Friday, 6 January 2017

How to help someone live through death

Nine moths ago, I wrote a blog titled "How to help a friend who's Mum just corked it". I was reticent about writing that piece as it was so personal, but it helped. It helped me, and it helped others; I had a large number of people contact me after it was published to thank me; from those who had lost someone in a similar situation ("you got it SO right") to those who were facing the prospect of having to support a friend in need ("I'm cooking her a lasagne as we speak"), and it was those conversations that convinced me I had done the right thing, that laying out my pain and feelings for all to see was worthwhile. If I helped one daughter like me get a lasagne, then the blog was worthwhile.

But more than one friend said to me "Katy, you come across as so angry"- well I bloody was angry; someone took my Mum from me before I was ready to let her go; and more importantly before she was ready to go- she was 57 for fuck's sake.

One of those friends suggested that I blog again 6 months later, having let the dust settle (by the way, the dust never settles on a loved one's death, it just gets easier to sweep up with time). So I have, I re-read what I wrote in those horrid, desperate weeks after my Mum's death and here are my thoughts.

1- I was right.
2- It was a selfish post, all about supporting me, but death makes you selfish. It seeps into your every feeling and every action, you spend a lot of energy trying to protect yourself from your feelings and that leaves little time for thoughts of others. So to that end, this post is about helping the death-ee rather than the bereaved.

As with my previous blog, these views are purely my own, and everyone will experience the death of a loved one in a different way, but this is what I wished I had known before my mother told me that she had 6-12 months to live (she made 5).

1- Do as much as you can; if you can park everything else, do. I always wish I'd done more- and so will you. You'll wish you had gone to see them more, called more, bought better Christmas presents, gone on holiday with them, Whatsapped them more. You will never feel you did enough. When my mother told me that her cancer was terminal, I spent as much time as I could with her; or did I? If I'm honest with myself, I probably didn't; I still had a business to run, children to feed and a head to stick in the sand (or in my case a bottle of wine). Say "no" to other people when you can and spend time with that person- you'll never regret it.

2- Remember that the death-ee is still the person they were before they got sick. My Mother still berated me about the things she berated me about before she was ill; allow the relationship to continue along the same vein as it did pre-illness; the death-ee needs the normality of them still being your Mum/Brother/Husband- you may now have moved into a carer role, but don't strip away the basis of your relationship, that bond is what is keeping them and you strong.

3- Ask the difficult questions- My Mum died with so many secrets because every time I got the guts up to ask a pertinent question, I thought "oh, she doesn't need this"; but, you know what, getting an answer to a question you won't ever get another chance to ask is worth an uncomfortable silence- and often, as people are preparing to leave us, they WANT to have those awkward conversations- it's cathartic for them, so give them the opportunity. And on this subject- say the things you want to say- i never told my Mum I was proud of her, and I wish i had as i know it would have meant the world to her to hear me say it.

4- Give them dignity in vanity- Just because someone is dying, doesn't mean that they have to die in a lesser state than they lived. Five days before my Mum passed away, a friend of mine went round to see her and did her nails for her. When I walked in to see her on the final time she was taken into hospital (whilst I was half-pissed at a black tie event for work, thanks Mum!), the first thing she did was wiggle her newly painted fingernails at me. So make sure the death-ee gets that haircut, puts on a lick of mascara- help them to keep up the standards that they would have otherwise done on their own.

5- Accept their diagnosis- You telling they are not going to die is at best irritating, at worst it's patronising and exhausting, and they don't need to be trying to make you see sense when they are fighting a battle internally that is taking all the energy that they have- there is none spare to placate you, and any energy coming your way should be love, not reassurance.

6- Accept their feelings- Especially anger. You'd be angry if someone told you that in 6-12 months you would have to leave all your loved ones, the job that you loved, your home- and that where you were going next was something no-one had ever written a Trip Advisor review of. Unfortunately, as the people who are closest to them, often it's the carers/loved ones who suffer. The day before my Mum died she called me a "fucking twat" because her speech had become so laboured by then that I couldn't understand that she was asking me to shut her door. Shortly afterwards, her last words to me were "I love you".  People get angry as they are about to leave us, let it go, keep saying I love you.

7- Consider this might be the best 5 months of their lives- my Brother-in-Law is a philosophy lecturer, and he mentioned a book he had read that puts forward the theory that someone's last few months, despite the pain and discomfort, could be the time when they have the most love and attention from those dear to them. Flip that on it's head and think that, if you can, it's your job to make those last months the best they can be; unfortunately my Mum went downhill so quickly that we didn't even make a dent on her bucket list. If you can, go out to that posh restaurant, go to the festival, take the trip to Paris, sod it, you've got a credit card haven't you??

8- Accept the minute of life- Remember that it's the small things that make people comfortable. Two days before my mum died, she was determined she needed a pedicure. She was 48 hours from death, and there's me giving her a goddamn pedicure. It was only later that evening that I realised that her toenails were scraping on the itchy standard NHS blankets. She may have been dying, but why not be as comfortable as possible on the way there- so ask what you can do for them, and no matter how insignificant it may seem to you, do it.

9- Touch is key- Dying is lonely, the death-ee is the only person who knows what it feels like to be getting ready to leave, but we all know that a hand on an arm, a careful cuddle, a hand holding during a movie can make US feel better, so what's different? It is likely your loved one is in a lot of pain, so a bear hug probably isn't the way to go- but how about holding that hand?

10- Be there- Finally, if you can, be there when they pass. It's fucking terrifying, devastating and the experience will never leave you; but I can promise you that the death-ee doesn't want to die in a cold room with no-one there- it was my Mum's biggest fear. We were all with her at the end, and I believe it meant she died peacefully. You have the rest of your life to do what you want, so sit at that bedside, hold that hand, share a joke and make sure that the last thing your loved one sees is faces filled with love.

Katy x

Monday, 9 May 2016

How to deal with a friend who's Mum just corked it.

Death and grief are very personal, we all feel differently, we all hurt differently and we all cope differently. I don't pretend to know what other people need to get them through the dark days, but here are some "do's and don'ts" that I wish I'd written down and sent out to my friends and family before my Mum died. Maybe they will help you to be a better friend to someone in the future, maybe you've already done/not done these things for a friend who is in their own particular grieving period, and you can congratulate yourself on being fucking brilliant, whatever, I felt they were worth noting down and sharing.

Do's and don'ts of supporting a friend who's Mum just corked it.

Do... Visit, call, write, text, email. Yes, I know you don't know what to say to me, I don't know what I want to hear, but contact is better than no contact. Recite poetry, tell me about your shitty day at work, let your kid/cat/dog chat down the phone to me. It helps to know that people are thinking of you. And think about how close you are to me to decide on your method. Close friend? Come and see me. Not so close? Call. Not close at all? Email. You get the idea.

Don't...Expect me to respond. As lovely as it is knowing that you are thinking of me, the idea of having to talk someone through what the "current situation" is (pre-death) or how I'm feeling (post) scares me more than clowns. I started up a WhatsApp group as my Mum entered her final weeks, with my partner and my closest friends, then I left it, which meant that Stevie could update people as and when there was something to say, all in one big group text. It saved me repeating myself and meant my friends did't have to constantly ask what was going on.

Do...Confront the elephant in the room. What you don't realise is that my every waking hour is taken up with thinking about my Mum. She is still (6 weeks after her death) the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about before I go to sleep. So you mentioning her name or asking after her does not suddenly make me think about her. I already was.

Do...Let me talk. No, really. I WANT to talk about my Mum, I NEED to talk about her. The only time I feel that I still have a connection with her is when I am talking about her. You may find it boring, but I don't. I may need to re-tell you the same thing several times like a drunk trying to put forward an argument. I'm sorry, but I need to do that too, you see, I'm still trying to make sense of what happened, and telling the story of her death over and over again is my way of doing that- and also my way of reassuring myself that I did everything I could at the time. You can help by telling me that too; it's so easy to start feeling guilt- did I spend enough time with her? Maybe I should have called more? Did I make the right decision for X? I did, I know I did, but I need some validation here, please.

Do...Feed me. In the lead up to my Mum's death I was so grateful for people feeding me. In the days after she died, we went out to eat a lot- It's so hard to get excited about cooking when you feel so low. And food options for relatives in hospitals are so terrible that I'm surprised I'm not a stone heavier  right now. When the shops/cafes are open there is a very limited choice, and then come 5pm, everything shuts and unless it comes out of a vending machine, it's not going in your mouth. I single handedly raised the volume of sales for Wotsits this March. Whether it's dropping off lunch to the hospital or putting food in my freezer so that when I am home I can just heat something up and eat without the hassle of cooking, it is massively appreciated.

Don't...Make me angry. I am more sensitive right now than you will ever see me again. Leaving the toilet seat up is likely to send me into a rage state. I will probably be a bitch to you over nothing. A lot. Every feeling I have is heightened at this stage, so I'm afraid you're just going to have to give me a bit of lee-way. Not too much, just enough to avoid me doing time for murder.

Do...Go to the funeral. I need every bit of support that I can get, just seeing you standing there when I walk in will mean the world. Staying and getting bladdered with me at the wake will mean even more.

Don't...Hold back from mentioning your Mum (if you still have one); It won't make me sad, I'm grieving but I don't wish this feeling on anyone, so, believe me, I am happy that you DO still have a Mum. Just be aware that I may struggle seeing you together; never is there a better slap in the face than having what you would give your right arm for played out in front of your (weepy) eyes.

Don't...Make me make decisions. In the final few days of my Mum's life, deciding whether to have white or red wine was a decision too far. I spent every waking moment making tough medical decisions with (early on) or on behalf of (the latter days) my Mum, so the last thing I want to do right now is decide whether to meet you in Croydon or Redhill- you decide, let me know where to be and when. Oh, and don't make it Croydon, for the love of God.

Do...Avoid platitudes. No, I do NOT feel like she is "in a better place"; the "better place" would be here with everyone who loved her. Yes, of course she's out of pain, but she's also been incinerated into tiny bits of ash- this does not give me the comfort that you hope for. Just say what you really feel, avoid the cliches. 

Don't...Say you understand. Because, unless you have lost your Mum, you don't. You losing your Grandmother when you were 12 does NOT compare to this. Saying that you understand is arrogant and insensitive

Do...Tell me of your memories. I will never have the opportunity to make new memories with my Mum, so you sharing yours with me is precious. I can't spend time with my Mum, but I can get to know other sides to her through you, her friends, colleagues and family.

Do...Help with the practical side. Turn up to clear out my Mum's house. Offer to call her utility companies to let them know that they can turn off the supply because ain't no amount of heat going to warm her up now. Help with moving furniture, putting the house on the market etc. I am already emotionally and physically drained, and this next bit is tiring. I need help. But remember to offer specific support "can I help?" only leaves me with a decision to make (see point 9)

Do...Remember that I am still me, I am not my Mothers' death. I may be a little less likely to go out dancing on tables, I may be a little more likely to cry on you, but I'm still here, I just need to get through every day, one day at a time; and you can help me to do that.

Do...Buy shares in Wotsits.


Thursday, 24 April 2014

Dear Natwest...

This complaint letter just resulted in £300 compensation…. and a bottle of wine. Never let big companies "get away" with bad service!!

Katy-Anne Moses
SE15 3XX

07841 666XXX

20th April 2014

To Whom it May Concern

I am writing to complain about the, frankly, disgusting insulting service I have received from Natwest in recent weeks. I would imagine that a lesser woman than myself would have been broken by this situation, but I'm staying strong. for the sake of my children.

Having been a Natwest customer for approximately 8 years, I am incredibly disappointed with the way in which I have been treated and the sloppy, shoddy and unprofessional way that the majority of your useless staff that I have had the misfortune to speak to about this complaint (the original issue plus the subsequent complaints that are being added as we go along) have dealt with my situation.

The original complaint is thus- make sure you are sitting down, it goes on a bit….

I have recently started up my own company, and, having my personal account with Natwest, decided that I would  open my business account with you too- remember that bit in Pretty Woman where she goes back into the shop and says "Big Mistake, Huge".. yes, well that about sums up that decision. I made an appointment to see someone at the Holborn Circus branch on the 21st March at 2pm. I made it EXPLICITLY clear that I wanted to discuss the following- My Savings account, my ISA, my mortgage and I also wanted to open a business account. I confirmed with the call centre person that I wanted to discuss Business AND personal issues in ONE meeting as I did not have time to attend two separate meetings. I was assured this would be the case. 

Why I believed this, I do not know, but I did. I attended the meeting on the 21st March and was appalled at the level of knowledge your "adviser" had- he wasn't even aware of the new NISA's bought in by the government in that month's budget. He then informed me that he could do nothing with my mortgage (currently with NRAM) as I had only just become a LTD company and therefore didn't have years' worth of accounts that are needed to take out a Natwest mortgage- could I not have been told that on the telephone when I booked an appointment?? 

After much discussion, we agreed that I would move my Santander ISA (£XXXX- year 2013/14 allowance) over to a Natwest ISA. I would also then put the full amount of this year's ISA allowance into the new Natwest ISA too- and I would get 1.5% for locking in for 2 years. I filled out and signed the transfer form and gave my permission for you to transfer the funds and close that account. This would all happen when the new allowance came in on the 5th April. I write this letter on the 20th- it still hasn't been done. More on that later.

I then moved on to my business account- only to be told that the adviser "wasn't on the business team and couldn't help me". The rage was obviously beginning to show by now- after all, I was talking about moving all my worldly goods over to this bank, and you seemed to not be able to even get the simplest job done- make me an appointment with the right person! I was then taken to another room, where the adviser called someone in the business team- a woman called Pretty, who opened the account over the phone for me- I was assured by the other adviser that I had a "good credit score" with natwest so it wouldn't be a problem- I needed a business account, business savings account and credit card. I was told I would get all the details for the newly opened account through the post within 5 days.

I was left alone in this room, and when I was finished, I let myself out- I was in the back rooms of your bank with no supervision, open computers and all sorts of access to personal data- this is NOT how I would expect a financial institution to behave- appalling security!! I left the branch without speaking to anyone or being challenged. I considered a bank heist but I was late for Yoga.

Because of the ineptitude of the in branch adviser, my ISA has STILL not been transferred- meanwhile I am losing out on interest on a daily basis.

I was eventually given a business account- it took over 2 weeks to get the details through, and 3 unreturned phone calls. And I was given a foundation account due to a credit check that didn’t go in my favour. Like a child that can’t be trusted. To say I am annoyed is an understatement.

I would NEVER have opened a business account with you had I known this was going to be the case- and don't tell me that you "don't know who will be accepted and who will be rejected until you credit check"- your in-branch adviser told me I had a good score. Maybe he isn't good at giving bad news. Or saying goodbye to customers. Or much else.

Cut to the 8th April, which is when I started making a note of all of my exact points of contact with Natwest, although there were plenty of calls made by myself to you before that, and my ISA has not been transferred. I call through to "Joanna", who PROMISES me a call back within 24 hours- and I lodge a formal complaint. During this I am cut off 3 times and passed through 4 people

I hear nothing for 3 days. 

Friday 10th April- I call AGAIN. I speak to "Kiera"… she PROMISES to contact me within 24 hours about the complaint- she says it hasn't even been logged/passed on to the right people. 

By now I am furious- and understandably so. 

Tuesday 15th April- (yep, still no call from the complaints team) I call again- I am passed pillar to post, no one knows what is going on- I am asked to explain the complaint AGAIN and AGAIN by everyone I speak to. after 10 minutes I have got nowhere are am considering slitting my wrists. 

I take time out to calm down, consider necking a bottle of vodka to get me through the next call, and call back (unfortunately sober) I end up through to a call centre in Manchester. I am sent through to 3 different departments and finally get through to Mustafa… who asks me to explain my complaint. Again. I finish the call in a heap of frustration on my kitchen floor, close to tears and trying to find some hard liquor to drink at 4pm. This is too early even for me.

Weds 16th April- Pretty calls from the business team- how am I finding my new account? After asking her whether she is joking, I discover she knows nothing about the complaint. She asks me to explain. I tell her to "look it up and get back to me". She never calls back- maybe she could hear that I am a woman on the edge and she decides to play it safe. Maybe she is now working in Tesco, hoping that I will never be able to track her down.

Thursday 17th April- I call again- I am promised, by a lovely, ineffective young man that he will put me through to the right department- he kindly re-routes me through to the original recorded message that I had already sat through.

I hang up and consider whether it is possible to live a life that doesn't involve bank accounts. I decide that it's not possible unless I become a fugitive- which is actually on the cards as I don't see what other choice I will have after I have taken my planned revenge on Natwest. I am too soft for prison.

I had pretty much given up on ever contacting you again- until today (20th April)- when, whilst I was trying to get the last two seats on a flight, you BLOCKED my debit card due to "suspicious activity". That "suspicious activity" was me booking flights. Last year I went abroad 11 times- this is NOT suspicious activity. Suspicious activity would be me NOT booking flights. You have done this countless times- please take this as an official request that you NEVER block my card without calling me FIRST. Not after, which is what you did today. I missed getting the last two seats on the flight I needed and had to pay £60 extra to fly with another airline.

Which brings me to my final point- here is what is going to happen, you are going to-

Transfer my Santander ISA, as previously requested (without me having to go back into a branch to sign ANOTHER form)
Look into my complaint and respond FULLY in writing

I expect all of this to be done by the close of play (that's 6pm to most of us, but, conveniently, 5pm to your business advisers- why? Maybe they have yoga too.) on the 25th April.

I then expect you to do the following-

Compensate me for the missed interest on said ISA- whatever the amount I have missed out on PLUS compensation
Compensate me for the amount of time I have spent trying to solve YOUR ineptitude - my day rate is £XXX, I believe this situation has taken around 2 days of my time so to date (assuming I don't have to do ANY more chasing, I am invoicing you for £XXX
Compensate me for the extra flight costs- £60
Explain the situation with my business account- I have no savings account, no credit card and a foundation account- and also every time I call Natwest, I get asked about my business debit card rather than getting through to the main menu straight away- please stop this, it is BEYOND irritating
To send me a full and formal apology

In return, I will graciously accept all of the above and stop lying awake at night, planning your downfall.

If this situation is NOT resolved by 6pm on the 25th April- I will be putting a copy of this letter onto my blog (readership 2,500), sending a copy to every National newspaper, every consumer rights group, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, the Financial Ombudsman…and my Mum. The latter is the scariest, I assure you.

I very much look forward to hearing from you. It would be a first.

Kind Regards

Katy Moses

PS- The only reason this letter is being sent by traditional post is that your online form does not allow characters such as “!”, “% or “?”- making it nigh-on impossible to complain online. Clever.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Kindle V Books... for me it isn't even up for debate.

I have been considering getting a Kindle. Last night I made up my mind.

Yesterday, I gave blood. Obviously part of the reason I am telling you this is so that you think I am a fabulous, generous, giving person.

However, there is another reason for me mentioning this point. Any of you who have ever sat in a sterile room in a local church/school hall/library having just given an eighth of your blood will understand that it leaves you feeling a bit lightheaded and weak, and so you are asked to rest for 20 minutes whilst drinking sugary squash and biscuits that are normally reserved for school lunchboxes. In 1986. I had an Orange Club.

Whilst waiting out the otherwise inevitable fainting episode at the top of the four flights of stairs you have to climb up after donating (who thought up THAT venue!?), I noticed that the girl next to me was reading "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett.

The next 20 minutes were passed blissfully by two "readers" comparing current books, past books enjoyed, recommendations and "steer clear of's".

You simply don't get that with Kindle readers- because you don't have that initial reason to talk.

Stevie has a Kindle- but Stevie is practically blind, so it is really the only way that he CAN read books as font size is adjustable and the pages are "lit". So that's OK.

When my Great Auntie Joyce passed away, my Grandma gave me back a book that I had loaned to her (The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips- read it!)- with her bookmark still marking where she had got to- three quarters the way through. I now have that book back in my collection, and every time I look at it, I feel happy that she was getting enjoyment out of something I had given her before she passed away. You don't get that with a Kindle.

A Kindle strikes me as a very selfish way to read books. You can't pass them on afterwards to friends who you believe will like/benefit from them. You aren't sharing with the outside world what you are reading and so miss out on conversations with strangers who are equally book-ish.

And a Kindle doesn't add to the decor in your house. Stevie has had to build two sets of shelves for our living room to house all my books- and we are nearly out of room. So I will ask him to build more. I love looking at those shelves and remembering when I read a certain book- some books can evoke great memories and strong feelings. Like The Green Mile, which I read whilst on a veranda of a beach hut in Thailand when I was 19 and trying to decide what to do with my life (I didn't manage to come to a conclusion, but the book was amazing. It made me cry.). Like "Half a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I read whilst sitting for hours at a time in the canteen at East Surrey Hospital waiting for visiting hours to see Stevie when he was ill with tick bite fever (contracted in South Africa). Like the first time I read Lionel Shriver and realised that it was possible to describe human emotions so fittingly that it was like she had lived a hundred lives.

So, for me, it's a no-brainer, I will keep my books, thank you, and you techies can go on an on about how much you LOVE your Kindle. 

And for those of you who scoff, call me old fashioned and promise that sooner or later books will become obsolete, I point you to some words from the lovely Stephen Fry-

“Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.” 


Friday, 1 February 2013

Vietnam adventure- Day 9- And what have we learnt, children?

Vietnam adventure- Day 9- And what have we learnt, children?

I have had a fabulous time here, full of massive highs and some plunging lows. But I'm ready to leave now. My foot is really giving me issues, I've done too much. But I don't regret it- I didn't come here to sit on the sidelines, I came here to experience something totally different to my day to day life- and to get more involved with Hoang and his community. And I feel that I have done that- if it sets me back a week in recovery, then so be it. Walking is overrated. And besides which, as my lovely Stepmother pointed out, having just one foot means you can take more shoes on holiday. 

I spent this morning in bed, I needed to rest and the painkillers weren't touching the sides. At about 2pm I went in search of food. I have really enjoyed the culinary experiences that Vietnam had had too offer (excluding the pigs intestines and chicken feet), but as with any type of food- 9 days of it (bar last nights very nice lasagna), 3 meals a day is too much. 

So I went for a curry. And very nice it was too.

I then popped into the Hanoi Backpackers hotel again and met a lovely, handsome, intelligent chap called Ben, from Melbourne (Ben, will that do?). after explaining my foot issue, I asked what I should see in my last two hours in Hanoi. He recommended that I head to the Hanoi Prison, known during the American War as the Hanoi Hilton. He very kindly ordered me a cab and after a brief chat about my time so far in Vietnam, I left him with my blog address and went off to my last sightseeing excursion of the trip.

It was only as I hauled myself out of the taxi at the prison that I remembered my last couple of blogs about the Backpackers Hotel. My blood ran cold and I started to sweat. Shit shit shit. OK, nothing I could do about it at that point, but I made a mental note to go back and apologise for my portrayal of his customers and the environment that he obviously works so hard in.

The prison was a good choice- mainly for the photographs displayed- it was fascinating to see the pictures from the American war, to see the American prisoners' life behind bars. However, the propaganda on show was mind-blowing. Every picture of the American soldiers showed them playing pool, table tennis, eating full dinners, playing cards, smoking looked like a bloody holiday camp, not a prison- and after the 10th mention of how "well" the Yanks were looked after whilst behind bars, I was starting to feel a bit nauseous. I don't agree with the war- not it's motives nor the way that it was carried out- and I KNOW that the Americans did unspeakable things to the country and it's people. HOWEVER, there are two sides to every story- and this exhibition was not showing them both. I moved on to a section on women- women who were instrumental in the resistance against the French- strong, proud women who paved the way for the respect that is now afforded to women throughout the country. 

The piece de la resistance was the flight suit belonging to one John McCain, shot down from his US Air force plane by the Vietnamese army, yanked out of the lake and incarcerated in Hanoi prison.

Having left the Hanoi Hilton, and after a ugly altercation with a taxi driver who ripped me off for 60,000 dong, for which I pronounced him to be a fucking criminal, and threatened to raise merry hell... until I realised it was about £1.20, I spent some more time resting my foot, before strapping the Wally Boot back on and hobbling back to the Hanoi Backpacker Hotel to proffer my apologies to the lovely Ben. He thankfully, graciously accepted them and reassured me that he, nor the other staff would take offence. He then READ the offending article and came over with a big grin on his face to compliment me on my writing style. I don't think he read the second blog entry yet, but it's out there now- a good lesson to me I believe- stand by what you write, or don't write it at all.

Three vodka and oranges, and still not hungry, I decided to head back to the hotel, via a shop and grab some snacks, to pack for my flight to Thailand the following day.

So. How the hell do I sum up this eye-opening trip?

Lists. Everyone loves a list, right?

What has been good?

1- Meeting Hoang and his family. I don't think I need to explain to you the profound effect that THIS part if the trip has had on me. It has made me grateful for what I have, and it has made me understand what true poverty is- not being unable to put petrol in a car, but being so destitute that you do not have the basic amenities that are necessary to reach an acceptable standard of living.

2- Meeting the Actionaid girls, and seeing and understanding where my sponsorship money is spent each month- and why. I am also forever grateful for their generosity, their time and the effort that spent in introducing me to all of the work they are doing in the Da Bac area. It was great to see why they are doing it and what results it is having- and that's the thing, seeing the results of charity- it's not just a direct debit to me anymore, giving to reputable agencies like Actionaid changes lives. No hyperbole needed.

3- Although controlling at times, Vung and Kin gave me the gift of seeing the REAL Vietnam- without them I may have played it too safe, not stepped (or hopped!) out of my boundaries. Whether it was eating pigs intestine, getting pissed with his family, being introduced to tribes people- or simply having the luxury of having the Vietnamese way of life explained to me as we went along-without him, my experience would not have had the stamp of authenticity that he bought to it.

4- Travelling alone has given me the time to think. An incredibly valuable commodity in my current world. It had meant that I have had to be brave, determined and self-sufficient. And I am proud of that.

5- The Vietnamese people are an admirable race, tenacious and proud, they have seen off one after the other country who has wanted to control them, own them and change their way of life. They are kind, generous and always wanting to help. 

6- My Blog. My Lord- I can't thank you all enough for following me on my travels- I didn't feel so alone when i knew that you were all out there rooting for me. I have had over 1,100 readers "click-through" to my posts, I am overwhelmed by the interest shown in my little excursion- a few of you have suggested that I try to publish it, and maybe that is something I will look into when I get back. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

What has been bad?

1- Well, alongside it being a positive, it was also a negative travelling alone. No one to laugh with, to point things out to- just to generally share the experience. And when I DID feel alone and down, I really did... I missed Stevie, and my friends and family. But thank the lord for Skype.

2- The Hellhole hotel. I am not someone who demands 5* wherever I go. After all, I slept in a frozen tent on the side of a mountain for 7 nights when I did Kili- but that hotel was a different class- I don't like dirt. Basic is fine. Dirty sheets is not.

3- The Foot. The thing with doing all of this trip in a Wally Boot is that it is EXHAUSTING. My schedule was hectic and packed full of sightseeing and activities- and having a fractured foot as a companion for the last 9 days has made everything that little bit more difficult, a little bit more challenging and a LOT more painful.

In summary, the parts that I saw of North Vietnam are wonderful. They, despite the tourism influx in other parts of Asia, have remained immune to any westernisation. The communist government and historical links with China lend the area a slightly austere atmosphere, which is, thankfully, balanced by the genuine and generous nature of it's people. The food is great- but they could work on their wine list!

And so, here I am, enveloped in the crisp white sheets of my bed in a beach-side hut, on my 2nd night in Koh Samui, where I have arrived for Briony's wedding tomorrow. The last 10 days seem a little surreal at the moment, but I know that I will soon settle back in to normal life, and look back on my trip as an amazing and unique experience- and one that I will never forget.

Over and out



Tuesday, 29 January 2013

An extra post- an amusing email I have just received from Mai Chau Lodge, following my stay and the "Lizard incident"

An extra post- an amusing email I have just received from Mai Chau Lodge, following my stay and the "Lizard incident"

I hope you laugh as much as I did!!!

Dear Ms. Moses,

Thank you so much for sharing your feedback and for having chosen our hotel whilst recently in Mai Chau.
It was a pleasure to read about your impressions, we are delighted that your stay met with your entire approval! Please be assured that it has been my pleasure to share your warm comment with all the teams. 

I would like to apologize that you were inconvenienced because the gigantic lizard in your room yesterday night. I fully understand how it can be scary, even if you are not especially scared of reptiles. Moreover, it is true that at first sight, the creamy pink color is quite disconcerting ("is this lizard sick?" "what happened to it?"). 
I have been also confused the first time I saw one of them, though very small, so I can imagine that bafflement could be proportional to the size! I am really sorry about the fact you could not sleep because of that and I hope that you could have had a nice nap in the car this morning.
We would be honored if you would share your opinion on the Trip Advisor website. Indeed, your feedback is indeed extremely important as it helps us to provide a memorable experience to our valued guests.
I hope you will have an excellent continuation of your trip and that your broken feet will not put a curb on your fun and I look forward to the pleasure of welcoming you again in our beautiful valley.
Warmest Regards
Brilliant. Gigantic Lizard. Seeeeeeee, I wasn't being silly!!!!

Vietnam adventure- Day 8- Just one more...

Vietnam adventure- Day 8- just one more...

I hate myself a little bit right now. I am sat back in The Hanoi Backpacker Hotel (wi-fi password- "I love Hanoi"), having just ordered a lasagna. I came out for pizza, 8 days of Vietnamese food is a (love you) long time- but the only one I fancied was called 'Napalm' and I just couldn't bring myself to order it. What the hell is WRONG with the Western world?????

Ok, so I got a bit emotional last night, it was a long, eye-opener of a day.

In fact, I didn't even blog about my dinner, most unusual for me! So please see above for a shot of it. Vung and Kin took me to a local restaurant where they serve 'hotpot', a boiling hot broth that cooks on your table on a hotplate and then you order whatever you want to cook in it- we had chicken, beef, mushrooms, green vegetables, a side order of sticky rice (rice balls made with a different type if rice) and fried corn. We sat on the floor, as we did today for lunch, so it hasn't been the best 24 hours for my foot. I'm in a lot of pain and have had to go back onto higher doses of painkiller. Don't tell Stevie.

An early night and despite a yapping dog outside my window that kept me up until 2am, at which point I called reception and told them that if they didn't stop it from barking or send it away, I was going to kill it and they could serve it for breakfast, I got about 5 hours sleep. Good-o.

This morning I was picked up by the Actionaid girls, after Vung and I had gone to the local market where I spent £12 on 10 kilos of rice, 3 kilos of sticky rice and some noodles to take to Hoang's family later, when I was to say my goodbyes.

First stop was another school supported by Actionaid- they have installed toilets here too- and a kitchen- which is essentially just a mud hut where a fire can be lit and a few kitchen utensils- not exactly home but better than what WAS there. I sat in on a lesson for a bit, with some lovely, polite children who stood up as I hobbled in and out of the room- but had very mischievous faces the whole time I was in there. Actionaid have also helped to cultivate a very small vegetable patch- it's not exactly River Cottage, but it's a portion of free vegetables, and therefore nutrients, for the children- they can each get about a serving per week. Yes, per WEEK.

Actionaid have also introduced a system whereby the Fathers of the students can attend reading and writing classes in the afternoons- this stops them from being jealous of the kids and preventing them from attending school- yet another hurdle that needs to be overcome.

There are 130 children here, and on top of the 13 subjects that they are taught at Primary school level, they have time set aside for Physical Education- skipping and football mainly- not that they need it, I haven't seen an overweight child yet, many, in fact most, of them walk several miles to and from school each day- as well as working on their parents land when they aren't learning.

I listened in on a music lesson- just singing, there is no money for instruments here, and even if there was, there is no one to teach them. Cue light bulb this space... 

After spending some time with the children, we moved on to see another project that Actionaid are working on. Once they have identified an area in need, Actionaid tend to stick around for between 10-15 years- depending on the level of need. Da Bac, Hoang's home community has had an Actionaid office for 6 years so far. 

This project is focusing on just one family- a couple with two children, one of 5 years and one of four months. They have shown them how to make their own fertiliser to help to increase the productivity of their crops, and how to look after their pigs better so that they reach the age of culling. In doing this, the family has become pretty much self sufficient and even has some produce left to sell at the market.

The average wage in this area 0f Vietnam is £300 per year. Families who are benefiting from Actionaid's help earn on average £400 per year- a 33% increase is nothing to be sniffed at. To put this into context, the average wage in Vietnam as a whole is around £650 per annum- obviously this varies wildly on profession and area.

We left the family, who wouldn't let us go without plying us with fresh grapefruit from their garden, and insisting I take a small peach blossom tree (traditionally placed in Vietnamese houses during Tet), which obviously I had no use for, I can imagine the look on the faces of the UK customs department- "it's a WHAT Madam?", but I accepted on behalf of Hoang's family thinking that it would make a nice gesture alongside the food that we were going to deliver.

The next stop was at a community vegetable patch. Well, I say patch, it was about 20 times the size of my garden , and 100 times more productive. A group of village women run this patch, under tuition of Actionaid, which has increased the yield to the point where all the families involved have fresh vegetables available on a regular basis.

This is when the police arrived. They wanted to meet me, check me over and make sure that I wasn't saying anything negative about their scummy, controlling, poverty-encouraging, immoral government, which of course, I wasn't.

Our final stop today was Hoang's house again, where we delivered the food and peach blossom tree. I was concerned about how this would look, I was very aware that walking into a poverty-stricken families' life, dishing out a load of food to them and buggering off was just a plaster on a life-threatening gash- and I didn't want to come across as some rich bitch Westerner who thinks they can buy a moments happiness for someone worse off than themselves. But I still wanted to help.

The girls from Actionaid asked how I would like my gift to be explained, I said that I wanted them to have the opportunity to celebrate Tet, and as much I would like to celebrate with them, I had a wedding to go to, and so the peach blossom tree was my way of being there in spirit. That seemed to translate well. Hoang's mum cried, shook my hand and wouldn't allow me to leave until I had come  into her house and had tea. A round of hugs, and I was put back in the car- we were running an hour behind and Vung had been on The phone having Kittens about where I was. Hoang's house below. Crap picture, sorry!

Leaving Hoang and his family cut me up inside like I can't begin to describe. The unfairness of the inequality in this world is astounding- and I know that some of you have said to me that they "know no better", and I understand that, but it doesn't mean it's right- a junkie's kid born inside a prison in the UK doesn't "know any better"- does that make it right? Like fuck it does. And I'm not talking about a family who can't afford to put petrol in their car- I'm talking about a family who can't put food in their kids- and that shit stinks to high heaven. 
Arriving back at my Hotel, Vung was getting mardy with the Actionaid girls. No more Miss Nice Katy. I firmly explained that I had come to Asia for two reasons- a friends' wedding and to spend time with Hoang and his family. Vung got a strop on and didn't speak to me most of the way to our next stop- apparently the Actionaid girls were rude to him. My exact words were, I believe "get over it".

By the time we stopped, sweetness and light Vung had returned (perhaps remembering his tip?!). And so had non-bitch Katy, so all was good.

Next stop was Vung's uncle's house. I seriously need to wise up- earlier in the week, Vung had mentioned that his uncles farm was on the drive back to Hanoi. I said that I would love to see it, and he arranged for us to have lunch there. In my mind, I had, yet again, romanticised this. If there are any if the Williams/Beake/Gillespie/Kozminski family reading, I had The Farm in my head.

What I actually hopped up to was a two room concrete building- one room for sleeping/eating and cooking, and a toilet. Vungs uncle runs a bee farm. And his aunt had laid on a massive spread. Some things I didn't recognise. And some I did, but wished that I didn't. Chicken feet for example.

After brief introductions and the undignified act of taking a pee in their toilet with no roof and only a 6 foot wall in between my squatting body and my hosts, the Wally Boot was removed for the first time for me to sit on the mat specially laid out for lunch. We proceeded to eat, and drink copious amounts of rice wine over the next 3 hours- I even managed to FaceTime Stevie and introduce him to my motley drunken Vietnamese crew. The running joke, for any him!mers out there (Helen???) was my ability to say "ok, just one more!" And then sink 3 more shots. Conversation was stilted due to Vung having to translate- but we laughed and had fun like old friends on the piss. Vung's uncle tried, at one point to convince me to stay at his house rather than go to my hotel In Hanoi. Never gonna happen.

Vung was pissed. In fact, Vung was shitfaced. I looked at Kin for help. "Don't worry Katy, I will get you back to your hotel safely, Vung is just having fun with his family, I have said to him that he can stay here if he wants and I will escort you back". What. The. F....?. Kin speaks English? Day 8, and I discover that his English is this good. I feel cheated and tell him so. "I'm shy" comes the reply.

We left in a flurry of hugs, just one more shot, promises to visit again, and being told I am their "number one friend". 

Vung and I slept on and off all the way back to Hanoi, whilst Kin chuckled to himself in that irritating way that sober people laugh at drunk people. He had just one drink all day. We finished a bottle of 45% proof rice wine between the rest of us.

I check into my hotel, and am immediately hit with Hanoi belly.  

And so, dear reader, I find myself back in the land of the young and the tanned, with Dizzee Rascal on in the background, watching the traditional mating dance of the British and Aussie backpackers, bandannas round their heads, weaved friendship bracelets round their wrists, drinking Tiger Beers and Sex on the Beach (its Tuesday, and cocktails are two for one), having finished my lasagne, and I am left with one question. 

Are these people really our future?  

I fucking hope not.