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….

I Travel

This coming weekend one old ruin is going to drag himself along to see another bunch of old ruins, albeit much more awe-inspiring and significant than him. Yes, to celebrate his 52 years on planet earth (feet on the ground, head in the stars!), Ani is taking James and Otis to Angkor Wat for a weekend of temples and relaxation. Which is absolutely wonderful, and will be an undoubted highlight of what will have been a few weeks of pretty intense traveling for your humble correspondent. April saw visits to Laos and Sri Lanka, both beautiful yet troubled countries. Laos was work, but there was the opportunity to travel to the Plain of Jars in the north where my organization is conducting archaeo-clearance operations and to be awestruck by the extent of the aerial bombardment of this tranquil place, that in its green hills and craggy scenery in many ways reminded me of my homeland, the Highlands of Scotland. I stood in a scrapyard where literally thousands of potentially deadly projectiles, mortars, grenades, cluster bombs and other ordnance were scattered around the ground or stacked up in rusting piles awaiting disposal… I saw many things that will be difficult to forget in both of these places, but also met up with many, many good people who are simply trying to make things better by getting on with it. We were absolutely delighted to find that a good friend, G.G., had survived the Sri Lankan Tsunami and had restarted his tour business (G.G. Happy Tours, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka – gg@gghappytours.com – highly recommended if you are visiting Sri Lanka!). We had not been able to get in touch with him after the disaster and had assumed the worst, but thankfully he had not been at his shop in Unawatuna on that morning. Of course he has been deeply affected by events; he seems to have lost much of the faux-wide-boy sparkle he had previously, but one can only imagine the terrible things he must have seen and dealt with in the days following the deadly waves. He was also lamenting the effect that the conflict in the north and the bombs in Colombo and elsewhere were having on tourism… it was true that we saw very few other foreign faces this time compared to previous visits. We said our goodbyes and went back to our hotel a few kilometers away, the Sri Geminu, a wonderfully friendly family run enterprise situated in a staggeringly beautiful location. It was hard to equate the unfolding horror of the images we had watched on our TV screens only a few years ago with the gently lapping waves in the lagoon near our hotel, where we introduced Otis to the sea…
‘Oti – this is the sea’
I have to admit he wasn’t too keen at first on what must have appeared to him to be a giant infinity pool, or indeed on this ‘sand’ stuff, but after a few days he settled into the pace of life on the beach with the ease of a sun-bleached traveler, even doing his peculiarly individual take on dancing to the riddums of Bob Marley, ears right up against the bass speaker at a tumbledown beach shack, underneath a huge Rasta flag pinned to the wall. He became a firm favourite of the staff at the hotel for his funny little ways (his favourite activity was playing with the tap next to the steps leading down to the beach – who needs beautiful azure lagoons when you have your own controllable source of water?), and they were as sad to see us leave as we were to be going… on the last morning they had decorated our tablecloth with flowers and leaves spelling out ‘goodbye’… it almost brought tears to the eyes of this hardened old cynic. Almost. Our last day was largely spent in Colombo, shopping under the watchful gaze of the heavily armed military patrolling the streets and then spending sunset and early evening at the magnificent Galle Face Hotel, haunt of the late Arthur C. Clarke and many other iconic personages, where again the little O worked his charm on the staff as a spectacular thunderstorm began to develop around us…
Mentioning Mr. Clarke (whom I had not realized at that time had recently died… it’s so easy to become disconnected from world events when on holiday) reminds me in a fairly convoluted way (which I shall spare you the details of, dear reader) that it won’t be long until the release of ‘Iron Man’ the movie. I have to confess that I am looking forward to that in a way that is not really befitting the dignified aura that should surround a man of my age. As a young chap I was an avid reader of comics, and of one in particular called ‘Fantastic’, which was a weekly British compilation of stories from the U.S. Marvel Comics group, which at that time were quite difficult to obtain in the UK. My absolute favourite was ‘Iron Man’, the story of how billionaire scientist and all round playboy/dodgy character Anthony Stark became a force for good as a metal clad superhero. The writing and illustration were uniformly superb, and I have long thought that it would make a magnificent movie if the right balance were struck between the action elements and the usual Marvel character soul-searching that took place in the finely etched frames of the stories. Robert Downey Jr. seems a really good choice for the main role (troubled, intense, hedonistic, dry of wit – yes, ticks all the boxes), and I am so pleased that they are planning to use, hurrah!! ‘Iron Man’ by Black Sabbath as the theme… one of the all time great truly heavy metal riffs… the countdown is on to it’s release, and I daresay a dodgy DVD version will be on sale moments after I have finished typing this – that’s right, I’ll be first in the queue!
… and so to this weekend, where I shall follow in the footsteps of such great explorers and archaeologists as Angelina Jolie, and, with thumping techno soundtrack thrusting me forward, elbow many thousands of Korean tourists out of the way as I dodge huge stone balls rolling toward me and poison tipped spears whistling past my ears, clambering through the vine bedecked chambers of the ancient temples, halting only to shoot hundreds of digital photographs in search of capturing that elusive yet defining ‘moment’…. No, no, no, I really must try to pause, to breathe in, to breathe out, to stop the frantic world spinning around me, to put down the camera, put aside the trappings of this materialistic world that we only appear to live in and to take time, seconds, minutes, perhaps even hours to actually savour the experience, and to share the unique communion of one ancient ruin with another…
Cosmic, dudes!!!