I first heard about "Avatar" about two years ago - it took that long (and more) to make. It's the new "breakthrough 3D" film from James Cameron, maker of Titanic and Terminator 2. I went to see it this afternoon and, for me, it really lived up to the hype. The plot may be fairly formulaic, but the spectacle is awesome. After a while you simply forget that you are watching mostly computer generated images and all in 3D. You just get immersed in the story and the strange alien world. Well worth a visit to your multiplex, but do make sure it's the 3D version!
For those friends and family kindly monitoring and enquiring about the state of my health since returning to the UK, the alphabetic summary is as follows:
Aches and Shakes - these still come and go, but less often.
Blood pressure - seemingly under control with a daily pill.
Chest pains - seemingly under control with a daily pill.
Dizziness - still a problem and hard to be sure of the underlying cause.
Ear problems - solved by syringing the wax build-up out!
Fever (Glandular) - dragging on. I still have to watch how much I do.
Gout - seemingly under control with a daily pill.
Hurts - cactus splinters, verruca, nosebleeds... you name it!
Infections (skin) - two different types, both sorted with cream!
So not 100% fit quite yet, but hopefully on the mend from most of the recent ills and still on course to return to China mid-January.
Happy Christmas readers! I'm spending Christmas at a large holiday home in Walmer, near Dover, with all my family plus other close relatives. Delicious food, fun games, ages ranging from 2 to 72, heaps of presents and plenty of space to enjoy ourselves. The kids built a snowman in the garden on arrival, we had a little rain when were happily tucked up inside and then warm, bright sunshine when we went for walks (or runs for some!). Some pictures to give a flavour...
The HIDER Family
Back (L to R): Dave, Sarah, Ali
Middle (L to R): Me, Dad, Mum holding Daisy, Andy holding Louie
Front (L to R): Esme holding Briany, Harry, Josh
[See "Family Tab" at the top of this page to see who is related to who!]
Sarah [left] and Stuart [right] are two of the handful of friends I'd hoped to meet during my time in the UK but hadn't... until today, that is. Krista [centre], invited me over for a yummy pub lunch and a coffee and chat at her flat. It was good to finally meet Stuart, Krista's boyfriend, after hearing so much about him over the years. And Sarah is an old friend who I always enjoy winding up. As we sipped our coffee we noticed some snow starting to fall - little did I know this was going to ruin my evening.
The two buses to get to Beckenham had only taken 45 minutes in total. But after Krista drove me to the bus stop (with cars sliding around all over the place) I soon realised the buses were no longer running. I got chatting with a girl who had already been waiting for an hour and together we decided to
try and walk to Bromley, about 2-3 miles, in the snow. She knew the way, which helped. We had a good chat as we slipped and slushed our way past the grid-locked traffic. After 1½ hours we finally arrived (coincidentally seeing the Orient Express steam train puffing through Bromley South station - very Christmassy!). We picked up her 5-year old son and husband from her mother's and walked gingerly to their house (after a few minutes' I walk found her son holding MY hand, having abandoned his Dad behind - a bit embarrassing!). At their house they offered me dry socks (declined!) and pointed me in the direction of Sidcup (a further 5-6 miles away!). Thankfully, I soon spotted the bus I needed, although it was full and not moving (the driver told me it would be quicker to walk, but I was already exhausted). 3½ hours later it finally got me home. I felt like Ernest Shackleton stomping through the final snow drifts to make it to the South Pole ... err I mean Foots Cray Lane!
I managed to negotiate a six train return journey today to get to Worthing for a lovely Christmas Party. Vix [in black/red] had organised it for family and friends and about 25 folk turned up through the evening. Some were mutual friends I hadn't seen for 4 years (one couple remembered me from a visit some 20 years ago!). It was particularly nice to meet Julian [left in photo] once again. I last saw him in China 2 years ago. He's the boyfriend of Emily [next left], who I have known for 3 years from China, now both living in the UK. Good food, good conversation and mind-thwarting quizzes - what more could you ask?
There have been forecasts of snow in southeast Britain for a day or two, and at last I awoke to a white world this morning. Not as much snow as in many parts of the country, but enough to feel Christmassy. The only other snow I've seen this year was back in January when I was trying to climb a snow-covered mountain in the dark at 6am to visit a Tibetan monastery. Today will hopefully be a little less nerve-wracking!
I managed to do some visiting of family and friends today. First, my parents and I drove to Aunt Isabel (86 years old now) and Aunt Kathleen (who cooked us all a very tasty dinner). It was great to see them for longer than last month's Hider reunion allowed.
Then to Pete and Barbara [see photo], a couple who used to be neighbours when I was young. My main memory of Pete was as the chess maestro who progressed me from "knowing the rules" to "dabbling with tactics and strategies". He happily beat me every game we played, but was then gracious enough to go back through the moves to show me where I'd gone wrong. I learned a lot. I also recall being asked to play for his Metropolitan Police Chess team once, when they were suddenly a player short. Although the team lost overall, I drew my game, so felt I hadn't let the side down (despite being a teenager playing with, and against, adults). Pete and Barbara, as ever, showed a real in-depth interest in China and my life there, as well as serving up coffee and caramel slices! What a nice couple.
I checked out the main Manx Museum this morning, just 10 minutes walk from my B&B. It was pretty good (and free) although not really at the House of Manannan's level. Plus there were two other visitors in the building - I prefer the personal treatment! I flew back from the Isle of Man this afternoon. I didn't see all that much of the island, but I know a lot more about it now than just the "TT races". Cold and pricey perhaps, but a very laid-back and friendly place.
I had a good night's sleep in my bed and breakfast last night. It's the middle red building in the photo, and the sea is at the end of the street. Today, following my landlady's suggestion, I took a bus across the island to the sleepy town of Peel.
The "House of Manannan" there is one of the best museums I've ever been to - full of interactive exhibits, informative films, animatronic robots, computer touch screens and things to hold and explore. The final exhibit challenges you to pilot a simulation ferry from Liverpool to Douglas. After finally making it, the navigator congratulated me, but went on to mention that many of the passengers were asking for their money back (well we did hit a rock and a yacht on the way!). The museum experience was also improved by being the only visitor there - it handles over 1000 people a day in high season!
The other main attraction in Peel is the beautiful castle. There was great little walk around the outside of the walls, overlooking the cliffs and crashing sea. The castle itself was not so ruined that you couldn't imagine how it was, nor so restored that it looked modern. Just right! being a Sunday, the town of Peel was very quiet, with most shops and cafes shut. Bitterly cold, too. So with sandwich and crisps in hand I caught the bus back to Douglas as the sun set.
I dashed off for country number 94 this morning. The Isle of Man just about counts (semi-autonomous government, its own stamps and money, geographically separate from the mainland, etc).
Just yesterday, Dad and I were only discussing the dinky little planes that fly into London City Airport. Today I found myself in one of them. My "Bombadier Dash Twin Turbo-prop" made it to Douglas airport in just over an hour. I'm only here for two nights, but that's plenty long enough to tick off another "country"!
Today, Dad and I had a trip out to the Thames Barrier. It's a 20 minute drive away. The barrier was built in 1982 to remove the risk of flooding to London. When tides get too high, which has apparently happened 114 times since it was built, the enormous gates rotate up and block the waters coming into the Thames. It's an impressive site, especially with the Millenium Dome in the background and planes landing just over the river in London City Airport. We decided not to spend £7 on tickets to the Visitor's Centre however, preferring to buy a coffee and look through the free information pack we had swiped earlier!
I planned my visit to Lodge School to coincide with the Infants' Nativity Play. It was a very cute affair, as you can see. It actually felt odd to be enjoying it without having played a teacherly part in producing and practising it!
One of the very different and noticeable things between my old school in Purley and my school in China is the wide ethnic mix in Lodge School. A quick tally of the faces in the Nativity Play revealed less than half of the students are "white", whilst the surnames in the Programme suggested that even those with white faces include many with origins outside the UK. I do miss that when I am in homogeneous China
I spent today at Lodge School, where I used to work before leaving for China four years ago. It's changed an awful lot since then, due to a merger with another school which (theoretically) was to lead to a significant increase in student numbers and money for expansion and upgrading. Unfortunately, the recession and various other factors turned that dream into someting of a nightmare. The infants bulding where I used to work has had an enormous extension built [white building and beyond, in photo] but few extra students to fill it. I had a lovely day there though, getting a warm welcome (and not a few hugs) from teachers, students and their Mums who remembered me.
Having missed my good friend Elaine on my last, brief visit to Purley, I finally managed to catch up with her and her family today. Paul [left] works as a security guard in London, Elisabeth [centre] is a newly qualified teacher and Elaine [right] is still working at the Primary School where I last worked, albeit as more of a manager these days. Their other daughter, Diana, has just joined a cruise ship in Puerto Rico as a beauty therapist!
It was lovely to reminisce and catch up on all the big news from the school. We seemed to easily slip into the comfortable friendship I enjoyed with the family for 4-5 years before I left for China.
One of the best changes I've discovered in Britain since returning is the proliferation and accessibility of decent pub restaurants. With smoking banned and all-day opening hours they are now really pleasant places to go. A new (to me, anyhow) national chain of pub restaurants, "Wetherspoons", offers cheap but substantial meals and my parents and I have been frequenting our local every now and again. Their breakfasts are particularly enormous and good value [see photo]. After one of those you can happily skip lunch and just have a snack for dinner!
For any readers who didn't get my Christmas newsletter by email or post, you can download a copy by clicking below.
Yesterday I hired a car and headed for Wootton Bassett, Wilts. This is where I used to live and where I still have my flat and a number of friends and relatives. Despite not having driven for 4 years, I got there safely and smoothly. Wootton Bassett is a small village outside of Swindon, but has become famous in the last year or two: just down the road in RAF Lyneham, where soldiers killed in action are flown back to the UK. The funeral cars have to pass through Wootton Bassett to get to the mortuary in Swindon and the residents of the village are now famous for standing by the road to honour the dead each time.
During my 24 hours there, I managed to catch up with quite a few folk. Steve [left] is an old friend from College, here with his wife Julie. I had a lovely lunch with them. Colin [top right on the left] and Denise and Alan [to the right] are friends from when I worked in Swindon with National Power. And the Prictor family [bottom right] are my cousins and their kids who let me stay the night and laid on a delicious Mexican meal (before hammering me at various computer games!).
Before I left, I was able to inspect my flat (which has been rented out for 15+ years). I also wanted to remove the 2-3 boxes I'd stored in the attic. But on climbing the ladder, I found more like 12 boxes there, and heavy with books and ornaments too! So for each box, it was a case of dragging it down the ladder, climbing down the stairs, then balancing the box on top of a 2m wall which drops down to the road (there used to be concrete steps down to the road, but these have disappeared since I last visited!?) Then, I had to jump down into the road, fetch the overhanging box back, cross the road and pop it in the car. Then, back over the road, climb up the 2m wall, climb the stairs, climb the ladder and start again with box number two! I was exhausted by the end!
I've not been too well today with the shakes, dizziness and a headache. It's probably a reaction to yesterday's trip which was the most I'd done in a day for some months. Thankfully my good friend SiJia (Emily) had already agreed to travel to me from Brighton, so I was able to take it fairly easy today. Emily is Chinese, but moved to the UK from Kunming just over a year ago. It was lovely to see her again and chat about all things Chinese (and British!). We were able to enjoy my Mum's cooking too, which is always a bonus, but I did forget to take a photo of her for the blog. So this one of Jake [centre] will have to do...
When I left Teddy Jake in the care of my girlfriend Jiajia (Ava), he was a bare bear with no real teddy friends. But as you can see from the photo, under Ava's influence, he's now had trendy clothes bought and knitted for him and spends his days with bunny-girl friends! From cute, naive little bear to supercool playboy dude! Is this my fate I wonder?
I took a day trip to Reading today to visit the offices of "Lattitude", the charity whose China volunteers we train in Kunming every 6 months. Having e-mailed some of the staff for over a year, it was really nice to finally put names to faces. I received a very warm welcome and there seemed a great atmosphere amongst the young staff. It was also very useful to hear of Lattitude's wider work, having only really seen the China aspect. They are in 17 countries, as evidenced by the shelf of country-coded books, [see photo] with about 1000 volunteers at any given time. It puts the mere 20 or so in China into perspective.
Susie and Thom [see photo] are the two staff I know the best, and they kindly took me out to a lunch for a chat. Thom had also arranged a few meetings for me with various people in the organisation, from the CEO down, who wanted to pick my brains while I was there. It was actually quite "therapeutic" to be able to talk about China, my job and myself in some depth with people who were genuinely interested and informed. They were all extremely positive about the course we run in Kunming and are looking at ways to roll out similar courses in many of their other countries. It was very encouraging to hear that. So a fun and worthwhile trip out. Hopefully I won't feel too exhausted tomorrow, as the glandular fever does have a reputation for punishing you doing too much too soon!
Getting e-mails from friend, teachers and students back in China is helping to keep me "grounded" while back in the UK. It would be all too easy to get caught up with the price of bus fares, national politics, or who has been kicked out from X-factor. "Real" life for me is still back in Yunnan. This extract from a recently received e-mail gives you a flavour:
"It's such hard work being a teacher in China. I have to get up at 6am in the morning to make sure the students are getting up and finish work at 11.30pm when I check that the students are asleep. Students here have almost no time to rest or play sports during the day. When they are not studying, they have to clean the school, clean themselves and their clothes, do compulsory body or eye exercises [see photo] or eat. They simply don’t get enough sleep. As a teacher you don’t either. You have to spend so much time, love and energy on your students. But sometimes I get tired and annoyed. Sometimes I lose patience. Sometimes I feel I have to be the students’ mum, dad, nanny, teacher and friend. Sometimes I just want to stay quietly by myself in my dormitory.
So many worrying things happen in our school; the constant pressure of work and exams, students arguing with teachers, students running away from home or school. Students can even get pregnant, kill their teachers or kill themselves. I feel the job of a teacher isn’t safe. One day, a boy student was sleeping in my evening class. I asked him to wake up. He just turned and said some disgusting words to me. I cried when I got back to my dorm and later told his class teacher. I wasn’t in the wrong, I asked him in a respectful way and I am a teacher. I have to say or do something when I see a student doing something wrong.
A student committed suicide in my school last week. Maybe she felt too much pressure After her death, the leaders set up a psychology office and decorated some areas of the school but it’s still had a really negative influence in our school. I’m a teacher with responsibility for my students. I talk to my students, spent lots of time with them and care about them. But still I can’t guess who wants to commit suicide. I am so afraid. Sometimes there are no signs. Maybe something just happens to them on an impulse. I’ve thought a lot about the young girl’s death. That night I was in hospital with a bad cold. I saw our school leader, the girl’s parents and the dead body with the white cover…."
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