Sunday, 5 October 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Tracey

Needing To Get Away
"So what made you come to Romania, Tracey?" I asked.

"Oh, well I needed to get away," she replied.

Tracey was wringing her hands as she answered. I could tell straight away that she was not comfortable with the question. I needed to change the subject.

I had met Tracey in a shop, while I was trying to get a spark plug for my motorbike. The bike was due a service and had been playing up since the south of France – coughing and spluttering. I don't think many Romanians had seen a four cylinder bike in those days. The police had stopped me when it back-fired loudly, scaring a load of old people in a marketplace. My command of Romanian was almost nil. Tracey having been there for three months was quite an accomplished speaker. She stepped in and helped, explaining my problem to the police then to a shopkeeper in a hardware shop. She hadn't made a big thing about it but she'd brought me to the workshop half a mile away, where we now sat.

"It's so nice of you to help out Tracey," I said, sticking to what seemed a safer subject. "Please don't feel you need to hang around, wasting your day. I'm sure I can manage now."


"He says they'll be here with one in an hour. I'm not fussed waiting. Best I wait any-road. Happen there could be problems if that bloke's ordered wrong bloody part or whatnot."

Tracey's Northern English accent made me feel nostalgic for home somehow. I was glad she wanted to hang around but I would have to avoid questioning her too hard, I reminded myself. Yet I felt stuck for what else was there to talk about.

"I used to live up north, you know?" I said eventually. "Birmingham."

"Birmingham?" she laughed. "Birmingham's bleeding midlands."

"Yeah you're right," I said, shrinking uncomfortably. "Sorry I suppose that's a typically daft southerner thing to say, isn't it?"

"I wouldn't know," she said seriously, "I can't say as I really know any southern people."

I was really messing this up. She'd obviously got me marked out as some kind of private school educated idiot with no idea about the geography of my own country north of Cambridge.

"I'm not exactly a southerner either. I mean my parents are but I was pretty much brought-up abroad."

"Oh aye, where abouts were that?" She seemed a little less cross now.

"Singapore, Malaysia, Germany. My Dad was an avionics engineer in the Army."

"Must have been great," said Tracey. "I've always wanted to travel. That's how come I'm here really. Well, that and me uncle."

"Your uncle?" I asked.

False Uncle Syndrome
"I call him that but he's not me uncle really. A friend of me dad's just. I've been... working in his shop." Tracey was delving into her handbag. I assumed she was about to produce a photograph until she pulled out a handkerchief and blew her nose hard. I waited while she snuffled and put away the handkerchief again. "I had to leave," she said, "the bastard accused me of nicking stuff from the shop."

"but you hadn't?"

"Had I buggery! He made it up, the bastard."

"I see. So why did he make it up - did he want to get rid of you?"

"He wanted more of me than I was prepared to give, if you catch my drift? He seemed to think if I were working for him as he could have whatever he wanted off me. But I could deal with that. I was well used to fighting off lads at the tyre place where I used to work. What I couldn't deal with was me dad."

"What did your dad do?" I asked. I felt nervous asking but it was the obvious question.

"Fat Freddie – that's me dad's friend – told me dad that I'd been flirting with him. Giving him the come-on, you know? He told me dad he'd have had to give me the sack before his wife saw something, regardless of if me dad paid him for what he said I nicked. Bloody lying bastard!"

"And your dad believed him?"

"Told me to get out of the house. Said he'd not have a harlot in his house. Me mam cried but she never stood up for me. I stayed a few nights at me cousin's. I was upset at first, then just angry. I went round and got some stuff. I had a passport thank God, from a school trip a few years back that I never actually went on. I had three hundred quid out of me dad's drawer. I know I shouldn't have but I wanted to hurt him, and I knew how he loves his money. I didn't even know where Romania was. I thought I must be in Italy when I got here."

"Blimey!" I said. "So how did you get here?"




Escape to Romania
"Hitching," said Tracey. "Buses here and there but hitching mostly. At the beginning anyway. Hitching's good 'cos you learns the language quicker and people help you. I've been amazed how kind people have been. I'm living above a teashop where I work evenings. The woman gave me a lift and says she was looking for someone to teach her and her kids English. She wants to go to live in England, see? I told her not to bother!"

Tracey laughed for the first time since I'd met her.


"When will you go back, do you think?" I asked cautiously.

"I'm never going back, me!" said Tracey, with certainty. "No way. That's all in the past. I'm moving on now. I'm going to San Francisco."

If You're Going to San Francisco
"Wow! I said. So you know people there then?"

"Oh aye. My brother's a movie star over there. Big mates with Tom Cruise! Course I don't, soft bugger. How would someone like me know someone living in San Francisco? But I wanna see the Golden Gate Bridge. Used to have a poster on my wall as a kid. Maybe it's still there – the poster I mean. Me teashop lady says I could get a job as an English waitress. Apparently there's a call for that sort of thing in San Francisco. So I'm saving up for the airfare. Got it half-saved already. Come with me if you like."

I laughed. Then I turned. She was not smiling and I was immediately filled with embarrassed discomfort. I had offended her.


"We'd... well we'd need visas," I stammered. Tracey sat quietly. She was wringing her hands again. She sniffed. I wished I had handkerchief to offer her.

"You've got a girlfriend, haven't you?"

I felt taken aback. I hadn't told her that. And she wasn't a steady girlfriend anyway – not in my mind. But I'd hesitated now, so she'd know that she was right.

"I'm looking to move on too," I said. "I'll write to her. She'll be expecting it. Probably she'll be relieved."

"Happen this'll be your spark plug arriving on this here cart. I'd better be going. Cafe's opening again in half-hour."  

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.


People I've Met On The Road – Julian

Travelling As A Couple
I often notice when I am travelling, how difficult many couples find travelling together. Frequently where one wants to go the other does not. What one finds interesting the other finds tedious. What one sees as a bargain the other thinks is a waste of money. It is a sure recipe for stress and arguments. Many couples dread these trips. Survival in many relationships relies upon one party being prepared to give-in to the other, or perhaps taking turns to be in charge. I don't want to gender stereotype but where holidays with children are involved, you will often find the man grumbling to himself in the background, while reluctantly going along with what the mother in the relationship has organised. I've seen a few hiking, cycling and adventure holidays where it is the reverse and the father is at the front driving a reluctant band of children followed by their unamused mother. In some extreme cases, separate holidays become the only way to survive this problem. I think this is the success of holiday companies like Club Med or Centreparks – something provided for all ages and all tastes.


I met my wife while travelling and later working in Japan (we are both English). It had been an uneventful day in downtown Tokyo. She appeared, intense green eyes peering at me suspiciously across the top of a large book in British Council Library. We had been on the same TEFL teacher training course back in Hastings, UK, but had never spoken, because she had had me down for a bad lot. Japan was a shaky start and we seemed to argue for much of the time. However when we went away for a few days camping in the mountains, I think we were both shocked by how well we got on. There was no question, we seemed to fit each other perfectly when we were travelling. This happened every time we travelled, and we travelled quite a lot – including, after a couple of years, a six-month overland trip back to the UK. In fact our first child is the result of our happiness together on that trip.

Travelling With Your Teenager
In 2008-9 I cycled with my 18 year old son from Ireland to Japan. It was a tremendously exciting experience but a hard one. Not because of the cycling, but due to the conflict we faced between us on almost a daily basis. 10 months of my son resenting me, glaring at me. Not every day but quite a lot. I remarked upon this one day during that trip to a guy named Julian. We met him in a Vietnamese hostel. Julian was a tour leader who took groups of westerners mountain-biking through the mountains of North Vietnam, China and Laos.

Cycling through North Vietnam 

Our extreme haircuts in Cambodia were a stark contrast to my no-cut beard

The book about the adventure has become an Amazon best seller - so maybe the pain of the trip was worthwhile

"Travelling with your teenage kids is the worst mate," said Julian in his laid-back Aussie drawl. "It's a dangerous game that's for sure. They have an inbuilt desire to destroy you – really! Prove you wrong about everything and show you what a crap idea it was of yours to bring them on the trip. And they know all your weaknesses mate, oh yeah! No, I've seen it too many times in this job. Bad karma."

"What about couples?" I asked. "Do you get much trouble with couples on your trips?"

"What? I'd say so mate!" Julian sat up on his bunk with a face like an electrified exclamation mark.
"Girls think bringing their guy on a trek will be a great way for them to get closer. I mean WHAT? Most guys would give anything to do a trek like that with their mates but not with their bloody girlfriend! All that time together? Injuries and breakdowns? Jeezus, they're gonna be a sure way to cause an argument! Sam with marrieds, except they probably already know it's gonna be a nightmare. They get bullied into it or they just sleepwalk into it 'cos the other one books it up. Disaster! I can spot 'em as soon as they get off the plane."

"But surely they're not all like that?" I asked. "Surely there are some success stories?"

Mr or Mrs Right
"Oh hey, yeah! There's always the odd couple now and again - hardened travellers usually - who really work well on a trip. Considerate of each other, you know? Understand each other's needs. Give each other space, that kind of thing. On the other hand you do see younger couples or couples who are newly together sometimes who travel well together. Not many but a few now and again. What's really interesting for us leaders though, is when singles come on treks and find that they work really well with another traveller. It's kind of a good omen you know? If they can get on together on a tough trek it's pretty sure that you'll make a great couple - well assuming the sex is OK, I mean that's a given eh? Yeah I can tell you, I've seen a few unlikely pairings in my time and a lot of them have stood the test of time. So it does seem to be a good litmus test. Like, take someone off travelling before you marry them 'cos it's a bloody sure way to know if it's gonna work out! Yeah you know I still get e-mails from some couples after they're all loved-up and married - kids even, you know?"




"I suppose you've been invited to a few weddings then, Julian?"

"Oh damned right! Been to a couple too. One gay couple from Paris. Another couple paid for me to fly over to The States. Put me up in a 'brill' apartment. Finance lady around forty. Nice woman, a bit, you know, straight. Hey I don't wanna say ugly, but not a looker. So yeah she hooked up with a guy who was a self-employed plumber. Mind you he was no oil painting either, but they were just, you know, great together. I think they've got like twenty vans in New York now and a kid. Yeah it's great when we see people get together. Makes it all worthwhile, you know? Yeah, my mates say I'm a bit of a romantic actually."

Unsurprisingly there are many guides on how to avoid arguments on holiday. Here is one:
http://thecoupleconnection.net/articles/avoiding-arguments-on-your-summer-holiday

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Monday, 29 September 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Bryn

Those Who Stayed Behind
I met Bryn in 2009 while travelling on business in the Kurdish city of Erbil, in Northern Iraq. The Kurdistan region has a troubled history, lying as it does between the Iran border and the rest of Iraq. I was staying in a hotel on the outskirts of Erbil (or Arbil) where I had been contracted to visit telecommunications sites and train local engineers. Needing to visit some fairly out of the way places, I asked the hotel to arrange a taxi driver for me who would be available for whole days at a time. They did better than this, they found me one who spoke English. I won't say perfect English. We were introduced by Aziz my very helpful hotel manager.



"So where is it you need to go today like?" asked Bryn.

"I have three sites I need to visit today," I told him.

I handed Bryn a list of locations provided by the company who had commissioned me to do the work.

"I've looked on a map," I said, "I think the first three have been grouped on the west side of Erbil."

"Oh I see. Yeah that's no problem I know these. We'll box off the nearest one first if that suits you?"

"Yes any order's fine by me," I replied.  "So where in Wales are you from?"

"That obvious is it?" laughed Bryn. "I suppose my name would give it away though... I'm from the south just near to Ebbw Vale. Abertillery, I don't suppose you've heard of it?"

"I have actually. I once went to the Wetherspoons there for lunch when I was driving down the valley."

"Ooh Christ! The Pontlottyn, that must have been quite an experience," said Bryn. "You must have been desperate like!"

"Actually I was, yes," I replied. "So what would bring a man from Abertillery to Erbil, if you don't mind me asking?"

The Pontlottyn in Abertillery, South Wales (in better days)

Site Visits – In The Line Of Duty
The road was potholed and we were constantly engulfed by the clouds of dust thrown up by old trucks that roared past us as we made our way into the rocky desert land to the west of the city. Purple-tinged mountains I knew to form the border with Turkey loomed in the distance. It wasn't that Bryn was reluctant to tell me how he got here so much as the road conditions that hampered our conversation. A roadblock ahead appeared out of the dust and brought us to an abrupt halt. Bryn seemed unsurprised. I was not bothered by it either. I was not pressed for time and it was easier to speak once we had stopped.


"So I come here with the military, see," said Bryn. "I'm taking a risk tellin' you this mind 'cos they don't know I'm here like. Technically I'm a deserter, see. No straight up! That's how it is, now. You don't work for the government or nothin' do you, Mark?"

I told him I did not.

"That's good because otherwise I'd have to kill you like. No, just having a laugh with you now. I don't tell no-one normally like. Being honest, I got no family to speak of, but I can't tell my mates back home or no-one, otherwise that'd be me, banged up as a deserter for a few years. Then there's the risk I might end up used as an hostage. You can see me on TV like, can't you, wearing an orange boiler suit, you know what I mean?"



Desertion
I did know what he meant.

"So can I ask, how did you come to be a deserter then, Bryn?" I said cautiously.

"We was all down in Basra us lot. Welsh boys. It was nasty by anyone's standards. I'm not a wuss but they was killing us boys with roadside bombs and to be fair we could do bugger all about it. Half a dozen of my good mates was killed in my first tour, three in the second and then four more in the last one. I don't mind telling you I was only too glad when they sent a group of us up north here – to work covert like. SF – Special Forces. I was chose on account of I speaks a bit of the lingo like and 'cos I got the dark skin. Never thought in my life before that that'd be to my advantage but there you are!"

Bryn swerved hard to avoid a mangey dog in the road. The dog made no effort to avoid the car. It just stood and looked at us. Bryn cursed at it.

"Oh that's right you bugger, never mind my bloody tyres!"

For the first time at that moment I noticed a long scar, part hidden by Bryn's short hair. I assumed it to be a war injury but decided not to ask. Yes I could see with his skin he could easily be taken for a local, although he looked to me to be more likely of North African descent.

"Well I won't lie to you," continued Bryn, "it seemed alright up here for a while – cushty you might even say. We settled in well. But then we goes and gets ourselves ambushed in the hills like. Someone must have grassed us – obvious. I think there was two of us out of the seven what got away like. I dunno what happened to Mutton, the other one, but I lay low here in Erbil, on account of I had a lady-friend, see?"

"Jeezus! So when did this all happen, Bryn?"

"Oh blimey, it must be well over a year now, easy. All our boys have gone home now 'course, the buggers. I'm the bloke who got proper left behind."

"So do you think they're still looking for you?" I asked. "I mean I suppose the ones who got killed were repatriated?"

"Yeah you'd think so," he replied. "I mean stands to reason, that's usually what happens. Someone phones the local cops and says they found some bodies. Foreigners. They counts 'em and makes a few inquiries about any that's missing like. Informers and what have you. The Army don't tend to make a big thing about it though, right? The missing ones I means. Bad for morale, that's it. Oh yeah they makes their enquiries but it's all hush hush like, see what I mean? But that suits me Mark, look. Iraq's not the kind of place they'd really wanna come snooping around asking questions. We got our fingers burned here see. Fortunate thing for me though is I'm settled. I got no desire to go back home, no way. Abertillery's a bit of a shit hole, to be blunt, and as I say I got no family to speak of. An uncle who's in a home, that's all. End of message Like. I got a kid here now. He's coming up a year, little Hamid. He won't be doing no Army, that I can tell you!"

Bryn removed a photograph from his wallet and was handing it to me when all of a sudden there was a knock on the window. The checkpoint patrol. I eyed their machine guns as Bryn lowered the window and the man spoke to him in Arabic.

"Hello. You are from where? Your passport?" said the man, bending to look in at me.

I handed him my passport, which he studied carefully and then returned.

"Canter-bury," he said. "Very nice cathedral. Enjoy my country."

I smiled and thanked him, taken aback by his geographical wisdom.

Roasted Carp is especially popular during Ramadan

Carpe Diem
The rest of the week was a surprising pleasure. Bryn took me to a few local restaurants that I would never have found on my own. A place that served only carp. Big golden fish roasted over bricks in the bomb-damaged car-park. On my last day he invited me to his home to meet his wife and son. It was a lovely evening but I left feeling really quite surreal. The thought had stayed with me – how many more men like Bryn might there be left behind?  

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Brent

The Allure Of Companionship
I had left home in late spring, tired of my bedsit-life in Southeast England. For a month I had hitchhiked my way down through France, sleeping rough. I had money, but I needed it to last. I had no intention of returning to the UK anytime soon. Making my way along the French and Italian Rivieras, I soaked up the sea and sun, sleeping on beaches before taking a ferryboat along the Dalmatian Coast. All this time I had enjoyed the solitude of travelling alone. It had given me time to think. But as I entered what was then Yugoslavia, I began to crave company. Sitting up on deck through the night, I hung out with a large group of students, singing songs accompanied by guitars and accordions. Unfortunately none of them were going my way. From the port of Dubrovnik I intended hitchhiking west towards the monasteries of Meteora. They were from a college in Ljubljana, back up north. Walking down the gangplank, squinting into the bright morning sun, my eyes met a tall man with a fedora hat and sunglasses. He seemed to know me.


"Hi," he said, holding out his hand, "Brent Wagner, how was the journey?"

"Sorry," I said, "do I know you?"

"Feels like it don't it?" he replied, laughing. "I said to myself as I saw you walking down there, I swear I know that guy from somewhere. So where you from?"

"Er, I'm from England. Mark... Mark Swain." I put down my shoulder bag and shook his hand, causing something of a jam on the gangplank.

"Step over here Mark," said Brent. "So are you here on business? You're not the backpacker type."

Aged a little over nineteen, it had been a deliberate decision of mine not to carry a rucksack or dress like a backpacker. It would make people more likely to give me lifts or help me out, I had thought. I was not completely sure if that had worked out to be true. Sometimes it gave me confidence, but at different times, when I was with other young people, it made me feel like a bit of an oddball.

"I'm just travelling," I said hesitantly, "making my way to Salonica and Meteora. I don't really have a fixed schedule, I decide where to go and where to stop when I get there. How about you?"

"Oh I'm heading to Istanbul on business," said Brent. "I work with my father back home and he sent me to meet some of our nuts and dried fruit suppliers. Negotiate some new business, pick up some saffron and date samples, that kind of thing. I thought I'd have a bit of a vacation while I'm here. In fact I was thinking of stopping off in Meteora to look at the monasteries. I'm looking for someone to share fuel with me though. I have a hire car. I don't suppose you'd think about...?"




The Easy Life
Travelling in a car where you weren't facing being dropped at some half-deserted junction outside the next town was a real luxury. I had agreed to go as far as Istanbul with Brent, for him to have his business meeting and then we would return through Greece together, stopping at Meteora and Ephesus on our way to Athens, whereupon he would fly back to the USA. Fuel was pretty cheap so it wouldn't cost me much this way and there was always the advantage of being able to sleep in the car if it rained hard in the night. We got on fairly well together, although I have to say I never truly felt connected with him.
It took around a week to reach Istanbul. It made life easier for Brent that we shared the driving. Despite telling Brent plenty about my life during this time though, he told me little about himself. I'd guess he must have been around thirty, though he never said. He had been living in San Diego so I assumed this was where his father's business was, although he never actually said. He always seemed vague when I asked questions.


A Change Of Plan
Arriving in Istanbul we checked into a budget hotel, pre-booked by his father's secretary. Brent made a few phone calls from a booth at the cafe across the street and the following morning he went off for his business meeting. I could see he was nervous about the meeting, despite his efforts to appear cool and businesslike. It was the older guy trying to look more mature thing, I told myself. But he was trying too hard. The stiffly pressed white shirt and shiny shoes were a giveaway for someone who was naive in this situation. We agreed to meet at a cafe by Hagia Sofia.
Brent arrived late, looking harassed. His negotiations had obviously not gone well. Probably the people he was meeting had spotted his naivety and taken advantage of him, I presumed.

"How did it go?" I asked.

"Oh the business side of things went well," he replied. "The old man will be pleased, but when I phoned the old man he told me I have to go to Ankara for a day or two to meet another potential supplier he's been talking to. His secretary's booked the damned flight. Problem is my pop doesn't take no for an answer, y'see."

"That's fine," I said. "I can wait for you here, then we can head off for Meteora."

Brent explained that this would not be possible. He couldn't keep the hire car here in Turkey after the following day due to some ruling on the hire contract and it needed to be handed in to one of the Greek hire company's depots by Friday. There was insufficient time.
It didn't take long for us to work out a solution. He would fly off to Ankara the following morning, while I drove the car to Alexandroupoli in Greece to hand it over. He could join me there a day later.
Brent looked relieved. Only an hour before it had looked impossible to him. I can't deny that it felt good as the junior partner here, to have sorted the problem out for him.

On The Road Again
It seemed mean to let Brent take a taxi to the airport but I was unsure of the route to drop him off on my way. We stood in the car park waiting for his taxi while I put my bag in the boot.

"Take care Marky-boy and I'll see you Friday," Brent said, cheerfully. "So, the papers for the car are in the glove box. I've left my small bag with my old jeans and trainers and I've put this box of samples in the trunk. I hope you won't be troubled by taking care of them until I arrive. The dates and saffron are fairly light, but just take care not to forget 'em and don't leave 'em in the sun. Pop wouldn't take kindly to me arriving home empty handed."


Brent climbed into the taxi. It was good to see him smile again. I'd grown quite fond of his as a friend. Glad to have been the agent of this change in his mood, I shut the boot and climbed into the driver's seat.

The journey from Istanbul to the border seemed to pass quickly, despite my getting lost and ending up on a smaller road through semi-desert. At least it passed quickly until about six in the evening when I felt a rumbling from under the car that was heavier than the persistent rumbling I'd been experiencing from the numerous potholes on the poor road surface. I pulled over.


Examining the vehicle I saw that the rear driver's-side tyre was flat. On closer examination I found a large screw driven right into the tread. Trying to remain positive I opened the boot to take out the spare. First I had to remove the luggage. Piling it carefully against a roadside rock, I lifted the boot mat and saw what passed for a spare wheel. The tyre was not only soft, but completely bald. It would not get me Alexandroupoli, but it would probably do to get me to the next town. Unstrapping the jack and wheel spanner I immediately spotted a more serious problem, however. The jack had obviously been misused at some point and had broken at the pivot, rendering it completely useless. My mood deteriorated quickly as I began to realise how little traffic there was on this road at this time. Having made doubly sure the jack could not be used, I sat on a rock to wait for someone to pass. I tried several times to lift the car and place a rock under it but it was impossible. I waited an hour... then another hour. I had eaten nothing, not even breakfast in my hurry to get going and I was starving. What had seemed like a small inconvenience at first was now beginning to look like a bit of a disaster. Might I have to wait until morning, I wondered? Would I reach Alexandroupoli before the five o'clock deadline tomorrow?

It was probably around eight o'clock at night when I got into the back seat of the car and lay down. Although it was getting dark now, I could see for miles around and knew there was nowhere nearby to walk to. My stomach ached now with hunger. Why had I not bought some sandwiches or something before I set off, I asked myself?
It was when I reminded myself to put the bags back into the boot that I remembered Brent saying about dates and saffron in the sample box. Surely his pop would not miss a few dates?

Carefully I slipped my pen-knife under the tape. There was an excessive amount of it, but eventually I unwound the last piece, removed the cellophane and opened one pack. What was revealed was certainly not dried dates, nor was there any saffron in the box. No, there was no doubt in my mind, from both the smell and the consistency, that what the box contained was a substantial quantity of prime marijuana. Hash. Nevertheless I broke off a lump and ate it, convinced that it would at least stave off some of my hunger pangs until morning.


It was around six in the morning when I finally gave up on trying to sleep. The dope had probably kept me awake rather than helping me to relax. I had eaten a large amount of it one way and another during the night, but it had hardly made a dent in the amount the box contained. My head felt like it belonged to someone else.

Still unsure what I was going to do about the situation, I tried to focus. What I did know was that Brent had set me up. I was not a complete idiot, I had heard of these stories before. Had I not have got a puncture, I told myself, I would probably be languishing in a dirty Turkish jail by now.
It was while I was thinking about my best course of action, that staring into the distance I noticed what I soon realised was the border post. It was probably about seven to ten miles away, I deduced.
I traced the road with my eye as it wound back and forth between rocks and scrubby hillocks in the desert. It would be a lot more than ten miles by road. I was gathering my things together and putting them into my shoulder bag ready to start walking when I heard the buzz of an engine. Looking up quickly I could see a car coming from the direction of the border post. It didn't take much longer to identify it as a police car.    

I had no plan and my mind was still a blur, yet I knew I had to separate myself from the car. Grabbing my bag, passport, wallet, hat and glasses I made for a clump of dry bushes beside a rock, arching my back to stay low. The car was moving slowly and took some time to arrive. Laying there behind the big rock, listening to the police going through the car, I cursed myself for not bringing the samples box. Fingerprints, I thought. What else though? Car papers... they had Brent's details on them. Perhaps they could tie him up with me if they found which hotel we had stayed in?


It was probably nearly midday when I awoke. I had dropped off to sleep as I lay there in the shade of the rock and the thorny bushes. Poking my head up over the top of the rock I saw the car was still there where I had left it. My vision and my mind had at least returned to normal. After a minute or two examining myself – my skin, clothing, the contents of my pockets – I decided to move. I scanned the area right to the horizon but could see nobody. I was just turning to pick up my bag when I noticed the cigarette packet. It had been tossed down alongside the big rock. I am no tracker but it was so prominent I was sure it had not been there when I arrived. I stared at it and at the heavy boot-marks alongside – an indication of someone having paced about, as if trying to decide upon something I wondered? I dusted myself down. Without seeming to have given any logical thought to the matter, I knew what to do. Something had narrowly saved me from a terrible ordeal, I knew that too. Now all I needed to do was follow my instinct to remove myself from any further risk. I was free and I needed to stay that way.


Decades later I still find myself waking up with Brent on my mind. What happened to him? Did he know what had happened to me?  Today, as always, I quickly drive it from my mind. What became of Brent was a problem for Brent alone – if indeed Brent was his name.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Frikushon

Teaching In Tokyo
Sometime in the depth of a freezing winter in the early 1980's, a Liverpudlian friend and I were living in a very chilly apartment in Tokyo while making ends meet teaching English. In those days, with a degree it was possible to get work at a language school and stay there on a six-month tourist visa. My degree was a fake since I didn't have one at the time. After the six-months was up one needed to leave the country and apply for another tourist visa. This could usually be done three or four times before they said no. So my friend and I came to the end of our visas and with very little available cash, had to find the cheapest route to getting a new one. Flights were expensive. Eventually we worked out our best bet was to hitch-hike to Shimonoseki in the south-west of Japan and go by ferry to South Korea then take a bus over the mountains to Seoul.


 It was not hard to see where Ridley Scott got his ideas for Blade Runner

Truck Mechanic
We set off in the early hours. Hitch-hiking was not something the Japanese understood in the early eighties. After hours of waiting we managed to get a truck to stop by flagging him down. In pigeon-Japanese we explained where we were going. An hour later, in early dawn, we were rudely awakened by a rumbling noise and the driver pulled over. One of the rear tyres was punctured and torn half off. The driver seemed unsure how to change it for the spare. Eager to get some distance under our belts I stepped in and helped him change the huge and filthy wheel. We were rewarded with a superb breakfast before being dropped off outside Osaka.


Wedding Guests
Our next host was a man in a car en-route to his brother's wedding near Okayama. Hiro was very chatty and eager to practice his English. He bought us lunch and we became firm friends – so firm in fact, that he made a phone call and insisted on taking us with him to his brother's wedding party. Much alcohol was consumed and many more friends made before we continued on our way, stopping off at Okayama for the night. It was then I realised I had the name of the friend of a friend who worked there at the Women's University. In a moment of crazy optimism, my friend and I called the uni and asked if they had an English girl working there named Christine. Eventually they understood and found one. It was indeed her. We had never met before.

Japanese Massage
Meeting her after work, Christine took us to a pre-arranged dinner party with the Principal of her university and some other teachers. Here we were encouraged to consume too much sake and I became romantically entangled with the hotel owner's lovely daughter, who I remember wooing with a story of being in Japan to study massage. We left later under a dark cloud, but were treated as heroes by the ageing Principal, who took us drinking until he fell unconscious from his bar stool and we had to carry him home via a taxi. Here we stayed the night before being served a reviving breakfast and continuing on our journey to Shimonoseki.

Slow Bus To Seoul
The ferry crossing was rough and we had to sleep on the carpeted floor with the Koreans, who were of similarly limited means. From these kindly people we learned the scam of buying a bottle of Johnny Walker whiskey from a kiosk in Shimonoseki and selling it at a reciprocal kiosk in Pusan, on the other side. It almost paid for our trip. In Pusan we boarded a rickety old coach to Seoul. A small TV at the front blared out Korean music and showed Kung Fu films all the way along the bumpy mountain roads. It was a terrifying and exhausting experience. Finally in Seoul we found the embassy and organised our visas before staying a night in a hostel where we slept in a courtyard on the floor alongside coal fires, with rats scurrying around throughout night. It was a well known dirt-cheap establishment named Inn Daiwon, which I believe burned down several years later.

Wild Journey Home – Tokyo Punks Knew How To Party
After getting chased out of a sleazy bar by a gang of drunken US servicemen, my friend and I boarded a bus to repeat our mountainous and bumpy journey back to Pusan. Another stormy boat ride ensued, after which we found ourselves hitch-hiking in the freezing early hours in Shimonoseki. We had barely slept in two nights and were so tired we hardly knew where we were. With only enough cash for a can of warm coffee from a vending machine (in our tiredness we mistakenly pressed the cold coffee button), we waited hours with no luck until eventually in a state of sheer exhaustion we lay down to sleep on the concrete verge of the motorway.
It was probably about 6am when we felt someone shaking us. Frozen stiff, we looked up to see a skinny man in sunglasses, a leather jacket and drainpipe jeans.

"Dude, speak Engrish?" he shouted. "Where you go, fukkah... Tokyo?"

Struggling to focus we climbed to our feet and followed his instruction to get into his van. In the back we found four other pale and skinny young men along with a drum kit, guitars and amps. Too shattered to ask questions we simply climbed in and lay in the pile with the other guys. It was about an hour before we opened our eyes again and attempted any communication.


"Fuuuk you crazy boys. Samui des nih? (cold no?)"

We agreed, we were as cold as a man can be. We explained where we had been and where we were going. The other bodies, roused from sleep by our story, began laughing uproariously.

"All okay now fukaas!" said the man with the sunglasses. "We are Frikushon. Punk music, yeah? We go Kagoshima play punk music. Too much crazy fukaah distance! Now go home Tokyo. You sleep more, no problem."




But we were awake now. A punk band we thought? now that was interesting. We asked them if they knew The Clash. The Damned? The Jam? They certainly did. The man with the sunglasses grabbed a guitar and began a familiar riff. From deep down in the pile of bodies around us a sound began to resonate. It was a sound somewhere between the howl of a wounded animal and singing:

"In a city one a thousan' thing I wanna say to you...!!"

Punk Friction
For hours we sang together... screamed and groaned. The drummer banged his hands and even his head against the metal side of the van. Cymbals crashed. A drum was broken over someone's head. The long journey seemed to pass in no time. It was an utterly wild experience and by the time they dropped us in our area of south-west Tokyo we had sung ourselves hoarse. I couldn't teach for a day after we got back. I was mute. Yes those Tokyo punks knew how to party. Fukaas!




Friction on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwHDD2DRZo4

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Kiriyakos

Forested Thassos
Way back in the seventies, I was hitchhiking through South-eastern Europe and took a ferry from the lovely port of Kavala (east of Thessaloniki) to the island of Thassos. I had read about the densely forested Thassos in a book when I was in my last year of school. I had vowed to go there and three years later there it was ahead of me on the horizon, floating in an incredibly azure Aegean Sea. It was not a long voyage. Probably little more than half an hour if my memory serves me correctly. The first stop was the seaside village of Skala Prinos. It had seemed logical to me to go first to the main town, but Prinos looked so inviting and undeveloped that I could not resist disembarking there.

 Thassos - The larger town of Limanos back then


I Too Much Young For Work
The jetty at Skala Prinos was tiny and in need of repair. Three or four of us climbed ashore and waved the small ferry off as we stepped over the missing planks and headed towards the one single cafe. This was a laid-back kind of a place even by Greek standards, I could see that. I sat myself at a small, wobbly table and ordered a coffee. Despite being on a tight budget it seemed the right thing to do if I wanted to meet people. I surveyed the beach and the wooded hills behind.


It was just as beautiful as I had hoped. In those days, Prinos amounted to a collection of about twenty or so little whitewashed houses in front of the ferry stage, with a few larger houses that I could see further along as the little road rounded the headland. Unfinished reinforcing rods poked through the flat concrete roofs, visible among the trees. The beach would be quiet along there, with little hidden coves, so it would be perfect as a place to sleep so long as there were no sewage pipes. These attracted mosquitos. I had a sleeping-bag and a military waterproof groundsheet-cum-poncho, which had served me well down through France, along the French and Italian Rivieras and down through Yugoslavia before arriving here in Northern Greece. I was straining my eyes, looking for the best coves, when someone stepped into my field of vision. It was a stocky looking young man with dark curly hair and a few days growth of beard.

"Kalimera," he said, holding out a hand.
"Kalimera," I replied, although it was now afternoon rather than morning.
"America?"
"No England. My name is Mark, have a seat."

The young man sat down casually and put his feet up on the spare chair. Perhaps his family owned the cafe, I wondered? He smiled a lot, almost like he knew me from the past and I hadn't realised it. But I didn't know him, I was sure of that.

"I am Kiriyakos. Say me Yakos. Jour friend in Prinos!"

Yakos shook my hand again and ordered a coffee from the young waiter. His manner with the waiter was rather surly, I thought. A local pecking order thing, perhaps?


I was unsure of Yakos at first, convinced that at any moment he was going to ask me to come to look at blankets, sandals or bazoukis in his friend's shop, but he did not. He only wanted to talk. His English vocabulary was sparse but what little he knew he used inventively. He asked me about my life in England – about school, art college, work. He wanted to know about what kind of houses or apartments we lived in, what cars people drove in England, but most of all he wanted to know about girls.

"I too much like England girls... oh yeah, wow!" He mimed some girlish mannerisms and we both laughed. "You like see Prinos?" he asked. "Walk for the beach?"

I finished my coffee, paid and we got up. The waiter would not allow me to pay for Yakos' coffee, yet Yakos did not pay either. Perhaps he had an account, I wondered?

Prinos People No Pay
"Prinos people no pay here," he muttered as we headed along the dusty road past the small makeshift car park. "Look my uncle." Yakos pointed out to sea at a fishing boat bobbing about on the waves. "I too much like fish."


"Is that your job – your work I mean – fishing?" I asked, miming the casting of nets and pointing to the boat.

"Yakos don't to make job. Yakos too much young for work, my friend," he laughed. "Work later. Now I like to make all days for enjoy the life."

I was not sure if he was talking only about today or whether this was his general philosophy of life. We walked the length of the beach in one direction, about a mile I suppose. When we got back to the cafe I was expecting to continue in the other direction towards the coves and the big houses.

"No no my friend, first come to cafe. Too much hard for walk. Muchas illios! Too much sun. Yakos very tiring. Sit, sit down please!"

We sat and Yakos explained how life was, in his opinion, too full of opportunities for pleasure to be exerting oneself.

"Too much working, Yakos die young man, same like Yakos father."

I questioned Yakos further. Had I understood correctly? Had his father died young? It was an uncomfortable question in a culture that I so far barely knew.

"He has forty years. Too much working, working. Try to make money, money. Athini, Thessaloniki, Germany. Heart..." Yakos clutched his chest and grimaced.

"My father too," I said. "Thirty-seven years. Heart." I too clutched my chest and adopted a pained expression.

Yakos looked hard at me. "Your father same? Die thirty-seven years?"

"I was fifteen years old," I told him.

"I ten years. Too much small boy," he replied, tears in his eyes. "We are brothers, Mark. Yakos and Mark, brothers no?"

"Yes brothers," I said, patting his shoulder. I was moved, though clearly not as much as he was. My North European reserve, perhaps? Yakos waved to the waiter and shouted something. A moment later he arrived with a pair of brandy glasses filled to the brim.

"My brother," said Yakos proudly, presenting me to the waiter. The waiter shook my hand. "Metaxa.
Greek brandy. Drink!"

The Carrot & The Donkey
I drank the brandy, eventually. I was surprised, it was not at all bad. Fairly weak, thankfully. We talked more about our fathers. Yakos told me his mother was always angry with him for not working. She called him lazy. He didn't want to die young like his father, he told her. Did she want to lose her son as well as his father? This was his usual repost, he said. The fact was that I too extolled the virtues of a relaxed, carefree life. Who needed money when they had free time, shelter and fresh food from their garden or the sea? I was too idealistic, people back in England told me. It was a man's natural instinct to work to achieve more. A bigger house, a better car, a boat, holidays and a good education for their children. But I was never convinced by this theory. As far as I could see it was the carrot that spurred-on the donkey that kept the wheels of industry turning. I had listened to too many rich people grumbling about how unhappy and pointless their life was for me to believe in that.

"Come, we greet my mother!" said Yakos, jumping up.

Yakos' mother seemed accustomed to meeting tourists and wastrels befriended by her son. She was polite but maintained a definite air of scepticism. Yakos told me to leave my rucksack in the kitchen. His mother snapped grouchily in response and I quickly retrieved it again, but only to be told to put it in the living-room where it would be safer. I hoped Yakos wasn't going to try to persuade her later that I should stay with them. I would have to refuse. Walking along the beach, however, Yakos pre-empted any further concern I may have had on that front.

"You sleeps here on Prinos beach this night, Mark?"
"Yes I sleep on the beach, absolutely, yes."
"OK OK... Look, Mark, I am so much sorry you don't can stay my house. My mother she is angry for me. Too much friends coming. She say, Yakos no more! I am sorry my brother."

I told him I preferred to sleep on the beach. The sound of the waves. The sinking sun and dramatic magenta skies. I painted him such an attractive picture of it all in the hope of sparing him his embarrassment.
"The gulls," I said. "The stars – shooting-stars sometimes. The glow of the rising sun preparing to peep over the horizon and bring the dawn. It's so beautiful. So peaceful." Yakos seemed touched by my description. He became pensive.

"Mark. Yakos like very much to sleeping on the Prinos beach this night, yes? Same like brothers!" he told me.



Yakos was entranced by the stars, almost as if he had never noticed them before. The next morning we swam in the sea, then went and washed under a hose in the garden of a nearby hotel. A woman and her husband came out, clearly the owners. I was worried but they just laughed and brought us a towel each. Other people were watching from the windows. Yakos introduced me. Mama and Papa Angelos. They spoke no English but Papa did speak German. A guest-worker, like so many in Northern Greece. Yakos told them all about me and they shook my hand.

"Yakos bruder, jah? Guss Gott!" Said Papa. "Komen sie hierein bitte."

He led us inside and sat us down at a table amongst their smiling hotel guests. Breakfast was laid before us along with strong coffee. Greek coffee – exactly like Turkish coffee, except of course you must never say that, not to either nationality. Yakos could see I was concerned about money. It would not be necessary to pay, he said. Prinos people didn't pay, he explained. They do some work when it is needed or they bring some fruit, fish or bread when they have extra.

"Ah, barter," I said.
"Yes yes, sometime shoes also," he replied, pointing at his sandals.

Yakos asked what I would like to do for the day.

"You like to fishing?" he asked. "I am like too much fishing, my friend. We go fishing yes?"

The best place for fishing was a small jetty in the next village, apparenty. It was about three or four miles away. Yakos would not want to risk an early death by exerting himself in the walk there and back, I felt sure of that. Approaching the cafe Yakos went into the kitchen where they were busy making a moussaka. Kalimera's were exchanged all round. Dishes were examined and sniffed at. Compliments paid. Was anyone driving along the coast road, Yakos asked? A man appeared from out of a cloud of steam over a large pot of fish broth.

"Seega seega, Kiriyakos!" the man said, "Seega seega!"
This was, I learned, an important expression in Greece. Slowly slowly!

We returned outside and sat on the wall by the ferry. I didn't like to question Yakos over the arrangements. It was nearly twenty minutes before the man arrived and got into a three wheeled scooter with a home-made pick-up platform at the back. Yakos began helping the man to load some crates onto the back. I assisted as best as I knew how, tying some rope around the load before joining Yakos on the back, wedged between crates. The coast road was bumpy but the views were amazing. Colourful lizards scuttled off the road ahead of us and into the rocky verges.

"Mark, my friend. You can to find me one England girlfriend?" asked Yakos, lying back against the crates and gazing dreamily at the sky.
I considered asking him if he would find me a Greek girlfriend in return, but I knew too much of the culture already to risk that.

A vision of Yakos in years to come perhaps?

Gone Fishing
Yakos' fishing tackle was crude to say the least. No rod. An oversized hook on undersized line, or so it seemed to me. The kinked and knotted line was simply wrapped around a beer can. A coin with a hole was used as a weight. I was amazed that we caught anything at all but Yakos had the technique. The fish, being fairly small, were not generally caught by the lip. Instead the large hook was used to snag the fish in the abdomen or the tail as they massed around a piece of bread dropped into the clear, shallow water. In this haphazard way we had a bucket-full of three or four inch long fish within about an hour and a half. At this point Yakos packed up the tackle, took the bucket and headed for the bakery. Handing over a dozen or so of the shimmering fish, Yakos received in exchange, a large loaf and a couple of small coconut madeleine-style cakes. Next-door he borrowed a sharp filleting knife, a bucket of water and a couple of long barbecue skewers. Having prepared the fish and found a suitable amount of dry driftwood and kindling, Yakos then built a fire on the beach. Even the matches he scrounged from a fisherman. His slovenly attitude masked a practiced skilfulness. In no time at all we were tucking into delicious barbecued fish and fresh bread. The woman in the cafe even came down the beach and brought us a chopped up lemon.
"Sometimes I sharpen her knives for her," said Yakos. "She is my mother's friend from the school. My father's girlfriend before my mother," he laughed.




Riding home to Prinos in the back of another vespa pick-up truck that we had helped load with cabbages, I wondered about the lives of people back in England. Even the lives of Greeks in Athens or Thessaloniki, come to think of it. Why on Earth would anyone want for more than this? But there I was, being idealistic again.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.