Excerpts from some of my published travel stories


    Luang Prabang, the royal capital of the fairytale kingdom of Laos, is an enchantingly quiet town, dozing in ancient splendour on the confluence of the majestic Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers.This tiny city, which has been UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995, neither teems with excitement nor seethes with intrigue. Life flows slowly here, like the lazy, muddy Mekong. Most of the locals are asleep by 10pm; they are a gentle, humble people who accept the mysteries of life without necessarily needing to understand them.



    From the minute our plane touched down in Malta, I felt surrounded by familiarity – and my parents. Nearly every doorway in the capital, Valetta, boasted a shiny brass doorknocker, some were fashioned in the familiar shape of a dolphin, just like the doorknocker that my father had brought back from Malta in the 1950s. It had graced the front door of every house that we had lived in since and I remember my dear old Dad lovingly polishing it on Sunday mornings. I recognized the handmade Maltese lace; it was the same as the lace cloths that had adorned the tables in the houses where I grew up. Lorrie and I stayed in a tacky hotel but it didn’t matter. The tacky aspects of Malta are all connected with tourism and didn’t exist in the days when my family lived there. Even now, the island’s staunchly Roman Catholic culture has helped the Maltese maintain a tight-knit community and control on run away development.


    The late afternoon sun was casting strange shadows across the parched angular hills and there appeared to be no sign of life on the long narrow beach that almost completely circumvented the wide bay, the crater of an ancient volcano, in which we had anchored.  We were about to penetrate a tiny island that, due its fearsome residents, had been a former place of banishment for transgressors of the law. As we disembarked from our dinghy, I was struck by an eerie sense of desolation. However, I noticed with amusement that we were not alone, hundreds of tiny hermit crabs in a multitude of stolen homes of varying size, colour and design, were dancing between my feet close to the water’s edge.  But the tension in the atmosphere remained, despite further evidence of life as a lone figure came to greet us.


    That night I gazed at the stars. At an altitude of 900 metres with no streetlights or pollution, they appeared to be brighter, bigger, closer and clearer; their colours enhanced by the soft black velvet sky. The next morning, I got up at 6.30 to watch the sunrise over the mountains before the mist descended. I was mesmerised by the rosy pink hues reflected on the snow.  And I gazed enthralled as, one by one, all of the peaks in the 140-kilometer Himalayan panorama lit up, and turned to gold. This touch of Midas was life enriching, I felt wealthier than ever before.


    Pulsating with pungent aromas and frenetic activity, the old city was chaotic, crowded, colourful and so noisy! People were shouting, children were crying, horns were blaring, tinny bicycle bells were ringing, and loud Hindi music was emanating from every balcony. A little girl, wearing a sari, was washing a silver teapot in a storm drain, street-side cooks were frying chapattis, and ponies were pulling carts laden with fresh fruit and alien-looking vegetables. A fat, arrogant ‘gentleman’ was loafing on the seat of a pedal rickshaw that was being frantically propelled by a skinny shirtless man, his assistant was running in front, attempting to clear the way and expecting everyone to move aside and allow them to pass. Only the sacred cows, however, had the real right of way, complacently holding up the traffic as they ambled down the centre of the road, seemingly content to trade green pastures for an extraordinarily high social status.


    The sea was cool and crystal clear, and the water garden beneath the surface was so perfect that it looked as if it had been lovingly manicured by human hands. Every square metre carefully planned and planted in the style of an English winter rockery, or an exotic vegetable garden boasting white stemmed asparagus, juicy Chinese mushrooms, purple sprouting broccoli, succulent lady’s fingers and the finest globe artichokes.


    As I walked gingerly into the darkness, my sense of sight began to diminish, while my brain alerted all of my remaining senses to function on full capacity. The first thing that struck me was the smell which, to begin with, I found so overpowering that it was hard to breathe—this fetid stench penetrated my nostrils and hit the back of my throat. Above me and all around me, I could hear the twitters, squawks and screeches of the dwellers of this soaring, 90-metre-high cavern. Beneath me, the wooden walkway was reminiscent of a death slope. Despite the omni-directional tread of my new ‘Teva’ sandals, my feet were failing to get a grip upon a surface that was five centimetres thick in foul slime. Wet lumps were dropping onto my uncovered head, and an army of cockroaches scuttled across my exposed toes.

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    Scrambling up the rough track towards the little temple at the top of the ridge, I turned to gaze at the astounding view stretched out before me like a map. Below, the piercing blue Lake Batur dominated the picture, bordered on its northern shore by a plain of polka dot fields. To the east, the mighty volcano, Gunung Agung, was ringed by a halo of wispy cloud, while Mt Abang, grooved with wrinkles and cleavages, towered over Trunyan village. Rising from the eastern shore, Mt Batur stood sentinel, emitting the occasional puff of steam, and beyond – from my perch on the lip of the ancient caldera – I could clearly see the peak of Mt Batukaru. Tourists flock to the locality, collectively known as Kintamani, but very few observe Bali’s chain of volcanoes from where I was standing on the far northeastern side of the lake. 


    I have been a snorkeller most of my adult life, but I have only just become a scuba diver. You would have thought that my enjoyment of donning fins, mask and snorkel, and skimming the surface like a UFO pilot looking down on another planet, would have enticed me to venture further. Living in Indonesia and not learning to dive is the equivalent of being given a beautifully packaged birthday present but never breaking through the wrapper to uncover the magic beneath the surface.


    My initial impression was chaos. There were gaily-painted dilapidated boats, long-eared goats tethered to wooden posts, dogs, chickens, ponies, and unusually fat cats. I noticed men playing cards, squatting and drinking kopi; and round-bellied ladies wearing brightly coloured sarongs with fish stained blouses and towels wrapped about their heads. These were the fishwives, brandishing knives and choppers, preparing fish for the town markets, participating in an enduring daily routine. On closer inspection, I realised that this hive of activity was not chaos after all. It was surprisingly systematic, every area had been set aside for a separate function, everyone had a job to do, there were fisherman, seamen, labourers, buyers, sellers, kids and animals, and there was still time to socialise and gossip. The harbour was scruffy and the all-pervasive pungent smell of fish clung to the sultry hot air, but amid all of the dead fish, this place was full of life, music and laughter.


    The next morning we rose at sunrise to experience another emotional farewell on Sukamade Beach. This time, we took with us a bucket containing thirty-two baby turtles, each one no bigger than the palm of my hand. Once more we walked through the enchanted forest; sounds of jungle birds pierced the air, shy black monkeys swung in the tree tops, and loud whooshing sounds drew our attention to the hornbills as they passed overhead. Reaching the beach, we gently placed the hatchlings on the sand just above the tidemark, and watched as they immediately and instinctively started to crawl towards the ocean. The first roaring wave to crash over them sent most of them tumbling belly up back on to the shore but, as we flipped them over, they regained their bearings and headed out towards the sea again and again, until the undertow pulled them all out to deep water.


    A would-be rock star was playing a guitar and singing a Javanese folk song, a man was vending canned drinks, a woman was waving a bunch of fresh grapes and a young boy was trying to convince me that I needed a pair of pink plastic sunglasses. My rumbling stomach, meanwhile, had just done a deal with a sweet talker who was selling ‘Tahu Isi’ – stuffed tofu, wrapped in cones of brown paper. I was alone on a public bus travelling from Denpasar to Ketapang, the portal to East Java. Having just arrived at Gilimanuk the bus was preparing to drive onto the ferry when it was suddenly boarded by a miscellany of hawkers and buskers. Being the only white face, I was a sitting target; but I smiled and went with the flow. It was the beginning of an eight-day journey that would take me through the rice fields, rainforests, plantations, national parks and cultural heritage of Java’s most easterly region. My modes of transport would include buses, ferries, the cycle-rickshaw known as a ‘becak’, a vintage Land Rover, a bamboo raft, a traditional ‘jukung’ fishing boat and an Indonesian train. 


    The road from Senggigi to the mountain village of Sembalunlawang is a journey through time, a harmonious integration of legend, tradition and reverence to God, where shirtless old men in checked sarungs still eke out a living from the sea or the dry farmland. Tiny villages of simple bamboo houses hide within coconut groves in the company of graceful cows and floppy-eared goats. Parched angular hills contrast starkly with the bright blue sky and abundant sea.


Hi Rachel,

Thanks so much for your wonderful and personal article "SEEKING
ALHAMBRA...IN MALTA". I spotted it in the Travel Tales section of the
Bali Advertiser. Lucky me! I clipped the article, and have enjoyed rereading...