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Friday, August 31, 2012


 As the moon lay heavy on the thick, lapping banks of the Ben Hai, I walked slowly yet purposefully.  The day had brought great promise for the journey that lay ahead, but I thought it prudent to cross check our path before heading out at sunrise, despite my young guide's protests.  I also had an errand of a personal nature that needed tending to, which I had not shared with my mates, and so had slipped unannounced leaving them with Ngoc Minh back at the flat.  I checked the hour on the worn pocket watch, its origin dating back to the early 1900's.  I'd purchased it earlier that afternoon in the staggering heat of the noon-day sun from an old man in the Quang Tri Province who swore on the spirits of his ancestors as to the purity of the precious metal with which it had been crafted.  His solemn face and steady voice betrayed his withered skin which was leathered and drawn from years spent working in the paddies as a youth.  I'd taken amusement from the time we spent bantering on the price.  We ultimately settled on a reasonable fee, which included my belt from our unexpected detour through Kanpur several weeks prior and a toast to his longevity over small but potent cups of ruou de, ironically my preferred brand of rice wine from the Mekong.

  I turned the corner only to come face to snout with a Siamese crocodile who seemed mildly put out by my disturbance of his rest.  His midnight repreive had clearly followed his evening feast of a freshly slaughtered piglet, the vestiges of its carcass still fresh and lying near.  My continued good fortune dictated that he'd likely stolen it from one of the street vendors, as was evidenced by both the remaining clean, linear butcher marks and by his lack of aggression towards my interruption, as his hunting instincts had not been aroused or indulged; I locked eyes with him, some twisted part of me hoping that he would attack, taking into account the unique patterns on his hide and my unexpected, new-found need for a belt.  Sadly he's critically endangered so luck was with him.  He lazily looked away and I walked on, not giving him any birth and winking at him as I passed.  At the corner of the last riverside shack, I turned, making my way up the alley and into the courtyard of the Midtown District, where I came upon my destination.

  The night tumbled into the courtyard where the small inn was housed.  Dim, red lights promoting the sale of Bia hoi beer shone weakly from inside one small window, like a sad beacon.  A clever smile crept across my face at the sight of it.  I picked up the pace in order to shorten the distance between me and my objective.  A young boy, about the age of eight approached me out of nowhere as he announced his despairing need of my spare change, his broken English well-practiced.  Without breaking stride, I silently pulled out a crisp $100 bill and softly padded it into the palm of his hand.  Patting his cheek as I walked away, i found the mix of dirt and shock on his face endearing.  Up ahead my end-goal awaited me...her familiar smile and silhouette breaking through the night and reminding me that all was well with the world.  Perhaps tomorrow I'll look into that belt....


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Afterimage: My Fathers Birthday

Today is my father's birthday. He would have been seventy. Try as I might I can't see him at this age just as I can't seem to picture myself at seventy. Then again, I'm not sure anyone can really picture themselves as their Autumn slips into Winter.

Twelve years ago, at his eulogy, I looked out across the crowd and was surprised (yet shouldn't have been) by the faces. Family and friends from England, colleagues from Taiwan, China, Honduras, and South Africa. The stateside contingent from the deep south, New York, California. All there to pay homage.

I loathe speaking to groups larger than say six so I stuck with what I knew, what I had in common with my father. Travel.

Strange because his side of the family did not have the inherent wanderlust that pervades the rest. His people were footballers, mostly Everton, but some at Aston Villa, Liverpool, Newcastle. They we're pugilists, taking lads off the Liverpool streets and training them for the ring. As a child I'd walk around the gyms, the smell of sweat, leather, and blood in the air. Alien to someone used to rambling the hedgerows of the Kentish countryside. I stood centre field at Anfield, a scrawny eight year old imagining the roar of the Kop (my grandfather had taken me the previous week). These things seemed very Northern to me at the time, far removed from the home counties. They still do.

Before the wall came down my father was gone a tremendous amount. Prague, Budapest, Warsaw. I remember him being gone for a month, "detained" in Hungary, coming back gaunt and sallow, a Lech Walesa mustache and longish hair. He took me out and we bought a snakes and ladders set in the village. He was quiet, withdrawn and closely at my side.

In later years it was Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Guatemala City, San Pedro Sula. always traveling alone, always being gone for extended periods. He was the king of no reservations, believing that you honestly just showed up somewhere and they would fit you in. In fact, he was a hard fellow to say no to. I saw it as I became older, the athletic frame, grey, wavy, longish hair, the accent. Very Shakespearian in his presence.

Before he passed away we where in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Thailand. In the lobby of the Oriental in Bangkok I see a well tailored man in his fifties staring intently at my father. I whisper that someone is checking him out. "don't be silly" he snapped as the gentleman walks towards us. Then they are hugging, clasping hands. The man reminiscing in an Australian accent how they worked together. He was apparently with the foreign service and now owned a bank. The gent walks off and my father shrugs and says ""Sydney, years ago. I'm famished. Let's eat."

He was full of surprises. I have a picture of him in Los Angeles standing on the sidelines with the England squad, deep in conversation. It must be the early eighties. Never heard him mention it. Still have no idea of the story behind it.

Unimpressed with the truly impressive but fascinated by the mundane he could be maddening in his reluctance to share information. I used to look at his passport that was more ink than paper and ask him about the exotic sounding names. Without fail I was met with a "don't remember" or a "bit boring" or "some sort of convention". When asked about a Mexico City stamp I hear "that's where I broke my ankle playing football in an alley, they had pointy alligator cowboy boots". No clarification, no story setup or closing.

I have his old leather suitcase, a suit with a lovely suppressed waist, a stainless watch that has a slight burr in the movement. With my arm under pillow I can hear it resonate. A metallic heart beat that I fall asleep to.

I think of my father every time I clear immigration and get that first sip of air on unfamiliar soil. I'm not sure if I travel for the same motivations as he but it courses through all that I am. Be it a heavily incensed air, a tremendous meal, a good conversation, or the rains of a monsoon, places like people resonate endlessly and colour all that we are. I miss him like hell and as I receive another stamp in the blue and gold (sadly now E.U. burgundy) I'll continue to look for traces of the old man.


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Monday, August 27, 2012

The island of French magicians and a question of returning to the past.

The roar of the plane is still with us, the buffeting of wind and air as we leave the sky behind, the tear drops of island chains in the blueness,the massive shining depths beyond the reef,the bumpiness of the football pitch/runway, the goats hurtling into the brush as we hop out of the fuselage.

We stand on the crumbling runway watching the plane gain altitude then bank right, wings catching the sun, then its gone, first a far off drone, then silence. The goats bleat in the bushes, the waves crash the reef on the far side of the tree line, yellow ragged sea poppies flutter in the spiky grass. The customs shed has a tree fort look to it. A perspiring, quite tall and angular dark man is reading a romance novel. His uniform of khaki shorts and shirt is more or less pressed. He waves us over and gives us a beautiful grin.

"you from the plane"
We look around, nod "yep"
"that's good, mailboats late" he looks at our tickets then gives us warm Coca Colas in glass bottles. As we finish, a rusting and white Defender pulls in, brakes squealing as it stops in the rutted sand. The driver is wearing a "Let's get physical" tshirt and baggy shorts. "Welcome to Canouan" he beams. "I'm your transport".

The following ten days are a complete idyll. I feel as if ive gotten away with something, I feel quite like Gauguin. There are ten other guests at the ramshackle cluster of buildings. All French, all middle aged, with English being an afterthought, if not entirely verboten. The hotels manager is seemingly always working on the Defender, crazed grey hair sweat plastered to his scalp and kicking outwards on the collar of his stained and faded red Ferrari jumpsuit. He wears nothing underneath and strips out of it casually when hot and cools off just down the beach. We eat dinners and lunches at a communal table in the white sand. Bottles of rose and packs of Dunhill red and gold litter the smooth driftwood top. Sometimes there are topless lunches.Always there are magic tricks with francs,shells,cards,cigarettes, anything and everything appearing out of ears,bottles of Hairoun, and bikinis. The Magician (Olivier) performs his act in a salt faded, purple leopard skin speedo, tanned belly protruding above, youngish girlfriend/assistant on his arm.

We take the rover along the bumpy track and drink beer in the ruins of the church. Looking down from the hilltop we see an unspoiled island, iguanas scuttle in the palmettos. White horses to the east mark the reef line, an unparalleled aquamarine in between. Some days we take the cat out with Philip and grill fish at Salt Whistle Bay over on Mayreau, grab some rum in Union, or drift through the Tobago Cays, the feeling of space and emptiness washes over us, the sun a crucible.

It's all gone now. The quirkiness, the feeling that you are at the end of something, shared with collateral friends. The Italians came and made a mess of things, then Trump with his golf course. The Raffles resort was the last straw. When we left on the mailboat I always thought I'd return. Now, years later, I'd like to remember it as it was. As I was at that time in my life.

Why do we feel the urge to return to the scenes of previous crimes or jubilations? It's been said that the past is another country that you can't revisit. Is this why we keep moving forward, always looking for the next thing, the hump of land that we sight just over the horizon?

You return to your childhood home in Kent. Of course it's smaller than you remember, the path has more bramble, the motorway much closer to the back fields. Then you catch a glimpse of a fox darting into the hemlocks down the lane and you are careening off the sand and into the past. The gooseberry pies, the guardian lions,Mack and Henry, the boarding school boys who stole the Lancia and crashed into the gates. It exists beside or on top of the current state of things leaving you both melancholy yet comforted.

Is it like this with ones acquaintances, do they become another country over the years, borders best left alone? Faces from the distant past always seem to disappoint yet there are some that continue to shine and sparkle through the years. Perhaps it's like this with certain places. Ones that resonate and hail us back. Sounding boards for where we are now when compared to the point of ones last encounter.

There will always be a mail boat to leave on, a prop plane on a dusty runway, an overcrowded Nicaraguan bus to take us to the next destination. I'll never stop traveling but it would be nice to see how some old favorites have weathered the years. Sound thing that my itineraries are never set in stone. Who knows, the mail boat might be coming in any day now.....

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