US Adventure – Part 3

Yosemite

The scale of the landscape in Yosemite is staggering. Our first glimpses from the car left us open-mouthed; vast granite cliffs commanded the valley sides while swathes of cedar and fir crowded the road. The atmosphere thickened.

We were aiming for a place called Housekeeping Camp – a congregation of three-sided concrete structures with canvas roofs, each hosting a picnic table, a stainless steel work station and a campfire grill. After a forty minute detour (it took us twenty to realise that the scenery appeared to be repeating itself) we eventually made it to the camp grounds, but until we found our plot there was nowhere to park. I sat in the car with the engine idling while Jo went to deal with the registration. I missed the first spot to free up because I was listening to the radio. I missed the second because I was still annoyed about missing the first. I didn’t miss the third, nor the scowl that came my way from the other guy vying for it. Inwardly I was impassive, outwardly I smiled…until I realised that I was doing those things the wrong way round and his scowl was hardening. I scuttled into the office quickly, before I accidentally flirted with or otherwise antagonised any more total strangers.

Half an hour later we were installed in our new campsite. It was getting late on an April afternoon, so the shadows were long and the air was cool. The camp was nestled into a meander of the Merced river; the glacial water flowed deep and cold, and sharp, strong currents scattered looping eddies that flared across its clear black surface. Across the river there was an attractive strip of sandy beach bathed in the evening sun, and shafts of light scored the still quiet. Only the occasional bird or sharp crack of catching firewood broke the silence – otherwise, sound was muted by soft carpets of pine needles and the whispering branches above. We took pictures of the river and our surroundings, then went for a stroll to the village shop to get our bearings and some supplies.

That evening we cooked our first camp meal together, which was exciting as we had planned well and stocked up on plenty of supplies. To keep us fuelled on our trip we had packed enough fresh food  to create a variety of meals, including salads, a Bolognese, a Thai curry, bacon and eggs and home-made burgers, and the village shop helped us with extras like butter and salt and vinegar crisps (whose availability in a village shop in the back end of nowhere signals that America is a civilised nation after all).

We had to keep all the supplies, even toiletries, locked in a bear-bin as black bears (oddly named, as these ones are apparently brown) will take anything within easy reach, including shampoo and other scented beauty products. This gave me an inadvertent opportunity to annoy the neighbours as I almost wilfully kept forgetting this or that utensil or ingredient, and so had to make several return trips, clanging and banging in and out of the heavy metal bear-bin all the while. Sitting by the blazing fire we ate well and drank beer while the air cooled and the stars came out. The tone was set.

The next day, rested and full of energy, we were ready to hike. We rose early after a decent night’s sleep – the temperature plummeted after the light faded, but we had two sleeping bags, a duvet and armfuls of blankets, so the cold didn’t really bother us. We ate a hasty breakfast of granola and yoghurt, got some information about trails from the camp-ground office, then headed out: we opted for the Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall trails, which would lead us 2,000 feet up to the foot of the Half-Dome trail (5,000 feet above sea level). Unfortunately this was closed due to ice, but in any case the walk took us the whole day, with the occasional break. (Half-Dome is an imposing 8,800 foot peak that looms over the Nevada Falls. It has one smooth, rounded side and one sheer cliff-face, hence its name, and in the summer you can take a trail to its shoulder and then climb a cable route up to the top.)

The early part of the hike was pleasant and undemanding. The skies were clear blue and the birds were busily flitting about their day. The path wound gently but firmly up until it reached the foot of the Vernal Falls. On the way there was a sober warning – one summer not long before a young boy had been playing in a pool of the river that looked calm and placid, only to be caught in a current and swept to his death downstream. The water is shallow and clear at the edges, and the the surface of this particular pool betrays little evidence of the submerged boulders and turbulence beneath.

The higher we got, the steeper the climb became, but also the greater the rewards. Each turn in the path brought us a new, ever more impressive view of the ring of mountains and cliff faces, their broad immensity demanding pause. As we rounded yet another bend we saw Vernal Falls ahead, its spray forming a faint but unmistakable rainbow curtain a hundred feet in the air. Despite this, we joked that we were climbing into Mordor as we began to ascend the steps that would lead us to the top of the waterfall: its spray soaked the rocks so that they were a grim, textured grey and the sun was temporarily shut out by the lip of the valley ridge. It got dark, cold and wet before it got light again, but the trail was busy and people were courteous as they let each other pass to and fro on the steep steps.

After a decent climb we reached the waterfall itself, turned, and yet again the quality of the view appreciated by degrees.The rest of that hike, an 8 mile loop served up a conveyor belt of nature’s majesty, as interpreted by Yosemite valley. Birds hung for minutes at a time in thermal vents hundreds of feet above; trees sprang from unlikely cracks in vertical cliff faces; boulders as big as tractors, some as big as houses littered the trails; and rainbows smudged in and out of view as we ascended and descended through the mist formed by spraying torrents of melt-water.

We sat at the top of Vernal Falls for a break and had a coffee. Jo had brought a new camping toy called a Jet Boil, which will have you scalding your hands and making a mess of whatever surface you set it boiling on in minutes. Though that was more to do with our inability to keep a close eye on it than any failing of the device. During our break we embarrassed ourselves a little by letting it boil over, sending coffee grounds flooding over the rocks where we sat, but we employed a healthy supply of baby-wipes to clean it up and then spent a hugely enjoyable half an hour doing the crossword and taking in the spectacular scenery – and at this stage we were still only half way into our climb. What we didn’t know then was that the next climb, which took us to the top of Nevada falls, would give us a view out over the entire valley, as well as putting us in sight of Half Dome, Liberty Cap and Mt Broderick. This time we sat for lunch and whiled away well over an hour munching, chatting and drooling over the views. One particular feature that kept drawing the eye was the vertical striping in shades of grey, red and brown on some of the rocks; all around there were miniature waterfalls cascading over the lips of the cliffs, and these had exactly the same patterning as the stripes elsewhere. It was tempting to think that over the course of the last few tens of thousands of years various such waterfalls have flowed and stemmed, leaving behind a painted canvas of granite. However they were caused, they were yet another intriguing and beautiful component of a landscape that was by now, frankly, showing off.

That night we made the Thai curry. We had made the paste already at the Thai evening we had enjoyed not long before (see US Adventure Part I), so it was all home cooked and fresh. At around nine o’clock a couple of late-arrivals to the camp came wandering past looking for their cabin, just as I shone my torch onto the pan bubbling away over the hot coals. It smelled good, it looked good and these guys had clearly had a long day. One of them told me how good it looked and smelt as he walked by. He seemed friendly. He smiled. I bared my teeth and hissed. He moved off. He wasn’t the only person to risk a mauling that night: I woke up the next morning looking for beef jerky and eventually found it stuffed in the bottom of my bag, which I had left right next to my bed. Fortunately we didn’t receive any unwelcome visitors. The bears probably saw the way I scared off those guys who eyed up my dinner earlier.

The next day we were understandably tired, and so were looking for something a little less strenuous to do. This time the rangers in the office pointed us in the direction of Tuolumne Grove, a stand of Giant Sequoias about a half hour drive from our campsite. At the entrance to the trail around the grove there is a model of a Sequoia stump. It is around ten feet across and its rings are labelled with key events: its first year of growth, The Battle of Hastings, the discovery of America, the sinking of the Titanic, and so on. This is as arresting as you would expect, and put me back in the philosophical mood of the drive into Yosemite the day before; equally arresting, though less impressive, is the ruthless efficiency with which industrial logging decimated Redwood populations from the mid 19th century onwards. Now the Sequoias have to cope with climate change as well, which some researchers believe could wipe out the remaining island populations throughout California within the century. For a species of tree that has evolved for millions of years to a point where it can reasonably expect a lifespan of up to two thousand years (one was estimated to be as old as 3,200), this is fairly appalling to contemplate.

The circular trail around the grove is only a couple of miles long, and after only a few hundred metres  we spotted our first Sequoia. A mere fifteen feet in circumference and only around thirty metres high this was a baby, but it still towered over its peers (thirty metres is about the same as a ten story building – the tallest can get to 25-30 stories, which is sky-scraper territory). After that the wonders came thick and fast: one mature tree that had been toppled naturally lay dead, its trunk ten feet tall and a hundred and fifty feet long; another prominently displayed a gnarled root system and the hollow inside was large enough to crawl through (we did; it was dark and full of potential spiders, which are like normal spiders only harder to spot); yet another dead stump has been burnt out and tunnelled through, and stands guardian over the trail providing a great photo opportunity – as long as you are patient and prepared to wait for the young children in the family ahead to completely ignore this wonder of nature as they squabble over who has the biggest stick, and why this may or may not be entirely fair. I suspect the irony of this discussion was probably lost on them. The meddling parents generously gave the debate about five minutes to run its course but it had the potential to go on indefinitely if they hadn’t intervened. Then at the head of the loop, we stumbled upon a stand of around twenty thriving Giant Sequoias. It is difficult to describe how big a Giant Sequoia really is up close. I could give you more comparisons, but how many of them would give you a true sense of their size? If I told you that you wouldn’t fit one on a tennis court, would that help?  Or that it would take you about four seconds to fall from the top branches to the hard, hard ground below? Suffice it to say, that the awe we experienced the day before was well-matched here. It seems that in Yosemite there is a competition in progress: the tallest, the deepest, the widest, the grandest, the most turbulent, the most serene…the rivalry is fierce, and everything is winning.

On our way home the next day, Jo stopped the car at a viewing point. Sheer cliffs rose up to our right while a steep slope fell away into the valley to our left. We wanted to have one last look at Yosemite before leaving, so we clambered down the scrubby, loose shingle slope until we found a suitable rock to perch on. Far below the river was frothy and treacly-slow, high above birds wheeled endlessly, and everywhere was perfectly still.In the peaceful calm we sat, and basked, and silently watched.

 

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US Adventure – Part 2

The Rock

Trips to Alcatraz depart from pier 33, but as I was around 40 minutes early – best to be on the safe side – I wandered up and down looking for somewhere to eat. I was disappointed but not surprised to find that the local eateries were primed for the tourist trade, so that the already high San Francisco prices were inflated another ten percent in the ubiquitous cafe-come-souvenir-shop, and the only alternatives seemed to be sit-down restaurants. A few doors down from pier 33 there was an anonymous looking entrance to what turned out to be a Hawaiian restaurant that also had a take-away counter, so I ordered a salad from the server, and took myself off to a bench to eat before heading off to the Rock. Though of course, it wasn’t that easy.

I haven’t come across much Hawaiian food before, so when I looked at the menu my mind was a blank. Gordon Ramsey would have been proud as there were only three or four items on it, but I didn’t know what any of them were. The first was myseriously named Ahi Poke. No description, other than something about tuna. I wasn’t in the mood for fish. There was a Chicken Poke below, so I thought I would probably go for that. When I got to the front of the queue I asked the guy, a dour, portly Hawaiian: “What’s a Chicken Poke?” Instead of the helpful smile I was used to getting from the local hospitality types, I was the recipient of a tired, flat expression. He gave no reply, but instead he jutted a stubby index finger at the menu, as if to say “It’s that”. Well, that didn’t really help very much. I asked him what was in it. He reeled off a list of ingredients (it was ostensibly a chicken salad) and when he had finished I decided further interrogation probably wouldn’t yield much more in the way of fruit, so I asked for the salad and a bottle of water. He looked at me with heavy lidded eyes, jabbed my order into the till and thrust out a hand for cash. I paid him and waited for my water. He asked me to move along to wait for my Poke. I told him that he was very forward and that I didn’t have time right now, but that if he was off work when I came back from Alcatraz, maybe we could go for a drink, take things slow. He didn’t smile. He asked me to move to the side. His open and unnecessary hostility was starting to rankle by this point, so I smiled at him and nodded pointedly to the fridge. “Can I get that bottle of water please?” Slowly, painfully, he turned to the fridge, took a bottle and placed it in front of me, almost like a challenge. I mumbled thanks under my breath and moved off as he stared me down. One-nil Hawaii.

As I waited for my salad I decided to get the crossword out of my bag and wait for my salad, but oh no! I didn’t have a pen. I was sure I had a pen. I thought about asking the guy at the serving counter, but I was afraid he would drill a hole through my face with his blank stare, so instead I looked to the restaurant. There were three or four staff milling around, so I waited for one to come towards me and I asked him if I could borrow a pen from him. He was no more affable than the first guy. He looked at me with some disdain, hesitated, then pulled a biro from his apron. As he handed it over he said “make sure you bring it back. I want it back.” I thanked him and moved off to wait for my salad. It came after about ten minutes, I grabbed it and headed outside. I didn’t give the waiter his pen back. One-all.

The salad wasn’t as good as the price-tag suggested it would be, so after I had my fill I strolled back to the pier to queue up for the ferry. As with every tourist attraction I have encountered in the states, it was a slick operation. There was a model of the island for people to look at, there was merchandise, there was a cardboard back-drop of the island (or perhaps a cell, I forget which) half way round the queue so that you could get your picture taken for collection (and payment) after you finished your tour of the island, and there were plenty of friendly and helpful staff guiding, directing and generally keeping the easily-distracted crowds in order. After queuing and keeping myself entertained (the embarrassment factor is exponentially increased by taking selfies in a party of one, by the way), I boarded the ferry and after about ten or fifteen minutes the island hove into view. I was disappointed not to see any seals anywhere, as I had heard that they had made parts of the island their home, and I was bemused as we got closer to see ‘Indians welcome’ daubed in red graffiti across the US Penitentiary sign. I found that sign to be quite evocative. I didn’t then know who had written it or why, but to me, scrawled graffiti the colour of dried blood fighting for dominance over the much more sober and authoritative ‘United States Penitentiary’ sign below felt very visceral and set my mood to ‘appropriately grim and philosophical’.

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That thoughtful tone was moulded into something altogether different once we were herded off the ferry and towards a waiting guide, who proceeded to sing the history of Alcatraz to us to the tune of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. She was a talented singer but it was so incongruous that I was unsure how to react. Most of the crowd gave her encouraging cheers and she got a decent round of applause from all of us, but I had the nagging feeling that it was all just a bit odd, as if she were auditioning to a record producer she hoped would be in the crowd one day.

What was certainly not odd, and comes highly recommended by pretty much everyone who makes this trip, is the audio tour. From the meeting point you wend your way up the hill, past the guards’ quarters (counter-intuitively many of the guards were fairly happy to live on the island back when it hosted the most dangerous criminals in America due to the high quality of the apartments and low cost of rent – so the sign said, anyway), round several bends and eventually you come to a room that looked to be the prisoners’ shower block. At the front of the queue you are given an mp3 player with a set of headphones set to your chosen language, then you set off around the interior of the prison with series of guides (ex-guards and ex-cons alike) illuminating your walk with gentle anecdotes of degradation, violence and death. It’s fascinating, as the guide will point you towards certain cells, corridors and other landmarks around the prison and fill in the details of the events – routine and otherwise – and conditions that were experienced there. It was during this tour that I took the pictured shots of the cells and window grills. Even decades after it was closed as a prison and surrounded by fellow-tourists, I felt a chill as I contemplated being locked up there, peering up at the high windows for a source of light and wondering about the world beyond. Then I found my way to the solitary confinement wing, and the atmosphere deepened. As I entered one of these cells an ex-con spoke up on the audio guide, talking about how he had done a stint in there and how to keep his sanity he used to close his eyes and explore his memories of happier times and sunnier days, reliving every precious moment. He said something to the effect that he could go anywhere and do anything in his mind, and they couldn’t take that away from him.  I remember thinking that was a very sad victory. By the time you find yourself in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison, you don’t have much else to take.

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Inside Alcatraz what struck me most was the size of the cells. They each had room for a  single bed, a toilet, a sink and a small surface that was presumably used as a writing desk. Above the bed at the back of the cell there was a shelf, and that was all. I sometimes wonder about what our descendants will look back on as the outrageous behaviours of our society, with the same abhorrence, for example, that we look back on the slave trade of West African peoples to the New World; I suspect this type of incarceration may be one of them. Not to worry though. They’ll have mastered behavioural reprogramming by then, thus rendering the moral and ethical implications of the debate obsolete.

The other thing that struck me was the cold, impersonal nature of the prison. That might sound like an odd thing to say – of course it’s impersonal, it’s a prison. But I couldn’t decide whether the effect was produced by the fine-detail of design, or desire simply to cut costs. No doubt the isolation of the island adds to – and was chosen specifically for – this feature, but the material finish on every aspect of the prison also seems ingeniously tailored to produce the effect of a place without joy or hope. From the heavy, breeze-block walls smothered in thick, off-white paint, to the stripped-back industrial aspect of the open spaces to the rough, flaked texture of the iron bars, there was a melancholy and dreary institutionalism infused into the fabric of the prison building and all its rooms.

I finished the tour on what was shaping up to be an appropriately bleak day. The cool blue skies from the morning were still in place, but there was now a strong breeze whipping  the cusps of the waves. As I looked out over the remains of the Governor’s house (burnt down during the Indian occupation) and across the bay with the dilapidated remains of the prison behind and the cold grey ocean all around, I sensed some small measure of the inner conflict that must have tormented every visitor to the island, whether convict or guard – the leaden weight of confinement, the irresistible tug of despair, the iron grit of determination and possibly, very possibly, the cool glint of triumph at having made the Rock – the most feared prison institution in the United States for so many years – their home.

 

Epilogue – the waiter’s pen turned up in my bag the other day (this is roughly a month after I kidnapped it). I’m going back to San Francisco in a few weeks, so I may try to find that waiter and give it back if I’m in the area. It depends how polite he is. Everyone knows the expression “An Englishman’s home is his castle” (which is daft really, because if it was true you’d be forever fighting the temptation to pour burning pitch over Jehovah’s Witnesses). Well, it’s archaic nonsense and it needs to be replaced. How about: “If you’re rude to one, he may or may not steal your pen and/or give it back at an indeterminate later date”. What it lacks in brevity it makes up for in veracity, I think.

US Adventure – Part 1

Long Haul, Tacos and Thai

Back in January I had a chance meeting with somebody who has since become very important in my life. I mentioned her briefly a couple of posts ago as my new ‘adventure buddy’ and left it there. But for this post to make any sense, I feel a certain amount of disclosure is necessary. Through shared interests and philosophies my adventure buddy quickly became a close friend (we’ll call her Jo), and after she enthused passionately on many occasions about where she lives, I decided I would go and check it out for myself. And that, in short, is how I ended up spending a fortnight in San Francisco.

I say a fortnight, though four days of it were spent camping in Yosemite National Park, and thinking back to that particular trip now sparks a curious flood of excitement and trepidation at the prospect of writing about it. Excitement because of the sheer magnificence of the landscape of Yosemite and the challenge that writing about it presents; trepidation because I’m not completely convinced I have the vocabulary or the skill to do it justice. Still, there’s no use reinventing the wheel; if I get stuck I may turn to John Muir for help. I’m sure he would be glad to do it.

The journey from Bangkok to San Francisco inspired in me a certain amount of unease, due to the fact that I would be flying over the Pacific Ocean. If you’ve ever looked at a globe you will be familiar with feeling particular awe at how much of the world it covers. It’s obscenely big. I’ve flown to America on four occasions previously, but always from the UK over the Atlantic, and the route you take skirts Iceland and Greenland before heading back down America’s eastern seaboard. While this may not provide any genuine security, it does provide you with psychological reassurance in that you’re never too far from land and a possible emergency landing. The Pacific, on the other hand, is basically just water all the way. Yes, there are island outposts that could provide some form of refuge, but you would have to be pretty lucky to have a problem right around the time you would be flying into range of them, and even then how many of them have a landing strip or the topography to accommodate a jumbo jet? Probably not too many. In any case, the flight passed without incident and was merely long and tedious. Three and a half hours to Taipei, another three hours waiting for the connection and a further twelve hours on to San Francisco…and in a jiffy (and a nod to Mr Dahl), I had arrived. I nearly didn’t get into the country, as the customs official I was dealt at passport control seemed convinced that once he let me in I had no intention of leaving (clearly he hadn’t been watching any of the US Republican primary election news coverage) but after several minutes of questioning, furrowed brows and raised heart rates (on my part) he graciously allowed me to pass.

Normally after a long haul flight like that all I ever want to  do is curl up and sleep no matter what time of day it is, but this time I had read an article before I left that gave advice from pilots about how to pre-empt and neutralise jetlag. So the day before I left I got up at 4am in an effort to jolt my circadian rhythm onto a parallel track, and it appeared to do the trick. I tried to sleep when it was early morning in SF and so when I arrived I had pretty much tricked my body into believing that it was early evening again, which it was. Now there’s an ironic conundrum to get your head around (Bangkok was then 15 hours ahead, now 14). Partly I had made so much effort because I didn’t want to lose several days of a two week holiday to jetlag, but also because I knew that Jo had made plans for us that night. She had invited several of her friends over for Taco night in my honour, so that when I arrived there was a reception party with balloons, flowers, beer, food, shisha (hookah) and general merriment. No sooner had we stepped over the threshold of her apartment than we were greeted with cheers and beers, and I was thrust headlong into polite conversation. Fortunately I happen to be very polite, so I negotiated that one without incident. A close friend of Jo’s has a Banh Mi business (Vietnamese sandwiches) and is a talented chef, and had made soft taco shells for the gathering along with refried beans, guacamole and fresh salsa, while another had brought round a hog’s worth of pulled pork that he had roasted himself. In short, the food and the welcome after the best part of a day sitting in departure lounges and on aeroplanes was great, and we proceeded to spend the rest of the night eating, drinking and getting to know each other a bit. Cards Against Humanity helped with the latter, particularly to get a sense of people’s humour. I found mine to be slightly…darker…than some of the others around the table. The way I see it, the ‘chunks of dead prostitute’ card is there to be used.

The next day we took a walk round part of the Land’s End trail – a trail that winds around a headland on the outskirts of SF, and I got my first taste of the environment that the city has to offer. After having adapted to a tropical climate (or not, as the case may be) I found it pretty chilly, but enjoyed wrapping up in warm clothes again. It was also great to have a sense of space again for a while. Bangkok is a 24/7 city – the main roads are always busy, there are buildings crowding around you everywhere, when you do see a tree or a patch of greenery it comes as a relief – so to be walking along a managed, city-side trail overlooking a stretch of coastline with grass, scrub and space stretching out in every direction and still basically be in San Francisco was refreshing, to put it mildly. At the end of the trail we came to an information centre that sold various souvenirs, trinkets, books, mugs and other paraphernalia you usually find at these places, and strongly conveyed a message of sustainability. This was something I found consistently throughout San Francisco and Yosemite – the area does a lot to reduce its carbon footprint and try to ensure the human and wild populations can coexist side-by-side, and it’s great to see what a positive attitude, the proper funding, management and hard work can achieve.

That evening Jo had planned for us to see some more of her friends, this time themed around Thai food and wine rather than Mexican food and beer. The two of us arrived around mid-afternoon, I was given some introductions and then we got right down to the cooking. Given that we had met at a Thai cooking course, in Thailand, it seemed like the thing to do. We made corn salad, papaya salad, massaman curry, red curry, rice, nibbles…we cooked up a storm and it went down a treat.

All of which resulted in a relatively well-lubricated conversation and the moderate lowering of inhibitions, which in turn resulted in my telling a ‘story’. You know, that dinner table thing that we seem intent upon. The problem is, dinner table conversation is just like a person’s ability at pool. A bit pedestrian to begin with, improves with a couple of drinks, hits a peak an hour or so in and then fades away rapidly with the fifth beer.

Anyway, people were taking it in turns to tell stories and somebody had told one about being in England and ending up in a police car, and the police were very friendly, and they gave her and her friend a lift home and…well, she told it better than me. But it made me think of something that had happened to me at university all those years ago, and I hadn’t said much until that point, so I thought ‘This is it Brown. This is your shot. Think of the laughter. Think of the glory. They’re gonna love you for this.’ So I went for it. But not straight away, because somebody else got in there first. And not after that either – I didn’t want to talk out of turn, that would have been rude. So I bided my time. I waited for my moment. And then BANG! Forty minutes after hearing the story that had nudged my recollection, I came-to to find myself in the spotlight, already part way through telling it.

However.

You know that moment when you’ve had a bit to drink, and you’re really eager to share whatever it is that you want to share, and you just know that it was totally relevant to the conversation and you’ve got really quite an illuminating point to make, or an outrageous punch-line coming up, and then…it’s gone. The story or the joke is there, but the point is gone. And it hits you all at once. One minute you’re riding high, the next minute you’ve got this terrible secret and all these expectant faces looking at you preparing to laugh, or gasp, or whatever, and you have to do the hardest thing possible in that particular moment. You have to keep telling the story, while simultaneously backtracking through the conversation of the last few minutes to try and work out where you’re going with it, and all the while the end of the story is getting closer, the memories you are drawing on are getting weaker and your already-shaky storytelling prowess has taken a nose dive, because the little confidence and charisma you had at the beginning of the story – driven by a commanding desire to provide meaningful insight – has all dried up, evaporated in the white hot friction of your mind as the circuits spark and sputter in frustration. Well not only that…but the anecdote that had provided the purpose for my story had long since passed, and the nugget that had inspired me to tell my story in the first place had been a fairly insignificant side note, and so had in all likelihood been immediately forgotten by the group at large anyway.

Well, I was running out of time and the magic moment wasn’t coming. You all know the magic moment as well. The moment when it comes to you in a flash of remembrance, your sails billow out again and you tack effortlessly over the line, your point made and satisfied relief washing over you. Yeah, that. Well that wasn’t coming. There would be no magic moment. There would only be rising panic, until I realised I only had one option. I would have to tell the story as a story in its own right. I would have to shed the layers of shared understanding and take the bold decision to stand alone. To be that person who politely ignores everything that has gone before, wheels the trolley of conversation around to his corner of the table, inexplicably places a sparkler on it and then pushes it noiselessly into the middle of the room, craning round to watch the reactions of his bemused audience with an irritatingly expectant air. I would have to be that person.

Or…perhaps there was another option. I could just be honest. Two thirds of the way through, I could just say ‘hmm…not really sure where I was going with this now, but sod it i’ve nearly finished. I may as well tell you the end.’ What could they do? I was a guest, had cooked them all dinner and had a funny, quaint little accent from a funny, quaint little country. They would have to be polite. They probably couldn’t understand half of what I said anyway. So that’s what I did. And you know what? In a hopelessly ironic twist, I can’t for the life of me remember their reaction at the end of the story. I take that as a good sign. Next stop…Alcatraz.

Koh Lipe

So because I was gazing that way anyway, I happened to see several large fish leaping from the water. And I mean, really leaping. They were probably about fifty feet away but even from that distance they looked like slabs and they were looping up in huge arcs, fifteen feet in the air. It was incredible really. It almost made the first half of the journey worth it. I thought about telling the Chinese kid to try and take his mind off things, but he was an intriguing shade of grey-green by then so I decided against.

As we boarded the boat, the floating dock we had just stepped from appeared to sway, then sail away. Very strange, until I realised that the dock wasn’t going anywhere – it was a boat on the other side moving slowly off that created the illusion of the dock sliding backwards. Almost immediately I felt seasick. It was a good job I had “decided” against breakfast earlier. We were boarding the mother of all speedboats – sixty feet long, four outboard engines, space for eighty people: this was a ferry designed purely for profit. Take as many people as you can, as fast as you can, as many times as you can in one day, then beat it tomorrow. I could almost hear the ringing of the till and the jangle of coins – would have, even, if it weren’t for the thrum of the idling engines and the nauseous groans emanating from a Chinese boy at the back. I tried to shush everybody while making the international sign for “Wait – can you hear that?” (you know, arms outstretched, head cocked, eyebrows raised, staring vaguely up and to the side) but then I realised I was asking people to listen for the sound of a cash register in my internal monologue so I thought better of it and sat down. Anyway, the four engines were for nought for the first half of the journey. The waves were big and the boat was just the wrong size. Too small to plough through them, too big to ride them. The skipper had to keep the engines throttled back to a polite hum while he negotiated each individual wave, when you could hear that really all they wanted to do was roar and thrash. I stared fixedly out of the back of the boat at the horizon and managed to keep my stomach juices. The poor Chinese boy didn’t fare so well, to the amusement of his family. The sea eventually calmed, the engines gleefully shredded the foam and the rest, you know.

I had been pretty keen on breakfast. The hotel did a mean fry-up, and all along the beach were restaurants and bars where we could have picked up coffee and toast, but we were herded pretty quickly into the jumble of bodies representing the homeward-bound crowd where a sticker was slapped on us and we were told not to go anywhere, so I didn’t bother in the end (and thank goodness for that). I craned my neck around to see if Digger was around somewhere, but it seemed that on my last morning he had deserted me. Perhaps he had made his way to Peru after all. Anyway, it wasn’t long before our names were called and we were herded onto a long-tail boat. It was far too overloaded with bags and people, and the Scottish guy I was squeezed up against looked a little nervous about the £800 worth of camera and lens he had strapped round his neck, but we made it onto the floating dock eventually. It was a bit wobbly. I thought I would be glad to get off it, and onto the boat – which looked fast – back to the mainland. Little did I know.

The day before (after a nap – you can’t stay up for the whole day after rising at 4am, it’s an offence against nature) I had wandered through the island to get from our windy beach to the inexplicably tranquil one on the other side, and as I did I spotted a curious sight. A dog that I had noticed a number of times previously chasing fish in the shallows was furiously digging a hole in the sand. He was doing pretty well too. I watched for five minutes, sort of hoping he would emerge with a rotting hand or large, gleaming key (you know, those big gold ones that open treasure chests), or if he would get bored, but he did none of the above in the end. He just kept digging. Eventually I decided to have a wander over to get a closer look. I picked up my newspaper and nonchalantly shuffled across, as you do, with my back to the dog. To all intents and purposes I could simply have been having a stand-up read (a Standy) of the day’s current affairs. A perfectly normal sight on a tropical beach, a Standy. Nothing to see here…except this dog digging a hole in the sand that I’m looking at. But I’m looking at him, and impressively inconspicuously I might add, so bugger off. Anyway. I then craned around behind me and peered over the dog’s shoulder (unsurprisingly he was completely unaware of my presence, due to my terrifyingly effective stealth approach) but I still couldn’t see anything. Eventually I decided to leave him to it and laid a towel down so that I could have a good sweat in the sun while I read my book in irritating discomfort, but much to my chagrin other people started to notice him – and not one of them did a Standy. In fact, they didn’t bother with stealth at all; why, they just trooped up behind him three at a time and peered into his hole, with ne’er a newspaper nor bowler hat in sight! (Did I mention my hat? You can’t pull a Standy without a fittingly unobtrusive hat. I find a nice tweed bowler hat is just the ticket to blend in on a tropical island paradise.)  He ignored them just the same. I decided he must be digging to China, because when I was growing up in England that’s where adults always told me I would end up if I kept digging the hole I was digging. Except, then I realised that he probably didn’t grow up in England, and was a dog. I looked it up and found out that the other side of the world from Thailand is off the coast of Peru. Why a Golden Labrador from a beach in Thailand wanted to dig to just off the coast of Peru, I don’t know, but he seemed to be really keen. I left him to it, and named him Digger.

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The rest of the holiday has little to report. Koh Lipe is nice – there are several beautiful beaches and two distinctly different sides to the island; the side we stayed on is home to Sunrise Beach and is constantly whipped by a strong sea breeze, while the other is utterly calm and placid. I remember I kept trying to picture the topography and work out why that would be, but couldn’t manage it. I now realise that makes for neither an interesting anecdote, nor decent material for a silly flight of fancy, but it’s staying in anyway. If you’ve read this far you’re probably not too bothered about the quality of the anecdotes. In any case, we spent most of our time on the calm side, but given that we were staying on Sunrise beach we couldn’t very well go the whole trip and not wake up to see the sun…well, rise. So we roused ourselves early – 4am might be an exaggeration, given that the sun doesn’t rise until about 6 here – and sat on the beach to watch it. At first it was merely pleasant as the sky brightened, casting a translucent glow across the gloomy smog that hunkered down on the horizon, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed. After sitting there for about forty minutes the lights were on outside and it was pretty bright, but we hadn’t seen any of the shades of natural beauty you would normally expect from the rising sun. It must be failing to penetrate that cloud. It could be another half an hour before we see it, by which time the sky would be too bright to put on much of a display. It turns out the sun is an incorrigible tease. Suddenly, beyond an island that had until then been lost in the grey mist on the edge of the sea, a compelling blush began to creep into the sky, and moment by moment the sun emerged, at first winking, then beaming into the new day. You might think that that description was a little twee, but you weren’t there man. You didn’t see what I saw. See the pictures below, and you’ll see what I mean. It really was a beautiful sunrise.

And the rest, as they say, is…well, I’m not sure what the appropriate cliche is for the beginning of a story that has been told backwards. Probably still history. The journey to the island had been no less trying than our departure, not because of the sea, rather because of the fairly casual attitude of the people running the ferry transfer to the island. You booked for 1pm you say? Well, we’ll leave at half past. It’s gone half past? That is a puzzler. Ok we’ll leave at 2. Did I say 2? I meant half past. And so on…Anyway, it was worth it in the end, as the sky that greeted us on our arrival was really quite special – that’s the featured image at the top of the page.

Anyway, I’ve probably talked enough about the islands. I’ve done more exploring since then, a touch further afield. Next stop, California…

Post-Christmas Madness

As I type with only my right hand I am trying to ignore the dull, aching pain that slowly throbs from my left. It is raised up beside me on a pillow and I can’t decide whether or not I am losing the sensation in my little finger. Maybe it will go dead. Maybe it will fall off. Maybe they will have to cut it off! Well, it’s to be expected I suppose. I have fought and vanquished The Brown Bear of Ko Samet, after all. A broken bone in the hand is a small price to pay for facing down the Reaper. But we’ll come to that later.

I returned to Bangkok on the Wednesday before the spring term started in order to give myself a chance to overcome the jet-lag that I’d suffered the first time out, back in August. Typically though, after my careful planning, I didn’t have any trouble with it and slid straight into a normal sleeping pattern (let’s not dwell too much on what that indicates about my holiday sleeping pattern). This was fortunate, because as it turned out I had a friend who was in Hong Kong at the time and wanted to visit. We sampled the ever-delicious street food, I took him to a few of my haunts, walked him round an indoor-farmers’ market (as you do) and sent him packing again, his eyes wide and mind reeling from exposure to Bangkok’s sights, sounds and smells, not to mention the experience of browsing a particularly well-organised stand of ethically sourced runner beans that combined practicality, functionality and aesthetics. In all honesty, that was probably the most impressive stand of runner-beans I have ever seen at an indoor-farmers’ market in Bangkok.

He left on the Friday of my birthday weekend, and on the Saturday I had arranged to go with some friends to an activity called Bobble Football. This is where you climb inside an inflatable zorb ball with only your legs sticking out at the bottom and charge around a football pitch trying to knock over people who are similarly attired. The instructor told us at the beginning that there were only two rules: only knock down people of your own gender, and no tackling from behind. The biggest guy in our group apparently developed selective hearing during the briefing, and as soon as it was over promptly decided to test the equipment by ploughing unashamedly into the back of one of the girls as hard as he could. This we all found highly amusing, and decided by tacit consent to ignore the rules for the remainder of the activity. It was great fun all told, though you only have to be in those things for five minutes before you’re gasping for breath and praying for a breeze. After that we went to a place called Game Over, which is a bar that houses various games from beer pong to Giant Jenga to Risk, so all in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable day, and not at all like a children’s birthday party.

Sunday was the actual day of my birthday and I went with another friend on a Thai cooking course, where we were taught the basics of Thai ingredients and made three dishes – Papaya Salad, Tom Yam soup and Massaman Curry. Lots of Thai dishes use basically the same ingredients – galangal, lime, coriander, lemongrass, sugar, coconut milk and chilli – with only a couple of minor variations, making them relatively easy to produce. Here too, I met my new adventuring partner who is half woman, half bike. She once got impaled on a rare tropical bicycle and, much like Spiderman, has had the ability to sprout wheels and ride at will ever since (not that Spiderman has that particular ability, but…you know what I mean). It’s a mixed blessing though, as it also means that if she stops suddenly with her front foot she is liable to somersault and face-plant, so it’s a bit of a cautionary tale. Something like that, anyway. I forget the details.

So after a fairly hectic Christmas schedule and a busy return to Thailand, life took a welcome foot off the accelerator for a few days as lessons started again at school, then the following weekend my new adventure buddy and I explored a district called Bang Krachao, also known as The Green Lung of Bangkok. This is an area of the city where there are strict planning laws so that no constructions can go above two stories. This means that in some ways it is like a snapshot of Bangkok in days gone by, with far less traffic, far more bikes, and the possibility of seeing some interesting wildlife. You have to get a boat across the river, and there are bikes for rent as soon as you disembark. Once you travel deeper into Bang Krachao you can come off the roads and onto the raised concrete walkways that criss-cross the klongs (small canals and streams). You have to be careful here, as these paths are only a couple of feet across and there are no rails to stop you falling into the swampy water below, but if you can navigate them successfully, before long you find yourself surrounded by jungle (this is all slap-bang in the middle of Bangkok, mind) interspersed with houses on stilts, and if you cycle slowly and quietly, you might catch a glimpse of giant catfish basking on the surface of the water. We also saw a large monitor lizard enjoying some quality time in the sun and I am reliably informed that there are snakes in the area too, though we didn’t spot these.

The following week school was out again (we had been back for a whole week, after all – nobody should have to deal with that kind of pressure) as it was residential week. I am a Year 7 (Grade 6) tutor and so accompanied their trip to an outdoor activity centre (yes, I tried all the activities; no, I didn’t let the children go first); after this I spent the weekend in a place called Krabi in the south of Thailand. This weekend was mainly defined by a three-hour round trip in a kayak across open ocean from Railay Beach to Poda Island  which we guesstimated to be about a mile or so each way, but which is actually closer to three. Somehow Bike Girl managed to fracture her arm paddling – American, you see, not made for the outdoors. On the way there I had worried that we had bitten off more than we could chew, as the beach at Poda  didn’t seem to be getting any closer and the waves felt as though they were sucking us back faster than we could paddle. Eventually though, we made it, and beautiful it was too. The scenery in this region of the world is immense – limestone towers burst from the ocean, their cliffs fringed with palm trees anchored into cracks in the rocks. After pottering around for a while and taking some pictures, we headed back. On the return journey I was initially more confident given that we had made it to the island without mishap, but once we got to open ocean again and passed within three feet of an enormous and very dangerous looking jellyfish (we reckon it was a Pacific Nettle jelly, though this was difficult to confirm), I became slightly nervous once more. We also saw a school of tiny fish jumping out of the water ahead of us, and I had visions of a giant whale surfacing under the boat  – because of course, tiny fish only ever jump when being pursued by giant whales. Fortunately I am very brave, as you can no doubt tell, and so against all the odds I captained our plucky vessel to safety.

The weekend after that – last weekend – a group of us went to Ko Samet (again – because if you have the opportunity to be on a tropical island four hours after you have finished work for the weekend, you should always take it). This time I hired a moped, after having developed a taste for them in Krabi. It’s just so much easier, not to mention more fun, exploring places on the back of a moped and on an island like Ko Samet there’s virtually no traffic – there’s loads of traffic in Krabi, which is why I didn’t mention it; wouldn’t want the folks at home to worry, you see – so it’s the best way to get around. It also opens up so much more of the island; having a bike meant I could get away from the noisy, busy tourist beach on the west side of the island and explore some of the quieter beaches on the east. There was one in particular that I enjoyed, found by driving around the coast road – in fact the only road – for fifteen minutes (it would probably take less than an hour to get all the way round Ko Samet, so that’s a relatively good distance) and following a dirt track down a hill. The beach itself was only about twenty feet wide and was fringed with rocks angling in from the sea on both sides, which created a funnel for the waves so that they got much bigger than when they lapped onto the placid shores of the longer, more featureless beaches. And it was in the sea here, playing catch with a large foam ball, that I managed to break my fifth metacarpal – the bone in your hand that leads to your little finger. The ball bounced sharply of the swell and pinged into the tip of my finger – quite how this broke a bone further up, I’m not sure, but my friends at school have enjoyed much mirth at my expense (‘are you made of glass?’ and ‘sponge ball zone: beware’ etc) in discussing the topic. The guy that threw the ball said he had heard it crack (I thought I had, and told him so, but he was twenty feet away across the water so when he didn’t really respond, I dropped it) but he wanted to get back on the bikes and keep exploring further up the island so didn’t want to make a big deal of it. Apparently he didn’t think I would notice the blooming pain in my hand as the frayed edges of bone scraped gleefully against each other every time I reflexively clenched it – zipping up a bag or picking up a bottle, for example.

In any case, I couldn’t go around telling the students that I had broken my hand because I lacked coordination, so I told them instead that I had fought with the only recently discovered, now dead, Brown Bear of Ko Samet. After it mauled my left hand I flew into a rage, jumped on its back and broke its neck, leaving its lifeless body on the sand to be taken by the tides, thus completing the circle of life (because brown bears are born at sea). I said all of this very seriously, with much gravity, and it might be said that children of this age have been known to be uncommonly gullible, so of course they believed me completely.

Due to this unwelcome injury I was struggling somewhat with my cast when I began typing this post a couple of days ago. As I said, I was losing feeling and in fact I was getting shooting pains up and down my left arm. A quick search on Google told me that this probably the last thing you want to happen, so I went back to the hospital to have it seen to. The doctor told me the cast was too tight, and his solution to this was to put a new one on, but this time wrap it even more tightly like some bizarre, homeopathic remedy. I’m not quite sure how this helped, but it did, so kudos to him.

And that is just about all of the post-Christmas madness that I have to relate. Lessons are back in full flow and the calendar has calmed down enough for me to catch a breath, sit down and write this. But not to worry, half-term is just around the corner. Next stop: Koh Lipe.

Sawadee-kap!

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Elephant Nature Park

Elephant Nature Park currently houses 65 elephants, 450 dogs, a herd of buffalo, a pig, a monkey and a handful of cats. When you arrive it is all there in front of you – the huge, open air space where the elephants spend much of their day roaming and eating. After the first video introduction to the park on the bus, where Tom Oliver (Lou, from Neighbours – that was surreal. He’s much like his TV persona but distorts his face less, which is pleasing) warns you against pulling their tails and the like, you get a chance to sit at the tables on the main decking area, where you can look out over the park and the river and take it all in. The view that greets you is several acres of grassy plain dotted with trees, various elephant shelters and sleeping areas, large pens for the two fractious bull elephants and mud pits for the water buffalo. Within it stand, roam and frolic small herds of elephants that were once complete strangers to each other, but which have formed close-knit groups since their arrival at the park. Elephants are very social creatures, and apart from the odd loner and pair, they have all created their own families in the absence of blood relations. In and around the elephants and the decking area, the more sociable, friendly dogs and cats wander freely, while in the background the kennels ring with the sound of several hundred further dogs barking.

There are many business concerns around Thailand that call themselves ‘sanctuaries’, and since my visit to Elephant Nature Park, more than one friend who has been here longer than me has raised their eyebrow at the idea that this is anything more than another deceptive money making outfit. And their concerns are valid – there are a lot of them out there. So at this point, let me explain a bit more about the founder of the park, and what she is trying to do.

Elephant Nature Park was founded by a woman called Lek Chailert in 2005, after the closure of her first sanctuary, Elephant Haven Nature Park, due to lack of space. Her super-herd of 65 has grown from humble beginnings – one at a time, she heard of elephants in dire need of rescue and over the past twenty years has driven all over Thailand, night and day and often at the drop of a hat, to find them, buy them and return them to her refuge.

Lek grew up in a Karen hill tribe in northern Thailand and was close to elephants from an early age. Since devoting her life to the mistreated domestic elephant population of Thailand, her sanctuary has been the subject of documentaries made by the BBC, Animal Planet, Discovery and National Geographic; she has been received at the Whitehouse Hilary Clinton as a Woman Hero of Global Conservation and she was named as one of Time Magazine’s Hero’s of Asia in 2005. Clearly, whatever she has been doing up there in the mountainous northern regions of Thailand for the last decade or so has been something special, but you have to go and experience it to get a true understanding of what she has achieved, and why she has bothered.

Possibly there are other parks around Thailand that are genuinely in the business of providing rest and sanctuary to cruelly treated elephants, but I haven’t yet come across another one that I would feel comfortable handing my money over to. I have come across many that were clearly hiding something in their approach to providing a personal experience with Thailand’s national animal. Some of them are subtle – their websites talk about giving a haven to rescued elephants, and that visitors will get to feed and bathe them – and there is little to suggest that the animals may be mistreated. But one warning sign is always evident, as it is their most attractive lure and they are keen to advertise it – the promise of riding on the back of an elephant through the jungle (there are a number of reasons why this is cruel and unpleasant for the elephants, which I’ll get to shortly). Some are less subtle, in that they show videos of elephants performing for audiences – dancing in synchronism, painting, standing on two legs, and so on. Elephant Nature Park’s website stresses that you will not get to ride the elephants and you won’t get to see them perform; what you will get to do is give them the occasional banana, throw a few buckets of water over them, and simply watch them being elephants.

One of the first things I did was walk around to see the view of the river, and I was rewarded with the sight of a mother and baby entering the water and playing with each other for several minutes.

Then at feeding time, various groups of elephants are brought to the decking area so that the tourists can feed them chopped up water melons, pumpkins, bananas and other assorted fruit and veg – though this contact, like much of the contact between the tourists and the elephants, is artificial. The real joy comes from seeing their freedom to socialise with other, to wander with impunity and to see the relationships that they have formed with their mahouts (keepers) at the park. There is clearly mutual respect and affection borne from trust on both sides – but as a tourist, don’t expect them to look you in the eye and fall for your well-meaning charm. As our guide kept telling us – “No food, no friend”. Which is fair enough. My affection for my parents arises largely from their agreeable disposition towards my raiding the fridge every time I go home to visit.

By this point, you are no doubt asking why this park needs to exist at all. What is the problem so severe that businesses would label themselves as ‘sanctuaries’ and ‘reserves’, whether they are or not? Well, the problem is unfortunately deeply ingrained in the contradiction that is Thai culture. As this applies to elephants, it is on the one hand a country and culture that reveres them, depicts them as guardians and friends, even deifies them; and on the other, one that ignores the disdainful practice of using them as tools to make money, with little or no respect for their welfare.

The first, key problem, and the one that underlies all the others, is the treatment of elephants by many of their traditional mahouts. The elephants of the park take time to trust their keepers due to the way they have been treated by humans before they arrived, and even then they can be skittish. A week before my visit one keeper was hospitalised with broken bones after an unfriendly interaction with an animal that he tried to get too close to, too soon.

Elephants have a very long period of gestation and, like humans, a strong attachment to their families. Elephant young will be totally dependent on their mother and the herd for several years, and if they are female they will stay with the herd for life. Males will stick around and learn all they can, both in terms of survival and socialisation, until puberty at around twelve years. There are around two and a half thousand domestic elephants in Thailand, but they are all born wild. In order to accept commands from a human, or receive a rider on their backs, they have to go through a process of domestication. And it is this process that is the root of all the mistreatment and cruelty that captive elephants in Thailand experience. It is called the Pajan – the ‘Spirit Breaking Ceremony’, and it is the method by which all of Thailand’s domesticated elephant population has been tamed, whether born wild or in captivity.

Elephants born in captivity in Thailand will be taken away from their mothers much younger than the age of maturity – those that are captured in the wild have to be torn away from their mothers very young, or they would be that much more difficult to take – so before the process even begins they are undergoing enormous mental stress and anguish. Once taken, they are imprisoned in a triangular wooden cage with the point at the head-end, and roped by their neck and legs so that they cannot move. They are then stabbed, gouged and beaten with hooks, spikes and clubs in all the most sensitive areas of their body – their feet, their eyes, their temples, the soft folds on the backs of their legs – for days and days at a time, incessantly, until they stop resisting and submit to the will of their keepers. To reiterate – it isn’t just a small number of elephants that go through this, who are unfortunate enough to have been captured by the wrong tribe. ALL elephants across Thailand and much of south-east Asia that are domesticated and are used by trekking companies, have been through this.

Describing the practice in only a few sentences doesn’t really do justice to watching it happen though. A few years ago a pair of American documentary film makers joined Lek to make a program about her and the work that she does, and they went along on a rescue. While Lek was negotiating for the elephant she had gone to rescue, the locals were in the process of breaking another; they filmed the whole thing and at the park they show the video to volunteers to illustrate the problem. All they could do was watch, and document. If you haven’t heard of this practice before, search for it on Youtube. Be warned: it is not easy to watch, but you should anyway (if you do, look closely – those aren’t just bamboo poles; they have two inch nails sticking out of the end).

It’s genuinely horrifying to see the pain and suffering of the elephant as it is trapped, held still and tortured by several people at a time, for days on end. Females tend to submit before males, but it takes several days even for the females to break. They are confused, terrified and in agony throughout. Once the mahouts are confident that the animal is becoming subdued, they release it from the cage but continue to keep it tied. They then allow it to walk, and every time it makes a move they haven’t allowed, it receives the same treatment – stabbing, thrown stones, arrows, tripping using the ropes. To see an animal, any animal, mobbed, tormented and persecuted so that it is literally on its knees, bleeding from deep punctures and lacerations all over its body, and crying for its family, is a harrowing experience. That is why elephant riding is cruel, and why you shouldn’t do it when you visit Thailand. But it’s not the only reason.

As we were trekking around the park on my first day and meeting some of the small herds, our guide pointed out the spines of some of the elephants. You could tell the ones that had been rescued from tourist trekking companies, she said, because their backs were flatter. And when you notice it in one, you can’t help but see it in many of the others. Asian elephants naturally have a rounded hump on their back. When they are ridden, they are often given a large, heavy trestle to carry, upon which the rider sits. Over time, this weight flattens out the elephant’s spine and causes constant pain in its hips, shoulders and legs. But even those that aren’t made to wear the trestle (trekking companies are quick to catch on, and realise that most of their customers probably don’t approve) are still made to trek for up to twelve hours a day with riders on their backs. Elephants need to graze for about eighteen hours a day, simply to sustain their huge bulk. Those that work for trekking companies do not have the freedom to graze throughout their working hours. They may be given the odd banana or melon, but this is little compensation for their need to consume up to three hundred pounds of nutrient rich fruit and vegetable matter. At the end of the day they are tied up so that they cannot forage (though even if they could, many wouldn’t know how to – they haven’t been taught by their herd), and when they are fed it is often with nutrient-poor grasses and leaves which are easier to obtain and do not provide the variation of diet an elephant needs to stay healthy. Over time they become exhausted, their immune systems are lowered, illness and infections can set in and yet they are urged on to ever greater efforts. And if they refuse? They get the stick, the hook, the ropes…all the tools that they have such fond memories of from their youth. Not in front of the tourists, of course. So don’t be fooled by the trekking companies that call themselves elephant friendly. By definition – if you have any desire to see them living healthily and with even a small amount of freedom – there can be no such thing. And anyway, you don’t need to dig very deep on Trip Advisor to find reviews telling of mahouts that stabbed and sliced elephants even while on the trek to get the them to go faster.

So some of the elephants Lek rescues are those from the trekking companies, while others are from the companies that unashamedly run elephant shows (the practices used to get elephants to do tricks are much the same as those used to break them in the first place), and yet more are found begging on the streets of Bangkok – babies and young usually, because they are cuter, easier to handle and less of a risk. It’s worth remembering at this point, that elephants’ feet are incredibly sensitive – they have evolved to pick up the low rumbling of other elephants’ calls (which, by the way, are unbelievably loud in real life), water sources and no doubt a number of other important signals from miles away, so we can only wonder at what it must feel like for a baby elephant to be surrounded by the thundering of traffic and the thumping bass of bars, not to mention the racket made by thousands of passers-by.

Having said all this, it’s difficult to blame traditional Thai people like the Karen. The hill tribes in northern Thailand are poor. As with numerous other traditional cultures around the world, they have been left behind by capitalist expansion and globalisation, and therefore have been unable to benefit from it. As such, because they live in a much more natural environment than privileged, rich westerners, they have to gain their incomes and livelihood from its resources. Key amongst those are elephants. They have been domesticated and used as powerful beasts of burden for thousands of years, and the traditional populations of Thailand are totally dependent on them to make money and survive in a modern economy.

Until 1989, their primary source of income using elephants was logging. Then the Thai government realised that logging was a bad idea for a number of reasons, chief amongst which was that it was causing huge amounts of damage and increased flooding from typhoons due to the higher rate of soil erosion. They banned it, which was good for the forests, but bad for the elephants. Now they were out of a job. But fortunately, Thailand’s tourist industry was booming and they found a great alternative in providing jungle treks for enthusiastic westerners. But if the trekking is bad for elephants, the logging was arguably worse.

Take Jokia for example, a rescued elephant who was once employed in logging. These elephants were made to drag logs from the forest where they had been cut down, to a dumping area, from where they would be transported for processing. Often, logging elephants were given amphetamines (yes, really) to make them work longer and harder than they could naturally. They were also made to work through pregnancy. Jokia was giving birth to her baby even as she was being exhorted to still greater effort. The baby died rolling down the hill that Jokia was being forced to climb. She mourned for it, stayed by it, and refused to work any longer. To encourage her to get back to work, her mahout used a slingshot and bow to launch stones and arrows at her eye, and blinded her. Grieving, she still refused to move. So her mahout moved on to the other eye. She was eventually rescued and is now at the park, but not before she was made blind in both eyes, and only because taking the money from the sale of a blind elephant that won’t work is better than having to dispose of one. Another elephant that joined since her arrival has formed a close bond with her, and looks after her.

A number of other elephants I saw at the park had horrific injuries. One had a broken front leg, another logging-related accident; it’s not hard to imagine how it could happen – elephants are sure-footed and suited to the jungle, but those that have been given a form of MDMA for days on end, walking on slippery terrain while dragging a load of several hundred pounds behind them are bound to meet with trouble sooner or later. It had never been treated or set properly, and so stuck out at a forty degree angle from the knee. Others had broken hips. Some had even more grisly injuries – I saw at least two that were missing half a foot caused by stepping on land-mines placed at the border with Laos to deter drug traffickers (see the image below – the girl on the right, her back-right foot). These animals have to take 60 pills, four times a day to stave off infection and reduce pain. As you watch them you can see them trying to keep the weight off. The wounds are still open and weeping years after they were first caused.

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Still other elephants had less obvious, but equally deep wounds, but to their minds rather than their bodies. As we had breakfast on the second morning, we looked out across the park and saw one on the other side of it, rocking from side to side: the tell-tale sign of an elephant that has been caged in isolation, without any natural stimulus for many years, denied any other contact with elephants, and has developed a behavioural and mental disorder because of it (think Shawshank Redemption – the other inmates express disbelief when Warden Norton casually sentences Dufresne to a month in the hole. Imagine a year, or several).

Now all this isn’t to say that every elephant park in Thailand other than Lek’s is bad, or that every Thai treats elephants cruelly. Of course not. There are many Thais out there that understand the situation, respect their natural heritage and would wish things to change. But the political and economic climate in the country is such that, in general terms, the welfare of the animals really isn’t a serious concern, so parks like Lek’s are the exception rather than the rule. And of course the needs of the human population must be balanced. People have to survive. But there needs to be education of the people working within the various elephant industries that highlights the alternatives, and of tourists about what exactly they are handing over money for. People will pay to see elephants in a natural setting simply for the enjoyment of being close to them, and this doesn’t mean money has to be funnelled away from the people who benefit now. They can be part of it.

This is the way Elephant Nature Park is run – as an eco-tourism alternative to the norm that rescues creatures from their hopeless, brutal lives. The park takes elephants out of the tourist trade, but it gives back to the local Karen so that they can survive without. As well selling volunteer places to tourists to work with the elephants and the dogs for seven days, the park also sells a program to volunteer to work in the local community, helping to educate the people in language and skills that they can use to earn money in ways that don’t rely on elephants. The park also sells goods that the Karen makes in their site shop, the proceeds from which again go back into the community. But it’s a tough commercial environment. Many local and national groups want the park shut down; they are afraid that its work and its message will not only take money away from people who need their elephants to make a living, but also that the very ideas it is trying to nurture and spread will undermine their entire industry. So Lek, this diminutive Thai lady from a small, remote tribe in northern Thailand, faces a tough uphill battle to win over her detractors and keep the park running. But if more tourists shun the trekking companies, touts and elephant shows, spread a message of sustainable tourism and join with willing Thais in taking a collective responsibility for the welfare of Thai elephants, hopefully she will get there – one elephant at a time.

http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/

Chiang Mai

Eight weeks into term, and life was getting tough. Anxiety, sleeplessness, lethargy…all symptoms of a typical teacher complaint – overwork. No, no – don’t close the tab. I know, we all work hard. But listen. You have worked for eight weeks without a holiday. Eight WHOLE weeks. And before those eight weeks, rather than the usual six to ten week break rightfully bestowed upon you as a servant of the future of our planet, you only had three weeks off. Just imagine that! Three weeks off, eight weeks on! Yes, you balk at the very thought of it. Yet that is the situation I found myself in not a fortnight ago. Luckily, a reprieve was close at hand. Time for half term. Heh.

And half term in a place like Bangkok is some prospect. Should you visit one of the tropical islands dotted all over the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea? Check in to Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malasia or Myanmar and see what these countries on your doorstep have to offer? Stretch the airmiles a bit and explore Indonesia or the Philippines? And if none of those tickle your fancy, then South Korea, Japan, China, Papua New Guinea, Australia, India and Nepal are all within striking distance (it doesn’t matter where you are on the planet, New Zealand is always still on the other side of it).

Well, any of those options would have been great. Wonderful, amazing, inspiring, even. But they all neglect the fact that Thailand itself has so much to offer, and one thing in particular that I have been eager to experience for many years now: seeing elephants, up close and personal.

So a couple of weeks ago at the very first opportunity I got, I travelled to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand to see elephants at a rescue sanctuary called Elephant Nature Park – as well as a few other things. Now it might seem odd to introduce a blog post on a particular topic, and then ignore that topic completely, but that is exactly what I’m about to do – the reason being, that the stories and information surrounding Elephant Nature Park are variously shocking, confusing, sad, and inspiring, and I want to do it justice. To that end, I’ll devote a separate post to it, to follow this one, and focus on my other adventures in the north of Thailand here.

It is a short hop in the air or a long ride over ground to get to Chiang Mai, so in order to make the most of the time I had I opted for burning maximum fossil fuels and booked onto a plane which took an hour, rather than driving for eight by road. This choice might seem at odds with my eco-friendly perspective on the yet-to-be-narrated elephant tragedy, but you have to pick your battles. I figure taking a plane for an hour is probably about the same in pollution as driving for eight anyway, and no doubt there is some pseudo-science pedalling, climate-change denying outfit out there somewhere who will back me up on that.

Given the fact that I was travelling alone, avid readers of this blog (don’t laugh, there is definitely one – I read it all the time) will be pleased to note that I wasn’t late for anything or trying to catch up with anyone, and so managed to forego the otherwise inevitable hangover. Instead I spent a leisurely period in the afternoon strolling and getting my bearings. When dusk settled in, the Saturday Night Market exploded into existence, thronging the streets with swarms of shoppers, tourists and merchants to such an extent that it felt like I was part of a football crowd heading to a match. I soon found I was being slowly and inexorably propelled on a tide of humanity with no control over my destination. Eventually I got spat out into an eddy in the current, a small cul-de-sac that seemed to have largely escaped attention and so was relatively pleasant to potter around. I spent an hour browsing some of the stalls and having a bite to eat before braving the flow again, and heading back to my hotel.

Saturday Night Market in Chiang Mai - before it gets busy
Saturday Night Market in Chiang Mai – before it gets busy.

I didn’t have anything planned for the next day, but as I had been eating at the market that evening I had been toying with the idea of a bike ride. You can rent cars, mopeds and push-bikes all over Chiang Mai, and while a moped would probably have been more fun and convenient, I bowed to my conscience (it turns out that aeroplanes are horrendously polluting – who knew?!) and went for the environmental option. I had decided to try and cycle the 11 mile road up the mountain to Wat Doi Suthep (‘wat’ means temple, or temple complex), instead of catching a ride in one of the city’s famous red taxis (more like a cross between a taxi and a bus – they’ll take you wherever you want to go, as long as that’s where they were already going). Unfortunately the bike rental place (Cacti Bicycles) was closed when I got there as it was the owner’s birthday and he had decided to take the day off, but he very kindly agreed to open just for me. It cost a fortune compared to some of the other places that I saw afterwards – and especially compared to the cost of renting a moped, which jarred with my already confused and ailing environmental sensitivities – but the bikes were in great condition and he serviced the one he rented to me as I was standing there, so I didn’t mind. And anyway, given the state of my fitness I needed the bike to add as much as possible to this daring partnership, so I was willing to pay the cost.

So there I was. Just me, the bike, two bottles of water and a bashful sense of optimism. The water and the bike made it to the top of the mountain. Just. The optimism rapidly shrank from bashful to reluctant, fell into the spokes of the front wheel and lay broken and sobbing at the side of the road about twenty yards into the first incline.

As I slowly and torturously made my way, several amateur cyclists passed me coming down. Their skin-tight, aerodynamic lycra, bulging quads and lackadaisical high-speed freewheeling  contrasted sharply with the belly-fat roll bulging over my khaki shorts (I had long since stripped off my shirt), screaming leg muscles and agonisingly slow progress, as I pushed vainly at the pedals in the highest gear I could find. After what felt like several miles I took a break at a viewing point and noticed an unfortunate wet patch had started to develop at my crotch, resulting from the sweat pouring down my body and into the fabric of my shorts. Although in retrospect, maybe I had actually just wet myself – people can go into a fugue state when suffering extreme mental and physical anguish, and all sorts can happen that they’re not aware of. Probably. All I knew was how far there was to go, and how much it hurt. But in a way, after the first stint it got…well, not easier, but less mentally draining. I got into a rhythm and several breaks, an hour and a half and a particularly unpleasant final mile later, I found myself at the top. I bought two cans of Sprite and sat for a long time contemplating my existence, still shirtless and with sodden shorts, much to the bemusement of the refreshment stall-owner.

Wat Doi Suthep is a sacred site, chosen by a white elephant who was given a magical relic to carry around. It was said that where the elephant stopped would be holy, and that place would be where the artefact would be buried, and a temple built. The elephant duly walked around a bit, circled the ground three times, trumpeted loudly, and promptly fell dead. While the temple complex we now know as Wat Doi Suthep was originally founded in 1383, there have been many additions over the centuries. No doubt wise old father Internet can tell you more, should you so desire.

Frustratingly, as I wandered around the temple it started to rain, which meant that I couldn’t emulate my carefree amateur counterparts of earlier on my way back down the mountain. So while I should have been enjoying the beautiful architecture, impressive views, enormous gong and rows of heavy bronze bells, traditionally used as a type of PA announcement, I was unduly distracted by the cheating trickery of fate. Regardless, I was still able to get down at a fair old lick without touching a peddle, and I tried not to let my smugness show as I passed other cyclists making their arduous way to the top. But probably not very hard.

Bronze bells used in the temples to make announcements
Bronze bells used in the temples to make announcements.
Big gong. And yes, you are allowed to hit it. It makes a sound like a really big gong being hit.
Big gong. And yes, you are allowed to hit it. It makes a sound like a really big gong being hit.
My first view of Wat Doi Suthep, as the skies closed in
My first view of Wat Doi Suthep, as the skies closed in.

The next day I had a white water rafting trip planned on the Mae Taeng river with a company called 8 Adventures. They picked me up from the hotel, we drove for about an hour to the national park area north of Chiang Mai where a lot of the activities and excursions sold in the city take place, they provided lunch and then we went out on the river. There were nine of us in total – three tourists and six guides. Why they felt they needed to outnumber us two to one I’m not quite sure. Maybe we looked fragile, or somehow unsuited to adventure. Well don’t let my pasty white legs fool you. I’m like a no frills Bear Grylls. Bear Frills is what my fishing buddies back home call me, and I like to imagine that’s the reason why.

The rafting was fun – there was the occasional decent white-water section which we had to negotiate carefully, and a couple of steep five or six foot drops, but in general the water level was down – as the rainy season hasn’t done much in that region of Thailand this year, apparently – so there was more pleasant drifting than white knuckle adventure. But the guides were great fun – they liked to entertain themselves by sneaking up on our boat, heaving great sheets of water over us and retreating, chuckling to themselves. More helpfully, they let us switch up the vessels we used on the safer parts of the river (between us we had one big raft, two small rafts and two kayaks). Predictably, when I got the chance to go in the single-person raft and tried to make my way through a phase of rapids alone I ended up in the drink, pinned to a rock and desperately clinging to both the raft and my paddle.  The guides and my fellow tourists found this highly amusing. An added bonus of the rafting was the environment itself. Steep, mountainous tracts of jungle leapt over the horizon ahead and behind, while birds skimmed the water for insects, bright yellow butterflies fluttered in small colonies over silty riverbanks, and every now and then we saw elephants grazing at the water’s edge as we drifted silently by.

An elephant grazes at the river bank as we float by
An elephant grazes at the river bank as we float by.
The boat buckles through a stretch of rapids
The boat buckles through a stretch of rapids.

The next two days were taken up by the Elephant Nature Park and after that I only had one full day left, which I spent wandering, browsing, relaxing in a park (at which some builders appeared to be pumping all the water from the big central water feature into a muddy pit, thereby leaving the fish dead and dying in too-little water, but they seemed to be fairly happy with their progress, so I left them to it), eating pizza and drinking wine, which I think is a fairly successful way to finish any holiday. I did also have a chance to look around Wat Chedi Luang, which is the iconic temple you see in all the pictures of Chiang Mai (and is the cover picture of this post), and was particularly impressed this time not only with the external features and architecture – which is always magnificent in its splendour – but also with a mural painted on the inside of one of the minor buildings. It appeared to be either a small temple or a large shrine, but either way the painting spanned all four walls and told the story of the local people in centuries gone by, showing images of war, peace, life, death and celebration. Watching that paint dry would have been a privilege – I honestly spent three quarters of an hour looking at a wall.

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And that, as they say, was that. Shortly after that I headed back to Bangkok, caught a cold and had the first Monday back off school…well, I was facing ANOTHER eight weeks of full time work without a holiday. It was almost too much to contemplate.

Stay tuned for the Elephant Nature Park.

Satwadee-krap!

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Settling In

“Can I borrow a hammer please?” I asked.

“What for?”

“I want to put some pictures and a mirror up in my flat, and I need a hammer to drive the nails in.”

‘Drive’ was a mistake. The nice lady from the condo utility office looked at me suspiciously. I’d been speaking too quickly and she’d only picked out that one word. A thought bubble materialised above her head, and in it I was driving around the streets of Bangkok with my head out of the window, tongue lolling, brandishing a hammer . I tried again, this time employing my decidedly lacking mime skills. We achieved comprehension, if not acquiescence.

“Walls are too hard. Hammer no good.” As if to mock me both for my shoddy mime and my idiocy, she did a creditable imitation of an electric drill, with sound effects. Three or four workmen lounged on the sofa that hugged one wall of the office, looking on with indifference. “You pay 300 Baht and these men drill your holes.”

Having just felt the sting, at that time, of relocating to another country, paying 2 months’ deposit and a month’s rent in advance and kitting out my flat with furniture, I stuck to my guns.

“I’d like to give it a go with a hammer, if that’s alright?”

She spoke to one of the workmen, who fished one out of his toolbox. Downcast eyes, open smirk.

In the circumstances, I think I managed quite well. The circumstances being that, yes, she knew better than I, and the walls were in fact made from the material at the heart of a neutron star. That’s what it felt like anyway. I managed to put two picture hooks up quite successfully in one wall, but an hour and several bent nails later, having predictably achieved little other than to make a mess of the next one, I conceded defeat and headed back to the utility office.

“Um…you were right. The wall’s too hard. Could you get the men to drill it for me please?”

They did, and my mirror, picture frames and canvas picture went up in short order. Three weeks later, all the picture frames are full, apart from those that I put up myself with the hammer in the first place. That’s because those frames are orientated in the portrait position, and I only found out after developing a selection of snaps from the past five or so years of my life, that only two are portrait. The rest are all  landscape. I can’t bring myself to go back down to the office again.

Moving on. In my second month here I have begun learning very basic Thai. My first lesson involved learning a series of homonyms, and while in English we distinguish the meaning of these through context (compare ‘Up the ante’ with ‘I’m visiting my Aunty’ – though that’s possibly a bad example for a couple of reasons; bark and bark, bank and bank, and there/their/they’re are all alternatives) Thai is of course a tonal language, so the words I was learning were not homonyms at all but completely distinct words, depending on the tone used. There are five tones in Thai: low, mid, high, rising and falling (I’ll indicate these in brackets after the word). So in my first lesson I learnt the words for no, new and the word added to a statement to indicate that it’s a question – mai (F), mai (L) and mai (R) respectively. I also learnt he, knee and to enter: khao (R), khao (L) and khao (F); white, news, and rice: khaao (R), khaao (L) and khaao (F); and near, far, and chicken: glai (F), glai (M) and glai (L).  I then learnt some basic sentences, some more useful than others, like ‘Is it near?’, ‘is it far?’ and ‘No, it’s not a new knee’. Though I have begun to creak in recent months, so I’ll keep that one in reserve.

And being a tonal language you’ve obviously got to be quite careful. You could think you’re asking a taxi driver if something is near, when in fact you’re asking if it’s far away, or if it’s a chicken.

And apart from the tone issues, there are some words that sound very similar and have the same tone – so ‘hiw’ (pronounced he-ooh with a rising intonation) for example, can mean either ‘hungry’ or ‘thirsty’ depending on what it’s followed by, while ‘haawy’ (pronounced not dissimilarly and also with a rising intonation) means ‘vagina’. The fact that following my lesson and upon deciding to try out some of my new Thai, I told a waitress that I was thirsty for water and received an aggrieved and disapproving look suggests that my pronunciation isn’t quite up to scratch yet. That, or she really doesn’t appreciate the basic principles of waitressing.

The weekend after my confusing foray into learning Thai I went with some friends to a place called Chatuchak Market, an enormous outdoor market that sells a huge variety of items. We did make a bit of a mistake of going in the blazing heat of the day, so by the time lunchtime rolled around there were definitely some slightly grumpy campers amongst us, but apart from that we had a very pleasurable stroll around browsing clothes, trainers, furniture, plants and various knick-knacks to take home.

In other news I spent another very enjoyable day fishing at a place called Bungsamran Fishing Complex, not far outside of Bangkok. The place is stocked to boiling with Mekong Giant Catfish, Giant Siamese Carp and Arapaima – actually native to South America but introduced to Thailand apparently for sport fishing, the ethics of which I’m not really on board with, but then I attempt to haul fish out of their natural habitat by impaling them through the cheek, if they’re lucky, on a very sharp, barbed piece of steel, so I don’t feel in a particularly strong position to have that debate too vocally – as well as a host of other smaller species. All day there were huge fish being hauled out left, right and centre. Even the smallest catfish coming out were several degrees bigger than anything I had ever caught before. My jaw dropped every time I saw a new one landed. Though unfortunately I didn’t actually catch any of these fish myself, as I have developed the unwelcome knack of blanking at virtually every fishing venue I’ve been to for the last couple of years, and to be fair our party comprised of eight with only three fishermen amongst us, so there was quite a lot a lot of noise. And beer. And music. Still, there’s always next time, and it was an excellent day out nonetheless.

More recently, I went on my first trip with some friends to one of Thailand’s famed tropical islands, Ko Samet (or Ko Samed) in the Gulf of Thailand. This is another charmed aspect of my current existence – school finishes at 2.30pm on a Friday, and if you make decent time, by five you can be sitting on a pure white beach sipping coconut juice from an actual coconut and scooping gloriously suggestive jellied flesh from its interior as you watch the sun slip over the horizon, casting brilliant, radiant hues of pink and orange onto the clouds from below. If you don’t make decent time, like we didn’t, you miss all that and turn up around eightish a bit flustered and eager to catch up with the advanced party, drink too much too quickly and end up having an early night (if you read the first post of this blog you will see a pattern developing here, but take no heed. I never have.). Though in my defence, ‘early’ in this context is 1am, so I won’t feel too embarrassed.

Closer to home, one of my favourite pastimes since moving here has been to use the pool on the roof of my condo after work, swimming a few lengths in the evening twilight. It’s extremely relaxing, particularly when I have it to myself and I can hear the traffic thrumming away below as the city lights dance and shimmer all the way to the horizon in the lazy, humid Bangkok air. I haven’t ever done any serious swimming before – not that this necessarily counts, but it’s regular and disciplined, so more serious than childhood frolicking – so training myself to do the front crawl properly, with correct breathing, was fairly torturous at first, but I’m getting better and it’s doing the world of good for my fitness. I tend to finish off with ten minutes of stretching, standing on a concrete plinth overlooking the Skytrain and Sukhumvit immediately below, and a series of residential streets and office buildings stretching into the distance. There’s one particular neighbourhood I keep meaning to explore – it’s only five minutes across the road from where I live, but it looks like something out of a bygone era, comprised of the kind of grand colonial houses you’d expect to find on Caribbean sugar plantations in the 18th Century. It’s probably somebody’s embassy and I’ll be shot for a spy. Though if they saw video of me stretching awkwardly on my plinth and compared it to Daniel Craig emerging Adonis-like from the sea as James Bond in Casino Royale, they might think twice.

Finally, all that’s really left to talk about is the torrential rain. The rainy season came late this year, but appears to be making up for its own tardiness. A couple of weeks ago it rained pretty much solidly for about twenty-four hours between Wednesday and Thursday, stopped for a bit, then weighed back in with gusto for another solid twelve hours on Friday night through to Saturday morning. And when it rains here, it really rains. Coming back from the fishing trip in the taxi it was absolutely pelting down, and in just the three or four metre-dash between getting out of the taxi and getting under the cover of my condo entrance I got thoroughly drenched. The weather in Ko Samet was beautiful, but sure enough as we got closer to Bangkok on the journey home we saw the dark skies looming ominously and, before long, unleashing on our shuttle bus. This time it didn’t stay heavy for long, but instead contended itself with producing a persistent shower. It was raining the next morning when I got up for work, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been drizzling petulantly throughout the night. So whatever I miss about home, it needn’t be the weather.

Laaeo jor gan mai!

p.s. I’ve been waging a daily war with The Ants. They’ve taken up residence outside my kitchen window. They’ve got a nest there. They think my food is their food. It’s not, no matter where I leave it, how long for, or what I neglect to cover it with. I tried explaining this to them, but it didn’t work. I told my plants to tell them at night. Maybe they speak Ant. But that didn’t work either. So I stopped talking to plants and started a campaign of insecticide. I’m not sure how long I can preside over this much death. But, armed with casual indifference, a bottle of bleach and a sponge, I’m prepared to find out.

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Arrival in Bangkok

Panoramic view over the city from the roof terrace of my new apartment block.
Panoramic view over the city from the roof terrace of my new apartment block.

And so it was on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in Blighty that my dear parents drove me from Nottingham to Heathrow airport to send me off on my travels. At thirty years old you’d think I’d be past getting lifts from my Ma and Pa, but the older I get the more I realise they want to do these things for me. Who am I to stand in the way of their happiness? Good job they did too, as booking a train hadn’t crossed my mind until that point (just don’t tell them that. They labour under the illusion that I’m a paragon of organisational verve). And anyway, they went gallivanting off around Buckinghamshire as soon as they were shot of me. It’s almost as if they were celebrating.

But I digress. The flight over was largely uneventful, other than a moment of slight tension at Heathrow when they called a list of names to come forward to the desk at the departure gate. “Uh-oh, ” I thought. “They’ve overbooked and they’re going to put me on another flight.” Pessimism comes easy to at least one half of my lineage. But none of it – instead they offered me a free upgrade! No longer was I to endure the desperate head-bobbing torture of unattainable sleep in Economy class – rather, I had the privilege to experience it for the first time in Premium Economy instead. Excellent.

I arrived without incident at Suvarnabhumi airport, Bangkok, on Wednesday the 12th of August at around 4pm, and made my way to the hotel that was being used to put up the new teachers at about quarter to five. As you can imagine I was exhausted, but there was no time to rest as welcome drinks for the new staff at my school were being held at 6pm, so just time for a shower, a change of clothes and a chance to update loved ones on my safe arrival, then I was down to the restaurant to join the festivities. I would like to think that I created a wonderful first impression: scintillating conversation punctuated by a string of clever witticisms and humourous anecdotes. In reality, I bumbled a fair bit about being quite tired, mixed my drinks, went to bed early, slept badly and arose the next morning with a scorching hangover. This will not surprise those that know me well.

Induction into school was excellent – there are a great bunch of new staff and the existing staff were, and are, gracious and supportive to a fault. But though I have not entirely decided what this blog will be yet, I suspect it won’t be about work, and so I’ll leave it at that for now.

More interesting by far is a description of my impressions of Bangkok. I have deliberately avoided saying ‘first’ impressions, as I have visited the city briefly twice before, but on neither occasion long enough to get a real understanding of what the place is about. Whereas on both of those trips I was confined to the hospitality and tourism circuit, now I was in a bustling part of town where local people and expats moved frenetically about their daily lives. Those of you reading this that have done some travelling, and no doubt there will be more than just a few, will recognise the description of a city where east meets west, where the beauty, tradition (and often poverty) of a peaceful, ancient culture now thrives alongside the trappings (and shortcomings) of the capitalist machine. In Bangkok this manifests itself in a number of ways. There are shrines all over the city, both to the traditional Hindu deities and to the royal family, who are loved and revered throughout much of Thailand. They appear outside homes, hotels, apartment blocks, schools…basically everywhere, and they are always beautifully adorned monuments (pictures to follow, when I remember to take them). In contrast, rising up behind them you have towering condos and the monolithic BTS Skytrain; running alongside you have the choking traffic of  Sukhumvit road, and dotted everywhere are the shops, malls, restaurants, bars and clubs that, these days, you would expect to find in any large urban centre.

However, Bangkok – in my admittedly limited experience – seems to have married these two cultural poles very successfully. All along Sukhumvit there are traditional outdoor markets that sell cheap food and clothes; motorcycle taxis ply their trade by taking single passengers the short distances that are not worth the while of the taxi drivers; and you’re never far away from a traditional Thai massage. And I’ll tell you what – those girls know how to use their thumbs to dig into parts of your back that have never felt that kind of pain before. I’m yet to be convinced that having the boniest appendages of one person repeatedly and relentlessly thrust into the unassuming flesh of another is therapeutic, but they do a roaring trade so there must be something in it. Although that’s not entirely fair – they clearly know their stuff, and the last time I went I did come away with something of a sense of relaxation. Or perhaps it was relief to be back in the relative comfort of oppressive noise, traffic, heat and humidity. Or perhaps I’m just a big wimp.

The Thai people themselves are fantastic. As a westener, and particularly as a Brit, you can’t come to Bangkok with the expectation that things will happen the way they do back home, and of course nor should you. And with that in mind, they have a very particular way of doing things which is, for want of a better descriptive phrase, decidedly casual. The Spanish would probably be right at home.

With your British head on you could quite easily get frustrated, but there’s just no point, and anyway they are so affable and welcoming to foreigners that it’s impossible to let the frustration linger. Case in point: when I had the TV and Internet hooked up in my new flat, I arranged for the people from the company to come to me at 4pm last Thursday. I was working until half past three, so when I finished I dashed back and waited for them to arrive. And waited. And waited. By six it was apparent that they weren’t going to show, so I contacted the agent that I had arranged it with (this was not a unique experience – friends of mine had had the same thing happen to them a couple of days before, so I wasn’t entirely surprised).

“Hi, I’ve been waiting at my apartment but nobody arrived.”

“Oh, I’m sorry sir. They couldn’t make it at 4. We can rearrange for tomorrow. They can come in the afternoon.”

“Oh…ok. I’m at work in the afternoon, can we arrange it for 4pm again?”

“Ok sir, I will try”.

Moments later I got a text to confirm that they would indeed come at 4pm. Fair enough. So Friday rolls around, and lo and behold, at 3pm I get a call from a female technician. Her English wasn’t very good (but my Thai is virtually non-existent as yet – apart from being able to count up to one hundred, which I learnt in the early hours of one of my first nights here when I was wide awake, my body-clock clinging doggedly but uselessly to the idea that it should be 9pm, not 3am  – and I have moved to Thailand, so I didn’t hold it against her) but it became clear that they were waiting for me at my apartment.

“I’m still at work. We arranged for 4pm. Can you stay until 4pm?” The response was difficult to interpret, but anyway, they did stay. When I arrived back from work at quarter to four, hot, flustered and getting a mite frustrated, two technicians were waiting patiently and greeted me with huge, warm smiles. It is difficult to maintain indignation in the light of such friendliness, so we went up to my apartment and they had me hooked up within minutes. Not only that, but although neither of them could speak a word of English, they were unfailingly patient with me and employed a series of mimes and gestures to communicate what they needed from me, and how it would all work once it was set up. Afterwards, of course, I felt guilt and not a little shame at having been so culturally influenced in my initial response. How many UK internet technicians would have been willing to wait for an hour for a foreigner who didn’t speak a word of English to show, and then twinkle and smile so endearingly throughout the process of setting it up? Some, of course. But probably not too many.

The point is – and this is something I do remember from my previous trips – the Thai people are generally extremely welcoming, friendly, polite and kind. I found the same in Cambodia when I visited Siem Reap a couple of years ago – despite crushing poverty the people there would nod, wave and smile to the rich westerners who passed their houses-on-stilts, despite having worked a long and backbreaking day in the paddy fields in searing heat. There is an element – there are probably many – of the cultures of South East Asia that we would do well to emulate in the west…

While I’m about it, I should briefly mention my living arrangements. It is common for expats, or at least those that I have come across so far, to rent apartments in towering condominiums, of which there are many of varying ages and sizes. These places all have a gym and a pool somewhere in the building, and occasionally other amenities. One I know has a small library. Mine has a pool table, steam room and sauna, all on the roof, along with the swimming pool, with panoramic views of the city. And it has a small roof garden. And all at less than half the cost of renting an apartment in, for example, Surrey, where I last hung my hat. Reading this paragraph back to myself, I realise that I am quite spoilt in this regard, and more than a little lucky.

Since my arrival in Bangkok my existence has been a whirlwind of preparation for classes, meetings, trips to IKEA and eating out. If you can describe eating out as whirlwindian. Probably not, but I have editorial licence and you don’t, so I will. Also, I suspect one or two of you out there might have had an issue with ‘paragon of organisational verve’. I direct you to my previous statement.

In any case, that brings me to the end of the first instalment of this record. I hope to write many more as the months progress, though whether or not they are read is another matter. Either way, no doubt I will thank myself for it in the future, when I’m old and grey and my travels are consigned to my famously shocking memory. A close friend of mine recently described to me a situation that we were both involved in at university, whereby two teenagers threw stones at us and shouted insults as we were walking back from the golf course. That’s not the kind of thing you forget, and I don’t get stones thrown at me as often as you’d expect, so you would think I’d have held on to that one. But I have literally no memory, not even a shade of a memory, of this event. So, consigned to oblivion is probably more like it, and anything to spark the old engrams into life will no doubt be welcome. Hmmm. Must take more photos as well.

Diew jer gan na krap!