The Most Lateral Digit
In 2007 I travelled to eight Asian countries, mostly by air, sometimes by coach and train, less frequently by sea and occasionally by the means of hitchhiking. Getting my thumb out usually resulted in taking my fate in my own hands. I enjoyed the ambiguity – who will pick me up? Where might I be dropped off? – and the freedom to bust out of the safe ‘n’ easy limits of modern tourism, what Guy Debord called ‘human circulation packaged for consumption … the opportunity to go and see what has been banalized’. All across Asia are outposts of the banal catering to Western tastes, colonies of the familiar in which you’ll find American fast food outlets, bars selling European beer, mock-bohemian hostels and – above all – the beach.
I could never spend too long on the beach, even though, as a creative writer, I liked its unreality, its suspension from the normal diktats of time, order and motion. The excess of heat and light distorts your perception of everything around you. You can feel like you’re in an invented world of isthmuses of blazing sand that reach into the lucid ocean through which the naked eye can see coral patterns of alien intricacy. There are newspapers and TVs on the beach but what they report seems so remote. A nuclear bomb could explode ten miles away, but its radiation wouldn’t leak into the hermetic bubble of the beach.
Other people seem unreal too. When you ask them about themselves, their answers seem contrived and implausible: a German whose parents own a huge porn shop in Hamburg, a UN peacekeeper on a weekend break, an undercover drugs agent for the Jakarta police who also happens to be a reflexology masseur.
As the sun sets, you find yourself sinking happy hour beers at a palm-shaded bar playing Jack Johnson. You’re living the cliché (or is it now a myth?) of postcards, TV holiday shows and what every Western traveler is told to want from a foreign trip.
The close proximity to bizarre animals can make you think you are roaming the Lost World or the Island of Dr Moreau. You wait for a six foot monitor lizard, essentially a mini-dinosaur, to cross the path that leads back to your hut where there’ll be a different critter to contend with each night: an audacious monkey trying to steal washing, a mysterious gold-backed spider – straight out of Poe – that takes hours of smothering with towels and insect repellent before it dies, cockroaches – those evolutionary strongarms, flying at your face like an apocalyptic beast – worms, frogs, birds of prey beating their wings against the frame of the window, and mosquitoes. Mosquitoes everywhere.
You lie in your sweaty bedclothes staring at the ineffectual fan on the ceiling, hoping its revolutions will hypnotize you to sleep. You reek of the science fictional smell of DEET that is all over your body to prevent bites. Bites that can give you malaria or dengue fever. Mosquitoes, the most dangerous animals in the world if you go by body count.
At around 4am, locals start burning great pyres of rubbish right outside your hut. Back West this is deemed so eco-unfriendly that it could only happen in a bad dream.
What further adds to that unreal feeling is that, on the beach, no-one has a job, is told what to do or has to abide by a routine. That is, of course, apart from the locals who all work extremely hard to maintain this ‘free space’ for the travelers who play roles like actors in a film. Every beach has its resident crackerjack who’s changed his name to mean ‘god of the wind’ or some such thing in the local language. Invariably he is from white middle-class origins, has dreadlocks and carries around a didgeridoo, even though he is unable to play it very well. He is holier than thou about the milieu – he knows every bar, fishing and diving spot, and everyone.
TS Eliot wrote ‘humankind cannot bear too much reality’, and I wonder if sometimes the opposite is true also. On one particular beach in Malaysia, I came to the decision that I’d borne too much unreality. So I hitchhiked out of there.
Taking his cue from Debord, Will Self makes a point in a Google Authors talk about the tyranny of modern transport, in which the traveler is oppressed by prearranged flight paths or train routes or boat courses.
First published in The Hitchers of Oz (2009)