Thursday, 21 July 2011

Indications of temporality

The below speaks for itself: funny signs I've seen in SE Asia.

'Pleasonable' (adjective): Based on good sense, brings pleasure to the recipient.
I have a good offer for you that I think you will like; it is very pleasonable.
Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Translation: (1) Place life jacket on body (2) Tie strap at front (3) Secure around your back (4) Apply an extra layer of lipstick so you're looking fiiiiinne when you drown.
Ferry, Vietnam

The staff were a little perplexed and upset when I informed them of the suspicious thing I found during my ablutions.
Starbucks bathroom, Tokyo.

It's a little known fact that Barry Chuckle went on to design advertising stickers after the decline in popularity of the Chuckle Brothers.
Tokyo Metro. 

Safety is delicious! Not saluting whilst chowing down is even better.
Sushi Bar, Tokyo airport

I love the combination of the slightly puritanical message of this sign with the subversive and humourous fish love.
Ko Phi Phi, Thailand

Reaches the parts other massages can't.
Chiang Mai, Thailand

<Another competition! Following the complete lack of interest success of the last competition here's another chance to get involved to win sweet bugger all.  Tell me, via the comments field, what the original title of this posting was, before I purposefully stuck it through a pretension machine.  First to get it right wins!  Just say what you see...>

The spectres of spirituality

Cambodia – Kep and Siem Reap

I’m not a very spiritual person.  That was my conclusion during our visit to the Angkor temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  I see wonder, and I would like to see it more, but processing and understanding this wonder has never had a spiritual dimension for me.  The truth is that I don’t, or perhaps can’t, really understand what ‘spiritual’ actually means – is it a faith in something grander, something extra-human, without the baggage of a religion?  I just don’t know.  It’s a filter on my existence that I just don’t have.

I pondered these questions of spirituality, and many others (are people on group tours really as bored as they look? Will the parents of that brat actually mind if I clip him around the head when I walk past him?) as we picked our way through the temples, playing dodge the photographer.  Whilst I can marvel at the incredible architecture, and try to extract from the stone an understanding of what these walls have seen over the many centuries, I simply can’t feel anything greater, or higher, or more profound.  These temples are the largest religious site in the world and have, over the centuries, been a home for animism, Hinduism and Buddhism so it seemed appropriate to think about spirituality, and to think about what truths and insights could be revealed.  It seemed funny to me that a collection of physical edifices could, over the years, be the site of worship for different religions, religions that all stake their own claim to universal truth.  And perhaps that’s the deeply ironic moment of profundity for the non-spiritualist - the great paradox of universal truth.  The game of celestial tag that goes on and underpins the building of civilisations that says ‘I have the truth, no I have it, no I’ve got it now, and this time it’s really real’.  A universal truth is, by definition, unequivocal and the same for all humanity, and yet time and again spiritualists, and the front man of an organised religion, claim conflicting versions of this truth.  If these walls could speak I suspect they may wearily sigh and say ‘would you lot just bloody well make up your mind’?

So there was no epiphany for me at the temples.  There was humidity, a million whirrs from camera shots, and there were people, lots of them.  Take enough photos and perhaps your experience becomes greater, the millions of pixels laughing in the face of transience and ephemerality.   Slumping into the back of the tuk-tuk (named ‘Black Wolf’ and painstaking hand decorated with gold paper) our driver, Vantha, turned expectedly and said ‘where next’?  Back to the guesthouse we said, the dawn start catching up with us, an extra urgency added by the discovery that yes, parents do mind if you clip their child around the head.  I jest, didn’t touch the kid.  Just whispered that this was the location of child sacrifice and that young spirits still roamed the corridors looking for children to take into the afterlife, especially ones that whinge.  

It was, in fact, the burnt out shells of once grand waterfront houses in Kep, on the southern coast of Cambodia, that made a far deeper impression on me than the temples of Siem Reap.  They spoke of the, still relatively recent, atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, the devastation wreaked on this down-at-luck nation.  And it was the faces of the Cambodian people I met, of a similar age, who were children during the atrocities.  I was not bold or confident enough to ask them of their past, or enquire about their families, for fear of opening up a past that they were maybe trying to forget.  Fascinated though I was there lingered the unsettling prospect of being a voyeur, a passing and nosy voyeur, on their private grief.   

If there are spirits that roam this nation then it is in these places one sees them most, not in the architecture of millennia-old temples.  And if there are universal truths then they speak of the barbarity at the core of the human condition, but also the capacity for forgiveness, for rebuilding, and for walking on into the future to leave the past behind.

Spirituality helps many to process, interpret and understand these truths.  Not me though – I don’t understand them, perhaps never will, but trying to understand is, perhaps, the end in itself.         

L: Angkor Wat at dawn, the brochure shot.  R: the reality of unwashed hordes.

Panorama with a ghostly presence at the centre.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Vietnam – full of Vietnamese

Vietnam – From Hanoi to Phu Quoc Island

I shot a furtive and subtle glance over my right shoulder to Helen, sat at the back of the minibus, that I hoped conveyed the message ‘this is not what it looks like, although I don’t really know what this is’. 

The skinny and feline man who was sat next to me had, sighing contentedly, snuggled sleepily into my shoulder and was gently stroking my arm hair.   We’d spent the previous 45 minutes in a game of eye spy, both of us incapable of understanding the other’s language, but committed nonetheless to exhausting the possibilities of our surroundings.  He’d showed me his I-Phione (sic), a glorious rip-off that even had the Apple apple on start up.  I’d shared with him some vacuum-packed dried fruit I’d pinched from an Air Botswana flight and had kept for emergencies (this, I felt, qualified).  He showed me his tattoos, I showed him mine.  We swapped cigarettes, and I read aloud the Vietnamese government health warning on the side of his package, much to his delight, although I’m certain I heard a snigger from one of the other passengers who, quite fairly, was wondering what the hell we were up to.  I was wondering the same.  I showed him the world map on the inside page of the book I was reading, a chapter of which was dedicated to Vietnam, and we traced our fingers across the different names of cities, repeating them to each other.  He pointed to my copper bracelet and struggling to explain that it was from Zambia I resorted to pulling an old postcard from my bag, never sent, with pictures of a Kenyan safari emblazoned on the front.  What’s the correct African country between new friends? 

Eventually, he pointed to his arm, and simulating an injection, rolled his eyes to the back of his head.  I finally got it.  This guy was off his face.  And who was I to ruin his buzz?  Although I stopped short of stroking his hair and singing him lullabies (“I felt the needle and the damage done…”) I did slump a little and turned the pages of my book slowly so as not to disturb him from his opium dreams.  It was the least I could do – we had a relationship now.     
It’s these mini, transient, relationships that often deliver the most joy when travelling.  I’ve written before that it’s the people, and not the places, that inspire.  This is why I was disquieted by the Lonely Planet Vietnam guidebook’s very short opinion-piece on what they consider to be a ‘worrying development’ in the relationship between travellers in Vietnam and the Vietnamese. It suggested, in its brevity, that travellers simply don’t trust their hosts.  Such vagueness is often the calling card of the Lonely Planet – a small box of text outlining a spurious sentiment that raises far more questions than answers.  Lonely Planet are generally reluctant to express firm opinions outside of the stay/eat/do category, but given these guides are written by intelligent and adventurous types it is somewhat inevitable that esoteric opinions do, on occasion, slip through. For me, however, this is the ‘worrying development’, and I think the aforementioned opinion piece neatly captures why.  It fails to mention why there is a tension in the relationship, what opinions exist on both sides of the supposed tourist-resident divide, and how the tension manifests itself.  ‘There be monsters’ it vaguely implies.  One is left to fill in the blanks of this story, entering the country, as I did, with an ill-defined sense of unease, and a ‘no smoke without fire’ logic painting vivid tapestries of distrust, scams, and simmering hostility. Would I feel about as welcome here as I would if I walked into an alopecia clinic?

It made me wonder just how many tourists read that opinion-piece and, just like me, enter Vietnam with a barrier held high, a silent mental refrain saying ‘I don’t trust you, I don’t know why, but I just don’t’.  It’s bad news, and it’s not like me.  Contrary to what you may have taken from previous postings I do actually like people, and happy as I am to spend time in my own head, I struggle without meaningful human contact.  I try hard to assume the best of people, try even harder not to judge people too quickly (because I need to try, this does not come naturally), and I firmly believe that everyone has an interesting story to tell, you just need to ask the right questions sometimes. I’m not na├»ve so I don’t automatically trust anyone, but I do want to trust; that door is open my friend, I’d really like it if you walked through it, but I’m not coming to you. 

You can probably tell where this is going (no? you’re not following this stream of consciousness claptrap? Come on, keep up).  I shouldn’t have been worried, and I resent the Lonely Planet for triggering this worry, but not as much as I resent myself for assuming the worst.  People, to be bland, are people.   Some are nice, some are devious, some are helpful, some are calculating, some are clever, some are daft.  Most are a combination.  I shuddered a little when a girl we’d met had advised us ‘not to go to that beach, it’s full of Vietnamese’.  I refrained from replying ‘well, we are in Vietnam, you weirdo, and while we’re being open and honest you can tell your boyfriend that despite being charming and interesting and intelligent and someone I’d like to have a beer with he looks like a COCK with those dreadlocks and that stupid hair band and it is because of this that I am being cold towards him, yes I called you a weirdo’.   Contrary to guidebooks and lazy generalisations the Vietnamese people we met were lovely and however brief and transient our relationship may have been with them, it was a good one.

There was Mr. Dung, our motorbike tour leader who led us safely across the Hoi An pass (video below), who was gentle and kind and out of chivalry never allowed Helen to carry her own rucksack.  His chivalry also extended to me. He sat next to me after I’d changed into my swimming shorts to have a swim in the Elephant Falls, just south of Hue, and gently stroking my arm (yes, that again) he quietly said ‘you’re a very handsome man Mr Ian’ proving he was a benevolent liar, and prompting a response of ‘um, thanks’?  He would later hand over his cap to me after I complimented it, insisting that I took it from him, and causing a banknote battle as I offered to pay and he refused – I won, boo yah! 

There was the hotel receptionist in Hanoi who took time out of his day to patiently tutor me on how to say, in Vietnamese, ‘good morning, please can you take us to the bus station’?  I assume that’s what I learnt although it could well have been ‘good morning, I am a fool, please switch your taxi meter to rip-off mode’.  Whatever I actually said, not helped by Helen’s giggles at my sing-song pronunciation, we got to the bus station.  This generated what I think was a completely justified smug raise of the eyebrows from me to the still-giggling Helen.

There were countless other people who would stop to smile and help, explain what was in the tea we were drinking, and gently tolerate our remedial attempts at their language.  Even the security staff at Danang airport were friendly, allowing me to run back through the metal detector clutching my swiss army penknife, walk straight past the check-in desks, and stuff the penknife into our chucked luggage that was still sitting on the conveyor.  All these people had a bigger impact on me than the atmospheric cities and beautiful countryside that this country offers up in spades.

So for those of you who are disquieted or concerned by the welcome you may receive in Vietnam I have a simple message.  Go – it’s full of Vietnamese.         


Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The diving bell and the swine

Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam (not that this is at all relevant for what follows)

It can seem sometimes that being on holiday is akin to living inside a diving bell.  The constant roar of 24/7 news coverage and an always-on accessibility that characterised my non-holiday time dissipates to a low, distorted hum that only floats through the outer shell in disjointed snippets.  It’s not an altogether unpleasant experience, metaphorically speaking of course.  Being in a real diving bell because you had the bends would be, I imagine, less pleasant.   Having said that, being in the metaphorical diving bell of locked in syndrome that Jean-Dominique Bauby used eye movements to articulate and dictate in his deeply affecting The Diving Bell and the Butterfly would also be, to put it mildly, less pleasant.  Bang goes that metaphor.  Nonetheless, the point still stands – being on holiday serves to detach oneself from the real world.

I vividly remember, for example, sitting in a Sumatran bar with my buddy Tom back in 2000 watching the BBC news, our first dose of news coverage in nearly a month after we’d returned, sweaty and unkempt, from the Indonesian interior.  This was before, and it seems strange to write this just eleven years later, the internet had really taken hold in the developing world, and certainly before smartphones became as indispensable to the traveller as a pair of sunglasses.  Signing up to my first email account on that holiday I was able to snag the simple email address of, with no need to append random digits in a bid to satisfy the dictates of uniqueness.  Of course, it helps to have the name Ian Zippymoonflower.  News starved we sat watching the coverage of the UK fuel shortages, with mile long tailbacks at petrol stations, and apoplectic truckers bemoaning the unfairness of fuel prices (memo to truckers – there is no such thing as ‘fair’ in the international markets, get used to it or you’ll only end up having a Ginsters and tabloid induced heart attack).  We’ll be back to tabloids in just a moment, oh yes.  Anyway, poking my head out of the diving bell for the first time in a month to hear news of this fuel shortage made me shrug, whimsically thinking how parochial this news felt, how irrelevant to my current time and place it was.  That was until I thought about how I’d get back from the airport, at which point my brain switched to tabloid mode and in capital letters said TRUCKERS HOLD NATION TO RANSOM!!!

I poked my head out of the diving bell again last night, rather more easily this time as I connected my iPhone to the free Wi-Fi in our beachside bungalow, updating my excellent Guardian newspaper app.  In some ways I wish I hadn’t.  Instead of fully enjoying a sun-drenched day motorcycling around this beautiful tropical island with the love of my life playfully tweaking my nipples from the rear seat I have instead done all this, but with a nagging thought running in a loop through my mind.  As I’ve had a day to think about this I feel that I can calmly and rationally share it here, in all its measured simplicity:

The News of the World are morally repugnant, bottom feeding, debased, rag-writing, insensitive, criminally negligent MOTHERFUCKERS

I hope the NOTW gets sued so lavishly for their disgusting phone-hacking that Murdoch has to sell his left testicle to pay the fines, and that his other one is gnawed off by the animals who perpetrated this abomination when they all get locked away in a windowless hole with the terrified screams of abducted children being molested and murdered piped in to the hole on a continuous loop.  I hope they are left with a mobile phone that only receives voicemail and that the phone number is distributed to the general public via the front page of the NOTW for a week running, before the government closes this rag down for good.  Then the public can call at leisure to remind these excuses for humans how disgusting they are before deleting the voicemails so others can have their go.  I think this could catch on as a national pastime.  Far more interesting than football.

Hunter S. Thompson wrote that journalism is “…a low trade and a habit worse than heroin, a strange seedy world full of misfits and drunkards and failures”.  I wonder what he would make of this phone hacking scandal if he were bought back from the dead.  I suspect he would turn the shotgun on himself once more at hearing what his beloved profession had become.  But not before he turned it on every single one of the swine who hacked, and those who implicitly or explicitly sanctioned the hacking, of an abducted teenager’s mobile phone.  That, and not Fear and Loathing, would be his masterpiece.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Money in the hat

Vietnam, Mekong Delta

Three of the four tourists wore their tour-inclusive pointed bamboo hats as they were paddled fore and aft in a canoe through the thin, mangrove lined canal just off the Mekong River in southern Vietnam.  The fourth, grumpy at being herded around, harrumph-ing at the trash that littered the banks, and displaying the effects of a traveller’s worst fear; meeting other travellers, mumbled ‘don’t want it’ when the bamboo hats were passed back through the canoe.  Can you guess who this grump was readers?

Passing other canoes heading in the opposite direction, light of load now their tourist meat had been delivered to the waiting boat, the fore paddlers hissed an initially unintelligible phrase to us – ‘teeep morny’.  ‘What are they saying’? I asked Helen.  ‘Good morning, I think’ she responded, as another paddler hissed at us, this time rubbing his thumb and forefingers together.  ‘Oh, right, I see, they’re saying tip money’, I said, the repeated pleas now becoming clearer, more insistent, and frankly more irritating with each passing canoe.  A clever and unequivocal little phrase that one, precluding as it does the waggish response of ‘don’t eat yellow snow’.  Being harangued into tipping is an experience that can sully the most pleasant of experiences, just as excessive hawking and the directive of ‘you buy something’ can ruin a browse through a market.  And yet, irritating as these things may be, I still understand and admire the enterprise of it, perhaps even the necessity of it, for this is a game in which the outcome matters far more to the hawker than the prey.  Nonetheless, a t-shirt that reads ‘no thanks, got enough crap already’ would be a useful wardrobe addition to the market browser in Vietnam.   

The hissing paddlers were part of a two day ‘Mekong Explorer’ tour, run out of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), a ludicrously good value way to get to Cat Tho, stay overnight, then reject the return bus journey back to the city (so ludicrously good value and with such small margins that I wondered what the paddlers cut of the take was - not much I concluded handing over a tip). So instead of heading back to Ho Chi Minh City with the rest of the group we have continued west, towards the coast and then on to Phu Quoc Island, where I sit now, overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, a cool sea breeze cutting through the humidity of the day, my writing instruments of beer, cigarettes, notebook, and laptop fanned out in front of me.  The tour made me grumpy at first, but as it went on I became more pensive, the continual undertone of tips, kickbacks, and tourist trappings shifting from an irritant into an insight.  An insight into a nation that has quietly said no the political philosophy of the communist government, and has collectively jumped on to the capitalist bandwagon, grappling over each other to reach the Rolls Royce at the front of the traffic jam.    

On the second day, in a quiet moment, I asked our guide what ambitions young people like him had.  His response, ‘to make money’, does not translate well into the written word, as it implies the kind of shallowness that those who yearn to ‘be famous, just famous’ exhibit.  However, he was saying more than this, I think; he was telling me the chance was there to do something other than just survive, that the luxury of peace and relative stability was a platform not to be squandered.  With an accent and phrases that were a bizarre mix of Seattle and Saigon, his tour guide patter also provided an insight into what exercises the collective mind of the country’s youth.  We weren’t there man, we weren’t there! was his unspoken cry, the war a non-memory, an irrelevance to the young of this striding society.  He spoke of wealth, and non-wealth, of how people made a living, and of international relations between themselves and their neighbouring countries of Laos, China and Cambodia, each trying to harness, in this case, the Mekong River and its banks as a power and revenue generator. His tour commentary, repeated daily and with the same jokes no doubt, seemed nonetheless to have a spontaneous edge to it, as if he was thinking out loud, trying to understand his rapidly shifting country, and his place in it.  The word ‘money’ littered his soliloquies; how to get it, how it has been lost, what it’s like to have little but want lots. 

And I ended up rather liking him for it.  He taught me more than I could ever learn from a book, he revealed a lot about what the national character of Vietnam’s youth is like, and he did so with a charming uncertainty of just how he would fit in, but a rigid certainty that he wanted a piece of this new world pie.  In some ways I think this makes this young lad from Saigon no different from a peer in Seattle.  He wanted to get on, but just wasn't sure how yet, and I liked him for that.

But I’m still not wearing that bloody stupid hat.