Monday, 10 November 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Cristobal

Where To Look For Life
I think it was in 1982 that I met Cristobal. I was working as a night bedroom steward on a cruise ship – The magnificent QE2. One morning we docked in Quebec, not far into the mouth of the gigantic St Lawrence river in Canada. It was a sunny autumn day and the light really intensified the colours of the painted wooden buildings, the maple trees with their leaves turned gold and the verdant green pine forests stretching into the distance against an azure blue sky. Strings of logging barges were stretched out along the St Lawrance heading inland towards the great lakes and there was already snow on the caps of the distant mountains.

QE2 in Quebec Harbour

On days in port like this I tended to avoid hanging out with other crew-members. Their idea of a special day out ashore was to visit six waterfront bars rather than the customary two. In most ports we visited, I tended to head into the rougher fishermen's quarter or the poorer residential districts in order to experience a more genuine taste of local life. But Quebec seeming to lack much in the way of either. After breakfast in a small old-world cafe I decided to head on a small road out of town – up into the surrounding hills. And it was here that I met Cristobal.

Heading into the Quebec hills

Met On The Road
Leaving the city I had stopped at a small roadside shack on the outskirts to buy some bread rolls, an apple, a bag of nuts and some cheese. This was to be my lunch in case I could find nowhere to eat when the time came. As I sat down on a rock to eat that lunch later, I saw a man sitting right out on the edge of a rocky ledge that looked down over the surrounding countryside. I raised my hand in welcome and he returned the gesture but remained where he was. Hoping I wasn't disturbing a man with a desire for solitude I proceeded to eat my lunch and it was only after this that I decided to quietly wander over to the edge of the ledge close to where the man still sat, silently looking out.

"Impressionnant, no?"
"Ah oui, tres impressionnant!" I replied. "Pardon, je suis Anglais. Je n'parle pas bien Francais."
"No problem, mon amis, I speak English," he said, smiling.

Although this man had spoken in French, I felt fairly sure from his accent that he was neither French nor French Canadian. His skin was also dark and his wide high-set cheekbones suggested to me he might perhaps be of ethnic Canadian decent. A Canadian Indian. His face was creased and his dark hair was greying at the temples so I determined he was probably in his late forties or early fifties.

"My name is Mark. I'm pleased to meet you," I said. "So do you live locally or are you visiting like me?"

"Ah, I am always the visitor, mon amis. My name is Cristobal. I am originally from Columbia – Cartagena."

"Are you here on holiday?" I asked.

Cristobal laughed. "Hah, on holiday no my friend. I walk."

"You walk? So do you mean you have come here to walk?"

"No no! I walk everywhere. For many years I have been walking. I am, as you say, an addict. I cannot stop from walking."

"Oh I see. Wow, so you walked here from Columbia?"

"No. Or actually, I suppose yes. To be correct I did walk here from Columbia, but on my way here I walked through Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia... Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Pakistan... then Iran, Turkey, Europe and most of Africa. I go to North America soon I think. I am in Alaska before here. Okay, sometimes I take the bus. I mostly walk but hey, I am not crazy!"

I was dumbfounded. "How many years have you been travelling," I asked.

"Must be forty-four years this year I suppose."

"Do you mind me asking how old you are?"

"Sixty-three years on Christmas. I am born December twenty-four."

Again I was shocked. "Walking has kept you young Cristobal!"

"Yes I think so, but my feet are old!" He removed one boot and sock to reveal an extremely calloused foot with a very gnarled set of toes.

Where The Road Invites Me To Go
"Tell me Cristobal," I said, "what drives you to keep on walking? Why have you not settled anywhere?"

"I told you, I am like addict. It is the road ahead that drives me. Invites me. Enchants me even. Not all roads, only some. For example look down here. Do you see this road? It is a good road surface I think, and straight. Easy with not too much hills or trees for stop the view. This road is good for cars and trucks but not good for me. But on the other hand, look over here. Can you see this road. Small and turning about and about. Many hills. Not a good surface I think. Sometimes the road goes around the hills or sometimes over. Many trees stop the view but in the spaces the view must be special I am sure. Ah yes this is a charming road, Mark, don't you see?"
I thought about some of the lovely roads I'd seen in my life, and some that were less lovely.

Some roads are less inviting than others

But who could resist these two roads in Dingle, Ireland?

"Yes I can see what you mean," I said. "It's more interesting."

"Yes of course, interesting. Walking along a road is like passing through the life. It can be too much the same, only taking you from one place to the next place as quickly as possible, or it can be with much variety – changing all the time with surprising things and people. Life is for the experience no? Not for living your life as quickly as possible. So this is my obsession. When I turn around a corner in a town and I see an interesting road, stretching out before me, I must follow it. I cannot resist. I cannot!"

"So after North America, will you return to Columbia?" I said, pouring him a hand-full of peanuts.

"Maybe. Yes amigo, maybe. But it is not my ambition. I never am planning to walk around the whole world. I told you it is an obsession. But I am only going where the road invites me to go. The special road. In each place I look and when I see the special road, I know this is the road I must go, you see? No hesitation. I think it is like, my destiny. So yes, maybe I go to Columbia. But this time I go like a visitor. I was a boy working in a mine there you know. Work in the dark all day. Never see nothing beautiful. After one year I have two days vacation. I want to see another place from outside Cartagena so I walk into the hills. When I pass over the top of the first big hill I see a whole new world before me. And a road. A charming road. I begin walking down and along this charming road. And I am still walking on that road amigo. I am walking my special roads then, I am walking them now and I continue. Ah yes, I continue until there is no more charming roads. This is my life."

Powers Of Observation
It was lovely walking back into Quebec with Cristobal. His trained eye saw so much more than mine. Geese circling in the distance, looking for water to land on during their long migration journey, or so he said. An old man splitting cedar shingles to repair a visible hole in his cabin roof. Ruts in a field where a car had been driven at speed. Joyriding kids or a criminal being pursued by the police. A bear's footprint. A woman dowsing for a spring watched by a farmer and a group of children. Ordinary people like me would have passed along that road and seen none of them.

Enchanted Road
Waving goodbye to Cristobal was painful. Not so much because I would miss his company, but because I had learned what he meant about the invitation of especially charming roads. I left him at the other edge of the city, after he had shared a beer with me in a small tumbledown bar. As we reached a road junction we stopped and he bid me farewell, before heading across the road and into a small housing estate. Wandering back in the direction of the docks I was wondering where he might have been heading when I happened to look around over my shoulder. It had not been visible from where I left him, but now, looking up I could see the unmistakable signs of a road through the gaps in the bright green pine trees. A small cabin, then what looked like a sawmill. A rocky outcrop where I could only guess what a stunning view it would afford down over Quebec harbour. Yes this was indeed a charming road. An Enchanted road. I felt a sharp pang of regret as we sailed that chilly evening. Regret that I had not thrown caution to the wind and followed it.

The sea is a lonely road

Some Other Charming Roads Cristobal Would Love:

This inspiring road to Iran from Caldiran, Turkey, was used for the front cover 
of the book (Long Road Hard Lessons) about the 10,000mile cycle journey with my son Sam.
Views like this constantly spurred us to carry on towards our goal - Tokyo.

The tiny Slea Head Road in Dingle, Ireland, where our cycle journey to Japan began.
N.B. The beach is where the movie Ryan's Daughter was filmed & where they are currently filming the next Star Wars.

Cycling up this mountain road in Southern Turkey was hard but well worth the effort

 The Yellapatty Tea Plantations. This road through The High Ranges of Travancore 
in Kerela, India, is one of the most beautiful roads I've ever seen.

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.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Herman

Given the amount of time I spend long-distance cycling, it is hardly surprising that I meet so many interesting people on the road. This is the third in a series of blogs about the more remarkable of those individuals. Enter your e-mail in the 'Subscribe' box on the right and you will be notified of each new blog post.

During the 10,000 mile cycle ride I did with my son, one of the most spectacular places we cycled through was Laos. Heading north, away from the more civilised little capital of Vientiane, it was largely undeveloped, but for about three towns. The countryside was made up of verdant mountains with fairly good roads and almost no traffic. It is well known amongst long-distance cyclists for this reason. 

Sam takes a rest near 'The Hot Springs Place'

So little traffic, anything is a spectacle in Northern Laos

On the road Sam and I met a couple of other cyclists out in the wilds. One told us we simply must stay at a place he called 'The Hot Spring Place'. It was not marked on any map, however. Their glowing descriptions made me think it was something like 'The Hotel California' in the Eagles song, with a casino and 'pink champagne on ice'.

After hours of climbing through jungle in oppressive heat, there was no sign. No civilisation at all in fact.
"How will we know it when we see it?" asked Sam. "We don't have a name, no address – not even the name of a village."
"Oh it sounded pretty big and spectacular," I said. "Surely we couldn't miss it out here!"
Just as the sun started to sink towards the peaks we came across it. Thankfully, the Hot Springs Place was not what I had imagined. It was little more than a layby on the narrow mountain road.

The Hot Springs Place is only usually visited by intrepid cyclists

Finding the old lady who ran the place, we enquired about accommodation and were delighted to find there were two wooden huts left (out of five) with a double bed and WC/shower shoehorned into the tiny space. We parked our bikes, paid the old lady and scurried off down through the trees to the large stone-sided water tank surrounded by jungle. Here several other cyclists had just jumped in and were busy soothing away the day’s aches and pains in the steaming water.  Three or four local children, small and glistening brown, had climbed out and were sitting at the edge watching. 

The Hot Springs with roadside cafe nearby 

In this heavenly pool, we began chatting with a rather forthright German lady.  Sonja took pains to explain that the older man who had just gone back to the hut was not her husband or her boyfriend.
“I don’t have sex with him, oh mein Got, no!” she assured us, frowning. “And anyhow, it is not possible; he is having a bad back problem."
Herman was just a friend, she said, and a very annoying man to travel with indeed.  

After Sonja got out, Herman returned and seemed to us far from annoying.  As we soon discovered, he had cycled almost everywhere in Asia over many years, between his job as a landscape gardener back in Germany.  He proved to be a fascinating source of information and had a great sense of humour – especially, when pressed, about Sonja. It was obvious to us that he was completely exasperated with her and probably wished he had stuck with his usual habit of travelling alone. But although he chuckled to himself over my risque questions, he was reluctant to say anything. From the way he kept looking over at the path and into the surrounding jungle, I presumed she had a bad temper and a fearsome hold over him.

Friendly children queue up to slap your hand as you pass

After an afternoon sleep to get over our day of steep climbing, we awoke feeling hungry. It was early evening and nearby, above the general hums and screeches of jungle fauna, we could clearly discern sounds of merriment. On the opposite side of the narrow mountain road below us there lay a small cafe. Wandering over, we were surprised to find them serving pretty good food, well beyond the standard feu (Laotian thin soup), bush-meat and rice we had become used to.  Our cycling neighbours were there and after we had eaten Herman came over to share a few Beer Lao with us. Having enquired about our route, he reiterated stories we had heard from other cyclists about the terrible unsurfaced mountain roads ahead of us from northern Laos into North Vietnam.  But where we were now was certainly a great place and we were so grateful to those other cyclists for guiding us here.  

Loosened up by a few beers, Herman became great entertainment. After a few minutes I began to ask him more about his relationship with Sonja.
"Herman, as you are German and used to direct questions, I'm going to ask you – does Sonja have a mental problem?"
All of a sudden Herman doubled up on his chair, as if perhaps he had suffered a burst appendix or some such catastrophe. He looked up at us, gritting his teeth, his face purple. Clearly he was struggling valiantly to hold in his screams of agony, but eventually he could hold them no longer. In an instant the whole cafe full of people came to a grinding halt as Herman's scream rang out through the jungle. A pot crashed in the makeshift kitchen. Bottles of beer fell over and glasses dropped from the hands of drinkers. People stretched their necks and stood up to see what had occurred. But Herman was not screaming now. Herman was laughing. He was in pain because he was laughing so much.
"Herman, was machs du, dumkopf!" demanded Sonja.
"Nichts, Sonja, nichts – one of the cats surprised me or some such." 

After a minute or so Herman had calmed down. There were tears in his eyes as he sat there looking at me, smiling and shaking his head in disbelief.
"Are you psychiatrist?" he asked, finally able to speak again.
"No, no, a risk management specialist. I work in crisis management and disaster recovery." I tried to keep a straight face. 
Herman began to snigger again. It seemed about to grow. I looked over at Sonja who had also noticed the sniggering. Eager to prevent another outburst, I got up and placed my hand over Herman's mouth. Keeping his laughter inside was painful for him, the poor man. His body began convulsing. Sonja stood up.
"What is the problem with him?" she demanded crossly. Her concern was clearly not out of sympathy.
"A small epileptic fit," I said. "Do you have his medication?"
"Medication?" she shouted. "He is not epileptisch. Not so far anyhow."
"Perhaps it's just begun on this trip?" I suggested. "The stress or something."
"Stress!" she laughed. "Mensch, I am the one who suffers the stress – stress from his craziness! Got und himmel."
At this Herman's convulsions became more desperate – although this could have been because my hand was too tightly over his mouth and nose. Beads of sweat had begun running down his balding head. 
"Be calm Herman," I said gently. "Be calm. Now listen, I'm going to remove my hand but only if you're calm."
I felt Herman relax.

After a few glugs of beer and some deep breaths, Herman seemed to have returned to his normal downtrodden state. He continued looking at us, smirking now and then and shaking his head. 
"I tell you, my friends, be careful about taking passengers. I'm going to tell you how it happened, but first I need more beer." 
Herman signalled and three bottles of Beer Lao arrived promptly. Sonja looked over, worried what he might do next.
"So, this woman you see," continued Herman, more serious now. "She was visiting a house where I was working in the garden. The householder introduced us and told her I travelled very much in Asia. This woman (Herman stabbed his finger towards Sonja accusingly), she told me she always has the desire to visit Asia. She asks my number, then she calls me later to invite me for drinking. Like a foolish man I say okay. It's a common story I think. First she made me quite drunk, then captured me with nice behaviours.”  Herman fluttered his eyelids and stuck out his chest – with the addition of hand gestures, which we did not need. “This is how I am now broken down with this such difficult woman in Laos – a woman who is complaining from waking until sleeping. No – that is incorrect. I believe she is also complaining during her sleeping. Believe me my friend, many times I think death is better and wish to... to ride over the mountain ledge!”
Herman was crying again now, but these were no longer tears of laughter.
"I offer to pay her aeroplane to go home early but no! it is too easy. I carry all her luggages on my bike but she don't have fucking gratitude. Excuse me. I pity her dog, my friend, if she will ever have one. She like to give men pain, that is clear. Two husbands have suicide, she tells me so. What for hell shall I do?"

Despite Herman's tears, it was a wonderful evening. The setting as well as the company. My wife and I always tell people that the best way to know if you are truly compatible with a partner is to travel overland with them for a few months. I assume Sonja and Herman knew they were incompatible after only a few days. 
Should you be reading this Herman, please get in touch.

If you would like to read more about the cycle adventure from Ireland to Japan with my teenage son, click one of the Long Road Hard Lessons links in the right hand margin of this blog, or enter the title into your internet search box.

If you would like to read short stories by Mark Swain you can find these on Amazon, Smashwords etc. The paperback of Long Road Hard Lessons is available from Waterstones and other Bookshops in the UK as well as on Amazon UK.
Mark Swain on
Mark Swain on Smashwords

Sunday, 5 October 2014

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:

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?"

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 couldn't deny that it felt good as the junior partner there, 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 him 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:

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.