December 2017 update

Update: 1 December

Before you break up for Christmas, here’s a bit of update of my 2017 escapades that I haven’t shared with you yet.

The end of May welcomed me back to Salamanca, one of the most glorious towns in Spain. This time my wife joined me after I’d told her that she shouldn’t miss it. The fast train from Madrid to Salamanca was opened a year ago and, boy, it was fast. It took less than two hours to cover a distance of 175 kilometres. Sorry, 110 miles. And this time again the conference was held and we were accommodated in the beautiful Hotel Palacio de los Castellanos. Leisurely strolls in the old city, with an elephant statue standing on its trunk right in the middle of Plaza Mayor. As we were sitting in an outside café, we could enjoy the sight of the huge animal farting away indiscriminately, emitting big puffs of smoke from its rear.

Salamanca, Plaza Mayor

In the middle of the summer, I joined my friend Rakesh running a workshop in Zaježova, a small ecovillage hidden in the Lower Tatra mountains in Slovakia. And what a gorgeous place it is! The resthouse we were staying at is reserved for people doing joga. And strictly vegetarian – I was warned. In compensation I had the privilege of marvelling at large bushes of yellow potentilla, my favourite wild flower.


At one end of the ranch there was a tiny building. I was told that anyone eager to meditate for a week may crawl into this pitch dark shovel. His or her daily ration of food is stuck in through a small opening. ‘But what if they can’t bear solitary confinement?’ I asked. To my relief the chief manager said that they’re free to leave any time.

My wife was kind enough not only to drive me to Zaježova from Budapest but come back for me with our son, Bálint, two days later. I took the steering wheel and was driving slowly, as is my wont, especially in foreign lands for fear of being stopped by the police and fined for speeding. At one point Bálint cried out, ‘Watch out, dad, that snail has just overtaken us!’ Cheeky boy.

The fourth humour conference was held at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University at the end of the summer. This is the only Hungarian campus recently built in a small provincial town. It was designed by a leading architect with a flair for folklore.

Pázmány Péter Catholic University

As I entered the campus it looked like a movie set specially built for the purpose, waiting to be demolished now that the shooting was over. Not a single person in sight. I headed for the main building, entered and was warmly welcome by the main organiser. She apologised that the conference was not very well attended. Indeed it wasn’t. About a dozen people were sitting in the auditorium with a capacity of about 500 seats, laughing at my jokes and stories meant to be funny.

A couple of months later I learnt why the campus was so desolate. Department after department was gradually moving to the capital city, whose draw appears to be irresistible. According to recent news, the whole complex in Piliscsaba is destined to close for good by 2020. It’s up for grabs. Anyone interested?

A lot more teachers turned up for the annual IATEFL Hungary conference, of which I’m the proud patron. There would have been twice as many colleagues attending had the venue in Budapest been a bit closer to the city centre. This time I wasn’t scheduled to speak, so I could chat away with no butterflies in my stomach. We sorely missed our dear friend, David A. Hill, the most frequent speaker at our conference since IATEFL Hungary was established a good quarter century ago. Sadly, he passed away prematurely a few weeks after the conference.

I’m kind of a regular at INGED conferences, always happy to attend because I love Turkey. The venue of this year’s conference was Aydın University in Istanbul near Atatürk Airport. Talks often had to be interrupted by the earsplitting noise of planes landing. However, hospitality was overwhelming; I had a student minder who would follow me everywhere except for the restroom. A lovely guy and lots of lovely young teachers too.


INGED conference

From the hotel window I could marvel at the spires of the Blue Mosque. ‘Let’s go and see it close-up. It can’t be more than a few hundred metres up the hill,’ I said to myself. So after I dumped my stuff in my room around midnight, I walked up the narrow cobbled lanes. But then it struck me that I forgot the name of my hotel. What if I get lost here? How shall I find my way back? Too risky. Sorry, Blue Mosque – next time.

When I reported on my unforgettable trip to George Town in my previous update, I wouldn’t even dream of returning to Malaysia half a year later. But then again there I was, this time in Kuching, at the invitation of my dear friend, Hazelyn Rimbar.

Anyone know where Kuching is? Well, it’s the capital city of Sarawak in the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo. If I said that George Town is a wonderful place, the same should apply to Kuching. A bustling city on one side of the River Sarawak, but once you take the boat to the other side, you’re in the middle of Nature – with capital N.

When I received the invitation to the ‘symposium’, I asked about the number of people expected to attend. ‘Over one thousand,’ said Hazel with abandon. Wow, and you call it a symposium? The event took place in the toniest hotel of Kuching and all the one-thousand-odd teachers of English were accommodated there too. ‘How on earth can teachers afford this luxury?’ I asked Hazel. ‘All the expenses are covered by the Ministry of Education of Sarawak,’ she replied. ‘Food and travel costs included.’ Compare this generosity to the indigent circumstances under which Hungarian educational organisations operate.

One afternoon we visited the Semenggoh Wildlife Reserve, home of the Borneo orangutan. Needless to say, orangutans belong to the growing list of endangered species, owing to the fact that (1) the number of rainforests is shrinking and (2) females deliver just one baby once in seven or eight years.


Now here’s an orangutan and a photo taken in the reserve together with Hazel, Tamás, me and John.

In Semenggoh we learnt that 17 of a total of 28 orangutans were born in the reserve. We were lucky to be there at feeding time, watching an enormously big male munching on huge quantities of bananas and pineapples after he had deftly peeled and cracked them. Incidentally, orangutan means ‘forest man’ – his eating habits reminded of me eating my lunch when nobody is around.

Although I was planning to go on another trip, I couldn’t for lack of time. This would have been to the Bako National Park where pot-bellied proboscis monkeys can be seen. These monkeys are famous for their long nose, which they have to push away with one paw to be able to put the food in their mouth with the other. One more reason to return to Kuching.

proboscis monkey

You didn’t know where Kuching is, right? Now here’s a rescue question. Where’s Pontianak? OK, I’m being mean. Well, Pontianak is in Indonesia, some 650 kilometres from Kuching, also situated in Borneo. I knew Pontianak is not as attractive as, say, Bali, and certainly not as metropolitan as Jakarta, but it’s definitely closer. It can’t take more than four or five hours by bus, I thought. I would spend one night there, then take the ride back to Kuching the next day.

‘Don’t you dare!’ exclaimed Hazel. ‘Pontianak is home for female vampires. They lure men only to kill them. They’re similarly cruel to pregnant women and especially to babies whose flesh is consumed as a delicacy.’ Although I’m not easily frightened, I clicked on Wikipedia, just to be on the safe side. I read that vampires had been expelled from the town by Emperor Syaraf Abdulrahman Alkadrie centuries ago and a beautiful mosque was built where their nests had been. I felt much relieved.

‘But why go to Pontianak of all places?’ Hazel insisted. ‘Don’t you like Kuching?’ I explained that, first, I’d never been to Indonesia, so this way I could tick one more country off my list. Second, Pontianak lies right on the Equator. After my visit to Equador many years before, this would be the second country where I could have the Equator between my legs, with one foot on the Southern and the other on the Northern hemisphere. Hazel agreed but warned me that I’d better fly because the bus ride could easily take eight hours. That’s what I did.

To cut a long story short, I flew to Pontianak and visited the Equator Museum. And it was well worth it. For those who take my bragging with a pinch of salt, here’s the certificate I received there.

I believe this should be enough for now but I promise to come back after I’ve collected my gifts from Father Christmas. Until then, Happy New Year!