The boy whose hand I held


After sharing my travel memory yesterday other memories came flooding into my mind. I realised how lucky I’ve been, not just in the range of places I’ve visited, but also the many vivid and memorable moments along the way. In the conversation yesterday I said that travel is the best education because, if you’re open to it, it gives you perspective and insight, and hopefully compassion.

My travels are my most precious possessions. Travel was finishing school to me – it put into context so much I’d been formally educated, and otherwise had observed along the way. I was wide-eyed and open to it, curious and bold and social. There was joy in humping a pack or figuring out a map or hoisting myself onto a bus or train, or just to sit in a cafe and watch the local world go by. Even the difficult stuff – awful accommodations, mixed up flights, stuff stolen, the occasional confronting image – was of some value. I flatter myself by thinking that I was open to learn, and in doing so gained a measure of wisdom.

Back in 2001 I ended up in Vietnam towards the tail-end of a tortuous and unpredictable journey. I had flown to Singapore, and from there to Paris, then after roaming the French countryside I returned to Singapore again, more in hope than expectation. It all remains so vivid to me. From Singapore I took off to Vietnam, I don’t remember why now.

I was weary, in spirit as well as body. I had left home with hopes of something only to have them disappointed. I had fled to Paris, a familiar place, to get away from that. I remember laying in a bathtub in Deauville and sobbing (yes, real men do cry, sometimes). I walked the streets and sat in bars and looked out windows at passing scenery and rationalised my circumstances and attempted to come to terms with what had happened. I was all inward.

On the other side of the world back at home my family and friends wondered what was happening and worried after me. In Singapore the woman I left there sent me concerned emails, guilty at what had occurred. I thought much about all of that, but didn’t connect with any of it. Rare for me I kept to myself on my travels, self-absorbed and self-contained. After a couple of weeks the raw wound had mended sufficiently for me to return to Singapore.

I festered in Singapore for another week or two staying with friends, not with her. She reached out to me, but I was not ready yet to meet with her again. I lived quietly in the spare room of my friend’s apartment in a modest, Muslim suburb of Singapore. I was not yet ready to go home, but nor could I stay.

I suppose that’s how I ended up in Vietnam. It was somewhere I’d always wanted to go, it was nearby, and well, I had nothing better to do. I flew into Ho Chi Minh city had adventure there, then travelled down the Mekong. I was physically tired, as I said. I felt as if I’d been hoisting the same pack for months. I was sad to, but there were moments when I found myself come to life (by the end of my trip I had revivified sufficiently to have a friendly encounter with two very sporting Japanese girls staying at the same hotel as me in Hoi An – but that’s another story).

I returned from the Mekong and found myself staying in the Vice Presidential suite of one of the fancy hotels facing the river. I had rocked up bearded and untidy and wanting a decent room I could make myself human again. I’m sorry sir, the concierge had told me, but the only room available is the Vice Presidential suite. I prepared to turn and go when he spoke again. Would that be alright? No extra charge, of course. I told him it was fine. For three luxurious days I lay in the huge bed and splashed in the luxurious spa bath and read sprawled upon the sofa. I braved the city, taking off as I had learned from the locals, from the curb and trusting that the stream of motorcyclists would pass about me.

I looked at my map. I read my guide-book. I decided to try Vung Tau, and if not there, then further north to Long Hai. I caught the hydrofoil to Vung Tau and didn’t like the look of it and hopped aboard a taxi for Long Hai.

In the middle of Long Hai was a an old French Colonial building, easily the biggest in town. It was the hotel too, and I was the only guest. Out the back was a weary ent te cas tennis court the hotel workers would play on, there was the smell of lavender in the air, and geckos curled, fixed to the hotel walls.

That first morning I took a walk by the beach. Pulled up on the sand were fishing boats the fishermen tended to while their children roamed at their feet. Every person I saw looked up at me and smiled, and said hello. Every one of them. I answered everyone too. Hello, I said, hi, xin chao, how are you, and so on. It was the same every day with every person I met.

I walked by the water’s edge towards the distant headland. I had become a great curiosity and to my great surprise found a growing band of children trailing me. They gathered one by one, joining the curious crowd while their fathers looked up from their work and smiled at it. There must have been two dozen of them at the peak. I felt like the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

I stopped once and tried to talk to them. It felt odd to be such a celebrity. I wrote my name in the wet sand with a piece of driftwood, and said it aloud for them. There was great amusement in that, and one small boy wrote something in the sand beside my name.

By the time I reached the distant headland only one remained, a small boy of about 8 with a book of lottery tickets in his hand, the same boy who had written in the sand. We climbed the stairs to the promontory, and at the top he slipped his small hand into mine. At first I felt embarrassed by it; then strangely warmed.

I imagine if you saw that now all sorts of connotations would come to mind – a tall, fair-haired haired western male hand in hand with a local boy. I don’t think that occurred to me then. It was not the place for such thoughts. It was simple and kind and I gazed out over the sea with his hand in mine, glad for the affection.

It was a memorable place of great hospitality. By night I would sit in one of the open air ‘cafe’s at the edge of the breakwater and have beer with a great shard of ice in it, or a sweet Vietnamese coffee, or a refreshing lime and palm sugar dink – I couldn’t get enough of those. They would fuss over me grateful for the reflected celebrity my presence gave them. None spoke English. We would nod and gesture and smile and I would look out to sea as the fishing boats lit by small lanterns bobbed with the swell in the night sky, like fireflies in the distance.

It was what I needed. It allowed me to recover for Hoi An, where something more of myself returned. I went back to Singapore, and eventually to home – 2 days before 9/11. But that’s another story too.

The kindness of strangers


Have I told this story before? Probably, but I’ll tell it again anyway.

Nearly 20 years ago I was on extended holiday and had made it to Paris, where I was staying on the Left Bank. On my third or fourth evening there my wallet was stolen, ironically at an Aussie bar. I returned to my hotel, and from there went across to the bar I’d got in the habit of visiting each evening.

It was a typical French bar with grizzled locals sitting around drinking beer or Pernod and discussing the week’s events, just as they probably had for many years previously. Though he had little English, and my French was scratchy at best, I had become friendly with the French owner and managed to communicate with him by a combination of gestures, nods and a pigeon version of Frenglish.

On this night I walked in and found a place at the bar and waited for the bartender to serve me. It was a Friday I think, and the bar was full and lively. I ordered a beer and when the owner asked how I was I mentioned in passing that I’d just had my wallet stolen. His brow creased with concern. He stood upright, and after a glance at me began addressing his regulars in French. I watched on as he spoke too fluently for me to understand, but felt at one point all eyes turn to me.

He had told them that my wallet had been stolen. Outraged that this had happened in their home down those lovely men shouted me one drink after another that evening as if it were their duty. I was roused and moved by this, and fell into broken conversation with them, who were interested in me as an Australian regardless, and as rugby supporters one and all felt some affinity with me (Australia had not long defeated France in the final of the rugby world cup). That bond was strengthened by the sympathy of my plight, and in the act of generosity to support.

The story doesn’t end there.

In the bar was an Australian who had lived in Paris many years and was a regular at the bar. When my situation became known the bartender tried to get him to speak to me, if only to translate. The Australian was unwilling, but finally relented.

It turned out he was the son of a communist who had been effectively hounded out of Australia, something that made him very bitter towards Australia. He relaxed as we continued to speak. I found out he was a documentary film maker and had a French wife and son. I think I was the first of his countrymen he had really conversed to for many years, and as he warmed to suggested I was unrepresentative of my country. I thought that unfair, but understood the sentiment – bitter memories make for bitter thoughts.

I ended up going with him back to his apartment at around midnight. He introduced me to his wife and then in a French manner we sat around his dining table talking, and drinking red wine while nibbling on cheese and ham carved from the bone. I left finally with him offering to lend me money to cover the deficit my stolen wallet had created. I refused him.

I’m a very proper person in many respects. Though I’d had a memorable night and was grateful for the support I received I thought it improper to take money from a man I hardly knew. I wish I had now – not because I needed it, but because it might have been the right thing for him. I failed to recognise the gesture, forgetting sometimes that it’s a kindness to accept a favour from someone offering one. In his case, as an estranged Australian, it might well have had extra significance.

I never saw or heard from him after that night, and I regret that I didn’t pay more attention to that. Years later I tried to re-visit the bar, but never found it. It was like one of those mysteries where something is found and then disappears forever afterwards. My mum, with Fred, tried to look it up to, but without luck.

It was a memorable evening and the loss of a wallet insignificant against the rich human experience. I’m very grateful to all those so kind to me that night. It’s one of those precious memories that only travel really can give you. I hadn’t thought of it for years though, until a conversation earlier today recollected it for me.

I’m glad I can share it again here.

 

Homeward bound


Another day, another departure lounge. In fact right now I’m sitting in the American Airlines lounge (as a Qantas Club member) at Heathrow, making the best of the facilities here. I’ve had a G&T, a couple of glasses  of Californian Zinfandel, now I’m sipping on a Tio Pepe. I’ve had cheese and biscuits, some pastries, pretzels, and some lasagna. I’m here using up time as comfortably as possible – unfortunately this place has nothing on the Qantas lounges in Sydney and Changi.

I got to the airport early with nothing better to do. Last night I changed my flight from first thing tomorrow to late tonight. Tonight’s flight is much more direct, and I’m hoping to ride home in a business class seat with my points. Hoping, not expecting. As I sit here – it’s just after 8pm – the flight is already delayed by an hour to an 11.30 departure.

Am weary, a state of being that will be little helped by being squashed into another cattle class seat; but will work nicely if they find a spare business class seat to fit me into. Right now I’d trade any number of points for it.

Not much to report on my last day in Blighty. Was up early and walking through the leafy streets of St Johns Wood to visit Lords, and to do the tour there. That was great stuff – recommended if you’re a cricket buff. Just a pity I won’t be there in a few weeks to see us knock-off the Poms. That would be great experience, and not sure when I might get the chance to enjoy it next.

I walked back to my hotel in Maida Vale in the back streets, and Abbey Road. There were the predictable number of tourists clowning around and nearly getting themselves killed on the very famous zebra crossing. I took a couple of pics, shrugged my shoulders, and walked on.

Yesterday was Oxford Street, Soho, and Covent Garden, and dinner in West Hampstead.

Looking forward to being home. My bed is enticing, plus there’s a lot of things need doing, and I’m keen to get them done. And, truth is, I miss the boy. No matter how weary I am I’ll be collecting Rigby as soon as I can on Thursday.

 

Brick Lane, Spitalfield, and Michelle Pfeiffer lookalikes


It’s 26C in London, which is what passes as a heatwave hereabouts. I felt it, cruising up Brick Lane to the Spitalfield market, long jeans and stopping at open air stalls and popping into shops where aircon seems the exception rather than the rule. Maybe that makes sense I guess. A place like England heating probably counts for more, whereas back in Oz aircon is pretty much a necessity these days.

I have that pleasant weariness to me end of day. It’s coming up on 6pm and I’ve been back for about 40 minutes, after setting off 9.30 this morning. I’ve got the apartment to myself, and a Leffe blonde – bought cheap at the Off-Licence – open on the table in front of me. Not sure what I’ll do tonight, but I’ll worry about that when the time comes.

I started off by cruising down Columbia Road, everyone having told me about the markets there. It was very pretty too, but being predominantly flower markets not much cause for me to linger. I kept walking.

I hooked around heading towards Brick Lane, slowing as I hit the edge of the Sunday markets. For the next 3 hours I happily cruised up and down and around Brick Lane sampling the multitude of yummy food on offer and setting myself to pick out the gifts for those left at home.

I gradually drifted towards the covered market at Spitalfield, where I ended up doing the bulk of my buying. I’m not sure where the time went, but it didn’t drag. I bought a vest for myself and a couple of t-shirts on sale. I got a bag for my sis, a couple of cool tees for my nephews, and an adult top for my niece, which is nevertheless perfect for her; not to mention a George Clooney mask for Cheeseboy. I had brunch and good coffee in a cafe where the baristas where reassuringly Aussie. I had a drink with a pretty girl and we discussed cameras. Later I sat in a wine bar alone and enjoyed a refreshing glass of Italian white, before attempting a Prosecco cocktail – everyone here drinks Prosecco, it’s even on tap.

Yesterday was similarly leisurely, the highlight being the Broadway market. If it was at home I’d have returned to digs laden with good cheese, bread and pastries. As I’m not home I had to make do enjoying it as much as I could on the hoof. I had a variety of bits and pieces – a Vietnamese iced coffee, a haloumi burger, a cinnamon scroll, a latte (advertised, as if representative of the best provenance, as being ‘Australian’), some cheese, a mini-quiche, but steered clear of the jellied eels.

A few hours there I returned to the apartment, where I met the man of the house, Will, with whom I watched the second half of the big rugby clash between the Wallabies and the British and Irish Lions – ironically being played in Melbourne. It was a great half of entertaining rugby, with Australia scoring late to win by a single point. Will groaned, but shook my hand like a good loser.

Last night I went pubbing – the Marksman, the Sebright (where I had the famous burger – good it was too), and finally the Dove. By some strange coincidence I ran into a woman I had met on the ferry to the Tate Modern. I had thought her mediterranean at first – she had that look, and there do seem to be a lot of Spaniards in town. Turns out she is a Yank, 41, a sort of Latinised Michelle Pfeiffer look to her and a body that kept my attention – which is how we met. She had a lovely voice and the confident way about her that comes from doing a few circuits of the sun. I think I might use her as a character some day – she has a stripe of silver hair that is very comely.

Anyway, tomorrow I check out of here. Nowhere to stay tomorrow night, but I’ll worry about that then. I’m enjoying myself, but I’m also feeling the effects a little, and keen to get home.

 

East-ending


Been a busy week, largely without wi-fi, which is why I haven’t been able to write until now.

I’m back in London after a few days in Bath. Everyone said I’d love Bath, and I did. Very pretty place nestled in amongst very pretty hills. It’s one of those places that as an Aussie you look around at with some wonder. Such obvious history and age is almost an unknown in Oz, but here in the elegantly limestone clad dwellings built over 200 years ago it’s all on display. Go beyond that, to the Roman baths and there at your fingertips is something constructed near two millennia ago – and it still works.

While there I did a tour of the Cotswolds. I’m wary of doing tours. I don’t like to be ushered to one place to another, and fear always that I’ll end up with a bus full of fat, elderly, loud Americans. In other circumstances I might have hired a car and made my own way, but by some stupid oversight I managed to leave my license home (also my tube of vegemite, which I’m missing).

As it happens the minibus was only 3/4’s full to start with, and less after we dropped some off along the way. There was a loud American, but the rest were very pleasant – a young couple from Texas honeymooning, a middle aged Canadian woman from Vancouver, an Asian-American family from Seattle, and another middle-aged woman from Melbourne. And as for driving myself, that was soon revealed as a fantasy – not only is  this a more leisurely way to tour, with informed and friendly commentary, but the fact is I’d have likely got myself lost in the network of small roads criss-crossing the Cotswolds.

I really enjoyed it. It is very pretty, and some of the villages are (literally) right out of a Hollywood movie. Again it’s a very different vibe for a travelling Aussie.

Now I’m in London again, this time in the east-end. I’m staying in someone’s home again, a funky apartment owned by a very pleasant and welcoming woman.

Last night I wandered down to the local strip in Broadway. Had a couple of gins in one place before moving onto another. Sitting there with a pint of cider in my hand an exuberant local cracks onto me. He’s an Aussie as it turns out, a bit mad as well, in a good way. As he tells me he’s ‘that guy’ everyone knows who can be a pain in the arse, but a lot of fun. We talk for a bit, but he’s keen to drag me outside to meet his friends. His friends turn out to be The Temper Track, the band from Melbourne who – mostly – live in the area.They’re regular guys and we talk about the things any Melburnians do when they meet up anywhere in the world – the footy, pubs in Melbourne, music, and so on. They performed at the AFL grand final last year, and we chatted about how awesome that must have been. Next month they’re one of the support acts  to the Rolling Stones in a concert.

Now it’s Saturday morning. Once I dress I’ll head up the road and check out what appears to be a plenitude of local street markets, recommended to me so far by everyone I’ve met. Tonight? Who knows. Am generally weary, and still about an hour off being properly in sync. It’s been an unhealthy trip too, lots of food, lots of very decent pubs, and hard to resist a pint or two even if the beer is flat.

The long road to Notting Hill


I did some  calculating yesterday and figured that in the last 68 hours I’d had about 6 hours sleep. That includes 4 hours sleep in a bed, and approximately 2 very disturbed and uncomfortable hours sitting in my airplane seat. I was feeling pretty weary.

After I wrote on Sunday night my flight was delayed by nearly 2 hours, which was the last thing I wanted. I was just about out on my feet then, and condemned to another couple of hours of boredom was no help. Then, after we finally got going, a guy in the row a couple ahead of me got very sick. Attendants were scurrying around attending to him, rearranging others, and trying to figure out just what had happened. They thought perhaps an allergic reaction.

It looked so bad at one point that I feared we would turn around and head back. Thankfully we ploughed on, though not before the pungent aroma of vomit filled the confined space. We were travelling on an A380, sitting upstairs. The attendants cleared the back row of the plane, sending those lucky few sitting there to Business Class, and laid out the prostrate form of the sick man along the row of seats. I don’t think he stirred from there the rest of the flight.

Then it was London. The Heathrow Express wasn’t running, so instead had to catch the Undergound – a much slower and more crowded option. It’d been years since I’d been on the underground, but had covered this route before. Being peak hour the train filled quickly, so that come Earls Court I had to somehow muscle myself off with my collection of heavy bags. It was one of those occasions that being someone of heft and strength came in useful – I’d never have managed it by myself.

From Earls Court I went to Piccadilly. To kill time I sat down for breakfast at the station Hilton, after storing my bags. I picked up a SIM card, then endured the torturous process of lining up and purchasing some train tickets, for the day, and for a trip to Bath tomorrow. Still, that got done. For the next hour I watched the incessant comings of goings of people in the station catching trains and searching for them, the bold pigeons fluttering around as if they owned the place. I even saw a guy with a hawk on his arm.

Finally I was able to make my way to Notting Hill, via Ladbroke Grove station. I was still early so at the pub bistro across the road from my accommodation I ordered a refreshing cocktail, followed by a double ristrettto to hopefully perk me up a bit. Then, finally, I was able to check in.

I’m doing the Airbnb thing this trip. I’m staying with a gay French couple. They have a small, but very cute apartment on the top floor of an old house very typical of this area. They’re great hosts, and it’s very comfortable. I’m actually writing this from bed a little before 6am, having finally caught up with some sleep.

I showered, changed clothes, and lay down for an hour without sleeping. Then I went for a walk.

I walked all the way down Ladbroke Grove and hooked back up along Portobello Road. Portobello Road was active, but minus the frenetic activity of a weekend. Tourists stopped to take pictures, or to inspect the various items for sale at stalls spilling out onto the sidewalk, from jewellery to hats, knick-knacks to photos. I nearly bought myself a hat, before stopping to try a boutique gin.

I was out about 2 hours, taking my time, taking the odd pic myself. I found myself humming a very obscure song from a movie I saw at the cinema when I was a kid – Portobello Road, from Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Last night I set out again after sharing half a bottle of wine with one of my hosts, and a good conversation. Down Portobello Road I wandered into the Earl of Lansdowne, where I had a pint sitting in the beer garden. I went on, exploring the pretty streets with the posh homes, before ending up at the Lord Elgin. There I ordered another pint, and a bar meal of Welsh Rarebit with thick chips.

My energy levels had alternated up and down. For a while it seemed I had found my third or fourth wind. Then at the pub it came all crashing down. I suddenly felt so wasted that I didn’t have the energy to finish my beer. I felt so tired it was painful. The short walk back to my room was a test of endurance, but I made it. I wasted no time and went to bed, at 9.45.

That’s where I am now, as I say. I slept no more than 8 hours, a little to my surprise, after having first woken at 5am. I feel good though, ready to go again.

In a little while I’ll get up to enjoy a cooked breakfast – Jean is a chef. Then I’ll head off. I don’t plan to do too much touristy this trip, but much of that will be today. Somehow I’ve never been to Westminster Abbey – the crowds last time put me off. This time I’ll go early, then plan to do the Tate Modern. I might check out the Imperial War Museum, before walking back.

I need the exercise. Feels like all I’ve down the last few days is eat and not sleep. Exercise is good.

Killing time


Over the years writing this I’ve sat in airport lounges all over the world and tapped away while waiting for my flight to be called. It’s a good a way as any to kill the dead hours in that indeterminate zone between here and there. I’m doing it again now.

This time I’m sitting in Kuala Lumpur’s KLIA airport. Specifically I’m sitting in a small bar called Bones near the departure gates. There’s a Tiger beer in front of me, almost done, and I can hear in the background a replay of the Confederations Cup match between Japan and Mexico. Every so often a PA announcement will disturb the airport white noise to call for Mr so and so to report to the counter, or to announce the boarding of flight number at gate whatsit. No need for me to pay much attention – my flight is hours away.

The whole day really has been about killing time. My flight is just before midnight, but I had to check out before noon. I only had 4 hours sleep after a festive wedding reception, and feared that the lack of much sleep, a day wandering like the apocryphal Jew, followed by a 13 hour flight in a crowded plane, would pretty much do me in. Well, I’ve to set foot on the plane, but I’m doing ok.

I packed and checked out and was picked up by E from my hotel. We caught up with all the news and gossip over a breakfast for lunch in a French patisserie in Bangsar. That was good. With bags in tow she then dropped me at KL Sentral where I was able to check in my luggage for this evening’s flight. Very fortunate.

I caught a cab to Mid Valley then having decided to kill time watching a movie. World War Z was my first choice, but that was booked out. I settled on watching After Earth in the Gold class cinema. Was ok, and 90 minutes were used up.

With Malaysian ringgit to be spent I found a curious place on the top-level of the Gardens. What the fuck. I spent 40 minutes and 60 RM lying on warm tiles in a room heated to the mid 40 degrees C.  I sweated, as was the notion, ridding myself, as the notion goes, of the various toxins in the bod. It’s not my idea of a fun time, but it seemed to do me the world of good. Probably a good thing too after the quantity of toxic liquids I consumed last night. Better out than in.

That was good enough for me. It was near 5 and time, I thought, to head back to KL Sentral and catch the KLIA Express. It’s a great train that takes you to the distant airport in a hurry, and in relative comfort. It’s something we might have in Melbourne if our politicians weren’t such provincials.

I’ve been hear at the airport since a little after 6pm. I’ll have my beer, or two, grab myself a meal, might browse the duty-free, before using my final ringgit on chocalates, as tradition demands. Tomorrow, London.