Sunday, 29 June 2014

Morocco's Travelling Storytellers

Leila's Dowry - Where stories come from

Like many writers, I find inspiration for stories when I'm travelling. Sometimes these stories come out as travel stories in the commonly accepted sense, other times not. Over the years I have travelled a great deal in Morocco. I love the way so little has changed there. Many elements of Moroccan life are still relatively unchanged since medieval times, in particular their street markets, their crafts and the entertainment that can be found around the marketplaces. I could hang out in these places every day for a month and never be bored. They are hotbeds of inspiration for a writer.

Many people have said how much my story Leila's Dowry seems like a historic tale. It is very different to the other stories in the book Special Treatment & Other Stories, of which it is a part. I don't always reveal the inspiration for my stories, but on this occasion I will.

Storytelling was once a daily part of Moroccan life, but times are changing

I first travelled extensively in Morocco with a (crazy) girlfriend when I was in my early twenties. I have been back many times and finally bought a house there when my children were small in order to give them the experience of such a different culture to our own. We still go there once or twice a year and our three children have grown-up knowing it well. One of the things that fascinated me from the start was the fact that you still found storytellers in marketplaces with a crowd surrounding them, transfixed by the telling of some tale or other. Many of these tales were variations on folk tales, yet others were little more than local gossip, embellished by the teller. The storytellers were usually leather-skinned old men. I did not speak much Moroccan arabic in the early days, (although often what I was listening to was in fact Berber) but I could usually ascertain the content from gestures and expressions. It helped me to learn the language quickly.

The tales seemed to predominantly be about love, mystery, and hardship leading to good fortune. There was usually humour too - some of it bawdy. Old women clutched there sides as they roared with laughter. I used to sit for half an hour at a time trying to decipher what was being said. Leila's Dowry is not one of those stories, but I'm sure it draws upon the style and subject matter. Unfortunately, these days in Morocco you see these storytellers less and less. Such is the way of the world.

Storyteller in the Djemma el Fna (square of the dead) in Marrakech

In those early days when the children were young and we were on holiday in Morocco, we frequently found ourselves on long, hard car journeys. The roads were little more than dusty cart tracks and it took hours to travel, twenty or thirty miles in searing heat to get to a market. The children got bored, despite the stunning countryside and scenes of village life along the way that captivated my wife and I.
"Could you tell us one of your stories, Dad?" was a common cry from the back seat.
This usually meant they expected me to make something up on the spot, or at least continue a story I'd made up for them on a previous day. On one such day, driving back to our house by the coast, we got stuck behind a line of overloaded donkey-carts on a winding road. I could see there was little chance of overtaking them. The children moaned. It was hot and bumpy and they were hungry, so I began to tell a story.

The Djemma El Fna in Marrakech has had storytellers for over a thousand years 
Image courtesy of

The story was about a donkey named Hobs. Hobs actually means 'bread' in arabic. I told a story about this poor bony donkey, carrying bread to market for his master, a village baker named Hassan Bin Yahya. The donkey was lonely and longed for a mate. Finally he met a beautiful female donkey on the way to market. Later the master discovered that the donkey's owner, although hideously ugly herself, had a beautiful daughter. As a result he, a poor baker, married a rich woman and lived happily ever after.

Clearly the original was a story designed for small children. They really loved that tale and for years afterwards used to pressure me to tell them more stories about Hobs. Over time and as they grew older the tales became more sophisticated. My three children have all but left home now, yet they still remember those stories. After I formally took on the discipline of being a full-time writer, I found myself seeking inspiration for a story one afternoon. Daydreaming of Morocco, I remembered the stories of Hobs. Since I had never written those stories down, I decided I should do so – if for no other reason than the fact that maybe one day I'd have grandchildren and would wish to remember them. Very quickly I found myself writing something aimed more at my normal adult readership. The result of that exercise is Leila's Dowry. I do still need to get around to writing down those original children's stories, but there are still no grandchildren to tell them to.


If you would like to read Leila's Dowry or any of the author's other stories, follow the links below or enter the title into any internet search engine. Remember you can view an e-book on any computer, tablet or phone, for example by downloading the FREE Kindle Reader App from Amazon or by downloading in RTF format etc from Smashwords.

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If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this and his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.

Hobs and Hassan, perhaps

Saturday, 21 June 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Dilip

Dilip's Ship-shape Laundrette

In 1981, sick and tired of doing a mix of badly paid work and collecting the dole, I impulsively got up
in the middle of the night and set off hitchhiking to Paris. I had no more than five pounds in my pocket. But I'd done this before – something always came up. A farmer would offer me a day's work. In Paris I might earn a few francs and a meal by washing-up in a cafe. Good fortune began in the early hours. Cadging a lift from a lorry driver at a local service station I discovered he was heading for the port of Dover. Not only did I get a free ride all the way to Paris, I got a meal on the ferry as a driver's mate. By late afternoon I was walking along the banks of The River Seine.

Tired from a night without sleep, I lay down against a willow tree in front of a big hotel for an early
evening snooze. But no sooner had I dropped off than I was awoken by an angry doorman in a uniform and a peaked hat.
"No no Monsieur, pas ici!" he said, waving me away like a stray dog.
He looked serious so I picked up my backpack and moved on as requested. Wandering through the busy streets around St Denis, I smelled fresh bread. Hungry, I spotted the bakery and went in to buy a loaf of bread, but I was taken aback by the prices. Had they anything cheaper, I asked? The woman looked me up and down as if I were a tramp, which I suppose in some ways I was. Crossly she put a rather charred loaf into a bag and slapped it in my hand, refusing any payment. Her charity, however, did not extend to returning my smile. "Putain!" she muttered, nodding towards the door. Paris seemed a hard place.

I trudged the streets for what seemed an age until my feet ached. Finally at the steps of a large church (Abbey de St Denis) I sat myself down to eat the loaf. It was here I met Dilip, a small, slightly built Indian man from Kerala. We immediately hit it off after he offered me half his pat of runny camembert in exchange for half my bread. He spoke English better than he spoke French, he told me.
"Where do you sleep?" he asked, bluntly.
"Oh, I dunno, I always find somewhere," I told him.
"Hah! Good luck my friend," he laughed. Paris is different. There are many night sleepers, but the police are hard. They move you. You don't sleep more than one hour in a night. I remember."
Dilip looked sad, sitting there shaking his head. It was plain to see that this man had endured a hard life.

"If you go to the centre, try St Lazare Station," he said, getting up to go. "You must hide inside when they lock the gates at 1am. But be careful, bad people with knives will try to rob you. Stick with a group. There are hundreds."

Jumping a free tram south, I got off around Pigalle and headed west, requesting directions for St Lazare. Eventually after several wild goose chases I found the station. There were already plenty of pitiful looking groups of people hanging around with cardboard bedrolls and blankets. They were mostly young, tired and dirty. Some looked positively ill. Drugs, drink, sleep deprivation and the filth of the gutters had ravaged them. I mustn't ever end up like them, I told myself.

By 1am there were indeed about two hundred of us making a vague effort to hide in the shadows of the arches in the outer station foyer, where the taxis and the touts usually waited in the day. In the darkness I heard the gates being slid across with a terrifying crash. There was a period of silence which lasted all of two minutes, after which people came out of their holes like rats on a wooden cargo ship, all eager to grab the best spots to doss down. Scuffles erupted and threats rung out in the dark, but eventually people settled down. Here and there a glow emerged from the dark as dog-ends began to be lit and drawn desperately upon. I had not long drifted into sleep when I was poked roughly in the ribs and asked for my passport by a policeman – or so I thought. No sooner had I opened my backpack to find my passport than he grabbed at it.

"Where is the money, Anglais – whiskey?" I saw his black teeth and dirty fingernails. This was no policeman.
"I have no money," I shouted, "you can look! I was robbed last night in a park, that's why I'm sleeping here."

"Hey conard, laiser l'etranger," someone nearby shouted. Others called out too. I saw their eyes sparkling.
Snatching the remains of my loaf of bread, the man strolled off. This was not a place where vagrancy was tolerated, he called to me, grinning. There was no point going to the police, he added. But inside the cage there were no police, I thought. That was the downside of course. Picking up my bedroll I shifted myself towards the group who seemed to have protected me.
"Merci," I muttered.
"Les rat sont dangerous ici, mon ami," a woman muttered. "Dorme bien."

Every night hundreds of rough sleepers used to risk confinement behind 
the locked gates of St Lazare Station with thieves and cut-throats

Having managed to survive the night without being robbed again, eaten by rats or arrested, I wandered back north-east, rode another tram and found myself a quiet corner by the abbey where I had met Dilip the evening before. I felt drawn to this area. I suppose I had hoped I might see him there, or maybe it was just that meeting a friendly soul here had given the place a positive aura. I pulled out my copy of Orwell's Down and Out In Paris and London and began to read. Intentional or not, it was only about half an hour before Dilip appeared and sat down beside me. He read my face.
"Gare St Lazar is not good sir, I told you that."
"You were right," I replied. "Like something from Les Miserables!"
Dilip laughed, although I suspect he did not know the book. His shiny gold front tooth told me Dilip was not a pauper by Indian standards. I had been wondering about his background.
"So what brought you to Paris then Dilip?" I asked.

Dilip sighed deeply and related to me a long tale of how he had lived in a small village with a wife and five children in the Kerala hills. He and his wife had worked on a tea plantation and his wife took in washing, but their life was meagre. He wanted his children to be educated. Three years ago a French tourist in Kerala had told him he would pay him to run his laundrette in Paris. The money he offered him had seemed like a fortune. Dilip had used their savings and borrowed to pay for the flight, a passport and a visitor's visa. The man honoured his offer but Dilip had soon discovered that on the amount he earned he could send only a little home after paying for food and a room. He worked long hours until late at night and had to resort to sleeping rough after the laundrette closed. Eventually he got sick. He had asked his boss for more money but he became angry and threatened to turn him over to the immigration authorities. Life was still hard now but things had improved. His eldest son had passed his exams to go to university, he told me proudly, and one day he might be able to pay for his wife to visit him here.
Could he not go home to see the whole family, I asked?

"Once I try to leave sir," said Dilip, "I will be imprisoned for visa violation and then deported. No, I cannot leave sir. Not for many years."

It seemed like a life sentence in prison to someone like me. Born with an insatiable wanderlust, the idea of such a restriction on my life seemed unendurable.

"So where do you live now?" I asked. "You're not still sleeping rough?"

"No no sir," said Dilip, smiling, "much better now." Dilip stood up from his crouching position. "Come sir, you must eat breakfast."

Lifting the heavy metal shutters and unlocking the door to the laundrette, Dilip entered and beckoned
me to follow him inside. It was tiny – one of those long narrow laundrettes with machines down one side and just enough room for a line of plastic chairs opposite, where people sat and stared mundanely at their washing turning in the drum. Dilip pulled the shutter back down. It was still only 7am. At the back of the shop he sat down on a short bench and pulled up a plastic washing basket as a small makeshift table. Opening his satchel, he took out a paper bag and produced two large fresh croissant. Not wanting to take from a man so financially constrained in life, I tried to refuse.

"I don't pay for these sir," he laughed. "Lady at the bakery gives me food in exchange for washing overalls. Later she will come with sandwiches and coffee. Eat!"

Starving hungry, I did as I was told. They were excellent croissant.
"Now sir you will see," said Dilip. "I don't show a single soul where I live, but I know I can trust you."

Rising to his feet, Dilip took a small metal handle from his pocket, inserted the end into a hole in the wooden panelling above us and turned. Getting up from the bench, I stood back to see what he was doing. Carefully Dilip lifted the hinged panel and wedged it open with a wooden strut that folded down from behind. There was a smell of incense. Dilip stretched inside the dark space and I heard a switch flick. What I saw in the light of a dim bulb astonished me. In the centre of a space about 2m wide, 1m deep and 1m high, lay a thin mattress with clean sheets, a pillow and a blanket. All around, the crumbling plastered walls were draped with velvet curtains and pictures of India. Souvenirs from shrines, a dried garland of flowers. As my eyes became accustomed to the light I could see a small makeshift shelf of books, a French dictionary, a bodged electrical socket, a transistor radio and a small kettle. A string bag hung at one corner, seeming to contain spare clothes. This was minimalist living in the extreme.

Dilip's walls were covered with mementoes of his life in Kerala

"I make it sir," said Dilip, glowing with pride. He seemed delighted by my incredulity. "Yes indeed sir, one day a pipe man must come to repair the water pipe and I was seeing the space. I was thinking, well in India plenty people live in a slum house so small. It is warm and dry here and nobody can see inside when the shutters are closed. I could live here secretly, I was telling myself. Yes yes, so over the space of some weeks I was gradually collecting materials for my new house. Finally it has become a cherished home sir, as you can no doubt see."

I stood staring into the tiny niche, still incredulous. Cherished it clearly was. There was even a red lacy lampshade over the bulb and a hand painted card saying Home Sweet Home. A few bottles of water and some tins of food were lined up along the back wall.

"You can climb inside sir," said Dilip excitedly. "It is very safe and I am cleaning it every day. Please go inside!"

I did as Dilip asked. Lying there on the bed, looking out at Dilip in the shop I could see how special this must feel to Dilip. In fact after a night among the underworld people in St Lazare station it felt like luxury to me too. But more than that, the simplicity of it all was attractive to me. So little to worry about; nothing to pay for; warmth in winter from the tumble-driers; a sink in the corner and located in the centre of Paris; who needed anything more really? There was even the convenience of a public phone on the wall by the front door.

"I think you like it, Mr Mark sir?" grinned Dilip.

"It's wonderful, Dilip," I replied. "Beautiful in fact. Yes I really like it."

Dilip wobbled his head from side to side and smiled the smile of a man who is so rarely flattered for what he has achieved. It seemed such a big thing to him that I liked it. He actually cried.

"Sir, I want to ask you something," said Dilip, wiping his eyes. I nodded, happy to do anything I could for this charming man. "Sir, I have never taken a holiday. Only to Eiffel tower by bus. You see I would like to go to visit my wife's cousin in Nancy, sir. Maybe two nights. My boss Monsieur Maurice, he goes away for every weekends sir. I have checked many times to be certain. I am thinking maybe you would like to stay here sir. I can instruct you about the work, it's very easy. Mainly to empty the coins and take to the bank. Monsieur Maurice, he does not worry so long as the money comes in and all is ship-shape sir."

Over the next few days I slept on a cardboard box with a blanket in the Laundrette. Dilip was a meticulous worker, I discovered, and he instructed me well. He certainly kept things ship-shape alright! Monsieur Maurice, a busy accountant, had inherited the place and never seemed to visit. Once or twice a month was Dilip's estimate. Sometimes he called up on the public phone, Dilip said and often just slipped an envelope with his wages through the letterbox.
Finally Friday came. Dilip packed his satchel with some clean clothes and a wash-bag, gave me a few last minute reminders, thanked me, wished me a pleasant weekend and then slipped away. There was something in his smile as he glanced back.

The Busy Streets of St Denis, Paris

I really did enjoy the first few days in Dilip's Parisian micro-pied a terre, but I am at heart a nomad. A different kind of person, perhaps an older man, would probably have been happy staying there indefinitely. I often wonder about Dilip and where he is now.  

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, plus his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. Click a link or enter the author's name / book title into your internet search box:

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Monday, 16 June 2014

People I've Met On The Road – John 2

In Greece With No Shorts – Part 2
Click here to view Part 1
The author aged 21 on Matala beach campsite with long-suffering girlfriend

This man's name was 'Sporran'. He came from Bristol. I wish I knew him now.

Following on from the previous blog, John and I found ourselves in the back of a police car being driven along small mountainous roads on our way to prison (or so we were told) in Heraklion, the capital of Crete. During this uncomfortable and laboriously slow trip I heard how John and his new wife had found themselves there.

"We decided to have an extended honeymoon in Europe," John explained. "Laura's family are from the Alps and she had this kinda Heidi fixation with shepherding in Switzerland. So one way and another we end up with a job in the Swiss Alps, shepherding a large flock down from the high pastures at the start of winter, to the lowlands, living in a basic hut and then back up again in spring. It was hellishly tough but to be honest Laura is tougher. I mean I knew that before I married her but in reality... well I had no idea! She's small and gently spoken but she's almost psychotically determined. Anyhow one day in spring, traversing just above a valley, there was an avalanche. We'd had a few near misses over the winter but this was a big one. We were swept over a cliff edge but lucky enough to land in a snow drift. Laura, however, was buried. In a daze, I hunted for her desperately but I just couldn't find her. I was
looking for her shepherd's crook – we'd been taught how to keep it pointing up if this happened so you could be found more easily. I dug for an hour and just when I was about to collapse with exhaustion a rescue party arrived. After fifteen minutes we found her. She'd fallen onto a big boulder and was badly injured. They radioed for a chopper which came and airlifted us to hospital. We were both bruised and concussed but she'd broken her back. They were worried she might be paralysed. As it was, after a month and a half in intensive care, she recovered. She has to wear this brace thing for at least a year, otherwise I think she'd have wanted to go back and finish the job. That's why we came to Crete – for her to recuperate. Then this happens."

John seemed to be feeling the world had turned against them. It was a wild story and it kind of stunned me. My problem felt minor next to his.

After about an hour, the police car pulled over again as we entered a village. We were waved to follow and were led to a small cafe. The cafe owner and the customers seemed to know them well. They asked the policemen what was happening with us. They laughed a little at first, which seemed like a good sign. We laughed too and they all became more serious. They sat there studying us as they sipped their glasses of Retsina wine and Metaxa brandy.

"For why you are swimming my country no shorts?" demanded one man. His English was slow and deliberate.

That same question again. We began to feel like we were a part of a comedy... but a tragicomedy nonetheless.

"We did not understand," I said. "Other people were naked so we thought it was normal."

"Normal?" he replied, indignantly. "Do you do this in your country?"

"Yes," John and I replied in unison.

"But it is not true!" replied the man, "I have been there, I have seen.

"When have you been there?" I asked.

"In 1932!" he said, seeming to see no irony in his statement.

"For why you are swimming my country no shorts?"

There were three or four similar cafe stops on our way to Heraklion. In each we were asked again why we had come to their country without shorts. What a pleasant life these policemen seemed to heave, we thought. Eventually though, we arrived at the police station in Heraklion. There they studied our passports. We asked to see the British / American consul.

"Closed on Sunday," we were told.

They seemed very casual, despite their serious attitude about our crime. More serious-faced enquiries
about why we felt the need to swim in their country without shorts. We had run out of explanations. Exasperated we now began to answer, that it was simply because we liked it that way. They began to look upon us more as people with a psychiatric problem. We needed to be fingerprinted. This was a comedy show in itself. They had little idea how to do it, but between them they managed. Photographing us was more problematic. They were unable to work their equipment. They argued between them until a more pragmatic officer had an idea. We were put in a car and taken to the central post office. Here we were put into a photo-booth. Did we have coins? No we did not, we said, chuckling to ourselves. They had a whip-round and put in the coins but the machine was broken. Irritated we returned to the police station where they were about to cut our photos out of our passports. I pointed to the section that says the British Queen requires, without let or hindrance etc. They put the scissors away and one officer did a passport photo-sized sketch of each of us.

"You will go to the court this afternoon!" the senior officer told us.
"We need a lawyer," said John.
"We will provide police lawyer," he replied.

Nothing we said seemed to make a difference. They were not aggressive, quite the opposite, but they simply shrugged and our objections. We were taken to the court. It was a large, grand and foreboding building. Inside at the top of a long arching sweep of marble staircase we were ushered into the enormous office of The Prosecutor General. There was no doubting this man's importance. He was dwarfed by his desk. Educated at The Sorbonne, he spoke only Greek and French. He studied the police report and asked us to explain our behaviour. John spoke no French or Greek. I spoke a little of each but it was improving rapidly. One way or another I encouraged this pleasant, educated man to take
pity upon us. He explained that Crete's laws were ancient and strict – far more old-fashioned than the rest of Greece. He hunted through the numerous leather-bound volumes of Cretan law on his towering shelves. He wanted to help us, he told us. In return we told him how much we loved his country. Eventually in frustration he returned to his desk, where we had been given milky coffee. It would be impossible to exonerate us, he explained. We had best put our faith in his explanation of our otherwise good character and hope the court would be merciful. How merciful might that be, we asked? He felt that two years in prison for this crime might be possible, but four was more likely. We would also have to pay a big fine and pay for our keep in prison. We were horrified. He apologised but reiterated that Crete was a very conservative country with ancient laws still in force.

The Prosecutor General called the policeman back in. We would hopefully be tried in court that night, he told us. We could go down to the courtrooms and watch other cases if we liked, while we waited. It would be good to understand how our trials operate, he explained. We did as advised. The police seemed surprised that the Prosecutor General had been so lenient not to have said we should be kept in the cells.

Seating ourselves at the back of the court, John and I watched carefully. My Greek was improving by the hour. In the first court the case seemed to be one of a local family who had been running some kind of protection racket. Demanding money with menaces. Looking at the men, one could see they were just petty criminals living in poverty. Their ageing grandmothers, dressed in widow's black, pleaded with the judges from the sidelines. They were ignored or waved away. The judges whispered to each other behind their papers. The men were sentenced. Ten years, fifteen years. It seemed unbelievable. We left the court so I could relate it to John. He looked horrified. In the next court, similarly draconian sentences were handed out for seemingly petty crimes. We had seen enough. Now we were scared. We returned to the Prosecutor General's office to express our horror and ask for a deferment until we had representation from our consulates. It was not possible, he said, we had to be tried today. Besides the consuls were not usually helpful to foreigners who broke the law. We needed to trust in the fairness of their system. He looked at us with pitying eyes. We waited while again he searched his books, then the phone rang. They could not fit us in tonight, we would be tried tomorrow. We were at least relieved that we could contact our consuls.

"I should by rights, have you kept in the cells tonight," he said in French, "but I am embarrassed about the conditions. They are very poor. I am going to tell the police that you can be trusted to stay in a hotel and that you will return in the morning."
We thanked him. We were scared now. He had also explained to us what the conditions in the prison were like and it had all started to seem rather reminiscent of the film Midnight Express (a major film of the time). The Prosecutor General argued with several policemen on the phone, to the extent of desk banging, and eventually secured an agreement. We were taken to a hotel nearby, from where we immediately phoned the hotel where Laura was staying back in Matala. She and my girlfriend would take the bus in the morning, they said.

Courthouse Heraklion (detainees' entrance)

The following morning the two girls arrived at the courthouse where we again waited to be tried. Watching a further case, the girls were horrified that we might receive such harsh justice for sunbathing naked on a secluded beach. My girlfriend spoke fluent French and discussed things with the Prosecutor General for some time. Outside the office she gave us her opinion.

"Look, this guy is doing his best to help you without actually breaking the law himself. I believe he is trying to help you to escape but he can't actually tell you that. He knows you will get rough justice and he is just hoping that you will decide to run. That's my opinion."

John and Laura looked at her open mouthed. Surely she could not be serious? To escape like fugitives?

We returned to one of the courtroom to watch another case. Ours would be next. The defendant was a
woman who had worked in a bakers shop and had "borrowed" the equivalent of around ten few dollars from the cash register to give her son money for a school trip. Her husband was to arrive later with the money to replace in the till, but the owner had a spot-check and the woman admitted what she had done. She was given a year in jail. We looked at each other and headed for the doors. Unfortunately the police must have read our minds because they were waiting at the door. They were armed, we noticed and one of them began fingering his sub-machine gun nervously as we were ushered along the corridor. We needed to see the Prosecutor General one more time before our case, I explained. They refused but were eventually persuaded. The PG looked up from his desk with the same pitying eyes. Could he just make one last check of his books, my girlfriend asked him. He sent the policemen away. The girls left too, explaining that they needed to try again to contact the British and American Consuls (who were one and the same, he told us).

"You know what to do, don't you?" said my girlfriend (incidentally I have not had her permission to print her name so I am avoiding that). I nodded uncomfortably. "See you at the parrot cafe."

As subtly as I could, I explained to John. The monkey cafe was somewhere by a small, out of the way

B&B where we had previously stayed. He looked down, adjusting his thick glasses. Our passports still sat there on the PG's desk, where they had remained all morning. Could he please see if he hd any other books that might help, I asked? He sighed and went to the other side of the room. Unfolding a step ladder he climbed to one of the high shelves. This was it. Stepping forward I grabbed the two passports and pushed John towards the heavy wooden door. Half expecting to find it locked, I pushed it. The two policemen with sub-machine guns were stood on the landing smoking. Trying to act casually we began walking down the marble stairs, quickening our steps as we descended. Just as we reached about the half way point, the policemen shouted and everyone turned. For a second we stopped and looked up as one of them fumbled with his weapon. The next moment I felt the heat of mid-day hit us as we leaped out of the front doors, down the stone steps and into the crowded street. Both of us waited for the sound of gunfire, which thankfully never came. Along the street we tore, pushing shocked pedestrians aside. Shouts came from behind and we turned as we ran, immediately seeing the police. There were now at least three of them and the two with the sub-machine guns were too close for comfort.

"Next street left, John!" I shouted.

Skidding around the corner we found ourselves in a street market. Looking back it seemed like a scene
from an Indiana Jones movie. Women dropped baskets of fruit and vegetables as we barged our way through. Fortunately the locals were too slow in their manner to clear the way for the police and in no time we were in a labyrinth of side street where we felt safe enough to walk and avoid drawing attention to ourselves. Not much more than ten minutes later we were sitting with the girls at a table in the parrot cafe. They had checked the ferries and flights. There was a flight that evening to Athens and one later to Rome. Laura was for getting flights to Rome despite the high price. Down to the last of our money before we would have to return to UK, I balked at the flight idea, reminding them that airport security was far stricter than at an internal ferry port, but there was no ferry until the next morning at 11am and that went to Piraeus, which still left us in Greece. John was for getting a flight too. In the end we agreed it would probably be safer to separate anyway. Fifteen minutes later, John and Laura hurried off for the airport. We didn't even exchange addresses. I have never known whether or not they escaped. We stayed a night at the small B&B before getting the ferry the next morning. In fact the nightmare was prolonged for us. About quarter of an hour before the ferry was due to sail, two police cars screeched onto the dock and boarded the ferry. In a panic my girlfriend found an open lifejacket locker with a lock clasp. Taking the small padlock from her rucksack she padlocked me inside. The police searched the boat. Thankfully they could not find anyone with a key to the padlock. They left and the boat sailed.

In Piraeus we thought again I would be detained as we were taken aside and searched. I got to the point
of saying goodbye to her in fact. How we laughed when we discovered they were looking for stolen ship's cutlery from the cafe. I must have looked guilty.

After a few day in Athens to recuperate from the stress, we bought tickets on a bus back to London. The Greek - Yugoslav border was a heart-stopping affair where they kept us waiting for nearly an hour scrutinising passengers' passports, but eventually the bus drove away, and with me on it. I was free!

It may be unsurprising for you to know that in the 36 years since this event, I have never returned to Crete. I do not know if their laws or attitudes have been modernised. But let this be a warning to you. Never swim in someone else's country without shorts!

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, plus his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. Click a link:

Please note, you can read an e-book without a Kindle or e-book reader. You can download the Kindle Reader App from Amazon for free, to your Computer, Laptop, Smartphone, tablet or i-Pad. Just google it.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

People I've Met On The Road – John

In Greece With No Shorts

It was autumn 1979 and I was languishing on a sandy beach in Greece. On the south coast of Crete to be precise, in a village named Matala. It's bigger now but back then it probably had around three B&Bs and a very basic bamboo clad hotel named the Bamboo Sands. I fell out of a 1st floor window there trying to help a lady friend (Tessa) break into her room after curfew. The place was run by the local shyster who's sole ambition in life seemed to be to fleece foreigners. It was the only place in the area where you could change money and the exchange rates were criminal. Other local business-people were as friendly as you will find anywhere in the world, however. There was an old widow, affectionately known to all as 'Mama', who cooked superb food in her beachfront cafe / restaurant and trusted everyone to help themselves to whatever food and drink they wanted. We would then tell her what we'd had at the end of each night. Another restaurant taught me to make decent firm moussaka you could cut like a cake. I had to go there in the early hours. It's all about letting it get cold, then reheating it later (not too much) before serving.

Ready to leave. His name was Bernd Bartsch, hers Barbara. They kindly gave us their cooking pots when they left.  I remember he had a thing about asking girls he didn't know in Mama's restaurant if he could snog them. He was a university lecturer, she one of his students. He'd be up in court with DLT and Rolf Harris now if he was famous!

Matala was an idyllic place where the hangover of the hippy era collected each autumn as the cold weather invaded the lands and islands further north. The poorest backpackers camped out in the ancient caves that overlooked the bay on one side. You could see them all candlelit by from the beach at night. Others (like my girlfriend and me) slept in a tent in the beachside campsite, which did not charge after mid-September. The three or four cafes on the beach were so cheap, most of us ate there at least once a day. Dishes were typical basic Greek fare, like moussaka, calamari, Greek salad, lamb kebabs and chip omelette (the latter was the most popular dish throughout Crete at that time). We had been there nearly two months and had made friends with quite a few people, hence the reason we had stayed so long.

Typical dress of the time for Matala visitors

One couple we had noticed on the beach for a few days seemed to be American. I should say at this point that most of the people on the beach each day wore no clothes or swimming costumes. After nearly three months this seemed unremarkable. Very few Greek people used the beach and those who did seemed comfortable with this casual nudity. The young couple in question were more noticeable due to the fact that the young woman was naked but wearing a metal body brace to support her torso and neck. We had not actually spoken to them, however. Not until one fateful day in November.

It was a hot day and my girlfriend and I had grown tired of reading – books were passed around the backpackers daily. I remember a Dutch hippy woman (beautiful) in a 2CV van. She had travelled in it with her boyfriend to India and back. She lent me a small Indian book called 'My Village My Life'. Pretty special.  So back to the beach; we had both fallen asleep face down on the sand. There were plenty of people on the beach that morning. Shaken from my lazy dreams, I was awoken by a searing pain in my bottom accompanied by shouting in Greek and a slashing sound. I leaped up with a start and turned to see a pair of policemen in uniform and dark sun glasses. One of them had a thin stick with which he was whipping me. I had enough Greek to know that he was insulting me violently, but not as violently as he was whipping me. All around, people were hurriedly putting on clothes or wrapping themselves in towels. The two men shouted in English at my girlfriend and other naked people nearby as I struggled to pull on some trunks. Everyone was covered now but they were still angry. "Prostitute!" they shouted at the women.
The one with the stick whipped me again. I wanted to hit him but resorted to pacification instead and soon enough they did begin to calm down. "This is forbidden!" said the younger policeman.
"We are very sorry," I said, "we didn't understand it was forbidden."
"Who are we bothering?" asked an older woman.
"The young Greek girls," they replied angrily.
"But there are no Greek girls here, she replied pointing to the assembled foreign bodies along the beach.
"They can see from village with telescope!" said the older policeman indignantly.

Others joined me in apologising and trying to calm the situation. We were all beginning to think the crisis was over when we noticed the woman in the brace becoming agitated.
"John, John, get back in the water. Get... back... in... the... water!"
We turned towards the sea. Out of the water a wet and bedraggled man was emerging, lumbering clumsily towards the water's edge. He was sunburned but still had the telltale white swimming costume marks of a new arrival. He was hard to miss.
"What,?" he burbled, seawater falling from his mouth. "Pass me my glasses!"
It was now obvious from the disorientated way John was stumbling forward, that he had very poor eyesight and had removed his glasses for swimming.

"Get the hell back into the sea John for Christ sake!"
Eventually the two policemen noticed her and turned to see who she was calling to. There stood John, no more than six feet away from them, a full frontal with his white genital area screaming, "hey look at me!!"

John almost walked into their arms. The two policemen screamed in unison as if he might be a zombie. They seemed genuinely horrified. Both rushed around him, one whipping him, the other having grabbed a towel was trying to cover him up. The verbal abuse and the whipping were merciless. Only the actions of the woman in the brace made them stop. Yet for the enforcers of Crete's ancient conservative laws and the official guardians of local girls' honour, this was the final straw. Having thought a mere moment ago that I was off the hook, the two policemen now arrested John and then on second thoughts detained me too. I tried in vain to calm them again but no, their blood was up. We were almost dragged along the beach to their waiting car and driven away amid hoots and jeers from the assembled backpackers and locals.
"Don't worry," shouted our two girlfriends, "we'll come and find you."

The police car hooted to displace the onlookers who had surrounded it.
"Where are you taking us?" I asked (perhaps in Greek, which I have since forgotten).
"Heraklion. To prison!" the older man said. He seemed serious.
"But Heraklion's nearly seventy miles away - it'll take all of three hours!" said John with incredulity.
"Four hours," said the policeman, smiling at his partner.
There was silence for a while as we drove out of Matala along the narrow mountain road. John and I began sharing notes. Where in England was I from? Where in the USA was he from? Why did his girlfriend have that brace?  All of a sudden the car pulled over and stopped. What was happening, we wondered. Slowly the older policeman turned from the front seat and fixed me with a hard stare. John and I waited. Finally he spoke. His words were laboured, serious and his eyes searching. He pointed a fat accusatory finger.
"For why, you are in my country no shorts?"

To be continued... (please enter your e-mail in the box at top right to receive future posts)

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this and his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.

Please note, you can read an e-book without a Kindle or e-book reader. You can download the Kindle Reader App from Amazon for free, to your Computer, Laptop, Smartphone, tablet or i-Pad. Just google it.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Paul & Rose

Paul and Rose
The year was 1986. I had met an English girl in Tokyo while living there for 2 years as a TEFL Teacher. As a relationship it had been a troublesome start, but when the time came for me to leave Japan she had surprised me by asking to join me backpacking from Tokyo to England. Incidentally, that girl is now my wife, but that's another story.

I had a route planned through Asia and then on the Trans-Siberian Express from Beijing back to Europe. A fellow traveller had told me about the little island of Koh Samet in Thailand. Arriving in Bangkok we headed across country by bus and eventually took a boat to the island. It was beautiful, and back then it had hardly started to become developed. We headed for what I had heard was a very secluded beach, arranging a ride on the back of an agricultural tuk tuk with a few others. Left in the jungle, we were pointed down through the dense undergrowth. Suspicious that they had taken our money and dumped us in the bush, we headed cautiously through the narrow jungle path and finally came out on high ground looking down over what we were told was called 'Paradise Beach'.

Koh Samet. A recent pic. Things are more developed now.

There is no question about it, by any westerner's standards, this was paradise. A small hidden bay with
a sweep of clean, white sand and a few thatched huts scattered at the back of the beach. Nearer the beach there was a kind of larger wooden platform with a thatched shelter over it. This was the cafe. Food was cooked on the floor by a young local woman on two basic calor gas burners. The kitchen consisted of a large plank of wood on a makeshift wooden trestle for chopping and two big buckets of water. But have no doubts, the cuisine – tropical fruits picked from the surrounding jungle and fish that were abundant in the facing sea – was out of this world. I have never tasted Red Snapper like it and the tropical breakfasts were to die for. And all this for minimal cash. The lady cook had many times, we were told, been propositioned by western restauranteurs but had refused to leave. Why would you?

There was little to do on Paradise Beach, but what there was felt just perfect. People read, swam and sipped mango juice or beer. In the evenings we all sat around the 'cafe' eating and drinking. Sometimes someone played a guitar and people sang. Once or twice in the three or four weeks we were there, we went fishing on the boat owned by the locals who casually 'ran' the cafe and beach huts. The huts were absolutely basic. Little rats lived in the gap between the thatch and would poke their heads out and look at you. They were fairly cute rats really. They never harmed us, although one ran across my feet once as we lay in bed – a thin mattress on the wooden floor.

Fellow Travellers
We got to know a number of people staying on the beach. A young Swedish couple, Lars and Anja, in the next hut to us who were so alike that many there thought they must be brother and sister. The huts had thin walls. It seemed unlikely to us, we politely assured them.

We became friendly with a couple of Canadians. They were from a town way up in the wilds of Northern Canada. Paul wore checked shirts and looked for all the world like a burly young lumberjack, which he was not. His partner was quite a lot older. Rose was a school teacher. She kept herself to herself at first. She wore thick glasses and read a lot. Like a classic overworked schoolmistress stereotype, Rose wasn't making the best of herself visually. Her hair was kind of nondescript and hung in her eyes. She wore dowdy clothes, even on a beach, and she had a slightly downbeat manner. Paul was not only younger, he was optimistic and cheerful. He didn't read books. He swam and sat with me drinking beer. We laughed a lot and talked about dirt biking. Eventually Rose came out of her shell and drank a few beers with us one evening. Gradually her whole physical appearance seemed to change. In fact when we went for a late night swim, it became obvious that her general attire and body language had been hiding a rather handsome figure beneath. More beer and some Mai Tai whiskey loosened Rose up no end and it was not long before I felt brave enough to ask her how she and Paul came together.

A Long Courtship
"Oh well it's a funny story really," she said, chuckling to herself. Maybe we'll tell you one day.
She looked over at Paul, shyly. Paul told her to carry on and tell the story. Rose being a teacher of English Literature, told it well. Her timing and her powers of description had us all entranced. I will try to do it justice in my recounting of it:

"The town where we live is one of those kind of one horse towns where everyone knows each other from school. Most of us are probably distant cousins somewhere along the line. Well that's a bit of an exaggeration, the population is probably a hundred thousand but you get the picture I'm sure. There's not much to do in our town after work except drink and watch movies or TV. Paul goes dirt bike riding with friends, but even that's an excuse for drinking beer. My husband was the headmaster of the high-school where I work. We'd been married for around 12 years when I discovered he'd been having an affaire with a waitress. That waitress was Paul's wife. I didn't know them back then."

I think we were all surprised at Rose telling us this in such a matter of fact way (my girlfriend and I and the Swedish couple), given that she had stayed silent for our first few days, but she seemed to be rather enjoying it.

"Now I had always wanted to travel," explained Rose. "I pleaded with my husband for us to go travelling together even before we were married, but he was always against it. It was the money, or it was that there was plenty to see and do close by, or it was the risk of one of our parents getting sick while we were away. He had plenty of excuses. There was absolutely no persuading this man, however hard I tried and despite some compensations – being the wife of the local headmaster carrys with it some status in our town – it made me feel miserable and really like I was kind of wasting my life, you know? So when I discovered his dalliances with your friend there's hot little wife, I was pretty mad. There was me sacrificing my innocent desires for him, while he was getting busy amusing himself with a waitress half his age and a quarter of his intellect – I'm sorry Paul, but you know it's true."

"I know that Rose, I know that. I was drunk when I met her and she told me next week she'd fallen pregnant. Marrying her seemed the nice thing to do. It was a bummer to find out she made it up but what the hell."

"Paul is too nice for his own good, you see. My husband was not the first as it turns out, but he was a class above the philanderers she was used to, and being a rabid opportunist she wasn't going to let that chance go by, oh no! She hung on. And this is the bit that hurts. Do you know within a week of me confronting them in that motel, that son of a bitch (excuse me but I called him worse), he had quit his job and moved in with her. Moreover by the end of the week he had called around and told me I could keep the house (a big mortgage anyway!) because they were so happy together and him and Marianne were going travelling. Off around the world! My goddam dream.
Can you imagine my anger? I told him I wanted all his stuff out of the house. I didn't want a sign nor smell of him in that house ever again."

We four in the audience all agreed that her anger must have been unimaginable. But what next?

"Well pretty soon they'd gone," said Rose. "The whole town was talking as you can imagine. Then one night I got a call from him. My love-struck husband that is. He said Marianne's husband (that's Paul here) being such a good-hearted guy, had said he could store his stuff at Paul's appartment and that Paul would be calling round with his pick-up the next day to collect it. I mean, I thought well, this guy Paul must be some kind of simpleton – sorry darling, but you know. Well Paul came the next day – it was a Saturday – and he worked his butt off carrying all this stuff out to his truck. It was a beastly hot day and I felt sorry for him. When he'd finished I called him onto the porch for a cold beer and a sandwich. I think I was quite moved by how kind he was, and how generous spirited he was being about it all under the circumstances. Anyway the next day he called me and said he'd left his car-jack behind and could he call round and maybe he could invite me out for a pizza so we could talk all this over a bit more. I could see how he needed to talk to someone so I said yes.
So this kind of became a weekly thing. We helped each other. I told him about the travelling thing and that it was this more than losing my husband or being cheated upon that was making me so mad. The next week Paul came with a Lonely Planet guide and pitched the idea to me of him escorting me travelling. He'd always wanted to travel too, or at least that's what he said. And so that's how we're here."

The sun had disappeared over the horizon now and it seemed like a fitting way to end the story. The four of us others made lots of 'Oh how amazing' kind of comments and then turned to Paul to say what a great and thoughtful thing he'd done. He was embarrassed. There was a kind of void still hanging there though. Something we needed to know, yet none of us could identify exactly what. But Paul knew instinctively.

"Well I did wanna be kind to her, of course. She was pretty cut up and angry. But to be honest... Well, I'd always liked older women y'see. Especially librarians and... well I think I used to have a crush on my English teacher in school, so you know, you don't think that could happen in reality. But it was always a kind of a thing for me."

"But Paul, you mean?" exclaimed Rose, suddenly. She searched for words. "God, I never thought..."

We were all stunned. They had been away for a month already, travelling through China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Surely the opportunity would have come up before now?

"I... I didn't wanna be pushy," said Paul. "Yeah it does seem a long time to wait, I know, but I kinda thought if we came away together, then maybe..."

In the stillness, only the waves could be heard, breaking gently onto the sand. None of us wanted to break that silence.

"I suppose I was waiting for the right moment," said Paul finally.

Rose sat there staring into her glass. Paul had sensed he should probably give up trying to explain. Perhaps he'd totally blown it now. He looked annoyed with himself.
I think we all felt uncomfortable for them. For Paul in particular. One of us tried to change the subject. I offered to go to get more drinks but neither Paul nor Rose responded – not until eventually Rose put down her glass and stood up. Reaching out, she took Paul by the hand and brought him to his feet. Silently she led him down the beach. In the glow of the stuttering oil lamps reflecting on the water we watched her lead him into the sea and then gently fold her arms around him. Cautiously he bent to kiss her. I think Anja sighed. Sinking into the cool black water they bobbed about for a while, talking. Then after a few minutes we saw the silhouettes of their two heads growing smaller as they swam slowly away.
"Breakfast must be strange tomorrow I think," murmured Lars.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this and his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.

Please note, you can read an e-book without a Kindle or e-book reader. You can download the Kindle Reader App from Amazon for free, to your Computer, Laptop, Smartphone, tablet or i-Pad. Just google it.