Tag Archives: Travelwriting

Mexican’t Food

The day started off as you might have expected. Another ten-hour day haphazardly teaching my Libyan students the fundamentals of the English language. I had been officially teaching for a couple of weeks by then and I had got used to the routine, I would teach my first class at 10am and then repeat that same two-hour lesson four times in a row with varying levels of enthusiasm. Sometimes I would have a class of three, on other occasions I would be teaching thirty or forty students all in the same classroom. Attendance very much depended on the temperature, the availability of fuel and whether or not the roads into Tripoli were blockaded by militia.

As it was Wednesday, it was the end of my working week (As Friday is the Islamic holy day, my ‘weekend’ would always begin on Thursday). By 6pm I had watched the first hour of Wreck it Ralph four times in eight hours without ever getting to see the second half of the film. In between screenings, I pranced around pretending to be more of an authority than I actually was and conducted the odd vocab test. I found out that day that an alarming percentage of my pupils could not, or would not, spell ‘count’ correctly.

It was all very typical.

Then, idly scrolling through my emails as Ralph got up to his usual destructive shenanigans on screen,  I spied an email from my school. It was entitled ‘…emulsion gunrifle colleagues. Can be fun!’. There was no other text.

After an understandably cautious reply, I was able to deduce that there was a paintball event on that Friday and that I was invited. Getting shot at to relax from, well, being shot at, struck me as a fairly odd idea. Still, the option was there and it was as good an excuse as any to shoot my new boss in the face. Who was I to say no?

As I was pondering just how close I could get to my boss’ face and still claim it was an accident, a cry went up and I saw Ralph conducting a weird sort of BeeGee’s jig on the old cathrode ray tube TV. The (copied) DVDs in the school were well-used and it was not uncommon for them to freeze every now and again. I dreamily strolled over to the DVD player and, still lost in my paint-splattered reveries,  quickly came to after it became apparent my tummy was being tickled by a middle-aged Arabian man.

The DVD player – containing the juddering disc – was about seven and a half feet off the floor which meant I had to stretch over a few pupils’ heads to reach it. As I did so, I could not help but display a tantalising band of doughy-white, Welsh flesh. Evidently overcome with powerful emotion, the 45-year-old Arabian man had quickly decided that the only course of action available to him was to reach under my untucked shirt and gently caress me, startling me, delighting him and bemusing everybody else. I hastily fixed the DVD and scuttled back to the safety of my desk.

Anyway, after successfully negotiating the rest of the day tickle-free, it was time to go home. One of my students had recommended a little Mexican takeaway quite close to my flat so I asked my driver Abdul to drop me there so I could pick up a takeaway. I had seen the place whilst scooting around the city and it was no further than five minutes away through streets I was relatively familiar with.

After we dropped my housemate off at our apartment complex, Abdul surprised me by driving off in a new and unexpected direction.

‘Must be a shortcut’, I thought, distracted by what sort of burrito Africa might serve up and whether I would be allowed to eat it in the car.

A good few minutes later – after several lawless junctions and a degree of violent swerving – we arrived at a dilapidated shed with a donkey skull outside. On top of the grinning equine cranium sat an sympathetically battered sombrero which had slipped and caught at a jaunty angle. A tattered Mexican flag fluttered half-heartedly in the warm evening breeze next to it.

Abdul, my driver, smiled encouragingly.

I got out of the car. I am not sure why.

‘I’ll only be a minute Abdul’

He beamed and knocked on his indicator, ‘Ok, see you Mr Alex!’.

‘Oh, he’s leaving me here’, I mused.

A thoughtful pause.

‘Shit, he’s leaving me here!’

‘Abdul!’, I flung myself at the side of his car and grabbed hold of the door handle, ‘where are you going?’

‘Pick teacher up, you walk back ok?’, he casually flung a hand in the direction we had just come from.

On no account could I let him leave without me. It was dark, I had no idea where I was and there was a dead rat on the floor next to a half-nibbled taco.

On absolutely no account could Abdul leave.

‘Yeah, no problem, see you around man’, I heard myself confidently say despite my inner howls of anguish.

Abdul smiled again and pulled out directly in front of a four-tonne truck swaying under a massive load of concrete breezeblocks. I watched Abdul’s enthusiastic hand waving all the way down the street, accompanied by a long meaningful honk from the lorry driver.

At least I think Abdul was waving.

Anyway, lost and afraid, a malevolent – yet festive – donkey head beckoned me forward. I crept in to the Mexican shack.

The proprietor was almost as surprised as I was to see me in his restaurant. He handed me an Arabic menu and I pointed politely at something costing 7 dinar. I was hoping it would be some sort of wrap but given my luck with other purchases, it could just as easily have been a novelty, Mexico-inspired teatowel.

I inanely sat and stared about me for a while as you do whilst you are waiting for your food in a takeaway. A few minutes later, I was handed a pizza box with ‘bon appetit’ emblazoned across it. It certainly did not feel like a burrito, a little too weighty, but I decided to wait until I got home to investigate my Mexican fiesta and properly start my weekend. Who knows I thought, I might need the box for warmth and shelter should I get hopelessly lost.

I took a hesistant left out of the shack and started to wander aimlessly towards the last vestiges of daylight. I began to realise just how particularly futile my position was.

I had no idea where I was and I was not able to ask directions because:

1) I don’t speak Arabic
2) I was a genuine kidnap threat over there
3) I had no idea what my apartment complex was called

I pensively trudged a bit further.

The streets were starting to get much darker and dingier as I blindly walked on. I began to consider how I could utilise a lukewarm, grease-stained pizza box in combat should the situation call for it. Three sloping, whispering kids had started following me and I seemed to be attracting more and more suspicious glances from people as I walked by. It was as if I was some sort of pizza-wielding Pied Piper.

Hoping for inspiration, I wandered into a street drifting competition, not an uncommon occurrence in Tripoli. I immediately stole focus. Even the twirling, smoking BMW came sliding towards me to see the wide-eyed Brit with the death wish.

Parting the crowds and hastening my step somewhat, I strode on clutching my soggy cardboard close to my chest. By some miracle, I somehow glimpsed a shop I faintly recognised and, like a desperate man shambling towards a desert oasis,  veered off down a blind alley.

Once I was through the dank, puddle-strewn alleyway, negotiating my way past ominously rattling dumpsters, it slowly dawned on me that I had been walking adjacent to my own street for quite some time. I happened to be remarkably close to my apartment, completely through luck and absolutely no judgement.  Sheer relief.

I got home.

My pizza was Mediterranean. Not even a stray Jalapeno. It was delicious.

Into the frying pan…

A few days after I first moved to Libya it became pretty clear that I was going to face a few problems whilst living in north Africa. At the time, and perhaps a little naively in hindsight, I thought the bulk of those little set backs would concern a lack of booze or perhaps my less than adequate training as an English teacher.

How wrong I turned out to be.

However, three days after I arrived in Tripoli and was introduced to my new colleagues and housemates, there were three main reasons I thought my stay in the country would eventually lead to my slow demise:

1) It was already topping 40 degrees and we were not even close to the ‘hot months’ of July and August.  Any time I was further than four metres from an industrial air conditioner, I would spend my time bouncing around like a befuddled toddler who had recently lost their mum. That or gently sizzling.  Occasionally both.

2) After my new school posted a particularly smug photo of me on their Facebook page introducing their latest teacher, one of the foremost comments stated:”Welcome to your grave”.

My school quickly proceeded to ‘Like’ it.

As did half a dozen other kind souls.

3) I couldn’t read Arabic. As such, on the second morning I managed to rinse my mouth out with anti-septic disinfectant. After a few swishes back and fore thinking ‘gosh, there’s a bit of a kick to this’ and wondering what other avenues Dettol might have branched out into, it dawned on me that something might be up.

It took the best part of ten days for any sense of taste to reappear.

No hint of gum disease to this day though.

A close shave

After finishing School for the day, I was pottering about my flat aimlessly when the electricity went out.  Rolling blackouts are very much the norm in Tripoli throughout the summer and – as frustrating as they are – you quickly learn to just get on with things as much as you can. Today however, rather than just sitting about waiting for my Candy Crush lives to regenerate – which happens more than I’d like to admit – I decided to pop out for a stroll and see what’s about.

Now considering it’s Ramadan, everything either shuts very early (2pm) or opens very late (10pm) so I wasn’t expecting very much. I grabbed my tablet – with its vital English-Arabic translation tool – but spotted that it wasn’t working properly. After shaking it a little and turning it off and on, my tablet awoke and decided it was now 2am on Monday, the 1st of January, 1970. As such, after a degree of existential doubt, my Kindle deduced it hadn’t been invented yet and so pointblank refused to function. I shrugged my shoulders, placed it back on the shelf and went for a wander regardless.

Although it was early evening, the heat was still sweltering. I meandered a few blocks going nowhere in particular when I noticed a shop that was open. A cool, air-conditioned shop which seemed to beckon me in with its frosty promise.

It was a barbers.

I paused to look at myself in the reflection of an empty bakery next door. My sweaty, knotted hair hadn’t been cut in a couple of months and my ginger speckled beard was starting to look a little unprofessional for a teacher. In fact, the harder I looked the more I appeared to look like a weary Jamie Oliver on the wrong side of a hostage ordeal.

On impulse, I strolled over to the barbers and began rummaging around in my bag for my tablet in preparation for the inevitable translation issues. It wasn’t there, It was back in my room sulking after its temporal tantrum. I would just have to wing it, no other option.

‘Salam-alaikum!’, I said, using up approximately 10% of my Arabic language skills in one fell swoop. My cheery wave was returned by a portly, middle-aged man with a tight perm and a garish shirt. He looked like the token foreigner from a bawdy 70’s sitcom. I should have brought my retro Kindle along I thought, they would have gotten on famously. I immediately christened the man ‘Donny’ in my head.

He pointed to a seat, sat me down and started fussing around me. First, he turned my collar inside out and tucking it into my shirt. Then he wrapped a sort of white gauze tightly around my neck before chucking a black apron around me and folding the gauze down over it. It looked the world like I’d involuntarily taken the cloth. It was an unsettling image.

After this little warm up act, the barber stood behind me, laid his hands upon my shoulders and then said something in Arabic.

I apologised for not speaking Arabic and made a few ‘scissor’ motions around my head and face to try and explain what I wanted to happen. The shaving gesture was easy and we soon understood each other (‘Mouss!’) but ‘a general tidy-up on top’ was much harder to convey. I pulled my hair a little and made a cutting gesture.

Donny blinked a couple of times and half-heartedly repeated my actions with his fingers.

I tried ‘schweir’ (little) but then panicked that he’d only leave a little hair left. I settled for ‘nusf’ (half) which seemed to work (either that or he just got bored of watching me point fruitlessly at my head).

He slid a little headrest up from somewhere and pushed my head back on it and then began to drop little splashes of something onto the cleft of my chin. It smelt strongly like cleaning alcohol. After a few more careful daubs, he forced the headrest forward so I ended up staring at my own crotch. Then Donny left.

I was left in that rather uncomfortable position for quite a while. Occasionally, Donny would wander past, use his finger to scoop up some of the liquid that was now pooling around my navel and returning it to my chin. This continued for a solid 15 minutes.

Soon I was getting very stiff and my feet were beginning to tingle disconcertingly. I stretched my neck back, only to be swiftly grabbed by Donny and the solution wiped from my chin. It dawned on me I was probably meant to sit back earlier. No wonder he looked a bit impatient. It’s a ritual I’ve never experienced before or since.

Anyway, no sooner had blood started venturing to my extremities again, Donny had forced my head forward and I helplessly began to inspect my crotch all over again. I heard the clippers buzz into life. A short ‘whirr’ later and two things strike me.

1) A distressingly large clump of my hair tumbling to the floor.

2) A sharp pain where I’m pretty certain I used to have a protruding mole.

Metaphorically touching the cloth I unexpectedly received earlier, I tried to mumble my discord but Donny carried on like a man possessed, ignoring my feeble protestations. A minute later, I’m dragged upright to witness a very proud Donny showcasing his handiwork.

It’s short, very short. But the thing that immediately draws my attention is that – for no clear reason – I now have a 2 inch curly fringe slathered across my forehead.

Donny smiles at me encouragingly.

‘Uh… cut?’, I finger-scissor my baffling wall of forehead hair.

‘La, la quase! (No, no, it’s fine!)’, protests Donny.

I make some more adamant cutting gestures.

‘La!’

‘Arjouk (please) Donny? Arjouk?’, I beg.

With a pained look, he eventually lops off my fringe, muttering disconsolately as he does so. I notice later he left a wee tuft as a tribute to his lost art.

The shave is less harrowing. Well, save for the one occasion he began arguing with a customer who came in. As their discussion got louder, Donny absent-mindedly started pressing a cut-throat razor firmly into my neck and possibly would’ve drawn blood/decapitated me if it wasn’t for an urgent, nervous cough. Oh and the fact we started the whole process by both saying ‘Bismillah’ (please God) at Donny’s request. That was a little worrying too.

As he scraped the last ginger scrap away with one hand, he pulled the robe clear with the other rather flamboyantly, making me spin around in the chair involuntarily. The gauze caught and choked me a tad. As the paper collar came loose and flittered to the floor, I couldn’t help but notice quite a lot of blood and went to touch the spot where my mole sits (sat). Before I could do so, Donny had grabbed me and splashed firey, liquid death across my face. I have no idea what it was but by Christ, it had a kick.

After paying a princely 4 quid to Donny and promising to come back if my hair recovered, I stumbled out and weaved my way home. My housemate screamed a little when she saw the little trickle of blood down my neck. She rushed me into the bathroom and doused my wound in something equally painful.

I spent the rest of the night trying to scrub off my dried blood by candlelight. The next day my colleague remarks that I should’ve kept the fringe.

The start of my Libyan adventure

This year (2014) I moved to Africa to teach English in Libya’s capital city, Tripoli. I lasted about three months before the country descended into (further) chaos and the British government suggested that I possibly might like to evacuate.  During my time there, I wrote a few stories and kept a little Facebook blog of what I was doing.  Over the next few weeks I’ll transfer over a few bits and pieces – old and new – onto ajsadventureblog.

This was my very first post on Libyan soil – thanks for reading.

Things I’ve done so far in Africa:

1) Got lost at the very first possible opportunity.
2) Appraised a patio.
3) Offended approximately 75% of people I’ve met by consistently pronouncing their name wrong.
4) Been sprayed with aftershave by a concerned bystander.
5) Picked up a live bullet (and placed it on my dresser).
6) Moved in with 2 women (more to follow).
7) Almost died in at least 14 times in road traffic accidents.
8) Made a friend who has lived in Llanelli for several years.
9) Witnessed 2 spectacular sunsets.
10) Relentlessly brought up Gaddaffi against all sage advice

So far so good.

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.