I Travel

It’s been quite a week in the world, one way or another. Colleagues of mine have lost close friends, former colleagues have lost family members in tragic circumstances, others have been caught up in political turmoil in Honduras, the death of Michael Jackson continues to dominate the Asian media, swine flu has struck Cambodia with a vengeance and news has just broken of a huge explosion in the Prime Minister’s private compound.

I shouldn’t, therefore, have been unduly surprised to come home from work last Friday, settle down outside in the orange glow of impending sunset with my book and then gradually realize after a few minutes that what was tickling my exposed big toe was not, as I had thought, a wind-blown dry leaf but the front claw of a scorpion.

Oh dear.

These creatures I have only encountered previously a) in movies, b) behind glass in a zoo or c) pinned to a wall display in Kuala Lumpur and no longer animate, but now a rather large black version of the species possessing what could be clearly seen as a particularly vicious looking stinger was showing what to me was an inordinate amount of interest in my big toe…

I remained still. Absolutely still. As did the scorpion. I’ve no idea exactly how long we faced off (or should that be ‘footed’ off?), but it felt like a very long time indeed. Eventually it turned away from my foot. I inched my foot slowly out of my sandal and tucked it underneath me in the chair. The scorpion was in no hurry… minutes more passed and then eventually it ambled off in the fading light into the undergrowth and disappeared.

I have no idea just how toxic my little chum was… I’m sure at the very least he could have inflicted a very painful sting upon yours truly. I guess we never know what surprises, pleasant or unpleasant await us, so the trick is to enjoy as much of life as you can before you get surprised by it. The book I was reading at the time (or re-reading, to tell the truth) was ‘The Art of Travel’, by Alain de Botton, a philosophical treatise on… surprise, surprise, travel! I had been using an old boarding pass as a bookmark, one from a trip to Bologna to attend a film festival some years ago, and the combination of this well-used souvenir, the content of the book and the scorpion incident conspired to set the old grey matter swirling and eddying, and the wheels within wheels to be set in motion. Bologna is just one of the amazing places I have been fortunate to visit and experience over the last few years. My horizons have broadened so much in that time, and entirely thanks to one person who set the wheels of travel in motion for me and who has been my long suffering companion on many of those journeys, my dear wife.

She has had to endure my rampant serial killer paranoia in Venice (what normal person is wandering around the streets inviting backpacking strangers into his house at two in the morning, I ask you?), my deaths door dysentery melodramas in Cuba (crawling on hands and knees into the clinic for a vitamin shot), my horror of undercooked pork in Paris…actually undercooked everything in Paris… yes, the griping list is endless, but although her experience of me as a travelling companion is coloured by my far from endearing grumpy old man-ness, the experiences I have had, the people I have met, the places I have seen, they are etched indelibly and wondrously on my soul and entirely thanks to her. So many unforgettable moments… drinks at sunset on the terrace of the Galle Face hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, a crowded train journey in the company of merry pilgrims in India, residing in the very same hotel room as the Beatles did in Barcelona, drenched to the skin in the new year celebrations in Yangon, upgraded to jet set class in Taormina, Sicily, fireworks around the Eiffel Tower to herald a new year in Paris, the overwhelming emotion of coming face to face with a favourite Magritte painting in Peggy Guggenheims house in Venice, a birthday waltz around the Palazzo Bonaparte in San Miniato, Tuscany… and more, so many, many more…magical experiences all, these simply cherry-picked from a tree full of such experiences, and more to come which we can now share with our wonderful little boy. Thank you, A.

In his book, de Botton dissects the whole modern concept of travel, of setting oneself off onto adventures where one might experience the new, the exotic, the different, yet also acknowledges that sometimes we don’t realize that those very things we seek through travel can also be around us in our everyday lives. Take time to look… the travel we generally do in those everyday lives of ours becomes a chore, a necessary way of getting from A to B, from home to work, home to shop, work to home…. either on foot or trapped inside a moving metal box with other necessary travelers… if we start to see it differently, look at the detail in the world going on around us, ponder thoughtfully on the actions of those we watch,notice the un-noticed, pick up on the detail, analyse the surrounding architecture and the space it occupies then another whole world of wonder can leap out to enrich our daily lives. Carpe Diem, indeed. Make every minute count of this wonderful life, savour every single moment you are a living, breathing person…

As that other great philosopher (!), Ian Fleming once wrote, paraphrasing a wise man from the past

‘It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive…’

A further note on the explosion mentioned in paragraph one above – it appears to have been a truck full of rockets bound for the Thai-Cambodian temple stand-off in Preah Vihear. It was being refueled in the Prime Ministers private compound (?). One of the drivers wanted to do a visual check on how much fuel was in the tank, and as it was getting dark and difficult for him to see, he bent down over the gas tank and flipped open his lighter….

…not recommended….

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It’s A Mystery

Toyah had it exactly right, didn’t she? ‘It’s a mystery, it’s a mystery…’ Yes, ‘it’ sure is. So, what it exactly is ‘it’? Well it’s obvious, isn’t it? It’s a mystery…

About a month ago I changed jobs. I’ve left behind the world of landmines and UXO and small arms and MANPADS and IED’s and so on and so on to return to the world of children. No, un moment s’il vous plait – I haven’t regressed to my childhood. How could I? I never left it in the first place, just ask my wife and son. However, I am now working with street children in an international context. And no, that doesn’t mean I am the Fagin-like mastermind behind an international street urchin criminal ring, robbing tourists willy-nillly and setting off hue-and-cries in the chic destinations of the world, oh no. I now sport the rather grand title of International Grants Manager for Friends-International, a rather wonderful organization based here in Phnom Penh but with projects running all over the world working with some of the most marginalized members of our societies, the street living and working children and young people. If you want the full story, please go to the Friends International website, http://www.friends-international.org where all is revealed in a much more coherent manner than your humble correspondent could possibly manage… and that little burst of Francais above was no mistake either… it’s a French organization. Allons Y!

Last Saturday evening was a bit surreal for me, even by the normally surreal standards of Phnom Penh. It was the Fete de la Musique (French again! Zut alors!), and after getting on down with the Mekong Pirates at Gasolina (and witnessing a truly bizarre performance there from a young woman and her misbehaving backing tapes) yours truly was performing with Khmer/Filipino band ‘Rock X Press’ in the sweaty confines of the funkiest joint in town, the Memphis Club. Exceptional musicians all, which made rehearsals extremely easy. Over the course of those rehearsals during the week I had gotten to know the band really well, so Saturday evening I was one of those in the inner sanctum of band friends and associates and other musicians and found myself chatting to the very amiable uncle of Suk, the drummer. He was an extremely genial chap, somewhere in his 60’s and sporting a discreetly loud (is there such a thing? Je ne sais pas…) Hawaiian shirt and jet black slicked back brilliantined hair. He looked like an extra from an Elvis Presley movie, or indeed the off-duty premier of a tiny Pacific island paradise. But my goodness, he was a guitarist of some considerable ability, and wowed the audience with his take on Les Paul and Carlos Santana songs, getting extremely animated in that eyes-closed grimace-of-pain-lead guitarist way as his set drew to a close. As he returned to his seat I congratulated him, and he pulled me conspiratorially close and whispered into my ear ‘You know, I’m not very good at shooting a gun.’ ‘Oh’ said I, not really knowing where this conversation was going to go. ‘I prefer the guitar. I know how to use that! ‘ He laughed. It turned out that our amiable guitar hero was the Chief of Security at the Ministry of the Interior…

I do know what he means. Alex Harvey once said he would rather face an oncoming army with an electric guitar and a Marshall stack instead of a gun. Rock X Press and I put that to the test as we faced the marauding hordes in the Memphis, and within two songs the mix of drunken expats and wildly enthusiastic Khmers were in thrall to the likes of ‘Born to be Wild’ and ‘Sunshine of Your Love’… cutting edge stuff, I know, but sometimes you just gotta go with the obvious! I ended the evening with a string of invitations to perform at other venues, jam with other bands, visit recording studios, make jingles… AND a quarter bottle of whisky from the event sponsors… what more could any living walking breathing talking singing leaping cliché of a rock singer want?

O and A are in the UK, enjoying the summer break, so the relatively empty corridors of my house have been reverberating at night to the sound of (bad) guitar playing and the echoing soundtracks of DVD’s. I use some of this ‘alone’ time to catch up on the art house and experimental movies that have passed me by in the last few months, reveling in the avant-garde abstractions of the post modern nouvelle-vague and such like.

Last night it was ‘X-Men origins – Wolverine’.

Yes, I know. But it was just a little avant-garde, as this was a pre-post-production copy, so much of the special FX magic was there in its basic form – for example, you could see wires attached to actors and bad prosthetics and basic CGI stuff which added immensely to my enjoyment of the movie. Remember what I said about regressing to childhood above? Tonight it’s Star Trek, accompanied by a can of Ginger Beer, a packet of kettle chips and an Almond Magnum. Mmmmm, now guess who’s going to have a sore tummy tomorrow…

Black Eyed Dog

‘Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay 

To mould me man, Did I solicit thee 

From darkness to promote me?’

John Milton, Paradise Lost

I awoke with a start, sweat-soaked, choking and stifled of breath in the cloying warmth of the room. In the far off distance thunder rumbled in the canopies of clouds that shrouded the night. Darkness, deep and velvet and impermeable settled all around me, enfolding me in its weighty cloak. A distant and trebly sound, but one with familiar and beautiful cadences came from somewhere… befuddlement passed and became recollection – the listening device… yes, the I-Pod. I had placed it under my pillow along with that other electronic device… I fumbled under that selfsame pillow for the cellular telephone, located it and pressed its eerie greenish light into life. 2.45am… and on the periphery of my vision, a movement, a darker shadow than any other object in the room, caught in the fading edge of the light from the telephone. I reached for the bedside lamp switch, pressed it on and scorched my eyes with the sudden intensity of its light. A moment passed, and as my eyes adjusted to plain sight there could be no doubt. It sat, absolutely still, on the tiny stool at the foot of my bed.

‘You’ I cried out ‘you have come to… to…’ my voice vanished, strangled in the fearful closure of my throat at the sight I beheld.
The creature raised its head and gazed directly at me. Water – mayhap rainwater, was trickling down its fearful visage. After several seconds it spoke.
‘No. This time I have not come to kill thee. I have come to take my leave of thee.’ Its voice held no anger, as it had done so many times before. Now it seemed weighted with a deep and unimaginable sorrow, how changed from the blazing terror that I knew from experience could be unleashed by its tongue.
‘You are leaving me?’ relief had unblocked the stricture of my throat, and now I could scarce believe the words that had emerged hoarse and laboured from the scarred lips of the beast before me.
‘truly, you leave?’
It nodded, saying no more, yet conveying the absolute truth of its intentions in the slow gravity of the gesture.
Minutes passed. The creature continued to stare directly at me, in absolute stillness. No breath appeared to pass from it, no blink of an eyelid to confirm humanity. I saw now that it was wearing my Navy greatcoat, that which I had inherited from my uncle, and that it was flecked with mud and shimmering with droplets of rainwater. In the right hand pocket I could clearly see my copy of ‘L’etranger’, now water stained and grubby. Upon seeing this, I clearly recalled my teenage years of existential doubt and angst, and once more my throat constricted.

The creature leaned forward, and extended a parchment dry bony finger in my direction, jabbing it toward me for emphasis as it spoke. “Remember this, if you will of me – It was thou that created me, thou that breathed life into me, thou that needed me… ‘ it leaned back into the corner, and gazed upwards to the ceiling before continuing ‘but I know… I know now that it is time for me to leave thee… forever. I have brought much pain to you and to the ones you love…’ I fear he almost spat the last word out ‘… but hast thou ever considered me? A dark thing, unloved, unwanted… I cannot bear to see myself… I cannot walk freely in daylight…’
his voice broke off in a choking sob. At that moment, I felt sorrow for him. True sorrow. I felt as God must mayhap feel toward mankind, the frustration that endowing one’s creatures with free will must cause the creator… yes, I had created this beast, called it up from the depths of my dark mind, bestowed life upon it, a shape, a form… and now I had to recognize that the time had come, and the tragedy was that it too knew this, and had come almost willingly, it seemed, to his nemesis, his maker… yes, to meet his maker.

The thunder having calmed, the room was now almost silent, other than the sound of the I-Pod, the music seemingly shimmering in the still warm air. The creature leaned forward again. ‘That sound… it is so… so calming, so beautiful. What is it?’
‘It is Nick Drake. It is called Black Eyed Dog.’
The creature allowed a slight smile to flicker across his lips, and nodded his head slightly. ‘Ah yes, I know of him. He was born in Rangoon.’ I was surprised at this, and my surprise must have shown, as the creature let out a harsh, barking laugh
‘ha! You wonder at my knowledge. Here!’
from inside my greatcoat he threw a ragged parcel upon my bed, wrapped in torn and stained brown paper and held loosely together with fraying string. It was clear his intention was for me to open it, so I duly did. Inside were many familiar loose leaf printed sheets, individually printed from the internet it appeared. ‘I know these’ I said, quietly. ‘As do I’ retorted the creature ’As do I…’ he reached over, lifted one up and squinted at it before reading aloud slowly and deliberately. ‘Lost – in – Space. Ha! The vanities of man!’ he threw it disdainfully back onto the bed. ‘Enough of this! Tell me about this music, this song. What does it mean?’ In truth I was fearful of where this discourse may lead, but to humour him I answered. “It comes from his last album… record. It was named Pink Moon. He died soon after making this, from an accidental overdose of anti-depressants. Many people think it’s a song about suicide, or depression. A metaphor for them… do you know, Winston Churchill used to describe his depression as a Black Dog, following him around…’

‘Really? How interesting. But this is a Black Eyed Dog… perhaps it means something other… perhaps it looks to better times…’

Abruptly, the creature stood up. Startled, I moved suddenly and knocked the bedside lamp spinning. I hurriedly straightened it up and in that brief moment it was beside me, leaning over me, inches from my face. ‘Goodbye’ it said. In that instant, I saw that its eyes were the deepest, darkest black imaginable…

…and then it was gone…

Historical note – the reference made to Rangoon by the creature is generally accepted to be a direct reference to the author’s visit to Yangon with his wife and child in 2009 during the New Year water celebrations. From contemporary accounts it was clear that they had a wonderful time, and were enchanted with the city and overwhelmed by the kindness of their hosts, Nick and May Yei.