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.

Santorini

White.

The salt crusted cliffs, concrete buildings dripping from the hill tops like icing. Fedora hats, shirts and dresses, the garb of those walking the lofty paths with sluggish curiosity past white signs, white walls and monuments, electricity poles and painted trees.

Blue.

The domes and the doors. The window frames and shutters. The deep blue of the crystal clear water. Blue flags and towels flutter against the pale blue sky.

White and Blue.

White wash sprays from boats and jet skis carving their path through the blue. They stroll the white streets to breathe in the fresh air and finger through blue fridge magnets and wrist bands. Blue busses pick up white dust that dances in eddys behind them. Men wear blue and white chequered shirts that match perfectly the blue and white chequered table cloths in the blue and white restaurants they eat in.

Something Else.

The sun drops, the blue sky blushes, the blue sea follows suit. The white buildings blush a pinkish hue. I look into my wife’s blue eyes and tell her I love her. Her white skin blushes…. or maybe it was today’s sun.

Santorini.

Great White Place

We drive through the Mopani scrub. Kudu and Rhinoceros browse on the Koedoebos. The scene framed by the multiple trunks of the African Moringa which emerge from its swollen base. The truck skirts out onto the Etosha pan, a Bantu word meaning great white place. A fitting description for a 1000 million year old salt mineral pan stretching the Kalahari Basin.

Originally this was a lake fed by the Kunene river but the river changed course and thousands of years ago the lake dried up. The San people believe in a legend that a village was invaded and everyone except for one woman was murdered. She was so upset that she cried and her tears formed a huge lake. When her tears dried the great white pan remained.

In the far distance on a clear day you can make out the outline of the savannah bushland bordering the pan, but today the white earth collides with the grey sky and the dust and heat is belied by the oncoming rain.

The warm rains of the storm lightly lashing the sides of the truck as Rod reaches over and grabs my Discman, fumbling with it for a moment. A couple of false starts. Then he smiles and turns it up as high as our speakers would go. We wind down the windows the rain cooling the mugginess of the day and breathing a freshness through the cabin. We pull up in the middle of the basin. Toto’s Africa now streaming out into the air.

“We getting out?” I ask.

As was customary with Rod he surprised me continually by making profound statements that contradict his looks and sit juxtaposed with his usual conversation and overall demeanor.

“Robbo, in life you can’t wait for the rain to stop, sometimes you must learn to dance in it” and with that, he was out of the cabin, arms stretched to either side, like Andy Dufrane from Shawshank Redemption allowing the rains of Africa to wash over him, touching him both outside and within.

I leap from the cabin also, calling to the passengers to join us, hitting repeat on Toto and bounding past Rod into the rain along the salt encrusted earth. The music blares from the truck’s cabin “It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you, that’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do, I bless the rains down in Africa, gonna take some time to do the things we never have”

We all stand out on the white pan singing Africa at the top of our lungs, passengers moving past their initial confusion embrace the moment. The cooling breeze against the rain falling on our faces, soaking through our clothes as we spin around and laugh and dance in the storm.

As if by some evolutionary leap, we are able to feel our surroundings, the soul of the African wild embracing us. Here we connect, in this instant, opening the page of our travel adventure to a moment of truth. To a moment of understanding of the true meaning of journey and exploration. We embrace each other, miles away from the chattering of keyboards and the demands of business meetings. Each of us living, really living. Experiencing Africa in the way you would in the movies, like you would in your dreams.

We return to the truck, our spirits wide awake, each of us knowing we were all a part of something that enriched each of our souls and left us with a feeling that will stay with us long after this moment has passed.

Ganesha’s Gift

Part One:

It was “locals day” at Ranthambore Fort and as the temperature bounced high above 40 degrees a flood of saris of different colours mantled the temple to Ganesha. Accompanied by Grey Langur and a peppering of flies we meandered the fifth century steps and took shelter beneath the twist of tarp and thatch that rooved the wooden stalls outside the temple. The devotees slowly migrated through the thickness of the heat to the long line leading through the faded pink temple arches.

We purchased our offerings of laddoos, modaks and incense. As sweat droplets swelled on our brows, I looked to the locals waiting in the heat for their turn to gain favour from the god who removes obstacles. Obviously Ganesha has granted us his favour prematurely as Sawai grabs at my wrist and leads McGee and I straight past the line up to a hidden entrance behind the stalls.

“It’s working already” I whispered to McGee. She gave me a look to behave.

We took our shoes off and washed our hands and feet before entering the temple antechamber. We approached the shrine, decorated with garlands of orange and yellow flowers across drapings of red folded cloth. We reverently made our way to the shrine where a holy man accepted our offerings in turn, placing them systemically beside some picture frames of Lord Ganesha and some ornate silver jars.

The holy man then returned some of our offerings to us so that we may worship elsewhere in the fort. I looked at the remnants left in my bowl and asked him what they were. He motioned back that it was a food offering by raising his hand to his mouth. I nodded politely and turned to McGee. She however, seeing the holy man’s gesture thought he wanted us to eat Ganesha’s offering and was already munching down on a laddoo ball.

Asia mat karo! The holy men beckon McGee to stop eating Ganesha’s gift.

Part Two:

We were anxious to leave our tented farm stay accommodation on the border of Ranthambore National Park. Not because our glamping experience was negative. It was anything but. Our hosts at Maa Ashapura had treated us to viewings of Tiger, Leopard, Nilgai and Hyena up close in the wild; we rode horseback under the stars; and we were guests of the manager and his friends for dinner at the incredible Aman-I-Khas. But our train back to Jaipur was leaving soon, we still had over an hour to get there and inexplicably the EFTPOS machine wouldn’t accept any of our cards to settle our bill.

“You had to go and upset Ganesha didn’t you.” I winked at McGee

We still have time. We had drawn cash from the ATM in the village before, we will quickly detour and be back en route in no time. We dash to the village but the ATM machine was blanking out and needed to be rebooted. This was not a promising sign.

“Ganesha, the remover of obstacles! Why couldn’t you have picked a fight with one of the other gods? Maybe eaten some of Shiva’s bananas or Krishna’s gourds?”

We were back on the road but desperately behind schedule. Our driver suggested it was unlikely we would make our train, a point assisted by the fact that he was the most conservative driver in the whole of India. Unlike anyone else in the entire country he was sure to keep to his lane and resisted honking his horn, even when a number of camels set up shop in the middle of the road or when the seemingly endless parade of cows and pigs blocked our path.

“We are really feeling Ganesha’s wrath here babe, can you please make up with him or something?”

“Careful” she replied “Ganesha may turn on you if you get too cheeky.”

We crawled into the station car park, McGee and I on tenterhooks in the back. Gave our hurried thanks and tips to our driver, grabbed our backpacks and raced up the ramp, across the footbridge, skidding into the first carriage of our train as the doors closed.

It seemed there was some obstacle delaying our train out of the station. As the train pulled away we thanked Ganesha for this gift.

Part Three:

A day later we entered the Marriott at Goa. It was to be a treat to mark the end of our journey through India. We were at the swim up bar for less than an hour when we had made friends with the best man of a wedding being held at the resort. The families of the bride and groom were well to do and had hired out the whole resort… except it seems for our room.

Typical of Indian hospitality we were of course invited to join the festivities, an invitation we gratefully accepted. That night we made our way across the footbridge, down the red carpet and through the luminous canopy of linen to a beach full of tables laid in white tablecloths aglow with fairy lights and oil candles.

Photographers and Indian high society mingled and posed and my best travel runners were now feeling rather conspicuous as we were introduced from table to table by the bridal party, drinking Kingfishers and partaking in incidental rounds of prawn canapé roulette. It was about three in the morning when we cut away from the dance floor glow sticks and Bollywood lessons and made our way back to our room.

McGee rose late the next morning, rolling towards me to ask if I was ready for breakfast. “I can’t.” I whimpered. “I have had Delhi-Belly all night, I can’t be away from the bathroom for more than a few minutes.” I lay back on the bed, exhausted, the sheets sticking damp against my clammy skin. The fan providing no relief as I simultaneously burn up and shiver. “I’m going to need to stay here babe, I can’t go anywhere” I squeak. “There is absolutely nothing stopping this diarrhoea.” My eyes widen and we look at each other.

“Ganesha?”

Night Streets of Rome

This is an excerpt from thetravellingdiaryofadippydottygirl – I love the imagery she creates of Rome at night…

We drank plenty of wine, munched on bruschetta, pizza, cacio e pepe and aglio e olio pastas, walked arm-in-arm down the streets so softly lit, the old buildings casting half shadows, the occasional pair of lovers around the corner caught in a passionate embrace, men zipping down the cobbled streets of the alleys on Vespas with alarming speed and recklessness, the Carabinieri posted everywhere with their rifles and enough male beauty to make you go ooh. We sat with a fashion designer friend of mine and her half-Italian prince, drank into the night with stories of faraway places and times, and it felt heady, all those stories with sips of prosecco.

An Italian artist from Florence possibly got Rome in a heartbeat when he noted sometime in the 14th century that it is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning. Because that is what it does for us, produce the yearning to walk its cobbled streets for a long, long time till you want to walk it no more. But how can that even be?

Read more from the Dippy Dotty Girl at http://thetravellingdiaryofadippydottygirl.com/2017/12/24/night-streets-of-rome/

The Hummingbird

Light pooled and dispersed between the shadows, containers of cool air vaulted beneath the broad leaves. Through the canopy vines we bathe in the greenery and soak up the wildness of nature surrounding us. I look across at Choco, sitting on a wooden bench sipping his Belikin, with the beginnings of a smile and finally a look that bordered on contentment.

I started out this morning with Choco. Round head, dewlap like flap at the base of his skull, large belly, Mayan descent. I knew little more about him despite the fact he had picked me up every day since I had been in Belize. He was very pleasant but also very quiet and he had a look as though the monotony of daily life had worn him down a little.

Each morning he would arrive at 6am to take me to the dive shop. Mostly our 10 minutes together was consumed by my excited ramblings of today’s scuba diving excursion, my sub-aquatic adventures from the day before and if we had time, what happened last night at the pub. I didn’t get much by way of a response from Choco, he nodded and responded with brief sentences like “very good” or “what will you do tomorrow?”

Today though I was going on a road trip to explore a large cave system about 3 hours from Placencia and I faced the proposition of over six hours alone in minivan with Choco. As usual he was on time. I was keeping company at the top of the road with Miguel, a security guard from the guest house at which I was staying. “Good luck with the Hummingbird” he commented as I jumped into Choco’s van and waved him goodbye from the window.

“What is the Hummingbird?” I asked Choco.

“It is the road we will be driving”

“Is it dangerous?” I asked

“No” he replied and with that we slipped back into our usual early morning one directional discussion. However, not feeling like driving in silence for six hours and tiring of my own voice, I started pressing him for conversation.

I pried from him an update on the border dispute with Guatamala and his view on whether I should hitch there the next day. Teased from him details regarding his family life and growing up in Belize. Investigated the Mayan peoples and the remnants of their rich culture; and when we had exhausted all standing topics I pressed back in my seat and felt the warm morning air flood through the window as I commented on the postcard perfect scenery along the Hummingbird Highway.

By the time we got to our destination Choco had relaxed and was now starting to initiate some discussion. I almost wished we could drive a little longer, thinking I had nearly cracked him.

About four hours after he dropped me off I found Choco diligently waiting for me for our return journey. He was leaning back against his van with his shirt off. The Belizian sun reflecting off his protruding round smooth belly. He saw me emerging from the jungle and quickly whipped his shirt back on and gave me a wave.

I had spent the morning hiking through the jungle, zip lining through its canopy, exploring an extensive cave system and floating down a stream. Wet and filthy dirty I grabbed a change of clothes and beckoned Choco to join me for lunch. I handed him a beer and we sat along a wooden bench quietly admiring the tumble of rapids in the nearby stream.

We jumped into the van and a discernibly more jovial Choco declares “Guinness is my favourite. I like Belikin but Guinness is the best.” It seems as though beer has acted as a social lubricant for the now much chattier Choco. I suggested I might want to get some beer for the trip back. “Guinness is the beer I drive best on.” Choco adds. “ I know where we should go!”

A local toothless man with a weak chin stepped from the verandah of the general store as I exited with my bag of Guinness. “You’re gunna need something to get you back through the Hummingbird.”  He quipped, following this statement with a booming laugh as he scratched his head and looked out towards the jungle.

“I wonder what he meant by that?” I asked Choco as I handed him his first can of Guinness. Choco shrugs. His beam widening as he cracks the top of his can. We swerve off down the road with Choco chuckling aloud. “I like Guinness”

At first Choco’s chuckles made me smile at him enjoying himself so much. Then I couldn’t help joining in. Both of us chuckling like school children, Choco’s whole body shaking, as we cruised the Hummingbird. Then I saw a sign by the road that said “Prepare to meet thy maker.” I still hadn’t determined the nature of the threat of this road. Needless to say it was a little disconcerting seeing that sign as Choco cracked another beer with another high pitched chuckle.

I searched the road up ahead for signs of danger but it gave me no hints. It seemed like a perfectly safe road. Perhaps there were tight turns that fall away to plummeting ravines or cliffs with loose shoulders that I hadn’t noticed on the way here. Maybe bandits that lay in wait; or could the warnings I had received be the universe cautioning me about my increasingly intoxicated driver. My vigilant watch for impending disaster was broken by Choco opening up and giving me the run down on his girlfriends. In fact now that Choco had started talking I couldn’t shut him up.

Choco it turns out was 44, had a wife and 4 kids and despite appearances was an unscrupulous seducer of tourist women. Didn’t see that coming. He started with his relationship with a Canadian tourist that he became, in his words, “overly friendly” with. He was going to run off with her, except there was a problem with his papers that required his wife’s signature. That was the end of that one he lamented.

After cataloguing a number of star crossed affairs he talked me through his relationship with a Spanish tourist who agreed to be “on the side” until she got his wife’s number from his phone and started texting her that Choco was going to leave her.  Choco denied everything and then “gifted” his wife a new smart phone, with a new number of course and broke it off with the Spanish lady.

He told me he was a bit hurt by the Spanish girl because he trusted her and she broke his trust. I tried to explain there may be some irony in a married man feeling betrayed by his lover but he didn’t grasp the concept and besides he was now having such a good time on this trip back home I didn’t want to spoil it for him. Choco and I were finally connecting. It may have taken half a day and a good deal of Guinness though.

I imagined what it would be like if I could always take the time to connect with the people around me. People I usually pass in my day that I don’t have words to say to or perhaps just no time to say them. Choco and I had little in common but for the next couple of hours we laughed, we drank beer and we ate some of the Namibian Oryx biltong I had in my bag.

By the time we pulled back into Placencia, Choco leaned over and patted me on the knee and told me he was very happy with the drive home, he had never had such a good time working and he felt like the day was for him.

We pulled up in front of my accommodation, the lady at the front desk called out “I see you survived the Hummingbird.” I looked at Choco, he shrugged again. I never found out what if any risks there are driving the Hummingbird. I did find out a lot about my driver Choco though.

Choco. Guinness lover, chuckler…. lothario.

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.