Out the window at my Niseko hotel, Mount Yōtei with a morning cloud on its head. Hokkaido Japan, last Saturday in fact, not today. Hotel? Pop-out, modernistic, serviced-apartment type. You could not find a less authentic rustic Japanese ambiance, except perhaps in an Ikea showroom. Bloody Australians running the place (properties all seem to be owned LJ Hooker, the slopes by Packer's group I am guessing.) Often, as one travels the world, one's pleasant Aussie accent is greeted with a smile and the risorial imitation of a kangaroo (or a T-rex?, Small paws, curled up in front?). But not here. The locals hate Australians. It's like being in New Zealand.
Snow was brilliant but E@L wimped out for a variety of excuses reasons, primarily those of being unfit and old and unwell and having a prolonged anxiety attack (fear of falling over) that only subsided when he was submerged in a steaming onsen.
E@L is at home now, but unwell - chest infection from a generally hale and hearty ski-fellow who came down with it on Wednesday last and passed it on, the generous bastard, and today yet another burst of something unmentionable -- sorry must rush to the toilet for another squitter...
He can't get over the fact that he made it through a poverty porn tour of the Indochine and survived, yet has been knocked to his haunches by gastro twice in the last ten days, firstly in Japan (bad can of coffee from a vending machine?) and now in Singapore (Korean restaurant in United Square - a friend who dined with me is also suffering ["The world fell out of my arse this morning!"]).
Maybe will finish writing something tomorrow, have many things in draft (you don't need to know this), gods of blog spontaneity be damned, but I was re-re-reading some of the very early posts on my old blog and now am feeling depressed. Not only were they funnier, they were less pretentious (and yet - eyebrow raised - strangely, MORE pretentious) while still exuding the wanky, boyish and arrogant charms of the truly insecure dilettante...
Speaking of William S Burroughs (we were?), E@L has been chuckling and ruminating by turns through the publishable snippets of Philip Willey's WIP (novel, autobiography? who the fuck can tell). Other snippets have be seen occasionally at Dick Headley's blog.
Dick sent E@L a copy of his alter-ego's small text, printed on real paper, kindly signed by someone called Winston and dedicated to someone called Josef, all in exchange for a line of finely printed text on E@L's Mastercard statement. You too can join the select community - a copy may be purchased from the link on the link above. [Full disclosure: E@L has had beers with the man in various globetrotting locations, he seemed harmful enough.]
Naked Tea - The Burroughs Bits. Philip Willey. Ahndai Books 2011. ISBN: 97809734021 1 7
The typewriter font, love it. The illustrations, superb - videlicet, above.
And text, as E@L expected. Self-indulgent and dense stream-of-consciousness gonzo. Just way I like it.
Is this autobiographical? The introduction says it partly is. Then you think no, he's made this all up, including the introduction, he's pulling our legs. Then, once again you think this is real stuff, this is close to what happened, close to the core; PW was there, being as gonzo as he possibly could.
There are four sections, three written by PW, some (all?) of these are on the DH blog somewhere. No don't go looking for them! Buy the book. Like, PW needs the money.
First there is titular cup of Naked Tea with WSB at Fortnum and Masons, where Simon (who in the third section becomes Phil) conducts an interview that turns into an excellent, sardonic lecture on modern literature and life and the compulsion to write that non-linear "pastiche of drug-induced prose poems, essays, routines, dramatic fragments and therapeutic ramblings." WSB's observations, and Simon's reflection on them, clearly concern the greater novel we are reading a part of now (or perhaps the squandered talent in Chuck Woww's efforts) as much as WSB's own novels.
Then comes William at the the 1970's Phun City rock festival. Burroughs was there, as was JG Ballard (thanks Google), but was PW? It is from Burroughs' point of view (stoned - being raped by a giant cockroach) and is funny. Does he work his tapes into something later? I am not familiar enough with the compete works to know. Or is it PW doing the work here?
Thirdly, PW sits in a cafe in Morocco and writes a letter to the late Burroughs. He is talking with the ghost of WSB - who is observing and commenting on the writing of the letter, ("I find the times changes a little confusing") - and to describe Tangier as it is now, how low PW has sunk, how the world is now and then lets him have the last word: "Facebook sounds terrifying."
In the fourth section, the epitaph, there is a reprint of an online essay by one George Laughead about WSB obliquely confessing that the shooting of Joan was no accident. Interesting...
This is humour from the inside. As in our favorite parts of his blog, where Dick is sailing the BVI with a pair of Thai babes, or mixing it with the hoi-rock-polloi of the 60's (maybe some pre-reading is required?), there is a sense of complete but utterly casual immersion in the events and zeitgeist (of the times, man!).
This is the technique, the theme, perhaps the point. Being there.
Cleverly self-aware anachronisms, true-ish facts, throw-away name-dropping (where to start with a list of names!), invented voices on authentic vices, and the result is that you cannot help but find yourself in the midst of it. In the thick of the chaos, on the edge of notoriety and perhaps a hastily-unweighted decision away from fame and fortune yourself, as was Phil/Simon/Dick/Chuck himself, the rumour has it. Yes, that's it in the end, to have them (the soon to rich, the already infamous) as part of your story, but you are not of theirs. Imagine Rozencrantz and Guildenstern with AAA passes to the 60's and 70's. Sigh.
You couldn't imagine that all the serious fun of these times - the frighteningly new music and all this self-parodying art and literature happening around you - would become legend. While you took notice because it was your life, you didn't take notes for the same reason, and instead sat down to think over things in your life and called for a nice cup of tea.
With none other than Bill Burroughs. Well you might as well take notes now, because you are here to interview the man, make a name for yourself, perhaps succeeding, perhaps failing at both/either task(s). Unreliable narrator interviewing an unreliable character. What can go wrong? Nothing! Just as long as you hold that glass still on your head Joan, darling.
"Shoot the bitch and write a book! That's what I did! … There are no accidents." WSB (allegedly).
E@L stands amid a mass of well-on-the-way-to-drunken banker-wankers and schmarmy lawyers at Stormies, near the top of Lan Kwai Fong lane. The crowd from Big Al's Diner merges, the revelers form a bridge of beer-swilling expat humanity across the lane. E@L is not ashamed to be amongst them. Sure, why not? Look at him. He is the fat, bald, leering drunken lecher at the street-corner; why not live up to the stereotype that everyone takes him for anyway. It is his shout. He calls the harassed Filipina waitress over from where she is taking an order from someone else, passing change onto another pin-stripe suited.
"Six Coronas, cheers." He taps her on the bum to cheer her up.
It is Friday night and this is what you do in Hong Kong. Work hard (well not E@L so much, great job even then), play like an alcoholic.
"Look at that," says Justin.
"Take my photograph, will you? Asshat. What the fuck, get out of my face." He flips a posse of mainlanders the finger. (Whatever happened to the two-fingers? Justin is British. But everyone is American these days when it comes to hand gestures, to swearing. Cultural imperialism. Thank you television, thank you movies.)
"Mother-fucking mainland tourists, there's the one with the yellow flag. Fucking sheep, lemmings. Why don't they get on with their own life?"
E@L mimics a coolie accent:"Follow my little flag, we come from Beijing, you follow me, we go to darkest den of the natives. Watch the strange epxats in native habitat. See how they live. This is the foreigner in a zoo. Watch them eat and drink and abuse each other.."
"Ha ha. Take another photo, you plick and I jam you flucking camela up you flucking arse."
"Where the fuck do they get those clothes? All the fucking same."
After a while we ignore them. They look at us, we don't look at them. They are mildly annoying, and when you come to think of it, superfluous. We don't need to think about them. We don't even see them after a while as troupe after troupe go past. We have our own lives to destroy.
Another busload of Chinese climb the steps (temporary, steel, still a lot of work to go to make LKF the way it is today) to Wellington St.
We continue where we left off.
"Buy me a beer, and I'll let you keep standing next to me," says Justin.
"Fuck off," says E@L. "Are we going to Wanchai, or not?"
The pulse of our expat tradition beats on and on and on...
[Just in case someone doesn't get it - this post is meant to be read in conjunction with the the previous post, Poverty Porn.]
"Can we get WiFi there?" asks E@L, worried that his Words With Friends games might expire. He has already put up a holiday block on both his work email and his Gameknot chess matches. Priorities.
"They don't even have electricity," replies D4 in his mild Slavov Zizec accent. He even clutches at his nostrils quite a lot. E@L is not sure if he is joking. "I'm joking!" guffaws D4. How can you tell D4 is joking? Moving mouth.
The rooms in the "restored" French colonial guesthouse are large, there is enough space for the two king size beds for the platonic share with Odette. There are electricity outlets, one for E@L's CPAP, several for charging all his devices (modern life is a series of battery depletion crises). There IS WiFi, for 10hrs a day. There is aircon, there are bedside lamps, there are mosquito nets - E@L doesn't need his though, as mentioned previously Asian mosquitoes find him tasteless (not Robinson Crusoe there) - there is hot water.
There is, should be, will be, hot water. A dribble, a gurgle, a cough then a spurt and then all of a sudden the water is scalding. Cold on a bit, it's freezing. Cold down a bit, it's freezing for a few seconds, then scalding. What is going on here? To get the temperature right for the shower is like playng a pinball machine, you need Tommy the wizard. It's a shifting playing ground, it's a struggle. E@L gives up and showers lukewarmly.
Your turn Odette, good luck.
Breakfast is nothing much and you know how E@L appreciates his Aussie version of a continental petit dejeuner. Vegemite on toast, muesli wth fruit and yoghurt, a LARGE cup of coffee. Nah, not likely.
A few skimpy pieces of fruit, the best of the bananas gone to the gibbon under E@L's window, black liquid in a thermos dispenser mislabelled as coffee, stale baguettes sliced and toasted on a small grill. Only one type of jam. No ao khun, E@L does not want eggs.
This part of Laos, Si Phan Don, is very dry, not monsoon time. VERY dry: dust: puff powder mist floats up fine fine particles with each step, like underfoot explosions, ha ha. We walk almost the circumference of the island over the two days, from the waterfall on this side (sunset, awesome, 20,000kip for the pathway) to the waterfall, more a cascade, on the other side midday on day two. We could have hired bicycles (he'd say pushbikes but no-one would have a clue what E@L was talking about) and it's not that they were too expensive at 10,000 kip per day- $1.50 - but D4's lanky knees would bash against the handlebars.
So we walked along the paths slowly, heat and dust, chatting and joking, watching the Laos islanders go about their daily business. This seemed to be mostly lounging and talking. And looking at us as we ambled along. They had stopped talking. A nod and E@L's poorly pronounced sabai dee was met most often with a blank stare. Even as we headed straight at people walking towards us, there was the blank look or there was averted eyes, as if we weren't really there. E@L had a hint that even though we weren't interfering but just watching them, they might have resented out presence. That blank expression was not one of indifference but slight annoyance, as one might dismiss without looking at a chicken that walked on your path. You and the chicken have differnet agends, you live in different, occasionally intersecting worlds. We are superfluous.
A middle-aged man squatted in the shade of a copse of straggly trees and banged something made of wood with a something made of rusted steel into a chunk of bleached wood for some purpose, next to a circle of smoking ashes and a parked motorcycle. He looked up at us for a second at E@L's greeting, then turned his deeply creased face back to his mysterious task.
A pregnant woman perched on stool, one leg under her bum the other swinging, in a structure something like a shop. Goddam it, it was a shop. Small toys, minor doing-things instruments and cheap tools hung by the entrance. Food, biscuits, cigarettes. There was a refrigerator with drinks. We asked her for two bottles of chilled water. She did not move, perhaps did not understand. Izzy shrugged, opened the door anyway and took them out, held them up and asked how much. The pregnant woman slowly stood and brought over a LCD solar-powered calculator with a large screen. 10,000 kip, same as a day of bicycling. Izzy had no kip and the lady would not accept her $5 note. E@L had amongst the six currencies in his wallet, enough smokey-tintedkip to cover the drinks.
Everywhere bustling around us, up and down the path kids of two/three, five/seven ran amok (not the delicious local fish dish), played all sorts of games incomprehensible to adults and generally had fun independant of the control of whomever were their parents. The kids would generally respond to our waves, sometimes enthusiastically sometimes less so, and our "sabai dee" greeting would often elicit a muted reply. But they kept running past us intent on their own lives.
"Well at least the next generation will be more friendly," says E@L
However, there was one girl, perhaps five or six. She stopped as we walked past, put her clenched fingers to her mouth and pulled them away in familiar gesture, to the side and down. "Kung pao," she said. "Kung pao." Chinese red packets. Money.
Waterfalls. Done, tick. Local inhabitants, however. Not yet completely done, unticked.
The round-the-island-tour boat was set to go at four. We tramped back along the road to our gibbon friendly guesthouse with only 15mins to have a rinse down, a partial de-dusting. D4 decided to crash; bad knee even without the bicycle handlebars, and a sore hip. E@L medicated him with some cox-II inhibitor NSAIDs. Deadly, sure, but fuck they work well.
Our boat was slightly more river-worthy than the floating village long-tail, it even had cushions on the planks and removable back-boards for support. Luxury. The roof a bit dodgy, and a splash too much water in the gunwales, bilge, cargo-hold, whatever - under the boards - but it didn't break down. The tour was timed to coincide with sunset over the river. We pulled up-stream towards the beach where we had boarded the day before. We passed it by though, and came down on the other side of another island, again with the stream. Negotiated some whirlpools, watched the bubbling scum of waste outleyts and thanked whatever gods may be that we didn't have to swim in it. Half submerged trees and semi-erect spears of dead branches reared out to impale our boat.
The captain, took us towards the embankments on the far side of this branch of the river. Here the wooden shacks did not stand with half their stilts in the river. That was what we had seen earlier, in the part of the Mekong we were staying. Instead many of the houses here were built with their foundations in solid ground, still on stilts, many leaning askew, not so solidly implanted. Other houses had their river-side walls halfway down the embankment, where their not-necessarily sea-worthy canoes were dry docked.
Dry boards for walls, curved and peeling off, nailed back, that or thatched rattan, and thatched or corrugated tin roofs. The embankments were quite steep, and many families had planted vegetables gardens - E@L saw rows of staked tomato vines. The more river-worthy boats were beached at small landings.
But now, here at the edge of the water, was the point of our visit. Here the timing of the cruise was perfectly coordinated. Now we were to get what was most crucial for our holiday, what we had come for, what we had paid for.
The families were bathing. They were washing themselves, doing their ablutions in the muddy Mekong. Water niether cold nor hot, always the same. Slightly chilly, no fiddling with taps required.
Splashing all over their bodies the polluted flow. The froth of scum we had chugged through, from all the waste outlets upstream, their waste outlets going downstream. Bacteria (e-Coli in particular du'h), viruses, parsites. Little children are naked, mother in a sarong, rinsing them over, wiping the dust away with one hand while the other held her child still enough. A women rinsing her hair, twisting it at her shoulder sees us and stops. Old men with their lower bodies covered by their short sarongs are throwing water up into their groins, then rubbing through the wet cloth. Young men, old women, children, teenagers, the girls shyly covering up when they hear us approach, the women turning away, the men staring hard. No-one returns our first timid waves. No-one sabai dee's back to our timorous calls.
The show kept going, more people up ahead at the bottom of their embankements, more traditionally shy people publicly exposed for fun and profit. On show like circus freaks. Like a zoo.
E@L turned away. He didn't look again. That was enough. He didn't want to see any more, didn't want to invade any more, didn't want to oppress any more, didn't want to exploit anymore.
It wasn't so long since these people had to run from the French colonialists who needed free labour. To hide from the bombings, the napalm, the agent orange of the Americans who needed to send a message to China. Except for when they couldn't run at all, when they had to stand still or die, when their uncontrollable children, their farming families and loved partners were fenced in by thousands of live, plastic (purposely unfindable), permantly present, plane-scattered land-mines. When they were blown apart, dismemebered, legs lost. When their cattle, often their only resource, were blown apart.
So what that these people are bathing in the river? It wasn't so long either, a mere few centuries, that Europeans were living essentially the same way, even worse. Leave them alone for pity's sake. It cultural pornography. We are rich, they are what we would call poor. Stop these poverty porn cruises. Make some money here and there with some other tourist scam, but not this way, not boating past your families in their shower, in their bathroom.
D4 was in the restaurant when we returned. His iPad was on the table, fully charged, and he was chatting with a Dutch fellow tousist.
The tourist had a martini glass in front of him. He smiled and pointed at it. Consciously ironic, he said: "I asked for a dry martini, look at it. It's almost opaque, almost entirely vermouth. Sweet as anything I have ever tasted."
D4 countered with: "What's the point of paying $40 a night if the place can't even make a decent dry martini?"
E@L was not in the mood to be amused. He has no hard-on for this poverty porn.
(Sorry, this post disappeared into draft for some reason.)
Templed-out in Cambodia.
We climbed the temples that were available to climb, but the vertiginous staircases at Angkor Wat were closed, maybe too many fractured skulls from the giddy adventurous and over-confident adrenalin junkies. We did the jump-meme every now and then. Pulled faces at the Apocalypse Now faces in the Bayon temple, got lost, got found, took photos at the pile of modern bricks, the future's ruins. Were as anti-tourist as possible, made concerted efforts to be in as many of other people's photos as we could, stand in the way of the perfectshoot as long as possible - as they all did to us. Perhaps unintenionally.
We were up at 5am one morning, tuk-tukked to the site, saw Angkor Wat at sunrise, silhouettes mainly, nice but, and we watched the ambitious Japanese use flash cameras to capture the rosy-fingered dawn. By the third day however, when our promised sunset shoot was scheduled (much more dramatic, with the golden-hued temple looking magnificent - E@L can confirm that from last time he was here, in 2000) we were too buggered to fufil our goals, promised ourselves instead to look at the sunset from our balcony, and so we crashed, gin&tonic exhausted, by the pool or back in the room. When E@L awoke poolside, three Melvyn Bragg podcats past, the sunset was in its final radiance, so he went upstairs and knocked on Izzy's room. She came to the door, all groggy and disoriented.
Pause. "O, fuck off!" door slams.
E@L laughs, good joke.
In the floating village at Tone Loc, I mean at Tonle Sap, we head downstream (towards the lake) in a long-tail boat which keeps breaking down, to the floating house/restaurant that is the canoe trip base, with a, E@L thanks christ, toilet.
But the bilge-pipe spouts smoke instead of water. Not good. Our 12 year old captin hands the wheel over to the 7 year old first mate and leans over the back for the rest of the trip, holding smoething onto something or away from something near the waterline so that the engine can run. Looks of blank-faced concern.
The canoe trip is not as we had imagined it - instead of us paddling yellow plastic things, a strong young lady is doing all the paddling in our creaking wooden canoe. But we weave through the mangroves, dappled in shadow and sunlight, lotus-seated in a spiritual silence, only the plash of the paddle, the soft chirruping call of some waterbirds and the ripping roar of the long-tail boats... E@L sits up front and holds a contemplative buddha pose, thumb to middle fingers on his knees, eyes closed, as his canoe returns across the river to the restaurant/canoe berth.
"You're not fooling anyone," says D.
Heading back upstream, more trouble and we circle back to the floating house at the canoe berth, and our long-tail breaks down completely just as we edge up to it. Our captain is shouting something angrily to the four of five people who stand, unimpressed, watching our approach. He yells again and one of the women reluctantly goes into the back-room, presumably the kitchen, and returns with a meat cleaver. We raise out eyebrows and look at each other again. However, all he decapitates is a water bottle. The upper part is useful it appears, and after some repairs, obviously involving the introduction of some fluid or other, we are off. No more issues. With bumps, grinds and pushes and a great rearrangement of boats already berthed, we negogiate with the other returning long-tails and larger boats into a rare berth on the crowded sand.
Planes, vans and a rickety "ferry" (another, even less sturdy, but mechanically sound long-tail) and we arrived at Si Phan Don. The road from the airport to the "ferry terminal" was paved but poorly macadamised, rolling with unintenional and ignored speed-bumps. The bridge aproaches were typical for the rural areas here - so sudden and steep and obviously made without the road's height in consideration - and the iPodded, sleeping E@L's head hit the ceiling each time. Melvyn Bragg, in midsentence. The driver had no concerns at this and did not slow except for cattle, broods of chickens (why DO they cross the road?) and dogs. Thirsty, E@L asks up front for water. D passes back a bottle upside down. E@L looks at it, tries to drink from the base, gestures to D for a meat cleaver. Hilarity ensues.
We turn around a small island, first we head upstream, then downstream back into fast moving river which brings up quickly to a "berth" -another beaching, but this time by steps that lead up the bank to our hotel reception.
We are shown our rooms. "Over there," they point. Next to the gibbon's cage.
It is a French colonial villa, although that word is exaggerates the impression we first obtain. The yellow walls are indeed of the traditional French style. The place was built in 1896. Auberge Sala Done Khone. Cool. There are some floating rooms we could have taken, done below the restuarant. They are available on the next night, but hey, we are set already.
The most interesting thing about our fellow adventurers - the average age is about 75. Very few backbacker types. In fact none. We do not expect to see many Happy Pizza places or opium dens.
In the small village of Au Laok in the Roulus group of temples, volunteer teacher Mr Suang finishes his work as an assistant worker on the temple restoration projects and comes back to his empty home. His wife has "gone away" and they are divorced.
When the sun is on the way down and the day cooling off at 5;30, a bunch of 20 dusty kids arrive at an open air school. Rows of traditional classroom seats face the whiteboards. Mr. Suang walks across the road.