For all the prognostication and critique of travelling life that fills the posts of this blog, the truth is day after day, I have a total blast. Of the problems of Asia and my place in it I’m glad to be aware, but its not everything. I still wake and fill my days with whatever comes, a pleasure of the highest order. One often impossible to afford ourselves in the race of life. Over the last five months I’ve made an art of going with the flow. I’ve made it to Bangkok, the final stop of Asia, and flow doesn’t begin to describe it.
Something about the impending finish line allows me to see everything in crystal. Each minute of my final days here dazzle me with disbelief. So what am I doing to profit most from the home stretch? Nothing. I haven’t set foot in a temple or museum or monument in probably 60 days. No more checklists and must see’s. I’ve developed an almost agoraphobic reaction to attractions awash with shuffling tours narcoleptic in the heat. My feelings on guidebooks have already been chronicled! There are no more fraught pilgrimages to make the top of the hill before dark, to visit a singing roundabout or queue for a lift to some Godless penthouse to see the last whisper of the sun exhale on the smog below and make us all with our smartphones feel like Demi-Gods. I spend these hours of golden light, and all hours, in pursuit of nothing. Just me walking around dead end streets and the Asian equivalent of housing estates, as I always do. Sounds riveting. It is! In the search for nothing I find everything I could want. A truth about these banal quests is that the sheer familiarity normalises all the mad stuff that happens. I don’t bat an eye when a strange man approaches to try Shiatsu massage on my arms. To sit on a park kerb chatting about the automobile industry because a couple want to practise their English. I emerge from a quiet park to find a mobile dance party in full effect in a rock garden on some Tuesday afternoon. Hey you, up front. Here’s a garland. Drink this. A circle of men part and pull out a stool for me to watch a perplexing game of DIY checkers. Scribbling in my journal at a roadside all of a sudden an audience are hunched around with fans of old currency and we’re swapping collections. In a late night market a spread of fairground attractions lie dormant. We look despondently at a silent giant sea-saw chicken. A man appears and with a wave of his hand the whole place springs to life, music booms and we’re ushered aboard. A porch of men along a road, a beckoning hand, I park my bike and I’m sat cross legged in a circle as one suggestively unscrews a jar of suspicious liquid. Three measures later and I’m back on my way, cross legged for the rest of the day.
And if they sound like a gateway to gullibility they’re not. The real scams are great fun. Female travellers get all the sympathy, but being a lone male carries its own unique problems. Smiling men click their fingers enthusiastically from across lanes of traffic and want to take me somewhere to shoot a gun. If I don’t want a ticket, nor a tour, nor a driver, nor a massage, nor beer, nor weed, nor opium, nor fighting, then surely it is a woman I’m holding out my money for. Brotherly hands trying to steer me always down some alley to unite me with my wild desires. I admit there was a low point when I was prepared to buy the next sham tuktuk driver a cold beer, sit him with a comfortable view and reverse the roles and see how he likes being harassed to insanity. I know how it would go. He’d love the beer.
“Hey guy, where you from.”
Those ubiquitous empty words. Instead now I try to see it all in good humour. I’m starting to feel a fondness for their crock salesmanship. I don’t have a safety pocket or a pouchy flesh coloured money belt. I feel unscammable, totally out of harm’s reach. I’m from China I tell everyone. Yep, red beard, big thing in my province. The Yangtze, some river. Mahjong, great craic.
“Today is closed sir. No go. You come with me for tour.”
Even better I tell him, I’ll have the whole place to myself.
“Ah Ireland! My daughter she move to there for study next year. You come to my home and meet with her. Very lucky friend.”
Tell her not to bother, we’re notorious scam artists.
Sometimes I pretend I’m French. It excuses my driving, but more often than not for no reason. Even to other travellers. I have the biggest grin on my chin as we wave goodbyes with a broad Bon Voyage and I realise I’ve escaped having to explain myself again. On these quiet wandering days I am determined to see normal life even if it means seeing N O T H I N G. To practise a few words of language and observe a local culture in motion brings me overwhelming pleasure. Women in floral jammies whispering conspiratorially beneath straw brims, bike drivers asleep stretched back atop their shaded motors, teens in tanks throwing a basketball around a floodlit court. There are a million reasons to pause. Though the reality in translation would be the same as some gregarious Thai guy stalking door to door and craning his camera into your kitchen with a big “Hiya.” But expecting nothing and happy to watch I am again and again rewarded by the subtle things that announce themselves around the turn of a corner. I love the invisibility of steering clear of the tour traps but try as I might, I try on a shirt and I draw a crowd. Women gaggle around fixing my collar and pinching my waist. They pass me around for appraisal gripping my biceps cackling unrepeatable obscenities about how handsome I am. I order a bowl of something spicy from a local vendor and sit like a shaft of sunlight in a dark room as the only caucasian. All eyes turn with discrete amusement and watch me sniffle my way to the end of the bowl and use up all the tissues. But iced water is sympathetically produced and someone comes in from behind with a slice of something to take the edge of it.
I’ve made myself the accidental master of getting dragged in. I’ve written already about wedding stagefright. An innocent probe through some dim alleyways and I’m taken by the wrist again and now I’m making an offering at a family funeral. Lit up by a camera man’s lamp, I bow stiffly with a stick of incense as 5 stories of families look on in silence. A slap on the back, a chair is pulled out at a table and voila, a measure of something toxic is poured out at 11 in the morning. There is more to travelling than tiny stools and midday shots, but it does seem to reoccur. Following my eyes into an interesting looking carpark, 10 minutes later I’m hooked up donating blood in the same hospital. In an outrageous coincidence I visited Hanoi at the time of an exhibition launch which used two of my images and without time to finish a coffee I had a chest mic fed inside my shirt and 3 cameras trained on my face. Before we had even wrapped, I heard my name announced on stage to give a speech.
Keep after nothing and you never know what adventures you will have.