12 September 2014

Backing Life

There are some people in life who can truly inspire you, simply through their ability to live it. My grandfather was one of these people

Growing up, my sister and I spent a lot of time with him and my Grandma. They moved down to Bath to be near us, and our Monday evenings were filled with Anne Robinson winks, no deal boxes and Countdown conundrums. Grandpa would always know the answers, but it didn't stop me from trying - he made me want to give it a go. He would always say "No deal". So did I. He was a chance-taker. He encouraged me to push myself, as I set there in the miniature chair he built.  

My Grandpa built things. Quite literally - with hammer and nail - he made two doll houses for my sister and I. No "make it yourself" kit. Just wood; the true way. Mine is a perfect Tudor-style, six-bedroom abode, complete with a basement renovation a few years after the original build. 

 It is one of my most treasured possessions. Much of the original furniture was also made by him, while my Grandma did much of the sewing for the pillows and bedding. We also remember spending one day with her and charlotte, making the food for my cousin's doll house by baking clay shapes and then painting. Bless my grandma, she lovingly said "oh Sophie, yours are so good, I think you should keep them for your house". I still have my handmade spaghetti bolognaise, funnily enough. I still have my house in my room, frequently admired when people come to stay, and decorated each year for Christmas. 

Speaking of Christmas, it was  partly my Grandpa's building skills that made him - in my eyes - resemble one of my favourite festive figures:

The parallels didn't end here. In my formative years, the pipe was similarly there; furthermore, Brigg's beloved Saint Nick, like my grandfather, was strong-willed and not hesitant to offer an opinion! Father Christmas has always been one of my favourite christmas films; every year, it was the one film I ensured would be a fixture in my festive viewing, and in the past twenty-four hours I realise part of the reason why. Brigg's Santa reminded me of my grandfather. He was not some unrealistic, perfected Santa Claus. He was human. He was rough around the edges; at times impatient and stubborn. However, he was also uniquely wonderful. Imperfectly perfect. 

His optimism - his faith that life could keep going - is an outlook that I think everyone can learn from and be inspired by. This brings me onto a more recent Christmas embodiment of my Grandpa - my family's latest Christmas classic, which I am sad he will never watch with us. 

Grand-Santa. I don't know how many people will have watched Arthur Christmas? If you haven't, put it on your list! It is funny, heart-warming, a great story - everything a Christmas film should be. Think Madagascar in the North Pole. Grand-Santa is the retired Mr Claus, with the job now being filled by his son, and eyed up by his Grandson. Grand-Santa is doubted, by the third generation in particular. He is set in his ways, a bit aloof - but underneath it all, he is someone who cares. The first time we watched it, I remember all of us just turning to each other and saying "it's Grandpa!" Especially looking at my Grandpa's resolute determination to keep driving - in recent times he even announced how he wanted to go on a coach trip to Guernsey! The reaction was much disbelief, echoing the disbelief of the younger Claus generation. 

My Grandpa never did go to Guernsey - it was a pipe dream. However, beneath my incredulity, there lay another emotion - admiration. As unrealistic as he was being, he was so determined that you could not help but think "good on you!" Good on you for dreaming, for hoping.  My blog title, and my outlook on life, centres on this idea of possibility. My Grandpa epitomised this. All too often in this world, people can resign themselves; relegate their life to the substitution bench if the match is not quite going their way. In his final years, my Grandpa's match was plagued with so many disruptions and penalties; even a highly determined person would hold up their hands and say "I accept the inevitable". For my grandpa, there never was an inevitability. Maybe some would call this naivety, but I never saw it that way. 

I have my fair share of experience of life not quite mapping out as you hoped, but watching my grandpa being as resilient as he gave - and still gives - me so much hope. Moreover  he wasn't just resolute about living his own life; he wanted it for his loved ones too. When he found out we were going to Asia, and mum contemplated cancelling in case he needed her, he wouldn't hear any of it! 

He wanted us to go on that adventure - to climb that mountain - because it is what he did all of his life. He took chances, he pushed himself. Yes, at times this caused exasperation. Yes, many people would have placed him in a care home years ago. That was never happening. That wasn’t him. His body was ageing but his mind never did. When he joked about turning the clock back each year, for him it held some truth! In mind, at least. 

Every morning he completed the crossword - it really was incredible. No modern day googling of answers. Just his mind. On Sundays he would send it off for the prize draw, alternating the submission name between my sister, my three cousins and I. He never won, a fact that I am thoroughly dissatisfied with - I'm sure many of the winners are smart phones. Everyday, he placed his bet for the races. This was his biggest hobby, but it wasn't all to do with the gambling. It was following the horses, the trainers - he knew it all like the back of his hand. Occasionally, he would ring up to say that he'd won with a horse called "Sophie's Prize" or something with a literary name. He said he "knew it would be a winner". Little things like this brightened my day; it reminded us that, even on the other side of the country, he was thinking about us. 

He hated being cooped inside - he loved to go out, to see people, and to talk. Like me, he loved to talk! Always telling jokes, making people laugh. Occasionally the jokes flew over our heads, but some were truly brilliant. My grandfather lived life on his terms, always believing that the top of the mountain was reachable. If there is one silver lining, it is that he did this to the last. On his final day he enjoyed a pub meal, chatted away to people, saw friends. His body simply couldn't climb anymore, but his mind was always on that mountain peak. 

He never wanted to be wrapped in cotton wool, and this is an approach I have adopted in my own life. It is something he instilled in my mum, and she likewise with me. When so many people doubted me going to University last year, my mum was the one person who always believed I could; she has my grandpa's outlook. It is why I know that going back on Sunday is absolutely the right thing, because the best way I can honour this person's life, is to keep living my own. 

A person who, for all their single-mindedness and conservative views, could be so incredibly open. First of all, he astonished us with how he took to Millie - dubbed "Willy" at first - even visiting the Newcastle pet shop for treats, and saying she could get a quality groom appointment! However, the most marked occasion for me, was when I got into Exeter. I remember how, when I realised the Oxbridge application dream was over, one of my initial thoughts - being me - was worrying about disappointing him.  When I received the Durham rejection - same feeling. I also had this vision of my going to Newcastle on  Saturday and going to The Dragon House Chinese with him.

Nevertheless, all of this worry… ultimately  he could not have been happier about Exeter. He thought Durham was "cold" and Oxbridge (even if I had by some miracle gotten in) too pressurised. He told mum it was the best place for me. In that moment, I understood; it wasn't the destination he admired, it was how I got there. His eye wasn't fixed on the finish line, but how i was running and how I would always keep trying. This was the same for my sister, and my cousins. 

So many things in my life link to my Grandpa. My love of puzzles, 'thinking' games. Even my risk strategy - Grandpa and I were always the ones saying "no" when watching Deal or No Deal. We were putting all the cards in, taking that chance and hoping it would pay off. As I've already mentioned, he was a builder. This included aeroplane kits, particularly the Lancaster Bomber, the plane he was on during Bomber Command, as an engineer. One thing I am so thankful for, was that he was alive to see the memorial for Bomber Command finally made. I remember feeling so proud of him the day my parents went with him. Another hobby was bargain hunting. Literally - we would receive a phone call out of the blue asking if we wanted a new BBQ or lawn mower! Some of his discoveries were amazing; he introduced us to Lidls! He loved doing things to help his family. Before I went to University, he gave me the most beautiful green cover book, which held the collected plays of Shakespeare. Every single one. It is perfect.

My decision to horse-ride was mostly because I loved it, but this stemmed from having seen them on the television from a young age. I would never race, but I rode for over a decade and loved to tell him about it. When he came to one of my lessons, I remember sitting in my saddle and feeling so happy. When I won my first place rosette, I wanted him to know. He was someone who I felt so proud to make proud, and this wasn't just attained by grades on paper. It was by living. One thing I am already upset about, is knowing he won't see me graduate. However, he saw many other things that my Grandma never could, and for that I am grateful. Grateful that one of them saw me go to University, studying what I loved.

After I found out I had gotten into Exeter, he said over the phone "I know when to back a true winner".  I will make sure of it that he did; for winning is not about passing the post first. It is about to give everything you've got in the race - to never stop running. This is always possible - it does not require skill; it is about determination. Trust. Trusting in that possibility. 

This quote, from one of my favourite books, captures why my Grandpa was one of the most courageous people I knew. After my Grandma died, he didn't give up. When his body started breaking, he never lost hope. He saw it through. In my eyes, he definitely won. 

Goodnight soldier. When it came to backing life, the winning horse was you, and that will never stop being a source of inspiration for me. I'll never forget you, and I'll never stop running. 

*ps: I'll make sure, one day, we get those crossword winnings for you. They're long overdue.


4 September 2014

Capturing Cambodia: From Thom to Ta Phrom

(Tolkien Land)

This is a predominantly 'picture post', which I think will become self-explanatory once the photos are revealed…

I have a rather poetic love affairs with trees, in addition to a Romanticised image of dilapidated buildings conveying a quite unique beauty. Consequently, this was a literary haven for me! I could happily go back with my notebook and stay for weeks on end writing, complete with my own little woodland lodge (that in my Head resamples Hagrid's hut…)

Our time at Ta Phrom was simply mesmerising. I don't even care if that makes me sound pretentious, it truly was! Despite our slight jetlag-induced scepticism over the 6am start on our second day, our Tour Guide could not have been more wise. We were able to tour the entire temple with virtually no one else there, which only heightened its sense of utter tranquility, slight air of mystery, and last but not least a truly unsurpassed beauty.

*I realise I do have a slightly obsessive love for lists of three/alliteration in my posts; English student side effects. I shall try to tone it down.*

While this particular temple was used for the filming of Lara Craft, I personally felt that Tolkien must have visited at one point; one particular place looked like it could have been taken straight out of Rivendell or the Grey Havens!

As soon as you stepped inside the temple, you saw just what they meant by "tree temple" - they were one and the same! Unlike many of the other Angkorian temples, this one has been left relatively untouched, contributing to the atmospheric feel that was heightened by the solitariness of our visit.  

Despite my family's subtle assertions in the past that my photography leaves something to be desired, at least
I succeeded in photographing my sister with the tree in shot… here rubble takes centre stage!
A bit further inside the temple, the trees have really taken on a life of their own. The scale of the one below is quite incredible, and you can almost imagine it coming to life in a fantasy film - I'm thinking Whomping Willow and the Tolkien Ents!

Charlotte and Ben apparently trying to imitate "statues". My face says it all...
...we got there in the end!
Beyond the actual temples, the was certainly no shortage of greenery. The jungle setting of the temples only added to its wild and untameable aura; it was the "rough diamond" quality that I loved almost more than anything, and made for a quite different experience from the day before. 


This is when it got very Lord-of-the-Rings-esque. The sunlight was at the perfect spot to shine light on the stonework - the photos below have absolutely no filter applied to them, taken on nothing more than a trusty iPhone 4(S - not completely shabby…) It was truly breathtaking.

Besides its stunning, and highly unique, architecture (not to mention the Lara Croft filming), another thing the Ta Phrom temple is quite infamous for, is the picture on the right… that is a dinosaur. That is, unequivocally, a Stegosaurus! The plates on its back, the tail, even the face shape and horn on its head. Except the "first" stegosaurus fossil wasn't found until 1876, in Colorado. About as far removed from 12th Century Cambodia as you can get! My dad was quite beside himself with excitement, arguing that it is "undoubtable evidence of Aliens"… I concluded that either a 19th Century US tourist thought this would be a hilarious brain-teaser for future generations, or the intelligence of the Khmer Empire has been extremely underestimated! After all, they did build Angkor Wat; it's not exactly a few pieces of stone placed together *cough* stone henge *cough* This was yet another little detail that made Ta Phrom so intriguing. There were so many nuances; even the way the temple wall changed from brown to green, perfectly lit by the morning sun. I could have stayed there for days, and still have so much left to discover.

One thing that did take away slightly from "the moment" was seeing the pictures above on the way out; the conservation plans for the temple. While I understand the need to conserve the temple, which is all the more vital given its reliance on centuries-old trees for support! I couldn't help but feel quite sad - that someday I might come back and see the ruined beauty that was so endearing, replaced with a more man-made, artificial, 'perfected' beauty. It wouldn't be the same, in my eyes. Then again, maybe I just need to be less of a romanticist about it! 

As I said at the start, I feel this is definitely a post where the pictures speak for themselves.

“We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” 
- Henry David Thoreau

2 September 2014

Capturing Cambodia: Temple Time

The 7am alarm on our first morning in Asia could signal only one thing... Temple time!

 'Fate' meant that our 3 days in Siem Reap exactly coincided with the Cambodia jaunt of our closest friends' own asian adventure - we couldn't quite believe it! So for 3 days we were able to do our holiday together; not only was it lovely to spend time with them, but being as firmly Eastophile as we are Disneyland connoisseurs, it couldn't have been more perfect for easing some of my dad's anxieties out in this part of the world! Let's just say, they got dad onto a Tuk Tuk… 

Dora: always exploring...
On that first morning the idea of exploring did seem a little strange, given the absence of our favourite Dora… but I reminded myself that she was probably off causing mountains of mischief for her babysitters; I did experience moments of wondering how quickly her "it's so fluffy" mask would come off. However, Diabetes decided to remind us all that it, at least, was determined to bring its own dose of mischief to compensate! The scene - in a car in Cambodia, nearly at temple, and suddenly Mr insulin pump gives a "low battery" warning. Stay calm. Simply get a new battery out. Ask around for a coin (used to open battery holder). Place new battery in.  Only the new battery didn't work. Stay calm. Get the other spare battery out. Place 'new' new battery in. This battery, also, did not work…

By this point, the stay calm philosophy had turned more into a have internal freak out that I am currently without a working 'pancreas', my pump has basically failed and oh my god what if nowhere in Cambodia even sells batteries! I have to admit that my communication skills weren't the best. My dad is probably panicking as much as me, mum is doing her best to try and explain to our Tourguide that we "need AAA batteries asap - no they're not for a camera!" Charlotte is trying to calm me; I am pretty much silent, and don't think I will regain the gift of speech until I am reassured that I'm not getting on a plane to Thailand or Vietnam, in order to get a new insulin pump… 

The calm before the storm… the actual
storm too, which struck in the afternoon!
Luckily, after having our "temple pass photos" taken (all the while me saying to Charlotte "mum does realise I have, like, no insulin right now doesn't she?!" Our Tourguide took us back to a Camera shop just near our hotel, where they (thank the lord) had AAA batteries and I changed it in the shop then and there. Wait. Breathe. Wait… hallelujah! New battery was working. Our hypothesis was that the airport security, or some security/electronic device during travel, affected the batteries in some way. Our new strategy is now - buy batteries as soon as we land!

I can look back now, and write about it in a light-hearted manner, but in that moment… it was terrifying. For a split second, I genuinely thought "oh my god I could die". Obviously, that would never have happened. I had injection pens with me; my diabetes team told me, as I mentioned previously, that if you have a big problem you get to Thailand and the medical services there can help you. However, it's a sobering experience. It reminded me how fragile everything is - how this mobile phone sized machine keeps me alive. On the other hand, I can turn this on its head and think thank goodness! How lucky that this amazing little device was invented in my lifetime - that I was one of the first people in my area to get one, and the youngest. Fortune over fear - that's my new outlook. 

Back onto the temples! In this post I thought I would cover Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat, the day one destinations. Mostly photos; partly because they capture it better than any words can, but also because I am aware many people may be screaming "oh just get on with it!" at their screen right about now… 

The photo on the left is the standard tourist "let's just get a
picture with everything - look, there's a statue!" It's not
as if we were embarking on a tour of one of the most famous -
not the mention draw-dropping - temples on the globe... 

So for a little bit of history - I do want to try and say something relevant among my rambles! On a serious note, though, It really was fascinating; one thing i've always felt was lacking in my (nonetheless amazing) British education is an understanding of the Eastern world. From history, to literature and science too, there is so much that is simply left unexplored on the syllabus back home. Even at University - I searched long and hard for some form of module on eastern literature, having read some wonderful Chinese poetry a few years back, and being a new Murakami enthusiast! Nothing. As with primary and secondary education, higher education seems to overlook it too. 
Armed with an iPhone, it was the true hobbit of the holiday; 
unassuming, it defied the doubters and held its own! 
*unless my pictures really are horrendous*

The Spean Thmar bridge leads up to the Temple of Angkor Thom. It goes over a
100m wide moat,  which originally extended 12km to protect the Capital from enemies.
Coming here was a revelation. The architecture is simply mind-blowing. Angkor Thom was the last Capital of the Khmer Empire, which was founded in approximately 802 AD. Angkor Thom was built in the 12th Century, when England was dominated by civil wars and squabbling successors. We built castles, the Khmer dynasty built…

…what can I say - we tried. Not quite sure we were keeping up with the Cambodians though… Now? Well, West is keeping up with the Kardashians. Literally. There was a quite poignant irony;  standing in the remains of a thousand-year-old empire, I felt such a sense of development, ingenuity and vitality.   Coming to this part of the world is really quite humbling. For all the West's blowing of its own trumpet, there is an oasis of culture, learning and beauty out here that you cannot replicate.  

Being the slight bookworm/ idle dreamer that I am, I couldn't help but get slightly lost in little familiarities in some of the surroundings. Exhibit 'a' = the one and only…. Harry Potter. Maybe it's just me who would find some resemblance between this archway and the mirror of Erizid… just me? Yup, thought so. 

When I saw this I instantly pictured the
moment in Philosopher's Stone, where
Harry and Ron sprint into the
Transfiguration lesson.

One more unexpected appearence in the temple was a real live elephant - I thought that was reserved for a Thailand adventure! You could in fact do the entire tour by elephant, which Mum and Charlotte were seriously tempted, before time ran away with us. I was a little more sceptical. After hearing media stories of the mistreatment of them, in addition to seeing photos of them treated like circus animals, I was hesitant even after being reassured by our tour guide that they are 'well treated'. I couldn't help thinking of the Santorini mules… that has scarred me for life, and contributed to me wanting to help any donkey plight I see - the most recent being Sidmouth donkey sanctuary, where I adopted a donkey called Millie. My own fluffy minion seemed a little jealous when I showed her the adoption photo.

Nonetheless, elephants came in all shapes and sizes… 

The carvings throughout the temples were quite extraordinary,
not just for their intricacy, but the sheer number of them!

Below is the 'love' temple; essentially where the ruling emperor would bring his multitude of mistresses, - concubines - which numbered some two-three thousand… busy life, ruling a kingdom. 

To look inside the temple, you had to ascend these steps… with a little assistance from a more modern contraption. This was much to the relief of my vertigo-inflicted father, and likely so to numerous health-and-safety indoctrinated Westerners. 

I personally would have quite enjoyed having a go at the stairs, were it not for the sweltering heat. Even  with cloud cover, we must have each gone through around several litres of water a day. We were also 'wrapped up', after being forewarned that certain places in the temple required arms and legs to be covered… suffice to say that only one such area necessitated this, leaving us feeling that we may have gone a little overboard with the midi/maxi garments. Nonetheless, it has made me realise that being a hobbit doesn't completely write off the maxi. The skirt in these photos is case in point - buy a midi and wear it a a maxi! 

Angkor Wat-a-view... I can't entirely take credit for this particular pun, as much as my inner English student wishes! Aaaaand on that note, from temple top I will end this particular post. It really was an incredible view. 

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