...and your stories too
There were two principal airlines in Laos during the early 70s – Lao Airlines and Royal Air Lao. Both flew old piston-engined planes, especially the rugged DC-3 and a DC-4 – until Lao Airlines bought a Vickers Viscount – a turbo-prop.
One week in February 1972 I needed to visit Savannakhet to find out more about the recording studio there – a joint venture between the Swiss Mission Evangelique and OMF. On the Friday of that week I was due to return on a Royal Air Lao flight that left for Vientiane around midday. (Mrs Roffe, a senior American missionary had arrived from Vientiane on the flight that morning.) I dutifully arrived to check in for my flight, but when I mentioned my intentions the staff at check-in laughed. They told me that when the plane had arrived in Saigon that morning on its way down it had to be towed in off the runway. ‘Nonn Saigon’ (sleeping in Saigon) was their comment… It would not be coming back.
Before long a number of other passengers had arrived also wanting to go to Vientiane. Under some pressure Royal Air Lao staff decided that they would re-route a flight going south to Pakse. But this announcement upset the Pakse-bound passengers – understandably. And so a compromise was found: we would all board the flight south to Pakse – and then the DC-3 would take us from Pakse to Vientiane. So that is what we did – we flew south, then unloaded and took on new passengers and finally set off around 7pm – with a few standing passengers – bound for Vientiane and arriving around 9pm (an unheard of time for commercial flights to arrive).
It was not until Sunday morning that I was aware of any plane crashing. An Air America pilot in church and his English wife came up to me and expressed such relief to see that I was alive. They were aware of my trip to Savannakhet, but had heard that the Royal Air Lao flight on Friday afternoon had gone missing – with all 23 people on board. And they thought I was among them. Praise God, I wasn’t!
If I am not mistaken it was on my way down to Savannakhet that same week that our departure from Vientiane was somewhat alarming. Laos was a land of surprises but on this occasion the surprise was more scary than uplifting (!). When we boarded the Royal Air Lao DC-4 for a late afternoon flight we had a shock as we entered the fuselage. Half the seats had been stripped out and in their place was a huge aero engine. A spare engine? It appeared that it was being taken to Saigon for servicing.
My seat was immediately facing the engine. When it came time for departure we taxi-ed out to the runway -but there was a problem with one of the four piston engines. It was misfiring and would not come up to speed as it went through its pre-flight check. The pilot decided to go back to the apron. There a technician was summoned to check it out – but in a few minutes gave the all-clear and waved us off. So we taxi-ed to the runway, held our breath – and succeeded in taking off. It was not very reassuring…!
Ever since I first set off for Laos straight out of university I have seen life as an adventure. Or perhaps more correctly as a set of adventures all strung together. Each had its own characteristics and each was quite different. Each brought a new challenge – and a hint of the unexplored. Each continent was different and each country – four in all – different again.
Even each time we have moved house has signalled the beginning of a new adventure.
It is now over 4 years since we left Cornwall after eight good years there. In some ways it felt like a foreign country even within England. It was quite a marked difference from Dorset where we lived before. On the plus side we have enjoyed having a bigger house at less cost. It has also been cheaper to live here. The countryside has been magnificent – especially when the waves of flowers bloom every spring – daffodils, snowdrops, primroses, rhododendrons, magnolia, camelias…etc… Breathtaking views, and the wonderful vivid colours of the sea have been remarkable. There has also been a real sense of community with life lived at a slower pace. People know each other and their neighbours and look out for them. On the downside it has been quite wet and windy, and too far away from family when it comes to visiting or dropping in to see our grandchildren.
So we moved – again. Not just a new location but a different lifestyle, especially as we faced retirement and the changes it brings – new neighbourhood, new people whom we have never met before. A new church – or churches. New things to be discovered…
It was time to move on and let another adventure begin…!
Now looking back it has been quite positive – will tell you more in due course…
It is not every day that one finds diamonds. But it is not every day that we lose them either!
But when one does find a diamond it brings unsurpassable pleasure… That has just been our experience this week!
The latest chapter in our ‘diamond saga’ began Sunday night. My wife, Hennie, looked shocked and held out her hand for me to see her ring finger. It was missing! The diamond from her engagement ring had been replaced by a glaring hole…! We commiserated with each other in silence
If this had been the first time in our 40 years of marriage it might have been more discouraging. But this was the third!
Made in Laos at the Vilayphone jewellers back in 1974 Hennie’s ring was in 18-carat gold – and the claws that held the diamond were the same.
Within a year or two we discovered, to our horror, that these claws were not strong enough to withstand any knocks. The diamond went missing in 1976 when we visited a friend’s house near Chicago one evening. But it was the reflected light that saved it as we searched for it out on the gravel drive around where Hennie had lifted baby Malcolm out of his baby buggy. In the darkness it reflected the light from the house.
It also got lost once in Manila when it got caught in the ice of the freezer. Not so hard to find maybe, but when we had it repaired we made sure that it was secure this time!
And now for the third time, 30 years later, it had happened again. But we were buoyed up by the knowledge that it had been lost twice already – and we had found it!
Sunday night we made a few basic searches in the hope (or was it conviction?) that it had fallen off in the house. But when we went to bed it was a feeling of great sadness that overcame us both. Besides, things always feel worse at night… We had searched a few obvious places – the car, the porch, Hennie’s gloves and coat, the chair where she had been sitting – but to no avail…
Monday morning came and thoughts started flooding my mind as I lay in bed. The dreadful realisation of the lost diamond surfaced quickly…. Where could it be? Applying some basic logic I concluded it was most likely to be somewhere where it would have been knocked out…. I decided the dishwasher must be a high priority if it stood a chance of being washed away… but no sign of it. The next place was the area where we take off our shoes and coats – inside the front door.
One by one I removed shoes, picked them up and shook them out. Then finally the shoe rack itself… What was left was a collection of dirt off the shoes…. So I got down on hands and knees to examine it…
And there it was – shining at me! Scooping it up I ran upstairs to share the discovery with Hennie who was still in bed… and her face lit up. We celebrated together!
Three times lost, three times found…! There is probably a parable in this – but it does put a new twist on the old marketing slogan (and James Bond movie) “Diamonds are forever!”
Perhaps like me you grew up with a particular image of Bali – that of grass-skirted dancing girls frolicking in the waves. But after several visits in the past 15 years I have not seen any.
But I did discover a more exciting side of Bali when I visited there in 2010. I was taking a day off from a training workshop, together with my colleagues – and we had a fabulous half-day adventure – on bicycles!
It went like this: we boarded a minibus that took us to the top of the volcanic Mount Agung. After a break at the fabulous restaurant with a magnificent view over the crater lake we mounted our bikes and basically freewheeled most of the way back to our starting point about 15 kms away.
On the way we had three stops. The first was to visit a coffee plantation where many varieties of premium coffee were on sale. Among these exotic varieties was reputedly the world’s most luxurious coffee – kopi luwak – which is among the most expensive in Paris and London. (Drinking a cup of luwak coffee was even on Edward Cole’s (played by Jack Nicholson) list in The Bucket List).
Seeing and hearing how luwak is made was quite educational. What gives it its rich, distinctive flavour is that the beans are eaten by the civet cats – and then excreted. But there is more to it than that because the beans are carefully roasted and then the male and female beans are separated – but I can’t remember which supposedly makes the best coffee…
After drinking a mug of kopi luwak we felt sufficiently energised to continue our downhill trail – our next stop being a village where we were shown around a walled family compound. This small compound contains the houses of the close-knit family together with the shrines of their respective gods. It became
clear that traditional Balinese live out their lives in a strong Hindu culture and enjoying close family relationships bounded by strong traditions and loyalties. We also saw the pigs which they enjoy keeping – and eating. In this regard they are quite distinct from the predominant Muslim culture that dominates much of Indonesia.
Finally we set off on our last leg which took us past the paddy fields. For hundreds of years these Balinese have enjoyed a carefully planned and controlled irrigation system that channels water down the mountain filling and flooding sequential levels of rice paddy.
Further down the mountain the women were out in force reaping and processing the first harvest of the year. It was a brilliant example of a community working together as they tirelessly moved together from field to field reaping and threshing the rice.
They filled sacks with the fresh rice and then divided these bags equally between them – either to keep or to sell as they chose.
A most exhilarating morning that got us back in time for a late lunch. Give it a try!
…is always the longest. A familiar saying, but one that I am always reminded of whenever I visit the Philippines. I have usually come half way around the world to do so, except that this time it was just a local trip – from Manila to Davao.
According to my air ticket the flight on a modern Airbus A319-200 should have only taken one-and-a-half hours. It was just a little late departing Manila Terminal 2 so the prognosis was good for a near-schedule arrival. But it was not to be: the weather intervened not just once – but twice.
The ride began to get quite bumpy. Oh dear! this could get tricky I thought… A PA announcement advised us that we would have to start circling awaiting for the weather to clear. Violent turbulence threw us around and a heavy sense of unease settled. We scrambled for barf bags to pass to families with young children who were struggling. Anxiety crept in as the minutes ticked by. I was beginning to wonder what kind of landing we might anticipate – and weighed our chances of success. The Distance to Destination figure went down – then up again – many times over. This persisted for at least 45 minutes – then I saw we were gaining height – from 9000 ft to 11000 – then up to 13000. The air grew calm as we gained altitude. Very soon the captain announced we were heading back to Cebu. Cheers went up as a visible sign of relief.
Back in Cebu all we could do was wait. The plane was refuelled. Passengers got out of their seats to head for the loo…. The level of energy was palpable. Around 10pm it was time to depart. We took off and headed south – again – this time with increased optimism. Peanut snacks were distributed again, and water poured. 35 minutes later the undercarriage went down and we touched down in Davao without glitch.
In the terminal we collected our bags then headed outside to hail a cab… It was 11pm and still raining. To our dismay there was hardly a cab in sight…. What was the story?
Stoic Filipinos were also waiting – and taking it all in their stride. No complaining or grumbling. That was amazing. One young businessman who stood behind me in the queue explained that the problem we now faced was that no taxis could get to and from the airport because of severe flooding outside… We would have to wait…
Finally, after another hour had passed, a cab arrived – and I was next in the line. I took it, agreeing to pay twice what it said on the meter… We were on our way! But not so fast. The young driver inched the car forward explaining that there were floods up ahead. Would I mind taking a detour? he asked. We continued to inch forward, passing some on the inside and others on the outside – then finally turning up a side road as gushing water poured out of culverts. An hour later – just on 1am – we arrived at the guest house. It was just ten-and-a-half-hours after leaving my Manila hotel.
Nothing spectacular – but it was special to me… It was billed as the longest bike ride I have done in many years, and easily the longest since we moved here to Gloucestershire early in 2012. A few weeks ago I had decided that July 11th was the day I was going to do a sponsored bike ride. It was for a good friend who will shortly be moving to the Philippines for a year. What could I do? My knees are not very good, nor is my hip, but I did have a bicycle in the garage and was just waiting for a challenge!
One problem we face in England is that the weather is never predictable. Set a date in advance and you don’t really know what weather you will get. Summer had finally arrived and the week was set to be fine and sunny – but it was getting hotter by the day! That was both good news and bad news – unless I planned an early start.
I had been making my list of things to do and things to take – and the night before, I packed my rucksack – snacks, bottles of drink, sticky plasters, towel, camera and other odds and ends. My tyres were inflated to a good pressure, and my digital device set and checked to record how far I would go…After a good night’s sleep I couldn’t wait to get started…
A few minutes to 7am and I was off! My wife was still in bed, but a neighbour across the road waved me good bye. It was the very best of weather – a clear sky, but still cool at 12 degrees C. Invigorating! Within 5 minutes I was crossing Sodbury Common. A morning jogger passed me (coming the other way!) and we exchanged greetings. I was in the process of meeting up with a whole new fraternity of keep-fit fanatics and sport enthusiasts, mostly cyclists with far more elaborate gear than I had…
My guidelines suggested that I stop for a break every 30 minutes. My 25 minutes to Horton was therefore a good time to stop, take a picture or two, do a travelogue Tweet (with picture), have a drink, consult my map – and then continue in a northerly direction. This was new territory and I looked forward with great anticipation.
It was beautiful in that low, early morning light. The greens were brilliant, the birds were singing as the gentle breeze made the long grass and wild flowers bow gently in its caress. Aaaah! How privileged I felt. Could it get any better? Surely there has to be a God who has made everything so exquisitely beautiful!
The cycling was tough in places and I was thankful for my 12-speed – but sometimes got caught out going from a steep downhill to a steep incline that awaited me just around a blind corner…
Cows always look so contented and philosophical about life. They viewed me cautiously as I advanced with my camera – and agreed to have their pictures taken! In the next village I was greeted by a barking dog, soon to be retrieved by its owner – and just across the road from one of those classic old, red telephone kiosks… And then on my bike again heading west toward Wickwar. It was still around 8am and people were heading off to work. the traffic was busy as I waited at the traffic lights.
I was following the Avon Cycleway (410) which generally avoided traffic and people. The roads were generally quiet, lined with beautiful houses and cottages built in that warm beige Cotswold stone. Very soon I had to go north along a fairly busy road so I took to the pavement (also known as the sidewalk) to avoid heavy tankers that passed within inches. It was a relief to turn off the busy road and enjoy the tranquility. More bikers passed me going the other way. We waved…
Very soon I figured I was just about halfway. I paused and stopped for some refreshment as my route took me over the M5 motorway bustling and noisy with trucks heading north. It was tempting to take a rather superior view – that I had found something better.
That was the furthest point and I turned south to head towards home. As it happened I missed a turning so this extended my trip by a few miles, putting me on to busy roads but more familiar territory as I neared home.
When I got home just before 11am I learned that only one of my photo tweets had got through – possibly due to lack of 3G coverage in the countryside.
What a fabulous morning! Not much sweat, no sunburn, plenty of exercise and fresh air – and heaps of lasting images. I share some of them here. Who knows, but I may find myself doing it again!
Adventures continue. Three weeks ago it was Phnom Penh, two weeks ago it was Manila, but now is the time for a bit of local exploring.
It was our anniversary yesterday and Hennie and I went for a walk in the nearby countryside. The Cotswold hills pass close to where we live so we went out to indulge. Brilliant sunshine eluded us and we endured some light rain, but that did not dampen our enjoyment.
First we were enchanted by the horses that seemed to crave our love and attention. Hennie did not disappoint. We stood and watched as they ate their way through the luscious grass and flowers in the meadow. They love that stuff! Amazing that such beautiful creatures should develop from eating such basic and simple food – and also derive so much pleasure from it, we commented.
Walking further we found ourselves being closely scrutinised by a contented bunch of cows lazing in the afternoon sun. They looked both intensely curious, but also extremely happy. They too had been eating that same butter-cup enhanced grass. Amazing that they should be enjoying the very same diet as the horses and eating it with great relish – yet they turn out completely different from the horses. Meanwhile the cat back home only eats grass when it wants to throw up…! There has to be a profound mystery there!
A short distance away was Little Sodbury where William Tyndale in the early 16th century tutored in the manor house. It was also there that he studied and received a call from God to undertake the translation of the Bible into English – so that even the ploughboy would have the opportunity to read God’s word and discover the Truth which would otherwise be kept hidden from him as long as it remained in Latin. No doubt this was some of the same countryside that he also walked and was inspired by. If only the old trees could talk!
Much joy is often derived from the totally unexpected. Such was my experience when I learned that I would be flying in a Comet 4 jet plane when I flew back to Laos via Thailand in 1971.
The previous day had been quite hectic. I was getting anxious because I had not received any word about my air ticket. Weeks earlier I had answered an ad in a national newspaper offering cheap flights to Bangkok. Now it was Monday and the date for my departure was Wednesday – but where was the ticket? In all my phone calls I had been told to call back later.
Then finally at 4 o’clock I was told “Your ticket is here! Please come and pick it up.” It meant catching a train to London and getting there before the office closed! Could I make it? I would try… Happily it was one of those days when things fell into place. I took a fast train which covered the 40 miles in record time and soon I was seated in the office of Expo International. Someone came over to me and gave me my ticket then proceeded with careful instructions. My membership card showed that I was now a member of The Jet Set (!). I was told that I needed to present this tomorrow when I arrived at the counter in Gatwick.. “Tomorrow? Are you sure? I thought I was leaving Wednesday…” An apology followed, saying they must have forgotten to tell me that I was now leaving a day earlier than planned. Ooops! My plans for some last-minute shopping tomorrow had to be shelved. I phoned my Dad from the station to ask for a lift home and advise him of the change of plans…
Tomorrow came and we set off for Gatwick early. I said goodbyes not knowing how long before I would return home (it proved to be nearly two years once again…). And then came the all-important check-in which had to be done right. I was a bit nervous about it as it was the time when we were hearing about police swoops on phoney “groups” who were getting cheap travel… (What, me?!).
I approached the counter and presented my papers together with my Jet Set card. It seemed to be working! In return the girl gave me my Dan-Air boarding pass and yet another membership card. This one certified me as a member of the Commonwealth and North Atlantic Teachers Association. No problem pretending – if challenged…I thought.
And then came the surprise: we would be flying on a Comet 4 jet plane. I couldn’t believe it! One of the world’s most iconic planes at that time – famous for the catastrophic crashes of earlier versions (which did not bother me at all). The passenger sitting next to me was carrying another membership card which I found mildly amusing.
The photo above is one that I did not know I had. I just found it this week while scanning old negatives of that period. Further investigation reveals that this particular plane – with registration G-APDB – was in fact the first jet passenger plane to cross the Atlantic. It is now to be found on display at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford – but now re-painted in BOAC livery. I shall have to go and visit it some day…
I find a degree of sympathy for Bill Clinton as he struggled during his 1992 presidential campaign to suppress rumours of having smoked pot. Except for me the challenge was not inhaling pot — but opium…. It happened like this…
Upon my return to Laos in 1971 I lodged for a time with a generous Canadian family who occupied a large house in the centre of Vientiane. Outhouses had been renovated and a pair of us single fellows – the other was from Thailand – occupied two of these upstairs rooms.
The arrangement worked just fine for me and I was glad to have the opportunity for joining in the life of the family and playing with their four younger children.
The day began with breakfast which was always a challenge as I became accustomed to new foodstuffs while experiencing the drama of eating in the company of small children who provided constant lively entertainment – and education!
As an early bird I normally had no trouble getting started at the beginning of the day. But it soon became apparent that I was struggling. In fact I often felt quite whoozy in the mornings – as soon as I woke up. Strange! The children made fun of me when I came down to breakfast…
I also realised that there was a strange smell in my room. It was a distinctive sweet, sickly smell. Some mornings it was stronger than others… I became curious.
At one end of my room opposite the door was a window with iron bars and mosquito screen. The window did not afford a view because it was backed up against another building. But as I looked down through the bars to the floor below I could make out just enough to see men sitting around a small flame with their pipes.
Opium addicts! It was their smoke that was wafting upwards into my bedroom – and I was getting their leftovers!
My Canadian friends had a good laugh when I told them. I also told my Lao friend who was a policeman and he came round to check out my story. Opium dens were illegal so he soon got onto the case – and the opium smell went away.
Vientiane was a constant source of interesting stories – like the friend who couldn’t figure out why her hotel room had a strong smell of cats – only to learn that the previous occupant had kept a tiger…! But that’s another story!
As we grow up we develop our own philosophies of life – mechanisms for coping with the various challenges we will face in the path ahead.
Making life difficult for myself was one of those philosophies. I am not sure what prompted it – but it soon became a way of life when I went to Laos as a still 21-yr-old. I needed to toughen myself up for some of the eventualities that might befall me.
This was life at a different level with few luxuries. It was a war zone in the late 1960s. Life was cheap, and the kidnapping of foreigners quite a frequent event. Some got killed, others had their throats cut – but survived. If you encountered a burglar in your house, we were warned, don`t resist – else they might kill you! (`Who would want to kill me?` I asked).
That was the backdrop.
My philosophy was this: If I can make myself do difficult things now – voluntarily – it will be so much easier to do them when forced… Lurking at the back of my mind was the sense that one day I might be captured (as some of my friends had been) – but how would I handle that? Better to prepare oneself now…
Endurance was possibly the easiest of ways for making life difficult. It was one way of discovering one’s limits. Besides, if you have never done something before how can you know?
One such crazy endurance test was this – walking across Bangkok. It was not something I had planned (these events never were) but something that came about because of circumstances. Happily I had more time in those days. My walk across town began down in one of the sois off Sukhumvit Road. In those days Bangkok was badly affected by flooding at high tide. The khlongs had been filled in so there was little place for the water to go when it rained. It backed up into the streets. I took my shoes and socks off, rolled up my trousers and started wading through the water to get to the main road – Sukhumvit. Soon a taxi stopped to give me a ride. I waved it on. A few minutes later and it happened again. The more taxis I turned down the easier my resolve to keep walking.
And walking… Happily I have a good sense of direction. I was heading for the north side of town where I was staying in a Guest House.
In the process of walking I discovered a side of Bangkok I had never encountered before when riding buses and taxis. With a very basic understanding of the language it posed few fears. On top of it all I was saving myself some money…. These were all part of the justification for continuing. Soon i was relishing the sense of achievement by being able to tell people of my achievement.
It was just around 6pm when I arrived back at the Guest House just in time for dinner – a 6-hour adventure! Now I know how big a city it is!