Monthly Archives: August 2014

Boats, Trains and Agricultural Ministers – Part 1 (Originally written 2011)

After our first night out together in Thailand, Jack and I woke up about 7am with our very first Bangkok ‘Changover’. The city’s scandalous humidity has rudely nudged us into an unwelcome consciousness.  The weather in Bangkok is oppressive; the heat produced by the people, pollution and relentless business – locked in its sprawling confined streets – amounts to a stifling atmosphere you could probably box up and send home.  It’s heat with substance.

We decided to work out a plan for the rest of the day.  Firstly, we were to drop off our bags at a travel agents where Jack had bought us some train tickets to Chang Mai yesterday. Then we had to find out about departure times and the like before we chugged our way northwards through the tropical forests that evening.

All this means we effectively had a day off to explore the city.  We collected and packed our strewn possessions, dragged a city map from behind one of the bed’s headboards and – in the resulting chaos – cheerfully proceeded to throw away all our booking information for the next couple of days.  Blissfully unaware, we sat down to work out one of Asia’s premier urban hubs.

Now, I consider myself pretty capable with city maps.  Once I get my bearings and spot a few landmarks, I can usually wander about with only occasional glances at a map. I can work underground systems in foreign languages.  My sense of direction isn’t awful. More often than not I end up where I intend to.  However, Bangkok remains a mystery to me.  There’s just too many sections and neighbourhoods and apparently no-one can agree where one stops and another begins.  There’s no ‘centre’ as such, just urban sprawl for mile after mile. We looked our map for quite some time and actually became more ignorant about Bangkok then we had been only moments previously.  So we did the sensible things and just wandered out the hotel and took a left.

We popped to the travel agents to drop off our bags and started to head, possibly, in the direction of Chinatown.  We stopped on a small bridge over one of numerous inconsequential canals. It’s infested with life.  God knows how, the water looks and smells like refuse tank at a colonic irrigation clinic a week into the new year.  A small, elderly man using an umbrella as a walking stick stood behind us and prodded me gently in the ribs.

‘This is not a river’.

I take another look at the bubbling water.  It definitely looks like a river.

I turned to face him because it was a statement worthy of attention.

‘Sorry?’

‘This is not a river, Chao Phraya is over there’, he pointed his umbrella over our heads.

‘Oh right no, we didn’t think that, we just saw the… fish’, Jack said as he waggled his hands helpfully in a fish-like manner.

‘Catfish’

“Oh, is that what they are?’, Jack nodded solemnly a couple of times before continuing, ‘Sorry, could you tell us where Chinatown is?’

‘You shouldn’t eat catfish’, the elderly man said, wagging a finger at us like this might well have been our intention.

We look at the river just as a small dead – but slightly nibbled – dog floats past.

‘Right. We’ll probably give that a miss then’

We all stood and looked at the brown, scummy water for a moment or two.

‘So, Chinatown. Do you know where it is? We’re not sure which way to go…’, I asked our new friend.

‘Chinatown? I walk there now’

He walked off briskly, his umbrella rapidly tapping away beside him. After 20 feet, he turned and waved for us to follow him.

It turned out the man’s name was Chai and he had been the Agricultural Minister for Thailand for many years but now lived in Chang Mai.  He was a particularly friendly, knowledgeable guy who unrelentingly called me ‘Arix’ and never once understood a word I said. He taught me almost everything I know about Bangkok/Thailand’s culture and was a genuinely likable soul.

As an introduction to his generosity, Chai introduced us to the free buses that run throughout Bangkok and guided us through China town and the lesser known, but more interesting, India Town.  At one point, we jumped off the bus to explore and take a stroll through an intensely beautiful flower market. Each one of my senses battle for supremacy as we amble through the little street stalls – the luminous glow of the lotuses, the constant blare of the tuk-tuks, the smell of fried street food – and I started to feel a touch overwhelmed by the vibrancy of the city and the after effects of last night’s festivities.  I think Chai spotted that we were becoming a little uneasy and took us to the relative sanctuary of a nearby ferry dock.

After insisting that he pay, Chai led us onto a rickety old barge and told us about the flooding that often occurs in the rainy season. Some of the houses on the riverfront had signs of water damage about 2 metres above the usual waterline. As we disembarked onto a mouldy dock and were taken through some dizzying backstreets to a remote Buddhist Temple. Chai, a Buddhist himself, explained the various rituals and statues that we saw dotted about.  One of the things he told us was that people often mistake the Fat (or Lucky) Buddha as ‘the’ Buddha.  The actual Buddha is the rather more svelte Siddhārtha Gautama. Our tour guide joked that the Lucky Buddha is sometimes referred to as the Chinese Buddha because ‘Chinese people are only concerned where their next meal is coming from’ and chuckled happily at his own joke. I consider all the fat Chinese people I’ve ever known or seen.  It doesn’t take very long.

Lucky Buddha (not 'the' Buddha)

Lucky Buddha (not ‘the’ Buddha)

After another brief chat about Buddhist dogma, Chai excitedly showed us his temple’s showpiece – an enormous, golden statue.  It’s 300 years old and exquisitely crafted.  Before we were allowed in, we were asked to take our shoes off.  This was something I really, really didn’t want to to do. I’d hate to dishonour our friend but I’d been wearing my sweaty, sticky sandals for a few days now in extremely humid conditions and frankly, my feet stank. There were signs everywhere saying that entry whilst wearing footwear was ‘strictly forbidden’.  Feeling very uncomfortable, I guiltily removed my sandals and apologised to everyone present.  No-one really seemed to mind because – coincidentally – everyone had just finished their prayers for the day anyway and began streaming out.

We knelt there for quite some time – eyes watering due to joint pain and odour- whilst Chai told us about his time as a Monk.  In Thailand it’s compulsory for men to attend a monastery for 3 months or more in their life.  It’s a source of great shame to the parents if this tradition is not adhered to and is generally regarded as fundamental to the country’s structure and the people’s gentle disposition.

After pottering a round for a little while more, we eventually left to find a water taxi. We joined a queue of folk, all well dressed and presumably making their way for  their lunch break. Surrounded by these respectably -attired people I became acutely aware that bodily functions don’t hold the same social taboo’s in South East Asia as they do in the the West.  It’s quite something to watch a suited, middle-aged man openly burp into a pretty lady’s face who counters by breezily and unashamedly farting onto your leg. Acts of this nature weren’t uncommon through our Asian odyssey.  I never got used to it.

Breathing through our mouths, we arrived at the water’s edge and alight a colourful but visibly leaking taxi. We powered along a tributary surrounded by a plethora of wooden shops and houses. Some people, we were told, live their entire existence without ever leaving the river.  Little kayaks float between all the houses selling everything you might possibly need to survive so there’s no need to go anywhere else.  One lady paddled along whilst frying chicken on an open flame on her boat. I couldn’t decide whether I was envious or not; everyone looked incredibly content as they gently bobbed along but it must take a strong stomach to live so close to Bangkok’s putrid river systems. It’s also an incredibly limited way of life.  As I considered these thoughts, I was rudely interrupted when Chai barked at Jack to move across the boat so they could both act as a ballast to me. I suddenly feel a certain amount of empathy with the Lucky Buddha.

As we skipped along, Chai pointed out the varying states of decay on the wooden foundations of the shacks surrounding us.  Some of the houses were in such a state of disrepair that they were dipping a tentative toe into the murky waters that constantly lapped against them.  Apparently the homeowners replace the supports every 10 or so years.  After looking at the maciated wooden stalagmites poking up through the river’s surface, I imagine – for the sake of my mental wellbeing – that I would be replacing them every 3-4 years.  Then again, it’s exactly the sort of job you would never get around to isn’t it? Until the fateful day you get a very rude awakening.

Between the bowing huts, there were bare patches of land along the river banks. Chai told us that farmers buy plots along the river and intensively abuse the land until it has nothing left to give.  Then other people buy the land and build properties on them. As such, Bangkok is seeping out along the river at an incredible rate and the trend is only accelerating.  70% of all Thai people are farmers in one way or another.  Chai’s job and status is therefore of massive significant.  Without him many of these people would be caught in a perpetual loop of breeding and farming, breeding and farming, breeding and farming.  He works hard to ensure that the farmers’ children get an education so they have opportunities to pursue other ambitions.  He said it was hard but rewarding work.

10 minutes later, we stopped in a little shop to have a couple of beers and some fresh pineapple. The guy piloting the water taxi parks up by ambitiously – but successfully – managing a handbrake turn in a boat. To this day, I have no idea how he did it.

We sat with the shop’s owner and spent an hour or so sharing 3 or 4 bottles of Chang between the 4 of us, I was at the very pleasant stage that a man gets to after 2 pints and I was thoroughly enjoying myself.  I watched life on the river float past and a farmer ruthlessly toil the land on the bank opposite.  At one point he threw us one of the coconuts that he had just harvested. Jack seemed particularly relaxed too. Chai however, was completely arse-holed.  He’s a small, elderly Asian man and that last bottle of beer hit him like a tyre iron. Swaying heavily, he escorted us both to the toilet because there are ‘no toilets on the boat’.  I looked down the hole he was directing me to piss through and saw the river below. It struck me that rather than there was no toilet on the boat, the boat was actually on the toilet.

As we left the small shop, I noticed the sharp smell of antiseptic.  There was a hospital bed half-hidden around the corner from me and I could see a pair of frail, blue legs jutting out the bottom.  I spotted the lady of the house merrily massaging the calves of her bed-bound patient whilst occasionally popping a cube of fresh fruit into her happily smiling mouth.  It was a rather surreal moment.

Everyone who was able to came and waved us off and even handed us a few cans of Chang for our return trip.  I watched a pissed Chai lightly skip onto the waiting taxi before he turned to offer me his hand to help me aboard.  Still smarting from his earlier implication that I needed a ballast to sit on a boat, I decided to jump from the platform with my trademark cat-like grace.  I landed on a an emergency oar, stumbled and came sphincter-tightenly close to rugby-tackling our driver off his own taxi. I help Jack across the narrow boat and sit very quietly by myself.

It was an enjoyable trip back – jumping waves unsteadily and leaning into the corners – but things soon turned a little stale.  For quite some time, Chai and the driver were discussing something vehemently but Jack and I were lost as to what was going on.

After much shouting and gesticulation, it became apparent that the driver wanted 1500 baht for the trip ‘because he waited long time’. That’s about 30 quid. ‘Tenner a piece?’, I thought, ‘that’s a wee bit pricey but nothing to get too upset about’.

Then the driver said ‘Each’.

90 quid.  90 British pounds. We could genuinely have bought the whole boat for that. £90 buys you a week in a 5* hotel out here.

We argue and haggle but in the end we have to pay . Chai was getting more and more upset – almost crying –  and I didn’t want to rock the boat further (sorry).  We paid the full hit because swimming for it – with a drunk, elderly Agricultural Minister in tow – was never really an option.

The driver even had the audacity to ask for a tip.

Chai lavishly broke wind as we left the boat.

Bangkok – The first night (Originally written in 2011)

This is just a wee extract from some of my earlier notes.  This article could be the very first bit of ‘travel writing’ I ever let anyone read.

To fill you in, I’ve just arrived in Bangkok and met up with Jack Prescott who had gotten there the day before me.

On leaving the hotel – very pleasant by the way, thanks for asking-  we are approached by ‘Nam’, He offers to take us to a bar, a nice bar.  A nice bar for 20 baht.  Astonishingly, we refuse.  We want to see the local area. He looks at us with sadness but also a certain amount of respect.  His middle aged body radiates admiration that we, we two amateur travellers, should refuse to go to a nice bar recommended by a local. He makes room for us to pass.

We stroll 50 yards down the road and sit down at a reasonable looking restaurant. We look at the menu and then look over the prices.  Never before have I struggled so much with a foreign currency.  Jack and I ate and had a beer or two and all the while we were in the restaurant we couldn’t decipher how much it was actually costing.  Guesses swaying wildly from less than 10p to about £4.  Finally, we worked out 500 baht is about a tenner.

 That was clearly too high a number for us to deal with – especially after a couple of beers – so next we had an argument about maths. After much discussion and flailing of arms, we begrudgingly compromise that 500 divided by 10 is 50.  50 baht to the pound.  Took long enough.  After paying for our (potentially) bargain meal we wandered around to see if there was anything else going on.  This mainly involved stepping over, around or on several stray cats.  they were literally everywhere and they’re regarded as a pest throughout the city.Understandably, they are all very jittery too. I can see why.  One of the bars we went to had a resident cat – it wasn’t even a stray.  The owner of said bar – a 60 year old woman – was ‘playing’ with her pet in a manner reminiscent of Sid from Toy Story.  I genuinely believe there was no cruelty intended but good lord, I felt for that cat.  She hugged it and it eyeballs actually bulged.  I didn’t know that actually could happen outside of cartoons.

 Oh and there was a gay waiter.  A seriously gay waiter. He flounced.  Actually flounced. 

Lightly pissed after a few more Changs, we head back to the hotel.  En route we are targeted by a friendly tuk-tuk driver.  He offers to take us to a very popular ‘ping pong’ show.  We decline. Later on, we met a Dutch guy who went to one of those shows expecting to see some kind of showy table tennis match; trick shots and the like. In many senses – except the ones that matter – he did. When a guy from Amsterdam is shocked though, you know he’s seen something pretty messed up. 

By the front door of the hotel we see Nam again, our first point of contact in Bangkok. Buoyed by alcohol, I rush over and greet him like a long lost friend.  He looks surprised but reciprocates. I’m lost in the moment.

That is until he introduces himself as Dam.

I’m several hours into this trip and I’ve already been accidentily racist.  I look past Dam straight into the eyes of Nam, standing a short distance behind him. There is an animal hurt in his eyes.  It had briefly crossed my mind that Nam had looked a little bit younger and healthier then when I saw him 2 or 3 hours ago but put that down to the several beers i’d enjoyed.  I look back at the man who is clearly not Nam but decide I’m in too deep. Shunning Nam (again), we get in in Dam’s taxi. He promised us a ‘drinky’ in a lovely bar too and we arrive in a few short, hair-rasing minutes.  It looks fairly swanky but also like it’s best days were behind it.  We say to Dam that ‘we’re not really dressed for this’.

Before Dam could reply, we are whisked inside by the bar’s staff who offer to ‘look after us’.  We are ushered in and offered a beer.  Jack, fairly inexplicably, orders a glass of tequila too.  It arrives in a tumbler. While he contemplates  why he’s just done that, I have a look around.  It’s busy. It’s also a little bit like a year 7 disco with all the men on one side and all the women on the other.

All the scantily clad women who are sitting in a row.

Shit.

“Jack, we’re in a Bangkok brothel!”

“I know! You idiot!”.

This would’ve never happened with Nam.

“What do we do Jack?!”, I gesture to the room around me.

“Drink up and leave I suppose” he replies wisely.

We sit for a minute or two in silence, Jack sipping on his tequila.

“Make sure you say ‘no’ Jack… Unless you want to of course”.

He does look the type.

“Of course i’m gonna say ‘no’, you muppet. I’m not going to pay for a prostitute in a Bangkok brothel”

“Oh” I say. ‘Liar’ I think.

We both sit and stare at our bottles of Tiger beer.  We sip from them occasionally.

The waiter sidles up to us, “You want more beer? There are girls here…”, he pitches, arching an arm to show off the ranks of women across from us.

“No prostitutes!” I splutter, slightly too quickly and in a higher pitch than usual. “Thank you but we’re OK”.

But that’s a lie.  I’m not OK.  I really, really need a pee.  But the toilets so far away! Behind the scantily clad women! Literally ANYTHING could happen in a Bangkok brothel toilet!

I consider my options, sweating nervously.

Jack stands up and drains his beer, “I’m off for a slash”.

I watch him go. Awestruck by his pioneering spirit. I see him stroll nonchalantly past the row of women.

I realise now that as far as they’re concerned, I’ve been staring at the scantily clad women. One waves.  I panic. I don’t want her to come over because that would be awkward.  I’d have to reject her.  I’d be suggesting she didn’t meet my prostitute needs. I’ve never even considered my prostitute needs! I hate myself for being British because I have to acknowledge the wave. It’s polite.  

I have no time to consider my actions.

These were the thoughts that were running through my head for the minute or so after she waved.  I notice that I’m still staring at her. As soon as I realise that, I instinctively raise my bottle and then cower behind it.  Then Jack strolls back from the toilet and I’m saved. I pretend I’m raising it at him. He looks perplexed that i’m saluting him after a brief visit to a toilet but nods back anyway. I see the woman say something to her friend. Oh god, I’ve been misconstrued! ‘That bottle salute wasn’t for you’, I desperately transmit mentally, ‘it was for my good friend Jack! Please don’t come over!’. 

 Jack sits down and gestures for us to leave. It becomes apparent just how much I need to pee.

‘Just popping to the loo mate”. I stand up and stoically make my way to the toilet, avoiding any eye contact. The girl who waved runs her hand down my chest as I walk by.  I drop my shoulder and push past her to the relative safety of the brothel toilet.

‘Jesus’, I think. She ran her hand down my chest! She may have even touched my money belt!’.  She now thinks I’m the kinda guy who holds up bottles at people and is careful with money.  No wonder she wants me. 

I pace back and fore for a while but then do what I need to do in the toilet and hesitantly stroll back out, bracing myself for the barrage of propositions I’m bound to encounter.

The lady blanks me.

Probably playing hard to get. 

We leave after paying an extortionate amount for 2 beers and a tumbler of tequila. Dam is waiting outside. I worry that we were only in there for 10-15 mins and what he might infer from that.

“You disco?” he asks.

“Not really” I say, thinking about the chest stroke.

That answer seems to disappoint him.  He vents his frustrations on the road, invariably jumping red lights and swinging round lanes wildly.  We arrive back near the hotel. Nam is still there.

 He asks, ‘we go nice bar now?’ and my heart breaks a little.

“No, sorry. we must sleep now Nam. Sorry”. We stride pitifully past and make our way up the street leaving him dejected in our wake.  Then we stop.  I have literally no idea where we are.

We stumble around a bit and then recognise a shop we passed by earlier.  We assess our situation.  We’re on the right street but going the wrong way.  We have to turn around to get to hotel.

Back down the street.  Back past Nam.

Over one final pint in the hotel lobby, I consider just how many times i’m going to dash Nam’s dreams of taking us to a nice bar during our short stay.

I drink up.

Why I might be arrested on Friday – A letter home to my parents (Originally written in June 2012)

Howdy, how’s tricks?

Just to let you know i’m here, safe and well, but after what can only be described as an arduous day of travel.

Firstly, I awoke at 4am after being serenading by a street performer for the two hours previous, a particularly soothing wake up call.  However, catching the taxi and everything was fine, happy I got that instead or arsing about with public transport.  I get to the airport and join a random bustle of people since absolutely no-one knew what the hell was going on.  I eventually find what looks to be the right queue only to get to the automatic check-in – ‘for my convenience’ of course – and get told that it’ll cost 25 bucks to check in my checked luggage.  I query this since i’ve never had this charged separately before and, more importantly, I only have $11 on me.  The lady nearby doesn’t do anything to help after I explain my concerns so I get hold of the supervisor.  She sarcastically tells me ‘Well I’ve not got $25 to give you’ and swans off in a flouty fashion. I chase her and ask if she’s sure I have to pay if i’m flying to Canada? She closes a door in my face without saying a word.

Terrific.

So, more in hope than expectation, I wander off to find the world’s shyest cash machine – I had to squeeze between two pillars to get to it, stomach sucked in and all – and, much to my surprise, find that I have no money.  Starting to get somewhat agitated as my boarding time was budging ever nearer, I look for an information point assuming that someone was once as stupid and destitute as me and there’s procedures for such things.  There isn’t one.  At an international airport.  How shit is that?  I attempt to get my bag through as carry on.  Not surprisingly, they notice my 50l rucksack is a touch over-sized.

I sit and ponder my situation and genuinely consider using my 11 dollars to buy a pack of cards and ‘magic’ my way out of this little situation.  Held back by an obvious lack of talent, I decide to sell my (your) camera instead for the bargain price of $20 because, well, I couldn’t just leave my bag behind could I?

I wander about without much success for a while approaching naturally cautious people.  One very kind lady donated a dollar to my cause, meaning I needed only 13 more… Then my faith in humanity is bolstered; I meander over to a fairly youngish couple and launch into my spiel – ‘There’s no memory card but the batteries are brand new and your welcome to try it’ etc..  In all fairness to the bloke, for whatever reason, he just hands me a 20 dollar note and says  I don’t want your camera mate’.  I’m genuinely quite touched, I’m not sure i’d hand over 15 quid to a slightly smelly stranger (although I certainly would now).  I palm him off with Bill Bryson book saying it’s the very least i could do (It was, it was Erin’s book anyway).

Very pleased with myself and the world I wander back to the automatic check in and go through the whole palaver again.  I get to the ‘pay for your luggage’ bit and, since i have no functioning credit card, I print off a receipt and find someone who I can pay cash to.  In the end, it’s the very same lady who first answered my plea for help.  She takes me to a register thingy and then says ‘Oh, you’re flying internationally?  You don’t have to pay then in that case’.

I’m aghast.

‘Excuse me?’

‘I didn’t realise you were flying internationally, you’ve already paid for your bag’

‘So when i told you I was flying to Saskatoon in Canada, it didn’t strike you that may involve leaving the United States?  You realise I’ve basically just stolen 20 dollars off a well meaning stranger because you and your supervisor didn’t actually listen to a word i was saying?’

‘Sorry sir, that’s just the way it is.  Would you like to upgrade your seat for $50?’

I stare at her blankly for a few moments before I shake my head and walk off.

A curious amalgamation of relieved and frustrated I proceed through security and board my plane without much drama.  The flight’s uneventful if not quite boring since my headphone socket didn’t work.  It didn’t even exist, there was just a hole where it should’ve been. I’m not particularly enamoured with United Airlines thus far. But I read my book and soon enough I’m in Denver.  The only thing i knew about Denver is that it’s a mile high city.  I can also proudly add to that little bon mot with the additional information that it’s bloody hot there and that there’s tornado shelters within the airport.  It’s also a very big transport hub in the middle of the US.

I pass the time in the terminal trying to spend my pathetic collection of pocket shrapnel and find a very satisfactory plate of chips and salsa for $1.60.  I meet a Political Risk Analyst from London who stops talking to me once I mention I have some journalistic ambitions and, appetite sated, make my way to gate B80 to fly to sunny Saskatoon.

I’m in seat A1 and so secretly harbouring an ambition to be upgraded to 1st class.  Alas, it wasn’t to be since it was a very small plane, I guess I was allocated my privileged seat since I had checked in at 5am in SF.

I get on the plane and i hear the staff muttering nervously, never an emboldening experience whilst boarding an aircraft.  Anyway, turns out the plane is too hot so the fuel is expanding in the tank or some equally worrying issue.  To accommodate the lack of fuel, 6 people have to ‘volunteer’ to get off the plane in return for a later flight and $150 travel voucher.  No-one leaps at the opportunity.  So, as protocol apparently demands, they pull off the last 6 passengers to check in.  One bloke is obviously very stricken by this and, understandably, causes a bit of a fuss.  From my A1 seat I have a splendid view of all this.  Now, I consider to myself, I don’t really need to be in Saskatoon all that urgently.  Of course i’m meeting Erin and her brother there but i could let them know I’ll be late and that I’ll make my own way the 140 km to PA, not a big problem if I were to have, say, $150 nestled in my wallet.

‘Hiya mate,’ I pipe up, ‘if it’s for cash I’ll jump off if this guy’s desperate but a travel voucher is no good to me, I’d really need the money’.

The stewardess relays what I just said to the guy who’s looking for volunteers.

The staff look at me with what can only be described as reverence and he jokingly says ‘I’ve got 25 dollars right here for you sir!’

I smile and reply ‘That’s excellent but we’d be looking at substantially more than that…’.  I wonder quite how much I might push them up.  Maybe I should start off demanding $300?

The guy laughs and says ‘yeah ok, we’ll sort you out man, come with me’, gesturing towards the door.

‘For cash?’

‘Yeah man cash, yeah’

I get up to a couple of laughs and the obvious delight of the guy who needed to be on this flight and make my way back to the check in desk where I sit amidst some very pissed off passengers and do my damnedest not to look smug.  After a few minutes my name is called and a piece of paper is thrust at me.

‘What’s this?’, i ask.

‘Just sign it sir’

‘But what is it?’, I leaf through a ream of slips that are appearing in front of me.

‘It just states that you voluntarily got off the plane and this entitles you to a $150 travel voucher’, the lady mutters.

‘Ah no,’ I smile again, ‘the guy – Geoffrey I think his name was? – agreed that I was to be paid cash?’

‘That’s not company policy’

‘That as may be, that’s what i was promised’

‘We can’t do that sir, we can only offer the voucher, sign here’

I take a moment, attempt to clam down, but then go bloody mental anyway.  So much so, that some kind of head honcho is brought down to see me swiftly.

I continue my rebuke in an excitable fashion.  The honcho lady is apologetic and offers to raise the voucher to 200.  She says, however, that it was ‘unlikely’ that Geoffrey offered me the cash equivalent.  Although it is his first week.

I simmer gently when in a timely fashion – rare for United Airlines it seems- the man in question – Geoffrey – appears from the gate.  I call him over, satisfied that at least this element of the saga can be cleared up.

He looks terrified, normally i’d be sympathetic and I almost was until he clears his throat, looks at his boss and then at his bosses boss, and states, ‘I only offered you a voucher sir, there was no mention of money’.

I match the honcho’s apologetic tone with an apoplectic one.  I’m more annoyed, somehow, by the suggestion that I’m a liar than by being lied to.  I rage about the witnesses in the plane, I rage about the stewardess who repeated what I had said to the guy in the first place and, lowering my voice, I quote word for word the conversation we had, backed up by the guy who I had swapped places with whom, incidentally, had since been removed from the plane anyway.  I’m slightly abated when I see Geoffrey cower and have the good grace to look like he might have decorated his pants.

Honcho offers to put me back on the plane as ‘it appears you might have been taken off under false pretences’ but that I had to understand ‘it’s at someone else’s expense’.

‘Actually madam, it would be at yours and your company but yes, I would like to return to the plane’, I murmur through clenched, but bared, teeth.

Once on the plane, I apologise to the guy who’s getting off in my place – ‘Not your fault buddy’ – and take my seat.  I realise I’ve left my book at the gate desk.  Marvellous.  One hour after the supposed departure time we finally take to the runway.  I spend the flight having an enjoyable, enlightening and occasionally heated discussion about nuclear power with the lady sitting next to me.  For the record, I’m all for nuclear power – as was she since she works for one of the biggest Uranium mines in the world – but i’m not sure we can write off Fukushima and Chernobyl as ‘not all that bad when you think about it’.  A pleasant flight nonetheless.

I land in Saskatoon after flying over the plains of central Canada.  The terminal is small but the sun is shining and I’m in a happy state of mind.  When I walk up to arrivals desk and hand over my landing card and passport.  The official scans over everything and smiles and hands back  both.

‘Could you just wait over here sir and an Immigrations Officer will see you shortly?’

‘No problem at all, thanks’, I say as i take back my passport etc.  I’ve been expecting this since, after all, i’ve not actually got a visa for Canada.  Their website says that Commonwealth members only need to convince a customs officer that i’m not going to rape their land, citizens or economy and I’ll be escorted through with a cheery wave.

I sit and start a new book, wondering how long this one is going to last today.  After about 15 minutes, a beach-ball in a customs shirt leads me to the ominous ‘Interrogation Room’. My ears listen intensely for the telltale ‘snap’ of a rubber glove.  To my great relief, i hear no such thing.  However, my summery disposition was soon to be wilted.

I won’t write out the full conversation as it would take too long.  Luckily, the gist of the interview can be ascertained from her concluding statements:

‘So you have no money, no health insurance and no forward ticket?’

‘Er, pretty much’

‘How much money do you actually have?’

‘Oh about 600 dollars’ (I have 11).

‘For nearly three months?’

‘Uhm, yep’

‘Right.  And you have no contact phone number or address while you’re here? Just a description of a mysterious girl you met in New Zealand?’. The fact I met someone from Prince Albert outside of Canada seems to be the biggest sticking point throughout the whole process.

‘I can tell you the names of the people i’m staying with?’, I say in my most charming affected British accent.

‘Does that seem enough to you?’

‘No, probably not’, I admit.

‘Don’t you think you could have organised this more efficiently?’

‘Er, from this side of the desk, it certainly looks that way’

The Customs lady softens as she realises I’m useless as opposed to dangerous.  I mention it’s my birthday next week (It got me into Israel once, why not give it a shot?)

For the next few minutes we discuss my previous travels and life in general as she tries to get a grip on what kind of person I am.  Fortuitously, first impressions can be misleading and she decides that I’m actually not all that bad.

‘We shall adjure this meeting until the 29th of June’, she concludes, ‘You will be back here at the airport with all the relevant materials.  These include proof of funds, health insurance and ideally, a ticket onward’.

‘Perfect’, I say, relieved I wouldn’t have to fly back to the US with United Airlines more than anything.

‘If you do not show up, we will attain a warrant for your arrest’

‘Perfect!’, I say but in a slightly higher pitch.

‘We’ll keep your passport as collateral’, she sighs.

The tension in the room diminishes as i fill in the relevant forms and some friendly chat ensues.  I’m allowed back out into the big, bright world.

I meet with Erin’s brother Justin – a top man whose privacy I shall be imposing on for the next few weeks – and Erin when her flight gets in.  Later that night there was an almost tearful reunion of Radfords which I was very pleased to be a part of.

All of which brings me round to perhaps a small favour or two…

If I could perhaps bother you fine folk for some health insurance, only for a single trip, that would be much obliged and would perhaps ensure my freedom from large men and slippery soap.  It might be a bit of a hassle since I’m out of the country but i only want the most basic, basic insurance possible.  Worldwide Insure seems like a good prospect.

Additionally, could someone transfer, say, 1000 quid into my account for next Friday?  As soon as I’m of ‘legal status’, I can transfer it straight back.  That will act as proof of funds and shows I can buy a ticket as and when.  Just to be clear, I’m NOT asking for 1000 quid, just looking to lend it for a day or two and then send it all back with my love and affection attached.  It looks like there might be a wee bit of work cleaning the bottoms of tables whilst I’m here so i should be good to look after myself.

Sorry to be an arseache as always but at least we have the added incentive of my liberty this time.  Naturally, any costs accrued will be returned in the fullness of time.

Mother, I hope your flight home was uneventful in comparison.  Timmy, hope all’s hunky dorey.

Shall give you a ring in the very near future (I’m allowed one call apparently).

All the best,

Alex x

(PS; did I mention it’s my birthday next week?)

New Blog

As threatened, I’ve only gone and decided to set up a new blog.  After long and careful consideration, I took the decision to ignore everyone who took their time to help me think of a title and went for something slightly worse.  Thank you anyway.

Since this account is linked in with my FB account there’s a strong chance I’m going to spend the next few hours polluting your wall with a backlog of my ramblings.  My apologies.

Do us a favour though?  Have a glance through and see if there’s any posts you haven’t read or you’ve been deliberately avoiding.  I do like reading feedback (positive or negative) and I can use it to sculpt whatever it is I dribble out next.  

Who knows, I might even make a career out of it. That’d be nice.

All the best,

AJ