Category Archives: George

Articles from George

19May/16

Yes I live here – 10 things you didn’t know about working on cruise ships

To say it has been a checkered journey to my current life of taking people on holidays to places their mother would rather they didn’t visit would be quite an understatement.

In the UK I did all manner of jobs – from selling double glazing to picking litter at a landfill site – before my wanderlust took me bartending in the Cayman Islands, working on cruise ships and then teaching in China, before finding my vocation with YPT tours.

I’ve fond memories of everything I’ve ever done (maybe not the litter picking) but of all the jobs the biggest learning curve and fund of great memories was my time on cruise ships.

As I write this I’m sitting on a public ferry in the Philippines, and it’s impossible not to reminisce a little. So I’ve decided share some pearls of wisdom about what living on a cruise ship is really like (Clue: It’s not like the movies.)

10. There are no days off.
9. The food must be really good for staff
with all those fine dining restaurants
on board, surely? Erm... no.
8. Every night must be
a great party in all the bars?
Again, no.
7. The staff are not like the movies –
many are foreign
6. Seeing as you don't have
any bills you must save
a ton of money. Huh. Right.
Nice one.
5. You are earning a tax free wage.
4. The staff are not paid equally
3. You share a tiny room with bunk beds
and a roommate
2. There are ranking systems –
like the navy...
1. There is a strict drinking limit!
Arrow
Arrow
New slideWhenever I told people I worked on cruise ships they would assume it was a non-stop party, which while partly true, ignores the fact that you work a lot of hours. For western bar and wait staff contracted hours are 70 per week, and if you're lucky you might get one afternoon off per cruise (which can be two weeks). But you're not even gauranteed that. I once had a boss who would punish any infringement by taking away my "off". At one point I went three whole months without a single afternoon off! But it could be worse: While western staff work six months on and three months off, Indian and Filipino crew do nine months for the same amount of leave.
Slider

BONUS ROUND! Some slang from the ships

  • Chicken or beef – Like “he needs to be careful or its chicken or beef”. If you get sacked you’ll have to fly home from wherever the ship is, and on the flight home you’ll probably be offered chicken or beef.

  • Taxi – When two people try to sneak off from the crew bar to make sexy time in their cabin, it’s customary for those who spot them to shout “taxi”. Maybe immature, but always amusing.

  • The M1 – The area below the the first passenger deck that crew use for all manner of things such as collecting salary or traversing through the ship.

  • D&V – To avoid Norovirus the moment someone has D&V (diarrhea and vomiting) they are made to stay in their cabin under quarantine. D&V can also stand for Drinking & Vodka, another common cause of vomitting.

  • IPM – In port manning. You surrender your crew card and are forbidden from leaving the ship, so that in case of emergency there’ll be enough staff on hand. My first IPM was in Amsterdam. It was 12 years ago and I’m still pissed off about it!



10Aug/15

The Angel that Descends from the House of an Evil God: A Journey to the World’s Tallest Waterfall

M G Martin travelled with a group from Young Pioneer Tours to explore an often overlooked wonder of the world.

The biggest of them all: The Angel Falls descends from the summit of Auyantepui, or “House of the God of Evil"

The biggest of them all: The Angel Falls descends from the summit of Auyantepui, or “House of the God of Evil”

It’s one of those  classic Trivial Pursuits questions: “What’s the tallest waterfall in the world?” On hearing this, at least half the players will start bouncing up and down in their chairs, shouting: “Niagara! Niagara!”. Meanwhile, wiser souls will look on with amused sympathy, whispering: “Just you wait, they’re wrong. Of course, it’s the Victoria Falls/Ramnefjellsfossen/Iguazu Falls”. But the actual answer — as I’m sure you’ve already guessed — is Venezuela’s Angel Falls, which fall uninterrupted for nearly 1,000 metres.

While not the most dramatic cascade in the world — it’s just a single stream like a running tap or a pissing horse — it’s actually at least 15 times higher than Niagara.

I assumed there would be some romantic reason for the name — the falling water sounds like a choir of angels, or the mist conjures images of cherubic wings — but no, it’s because an American bloke called Jimmy Angel spotted it while fannying about in a biplane in 1933. So it’s just pure good fortune he wasn’t called something like Gaylord or B’stard.

In the cockpit: The one-hour flight from Cuidad Bolivar to Cainama.

In the cockpit: The one-hour flight from Cuidad Bolivar to Cainama.

The height of the falls is down to the remarkable geology of the Cainama National Park. Here huge table-like plateaus rise vertically from the lush jungle beneath. Scrabble players may be interested to know that they’re known as tepuis (24 points with a triple-word score). In the local Pemon language, this means “houses of the gods’. The Angel Falls descend from the largest of these surreal outcrops, which is known as Auyantepui, or “The House of the God of Evil”.

I guess the falls aren’t so well known because they’re difficult to get to.

First you need to get to Caracas, which I think is Venezuela’s only international airport. From here it’s an eight-hour drive to Cuidad Bolivar. There are some lovely places to stay in this little colonial gem, but not many places to eat or drink. Thankfully, the historic townhouses that offer accommodation have thought of this, and are well stocked with food and booze. I can particularly recommend the Posada Don Carlos, which operates a trust-based beer bar. (Help yourself, but keep the bottle tops so you can calculate your bill the next morning.)

Tepuis Plateau

Towering: A ‘tepuis’ plateau seen from the air.

From here it’s a one-hour flight in a six-seater plane from the town’s tiny airport. As you approach, you’ll notice a small aeroplane parked out the front — yes, it’s Jimmy’s. He crashed it on top of Auyantepui during a return trip in 1937. It took him and his wife 11 days to walk back to civilisation, and a further 33 years before the plane could be recovered.

This short flight must be among the most stunning aviation experiences in the world. The landscape is awe-inspiring from any angle, but from above it’s simply breathtaking. Added to this are the thermal currents that rush up the granite sides of the tepees and buffet the tiny planes, tossing them about like paper kites. Nervous fliers might find this a terrifying prospect, but I can promise that the views below are so distracting that the rolling and rocking hardly registers.

Bienvenidos: The tiny airport at Cainama.

Bienvenidos: The tiny airport at Cainama.

The plane’s destination is the settlement of Cainama, a backwater of a place in a jungle clearing. The airstrip terminal is an open-sided thatched hut with a few souvenir sellers and a lady selling coffee. There are usually a few armed soldiers lounging around, but I think they’re just bored. They showed no particular interest in our passports or luggage, but were keen to offer friendly greetings to the female members of our group.

It’s also at the airport where you’ll be met by your local guides, who from that moment will take care of your every need — from cooking your food to buying you rum in the dead of night. Nothing is too much trouble for these guys.

They’ll also take you out on local excursions, such as to some smaller waterfalls on the Isla Anatoly, just outside town. Although these are positively miniature compared to the main event, they’re worth a visit as it’s possible to walk behind the sheet of water and gaze out over a prehistoric landscape bedecked with rainbows.

Majestic: Tepuis shrouded in cloud tower on either side of the River Churun.

Majestic: Tepuis shrouded in cloud tower on either side of the River Churun.

The next stage of the journey starts to get a lot more primitive. First there’s half an hour bumping over dirt roads in the back of a truck to the River Churun, which is part of the Orinoco river basin that has its source at the falls.

Here you meet your next mode of transport, long dug-out canoes called ‘curiara’. The design of these boats has remained unchanged since time immemorial, except these days they’re fitted with hard wooden seats for tourists and outboard motors. The steering is still done with leaf shaped carved wooden paddles, which the guides use with astonishing accuracy.

 Colourful: The lustrous shades of the river water makes it look good enough to eat.

Colourful: The lustrous shades of the river water makes it look good enough to eat.

I visited the falls shortly before the wet season, when the river was low;, often little more than a small stream meandering between exposed rocks. For this reason all of us passengers had to do our bit by jumping out the curiara on command, and helping to push the craft against the flow of the water, its hull scraping and groaning against the rocks below.

I’m told that during the rainy season the journey up river takes just two hours. For us it took more than six — but there was the advantage that we were the only tourists making the trip at the time and it gave us more opportunity to admire the stunning landscapes.

For the first few hours I was wondering why there was such little evidence of life. I saw a couple of ibises, something like a kingfisher and a ragged-winged vulture, but precious little else. It was odd, as the jungle was absolutely pristine and without any sign of human interference. Just as I was wondering about this lack of animal activity, I noticed a movement on a small rocky island in the distance. As we got closer I could see it was a plump little creature about the size of a rabbit.

I pointed it out and asked the crew what it was. Without answering, they gave a cry and set course for the island, the outboard motor screaming at full power. The animal, which I could now see was like a cross between a giant hamster and a piglet (some sort of tapir, I think) noticed the commotion and took to the water to reach the safety of the jungle. But it was too late, one of the local lads leapt from the canoe and, picking up a rock, cornered the animal in a tangle of roots on the riverbank. I don’t think he needed to use the rock, as when he waded back towards the boat the creature was wide awake and looked almost relaxed cradled in his arms.

“Ah ha,” I thought. “He’s just caught it for us to have a look at.” But how wrong I was. He took it to the back of the canoe and cut its throat with a quick whizz of the propeller. I did feel a bit guilty for having sealed its fate, but it provided the boatmen with a meal, which meant more chicken for us. It also put up a good fight, biting the bloke’s hand so deeply that the blood ran down to his elbow. One of his mates went to him with a bottle of rum, which I thought was to sterilise the wound. But no, he glugged it down to numb the pain, and then rubbed coffee grounds into the gash.

But it wasn’t just them who were thinking of food during the journey. When the river was running deep it was as dark and lustrous as Marmite or Guinness. As it got shallower the colour moved through stages of pickled beetroot, quince jelly, caramel, Assam tea, butterscotch, whisky, toffee and Seville orange marmalade. I’m not sure what causes the distinct hue of the water, leading theories include tannin from fallen leaves and iron oxide. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t look at the water without thinking of something delicious.

As we got closer to the river’s source, the boat was more manhandled than propelled, and I felt an ever-increasing admiration for the crew. Their handing of the craft was just phenomenal, and sometimes little short of miraculous. It was like being in the belly of a salmon as they steered the curiara up through rolling white-tipped rapids with expert flicks of their paddles.

It was dark when we arrived at the jungle camp, with fireflies blinking in the undergrowth as if in welcome. The lads immediately got to work, and in no time at all we were sitting before steaming plates of spaghetti bolognese, served with dishes of parmesan cheese and chilli sauce. Pudding was strawberry jelly. There was even a tablecloth and napkins.

After dinner we got to work on the rum we’d brought with us, before collapsing into the hammocks that were strung in a line under a thatched canopy.

The next morning we were up at six for the final stage of the journey — an hour’s jungle hike to the base of the falls. We followed a rough path clogged with sinuous roots and jagged rocks. It was a quite a tough trek, but all was forgotten when we arrived at the basin-like pool, which was so perfect for swimming you could almost imagine it being a man-made feature of a Vegas hotel.

After returning to base camp for lunch (chicken for us, tapir for the lads) we were back in the boat for the four-hour return journey. Being downstream, this was obviously a lot easier, with very little manhandling. Taking inch-perfect lines, the crew guided the boat down through the rapids, communicating with each other using a complex form of sign language.

Just as we were approaching journey’s end in Cainama, the rainy season suddenly began. Our guides seemed delighted, and raised their arms above their heads in welcome, allowing the fat raindrops to run down their upturned faces. It’s easy to understand why they were so happy — with the rains come large groups of tourists, who can be whizzed up the river in two-hours without any pulling or shoving. But for me at least, such a quick and comfortable journey to the Angel Falls would feel like cheating now.

02Aug/15

What Lies Between: Exploring the Chinese/North Korean Borderlands

Joining a research team from Young Pioneer Tours, M G Martin discovered a world of weirdness along the hinterlands of the world’s most secretive state.

IMG_2046There were five of us, a minibus and a Chinese driver. Although being chauffeur driven always feels a bit like cheating, there’s simply no other way to explore this rarely visited corner of the world.

Starting in the relatively well-known border town of Janji, our first stop was a nearby border crossing where there’s been an attempt at creating something of a tourist attraction. There was a little parade of shops selling DPRK memorabilia and the flood plain below the soaring bridge had been pleasantly landscaped, with gravel paths and bird boxes in the trees. We went for a wander, past signs saying “no farming” “no swimming” and “no photographs” to the banks of the frozen river. Here the Hermit Kingdom was just a short, albeit slippery, walk away. On the far bank, day-to-day North Korean life was clearly visible: Old men were pulling rickety carts of firewood, woman were washing clothes through holes in the ice and soldiers kept up constant patrols. Chris decided to test the ice, and walked out onto the river. Suddenly there was commotion on the far side as, with shouts and whistles, soldiers began to converge on the opposite bank. We scarpered. None of us wanted our trip to end in a diplomatic crisis quite so soon.

Soon after, our van was winding its way through a scenic wooded valley. We were still discussing our border incursion when the driver slammed on the brakes. Suddenly appearing around a bend in the road was an armoured troop carrier, and within seconds there was a grim-faced Chinese soldier at every window, some shouldering sub-machine guns and others holding huge alsations on metal chains.

IMG_2044The commander, who was carrying a field medical kit (perhaps more sinister than a gun, when you think about it), questioned the driver through the window before ordering us out. Passports were demanded, and taken away for inspection.

For a while things were somewhat tense as we stood shivering on the roadside, but they soon concluded we weren’t any threat to the People’s Republic, and it was all smiles and friendly questions. Even the dogs started wagging their tails. After taking some souvenir photos of us, the soldiers drove off, waving cheerfully through the grilled rear window of their vehicle.

That evening we stayed at an unpronounceable town called Erdaobayhe. This is an odd little resort town serving the nearby Chang Bai national park. This mountain straddles the border, and is known on the Korean side as Mount Paektu. Like Mount Fuji in Japan it is considered a sacred place to Koreans. For those living in the south of the divided peninsular, the only way to visit the place is via the Chinese national park, and in the summer they flock here in droves.

Typically, the northern regime has appropriated the mythical significance of the place, by claiming it as the birth place of Kim Jong Il. According to the official account, his arrival was heralded by a new star appearing in the sky, the sudden flowering of spring blossoms and numerous rainbows. Cynics, however, maintain he was born in a guerrilla camp over the Russian border while his father was on the run from the Japanese. Either way, as is now traditional, Kim Jong Un represents the Paektu constituency in the DPRK’s Supreme Assembly.

IMG_2088Our evening in Erdaobayhe wasn’t much of a success. It was a typical out-of-season resort, like Blackpool on a wet winter’s Sunday. It seemed the only place to find a beer was a club on the outskirts of town with the delightful name of ‘Coco Banana’. This was an odd, but typically Chinese, nightclub. Although it was more or less empty, the music was earsplitting, and we were compelled to buy 20 beers between us, and pay up front. A huge video screen over an empty stage flashed the words “analogue” and “recycling” on a constant loop. The manageress of the place — a burly girl with beady eyes and all the charm of a constipated badger – sat at our table and demanded that we pay some bored-looking girls £20 each to join us and drink our beer. Hardly the offer of the century, so we refused.

Keen to be gone, we took our unopened bottles and left. As soon as we reached the street, the manageress came shrieking out the door and demanded we return our unopened drinks. As her screams were reaching a crescendo — and the male security staff began to muster in the doorway — a taxi arrived right on cue, and we left the wicked witch of Coco Banana mouthing curses on the street.

The next day it was off to explore the Chang Bai national park. In typical Chinese style, this was quite an expensive excursion that involved numerous tickets. First there was a shuttle bus from a huge visitor centre to the foot of the mountain and the official entrance. Then it was all change to a fleet of four-by-fours for the drive up the mountain. To be fair, this made the price worthwhile. Our driver was obviously a frustrated rally driver, throwing us around the back of his vehicle as he skidded round the icy bends as the road snaked up the 2,700m mountain.

IMG_2086The mountain is actually a volcano; at the peak you look down on a huge crater lake that is large enough to have its very own clouds scudding across the frozen surface. It was a stunning, otherworldly place, ideal for the magical birth of Kim Jong Il.

Despite the amazing views, it was blisteringly cold – within minutes I had icicles growing on my moustache that made me look somewhat like a walrus. We headed back down to the entrance and hopped on and off shuttle buses running between the other sights. There are a couple of temples, forests that promised the possibility of wild tigers and hot springs where you can buy boiled duck eggs and slightly sulphurous corn-on-the-cob.

IMG_2085We could have spent much longer exploring, but we had to move on to our next stop, Chang Bai village. Despite its name, this was several hours from the mountain. Somebody obviously has big plans for the place, as there are numerous building sites ringed by billboards depicting scenes of typical German life: There were wooden chalets, men in lederhosen spanking each other, buxom wenches with big foaming steins of beer and sinister grinning snowmen eating what I hope was chocolate. It seems odd that anyone visiting this place would want to pretend they’re in Europe, but who am I to say?

IMG_2070Our hotel for the evening was even odder than the planned German resort. It was furnished throughout in the style of a Renaissance palace – the walls were covered in cheap copies of old master paintings, the bannisters and cornices were all painted gold and even the plug sockets and little filigree decorations. But the oddest thing were the en suite bathrooms – these were glass cubicles offering absolutely no privacy. It’s hard to fathom the logic of this – even if you’re on a honeymoon, you don’t necessarily want to lie on your bed and watch your partner having a poo.

That evening we found a half-decent place for a drink, another typically Chinese club, but with friendly staff who didn’t rip us off. There were a few other customers there, who were drunkenly keen to meet us foreigners. Pier was propositioned by a very pretty girl, who invited him to stay at her place. He thought his luck was in, until her boyfriend materialised and repeated the offer, before playfully sticking his tongue into his earhole.

IMG_2083The next morning we discovered that our hotel directly overlooked the border. It was an odd feeling to sit on a throne-like chair of purple and gold watching the people of North Korea scratching their living across the river.

We had a walk along the riverside and were struck by how the Chinese side resembled the Great Wall. Stone built ‘fortifications’ rose vertically from the water to a height of about 40 foot. However, this barrier obviously wasn’t intended to be impregnable, as there were ladders and even stone staircases placed at intervals. But this is typical of the border in general. Just along the river were short stretches of tall fences topped with razor wire. At either end of these ‘defences’ the ground had been beaten flat by the passage of many feet.

Close to the river there was a fairly extensive retail park that seemed to have been set up in anticipation of thriving cross-border trade. Although there was no sight of any customers, I wonder if it could be a hint of how the DPRK’s relationship with the outside world may be set for change?

Soon it was back on the road, passing through more stunning scenery and tiny unvisited villages. In one place we stopped we were soon surrounded by curious old men, all wearing old-fashioned Mao jackets. It was obvious they had never seen foreigners before and were delighted to pose for photographs. They were all absolutely tiny, and with my frosted beard I felt like Gandalf visiting the Shire.

After feeling that we had left civilisation far, far behind us, it was a shock when we turned a bend in the river and saw something like Las Vegas illuminating the horizon. This was the neon city of Lin Jian, where every building is lit up as if for Christmas.

Although somewhat surreal, it seemed a smart and prosperous place. If the movie Back to the Future had been made in China rather than the USA, it would have been set in a place like this.

IMG_2082When we arrived, communal dance exercises were taking place in the central square, men on one side and women on the other. We found ourselves on the ladies’ side, where three instructors in pink jump suits were standing on the city hall steps leading a large crowd in a merry dance. Unable to resist, some of our party joined the pink-clad leaders, to hoots of laughter and mock-scandalised giggling.

By this time, we were all ready for some western treats, so took dinner at a restaurant that offered things like steak and pizza. As we were eating, a couple arrived, the woman staggeringly drunk and the man angrily pushing her. He shoved her into a seat with loud recriminations and obvious threats. Thankfully, it didn’t turn violent. It’s one of the awful things about provincial China, if you ever tried to intervene the locals would always take the side of a wife-beater over that of a foreigner. Many a westerner has found himself savagely beaten after an attempt at gallantry, often with the wounded woman joining in too.

By this time snow was falling thick and fast, and we enjoyed an atmospheric walk around the psychedelic city before finding a pleasant bar serving some decent cocktails.

We enjoyed a leisurely start the next morning. First stop was a statue of Chen Yun, one of the more interesting of China’s revolutionary leaders. While Mao was in power, he was one of the few people to criticise his policies. “Too Communist,” he said. Then, when Deng Xiaoping came along, he spoke out against the pace of reforms. Despite consistently sticking his neck out, he was never purged, and died a peaceful death in 1995.

It was then a long drive to the small provincial city of Jian. Despite it being home to four million people, we struggled to find anywhere to eat. After tramping the slushy streets for quite some time, we eventually found a very grubby barbecue place, serving nothing but meat on skewers. After trying some beef, lamb and the usual sort of stuff, we just pointed at some random items on the menu, which was painted on the peeling wall. We had some success with chicken hearts and spicy lamb, but then they brought out a pile of skewered moth cocoons. They were about the size of cocktail sausages and the stench of them was awful – somewhere between wet paint and wet dog. Only Pier was brave enough to try one. As he was crunching through the charred outer shell the lady behind the counter indicated that he should spit this out, and just swallow the white goo it contained. It made me feel sick just to watch.

The next day we went to visit some old tombs of the original Korean kings, who founded their dynasty in what is today China before moving south. Along the way we passed sections of the little-known Great Wall of Korea. Obviously, not as impressive as China’s but, I think, older. We weren’t able to make it to the tombs. They are atop a mountain reached via a snow-covered road that was just too steep for our van to cope with. After turning back we noticed an odd building perched on the side of a nearby hill. It looked like a cross between a Disney castle and a high-security prison. After making enquiries, we were told it was a new hotel, so introducing ourselves as tour guides on a reconnaissance trip, we paid a visit.

The place had only just been completed, and although buzzing with dozens of uniformed staff, was not due to open for several months. The detail inside was staggering, wood panelling, mediaeval tapestries and inglenook fireplaces in every room. We were first met by the deputry manager who gave us all a business card and chatted in broken English until his boss arrived.

The general manager eventually turned up and told us how he used to live in England. He looked genuinely sad as he looked around him at the strange mediaeval kitsch and said: “I miss Birmingham so much.” He then smirked, and asked if we’d had a good look at his colleague’s card. I checked, and there in black and white was the poor chap’s name – Peter Pan.

It was quite a fitting name for the place though. Behind the hotel was a vast man-made cave complex, I think aimed at one day being China’s largest wine cellar. It was easy to imagine Captain Hook lurking around every corner.

After this diverting tour it was on to our final destination, Dongdang. This splendidly-named place is the main destination for people to come and do what we’ve being doing all week – peering across the river into North Korea. After some of the places we had visited, it seemed like a positive metropolis, with bars, restaurants and coffee shops.

It also has the catchily-titled ‘Oppose American Imperialism and Aid the Korean People War Museum’. This focuses of the many thousands of Chinese volunteers who flooded into North Korea to fight alongside their Communist comrades. This huge contingent wasn’t mentioned at the Pyongyang War Museum. I suppose it detracts from the narrative of Kim Il Sung single-handedly leading the resistance. But it was an interesting place, and gave a slightly more balanced view of the conflict, with at least one foot planted in reality.

After relaxing in a cafe run by American missionaries – they’re hanging out on the border to protect defectors from the DPRK, I guess – it was onto a sleeper train bound for Beijing. Although I was still in the ‘culture shock’ stage of my relationship with China, it felt like I was on my way home.

02Aug/15

Trippers, Strippers and Buskers with Flippers: Oh to be in Bangkok, Now That April’s There.

Like many travellers, M G Martin has a love-hate relationship with the capital city of The Land of Smiles. In this extract from his diary, he describes roving the city in search of any respite from the crippling heat.

IMG_2195Bangkok in April is like Paris in August — those who can run away to the seaside for a month. It really is horribly hot and humid and difficult to breathe — very much like, I’d imagine, having a freshly soiled nappy clamped to your face.

It’s difficult to do much and any journey, no matter how short, has to be carefully planned with reference to the placement of fans and air conditioning. It really makes me appreciate the peculiar genius of the Thais that leads them to celebrate their new year with a giant water pistol fight. Even though it had started to wear a bit thin, I really miss last week’s constant soakings of Songkran now.

After the festival finished I decided to have a change of scene. Even though I was still enjoying my evenings chilling out with my lovely waitress friend Apple and her colleagues, I was getting a bit sick of the traveller scene around Khaosan Road.

It seems just spending a couple of weeks in this country makes people believe they’re experts. I’m constantly overhearing conversations along these lines: “Have you been to Koh Samui?”

“Yes, I…”

“You don’t want to go there! There’s a much better place just along the coast! Koh Samui used to be good, but now it’s just…blah, blah, blah.”

Or: “How much did you pay for that banana fritter?”

“Oh, err, 30 baht.”

“What?! You should’ve gone to the shop up the alleyway next to Burger King! They’re only 25 and so much better. The woman who makes them has only got one eye and she keeps chickens in the kitchen and it’s a real local’s place and….blah, blah, blah.”

These know-it-alls are uniformly dressed in the approved manner: Vest top with an artfully faded beer logo; ridiculous billowing elephant-print pantaloons; ‘high-performance’ flip-flops and sweatshop-produced shoulder bags that flap around their knees. To complete the look there are ill-advised tattoos, armfuls of bangles and lank greasy hair with bells and bits of twig woven into it.

The worst thing about these people is the pride they take in not spending any money — as though the Thais should be grateful to host them, just because of Who They Are. You see them lined up on the pavements outside convenience stores drinking cans of beer — while just over the road is a bar employing half a dozen local kids and supporting several families. “Yes, but the beer in the bar is 80 baht and cans from 7/11 are only 65. And, actually, I think the bars here are just tourist traps and…blah, blah blah.”

Of course, there is an argument that free-spending tourists with fat wallets make all foreigners look like walking cashpoints, but when you find yourself haggling over a 10p spring roll, you should know you’ve got problems.

But what really boiled my piss was a group of western hippies busking on the pavement. They had a row of beer bottles (bought from the nearby corner shop) filled with differing amounts of water, upon which they tapped out a tune. Just over the street was a disabled harmonica player with flippers for arms, who obviously relies on the few pennies he gets for his very survival. But people were actually giving money to the filthy dreadlocked middle-class bastards. Doubtless when they get back to Belgium (or wherever hippies are spawned) they’ll be joining protests about capitalist agribusiness destroying the livelihoods of Peruvian quinoa farmers or whatever.

IMG_2194I didn’t actually make it out of Bangkok, I just moved across town to the more modern quarter of Sukhumvit. I reasoned there’d be fewer hippies and more air conditioning there. It’s a strange part of town in many ways — almost like a dystopian future where humanity has developed into two distinct sub-species. As you drive along, gleaming new shopping malls alternate with filthy chaotic side streets and alleys. Huge billboards of Hollywood stars flogging scent or wristwatches glower down from the malls onto scenes of the most awful deprivation. Although it’s so mixed together, it’s shockingly obvious how the rich and poor live such separate lives in this city. Adding to the futuristic feel are the huge concrete trackways of the Skytrain system that loom over most of the main streets, making you feel you’re trapped in some sort of underworld, far below the shining skyscrapers reaching up to the heavens.

There wasn’t really much to do, mainly inventing excuses to wander around the air-conditioned malls and eating German food. I’ve discovered that this cuisine is the perfect antidote when you’ve had your fill of rice, noodles and fried things. Thai food is all well and good, but they’re buggers for the fish sauce. You never know when it’s going to turn up. One day I decided to play it safe, and ordered plain noodles with vegetables. “No meat, no fish,” I said. The first mouthful I took had a big lump of anchovy in it. So I’ve a whole new respect for Teutonic cuisine now — eating asparagus, cured ham, mashed potato and sauerkraut has felt like taking delicious life-givng medicine. And the restaurant was air conditioned.

Most evenings would find me sitting at a street-side bar, under a fan, just outside the Nana Plaza, which bills itself as “the world’s largest adult entertainment venue” but is known locally (and somewhat unkindly) as “Three Floors of Whores”. Just at the entrance to the central courtyard is a little free-standing Buddhist shrine. As the girls come in to work, they all stop in front of it and make a respectful bow, with their hands steepled together over their faces. Some kick off their high heels and kneel in prayer, while others leave offerings. None of them ignore it. It really encapsulates one of the great mysteries of Thailand — how it can be such a traditional and conservative place at the same time as being so bawdy and outrageous. It’s hard to imagine a western stripper saying her Hail Marys before dancing suggestively with a courgette.

The offerings left by the girls were interesting. Traditionally shrines would be decked with fruit and flowers and things like that. But these days, it seems, Buddha has developed a taste for fizzy pop, particularly Fanta. When I saw girls offering cans, they’d carefully open them and put in a straw. It seems strange that they’d be necessary to draw out the transcendental essence of the base physical matter. But I guess Buddha insists on it — he’s always struck me as being a bit babyish. I bet if they gave him sandwiches he’d demand that the crusts were cut off.

The venues inside the plaza are the usual sort of go-go bars you find throughout South East Asia, but with a much rougher edge. In the Philippines, for example, many of the girls you find in these places are happy to get their cut of a ‘lady drink’ and have a chat and a laugh. But at Nana Plaza it’s straight to the chase — using lewd hand gestures the girls immediately suggest that you pay their bar fine and take them home with you. Of course, most of the girls are doing this for the same sort of reasons — usually an illegitimate child back home in the provinces, or a mother who needs ten shags-worth of medicine per week — and their desperation to pocket some cash is all too clear, and sad to see.

Overall, it was quite a dispiriting place. But — and this is a big ‘but’ — these go-go bars are the only places in the Kingdom of Thailand where you can smoke inside an air-conditioned room.

I’m back in the Khaosan area now, already being aggravated by vest-wearing tosspots. Today I was having lunch when a local chap walked quietly between the tables distributing flyers advertising cut-price buses to various resorts. A Cockney woman who’d been yabbering on at the next table suddenly leapt from her seat and started shouting, waving the flier. “Mate! Mate! I don’t need this! I’ve bin everywhere in Thailand, I ‘ave! Don’t need it! Yer just wastin’ yer paper! Wastin’ yer paper!” She forced the leaflet back into his hand. He just shrugged and carried on with his job.

She then turned to her poor dining companion, who was red-faced with embarrassment and wiping her spit off his face. “I said to him, I said, you ‘ear what I said? ‘I don’t need ‘em’, that’s what I said. ‘Wastin’ paper,’ I said. Hahahahahahahaha! Bin everywhere I ‘av. All over…

“So, anyhow, ‘ave yer bin to Koh Samui?”

27Jul/15

Where the open road began: The ancient homeland of the original nomads

Summer was arriving in Kashmir’s Sindh Valley. The ice was retreating up the towering mountains and the fragrant heather was lending the hillsides a cloak of purple. Far below, the river ran wide with melted snow. As the seasons move, so the time comes for annual migrations.

The call of cuckoos carried a melancholy air of farewell, a sound I’d usually associate with autumn in the English countryside. The darting swallows seemed to be taking a final look at their winter home, as they prepared for their astonishing journey to the insect-rich wilderness of Siberia.

The path we were following along the steep slope was only a foot-span wide, marked out by the passage of sheep and cattle. Our destination was a collection of rough stone-built huts, the summer abode of the original Gypsies, who when I visited with a local guide were still on the road, herding their sheep up from their winter pastures.

Today this is a small population, the remnant of a people who started travelling towards the setting sun, and never stopped. Here however, in this remote outpost of Northern India, the Gypsies continue with their ancient twice-yearly migration between lowland and upland.

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Why they set out on their epic westward journey, nobody really knows, but it was almost certainly triggered by the sort of persecution that has dogged their steps ever since.

There has always been confusion about the origins of the Gypsies, reflected in the various names they have been given over the years. Gypsy is a shorted form of “Egyptian”, based on a colourful theory that they were descended from the Biblical innkeeper of ‘Little Egypt’ who turned away Mary and Joseph. For this reason, it was suggested, they had embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome to seek forgiveness — hence “Roma”.

Perhaps more accurate is their name in Central Europe — Sinti, which almost certainly is derived from “Sindh”. This theory is backed up by many aspects of Romani culture, particularly the language, which is closely related to Sanskrit. Why they set out on their epic westward journey, nobody really knows, but it was almost certainly triggered by the sort of persecution that has dogged their steps ever since.

Their “summer residences” had none of the luxuries that such a description would usually suggest — no verandas, fountains or rose gardens. Just tiny earth-floored hovels (ironically, this word is possibly related to the Hindi word “haveli” — which means private mansion) with a small hearth and a door. However, they do come with million-dollar views, and herb gardens that stretch from horizon to horizon.

IMG_2493-1-350x261Quite how old they are would be impossible to guess. But they did carry that sense of antiquity that you can almost taste in very old buildings. I like to think they dated from before the great migration.

The houses are built into the slopes, meaning that the packed earth roof seems to be just an extension of the hillside, a natural ledge on the incline. Approaching from above, it would be easy not to realise you were standing on top of somebody’s home.

image-1-300x300Even though they were all standing empty, it seemed somehow disrespectful to poke around too much, so after taking a few pictures, we headed down the slope to the waiting car.

About half way back to Srinigar — I was staying in a houseboat on the city’s Dal Lake — a turn in the road revealed a field full of tents. These were the neutral-coloured practical sort favoured by refugee agencies and the like. But this wasn’t any sort of humanitarian crisis, just the travelling kit of the returning Gypsies.

From the fleeting view I had, the camp was a cheerful place. Brightly dressed children darted around the tents like swallows on the wing, and women smiled and laughed as they stirred steaming cauldrons of food. Even the large flock of sheep that trimmed the grass around the site seemed content with their lot in life.

My guide seemed to pick up on my train of thought. “They are very happy now,” he said. “Only ten more days walking and they will be home again for the summer.”

21Jul/15

Rolling Through the Years: Love and Peace on the Russian Railways

Anyone who has ever travelled through Russia by train will have found themselves as regular, if reluctant, users of the rolling restaurant cars.

There really is nowhere else to go, and nothing else to do, so no matter how bad the food, or awful the service, one is somehow compelled to return night after night.

Perhaps it’s this absolute reliance on the places that leads to a strange flowering of respect, even love, for the people who run them. Or maybe it’s more like a form of Stockholm syndrome, or something to do with the cheapness of the vodka on offer.

It’s hard to know how the people behind the counters find themselves rattling back and forth through Siberia for a living — but they certainly never come via catering college or any charm school.

But somehow, when you finally step off the train, there’s a twinge of sadness. Somehow the filthy thumb that always smeared the soup over the lip of your bowl will take on a glow of nostalgia. You’ll smile fondly at the memory of their irrational outbursts of anger. Shake your head wistfully as you recall their constant attempts to overcharge you.

When I travelled between Moscow and Harbin, China, in 2013, I wrote about my dining car hosts just at the very moment I was beginning to fall under their strange spell:

The filthiest couple in the world have somehow found themselves in charge of the restaurant car in train number 20 of the Trans Manchurian express.

I don’t know their names, I wouldn’t dare ask, but I’ve come to think of them Mr and Mrs Grimski.

Most sleeping carriage attendants have little to occupy their time on these long journeys — apart from terrorising the passengers — so turn their hand to the most meticulous cleaning and polishing. Before each stop they lay cotton runners along the corridors to prevent dirty feet soiling the passageway carpet. The samovars are always gleaming and any daytime nap is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a vacuum cleaner, the head thrusting back and forth through the compartment door.

But Mr and Mrs Grimski have been in this game for too long to worry about such details. The toilet on their carriage, for reasons best not discussed, has been out of order for several months, so it can safely be locked and forgotten. The carpet has long since achieved a durable shine; now lacquered down with layers of dirt and grease it repels all further contamination. Everything else takes care of itself. The curtains hang stiffly in the windows, just as though they’d been recently starched, customers tend to wipe clean their own little corner of the plastic table covers, and the leather-effect seats are just the right shade of reddish brown to hide any stain.

With the housekeeping taken care of in such a way, it’s a rare day that anybody troubles the kitchen. I’d imagine that, being so unused, it remains perfectly clean under a smooth layer of protective dust.

The couple themselves were probably a handsome pair on their wedding day. A shadow of beauty can still be detected on her round face and a faint light still glows behind her tired eyes. He hasn’t lost his lazy swagger, nor the bootleg aviator sunglasses that so impressed her when they first met all those years ago.

But they’re still in love, so who needs To wash? They don’t notice that their hands are permanently blackened with coal dust, or the mysterious greyness that migrates from their hair, down their necks and onto their collars.

Their clothes — well, what of them? They’re government property — and while their bosses may change with predictable regularity, new uniforms turn up in their own good time.

But I like Mr and Mrs Grimski. For a married couple of so many years their conversation together is easy, fluent and good-natured.

What’s more, because of their management policies, the restaurant car is a haven of absolute peace and quiet, and they usually let me smoke with my evening beer.