Things are moving at quite a pace. I was teaching English to Elena this morning. I say "teaching," but actually she falls asleep and then chats about life and the universe and her devotion to parsley. It's more like a therapy session. Any English that she learns is purely accidental.
Just as she was leaving, the first of four visitors arrived to view the place. Joze put the advertisement in only yesterday but such is the voracious appetite for people to live where they are not living now. I made mental notes about all of them and later, Joze and Marta came in to ask me what I thought.
"The gay lads would be quiet. Hopefully. The couple who were 3 months pregnant would be a bad choice because the apartment isn't suited to someone only 18 inches long. The single man talked too much and the final couple were entirely wrong. She looked poisonous, Shakespearean, and he would be the instrument by which she would perform her underhand deeds."
I didn't use those words, but that was my summation. Tomorrow there are yet more coming. I'm rather enjoying the people-watching, I have to say. I own only two cups because I have few visitors and today was the busiest it's ever been. And the terrifying choice of picking one is ultimately not my problem. I'm glad of that because I wouldn't know who to choose.
That was Day 3 of the post-signature era. Back in the dawn of the Slovenian era, some four years ago, I had just seen Tatiana for the first time. I saw her a few more times over the coming months and gave her little thought. She was another nice thing in a land of nice things. Married, children, a desire for freshly squeezed milk. I knew nothing of her life beyond the immediately obvious. I didn't know then what I know now.
And so it was with a great deal of surprise that one day I saw her on her bike and I said, "Ah, there she is!" Blimey. Where did that come from? I remember it still. Completely out of nowhere and totally unexpected, I saw another human being and stopped dead in my tracks.
I pondered this reaction. There was no plan, no artifice, no earlier musings on seeing her again. No, I was wandering along the road in my usual aimless way and was knocked down by a truck-load of surprise. She was on a bike, all the way over there, going shopping.
I did nothing of course, except to wonder why it happened.
Some months later, toward the end of summer, I was invited to a barbecue with Don and his Slovenian "adopted" family and I asked if there was an opera house in Ljubljana. "Yes," was the incredible answer to that question. I was in real need of culture because I like cows, I really do, but while many people would choose cows over opera, I'm not one of them.
"Then I shall go!" I said triumphantly.
I then realized that I only have clothes for dog-walking or climbing mountains. It's possible that opera audiences in Ljubljana wear bobble hats but I doubted it, and I wondered if I would go buy clothes just to satisfy my need for a bit of Verdi. No. I wouldn't.
...unless it was so magical an event that it trumped my reluctance to look smart. What if me, a boy who grew up in a tatty part of a tatty town in a council house way too small, found himself at the opera in the beautiful city of Ljubljana accompanied by a quite spectacular Russian. For that I would buy new clothes.
"Do you think Tatiana's husband would kill me if I asked his wife to the opera?"
So off I went to find him. I mean, it couldn't hurt to ask, could it?
You will be pleased to know that I own a bottle of Blue Sapphire gin and six bottles of red wine. The gin came from Tatiana, via Alexander the Great, and the wine comes from various sources -- my kids, who came to visit for my birthday, Elena, to whom I teach English. Joze and Marta. I did just have my 60th birthday and wine is the adult version of candles.
I made this inventory because today, Day 2, I've started the complex task of clearing out my cupboards. Yesterday's signature was on a rental contract for my next home. It is, however, a home with a difference...
I move on February 20th. Today is February 7th. Enjoy the countdown to a whole world of newness.
Surely, I hear you ask, what's so new about moving? I left the UK in 1999 to live in Greece, then France, then America, and now Slovenia where I've lived for 5 years and this will be Slovenian place number four! What's so new about moving?
And here lies the story.
Once upon a time there was man who married an American and went to live in America and slowly realised that America wasn't for him. He couldn't settle and became an unhappy man. Nobody wants to live with an unhappy man and after 8 years of trying to solve a problem that wouldn't go away, it was decided that the best thing was for him to leave.
That man was me, in case you're wondering.
Oddly, despite having been unhappy for years and wondering what on earth to do, the realisation that it was all over came as an almighty shock. I couldn't imagine a life beyond what I had and genuinely thought that the end was nigh. It took me three months to find a safe way to transport my old dog across 3000 miles of ocean and those three months were difficult for everyone. I had left, but I was still there, existing as an unfortunate presence like Kafka's famous insect. It was ghastly.
My brother kindly offered to put me up in his Slovenian house until I found a place and after a few weeks I was on my own in a tiny apartment in Bohinjska Bistrica with bunk beds, a couch and a shower. It was small but it was home. I was master of my own ship (although I referred to it as Das Boot) and for a year my routine was work and food and sleep and a bit of skiing.
I had no interest in a relationship because for years I had been in a slow-motion battle which was now, thankfully, resolved. The women of the village were beautiful, but so were the mountains and the lakes. All was beauty. All was calm. All was what I needed.
Apparently my sister-in-law decided that I had a broken heart and set about fixing it, but she couldn't have been more wrong. Sarah and I tried, and it didn't work, so we dealt with it. Now I was happy and she found someone who I'm sure is far more agreeable to live with, and it was the right decision.
I had a new life in the Alps. We should all have such problems.
Now recovered from trauma and upheaval, I would go to Sabina's cow barn to chat and witness the production of milk. It was on one such evening that a new arrival in the village appeared clutching an empty bottle and a small child. “This is Tatiana,” Sabina said. “She's arrived from Moscow.”
Tatiana stood by the eating end of the cow and smiled like a child. Hay was going in one end and milk was coming out the other and I guessed that Moscow isn't as cow-strewn as Bohinjska Bistrica.
From the tail end of the cow I looked at her and thought she was beautiful, as I thought so many people in this new life were beautiful, and after a while I wandered back to Das Boot, happy.
That was the first tiny shift in my new life and it happened about 4 years ago. Like today and my wine-bottle collection which is now in a box by the door, we do small things that are hardly noticeable but gather momentum toward the big move. I saw her in a barn, with a cow, and a small child, and an empty bottle, and I walked home very much at peace with the world.
It is 13 days until I move and there is much to cover in that time, so tune in tomorrow for the next installment.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, or so we are told. That's very neat but which step is the first? I was wondering about that today as I sat in the sunshine with a Professor of History from Ljubljana University. We were drinking beer, talking about international borders, tomatoes, research projects and washing machines. We spoke as men do, about things of global import and appliances that leak.
While he texted research students, I texted Tatiana who was, at the time, somewhere near a statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje, Macedonia.
“I've signed it!”
When I got home I phoned Marta, the lady half of my landlords Joze and Marta and she was very pleased for me. She thinks we should have a party.
Which is the first step? Today feels like it.
Apart from leaky appliances the Professor and I also spoke about writing, and how I recently turned sixty. I didn't want to be sixty but now that it's happened I feel quite invigorated. Sixty felt like the sound barrier; an impenetrable wall with nothing but an abyss on the other side, but like the sound barrier, once you've passed through it there is clean air and sunshine.
The first step on this long and exciting journey could have been taken over four years ago when I was standing in a cow shed, or three years ago when bells rang and fireworks lit up the sky. It could have been when I got back from my travels in South East Asia and found that losing something does not always mean loss. But today? Today feels like all those other things were just packing my bags and the first step just happened.
I signed my name today on a document that changes everything.
It will, according to Tatiana, Sarah in America and even the History Professor, be a year of the written word. I have decided that at least a paragraph should be devoted to this journey and you can follow along. My blog posts are always too long and too sporadic for an internet audience and daily snippets are far more suitable. So here's the first.
Tomorrow I'll begin to sketch out the past few years, the “bag-packing” years, the years that led up to today, but for now, as this snippet is becoming increasingly un-snippet-like, I'll just say this:
I signed my name today, and the journey began. I hope you'll tune in to see what happens.
I was going to write about an invisible cat. It's a true story too, and we all like true stories about invisible cats. I know, I'll put it at the end. What a showman!
But then something got me thinking about something else. A limp. Isn't it great living on your own? You can do whatever you like.
So this limp...
Ten years ago I had a problem: Can I really write convincingly to an audience of adults, or does my natural tendency to be flippant ruin it all? It doesn't sound much like a problem, I mean, there's just been an earthquake or two in Indonesia, so struggling with such ethereal concepts as portraying adult themes in fiction isn't something to get too het up about. But it was a problem for me. Ten years ago I worried about such things (I've got over it).
To solve the problem I imagined my audience as children and then I could let go of such silly constraints and have fun. I wrote and wrote and all my fears and woes subsided. I ended up writing a book that adults like. Then I wrote a real book for adults. Go figure, as the Americans like to say.
However, I now had a book that adults like but it looks like a kids' book. Is that a problem, I wondered? Would John le Carre have been successful if Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy was a pop-up book or made from fuzzy felt?
I asked the internet. I wish I hadn't.
One of the replies said it was ridiculous to think I didn't know enough to write for adults because we have the internet now and you can look anything up. D'uh. It's not hard!
He was trying to help I suppose, and genuinely thought that my angst was because I had never heard of Google. How could I be so useless, he thought.
The reply got me thinking. The internet has given us the ability to look up anything but as a writer, is that a good ploy? Does it enable anyone to think they can write convincingly about anything because they have access to Yahoo Answers? If so, it's going to seriously erode the quality of writing for ever.
Here's what I mean. There was once an actor, and I was pretty sure it was Freddie Jones but I can't find any evidence for that on the internet, so I might be wrong. The story is true though, even though I can't remember the details. This actor who might have been Freddie Jones won an award for portraying a character with a limp. Richard the third? Not sure. Someone famous with a limp anyway. What did the actor do to get this performance absolutely perfect? He walked around for an entire month with a stone in his shoe. By the time he got on stage, he had a limp. If only Freddie Jones (or whoever it was) had got that role in the internet age. He could have typed, “What's it like to have a limp?” Job done.
When Michael Caine was at acting school, the teacher told him to get on stage and be a drunk. The young Michael climbed up before the class and began to sway, to bump into things, to slur his words. The teacher shouted, “STOP! What do you think you are doing?”
“I'm acting like a drunk,” Caine said.
“I didn't ask you to act like a drunk, I told you to BE a drunk!”
I once heard that Kenneth Branagh, when playing Richard III in a radio adaptation, wore a fake hump. ON THE RADIO.
The reply that suggested I was simply too lazy or brain-damaged to look things up on the internet got me wondering. Do the bulk of modern writers see the internet as a quick solution to any problem? What will become of us when authors settle for internet answers to life's experiences? Freddie Jones (or whoever) would stumble about saying ,“Ouch!” to portray a physical impediment that affects so much more than just walking. People wrestling with alcohol addiction will simply slur their words and bump into things. You don't need to wear a fake hump on the radio, but writers and actors need to dig a bit deeper. I think it's important.
The first thing you are told is, “Write what you know”. Perhaps that will change to, “Write what you just looked up on Google.”
I have a subscription to Nyetflix. I call it Nyetflix because Netflix in Slovenia only has a small percentage of what's on offer in the US or the UK. I therefore have to watch things I wouldn't normally watch. One such oddity is Zoo, a remarkably silly series about animals running amok and ganging up on humans because humans are bad. The first animals who've had enough are in Africa, because the internet told the writers that animals in Africa are scary. The second place for this apocalyptic event to spread is...SLOVENIA! I was heartened that Slovenia has finally found a place in the world of quality drama. Slovenia, according to Zoo, is a grey place of soviet concrete and people denied the liberation and beauty that only America could bring. That was the impression I got. Zoo has people in Africa attacked by lions, and in grey soviet Slovenia people are attacked by wild dogs.
Actually, for the edification of American producers of drama who dare to venture into Europe, Slovenia is bright, beautiful, clean, efficient, safe, kind, and sprinkled with a kind of magic that Americans could only dream of. I know. I've lived in both places. I've never seen a stray dog in Slovenia, and if there was one it would be instantly scooped up and loved.
I guess they wanted a place that wasn't Africa and thought, um, Slovenia was communist once, wasn't it? Communist was grey and poor and miserable wasn't it? They don't have lions do they?, but I bet it's full of starving dogs...
I think it's important to get things right, to try a little harder, and to doubt yourself. To ask more of yourself.
Okay, okay, the true invisible cat story.
When I lived in America I supplemented my income by taking a job pet-sitting. I loved it, actually. It got me out of the house and made me feel useful.
The job involved walking dogs and feeding cats. Most cats in that part of America never leave the house, which I found to be sad, so I made a fuss of them. I was sent to this one house with two black cats and owners who were off to the Jersey shore for two weeks. I went to see them, to meet the cats, to do the paperwork.
On that initial visit I only saw one black cat and asked to see the other but the owners said it would be hiding somewhere. Okay, no problem.
On my first real cat-sitting visit I saw one black cat, and the food was only half gone.
On my second visit I saw one black cat and the food was only half gone.
I texted the owners with my concerns for the health of the other cat.
As they were not too far away, he came back and texted me that both cats were alive and well, so not to worry. Phew.
On my next visit I saw one black cat and half the food was gone.
Repeat for the rest of the two weeks.
On my final day I entered the house to find the owner back a day early. He was grateful for my visits and all was well. He was holding a black cat.
“Where's the other one?” I asked.
“Oh, he'll be hiding somewhere,” he said.
In all of my visits to the house, I never, at any point, saw two cats. Is it possible that they don't actually have two cats at all? Do they see one and always assume the other is hiding somewhere? Maybe, like me and Google (apparently), they don't know how mirrors work.
I have just looked up “How to take care of a cat that you can't find,” on Google.
“Call your local animal shelter and humane societies – most have a computerized lost and found service (check our Area Shelters web page). Take the cat to the local animal shelter or veterinarian to have it scanned for a microchip.”
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I feel duty bound to promote my good friends at the Dubai Steam Cleaning Company because they comment on my blog.
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Isn’t that nice?
Somewhere in the throbbing heart of the United Arab Emirates, steeped in broiling natural heat and, I imagine, steam, they have taken the sweaty time to read my blog and found the information contained within to be the very best and most interesting.
Perhaps through some cruel administrative trick they are denied access to normal portals of information and rely on me to tell them that Austria isn’t too far away from here.
“Abdul, Abdul! It’s not too far! He went to find a lake and suddenly was at the Austrian border!”
“Excellent! With this, and the news that cows don’t like walking uphill, we have a broader understanding of countries on the northern fringe of the Baltic peninsular. Pass me more steam.”
My blog is also popular with speed readers. I’ve been toying with moving it all over to a Wordpress site and my last post went to both to see what happens. Within two seconds of hitting “publish,” I got an email to say someone liked it. I was very impressed. Two seconds. Superman on methamphetamine would have been slower.
Or, I’m beginning to wonder, is some form of trickery afoot?
Remember the good old days when the son of a Nigerian King would write a last ditch desperate email while under house arrest? With the guards momentarily distracted, beads of sweat would drip down on his computer as he frantically wondered who on earth he could turn to. Me! That’s who. All I had to do was give him my bank account details and he would be saved! And his children. And half the village. In return I’d get millions of dollars and presumably a golden chicken of some kind.
I never believed Mr. Mbaso. Nor did the other twenty thousand people to whom he miraculously found time to write. But was he any different to someone who likes my blog two seconds after I post it? And I’m not too sure that the Dubai steam cleaning company finds my information to be the very best and most interesting. You may have read my posts. They tend not to contain any information at all.
I want to build an audience because if I do, maybe a few will buy my books and then I can justify writing some more. To do that, apparently, I have to engage. Wise and powerful gurus tell me to ‘Read what others have written and comment on it!” Comment comment comment! They will then come find you!
But doesn’t that make me a bit Mr. Mbaso-like? Or a tad steam-cleany? Doesn’t it make the internet a paper-thin mockery of something good?
I began writing this after my morning coffee and then I noticed that Facebook had a little red thing, which means something I’m sure. I clicked, and it said, “You haven’t written anything for ages! Write something or everyone will just wander off and ‘like’ someone else and you’ll die of the plague.” *
*(It didn’t mention dying).
But I wrote something, Facebook. Just the other day. It had mountains in it, with pictures and everything. Is the world so fickle that I must heap random stuff on them constantly?
Rich people complain that people may like them only because they are rich. Similarly, we don’t know if someone likes what we write, or if they just want to steam clean something we own. It’s a great shame that marketeers have taken over the world and I’m not sure I want to join in.
Marketing is important, of course. As you know, it’s rare for me to quote dead circus owners, but P.T. Barnum once said, “Without promotion, something terrible happens. Nothing!”
He also said that every crowd has a silver lining.
So, should I dash around the internet saying “Great Blog!!!” to everything I see? It makes me feel tacky, disingenuous, participating in some kind of fraud. I want people to know that if I comment (which I have never actually done because I don’t know how), then it’s because I wanted to.
My novel The Midlife of Dudley Chalk (available on Amazon, see what I did there Mr. Barnum?) began by asking the question “What is real?” That question was inspired by a friend’s mother who had Alzheimer’s and who genuinely believed that her whole married life was one of bliss and romantic perfection. My friend said it wasn’t. It was crap. So, I wondered, was it crap? If her brain told her that it was perfect, wasn’t that as true for her as the “crap” was for other observers? If she saw it in her head and believed it in her heart, then wasn’t it true? Whatever that means?
The Midlife of Dudley Chalk examines this by putting him in a coma and sending him to another world where everyone in his life is playing a different role. He falls in love with the comatose patient in the next bed, a girl he has never actually met. Post coma, he’s back in the “real world”, trying to find the girl he may have imagined. My friend Ralph read it and couldn’t work out which world was real and I said, “Does it matter? Both were real for him.”
As it was for my friend’s mother.
The shifting sands of reality come very close to home when you write a blog, or do anything with a like and follow button. You don’t need Alzheimer’s or a medically-induced coma to be surrounded by a world that may or may not be true. All you need is a place for people to like it, or comment on it, and you are suddenly transported to a place where steam cleaners in Dubai thank you for information that is the very best, and most interesting (url attached).
Should I join in the game? Because I really don’t want to.
“Try not to look like you’re going to die.”
I have climbed several mountains recently, and I’d like to climb Triglav, the highest in Slovenia and so peaky that it’s proudly emblazoned on the country’s flag, but I’m not quite ready for it. I’m getting better though.
I returned from South East Asia having not walked anywhere for 5 months. It was too hot and too humid. Consequently, all my exercise and even gym visits of the previous summer were undone by the tropics. I imagine that jungle warfare was quite slow, with both sides clearly visible to each other but with everyone doubled over, out of breath, saying, “Wait, hang on, give me a minute. It’s really humid, isn’t it? Where are they? Oh yes.”
The air in Slovenia was fresh and lovely as I arrived at Ljubljana airport. Tatiana was there to pick me up, which she did as a very welcome surprise.
It took six weeks to find somewhere to live but I’m happily installed in a small village near Kranj. Kranj (which I like to pronounce as though it rhymes with “flange” but it actually rhymes with “bran”) is the fourth largest town in Slovenia. Is it touristy? No, not really. I miss the immediate mountains of the Bohinj valley, but, and here’s a surprise…it’s flat! I can ride my bike.
I have everything I need and Joze and Marta, my new landlords, bring me little Red Cross parcels and check that I’m alive.
It may be flat, but just up the road the mountains look down upon us, and I can see the ski resort of Krvavec. When the snow comes and with a decent pair of binoculars, I should be able to see people falling over without falling over myself.
“I’m not going to die.”
“Are you sure?”
Tatiana had some free time and suggested that we climb Stol. I said that sounded like a lovely idea, not really knowing what Stol is.
“It’s the mountain behind Bled.”
I stole a picture from the internet so you can see what Stol looks like in a) a stolen picture and b) when it has snow on it.
Yeah. It’s the Mount Fuji looking thing behind the famously wet Lake Bled.
Off, then, we set. A thin unmade road from the village of Zirovnica goes up and around silly bends and exhausted hikers to a lovely kocha called Valvazorjev Dom. If you’re not sure what a kocha is, it’s the term used for the mountain hut/chalets that pepper these mountains and provide succour, beds, alcohol and food to those that hike. They are quite brilliant, and I love them. The name “kocha” comes from the small houses that were once the simple dwellings of tied workers, but these mountain saviours are large, warm and comfortable. This network of wilderness hotels keep the mountains alive and it’s a mystery to me how they are kept stocked. Valvazorjev Dom marks the start of a long walk up hill.
The combination of “long,” and “uphill,” made me wonder why I don’t put more thought into saying “Okay, that sounds like fun!” Tatiana, as I may have mentioned before, is young and fit and is far more inclined toward inclines than I. At some point during the proceedings she was prompted to ask after my health. Encouragingly, it took less than five minutes for me to tell her I was fine.
Theoretically, it’s possible to go up Stol and come back down again in about six hours, but I got up late and, you know, the tropics. It was clearly going to storm by the time we reached the almost top.
Stol is a Twin Peaks kind of mountain, and on top of the first peak is a kocha! Slowly it got closer and I could hear the sound of goats and tinkling bells and chatting voices. Civilisation was to be found at the top of a mountain that divides Slovenia from Austria. It was good to sit down and drink beer.
We discussed the idea of getting back down again but it was impossible. Joking aside, I wouldn’t have made it before it got dark and there was, indeed, a storm a-brewin. Tatiana is Russian but speaks excellent Slovene, and she organised food, alcohol, and what turned out to be bunk beds in a kind of dorm. She made complex phone calls because being stuck up a mountain wasn’t the plan, and then her phone ran out of juice with no way to charge it. We gave in to the wonderful isolation of a hut up a mountain. We looked over at the other, higher peak and thought it a shame we wouldn’t get there.
We strolled around though, now that the pressure of getting home wasn’t a factor. I asked the girl who, with her husband, were running the place for the summer.
“What happens when the beer and food run out?” I asked.
“It comes in by helicopter,” she said.
That’s the answer to that, then.
Later, a group of young people from the Czech Republic arrived and they had iPhone chargers for Tat’s electrical needs. A fire was lit and the dark swell of a stormy night up in the Karavanken Mountains enveloped the lot of us. We told stories by the fire, and it was primal and it was good.
The light show of a mountain storm was like a fluorescent bulb that won’t quite turn on. It was constant and stroboscopic and oddly silent, lasting most of the night. I’d stumble about in unfamiliar corridors looking for the toilet and in a blinding flash there’d be the static lit image of a Czech person doing the same thing.
In the morning, it was raining in a fairly major way, mixed with bits of thunder and wind. We put it off as long as we could but had to leave in the cold and lashing rain. We got to the car grateful and wet.
Other trips to other kochas were warmer, dryer, and not quite so long. Tatiana would still ask if I was okay, and actually, I was. I got better as we climbed more things and she claimed to notice an improvement. We found a wonderful gorge just north of here and we climbed and swam our way upstream until we could go no further. On another occasion we searched for a lake where she could swim, got lost and found ourselves at the Slovene/Austrian border. I hadn’t realised it was close. It was all very Sound of Music.
For a month, I remembered why Slovenia is the place I call home.
Now it’s autumn and rain is falling on the apple tree by my balcony. I’m not wearing shorts for the first time since January 13th when I arrived in Bali. Tatiana is busy again and my thoughts turn to writing. I’m sorting out the two novels I have for sale because I need to sell some. And I’ve started writing another. All is quiet, as autumn tends to be.
I guess soon the snow will come and Tatiana will say, “Do you want to go skiing?” And I’ll say “Yes! Okay, that sounds like fun!”
Then I’ll remember that I’m a bit rubbish at going downhill too. And yet I’ll enjoy it, and get better at it, and be glad I got the chance.
I booked a bus to Phnom Penh from the sunny deck by the river. Not a bus exactly, but a minivan which drove around the town of Kampot in a random fashion, eventually picking up a French couple, driving a short distance and stopping. The driver got out and disappeared into a, I don't know, laundry?
I spoke to the French couple. "Are you going to Vietnam?" they asked, in the manner of people who knew the answer but were breaking ice.
"No, Phnom Penh, actually," I said, smashing the ice into confusing shards. We all looked worried and consulted maps in case it was possible that the bus would go to both places. It didn't look feasible and now the driver had vanished.
The solution came in the form of another bus with Vietnam on the front, and soon I was alone in the minivan. I got out.
Some time elapsed with me sitting on a cement-covered plastic chair amid chatting Cambodians and then a girl arrived from (I later discovered) Israel. She was given a slightly cleaner chair.
Eventually a car arrived and both me and the Israeli girl wondered why she was being directed to it and my bag was being hauled out of the minivan. A mere 20 minutes of discussion showed that the minivan wouldn't go to Phnom Penh because it was New Year, and so we would go by car with several other people. Too many other people for a car that size but hey, it was New Year. We were apparently lucky we'd get there at all.
In the city we shared a Tuk-Tuk to the river and from there I scouted out a hotel. My stay included an evening with an Australian sex tourist and a day visiting the killing fields.
Why did I just gloss over those two contrasting but fascinating events? Because I have decided to start a blog on wordpress, which seems to be easier than doing it here. I'm going to shift over to that blog, but during the transition period, I'll write more on there and less on here. If you want to read more about the killing fields (and life according to Bruce the Australian Sex Tourist), head on over to:
Phnom Penh was a good city, actually. What little I saw of it. And then I caught a very bumpy plane ride to Kuala Lumpur, where I shall remain until I fly back to London. This trip is coming to an end.
A mere 7km from one of the world’s great attractions, Siem Reap is yet another physical assault. Crossing the street is almost impossible, and walking along the street is no easier. Food, massage parlours, ugly dogs and broken cats, mobile phone stalls and South East Asian madness is everywhere you step. It is all amplified by the heat. Indiana Jones in a pit full of snakes is me trying to get down a road in Siem Reap.
Potential harm does not lurk here, it runs up, drives up, collects around you and insists by sheer weight of numbers. Anyone who owns a set of wheels wants to drive you somewhere, and if you say no (if I say no) they instead offer you the delights of Cambodian women. On my second day, I walked down the main street and discovered that the massage girls will actually stand in front of you, three abreast, and put their hands on your chest to physically stop you from going any further. This isn’t a sensuous experience, but like the prelude to a mugging. Shouting at them merely results in them shouting back. This is no different to anywhere else in South East Asia, and I think I was disappointed because I went there to see Angkor Wat. Silly me.
On the Thursday I booked a guided tour of the temple for Saturday morning, 5am, sunrise. On Friday morning, while still asleep, the phone by my hotel bed began ringing at 4:45am. I ignored it. Surely a dozy night porter had dropped a sleepy forehead on the button to my room.
When I was actually awake some five hours later, I realised that it was probably the tour people trying to pick me up on the wrong day. I went to check. No, they have the right day, Saturday. It’s here, look, see? Okay.
Friday night I lay awake all night. I tend not to get to sleep until about 3am and I was told to be ready by 4:30am, so why bother sleeping? At 4:30am I was outside the hotel encouraging mosquitoes to bite me. They bit me until 5:15am, when I decided that the tour was not coming, had in fact arrived a day early, and I might as well take my bleeding lumpy ankles back to bed. I went back to the tour company. Oh, they said. They must have made a mistake.
On Sunday, after two nights without sleep, the bus arrived and drove me and six others off to see the sun rise behind the world’s largest temple complex. The tour guide was young, funny, and the least politically correct person currently working outside of the White House. Seven kilometres away, after hearing about how all white people look the same to him and he didn’t understand why Hindus had to break everything and he was pleased to say that the Muslims he knows stick to chickens when they have a desire to kill something, we saw the pine-cone towers of Angkor Wat in the slowly brightening dawn sky. Pre-dawn was the nicest part of the morning actually, because the sun came up behind cloud and the thronging masses, there to see a marvel of architecture but excited to see a daily event that happens no matter where you are, seemed cheated.
Inside Angkor Wat our tour began. To be honest, I would rather have just been there myself and not had the distraction of a tour guide, but it was good. It was good the way the Sistine Chapel was good – very busy, glad to have been there, but feeling very little in the way of emotional contact because of tourists, and guides, and where to put your feet. There was no wow moment. That would have to come later, when at some dinner party I could say I’ve been to Angkor Wat.
The sunrise trip was followed by hours of plodding through Siem Reap because I had checked out of the hotel at noon and the bus was going at 7:45pm. At 7:45pm I was still in the hotel lobby waiting to be picked up and decided that it was the wrong date all over again. But no! I was picked up a mere 10 minutes after the bus should have left and a group of us, all convinced we’d missed the fastest moving bedroom in the world, were driven to the bus station, climbed aboard the bus and got into bed.
Before getting into the bus I asked a man if this was the bus to Sihanoukville, and he didn’t answer me. I asked if I should shove my enormous bag into the hold myself, and he didn’t answer me. This communication technique was employed by all members of the bus staff for the entire journey and presented a problem when suffering from a full bladder. There was no toilet. Getting out of a top bunk in the dark when hammocks were slung in aisle was a challenge, and wanting to know if the bus would be stopping long enough to pee was greeted with silence. I peed against an ATM for the first time in my life, needing to be close enough to the bus to prevent it from simply driving away and leaving me without luggage in the middle of Cambodia. I was not the only person to do such things.
Was it a good way to travel? Yes. And No. I don’t want to do it again so I think no wins.
Sihanoukville is by the sea and the sea is warm and the sand golden and, at the time, was covered in half of Cambodia. It was Buddha’s birthday I think. Or a holiday of some kind. I got this information from the manager of the restaurant at the hotel by the sea, who engaged me in long conversations in completely incomprehensible English. At one point, recognising only such words as “Love,” and “Poison,” I wondered if I was being introduced to a cult. This uneasy feeling was compounded by his insistence on staring at me while I ate, his hooded eyes and grim voodoo countenance not wavering while I worked my way through something with rice, or something with noodles. I think at one point I upset him. Walking into the restaurant one evening I noticed that the cook lady and the cook’s assistant lady and the five waitress girls were lined up on small blue plastic chairs watching an Asian film on the TV. They were transfixed by it, but THE MAN IN CHARGE got up from his voodoo sitting position and changed the channel to something Hollywood, and the spell was broken. He did it because I walked in, though he knew I had a book and wouldn’t be watching it anyway. The next night the same thing happened but I said no, please, don’t change the channel just for me, everyone seems to be really into this badly acted saga of moustaches and polyester suits. And he looked annoyed while the girls said (I gathered) “He said no need to change the channel!” and so his supremacy was challenged by the only person who could do such a thing. A paying guest. He then glared at me with greater intensity and I suspect the mutineers would pay later with longer hours and less pay.
But now I write from a sunny deck beside a calm Cambodian river, the kind of river one might expect to see a young Martin Sheen boating his way to find a mad Marlon Brando lording it up in a jungle of lampshade hats. I have taken a wicker hut with a fan and a mattress on the floor, an outside loo with a frog on the cold-water shower head, a wicker window held up with a bamboo stick, and a mosquito net. There’s a small fan – the first room I’ve taken without AC during this unusually hot period. But I like it. The place is run by a French couple and he makes the best food I’ve had since arriving in Cambodia. Maybe the best food since January. The river is home to longboats that head out to sea in the evening to catch shrimp in the waters that border Cambodia and Vietnam, and return at 4 in the morning. They are incredibly loud, long and functional and I asked if they ever take passengers to spend a night catching shrimp, but my French host says no. They invade another country’s waters, as the Vietnamese invade Cambodian waters, and having white passengers just isn’t a thing they can do. A shame. I watch them go as the moon rises and I want to be on one.
I don’t know how long I shall stay on this sunny breezy deck with the good people of France. The only logical place to go from here is Phnom Penh, where I already have a ticket to Kuala Lumpur and the last stage of the journey. I want to see Phnom Penh for only two reasons. Firstly, there’s an airport that will get me back to where my flight home will take me back on May 2nd. The other reason is to see the Killing Fields Memorial and museum and a whole lot of tragedy. I don't want to see it, don't want those images in my brain, but it's important I think. The trouble is, it’s the Cambodian New Year in a few days’ time and it is the worst time to be going to Phnom Penh. Everything is closed and all the prices double. Everything, including the museum, will be unavailable for another five days and so, stranded with excellent food, I have just been working out how long I should stay.
I shall keep you posted
Hands up anyone who’s been on a bus with no seats. Anyone? Me! I have. There are no seats because they have all been replaced by beds. As you walk down the bus, double beds are on the right and single beds on the left, stacked two high. I was in a single bed, top bunk, half way down. It’s called a Hotel Bus and it’s either a really brilliant way to make an overnight trip, or a really bad way, depending on your bladder, the road surface, the technique employed by the driver and how many hammocks have been hastily slung in the gangway.
This travelling collection of beds went from Siem Reap in the north of Cambodia all the way down to Sihanoukville on the southern coast, taking about 13 hours and 10 years of your life. It was wonderful. No, it was awful. No, it was…I have no idea. I still can’t decide.
Where was I last time I wrote? Oh yes, floating dreamily in the warm clear waters of Thailand with mermaids. Tired of having a wonderful time, I caught a normal bus to Bangkok which took all night, dumping me in the middle of the busiest bus station in the world at 5 in the morning. Tired and wondering where all my worldly possessions were, I fended off a plague of taxi drivers and found a miserable noisy dirty space to collect myself and my belongings. The taxi rash thinned out because buses were arriving and I was beginning to look like a bad bet.
Eventually a fairly quiet taxi driver engaged me in conversation and talked my ancient atrophied brain into a trip to a good hotel. I hadn’t booked a place, more confident of finding one ad hoc than actually arriving in Bangkok at all. And so, he took me to a nice hotel.
The nice manager of the nice hotel carried my bags to the room, which wasn’t nice, and then he gave me the price for a prostitute. When I said no he said…"Did I say 3000? I meant 2000." When I said no again it went to 1500 and a list of all the things my new "love me short time" friend would do. I then explained, in as calm a voice as I could muster, that there is only one woman in the world for me and all I want is a shower and a sleep. I shall convert his facial expression into words. The contours of his entire being said…” So, why are you in this hotel? A man of your age alone in Bangkok coming to this hotel? This one. Where you don’t even have to leave your room to get all the things you are obviously here for? I don’t understand, but perhaps you are suffering from a mental or hormonal imbalance of some kind.”
He left, I bolted the door, and slept on top of the bed for fear that I was sleeping where so many had paid 3000, or 2000, or 1500 before. The only good point was that it was 7 in the morning and hotels don’t normally let you in until noon. After a long night on a bus, I slipped into a coma.
On reading this back, I realise I sound like a prude, or someone who really does want to meet a new 1500 baht friend and is protesting too much. I've actually had time to reflect on such things and really, it's just how I am. I do not judge. There are men in the world who don't have a relationship, can't get a relationship or simply don't want a relationship. There are men in the world who like prostitutes in the same way they like brunettes or a sense of humour. There are women in the world who have to sell themselves or starve to death, or who chose it as a perfectly reasonable job. Get them together and everyone is happy. But I don't like the assumption that I'm travelling here for one simple reason. Even someone in Slovenia said it was obvious why I wanted to go to Thailand. With that kind of negative reinforcement, the only lone men who dare travel to this part of the world will be sex tourists and it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The next day I booked a hotel with good reviews and tackled the Bangkok skytrain to find myself in a land less determined to make my ending a happy one. The hotel was a walk from Sukhumvit road where the red light district is, but that road is long and varied and the area was described as a village in the city. I got a junior suite of 3 rooms, it was cheap, and comfortable, and friendly. I stayed there for 10 nights. I had work to do and this was a good place to do it.
Of Bangkok, I can only say that I spent 10 days walking up and down one road, grabbing food at a Chinese restaurant and Oreo biscuits from the 7-11 and scuttling back to the safety and comfort of my rooms. Just before leaving I thought I should see the city so I took the skytrain to the river, established that it was brown and busy, then caught the skytrain back again. I also thought that I would try, for the first time ever, a Thai massage. I mean, if you’re going to have one, wouldn’t it be good to say you had one in Bangkok? TripAdvisor gave good reviews of one that was just down the road. I wanted the real thing, not a half-hearted prod and then demands for extra, and what could be more comforting to a man trying to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings than TripAdvisor? I went to see what was what.
I shall tell you what was what.
Behind the glass front door was a small man behind a large brown desk. I asked how much a Thai massage was, and he said it’s 400. That’s what, 10 euros? Aha! I don’t mind paying 400 so I can say I had a Thai massage in Bangkok. Then he said it was 1900.
What? I thought you said 400?
It is 400.
So what’s the 1900?
It is 400 for the massage and 1500 for the girl. At which point he pointed to my right and inside a room just off the lobby was a line of women sitting on a long bench seat, all vying for my attention. They looked like animate carnival balloons -- boobing, squashy, brightly coloured. The small man behind the large brown desk casually explained what I would get for the 1500 and all I had to do was pick the one I wanted.
I tried not to look startled. I wanted say that that I didn’t really want them to do anything at all, including sitting next to me on a bus, and after explaining that I didn’t have any money on me and was just checking the price to compare it to my usual brothel, I beat a hasty retreat. Well done TripAdvisor. If you recommend a restaurant and I shall assume the waiter will say it’s 400 for the meal and 1500 for the waitress.
I left Bangkok on a bus that promised to take me to Siem Reap in Cambodia, the place to go if you want to see Angkor Wat. I decided that I did want to see Angkor Wat way back in Malaysia and it felt pretty good to be achieving my one and only solid goal.
I had read that getting into Cambodia (or Scambodia, as the internet calls it) is a nightmare gauntlet of thieves and tricksters, and that certainly seemed to be the case. As we approached the border the bus guy came around with forms to complete and a demand for money and our passports. I said no. Think about it. You leave a country for free, and you pay for a visa in the next country, not on a bus 10 miles before you get there. He gave an inflated price for the visa and wouldn’t stop asking until several people also said no, and he gave up. I felt quite proud of myself for starting a revolution and imagined myself a champion of the people and defender of the oppressed. Actually, my motives were a little more selfish. When travelling for an extended period in parts unknown, you develop a Gollum-like devotion to your passport and wallet. All other things can be lost, but those become my precious and I wasn’t going to give my precious to a stranger on a bus.
When we got to the border we were told that those sensible people who had taken advantage of buying the visa on the bus only had to check out of Thailand and then go through passport control in Cambodia. Those of us foolish enough to try it ourselves had to perform the extra, time-consuming, degrading step of begging for a visa from evil officials who would take advantage of our white and foolish bodies.
The extra degrading time-consuming personal assault that would be getting a visa actually involved going to a small office on the Cambodian side, paying 8 dollars less than on the bus, and getting our visa in a matter of minutes. It was the easiest step rather than the hardest. The hard parts were finding the offices to check out of Thailand, to check into Cambodia, and to fight off the thousands of beggars, con-artists, passport photo scams and bag-grabbing children. The Thai-Cambodian border is a con-artists’ convention where they climb over each other like breeding frogs to out-scam their rivals.
We made it to the other side, where the bus had broken down and were told we’d be put on another. The other bus never happened and we drove all the way to Siem Reap in first gear and with no ability to stop. This was demonstrated when people tried to get off.
That was Bangkok, getting out of Bangkok, and arriving in a town that nestles up to the largest temple complex in the world. I thought Siem Reap might be calm. Indeed, an Englishman on the bus told me it would be a good place to relax. If he thinks the place is relaxing he must be related to Gordo Cooper, the early Mercury astronaut who fell asleep waiting for his rocket to take off. There is nothing calming about Siem Reap.
I feel another post coming on…
Many years ago, while on a Greek island, I tried scuba diving for the first time ever. It did not go well. Essentially, they said here's how you breathe, there's the sea, let's go! Scuba equipment includes an inflatable vest and you control it with a couple of buttons. Let air in, let air out, it is for controlling your buoyancy. The people in Greece said DO NOT TOUCH IT! When in the sea I sank to the bottom and watched everyone swim away into the murky water, leaving me like a bottom-dweller, panic-stricken. I breathed too much, too fast, not knowing how to get back, if I would ever be found, if I would die when the air ran out. It felt claustrophobic. The only way I could move was to pull myself over the rocks by grabbing at the seaweed. A horrible experience which I vowed never to repeat.
Fast forward 18 years and I went snorkelling in Bali and loved it. I wondered if I should try scuba again. Perhaps.
And then I found myself living over a scuba-diving place. A sign if ever there was one.
The "try diving" package includes a two hour boat trip to the famously beautiful islands of Koh Phi Phi (Google it, really), food, one dive with the chance of more, and pleasant company. We set off yesterday morning at 7 to collect more people and then headed off in a long-tail boat to the real boat, a large sea-going wonder that takes over 40 people, but there were just 9 guests, the Finnish guy who runs the school and five young Finnish girls who teach diving, plus the Thai crew. Mostly it was people from Finland (guests too) and I really wanted to tell you that I got into the sea and saw a fin in the water, a poorly disguised Jaws joke (I wasn't really going to do that. Really, I wasn't.)
As it turned out, I was the only one on the "try diving" trip. The others were either snorkelling or were already adept at diving, so I had my very own instructor. We went through the manual and she gave me instruction while heading for the island and when we got there I donned the gear and made ready to walk the plank. It did feel a bit like that. I stepped toward the edge of the platform at the back of the boat (my instructor and another Finnish girl already in the water waiting for me) and was told to hold my mask, hold my weight belt, and jump (walk forward till you fall into the sea, actually). And I really didn't want to do it. My last experience of scuba was terrible, the equipment weighs a lot, and you are about to fall into the sea. You know how The Mob tie concrete to bodies and dump them in the sea? It felt like that, but while still alive. At least in my "never again," mind. This time, though, something was different. All the girls were lovely, filled me with confidence, and M (I cannot remember her exact name I'm afraid, but it starts with M) said she would never, ever, leave my side. And so I stepped forward, fell into the sea, went under and bobbed back up again. The flood of information that accompanies any new physical task had swamped the fact that the vest had been filled with air. She told me, I watched her do it, she said I'd bob to the surface, and it had all slipped my mind amid nervous panic.
It was odd, floating on the water but breathing air from a tank. Part of my brain was convinced that the air wouldn't flow. Okay, THAT breath worked, but what about the next?
I held the rope from a buoy and with her hand on my shoulder strap we sank a few feet beneath the waves and stopped. It was time to do the three things I'd learned on the boat. Take out the mouthpiece and blow a steady stream of bubbles and put the mouthpiece back. Then remove the mouthpiece and let go, using the standard technique for finding it again. Then clear my mask of water. I'd learned the hand signals and we established that I knew what I was doing so far, and so with Captain Nemo determination we pressed the button the let the air out of our vests and together, her holding me, we sank down to the sea floor some 10 meters below. I breathed in. I breathed out. I didn't die, and she didn't let go of me.
M is young and blonde. We were accompanied by one of the other Finnish girls, who is also young and blonde. I felt like I was swimming with mermaids. Mermaids who, we established later, were about 5 years old when I last decided that scuba wasn't for me. But under the water, they were the ones with the years of experience, and I was a clumsy child, forgetting the simplest things while seeing wonders all about me.
M pointed things out to me as we passed them. Shoals of bright fish, coral that reacted when she wafted water over them, walls of coral reaching high above us. It was all colour and movement. She used hand signals to tell me what I was doing wrong and how to correct them. She tugged at my vest, adjusted my buoyancy, gave me a guided tour of a world quite dazzling.
And then she pointed up and I looked. It was hazy at first but I knew what it was. She'd said we might see one. Then it came back, closer, easier to see. It was a shark. Me, the underwater world's rarest and most ungainly creature was in the same water as a shark, and I was amazed by it. It was about 5 feet long I think, and very very shark-like. A harmless reef shark (unless you're a small fish), but not something I ever thought I'd see.
The dive lasted 50 minutes and it was such a positive experience I chose to do another. But, not being a young Finnish mermaid I needed a rest, so I chose to go on the excursion into town for coffee and shopping and sightseeing.
The town was washed away by the 2004 tsunami and quickly rebuilt because the islanders have nothing but tourism. It is a pretty place.
Back on the boat we headed off to another spot and once again I donned the gear. This time my instructor was Iris, who is fun and lively but takes the notion of diving very seriously indeed. They all do. This time, it being my second dive, I was shown how to control my buoyancy myself with the air in, air out buttons, and also something else. The vest, it seems, is the same size as your lungs. And so for fine control over sinking or rising, you can breathe deeper or more shallow (never forgetting to breathe of course), and I found this idea appealing. It works too!
And so there were moments in both dives when I experienced complete weightlessness. Moments when I could float meters beneath the sea and simply enjoy where I was and what I was seeing. Those moments were brief, but for the first time ever I knew why people scuba dive. It isn't being stuck on the bottom and being left to die! It's like being in space, surrounded by fish and mermaids.
The Raya diving school filled me with confidence and I want to do more. This trip is all about budget, so I'll see if, toward the end, I have enough money left to get my PADI certificate. I'd be pleased if I did.
One the way back I was talking to a Finnish couple on holiday in Thailand for a week. It's a popular place for Fins, apparently, and they said that the Raya diving school has a very good reputation. Indeed, they impressed the Fins during the Tsunami by tirelessly rescuing the lucky, and recovering the unlucky. Weeks of using their boats to help. I can imagine that.
One other thing about my terrible Greek diving experience. They did come to find me eventually, and I still have a photo they took of me looking unhappy and holding up some marine creature I was told to hold. On this trip to Phi Phi, however, I have no pictures of me under water. I wasn't holding a confused animal. Why? The mermaids weren't there to take holiday snaps of me. They were there to make sure I knew what I was doing, that I was safe, that the fishes were safe, and everyone ended up feeling good. I'm very glad I met them.
And I saw a fin in the water (I just had to say it, didn't I).
Slovenia, writing, other things