Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Weasel Coffee Anyone?

The humidity is suffocating as we ooze through the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. To our surprise, every shop we pass sells nothing but exhaust pipes. We pass Silk Street to our left, Zip Street to our right, Broom Street, Basket Street, Flip Flop Street – you name it and there is a whole street of people selling it.

It was not easy to extract ourselves from our luxurious bed at the Hanoi Backpackers’ Hostel (www.hanoibackpackershostel.com) this morning, a bargain at just £11 for a double room. But after a hearty breakfast of fresh French bread, jams, Vegemite and coffee and we are ready to go.

Today we are on the search for ‘Weasel Shit Coffee’. A legend amongst travellers, this Vietnamese luxury is said to be made from coffee beans that have been passed through the bowels of a weasel. In reality the coffee cherries are fed to a civet. When the beans pop out the other end they are cleaned, roasted and ground into this oh so appetizing beverage. A delicacy not to be missed. I think.

Coming to the edge of the old town, we join a throng of tourists by the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake. The Turtle Pagoda stands majestically at its centre, ignored by the majority of visitors who are buying cheap souvenirs and postcards from the stalls that spread out over the shores. Across the water we can see the colonial style buildings of the French Quarter, a reminder of the occupiers who dwelt here from the mid 19th Century right up until 1954. Old men enjoy a quiet game of chess in the leafy shade. They look as though they haven’t moved from their seats for hundreds of years.

Back on the search, we discover Football Street. Each little roadside shop has its doors wide open, some with huge TV’s showing premiership football, others crammed with PlayStations and teenagers playing Pro-evolution Soccer. We pull up two tiny plastic stools at a bar where Arsenal v Chelsea is just kicking off. The cool evening air soothes our hot skin. A group of street sweepers, all women, sit down with us and offer me some tea. They talk at me and I talk at them. We don’t understand a word but it doesn’t seem important.

The sun is all but gone, our feet are tired and heads fuzzy from Ha Noi Beer. We approach a jaded looking cafĂ© and to our delight see a sign that exclaims, “Trung Nguyen, Weasel Shit Coffee sold here!” The drinks placed before us resemble Greek coffee, thick and dark. It is awful, like sweet tar. The waiter grins at us in that lovely Vietnamese way. “Very nice. You like?” He asks. “Delicious,” we both agree.

Exhausted, we climb wearily into the back of a pedicab that sails gently through the deserted midnight streets to our bed. We will sleep well tonight, ready for another adventure tomorrow.

Read 'Weasel Coffee Anyone?' as published by the Guardian.

Published: The Guardian Travel, 19/09/09, page 4.

Sawadee Ka!

Laemson Beach, Koh Phangan, Thailand

Laemson is breathtaking. With only one resort of huts lining the sands it almost feels like a private beach. Palm trees shade the soft white sand and the blue green sea stretches out, barely rippling, to infinity.

Each hut sits right on the beach and has two hammocks on the porch. Every night I lie, pineapple smoothie in hand, watching the most amazing fork lightening ripping through the dark clouds that line the horizon. Above shines the brightest moon I have ever seen. The clouds get closer and closer, sometimes they pass by, other times they arrive right overhead bringing with them the most spectacular thunder and lightening I have ever experienced. It sounds like bombs going off on the roof.

The family-run resort offers a restaurant that serves delicious home made Thai food. It is like living in their house. You walk through the living room (where there is often someone doing karaoke or watching television) and into their kitchen to place your order. On one day all the guests were invited to join a birthday karaoke party of one of the children. Two bold Irish men joined the mother to sing in what they believed to be Thai!

The sea is as hot as a bath in the shallows but becomes cool enough to soothe my pink skin further out. There is an abundance of life in the water so it is a bit slimy under foot until you get far enough out to swim but it is worth it for the incredible snorkeling and reef walking that is possible only metres from the shore.

The island is rich with vegetation. Forests of palm trees cover the slopes to the shore. Dense jungle crowds the centre of the island with giant banana trees, yucca plants and ferns. Vines creep over and around everything. Weird and wonderful fruit hangs from almost every branch, the spiky mass of the durian fruit seeming to defy gravity. Climbing plants adorned with purple, peach and cream flowers shine in the undergrowth wherever you lay your eyes.

Birdsong fills the air from sunrise to sunset. Telephone, dinosaur and robot noises compete with the delicate whistles of smaller birds and the calls of sea eagles. As the evening sets in geckos squeak and chatter, cockroaches and giant bees buzz angrily. There are endless noises, the performers I cannot even begin to identify.

If you are lucky you could catch a glimpse of a giant monitor lizard. I will have to go back soon to look for one of those…


Santa Claus is Coming to Town!

Christmas arrived early in Chepstow yesterday when over 200 Santas raced the 3.5km across the M48 Severn Bridge.

The Santa Run raised around £7000 in aid of children’s hospice, Ty Hafan. The charity’s services - which include respite care, learning and play activities, end of life care and family support - are provided free of charge to families throughout Wales.

Craig Ananin, Events Manager and Organizer said: “We thought this would be a great way to start the festive season. Christmas is all about children and this is a great time to remind people of all the hard work done by Ty Hafan.”


Published: Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Review, 11/12/09, page 13.

Cardiff Scientist Makes Groundbreaking Global Warming Discovery

Research led by a Cardiff scientist has confirmed that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is directly related to climate change.

"We have now established that human activity is causing global warming,” Says Prof. Pearson of Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences.

The team of experts from Cardiff, Bristol and Texas A&M Universities made the discovery whilst on an expedition to the remote East African village of Stakishari. They extracted hundreds of meters rock containing microfossils of plankton. Using these samples they were able to read the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a range of times in history.

"We wanted to look at climate change in the past so we could use it as a model for the future," Said Prof. Pearson.

The team’s findings confirmed that atmospheric CO2 started to decline about 34 million years ago, as the ice sheet began to form.

Geologists have long speculated that the formation of the Antarctic ice cap was caused by a gradually diminishing natural greenhouse effect. However, these findings are the first to provide a direct link and therefore confirm the relationship between carbon dioxide and global climate.

Prof. Pearson explained that this new information is particularly alarming when put in the context of today’s atmosphere. CO2 levels fluctuate naturally, which is why the ice caps have a cycle of growth and decline. Scientists have mapped the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere over the last 10,000 years revealing small natural changes - until the start of the industrial revolution, when it rises dramatically.

“The big worry is that this is just the beginning of the process of global warming. If nothing is done the situation looks very serious. We have the ability to stop it but we don't have much of a window of opportunity," Said Prof. Pearson.

The new findings will add to the debate about rising CO2 levels when the UN Climate Conference meets in Copenhagen later this year.


An Hour on a Pedestal

Sue Wallace, of Itton, became a living sculpture last Friday as part of Antony Gormley's One and Other project in Trafalgar Square.

Antony Gormley, sculptor of the Angel of the North, has invited the public to take part in his latest project. This artistic experiment sees a different person every hour, 24 hours a day, for 100 days on top of the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Sue Wallace, of Itton, was on the Plinth on Friday 31 July, from 9.00pm to 10.00pm.

“In a moment of madness I applied,” Says Sue. “I loved the idea that you don’t have to be a monarch to be up there!”

Some participants use it as a stage, some as a protest platform, others do nothing, but all project an image of humanity. After losing both parents to cancer, Sue decided to use this opportunity to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support. She has raised £500 so far and is still accepting donations at www.justgiving.com/sueontheplinth.

“I wanted to make that space mine for an hour. I took a chair, a rug, photos of my grandsons and some books to read. I was very aware of the warmth and support of people on the ground as they watched and waved,” recalls Sue.

The plinth can be watched live by webcam at www.oneandother.co.uk.

Published: Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Review, 07/08/09, front page.

New Stone Circle Provides Clues to the Meaning of Stonehenge

Archaeologists have discovered evidence of a lost stone circle on the banks of the River Avon, just a mile from Stonehenge.

Excavations by the Stonehenge Riverside Project uncovered nine stone holes, thought to be part of a circle originally made up of 25 standing stones.

According to Dr Josh Pollard from the University of Bristol and co-director of the project, the newly-discovered circle and henge should be considered an integral part of Stonehenge rather than a separate monument. “It offers tremendous insight into the history of its famous neighbour,” He said.

The stones from the site, named Bluestonehenge, were removed thousands of years ago but the sizes of the holes in which they stood indicate that this was a circle of bluestones originating from the Preseli mountains of Wales 150 miles away, like the inner stones at Stonehenge.

Its riverside location provides compelling evidence of the importance of the River Avon in Neolithic funerary rites and ceremonies. The discovery supports the Stonehenge Riverside Project’s theory that the River Avon linked a ‘domain of the living’ marked by timber circles and houses upstream at the Neolithic village of Durrington Walls with a ‘domain of the dead’ marked by Stonehenge and this new Bluestonehenge circle.

Professor Mike Parker Pearson, from the University of Sheffield and principal director of the project, said: “It could be that Bluestonehenge was where the dead began their final journey to Stonehenge. Not many people know that Stonehenge was Britain’s largest burial ground at that time. Maybe the bluestone circle is where people were cremated before their ashes were buried at Stonehenge itself.”

Evidence shows that the builders of the stone circle used deer antlers as pickaxes. Within the next few months, radiocarbon dating of these antler picks will provide more precise dates and reveal whether the circle was in fact built at the same time as Stonehenge.