Saturday, 28 May 2011

Vice, it's not nice

Hong Kong and Bangkok

‘Oh no, it’s happening again’ I thought to myself as I sat sweating in the humid waiting room of a massage parlour on the fifth floor of a building in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei district.  ‘Do you think this is one of those types of massage parlours’? Helen asked me as a slim Chinese lady walked past wearing a mini skirt and crop top. ‘Yeh, reckon it might be’.  Once again, we’d blundered our way past the white tunic-ed and incense fragranced ground floor places with floor to ceiling windows, instead ascending in a stinky lift with a nervously smiling lady still clutching the photocopied brochure promising cheap massages that acted as our bait.  In an earlier post I spoke of how the spa-brochure advert of relaxation is elusive to me, partly due to a previous experience that I promised to reveal in a later, adults-only posting.  This is that posting, and although I’m pretty sure children aren’t regular readers, and could frankly find far worse on t’internet,  if you are immature in years or outlook then it’s probably time to log off from this discussion about vice and look at this nice picture instead.

This previous experience that tainted my view of massages happened in Singapore, on the first night of our honeymoon a couple of years ago.  We’d wandered around the Chinatown district in the sultry heat, floating on a cushion of jet-lag and beer, but still knotted up after our long-haul from the UK (Qantas A380 = ace).  A massage would be just the ticket we reckoned, a full body one at that, and hell, for that price it would be rude not to.  Ascending the stairs and into the dimly lit waiting room two attractive ladies re-arranged their short skirts, sitting to attention, with what were, in retrospect, bemused looks on their faces as they moved their gaze from me (male, makes sense) to Helen (female, not so much).  Clarifying that, yes indeed, it was both of us who wanted massages we were shepherded into adjoining rooms, divided by a thin partition wall, with gaps at the floor and ceiling, and encouraged to disrobe in private.

Now, this is the first obstacle for the novice massage recipient – just how much do you take off?  ‘Er, Helen, am I supposed to take off my pants’? I whispered through the thin wall. ‘No, course not you idiot, where do you think we are’?  We were about to find out.  Stripped to my pants (good ones, thankfully, this was a honeymoon after all), feeling stupid and self-conscious about my surplus of body hair and deficit of muscles, my masseuse entered the room, sliding the door closed behind her, and with a raised eyebrow asked me to lay flat on my front.  I’ve subsequently learned that it is not common practice for a masseuse to sit on your buttocks whilst massaging your back, but my rationale for her sitting like this, as if she were riding a horse (or bear in this instance), was that I’m bigger than average guys (height, you perverts, height!), and needed to adopt this position to get the appropriate leverage.  ‘Leverage’, now there’s a term I’ve enjoyed not using over the last few months.

Gentlemen, you will need to back me up on this.  Having a rocking weight sat on your buttocks whilst your front is pressed hard against an unyielding surface generates friction, and the physiological impact of this friction has an inevitable, and unavoidable, result. This is not eroticism.  In fact, in this instance it was quite the opposite.  With panic setting in, I knew that any moment she was going to ask me to flip over and lay on my back so she could continue with the second half of the massage.  A mental refrain of ‘think of dead kittens, think of dead kittens’ didn’t do the trick, and as I flipped over I fixed her with a sheepish gaze that I hoped would convey the sentiment ‘yeh, this is embarrassing for both of us, but it’s just the inevitable result of human physiology, so what do you say we just be cool about this and carry on like this elephant (OK, caterpillar) in the room isn’t really there’?

It didn’t work.  ‘You very hairy, I like’ she whispered, playing with the hair on my chest in a way that I’m fairly certain does not grace the pages of massage textbooks.  This reaction is not unique; it happened again two days ago when Helen and I had massages in Bangkok, this time in the same room, although on this occasion my masseuse went on to say ‘your wife very beautiful, you very lucky’ as she gazed over at Helen’s breasts being gently massaged by her colleague. ‘Yes she is, and yes I am’ I replied, thinking this to be a bit weird, but not a patch on the Singapore fling.  And let us return back to Singapore, to a situation that was escalating as quickly as my heart rate.  ‘Ooh, yes, you very hairy, you like that?’ she whispered, patting my penis as if it were her pet sausage dog.  ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoaaa’ I whispered, keen not to disturb my new wife as she lay blissed out on the bed not five yards away, ‘I’m married’, urgently pointing at the shiny ring on my left hand.  As it transpires I hadn’t been as quiet as I’d hoped, my wife hearing me let out what she describes as a ‘low, nervous laugh’.  In a small part of my mind, right at the back, I was thinking that this was funny, but my predominant emotion was pure, unadulterated awkwardness, the Brit in me rising to the top in a tumult of unspoken um’s, er’s, and this is just not cricket’s.   ‘Hand job, 50 dollar’ she said, making a movement with her hand that, even allowing for the mutual language barrier, was not wholly necessary.  ‘No, no, no, married’ I whispered, pointing again at my wedding ring, and then onwards to the room next door.  ‘OK, 40 dollar…30 dollar’ she whispered, more urgently this time.  Part of me was thinking that if we carried on like this she’d be paying me.  She had, after all, already mentioned how attractive she found my chest hair.  Fixing her with my best serious stare I repeated ‘no’ and that was that, I thought, as she continued on the massage in a slightly sullen, but normal way. 

Five minutes later she began working on my right arm, lifting it up from my side and moving along from the elbow to the fingers.  Back on track, I thought, just as she grabbed my hand, turned it around so my palm was facing her and firmly placed it on her left breast.  Leaning in to my ear, my hand still clasped against her breast, she whispered in my ear ‘me your angel, make you feel good’.  Pulling my arm away and rigidly fixing it by my side I turned to my last trick; the disappointed look.  With a frown and a sad little shake of the head I repeated, more gently this time, ‘no’.  And you know what, it worked.  The rest of the massage went off without a hitch, despite it being the most uncomfortable twenty minutes I’ve ever had.

It was this memory that was triggered as my wife and I sat in the Hong Kong massage parlour waiting for our foot massage.  A foot massage – what could go wrong?  Nothing, as it turns out, my paranoia being just that, as the male owner rolled up his sleeves and attended to my hobbit feet, his female colleague drawing the longer straw and massaging Helen’s.  As we sat there, still in their waiting room, our feet being pummelled into submission, we discussed the horse racing that was being screened from the Happy Valley racetrack, all of us placing fun fictional bets on the potential winner of race 8.  We’ve cracked it, I thought, we’ve become street smart about vice.

Our subsequent experience in Bangkok’s Patpong area threw this theory straight out of the window and back into the gutter.  Patpong is famous for a couple of things – its gaudy night market selling knock-off watches and clothes, and its alleyways of vice.  As we walked up and down, left and right, through the streets stopping here and there for bites to eat, and just one more beer, we were constantly approached by touts promising us the fabled Bangkok ping-pong show.  If you don’t know what this is then I’m sorry but I just don’t have the energy to describe it, other than to say that this is ping-pong minus the bats.

As one more beer turned into two, and then to three, we agreed that maybe we should, you know, have a look.  It’ll be a bit naff, we reasoned, but we could always have a beer and leave.  When a tout offered us free entry and beer at 100 baht (about two quid) we reckoned this to be a bargain, show or no show, and followed him conspicuously through the market and up some dingy stairs.  Beers in hand we sat around a circular stage with four ladies lazily dancing, faces reflecting the same thought as the audience – we really don’t want to be here.  It was all incredibly seedy, about as erotic as athlete’s foot as the ladies demonstrated their genital dexterity, and was carried out in an atmosphere that told me this wouldn’t end well.  Waving away requests to buy drinks, a lady sat next to me and asked me to write my name on a piece of paper.  Bemused, and yes a little drunk, my stunning logic was to write down a fake name – Bill – that’ll fox them!  For the next ten minutes we sat, my eyes mainly fixed on the floor.  I only raised them to watch two separate sets of tourists walk over to settle their bills, and explode with rage.  These folk looked just like Helen and I – daft tourists who’d had a couple of beers and thought ‘this’ll be a laugh’ before realising this was unpleasant and exploitative and swiftly getting up to leave.  Their explosive reactions to being presented with their bill gave me a sinking feeling that we were about to be ripped off, even more than I had mentally prepared myself for.  At this point one of the ladies on the stage held up a piece of paper with the message ‘welcome Bill’.  My brain clicking into gear told me two things: this wasn’t hand written, and we needed to get the hell out of there.   ‘Not me, my name’s not Bill, must be someone else’ I shouted over the din, airily pointing into a different part of the bar.  ‘Helen, we’re leaving right now’ I said, taking 200 baht out of my trouser pocket and shoving it into the top pocket of my shirt.

Bracing ourselves for the worst we approached the sneering lady at the pay station.  Now, I was prepared to be a bit ripped off, this is how these places work, we’re stupid tourists, fair enough.  But the itemised bill presented to me really knocked my socks off, and put into sharp perspective just why the previous tourists had exploded with a rage that seemed unnatural.  For two beers which we’d sunk quickly in the ten minutes we’d been there, advertised as 100 baht each, we were presented with a bill for 3,100 baht (over 60 quid), made up of a random collection of fees including a per person ‘first look’ charge of 800 baht.  I know a little bit about negotiation, and one immutable truth is that anger never works.  So as Helen leant over my shoulder fixing the lady with a passive but dead-eyed stare, calmly outlining that two beers and no cover charge equalled 200 baht, I pulled the two 100 baht bills from my top pocket and told Helen to walk, quickly, towards the exit.  I calmly laid down the bills and smiled, said that the 200 was all I had, and walked off.  Approaching the near pitch black exit I saw Helen panicking and as I drew closer she turned to me, eyes full of concern, and exclaimed ‘they’ve locked us in, I can’t get out’!  Reaching to my left I pulled open the door.  ‘That’s a wall Helen, this is the door’.  Taking two steps at a time, me behind Helen hissing ‘quick, quick, QUICK’ we dived into the market as a Thai man ran down behind us, and then off to the left.  Not good, I thought, he’s going to get someone that I have no desire to meet.  

Zig-zagging through the throng we got to the main road, paused for just a moment, realised we needed to keep moving and so shot across the road, down a well-lit road and into the nearest respectable looking bar.  It turned out to be an Irish bar, virtually empty, but big enough and with enough dark corners to hide away.  With our drinks we took up an elevated position on the first floor, facing the door, and turned to each other with raised eyebrows, our hearts still pumping.  ‘You know what’ Helen said after a gulp of beer, ‘I thought I played that pretty cool, the way I looked that woman in the eye and didn’t react  when she called me a whore’.  ‘Yes, yes you did’ I replied, giving it a couple of moments before sarcasm got the better of me, adding ‘you were really cool, until you tried to get out through the wall’.  Bursting into laughter we began to calm down, the adrenaline receding.

But it disturbed me.  The massage story is funny I think, but the ping-pong story is troubling.  The image that has been left in my brain is certainly not an erotic one; these young woman doing ugly things with their bodies for the largely disinterested tourist crowd is a side of Bangkok that I’m not proud to have contributed to, and I would urge anyone else to just stay away.  The image that has been left is of the angry and sneering cashier, a middle aged Thai woman spewing venom at tourists night after night, some paying up, others refusing, all getting angry.  It’s a character that is so far removed from the normal Thai character that is full of shy smiles and kind words, and it is a character that I fear this woman has been forced to adopt, pressed into taking one of the worst jobs in Thailand, and funded by stupid people like us. 

Like I say, I’m not proud to have contributed to this.  Vice, it’s not nice.     

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Time’s up

Conclusion of Africa overland trip (Nairobi-Johannesburg) , Maun, Botswana
My stopped watch, and to-do list
My watch stopped at the very moment the overland truck pulled out from the campsite in Maun, Botswana, leaving us with all our worldly possessions gathered at our feet, the cries of ‘keep in touch’ and ‘have fun’ still ringing in the air.  I suspect a few hearts also stopped when our travelling companions, arriving at the Namibian border later that day, realised with that dull ache of acceptance that no, nobody on the truck had the keys to the safe and the luggage lockers, and that no, neither could they cross the border unless they broke into the safe which held all their passports. 
It was the following day that I picked up the keys from the kitchen counter in my brother’s house in Johannesburg and, for just a fleeting moment, thought nothing of it, so used was I to seeing this grubby little shoelace that had been cooperatively shared among the group over the last few weeks. Then the cold trickle of realisation beaded its way down by back, and on through my hungover cranium, in which a caveman equation was taking shape; ‘keys here Johannesburg, truck not here Namibia, bad’.  Without a word I dangled the keys in front of Helen and Natali (who had also finished her trip with the flight from Botswana to Jo’Burg, and was staying overnight with my welcoming brother and sister in law), seeing in their faces the self-same equation taking shape.  Like the three disciples of Shaggy we all declared ‘it wasn’t me’, before reaching a shared consensus that yes, this was bad, and no, we wouldn’t be popular, but yes, it would have been funny to be a fly on the wall at the Namibian border the previous day.  We still don’t know who it was that smuggled the contraband back from Botswana to South Africa, all of us agreeing that it was academic anyway; the end result being the same*.     
*It was Helen.
My watch stopping at the very moment the truck pulled out of the campsite in Maun lent a spooky punctuation to the conclusion of our overland trip, and our time in Africa as a whole, a reminder on my wrist that it was time to move on; an opportunity to look forward with excitement and back with fondness.  With this in mind it seems an appropriate time to mention the overall theme of this blog: you can’t leave your self behind.
I wrote a little about what this theme meant in my first ever post, explaining that my tao of travel revolves around how your ‘self’ reacts to new situations, how travelling is merely a case of placing your self – the beliefs, expectations, assumptions, worries, insecurities, and peculiarities that make you you -  in a different place.  It is not something you can leave behind at the airport, and it is my contention that nobody can enter into a new situation without the starter pack of your ‘self’ already primed.  The reference to the philosophical concept of the ‘self’ is not an accidental one.  In part it’s a reflection on the ideas above, but also it’s a joke, albeit an oblique and cynical one, on the clichĂ©d view that travel is a way ‘to find your self’.  Meet someone who is travelling to find their self and all you will find is blankness. And probably an arsehole to boot.
What I have tried to write about in my posts during our time in Africa is just this: how my self has reacted to the situations we have been presented with.  I’ve thought about writing more of a travelogue, but it simply isn’t me.  Writing of how we did X,Y, and Z in places A,B and C, with beautiful sunsets just doesn’t come naturally to me – the things we’ve done have been amazing, the places awe-inspiring, and the sunsets have been beautiful, but I just don’t know how interesting it would be for you reading it.
So instead, and this is an indulgence for sure, to close the chapter on our time in Africa here is a retrospective on how my ‘self’ reacted to Africa:
…there was a recklessness, a conviction, but also a fear of disappearing for a year, all wound up in the phrase of ‘why the hell not’?
…there was the apprehension of starting what was, in effect, a new job in an utterly different place and being told ‘you’ll be able to handle it better
…there was ‘the handover’ from one life into another
…there was a reflection, in those early days of the new life, on ‘expectations
…there was an explanation of why Bonifus (our favourite child at the orphanage) would be the perfect dinner party guest in ‘the kids are alright
…there was, in what transpires is the most popular posting, some toilet humour in ‘the toilet; a comparative study
…there was my reaction to being sucker-punched by the sheer inhumanity of proper rural poverty, and I still maintain that ‘if you only read one post, make it this one
…there was a step-by-step pictorial guide to self-imposed injury in ‘an idiot’s guide to packing shopping
…there was the strange topic combination of belief and sleep walking in ‘I don’t believe in anything
…there was a water-collection domestic, and the hope for a better future, in ‘Maji Imeisha.  Water – all gone!
…there was some parenting advice in ‘crime and punishment
…there was a heavy dose of vitriol and barely-concealed anger at corruption in ‘mzungu tax
…there was a plea to say thank you, say sorry to heal a rift, tell someone you love that you love them, in ‘opt in
…there was the great escape in ‘I predict a riot
…there was the tricky subject of benevolence in Africa in ‘entitlement and expectation
…there was a piece-by-piece take down of the journalist Mathew Parris and some do’s and don’ts for taking an overland trip in ‘happy clappy claptrap
…and there was the psychedelic combination of dust and sweat in ‘mokoros and mushrooms
So, have I found my self? Course I bloody haven’t.  You can’t leave your self behind, as these posts demonstrate.  What you can do is try to cause a few chuckles, raise a few eyebrows, and maybe even trigger a few tears.  I hope I’ve done all these things. 
Eastward bound, tally ho!

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Mokoros and mushrooms

Bovu Island, Zambezi River, Zambia
“Tell him about the dust” Brett hissed as I stood in his wooden stilt hut, the Zambezi River pulsing by outside the chicken mesh windows. I had a satellite signal booster pinned to my mobile phone, the phone itself clamped to my ear, and a sense of the surreal swirling around me like the eddies in the river.  "Oh yes, and there was lots of dust Dad” I added, keen not to offend the sense of self-imposed responsibility Brett had assumed for me phoning my father. “Um, anyway, I’ll try to call again soon, hope you pick this up okay, see ya”.  Pressing cancel on the phone I wondered if maybe I should have signed off the answerphone message with the instruction to “triangulate these coordinates and send help”.
The man himself
Brett is the manager of a wilderness retreat called Jungle Junction that is located on Bovu Island in the middle of the Zambezi River, accessible only by mokoro – the wooden dugout canoes that have ploughed this river for centuries.  Much beloved by hippies who, over the years, have come for a few days and stayed for months, Brett is the resident hippie-in-chief who takes his responsibility to the local community almost as seriously as he does to the steady consumption of magic mushrooms.  I liked him a lot, and tried hard (but largely failed) to construct a cogent narrative between what was going on in his brain and what actually came out of his mouth.   His insistence that I phone my father, apropos of nothing at all, as we sat sharing a lunchtime beer was, I figured, just the public airing of a Disney family movie that was playing in his mind.  And why not? Making a mental deal with myself I agreed that I would sink into this surreal world for a couple of days but if the word ‘dude’ ever escaped from my lips I was on the first mokoro out of there.
The dust Brett was so insistent on me mentioning on the answerphone message referred to a task we’d agreed to complete as a fair’s fair favour in return for him cutting us a great deal on the accommodation costs.  Jungle Junction have committed to building a school for the local community who live on the banks of the Zambezi, just across from the island, which will remove the need for the children to walk the 12km round trip to the current nearest school as they do now.  Our task was to sweep out the partially constructed shell, removing the cocktail of construction dust and goat droppings.  We were, of course, happy to do this but as is often the case in Africa one needs to think carefully before acting in a benevolent, and seemingly consequence free, manner.  This school is being funded (to the tune of $250,000) by donations made to Jungle Junction from ex-visitors, but the school itself belongs to, and is the responsibility of, the local community.  So, one must really ask the question that if the local community can’t be arsed to sweep it out then why the hell should a random group of tourists?  Paul Theroux, in his majestic book about Africa, Dark Star Safari, repeatedly returns to a broader version of this simple question about the efficacy of international aid, and I paraphrase – ‘if they can’t be bothered then why should we be bothered’?  If a doctor leaves her aid-reliant nation to work in the developed world then why does the developed world replace that doctor?  If a headmaster fiddles the books at his school then why should there be a constant stream of volunteer teachers?  The questions go on and on, but as I’ve already written about the phenomena of entitlement and expectation, you can probably guess which side I fall on in this debate.
100 kwatcha per millilitre kids
The compromise we made was that we would sweep the school provided we were accompanied by a troop of local children.  So liked pied pipers we gathered a dust-busting squad and set to work, sweeping out the school and gathering a week’s worth of black bogies.  As it turns out it is not just Kenyan children who find the concept of body hair fascinating.  Unbeknownst to me at the time there was quite a gathering behind my back as I swept and sweated with my t-shirt wrapped around my mouth and nose, bandito style.  One little girl, it transpires, traced  her finger around the hair on my lower back before rubbing both hands into the sweaty mess and then rubbing it all over her own body.  Weird, I know.  And before you ask, no, I wasn’t sharing Brett’s mushrooms.  But I figure that if BeyoncĂ© can bottle her own drippings and make millions then there is surely a gap in the market for a l’eau de Chewbacca (Tagline = makes you feel grrrrrrrrrrrrrr).  That is how celebrity perfume making works, right?  Because if not I’m chucking away this bottle of Shakira’s newest excretion that I bought for Helen.    
Anyway, Brett will be happy.  I told my Dad about the dust, and now I’ve told you too.  Anyone need a shower?

<2,000!  I’m sure this will not be nearly as exciting for you as it is for me, but the blog has passed the 2,000 page views mark.  I’m just delighted by this and would like to thank you all for stopping by to read the vomit I spew onto my keyboard every so often.  I really am grateful.  I do enjoy reading your comments, and it fascinates me to know who is actually making all these page views.  So, why not leave a comment to say hi – post it as ‘anonymous’ in the drop down box if you can’t be bothered signing up for a Google ID , and just stick your name at the end.  It would be great to know who is staring back at me from the abyss. 
And a special thank you again to those of you who have become followers – family, old friends, and new friends.  I know it’s a hassle to sign up to be a follower, with little reward, but if it makes you feel any better I do lovingly stroke my cursor across your little thumbnails every time I go into the blog while muttering to myself ‘ooh yeh, you’re my favourites, that feels good, like that little stroke do you? NOW OBEY ME FOLLOWER’!  Anyone else want to sign up? You know you’ll love it!>