Chiangmai, Singapore, Zurich .... the road home......

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February 24th 2020
Published: March 14th 2020
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It's a Monday morning in Chiangmai ...... and my last Monday here for this trip. The sands of time are visibly running out now and each day is precious. How shall I fill it? Well, Monday morning was filled with finishing off my last blog and downloading photos. I sat under the old house and had good company from the dogs. Nui was watering her garden and Kong was tidying up the empty rooms. The only guests this week are me, Ronda ( who leaves on Wednesday) and Richard who is a long term resident. The water on one side of the house (where Ronda and I are staying) has been turned off as a crack developed in a pipe last night, and a water feature was created behind the building! So the sisters are waiting for a plumber, and in the meantime we have many loos and showers to choose from in the empty rooms on the other side of the house. " Thank goodness it didn't happen last week when Baan Songjum was really full". A neighbour drops off some freshly made pow ( white buns with a savoury filling) and that makes a good mid morning snack. At last I've been sitting around for long enough and all the words are written, so I walked along the road and had a manicure. I notice that the manicurist is carefully wiping all her tools with alcohol, as she sits next to me. Special measures put in place because of Coronavirus . I don't have nail varnish, just a nice shape and oiled and buffed nails. Such a treat. Afterwards I crossed the road and walked over the iron bridge to the other side of the river. There are plenty of fishermen along the river bank. A wander along familiar streets, and then back over to my side over the footbridge and a coffee and a chocolate brownie to wile away the time while my phone downloads some photos onto the blog I've just finished. Later that evening I set off on foot to Dash restaurant in the Old City where this month's Book Group will meet in a private back room. There are only six of us ( including Dorothy and Lisa) and I know the other women too. we've read The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. I probably wouldn't have read it if it hadn't been for book group. I'd assumed it was a rehash of the themes in The Handmaid's Tale, and I thought I'd had enough of that. But it was well thought out and well written and gave us plenty to discuss. The meal was good too. My favourite here is the yam nest containing stir fried vegetables. Janet, an American woman who is packing up her home and moving to Spain to live, brought along lots of books to give away. There were several there I'd like to have taken, but I know my luggage is going to be a challenge, so I took photos of the covers and planned to read them another time. I did pick up a novel set in Mandalay for Nui, as she hopes to be meeting a friend there in October. After book group I walked with Lisa as far as Tha Pae Gate, and then hurried home. The streets are softly lit but it feels safe. At Baan Songjum everyone has gone to bed and all is quiet.

On Tuesday I walked to the Eco Lodge for a last swim. Such a treat to be swimming in the open air.... and warm. I'm afraid I'm not a cold weather swimmer.... no breaking the ice for me! I called in at the Hill Tribe shop nearby to buy a few gifts and something for blue-ginger customers , and then went to have lunch at I Luv Sushi, where they made a fuss of me, but were disappointed when I told them that it's my last meal there until next year. Upin came around at about six o'clock and gave me a foot massage a Thai body massage and then a coconut oil massage. Totally relaxed I just drifted off to sleep.

Oh dear.... now it's Wednesday and my last day here. I had a lovely fruit breakfast (papaya , mandarin orange and banana). I sorted out a pile of well worn clothes to abandon in Chiangmai ... to make room for other things. I've got 3 kilos of chilli garlic and 2 kilos of toasted chilli cashew nuts to take home! Ronda has finished her packing and we exchange contact details just in case our paths should cross in the future. I spend an hour just fussing and cuddling the dogs. Frankie is much happier when there are only people he knows around him.

" What are you going to do today," ask Nui and Kung. Well, I'll make a last foray out and buy some things to take home. So I walk up to Tha Pae gate. There's a young Thai/Canadian shopkeeper there. I bought some things from him last year, and he's good at telling me exactly where everything has come from : earrings, necklaces and bracelets and handmade cards. Throwing caution to the winds I also buy two wooden elephant string puppets from Mandalay. They'll fit in with our opening exhibition of 'Jungle'. Last-day-in-Chaingmai panic is descending on me like a cloud. I had to walk up to the other side of the old city and say goodbye to Jo at The Meeting Room Gallery before I left Thailand. I haven't seen as much of him this year as the gallery has moved to the other side of town. I crossed the square at Tha Pae Gate. It's usually crowded with tourists feeding the pigeons and posing for photographs against the backdrop of the old brick walls. But today the pigeons have the square more or less to themselves. The Lack of Chinese tourists is really beginning to become apparent.

Jo was delighted to see me. It's going to be a tough year ahead. I'm well aware of my weight limitations but I love sculptor Luka's scrap metal animal music boxes. 'Oops .... there we are .... I've bought three elephants to take back for the Jungle exhibition.' Jo wrapped them up in bubble wrap and now I've got a huge parcel to take back! His assistant took some photos of us in the gallery. There's a woodcut print on the wall behind that I'd really like. I promise myself that I'll buy it if it's still there next year.

I walked back through the old city to my side of the river. The bag of purchases was a bit heavy, but I wanted to enjoy the journey just one more time. A bit hot and sweaty , so I decided to treat myself to a lunch in Woo Cafe.Back at Baan Songjum I packed my suitcase and put the precious money boxes and breakable Japanese second hand shop ceramics into the bag Dorothy had let me borrow for hand luggage.

On my final evening at Baan Songjum I traditionally go out for dinner with Nui and Kung. We set off for our new favourite Japanese Restaurant 'I Luv Sushi', and just as we all spotted a perfect parking place outside the British Council, we all noticed that the restaurant across the road was shuttered and in darkness. There's a chorus of disappointment from us all. Different businesses have different closing days in Chiang Mai , so Wednesday must the the day for the sushi restaurant . It doesn't take long for a recalculation and Kung is speeding through the streets to find the new location for Le Lapin, a pizza restaurant that used to be nearby by and has moved. We arrived , parked and went in to the shiny new premises . It didn't have the atmosphere and decor of the old place but the food was just as good. We were lucky as they told us they'd planned to close that evening but had got a booking from a large French group. Lucky for us that we were able to order and were already tucking into our scrummy seafood pasta dishes when the the restaurant exploded with the exuberance of the French group and their Thai translator. Scraping of chairs and clinking of wine glasses gave a festive background to our own celebratory meal.

Next morning we had last hugs and waves and I set off to Chiangmai airport in a taxi. I left early because I didn't want to get stuck in the morning traffic jams and the extra security at the airport due to coronavirus health and safety measures. But we were soon there, no traffic problems. I spotted Dorothy who had also over compensated for the journey time. We checked our luggage in and then went to the departure gate, through immigration and security and into an empty departure lounge. Chiangmai isn't a very big airport and it's usually pretty busy. We settled down to talk and while away the time until our flight, with a sea of empty blue seats in front of us. The coffee shop owner told us that this week the number of passengers has been down by 90%. Eventually we got on the sparsely populated plane and took the 3 hour journey to Singapore. It's always a bit of a surprise that it's so far, but we are in the North of Thailand and have to fly the length of Thailand and then the length of Malaysia before reaching Singapore.

Changi Airport Terminal 1 was an eerie vast expanse of arrival corridors. We were ushered through a different channel from usual which looked like a hand baggage security check, but they were obviously not interested in our bags and I believe this was the temperature scanner. They are able to filter out anyone with a higher temperature than normal and check for the virus. We passed through that and on to Immigration. I've never gone straight through to an Immigration Officer without waiting in a long queue. Big bottles of hand sanitiser on the desks. They were carefully checking our addresses in Singapore and how we could be contacted. The best antidote being alcohol, we swiftly bought a bottle of gin and a bottle of port for our hostess Kathy and collected my luggage from the empty arrival hall and static baggage carousels. No queue for the taxis either, and only a choice between two large executive people carriers. Singapore is definitely quiet. Dorothy and I both wonder at the abundance of vegetation, the purple and white bougainvillea blossom cascading over the central reservation barriers, the feeling of order and cleanliness. Our luxury taxi speeds through the streets, deposits us outside Kath's block and relieves us of twice the normal taxi fare.

They must have heard our noisy exit from the lift because the door is open before we've had a chance to ring the bell. Kathy is the hub for our 'Singapore Ladies' in Singapore, and Jane is already here too. She's flown in from Sydney, and it's a while since she's been in Singapore. So we had a lot of chatting and catching up to do. Lucky for us, Ausaf had left Kathy with lots of curries in the freezer when he and Gail were there back in January. So we just had to pop some rice in the rice cooker and defrost some curry and daal and catch up with a gin and tonic.

Next day Kathy had a hospital appointment so Dorothy, Jane and I went out to explore old haunts. After a coffee in Holland Village we caught a bus down to Orchard Road. I come to Singapore regularly , but it's such a different architectural skyline from when we lived there in the 70's and 80's. We went to a food court at basement level and had a hard time choosing which well-remembered and delicious favourite to have. Just had to have a spicy, coconut bowl of laksa lemak. There seemed to be quite a few people having lunch there, but I don't know how busy it usually is. Up on ground level it was a different story and the the streets and shopping centres were uncannily quiet. I bought some prescription sunglasses for driving . I had my eyes tested and just had to wait for an hour for the glasses to be ready.

Overwhelmed with the luxury window-shopping experience , we called into a specialist tea shop in Takashimaya. I remember going there for lunch many years ago with my mother-in-law. We'd intended to have pots of specialist tea, but the tea-infused ice cream and sorbets distracted us. A good choice.... and it was absolutely delicious. Indian Night Tea with spices, vanilla and caramel was the best.

Next day we sent Dorothy off on the Singapore train system to meet up with her son Matthew who was in Singapore for job interviews.We went in search of coffee at Clementi Mall, and had some local 'Kopi O' and a kaya toasted sandwich. A trip to the supermarket meant I could buy some rendang spices, chicken rice and laksa lemak to take to Gill in Switzerland. Back to Kath's for a rest, and then another dip into Ausaf's curries to produce dinner for the evening, when old friends Kay and Karunna came over for dinner. Karunna also worked at Dover Court school in Singapore with us all those years ago. We always find ourselves going over the same stories about the people associated with the school and it provides hours of entertainment. Their son Dev and his wife have just had a baby girl so we were very lucky that they could come along.

The next day was Sunday, and I felt the need to do a bit of walking to counteract all the eating. So after our usual breakfast of papaya and lime juice (my favourite) I left everyone and walked down to the end of the street where I could jump on a bus to the Botanical Gardens. It's so much bigger than it used to be, and is so well tended these days. Lots of lovely walks down shady pathways and a surprising number of people about. I enjoyed seeing all the sculptures and the well documented trees and plants. As midday approached it just got too hot to be walking around , and I made my way back to the bus stop and went back to Kathy's. In the afternoon we all went to the local hairdressers , which is really THE BEST EVER. They really give the best head, neck and shoulder massage while they are shampooing your hair and it's hard not to moan and groan with pleasure ( which causes great hilarity in the salon!)

In the evening we took a taxi to the Miyabi Japanese restaurant at the Raffles Town Club where we met my mother-in-law and other family members for a sumptuous and entertaining dinner. Our personal chef cooked each course in front of us on a hot griddle, with deft wrist movements and fine chopping .

The next day I had packing to do ( yet again!) and this time I had to discard a few items of clothing and books and my Kindle, to keep the luggage within weight limits. We all went to Holland Village for a lunch in the market and a bit of a wander around the shops. I went to the bank ATM and was surprised that I had to use hand sanitiser and fill in a form giving details of my movements and where I could be contacted before I could draw money out of the machine. And in the evening we went to the excellent Chinese restaurant at the bottom of Sunset Avenue..... a last meal for me. Dorothy and Jane were leaving later the next day, but my Swiss Air flight was leaving at 5 minutes past midnight, so technically the next day. So .... once again time to say goodbye, and get into a taxi to the airport. This time I was leaving from the long haul terminal so it was a bit busier, although of course many flights have been cancelled.

My flight arrived in Zurich in the early morning, at about 6.30am. I was surprised at how speedy my exit was, and the lack of health checks or finding out where I was going. Switzerland seemed very relaxed about the virus, although Gill thought they were scanning the passengers for fever temperatures on arrival. My friends Gill and Walter were waiting in Arrivals, and I apologised for getting them up so early in the morning, especially as were now in the morning traffic jams. I was surprised to realise that it's about 20 years since I've visited them ..... they always come and see me in Cradley.

We had breakfast and then Gill and I walked to the bakery and the butcher in the village. Everywhere so neat and tidy. But they haven't had any snow this year. Far from the village you can see a mountain range, peppered with snow.We pottered around and went to see Gill's studio in the garden of son Martin's garden apartment ( Gill is a painter)But due to illness she hasn't spent much time there lately. In recent months Gill and Walter have inherited a beautiful black Labrador called Finlay. He's two years old and pretty well behaved, so we went for a walk with him on the paths just outside the village.We came across a big tidy barn, with doe-eyed Swiss cows munching happily on their fodder.

After lunch we took another stroll with Finlay, had an early dinner and then settled down on the comfortable sofa, watching BBC quiz programmes. Swiss Walter always knows all the answers! My eyelids began to feel heavy, and I just thought I'd rest them , just for a minute. Next thing I knew- Gill was waking me up, giving me a hot water bottle and sending me off to bed. Jet Lag had won!

The next day we went into Zurich. There was a little more concern about the Coronavirus in the Swiss press today, as they've found their first sufferers and Italy was beginning to kick off. It's only just over the border. But no-one saying to isolate and Gill had tickets for the Van Gogh light show in Zurich. So we drove to Zurich and had lunch in the restaurant where Martin is a chef. It was busy, well-organised and the food was good. A lovely salad and bread and then really delicious desserts. I had the chocolate one ( well... this is Switzerland) Walter left us and we went off to the Van Gogh light show. Huge screens around darkened spaces, showing Van Gogh's work and some showing small details and movement in the paint. Brush strokes were very evident. A great way to view his work. We went back to Afoltern by train and then walked back to Obfelden village. It was crisp and cold. The grey sky seems huge after Thailand and Singapore, and the landscape spreads for miles, ending in those dramatic snow capped mountains on the horizon . I managed to stay awake a bit longer this evening.

Next day was rainy and misty. We took Finlay for a long walk. The mountains weren't in evidence today , shrouded in grey rainclouds. Walter drove us to a gallery called Foundation Beyeler , near Basel. The town was very pretty, and I hope I can go back another time of year. As it was, the rain was coming down and we hurried to the exhibition. There were several paintings I'd never seen before. They have a haunting, abandoned sadness about them. There was a brilliant film about Hopper's work "Two or Three Things I Know about Edward Hopper". The audience sat with 3D glasses on all the way through. It was very effective and helped to understand the paintings. The collection consisted of 60 paintings , usually only on view in the USA and focussed on his landscapes .

Views from the huge glass windows of the gallery were spectacular- even on such a damp dark day. Back at the house, and daughter Nuala came for dinner, and then Martin came after he'd finished work. We had Raclette for dinner, a cheese dish indigenous to Switzerland and the delicious melted cheese dripped onto potatoes. Millions and trillions of calories! I think I may have just replaced all the ounces I'd lost in the last two months.

My flight back to Birmingham was the next afternoon. In the morning we took Finlay for his walk and then went to look around the beautiful town of Zug. I remember coming here when my children were little. I have memories of toddler Kenji staggering over the cobblestones in his denim dungarees. The town was very quiet and there was a storm warning over the lake. It's such a quintessentially charming town of quirky Swiss buildings and Walter tells me it is the richest town in Switzerland.I was getting a bit anxious about getting back home. Switzerland was just beginning to crank up their health and safety and numbers of Coronavirus sufferers in Italy, just across the border, were beginning to escalate. The Swiss government announced the cancellation of any gathering of over 1000 people.Stories of British shoppers panic buying toilet rolls and hand santizers were on the internet. Gill and Walter took me to the airport, and I checked in for my flight to Birmingham.

Arriving in Birmingham, everything seemed strangely surreal. No mention of the virus, or hand washing or self isolation or even " Where have you come from?" Outside the airport carpark was fairly deserted. Is it usually like this on a Friday evening?

A strange end to my time away this year. Just collect Lottie from her holiday home with Dave and Tutu, and settle down for a bit of isolation at Home End Farm. At least I've got Lottie-dog to talk to! Feel that I've left an ordered and 'safe' Singapore for a bit of a wildcard / in denial UK. The future changes shape by the day.

Stevie in Japan , where the schools are closed, and he's doing his MA on line, is worried that I'm more at risk in the UK. Kenji is an artist in residence at Mustarinda, an Artists' retreat in Northern Finland. Not sure how he's going to get back to the UK at the end of his month of residency.

I have an exciting new exhibition coming to blue-ginger with some fabulous pieces of artwork : JUNGLE collated by Tamsin Abbott. We're setting up next week. These are uncertain times and it's more important than ever that we support each other and celebrate the joy of friendship. So I'll raise a glass to all those friends in Singapore, Thailand, Switzerland , here in the UK and all around the world.

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