Waiting for the Godot Train: Beaches are nice.

Starting this entry at 19:25. Cafe. Waiting for a train due 01:26. Delayed by 80 minutes so 02.50. Worst part of travelling is the travel. The waiting to travel. Just a void of nothing. Nothing nothing nothing. At least we’re not the couple delayed 5 hours. Thailand has nicer trains but Vietnam had a working clock. Communism can do what Mussolini could, but definitely not the Thais.

Before starting this entry: bus, boat, bus to get to the train station from Koh Phangan. The islands – an education in Mother Nature’s untouchable and unwavering authority in the sublime. A storm will remind you of her power to destroy, but the serenity of such spotless water lapping onto the sand, a fundamental interface, washes away the blind complacency of banal existences to reinforce the grandiose. The calm giant,  the still beast.

Before the islands: A day in Phuket town. Mum was right – seedy. Retreated into a cinema (only Transcendence was showing in English – much disappointment in missing out on Watson in Noah) owing to Nic dying of Dengue Fever or Japanese Encephalitis. Couldn’t decide which but it definitely wasn’t the travel bug that it obviously was. Important update: he’s not dead, and perfectly fine but for an ever increasing hatred of cockcroaches.

Koh Phangan and burning my midriff after 10 minutes by the pool. Mortifying. Not much else to describe in many ways. Not the architectural wonder of Angkor, unbelievable for its age, or the grandeur of Halong Bay, or the visceral history of Vietnam and the vibrancy of its today, Agent Orange still alive in the cells of a generation’s children. This is an island, small, stunning, heaven on earth. And that is the attraction. The ease. No expectation to learn, mourn or pay attention. Just lie down, have a coconut and listen to Don McLean’s Greatest Hits with which I have formed an oddly strong connection. Also, an opportunity for Nic to discover Thailand’s third gender, the Ladyboy, outside Koh Samui’s very own Moulin Rouge.

“You can not be telling me she’s anything but just a woman.”

“I dare you.”

He didn’t.

Finishing this blog entry in Georgetown, Penang. 18:19 and all the more gloriously sunny for us having arrived after the 24 hour journey from the proverbial in the knowledge we have 4 days here sans any travelling at all.

Georgetown deserves a blog entry of its own, to come. Just a note to stress the mightily confusing phenomenon that is Malaysian society. A literal melting pot (38’C). Walking through the middle of Jaipur, you can cross the road into Bejing or turn left onto Armenian street within the space of a town much smaller than Oxford (although they definitely cram in more people). Watched Liverpool vs. Chelsea (Nic almost had a heart attack) in the street with locals blowing on horns louder than a cruise liner. Discovered the delights of a beer tower. Fascinating to watch the local waitresses sprinting up and down the street, athleticism matched by the mental ability to remember the orders of increasingly drunk holler-ers. And they can speak English, are shrewd and beautiful. I often feel outdone by waiters/resses. University was a doddle.

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I Miss Kevin Spacey: Temples at Dawn.

(Or, Wat’ya saying!)

It is hard to describe Angkor Wat. Correction – the Angkor Wat complex, hundreds of the things once housing a 1 million strong capital of the Angkor empire, now inhabited by steadfast locals, their dogs and tourists with oversized cameras (myself inc.). Superlatives abound and this blog post could become the immediate copy of a 100 other Wat enthusiasts. Google Angkor Wat and you can see it. There it is.

Yet the scale is worth comment. Hours on a tuk tuk chasing temples and carvings through the jungle. Piles of rubbled ruin and skeletal arrangements of pillar, arch, pillar. A mind twisting complex of fallen stone to explore and goggle at. Praise be to whoever that it is not in England. No Entry. Follow this route only. Queue here. VIP tickets only. Safety Notice. The perks of corrupt Cambodian officialdom: freedom to climb and bound into any crevice that takes the fancy, save for the truly ridiculously large trees such as those growing out of the Tomb Raider Temple, Ta Prohm. They can not still be alive, they have no roots. Or the roots just go into stone. Natural wonder indeed. Shaky ladder thing up a pyramid temple. Nearly died.

Three day pass allows time to ration the temples, all of which are enchanting and magical but can quickly start to blur. *Pause in writing due to annoyance at Robin Thicke being the immediate association there.* Masterpieces of ancient architecture, hot and sweaty. It is a mission, but a mission worthy of a world wonder. It makes you work for it, work for the views, strive for the surprises and clamber for the miraculous. If you’re willing, it will deliver.

Bangkok for 4 days but couldn’t see the Kok for the Bang. Or Splash. Songkran, NY, massive water fight.

So it’s fun. You get a water pistol, put your phone into a water proof wallet and take to the streets, get soaking wet, have a beer, repeat. A spectacle, a party, a very unique event which Thai people take to with an almost unbelievable enthusiasm. But it is unrelenting and the rejection of normal etiquette regarding tourists becomes hard for such stick in ass,  upright Brits. After sun down, dry clothes for dinner — ice cold bucket down the back as soon as you leave the guesthouse. They say you have to engage to enjoy it. True. We did. We tried. But waking up in Chiang Mai after the last day of festival, to walk the streets without fear, the absence of water based anarchy – guerilla armies of youths on the back of trucks with guns and bucket grenades looking almost as threatening and screwed up as in a true break down of society – the most intense relief since having to double check I hadn’t bound the wrong draft of my thesis.

But most importantly it’s becoming more intensely difficult to live without Kevin Spacey. House of Cards. I think I love him. Even watching the Last Action Hero (yep, room with a TV again), which is one of the true greats and ‘an incredibly textured use of the postmodern meta’ (I give no prizes for guessing which of us said that) can not fill the void in my heart. Youtubing videos of his impressions the nearest I can get.

Chiang Mai is very cool. Chilled. Old School. Almost Oxford, city wall and all. Beat a guy called Rudy at pool. More temples.

The search for Frank Underwood continues.

A is for ATM, B is for Bus, C is for CNN

(K is for Khmer Rouge)

Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon to almost everyone there, would have been a frantic whirlwind of chaos were it not for us now being old hats. Streets wider, buildings taller, hawkers far more insistent. Winding downtown alleys, the smell of street noodles more intense. Grand boulevards below the sky tower, more open, more parisian than anything yet seen. Yet relaxing, calm and balmy – beers still downed on a curb side, museums still refuges for the air con addict and traffic still a blitz of noise. But not so much that nerves unwind or hearts forget to beat. Aclimatising to the heat and relaxing into the backpack Saigon feels safe and cosmopolitan. A new city, desperate to cast aside the shadow of its destruction, of the hellish cesspit it became for war. Now, Apocalypse Now is a hip nightclub (‘Aypo’), lurking beneath high rise Sofitels and Marriotts, but close enough to the Old Quarter to still feel seedy, uncouth – like anything could be happening in the alleyways around. But I sit, trying to tighten my heart to the groups of children, so small, who tap you on the arm with chewing gum to sell, not allowed a bed time until the basket’s empty. A reminder that cities all too often mask the harsh reality, the hard knock life.

ATMs have caused a dichotomy of laughter and stress. Absolutely everywhere. Driving through the back and beyond, a medieval world of horse and plough, hut and hurt. Then you see it, the windows shining, a modern, giant and branded-to-the-nines cash machine, loaded with dollar. They’re everywhere, like those Doctor Who boxes – what are they really and what do they want from us? …. Our cash! The transition to penny-pinching transaction fee maniac is complete. Walking past 20 of them to find the cheapest one. Insane.

Cu Chi Tunnels. Sombre and fascinating. Nic discovered his athletic twin and lept underground to crawl through the holes of VC and guerilla. Has been suffering from sore legs since, but the heat and inhuman smallness of where these people lay their heads is almost unbelievable. Another reminder of the living history that seems a 1000 years old.

Saigon – Phnom Penh. PP – Siem Reap. Then Bangkok. Buses, albeit the finest/pricest two nervous British types can find have proven to be the adventure one imagines. You rock, bump and grind forward. Cambodian roads are terrible. One understands, but still. Bump, grind, forward. Crunch, jolt, sideways. 7 hours to do 300km. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Phnom Penh. The Genocide museum. The country that imploded and brutally destroyed a a quarter (or more) of its population. A museum of torture and the story of a ideological dream utterly corrupted by the human temper in power and command. Not very nice. But fascinating – Khmer Rouge seniors are still here, under trial. Not very long ago at all and yet, despite kodak stills of decaying corpses found in the abandoned prison, ex high school, the only way of coping is to place it much further back in history.

CNN. The greatest news channel on the planet. Since we arrived in Kuala Lumpur the days’ highlight has been to return back to our room’s TV and discover that absolutely no developments have been made in the search for MH370, the only story that the 24 hour channel has been discussing since, it feels, the birth of Christ became old news, yet to witness their ability to talk about nothing for so many continuous hours is truly a marvel.

Breaking news – planes are still searching the ocean 900 miles from Perth. No luck just yet, but stay tuned for our panel of experts who will spend the next 5 hours dissecting and speculating when the real story is why mainstream media insists on fuelling our fearful obsession with catastrophic death.

Angor Wat tomorrow.

End of the Begininng: We need to talk about Bob.

Halong Bay is simply magical. Outstandingly lucky with weather – a clarity that led even the junkboat’s crew to take a snap or two. Clumpy islands, endless, rising out of calm waters in green and textured sublimity. It is immense, yet so quiet to pass through. Distant hum of fishing boat, gentle rock of the engine – 400 other tourist cruises are out there, somewhere, but gliding through the canals before a backdrop of such a mystically still sunset just breathing can feel like you’re disturbing a thing eternal. The formations most covered in vegetation seem Amazonian and untouched – shrouded in a slight mist but gorgeous for their quiet, rugged grace.

Rocking overnight train to Hue. Terrifying to start, shaking about the sleeping cabin, local guy snoring above me. But lying down you accept the motion, it becomes soothing and but for a few knocks sleep can be had, before alighting in central Vietnam – entirely different climate to Hanoi, sweltering. Almost resembles a Spanish tourist town, the roads are quieter and wider and western food is much more the order of the day. Yes I will have the New York Club Sandwich.

Then Danang. Or Da Nang. Vietnam’s 5th largest city, population 1 million, claims the train speaker. (Still cannot believe there are 90 million population here. Where are they all, all in rice paddies, seem so few in the rice paddies). Da Nang , Vietnam’s answer to Las Vegas. Just a stop over before 14 hour train to Saigon but the light up bridges, waterfront cafes serving hipster lager in cans and complete void of any cultural attraction ensures temple fatigue doesn’t set in just yet, and brings us to miss 15p Bia Hoi all the more. 25000 doing (80p). High end. Mind blowing restaurant discovered just off the ‘Strip’ – Claypot rice, caramelised pork and beef in leaves (should have paid more attention to which)  = Nic’s cloud 9 (post-vegetarian meatiest still in full swing). £4. Novelty of rice in claypots c. Leicester Square – £25. Good job we’ve Oz and USA before the South East once more. ‘Made in Da Nang’ but ‘The ONLY way is Hanoi.’

We need to talk about Bob. New Englander raised in DC, encountered in Halong Bay. Interesting wife, beautiful and intelligent daughter finishes Lolita and starts Great Gatsby. Bob. Bob who starts talking to anyone he encounters, literally every one person to cross his path. (To/At being operative). Wealthy salesman, holiday home in the woods. Trekked Nepal, Grand Canyon, Thailand but has no interest in China. Remember what Bob said about peanut butter? I wonder what sort of house Bob has. Bob was talking to that local for 3 hours! Do you think Bob’s a Democrat? Pleasant, liberal, white, middle class – can never tell. Seem nice then bam! GOP. Grand Ol’ Bob.

Bob is still in our hearts a week on. 24 hours on a boat, 19 of them with Bob as background music. “Oxford? I know that one, good college. Our son’s at Cornell. Did you know that at Cornell you have to do Sports. Have to swim to graduate. I once swam in this completely undiscovered bay just outside….The way you British say bespoke always makes me laugh.”

DMZ zone – Demilitarised Zone. Watched Oz: The Great and Powerful, Spiderman 2 and Willy Wonka on HBO instead owing to a mildly dicky tummy (so British) but Nic upped and went, met an American academic who loves David Foster Wallace and my absence, and I daresay the point of visit was quickly forgotten. Reunited in time for Dark Knight Rises. TV in every room so far #flashpacker. Not for much longer. On train to Ho Chi Minh, still Saigon on the ticket.

Asia: The Beginning

A city that can be described as Inbetween. Capitalist behemoths – shopping malls and spending plazas – presented so clearly, so sharply, so impressively that the disintegrating pavements, lingering stenches and crumbled alleys seem the inexplicable remnants of another time. Yet they represent the still beating heart of a town yet to succumb irreversibly to the pulse of western edifices. Describes many a city, it is true, but as it nestles in the green and plush exotica of jungle, KUALA LUMPUR is such as disarmingly eclectic array of everything that its scope for overwhelming is unavoidable. Quite the place for embarking on the 21st Century’s Grand Tour – not quite a Gap Year, but a trip designed to surprise, shock and confuse. Towering Bank Blocks, it can feel like an endless Canary Wharf, the old and seemingly derelict period building that turns out to serve chilled fruit juices and all the varieties of rice one could possibly imagine. As with any urban rush, it is tempting to imagine peoples’ lives as they idle, run, honk and barge around. The suited and booted, just come from his Americana bachelor’s pad and heading to the Malay Kopitam which, weekly, brings him back to the world of his birth. The Hawker, who spends every daylight hour flipping, frying and boiling, whose dream it is to feature in Lonely Planet – not just to attract the white ‘n’ wealthy but to rub in his best friend’s face, manager of an Irish pub, whose insidious snobbery towards street sellers is a gripe only tolerable for the most forgiving souls. The owner of a successful and sought after hostel, whose father lectures the Imman on his son’s poor life choices. He could have been a doctor, apparently. The Saturday mall-girl, whose perfect skin and deeply beautiful hair only serve to foreground two dead eyes. Living in a dark apartment, miles away, this job has gone from useful to dead-end and each spray of perfume into a customer’s face is a quotidian yet fleeting distraction from incresingly distant dreams.

HANOI is an outstandingly beautiful and atmospheric city. It is still developing in the truest sense – modernising in action but the streets still crammed with the poverty that looks quite romantic in the vintage ‘Instagram-Filter’ sense but ultimately demands a hardship that can be seen in the lines on faces and the strains of body. People everywhere, doing everything. Huge clumps of chaotic cabling creates a jungle of ceiling as they snake through trees and up the ramshackle housing. It feels medieval yet the mayhem is a mask. A calmness can be found within madness – sitting with Bia Hoi in hand, on the street side, a tranquility that is bound to the religious temperances of locals and uncomplicated life they lead, of trade and family, looking after the innumerable shophouses of the Old Quarter. Offices and complexity do exist, but not by the lakes, or in the temples, or the street vendor stalls lining every single road and lane.

Identity Crisis

HE has been having an identity crisis for a while now, or at least I have. I am a firm advocate of widening participation policies and social mobility, but I am also concerned about unyielding massification. The dilemma? A belief in positively encouraging more ‘non-traditional students’ into HE, without wanting it to necessitate an exponential rise in the number of students is tricky. Limit the amount of white middle-class kids conveyor-belting into ‘uni,’ advocate an alternative system which takes some of the educational burden away from HEIs, simple privatisation, or insist that universities can adapt themselves to the increasing pressures of capacity and deliverance?

My support for social mobility enterprises rests in a rejection of the ‘elite’ HE that used to exist in Britain. Labour’s 50% target helped to boost such programmes, as it could only be met by encouraging an increasingly diverse student body. British universities have exploded in size, changed in character and become international superstars with bases all over the world. However, as Andy Westwood noted in his It’s (Hard) Labour article, I may not be alone in a post-crash Britain when it comes to doubting that bigger is better, that more and more students entering HEIs is the best method for tackling the issues of young peoples’ employability, universities’ usefulness and society mechanics as a whole.

This is not to oppose massification as a policy. But the ‘logical’ conclusion that leads to a ‘universal’ HE, near compulsory higher education for all young citizens, seems overwhelming. With the number of UK and EU students admitted to university up by 9% on last year, the concomitant discussion continues to be that of fees and the sector’s riding of a wave back up to pre-£9000 attainments. But the continuing need is for a discussion about what this actually means, amid the media’s quotidian reminder that superfluous amounts of graduates are struggling to find work for a lack of soft skills, or simply a lack of jobs.

Making sure that anyone able and willing to study at university is given a fair and supported opportunity to do so, regardless of background, is the core of my understanding of social mobility. Encouraging young people to follow the ‘Redbrick Road’ for the sake of it, on the assumption that it’s ‘just the best,’ – that is where I stumble. As part of the wider debate about the place of HEIs in an ever knowledge-based economy of ever-diversifying and intensifying needs, should the university identity become a catch-all for everything and everyone or is it not capable of being so?

Universities are places in which people can transform their lives, in terms of social mobility, personal development and the provision of lifelong learning. They continue to be the answer when disadvantaged, talented young people need an opportunity to progress. But does this mean that everyone should go to university, and only strive to the ‘best’ ones at that? If a young person spies an interest elsewhere, do we push them on regardless, especially if they are ‘gifted and talented?’

To paraphrase Educating Yorkshire’s Headmaster, Mr Mitchell, the goal is for every young person who wants to go to college to be able to, who wants to go to university to be able to, and who wants to find a job to be able to. ‘Vocational’ should not be a dirty word, something for the dunces of the family whilst the best and brightest get all the status attached to attending university. Oxbridge does need more state school students, but the focus should not rest solely on squeezing more and more young people into the gaps between dreaming spires. There is a finite amount of room.

As the employability-based concerns of students increases, as well as employers’ concern for their ‘skills,’ there is an evident need for this identity crisis to be tackled. Is it the new identity of HEIs to provide layered education, or does it need to be layered alongside them? By no means am I the first to ask…

Student Experience

Published by Wonkhe on Monday 19th August, I consider ‘student experience’ at British universities, its odd lack of definition and how a marketplace in UK higher education is driving the discourse:

http://www.wonkhe.com/2013/08/19/what-is-the-student-experience/

Everyone in UK higher education should have had the memo by now: Put Students at the centre.

More specifically, put their ‘experience’ at the heart of the system. ‘Student experience’ has become deeply embedded in policy discourse, increasingly aligned with student engagement mechanisms that encourage students to play a more impactful role in the development and running of university initiatives, such is students’ re-enlightened centrality.

But what does ‘student experience’ mean? What can it possibly mean? In 2011, Duna Sabri argued that ‘both “student” and “experience” are shallow conceptions’ deployed as powerfully discursive notions in the marketising rationale that places students on a consumer pedestal. In 2013 an accepted definition remains elusive, possibly because an enigmatic and standardised student serves vested interests much more easily. A formidable hybrid remains; welfare, co-curriculum, employability and academic attributes fall into a futile melting pot of definition.

To place ‘student experience’ in the context of recent higher education reforms, the heightened marketplace aura of higher education has remodelled students as clients, whose assessments of the service they receive are central to judging universities’ success. Writing in Blue Skies for the Pearson Think Tank Ken Starkey analogises British higher education to British banks: if both are to remain credible they must demonstrate how they create value for their customers. In other words, how can universities convince students that they are not offering sub-prime degrees?

As an observer, it feels like Britain is running before walking. If ‘student experience’ is to be so intimately connected to the mode or amount of payment, the controversial implication being ‘Pay More, Get More,’ then there must be consideration for how vacuous the phrase becomes in the context of the practical delivery of teaching and services.

There is not one student, and there is not one experience – that much is obvious. ‘Student experience’ implies that each student’s university life is undifferentiated; class, race, ethnicity and economic circumstance all disappear. Moreover, ‘student experience’ is expressly generic and places all students on an equal footing regardless of the huge variation in what higher education institutions have to offer. If policy, put simply, is to treat students ‘better’ because they are a more substantial financial asset then how is that policy going to meet the demands of all those students in all those different contexts?

Phrases such as ‘student experience’ are used for ease of conversation; everyone is fully aware that it does not, and cannot, encompass ‘everything’. Yet the policy associated with its heightened use in the discourse is striking. In this vein ‘student experience,’ the enigma behind much strategy, is quantifiably justified as sound business practice. Fresher Bloggs checks in at registration to find he’s been bumped from Economy up to Business, but not for nothing. Correlating levels of experience with those of a purse makes sense: for a £500 hotel room, you would expect more than just clean sheets.

Nevertheless it is disheartening to think of ‘student’ as nothing more than a synonym of ‘customer,’ and the university experience comparable to staying in a Deluxe Double. This is not to suggest that the situation is so simply drawn, for that would be naive, but to ask a cynical question as to whether ‘student experience,’ is just the spin-marketing of a far more controversial upheaval within the sector. If the phrase is to be useful, if it is to genuinely enhance teaching and learning by listening to the student experience as a multifaceted concept, then the shackles of its narrow usage must be cast off.

Educational institutions offer a priceless commodity: knowledge and the opportunity to develop as an individual. If ‘student experience’ is to be a force for progressive change then it needs to mean more than the ‘student is always right.’ ‘Experience’ and ‘Engagement’ need to become closer cousins to undermine ‘Student’ and ‘Customer’ being treated as one and the same in a manner that does not allow clients any role other than to simply put a utilitarian value on the ‘product’ they’re receiving. Exeter’s positive revisualisation of students as ‘Change Agents’ is representative of a different trend, one which seeks to affirm the importance of students among the swathes of tribal academic communities that make up the average HEI. ‘Student Experience’ is too tied to consumer-only discourses. It is worth much more than that, whatever it may actually be.