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.
In 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.
The 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.