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Cote d’Ivoire’s Colonial Capital

13 Jul

Here be my new Ivorian piece for Selamta.

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Serene Sharqiyah (originally published in Wings of Oman)

20 Nov

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Meditation. Sobriety. Peace. Al-raha (relaxation). These are the words you’ll hear about the Sharqiyah Sands. After enjoying the urban pleasures of Muscat – its coffee shops and souks, malls and boutique hotels – step down a gear and get ready for the desert.

Start by boarding a bus at Ruwi Station for Al-Mintirib, a town on the edge of the Sands. You leave the city fast, black rock mountains and desiccated trees suddenly visible through the window. Nearer the highway, goats scurry around mini pyramids of bright earth.

The landscape stays like this for two hours. You might worry that this is as desert-like as the desert gets, especially if you’ve been imagining a Lawrence of Arabia scene of dramatic dunes and roving camels.

But then slashes of khaki start to appear between the black rocks. The terrain flattens out and the trees, plants and stones grow thinner. Everything is drying out into sand, a whole world of sand that’s twice the size of Devon or Delaware.

The best way to experience this remarkable environment is at one of the many desert camps in the region. Al-Raha camp offers a pick-up service from Al-Mintirib. You’ll typically be met by a large man in a dishdasha and wraparound shades. As soon as you’re inside his 4WD you off-road it at 120 mph, gouging and wheelspinning through the sand. Your trail looks harsh compared to the light paw- and hoof-prints all around you. If you see what looks like an oil spill up ahead, don’t worry about getting wet – it’s just a mirage.

Al-Raha has a military feel to it: barbed wire fences, camouflage jeeps and satellite phones. But the huts are done out in authentic Bedouin style, their barasti (palm frond) walls like a giant brush.

The tall dune beside the camp is too bright to look at without sunglasses. At its highest point wild camels sniff at branches turned almost to charcoal by the heat. Climbing the dune is hard work. Like some anxiety dream, every step you take you sink deeper into the sand. You can take off your shoes but that hardly helps. Three quarters of the way up, the sand gets even looser. By the time you reach the top, you’re drenched in sweat and hyperventilating.

Look out across the mysterious contours and sublime cambers of the Sharqiyah Sands. The silence is unbreakable. You go into a trance.

You snap out of it when you hear the rumble of vehicles. 4WDs are thumping toward the camp, delivering more guests. Children zip about on quad bikes, pursued by clouds of dust. Nearer to you, black Mazdas skid and slide all over the dunes, their passengers hooting with laughter. This is called ‘dune-bashing’ and any climbers in the vicinity should watch out.

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It soon becomes clear that the desert is both beautiful and dangerous, like an Oriental temptress from colonial literature. She’ll seduce you with her warmth, her curves, her smooth complexion. Then she’ll kill you. The desert has many ways to kill you, from thirst to quicksand, snake bites to crazy driving.

Back at the camp, refresh yourself with halwa and strong coffee. When dusk comes the temperature cools to perfection and the air is at its freshest. A perfect crescent moon forms in the darkening sky.

After a make-your-own shawarma dinner, you’ll probably be ready for bed. But the staff will insist you come over to a roaring camp fire surrounded by bean bags and sheesha pipes. A musician sits cross-legged, singing and strumming the rebab, a sonorous string instrument.

His friends start dancing in an oddly camp way. They cannot stop laughing. Two of them place towels over their heads, link hands and blow kisses at one another. Another wiggles his bottom. The dancers try to persuade tourists to join them. A short Omani kneels down and limbo dances under the volunteer’s legs. The laughter amplifies, bounces across the dunes.

The music and the dancing goes on till past midnight.

By the time you go to bed, smoke from the camp fire and the sheesha pipes has obscured the crescent moon.

In the desert, relaxation means one thing in the day and another at night.

(Originally published in Wings of Oman September 2012)

Penghubung pelbagai budaya (Malay translation; originally published in Going Places)

9 Sep

???????????????????????????????

Ruwi, sebuah daerah di Muscat, yang mesti
dilawati kerana ia adalah tempat pertemuan
budaya Arab dan India.

Selain kubah dan gerbang yang melambangkan
keislaman, beberapa restoran yang mewakili
seluruh benua kecil boleh didapati di sini –
Makanan Istimewa Lahore, Bombay Falooda,
Lanka Snaxdan Punjabi Lassi. Di mana saja anda
pergi, anda pasti terhidu bau pelbagai aroma: Teh
berperisa buah pelaga, pewangi safron, bunga lawang yang
digoreng dengan minyak sapi dan setanggi. Di luar pula, sebuah
souk akan memainkan muzik liwa, juga kelihatan seorang
Bangladesh di dalam kemeja Oxford sedang membantu
surirumah Oman membeli-belah. Lebih 650,000 orang dari
Selatan Asia kini menetap di Oman, mewakili 20 peratus
daripada keseluruhan jumlah penduduk. Kebanyakannya tinggal
di Ruwi, yang juga diberi nama Little India.

Singgah sebentar di Muzium Negara di Jalan An-Noor, dan
anda akan menyaksikan yang kehidupan dengan kepelbagaian
budaya di Ruwi bukanlah sesuatu yang baru. Pameran tentang
dhow (bot tradisional tiga segi) menunjukkan orang telah
berulang-alik di antara Oman dengan benua kecil ini sejak
ribuan tahun yang lalu. Terdapat beberapa model dhowsyang
cukup menarik: Kapal perang dengan balu arti dan meriam,
sejenis sampan untuk menyelam dan kapal dagang dengan
penunjuk haluan yang berupa paruh burung kakak tua. Sebuah peta 3D pula menunjukkan ilustrasi hubungan perdagangan
di antara Oman dengan kota lama Madras, Calicut, Daibul
dan Mangalore. Pada masa lalu, kemenyan terbaik adalah dari
Dhofar dan ia juga merupakan eksport utama bagi wilayah
tersebut. Barangan import yang berharga pula ialah perak
kerana ia diperlukan oleh tukang ukir Oman untuk membuat
khanjar (pisau belati tradisional)
Barangan perak Rajasthani adalah berkualiti tinggi dan ia
menjadi daya penarik yang menyebabkan laluan di Ruwi begitu
sibuk dengan kereta, kedai dan tempat makan seperti di India
Utara, cuma ia lebih kemas dan kurang sesak. Semasa anda
melalui air pancut yang cantik, anda pasti terpijak kulit pistachio,
dan di sini kelihatan lelaki yang bermisai tebal menghisap rokok
dan berkongsi cerita. Jika cuaca menjadi panas, singgah di
kafe yang dibina seakan-akan di dalam lubang dinding. Sajian
masala chai adalah minuman yang cukup sempurna, ia adalah
campuran ia adalah teh berperisa campura halia dengan kulit
kayu manis dan rasanya sangat manis.
Membeli-belah di Muscat memang mahal tetapi tidak di
Ruwi. Apa saja cenderahati yang ada di Gold Souk, pasti terdapat di sini dan jauh lebih murah. Tiada barang di pasar
hadiah Al Ain yang melebihi 1 riyal, sama ada bendera Oman,
ornamen Islam, patung unta atau sebotol minyak wangi. Di
luar kedai pula ada dijual manisan, rempah ratus, kopi dan
halwa yang cukup murah jika dibandingkan dengan harga di
lapangan terbang, hotel ataupun gedung beli-belah. Cuma
yang terkecuali ialah madu Yaman kerana harganya adalah
50 riyal untuk sebotol. Kata pengurus kedai, ini adalah madu
yang terbaik di dunia, rasanya sedap dan mempesonakan.
Bagi pengunjung yang gemarkan kamera, komputer, jam dan
telefon juga pasti teruja kerana di sini terdapat pelbagai jenama
serantau dan global.

Pada waktu makan tengah hari, Restoran Al Waseem
menyajikan makanan terbaik dari dua wilayah serantau tersebut.
Pesanlah makanan India dan anda akan mendapat salad segar
serta rangup dari Arab sebagai pembuka selera. Buah zaitunnya
cukup hebat. Di dapur, seorang lelaki sedang menyepit kaki
ayam untuk mengeluarkannya dari ketuhar yang berbentuk
mangkuk tandoori untuk mencipta makanan istimewa restoran tersebut iaitu briyani. Sebaik saja nasi goreng, kuah ataupun
lapisan roti anda yang disajikan bersama briyani berkurangan,
pelayan akan cepat-cepat mengisi semula pinggan anda. Ia
hampir mustahil untuk menghabiskan makanan anda!
Pada dinding restoran tersebut kelihatan gambar kanak-kanak
sedang merenung kota Mekah yang sesak, dan anda hanya
perlu melintas jalan untuk ke Masjid Ruwi. Masjid itu diindahkan
lagi dengan kubah yang diperbuat daripada kobalt dan menara
sembahyang berupa roket, menjadikan masjid tersebut menarik
dan sering digunakan sebagai mercu tanda untuk memulakan
perjalanan. Ini penting kerana jalan di Ruwi agak mengelirukan
iaitu sama ada jalannya tidak bernama ataupun hanya dikenali
dengan nombor – contohnya Way 1547. Ke Timur pula,
terdapat Menara Jam. Dari jauh ia seperti sebuah jam batu yang
amat besar. Bila dilihat dari dekat, anda akan nampak laluan
gerbang dengan motif Islam dan ukiran dhow.
Di penghujung bahagian Utara Jalan Soq Ruwi terdapat
bangunan lama yang dijadikan panggung wayang. Inilah
tempat yang dikatakan menjadi lokasi kepelbagaian budaya
di Ruwi. Kebanyakan pelanggan di sini adalah pasangan dari
Oman, sementara kakitangannya pula berketurunan Pakistan.
Anda boleh menonton filem aksi terbaru Arab dan filem hebat
Bollywood, semuanya mempunyai sari kata bahasa Inggeris.
Dari kaunter snek, anda boleh membeli samosa ala Selatan Asia,
minuman berbusa Barat dan sandwic Oman.
Sebaik saja mentari tenggelam, kehidupan Ruwi juga
berubah. Kedai, restoran, Menara Jam dan masjid semuanya
diterangi cahaya lampu. Pekerja binaan yang kebanyakannya
orang Bangladesh yang memakai penutup kepala warna oren
dan berbaju ungu berkumpul di sekeliling air pancut, kemudian
beramai-ramai ke stesen bas ONTC. Dan, pada masa yang
sama kelihatan sebuah keluarga Oman di dalam kereta Humvee
memberhentikan kenderaan mereka di luar laluan sesak Ruwi
untuk membantu pelancong Turki yang sesat. Kanak-kanak
India pula kelihatan bermain di atas tempat penyimpanan keluli
yang dilitupi timbunan bata dan tayar hidraulik. Tenaga dan
kepelbagaian Ruwi tidak berhenti pada malam hari – ia adalah
fenomena 24 jam.

Wandering War Zones (originally published at www.exploco.com)

21 May

Some people are so tired of the predictability and ease of traditional travel that they’re turning to, shall we say, more challenging destinations. Some are brave – or foolish – enough to go wandering about in actual, live war zones.

War zone, Afghanistan

Is this view really for you? Image: Flickr/ The U.S. Army

They risk their lives and petrify their friends and relatives back home. The news is increasingly filling with backpackers who trek with guerrillas in Nepal and pensioners who’d rather fly to Afghanistan than take a cruise in the Caribbean. There’s now even a whole Wikipedia war tourism page and a best-selling guidebook called The World’s Most Dangerous Places.

But is such an approach to travel enlightening because it shows us the harsh realities of the world – realities any sane, rounded person should be aware of? Or is war zone wandering just tasteless and irresponsible? We think it’s time to have that debate.

 

“What the Hell Are You Doing?”

This is the natural question anyone would want to ask a war zone wanderer. The simple answer may be “curiosity”.

In 2009, 74-year-old Gordon Moore eschewed a relaxing retirement to venture to Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Syria and Lebanon. His reason: “The experiences I have excite me and I find it so interesting.”

Trekking Holidays, Walking Holidays, Afghanistan, Nepal, Caribbean, Wandering War Zones, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Mogadishu, Somalia, 38th Parallel, Vietnam, Antietam, US

Vietnam – a former war zone – has been safe to trek for years. Image: Flickr/ Kyle Taylor, Dream It. Do It. World Tour

He sounds almost blasé about it. In a typically English flourish, Mr Moore tried to send postcards to his grandchildren from Basra before realising that the stamps he’d bought dated back to before the fall of Saddam.

Other war zone wanderers speak of the rarity of their experiences. In an age when everyone has seemingly been everywhere, thanks to affordable air travel and a globalised culture, setting foot somewhere that nobody would think – or want – to go brings a certain cache with it.

Prepping for the Worst

The abovementioned World’s Most Dangerous Places has a whole section entitled ‘How to Survive War Zones’. Obvious advice (“Carry a lot of money in hidden places”) is interspersed with less obvious advice (“Bring photographs of your family, friends, house, dog or car” in case you are caught by people who want to kill you and you badly need them to take pity on you).

Trekking Holidays, Walking Holidays, Afghanistan, Nepal, Caribbean, Wandering War Zones, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Mogadishu, Somalia, 38th Parallel, Vietnam, Antietam, US

Looks appealing, but is danger just around the next corner?. Image: Flickr/ mariachily

Opt to ignore regular walking holidays and head solo to any country where war has wrecked the infrastructure, you’ll find access to basic services such as food, running water and electricity tricky and expensive.

In particularly hectic cities such as Mogadishu, Somalia, it is virtually impossible to wander around in the open air without some kind of bodyguard, such is the risk of random shootings and abductions of foreigners.

Before you even start your planning, take a long look at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Travel Advice by Country. Here you’ll get a few pointers as to where might be too hot to trot.

Someone Else’s Misery

But isn’t it exploitative to turn a human disaster into recreation? Remember ‘Holidays in the Sun’ by the Sex Pistols? “Cheap holiday in someone else’s misery”.

Trouble spot travellers have the luxury of being able to leave whenever they like and return to a comfortable, peaceful First World existence. This is a luxury that nobody they’ll meet on the ground will share.

‘Someone else’s misery’ could well apply to friends and relatives who have to suffer for your art, especially if you tread on a landmine or get a piece of shrapnel lodged in your brain. If before you left they appreciated your need to sate your curiosity, they probably won’t appreciate it now.

They may suddenly be tasked with trying to get you home, supposing you’ve survived. And if you haven’t survived then they’ll be left grieving for you, which is an even harder task.

Expect checkpoints and scrutiny on your travels. Flickr/ US Army

If you have dependants, risking your life in the middle of some foreign war is almost certainly selfish and reckless.

The Right Reasons

The wannabe war zone wanderer will have to weigh up a few pros and cons before he or she sets off.

You might need to ask yourself the question: ‘Am I doing this for the right reasons?’ Will you arrive in some bullet-holed scene of devastation and get a sadistic thrill out of it or will you have genuinely learned something about man’s inhumanity to man?

Perhaps the test is staying in a war zone for longer than just a few days or weeks. If, like many foreign correspondents and aid workers, you’re willing to put yourself through that, no-one can accuse you of being an exploitative tourist… or can they?

A safer compromise might be taking trekking holidays that are war zone wandering-lite i.e. going to the scenes of wars that are safely over. From the 38th Parallel in Vietnam to Antietam in the US, there are plenty of good treks to be had in places that used to be extremely dangerous but, thankfully, aren’t now.

Originally published on APril 5th 2013 at http://www.exploco.com/blog/25571/wandering-war-zones-enlightening-or-just-tasteless/#comments

Urban Trekking: Eye Opening or Ugly and Dangerous?

21 Feb

In 2007 I made a 6-mile trek across downtown Calcutta; not the most typical of trekking holidays. I could have been killed many times and in several different ways: by speeding juggernauts, motorbikes or taxis, by various forms of pollution, by mangey and irate dogs, or by falling into a distressingly un-signposted 30-foot trench bristling with masonry spikes.

Urban Trekking, Trekking Holidays, Trekking, Calcutta, Alipore Zoo, Florence, Pisa, Washington, DC, Urban Trek, Urban Trekker, Muscat, Tobago, Goa

Urban trekker in India. Image: Flickr/ artist in doing nothing

Obviously I didn’t get killed or I wouldn’t be writing this now. But far from being traumatised by my experience, the feeling of satisfaction after reaching my destination – Alipore Zoo – was equal to that I have felt after conquering any hill or jungle.

But mention the rather newfangled term ‘urban trekking’ to most people of sane mind and they tend to give you an odd look. Why ambulate around somewhere busy, man-made and ugly when you can explore nature in peace and solitude?

 

So what is it?

There are varying definitions of the term. For the Potomac Area Council in Washington, DC, urban trekking is an educational programme intended to help disaffected young people navigate their way between American cities.

A swift Google shows the term to have been hijacked by various tour operators that are headquartered in cities but offer trekking holidays in the Great Outdoors – which makes the term a bit of a misnomer, if you ask me.

One blogger describes a pleasant mooch around the elegant cities of Florence and Pisa as ‘urban trekking’. While we can agree with him that this form of travel is perhaps the most sustainable there is (another good argument for using your legs), I’m not sure that checking out the posher parts of Italy offers quite the adrenalin-pumping challenges the hardcore hiker requires.

Urban Trekking, Trekking Holidays, Trekking, Calcutta, Alipore Zoo, Florence, Pisa, Washington, DC, Urban Trek, Urban Trekker, Muscat, Tobago, Goa

The flower market in Calcutta. Image: Flickr/ abogada samoana

So instead let me offer this definition of a textbook urban trek: ‘a journey on foot through an urban environment that should involve some element of physical exertion or even risk, and that yields a new and surprising insight into a city.’

Why bother?

Whereas most trekkers are Romantics i.e. they hold up nature as the most life-affirming and spiritually/physically-renewing place to explore, others believe that it is the city that offers the greatest challenges, lessons and rewards to the hiker.

According to Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, for the first time in history there are now more people around the world living in cities than in the countryside. Like it or not, the city is now the place to be, the place to explore. It is where the most interesting things happen, it has the most interesting things to see. It is where the agendas are set and where the future is decided.

Trek against the machine

There is a political dimension to urban trekking too. The French philosopher and ‘psychogeographer’ Guy Debord saw drunkenly ‘drifting’ around the streets of Paris in the 1960s as a way of frustrating the oppressive and controlling boundaries of the modern city.

Author and ambler Will Self updates the creed like this: ‘The contemporary flâneur is by nature and inclination a democratising force who seeks equality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control.’

Which sounds like the urban trekker’s version of ‘the rambler’s right to roam.’

But what about the weirdos?

It is true that pests and nutters are occupational hazards for the urban trekker. I recall an initially delightful mosey through Muscat amid the palm trees, the lively souqs and the rosewater scent of ladies’ perfume – which climaxed (almost certainly the least appropriate word) with a sexual advance from an Indian migrant worker.

Urban Trekking, Trekking Holidays, Trekking, Calcutta, Alipore Zoo, Florence, Pisa, Washington, DC, Urban Trek, Urban Trekker, Muscat, Tobago, Goa

You may see a fight while walking along the streets of India. Image: Flickr/ Proxy Indian

But disaster was averted: as soon as he squeezed my thigh I bade him farewell and exercised my flaneur’s freedom of movement as quickly as I possibly could!

I appreciate that not every urban trekker gets off (again, not the choicest phrase) as lightly as I did in Muscat. There is of course a risk – especially to women, according to the stats – of walking in certain streets at certain times in almost any city in the world.

While assaults on female tourists abroad often make the national headlines, the two most recent incidents occurred as a result of break-ins at hotels in Tobago and Goa. This is not to say that urban trekking is less risky than staying in a hotel, just that everyone should take sensible precautions in any travel context.

Give it a go!

Calcutta didn’t kill me it made me stronger – and wiser. It was worth getting up close and personal with the city to understand something about Indian culture and society, something I wouldn’t have learned from a ramble in the sticks.

Originally published on Exploco.

Tragedies of Exile Part II

10 Oct

THOUGH MANY LEAVE THEIR HOME COUNTRIES FOR JOB REASONS OR FOR PERSONAL ADVENTURE, THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF THOSE WHO FIND THEMSELVES ABROAD FOR OTHER REASONS, OFTENTIMES DISHEARTENING. SOMETIMES, IT’S THEIR STORIES THAT ARE THE MOST COMPELLING. JOIN WRITER TOM SYKES IN THE CONCLUSION OF A TWO-PART SERIES AS HE SHARES HIS PERSONAL INTERVIEWS WITH REAL PEOPLE WITH REAL TALES TO TELL.
Bryant

As I leave the post office of the University of the Philippines, a hirsute giant in a Panama hat rushes over to me. His breath is supernaturally bad. His ginger beard is spiky with sweat. He clamps a sweaty hand to my shoulder. “Name’s Bryant,” he says in fast and frantic Californian. “You a writer, man?” Before I can answer, he talks over me. “I’m a writer, see this?” He opens up a kit bag full of poorly-printed self-published books.

I try to ask him what he writes, but he talks over me again. “I’ve had the damnedest luck since I came to Manila. I wrote a PhD and they failed me ‘cause we had an argument. That wouldn’t happen in countries like ours, would it?”

He then proceeds to loudly chastise a number of well-known Filipino authors and intellectuals. ‘X’ lacks grace, ‘Y’ is arrogant. ‘Z’ is a feeble copyist of Bryant’s favourite American writer. I look nervously around in case one of these people happens to pass by. I wonder if Bryant is less a victim of his damnedest luck than of social ineptitude, especially in a culture where anger and confrontation are taboo.

I ask him why he doesn’t return to the US.

“A little money issue.” He points to his kit bag. “So you’ll buy one of my books?”

I make the excuse that I don’t have any cash on me.

He doesn’t seem to hear me. “Maybe you could hook me up with a publisher in your country? The publishers are real unfriendly here.”

A chubby Filipina in mirrorshades appears. She wears an embarrassed, spaced-out smile. “This is my girl,” says Bryant. “She’s a very talented photographer.” He takes out his phone and shows me a series of unbelievably clichéd island sunsets. “Perhaps you could help her get an exhibition?”

I tell him it’s not really my area.

“Damn,” Bryant sneers and scratches his beard.

I say goodbye before I become another victim of his damnedest luck.

Coop

Coop wanders the homestay he runs with his Balinese wife Ida. He is topless, a bypass scar leading from his chest to his bathtub belly. He natters in Aussie monotone, a cigarette pivoting in his mouth. “The thing about Candi Dasa, right, is we’ve got the best beach in the world ‘cept no one knows about it … Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall got married just up the road … My wife’s a bloody whizz in the kitchen, it’ll be just like your granny’s cooking back in England …”

Coop worked as a baggage handler for Qantas until a heart attack made him re-think everything. Wanting a new start, he flew to Bali and never came back.

In Australia he’d been a nobody. “It was hard for a bloke to get on,” he moans. “Too many immigrants taking all the jobs.” With no concern for hypocrisy, Coop built a successful business here in Bali, putting his “raconteur’s skills” (his description not mine) to use. He reminds me of Ronald Merrick, the colonial policeman in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet novels. Merrick felt his grammar school education and lack of connections impeded his career in Britain, so he moved to India where he found it easier to excel. Thousands of real-life expats would agree with him. As Sriskandarajah and Drew observe, ‘For some middle class families, living abroad is a social aspiration. The experience of foreign living and culture may be a way to redefine themselves in the social hierarchy.’

Like Merrick, Coop despises the indigenes. He has a particular problem with those taxi drivers who dare to ask him for a 12,000 Rupiah (about 90p) tip. He doesn’t seem to respect his wife much either: she is slaving away in the kitchen while he hangs out half-naked, smoking and swigging Bintang beer.

A creaky old man in a rugby shirt enters the homestay. “This is Clive,” says Coop. “He’s a Kiwi, but we’ll try not to hold that against him.”

Trailing behind Clive is a Balinese girl young enough to be his granddaughter. She is in fact his new wife. I don’t believe her claim to have children from a previous marriage. Clive has three grown-up sons of his own. They too have a penchant for the oriental lady.

“My eldest married a Japanese,” he says. “My second a Vietnamese. But my youngest, well, he’s been a disappointment to me; he married an Australian.” Coop tuts at the comeback. Clive winks.

Western men have long been enchanted by Asian women. In the 1880s, the Irish-Greek Japanophile Lafcadio Hearn wrote, “the most wonderful aesthetic products of Japan are not its ivories, nor its bronzes, nor its porcelains, nor its swords, nor any of its marvels in metal and lacquer – but its women.” Today, in Thai villages of 500 families, some two hundred women are married to American and European men. For many, love is now the holy grail of expatriation.

Candi Dasa is no exception, Coop assures me. He mentions a retired Dutchman who’s just moved into the area. “He’s bought the land, he’s built the house, now he’s looking for the girl. He’ll find one no worries, bloke like that.”

After Clive and his missus retire, Coop reveals a darker dimension to expat relationships. “That bloke you just met,” he says with the shamelessness of a gossip, “he had another Balinese chick before that one. Got her pregnant. One night they were staying here and she wouldn’t, you know, sleep with him. So he yelled at her, really upset her. Then he drove down to Kuta for a ‘takeaway.’ Know what he meant by that?”

I think I do. “What did you say to Clive?”

Coop shrugs. “Well what can you say? None of my business, mate.”

It dawns on me that Coop’s industry is a dirty one. The imperatives of hospitality have made him a coward. He’ll let someone behave like that so long as they’re a paying customer. I wonder if he’d react differently to a Balinese man doing exactly the same thing to his girlfriend. Perhaps not; business is colour blind.

Coop finishes his eighth bottle with a burp. I feel for his poor wife. He’s already had one major heart attack and he’ll have another if he carries on like this. Then Ida will be back on the scrapheap, waiting for another white sugar daddy.

Now slurring, Coop mocks a guest he suspects of being gay. I call it a night and go to my room. I realise I’m next door to Clive.

Ambrose Bierce’s wry definition of ‘exile’ could well apply to an expat like Coop or Clive: ‘One who serves his country by residing abroad, yet is not an ambassador.’ Australia and New Zealand are well-served by Coop and Clive residing 1,500 miles away. But by the same logic, I feel sorry for Bali.

 

 

 

The expats I interviewed were all fleeing some personal tragedy – failure, guilt, ill health, bereavement – as if the physical act of travel could elude their internal demons. Whether this is possible is an open question. Annisa was disappointed with her ancestral homeland and alienated from other expats. Clive, Coop and Bryant were surely doomed.

Meanwhile, Lily seemed to be coping best with the tragedies of exile. She’d embraced the host society and was curing her melancholy by helping others. With her sense of adventure and fondness for boats, she might well appreciate Mark Twain’s positive angle on expatriation: “So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

 

 

Tragedies of Exile Part I

28 Aug
Tragedies of Exile: Candid Encounters with Expats
27 August, 2012

THOUGH MANY LEAVE THEIR HOME COUNTRIES FOR JOB REASONS OR FOR PERSONAL ADVENTURE, THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF THOSE WHO FIND THEMSELVES ABROAD FOR OTHER REASONS, OFTENTIMES DISHEARTENING. SOMETIMES, IT’S THEIR STORIES THAT ARE THE MOST COMPELLING. JOIN WRITER TOM SYKES IN THE FIRST OF A TWO-PART SERIES AS HE SHARES HIS PERSONAL INTERVIEWS WITH REAL PEOPLE WITH REAL TALES TO TELL.

 
During my two years in Asia, some of the most intriguing people I met were expats. Some were genial and intelligent, others were obnoxious, but not one was ever dull. Settling down for brief periods in India, Malaysia, and other places, I became an expat myself. I experienced a weird kind of dislocation, a confusion about who I was and what I was doing. Despite my keenness to integrate, I had many fears and anxieties. Such feelings were new to me; I wanted to understand them better.

 
I decided to interview a number of expats about their attitudes, motives, and desires. I became fascinated not only by their personal stories, but with the wider phenomenon of expatriation itself. I found out that expats are defined as migrants from economically advanced countries and that, while there’s much debate about immigration to such countries, there is less focus on emigration from them. I was surprised to learn that six million Britons (10% of the total population) currently live outside the country, while 5% of Australians and 2% of Americans have moved overseas.

 
The more interviews I conducted, the more I realised that my troubles weren’t unique. An expat life seldom runs a smooth course.

 
ANNISA

I first meet Annisa at the University of Malaysia. She is performing an experimental dance routine drawing on African and Asian styles. She lurches around the stage as if possessed, her face pinched with terror. Afterwards, she sits down with me, exhausted.

 
Her beauty suggests she is younger than the “late 30s” she claims. She has caramel skin, sleek black hair and small elliptical eyes. These looks are typical of Cape Malays, she tells me, the descendents of Javanese slaves brought to South Africa by the Dutch. But while her ancestors were forcibly expatriated, Annisa has freely chosen to return to their country of origin five centuries later. She belongs to a genre of expat called “the returnee.” As Sriskandarajah and Drew observe in Brits Abroad, other returnees include British-Jamaicans who opt to go back to the Caribbean in later life. They are not always impressed with what they find. “It’s a foreign culture for us,” complains one man. “Now it is Americanised and strange.”

 
Is Annisa impressed with what she’s found? “It’s not how I imagined,” she sighs. “I was hoping for more gamelan music and fewer shopping malls.”

 
Does she spend time with other expats? “Apart from my English husband, not really.” She inverts Aesop’s adage: “Divided we stand, united we fall.” Fellow expats are “too inward-looking; they have little to do with the locals.” She has touched on a big theme: the problem of integration. In one school in Spain with a majority of British pupils, teachers protest the refusal of these Brits to learn Spanish. While living in Manila, a Filipino friend accused me of hiding in a gated community: a tower of rich outsiders guarded by natives poor enough to be sacrificed in an armed robbery or kidnap attempt. I pointed out to my friend that this was the only accommodation available to foreign workers like me; I hated it as much as she did.

 
However, some expats don’t feel welcomed to integrate. In Knowles and Harper’s study Hong Kong: Migrant Lives, Landscapes, and Journeys, British teenager Jess complains that Hong Kongers won’t sit next to her on the bus. When she enters a clothes shop they giggle at her Western physique. Knowles and Harper link this hostility to the colonial past, when local coolies had to ask special permission to enter whites-only neighbourhoods such as Victoria Peak. “There is a whole other life here which is very different from ours,” Jess concludes miserably.

 
In contrast with Jess, Annisa has learned fluent Malay and is founding a theatre company here in Kuala Lumpur. I ask her why she chose the expat life. “I was a professional actress in South Africa for five years, but the work dried up. I thought I should travel and better myself as a writer and performer.”
Annisa belongs to a long tradition of creatives who have sought inspiration and ideas abroad. As Malcolm Bradbury puts it, “by virtue of his dedication, creative anguish, and distinctive perception, the artist exercises his freedom and his powers by existing in a displaced relationship to his national culture.” Bradbury goes on to examine the great American writers who moved to Europe, from Henry James to Washington Irving, Ezra Pound to T. S. Eliot, Henry Miller to William Burroughs. Many of them went to Paris and joined a United Nations of artists: Irish playwrights, Spanish filmmakers, German painters, and so on.

 
Has Annisa been an expat anywhere else? “I’ve lived in San Francisco, Jakarta, Mumbai, and Yeovil.” “Yeovil?” I wonder if I heard correctly. “Yes,” she laughs. “It’s where my husband’s from. We didn’t last long there.”

 
LILY

I sit with Lily in a peach-coloured bar that used to be a Portuguese villa. Her peroxide blonde hair and sequined dress recall a femme fatale from a film noir, except she may be too old for the part. We are waiting for a band to tune up.

 
I ask Lily how she came to live in Goa. She looks over at the band, tears filming her heavily shadowed eyes. I seem to have upset her.
“I’m sorry,” she says, catching a tear in a napkin. “It’s been a while since somebody asked me that question.” She composes herself and begins her story.

 
Lily used to be a “workaholic miser,” running old people’s homes in Auckland. When her 20-year-old son Doug died in a car crash, she stopped caring about her career, money, New Zealand, and a lot else besides. She moved to Australia and lived on a houseboat. She threw lavish parties for her neighbours, enjoying this “new feeling called generosity.” A typical party would start with steak and champagne for breakfast and end with skinny dipping in the Timor Sea.

 
Lily then lived on a houseboat in Thailand for two years before sailing on a cargo ship to Goa. She admits to “running away from something,” but doesn’t mention her son. Her latest act of generosity was to buy instruments for the band, which has just started playing.

 
“Doug loved music,” she shouts in my ear. “Really loved it.” For the first time this evening she smiles. Some other expats join us, kissing Lily on the cheek. She keeps smiling for the whole of the gig.

 
Read part two in next month’s issue of The Expat.
This article was written by Tom Sykes for The Expat magazine.

Source: The Expat August 2012

The Terminal Beach: A British Family Travels in the Wake of Ondoy

12 Jun

Throughout my time in the Philippines, I never got over how early and suddenly the night would fall. Our coach was on Bacoor Bay at 6pm when the rowdy ocean to the west and the brush-covered mountains to the east fell black. The girls were already asleep, Daisy face-down in Donna’s lap. I looked at the other passengers. Some picked their noses, others jiggled to iPods. A huge woman ate a huge buko pie.

We were heading for Nasugbu, a beach recommended by Lonely Planet. After only a week in Manila we needed a break from the heat, the noise and the psychotic driving. The journey would take us through both remote countryside and the economic heart of Luzon – a contrast that intrigued me.

Our coach hit the Centennial Road. On my map this throbbed like a vein through the scrotum-shaped peninsular of southwestern Luzon. Nasugbu’s position on the map was arguably the boil hanging off the lower edge of the scrotum. I didn’t know how I’d come up with this nasty metaphor. I hoped it didn’t augur badly for our trip to the seaside.

The driver put on a CD of eighties pop. There was a malfunction and ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ played in fast-motion; Kylie Minogue abducted by the Chipmunks. Donna started awake. “Where are we and what on Earth’s happening?” she murmured, eyes cemented with sleep.

“It’s all right, darling,” I said. “Soon be in Nasugbu.”

The landscape grew taller, more built-up and better-lit. We passed townhouse developments with picket fences and controlled explosions of flowers. Checkpoints subdivided every road. All the curbs were yellow-striped. The coach pulled up at a Berlinesque wall signed CAVITE EXPORT PROCESSING ZONE. Beside it was a hammer-shaped monument with WELCOME written vertically down it. Over the wall were vast slabs of factory and warehouse. Looking at this post-industrial scene, it was hard to believe that the name ‘Cavite’ was derived from the Tagalog word for creek.

This EPZ (as it’s abbreviated) is a semi-independent state with its own tax laws and loose regulations. It has its own governing council and police force. Access is strictly controlled, hence all the checkpoints. Seventy thousand people work here in textiles, food processing, electronics and manufacturing. The pay is low, the shifts are long and the conditions dangerous. Anyone who tries to form a trade union gets kidnapped, hog-tied and murdered by aforesaid police. Only brave people try to form trade unions. Nonetheless, the region has a long tradition of radicalism. As the historian and Spanish-American War veteran James H. Blount wrote in 1913:

Cavite province has always been, since the opening of the Suez Canal,

about 1869, and the agitations for political reform in Spain which culminated

in the Spanish republic of 1873, quickened the thought of Spain’s East

Indies, the home of insurrection, the breeding place of political agitation.

The purpose of Cavite and the other 240 EPZs across the Philippines is to attract foreign investment. Indeed, IBM, Gap and Nike are all here but you won’t see their logos; they use regional subcontractors.

A dozen people left the coach and marched single-file to the wall. They reached for the ID cards around their necks.

We continued south through Silang, Cavite’s quiet, rural fifth district. I saw little but fields and churches with bell gables like decorated gingerbread. My friend, the poet Joel Toledo, grew up round here in the 1980s. Electricity was a rare luxury. His poem ‘Moth’ recounts what happened when Joel’s family switched the lights on for his grandmother’s funeral.

The harsh, yellow light recedes
and bursts around each footstep.
We all go up the staircase.
Moths of various sizes hug the wooden walls.

Joel now lives in a Manila condo with high speed broadband and cable TV. I wondered how many of those EPZ workers earlier had trekked from homes like the one in Joel’s poem to build parts for mobile phones and laptops. Statistically many would have; twenty six percent of Filipinos live with little or no power.

We hit silty terrain close to sea level, moonlit waves licking the road. The coach’s headlights fell on sugarcane spiked up like punk hairstyles and bubbly mango trees. Fish cages zigzagged along a hillside river that widened into a waterfall.

The coach stopped. I woke the ladies. As we were getting off, locals with Cavite EPZ ID cards were getting on. “Why are you going there?” I asked one man with a scar encircling his eye.

“No work here no more, po.”

“How come?”

He pushed past me without answering.

We stood outside Nasugbu Municipal Hall. Streetlamps highlighted its various shades of blue paint. A tricycle buzzed over.

“Take us to the cheapest room in Nasugbu,” I yawned. The driver nodded effusively as if that wouldn’t be a problem at all.

We passed street food stalls called POTATO HUGGER and CHINKY BUCK’S. They smelled stale and had few customers; maybe these two details were connected. Daisy pointed at a carousel – also short of punters – sparkling pink against the night.

We left the main drag for a barangay of shed-like abodes with plank roofs and iron gates. Further along were empty stucco bars with strobing neon signs. Our room was the flimsiest shed in the barangay. A Philippine Tarsier – the world’s smallest monkey – could have broken in.

We went to a resto-bar in the hope of food. Only ‘chicken lollipop’ was available. Daisy liked the sound of that – it had ‘lollipop’ in the title. She was less impressed with the reality: rubbery blobs of low-grade meat wrapped in tin foil. Donna told the waitress she was vegetarian. The waitress just smiled sadly.

A group of young people entered. Each one held a bottle of San Miguel and a cigarette. The boys wore beanies and hoodies. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would wear such garb in forty degree heat. I imagined one of them passing out midway through the set and being carried off-stage by a roadie, James Brown-style.

The girls wore short skirts and low-cut tops. Each one wanted a go on the videoke, but not one could sing. To make matters worse, they all insisted on ambitious eighties power ballads by Meatloaf, John Farnham and Bonnie Tyler. I’ve now heard ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ sung badly in several Asian countries and every time it makes me question the fundamental validity of Western civilisation. But I felt particularly sorry for the Philippines. We were exporting our crappy jobs to their EPZs and our crappy music to their drinking pits.

The trauma went on for half an hour, the poor girls hardly helped by a screen showing a ball bouncing over misspelled lyrics. Occasionally, Filipino beauty spots would also flash up on the screen: the talcum powder sands of Boracay Island, Palawan’s subterranean river, the Pagsanjan Falls, Mount Makiling’s jungle soda springs. But no pics of Nasugbu. “Never mind,” I thought with tipsy optimism. “We’ll find the beach tomorrow and everything will be fine. Just fine.”

One girl embarked on an ill-advised rendition of ‘Wuthering Heights’. Daisy liked it enough to dance. Perhaps delirious from the heat, perhaps not, she combined Kate Bush-style twirls with punk pogoing. I had no idea she had ever seen Kate Bush dance or anyone else pogo.

Donna took her eyes off Daisy and opened her mouth to ask me something. Daisy stopped dancing and scowled at us. Apparently we had to watch in respectful silence the busting of Daisy’s each and every groove. Luckily she soon got bored and sat down.

The band came on and asked me for a request.

“Led Zeppelin!” I shouted, more tipsy now, if not drunk. In fact, I would have settled for anything other than more Bonnie Tyler.

Ou la la,” gasped the singer. The guitarist dropped his hands away from the fretboard. The drummer shrugged and didn’t seem to know where to put his sticks. I took all this to mean that Led Zep was beyond the band’s capabilities. Instead they launched into a kind of avant-garde free jazz take on Coldplay. I don’t think they intended to play avant-garde free jazz, it was just that the drummer couldn’t keep time and the guitars were egregiously out of tune.

Nonetheless I went to bed happy. Whether this had anything to do with the nine San Miguels and five Tanduay rums I’d imbibed is, of course, an open question. But all three of us were looking forward to a day on the beach, even if, so far, the portents hadn’t been great.

The next morning Daisy woke me up by jumping on my chest. “Get up, you puffy old man!” she ordered. We put on swimwear and walked the winding path to the beach, passing baubled citrus trees and hovels attached to hog pens. We sped up, raced each other, Daisy speed-talking in anticipation, her little eyes poised to catch the moment when the promised land would shine over the horizon…

…But it was not to be. Splinters of wood littered the sand like rice in between chunks of masonry, crisp packets, sweet wrappers, dented coconuts and ragged strands of rope. Further back from the sea, the trees were twisted into all kinds of nightmarish permutations. Beach huts had wall-sized holes in their… walls. Their roofs were missing every tile and the planks left behind resembled the spines of a fish after its flesh has been picked away. I was reminded of pictures of the aftermath of the battle for Corregidor.

I braced myself for tears from Daisy, but she just grimaced out to sea. No one said anything for a while. We may have been in mild shock. Even without all the debris, the shit-brown sand and squatter’s slum further along the shore wouldn’t have exactly made this place a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It goes without saying that there’d been no mention of these drawbacks in our Lonely Planet.

What had happened here? Typhoon Ondoy had wrecked parts of Manila a few weeks ago but nothing I’d read suggested that it had got this far south.

At that moment, an old Westerner with the narrow, tortured features of a Modigliani painting sloped by. He was holding hands with two Filipinas about Daisy’s age. The trio shared a family resemblance.

“In case you’re wonderin’,” the man grunted in military cadence – I guessed he was a Vietnam veteran as there are so many in the Philippines – “this beach took a real bad hit from Ondoy.”

OK, so the typhoon had come this far south. Nice of the travel agent to tell us about that. And the coach station staff. And the coach driver. And the hotel clerk.

I could hear the EPZ worker in my mind’s ear: “No work here no more, po.” Now it made sense. Of course there’s no work in a place that’s just been ruined by a natural disaster!

“It’s also off-season anyhow,” said the vet. As if the meteorological system itself wished to support his point, rain began lashing down.

“Just to add to the disappointment,” said Donna through gritted teeth.

“Most of the resorts are closed but you could try Casa,” said the vet, and walked on with his kids.

So we checked out of our cheap room and checked into overpriced Casa. The staff could not have looked more bored and when you ordered a pineapple juice they brought you a glass of water and a sachet of pineapple-flavoured powder even though there were actual, real, fresh pineapples hanging from all the trees in the garden. The only other guests were a log-nosed German and his pubescent Filipina squeeze.

We spent the rest of the day in the hotel garden, miserably going down the waterslide as the rain fell. Each time we climbed the steps of the waterslide we got to see the best view in Nasugbu: the rain lashing down on the typhoon-obliterated beach. Just as my mood had reached a hellish nadir, Daisy patted the slide with her little hand and said, “It’s nice sliding in the hot rain in the hot country, isn’t it?”

Somehow this comment from a sweet, innocent 4 year old seemed to compensate for all the disappointments of this doomed trip.

Originally published in the Philippines Free Press, April 2012

Visiting a Wounded Giant: A Journey into American Adversity

7 Mar

I sometimes wonder if, as a traveller, I am a harbinger of bad luck. On many occasions when I have booked a flight somewhere, unfortunate events have then taken place in the country I was heading for. Let me give a few examples. Two weeks before I flew into Manila with my family, Typhoon Ondoy – the worst for 40 years– devastated the Philippines. In 2003, I landed in Berlin to discover that, while I had been flying, elsewhere in German airspace a passenger jet had suffered engine trouble and been forced into an emergency landing. This isn’t a regular occurrence in Germany. Exactly the same thing happened in Indonesia four years later except, tragically, the jet in that incident crashed and most of its passengers were killed. In 2005, the day before I was due to fly back to England from France, a terror attack on London was foiled by the Metropolitan Police. It was an eerie feeling to arrive in London 24 hours later and find it almost completely deserted.

The nadir of my cursed travels happened less than a decade ago on a date that will live in infamy.

I had just graduated from the University of East Anglia with a BA (Hons) in English and American Literature with a Minor in Getting Wasted at Drum ‘n’ Bass Events. Although UEA had – and still has, I think – an exchange program with a number of top American universities, my particular course hadn’t been party to this. Hence I resolved to visit the US off my own bat because it felt odd to spend three years studying the intimate cultural details of a country and not take the opportunity to go there in person. But even before my student days I had always been fascinated by American books, films and music… but not so much the food or the political direction it had taken under ‘King George II’, as the spoken word artist Jello Biafra described him.

I wanted to see the canyons and crap games of Johnny Cash songs, the pulsating ghettoes of Saul Williams raps, the endless highways depicted in the novels of Jack Kerouac and Hunter S Thompson, the picket fence weirdness of David Lynch films. I wanted to immerse myself in the contradictions, to understand why the land of the free is also the land of the pious fundamentalist, how the home of the brave is also the home of consumer conformism, how this ‘nation of immigrants’ as Bill Clinton put it, is also a nation of violent prejudice, how the richest country in the world can have people living in it with ‘food for sex signs’ beside them on the street.

So I bought the cheapest air ticket I could find to San Francisco. I would have gone to New York City had it not been the case that to fly the extra 3000 miles west only cost a tiny bit more.

The night before my trip, I stayed with my friend Pete at his East London flat. Using the excuse that this was the first night of my holiday, I got absolutely ruined on beer and some disgusting liqueur that Pete had left over from a trip to Slovenia. I can’t remember its name now but it sounded something like ‘chemical’; but to describe this stuff as tasting like noxious chemicals would be to undersell precisely how awful it was.

Somehow I got up the next morning and caught the train to Heathrow. I staggered onto the plane and downed my complimentary drink for hair of the dog purposes. The flight passed as flights tend to: with minimum circumstance and maximum boredom. All I recall about it was watching an Australian comedy film called The Dish. In one scene, a U.S. diplomat is attending a function hosted by the mayor of a hick town in the outback. The mayor announces that the band will now play the national anthem of the United States of America. Cut to the confused look on the diplomat’s face as the band launch into the Hawaii Five-O theme tune.

At San Francisco International Airport (SFO) I was surprised to get through immigration quickly. I’d been warned to shave and cut my hair and generally look smart as American immigration staff were notorious for giving new arrivals a hard time. The last thing I wanted was to start my holiday off with an anal probe.

It’s always a revelation when you leave an airport in a country you’re visiting for the first time. You are full of anticipation as to how different things will be: the weather, the landscape, the architecture, the smell. I have to say that on this occasion I was a bit disappointed. To me, San Francisco was of course different to Britain, but not different enough. Indeed the standard of living was almost identical, as were people’s clothes, the shops and the fast food chains. I wondered if this had something to do with Britain’s decision after World War II to spurn greater European unity and become America’s ‘junior partner’, offering itself as a lucrative market for her exports and following many of her fiscal, social and foreign policies – even when they led to disaster.

I caught a shuttle taxi that made its way through the hilly outer limits of San Francisco and into the downtown financial district to drop the better-dressed passengers at hotels such as the Hilton. Knowing that I was headed for the $30 a night Bob’s Hostel in Haight-Ashbury gave me something of an inferiority complex; I was after all, a dirty, hung-over ex-student punk on a tight budget. But the better part of me knew that my trip to San Francisco would be more ‘real’ than theirs, more ‘travel’ than ‘tourism’ in the sense that I would not be living in some artificially-created space isolated from everyday city life. This was something of a consolation.

Bob’s Hostel was the kind of dingy, dusty, low-lit joint I expected it to be, with a crumbling veranda where people smoked pipes of ganja. I soon discovered that the other guests were not only backpackers but locals who resided full-time in the hostel because they simply could not afford any better accommodation. As I was waiting to check in with Nile, the growling, Tom Waits-voiced manager, I got talking to a scientist with ten years of university education behind him who had been living in a dormitory here for six months. He said that rent was prohibitively high and that there were 30,000 homeless people in the city. I thought London was bad!

Once I’d got my key from Nile, I went straight to the nearest restaurant which had depressingly branded itself as an English-style pub serving such dishes as ‘Thatcher’s Full English Breakfast’ and ‘Churchill’s Steak and Kidney Pudding’. The owner was an English ex-pat who, when he heard my accent, immediately put on a video of the England football team’s recent 5-1 shock defeat of Germany. I scratched my head and asked myself the question, “Why have I travelled so far to come here?” My defence was that I was too tired, jet-lagged and hungry to go somewhere further away from the hostel. I did try to order something completely un-English but somehow ended up with fish and chips. I didn’t have the energy to complain. Halfway through the meal, I almost fell asleep face-first into it. I paid the bill and tottered back to my dank-smelling room.

My sleep was interrupted around midnight by a commotion outside. An hysterical man’s voice kept screaming, “It’s fuckin’ crazy!” Some obliging passers-by calmed him down. The supposition I made as I fell back to sleep was that, on the balance of probabilities, that man was rather fucking crazy himself.

I struggled awake at mid-morning and went for breakfast at a Polish sausage shop next door. The proprietor offered me ‘the full works’ i.e. three enormous sausages soaked with a dozen different sauces. Such excess reminded me of something I’d read about Elvis Presley’s last years spent eating deep-fried whole piglets and entire loaves of bread filled with bacon, peanut butter, jelly and bananas.

Catching a bus to Chinatown, I found the place to be oddly quiet, or at least quieter than my guidebook had indicated it should be. The few people I saw had sombre looks on their faces. Most shops were closed with signs on their windows reading ‘For obvious reasons we are shut today’. I wondered if this had something to do with electricity shortages – an issue that I knew affected California. I bought a newspaper but that didn’t offer any clues. Making my way through a pagoda-style building where old Chinese guys were playing chess, I noticed a mustachioed policeman lowering the Stars and Stripes to half-mast. It struck me as a vivid symbol of defeat; an anti-Iwo Jima. I needed to know what had happened but there was such a blaze of anger in the policeman’s eyes that it took time to muster the courage to ask. “Excuse me,” I said in what he probably regarded as a flaky, faggy English accent. “Could you tell me why you’re taking that flag down?”

“Haven’t you heard?” the policeman roared, raising his arms as if starting a fight with me. “America has been attacked! American airplanes have been hijacked! Many thousands of Americans are dead! This is too big-scale to be a Timothy McVeigh kinda thing so they’re saying foreigners are behind it!”

“Crikey,” I said and wondered where that had come from. I don’t think I had ever said ‘Crikey’ before in my life and I certainly haven’t said it since. I walked away from the policeman in a daze.

When I had composed myself I looked at my guidebook for somewhere I could go for information… and a stiff drink. I found a bar that had once been Jack Kerouac’s favourite hangout. Inside it were a lot of people from seemingly different social backgrounds watching a TV repeatedly showing footage of a plane colliding with a very tall building. The caption read: AMERICA UNDER ATTACK – PLANES CRASHED INTO WORLD TRADE CENTER. I ordered a beer and sat foolishly close to a livid yuppie whose tie lay loose around his bright orange neck. It was barely possible to see his face through the glut of empty beer bottles on the table. He kept shaking his fist at each replay, shouting, “I don’t wanna see it no more!”

I wondered why he was putting himself through this. Why didn’t he just go home?

An old hippie with a goatee beard leaned over and said, “Let’s close down all the discos in Europe.” I guessed he was referring to the incident where Libyan bombs killed US tourists in a German nightclub in the 1980s.

Soon enough, however, I could understand where the yuppie was coming from; I too found myself entranced by this cyclic image of destruction. There were several reasons for it, I suppose. I had to keep watching just to make myself believe it had really happened. More disturbingly, and it’s a little hard to admit this, there was something impressive about the visual spectacle of this attack, the way those Boeing 767s slid almost effortlessly into their targets. Take away the carnage caused and what you had here was a twisted piece of performance art, as Damien Hirst was later to comment. Of course this could not be in the final analysis because this was real and a lot of carnage was caused.

The more I watched, the more complicated my thoughts and feelings became. What were the wider ramifications of America being attacked on its own soil for the first time in sixty years? Although historians will argue whether it is fair to call the colony of Hawaii, as it was then, ‘American soil’. I wondered what would happen next. You didn’t do this to America and get away with it. At this point in time, no suspects had been mooted. If an internal McVeigh-type was to blame – as the policeman lowering the flag had mentioned – we could expect the greatest manhunt and trial in history, outdoing OJ Simpson, John Wilkes Booth, anyone else. If the perpetrator was found to be foreign then history told me that the retaliation would be massive. Later on I was to read an apt description of America at this juncture on the BBC News website: “a wounded, raging giant”. This giant might well take revenge upon a nation if an individual or organization could not be identified. I was reminded of the late great comedian George Carlin and his skit about America’s fondness for war as a tool of foreign policy: “We like war. We’re a war-like people. We’re good at it. We get a lot of practice at it. This country’s only 200 years old and already we’ve had ten major wars.”

My attention switched away from the screen. Was it my imagination or had more people come into the bar to watch these gruesome repetitions? The yuppie got up to leave. “I bet the ragheads did it,” he snarled.

I wondered what Jack Kerouac would have made of this scene.

I drank some more, watched some more. Whoever was behind this certainly had a keen sense of symbolism. The World Trade Centre, cipher for the US-led, global capitalist system that Allen Ginsberg called ‘Moloch’, destroyed by passenger jets, icon of Western middle-class mobility and leisure. So was this some apocalyptic portent? Could we take it to signal the decline and fall of a superpower, the only superpower left? Empires, superpowers come and go: Greece, Rome, Spain, Britain, the USSR. If my learned and culturally-sensitive friend the yuppie was right and a Middle Eastern fanatic was the culprit, then a comparison with Rome could be justified, for that superpower was ultimately wiped out by marginalized peoples with inferior wealth and technology.

I left the bar and bought a newspaper from a vendor box, one of the local SF dailies. It was an ‘extra’ edition, something I’d never seen before. I’ll never forget the front page. It was a photograph of what was soon to be called ‘9-11’ with a headline that simply read ‘BASTARDS!’

I went back to Bob’s Hostel to rest and take stock of things. I tried to make phone calls to my family and friends to tell them I was all right. It should have been obvious that I was because my location was 3000 miles away from New York, but I still felt the need to reassure them. All the lines were busy so I sent an email instead, hoping that would get through.

I spoke to Nile the manager. We were keen to avoid today’s events for fear of depressing ourselves further. He talked about his job and his boss, the owner of the hostel, who was an Afghan gentleman.

That evening I ate at Powell’s Soul Food which was entirely staffed by blacks and had pictures of many black celebrities on its walls eating the restaurant’s famous chicken dinners. There was Bill Cosby, Jesse Jackson, Muhammad Ali and a lesser-known senator from Chicago called Barack Obama. The meal I had there was a luxury given my limited budget, so I really savoured it. I wasn’t drinking alcohol though. It seemed distasteful to be partying at a time like this.

I got talking to a Canadian couple on their holidays just like me. The husband, a labour union activist, said that when he saw the video of the World Trade Centre, he half-expected Pierce Brosnan, the then-James Bond, to leap out of the plane just before impact. So strange and unprecedented was this event that I guess it was really interrogating our notions about the difference between reality and fiction.

My plans to see more of America than just San Francisco were banjaxed by 9/11, as the public transport system was in a state of lockdown for the next few days. The exception was the buses serving the city which, in some kind of tribute to the dead, waived all fares for one day only, the 12th September. I remember one sassy driver declaring to passengers as they were let on for free, “Yeah I thought y’all’d like that!”

Although a few more interesting things happened to me on that trip, like almost being run over by a woman who strongly resembled the actress Liv Tyler, the events of my second day in San Francisco understandably overshadowed all else.

 

A week later when the plane touched down at Heathrow, the passengers gave a spontaneous round of applause. I suppose it was out of relief that the flight had gone smoothly. Returning to my life back in England, I did the normal things a 21-year-old graduate had to do – find a job, move out of home, etc – while at the same time reflecting on my highly unusual – and unlucky – trip to the US. I hadn’t got to see the mythologized America of Johnny Cash and the Beats, but I had gained a glimpse into the psyche of a powerful, complex nation plunged into an unprecedented moment of crisis.

©Tom Sykes 2010

First published in GoNomad magazine, April 2010

Dangerlust: An Interview with Tony Giles

3 Mar

Tony Giles has done a remarkable thing. 80% deaf and completely blind, he has travelled solo across the US, New Zealand, Australia and Southeast Asia. His account of the trip, Seeing the World My Way, veers from tragedy to comedy, disaster to epiphany, near-death experience to life-affirming moment. By the end of the book, I felt more exhausted than if I’d actually travelled the route myself – but also uplifted.

My first question is, ‘How on Earth (no pun intended) did you do it?’ While there’s plenty in the book about concentration, fortitude and trusting the senses he does possess, I still can’t get my head around his achievement. ‘My cane was essential,’ Tony tells me. ‘Without that I would have been run over many times. Spare parts for my hearing aid were useful too, as was learning how to count money by touch.’ He makes it sound easy.

Having lived and travelled in Southeast Asia myself, I know that the infrastructure isn’t really geared towards disabled people. How did he manage in Vietnam and Thailand? ‘It was definitely harder, and the language barrier was a real problem. But when I got into trouble, I knew that people would look out for me.’

Indeed, the kindness of strangers is crucial, with everyone from Irish backpackers to Saigon pimps helping him out. Random people tell him train times and describe famous sights. More seriously, he puts his life in the hands of guides when trekking in the Outback and hiking up treacherous mountains. It’s enough to restore one’s faith in humanity!

Robert Byron wrote that the traveller ‘can know the world only when he sees, hears and smells it.’ With that in mind, I ask Tony how exactly he experienced the places he visited. ‘When you’re deprived of one sense you improve another,’ he says. ‘My sense of taste and smell were highly developed – not always a good thing!’ Food is certainly a good thing in the book, and it’s rendered in lavish detail. When he tucks into a bowl of Vietnamese pho (noodle soup), the reader tucks in too. Tony learns to make character judgements according to tone of voice, scent, even by feeling the features of someone’s face. He navigates busy cities by counting the roads he crosses and feeling his way along blocks.

This self-reliance plus the altruism of others sees him safely across 280,000 miles.

Even so, there are near misses on almost every page, compounded by Tony’s hard drinking and dangerlust. In the States alone he knocks himself unconscious, unwittingly gets into a fight, almost crushes his leg and nearly gets shot. The crisis point comes in Melbourne when a doctor tells him he has acute kidney damage. ‘I guess I was in a Jimi Hendrix/Jim Morrison sort of mindset. I didn’t care if I lived or died then.’ But he adds, ‘If I’d known a bit more about kidneys I may have come home!’

Instead he goes to Cairns and takes a 14,000 foot skydive. This, however, is not as thrilling as his favourite moment of the whole journey: bungee jumping off a bridge in Taihape, New Zealand. He writes, ‘the danger, the fear, the madness – I loved it all and wanted more’.

Tony’s self-destructive streak began in his teens as a reaction to ‘the stigma of blindness’ and the loss of his father. Travel offered ‘a way of escape’ that made sense of his life and the world. It’s still his main passion, and he’s given up drinking to stay healthy for future adventures. Next spring sees the release of a sequel, Seeing the Americas My Way, and soon he’s off to Africa. Mind how you go, Tony!

First published in the Bristol Review of Books Summer 2011.