Thursday, 23 June 2011

People are strange

Luang Prabang, Laos and Hanoi, Vietnam

“Oh, hello, you were on the plane with us from Luang Prabang” she said, scurrying across the busy Hanoi street and leaving her (his eyes seemed to suggest) long-suffering husband on the other side.  Whilst it pays to be just the tiniest bit suspicious of random people claiming to know you in foreign cities, the middle aged north-western woman, with her camera toting husband in tow could, I felt, be swiftly placed in the harmless category.  Harmless maybe, but boy could she moan.  “How did you like Luang Prabang” we asked, wishing five minutes later that we hadn’t as we were treated to a rundown of the numerous failings the city had amounting, if I followed correctly, to there being ants in her room and the boat that transported them there being grubby.  I have no issue with people having higher expectations, particularly if they’ve paid enough to justify such expectations, but writing off a whole city – a UNESCO world heritage site at that – on the basis of a tour company screw up seems a bit disingenuous to me.  “I refused to get in the bed on the first night”, she continued, images flashing through my mind of her hanging upside down from an alcove instead, arms crossed over her chest, her husband ordering extra garlic bread at dinner.  “Oh, well I hope you’re enjoying Hanoi a little more” I politely responded, keen to move the conversation into a moan free zone before I had to get all Buffy on her arse and pull out my wooden stake or fashion a couple of ciggies into a makeshift crucifix.  “Oh, this is much more like it”, she replied, “the hotel’s beautiful, I’ll be two hours tops out here and then it’s straight back to the pool - a bit of luxury, just like we’re used to”.  Our eyes met, sharing a look that I suspect is unique to Brits, indecipherable to any other nationality, that said ‘yes, that’s right, you’ve just slipped into show-off mode, now we both feel uncomfortable’.  Hastily back-pedalling she added “you know what I mean, we’re older, we’ve done all that doss-house stuff before”. 

I should be clear here, I didn’t dislike this woman – I may not want to be trapped in a lift with her, but I didn’t dislike her.  She’d chosen to go on a tour through South East Asia, deciding against numerous more comfortable experiences, and she and her husband were most likely spending a good chunk of the savings they’d built up through the summer of their youth to do so.  But the reference to her age made me inwardly chuckle, bringing to life the irony of a sumptuous passage I had just read in Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star:

Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world. That is its purpose, the reason why luxury cruises and great hotels are full of fatheads who, when they express an opinion, seem as though they are from another planet.  

This woman, in the autumn of her life, had chosen, precisely because of her age, a holiday that would spoil and infantilize her and which was resulting in a grown-up tantrum on the side of a busy road in Hanoi to two complete strangers.  By vowing to spend time by the pool instead of time in the city she was clinging to a comfort blanket, knowing that the only strange foreigners she’d have to deal with would be those serving her Martinis poolside, trained no doubt to international standards and in the international language of the service industry, English. 

This sounds scathing, but it really isn’t meant to.  I genuinely hope that she has a nice holiday, and that she stops stressing the little things (and whisper it, they’re all little things in the end).  I hope that she gets up early one morning and sees how the residents of Hanoi keep fit without access to a five star pool, stretching, tai-chi’ing, and slowly jogging around the city centre lake as the steam dissipates off the surface and before the cloak of humidity takes hold.  I hope that as the sun rises her concerns and fears and frustrations will set, and that the ‘Dangers and Annoyances’ section of the Lonely Planet (which, be honest, everyone morbidly flicks to first) will no longer say to her scam, charlatan and thief but opportunity, understanding and friendship. I hope that she begins to revel in the giddy sensation of ‘otherness’ that travel in a strange land can engender, and that she starts to see this otherness as a blessing and not a curse.  I hope that she realises that it is more often the people, strange though they may be, and not the places, that make for a great experience. 

I hope I can do the same.

(Oh, and I really hope a priest hasn’t blessed that swimming pool water because that would be, well, messy.)

Competition time! There will be a fabvery little to no valueulous prize for the first person who can correctly identify the link between the title of this post and the subject matter.  Leave your submissions as a comment and if you post as 'anonymous' be sure to stick your name at the end of the comment.  Good luck blog fans and thanks, as ever, for reading! 
UPDATE, seven hours after publication - we have a winner already, and the competition is now closed, although feel free to leave other comments or connections that you see.  Read the comments to see the answers, including Mark's correct answer.>

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Risks worth taking

Laos, Huay Xai

There are some risks one can choose to take, calculated risks, risks that you feel you understand the potential consequences of and choose to take anyway.  And there are other risks that one takes every day – crossing the road, plugging in a kettle, getting on a bus – that through repetition cease to be perceived as risks, and become normalised. And a bloody good job too because a life lived at the beck and call of risk is not a life, but an ordeal.  Living a life devoid of risk is not living.  However, taking one of these normalised risks and this risk resulting in the silent plea of I want to live, does rather make one re-evaluate the risk-reward calculation.  It was this plea that crossed my mind, surprisingly slowly and serenely, as the bus we were on spun in two full circles on a greasy mountain road between Huay Xai and Lung Nam Tha in northern Laos.  Time really does slow down in moments such as these, and watching the green Lao countryside spin past me, desperately trying to lock eye contact with Helen, there was time to compile a list of possible outcomes; (a) we grind to a halt, (b) we flip over, (c) we spin off the edge, or (d) we flip then we go off the edge.  A macabre version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.  Needless to say, none of these outcomes were really part of my mental risk-assessment process when I booked the bus tickets, or got on the rickety public bus, or silently assessed the driver’s skills as we sped round sharp corners.  Maybe these potential outcomes will be more prominent in my mind next time I get on a bus.

The fact that I am writing this sat outside a book store in the delightful royal capital of Laos, Luang Prabang, and not from a hospital bed or from beyond the grave (m-hah, m-hah, m-hah), suffering from no more than some volatile bowels and a mild hangover will tell you that the eventual outcome was, in fact, (a), final answer.  We ground to a halt on a patch of gravel by the side of the road, the friction stopping our slide towards the mountain edge, the only real damage done to the serenity of us and our Lao travelling companions.  Given that I’ve only just mastered the Lao for ‘thank you’ I figured it pointless to engage the driver in a lecture on the correct way to drive down wet mountain roads, limiting myself to a sigh and the plea, translated with conviction by the other Lao passengers, to ‘bloody well slow down’.  I’m not sure if they also translated my muttered rejoinder of ‘you fucking idiot’, but a look can tell a thousand words and from the daggers being pointed at the driver from everyone on the bus it was abundantly clear that a tip was out of the question.  I even broke my rule of ‘always say thank you to the driver when getting off a bus’, a rule that even the sink-hole of rudeness, London, hadn’t previously shaken me from.

The irony of this incident is that for the previous three days we had been engaged in an activity that posed far more of a visceral and immediate risk than catching a bus ever could.  We had been deep in the jungle, fighting off leeches, living in a tree house twenty metres off the ground, and zip-lining through the jungle canopy.  The Gibbon Experience is a popular activity on the South East Asia traveller circuit, situated just over the Thai-Laos border in the northwest of Laos, which despite the $270 USD per person price tag is booked virtually year round.  We hadn’t booked it, of course - we’re flexible, just going with the flow man, letting each country tell us what we should do, not some traveller’s bible guide book.  I jest, of course - to put it another, more honest and less pretentious way, we’re disorganised.  But, bus journeys notwithstanding, we’re also quite lucky.  We managed to secure the last couple of places on a trip leaving two days after we had crossed from Thailand into Laos, in a fun group of sixteen.  Well, mainly fun.  I didn’t take too kindly to being told off by a young Sloanie girl for supposedly killing an ant, when (1) I hadn’t, and (2) it’s a bloody ant, not a puppy.  This is the same girl who had just made a fuss about the fact that none of the baguettes we had been provided with for lunch were vegetarian, but instead of removing the chicken like the other vegetarians in the group had eaten it anyway.  Perhaps the principles of vegetarianism don’t apply in the jungle. I have no idea given that I grew up a long time ago made the lifestyle choice to be a carnivore.  I’m joking! A cheap joke at that. You can wipe the pieces of tofu burger you indignantly spat out off your computer screen.  I said none of this to our sloanie friend, of course, choosing diplomacy over conflict.  My response of cutting her safety rope was, I think, a far more effective approach.  Still joking.   
Lunch completed, we trekked on through the jungle, sweating more than I ever have before as the jungle wrapped its humid sleeping bag around my body, stopping eventually at a wooden platform surrounded by trees.  Waiting my turn I checked and double-checked the fit of my harness then meticulously attached my roller and safety line to the steel zip line.  Now, I’ve zip lined before, and it’s fun, but this was something else.  Shooting out from the trees I was suddenly suspended 100ft from the jungle floor, the rolling landscape all around me, the wind buffeting my face as I sped across the valley and onto the platform on the other side. Some shout ‘woo-hoo’ at times like these.  I don’t, I’m rendered dumb.  Getting back my power of speech I turned to Helen and muttered the phrase that hitherto has driven me nuts for its lazy and inarticulate over-use; ‘that was awesome’.  But this really was awesome.  Most things aren’t (well, unless you’re a complete simpleton who is genuinely awe-inspired by the minutiae of everyday life), but zip-ling across a forest canopy is.

Sleeping in a tree-house that you enter via a zip-line is pretty good too.  Certainly a step up from Premier Inn.  But I really shouldn’t be too dismissive about the over-use of the word ‘awesome’, brandishing its proponents as simpletons.  For this was the conversation Helen and I had when we awoke after our first night sleeping in the din of the jungle chorus, high up above the ground: 
Helen: How did you sleep?

Me: Not great, it was pretty loud, some of those insects sound like zombies.  I spent most of the night devising defence strategies for how we could repel a zombie attack on the tree house.  We’d be pretty screwed I concluded - I’ve only got a Swiss army pen knife, and if they are like those zombies from 28 Days Later then they’d be close enough to spit blood on you before you could effectively use the blade anyway.

Helen: Uh-huh, that’s not very realistic. I slept pretty well, although I did convince myself that one of the noises was a tiger, and it was laying outside the mosquito net.  But then I told myself it was probably a friendly tiger and that helped me get back to sleep.

Who’s the simpleton now?
So, what’s the moral to this story?  Do you take risks to experience something that is genuinely awesome? Do you think more carefully before taking a normalised risk, knowing that one day that risk may end your life? Do you live in fear, or do you live more freely in blissful ignorance? Jeez, I don’t know, I’m a simpleton.  Maybe you just live, and every so often say a silent thank you that you, and those you love, are alive and that there are moments in life that can, just sometimes, be awesome.

Left: One of the tree houses.  Right: Dawn breaks over the jungle.
Laos public buses - scary.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Not well trained

Thailand, Bangkok to Trang by sleeper train

That feeling about trains, for instance.  Of course he had long outgrown the boyish glamour of the steam engine.  Yet there was something that had an appeal for him in trains, especially in night trains, which always put queer, vaguely improper notions into his head.  
Georges Simenon, "The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By".

‘Where. Have. You. BEEN’?  Yep, I’m in trouble, I thought.  The gritted teeth and fire in the eyes gave it away.  This was face-tremor anger, and even through the delightful cloud of irresponsibility that Thailand’s national beer, Chang, induces I could tell that I’d done A Bad Thing.  For those of you not acquainted with Chang it’s the most popular, and cheapest, lager in Thailand.  It’s also like Stella on steroids.  The quoted ABV is 6.4% but I’ve been reliably informed that it varies in strength from 6-8%.  Its logo graces the ubiquitous singlets worn by virtually every male traveller in Thailand, a uniform that displays bulging biceps and island tans.  You must understand – I’m not jealous of these bicep-ed young men wearing their identikit uniforms, looking fit and healthy and cool, part of the vest gang, singing Bob Marley songs around a beach fire.  No, I’m not jealous, I just want to beat them to death with the guitar and use the singlet to rub away the fingerprints.   

None of this, however, crossed my mind as I sashayed my way to the dining car on the overnight sleeper train we had caught from Bangkok, our destination Trang on Thailand’s western Andaman Coast.  I was feeling tip-top in fact, all at peace with the world, not the least bit misanthropic, and I may have even been humming some Bob Marley in my head (blah blah load of old bollocks blah, that’s one of his right?) .  I’d left Helen in our carriage, snugly ensconced in one of the upper level beds.  Oh, sure, I hadn’t actually told her I was going to the dining car, but it was a last minute decision.  I figured that as I had already clambered my way down from my own top bunk I might as well stretch my legs, have a sneaky little cigarette in the dining car, and do a little spying on who our travelling companions were. 

Well, it was just wonderful in the dining car.  There was no-one wearing a singlet, the Thai karaoke was blaring out of a table mounted TV, everyone was tucking into bottles of Chang or whisky, the lowered windows were allowing a cool breeze to cut the humid night, and the bustling waitresses were only too pleased to plonk me down on a seat, then plonk a Chang on the table.  This is how you do it, I thought, reflecting back on the last time I had been on a train, several months hence, 5.45am, freezing cold, en route to London, and very seriously questioning if what I was doing was the mark of an insane person.  But this moment in the dining car re-ignited my love of train travel, reminded me of those long and pensive journeys I used to take during the university years, the happy hours spent just staring out of the window and thinking.

Raising my glass to the young Thai guy sitting opposite me I took a long pull on the Chang, and lit a cigarette.  Before I knew it we were chatting away, albeit in broken English (his English being much better than my Thai), and through the universal language of smiles, laughs, and clinking of glasses we quickly established that we had a shared fondness for nicotine and alcohol.  I bought a round of Changs, he shared his bottle of whisky, we were having a merry old time. On the subject of time, one of the lesser known effects of mixing Chang with whisky is that it disrupts one’s sense of time, or more specifically the passing of time.  I’m sure I felt a cold chill pass through the dining car as I glanced at my watch.  In retrospect, this chill may have been guilt.  Or my wife truly is a sorceress and can manipulate the weather through her emotions (cold chill = rage, for future reference).

Pin-balling back through the train carriages I arrived back at our berths. ‘Where. Have. You. BEEN’?  ‘Er, I just had a beer in the dining car’. ‘Really’, she hissed through gritted teeth, ‘is that why your lips are smeared across your face’?  ‘OK, two beers.  And some whisky. But it was really fun’.  This wasn’t the correct response.  With a final outburst that is simply not printable I was banished to my sleeping berth, my doghouse for the evening.  And most of the next day as it turned out. 

She’s right, of course.  It was selfish to disappear unannounced, she was worried that I’d fallen off the train (not totally unrealistic), plus I’d left her with all the bags.  I’d been a Bad Husband, and I apologised sincerely and repeatedly.

But it was really fun.  

Before: Happy and together.  After: Shunned and alone (with a changover)
Update 18 June: So, we were doing our accounts today and I stumbled on this page from the daily expenses/mini-journal H keeps.  In case you can't read the entry for the event described in the post above it says: Ian + friends drinks - 400 baht + ?.  In dining car for over 1 hour - "No, let's not go to dining car" x 2. "No you can't have the computer I want to write my blog".  SELFISH WANKER.
Hell hath no fury...

<If you need useful information about trains in Thailand (or most places in the world) then I can't think of a better place than this lovingly created and meticulously maintained website: the man in seat 61>