Monday, June 22, 2009

Game Almost Over

I'm sitting in the lobby of the Gershwin hotel on the corner of 5th Avenue and east 27th Street in Manhattan and I'm one flight away from circumnavigating the globe. Last night standing on top of the empire state building, 86 floors up, looking at the spectacular view I couldn't help being struck by the circularity of the whole thing. Being on top of such a properous city, encircled by the headquarters of the richest companies on earth and almost exactly a year ago being downtown in the bowels of Bangkok watching the hustle of a city whose people are schmoozing and lying and sneering and laughing just trying to get by in the thick heat of a country so much poorer. And of course there's the whole in between, places poorer than the latter (Laos, Cambodia) and on par at least with the former ( Hong Kong, Sydney).

It's unrelentingly strange now that I think about it, and I hadn't until I started writing this a couple of minutes ago, that I've almost done it. That thing I said I was going to do more than a year ago. Travel around the world. And yes I did lament at the time that it was almost passe at this point to take such a trip. And in a way maybe it is. And the route wasn't anything particularly out of the ordinary. But still. It was. It was for me. I'm visited, oddly, at certain occassions - when things have gotten a little weird, when I'm looking at something my destiny never had in mind for me, a wild spider the size of your head in a jungle distracting me from loaded guns, a rollercoaster taxi ride through the neon streets of some Asian metropolis, signs written in their strange language, the world turned utterly upside down - by a vision of myself as a child, the normal, petty, ordinary hum drum splendour of a happy childhood and I can't reconcile, sometimes, the insulation of that life with the exposure of this new one.

I'll be home very soon now. Just two flights and a bus ride away. And I know that very soon the slow unstoppable awkward wheel of time will start to dull the colours of the last year within me. It's new now but in mere weeks it will be stonewashed and faded.

But I hope it'll be comfortable and only slip down a little instead of completely away, into my subconscious, where all these things that I've done will remain changing in some small way the actions and reactions of that cotton wrapped child that pops into my head all over the world.

The only question that remains is: Now What?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Leaving Las Vegas. Already. And None too soon.

I suppose I should say something about las vegas since I'm leaving it today.

First off it's not immediately as extreme as I was expecting. I, at least wasn't struck with a sense of inescapable seediness. Not right away, though, that's all. It comes on slow, like good mescaline, as the man says. The terrible desperation on the faces of flocks of overweight white haired middle Americans isn't immediately as palpable as that on the faces if the droves of San Franciscan homeless. In fact, though I'm the first person to admit that I think of all addictions and afflictions gambling is absolutely the most stupid and least deserving of sympathy, and of all types of gambling addictions a problem involving ones love if slot machines is the most stupid and ridiculous of an already empty and petty way to screw up one's life, I couldn't help throwing a few dollars into one myself. And I will admit that I am part of the problem that makes the shrewder element of this city unspeakably rich in that I am now one of an untold number who can say they essentially considered it worthy entertainment to put their own money into someone else's fancy money box (there an be no better metaphor for these things) but I quit at five, okay, ten dollars (not counting the money I won and then put back in the machines.) I will never understand how, first someone could sit all day at one and lose more than they expected to and second how they could possibly get angry with it or the establishment for any negative consequences arising from their own negligent pre frontal cortex. So yeah, if you're reading this thinking I'm too hard on the poor gamblaholics just remember that I couldn't care less about them and that they deserve everything they get.

Also it seems to me so far that this is where B-listers from Hollywood go to die. Better Midler is playing across the strip from our hotel in Caesars palace. She has been playing nightly for years and will continue as such. Nightly. We saw Penn & teller the other night and they've been doing it for 8 years now. 8 years. Nightly. Ditto for David Copperfield. I know prostitution is legal here but that has to make you feel a little dirty at some point. Making the same joke at the same time every evening and, worst of all, getting the same laugh, night after night, thinking about all the money and how it is totally worth it because, well yeah, it's every night in Vegas, and it's this horrendous treadmill of falsities but the money is just great. Really... wonderful.

Other amusements include being handed wallet sized photos of naked ladies every where you go on the strip. Each night the ground is carpeted in these little pictures and armies of people are employed to rid the morning of this x-rated cushion underfoot.

Also yesterday was spent, 15 hours of it at least, busing to and returning from the grand canyon. Which was large and spectacular as natural holes in deserts go. Pictures to follow when connections permit. As it is now a flight leaves for the city so good they named it again and again which I shall be on within the hour.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The condition and social category of people who lack housing

I like walking around cities at night time. Sometimes when I can't sleep and it doesn't seem like suicide there's nothing nicer than a slow walk when it seems like everything is closed. And even the weather has been turned off. I've spent a lot more time in cities in the past year than ever before and I've noticed this about myself. I came back from a theme park yesterday, a little sunburned and well thrown around the place but exhausted, overtired even, and I couldn't sleep. I went out for a walk thinking I'd get something nice to eat. A little treat from the late night eateries of San Francisco might be just the ticket. But when I got to one it didn't seem right. So I kept walking. And when I got to the right one I kept walking still.

The doors have been closed but all the stores keep their windows lit around Union Square. Saks, Neiman Marcus, Macy's even a Louis Vuitton and I'm walking past slowly just enjoying the still air and the chatter around me. I realise I've walked too far when I start seeing homeless people in groups of greater than three. At least I do when I notice that the only people on the street at all are homeless. So I turn back towards something a bit more central. There's no intimidation or even interaction, it seems this late that even a lot of them quit for the day and stop begging (some - but not most) but it's probably for the best.

As I was waiting behind the security locked door of our hotel for a sushi delivery boy the other night - this was around 11pm - a guy limped up the steps outside. He looked at me through the glass. He saw me but continued as if he didn't. We didn't acknowledge each other, he regarded me as he would have a lamp or a couch inside. (I ran a little matinee in my head wherein he started snarling at me, leapt through the glass like a crazed animal and pinned me to the floor wondering whether he'd use the knife in his back pocket or just tear me to pieces with his teeth - but underneath, on the surface I was implacable) He sat down in the corner of the little vestibule and removed a few items from his pockets. His jeans were torn as was his shirt. His back was to the window and I could see on the back of his neck some bruises and unhealed scars. I couldn't see what he'd taken out until he moved his arm a little - and I didn't want to look too closely lest he perceive my intrusion - and wrapped it with his belt. He had cooked some heroin in the short while he'd been fussing on the ground outside and now injected it right into the most prominent vein in his left arm. I thought he'd be here for the night. I was thinking about calling the delivery place and telling them that the whole thing was off, that it wouldn't work, there was an unforseen obstacle, we'd have to reschedule. This hotel was unreachable for the night. But then he got up. All he left in his wake as he limped up the hill outside was a flourescent orange lighter, dismantled.

This scene kept repeating through my head as I walked. I saw a woman earlier, well dressed, really, a nice hat, like a bowler for a lady, with a little flower on it, a nice coat, dark blue, with a brooch on the lapel. She held a starbucks cup out and had an eager longing on her face. I couldn't understand that, I still can't. It struck me like a Magritte painting. Things I've seen before but their position altered, their roles corrupted. Her face and the little tableau outside our door hanging behind my eyes when I get back to Union Square, and within one block I've been asked for money in a number of different ways.

"Can I have a lucky penny? Hey a lucky penny, come on I'll catch it." A man says as he waves his cup from a short distance.

"How about some money for a war veteran? Can I get some dinner, hey how about it?"

"God bless you sir, God bless you." This is uttered as I approach. "Thank you sir, goodnight and God bless you." As I walk away.

A sign that says " Why lie? I need a beer."

A transexual in denim hotpants and a tattered coat, torn nikes and blue lipstick asks me if I can help her out with a dollar to make bus fare. I give her two dollars. She holds it in front of me and looks in my eyes and says "Can you help me with this?" "That's all I got," I say. "No," she says, "can you help me with this? Can you afford it?" "It's all yours," I tell her and she marches off proud, her shoulders back a little, this awful tumbleweed. She swaggers off and in the distance I see small groups part for her to walk between. She owns the street and walks through those people like they're only there at her pleasure.

Further down a man, who is out of his mind, he's black too I should mention, most of them are, is standing on an upturned milk crate. He's not moving and the ubiquitous coffee cup is in his outstretched hand. He's trying to do that thing he's seen street performers do. He's standing still, pretending to be a statue, and he will move for a tip. He can't tell that he's swaying dangerously. There's a cavalier look on his face, one that says, I know, I've cracked it, those other guys would have never thought of that. That's why I'm on top of the heap. Or at least the milkcrate.

And then outside a late night bakery and coffee shop a woman, maybe 65 years old crashes into a set of chairs. She's wearing anachronistic clothing, a tweedy coat and a light orange scarf. She too has a brooch and I move to help her up before I realise that her heavily made up face shows signs of, at best, heavy drinking. People that were moving to help her stop as they realise she's another member of San Franciscos homeless... what? Community? Neighborhood? Party? A cafe worker helps her up with an exasperated look on his face. She stumbles further down the street and resumes begging. As I approach I recognise something in her face, something quintessential to a woman of that age, and a flash that takes only a few seconds shows me the faces of all the women of that age that showed me kindness once. A grandmother, a neighbour, a babysitter, a teacher and it's locked in a terrible satire of the way such a face should look.

Have you ever been shopping (or drinking) for so long that one of your pockets gets uncomfortably full of change? Well that had happened to me that day. A ball of coins had jangled annoyingly against my leg the whole walk that night and I felt miserable for having such a problem as I emptied it into this lady's cup wondering if I had to be here any longer than a holiday, could I take seeing this all around me everyday?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Just tore myself away from San Francisco to say...

If you have noticed something of a drop off in the number of posts lately and are still dealing with a bitter after taste from my 'description' of Fiji then it's a pity that you've been suffering while I've been delighting myself. Moreover, if you don't already feel like the worse off half of an abusive relationship, I'm not sure how many more times I'll be able to drag myself away from this place to blog further! So take it while it's coming children. And consider yourselves lucky.


God it feels great to redress the sentence that acted as the above's corollary with the above. And it's great to be in a place that doesn't make you feel like you're (that awful phrase) 'making the best of things.' And why is that? Well because San Francisco is a great city. There's something decandant and funky about it in places, there are parts that are downright run-down and feel dangerous, there are areas where people talk about the second act of last night's new A.C.T. production on the way out of Tiffany's and there are places where vagrants will thunder past you shouting about how 'Those bitches had no right. They'll have to live with their LIES.' (actually overheard that soliloquy yesterday!) And here's the best thing: They're all the one place. That's going on almost everywhere. The crazies are weaving unseen through crowds of the less obviously crazy and no one acknowledges that the pillars are creaking, that the roof might just collapse inward, that the music has taken on a sinister rhythm. They all just carry on dancing, regardless.
I'll speak more specifically on that subject later, when I have enough time and have had enough time to think. It's great not to have that though, time. When it's flowing out your ears in a place like Fiji, and the slow mechanisms seem to be struggling through some kind of Gel it's really refreshing to find yourself saying, Ah no, is it that late already? There's another day here almost over.

Here's the lighthouse on Alcatraz, as taken quite soon before the sun said screw it and hit the horizon, on a night tour of the famous prison.

The museƩ mechanique, near fisherman's wharf, is total geek antique. It's an arcade made up of 18th, 19th and 20th century amusements. All of them in perfect, gaudy, slightly repressed working order. You'd be surprised how you can sort of catalogue the emancipation of the intellect through those times, relatively minor as it may have been in comparison to earlier centuries, by the sorts of things a person would spend a quarter to see. Highlights include a machine into which one peers (there is room for only one set of eyes) to watch 'What all men go crazy for!' Incidentally, if you're interested, all men, around then, apparently went crazy for sepia toned photographs of ladies in long and heavy silk and satin slips. I remained as sane as I had been before the deposit of my quarter. Equal blame may be laid at my rock solid psyche and the feet of the internet.

It can't have been too much of party having the commode so close to the bed in this typical cell on the rock. Though to be fair the colour of the paint is punishment enough for any crime I've ever heard of, and I should know. For a brief period as a child I had a room covered in a thin uniform layer of it.

Insensitive given the context of the place but what were you expecting? Gravitas?

"Freshly captured leprechauns." That's Irish for 'If you're from Ireland just keep walking, no good can come of entering."

Looks a little less like a jokeworthy scene with the bars pulled across, huh?

Now here's a lovely tradition. Near fisherman's wharf, there's a bakery famous for sourdough bread and clam chowder. You'd never guess the weird and wacky ways in which they combine the two. Well actually you probably would. For those not blessed with an imagination though I herein attach the above.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Mitigation, Not A Retraction

Alright, I don't have that much time but I feel like I should mitigate the negativity of my last post a little bit with a short list of the positive things that I've done up until now, the day I leave Fiji for San Francisco

  • Woke up in a hammock on a white sandy beach with my book across my chest and watched the sun set on crystal water.
  • Stayed up late (which meant 10.30pm on Barefoot island) drinking Kava, the traditional drink - made from a crushed root and water; it essentially gives you cotton mouth and helps you sleep - playing Fijian rules draughts (checkers to my fictional American reader(s)) on a rope mat with 15 locals.
  • Snorkelled with Manta rays as they swam against the current in a channel between two of the Yasawa islands. Saw reef sharks underneath me and am conditioned enough not to give a damn.
  • Snorkelled on a reef beside a resort in 5 foot of water and saw a school of at least 400 little yellow fish migrate from rock to rock eating coral, got freaked out a little by a titan triggerfish. Got terrified by the close proximity of two large reef sharks and splashed my way back to shore, laughing, realising that I am not, in fact, just yet, cool enough with sharks to swim with them unflinching.
  • Dived, dived, dived.

Time's ticking out here and I must away to Nadi airport soon for the long flight to L.A. And while my thoughts are with those poor people who are still currently lost for unknown reasons aboard an Air France flight from Rio to Paris, I wish, to God, they weren't.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Another Shitty Day In Paradise

Right, I've been nice so far haven't I? I haven't had much cause for complaint on the bulk of this trip but moreover I've tried often in the face of good reason to stay chipper.You only need, if you have arranged without my knowledge or permission, a camera crew to follow me on and document my travels incognito, to rewind your tapes a few days to witness me being the positive counter to Adam's initial negative perception of this country.Well I've been forced to take up a counter position just lately so this once, indulge me, I'm going to get angry, okay? All strapped in and ready? Good.


Nadi (pronounced, inexplicably, Nan-dee) is a dilapidated backward spread out refugee camp of a town. All the 'resorts', and this word is applied without justification to every business that offers accommodation - none of them live up to what it conjours in your mind - are divorced so much in random location and quality both from each other and places where the word paradise isn't used unjustifiably, like Thailand, as to make you wonder how they have the barefaced cheek to even pretend to have a tourist industry, let alone actively solicit the visitation of foreigners in pursuit of happiness.

I was warned by a deceptively pleasant customs officer, on arrival, to ensure the cab driver turned on the meter when he took us to New Town Beach, a trip that should, she said cost $5FJ (about EUR 1.80) That sort of advice soon goes without saying in most of South East Asia - so no worries there then- other than the immediate advertisment of a poor and dishonest population. Then again aren't most taxi drivers dishonest? Especially at airports? If I flick through my mental slideshow of holiday snaps I find that yes this is the case. At the taxi rank the drivers says, when we ask, as instructed, for a meter, that yes, he has one... But it only goes for 10km, and our destination is outside that radius. Complete bullshit, of course, but he says this in full view of the taxi rank manager.He tells us the fare is $10. Fine screw me out of two euros. Fuck you, who cares? On the way out the security guard stops the cab to make sure the meter is on - and it is - only for his sake. It's flicked off once we get through. We tell him that we don't have a place booked when he asks, but have done some light research online and that this looked like the best area. He tries to drop us out on a desserted road and finally takes us, to what we learned later, was probably the crumbiest joint in the area. Who cares? It's only for one night.Whatever.

Next day it's a bus to Pacific Harbour, the self styled 'Adventure Capital of Fiji.' There are 3 gift shops and 2 hotel/hostels there. Oh and a post office. Did I mention the post office? Well there's a post office there too. We shark dived, as previously mentioned, which salvaged something of the trip but the 2 days there were punctuated by overpriced accommodations, lousy food, torrential rain and drunken friendly advances from the locals which quickly became violent attacks from the locals. Incidentally, not only were these people clearly too drunk and hostile to the tourists but all out fights were ignored by the bar staff - a nice cherry to crown the dollop of cream that is their thus far service-with-a-frown. Almost every situation in which I've wanted to buy something or give money to someone for something I've had to physically acquire their attention and then feel like my custom is an open handed insult, not to mind inconvenience.

But we make it back to Nadi, consoling ourselves with the advice that we've gotten from everyone we've met who's been here. 'You have to get off the main island.'

So we book a trip that takes us to Mana island to dive a site called 'Gotham City.' And that's where I am now. So why am I not diving? Well there's only 1 instructor here and he's fully booked today. And the ONLY OTHER DIVE SHOP ON THE ISLAND WON'T TAKE MY MONEY! Seriously. They just flat out refused $400 becuase I wasn't staying with them. We can't even buy things from their shop! And we booked all this stuff, necessarily, from the mainland. Oh and all our meals are paid for too. Great, huh? Funnily enough, no. I was just given a plate of lukewarm macaroni and cheese in a queue! And all the while an interminable cycle of horrible, radio fodder, chart music is being pumped out with the volume all the way up to 11. And just the first 15 seconds of each song! There's a completely oblivious Fijian at a computer smiling away to himself as he starts up a , say, Lady Gaga tune. Then 9 seconds in he starts a Beyonce track, then 12 seconds later Who let the Dogs Out? - a questions I've been asking myself more and more lately - in a constant maddening cycle.

It's crossdressing night here tonight and apparently you don't get served unless properly (or improperly I suppose) attired. Ordinarily I'm cool with some such nonsense but my usual good nature and patience are being put under a lot of stress right now.

Not 30 minutes ago I walked along the beach far enough away to escape the tumble dryer of top 30 hits and asked a local if I might lie in an unoccupied hammock on an almost empty beach in front of an empty hotel and she said 'No, it is not allowed.' I would have to be a guest in a different hotel for that...

So I walked back here thinking at least my old friend the net will help me vent but the generator is off between 10am and 3pm here so I'm foiled again. I'm actually writing this with a pencil, grudgingly lent to me by the peevish, sow-faced woman in charge, on the back of my faxed itinerary, the one that saved me being refused entry to New Zealand only 2 weeks ago.That's dedication, you say.No, it's raw anger. This has taken long enough so that the "DJ" has stopped ruining me with his listening habits and has been cathartic enough to downgrade a real Fuck-The-World mood to simply a Fuck-Fiji one.

We keep being told that $100 a night is a cheap way to see paradise. But none of this comes close to the Gulf of Thailand or anything nearby and everything costs 400% more. And even at that we're being treated like shit and being told we should be grateful. We dearest Fiji, I invite you to perform a lewd act on yourself. My heart belongs to South East Asia.

An Update upon typing this out from the original: I didn't get to dive that Gotham City site either. Weather was too choppy. And I was hungover as hell when we did dive the 7 sisters site, which was pretty nice but we had to walk down the beach fully kitted up both ways so no more diving for me. Especially since the showers here are icy cold too. They show real creativity here in destroying the potential in raw material as wonderful as the natural landscape of these islands.

But that's only another minor gripe. Worse yet, with all my little hardships and group complaining during the last 48 hours I forgot the birthday of someone special yesterday. They'll let it slide, I hope, and let me start it's making up with a little late but doubly wished Happy Birthday!

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Bistro

There's an island just south of Pacific Harbour, where we stayed in Fiji, called Beqa (pronounced Ben-ka) and the straight of water between it and the mainland is just referred to locally as 'the passage.' It's the middle of the pacific ocean so you shouldn't be too surprised when I say there are plenty of sharks around the place. What might sound a little more surprising is that you can go diving in those waters. What might begin to multiply the hopefully rising levels of disbelief is that yesterday I did, in fact, dive in those waters. And we, the dive boat, took two 250 litre drums full of fish heads and guts down with us. And then opened them. And then waited... This is 'The Bistro.' The craziest dive I have ever done.

So what happens? Well a bait ball started to form. A towering swirl of Giant Trevally, Groupers and Great Emperor fish. And they're all pretty big. And after a couple of seconds you're so hypnotised by this that you hardly even notice the 6 foot bull shark that swims across the background. And by the time you do there's a shadow that passes momentarily above your head and it's another one on his way to dinner. And before you have time to freak out you're kneeling 25 meters below the surface 4 feet from 8 wild sharks. Eating.

Brandon, the guy who swam into the middle of them pulling space hopper sized chunks of fish heads is a real defender of sharks. He speaks impressively about all the species, their feeding habits, their behaviour and their possible extinction. He's involved with the local government to try to stop the insane amount of 'finning' that goes on (a shark is pulled from the water by a fisherman, stripped of it's dorsal, tail and both pectoral fins and thrown back into the water to drown or starve at the bottom). He's been doing this for almost ten years now and never had a problem with them but as I watched him literally smack a wild shark on the nose because it was swimming right at his head I couldn't help but think 'You crazy bastard...'

Am I doing too many crazy things lately? It's starting to feel like it.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Bridge Over The River Fear

Me. Freefalling.

The morning of Wednesday, May 21st, 2009 I woke up with a medium strength hangover. It was unreasonably cold outside and drizzling a little. The drama of the landscape served as a minor distraction, as did the starbucks coffee we both drank on the 20 minute drive to Kawarau but ultimately our minds were focused on what lay ahead. The idea of jumping off this bridge had transmogrified from a giddy and distant abstraction to a sharp impending reality. The car was silent. We savoured our coffees as though they might be the last drink we'd have. I imagined the wind whipping around my body and thought about how hard it would be not to look down.

I'd been thinking about doing this for a long-ish time and the more I swirled it around in my head the more dread I attached to it. I thought about how the most fun way to do it would be to abandon all hope and just dive gleefully into the abyss. To let go and savour the fear. And I thought about how impossible that would be, how almost every step along the evolutionary path had reinforced mechanisms in the brain to not only fear heights and falling from them but to actively contravent conscious instructions to the body which commanded the individual to leap from anything much higher than itself. I thought about how it would be a waste to leave Queenstown not having done it. And I thought about how it would be a waste if I had to be pushed. I knew the real thrill lay in pushing oneself.

For months now I had tried to trick myself into not thinking about it by resolving to just not do it. I said to myself and anyone who asked that it wasn't for me, that I wouldn't enjoy it. That all this passe thrillseeker rubbish wasn't my bag. And it worked for the most part but once Adam had booked his I couldn't let it slide much longer. I had to stop trying to decieve myself and admit that it was going to happen all along. That I was no different from the hundreds of others who had done it. I had something to prove to myself also.

And yes there have been many before me and there will be many after: older, younger, weaker, stronger, braver and more fearful but as you're standing at the edge telling your brain to tell your body to jump I defy you to tell me those thoughts were a comfort.

When I checked in, I tryed a little gallows humour. The bloke who weighed me was used to it.

"How many times have you done this?" I asked.

"Oh I wouldn't do that... Too dangerous, mate." he said with a smile. We're led to the edge. Adam goes first but I don't see the jump. When I'm led out to be strapped in I ask again. Again the guy says he's never done it, that it's too dangerous, and again that knowing smile that tells me he's probably jumped off everything taller than himself in the country.

And then I'm standing there. Someone tells me to wave at the camera. Are you ready?

I've already jumped.

I still can't believe this is me...

P.S. Through the giddy and delighted laughing as the rope tensed and I was sprung back up I could see Adam sitting on the shore below. I shouted to him "I THINK I'VE LOST THE BABY!" but he didn't hear.

I can't wait to do that again.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On Queenstown being made of equal parts beauty and fear

You cannot imagine how beautiful it is here. You either know because you've been here or you don't but it's impossible to have the gaping beauty of this place imparted by words or pictures (a fact that somewhat undermines my project for the next forty minutes as my internet kiosk time counter clicks down). I had been told, I'd seen pictures and to be honest despite it all, before I left, I'd always had more of a soft spot for the idea of the exotic that is brought to mind by the thought of travelling through south east asia but god I wasn't expecting this.

I could stop trying to achieve the impossible now and just say this is a cold Laos and be done with it, since heretofore it's the most beautiful country I've seen, but I'd be doing the place an enormous disservice if I didn't at least mention that I couldn't drive more than two minutes today and yesterday without wanting to pull over or slow down or say something stupid like 'Jesus look over there'.

And that reminds me: I don't generally like driving. I got my first car when I was 17 and the novelty wore off pretty quickly. Maybe it's because I play too many video games. The same fact might be a reasonable explanation of why I'm mostly unimpressed with real life boxing; the virtual equivalent of both is full of so much more visual and visceral hyperbole that it sort of dampens the colour of the real thing. Until now. I've been driving for almost 10 years now and I can honestly say I've had the most enjoyable spells behind the wheel (of our rented Toyota - a car this time, thank christ) of my life in the past two days. Beautifully maintained roads wind through canyons and along mountainous ledges beside massive lakes backed by row upon row of white torn-paper mountains. A serious delight.
I'd planned on riding horses through this country; a kitsch and slightly tacky hangover from Lord of the Rings but the weather hasn't been right during our short stay. However a couple of hours ago I did take a ride on the Shotover Jet. 80 clicks an hour doing 360s through a canyon, shaving teethlike rocks as close as a couple of inches might not sound intially like a relaxing afternoon's entertainment but believe me with the prospect of what awaits me tomorrow it seems akin to embroidery or flower pressing.
I told myself and everone else that I wouldn't Bungy jump here. Since I knew we were coming here, which has been quite a while, I had been torturing myself with the idea of it and I decided to just live like I wasn't going to do it. That way, I reasoned, I wouldn't be walking around here trying to smile through the lurching ball of fear that is currently sitting squat in my stomach. You see, while we waited for our driver to pick us up today Adam booked his jump (at a bridge which I'm told was the site of the first ever jump; bungy that is, not regular :) ) and it got to the point where I couldn't pretend it wasn't an inevitability anymore. So there we are, my plans for the immediate future are as follows: Get sushi in town tonight and follow it with a few beers. Wake up at around 9am, check out of here and throw my stuff in the car. Jump off a bridge. Drive to the airport. Almost sounds reasonable. Almost.

A bona fide mountain. One of an infinite number on the most beautiful road I've ever driven; the one between Queenstown and Glenorchy.

A snapshot while Adam was at the wheel of what it looks like for almost every second of that glorious 45 minute drive.

Here I am, impressively well layered even if I do say so myself - considering I had to pack for both tropical islands and alpine ski town, looking cavalier with the man himself before getting thrown around shotover canyon in the afore mentioned Jetboat.
Here we are getting thrown around said canyon in said boat. Second row from the back on the left clenching our respective sets of teeth.
Real life kiwi ducks who swam across the lake and got out to say hello as we took pictures. Of course you won't be able to ignore the look of disappointment on their faces here; they had just realised neither of us spoke a word of duck. Maybe they were looking for directions or something but whatever it was they got back into the lake quicksmart.
The driver of this ship did some showboating (ahem) before he picked us up.

Monday, May 18, 2009

An exercise in ignoring the cold of Queenstown

I'd hate to throw frustration in the spotlight above other more interesting emotions, like curiosity, amazement, fear and whatever you call a mixture of the three so I'm quickly following up my previous communique with a shopping list of interesting things that have happened to me recently which elicited said emotions.

1. Ever seen Airplane? Of course you have. You, most likely, found it dryly witty and thought the thick line it walked between satire and farce was well judged. You found the peppering of inconceivable events into the story useful as both a barometer of tone and also as a comic device. The storm through which they, these passengers of this Airplane - (incidentally, which is more proper? Airplane or Aeroplane? Or is it just a Truck/Lorry America/Rest of the World thing?), fly is suitably over-the-top. You probably laughed as the plane was lit up by lightning licking at the windows. So did I. And then one day, long after, I boarded a plane leaving Bangkok bound for Sydney. I didn't know what nest of red tape vipers awaited me once I was to land safely but you see as the flight was in progress the prospect of landing safely seemed then even more unlikely than easily making the connection seems now.

I awoke, stretched across four seats (the flight was almost empty :) ), and thought I saw out of the corner of my eye a flash of light. Then I realise people all over the plane are huddled at the windows. I try to stay asleep, to retreat back to the evil world of dreams where all the horrors aren't real. But it's too late, I've seen it now and my body has taken over, has pumped in some adrenaline. Not much, but enough to keep me alert. A nasty remnant from millions of years of evolution where once my personal actions may have served to save my life, instead of just make it's final moments miserable and helpless. Another crazy flash. This one happens in three parts and continues for at least 4 seconds. I walk to the bathroom, being thrown around my turbulence but for some reason the seatbelts sign isn't on. Perhaps it's a final concession on the part of Qantas. A no hope policy. Sorry, Sir, you're going to die... but you are free to move around the cabin as you please. We hope you have enjoyed your flight. I maintain my upright stance all the way to the back of the aircraft and ask the steward what's going on.

"Tropical Storm, mate," he says. "And she's a Big'un too," he says.

"Yeah? Well yeah but you've seen worse... right?"

Here he whistles, and says something like, "Wooo, I dunno, mate, she's a Big'un."

I look out the window as the plane rocks and stare at the darkness, which persists just long enough for me to think we've outrun the inclement weather. Then a gigantic swirl is illuminated by a flash that comes from above. The plane shudders a little but the Steward assures me we're flying well above the storm. I watch with a mixure of fascination and fatalism. Then I go back to my seat and listen to Morissey's new album thinking about how the more you travel the less scary it should seem.

2. This brings me nicely to where I am now, and under what circumstances I came to be here. I am in Queenstown, New Zealand. And in order to get here I had to take a flight from Wellington to Christchurch and then another, this one with a FUCKING PROPELLOR on each wing, to Queenstown. The weather in New Zealand is almost custom designed for bumpy flights. It's extremely windy and there isn't a massive amount of land between many of the airports to break the wind's strength as it rolls down from pacific storms or up from the Antarctic. Bumpy pumpy I can handle, but the approach to Queenstown airport, one which no pilot on earth could possibly be used to, is the craziest there could possibly be. The plane, propellors going like the clappers mind you, did a FIGURE OF EIGHT through mountain peaks, LORD OF THE RING-TYPE MOUNTAIN PEAKS in order to line itself up at the correct height with the runway. On at least three seperate turns I was convinced the pilot had suffered a stroke and was unaware he was headed for a piece of vertical land. He didn't, but I feel that purely accidental. We landed and I'm here but only by the slimmest of margins. The unspeakable truth of course being that I have to make the reverse trip again in three days. And what am I doing between then and now? Taking a jetboat through a few ravines and doing 360s in it on a lake at speed, riding horses through valleys and contemplating (although largely already certain that I will not proceed with) a bungy jump. Perhaps you can excuse the overriding theme of fear but it's not something I feel a whole lot of. Not out of bravery but more by subtracting the opportunity for it to strike.

3. Stumbled across a gigantic sleeping sea turtle 15m down at Green Rock in Ko Tao on my final dive. Watched him snoozing for maybe 10 minutes as his resident pilot fish cleaned his shell.

4. A lighter note: In an attempt to see more of what Ko Tao had to offer - more than diving and eating/drinking I indulged in a single night at a Muay Thai tournament (wherein small people whose musculature made them look huge hammered each other against ropes until one of them lost consciousness) and made repeated visits to a Ladyboy Cabaret show. The star of this nightly show being one 'Whitney' - whose finest act of the trip I didn't manage to catch on video for you but not to worry some child of the Cyrillic alphabet has done this for me us :)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The silken sad uncertain rustling of an aussie airport worker's papers.

Imagine a long and slightly mournful night of drinking on the beach. A night you knew would be your last there, and maybe for a long time. Imagine, say, going to bed that night at around 4am. Now throw in, for example, a wake up at 7. Then, just for the hell of it a trip to the pier in the back of a pick up truck followed closely by a two hour wait/queue to get on a packed boat that took two hours to get you to the mainland. Now, just for seasoning, imagine that when you got to the mainland you took, I don't know, an eight and a half hour bus wedged between a tall and tired Irishman that you knew and a tall and tired Spaniard that you didn't. We don't need precise measurements to explain the word wedged here beyond the simple fact that both my outer shoulders and thighs were consistently pressed against those of my flankers - in the hot hot heat. Unpleasant, you'll agree.

Now let's say you arrived in a city that was custom built to tear you a new exit. You found a place to stay, deftly avoid robbery/assault and found that once there you were overtired. Too tired, that is, to sleep. So you think, a quick drink should fix that. Now say that quick drink ran on a little and the next thing you know you're sitting in the back of a taxi the next day and an hour later you're waiting for a flight that takes roughly eight hours and forty five minutes. (Note that it would only take seven hours and fifty minutes but Sydney doesn't allow planes to land in it's beloved airport in it's beloved city before 6am lest it's beloved citizens be awoken from their beloved sleep by some pesky interlopers in from hot climates. - You may already see where I'm going with this - my apologies to all my good Australian friends; I merely wish to accuentate your good eggedness and decency by throwing it into sharp relief against that of your more, shall we agree on... unpleasant, countrymen.)

Now we have a background for a state of mind. Try, if you can, to transpose that mindset so it fits your own. Imagine how you would feel. Well this is how I felt as I alighted yet another plane early yesterday morning. My passport clenched in my hand, I looked at the little sticker, the one that told me my bag would be sent to Wellington on flight QF 47, and looked for the transfer desk to get myself a final boarding card for the last leg of this woeful journey out of heaven.

I clear security before the transfer desk, not before some local makes a snide remark about the gun on my T-shirt. It gains me also a "random" search from some bored officals thereafter, who say they are swabbing my person and handluggage for traces of explosives though I know it's for narcotics. I pass. They seem a little disappointed. They let me go, watching all the way for some imperfection on which to find purchase, a handhold, something they can grab in order to pull me down. They evidently find nothing. And so it was that I presented myself to the Syndey Aiport Transfer Desk.

"Hello," I said, attempting to set the tone, make it chipper and govial. We're all friends here, my voice said, let's just get this over as quickly and politely as possible. "I'm transfering to Wellington on QF47, it's a BA flight that's being operated by Qantas, here's my baggage slip, they said I'd need to get a boarding card from you guys."

"Righto," he says, and I can see his smile is hiding a sneer. I can tell right away that things have all gone too smoothly this morning. I can tell that he's seen me approach the desk and try, under the weight of such a journey, to be positive and creative with my internal misery and exhaustion. He bears his teeth unwittingly. I can tell me wants to destroy something beautiful every chance he gets and that this is his chance for today. "Can Oi say yoor Oitinery?"

"Ah, I don't have one," I say, still confident. "It's all e-tickets linked to my passport. I'm just flying back to New Zealand to meet my travel buddy. We're on to Fiji on the 22nd."

"But yow must hiv an oitinery?" he's secretly delighted.

"Oh sure, I have all the information stored in my email accounts, if you can't find it on your system I can get the onward details from there if you like."

"Aw look yow caan't print inithing here. Yoor s'posta heave that alriddy."

"Oh sorry, I haven't had that stuff for a single flight in all the 36 I've taken in the last twelve months. Are you sure you can't find my details right there. They're all Qantas flights."

His namebadge had a Qantas logo.

"Aw look Qantas don't even fly to Fiji," he says

"Well when I say they're all Qantas I mean they're operated by Qantas, the actualy flight is probably sub contracted to a local airline where the destination isn't one of their own."

"Look Oi caan't lit yow floy t'day, they won't lit yow inta tha cuntry without onward travil plans an' oi'll get moi azz kicked if oi let you go ova."

"Right, I understand that, but I do have onward travel plans, all booked and paid for that take me right back to my own country. All of which are Qantas flights,"

"But yow came here on a British Airways floight," he says. OHMYFUCKINGGODAHHH I'm thinking. Keep it together.

"Yes I know, I went home for Christmas and stayed around Europe a little while, but now I'm back to finish my original trip,"

"Aw look" he says. And here is interuppted by a horrible little voodoo doll of a woman. She's of Asian descent but Australian through and through. Note also that while all this is going on, while my poor and lovable head is in a vice, the other workers at this desk and laughing coarsely on the phone and making loud and vulgar jokes. It's like a downmarket topless bar in HELL. Each of the aging ladies behind the counter has that cracked look, makeup running ever so slightly, like that final scene in Cabaret where the glamour and sophistication of an idea is betrayed in slow motion by it's awful workaday reality.

"We need written confirmation of on ward travel otherwise we can't let you fly," she says.

"I know, I have that, if you'd just let me print it out?"

"You can't print it here, you should have already printed it."

"No one ever asks."

"Get in touch with your travel buddy then and have him fax us your details."

It is apparently totally cricket for Adam to print the very same thing, and fax it to them. Then it's official. He could type it out in notepad and print it, then fax it and that renders it a legal document. My eyes bulge as my brain struggles with the logical hall of mirrors this conundrum presents.

And here, your hero begins to get worried. He turns to go upstairs and find communication - internet, phone, smoke signals. Note that his phone has died and only hours earlier he learned Adam's New Zealand number off by heart, just for something to do. He holds no currency and is wondering about making a phone call, procuring local cash and hears from behind him, with a rueful grin advertised in the tone "Betta hurry, mate, floight closes soon,"

Currency exchange. I ask them to change baht into dollas. No luck, he says it's too small, I can't convince him that all I want is change for a phone, he doesn't want to help. Is there an ATM here? A what he says. Shit. I find one. 20 dollas. Back to the exchange desk. Can I have change for the phone. He takes a deep breath. Changes the note for me but holds my change on his desk for a FULL MINUTE while he clicks around on his computer unneccessarily holding me hostage to his T crossing and I dotting. Inside I scream. I scream so loud inside that outside I make a little ooh noise. I boil over with rage. Payphone. Dollas entered. I dial 00, drop the local 0 and the rest of his number, no joy. I have to ask three people, all locals, one of them an airport policeman, before a girl from Malaysia tells me the international dialling code in Australia is 0011. I Dial again.

"Hi Adam, emergency, need you to fax all onward travel plans to this number within the next half hour or I can't get the plane over, theses swine are turning the crank on me."

"Got it. Done, I'll text when it goes through," he says. A real professional.

"Oh god. Thanks, had to get that out before the phone died. How's tricks anyway?"

"Good good, hopefully we'll have a pint later."

"Yeah man, clock's ticking, thanks for that."


Free internet kiosk. I check emails, find flight numbers and airline, borrow a pen, scribble them down. Head back to those BASTARDS.

Downstairs it's the same soul destroying grind of helping 50% of the people, antagonizing the other half and speaking loudly, making crude jokes, talking and talking and talking absolute shit. Right in front of me is a very tired French lady. Though exhausted her inate class is so obvious as to be embarassing here. It is 7.32 am. She hands her documents over.

"Look, Oi told you already THREE hours ago it was seven forty!" the woman at the counter ACTUALLY SHOUTS at her. The lady from France looks at the clock behind this lady which now reads 7.34. "I am very tired," she says. The transfer desk woman ignores this and shouts further. Something irrelvant and pointlessly rude and sends the lady on her way, crushed. Sure that they don't speak french I call after her, nod at the desk and say "Je suis aussi tres fatigue... avec cette mierde." She smiles and I'm happy for a brief moment. It's my turn at the counter.

"Right, my details are being faxed through so..."

"There's nothing here yet."

"I know, when they're here.."

"I said we haven't received them yet. There's no fax for you."

"I know," I say, forced to raise my voice a little, "when they do come through I'll be notifed I just wanted you to double check your system for my details on these flights." I hand her the notes I made from my emails. She flounders for a while, shakes her, says no, sorry, no record. Then clicks again, presses more buttons and as soon as she's found them I know because she starts making that confused face and hits many more buttons unnecessarily as if some anomaly greater than her own perpetual uselessness and cruelty has occurred to her.

"Hang on," she says. For another ten minutes she flutters about attempting to make a call. Once her plan is in her mind she says: "Alright we're going to contact your travel airline and have them fax over the things you need." I tell her there's no need. It's on the way already, I just wanted her to know what she was waiting for, that I had everything in order long ago. She starts to lecture me.

"You can't just dispose of these tickets, you need them, they're offical documents, they'd never let you into America with just your passport if you said you had your details online."

They will. And they have. I went to New York on business last year and that is in fact exactly what happened. But I bite my tongue. She is interuppted by the sound of a fax. Everything is in order. With much grinding of their teeth I am given a boarding card. Then I walk around bitter and tired but triumphant at least and listen to the television and some crumpled old bag from Adelaide who tells the country how outraged she is about something with her unfeasibly whiney voice and down sloped eyebrows, how it's a terrible thing for Australia. How it offended her. How unfair and randomly cruel it was.

Later in Wellington I purposely keep the dreaded onward travel documents in my bag as I clear immigration, just to see. My passport is stamped with a smile by a young lady. I am told to enjoy New Zealand. I don't tell her that her instruction is superfluous.

A postscript concerned with the first thing that happened once I'd cleared immigration:

On the flight to wellington I declare that I am bringing food to the country - a box of chocolates I bought on the previous flight to watch a movie with. Normally I wouldn't but Sydney put me on edge. When I get to customs a red marker is put on my card. Then a strong man takes me to a steel desk marked 5. He asks what I do, where I come from, who I'm meeting. He then looks in my bag and at my chocolates. He says into his radio that he's got a RED ON FIVE. He asks for my mobile phone and tells me that he's swabbing it for traces of narcotics. He then puts on a rubber glove. A person my age at the desk opposite looks at me like I was his friend and smiles. He says he's heard I've been smoking that shit. I look as puzzled as you should reading it. The test comes back in less than a minute. Negative. Lovely he says. You can go. We're all good? I say. All good he confirms. I offer him a chocolate. No Thanks he says. Your funeral I think.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Death of a Cockroach

Pong Pheng Guesthouse, Room 14 - July 2008

"Hey Paul, C'mere"

"What is it?"

"Nothing, just look"

"Fuck sake,"



"On the wall, there, see him?"


"Ah ha ha ha"

"I don't know what you're laughing at, you're cowering behind the door the same as me"

"Look at the size of him"

"Oh Jesus"

"Right who's going to do it?"

"Oh come on"

"Alright I'll do it but you stay here and spray him with something - to kill the eggs"

"Oh Jesus"

Paul holding a can of Lynx deodorant as threateningly as he can is cowering behind Adam who himself is standing low, knees bent with a sandal high above his head. The two inch closer to a cockroach who is attached to the bathroom wall. The cockroach is slightly smaller than a human baby. His face and individual legs are discernible from a great distance. Adam gets close enough to strike. A lifetime of missed attacks informs both men that this may not be the fatal blow. They prepare for much scuttling, possibly towards themselves. They run the nightmare scenario in their heads - the cockroach starts flying. Both men are aware that an airborne offensive will require backup. They'll need hotel staff to get involved. Adams hand begins to tremble. The cockroach will sense the strike. He'll run. And then it comes. CRACK. He didn't run anyway. Paul descends, still wobbling from the encounter to spray the corpse. Together they dispose of it without ceremony. Within minutes both have begun drinking. Hours later one laughs, then the other. It is over.

In-Touch Guesthouse, Room 14, Koh Tao - May 2009

"Barry I don't want to alarm you but we have a job to do."

"Yeah? What is it?"

"Look in the corner"

"What the washing?"

"No, behind the bin"

(silence for 10 seconds)

"Oh Jesus"


"I can't"

"I know"

"I can't kill it"

"I know, I'm worse than you Barry. But it has to be done"

"I know"

"Right if you move the bin and get me a good strike distance I'll do it."


"Do it slowly though, we don't want him to flee."

"What if he runs under out beds?"

"Then we sleep on the beach."

Here Barry with great patience and purpose of motion removes the waste paper basket from the corner of the room in which a cockroach no smaller than an adult male goat has taken up residence.

"Right I'm just going to get out of the room."

"You can't leave me Barry. What if he moves?"

"Right I'll stay."


"Oh Jesus."

"Oh Jesus."

Here Paul approaches the corner, much like Adam a year before him, a sandal high above his head, knees bent, preparing to strike. The roach could be asleep. They sleep don't they? He might not sense me coming. But then he might. And then what? Don't think about it. If you think about it you'll get too afraid. Fear is the mind killer. I must not fear. I'm close enough now. My hand trembles slightly. I'm close enough to make out individual hairs on the beasts legs. One.... Two... Fuck it. BOOM! Direct hit. BOOM! BOOM! Just to be sure. I life my sandal and a broken cockroach convulses on the ground. BOOM! The fatal strike. Soon we dispose of the body in an empty Pringles can. Then we blame any food residue for his presense. The bin and some half empty beer bottles and removed to the veranda. Once a sweep has been performed we both shiver thinking about what could have done wrong. Later I dream of victory and how what it is to be brave is to fear and continue anyway.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Bangkok 2.0

It's always an experience at least. A city that never fails to chew up it's first time visitors. And this time was no different. The highlights without naming names, of either victims or predators, this time include:
  • The loss of almost 10,000 baht to a drunken hour in a club.
  • The extortion of 1,000 baht by a 13 year old girl for two bags of corn (thrown with her hand clutching ours before we could stop her) with which to feed the bangkok pigeons.
  • Two ten minutes sessions pretending, in order to secure a kick back for our driver, that we were interested in having more suits tailored for us than a stick could be shaken at. (Why we didn't employ the use of a four letter expletive spelled with an F, a C, a K and a U closely followed by an OFF I can't say/remember/invent a reason for.
  • The procurement of some excellent forged press credentials. Just because we could. You never know.
  • And finally, a 12 hour bus trip which began with our meeting a young Serbian father of one who now resides on Ko Pha Ngan and the story he told us about the young driver who last took him from Bangkok to Chumpon and how he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed. He also took pictures of this and showed them to us, laughing, saying how he wasn't hurt because the left side of the bus impacted the tree, that he was on the right and that the only reason the entire vehicle didn't descend into a ravine was it's reflection by this tree. He then showed us a picture of himself giving two thumbs up, smiling, in a hole in the side of the crashed bus. He then identified the driver of our bus as the same young man who had crashed the previous week.
And that last point brings me neatly to where I am now. A long bus, a long sit and a long boat away from that cesspit of wonders that is Bangkok and down to where it's at. Where I can make it to the heart of things. Off which I shall dive tomorrow and any other day that lets me. Where I can't stop being tortured by beauty. Koh Tao.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Guess Who's Back.

I won't, jeans stuck to my leg as they are, go into what has happened in the last four months. Let's just say that after being told Australia catches fire in January I decided, during a terrible moment on hold for a Sydney taxi hearing Drivin' home for Christmas, to drive, fly, sail and walk home for that particular fortnight of festivities and basically slept in until April. Well, that's not precisely true, there was a short jaunt to Berlin with my parents (to see the world's largest model railway - at least that was the excuse) and another to Amsterdam for purposes undisclosed here but I've been off the grid until now. Round 2.

Adam's still in New Zealand and there's the small matter of global circumnavigation yet to be completed so Paul, with the best of intentions decides to go directly from a marathon of self harm called the Bangface Weekender to Bangkok (why not stop in Thailand if you have to go to New Zeland?) And that's it, that's where I am. I left Pontins in Camber Sands this morning, hiking through a swamp of drug addled scene-sters and musos to catch a bus and three trains and then two flights and a taxi and now I'm here, again, on the Khao San Road in Bangkok. Which brings me neatly to the explanation of why my jeans have taken on a slightly adhesive quality: I'd been raving in them for three days solid before flying to Qatar and then trudging through this city and it's associated heat so I'm off now to replace them with shorts.

More on the above, mentioned life-hiatus later, when the mental dust has settled. This is just a bugle call to my faithful readers, now departed, to let them know that for the immediate future at least, I'm gone. Which means I'm back. Back again.