-time secondary school friend Emma looked at a picture of Nikki.  Em accused Nikki of being just a pretty face, which wasn’t fair as Nikki had a great arse and lovely legs too!  Nikki departed Aber on the Bank Holiday Monday of the 3rd; the day Penrhyncoch Reserves beat Penparcau 2-1 (They did field four Cymru Alliance players and a Welsh Premier player! It was a hellish hard game.).  Nikki had to finish her family holiday away. At least at home in Cornwall, she could concentrate on revision without having Mr Procrastinator 2001-4 distracting her. My personal revision was chugging along slowly.  One exam was so mentally hard, because I had tunnel-vision and desired to read up on other subjects too. I’d even spent hours writing a season of ideas for Aberystwyth Town’s football programme. I was not cut out for studying… or focused…

TO BE CONTINUED