Tainted Chicken

1.

To the tune of “Tainted Love” I sat there drowsily, if not deliriously singing in the dark to myself. “Tainted Chicken oh oh oh oh Tainted Chicken.”

A fat sow wanders out of the jungle and up to the log I was sitting on. At any other time the site of a pig this large emerging from the bush would have been enough to send me scurrying but I was exhausted. Spent. My skin cold, perspiration beading in the humidity.

“Go away pig” I mutter as it nudges me with its large head and tries to access the pre-digested remnants of last nights dinner. I push its head, “pig please, go away.”

The fire in front of me now showing only one or two embers. I haven’t the energy to re-stoke it. I just sat there. A pathetic lump in the dark, depleted, being nudged by a pig.

2.

We had met Sam and Sarah at a hostel in Chiang Mai. We required two more to warrant a guide leading us on a hiking excursion through the jungle to the Burmese border. These poor unfortunates were the closest by. So I approached them, an enthusiastic exponent of the trek, promising an experience that would charge their dinner conversation for years to come.

As a first point of callwe stopped for supplies at a flyblown market where Sam and I found lizard for sale. Sam was tall and thin with a Southampton accent, a wicked laugh and a burning desire to join me in a lizard entrée that evening. After eventually concluding that the chuckling lady behind the wooden table was vending this lizard as a food option we made our purchase and gave it to our guide Sumate to add to our meal with the Karenni people that night.

Proud of our procurement, we imagined we would be the toast of the village. Bringing with us such a delicacy would surely see us accepted as honorary Karenni. The girls looked at us with a hearty derision. “You boys are going to be so sick tonight.” they echoed each other.

Sumate smiled and threw the lizard into the open woven basket he carried on his back. Right next to the cling film wrapped chicken.

3.

I must say I didn’t even give it a thought when we stopped at the waterfall. Maybe after hours of walking through the jungle pathways I was too concerned with diving under the coolness of the falling water. Maybe I naively trusted our guide or maybe I am just dumb as an ox. Either way, as I sat there in the darkness to the harmony of retching coming from the rest of my party I recalled distinctly seeing the chicken laying in the sun, next to our lizard on the top of Sumate’s basket.

Up hills, through bamboo jungle, with every foot fall, for eight hours our market chicken breast sweated with us in the Thai heat.

4.

It struck me first, then Sam. Both ends, the grip and release of stomach and bowel bending us over in exhaustive expulsion. The validation of the girl’s earlier warnings about our lizard delicacy and smug “I told you so’s” gave away to disquietude regarding the uncontrollable violence of our nauseation. We lurched and staggered between our mosquito net and a small wooden outhouse. A macabre game of tag. For about thirty minutes the girls could only watch on with worry.

Then as if their sympathy had forced their participation they joined the sick dance. No longer was one toilet enough, the boys forced to tumble through the light foliage of the jungle’s edge to semi concealment.

Eventually, when I had no more to give I retired to my log. Turning around only once in concern for my companions to see Sam crawling sans pants slowly towards his bedding trying in vain to avoid the repulsive patches that laid in wait for his hands and knees. I never turned around again for the rest of the night.

Instead I focussed my exhausted gaze to the fire pit, shivering, weakly singing in a catatonic state to myself  “Tainted Chicken oh oh oh oh Tainted Chicken.”

5.

Sumate walks over to me as the sun starts to peak through the tousled tops of the bamboo. I was still sitting there, alone on the log. The pig by now had returned to the bush in search of better company.

“Drink this, it will make you sick one more time or no more times. Then you will be better.” Sumate handed me the local brew.

“We have all been very sick all night Sumate.”

“Yes I know, every time people sick” he replied. “I take this trek for four years, every week or maybe two weeks. Every trip maybe 90% of people get sick.”

I did some lethargic math in my head and shook my head at the hundreds of tourists Sumate has poisoned. “Why do you think that is Sumate? Do you not think that chicken in glad wrap sweating on your back for 8 hours might be the cause?”

“No, not chicken, I think people are not used to their mosquito repellent.” I shake my head and walked away to drink my tea and throw up one last time.

Angkor What?

“Buy my book… hey mister, buy my book!”

Chasing me up the stony dirt road was Ahn. Barefoot, torn trousers showing scarred knees, his older brother’s ripped and dirty hand-me-down shirt and a posse of sales assistants hot on his heels. We were by now desensitised to the obvious poverty and the cuteness of their grubby cheeky little faces. This scenario had played out a countless number of times this week and we had managed in most cases to avoid engagement. We continued towards Ta Prohm with eyes forward and unaltered pace.

Catching up, Ahn swung around the front of us blocking our forward path. Stepping off to our left we attempted to motion around him. Too late, a sales assistant had made her position, blocking our escape with outstretched arms, clutching at her variety of Angkor Wat fridge magnets. I pivoted and lurched towards our left catching the look of fear in a fellow traveller’s eyes, but as quick as it was open the escape route was closed down by two of Ahn’s 6 year old disciples, grappling at lukewarm cans of cola and sweaty plastic bottles of water. It was then we felt the wave of reinforcements cut off our retreat, their hands pawing at the back of our shorts and tugging on our backpacks. The jig was up, we were trapped.

Ahn our head captor was 10 years old and obviously small for his age. Without hesitation he repeated his mantra “Buy my book, buy my book, buy my book.” With precision he displayed his wares, from Pol Pot to the history of the Khmer empire. I wasn’t about to be bullied into buying souvenirs I didn’t want  by a 10 year old and began politely negotiating our escape. But like a true professional, Ahn had already sized me up.

“What you name? You Australian?

“Yes, you know Australia?

“Melbourne or Sydney?

“Melbourne” I answered. Ahn grinned

“Australia, population 22 million, land area 7.6 million kilometres square, capital city Canberra, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd… Kevin 07.”

I had seen this building rapport routine before. The Marketing 101 lessons I had been subjected to in countries like Egypt usually consisted of a standard rehearsal of rudimentary cultural icons that for Australians ranged from the current Prime Minister to Red Kangaroos, Ned Kelly or Captain Cook. This 10 year old boy was next levelling it.

I looked at Ahn narrowing my eyes. He looked back at me, narrowing his. “What if I said I was from …. um, England?”

Ahn propped his eyes towards the sky as if in thought. “England, capital London, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, area 130,000 kilometres squared…. “ I cut him off.

“Spain?”

“Capital Madrid” Ahn replied almost immediately.

Estoy apprendiendo Espanol por seis or siete somanas” I responded by testing out some of my Spanish on him.

Muy Bien” he replied “Hablas bien espanol” This kid was incredible.

Parlez-vous parles francais?

Oui, tu parles mal” he said informing me I obviously do not.

“Capital of Finland?”

“Helsinki” he shot back rising to my challenges.

A little girl who looked younger than the rest tugged at my shirt, clutching at a single fridge magnet. “If you don’t know the capital of Madagascar will you buy from me?”

I crouched down to her “Ha ha do you know the capital of Madagascar?”

“Yes it is Antananarivo, now you must buy from me” She stumbled across the sentence in the cutest way.

“Ok little girl, I’ll do you a deal, if you can tell me the capital of South Africa I will buy your magnet.” She growled at me, a long low guttural growl, stomped her foot and started to walk away muttering that I was a bad man.

“What is wrong with her?” I asked Ahn.

“You are trying to trick her and she didn’t like it.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“She knows South Africa has three capitals. Pretoria is the Executive capital, Bloemfontein is judicial and Cape Town legislative.”

I looked at Ahn in astonishment and called the little girl back. Ahn eventually released us from our captive state and allowed us to continue on our way. The sun beat down heavy on us as we continued walking the dusty trail. My backpack heavier with two bottles of water, a magnet from each of the children and of course Ahn’s book.

I passed Ahn an hour or two later, he was engaged in some banter with a couple of German tourists… in German of course. He looked over at me and gave me a wry smile. The young girl by his side tugging at the German’s shirt sleeve, asking “Do you know the capital of Madagascar?”

Crown of Palaces

The sun is dipping behind a stretch of cloud, cooling the air to a temperature more inviting of indolence than traipsing one of the seven wonders.

We waited in line with the monkeys, venerated the soft blue of the background framed by the cylindrical minarets, took the view from Princess Diana’s seat, roamed the antechambers and paraded the monument lawns…… and now we sit.

The hum of insects hang on the breeze replacing the no longer audible car horns. The white marble changes hue and the intricate inscriptions demanding reverence. A dreamy languor descends as we soak in the splendour, hand in hand. Resting our tired feet and watching the people go by.

A group of Polish girls are taking turns at being photographed. One by one they all strike the same poses. First they present with one leg bent and a hand on the hip which makes them look sort of like a lame dog. Then they turn around for the bum pose. Facing away from the camera, then hand on hip they glance back over their shoulder towards the camera. Finally the very structured stroll across the Taj Mahal’s marble plinth. This pose comes complete with false starts and specific casual hand gestures.

A group of Chinese girls and boys join the Polish girls at the monument’s base. The poses of Chinese tourists have a uniformity that seems to change through the years. There was a time about twenty years ago when Chinese tourists all seemed to stand straight, arms straight down their side. Then about fifteen years ago, presumably because slide shows back home became too monotonous the same pose but side on with a look across the shoulder seemed to be all the rage. Then about a decade ago this pose seemed to give way to the enduring V for victory sign. Hip kicked one way, shoulders the other and the peace sign held up near the side of their head.

Tourists are now encumbered by the selfie stick. Not wanting to miss a moment where the selfie is required, the selfie stick is now permanently attached to their phones. Some of the boys text with their selfie stick laying awkwardly; out of place on their shoulders. They stop texting long enough to pose for a group selfie. The congregation rotating turns, each vying  to use their own phones to capture the moment.

A young man with a Canadian badge on his back pack spends the best part of his next hour trying to take the perfect shot of his girlfriend. She dances and leaps across the promenade. He adjusts the shutters and sends her back to her starting position to repeat. Holding her up when an unsuspecting tourist stumbles into the scene.

A French couple take turns at sitting and staring into the distance. A beautiful reflective moment broken as they jump up and rush back to the camera to see if their partner perfectly captured the serenity. They didn’t. Back they run to sit again with their legs folded and to reset their far off gaze.

We surreptitiously approach these sites of monumental importance and for a brief moment immortalise ourselves in the shadow of their significance. Perhaps to remember how it was when travelled to sites of social consequence, perhaps to remember how it should have been. Maybe to deceive our future selves or others about our time there.

I raise my camera to the air. High enough so as to reduce the double chins but whilst still getting the onion shaped dome into the shot. I cheekily cut my wife’s head out of the picture. We reset as she stretches up to kiss my cheek.

Click.

Perfect.

I guess we all want to be immortal.

The Bucket List

I finally found my travel bucket list. It was the list that was supposed to remind me to keep living. It consisted of the exotic, the dangerous, and the far off places. It embodied my traveller past and beckoned for me to dust it off, or more to the point to put it to use and get it dusty again.

I shuffled through the list of destinations and experiences. Dive sites. Monuments. Villages. Drawing a line through those I had conquered. Pondering the next secretly, never to be shared. Worried to some a list of this type would seem boastful and privileged, and to others unsophisticated and pedestrian.

To me it was a plan. A purpose. A structured approach to whimsy and spontaneity. An insurance policy to assure myself I wouldn’t lie in my grave wondering if I gave myself completely to using my days on earth well. I lay back, remembering. Perhaps the memory is still an important part of the journey.

But I shouldn’t confuse travelling with the journey. The journey lingers. As I grow from a combination of experiences. The journey lingers through reflection, through a change in perspective. As the past settles and cements, the journey continues. Travelling however can only exist in the today.

I hope my travel bucket list inspires a journey in you and I look forward to your comments and any helpful additions to my journey.

Taj Mahal, India

Everest Base Camp, Nepal

Three Games of Man, Mongolia

Blue Hole, Belize

Chichen Itza, Mexico

Humpback Whales, Niue

Great Wall, China

Machu Picchu, Peru

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Stonehenge, United Kingdom

Petra, Jordan

Qin Terracotta Soldiers, China

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Whitewater Rafting on the Zambezi Rapids, Zimbabwe

Deer Cave, Borneo

Foz Du Iguazu, Brazil

Arora Borealis in Tromso, Norway

Tulum, Mexico

Cinque Terra, Italy

Wildebeest Migration, Tanzania

Island Hop in the Caribbean

Captain a sailboat through the South Pacific

Amazon, Bolivia

Galapogas Islands, Equador

Madagascar

Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

Parthenon, Greece

Over Water Bungalow, Bora Bora

Havana, Cuba

Full Moon Party, Thailand

Hogmanay, Scotland

Dive with Great White Sharks, South Africa

Gorilla Trek, Democratic Republic of Congo

Antarctica

Anzac Day, Turkey

Whale Sharks, Ningaloo Reef, Australia

Munich Beer Fest, Germany

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Cruise Route 66, United States

Dive Sipidan, Borneo

Angel Falls, Venezuela

Sky Dive over the Namib, Namibia

Bungee Jump Bloukraans, South Africa

Running of the Bulls in Pampelona, Spain 

Grand Canyon, United States

Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Masaii Mara, Kenya

La Tomatina Festival in Bunol, Spain

Easter Island

Okavango Delta, Botswana

Dive the Yucatan Cenotes, Mexico

Wailing Wall, Jerusalem

Milford Sound, New Zealand

Well, that was surreal!

I hate the misuse of the word surreal. I hear people say things like “I bumped into my friend at the train station the other day, it was so surreal.”

It wasn’t. Unless you friend was a pink elephant with your undies on his head telling time from a melting clock, it wasn’t surreal.

I look around me though and there is no other word that can really describe what I’m seeing. I’m dressed in lederhosen, so are five of my closest mates. Our drinks are oversized one litre plastic cups filled with Vodka and Redbull. Around us monks, hillbillies, centurions, minions, Donald Trumps, flamingos, creepy baby heads, a wardrobe with legs (presumably from the lion, witch and the wardrobe), Nick “Honey Badger” Cummins, Muy Thai fighters, pirates, jockeys, unicorns, T-rexs, leprechauns carrying blokes, pregnant cheerleaders, fighter pilots, snipers, lifeguards, policewomen, dictators, the Chinese army, a clergy of nuns priests and bishops, a couple of Harry Potters, numerous Where’s Wallys, a handful of broadcasters, some tinder screens, Oompah Loompas, prisoners, geishas, pharaohs , TMNTs, Tetris pieces, the odd Mother of Dragons, a trace of rabbits, bathers from the 1940s, guys with dressing gowns and shaving cream, Shrek, Asterix and Oblisk, Storm Troopers, Budgie Smugglers and the Super Mario Bros.

David Hasselhoff is singing in front of me surrounded by Baywatch babes and bizarrely accompanied by a Chinese midget also dressed as a lifeguard sitting on a tower.

South Stand at the Hong Kong Sevens. Where have you been all my life. Oh and some rugby was played too – Fiji won. I think.