Scribblings

TOGO 1982

We called this our wedding photo. It hung proudly on the wall behind the bar. Her brother, one of the village elders, bought the bar for Awarta to keep when her husband abandoned her for being barren. It was the only bar in town with electricity, meaning the beer was usually cold. But when Awarta wanted an occasional drink herself, it had to be a warm bottle of Guinness.

I was drinking beer at the bar one evening when Harry, a German volunteer, invited me to dinner at the farm where he lived not too far from town. Working for the United Nations, Harry had a pickup, not a Mobylette, like me. Working for the United Nations, not the Peace Corps, Harry was famous amongst volunteers for his big freezers full of the food he bought at the expensive supermarkets in the capital, Lomé. After a lovely meal of bratwurst, German potato salad and way too many beers, Harry drove me back to the bar, where I had left my Mobylette. It was probably about two o’clock in the morning. As we pulled up beside the bar, I was telling Harry a story.

‘Shut up, Tom,’ Harry said. ‘Look.’

Awarta was asleep, lying on a straw mat beside my Mobylette, her thin arm hooked through the spokes of the front wheel. Some idiot had forgotten to lock it.

TANZANIA 2006

As we walked into the village, the children ran from us, once again, screaming.

I was on a four-day trek with three other trekkers through the Usambara Mountains in northeast Tanzania, a trek organised by a community-based cultural tourism project. We had a guide named Wilson, but we carried our own backpacks, eating and sleeping in the villages along the way. The week before, I had done a five-day trek on the other side of Kilimanjaro, from the Ngorongoro Crater to Lake Natron, with a Maasai guide named Moses, as well as a cook, a donkeyman and two of his donkeys to carry our gear. Moses wore the traditional red plaid robe and carried a spear but, when he was not working as a guide, Moses was the headmaster of a primary school. As two teachers on a long walk together, we spent much of the time talking about the ups and the downs of teaching, with Moses complaining as much as me about all the paperwork these days. Whenever we entered a village, the children ran up to us, bowing their heads slightly for Moses to touch. Or just the opposite of the behaviour of the children in these villages.

‘Why do they do that?’ I asked Wilson. ‘Why do the children run away like that, screaming?’

Wilson laughed.

‘They are afraid of your backpacks,’ he said.

‘Afraid of our backpacks? Why are they afraid of our backpacks?’

‘The parents tell the children, if they are bad, you will grab them, stuff them in your backpacks and carry them away. That is what the children think you have in your backpacks. Bad children from other villages.’

TANZANIA 2009

‘Listen to your lungs,’ Davis said. ‘Listen to your heart. If they tell you to slow down, we slow down.’

‘Polepole,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ Davis said. ‘You are learning, Tom. Polepole.’

We had left Barafu Camp shortly before midnight, hoping to make it to Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa (5895 metres), before sunrise. We were both wearing all the warm clothing we had in our bags, with Davis looking like he was wearing two or three wool hats, two or three hoodies and two or three coats. His daypack looked strangely heavy and, now and then, he would stop and cough violently into some rag.

We could hear the clacking of trekking poles on the path behind us. When those poles were nipping at our heels, we stepped aside and let a group of Dutch trekkers push past us. No one in the group said thanks. Not far up the path, we passed them, collapsed along the trail, breathing hard, stuffing themselves with food and drink from their packs. This happened two more times, with the Dutch group and their noisy poles pushing past us and then us passing them, collapsed along the trail, once again, breathing even harder. After that, we never saw them again.

I had arranged my trek through the Keys Hotel in Moshi, who provided the tents and all the other gear, as well as five porters to carry that gear, a cook named Francis and Davis, my guide. It was a young crew, all looking like they were in their late teens to late twenties, with Davis telling me he had a wife and three children back in Moshi. It was a six-day trek along the Machame Route, allowing plenty of time for acclimatisation, staying at Machame Camp (3000 metres), Shira Camp (3840 metres), Barranco Camp (3950 metres) and Barafu Camp (4600 metres) on our way up.

We summited, as planned, just before sunrise. We posed for the obligatory photos beside the famous sign at the top, then began to follow a slightly different path back down to Barafu Camp. Not far below the rim of the crater, we joined a small crowd of guides and trekkers gathered around a trekker lying on his back in the snow. He was a rather large man, probably in his late fifties or early sixties. His face was blue, his eyes bugged out and he seemed unable to speak. I had seen people suffering from altitude sickness before, but never this bad. His guide said the trekker, an American, had insisted on summiting and refused to turn back.

Another guide had already located a so-called Kilimanjaro ambulance – a metal stretcher with a single dirt bike wheel below, distributed here and there along the various routes for just such emergencies – to carry him down. Davis unzipped his daypack and pulled out an oxygen cylinder, roughly the size of a fire extinguisher.

‘So that’s why your pack was so heavy,’ I said. ‘Why did you bring oxygen?’

‘You are an old man, Tom,’ Davis said, smiling. ‘You are babu.’

But then I noticed that, when he pulled the cylinder out of his pack, the rag he had been coughing into had fallen from the pack onto the snow. The rag was speckled with blood. Davis saw what I saw. He squatted down, grabbed the rag and stuffed it back into his pack. He looked at me and then he took the oxygen over to the man lying in the snow.

VIETNAM 2010

‘Sorry,’ the woman at the Thai Airways departure desk said, ‘but your flight has been cancelled.’

‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Why has my flight been cancelled?’

‘Heathrow Airport is closed,’ she told me. ‘All the airports in England are closed.’

‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Why are all the airports closed?’

‘Because of the volcano,’ she said.

‘The volcano? A volcano in England?’

I took a taxi back to the Hotel Continental on Lam Son Square in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City where I had spent the last couple of nights. It was a bit of a splurge, but the Continental was where Graham Greene began writing The Quiet American in Room 214 and it was where its narrator, the British journalist Thomas Fowler, would begin his evenings, drinking beer on the terrace overlooking the square.

‘Welcome back, sir,’ the receptionist said.

I told him about the cancelled flight, the closed airports and the volcano.

‘A volcano in England?’ he said.

When I got to my room, I turned on the telly. There were images of a snowy mountain, erupting like a nuclear bomb. CNN said the volcano was in Iceland, of course, not in England, with the unpronounceable name of Eyjafjallajökull. CNN said airports across Europe were closed and would probably remain closed for some time. I could not afford to spend weeks staying at the Continental, waiting for those airports to open, so the following day I moved to a small room in a small family-run hotel a couple of blocks away. The only other people staying there were two French basketball players who played for some professional team in Spain. They had come to Vietnam to work on the design of a new basketball shoe, but they were now stuck there, like me, waiting for a flight home.

The mother of the family who ran the hotel was very friendly, pleased she could speak French, not English, with all three of her guests, while her numerous children spoke to us in English, but not in French. If there was a father of the family, I never saw him. I told the mother it looked like I would spend my birthday in Vietnam now, not back home in England. She told me one of her sons would also celebrate his birthday in a couple of days and we must join the celebration, me and the two French basketball players.

On the day of the birthday party, we all piled into a taxi. The mother had chosen three of her daughters to be our dates for the evening, with the daughters sitting on our laps for the ride to the restaurant. A long table had been reserved at an outdoor restaurant on the bank of a river. Waiters filled the table with all sorts of Vietnamese dishes, leaving cases of cold beer at both ends. Our dates sat beside us, making sure our plates were full of food and our glasses full of beer. Whenever I took a drink, my date would top it up again.

Travelling around the old South Vietnam, from the Mekong Delta in the south to Hué in the north, I was pleasantly surprised by how much the Vietnamese liked to drink. Having been raised in Wisconsin, I considered myself a decent drinker, but I was an amateur compared to these professionals. In Hoi An, I was invited to join a drinking session with a group of secondary school teachers who ordered beer by the case and whisky by the bottle. On the Reunification Express from Hué to Ho Chi Minh City, the catering crew decided to keep me company when they saw I had a whole compartment to myself. By the time we pulled into Saigon Station, we had drunk every trolley dry.

After dinner, we all piled into another taxi for a ride to the family’s favourite karaoke bar. We were shown to a box that was not much bigger than the taxi, with the three daughters all but sitting on our laps once again. We had had enough beer, so we moved on to cocktails and other strong beverages. I sipped my daiquiri and listened to the family take turns singing songs, some in English, some in Vietnamese. Begged to sing a song myself, I eventually relented and gave John Lennon’s ‘Girl’ a go. After that, they stopped begging. The French basketball players attempted a hip-hop song but, struggling with the English, they also tossed in the towel. So everyone drank, they sang and we sat back and listened, happy just to be there.

What a strange birthday, I thought. Here I am at my first karaoke bar, an American in the city once called Saigon, exactly thirty-five years since the Vietnamese spanked the Yanks in what they call the American War, sipping cocktails and listening to this wonderful hard-drinking family sing pop songs in English, with this lovely young woman beside me, her hand on my thigh, feeling like old Fowler with his Phuong.

We all piled into yet another taxi for the ride back to the hotel. My date was sitting on my lap, of course, but now her hand was slowly stroking my thigh.

‘How long you stay in Vietnam?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I am waiting for the airports to open so I can fly home.’

‘Americans,’ she said. ‘You come to Vietnam. Easy. Then you want to leave Vietnam. Not so easy.’

NEPAL 2015

Phakding
Sunday, April 5

Lovely to be back at Namaste Lodge. This is the fourth time I have stayed at this teahouse. I stayed here going up and coming down when I did the Everest Base Camp trek six years ago. I am even staying in the same room I had at the start of this trek to Gokyo and back. Nice walk today, even though the trail was as busy as ever, still the M1 of the Khumbu. My usual breakfast of porridge and milk tea before heading down from Namche about eight. I was quite pleased I remembered to turn right onto that narrow path just after the first footbridge, not walking down what looks like the proper trail. I think some guides wondered how I knew to do that. Or at least I like to think they did. Arrived not much past noon, just before the clouds rolled in. I had my usual lunch of noodle soup before going to my room, putting on my thick wool socks and wrapping myself in my sleeping bag, then listening to Counting Crows on the iPad, while sipping cheap Nepalese rum and watching the rain piss down outside my window. This is definitely one of my happy places. I am sitting in the dining room now, as close to the dung-burning stove as I can get, scribbling away in this Moleskine and drinking my usual beers before I have my usual dinner of dal bhat. The dining room is filling slowly with the other trekkers who are staying here tonight. Most of the guides and the porters, as always, are in the toasty kitchen with the wonderful family who own the teahouse. A Dutch couple are sitting at the table closest to me. They are also on their way down to Lukla tomorrow, then flying back to Kathmandu. I know this because I was chatting with their guide before they came in. A nice bloke who says he thinks he remembers me from a previous trek. Perhaps he does. I bought him an apple brandy but, when he went to sit with them, the Dutch couple gave him grief for drinking at altitude. They told him they drink only occasionally and, when they do, they always drink wine, not beer. (I think they were looking at me when they said that.) There is an American group on the other side of the dining room who seem to be heading up, not down. They are all on their iPhones and their iPads, either complaining about the connection or ignoring one another when they can connect. There is also another couple, sitting quietly in the corner. I cannot tell where they come from or whether they are going up or coming down because they do not talk. They are reading books and drinking a pot of lemon tea. The Dutch couple have been moaning for more than half an hour now, telling the poor guide what was wrong with their trek. One of their complaints is that there were ‘too many gompas, too much om mani padme hum’. (Too much om mani padme huh?) It seems the Americans all ordered dal bhat for dinner, just like me. They eat the dal as a starter (well, I suppose it is a sort of soup) and then they eat the rice. One of them says the rice would have been better with some sauce, not just plain like that. (Should I say something? Nah, let them figure it out.) I think the quiet couple in the corner, with their books and their tea, are British. Well, I would guess she probably is. She just shut her book, stood up, said ‘God, I hate you’ and walked out of the dining room. He watched her leave, took a sip of his tea and then went back to his book.

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As every trekker who flies to Kathmandu from Delhi knows, you reserve a window seat on the left-hand side of the plane when you fly to Kathmandu and you reserve a window seat on the right-hand side of the plane when you fly back to Delhi. On a clear day, the view of the Himalayas is mind-blowing. If you have been trekking in the Annapurna Region, you get to see the mountains you just walked through, but from above, not below. You must reserve these seats well in advance and you must pay a bit more for your flights. But it is well worth it.

So imagine my displeasure when I board the plane in Kathmandu only to find someone sitting in my reserved window seat. The woman is on her mobile phone and, for a minute or two, she ignores me and keeps talking, hoping, I suppose, I will simply go away. When I do not, she stops talking, looks at me and says I can sit over there. Since I have no intention of sitting over there, I do not look where she is pointing.

‘Sorry,’ I say, ‘but that’s my seat. It’s reserved.’

She continues the conversation on her mobile phone, no doubt talking about me now, but she eventually hangs up, stuffs the phone in her bag and, with a lot of huffing and puffing, moves back to her seat.

This often happens to me. On a recent flight from Goa to Mumbai, someone was sitting in my seat and refused to move. He said he wanted to sit next to his girlfriend. I could sit in his seat, he said, handing me his boarding card. I found his seat, sat down and grumbled to the woman sitting beside me about what had just happened. She told me that was normal in India, that solo travellers are expected to change seats so couples and families can be together.

‘It’s a short flight,’ I said. ‘They cannot be apart for one hour?’

‘No,’ she said.

When we had taken off, the stewardess handed me a meal. She did not hand a meal to the woman sitting beside me or to most of the other passengers on the plane.

‘What’s this?’ I asked the woman sitting beside me.

‘It’s a pre-ordered meal,’ she said.

‘But I didn’t order a meal,’ I said. ‘It must be for the man who’s sitting in my seat.’

‘Just eat it,’ the woman said, smiling. So I did.

A family with three daughters boards the plane in Kathmandu. Each row on this plane has six seats, three seats on the left-hand side and three seats on the right-hand side. Two of the daughters sit beside me, while the father sits in the window seat behind me, next to the mother and the other daughter.

I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn around.

‘Please change seats with my daughter,’ the mother says, nodding towards the girl sitting in the aisle seat beside her. She smiles.

‘No, thank you,’ I say, turning back around and looking out the window.

No longer smiling, the mother calls the stewardess over and has a chat with her that clearly has something to do with me and that daughter.

‘Excuse me, sir,’ the stewardess says. ‘Please change seats with this girl so the sisters can sit together.’

‘No, thank you,’ I say and look (where else?) out the window.

‘Excuse me, sir,’ the stewardess says again, ‘but you must change seats with this girl.’

‘No, thank you,’ I say. ‘I reserved this seat months ago, so I could see the mountains. I paid extra to sit here.’

A second stewardess is summoned and another chat takes place between the mother and the stewardesses, obviously about me. The father and the daughters say nothing. They do not even look at me. But not only are the mother and the stewardesses looking at me, so are a number of my fellow passengers now, their eyes telling me to move. I try to smile back.

Do the maths, I think. If all three daughters must sit together, why can they not sit in the row behind me, with the father and the mother moving to my row?

Eventually accepting that I have no intention of changing seats with the girl, the stewardesses return to their duties. The plane takes off. The three daughters (whom I never hear speak, not even once) spend the entire ninety minutes of the flight watching movies on their laptops, their headphones clamped on, while the father snaps away with his fancy camera.

When we land in Delhi, the father, speaking for the first time, says to the mother, ‘I got some really good photos. The sky was very clear today.’

NEPAL 2017

One of the wonderful things about trekking in Nepal is the stark contrast between urban life in Kathmandu and rural life in the mountains. It is sort of like jumping from Kansas to Oz, being suddenly transported from an incredibly noisy place to an incredibly quiet place, from jam-packed roads to nothing but footpaths, from breathing dangerously dirty air to breathing deliciously clean air.

Toto, I have a feeling we are not in Kansas anymore.

I am sitting in the New Orleans Café, just across the street from the Kathmandu Guest House, drinking beer and watching people. The fashion of backpackers has always fascinated me, with their colourful clothes, their playful scarves and their amusing hairstyles. But there is a big difference between the local dress that the locals wear, which the backpackers would not be seen dead in, and the local dress that the backpackers wear, which the locals would not be seen dead in.

I am having dinner at the Northfield Café, just up the street from the Kathmandu Guest House, drinking beer and eating chicken tacos. On one side of the open-air restaurant this evening, a local Nepali band is performing live, while on the other side an Indian Premier League cricket match is live on the big-screen TV, with the Delhi Daredevils playing the Kolkata Knight Riders. The Nepali band is drowning out the cricket match and the cricket match is drowning out the Nepali band. In a close match, the Knight Riders beat the Daredevils. For the post-match analysis, the Eastern commentator is wearing Western dress and the Western commentator is wearing Eastern dress, though, somewhat tellingly, with Birkenstocks. Neither looks completely comfortable.

UGANDA 2018

I am staying in a small cottage at the Bunyonyi Overland Resort on Lake Bunyonyi. Sitting at the outdoor restaurant beside the lake this evening, I ask the waiter for the wine list. He returns with three bottles of wine.

‘So those are the only types of wine you have?’ I ask.

‘No,’ he says. ‘These are the only bottles. Which one do you want?’

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I am staying in a small cottage at the Mutanda Lake Resort on Lake Mutanda. The guidebook says the view from this resort is quite possibly the most beautiful view on the planet. Sitting on the deck outside my cottage, I should be able to see three dormant volcanos across the lake on the border between Uganda and Rwanda, with Mount Muhabura (4127 metres) on the left, Mount Gahinga (3474 metres) in the middle and Mount Sabyinyo (3674 metres) on the right. The slopes of these volcanos are one of the last homes of the mountain gorilla.

DAY ONE

I can see faint traces of the mountains across the lake today, but I cannot see the mountains themselves because of the clouds. There is thunder in the distance, so rain may be coming.

DAY TWO

It is raining and the clouds will not let me see the mountains.

Everyone had told me it would not rain in July and August because this is the dry season. Now everyone says the rainy season has begun early.

It looks like a storm is coming.

The storm passed by, without rain, but it is cold and windy now, with rumblings of thunder.

Mad thunder and heavy rain now. I love listening to the sound of rain on a tin roof, though this tin roof is also covered with thatch. It reminds me of thunderstorms when I lived in a mud hut with a tin roof in Togo.

Rain, rain, lovely rain. Drink your wine and listen to the pitter-patter of rain on the roof.

DAY THREE

It is wonderful watching the rain move across the lake, sitting cross-legged on the sofa out on the lodge’s veranda, drinking beer and hoping the storm will blow itself out so I can go back to my cottage with a bottle of wine from the bar.

The wind changed so I had to retreat from the veranda to the bar. This is a pretty mad storm, the sort of storm that would be awful if you were gorilla trekking or in a boat out on the lake. They have built a lovely wood fire in the bar now.

The storm has passed.

Sitting on the deck outside my cottage, I can finally see two of the three volcanos, but the top of the biggest volcano, Mount Muhabura, is still covered in cloud. The clouds shift and I can now see the top of Mount Muhabura, but the volcano in the middle, Mount Gahinga, has disappeared. And then, poof, like magic, Mount Muhabura is gone again.

SPAIN 2019

While walking up a steep hill on the Camino de Santiago between Triacastela and Sarria, I am told by a German pilgrim that I am not walking properly. She tells me I must stand up straight when walking uphill, not bent slightly forward like that. She tells me it is all about technique.

I ask whether she has read Dante. I ask whether she remembers how Dante the Pilgrim walked up the mountain of Purgatory to meet Beatrice. When he passes those souls whose pride is being purged, who are being made humble, Dante must bend forward in order to speak with them. As part of their purgation, those proud souls carry stones on their backs, forcing them to bow down as they had never done in life. The greater the pride, the heavier the stone. Well aware he also suffers from the sin of pride, Dante the Pilgrim says that walking uphill bent forward like that humbles him, that it deflates his inflated pride.

I tell the German pilgrim that my backpack is my stone. She looks at me as though I am mad and scoots off up the hill, head held high, leaving me in her dust.

While pilgrimage should make pilgrims humble, the Camino makes many pilgrims terribly smug, the smuggest being those peregrinos who begin their walk in Saint Jean or somewhere else in France, who always carry all their gear themselves and who stay only in dormitory-style refugios. They have no respect whatsoever for pilgrims who begin their walk in Sarria, who carry only daypacks and who stay in hotels and other private accommodation. And everyone hates the bicigrinos, those so-called pilgrims who do the Camino on bicycles.

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As I approach the Cathedral in Santiago, an American woman (a Sarria pilgrim with a daypack, whom, of course, I despise) tells me I will never be the same again, having walked the Camino. I tell her my feet – or at least some of my toes – will never be the same again.

To be precise, the little piggy on my right foot who stayed home will never be the same again.