They said I was to little too light weight to play line-backer / So I say I’m playing right-end

Choo Choo over the Kwai

Com­ing back from Kan­chanaburi on the bus the oth­er night, the sky opened up. The four of us, Brigid, her par­ents and myself, had wan­dered around the most­ly desert­ed tourist trap with an even dark­er past under the shad­ow of huge black clouds which drib­bled a lit­tle but didn’t real­ly belch out the hot rain until we got back to the bus, the local Kan­chanaburi to BKK Express, which we deemed for­tu­nate.

The for­tune was tem­pered by the break­down, as far as we could tell, of the wind­screen wipers at some bus-stop in some rur­al Thai town, com­plete with the end­less trac­tor and pick-up show­rooms, which remains still name­less to me, and the seem­ing inabil­i­ty of the bus dri­ver to turn the air con­di­tion­ing below sub arc­tic, so much so that the hot air was con­dens­ing on the out­side of the glass as we roared through the end­less motor­ways into inner-out­er Bangkok and the South­ern Bus Ter­mi­nal, which, not real­ly odd­ly since we are in Asia, is not South but West of Cen­tral BKK. Peo­ple in the bus were plug­ging and cov­er­ing the air vents increas­ing­ly des­per­ate­ly. Few in Thai­land car­ry a cardi­gan, just in case.

At least only in the Thai win­ter, when it drops down to 25 or a week or so in the Bangkok region, and peo­ple shiv­er and wrap up. How­ev­er this wasn’t it.

There was an odd, sur­re­al, moment when the rain com­plete­ly stopped and for about ten min­utes it was dry out­side the win­dows. Not just pre­cip­i­ta­tion-lite, but  com­plete­ly bone dry and it looked as if it hadn’t rained for days out­side the bus.

Then, just as quick­ly as it stopped, it rained again. And it pelt­ed furi­ous­ly and relent­less­ly down, until the moment came for us to alight, when, bizarrely, it com­plete­ly stopped again, long enough for us to get a cab, after when it rained again.

Which all almost seemed almost as odd as the Thai lan­guage Queen (the band, not a roy­al person)-soundalike CD the dri­ver played for much of the trip, or the strange young man with the odd under-chin whispy facial hair and heav­i­ly permed rolled over artis­tic mop who, I had con­vinced myself to dis­tract from the rain, was a fan of what­ev­er Thai looka­like Fred­die Mer­cury front­ed that band.

Who actu­al­ly sound­ed quite good. Bet­ter than Queen aside from the few songs from that odd band I quite like as guilty plea­sures but will nev­er admit to.

I tend to be a ran­dom trav­eller. I like to get on an under­ground train sys­tem, ran­dom­ly choose a sta­tion from the map, prefer­ably as far away as I can from where I am, and sim­ply get off. It’s worked all over the world: Syd­ney, Paris, Guangzhou, Shang­hai, Lon­don, New York, Sin­ga­pore, Hong Kong and more. Most­ly, that is aside from those drea­ry dor­mi­to­ry ‘burbs north of Lon­don, like Wat­ford. And it works in big Bangkok. You can do it on a boat here too. I have.

The statue on the River KwaiIn some cities with no rea­son­able pub­lic trans­port to speak of, Auck­land, and most of Aus­tralia most­ly, I tend to dri­ve ran­dom­ly instead. Beyond the fact that Brigid has claimed from time to time that my dri­ving is almost always ran­dom, what it real­ly means is that I find a road and sim­ply turn down to see where it ends.

I tried that in Bali but the fact that the roads are almost always awful and the dri­ving uni­ver­sal­ly much worse took the fun out of it. Besides, busi­ness demands meant that I drove down almost every quar­ry-pre­tend­ing-to-be-a-road across that island usu­al­ly more than once over the years. I dis­cov­ered what away from the tourist hordes real­ly meant and that was enough explo­ration of that rugged island to keep me hap­py.

Why am I say­ing all this? I’m real­ly not sure, aside from the ram­bling nov­el­ty of the writ­ing the first prop­er post on my new­ly rehost­ed blog.

Or per­haps I’m inspired by tru­ly intre­pid trav­ellers like my friend Gra­ham Reid who’s two trav­el books I’ve enjoyed immense­ly in recent months. I don’t buy trav­el books, tend­ing instead to laden myself with huge­ly pon­der­ous books on dead peo­ple or the wars they fought, or, if I need cheer­ing, slight­ly less pon­der­ous books on most­ly dys­func­tion­al music mak­ers or the equal­ly, at times, dys­func­tion­al busi­ness that sur­rounds them.

This time, how­ev­er, Gra­ham, who I go back some thir­ty years with as a friend, mailed me his two most recent books, both of which are award win­ning in their native New Zealand, the most recent, The Idiot Boy Who Flew, won the Read­ers Choice Award at the Trav­com Awards 2010, and the ear­li­er, Post­cards From Else­where, was Whit­coulls Trav­el Book of the Year in 2006, and in both cas­es it’s hard to dis­pute the award.

I’m not a big trav­el read­er, most­ly because I would rather go places than read pages and pages about them, often from the per­spec­tive of some­one I real­ly would rather not be, which includes many of the trav­el writ­ing names.

And it’s the same with trav­el TV. When I was a lad I used to enjoy two sil­ly shows, both from the BBC. One, from John­ny Mor­ris, and one from the icon­ic Alan Wick­er. I’m not entire­ly sure that I would enjoy either these days but I liked, in both cas­es, the iron­ic clum­si­ness of both when I was about ten. They were huge­ly fish out of water and they bum­bled bad­ly and open­ly. They dressed bad­ly. They were not cool.

Which was cool.

On the oth­er hand shows like Antho­ny Bour­dain’s trav­el-chef series make me vague­ly puke as they try so hard to be down with the locals and there’s an impli­ca­tion that every­one else he meets is sup­posed to know he’s real­ly, y’know, cool. Oh, Tony used to be a chef in NYC. Oh, Tony used to be a junkie. Oh, how cool.

I feel vague­ly embar­rassed for those that have to encounter this self-impor­tant but often mis­in­formed man.  Sure he’s been a lot of places I’ve not been but I usu­al­ly feel less inclined to go where he has after a show than before.

And so it is with the likes of Paul Ther­oux who reeks of pom­pos­i­ty and a stand-above arro­gance cen­tred around their acci­den­tal place of birth.

Gra­ham, on the oth­er hand, is the first trav­el writer I’ve read in many years that entices me. And he does so in the same charm­ing­ly hon­est way that I remem­ber those BBC shows to be, albeit far more con­cise­ly (and Gra­ham is much bet­ter dressed).

Gra­ham writes entic­ing­ly as a fish out of water in odd climes and the not quite so odd (I loved his post on the Cus­toms and Immi­gra­tion at Auckland’s air­port. It remains a mys­tery to me how a sup­pos­ed­ly edu­cat­ed nation can con­front its vis­i­tors with such an inap­pro­pri­ate and parochial first impres­sion year in and year out. I hate Auckland’s hor­ri­ble wee air­port) and does so with a suc­cinct brevi­ty that doesn’t let the intrigu­ing and often sim­ply weird, wear out their wel­come.

BKK Diamond HouseThe first book, Else­where, tells very brief and fun­ny sto­ries about odd and obtuse places, where the odd peo­ple (who are only odd to us because we are not them, not because they are always odd, although some real­ly are if that makes sense) are just char­ac­ters that live in those places (or in the case of Dali, used to, and not ele­gant­ly nor charm­ing­ly), and the sto­ries are rarely more than five or six pages long.

I loved the book and won­dered why it took me so long to get around to read­ing it, know­ing as I do, and lik­ing as I do, Graham’s way with words.

How­ev­er, it was the sec­ond book that tru­ly intrigued and made me want to ran­dom­ly trav­el more. The Idiot Boy Who Flew is even more con­cise, with few sto­ries run­ning over more than three tight and tar­get­ed pages, at least in the first half. It deft­ly side­steps plac­ing the focus on the places to con­cen­trate almost pure­ly on the intrigu­ing, and yes still odd to me as anoth­er clum­sy for­eign­er with a nar­row pre­con­cep­tion base to begin from, peo­ple. In this book, the places are where the peo­ple live rather than the oth­er way around.

Like the tough men in the first sto­ry who sit bel­low­ing in bars in back­wa­ters USA, and, despite their arms being built like tor­pe­does and their his­to­ries of fight­ing polit­i­cal­ly incor­rect wars in Third World coun­tries, they spend their days hunt­ing tiny squir­rels; or the guy in Sin­ga­pore who ded­i­cates much of his life to the won­der­ful­ly imagery of old Chi­nese Sin­ga­pore tak­en by his father (which I too have seen and was intrigued by in Chi­na­town).

And I loved the way he weaves the won­der­ful and much missed Dal­va­nius Prime into the last, extend­ed, short sto­ry, which pro­vides the title to the book.

So thank you, Gra­ham. It was gen­er­ous of you to send both of these to me, and I’ve loved them, fin­ish­ing the last on that bus from Kan­chanaburi this week, with the Thai sounda­like Queen CD play­ing in the back­ground, which seemed odd­ly appro­pri­ate.

I’m off to find a sub­way stop, any one will do.

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