Malaysian Musings

Next stop on our route up through South East Asia was Malaysia. We ended up travelling more slowly here, partly due to Chinese New Year causing us to rethink travel plans to avoid local crowds and partly as the children started to struggle keeping up the hectic pace we had maintained so far. They were all desperate for some time to sit and just play, so we added in an extra stop on the east coast at Cherating. Travel through Malaysia was by bus, usually four to six hour stretches between three or four day stops. This gave plenty of time to look out of the window and think about the country.

Continuing my theme of judging a place on its billboards (or lack thereof) – the average Malaysian poster would be advertising some aspirational product with a picture of a serious looking child in a business suit apparently promising that using this washing powder or whatever would help your child become a corporate wage slave^W^W^W leader of commerce. Most of the country, especially Kuala Lumpur, felt like somewhere on a mission to grow up and do it fast. The roads were new, wide and largely empty. The fields were freshly carved out of the forest and palm oil plantations again dominated across the middle of the country. Up in the Cameron Highlands, I have never seen such intensive market gardens. Every inch of every hillside – regardless of how steep – was covered in polytunnels, small fields or packing warehouses. Producing some of our favourite afternoon treats – tea and strawberries – they also grew masses of vegetables and salad leaf as well.

Highlights of our stay were meeting Mark and Tina in KL and the long, left hand point break at Cherating where Jago and I had a fabulous day surfing together. Cherating was our only experience of a more rural Malaysia, staying in an old wooden house on stilts in the middle of the village. The village was still quite busy for Chinese New Year, but mainly with Malay families – very few westerners. We felt really welcomed and it was good for the kids to have a few days of downtime, just playing on the beach and in the waves without being dragged round yet another walk/temple/museum.

My favourite city in Malaysia was Georgetown – it had a very Chinese feel in the older part of town with the rows of beautiful but often crumbling ‘shophouses’. These are rows of terraced buildings, each having a workshop, office or shop on the ground floor and living accomadation above – usually with brightly painted balconies. All the signs are in Chinese and you just got tantalising glimpses through doors or shutters of boxes, desks and machinery all packed in higgledy-piggeldy. Interesting street art and great food also helped – we’re thinking of introducing the ‘IceBalls’ back to England on our return! We also had some interesting conversations with locals here – there are clearly ethnic and racial tensions in the country between the majority, muslim Malays and the large minorities of Indian and Chinese – many of whom are now third or fourth generation and who feel unfairly excluded.

I find it interesting, that before I came out here I had no real understanding of the different countries making up South East Asia. From Cambridgeshire its easy to think Indonesia and Malaysia are probably pretty similar, but up close its clear that whilst Indonesia is still (hopefully) ‘developing’, Malaysia has very clearly ‘developed’; with modern infrastructure, city sprawl and all that that entails. We ended up spending three weeks coming up through the country from South to North and could have easily spent longer if we weren’t drawn onwards by the promise of island beaches and forest elephants in Thailand.

Singaporean Soliloquy

I rejoined the family in Singapore, which was one of the few cities I really looking forward to. I was not sure what to expect – having picked up vague ideas that it would be a modern, clean, efficient, sci fi city. Actually it burned out to be full of bizarre, kitsch art and wonderful gardens – and a dash of clean, modern, efficiency.

Singapore claims to be ‘A City in a Garden’ and surprisingly lives up to that claim. The roads are wide and bordered by large trees, looking out at the city you see a forest with skyscrapers sticking out. In some cases, the skyscrapers have forests sticking out of the side as well! Other places the bizarre art installation/towers are disguised as ‘super-trees’ themselves.

 

 

We only had a couple of days here, which wasn’t enough, but CNY meant buses out were in short supply. It also meant that we got our first taste of Chinese culture – and it’s obsession with ‘good luck’ and ‘auspiciousness’. Everything is advertised as bringing good fortune – even Coca Cola – ‘Drink delicious happiness for more prosperity’ – I hope it rather lost something in the translation but I’m not so sure!?

 

 

It’s interesting to see a city and culture that has taken such different choices to us in terms of values – Singapore is very conservative and emphasises other oriental traits such as respect for elders and community, which apparently combines with strict laws to produce a rigid society. It certainly seemed to take pride in itself, with smart, cheap, efficient trains and lovely public spaces such as the Gardens by the Bay. Definitely worth a second look.

Indonesian ideas

Bali and Lombok provided wonderfully clear lessons on the benefits and dangers of tourism and really made me cause to pause and consider the way our travels impact on others. Although even at its over-developed worst, Bali still won us over with its charm and friendliness. To start at one extreme, we spent a morning in Kuta for our Christmas shopping which is wall-to-wall western shops and bars catering mainly to Aussies in search of a cheap week away. We followed this with a stop at Jimbaran for a sea-food platter as a late lunch. Our timing was fortuitous in someways as it was very quiet and we saw a different side to the place. It felt like being backstage at a theatre half an hour before the curtain goes up. Every Bali tour that we saw advertised includes a stop for a romantic lobster meal at Jimbaran as the sun sets in to the Java sea. When we arrived, the beach was a mess – lots of plastic rubbish washed up alongside all the branches and leaves. However, as we sat having lunch, a small army of waiters appeared to rake the rubbish in to piles just out of view of the tables that were being set up on the beach ready for the evening. By the time we had finished, each restaurant (all serving identical menus) had about twenty feet of beautifully swept sand in front of it (and massive heaps of rubbish just beside and behind it).

We set off for a walk down the beach to wait for our driver to retutrn and didn’t have to go too far before we saw the local fishermen whose hard work was going to be eaten that night. Again, in contrast to the smartly turned out waiters, these blokes were clearly living much closer to the breadline, with the evidence of many make-shift repairs to the boats, nets and pots. Here, there was no one to sweep up and the rubbish just accumulated in great drifts. Heading back to the restaurant via the street running down the back of the beach, we saw a third side to Jimbaran. We wanted to buy some water so went in to a small local shop. It sold a fairly random collection of items, fortunately including big bottles of cold water – unfortunately, when we tried to pay it turned out thaat they didn’t have two pounds-worth of change in the shop or betwween the rest of the family sitting out the back in their courtyard. We ended up buying half-a-dozen bottles of water to solve the problem.

This experience has really made me think about where our money is going as we travel. The restaurants are charging tourists £50 for a lobster meal, but that’s not ‘trickling down’ to either the fishermen down the road, or the family running a shop next door. It’s not doing a lot of good for the local environment either given the mounds of rubbish hidden just out of site of the visitors. I’m guessing the restaurants provided some low paid work for local people as waiters and waitresses but surely most of the profit is heading out of Bali to the owners of the restaurants whomever they may be.

We saw more positive sides of tourism in other places, generally the smaller and less developed, such as Sideman in Bali or Senaru and Tetabatu on the slopes of Mount Rinjni in Lombok. Here we spoke with Taxi drivers and guides who really valued tourism as providing an almost ‘middle class’ quality of life compared to the hard physical labour of farming or construction which were the other options available to them. I say ‘middle class’ because although comparatively well paid, when we went to lunch with one of our guides, Mul, his two room house was brick built (instead of wood and woven read like his neighbours) and he had an outside toilet (instead of nothing at all). I think it really hit home to Jago particularly, having raced ahead of us on the back of Mul’s motorbike, how basic their life was here – proud of having an outside toilet and a couple of little brick rooms in a muddy corner of the village with passion fruit vines overgrowing the back yard.

In Tetabatu we stayed in a proper ‘homestay’ having a couple of bedrooms inside a family compound up in the jungle. The power was off more than on, so we spent the evening reading by candlelight. Our guide walk the next day took us through the communal compounds and small field systems that the village use here, stopping to chat to everyone we passed. It was interesting to notice our different attitude here – instead of haggling along on Bali, always half feeling you were being ripped off, now we cheerfully paid the first price mentioned, glad to be supporting people who were living a tough life. It was also sobering to talk to people more-or-less our own age who were already worrying about health care and retirement – understandable given the differing life expectancies and lack of an NHS!

 

Aussie Thoughts

So, to gather some thoughts from our month or so in Australia. First the massive positives, it is without a doubt the friendliest place I’ve ever been to. If we stopped to look at a map or just stand still and talk about which way to go next, immediately someone local would stop to have a chat and help us out. I was a bit nervous about how an English family would be received during the Ashes in Brisbane, but all we got was a warm welcome and some good natured banter – no ‘pommie-bashing’ here! Outside of the cities, in Agnes Water or our various stops in the outback, we found a real welcome and a great sense of community – I really enjoyed a morning sitting in the public library in Agnes Water listening to the chat between the librarian and all the locals as they popped in for various things. Another top feature are the free public BBQs everywhere – in every park, by every beach. Basically large metal sheets with a heating element underneath, just press the button and it gives you twenty minutes cooking time. It makes it really easy to pick up some sausages, a few veggies and enjoy an easy, healthy meal in fabulous surroundings with the kids playing happily nearby.

On the downside, I particularly found it frustrating not to be able to swim in the sea in Northern Queensland due to crocs and jelly fish. It seems a real waste of beautiful beaches to just look at them! Em also found the fear of all the various deadly snakes and spiders a bit of a brake on enjoying long walks and runs on her own. Perhaps it’s due to being used to the safety of the English countryside but it was hard to get used to checking shoes before putting them on, not going around campsites bare foot etc. Having said that, apart from one sighting by Em of a snake on a late night loo trip (which might well have been harmless!), we didn’t actually see any of the fearsome creatures in the wild. Which also brings me on to the lack of wild animals – or our failure to spot them. Apart from emus and kangaroos during the outback drive and at Agnes Water, we didn’t see any of the big aussie animals in the wild. Despite warning signs every hundred yards on the roads, we never ran over a cassowary or a koala – or even spotted one during hours of walking and looking! On the other hand, we did see loads of birds and enjoyed their bright colours and funny calls – particularly the laughing kookaburra who sounds like a hysterical monkey.

Before we left I knew intellectually that Australia was big, I mean really big. But it wasn’t till we tried driving around that we really realised how big it is, and how little there is in it! Our ‘outback drive’ was a highlight for me – I really wanted to get that feeling of the wide open spaces and did so in spades! We started one morning with the sat nav saying ‘365km straight on’ – time to set Goofy on cruise-control, turn up the music and see nothing but scrub, scrawny cattle and the occasional ‘road-train’ for hour after hour.

I’ve always made a habit of reading a history book about each country I visit, to help me understand it better. In Australia I picked ‘Fatal Shore’ about Transportation and the early years of the colony and it was a great read. Thinking about the hardships endured by the early settlers and convicts put my kids moaning about needing *another* cold drink because they were ‘dying of thirst’ in to perspective. It also provided much food for thought about how and why societies hold themselves together – the governors and soldiers trying to hold on to the social norms of a far distant England whilst the convicts and ex-convicts are creating a new world built on frontier trade from sheep, whales, seals and timber. The harshness and casual brutality of early colonial life is shocking! It was also noticable the difference between attitudes to aborigines in Australia compared to the Maori in NZ. New Zealand seems full of positive images of Maori life and culture, from tattoos to the Haka. By contrast, it seems impossible to imagine the Aussie cricket team starting a match with a traditional aboriginal dance!

I have to say though, that my favourite place to stay so far has been Agnes Water – it felt in some ways like a hot Cornwall and I started to think that in an alternative life I could have happily have been a surf bum here!

 

New Zealand Thoughts

Now we’ve safely moved on to Oz, I can put down a few random thoughts about how we found New Zealand. People always say that Kiwis are a friendly bunch, but to be honest I don’t feel like I met enough of them to tell (lovely Loveridges aside!). It may have been due to use having the kids and a campervan, but we were very much in our own little bubble, tootling through the countryside. When we did get to some form of habitation (which is pretty thin on the ground anyway) most of the people working in the tourist areas are Brits and other travelers.

One thing we did see plenty of though was New Zealand’s roads. There are big posters up everywhere urging safe driving with the slogan ‘New Zealand’s roads are different’ – and they are. Outside of a mile or two of dual carriageway near the major cities everything else is at best two lanes of bumpy tarmac. The state highways still have ‘One Lane Bridges’ that you have to stop and give way at every mile or so. Its not unusual for a highway to have un-controlled level crossings or random stretches of gravel. The country seems to be in a constant state of war to maintain the little road it has – lots of South Island had a major road repair happening every ten miles or so – up near Kaikoura there was more road-work than road in the aftermath of last year’s earthquake. Most of the road works had people at either end controlling the traffic with little stop/go signs – must be a dull old job! The other thing we noticed was traffic – or total lack of it. I think the South Coast was quietest and we would often go an hour on a highway without seeing another moving vehicle (except all the diggers, graders, steam rollers etc. performing the road repairs). The road up to Milford Sound is renowned for being busy and its true – at one point on our drive we were in a queue of five or six campervans and cars!

The overall impression I got from NZ though was of how unspoilt large chunks of it are, and how determined they seem to be to keep it that way. Perhaps half the land has been trashed to provide grazing for sheep and cattle and another big chunk has gone to farm pine trees (very fast growing apparently). The remainder however is totally wild in a way you don’t really see in Europe. In lots of places thick forest or snowy mountains stretch off as far as you can see in all directions with no roads and only a couple of hiking paths cut in to it. I’d love to go back and do some of the longer ‘Great Walks’ out in to the National Parks at Queen Charlotte Sound, Abel Tasman and Fjordland. It also left me with an unexpected feeling of sadness and loss for how much damage human beings have done to the rest of our environment – its not until you see such a massive chunk of untouched nature that you appreciate quite how artificial our whole landscape is back home. Its sad to think how quickly we’ve ruined the half of New Zealand that is all pasture and pines in just a hundred years of (European) occupation. I also found the whale watching surprisingly moving. Seeing whales is something I have always wanted to do but had sort of assumed that they would be pretty much extinct before I could afford either the time or money to see them.

Speaking of the short period of Western occupation – I adore the Kiwi attitude to history. They seem to love it despite (or perhaps because) they don’t have very much of it. You often saw road signs pointing off: ‘Historic Place 10km’. No need to explain what the ‘historic place’ is – they just assume you’ll want to go and find out. Or perhaps its kept vague because when they do explain you can feel a little underwhelmed; I think the least enticing offer was a 5km walk to ‘an historic watchtower’ which the small print admitted was built in the 1960s! Still, at least I can feel that we’ve got an historic farmhouse in Willingham to come back to!

Basic Needs

We’ve now been on the road for just over three weeks and I feel like I’ve settled into some kind of rhythm for working from the back of a campervan. Looking back over my timesheet, I’m managing a couple of proper days of work a week of maybe 6-7 hours each, usually an early start and running through lunch, then stopping to join in with the family activity for the afternoon. This is complemented by a couple of evenings working after the kids have gone to bed – say 8pm – 11pm.

As expected, the two commodities that are carefully rationed on the road are power and wifi. My pre-prepared power solutions are holding up pretty well. The little Dell XPS13 has great battery life – even managing about 5 hours on a charge when running a couple of Visual Studios and with the screen at maximum brightness. The external battery pack supplements this really well (and with USB outlets, keeps the kids Kindles going too) to the extent that I’ve not yet had to stop work before I wanted to due to power shortage.

Now to the real issue, wifi: despite our best efforts to minimise our reliance on it, by downloading Lonely Planet, Rankers (offline campsite review app), Open Street Map data for NZ etc., regular access to wifi is always on our mind. Work depends on it to a large extent, without wifi I can’t push code, pull new issues from Jira, catch up on slack or join in team meetings. We also can’t top up Monzo cards for spending money or do any of the general banking jobs that seem to crop up all the time or whatsapp and skype with family or update the blog or facebook. With a decent internet connection its easy to feel part of work and family life at home, without it I feel surprisingly cut off.

We’ve got three basic sources of internet (excluding our Tep which will provide a 4G connection in every country *except* NZ). The first, and so far most reliable, has been my roaming package on Vodaphone. For £5 a day we can use my regular monthly data allowance (and buy extra data at usual UK rates). With a shared hotspot from the phone, this works pretty well for when we are ‘freedom camping’ away from civilisation (such as it is in NZ!). Almost all the campsites we visit offer some form of wifi, which is usually slow and metered – typically limited to 100-300Mb per day. The unmetered sites are often worse as everyone (us included) are desperately overusing the bandwidth to catch up on jobs that can’t be done on a capped connection such as download more Dr. Who episodes for the kids or post videos of our adventures to YouTube. Finally, there’s free internet to be had at some coffee shops (so far connections have been pretty poor) and the tourist information offices, ‘iSite’ (so far have been pretty good).

With the main sources of internet being metered (both my vodaphone plan and campsite wifi) – it’s been interesting to observe our usage. A typical evening with me doing a couple of hours light web browsing/slack chat whilst working, pulling emails and a day’s worth of new code plus Em web browsing to make plans for the following day and perhaps a short Skype back to England ends up using around 200Mb – certainly we chewed through our 125Mb allowance at one campsite in about an hour! Its easy to forget as a developer siting in an office in Cambridge with an unmetered 10Gbs fibre connection that there are people out there still counting (and paying for!) every byte.

Remote working setup

Just collecting a few thoughts as I start fully remote working. This is something I’ve done many times before, but doing so from the back of a camper van in a timezone 12hrs off from the rest of the team is something new. On the plus side, the view from the office window is unbeatable.

Office Window

The main difference I’ve found so far is reviewing changes from the previous day. Instead of reading commits more or less as they come in on a slack channel, there’s now a whole days worth of activity to catch up on at a time. We have half a dozen git repos to monitor and I’d love to get more effective at this. PRs help to gather changes together but unless I’m missing something our current Confluence stack of Jira/BitBucket doesn’t seem to have an obvious retrospective ‘what happened yesterday’ view. No doubt a skilled Jira wrangler could build one but….

The other class of issues comes under the title of ‘spotty internet access’. Top on the list for this is configuring Thunderbird to retrieve my work gmail account as well – offline access to emails is pretty handy! Also, not having access to online issue tracker means I’ve been falling back on the old favourite of emacs and org-mode to keep a running ToDo list and ideas for future enhancements. It’s interesting as an old-timer to realise how integrated into our development process the idea of ubiquitous internet has become, Gmail, GoogleDocs, Slack, Jira etc – none of these provide a useful offline mode. The only tool I’ve found that really stands up well to this is, possibly as expected, git.

If you’re setting up a remote working team or wanting to be open to becoming such in the future it might be worth considering tooling choices up front, e.g. DropBox instead of GoogleDocs.

Preparations

We’re now at T – 20 days and the packing, sorting and purchasing is in full flow. We are leaving behind a fantastic Community Farm and home, but I’m taking along the whole family and a job. I’ll be trying out the life of a digital nomad, working two days a week for the fantastic PitPat Pack.

Most of my preparation involves doing a whole year’s worth of paperwork for the farm and buying all the gadgets needed to work remotely from a beach. So far, I’ve got my main workhorse, a Dell XPS 13 laptop (16Gb Ram, i7, SSD – Visual Studio is a resource hog!) with spare battery (also used for charging the army of tablets the family are bringing along). The other critical component is a Tep 4g mobile/wifi hub that will keep me connected with the office back home.

We’ve been testing out the plan for the kids English homework today, a bluetooth keyboard connected to their Kindle Fires and using the WordPress  app to post to this blog. Its mostly gone smoothly, other than a strange reluctance of the Kindle to post photos which I’ll have to get to the bottom of before we go. The blog itself uses a bunch of plugins, Author Avatar ListWP User Avatar and Restrict Author Posting to manage to ‘multiple child author’ problem and also Nomad World Map to provide the trip maps and links to relevant content.

As you can probably guess from this intro, my blog will mainly be about the ‘digital nomad’ side to the trip, for cute animal photos, you’re better off following the childrens’ stories!