Sunday, 28 June 2009

World Hawking Championships: Current Standings

The one thing I won't miss about Asia is the constant sound of people sniffing and coughing up wads of phlegm at all hours of the day. It's truly revolting. And it's not just the men; the women and kids are at it, too. It's certainly not limited to any one country, but some are certainly worse than others. So here's a rundown of the standings so far.

1st Place: LAOS

These people are in first place, not collectively, but simply due to one outstanding solo performance in Luang Prabang. Myself and Jocky were quietly enjoying breakfast, and dodging the snakes which dropped out of the trees at any given moment, when we were more than a little put off by a diminutive old lady who decided to wander into the street opposite us to try coughing up what sounded like the product of a lifetime of smoking. The pancakes didn't taste so good when we heard an audible splat on the pavement opposite us. She even inspected her work afterwards.

2nd Place: VIETNAM

Dirty sods, this lot. If it's not hawking and gobbing in the street, it's picking your nose without a hint of shame. If you can't cough it up, pick it out. Examine and flick. Nasty.

3rd Place: INDONESIA

I had my stomach turned a fair few times in my month here. The standout performer for me was the hostel owner absent-mindedly coughing up a blob and spitting it at a passing dog. He might have beaten granny to first place. But he missed.

I have a feeling there'll be a few contenders for a Top 3 ranking in South America...

Thursday, 25 June 2009

The Difference Between A Good Haircut...

...and a bad one is around 2 weeks. You get a bad haircut in London and you're mortified: you have to get home, and people are going to see you. Unless you live in Shoreditch, where people look like they cut their own hair; either that, or Stevie Wonder did it with a knife and fork. The worst haircut I ever had was at a Turkish barbers in Dalston (I should have known better). It was so bad I had to shave my head afterwards.

But when you travel, you get what you're given. Pigeon English isn't good for communicating how you want your wig adjusting. I've learned to sit back and hope for the best. And a couple of quid isn't too bad, considering you could bung Toni & Guy forty quid and end up as physically badly off.

I wandered down a narrow alley off Jaksa, after thoughtfully rubbing my stubbly chin and squinting at the list of services on offer at this local salon. Haircut and a shave for a couple of quid? Count me in. You can't beat a good wet shave. So I settled myself down in the chair, and the owner sauntered over. "Shave please?" I frowned in a certain degree of puzzlement when she simply wet her hands and rubbed them on my face. A solitary eyebrow was raised further at her when she produced a bottle of Dove moisturiser and began massaging this liquid around my chin. Needless to say, there was no lather produced. It was when the BIC disposable razor was produced that I started to giggle. Surely she wasn't serious? My giggling was obviously infectious, as she started laughing, too. Her English was so limited that I couldn't communicate anything at all to her about what I found so funny. I tried not to laugh as she began, as I didn't fancy my throat being cut just yet. And I suspected we were laughing for completely different reasons, initially. But it was just so funny, I could only wonder how the haircut was going to go. Miraculously I got away with no cuts at all, but there were so many areas she missed that I knew I'd have to finish it off at home.

Next I tried to explain that I just wanted my hair thinning out, as it grows so quick, and was surprised when she motioned that she understood. She started cutting into it, and I started laughing again. In a salon at home, her attempts would have been cause for major alarm; but she was laughing, too...and I think we both understood the reasons for our mutual mirth. Vidal Sassoon would have been horrified. Clumps of hair were flying, but it was such a surreal and amusing experience that I decided I'd just sit back and enjoy the ride.

I didn't look too butchered after she desisted...it'd grow back over the next few weeks, anyway. I got up and paid, and the giggles broke out again as she thanked me for the cash (I even tipped her a little) and said "Thank you, mister. See you next time." Probably not, but an amusing half hour. And a nice cup of tea, too.

Muslim Alarm Clock

I'd been forewarned of this; don't stay anywhere near a mosque when in Indonesia. I'm atheist, myself, but don't have a problem with anyone's religion...unless they're ramming it down my throat, that is. Jehovah's Witnesses knocking on our door when I was a kid trying to watch Monkey on a Tuesday night, things like that. In fact, my Dad used to ask me to keep them talking while he ran upstairs to fill a bucket of water to throw out of the window. He didn't like Monkey being interrupted, either.

The Muslims are a bit much at times, too. The average Christian loves their god (sorry, no capital letter), but has the decency to just ring a few bells on a Sunday morning and then get down on their knees for an hour or so. But not the Muslims. Oh no. Let's crank up the loudspeakers, sing for half an hour at...hmmm...let's say around 4am? Then do it 5 times a day for anyone who missed it? Where do these people find time to do a day's work if they're praying 5 times a day? If more of the doleites we get in the UK realised praying 5 times daily would get you out of work, we'd be living in a Muslim country far quicker than we're actually going to be.

In JJ, there was one particular guy who ruined my sleep daily. I don't even mind the guys who can actually sing; I'd quite like to visit Marrakech and look out over a city of minarets in the light of a rising sun and appreciate this evocative sound. It can be beautiful. But this guy wasn't going to win Java's Got Talent anytime soon. And surely everyone knows where the bloody mosque is...do they have to shout about it?*

*I'm expecting my Fatwah in the post anytime soon. I'll wave to you all on YouTube before they cut my head off...

Further Paranoia On A Bus To Krakatau

Well, Asia's not Disneyland...so you're bound to meet a few bad apples on the way around, aren't you? Having said that, there's bound to be a few bad apples at Disneyland, anyway; you're not telling me that amongst a few hundred grown men in giant furry animal suits playing with kids all day there aren't a few Gary Glitters in the barrel?

Anyway, I'd spent a couple of days in Jakarta. There's not a great deal to see. I went to the old Dutch walled city of Batavia in the North, and that was about it as far as sights go. The Rough Guide described the walk through the area, starting at the railway station it described as having "an impressive facade". Impressive if you live in a tenement slum in Glasgow, perhaps; it was hardly Frank Lloyd Wright.

The city is sprawling, with no discernable centre. It's generally considered a pretty crazy place, but after you've been to Manila, anywhere seems serene by comparison. I didn't feel threatened at all walking around, day or night. I'd settled in at a place called Hostel 35, just off Jalan Jaksa. I'd highly recommend it. Cheap, brand new and tastefully decorated; I've stayed in much worse for more money. There were a couple of ex-pats I met there, Nick and Iain, who filled me in on a few places to visit. Krakatau was top of the list. A bit of a trek, according to Nick, and the day I set off to see it, he suggested I hang around and go tomorrow, as I'd left it late. JJ is a pretty dull place to hang around though, so I decided to set off anyway. The bus station serving East Java was a good hour away, the shiny towers of the centre giving way to shanty towns and dirty roads.

On reaching the bus station, I was the only honky in town. I was directed to a row of buses, and picked the front one simply because it was likely to leave first. Not alwasy the case, but a fair bet. It was a complete shitheap, but not as bad as some in the Philippines: at least there was glass in the windows. We pulled away with only around 6 passengers and a couple of hawkers. It wasn't long before a couple of guys got on and made their way to where I was sat. One was asking the usual questions, but kept shifting seats, occassionally sitting so close to me that he wasn't far from being in my lap. Then he called someone and put me on the phone to him; this guy was touting his boat to go see Krakatau, the island volcano off the coast of East Java. I explained I wasn't in a rush to pick a boat just yet (I was hoping there'd be more Westerners I could join, it'd be cheaper). After this, the man was trying to take my picture, and then started playing with his phone. All this began to unnerve me a little...what the fuck did he want pictures of me for? His friend just looked at me and my bags now and again. Then the weird one was jabbering on the phone and looking over at me.

An hour out of Jakarta, and we approached a toll. The traffic slowed and, thankful the rear doors of the bus were open throughout the journey, I just grabbed my bags and jumped off, heading for the Police station the other side of the booths. A few passengers called me back, telling me we weren't there yet...but I'd had enough of this oddball's behavoiur.

The Police were understanding, and told me they didn't see many Westerners coming this way. They put me in a car to take a 5-minute ride to where the return buses to Jakarta passed. My nerves were jangling so much, I couldn't face getting another bus West. I jumped another bus, and the driver said he'd get me near Jakarta. Near? It turns out he had to drop me on a motorway junction where a few hundred people were getting on and off buses as the traffic roared by. It was bizarre. Not the safest practice around. As night began to fall, I eyed the area and decided a taxi would be a better idea than trying to find public transport. The driver I flagged down was pretty fluent in English, and I told him what had happened. "Better to take care when alone" he smiled.

Couldn't agree more, dear boy.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The Friendliest People In Asia

Indonesians. I love them. After 48 hours in Jakarta I was convinced these people are the warmest in this corner of the world. The Vietnamese are rude money-grabbers; the Laos are friendly but fairly nonplussed by us; the Thais are used to our money and act accordingly, though some of them shine; the Filipinos are friendly in the main, but crazy and some are downright dangerous; none of them match the Indos.

It started with Rizal at the airport. The next evening I was sat at a street Nasi (rice) stall with two locals who were pleased to be able to talk English football. The conversation lasted 5 minutes, and they insisted on paying for my dinner as they left. On the way back to Jalan Jaksa, a couple of guys stopped me and we got talking about music. One suggested we go clubbing at the weekend with his other Western friends; I asked for his number and explained I didn't have a local SIM, so couldn't give him a number. He wanted to lend me his spare phone until I got one. I passed, but thaked him for his kindness. I met a woman named Dewi on a train to Bandung a few days later who rescued me from an oddball who'd cornered me to practice English on. She wanted me to meet her single daughters. They're just happy to talk to us, it's so nice.

I had one guy walking with me up the main street in Jogjakarta later still, asking me all sorts of questions. He accompanied me for five minutes, and I was cynically waiting for the usual sales pitch to appear. I was resignedly giving him fairly short answers to his probing. After he asked where I stayed, I impatiently asked why he needed to know. He simply smiled and said "Sorry sir, I just like to practice my English. Thank you." I felt so guilty as I watched him walk away through the crowd. I still wish I'd called him back and offered him a drink somewhere.

Late Night Paranoia In Jakarta

Arriving in Jakarta at 1am was like stepping back in time. The terminal exudes an air of the late 70s, both in the decor and the laconic attitude of the Immigration staff who loll around the desks disinterestedly smoking while stamping your passport. I'd passed the disinfection area, where paper-suited staff like extras from 28 Days Later had sprayed us with anti-Swine Flu chemicals. Actually, it was probably watered-down bleach. I was prepared for a bit of trouble; I'd managed to change my remaining Filipino Pesos into US Dollars, a necessity as the exchanges in Manila didn't do Indonesian currency. So I had $20, and knew the immigration fee was $25. But I should have been able to get some cash from the machines beyond Immigration and return to pay, right? Wrong.

Thanks, again, to some spotty herberts in the banking system...my cards snubbed my requests for cash. One of the airline staff had accompanied me to the ATMs, and watched as I tried all three of my cards in 8 machines.

First refusals, and I started to sweat. Beep beep beep. Another card returned without the pleasantly familiar sound of the counter stacking up notes for me.

"Bastard...oh, for fuck's sake..." Beep beep beep. "You shithouse." Beep beep beep. "Come on, come on, come ON" Pause. Yes? Beep beep beep. "Oh, you c..." The last, and worst, expletive died on my lips as an elderly Muslim woman edged past, eyeing me disapprovingly. I proffered a weak smile which wasn't returned.

"Problems?" asked my escort.

"Yes, mate. Big ones." I sighed, shaking my head.

I told him about the banks freezing my accounts, and that they suspected a fraudster was using my card every time I entered a new country. This, despite me giving them notice of my travel plans. Nationwide were my best bet, but the phones were not open for another 15 hours. We went back to Immigration, where I explained I'd have to wait until the banks opened in order to get access to my cash. What a nightmare.

Rizal, the escort, offered a solution. He'd lend me money if I left collateral, such as a camera or a phone, with him. I couldn't thank him enough. He gave me enough for dinner, taxi and lodgings...and we arranged to meet the next day. What a relief. I wandered out to the taxi rank; by now it was past 2am, and a scrummage of drivers formed around me. Rizal directed me to one of them, and we set off.

The guy's English wasn't too good, and after a while the effort of struggling with conversation was too much. The car was silent as we peeled off the main highway. I noticed the signs for Jakarta were pointing straight ahead on the road we'd just left. "Where are we going?" I asked the driver. "Yes sir, is OK" he replied. This was to be the only response I'd get from him for the next 5 minutes. I asked why he wasn't going to Jakarta. Why the signs said one way and he'd taken me another. Alarm bells were ringing now, as he jabbered on the phone and sent texts to Persons Unknown. Was this going to be where I finally got robbed? The road got worse, and the area looked pretty dodgy. I was mentally calculating: could I jump out at a set of lights, keeping my valuables in the smaller bag and abandoning the rucksack in the boot? Would we pass a police car? I reckoned I could handle this taxi driver, but would there be accomplices? Paranoia can easily get out of control on the road alone. It pays to have a little, it keeps you safe. Trust your instincts and avoid any places or people you don't feel 100% about. But I was one step away from an adrenaline-fuelled Fight Or Flight situation now. I demanded he take me to Jakarta and asked why he'd taken me off the route, but to no avail. "Yes, yes...is OK..."

He sped down a dark side street, and I inhaled deeply a couple of times. Keep cool, and prepare yourself for any eventualities. Just as I was ready for anything, we pulled onto another better-lit road...and the Jakarta skyline appeared. Two streets later, and we were on Jalan Jaksa...Indonesia's Kho San Road. I felt a right berk, and mentally made a note not to arrive in any more big cities in the dead of night. "Yes, Sir...is OK" the driver smiled. He got out to ask a local the location of my hotel. I overpayed and apologised for being so jumpy. He must have thought I was a lunatic...he was just avoiding the toll booths on the highways.

Must have been the easiest tip he'd ever received from a madman.

Java

I stood on the edge of the world tonight; lightning flashing across the Javan sky, illuminating a sheltered bay pounded by the volatile Indian Ocean. Inky onyx waves surged towards me, below seething crests of ivory foam...suddenly receeding before rushing back with increasing fury. Tantalising, almost taunting; the water sucking at my legs, drawing me in. A deep bass rumble, staccato percussion and the flicker of fires from the beach accompanied me as I rushed into the surf. I floated, the water crashing over me, smiling as I joined my laughing companions. It felt like we'd been drawn here together, as if it was meant to be. Flashes rent the sky once more, and it truly seemed the horizon was the edge of everything, and if the waves drew us too far out, we would surely fall off into an eternal nothingness.

OK, so the Javanese mushrooms we'd all consumed probably had something to do with it. But what a night; the music, the people, the place. Batu Karas was where I had one of my best nights out in a long time. The sequence of events preceeding my arrival made me positive that the week had been a jigsaw falling into place. But nothing during my time in Asia has ever run smoothly, so I'd better explain how I got here in the first place...