We are from tu xing [known to you as Saturn]. We have taken over this blog and it is no longer available on this planet.

The previous author is now blogging at www.lesleytidmarsh.weebly.com, having recovered from her alien abduction, or so she claims. Frankly, we believe she is also from another planet though her human disguise is convincing. What planet are YOU from?

I'm back in China and these are my students! Only joking. Last week I visited a community-based English class provided by the WEA (Workers' Education Association) to complete an observation task for my Diploma. The eight women in the class are from Hong Kong and Macau, with one lady from mainland China. It was wonderful to revisit the language and culture - jam jars of kai shui (hot water) on the table, hands over mouths when giggling, talking about me like I wasn't there! The teacher, Melanie, delivered a wonderful lesson, giving me great data for my research. It's great to be meeting new people and I'm happy to have some colleagues with whom to share ideas and chat about teaching.

I also work for the WEA twice a week, teaching eight Polish workers at Harry Gow Bakery. It's very different to teaching formal students, in a school or College environment. Although motivated and happy to participate in whatever activities I give them, they are often tired and lack confidence in their study skills. They are either at the end of a long shift, or between two shifts. Either way, they arrive in class with their overalls, hair nets and hats on, either sweating or yawning. Despite that, however, they refuse to stop for a tea or coffee break in the middle. "We need to study!" said Ania.

Can anyone guess what this is and where it came from? More details to follow...

Thank you for your responses, Paul and Leandra. It is indeed part of something that, 'fell into Ali's pocket' while we were attending the State Banquet (for dummies) for the 60th Anniversary of the PRC in 2009. The elegant wine glass, which was so carefully smuggled through the corridors of power out into Tiananmen Square and back to Simao, didn't survive the journey to Scotland in one piece. It was, however, rescued from the rubbish bin by Ali's Mum in Aberdeen. Ali's parents then came up with a creative use for this unique piece of memorabilia. They converted the base of the glass into a ring holder, with the addition of a small enamel bell (brought back from China several decades ago by Ali's mum) and gave it to Lesley for her recent birthday. A fabulously creative and meaningful gift, thank you!

This enormous cardboard box contains our collection of Pu'er tea - all 15.5 kg of it! We've shipped it back in dribs and drabs, so it's been a surprise to realise just how much of this famous Yunnan product we've been gifted (we never ever bought one...) over the years. I've just finished cataloguing it ready for storage: 33 "bing" (360g round flat cakes); 13 "zhuan" bricks (popular in the Tibetan market) and 10 "tuo cha" (small bowls). That's just the compressed stuff - we've got sacks and sacks of loose tea of various types as well! The compressed tea is either "sheng" (raw) or "shu" (cooked/processed).  The shu cha is ready for drinking now, artificially aged by 6 months of fermentation/oxidisation in a factory. The majority of the tea though is 2-5 year old sheng cha, raw large-leaf green tea from the mountains of southern Yunnan, often wild (non-plantation) or ancient trees. It can be drunk now (a lovely yellow/orange brew), but ideally we'll let it age for 4 or 5 decades so that it can ferment naturally - so Freda and Edie may enjoy the resulting exquisite red/brown earthy infusion if their parents don't!

So, how many cups of tea does 15.5kg of Pu'er tea make? Well, a teaspoon is about 3g, so that's more than 5,000 teaspoons. And a teaspoon of tea can produce anything from 10-20 cups of tea, depending on the level of fermentation. Fifty to a hundred thousand cups of tea? It's a mind-boggling thought. Now, all we have to worry about is finding the best place to store the stuff. 25 degrees C and 60-80% humidity is easy enough in Yunnan, but up here in frigid Scotland a lot harder. Maybe we should just sell it all on eBay?!

Italian cuisine shopper by LEAFhouse Designs
If you have any over-starched, brightly coloured souvenir tea towels clogging up the linen cupboard, here's a great project for you. Using PVA or a sewing maching - depending how well-made you want it to be - attached two tea towels together, allowing a big flap at the fron, stick in a couple of gussets and attach a handle. Hey presto, a great little shopping bag that's sure to turn heads - for one reason or another!

Edie creates some poetic masterpieces on the fridge.
This wild old queen

Investigate her electric masterpiece
and approach every monument in joy.
My angel dust drugged this wild old queen
who performed, surreally, an original, red rhythm.

In Spring

There is a special magic in Spring
because light reads a red Prince friend, he had a pumpkin tree sail.
Morning sun's funny pink sister rainbow
said, "Run on, baby, go!"
I could believe the animal was one that cried so sadly -
wild white birthday owl fed fast your mountain dream of snow.

Today's Large, Light-Crust, Multigrain Rapid-bake loaf
Do you have a bread machine lurking at the back of a cupboard, or collecting dust but for occasional weekend use? We bought this shiny example of Panasonic "white goods" ten years ago and it's still going strong - admittedly five of those years were in storage, but it is now back in daily use. At the time we bought it we had several friends who warned: "Oh, it smells lovely but it's so much hassle", or "Yes, we started off with good intentions but we soon stopped using it". At the time I was hand-making bread, so I it was hard to imagine a machine being more hassle. My problem was more with giving up the wholesome, hands-on process of kneading, shaping, oiling tins etc, which are therapeutic as well as practical. In short, converting to a machine felt like cheating, or giving up.

We decided to invest in one nevertheless, vowing never to buy bread from a shop again, except soft rolls for packed-lunches. We stocked up on 32kg sacks of flour and yeast in bulk, quickly establishing a routine of making a 'rapid loaf' in the evening, or a 'timed loaf' to be ready for breakfast. Once you know the standard recipe, it takes all of 3 minutes to prepare the ingredients. Once the loaf has been shaken out of the tin, it takes another 3 minutes to clean it. The question is, will the novelty last? Furthermore, is it worth the effort? I reply with a resounding "Yes!"

Firstly, for the same price (about 60p, using Organic Malted flour from Highland Wholefoods), one gets a much better loaf. Sure, we could buy white cotton wool that's past the sell-by date for less, but is that really bread? Secondly, it's healthier than the average supermarket loaf with the potential to tweak the recipe to suit your own tastes/needs e.g. leave out the salt altogether, leave out the dried milk powder if vegan friends are coming to visit. Thirdly, it's a lot less hassle than getting your shoes on and walking/driving to the nearest shop when you realise you don't have any bread left. Fourthly, it leaves your house smelling like a bakery, which is hard to beat. Lastly, it's simply divine to experience a taste of self-sufficiency. So we're not growing the wheat and grinding the flour, nor do we have a solid-fuel, hand-built oven in the yard. It is very satisfying, nevertheless, to throw some basic raw ingredients together and make something that is both attractive and sustaining.

"Why should you be any luckier than the rest of us?" retorted Job Centre John when I told him I wanted to hold out to find a job that was (1) relevant to my skills and experience and (2) meaningful [to me]. This was an interesting question and, six weeks on, I'm still pondering over it. The truth is, I'm not entitled to be any luckier, happier or satisfied than anybody else, but I am willing to strive. Are you? Is John? His question, in fact, could open an existential can of worms: What makes us happy? What is happiness? What is luck? Is there such a thing? Can we exercise free will or is life merely a stage, etc etc? I have a few things to say to John, though he was so gloomy that I'd rather not say them to him directly. These are: (1) It's not just about luck, it's about what we want to strive for; (2) If you dislike working in the job centre that much, make a change; (3) Just because I work in "education" doesn't mean that every "education" job is suitable. Could a dam engineer suddenly become a plumber?; (4) One man's dog is another man's dinner. I don't eat dog, but a job that could make me happy could be someone else's idea of misery.

On that note, I have some very exciting news and I'm still experiencing an endorphine rush from the phone call. After being 'between jobs' now since mid-December (that's when we stepped off the plane) Motherwell College called on Wednesday to offer me a job. What's more, it's my dream-come-true: Offender Learning Lecturer in HMP Porterfield, Inverness. There are several reasons why I'm still in a state of shock and extreme joy about this opportunity. Firstly, when I sat in Simao over the years, contemplating coming back to the Highlands, I thought, "I wonder if there's a learning centre in Inverness Prison. If I could get a job there I might just be content." Secondly, there were no jobs advertised but, on sending my CV and a speculative enquiry, I discovered that they were just about to carry out some interviews, postponed from January due to bad weather. Thirdly, and this is the great bit, they were looking for a Maths teacher. I've trained Maths teachers in student-centred methods, but I've never pretended to know very much about the subject. The great thing is, Motherwell College has been flexible and, taking me on for Numeracy and ELT, they have employed another person to cover the Higher Maths.

I still have to be security-cleared and go through induction, which could take several weeks. Meantime, I am swotting up on my Maths and racing through a pile of SVQ modules in preparation. I've even taken a few on-line Numeracy tests to reassure myself that I can manage. I can, of course, but it's a matter of confidence. It was hard walking away from my work with VSO, and it's been just as hard readjusting to life back in Scotland.

My one and a half day a week contract will barely keep us all fed, but I will be happy, which has inumerable benefits for the family as a whole. If I hadn't got this job, however, I would happily have worked in a coffee shop or filled my time with voluntary work in order to make my life meaninful. I'd already set the ball in motion for running free English classes in Dingwall to support the fairly large East European community in Easter Ross. I've also put in a proposal to Culbokie Primary school to run a Coffee Cart project with pupils. There's plenty to do if we put our mind to it.

It's not just about the job, itself, John. Nor is it about the money. It's about feeling fulfilled and, for different people, this means different things. There's no reason at all that I should be any happier or "luckier" than anyone else. In fact, someone living my life might well be thoroughly miserable but I pursued this life because it means something to me. What's more, while I recognise I was lucky that the interiviews were postponed due to bad weather, I would never have benefited from this had I not made call after call to the Scottish Prison Centre, to Inverness Prison and to Motherwell College , or had I not overcome my sense of doom and depression to update my CV and pop it in the post to an anonymous, distant employer yet again. I've worked hard, and given up a lot, to find the job of my dreams. I encourage you to do the same.

This is what our bird feeder looked like this afternoon. There are 5 different species of bird visible - can any of you bird spotters out there identify them all? (one is only just visible)

Long-tailed tit
Last weekend was the RSPB Great Garden Birdwatch. Every year the public is asked to spend an hour monitoring bird types and numbers as a way of determining how the cold winter weather is affecting the bird population over the years. We happened to be at the pet shop (that's another story...) and in a fit of altruistic consumerism managed to spend more than £40 on various bird-feeding mechanisms, nuts, seeds, fatballs, and a splendid pole-hangar (complete with water dish) from which to suspend them all. Bubbling with enthusiasm we returned home, set it all up outside our patio door/window, and sat back, excitedly anticipating a flurry of starving tits and finches descending on our wee part of the garden. Armed with notebooks and ID sheets we waited. I put the kettle on. We waited some more. Absolutely nothing...

Blue tit
Bored, Freda headed of to Granny and Grandad's part of the house, where she sat watching THEIR bird feeders, and happily counted a reasonable population of blue tits, great tits, coal tits, long-tailed tits, siskins, dunnocks, chaffinches and the odd robin. Meanwhile we wondered if the birds would ever learn to dine over at our place. Had our spending spree been a complete waste of time? Two days later the birds finally plucked up the courage, and on Wednesday Lesley counted an incredible 15 long-tailed tits indulging in a fat-ball feeding frenzy. It was certainly worth the wait. Here are a couple of my first attempts at bird photography using a 300mm lens.