About Tales of a Road Junky I used to hate it when people used to ask me: What are you running from? I used to protest that I was running to things -mountains, parties, deserts, islands, adventures – things most people only dreamed of. I wanted to live in the dream. And I found it here or there; seasons in the Himalayas or by the beach where everything made sense for a while, moments where all the loneliness and insecurity of the road seemed to be worth it. But like coming down from an acid trip, the reality always sunk in that, for all the magic in the world, I had to learn to make my own. Like most long-term travelers I was running away from myself. People talk about going traveling to ‘find’ themselves but it’s always seemed to me that the opposite is true, that it’s necessary to lose myself first. To forget what I thought I knew about who I was and where I come from. Only after making a thousand journeys out there could I ever come back to myself. Of course, it had its risks. Looking back I was often a hair’s breadth away from slipping irrevocably over the edge, ending up in jail or getting killed along the way – I met plenty who did and I’m grateful every day that I slipped through the net. This book contains 5 of the key adventures I went through on the road between the ages of 18 and 28. It’s the tale of how I started traveling and why I didn’t come back. It’s the tale of how I got really lost, almost cracked up and how I put myself back together again - more or less.
Each of these stories probably deserves a book of its own but there comes a point when if you try to document too much of the past you never get to live the present. There’s an old Middle Eastern Story made popular in Paolo Coehlo’s The Alchemist. It concerns a man living in Baghdad who has a dream of a cellar filled with gold beneath a house in Cairo. He sets off at once and has the most absymal journey – his camel dies, he gets robbed, he arrives in Cairo in rags and... realises at once that he has no hope at all of finding the house he had dreamed of in such an enormous city. That night a police patrol catches him in the street and they’re about to imprison him under suspicion of being a thief when he blurts out that he only came to Cairo because of a dream. The police chief hears him out and then starts laughing. “You fool! I, too, once had a dream of gold buried underneath a house in Baghdad with a yellow door and blue walls near the river – but I had enough sense not to follow such an illusion!” And, of course, he has described the young man’s house that he left behind to go on his adventure. I don’t know if we ever really find ourselves. Each time we think we have it all worked out it seems to slip through our fingers. But I do know that meeting ourselves is a journey we make every day – but then it’s no longer about running away, it’s coming back home.
Goa I guess everyone has periods of life that become golden as they sink into the alchemy of the past. Perhaps the beginning of a romance or an endless summer on the beach. You smooth out the imperfections of the past with fond retrospect and forgotten smiles surface again as you replay the scenes behind your eyelids. The memories are laced only with the melancholic flaw of nostalgia â&#x20AC;&#x201C; that things will never be the same again. These times are locked away in the vaults of your head but can be sprung open by a sudden image, sound or smell. For me, I have only to hear the cackle of a crow or smell tropical earth cooling after the sunset and Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m at once transported back to my first season in Goa at the age of 18. Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d only been in India a month and had spent ten days sick with dysentery in the house of an Ayurvedic doctor in Agra and felt like just giving up and going home. The doctor sold me new medicine each day and seemed a little regretful when I got better. Meanwhile his son leeched as much money as he could out of me on an ingenious number of pretexts and I was so miserable and disheartened that I barely protested. The lack of privacy, the noise, the fuss and the chilli that they put in everything had left me sick to the soul with India. Goa was the last chance. I jumped on a train (the son of the doctor screwed me on the price of the ticket too) and watched the continent roll by for 36 hours whilst I got sick again on the railway station food. We passed swathes of burnt, dusty land and desert giants made of stone lay curled up under centuries of dust. The emptiness was appalling and left me wondering just where the one billion people of India actually lived. But then we pulled into suffocating railway stations that could have served as waiting rooms in Purgatory. In one station I was so ill that I had to jump off the train, push the crowd apart and throw up on the floor. I wiped my mouth, turned around and jumped back on the train. The legend of the vomiting foreigner is probably still told until this day. 4
Arriving in Goa, however, I found a green country of rice paddies, white churches and trails between the palm trees marked with the tracks of motorbikes. This was a land floating somewhere beyond India yet akin to it, something like a long-lost cousin who had made it rich and had been embraced back into the continent. The old Portuguese colony was lush and tropical after the monsoon and when I found a little room beside a family restaurant a stone’s throw from the beach, I stashed my return ticket down at the bottom of my rucksack. * Goa in 1995 had already passed its heyday as the Mecca of trance parties and the tens of thousands of foreigners looking to dance the night away to repetitive beats had stirred the greed of the local police and mafia. The season I arrived the police and politicians were haggling so hard as to who was going to make the most money out of the techno-coloured hippies that there were hardly any parties at all. All night partiers from all around the world drove around on their motorbikes pursuing the rumour of a party. Like Pooh Bear following his own tracks, everyone drove after other freaks dressed up in fluoro, convinced that they must know where the party was. Often the taxi-bike boys would start the rumour of a party just to get some business and I spent the odd night wandering for hours in the dark, pressing my ear against the wind in the vain hope I’d hear a tell-tale rumble of a bass somewhere up the hill. But though I was anxious to get my fair share of high times, that first season I was just happy to be in Goa at all. I spent my days wandering around between milkshake spots, high only on the ambience of the place. The roads were strips of concrete that split a course through the gleaming rice paddies under a looming tropical sky. Everyone bombed around on motorbikes and the hundreds of potholes, cows, dogs, trucks and other stoned freaks on scooters made just getting from one beach to another a trip in more ways than one. There wasn’t a café where someone didn’t come limping in with a bandage around their ankle, often from the exhaust pipe of an Enfield and it was well known that if you got into a serious accident no one would take you to hospital. The quirks of Indian law made them responsible for you if they did. I was far too scared to drive and prayed to all the gods I knew when I ac5
cepted a lift on the back of someone else’s bike. In any case, the Goans lived so slowly that it didn’t make any sense to me to buzz around at high speed. It was walking around that I found the real juice, the hidden character of Goan life. I was happiest picking out trails between the palm trees and the bushes that led to discreet cafés, places that you would never have found if someone hadn’t taken you there. The Portuguese houses in the jungle looked like they were under water; smoky red roofs overhanging the white walls and a long, shady veranda that was the soul of the house. The houses seemed to form part of the organic ambience of the jungle and you could walk past a place without even noticing it. Yet you could also get a sixth sense of when a house was coming up. First you’d see a shelter where the family stored fallen branches of the palm trees for fuel when they cooked their rice in the late afternoon. Then there would be the outside toilet – a concrete shed with a bucket of water and a chute leading down to the ground behind. There awaited the local pigs who ate the shit. Every now and then you’d hear the scream of someone newly-arrived who hadn’t expected to see the snout of a pig at such close quarters. There were always clothes hanging out to dry, of course, and probably a couple of motorbikes standing at ease. You could tell how many of the family were at home by the number of flip flops out on the veranda and perhaps you’d even realise that an old grandma was sitting there all the time, watching you closely. Mothers unleashed chemical warfare on the jungle by frying chillies on open fires and left you choking and unable to breathe. At night the family dogs barked themselves to three times their size but didn’t scare you as much as the wails of the crazed great-aunts locked away in the back room like living ghosts. Pass by a Goan house in the evening and you’d hear them praying as though they were practicing their own funeral rites; a morose chorus of murmured lines from the Bible to remind them of their sinful Catholic souls. The families continued with their conservative, traditional lives, pretending for all the world that the mayhem of the freak scene wasn’t happening. Truth be told, though, we gave them company as the Goans kept themselves to themselves, old grudges lying like invisible fault lines of silence through the community.
Emerging from the bush you could still find shade in the groves of the palm trees that grew close to the beach. Gangs of crows swore at one another in the branches above and you didn’t put it past them for a moment to drop a coconut on your head. Everyone had a story about the coconut that had almost killed them and you knew there was one up there with your name on it. A walk through the palm trees on a windy day could be quite a Zen experience. The resident characters that really made the ambience in Goa were the animals. There were vagabond cows who ate the flowers off roadside shrines to Maria and who chased you for your bananas on the beach. Sometimes the beach dogs would hassle them and they’d break into a run, sending people diving out of the way. The beach dogs themselves were a motley crew of canines in varying degrees of health. Some of them were mangy beyond hope and they gave birth to pitiful batches of puppies that would never survive the rainy season. One night I was tripping with a friend on the beach, staring at images of Shiva dancing in the moonlight on the waves. We slowly became aware of a paw that had landed on each of our shoulders as one of the mongrels had come to pay homage, too. The snakes were an abstract concept until you actually saw one. After that you didn’t walk barefoot at night any more. A snake bite could cripple you for life or even kill and so it was a good plan to stamp your feet as you walked and use a torch to see the small ones that were too slow to get out of the way. One season I was too poor for a torch or even sandals and it was only the Gods who guided my feet to tread in safe places. In India you ended up believing everything. * More than anything, Goa in my first few seasons was all about Ali. It seemed a hopeless cliché to come to India and find a guru but ten days into my first trip in India at 18 I met Ali in a Himalayan café over a copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War and we hit it off at once. Three times my age, Ali fascinated me and I soaked up his stories amid clouds of chillum smoke.
Ali was someone whose résumé was practically written into his body. Decades of swimming and dancing had left his 55 year old body in better shape than most guys half his age. His intense blue eyes revealed a soul that had spent a lifetime Out There and his white, walrus moustache completed the aura of the magical. He blamed the white hairs on his ex-wife in Thailand. The real killers though were the teeth and scalp. He used an entire set of white, plastic teeth that gave him a Hollywood smile, having lost the originals when he spent seven years consuming nothing but banana milkshakes. “A litre of soy milk, a pile of black bananas, 250 grams of sugar and I was set.” he reminisced. As far as I could gather this diet was a result of extreme poverty and perhaps just a reluctance to chew. But his head was probably the hardest thing for newcomers to take in. His scalp looked like a nuclear test site. Rippling patches of yellow, pink and orange were the legacy of a skin cancer that had almost killed him. Ali had a form of speaking that was like verbal surrealism. He could substitute a word for a spin of the hands and change gear three times within the unfolding of an impromptu metaphor. He spoke like he danced. In the beginning I understood around 30% of what he said but over the next few weeks I tuned in to the point that I caught almost everything. In the space of a few minutes we could have an hour’s conversation. It was like speaking in shorthand. I’d grabbed bits and pieces of his biography in Himalayan cafés swirling with hashish smoke and then in Goa I sought him out at all hours of the day to hear more. He was like a larger than life cartoon that had escaped from the page and was like a confirmation that there really is such a thing as magic. Until the age of 24, Ali had been a nuclear physicist in Berkeley, California, where he was working on the missile program. A gawky numbers geek, everything changed the day that he took LSD. Like so many of the best minds of his generation, he tuned in, turned on and dropped out. To escape his responsibilities to the US government he injected himself with hepatitis to get a medical discharge. 8
Soon thereafter Ali left the States and travelled to Morocco in search of Sufis, where he married and had three daughters. He immersed himself in Morocco and Islam and acquired his new name under the tutelage of a local Sufi master. Ali lived with his family in traditional Moroccan tents on the edge of town and was embraced by the local community who as yet hadn’t seen enough foreigners to be jaded by tourism. After the birth of his third daughter a delegation of men from the village came out to offer their condolences at the lack of a male heir. Finding Ali in a state of jubilation they could only conclude he had taken leave of his senses. Some eight years later, in 1973, his teacher decided it was time for him to move on and arranged tickets for Ali and his family to India. There they met with the freak scene of Goa and everything changed. Ali’s wife soon despaired of her husband and all the useless hippies, most of whom seemed too stoned to care about where the next meal was coming from. She fled to America and took the kids with her, changing their names by Deed Poll so that not even the private detectives Ali hired could find them. In despair, Ali ended up moving to Thailand where he sought consolation in dance and the sea. “I had a black hole in my chest,” he explained, “An emptiness which I took to the ocean.” Ali then spent several years dancing on his rooftop all day and then swimming all night. Sleeping just a few hours a day and living on a diet of milkshakes, he created his own make-believe world around himself. He went out in the middle of thunderstorms and rolled amongst the fury of the waves, learning to immerse himself in the dance of the elements. More than once the lifeguards sent a boat out to save him and Ali had to explain that he didn’t need rescuing, thanks all the same. It was swimming out to sea under the cruel Thai sun that he contracted the skin cancer on his scalp. He told me his friends eventually had to drag him to the hospital for emergency surgery. He terrified the doctors by waking up no less than seven times during the operation. He was held down by four orderlies while they gave him more and more anaesthetic.
Now, some 16 years later, he’d returned to India to follow the techno parties that had started up in the early 90’s. He took doses of acid that would have sent most people to Doolally but somehow he gave the impression that he could walk through any psychedelic storm and come through unscathed. Ali was exactly the kind of character I was looking for. I was young enough to be easily influenced by a strong personality and when I looked in his eyes I saw this was a soul who had walked paths far beyond the realms of common human experience. I felt that with Ali I had begun to walk on a genuine spiritual path. It was an attractive blend of travel and LSD with sprigs of Sufi and Buddhist teachings thrown in. My guru was cooler than anyone else’s and I found Ali himself an endless source of inspiration. He was the funniest, most bighearted person I’d ever met and I’d seek him out at all hours of the day to listen to his convoluted raps and just soak up his energy. Years afterwards if he appeared in a dream I felt that I’d been given a secret teaching whilst I’d been asleep. Everyone else laughed at this rather stiff young shadow Ali had picked up and he would have grimaced at the word ‘teacher’; he always insisted that all he was doing was passing on the words that others had told him. He considered himself a C minus student on the Path and must at times have despaired of my clinging hero worship. Nonetheless he took a keen interest in my progress and every week passed me along my dose of acid so that I could continue to storm heaven. He emphasised the futility of talking while high, though. He believed the only thing worth doing on a trip was to dance and so I naturally followed suit. I remember one evening dancing on 200 micrograms on a sandy dance floor by the beach; Ali hadn’t spoken to me since we’d dropped and, as we both whirled eccentrically around the palm trees, dodging drunks and playful children, we pretended that the other wasn’t there. When the music finished at 11pm I imagined we’d finally have a chat but instead he just moved on down to the edge of the sea and continued his dance there without music. I followed his example some 50 metres down the beach and soon learnt how to make the waves my dancing partner. 10
Each arrived with its own sound, motion and shape, a language demanding a translation into dance. In between there were a thousand games to be played on the sand and the waves; a blend of jumps and spins and gestures on the moonlit stage of my own private theatre. From then on I came down to the beach to trip at night once a week, dancing solo by the edge of the waves, capering around by the light of the stars or moon. I felt that I’d been initiated into a secret practice known only to ecstatic Sufi dancers. I held dialogue with the stars and when the sun rose I’d wonder what strange creature had left all those tracks in the sand. But there were also nights when the acid floored me. Struck with cramps in my stomach, I could no longer dance and I’d sit shivering on the sand, tormented by the giddy moon and a head full of angst. I’d play over every important scene in my life until that point and compare my own imperfect soul to the haughty grandeur of the heavens above me. The morning afterwards Ali would nod as though I’d just passed a stiff exam and though I can no longer be sure if the acid ever taught me anything at all, it certainly took the edge off my teenage arrogance. “You have the look in your eyes like a Muslim who’s just knelt down to surrender for the first time,” Ali told me after one particularly harrowing night. He claimed to have been in the same space half the nights of the previous 30 years and I wondered if such soul-searching was a prerequisite for genuine compassion. But if Ali had opened for me the magic box of psychedelia, mysticism and dance, it was in the ocean that he came into his own. I’d heard him rap about the hours he spent in deep sea swimming back in the Himalayas and, as usual, I had been the only one to take him seriously. In Goa we fell into a routine where we’d meet just after dawn for tea on the beach where Ali would hold forth on any subject under the sun with his usual inimitable eloquence and then, as the rest of the freaks began to arrive, we’d hit the sea. Until that point I’d always been a bit afraid of the ocean. I could swim but I didn’t know how to tread water and I spent most of my time complaining about getting water up my nose. But where Ali went I would follow and the moment we were out of our depths he’d begin his monologue on how to relate to the ocean. 11
“Now, Tom, we’re in living ocean here, not the dead water of a swimming pool and it should be no greater challenge than to walk on land. Now your head only needs to be above the water when you take a breath and in the meantime it’s connected to the rest of your body which should be following itself so that even your little toe can be leading your movement, we have, ah, 360 degrees here to work with here…” and so on as Ali brought the concept of the dance to the sea. He was in essence sharing with me the secret world he’d constructed for himself in his years of isolation in Thailand. It was as though when he lost his family the land ceased to hold any value for him and so he’d turned to the ocean. The water had been his playground, his therapy centre; it could take all the pain and anguish and anger he had to give it and still roll on and on, wave after wave. For Ali the ocean was a metaphor for life and an interactive element to practice surrender. You could fight and splash and writhe all you wanted but in the end you had to give in and let the ocean support you. Ali introduced me to his water world through games that he’d played by himself for years and I was the first person to take him even a little seriously. There was the Sea Warrior where you took every wave to be an arriving opponent in a liquid kung fu arena; as I dispatched chops and elbows and roundhouse kicks to the surrounding ripples, I forgot about the need to stay afloat. Playing Dead Man was essential to staying in the water for hours at a time and would have given any watching lifeguard a fit. Ali showed me that by letting flop every muscle like a corpse in the water, all the tiredness faded away from the muscles. It was panic that was the killer in the ocean and by taking it easy I would be in far less danger in the water than on land. “No one out here is going to hit you over the head with a club for 50 rupees.” Ali insisted. In fact, even in the water it was the humans who were the biggest threat. Fishing boats and the odd tourist boat in search of dolphins would steam through the water and unconsciously steer by the sight of our heads, missing us by metres as we howled and swore and waved for their attention before they sliced us to pieces. It has to be said though that other dangers were on my mind. Not sharks as such – I’d somehow convinced myself that there weren’t any in the Indian Ocean and if there were, odds on they’d be Hindu and thus vegetarian – but the pres12
ence of jellyfish rarely left my mind for a moment. I’d seen them on a boat trip I once took, gangs of them roaming the high seas with tentacles that stretched back 3 or 4 metres at times. Long enough to wind several times around the throat and drag me down to the bottom of the ocean in their poisonous coils. Ali, for his part, insisted that he’d swum in Thailand among thousands of jellyfish and that the ripples produced by his erratic swimming style kept them away. Even to me this sounded improbable but on the days when no one else dared enter the water after the shore was littered with washed up poisonous sponges, Ali would head off, calling merrily: “There’s more water than jellyfish!” I tried to follow his example on a couple of occasions. I’d swim nervously out, jumping each time a piece of seaweed bobbed towards me and making a 360 degrees check for imminent floating mines every 10 seconds. On one occasion I was about 200 metres out and congratulating myself on my steely nerves when a jellyfish propelled by its own sail came scooting past me on the surface of the water. I was back on the sand in minutes. Then there was the morning that there had been two separate sightings of something big in the water. It was long and grey and both parties insisted it was too big for a dolphin. “Big enough to be a whale,” one of them reasoned. “Or a shark.” the other pointed out. “Look out for the sea monsters!” Ali cried as he strutted down to the water and paddled out without another thought on the matter. I stood on the beach and watched him go, cursing his back and wondering if it would be stupid or brave to follow. After half an hour of painful deliberation on the merits of dying young, I headed out on my own. I was only a few hundred metres out when the water before me started to froth as though something really big was about to surface. I turned and cut the water to shreds in my efforts to get away. After 50 metres I was gasping for breath and span around with my fists drawn to see with horror 13
that the predator was just behind me. Tensed for imminent death, it took me a few moments to realise that the surfacing effect of the giant squid I was expecting was actually just hundreds of tiny fish jumping about mischievously and making a million ripples. Ha, ha. Then came a morning when Ali pointed over his cup of coffee at a distant sail on the horizon. “Yesterday I went about as far as that boat. Maybe a little further.” I squinted out in disbelief and then glanced at him to see if he was joking. For sure, I’d heard the tales of his deep sea swimming in Thailand – his scalp was testament alone – but it never occurred to me that I might be invited to follow suit. When we hit the water that morning I waited for the usual impromptu esoteric lecture on how to be a self-respecting sea creature but Ali just headed out placidly, not saying a word. As the beach diminished behind us, I tried some casual conversation. “I’ve heard there are some pretty strong currents out here. My, we’re certainly a long way out now. Do you suppose the tide is coming in or out? Oh, oh! Jellyfish over there!” But Ali just kept on as though he hadn’t heard me and as we breached my comfort zone the countless tons of ocean water around us set me in survival mode. Sure, I wanted extreme experiences, that was why I’d come to India in the first place. But to be risking my life like this at 19 years of age? I was still a virgin, for Christ’s sake, it would have been just too tragic to go down like this. Employing all of my head-shaking common sense, I turned around and left Ali to play with his life in the depths of the ocean. I kept my nerve and swam slowly back, making sure not to panic and, as the sounds of people playing paddle ball on the beach reached me, I felt the knots of fear unlock in my stomach. I’d made it. I’d also failed. There had never been any conditions set on Ali’s guidance, it was all strictly take-it-or-leave-it and while he got a kick out of my earnest naïveté, he had no interest in playing guru. I swam back into the bay and could now recognise the hippies on the beach who sat about analysing the world and quoting spiritual texts over a coconut. I felt like I’d just missed 14
the greatest opportunity of my life. With a leaden heart, I turned my face back towards the horizon and swam out again. I found Ali around a kilometer and a half out to sea and he didn’t seem in the least surprised to see me. “So of course whether we’re swimming out here or just by the shore, we’d always in, ah, the same 12 cubic feet of water…” The deep sea swimming became a regular feature after that and once I’d been out a few times I ceased to be fazed by the distance. The peninsulas on either side stretched out and we could measure our progress by the bumps on the hilly skyline as we moved further out. We’d swim towards the horizon for about 45 minutes, hang out for a while and then the slight currents would make it another hour or so back. Often the swimming itself could be quite tedious as the wind splashed waves in our faces all the way back like impertinent slaps. But then would come the odd blissful occasion when the ocean was perfectly calm. Each stroke released tinkling bells of water drops on the surface and the sea rolled gently up and down, hiding and revealing the land in an undulating blue carpet. Then the silence would be broken by a jumping sting ray and my heart would once again be in my mouth. Strangest of all were the whistles that we heard from time to time though there wasn’t a soul in sight. It took a fisherman to explain to me that it was the dolphins, sticking their snouts out of the water and teasing us. Typically, the biggest drama that came from our long distance swimming though was provided by humans. One morning we were barely a kilometer out when a distant buzz increased to a drone and finally a deafening whirr as an Indian coastguard helicopter approached. It hovered above us and then descended until it was just ten metres above our heads, the wind from the blades setting a savage chop on the water. “Go back! Go back!” the Indians yelled, leaning out of the cockpit in their green uniforms, convinced they were saving our lives. Ali pointed at the beach as if in agreement and, when we pretended to turn around, they went dutifully on their way.
But however blasé I got about swimming out to sea, the journey back was always a test of faith. The tide made it harder going and there were times when it seemed like the beach wasn’t actually getting any closer. I had to resist the temptation to pick up speed as it was essential to stay relaxed and not exhaust oneself. In fact, however unintuitive it felt, I often had to play Dead Man a few times to let go of the tension of long distance swimming. “And you see, that just like in life, however far out you are, it’s just a case of one stroke after another, nothing more than that.” Ali would declare. He also claimed there were currents within currents and that with the right intention, one could cover kilometers on ‘a postage stamp of energy’. At times, I believed him. And though it was always good to know that I was going to live for another day when we rounded the rock that marked out the small bay of the beach, there was always a feeling of regret, too. For a couple of hours I’d been able to forget all the heavy karma of the land with its mundane realities of money, people and my lack of a sex life. It was like exchanging weightlessness for the chains of gravity and only the thought of a fruit juice could convince me to make the trade. I’d step back onto the sands as though I’d forgotten how to walk and having lost all my body heat to the sea, I’d stand shivering in the tropical sun. * It was Ali who introduced me to the old freaks who sat around in Joe Bananas Café each day and analysed their changing Paradise. To even find Joe Bananas you had to be shown the way through the twisting jungle paths and it was one of the oldest cafés around. The story went that some 20 years ago a hippie had thrown a banana at someone, missed and a Goan called Joe picked it up and sold it to the next freak to come along. Plenty of younger people came to Joe’s for the legendary lassis and milkshakes but it was the generation in their 50’s who held court each lunchtime and, to their puzzled discomfort, I made myself a regular at their tables, absorbing the stories of the old days and barely being allowed to 16
squeeze in a word edgeways. At best, I was a curiosity to be tolerated or patronised, at worst I was 30 years too young to offer an opinion on any subject that mattered. Most of them had come overland to India in the 60â&#x20AC;&#x2122;s and 70â&#x20AC;&#x2122;s and reminisced about the good old days when one navigated the jungle with a candle in a coconut shell at night. These were the days when the Goans were rescued from the economic and cultural vacuum left by the Portuguese (whoâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d renounced their colony in 1961) by the long-haired freaks who came to spend the winters on the beach. The conservative Goans were a little shocked by the naked foreigners smoking charas on the beach but on the whole were almost unreasonably tolerant of the excesses of the freak scene. They provided a modest demand for fish, fruit and the odd house to rent and most of them left by monsoon when the good fishing started. Moreover, they gave the locals something to talk about. Goans could be reserved to the point of being small-minded and the presence of the freak community was a welcome source of fresh gossip. Word spread among the freak scene that Goa was a tolerant location to let it all hang out and freaks began to take breaks from seeking enlightenment in the rest of India to come and party. At first it was just bongo drums and chillums on the beach, watching the sun go down and getting pregnant. Freaks wandered around dressed in sadhu outfits or just went naked and troubled themselves only to bury their charas in the sand when the cops showed up. I heard wistful tales of legendary drug stashes lost under the sands to short term memory loss and successive monsoons. Soon the first parties began with electrified rock music and the beaches filled up with thousands of freaks from all around the planet, tripping their brains out all night long. I was assured with pride that, Anjuna, the beach where I swam every day and tripped at night once a week, probably had the honour of more LSD having been taken there than anywhere else in the world.
I was curious to know how the golden days of the freak scene had metamorphosed into the fixture on the international trance scene that Goa had become. Between ordering just about every dish on the menu in a single sitting, I plied the veteran freaks with questions about the old days. Their nostalgia stoked, the stories flowed freely and allowed me to piece together a picture of how it all started. I learned that as the scene matured and those idealistic young hippies hit 30, their values began to change. Being poor and starving had its charms but even lentils and rice hippies took a ride on the gravy train sooner or later. One survivor of that time put it this way: “It all went wrong when people starting making money with drugs. Everyone began making runs to the West with charas in their shoes and suitcases. They came back wearing fancy clothes and snorting coke.” Combine the arrogance of the coke head with the spiritual superiority of the hippy and you have a truly dreadful slice of humanity. It became a battle of the egos to see who could make the latest entrance to the parties. “Us poor freaks in lunghis would be sweating it out all night long to a crackly guitar band and we’d look up at the cliffs in the morning and see the coke dealers looking down on us, dressed to kill.” Predictably, everyone lamented the passing of time and how things weren’t as freaky as they used to be. Their days were numbered and they knew it. In the footsteps of the freaks came another breed of tourist and the wealth they generated changed everything. Being a romantic, I shared their sympathies and wished I’d had come 30 years earlier. Goa was still magical to me but I could easily imagine the beaches with not a house or restaurant in sight. When the fisherman used to row out to sea instead of endangering the lives of long distance swimmers with their Yamaha engines. When you could walk through the jungle without encountering brick walls marking the fault lines of family squabbles over land that was previously worthless. I used to climb the hill above the beach to catch the dawn after a hard night’s dancing on the sands and all I could see were rice paddies and 18
jungle. The signs of progress were still invisible from on high and to even arrive at these few world-famous beaches you had to negotiate windy, potholed roads through a thicket of hills. It seemed improbable that news of these Goan beaches could ever have reached the outside world. Perhaps I should have been hanging out with travelers of my own age, bombing around on a motorbike, chasing girls and fine-tuning my chillum etiquette to impress the gang. But I figured that if there was anyone who could tell me anything worth knowing it would be the old folks. They were actually quite nice to me now I think about it and they probably enjoyed the chance to tell some of the old tales to a pair of fresh ears. I heard tales of all the characters over the years who had become holy men or women, committed suicide, overdosed or just gone plain crazy. When I quoted the line And I lay traps for troubadours who got killed before they reached Bombay I was sharply reminded that the Stones never made it to India, much less covered anyone’s funeral expenses. I pestered everyone for stories; a man who had spent 7 years living in a mountain cave as an ascetic baba; another who drove around India every winter on a motorbike and who once owned a half share in a cow in Varanasi; a German Kali devotee who held that her bad moods were the righteous rage of the Goddess, intent on destroying ignorance and stupidity; others told of dope deals gone wrong, brushes with the Indian mafia, golden moments with celebrated gurus or the trials and tribulations of raising kids in the tropics – especially when they ended up rejecting their freak upbringing and becoming investment bankers. The grandfather of the freak scene was 8 Finger Eddie, an ArmenianAmerican with only 3 fingers on his right hand. He was one of the very first freaks to arrive in Goa in 1965 and though he was the stuff of legend, in his 70´s he now seemed to be marking time. He woke up at dawn to dance for 45 minutes every day, played patience all morning and then walked into the lunchtime café at the stroke of noon without fail. He played racquetball on the beach in the afternoon and was the first customer in the same restaurant each night. If his luck was in someone would buy him dessert. He’d barely left India in the past 40 years and lived humbly on the interest of some money he had stashed away somewhere. 19
“I consider every day of my life that I don’t work a day of success!” he once laughed as I hassled him for his stories on the beach. Eddie was friendly to me from the first and that probably went a way to easing my social acceptance among the rest. Barely a week would go by without some acquaintance from the past returning after 15 years away from the freak scene and rushing up to him with great fondness. His memory was prodigious but often he’d just smile and let them gush about the old days for a few minutes until they left him to his own devices. “Did you remember her?” I asked him after a matronly blond woman from Switzerland had bent our ears about all the ‘masters’ she’d been studying meditation with recently. “Nah.” he waved a 3 fingered hand dryly, “Anyway, meditation is a waste of time. There is no path.” That was the kind of Zen simplicity that was Eddie’s trademark. He could be incredibly mundane at times – his dirty jokes on his occasional stand-up shows tested the loyalty of even his oldest friends – but there was a calm and simplicity to Eddie that charmed me. He had the air of someone who had understood his life and was now just enjoying the remaining days one at a time. When I asked him how it felt to be old he shrugged. “How would I know?” His philosophy seemed to be holding up. In his mid-70’s he had a full head of chestnut hair although he was so thin and bony that you could lose him in the sun when he turned sideways. Journalists in search of a story about Goa would sometimes track down Eddie for an interview and he might answer the questions for a hundred bucks. He was like a holy man without any religion or practice. Various people had tried to make a guru out of him through the years but he never believed in that game. “If the Buddha was out there on my doorstep I wouldn’t go out to meet him,” he insisted, “What can the Buddha do for me?” 20
* After a couple of seasons of listening to the stories of the old days I got it into my head that it was time to earn my stripes as a self-respecting freak. Inspired by a freak called Robin Brown who had hitched from San Francisco to Argentina and halfway back in the 70’s (his experiences are recorded in his book, Further Up the Road, if you can find it), I decided to hitchhike from England to India with no money at all. The reasons were pretty simple: I was 20 years old, broke and had no intention of working for a living. After the amazing times I’d experienced in India, England seemed like a never ending Monday Morning and I could hardly believe the two worlds could exist at once. Time to grow up, get a job, everyone told me and with the obstinacy of Peter Pan, I declined. There had to be another way. Then I read Robin’s book and my heart leapt each time he found himself with no money again and Providence kept stepping in to save him. Why couldn’t I do the same? I found backing in Hindu texts, Sufi stories, even the New Testament where Jesus chides his disciples for worrying about what they’ll eat tomorrow. So with the hazy notion that if I committed myself 100% to trust in the world, the world would take care of me, I set out with a passport full of visas, a clarinet which I hadn’t yet learnt to play, a sleeping bag and a loaf of date bread to make sure I survived at least the first day and a half. Four months later, after having been force-fed across most of the Islamic world, shivering under motorway bridges in rainstorms, almost getting raped in Pakistan and squeezing into Indian trucks that averaged 25mph over the worst roads in the world, I arrived in Goa. I ran down to the water’s edge, gazed at the embers of the sunset and gave a whoop of triumph. I’d made it. The journey had been my rite of passage and I could now hold my head as high as any other freak in Goa. Predictably, almost none of the Joe Bananas crowd could care less. “I hitchhiked overland back in 1974.” 21
“Ah, I hitchhiked the same route 3 times.” “There were people who used to walk the whole way.” Ali was pleased to see me but remained a little distant in those first few days. I hadn’t expected the champagne to be opened at my arrival but, in truth, I’d given precious little thought as to what to do next. A penniless pilgrim could expect a few handouts along the way but he quickly became a common beggar if he hung around for a while. I had 35 rupees left, less than a dollar, and made them stretch painfully for the first 3 days, eating only bananas and ordering lemon water in Joe’s, half-hoping someone might notice my reduced circumstances and take it on themselves to cover my bowls of rice and dal for the winter. I was sleeping on the beach one morning and hardly had time to gather up my blankets before I heard Ali’s motorbike arriving. He looked as though he’d turned up early for a purpose. “Tom, do you have any money?” he asked sharply as he took his seat in the chai shop. “No, that is-” “Goa is not a poor man’s place. You can hang around like a dog in the cafés but then you have to be prepared to face the consequences. See, if you’ve come all this way to throw yourself upon our mercy – then it isn’t mercy!” and so on, in a manner that left me in no doubt as to where I stood. We swam out to sea and I hastily explained my schemes for staying afloat that winter. I planned to give shiatsu massages (and who wanted to be touched by a guy who slept on the beach and wore the same clothes for days at a time?) and – get this, it was 1998, remember – I was going to set up email addresses for travelers so they could receive mail anywhere in the world. No one knew what the internet was at that time and it almost sounded like a business plan. Ali swallowed it at least and gave me $50 to start me off. Much cowed and full of trepidation about how I would survive – or ever 22
get out of India for that matter with only four and a half months left on my visa – we went to Joe’s where Robin was drinking his after-lunch chai. He gave a vague nod as we entered and then his unruly carrot-blonde hair and blue eyes were hidden behind the newspaper. “Where have you been all year then?” he eventually asked. When I told him he took off his glasses with interest. “Did you? You came down through Iran and Pakistan? So when’s the book coming out?” I flustered that I couldn’t even afford the writing materials at that point. He congratulated me on my journey and before leaving bought me a pen and a writing pad from behind the counter and continued to supply me with more as the season went along. To most people, finding themselves destitute on the other side of the world, writing a book would seem an unlikely rescue plan. Anyone with a little more initiative would have made cakes to sell in the flea market, sold some drugs or begged money from friends and family back home to get a ticket out of there. None of these seemed like an option, however, so I took the slow path to financial redemption by beginning my manuscript. After making myself thoroughly unwelcome at Joe’s by occupying a seat to write the book for hours in the busiest lunchtime hours, I decamped to the German Bakery to write my target of 2000 words a day. The Nepalese staff looked at me strangely when I ordered the cheapest possible lunch – 2 whole wheat rolls (no butter) and a glass of water – and by the second day they refused to accept my money. When the boss wasn’t looking they’d even sneak me the odd cinnamon roll or cappuccino. Writing Hand to Mouth to India gave me a sense of purpose at least and was a kind of yoga, digesting the experiences I’d had along the road. The book almost came to a pretty Zen ending, however, when a cow began to gnaw at the corners of the manuscript while I was drinking a coconut. If it wasn’t for the fruit lady that chased it away with a machete I might have swum out to sea and never come back. A friend let me type it up on his laptop and by the end of the season the first draft was done. I printed the entire 90,000 words of the travelogue out on 40 pages and reckoned I could charge $5 a time for photocopies of 23
it. This strategy kept me alive in the following season in the Himalayas but many travelers went blind trying to read it. With some financial backing from my parents I made a print run of 500 books the following winter and became famous for around 3 weeks. Robin’s stern editing had made the end result readable and though it was still painfully outspoken and precocious at times, the story alone was enough to spark the interest of the Goan scene. For the next month I touted the books in a shameless fashion, leaving them on the tables of restaurants for diners to peruse, selling them at the flea market, on the beach and even at the trance parties. The word of mouth it generated was so strong that I found myself hearing from a German backpacker how this crazy English guy had walked all the way to India. I was tempted to leave him to the Chinese whispers but the opportunity was too good to miss selling him a book. * Hardships make great dinner party anecdotes years later and our comparative calm in the telling of them only adds to the dramatic effect. I survived that season sleeping on the beach in Goa thanks to the generosity of a few old friends who threw me a couple of hundred rupees from time to time and by giving the odd guitar lesson or helping sell hammocks in the flea market. But it was a rough time. For 4 months I didn’t wash with fresh water, just bathing in the sea every day. I climbed around the rocks to shit in a cove every morning and I didn’t even have my own bucket to pull water from the well, meaning that I sometimes had to go to sleep with a parched throat until the cafés opened in the morning. The Goans were kind, allowing me to sleep under the shelter of their chai shops on the beach and throwing me a plate of rice or a samosa when it was obvious I hadn’t eaten in a while. I shaved with the same blade for weeks and used a bit of soap and a tiny piece of broken mirror to keep my beard under control. At times I didn’t feel much higher in the order of things than the beach dogs who fought the odds to survive each monsoon. I learnt that it was possible to get by on almost nothing but the loss to one’s dignity on the 24
way was profound. Someone might make a joke at my expense and I’d be about to retort when I’d remember that I needed to use their well to draw water to wash my clothes. I tried to take it as an opportunity to learn humility but it hurt all the same. Still, I managed to maintain much of my usual lifestyle as in previous seasons. I got wherever I wanted to go by hitchhiking, Ali passed onto me some hits of acid for my moonlit dance sessions with the sea and I still went to all the trance parties that I could. I remember one particular 3 day binge that had started when Acid Eric, another grandfather of the Goan scene, gave out some mescaline to me and the rest of his guests at his house one evening; the party later that night progressed into a jam session the next morning, followed by an afternoon and evening of smoking chilums until the next party started at midnight. I finally staggered back to Anjuna at sunset the next day after 48 hours of solid partying. At the time I was sleeping on the porch of a deserted house and as I put my head down the incessant thuds of the trance music pounded through my head. I wondered whether they would ever go away. It was only when I awoke shortly after dawn that I discovered there was yet another party in progress 100 metres away from where I slept. I picked up my blankets and staggered over. “Tom lives downstairs and wants to complain about the noise!” Ali joked as I hovered blearily on the edge of the dance floor before shrugging and joining them. * I never really got trance music until I took acid. Then as the psychedelic waves mixed with the relentless hypnotic beats, I felt like I was deep sea swimming. The ocean of sound and the locomotive beat allowed me to weave my own journey through it, following the tracks laid down by the DJ in the aural landscapes he wove. Perhaps it was because the music was so personal, melding as it did with your particular trip that no one could ever agree much on what made good 25
trance. At every party, no matter how great a time everyone was having, there were always but always people bitching about the music. The tracks were too old, they were badly mixed or the DJ wasn’t stoned enough. Perhaps one of the worst things about the whole trance movement is that it spawned a whole new generation of music critics who considered themselves experts in the field. When I arrived in Goa in 1995 the trance parties had already passed their peak and the vultures of the police wanting baksheesh and the Indian mafia wanting to profit from the gatherings had already assured their eventual demise. We hoped we could just squeeze out a few more seasons as the parties were our collective sacrament, the ritual that held our temporary international village together. It’s hard to communicate just how special the parties were. With every generation on the dance floor from 16 to 75 (when Eddie turned up in the mornings, dressed to kill) and at least 20 nationalities represented at any one time, there was a feeling that only in this special sanctuary on the West Coast of India could we reach such highs. Probably nowhere else in the world could the parties become so suddenly nightmarish and anarchic as well but that was a risk you took when you dropped your acid and hoped for the best. No one who knew what they were doing ever turned up to a party before 3 or 4 in the morning. To pay off the police the parties always needed a bar and so the first few hours meant the dance floor was full of drunk Indians and package tourists – the last place you’d want to find yourself with a head full of acid. But they all fell asleep or went home by the early hours and then the party could begin. It was always like setting off on an adventure. I’d usually go to bed early and then wake up at around 3:30 am to get ready. That gave me time to shower and get my party gear ready. I’d find my way through the jungle by torchlight, following the sound of the bass and my hit of acid would be hidden behind the torch batteries. I also brought 5 litres of water mixed with dehydration salts in a couple of water bottles for when the heat rose later in the morning.
After half an hour of following paranoid jungle trails, imagining a snake at every turn, I’d suddenly come across palm trees painted in fluoro and see faces of every ethnicity, swaying in a psychedelic haze. In the surrounding jungle old Goan mamas held reign on their chai mats, serving tea and cakes to stoned freaks who had no idea in which pocket their money was. There was minimal lighting on the dance floor itself and the DJ occupied a discreet post somewhere to the side. Sometimes you’d stumble across this guy stood in front of an electronics set and suddenly realise he was the one arranging the music. The nights could be hellish. Many people actually liked it that way, dancing through the dark in a painful anonymity, exorcising their demons before the dawn. Then with the first light you’d hear a wave of motorbike engines and feel a new energy taking hold of the party. Everything slowly came into focus. The light began to grow and you’d suddenly realise what a beautiful place you were in. The dance floor swelled and hundreds of people went wild as the DJ unleashed a new mood. It was also the time when you saw who you’d been dancing with all night. You’d drift through the dance floor, testing the waters, looking for the space that suited you the best. Ideally, no one stood about or talked and you’d feel the personalities of hundreds of people expressed through dance. There were the hoof and elbow stompers of the Israeli chieftains, the springs and twirls of Greek nymphs and the martial aerobics of Japanese travellers exploring the consequences of freedom for the first time. The parties attracted characters and personalities from all over the world, people whose dance resembled theatre and they generated energy wherever they went. Most people were too high to care what anyone thought of them and were free to explore themselves and their personal journeys as far as their dance could take them. It was a medium that conducted the flow of thoughts and feelings in a way that words never could. You found movements to express your anger, sadness or love. There were rarely any strong sexual vibes and most people were too high to even entertain the concept. Instead you were free to play roles as you moved and feel how everyone reacted to your personal dance. At its best it was a kind of group therapy. At the end of a party you had gotten to know around a hundred people without ever talking to them. You knew who your friends on the dance 27
floor were though you probably never exchanged a word. Often you might not even see them again until the next party and then you’d continue from where you left off. Soul mates recognised each other at once and you were finally free to be yourself. As dawn hit at one party I felt a tap on my shoulder from a young Portuguese DJ – he squeezed a drop of liquid acid onto my palm and twisted away into the dance floor before I could even smile. As with any congregation you felt part of something greater than yourself. It was something more conductive than water, where a wave of energy could spread through the dance floor in a moment. A quarrel, an embrace or a new arrival were all things you felt without using any of the five senses. It was like melding into some electrical field or making love to 300 hundred people at once. The dust rose with the day and soon everyone’s nostrils and lips would be lined with red sand. You could feel a bottle of water being opened 50 metres away and everyone danced on even when there was no more energy left to do so. Then it would suddenly all be over. After 7 hours of psychedelic experience we’d suddenly understand how the music had become part of us, how it had flowed down our veins and poured out again as sweat. Lost and bewildered, we ambled about in the sudden silence like soldiers after a battle, unsure of where to go next. Other times it was pure hell. You’d turn up, drop acid and then be unable to find anywhere on the dance floor where you weren’t being hassled by some idiot. I remember one night where I danced for an hour next to a huge Scandinavian who stood about with a large rucksack on, sighing and glaring at everyone. Finally he grabbed me with one hand and with the other held a small Indian boy who was trying to sell him something. I spun away before he could hit me. Another friend of mine in his 50’s with long hair and beard, resident in India for over 30 years, had a couple of English thugs walk up and ask him if he was Jesus Christ. When it wasn’t going well you could read the uncertainty and suffering on people’s faces. I’d join forces with a few other dancers and try to create some energy together but then a water salesman would set down his boxes between us and start counting his money. ´Get out of my fucking temple!´ 28
I’d want to shout but these were the local mafia and the last thing you needed on acid was an enemy. The New Year’s parties were always the most chaotic. Thousands of tourists and Indians turned up for 48 hours of unmitigated anarchy.The Indians from the interior were the most irritating nerds imaginable. They walked down the beach fully dressed, socks and shoes and all, itching to take photos of girls in bikinis. This was my girlfriend in Goa, they told their friends back home. At night, they got hopelessly drunk and every year a couple of them drowned as they tried to swim for the very first time. Frequently at the parties I found myself playing policeman on the dance floor as hordes of drunk Indians surrounded unsuspecting Western girls deep in their trip. When one friend of mine tried to intervene at a New Year’s party, the Indian in question withdrew a full-length sword. He waved it around a bit until everyone kept their distance and then walked around with it the whole night. Oh-oh, there’s the lunatic with the sword again, people murmured and moved away. New Year was also when the Goans got their own back on the arrogant Indian tourists who had been treating them like dirt for weeks. Gangs of Goan lads looked for drunken tour groups from Bombay and then beat the shit out of them in the forest. In the end it was always better to look for the smaller parties where you had a chance of finding friends. You never really knew what might happen to you or when you might need help. On my 21st birthday I was at a party and someone gave me a cup of acid punch. Someone must have made a mistake with the maths though as instead of 100 micrograms I ended up taking closer to 1000. I spent a good deal of the night in a state of emergency, reminding myself every couple of seconds that it was time to breathe again. I could barely see or stand up in the storm of perception that raged around me and I wondered if I’d finally gone too far. Luckily, a friend found me and took me round to the back of the garden to drink chai and sit by a fire all night. When the morning arrived I realised I was still in trouble but my voice and brain were barely speaking terms. Each time I thought to ask for help I got 29
lost in a train of thought and the opportunity passed by. A familiar face arrived at my side and I eventually recognised it as belonging to my friend, Isaac. “Isaac, I’m, uh, the night was, like, difficult, ah,. I don’t know how, I mean, difficult.. is your motorbike with you?” “Sure, where do you need to go? ” “Ah, I’m not sure-” “Oh, did you have a bad trip? ” “Ah, yeah!” Once the word got around that my night had been rougher than most, there was a crowd of people looking to help. As I was sleeping on the beach at the time I was taken back to the house of some friends to be babysat. They fed me papaya and yoghurt until the afternoon when I got my head together enough to head back to the beach. The care of the community was one of the best birthday presents I ever had. * The monsoon lushness of the Goan jungle faded with every day under the relentless Indian sun and by February there was precious little green left in sight. Everything became covered in the ubiquitous red Goan dust and fields were burnt everywhere to prevent bush fires. As the end of the season approached wells began to run dry and tempers rose and the first rains were still 2 months away. The last parties of the season still attracted a crowd but it was becoming too hot to dance for long and everyone began checking the railway schedules to the cool retreats of the Himalayas. Very few lived in Goa all year round as the rains were formidable, filling the rice paddies to overflowing and churning up the oceans to an extent that probably even Ali wouldn’t have dared enter. 30
It was at the end of the season that the flip-outs became visible, wandering around in the sun, talking to themselves with a tired, hunted look on their face. Those lucky enough to have parents back home who gave a shit or a helpful embassy might be repatriated and taken care of. Others were left to fend for themselves with the beach dogs and brave the monsoon. The freaks took care of their own only to an extent. Beyond that we were all guests in Goa, each armed with flight tickets and traveler cheques, every hippie for himself. The scene shifted to the Himalayas in the summer and slowed down considerably. There were still parties once or twice a month but for the main part it was all about smoking mountain charas in the cafés, walking to waterfalls on sunny afternoons and spending days at a time in rented wooden houses far above the village, drinking tea and reading books. Vashisht, my Himalayan village was one of the first places I had come to in India and was where I’d met Ali. At any one time there were some 30 long term travelers living in and around the village, renting houses up on the slopes and living the good life. When I had first arrived in 1995 the main street was lined with beautiful wooden houses and temples but these had now been torn down to make way for concrete shops. They stocked handicrafts, gems and camera film – things that no local could afford to buy. The village square was now dominated by restaurants, shops and no less than five bakeries within 50 metres to cater to the munchies of the stoned Westerners. Seen from afar the village seemed like a small Las Vegas on the mountainside with its sprawling concrete construction. Once you entered the heart of the village, though, you could leave all that behind. Dewy-eyed calves stood about in the stone courtyards and chickens hopped about between their legs. The stone paths wound past beautiful wooden houses with long, crooked balconies, steep staircases and stone tiled roofs on which they dried their corn in the autumn. The air was crisp and laced with wood smoke, cow dung and the scent of the pine trees further up the slopes. At either end of the North-South valley there were stunning glacier views and travellers took their breakfasts on café rooftops to make the most of the view. On the opposite slope your 31
gaze could wander for hours over the scattered forests, waterfalls like silver threads and distant villages with smoke rising above their chimneys. Old ladies shepherded their cows up and down the mountain paths and knitted woollen jerseys as they walked. Whilst I struggled not to slip on the muddy parts these tough old birds never missed a stitch. The cows they herded had sharp horns that could pierce you in a momentâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s swing and it was as well to give them right of way. Nepalese porters lugged 70 kilos of wood or, in the autumn, apples down the slopes and I watched them in awe. The sight of these short, stout men with straw baskets on their backs, loaded to the max, was like the final proof of the value of eating rice and lentils. It could have made an ad in a Western health food store. I found a little house to rent for $25 a month some 20 minutes walk above the village and stayed up there for days at a time. It was a simple affair made of wood and clay, covered with a generous layer of cow dung for insulation and to keep the insects away. Best of all was a long wooden balcony where I could sit, drink green tea and watch the monsoon take control of the valley. At times, the rains had an almost British punctuality, arriving every day at 3pm and it was vital to try to get the shopping and laundry done before then. Then it might rain every night for a week, causing me to wake 4 or 5 times during the night to take a piss. Then a new pattern would set in where the rain clouds gave it all they had during the day and then departed to leave the stars crystal clear at night. And just as I would make up my mind to go nocturnal the monsoon would shift into a couple of weeks of almost 24 hours a day rain. I looked up at the sky and wondered how much fucking water can be up there? The monsoon was incredibly monotonous for everyone living in the village. But for those of us with a house up on the slopes, the storms arrived with all the grace of dancers drifting through the sky. The clouds blended with the forests on the opposite slopes in a shifting collage of black and white. It was like Japanese poetry in the sky. But with the summer sun cut off behind the rain it got to be too cold to wash and Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d eventually become too smelly to sleep even with myself. Then Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d crack and run down to the vil32
lage to wash in the temple baths where hot sulphur water was channelled from mountain springs. I’d buy cinnamon rolls in the bakery and plan LSD expeditions on the next sunny day to see rainbows in the holy waterfalls an hour’s walk away through the forest. That season of 1998 when I lived on next to nothing in my wooden house became one of the golden times I look back on with fond nostalgia. Never mind that I often couldn’t afford a cup of chai in a café in the village, never mind that my visa had expired and I could in theory be arrested if the police were ever to pass and ask to see my passport – the fact was that I woke up every morning to a view that all the people earning 5 figure salaries in London and New York would have killed for. I learned to spend days alone in my little wooden house on the slopes, gazing out at the mountains and writing songs on a guitar someone gave me. I learned to make my own happiness and be my own best friend. True, every time I thought about what I would do once my flimsy reserve of rupees ran out, or how I would ever escape India with an expired visa, I entered into despair, feeling utterly isolated and forlorn. But when I just relaxed and enjoyed the mountain paradise that surrounded me, I felt on top of the world, basking in my freedom. * Familiar faces floated up each day to spend the summer in the mountains and somehow it never really occurred to me how everyone else got by. I was living on a couple of dollars a day from selling photocopies of my manuscript and that was enough for me to rent a little house and buy my rice and dal. But the same faces could be seen on the Indian travel circuit, refugees from the West and whilst it gave rise to a pleasant international village atmosphere, I was too naive to probe much deeper. India was a cheap country to live in, after all, but there weren’t that many ways to make a living there. Some made cakes, set up tattoo and piercing workshops, gave massage or sold a little dope but the numbers didn’t really add up. And whilst there were those who made regular trips back home with backpacks full of bedsheets and crystals for sale in the flea markets of London or Amsterdam, it slowly dawned on me that most of the India regulars were involved in a different kind of export. 33
For some it was as simple as driving their motorbikes down from Parvati valley with the inner tyres full of charas for sale in Goa and other Indian freak scenes. They walked high up in the valley to cut deals with the farmers and then drove at night to avoid the police on the road. But the mark-up was considerably higher back home and it was common to see travelers in guest houses in Delhi getting ready to swallow half a kilo of charas before jumping in a taxi to the airport. They’d sit in front of a pile of inch long black pellets wrapped up in cellophane and overcome their reflex urge to gag as they gulped them down one by one. If all went well, 15 hours later they’d be in some Berlin pad heading for the bathroom with plastic gloves and a sieve to await intestinal delivery. For all the parties and the stoned sessions in cafés talking about meditation and the meaning of life, when it came to making a run you were alone. Any number of things could go wrong – informants were everywhere, your body might reject the foreign cargo, the flight could be delayed – and there was nothing to do but light a candle to your favourite god and hope for the best. There were stories of the odd intrepid soul who filled a backpack with 10 kilos of charas, threw a towel on top and then just walked onto the plane and straight through customs at the other end. I could only think, wow, they’d be able to stay on the road for the rest of their life. But as hand to mouth as my existence was, I could never see a future in smuggling. Even if I were to make it through one time, the money would be too easy. Money that came that fast would part just as quickly and then how would I be able to resist the temptation of making another run? It seemed like a losing pattern with the odds on getting caught growing shorter each time. One American friend who’d been living in the Himalayas for the last 20 years, on and off, was a specialist in making suitcases with false bottoms. Whenever he got a haircut I knew he was about to go on a run himself. When he’d gotten to know me better he confessed: “In the old days it was easy. Everyone was doing it and then we’d come 34
back to hang out in India for another year. But now there’s more risk and less money in it than there ever was. But I’m 52 years old. What am I going to do?Head back to Pittsburgh and flip burgers?” Because of the unspoken risks that so many travelers took, India was one of the only places in the world where no one ever asked you what you did for a living. There was a feeling that whatever you did outside of the scene was no one’s business and, besides, you didn’t want to put anyone in a position where they had to lie. I didn’t realise how lucky I was in those years in Goa and the Himalayas. The collection of people that frequented the scene were among some of the most varied and interesting characters to be found anywhere. I supposed that I would find umpteen such places around the planet and had no idea how rare and fleeting it all was. Tourism, police attention and the mafia interests that suffocated the party scene all ensured that the freak scene is now all but dead in all the places I used to hang out. Yet it would be misleading to suppose that things were perfect. We had wonderful parties, great times hanging out on the beach and in mountain cafés, friendships were struck between people of all ages and nationalities, we were free to live our lifestyles unhindered by the conventions and demands of our home countries. But ultimately, our paradise was grafted on top of our host society, a country chosen as much for its spirituality as its favourable exchange rate. We were living on the edge and many lost their balance and tumbled over. Stories of people going crazy or ending up in jail were the fault lines of our Eden and though most preferred to ignore them, it was all too easy to slip through the cracks. Little did I imagine how well I would come to know the flip side of the dream I’d lived for the best part of two and a half years.
Jail Stories in India January - May 2000 In 1999, a few weeks before the millennium, I was sofa surfing in the spare room of a friend in England. We had an unspoken arrangement where he let me stay for free whilst I typed up some notes, providing I cooked a hot meal each day. He was the kind of absent-minded genius who was unable to make toast without setting the kitchen on fire. A Chinese stir fry made a welcome change from a supper of dry muesli. The publishers of Hand to Mouth to India had postponed publication until the spring and I found myself staring at a cold, dark English winter. I had around 50 pounds to my name, a thin denim jacket that kept out none of the December cold and a manuscript that I needed to show to some friends in India. I had no job, no urge to work and no idea as to how I was going to get out of England. On top of all that I sensed it was high time that I stopped abusing the kindness of my long-suffering friend. Ducking out of a rainstorm that left me drenched and full of self-pity, I took shelter in a second hand bookshop. I fingered through a book of mystic sayings of the Hassidic Jews and the page I picked at random said: The only sin is to despair. With God anything is possible. I walked back out into the rain and laughed all the way home about how down Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d let myself get. Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d been in tighter corners before. I would only ever be defeated if I lost my sense of humour. The next day I woke up to the sound of the telephone ringing next to my bed. I looked at it suspiciously before picking up the receiver.
“Hello?” “Hi, Tom, is that you? Man, I’ve been trying to get hold of you for ages – It’s Clive. Listen, did you hear about what happened to me and my girlfriend, Natasha? Well, we got busted at Delhi airport with a couple of kilos of charas, only I got away. My girlfriend is in jail in India, Tom. What are you up to these days anyway? If I was to pay the flight tickets and expenses do you think you could go out there and visit her for me? I need someone to talk to the lawyer and I’ve got my hands full just trying to make money to pay the baksheesh…” I turned the offer over in my mind for a few days, weighing up the pros and cons of getting involved but really, my decision had been made from the beginning. 6 days later I was on a plane to Delhi. I’d left India 9 months earlier and couldn’t imagine ever going back. After a year and a half stretch there the chaos of Indian life had worn down my psychic shields to the point that I felt ready to kill. My nerves had frayed under the relentless pressure of living in India and I worried that I might get stuck there forever. The outside world proved to be a little tougher than I thought, however. I imagined that after what I’d been through in India anything else would be child’s play. But after months of hitchhiking and sofa surfing through the Middle East and Europe, I realised that I was still pretty young and had a long way to go. At 22 I already had a colourful past but life is lived in the present and I was at a bit of a loose end. Through the ten hour British Airways flight to India I enjoyed what would be the last ten hours of calm that I would experience for months. A distant buzz deep within my ear canal and a twitching of my nostrils alerted me to imminent chaos. Soon all the dust and noise and endless sensory impressions of Delhi would be upon me. Beggars pulling at my elbow and waving stumps in front of my face. Exhaust pipes turning my snot black. Flies making love on my forehead. Hawkers shouting in my ears. Police searching my pockets. Prisoners crying desperately. Lawyers snickering like overfed sharks. 37
I opened up my plastic sachet of sugar and sweetened my tea. The clouds outside the window ignited in the sunset as we poisoned the sky at 710mph. Hundreds of Indians in suits and saris chatted politely up and down the aisles in English and Hindi. It all seemed completely unreal. “So where are you off to?” a pleasant Indian woman in jeans and t-shirt asked me. I just couldn’t help it. “Well, actually, I’m off to try and get a girl out of prison. It was drugs, as you might imagine. Now she’s looking at ten years of sleeping on concrete floors with cockroaches - unless I can find a good judge to bribe. Of course it might be possible to break her out…” She excused herself to go to the bathroom. The stewards came by to fill up our tea cups and the extra caffeine helped me get things in perspective. India had found me 5000 miles away hidden in a quiet room in a quiet town to whisk me off on an adventure that promised only madness. To understand what I was doing in the middle of a story like this I had only to reread the beginning. * I’d first met Clive a couple of years before at the bottom of a hill in the Himalayas. It was 11pm and I was trying to walk along a swerving mountain road in freezing temperatures with only a candle to guide me. It was beginning to rain when a taxi pulled up and I heard a Manchester accent from the back ask: “So where have you just hitched in from?” “Well, London, actually.” “Fucking hell, really? You’d best hop in then.” I considered that to be a fairly auspicious beginning. Over the next year and half that I spent broke in India Clive always helped me out when our paths crossed. Even if it was just to buy me a meal or give me a place to sleep for a few nights. He was something of a scallywag but that also made him interesting company. 38
Clive had been dealing drugs for most of his life, first in the ecstasy scene of the late 80’s in Manchester and then in the Himalayas, immersing himself in the charas business. He’d made his base in a village in the Parvati Valley, got to know the farmers and was soon organising the transport of the black gold to Europe and beyond. Charas itself is a kind of hashish made by gently rubbing the buds of the marijuana plants and then collecting the resin collected on the palm. Working quickly, a farmer could make maybe 10 grams a day but the slower the buds were rubbed the better the quality and some said that to make cream, the highest grade of all, required the soft hands of children. Charas has been part of Indian tradition for thousands of years; the drug is sacred to Shiva and an integral part of the Himalayan economy. The arrival of the freaks and the subsequent exports to Europe increased production, of course, and every now and then the Indian army was sent up into the high valleys to burn a field of marijuana plants for the newspapers. It was still business as usual for the most part though and tens of thousands of travelers headed to the Himalayas every year to get stoned at 2000 meters. The Parvati Valley held the name for excellence and up in the higher reaches could be found Italians who learned all they could about cannabis cultivation until they were teaching the locals, bringing the same same excellence in growing dope as with tomatoes in Tuscany. Clive had installed himself closer to the backpacker scene and worked on the art of stuffing kilos into the lining of backpacks and boots. He bought at a good discount from local farmers and set up travelers to take kilos to hungry freak scenes around the world. Then he’d run the gauntlet himself to Europe and the Gulf States where the ex-patriots needed some chemical assistance to stave off terminal boredom. Clive was one of the ambitious smugglers who were always planning the big deal. He’d once enthused about a plan to train up as a para glider and then fill up the wings with charas. He’d enter tournaments all round Europe and finally end up in Japan where he’d sell a hundred kilos for a million dollars. Who, after all, would search the wings of a professional para glider?
However Murphy’s Law was probably invented for prospective smugglers. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Everyone in this business dreamed of making the big deal and for most it was like trying to ride a bicycle to the moon. The dreams never quite met the reality for the simple reason that things don’t tend to go wrong in dreams. Clive might fly from Delhi to Amsterdam with a suitcase of charas and find that his buyers were short of cash. While he waited most of his profits were eaten up by the hotel and cellphone bills as he explained to everyone why he was held up. Running late he’d then buy ecstasy at too high a price to take to the Gulf to sell to the ex-pats. Upon arrival, he’d find that half the pills were duds. The manufacturer would apologise and offer to make it up by giving him sheets of acid which Clive would then take to Goa. He’d hire someone to sell them at the parties but his friend would then take too much himself and end up giving half of them away. The stories were always long and convoluted, involving at least ten characters on up to four continents. Despite Clive’s infectious energy, his stories often seemed to be woven with disaster and this one was no different. I knew that from the start but had already made up my mind. Why did I go? It wasn’t that Clive was the closest of my friends but we’d always been on good terms and it was clear that he needed help. Fair weather friends in India fade just as fast as anywhere else and his dedication to his girlfriend touched me. It was also clear to me that he’d never get Natasha out of jail alone. I had also just survived the last few years largely due to the help and hospitality of others and so I saw it as a chance to give something back. Work off some karma. And when he called I was stuck in a corner and it felt like the gods were throwing me a rope to climb out of it. Little matter that it was fraying apart. The day before I flew I went to meet Clive and talk everything through. He opened the door of the Covent Garden flat he was staying in and waved me in. Behind me I could hear a collective tut from the old ladies who peered through the chinks of their chain-locked doors. Clive was glued to his mo40
bile phone and waved me through to the kitchen, gesturing for me to make some tea. On the floor around him were stacks of five different currencies, three mobile phones and two scribbled address books containing the contacts essential to staying afloat in this business. On the table there was a halfrolled joint, a pile of cocaine on a hand mirror waiting to be cut and a thick incense stick was dropping ashes onto the carpet. It was 10:30 am. “So where did you just come back from?” I asked, coming back with the tea, clearing bags and suitcases out of the way just to find a place to sit. “I was over the water in Amsterdam but I don’t think I should do that route again.” Clive grinned ruefully. “The boys at Customs have stopped me five times in a row, now. We’re on first name terms.” “But they never find anything?” “Nah, they’re a bunch of clowns, Tom. They’re used to catching the idiots who come back with a few hundred pills hidden in their underwear. All you need is the right kind of suitcase or shoes with a space cut in the heel and you’re home free. “But I think there must be something on the computer against my name by now. I always look the part - hair brushed forwards, crap shirt, ‘life’s great when you’re straight’ glasses. But my ‘legs’ are broken. As it happens though I’m actually picking up a new ‘walking stick’ later this morning.” Two hours later we strolled down to the post office and picked up a package. Unwrapping the envelope he pulled out a brand new British passport with his photograph under the name Curtis Spencer. For lunch ‘Curtis’ and I met two Irish men in their late 30’s at a nearby pub. They looked uneasy to see me but Clive put them at ease and they took his word for it that I was trustworthy. The conversation was upbeat and friendly over pints of Guinness and then dropped to a barely audible volume as they discussed business. 41
“Next week… fly to Bali… pills in the ‘Dam… phone me in Dubai… Max will wait for you in New Zealand… contact info on your hotmail account…” I tried not to listen too hard and soon after we took our leave and were back in the street. Business now out of the way, we picked up some pasta and headed back to the flat. We’d been chatting all morning and now I looked up and saw his eyes were full of tears. The pressure of being a one man operation while his girl was in jail 5000 miles away showed in the pain pulling his face in different directions. “So what the fuck happened, man?” The story came out in an unsteady pour but I narrowed the facts down to this: Clive and Natasha had been in a hotel room of the Raj in Delhi, getting ready for a run. They were on the same flight back to Europe but had taken the precaution of booking separately. Natasha was carrying the rucksack with two kilos of high quality mountain charas sewn into the lining. Clive was carrying the bottles of liquid acid and their real passports. Natasha was travelling under a false name. It had been a crazy couple of days in Delhi. Natasha was not the kind of girl to stay still for too long. A 19 year old pretty girl from Russia she had come to India alone when she was just 14. Like a firework she made as much light and noise as she could wherever she went, perhaps conscious that she would burn out early. They had the best room at the Raj and it was awash with music from the mini-disc player, MDMA powder and the consequent all night love-making. Their room was an oasis of private chaos above the mayhem of the Indian street below. Clive began to worry that they were drawing too much attention to themselves. They had passed through Delhi a little too often recently and there were always Indians only too eager to turn informer for a little baksheesh. Natasha didn’t quite seem to grasp the notion of discretion, however. Bright, young and blonde, she dodged up and down the street, in and out of the hotel rooms of a thousand friends, high as a kite and as wild as only a Russian party girl can be. On the day of the flight, Clive began to get a bad feeling about the run. 42
“I tried to call it all off but she wouldn’t hear any of it. She just turned up the techno and then made me go down on her so that she could squeeze more opium up her vagina.” They went to the airport in separate taxis and they’d checked in as travelling alone. They were ignoring one another in the departure lounge when an announcement came for all the passengers to go and identify their luggage. An extra check had been called and the customs men were already ploughing though Natasha’s bags when Clive caught up with her. He tried to distract the customs guys with his own suitcase but they’d already caught on. They tore her rucksack open down the side and a kilo of the best hash in the world tumbled to the floor. Clive watched helplessly as Natasha was dragged away, screaming her innocence, while his mind raced a mile a minute. Soon enough he was pulled into the customs office as well and sat down next to her. “We know you are together,” the chief officer told him. They both had to mumble that they’d never met before, barely having the courage to look one another in the eye. “They made me strip down in a dark room to the side, Tom. I couldn’t see anything but I could hear rats running around. They didn’t find nothing on me and so I asked them if I could put my clothes back on. They wanted to know if I was afraid of the dark.” They finally let Clive catch his flight back to Holland and since then Clive had enlisted the help of various friends to pass through Delhi and visit Natasha. None of them had lasted more than two weeks though and the last one had given $3000 of Clive’s money to a lawyer in advance, who then promptly disappeared, naturally. Clive took off the stress of running a one man multi-national smuggling operation by rolling a joint every hour. Then to keep his energy up he’d snort MDMA powder to stay on top of things. To suppress the intense sorrow that was tearing him apart, he might then smoke a lump of heroin from tin foil. 43
He had to keep going. There was no time to stop and get in touch with his feelings. He had to move and hustle, con and convince, do everything in his power to make as much money as he could in as short a time as possible. The clock was ticking on Natasha in a jail cell in the third world and each day she spent there was like a gram of lead added to his heart. “She’s coming out, Tom. She’s coming out.” This he repeated like a mantra as often as he could remember and each day he lit an incense stick for her. His energy was unstoppable and he burnt past those who tried to help him with an intensity and conviction that made our lives seem flimsy and unimportant. He was burning himself up in the process though. The dealing and the confrontations and the daily bullshit added years to his face. The drugs entered his nostrils like gasoline whilst the raw pain of it all just hardened his arteries into chains of sheer resolve. * By this point I’d spent over 2 years in India. While I’d mostly lived in the Himalayas and Goa, I’d hitchhiked around the country, tried my hand at exporting, hung out with sadhus and had generally acquired a respectable India Traveler Resume. But I only spoke a handful of Hindi, had never tried to live in an Indian city and though I’d undertaken the mission with the brash confidence of youth, I knew I was walking into more than I could bargain for. Perhaps though I’d been in India long enough to pick up the national fatalism – it seemed written. I knew I was back in the third world from the moment I left the plane and an uncomfortable sweat began at the back of my neck as I walked through the tunnel to the long queues at immigration. The paint was peeling from the walls and the staircases were taped off as the authorities pretended they were redecorating. Most bus stations looked in better condition than Delhi international airport.
Once through immigration the customs officers didn’t give me a second look. They were too busy waiting to shake down the returning Indian families with 27 suitcases full of TV’s, videos, washing machines, perhaps even small printing presses. I supposed they came to an understanding with the customs sharks beneath the shadow of an opened wallet. Baksheesh, the magic open-sesame in Asia. Westerners tended to wince at the thought of bribery but really it was all so much simpler this way. In a world where self-interest is acknowledged to make much of the world go round you at least knew where you stood. I even heard that in Bombay it was possible to buy baksheesh tokens which you could then redeem the next time the police grabbed you on any given pretext. I was arriving in India in my capacity as Professional India Traveler and I assumed the weary look of someone who’d been here before. Walking out of the airport, I sidestepped the hustlers who were already leaping for my luggage and headed instead to the pre-paid taxi stand and was on my way in minutes. My conscious brain busied itself with all the details whilst my unconscious tripped out with the waves of sensory perception. Black exhaust smoke blended with the fumes of burning trash and the cloying sweetness of cheap incense. Everything was dirty in a way that would have required ingenuity to recreate somewhere else. Prayer paint slowly peeled off people’s foreheads and everywhere men stood around like homeless dogs, talking about cricket and money. Rolling down the windows, the hot afternoon air baked the sweat off my face and we swerved to avoid the pot holes in the road. My driver was an old man with liver spots on his chin and scattered white stubble. A plastic shrine to Lakshi sat on the dashboard, coins pouring out of her palms. Tinsel surrounded the shrine and illuminated the long, brown fingers that grasped the steering wheel. India seemed to have an unofficial government policy to encourage the growth of slums around the airports. Probably a trick to impress visiting foreign dignitaries with India’s urgent need for increased foreign aid. We passed three small children squatting down in the gutter to shit, big grins on their faces. Tin roofs on walls made entirely out of debris provided the 45
fanciest shelters around here for families of brown skeletons. Their one spare set of clothing hung dry on string out front and stones on top of the roofs held them in place. We passed trash heaps where old women rag pickers swarmed over the refuse. Each kilo of cotton they collected brought in a few rupees. Enough for a bag of lentils, perhaps. The slums gave way to larger highways. My driver slowed down as we passed a small crowd surrounding a fallen moped at the edge of an enormous pot hole. A man lay motionless on the ground, blood trickling out of his helmet. My driver yawned. In a country with one billion souls an accident only made the newspapers if the death toll hit three figures. As we pulled up outside the Raj Hotel in Pahar Ganj I could see that nothing had changed. This was still the most insane street in the world. I didn’t give the chaos the time of day for the moment and followed the doorman who was already taking my luggage into the hotel. In the lobby I met Mr Singh, the owner of the Raj. Short and smiley, only the white of his moustache betrayed his age. His father sat motionless in a chair, his eyes still inside their sunken sockets and I wondered how long it had been since he decided to spend the rest of his life sitting down. “Mr Singh? My name is Mr Tom and I am a friend of Mr Clive. I have come to Delhi to help Natasha who is now in jail-” “My poor Natasha.” Mr Singh sighed. “She was such a good girl, always so happy.” He shook his head and allowed a sad moment to pass before adding: “Afterwards the police came here, too. Mr Clive left some bags with us and the police found opium inside them. We did not know. Mr Tom, we had to pay 1000 dollars baksheesh.” This wasn’t the welcome I expected. Later on, I realised that it should have told me as much as I needed to know about the whole affair. Each time I encountered people and places from Clive and Natasha’s past I met with a trail of debris and grudges. It never occurred to me I might one day have cause to complain myself. I took a shower, watched the Russian super models for a few minutes on the cable TV and decided to jump straight in, eager to justify my air fare. 46
The street was waiting outside, Pahar Ganj, the most insane street in the world. The air was so thick with sensory data that the senses overloaded and sent the brain into premature shut-down. No drugs required. Here, the best and worst of Delhi funnelled itself into 500 metres of urban hell and you could expect to see absolutely anything. It was still early but the sun was beginning to stew together with the dust and the fumes, and the pollution had already started to coat the inside of my nostrils black. With all the vehicles pumping out thick, dark, smoke all day long there was no point smoking cigarettes in Delhi. You just put a straw in your mouth and inhaled. As usual the beginning of the street was thronged with miscellaneous market stalls selling everything from nail clippers to glow-in-the-dark Shiva key rings. Carts passed selling bananas and deep fried snacks that were a fast ticket to dysentery. Scooters wove between bicycles, delivery trucks, stubborn cows deep in meditation and the endless flow of people that teemed through the street like ants. “Hi, man, how are you? Long time, no see, right?” The well-practiced American accent and well spoken English told me all I needed to know about the man approaching me. He was a Kashmiri tout. If I paid him any attention at all then he’d urge me to accompany him to his office where he’d pull out pictures of his beautiful houseboat in Srinigar, assuring me that there was no such thing as a civil war in Kashmir. By my knowing smile he deduced that though I was fresh off the plane, it wasn’t my first time in India. He dropped back to await fresher prey. The shops on either side of Pahar Ganj sold everything from textiles to kitchenware to cheap shirts that tore open at the armpits within 24 hours or your money back. Pahar Ganj was also known as Main Bazaar and just about anything in India could be bought here. It just happened to double as Delhi’s backpacker ghetto. A little further on, I came to the biggest business in India: the cinema. Around 70 men lined up in the queue, standing chest-to-back-to-chest-toback. There wasn’t an inch of space between them and each time the queue grew shorter they shuddered forwards like a shock wave towards the door. 47
Cinema was one of the few recreations affordable to the masses in India and, with the kind of life most people faced, a little reality-escape was always welcome. I began to pass the first guest houses and cafés, handpainted signs competing with the neon on the sides of the buildings, tacked on at any height, any angle. Rooms ranged from one to fifty dollars per night, from a bedbug-ridden bunk in a concrete cell to a suite with air conditioning, satellite TV and attached bathroom. Almost nobody wanted to stay here longer than they had to though. Most had either just flown in or were on their way out. They were heading to the Himalayas, east to Rajasthan or boarding a train to Varanasi or South India. Travelers in India always followed the same old trail. Failing that they were waiting for a replacement passport, a visa or money sent from home. No one chose to stay in an urban hell hole when they could be getting stoned in the mountains or by a river somewhere. Yet as hellish a place as Delhi was, it could be fun for a few days. There was a certain charm even to Pahar Ganj in a grungy kind of way. Just walking along required a degree in chaos theory - rickshaws, bicycles, dogs, cows and salesmen darting out at you on all sides – it took me a couple of days to remember how to zig-zag through it all. Whilst casually picking your way through the mayhem you had to be ready to jump to the side at the blast of a horn or the bellow of a bull. Late rains had filled the pot holes with murky pools that collected all the rotting vegetable matter and oil deposits available. But there were signs that on the eve of the millennium India was catching up with the modern world – a cycle-rickshaw trundled past with a load of twelve computers piled up on the seat usually reserved for human passengers. There was perhaps a few thousand dollars of hardware at stake but the owner elected to save a few rupees by transporting them in the cheapest, most hazardous manner possible. It was the sight of that kind of thing that kept me coming back to India for so many years. Everything was possible here, maybe even probable. Before I could get any further an inevitable cry fell upon me: “Allo, baba! Baksheesh?”
A woman stood in front of me with a baby in her arms. She played out a series of well practised expressions of need, her hand miming the motion of feeding the babe. Of course, it almost certainly wasn’t her baby. The infants were rented out on an hourly basis to profit from the sentimental feelings of foreign tourists. The baby looked a bit dopey and there was every chance she’d mixed opium into the milk to keep it from crying. I ignored her and gave a few rupees instead to the polio victim who possessed just two developed limbs. He lay on a home-made skateboard and chanted the name of God incessantly, not even registering when the coins fell into his box. I sat down at a café to take a juice and invited a couple of barefoot street kids to come and eat toast and chai. I tried to do that whenever I had the time and energy. If I gave them money they’d spend it on glue. If I bought them shoes they’d sell them back to the shopkeeper for a quarter of the price. This way at least they got a good meal in their stomachs and had a bit of conversation. In the cities at least, Indians could be startlingly callous to one another. I saw old bicycle rickshaw drivers beaten when they steered too close to passers by and no one seemed to care. Or maybe when you lived in such close contact with millions of others, you simply couldn’t afford to. At times it seemed like the frontiers of personal responsibility in Delhi ended at the border of one’s own skin. Most Indians spent hours fastidiously cleaning themselves every morning, but happily walked down streets that ‘filthy’ didn’t begin to describe. At times I would wonder how the entire Hindu caste system could be based on such stringent notions of cleanliness when Indian cities were so irredeemably squalid. The buildings were all smudged black from the traffic fumes and there wasn’t a bin in sight. Anything that was broken would be stripped of its parts and used to make something new. Anything organic was eaten by a cow and anything plastic was burnt, toxic black fumes joining the smog. After half an hour I was already dreaming of seclusion in an immersion tank. The sheer density of people walking, standing, buying, selling, cook49
ing, eating, living and dying was too much for any sane mind to process. I could only imagine the Indians must have been born with some elaborate filtering device. I came towards the end of the street and the fruit market where a few hopeful cows loitered near the banana stalls. Looking up, my attention was caught by the sight of a man shaving in the gutter. Holding a mirror in front of his face he wielded his razor with perfect disregard for the traffic that skidded past him. Denied the luxury of solitude in this overpopulated city, he simply constructed the borders of his world around himself, impervious to the outside. On a low rooftop a woman in a bright green sari stepped out to hang some clothes to dry. Most Indians couldnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t afford to own many clothes and were obliged to do their washing on a daily basis. A toddler clung to her legs and looked like he might tumble off at any moment. I jumped at a small explosion from the power supply box on a pole opposite and stepped backwards quickly as a volley of sparks showered on the street below. No one else blinked an eye lid. The voltage box continued to hum and fizz and I stared aghast at the impossible tangle of wires that trailed in every conceivable direction. There were perhaps three genuine, paid-for connections but about fifty others had pirated their electric by means of home-made hooks and wires. An electrician from the West would have just have shaken his head and walked away. But then the power went off anyway, as it did ten times a day.The neon signs stopped flashing, the radios died away and, for a few precious moments, Pahar Ganj seemed almost peaceful. But then the generators kicked in and it was like an instant headache. Huge kerosene-fed monsters burning up any peace of mind still left on the street. After one particularly long day in Delhi, I came up with the theory that there was one big generator in all Indian cities. Someone had just forgotten to turn it off years ago and now it vibrated all day long, pumping out tension and stress into the streets. If we could only find it and hit the switch then a great wave of relief would sweep the city and there would be a fighting chance of restoring sanity.
I walked on out of earshot of the generators and grinned as I saw that the Sikh fortune teller was still working his patch. “Ho, sir! You have come to India to learn great wisdom!” he cried, sizing me up all the while. He had a sales pitch longer than his turban and I didn’t want to get him started. He was a master at what he did though and I had to respect the ease with which he extracted the rupees of the tourists. He introduced himself as an astrologer/mind reader/wise man and he asked you to write your favourite colour or the name of your mother on a piece of paper. Then he told you correctly what you’d written. But I could never remember if I wrote down the answer or he did, whether he read the slip of paper or if I was holding it all the time. I suspected he should have added ‘hypnotist’ to his title. I arrived at the Bright Hotel and looked up at a building that would have merited demolition anywhere else in the world. Behind the desk a 15 year old boy eyed me with empirical doubt. He had seen every kind of dirty backpacker come through here and there wasn’t a single trick in the book that you could pull on him. “My English friend, Don, is here?” I asked. “Room 110.” he muttered, eying me with sullen contempt. I walked through without any further invitation and up some stairs with a low ceiling that obliged me to bend low. The landing and the rooms were all concrete and there was no pretense at decoration. The Lonely Planet had this to say about the Hotel Bright: nothing bright about this place. The researcher probably didn’t know that the owner was a former police chief. Thus no one ever got busted for smoking charas in one of his rooms. The doors and walls were lined with felt tip pen graffiti: portraits of Shiva looking stoned and the ubiquitous mantras of the India traveller:
Everything is possible in India Same same but different As you like 51
I rapped on Don ’s door and a hungover English voice answered: “ Yeah, just a minute.” I heard the sound of someone getting out of bed and the door swung open to an unshaven, weighty guy in his 30’s with an unimpressed expression that said who-the-fuck-are-you? “My name’s Tom. I’m a friend of Clive. I’ve come here to help Natasha.” His eyes flickered dimly in recognition. “You’d best come in then.” Don sat down on the edge of his single bunk and offered me a pile of bricks with a pillow on top to sit down on. Beside me was a crate of beer and a suitcase stuffed with folded clothes. On top of the crate of beers was a small black and white TV on which Don watched the cricket. The room was too small to swing a cockroach. Don wiped the dust from his eyes and lit a cigarette and pulled an empty beer can closer to use as an ashtray. His arms were tattooed with anchors and roses and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a Union Jack rising from behind a bicep. I could see Don propped up at a bar in South London, making his living by working with his hands. What was he doing here? Don had never planned on coming to India. He hated everything about it – the noise, the heat, the chaos. But he had a thick skin and he grimaced his way through all of it for the sake of his blood. His brother was a smuggler who had got caught and was now also in Tihar Jail. Don had now been in Delhi for two and a half years trying to get his brother free. “I’ve even had to start swallowing charas myself to flog back in England just to get the money together to carry on.” Don grinned bitterly and glanced around his room. “And as you can see, I don’t have a pot to piss in here.” He was working with a lawyer who said his brother might be able to get compassionate bail. The trick was that Don was supposed to go to a hospital every other day to fake a heart condition that supposedly left him at death’s door. If the judge could be persuaded of this then his brother might be able to get bail to visit him and then escape from there. Two of the doc52
tors were in the pay of the lawyer but Don was nervous that the other doctors might pick up on the hoax or worse yet, try to operate… As a favour to Clive, he’d also been to see Natasha and had passed on supplies and messages. Only after my first visit did I understand exactly how many extra hours of stress this had entailed. Don and Clive were now no longer on speaking terms but he was good enough to give me the run-down on the lawyers. There was one famous lawyer who once had great connections but was now a nobody and would swallow your money and do nothing in return. Another lawyer was good but worked on a queue system, meaning that his oldest clients got priority. He recommended that I go and see Sethi, the same lawyer he was using. “Can I trust him?” I asked. “You can’t trust any of them.” Don sneered, “They’re all fucking thieves but Sethi did get someone free two months ago.” Don then told me how the charges worked. Possession of more than 25 grams ensured you a sentence of ten years without parole or bail. Less than that amount only merited 6 months in jail. Murder, incidentally, also got you ten years but bail was granted. More often than not the witnesses then mysteriously retracted their accounts after a friendly chat with the defendant in a dark alley. The legal processes in India were notoriously slow but there had been a special ruling that every foreigner held under a drugs charge had to go to trial within two years of being apprehended. Two years of hell before a judge decided whether you were guilty or not. A few days later I read in the newspaper about the closing of the longest running civil law case in India. The process had been open for 45 years. On the last session the judge had asked: “And where is the defendant?” “Your honour, he has recently passed away.” 53
Of old age. “Case dismissed.” Kafka would have had a nervous breakdown. I left Don in his room and reflected that he was almost as much in jail as his brother. In a shit hotel in a country that he couldn’t stand, risking his freedom to smuggle a drug he didn’t take just so that he could pay the lawyer. In a sense it was even worse as he always had the choice of giving up and going home. He was too stubbornly loyal to do so but even his resolve must have been pushed to breaking point. I went to an internet café and fought with the slow connection to set up a new email account: email@example.com Clive had already set up his anonymous address of firstname.lastname@example.org We never wrote to anyone else from these two accounts and never used any keywords like charas or drugs that could be picked up by a random Interpol computer sweep. The next morning I woke early and went to the German Bakery to buy 8 cinnamon rolls, 6 cheese croissants and 3 big slices of chocolate cake. I figured there probably wasn’t a bakery at Tihar Jail. At this chilly hour Pahar Ganj was still quiet. Litter burned here and there and men in woolly hats were gathering about in small groups drinking chai. A couple of the bicycle rickshaw guys were asleep with their feet propped up on the handlebars and I wondered if they ever fell off during the night. One of them was already awake and even at this cold hour he was taking a shower in the street. He stood in his underpants next to a bucket of water and, with a bar of soap in one hand and a beaker in the other, he washed himself without any inhibition. Mangy dogs nervously sniffed piles of rubbish and their jumpy gait suggested that they expected a stone in the back of the head at any given moment. The lowly animals, like the lowly castes, knew their place in life and 54
stayed there. But your status in India also depended on how you carried yourself. Like the cow meditating in the middle of the road impervious to the bleating horn of the truck behind. The flickering blue jinns of kerosene stoves fried omelettes on street stalls and the boiled pots of sickly sweet chai gave me toothache just by looking at them. A boy walked past pulling a cart of bananas and copper scales with iron kilogram weights. I bought a couple of bananas to feed to the cows. The notorious auto-rickshaw wallahs were huddled around their vehicles that doubled up as their beds for the night. They were parked up together and constituted their own little gang on this street. Lowly and powerless elsewhere in the city, here they had their piece of territory marked out. “How much to Tihar Jail?” I asked. One raised his eyes to the sky in search of a price and replied with a waggle of the head. “100 rupees.” “I’ll give you 50.” He looked away and I walked onto the next rickshaw a few metres further up. “I’ll give you 60 rupees to Tihar Jail.” He was a little slower to refuse and so I moved onto the next one and settled on 70. It was the only way to find out the price when going somewhere new. Any remaining doubts I had about the fare evaporated as we fought for 45 minutes through Delhi’s morning traffic. A motorised rickshaw is essentially 3 wheels, a lawnmower engine and a leather cushion, protected by a canvas wrapped around aluminium poles. In a bad mood you could probably crush the whole thing with your bare hands in about five minutes. They nip along at a mean rate but in the event of a crash the smart money isn’t on you. We zipped in and out of the traffic with chaotic abandon but when we were stuck in a jam the driver seemed oblivious to the buses next to us. Their exhaust pipes on the side filled the rickshaw with black smoke and we only shunted forwards when I bellowed in his ear. 55
The walls of the jail now appeared along the side of the road, grey concrete rising high and topped with barbed wire. Wild hemp plants grew all along the sides below. It was too early in the morning for irony though and I was feeling nervous as the prison gates came into view. I walked through the entrance and was ignored by the guards. I followed the drift of people towards an office where I lined up to sign my name in the visitorâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s book. It was 9am. Soon after the list was closed and we were told to return at 1pm to see the prisoners. For a 20 minute visit. I spent the next few hours in the grim jail canteen sat on a metal bench at a metal table slurping queasy cups of chai and scribbling notes. Sleazy cops wandered in and out, cracking jokes and in the pit of my stomach I imagined a team of police investigators would jump on me at any moment. But no one seemed to even register my presence and I eventually realised that the whole affair would be the usual Indian theatre. By midday I was already lining up and remembered Donâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s warnings about the restrictions on gifts for the prisoners. No plastic bags. Apparently some years ago someone had managed to manufacture a key from scrunched up polythene and tried to escape. The locks were made in India after all. No sweets. There had been a famous escape where a prisoner had persuaded the guards to eat some drugged biscuits. Thereafter it was prohibited for anyone in the entire jail to have a sweet tooth. Best of all though; no bananas. Some moral authority had gotten the idea that the female inmates were using them for immoral purposes... The queue began to form in true Indian style. People edged closer to share the oxygen of the person in front and then began to vaguely push, seeing only their destination and none of the people in the way. The pressure of heads and shoulders put me off-balance and so finally I took to leaning back on them at a 30 degree incline. The gate of the visiting chambers opened and we moved forwards like a starving mob at a bread line. The guards at the gate shook us down and 56
confiscated the bottle of shampoo and conditioner I had brought. Luckily I’d put the tampons in my inside coat pocket and as the crowd surged behind me they missed those. All at once I was standing at the corner of a right angle of two dark corridors. Before me were three wire fences and I could dimly see people on the other side. “Tom! Tom! Here!” I squinted and could just about make out a white skinned girl on the other side. While I hesitated, people squeezed past and around me like I wasn’t there. I looked around for the door to the visiting room where we’d be able to sit down at a table and discuss the situation. “Natasha! Where can we talk?” “Here! You have to fight for your place at the fence – these people are animals!” Oh. I picked my way up one of the corridors while Natasha followed a parallel course on the other side. It became quickly apparent that no quarter would be given, only taken and so I kicked, pushed and elbowed people out of the way to get a place at the fence. No one thought anything of it. “Where’s Clive?” Natasha shouted. “I want Clive, not you. Where is he? I have to get out of here!” “Listen, Clive is in Europe, getting money together and-“ “There is no God in here! There is no God in here!” she screamed, banging her head against the chicken wire. “Shut the fuck up!” I yelled and she looked up at me in shock. “Clive is working 24 hours round the clock for you. You’re coming out. He’ll never give up. You understand?” Natasha stared at me, crying; half in despair and half in happiness that her lover had not forgotten her. Finally words welled to the surface again.
“We sleep on concrete floors here, Tom. And it’s so cold. There are six women in my cell and two of them are complete bitches. The food is impossible to eat and I’m going to be here for ten fucking years. Oh God!” “Easy, easy. Next time I’ll bring blankets and some books in Russian. Tell me what you need and I’ll get it.” “I need money, too.” she said. “I have debts here.” Sure. If she needed money she could have it. Clive wanted her to lack for nothing. 5000 rupees ($120) seemed like a lot but I didn’t think about it much at the time. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see the warden on duty. “Time finish.” he told me with a shark’s smile. “One minute more, please. ji, she is my sister, ji.” he smiled at my obsequious display and left us alone. We confirmed that we’d use Sethi and we had just began to speculate on the possibilities of escape when I noticed an Indian with an educated face leaning silently against the fence to my right. We started chatting about the best way to make a good lentil curry until he moved away. People kept pushing for space and more than once I had to elbow someone away. Lights flickered overhead but cast no illumination and the chaos was further augmented by a bell overhead that rang for no particular purpose. “They do that just so that we can’t hear each other.” Natasha scowled. It was time to pass the presents through. Two guards checked what I had brought and slid it all down a metal chute. They passed everything through except for the chocolate cake. “Sweet not allowed!” they told me gleefully and began stuffing the cake into their mouths. Natasha passed me a letter for Clive and a moment later I was back outside, sweating in the afternoon sun.
I walked out of the jail, stoned; the 20 minutes of that corridor rattling around in my head. A rickshaw carried me back to my hotel and for the rest of the day I could hear Natasha screaming there’s no God in here. * I arrived back in Pahar Ganj at 3pm, six hours after I’d left to go to the jail that morning. The street was already crammed with traffic and I abandoned my rickshaw to walk back to the hotel. I picked my way through the cars, trucks, rickshaws, mopeds and animals that made up the sensory fog of the street. The smoke and the sweat and the stench swamped the air and at times I had the sensation of walking underwater. As a Westerner I was an automatic target on this street and no one ever gave up on selling me anything. Even when they’d seen me walk down the street a thousand times before. Often it was only to see if they could wind the foreigner up. Friends of mine who first journeyed to the East in the 60’s told me that we were once held in high regard by the Indians. Just like in the old Indian stories, we’d left behind our lives of luxury in search of the truth. They would even sometimes refer to a freak as maharaj, great king. However they’d since seen the real Westerners on TV, the ones with sports cars and swimming pools – with our cheap clothes, hashish habits and dreadlocks, we were clearly the lower castes of our own societies. The Indians in Delhi often seemed to take us for degenerates. One day I was chatting to a shopkeeper on Pahar Ganj when an Israeli girl walked past with her friend, chatting to him in Hebrew. The shopkeeper shook his head ruefully. “She is a bad woman.” “How do you know that?” “I have seen her with three different men.” he told me sternly, as though that said everything.
“Well, where did you see them?” “In the street!” he puffed conclusively. I tried in vain to explain that, for Westerners, if a woman was seen in the street with someone it didn’t necessarily mean she was sleeping with him. He listened politely but the look in his eyes suggested that he thought me rather naïve. When I first went to India I had the notion that I’d immerse myself in a new culture, really get to know the Indians. It was apparent to me after a few days, however, that the cultural gap was too wide to make even a running jump. Even the old freaks I’d idolised in Goa could barely count more than a couple Indian friends between them. Even if we spoke pukkah Hindi we would always be outsiders. In India you were who you were born as. You couldn’t become a Hindu and no amount of eating raw green chillies will change that. Culturally I had more in common with the wealthier, Westernised Indians but they lived protected lives in gated communities, far from the realities of the Indian streets. Many of them had never even taken a train in India, their privileged backgrounds making them strangers to the country they lived in. So in the end, even though Pahar Ganj was hell, I hung out there for my time in Delhi. At the least I could find other travelers to relate to. Hell, I might even get some Israeli girl to walk in the street with me. The longer I stayed in India the more the intoxicating magic of the place faded away. I’d lost the self-absorbed haze of the passing traveler, stoned in the exotic world of virgin experience. Now I was getting acquainted with the rotten, decaying underbelly of the country and I realised just how much got swept under the carpet. I saw the bright young faces fresh off the plane, their eyes full of elephants and snake charmers and already envied them their innocence. As ugly and painful as it was to get to know the real India, though, I couldn’t just smoke a chilum and pretend it wasn’t there. I had to know just how deep the rabbit hole went. 60
I was tragically out of my depth, however. I really wasn’t the man for this job, it needed someone much tougher than me. Nervous exhaustion frequently overtook me and I began to wonder what the hell I was doing there. It was the worst kind of bad trip and I’d joke that at least I had some experience of that. Somehow I hoped that if I just held on then all the pieces might all come together and I’d get some kind of closure, some sense of resolution. As it was, it just got deeper and deeper until I wasn’t sure if I could get out again. I wrote confident emails to Clive, discussed legal procedures with the lawyer and only my eyes in the mirror looked at me in disbelief before I went to bed each night. * Clive was ready to send money for the baksheesh but how could I know if we were just throwing the money away? If the lawyer just took the cash and disappeared what was I going to do about it? Lawyers have the fame of being thieves all around the world but in India it was an open secret. Who was I to negotiate a way through this nest of cobras? The alternative that Clive and I were discussing was to bust Natasha free, perhaps when she went for some test at the hospital. I couldn’t really see myself taking out any guards with a chop on the back of the neck but there were people who could be hired if the price was right. I dabbled at making some contacts in the Indian underworld but luckily my intuition hadn’t gone completely to sleep and I backed away after one or two tense phone calls. In the meantime, I had to meet the lawyer, Sethi, in his office at 7pm. I put on a shirt and a tie and squeezed into a rickshaw. We rattled around the dark, sinister streets of Delhi for twenty minutes until we reached the given address. It turned out that three office blocks on different streets all shared the same name but I still managed to arrive on time. The adjoining street was full of hardware and motor parts shops whose stock had all been stolen from cars parked in the street. I headed down an alley that would have got me mugged in most parts of the world and 61
climbed the steps of a grey, dusty building. Fluorescent lights lit the stairway and the walls stank of urine. I wondered if I had the right place. I eventually found Sethi’s name plate on a dusty wooden door and gave a brief knock before pushing it open, not wanting to spend any more time in the squalid corridor than necessary. Facing me were three mousy clerks behind their desks scribbling away on stacks of papers. A bookcase behind them covered the entire wall from floor to ceiling with heavy legal tomes. The dust on them gave the impression they were in no danger of being disturbed any time soon. To the left was a glass partition behind which Sethi maintained his office. The clerks looked up suspiciously but Sethi had already seen me and waved me through. I entered his air-conditioned lair and noticed that he kept his clock 20 minutes fast, presumably to make his clients feel they were late and feel at a disadvantage. Sethi was a short, pudgy man with no emotion on his businesslike face. As he invited me to sit down I could see his eyes flickering as he calculated how much he might be able to extract from this case. I explained that I was representing an anonymous party concerned with Natasha’s welfare and that I had no personal interest in the affair. He listened to me with brief nods of the head and looked bored. When I asked him what our options were he proposed that we concoct a medical case stating that Natasha was suffering from chronic hepatitis and epilepsy. She might then be able to get medical bail for special treatment. He knew a doctor who could be bought to furnish the necessary papers. It would, of course, take time and money. I tried to appear as if I did this kind of thing all the time. I nodded casually at the talk of corrupting the legal process and fabricating medical records. I’m certain that Sethi saw me for what I was, however – a hippy wearing a shirt and tie. “Mr Sethi, when could you begin working on the case?” He leaned forwards as though he were issuing a threat and hissed: “From when I receive the first instalment.” 62
Of course I had no idea if Sethi would really do anything or whether he would just pocket all the money for himself and put me off with excuses for a few months. Clive reckoned the risk was worth taking though and wired me $3000 the next day for the greedy little advocate. The clerk in the Western Union office gave it all to me in 50 rupee notes instead of 500’s and couldn’t understand my irritation that all the 50’s were stapled together – standard practice in India, resulting that the notes begin life with a huge tear in the middle and passed out of circulation within months. That evening I returned to Sethi’s office, trying all three office blocks with the same name again and handed over the cash. In return, he hand-wrote me a receipt on a greasy scrap of paper that resembled a grubby serviette. As we couldn’t put all our hopes in one basket it seemed worth checking out the possibility of escape, too. It might sound dramatic but such a thing in India was infinitely possible. I had just read of a Kashmiri militant who had escaped as four accomplices ran up and threw pepper in the faces of the guards. On the previous visit Natasha had told me at the jail that she was going to Safrajang Hospital on the Friday to take an AIDS test. I was there two hours early, circling the grounds in a rickshaw to check out getaway routes. The traffic was chaotic but there were a hundred possibilities to weave through the city and avoid any police road blocks. No one paid any attention to me as I walked into the hospital and I tried to look as if I knew where I was going, glancing at the notice board to see on which floor they conducted blood tests. I took the staircase up to the 5th floor rather than the elevator to test it as an escape route and didn’t meet a soul. There were no surveillance cameras and the only security I had seen so far were two old men who sat at the entrance to the hospital in soldier’s uniforms with ancient-looking rifles. I doubted they were even loaded. I tried to imagine how the ambush could take place. We would be far from earshot of reception and it shouldn’t be too much trouble to chloroform the guards and then lock them in a consulting room. But there was no telling how many doctors or nurses would be around on the day or whether the alarm would be sounded before we reached the ground floor. 63
I went back to the car park and waited. I stationed myself by a chai stand and bought an omelette on toast, cursing as I forgot to remove the lethal fragments of green chilli. To my left I saw a bundle of cloth tremble slightly and I realised it was a female beggar. She was covered in the burkah and shook with tears beneath her cloak of shame. A few feet away, flies were feeding on the shit she’d left behind and a trail of it led up to her dress. It was the single most miserable sight I’d witnessed this time around in India. I left her 20 rupees in her begging bowl – enough for her to eat for a day or two. Nothing at all, really. I looked up and saw that the police van was already entering the hospital grounds. I stood up and took cover behind the chai stall to watch how the operation ran. First a cop with his pistol drawn stepped out and gave a nonchalant look up and down before giving the all-clear. Then Natasha stepped out, her left hand firmly held by a female cop who kept her close to her side. They walked along the terrace in front of the hospital and the officer with the gun followed about ten metres behind. I could see Natasha straining her head to see me but I had no intention of drawing attention to myself. A moment later they disappeared through the front entrance. It seemed too easy. Clive would only need to drive up behind them on a motorbike and club the guard over the head. Either that or we could just turn up with a bag full of thousands of dollars and suggest that they run away to hide the loot while we departed with Natasha. From there it would just be a case of changing vehicles a few times, new clothes, maybe a hair cut for Natasha and then a safe house in Delhi. The heat would die down after a week or so and then they could slip over the border to Nepal. * I flew up to Kathmandu to meet Clive. He was too nervous to come to Delhi in case informants on the street tipped the police off. He had gone cold turkey and was only now getting a grip on himself. Before his flight had taken off he’d been desperate for a cigarette and despite the stewardess’s warnings he’d lit up anyway. To appease her he proposed that they open the door and he stepped up to pull at the handle. Three stewards wrestled him to the ground in a moment.
“I didn’t realise that we were 8000 metres in the air at the time, Tom. When we refueled in Oman, a special security van came to pick me up. I was led into an interrogation room with 8 big Arabs glaring at me. I just looked at the chief and said ‘Sir, I am very, very, very sorry’. He smiled and when I asked him if it was alright to smoke now they all started laughing.” I brought Clive up to date with the lawyer and the escape possibilities while we sat on the steps of looming temples in the shade of their overhanging roofs. We shared a hotel room and while I slept Clive stayed up all night dreaming up genius escape plans. I’d wake up in the morning and before I’d even rubbed the sleep out of my eyes he’d start: “Hey, Tom, do you think jeeps or motorbikes would be better? I mean, bikes are best for weaving through the traffic but they could skid over or the engine could stall…” “Coffee.” “Jeeps are more reliable but then they’re easier to trace and do you think we can find drivers?” “Toast.” “And how should we take out the guards? I mean if we hit them over the head then we might end up killing someone and then there’d be a city-wide search for us. On the other hand I don’t need someone taking pot shots at us as we’re driving away.” I’d stumble up and into the shower where I couldn’t hear any more. In the crisp January mornings we walked at a brisk pace through the narrow Kathmandu streets, the intricate wooden architecture a backdrop to our racing thoughts. When the sun climbed higher we’d take chai on the steps of enormous temples in the shade of their overhanging roofs. The light in Nepal seemed harder, bleaker than India. The sky was wider and paler here, the home of mountain deities dressed up as colourful Buddhas. During the day the streets were a confusion of dust, fumes and flies as we wandered from blinding sunlight to gloomy shadows and tried not to get run over in the process. But it all evaporated in the evening and all that 65
was left were the sounds of Nepalese men retching up phlegm from their lungs before going to sleep. Every now and then we’d wander into the tourist complex of Thamel where Westerners on two week trekking holidays munched Snickers bars and bought discounted hiking gear. Here souvenir shops, bakeries and supermarkets lined both sides and desperate Nepalese guys tried to vend shamanic masks in the street to Canadian kids on their Gap Year. It was consumer travel at its most soulless and desperate. To protect ourselves from the icy valley winds we bought blankets from street traders who sold their wares laid out on the sides of the road. Clive was the better bargainer. When the price was too high he walked away so fast that even I thought he didn’t want to buy. The traders always called him back with a better offer. We brainstormed ideas in cafés and restaurants, going over all the possibilities. Neither of us had much faith in lawyers but to bust Natasha free was risky. It was easy enough for me to talk about the latter as I wouldn’t personally have to run the gauntlet. My role would be limited to organising the vehicles, finding drivers and safe houses and coordinating everything by phone or walkie-talkie. It was Clive who was looking down the barrel of a gun. If he hurt or killed a police officer and got caught then he could expect some pretty rough treatment and a good few years within the walls of Tihar prison himself. “And I know that if I go down there’ll be no one who could do for me what I’m doing for Natasha,” he insisted. A direct assault on the guards at then hospital was an all or nothing gamble. If he failed then it would be game over, please insert more credits. The morning I was due to catch a flight back to Delhi I woke up to see Clive grinning from ear to ear. I wondered for how many hours he’d kept that smile going. “Alright,” I groaned, “Tell me what genius idea you’ve got this time.” He ignored the irony and triumphantly launched into the details of his scheme.
“After we bust her free the cops will be crawling the streets and, as we know, Delhi traffic is a bitch so I thought of a way to avoid all the roadblocks.” He looked up at me with eureka written all over his face. “Motor lite para gliders. I’ll head up to the mountains and get trained up first and then we’ll have a para glider ready and running in a nearby park. I drive there with Natasha and then we fly over the whole fucking lot of them to a field outside Delhi. There our jeep will be waiting to drive us to Nepal!” “Inspired.” I agreed, rubbing the dust out of my eyes. I didn’t feel like explaining just then that any suspicious airborne object was almost certain to be shot down at once by the Indian air force, given the constant threat of attacks from Pakistan or Kashmiri militants. We headed down to breakfast where we reviewed our options one more time. We were on our fifth cup of coffee when an elderly Indian gentleman walked up merrily interrupted us. “Please, sirs, what is your good country?” “We’re from England.” “Ah, splendid! Splendid!” He turned to Clive as the elder of the two of us and asked. “And what is your occupation, sir?” This was always problematic for Clive. Few people reacted well to the answer international drug smuggler. He used to tell people he was a teacher but then he kept on meeting too many teachers who quizzed him about his qualifications and didactic techniques. “I’m a painter and decorator.” he replied. But at the disappointed look on the Indian’s face, the Mancunian in him couldn’t help adding: “Actually I specialise in marble work. I import and then design bathrooms for big houses, you know.” The eyes of our acquaintance lit up. 67
“Really?” he gasped. “I am the number one marble exporter in Calcutta! Tell me what grade of marble do you use?” Clive’s eyes met mine in a desperate plea for mercy from the inscrutable Murphy’s Law. I’m certain that if he’d claimed to be a physicist then we would have bumped into a grandson of Einstein. * When I arrived back in Delhi, Natasha was ecstatic to know that Clive was so close and she handed me 3 passionate letters to send him. As Clive was so often on the move and the scanning and fax facilities in Delhi were so useless in Delhi, I ended up typing the letters in an email to him. Their correspondence alternated between vows of eternal love and bitter allegations that the other didn’t really care at all. In the noble tradition of Shoot The Messenger, they both screamed at me each time they had a falling out between the lines of a love letter. Clive had planned to come down to Delhi himself but finally flew back to Holland for two reasons: one, a business associate named Jules had ripped him off to the tune of $8000 and two, Clive realised that as tough a cookie as he might be, he was no special forces soldier. We’d be better off finding some unemployed Kashmiri militant to do the job. Natasha fell into despair when she learnt that Clive had returned to Europe. She looked like her lifeline had been cut and all the cinnamon rolls in the world couldn’t make a bit of difference. Soon she no longer needed the blankets and instead it was the rising heat that made her cell unbearable. She complained about the bad food, the nasty prisoners and guards and most of all the lack of sex. “We don’t even have any bananas in here.” Natasha and I got to know each other about as well as two people can with three wire fences between them and a hundred screaming Indians around us. Ultimately, all the drama aside, she was a young girl in need of attention; she apologised for her appearance, she flirted a bit and told outrageous stories of her days as a party girl. 68
“I’m a number one space cadet.” she would tell me proudly. But even through the wire meshing she could see that I was beginning to crack as the weeks passed by. All the visits to the jail, the ongoing negotiations with Sethi and the incessant madness of Pahar Ganj were beginning to break down my defences. I stopped doing my yoga and came to dread waking up in the morning. The illogic of India came in all sizes and seeped through my senses like a nerve gas. There was no escaping it, each way I turned there was someone waiting to fuck up my day. It might be something as simple as the waiter who brought my glass of chai with his fingers curled around the inner rim. I’d ask him what his fingers doing in my tea and he’d hold his hand up to the light. “What problem? My hand not dirty!” One afternoon I took a rickshaw from the centre back to Pahar Ganj. It was a ten minute walk but it was hot and I was tired after a wild goose chase at the court. The journey seemed to be taking forever and I didn’t recognize any of the scenery. The driver finally turned around and asked me: “Where do you want to go?” And if I was beginning to hate India, there didn’t seem to be much love lost amongst the Indians themselves. While I was staying on Pahar Ganj a child was beaten to death for using a public urinal (essentially a designated bit of wall) without paying the 1 rupee charge. You could buy a banana for a rupee. It seemed the epitome of the everyday cruelty that I saw in Delhi. I wanted to find some pithy way of expressing it but Mark Twain had beaten me to it by more than a century. ‘All life is sacred in India. Except human life.’ A bookseller told me that the Pakistanis were wicked people and when I asked him how he knew if he’d never been there he assured me::
“Because they eat the cow and she is such a kind animal!” Yet even while we spoke a cow passed in front of us and started chewing on a plastic bag lying in the street. 30 cows died a week in Delhi from kilos of polythene clogging up their intestines. When I asked him why he didn’t intervene he looked at me as though I’d accused him of coming from a family of street sweepers. There were days when I would time it to see how long it would take me to lose my rag after leaving the hotel. I generally ended up yelling at the sky within minutes and the Indians on the street found it no end of fun to wind me up. Easy fodder for the Indian national hobby: time pass. I frothed against Delhi, Indians, the ridiculous laws and the injustice that caused us to suffer so much. I came to all kinds of generalised, unfair conclusions which only served to justify my anger and when I could take it no more I’d cry for hours, emotionally exhausted and lonely as hell in a crappy Delhi hotel room. I was 22 years old and had no idea where my life was going. The magical world India had once been for me had gone bankrupt as I sank into the rotten belly of the beast. Dancing in the moonlight on the beach seemed a long way from where I found myself. I had committed myself to helping out Clive and didn’t see how I could let him down now but I felt like I was coming apart at the seams. My rage came to a head one day when I was looking for an address (no one knew where it was but all issued varying directions anyway) and a rickshaw came along and knocked me off my feet. I was up again in seconds, trying to kick in the rear light. I suddenly realised that it would soon be 25 rickshaw drivers against one foreigner and I had the presence of mind to make a quick getaway, wishing only for a rocket launcher. I returned to the hotel and almost bumped into the manager, the small and kind Mr Singh. “Mr Singh, you’ve lived on this street for 50 years. How do you stand it all? The noise, the ignorance, the chaos?” He was smiling and shaking his head before I finished. 70
“It is no use. It is no use to get upset about it all. There is nothing you can do about it. It is no use.” It was the single wisest thing I’d heard said about India in years. My Israeli friend, Eitan, was feeling the same way. “These days I’m looking at things and thinking ‘how would I break that?’” Eitan was one of the coolest people I’d met on the road in years. His sister was in Tihar for the same reason as Natasha. He’d been over here for a couple more months than me and his friendship had helped keep my head above the water in Delhi. Eitan came from a kibbutz in the north of Israel where he used to raise cows. He’d never lived in a city before and had never wanted to. His kibbutz had generously decided to meet all the costs of keeping him in Delhi and paying for his sister’s lawyer. We played pool at night and with him I could hang out with the rest of the Israeli posse. We went to the visiting days at the jail together and the hours spent waiting passed easier. We no longer worried about arriving at 9am on the dot and just strolled to the front of the queue to sign our names. Then we walked back to the street and drank tea for three hours until 1pm. We sat on the rope beds of a chai stall and then walked to a nearby restaurant to buy containers of rice and curry for the girls inside. Eitan was a tall, wiry guy who would have liked nothing better than to destroy Delhi with his bare hands. He understood that it was essential to keep his cool, however, and strolled through the endless mayhem without leaving second gear. It was good having him around sometimes though – like the day when it was in the news that 35 Sikhs had been murdered in Kashmir. We were waiting by the gate to the jail when a mob of fiery young Sikhs came racing down the road. One of the bigger youths grabbed my arm and yelled at me in Punjabi. I smiled and tried to twist my hand away. Finally his friends pulled him away and the mob passed on. “I didn’t come because I saw you were still smiling.” Eitan told me. I knew all along that he was only a moment away but was glad that he was smart 71
enough not to aggravate a volatile situation. We later learnt that the mob had burnt down the house of a Muslim family while they were still inside. Another guy we saw from time to time at the jail was Tony, an English guy of Jamaican descent. Tony was as cool and nonchalant as they came, riding his motorbike barefoot and never sweating under his mass of dreadlocks. His girlfriend, Emma, had been inside for four years now and he wasn’t giving up on her. He had realised from the beginning that to be there for the duration he’d need to integrate more with Indian society. He lived quietly outside the tourist areas and taught Ashtanga yoga, a discipline he said gave him great strength and calm. Like Eitan and I, Tony never talked about his girlfriend’s case or about how he was feeling about it all. We’d talk about Delhi, India, the weather – anything but our particular missions. It was like an unspoken agreement. We weren’t in competition and didn’t need to keep any secrets but we all had enough on our plates already. As summer began Tony had to go back to London to renew his visa. He hadn’t been gone for two weeks when Natasha told me excitedly at visiting hour: “Emma got bail! Tony’s girlfriend, Emma – she’s free!” We both leaped in the air with genuine joy, even though I didn’t know the girl. You had to be happy for anyone getting out of that place. We later learnt how Tony had heard the news. Emma had gone to stay at the home of the British Ambassador and the first thing she did was to call Tony in London. When he heard her voice he dropped his cell phone on the street in shock. We were coming into March and the days were getting hotter and dirtier. I had moved to yet another hotel and tiny cockroaches occupied the sink and plumbing system. I now had feuds with people up and down Pahar Ganj but Judgement Day was coming – we were approaching Holi, the festival of colour. For half a day it would be open war. I took a rickshaw to a nearby market and bought two pump-action water pistols with pipes that led to a refill tank worn on the back. Ooh, Rambo! 72
The Indians cooed good naturedly as I passed. I tried to get Eitan into the spirit of things but he was set on passing the day quietly in his hotel. But the night before Holi he came into the café soaking wet. “Right, tomorrow we’re going to get those bastards.” I left my hotel early but not early enough to avoid the crowd of kids who mobbed me, shouting Holi! Holi! Holi! Holi! Holi! They smeared my face with red, blue and yellow paint and screamed in delight. I walked up to the rooftop of Eitan’s hotel where around twenty of us were gathered for the morning’s hostilities. We filled buckets of water with powdered, heavy-metal paints and dumped them on anyone passing below. On the street it was like civil war and we sniped the combatants from a balcony on the second floor, dodging behind pillars as return fire came our way. We were all 12 year-olds again for a day and it was the perfect way to get even with the Indians for months of mental torment. One English friend of mine, Mike, was crazy enough to be fighting it out in the street. Indian crowds can get way out of control but they fell back when the first police car appeared at noon to restore order. “But their window was open.” Mike laughed, “And I couldn’t let them get away with that!” To the admiration of one and all, Mike ran forwards with his syringe and squirted red paint over each of the uniformed police. By the time they wiped their eyes clear he was long gone. * Natasha’s trial was rolling on. I met Sethi one day at the law courts and saw him for the first time in all his ceremonial pomp. He looked faintly ridiculous in his black robes and marched around the place like a priest at the Vatican. Everywhere were tiny cubicles of the resident lawyers and their scribes all sat outside under the banyan trees. For each sprawling branch there were ten expressionless secretaries stationed at little wooden desks, blunting their fingers on ancient typewriters. The setting seemed surreal but I was yet to enter the courtroom. There Natasha was already waiting and I got close enough to give her a hug. 73
We joked and laughed as though we were in a traveler’s café somewhere until the judge arrived and we all stood to attention. A young, sharp-nosed woman, she took her seat and began to bark out orders without making eye contact with anyone. She was renowned to be a complete bitch and rarely found anyone innocent. It was said she had also never accepted baksheesh. “No? Well, why not? Do you think I’m stupid or something? No? Well then, just do it!” she snapped at some advocates twice her age who were stalling at some order. The Brahmins maintained their lofty position in Indian society by their exclusive licence to study Sanskrit. They thus had a monopoly on ensuring the presence of the gods at any birth, wedding, rite of passage or funeral. Thanks to the British Empire, the lawyers in India enjoyed a similar privileged access to Justice; all Indian court processes took place in English. A complex, legalistic English at that. This meant that the average, uneducated Indian was obliged to rely entirely upon his lawyer to even tell him what was being said at the trial. Justice was decreed in a foreign tongue and the defendant had to just stand there and hope. If he was lucky someone might tell him at the end if he was found guilty or not. When the time came to hear Natasha’s case, Sethi had vanished. The judge lost patience and rescheduled for a month’s time. Sethi later explained to me that this was part of his strategy to gain time. I wonder if that was the kind of thing they taught at law school in India. It was just after this that Natasha asked me to deposit more money for her with the embassy. I mentioned this to Eitan and he looked at me as if he knew something that I didn’t. He hesitated and then asked rhetorically: “And what do you think she needs the money for?” The penny dropped and I began to feel stupid. Anyone I’d met who was acquainted with Natasha and Clive hadn’t seemed the least bit surprised that she had ended up inside. Everyone remembered how wild they had been on the party circuit and how much of every drug under the sun swam down their blood streams.
I held back on giving the money and the next evening when I visited Sethi I learnt that Natasha had been caught with heroin inside the jail. Sethi was furious and informed me that this could completely wreck our efforts to plea for medical bail. When Clive found out he was ready to give up there and then. He wrote: She’s let me down. After all I’ve done for her. All she had to do was sit tight and do some push ups now and then to get ready for making a break. Now she’s spoilt everything. Get out of there, Tom, it’s not worth it. His enthusiasm returned a few days later but mine hadn’t. I went into the jail and shouted at Natasha until she cried. She’d lied to me and undermined everything that we were trying to do for her. The stupid, selfish bitch. I went up to the Himalayas to recover some sanity and I booked my flight out for the middle of April. The mountains gave me my first breath of fresh air in months and I stared at the snow peaks in love. The Hindu texts say the sight of the Himalayas could clean the soul of a lifetime of sin. Was there any way of dragging the mountains to Delhi? Meanwhile, although Clive had encouraged me to take a break he was now worried that he’d soon be on his own again. Over the months we’d sent hundreds of messages to each other as we discussed the ins and outs of the situation. But the typed word could be so much colder than the spoken and it was too easy to imagine subtexts between the lines. Silent insinuations and invisible slurs found their way onto the screen and each email added to the distance between us. Phone calls were outrageously expensive to and from India and so we relied entirely upon email to communicate. We’d already fallen out half a dozen times in the lines of emails as one or the other of us gave in to the stress we were under. Sometimes he wrote to me saying that I was his soul brother, that if I ever wanted anything in the future all I had to do was ask. Other times when he was taking more coke he could get mean and nasty. Shortly after I returned to Delhi and let him know that I was leaving in a few weeks all his grudges and anger came out in one email: Fuck you, you motherfucker. Fuck you and your fucking fucked up words. Yeah, go and fuck off to your fucking dream world again. When I have 75
friends in trouble I don’t look for some fucking quote from a fucking book, I go and help them. But you wouldn’t understand that. I’m beyond your understanding. You fucked up in Delhi and never stood a fucking chance you fucking fuck up. Fuck, I even fucking paid for it all. I showed the email to Eitan and it appealed to his Israeli sense of humour. “Excellent! It’s nice to have good friends. Tsch, I mean it’s not like you’ve been on holiday here.” I’ve since lost contact with Eitan and I hope he didn’t have to stay for long. He’d been there for longer than I and his life was passing him by in that hell hole. He was paying the price for a mistake that he hadn’t even made. My heart went out to him. I was leaving Delhi and I felt like shit. I couldn’t stay angry at anyone long who was facing ten years in jail. On my last visit Natasha was super grateful to me and now I was leaving her to the mercy of Sethi. I was beginning to think that he hadn’t paid any doctors to make a fake medical case for Natasha. Why would he have? He was just sucking out the money for as long as he could. He guessed that I would leave eventually anyhow. I was leaving Delhi and I had failed. Natasha was still in jail, I wasn’t on speaking terms with Clive and I was a physical and emotional wreck. The sleaze and corruption and human anguish of the city had seeped into my pores like the pollution and most days it was a struggle to summon a smile. Although Clive had covered all my expenses, I hadn’t asked for anything in the way of pay and now I was returning to England with about thirty pounds in my pocket and three months of Delhi swilling around in my heart like sewer water. I had no idea what I was going to do and hardly cared to even think about it. Then a minor miracle happened. I was standing in the waiting line for the flight to London when a man in a British Airways uniform approached me with a clipboard in his hands. “Excuse me, sir. Are you on tonight’s flight to London?”
“What if I am?” I growled, having learnt to distrust everyone over the last few months. He took a step back and cleared his throat. “Well, if you are I have a proposition for you. Would you care to spend tonight in a 5 star hotel, receive 250 pounds compensation and fly home tomorrow night guaranteed?” I signed the form before he’d finished speaking. Half an hour later I was sitting in the coffee lounge of the Sheridan hotel drinking red wine and eating smoked salmon bagels. After the living conditions of Pahar Ganj this was like entering Paradise. I woke up early the next morning to take Natasha some 5 star hotel food but there was a city wide taxi strike. I gave up and went back to bed for another 12 hours. I woke up a little before the BA van was due to pick us up and I went to wait in the lobby. “Your bill is 1200 rupees, sir.” the clerk told me as I surrendered my keys. “Come again?” I blinked. It transpired that I’d eaten in the wrong section of the hotel. The food was only free to BA passengers if they ate in the tea lobby 20 metres away. I laughed and went to sit down on the sofa. Five minutes later the manager arrived at my side. “Sir, your bill is 1200 rupees.” “This is completely absurd and, in any case, I’m completely broke.” He hesitated. “Surely sir has a credit card-“ “Look at the holes in my shoe, man. I’m a hippy, I haven’t got a cent.” I shouted, with the intention of embarrassing him in front of his elite guests. He made his final stand. “It is not possible for sir to leave without paying his bill.” “I think you’ll find you’re mistaken.” I told him as I picked up my bags and walked off to the BA van that had pulled up outside. An hour and a half later, I was back. I’d seen another BA man in the airport with a clipboard and I asked him if he needed any volunteers to stand down.
“Well, yes, actually. We’re rather overbooked. You’ll receive 250-“ “I know. Where do I sign?” Fortunately the same hotel manager wasn’t on duty. * England was grey and predictable. The April morning wind cut along the train platform and slid down my neck. Gone were the colour and mayhem of India, now all was bleak and dreary, the only sounds a train shunting carriages and two holiday makers chatting about their holiday in Greece. The food had been weird, the sun was too hot and the villa hadn’t been as big as it had looked in the catalogue. I crashed at my long-suffering friend’s apartment and didn’t exactly fill the place with enthusiasm. Clive called me up there and we didn’t ask how each other was. I told him the story with the lawyer and hung up. He flew into London a few days later and I went to meet him to debrief and hand over all of Natasha’s papers. He‘d occupied the flat of a friend who lived near Victoria and when he opened the door he was all smiles. I could see in his eyes that he was embarrassed about what he had written. He also looked about 5 years older than when I’d last seen him and I remembered what a nightmare he was going through. Life was too short to hold grudges. We embraced and then went upstairs to drink tea in the living room. Clive had just got another passport under yet another name and was therefore free to start running around with suitcases again. The procedure was this: he sought out people who had no intentions of travel (there were plenty of apathetic souls back in Manchester to choose from) and then he applied for a passport in their name – but with his photo. There was still no database at the time to connect photos to names in the UK. Clive was a little more nervous than usual as three of his associates had been arrested and he put it down to careless emails. In any case, in the smuggling business trust only goes so far. Facing a possible 25 years in jail, how many people would hold out on naming their accomplices? 78
Now free of the whole fucking mess I took off to visit friends in Europe while my publisher planned the launch of Hand to Mouth to India for June. I hitched to Antwerp in Belgium and there met friends who were driving to Budapest where an old travel buddy lived. I passed a couple of weeks drinking beer, writing and playing backgammon in his little apartment, hardly having the motivation to go out in the street. I probably didn’t make the best of company with my heart still weighed down by the heavy winter in Delhi. So I hitchhiked up to Berlin and then to Amsterdam, staying with more old friends from India. I spent days walking around the canals of the strange horseshoe-shaped city centre and sat on the edge of canals, gazing into the reflections of the narrow houses reflected in the water. Where was my life going? I’d wanted adventures and wild experiences. Well, I’d got them and I was still miserable. At least I had the publication of my book to look forwards to. Clive was due to turn up a couple of days later and had insisted on the phone that I was the only one who could speak to Sethi to get things back on track. How could I expect him to do it? Wasn’t he busy enough plotting drug runs around the world. I wouldn’t mind making just a few phone calls, would I? I met up with Clive on a sunny day in Rembrandtsplein and I could see from 20 metres away that he was suffering. We’d barely shaken hands before he was off on a bitter monologue. “I’ve got fucking tooth ache and no time to go the dentist. I’m in fucking agony. And Natasha doesn’t seem to give a shit. I sent her mother there to do the visiting. There’s nothing left between us any more but she’s coming out and that’s a fact. On top of everything I’ve picked up a smack habit, too.” Regardless of the weather, Clive was all shadows. We went for lunch and beers and discussed the options that were open to him and later that day we called up Sethi in Delhi. Sethi asked me to phone him at home later that evening which seemed a little ominous. The hours ticked by slowly and we watched blonde Dutch girls ride around town on their bicycles. Finally, the hour arrived to make the call.
Sethi was as flat and mercenary as ever but he had an offer for us. The deal was that the mean female judge was on her summer break and a special holiday judge was holding session. If we sent $15,000 in advance, Sethi was confident of being able to bribe the judge to sign the medical bail release forms. I told Sethi we’d think about it and we went to sit by the canal and gaze into the depths. The house boats rocked on their moorings and the odd crowd of stoned tourists giggled as they wandered down the streets, happily lost. “Do you think he’s trying to screw us?” Clive asked me. “Probably. There’s no way we can know. But then, shit, we don’t have many other bright ideas. Have you got the cash?” “ I can get it. It’s owed to me here and there. But it’s fucking crazy to send the money up front like this.” We sat in silence for a while and then Clive shrugged. “Fuck it. We don’t have much choice. We’ll do like he says but if he cheats us he’s fucking dead – make sure he knows that.” We walked back in the hotel and I called up Sethi again. I explained that the money would have to come in instalments and he promised that as long as all the money was received soon, Natasha could walk free on the 24th of June. “But Mis-ter Set-hi,” I pronounced in as deadpan a voice as I could muster, “I want it to be perfectly clear that my client holds you personally responsible for the money.” “That is perfectly fine, Mr Tom.” “And I would like you to know, Mr Sethi, that you will be personally responsible for the money.” “Yes, of course.” “Personally responsible.” I didn’t have any illusions. I knew that I couldn’t scare anyone but perhaps I could make Sethi nervous about the repercussions of robbing my ‘client’.
I returned to London to give a couple of interviews for my book and give a speech at the launch. In my spare time I collected large sums of money from various drug dealers. Clive was in the Gulf states and I had to pick up some of his debts to send to Delhi. It was altogether surreal. I’d phone up someone called ‘Jimmy’ or ‘Budgie’ and arrange to meet them at a tube station. I’d hang around on the platform until I saw someone else who clearly wasn’t waiting for a train. We’d approach each other nervously. “Tom?” “Yeah, Budgie?” Then we’d take a walk down the platform and before we turned around an envelope containing two or three thousand pounds would be slipped into my pocket. I wasn’t smuggling or dealing or even taking any drugs yet my involvement at this stage was getting closer to the edge all the time. I told myself it was all cool because I was doing it for altruistic reasons: to get Natasha free. Now I look back and wonder why I risked so much for two drug smugglers. At the time it just seemed the thing to do. Maybe I was just an experience junky. The plan was that Clive would fly to Dubai to settle some business, head back to London to pick up the false passports he had prepared for himself and Natasha, then fly out to Delhi. I’d booked him a flight that would land at Bombay and then take a domestic connection to Delhi so that he wouldn’t bump into the same customs guys from the year before. Clive would then pick up Natasha and they’d leave through Nepal, probably bribing the guy on the frontier to ignore the lack of an entry stamp in Natasha’s false passport. I was staying in the apartment in Victoria when Clive arrived. He shook my hand, threw his bags in the corner and sat down at the computer to check his email. “Get the kettle on, Tom. You got the tickets and the passports? Fuck, my tooth hurts. Is that my phone?”
While he answered his mobile he withdrew a packet of powdered heroin and snorted a line up his left nostril. I put the kettle on and left the apartment before I broke something. This wasn’t the friend I knew. This was a creation of heroin and cocaine and toothache and stress and bitterness and bad deals and no trust in a life that had been going wrong for some time. Clive didn’t crack up under pressure, he just hardened beneath it, becoming cool, cynical and efficient. He was set on getting Natasha free and then he might just roll over and die. He was a man of his word who was never going to let her down but in the process he had become a machine. He became oblivious to other people and their lives. His drama was so intense that we were all in the shadow of it and fuck us if we didn’t put him first. He burnt bridges wherever he went and left a trail of trashed apartments and hurt feelings behind him. He spoke to friends who helped him in a way that most wouldn’t dare to speak to their worst enemies. Maybe he had to, maybe this was the only way he managed to keep on going when most others would have cracked up long ago. Either way, as I watched him frenetically type his emails that morning, I thought to myself – this guy is going to end up dead or in jail within a year. Sadly, I was right. Clive flew out the next morning, leaving behind a burnt lampshade, stains of molten heroin on the coffee table and pills lying all over the carpet. The usual debris. When his hosts, Bob and Sarah returned home, the latter burst into tears. It was now all out of my hands. Clive had met two Indians in the Gulf with mafia connections and they were already waiting for him in Delhi. Clive arrived on June the 23rd, a day before Natasha was due to be released. One sleepless night later they phoned up Sethi to find out what time they could meet Natasha at the jail. “There has been a complication…” Sethi began. Used to dealing with a pushover like me, he wanted more money. Clive’s friends from Dubai just smiled, however, and said leave it to us. They drove to Sethi’s office and suggested that it was in his extreme personal interest to keep up his end of the deal. 82
Natasha was free one hour later. They drove to Nepal, the Indians took care of the entry points and a week later Clive and Natasha flew back to Holland. And suddenly that was it. After ten months in jail Natasha was now free and getting stoned in Amsterdam. I flew out to see her and we didn’t quite know what to say to each other. We finally managed a nervous hug and when I asked her how she felt about it all she answered: “It’s like it never happened.” Of course the heroin helped that but both she and Clive looked years younger and they had the playful air of sweethearts. That weekend we had fun drinking and going to the cinema, cracking up when Natasha got hopelessly lost. Three hours later we found her by a canal, looking like a five year-old who had lost her parents. “We’ll make you a sign that you can wear around your neck,” I suggested, “it can say my name is Natasha and I live in the Rembrandt Hotel. Please help me.” And there we were. As fast as it began it had all ended and I decided to use the British Airways money to fly to Israel. I never asked Clive for any money for all I had done for him but I was sure he wouldn’t forget me if I was ever in need. It was only later that I realised that some stories don’t end up happily ever after.
Israel The first Israeli I ever met was a girl called Nathalie who sat next to me on the bus up to the Himalayas on my second day in India, way back in 1995. She was already a seasoned freak and she let me sit beside her as long as I didn’t mind that there was a speaker under the seat. She’d only come down to Delhi to get it repaired. We weren’t more than an hour into the journey before she pulled out a small bottle and asked me how many drops I wanted. I shrugged and she let around twelve splashes of brown liquid fall onto my palm. I licked it up and then asked what it was. “It’s oil from charas,” she grinned, “And you just took way too much!” Israelis were everywhere in India. After two or three years in the army, escaping to India was like coming up for air. With no one to tell them what to do or where to go, they burned a trail through India and couldn’t care less what anyone thought about them. For most travelers, Israelis were the nemesis on the trail; a rude and unruly tribe that antagonised the locals and took over entire villages. In some places in the Himalayas, there was more Hebrew spoken than Hindi. They played loud techno through the early hours of the morning, argued about everything and haggled so viciously that some guest houses put up notices saying: No Israelis. I was more intrigued than repulsed, however, and sought out the lone Israeli travelers for some insights. These were often embarrassed by the wolf packs that gave all Israelis a bad name and they strove to explain that it was all about letting off steam. They told me about the daily pressure in Israel, the experiences in the military and the expectations of their families. After that I decided to accept the Israelis on their own terms and befriended them whenever I could. It wasn’t something they were used to but 84
I found that each time I took a step towards the Israelis, they took two towards me. They were a tribe that looked after their own but it wasn’t hard to gain admittance and you didn’t even need to be circumcised. What they had they shared easily and, once I was accepted by one Israeli, I was accepted by all the rest. Beyond the time spent hanging out, getting stoned and partying, I sensed an intensity in the Israelis that was altogether new to me. Coming from Europe, life was a cinch; the history books were pretty much closed, the economy was good and no one ever thought of their existence in terms of survival. For Israelis, none of these things were a given. Their personal lives and their future were all bound up with the troubles back home and it was going to be uphill all the way. When I told other travelers in India that I was heading to Israel they looked at me like I’d taken one too many doses of something strong. But I was deeply curious to know where it all came from – the warmth, the generosity, the fighting spirit that they carried with them wherever they went. I had no idea what to expect in Israel but I naively assumed it would all just work out somehow. I put all my faith in a few scraps of paper with address and phone numbers and headed to the Promised Land. * Israel itself wasn’t quite what I expected, however. I was imagining a friendly land full of Jewish princesses and shady desert villages; an intense but rewarding country where I could make my home in the Middle East. The reality was a little more stark than I had imagined. The first person I went to stay with was an Israeli girl I’d met at the beginning of her journey in the Himalayas. At the end of her trip, however, she’d overdosed on magic mushrooms and had to be escorted to the airport by her friends. She lived with her family in what I discovered were the occupied territories and her comedown had been hard. She’d flown so high that she’d seen her dead brother come back to life and the week that I arrived was the anniversary of his death during military service. Clearly it wasn’t a good time for the Wandering Goy to come 85
through and so I found myself trying to decipher the rest of my addresses scribbled in pencil on old note books. Everywhere it was pretty much the same story. The high and mighty travellers in India had returned home to demanding families, low paying jobs and a future that seemed uphill all the way. Most were happy to hear from me, my presence a wistful reminder of their days of freedom abroad. But not many of them were together enough to offer me a place to stay and I found myself scrambling over the next few months, hopping from one invitation to the next, always hoping that someone would turn up to offer me a bed for the week ahead. I’d been a year and a half straight in India and was reluctant to remember how the modern world functioned. I was aware that things like jobs and rent existed but I couldn’t see how any of it might apply to me. I found myself wondering what the hell I was doing there and I’m sure some of my hosts asked themselves the same. I ended up fleeing Israel to pursue other travel dreams but somehow a seed was planted. Over the years, I found myself swinging back time and time again and, as I changed, so, too, I saw the country in a different light each time I came. Israel became a point of reference for me over the years and the initial snap judgements of the traveler began to fade away as I lived there and got involved with the place. It’s dangerous to trust writers. Not that we’re outright liars but it’s much easier to write something that sounds funny or smart than it is to write the truth. Like an artist who chooses a particular angle for a portrait, you can just pick a perspective and hope to do it some kind of justice. The closer you get, though, the more blurry your focus. For a travel writer living in the place you try to cover, all you can do is try to stand back as far as you can whilst still keeping a finger on the pulse. * Israelis always asked me why I kept coming back – I could live anywhere in Europe, places where there are jobs and where people don’t blow themselves up on buses. Israel was their home by default but why would anyone else choose to put themselves through such punishment? 86
I usually ended up cheerfully responding that few countries have green hills, deserts, beaches and places like Jerusalem and the Dead Sea within a few hours drive. I ended up sounding like a tourist brochure though in a bad mood I could turn each of those points on their head. The southern half of the country was all desert and the middle was a mess of snarling junctions and squashed towns where you could never escape the sound of a motorway. Many of the cities looked like something a communist architect built in a bad mood, grey concrete blocks rising up like decaying teeth. Most of the country was made up of dust and sand and what nature you found was often polluted and strewn with litter. But what Israelis really meant was, how can you stand us? It has to be said, there are easier places to get along than in Israel. On a bad day an Israeli might have been shouted at by his family for not doing anything with his life, scowled at by the religious for not keeping the laws of the Torah, cheated by his boss on back wages, heckled by strangers in the street for the way he walks, summoned for reserve duty by the army and made fun of by his friends when he complains about it. It’s a cliché to say that there’s good and bad everywhere but it seemed to me that in Israel both sides of the scales were heavier. I’d never met with such unscrupulous characters and yet then I’d meet people with values so strong and pure that you wondered how they survived at all. It’s usually a mistake to judge another culture from the standpoint of your own but, by any measure, Israelis must be contenders for the rudest people on the planet. Difficult, unresponsive or just seemingly indifferent to your existence, Israelis really often couldn’t care less. I used to jump out of my skin when walking home from the beach in Tel Aviv and a car would pull up behind and beep its horn. Whilst I checked that my heart was still beating, a voice from inside the car would bellow: “Shabazi!” “Oh, Shabazi Street?” I’d stammer, “Okay, well you go to the end of the road, take a left and-“
But they had already driven off. I had ceased to exist for them before they’d even hit the accelerator. The common explanation for Israeli impatience is that they have no time. The army takes two or three years from their lives, they have to get an education to get a decent paying job and hey, who knows, the entire country might explode in civil war tomorrow. Hence the joke that Israel is the only country in the world where sounds travels faster than light - stand by any traffic junction in Tel Aviv and the horns start beeping while the lights are still on yellow. Yallah, yallah, forwards! Who has time to be polite? Just get to the point. “No, no, you have to understand - when Jews came here after all the pogroms and the holocaust, they wanted to leave the ways of Europe behind,” a self-taught academic called Papi told me one day, revelling in the opportunity to talk to someone who didn’t have an opinion on the matter – a rarity in Israel. “We thought we could remake everything – the language, the borders and also the social values. Politeness was considered a bourgeois habit of the same people who had tried to kill us so often.” I soon learnt to take it with a pinch of salt whenever anyone in Israel gave me the authoritative version of events (there were nothing but a few tents before we came here) but whatever the dreams of the early Zionist pioneers – the bold settlers who drained the marshes, made the desert bloom and pushed the local population aside – they could surely never have imagined what Israel would become. They might never have survived the vision. * I’ll be honest: a good part of my initial attraction for Israelis were the women. There were girls with dark Moroccan eyes and light Polish skin. Or the opposite. Israel is one of world’s greatest melting pots of races and, as can be seen all over the planet, mixed blood tends to improve the stock. Or as the modern graffiti in Israel goes: Marry Arabs and make beautiful children. 88
When two Israelis meet one of the first things they’ll ask is where each other’s families come from. Stereotypically, those with Yemeni backgrounds might often be confident and warm by nature, whereas those whose grandparents came from Poland fall into the category of the pessimistic and materialistic. Another joke: What does a Polish mother do when she’s in a good mood? She sits in the dark until it passes. The younger generation of Israelis rarely talked much about race though and it took me some time to see the divisions that lay not far under the skin in Israeli society. “Look at me - I’m an Arab!” an Israeli whose family originated from Iraq told me, “I’ve been taught my whole life to hate and fear the Arabs and then I look in the mirror and what the fuck do I see? I don’t have ginger hair and blue eyes, that much I know.” The Sephardic (of Arabic origin) and Ashkenazi (European) Israelis have been at each other’s throats since the beginning, the former being the butt of the latter’s jokes for being uneducated and poor. Things have changed a lot but ignorance and prejudice are beasts that die slow. In an elevator one day in Tel Aviv, a sweaty, red faced dispatch driver entered with his helmet beneath his arm and asked me: “Do you know what’s a good Moroccan (Israeli of Moroccan origin)? A dead Moroccan.” I looked away and he continued his stream of jokes all the way to the ground floor: “Do you know what you call a Moroccan…” Later that day I was in a shop chatting to the owner who told me how he’d grown up in Iran before his family fled to Israel during the revolution in ’79. A woman walked into the store and, overhearing our conversation exclaimed: “The Iranians? They want to kill us all!”
I wanted to tell her that she didn’t need to look as far as Iran, that I could introduce her to a courier who wanted certain sections of the population dead. But she and the shopkeeper were already happily deep in argument and I didn’t stand a chance amongst such heavyweights. “The Sephardic were over the moon when the Russians immigrated,” Papi told me with a wry smile, “Now they had someone to look down on.” After the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, around a million Russians who claimed to be Jews emigrated to Israel which welcomed them with open arms. The influx represented a population increase of a staggering 20% and, for a while, all the cheap jokes were aimed at the Russian newcomers. What were they but a race of alcoholics, criminals and whores? Many of them weren’t even Jewish. Papers could be bought without too many problems in Russia and many saw Israel as a good career move. Some even took the money the government gave them to help them find their feet and then flew out to settle in America. But 18 years on, most of them had learnt Hebrew rapidly, worked hard and, whilst you still heard a good deal of Russian spoken in Israel, they’d integrated themselves into society at an incredible rate. “Hey, we even have blond Police women now!” Papi remarked happily. It remained to be seen if the same would happen with the Ethiopian Jews who arrived a few years after the Russians. With shiny black skin and beautiful features, it was a little harder for some to regard them as fully Israeli, no matter how good their Hebrew. I never heard a word said against them but they grew up in isolated government housing estates and had less chance to integrate socially and economically. It was anyone’s guess whether they’d blend their way into Israeli society with the success of the Russians or whether the colour of their skin would keep them forever on the outside. In modern Tel Aviv, though, you could see every colour under the sun, especially towards the central bus station where the Asian and African immigrants found cheap housing. After the first intifada began in the 80’s, Israel no longer trusted its Arabic workforce from the territories conquered in 90
the wars – apparently the dishwashers might piss in the soup – and instead imported thousands of Thais and Chinese to do their dirty work. Take a stroll in these poorer neighbourhoods and you started to see signs everywhere in English for apartments, second hand cellphones, work offered. There were Chinese who talked on the pay phones squatting down on the ground and also squalid buildings that overflowed with refugees from Sudan, Ghana and Eritrea, crammed into rooms with flea-bitten mattresses and running water if they were lucky. Israel is a new country where everything from the economy to the social planning to the language itself had to be reinvented or improvised. Races from all over the world with only an ancient history in common were expected to form a new society and, miraculously, it more or less happened. Newcomers were assimilated and the army soon levelled the differences between each social and racial group. It may have all been at the expense of the Arabs who lived here before Zionism kicked in and it may all survive on the basis of American aid and imported foreign labour - but Israel exists. It’s overcome immense social and economic challenges, not to mention military threats and a better success could hardly have been wished for. Unless, of course, you happen to be a Palestinian. * In September 2000 my friend Shanee and I were driving north in her VW van to a music festival. By this time of year the whole of Israel was dying for a drop of rain and a random spark could set everything alight. September can also be one of the hottest months of the year and the van had already become like an oven. The old Arab hitchhiker standing by the side of the road seemed to be suffering from the heat also. With his turban, beard and baggy white trousers and shirt, he was an incongruous sight. Israel had once been a hitchhiker’s paradise but people had grown more cautious and it seemed unlikely that anyone else would stop for an Arab. 91
“Shall we take him?” Shanee asked, her heart struggling with her reason. “Why not?” How could I refuse a hitchhiker having covered some 20,000 km around the world by thumb myself? We pulled over and our guest jumped in, perspiring heavily. He didn’t seem in the least bit surprised to see us. He didn’t understand any Hebrew and at Shanee’s faltering Arabic he told us he wanted to go to Jenin. One of the largest Palestinian towns. We arrived at the turning to Jenin and Shanee grew apprehensive. “Shall we drive him in?” she asked uncertainly. By the light in her eyes I could see she wanted to but was afraid to make the decision by herself. I was used to passing through Muslim countries and couldn’t see any problem and so in we went. The Israeli guard at the checkpoint looked at us strangely but waved us through without any questions. Jenin lay a good 5km from the main road and as we drove along Israel seemed to fade away. The cars that passed bore white number plates instead of the Israeli yellow and the signs and billboards were now all in Arabic. The skin of those working in the fields was darker and everything seemed a little more run-down. “It’s like entering a foreign country,” Shanee whispered. In the back seat our new friend stared out of the window with a bored expression as though Israeli hippies drove him home all the time. We arrived at a roundabout in town and let him out beside a café where strips of meat roasted on hot coals. Some young guys hanging out on the street noticed our VW van and we began to attract some stares that, if not exactly hostile, were a little more than just curious. Shanee kept her cool. She pulled a U-turn in a parking lot and a minute later we were rolling out of Jenin. That was all there was to it but it felt as though 20 kilos of pressure lifted off as we drove away. It was the first time Shanee had ever entered Palestinian territory and she couldn’t wait to tell her friends.
We went to our festival and on the first night a five minute shower of rain sent cheers of exultation up and down the valley where we were camped. For almost a week we hung out in the festival of peace and love, sitting around camp fires and reflecting how everyone looked like Jews from Biblical times, living in tents in this stony valley. The festival came to an unhappy end though as we learnt that many of the roads to the south were impassable. Youths from Jenin and other villages were pelting passing cars with rocks and incendiaries from overhead bridges. Ariel Sharon, a man widely held by the Arab world to be a war criminal, had set foot in the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a place sacred both to Jews and Muslims. A spark had jumped out of the fire and now the entire country was ablaze. The outbreak of the Intifada in October 2000 was a strange time to be in Israel. In the early days of the situation everyone had a look on their faces like their alarm clocks had just gone off at 5am. It was time to wake up to what was going on and no one was in the mood. The trouble hadnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t started for real yet but it was on its way and everyone knew it. Military call-up papers were arriving and everyone had a friend or a relative who was serving in the army. 18 year-old soldiers were facing raging mobs pelting them with stones and they freaked out, their aim straying from the legs of their attackers to their torsos. The Palestinian death toll rose sharply and the Western media was having a field day. Everyone loves to have an opinion on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Ask them what they think about the genocide in the Congo or Nepalese Maoists and youâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ll get a blank stare but the Middle East concerns everyone, apparently. I heard opinions expressed in every corner of the globe, whether they could find Israel on the map or not. Which ones are the goodies and which ones are the baddies? asked the mother of a Mexican friend at dinner. The information about the conflict is necessarily filtered by the world media and that should be enough to make anyone hesitate. A friend who worked in Jerusalem as a tour guide once saw a Spanish TV crew pay some Palestinian youths to start shouting and throwing stones so they could get the right story.
The ironic thing about journalism is that to some degree it’s self-fulfilling. Their readers want a particular kind of story and if they want to sell newspapers then they’d better find it. It would seem most people like to have their opinions and beliefs confirmed, not confused by something as intangible and ambiguous as reality. Israel is seen as such a classic, ongoing example of the whiteys against the darkies, West against East, that people love to get worked up about it. It’s the perfect opportunity to download their own anger at clear-cut injustice and oppression – the settlements, the security wall, the prison camps without trial or legal representation in the desert – it’s all great stuff to work up some righteous indignation. But if there was one thing I learned early on in Israel it was not to talk politics. I was reminded at loud and vociferous length that an outsider had little chance of understanding any of this. Certainly not on the basis of a 45 minute documentary or an article read in The Guardian. And, in fact, the more I learned about the situation, the less certain I became about anything. Judgements worked well at a distance but get up close and everything got so much more complex. What seemed like a war with 2 sides fragmented like a broken mirror when I learned just how many factions there were amongst both the Israelis and the Palestinians, all with different motives and histories. The more I learned, the less I knew. Thing is, not many Israelis seemed to be that well informed either. The propaganda machine in Israel is a cornerstone of national security and everywhere I went I heard the same old shit, almost word for word. They want to throw us into the sea. They have no respect for human life. Every terrorist in the world is a Muslim. And then of course if you ever began to criticise the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory they had the big gun held in reserve: No one can judge us! We were slaughtered by the millions during the Holocaust and no one did a fucking thing to stop it. 94
It was amazing to me that people couldn’t see how the bitter prejudices they uttered were identical with attitudes in conflict zones all over the world. Whereas they might be able to see both sides of the picture in a foreign dispute, at home Israelis dug their heels in behind a point of view and defended their ground furiously. After a while I worried that if I were to probe beneath the smiling faces of my friends I might discover the snarl of a hateful patriot. A girlfriend once declared I’d done an Arab job when I’d missed a few hairs in my weekly shave and then couldn’t understand why I yelled at her. She refused to believe that it was racist to associate shoddy, careless work with Arabs. I became tentative about making close friends in case one day they turned around and said something that would make it hard for me to look them in the eye again. I had to remind myself that bigotry and hatred sprang from fear and it was the kind of reaction to be found in humans everywhere when they felt threatened. The same xenophobic blood lust was heard in the US and the UK after al Qaeda’s attacks and that was against an abstract enemy on another continent. Perhaps it’s just that the big picture goes out of the window as soon as it starts to affect people on a personal level. For the Israelis I talked to it wasn’t an intellectual debate but a fact of life. Everyone lost two or three years of their lives to military service and each time a soldier died it was someone’s son, brother or boyfriend. The war meant a recession, the loss of jobs and a return of fear to everyday life. People thought twice before getting on a bus or going to the crowded markets to shop in case of bombs. Others started looking up the immigration procedures to Australia. In essence, the conflict was a threat to the Israeli psychological fear of survival, a word that’s hammered into the minds of every Israeli child at school. They tried to kill us again and again and again. This mantra is reinforced with each of the numerous religious holidays which more or less commemorate the same thing; when I asked a friend the significance of one particular celebration he just shrugged. “Ah, it’s always the same story they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.”
It seemed to me that the bottom line was that the Palestinians had been screwed over for more than half a century. But it was easier for me to identify with the Israelis with whom I had much more in common. I could hit on Israeli girls, I’d traveled with them in India, we all enjoyed Seinfeld. And I couldn’t bring myself to blame Israelis for having been born there. They’d grown up in this tiny bit of contested land and so they belonged there, no matter how fucked up the history might have been. While I was disgusted by national policy, I couldn’t hold individuals responsible, even if they did serve in the army. Ultimately, it seemed to me that the only ones responsible were the corrupt leaders and propaganda-mongers on both sides who fertilised the hatred and intolerance. Everyone else was just trying to get on with their lives. The outbreak of the second intifada was like a slap in the face to the Israeli left wing peace makers. Now that negotiations for a Palestinian state had broken down into violence the nationalists could yell: See? They just want to throw us into the sea – you can’t talk to these people. The dread of more years of violence and fear turned open-minded people into bitter racists. A new wave of bigotry and prejudice burst out like pus beneath a spot The television pictures of raging Palestinian crowds (the dominant image of any Muslims on Israeli TV) confirmed the overwhelming opinion that you couldn’t reason with people who were little better than animals. Those who didn’t give into the fashionable prejudices instead resigned themselves to the impossibility of the situation. We’ve said everything we have to say and they’ve said everything they have to say and that’s it, was a depressingly common viewpoint. The word for war in Hebrew is milhamah, a word that contains ’lechem’ - bread. So all wars are about the battle for bread, for resources - in this case, land. And it seemed that there just wasn’t enough to go round. So not many were surprised when the troubles started again in 2000, they were just a little out of practice. In the first couple of weeks people planned their journeys carefully and kept the radio on at all times. 96
The tension could be felt like electricity in the air like ozone before a storm. I could read the fear on people’s faces in the street and by their expressions I knew if something had happened long before I heard the news. Then there was the day that two off-duty Israeli soldiers somehow strayed into Palestinian territory. They were arrested by the Palestinian police and taken to jail but were soon lowered down through the windows to the mob that had assembled below. They were literally torn to pieces. The action was filmed and broadcast on Israeli TV and there was hardly a dry eye in the country. This atrocity burned itself into the minds of the Israeli people as proof of the inhuman foe they faced. The subsequent suicide bombings put this incident into the shade but it marked the shape of things to come. Explosions on buses and nightclubs brought the war to the cities but few could understand what might drive someone to blow themselves up in protest. No one even wanted to think about it. They turned off their TV’s and radios and got on with making their daily bread. From the relative security of the West our lives are a piece of cake. We look at conflict zones around the world and wonder how it’s possible to live amid such bloodshed and violence. I remember one bomb that went off in the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv - the very next day it was packed with people buying their cheap fruit and vegetables. It seemed the more bloody and desperate things became the greater the need for a faith that life must go on. I listened to all sides of the argument and there always seemed to be a dimension missing. From where the speaker stood his views made perfect sense, indeed there was no room for any other. But behind all the arguments I usually heard an injured voice crying give me my life back the way I wanted it to be. I heard a lot of brutal attitudes in Israel based on desperately imaginative versions of history. Sometimes though the ugly things that Israelis said seemed like a crude psychological shield. In discussion they’d try to provoke my anger to justify their own.
Ultimately it seemed to me that no one wanted to face up to the situation. Israel existed as a tiny Western bubble in a sea of Arabic countries, a hi-tech oasis supported by foreign investment and aid, drinking Nescafe and watching HBO. No one wanted to learn Arabic, listen to the stories of the dispossessed generations of Palestinians or really have anything to do with the foreign culture on their doorsteps. They shared the same weather, a passion for hummus, and languages and traditions so similar it was like an uncomfortable echo of days when Jews and Muslims lived side by side. I can’t help but think humans are a dumb species. Once our emotions get involved any hope of thinking straight more or less goes out of the window. And if we come to believe our survival is at stake we’ll do and believe almost anything. But it seemed to me that if there was any way to transcend the cycles of violence and hatred it could only come from empathy, putting ourselves in the shoes of the other and recognizing how it must feel. Otherwise we were just animals, baring our teeth and baying for the blood of the other. * The first couple of times in Israel I had trouble adapting. I still carried with me the manners and mindset of an Englishman and it drove people crazy. When I was staying in friends’ houses I’d ask if I could make some coffee and they’d look back at me suspiciously, as though it were a trick question. It was as though I’d asked if I might inhale a little air once in a while. It took me a while to understand that between Israelis common things were shared without even thinking about it. Anything that was put on the table was up for grabs and an Israeli would help himself to your pack of cigarettes and expect you to do the same. No one sat around staring at the last biscuit on the plate, wondering if they’d be banished from society if they reached out and took it. When I returned to England for a few weeks, my new Israeli habits got me in trouble time and time again. I’d help myself from the fruit bowl without asking, make myself a sandwich if I was hungry – I even took showers in friends’ houses without their permission. 98
But it wasn’t just the etiquette or the Israelis eating with their mouths open that threw me, it was the necessity to stand up for myself in every situation. For the first couple of weeks in Tel Aviv I was too scared to actually do any shopping in the Carmel Shook - the stall holders in the market were altogether too intimidating. When I finally found the courage to go and buy some tomatoes, the guy behind the stall gave me back change for 5 shekels rather than 10. I was so tired of being taken advantage of that I told him and he flew into a rage. “You lie!” he shouted at me in Hebrew. “You think I need to lie for 5 shekels? Look, I’m wearing shoes that cost $100!” I yelled back, showing him my new footwear, “Keep your tomatoes!” I shouted and threw the bag at him. He didn’t like the attention our row was generating and so he gave me my full change, snarling all the while. Then I went on my way, feeling quite calm whereas just a minute before I was baring my teeth. It was like an initiation into the everyday life of being an Israeli. People shouted at each other like they were about to commit murder but later were on the best of terms. In fact, it seemed that in lieu of an anti-Semitic population to persecute them, Israelis were intent on making their own lives as difficult as possible for each other. Whether in business, family or friendship, Israelis thrived upon tension and forever pushed for an extra inch. If someone didn’t stand up for himself then it was generally considered that he deserved all he got. I met a girl who had moved from England to Israel when she was six years old and her story summed it up best. Excited about her first day at school she soon learnt what an Israeli education entailed: “There were twenty of us in the classroom and we were all very excited about our first day. The teacher came in and put fifteen biscuits on the table. Then he invited us all to come and take one. Me and a few other kids didn’t push hard enough to reach the table in time and had to watch all the others enjoy their biscuits.
“’You see?’ the teacher told us, ‘If you don’t fight for what you want in this life then you’ll end up with nothing.’” The pressure in Israel came from all sides. The army took two or three years of your lives, your family always complained that you weren’t making anything of yourself and the religious wanted to know just when you were going to start being a Jew. The government was full of politicians with criminal records and they cooperated with the big companies to screw you and your environment with impunity. So it was no surprise that Israelis learned they had to watch out for themselves because, after all, no one else was going to. In business people often tried to pay with post-dated cheques and when it came to getting paid for work you’d done, it was no surprise if your boss used the call recognition feature on his phone to full advantage. One friend told me that she had to walk into her boss’ office with a hammer to get paid for a week of waitressing. He had tried to put her off by telling her she had been under training at the time, that she had miscounted her hours, that she could even work that evening’s shift, no hard feelings. Only when she threatened to break every window in the place did he pay up. Perhaps the best example of Israel as a pressure cooker was the family meals on Friday. In Judaism each new day starts at sunset so Friday evening was when Shabbat (the Sabbath) begins. Almost everyone within driving distance of their families was likely to head over and attend a gargantuan meal with candles, wine and as much attitude as could be mustered in one sitting. The ambient varied depending on the ethnic background or character of the family but often it was the verbal equivalent of all-in wrestling. It was the time for all grudges and disputes to be settled and, between open mouthfuls of food, Israelis shouted and argued as though their lives depended on it. Each member of the family could expect to have his life examined, evaluated and criticised by everyone else sat at the table. All the old and trusted tools of emotional blackmail were in play, heckling and overriding each other in conversation and the spotlight could swing onto anyone else at the table in a moment. 100
In many ways it resembled a bawdy council of war. Or perhaps a comic drama where the parents suddenly became caricatures of the classic Jewish Parents. Loud, opinionated and intensely worried about the well-being of their kids, it was a sight to see. The entire country went quiet on the streets after sundown on Friday as families everywhere came together to charge their batteries. They staggered out full in the stomach, full in the head, wishing only that there were more than seven days in the week until the next round. * Israelis liked to joke about themselves, saying ‘you put four Israelis in a room and you’ll have five opinions. There was certainly no shortage of attitude in the country - children of 8 years old already had established political views and were well trained at the Shabbat dinner table in the art of argument. Observe the raucous shouting, denials and abuse that accompanies a speech in the Israeli parliament and you could only blame their parents for setting the style when they were young. A joke of my own invention: how does an Israeli agree with you? He says no. I’d walk into a shop and remark what a hot day it was and the shopkeeper would look at me as though I was stupid. “ No, it’s very hot. This is a very hot country in the summer. Where are you from? England? You don’t know what is hot.” A joke circulating around Israel at the time was: Why does no one make love in the street in Tel Aviv? Because if they did some guy would come along and say: Come on, put your hand on her thigh – no lower! Now get on top – No! Where did you learn to fuck? Alright, move aside and I’ll show you…”
I understood from the beginning in Israel that I wasn’t likely to ever win an argument and so I rarely bothered fighting my corner. They had been practising all their lives and so what chance did I have in a shouting match? In fact, by not arguing I was often able to get what I wanted anyway. People were so ready to fight and shout that a polite agreement often left them speechless. On my last trip to Israel the immigration officer didn’t want to let me in as I’d overstayed my visa on both the previous visits. “Tell me, why should I let you in this time?” he asked as he looked down his nose at me in his office. I hung my head low and replied: “I’m very sorry. I made a mistake and now I’ve learnt my lesson.” He looked at me edgily. “I shouldn’t let you in at all this time but I’m going to give you five weeks and if you overstay even one day you’ll never come back in.” “I’m very grateful to you for this second chance. And I’d be even more grateful if you could just make it two months as I have a flight out in December.” “Okay, but not one day more!” Sometimes though the obstinate, persistent streak in Israelis could be endearing or downright entertaining. A friend of mine caught an obscure infection at a festival and had to be rushed to hospital to go on an antibiotic drip. I came to visit whenever I could, sleeping overnight in a chair beside the bed. That kind of thing pissed off the nurses and they made hell for us, throwing all the lights on at 6 in the morning and shouting at us for having made a mess. In the next bed across, however, was a guy in his forties called Yonatan, a regular in the hospital due to some untreatable disease in his leg. He used to rustle up extra plates of food for us and when we thanked him, complimenting the food, he’d look back at us sharply. “What? You think I would give you bad food?” And once more he’d have you on the ropes. When the nurses were giving us a hard time for no reason 102
though, Yonatan would go onto the offensive, his voice booming across the ward. “Nurse! Nurse! Tell me, which came first – the chicken or the egg?” The nurse rolled her eyes and edged away, “Because if was the chicken, where did it come from?” “Yonatan, be quiet.” “But if it was the egg – who laid it?” Yonatan would continue gleefully, his spirits rising with every grimace he extracted from the nurses. Facing a seasoned pro like Yonatan, they knew they had no chance and made themselves scarce. Israelis never seemed quite as in their element as when they were angry. I remember one vivid scene of an Israeli guy standing in the middle of a busy street with his cell phone in his hand, yelling furiously at the receiver as though it were the face of his boss/brother/father on the other end of the line. But argument was also a way of life in Israel and it took me some time to understand that even the best of friends might sometimes shout at each other as though they were worst enemies. But whereas in other cultures these encounters would have left unforgivable grudges, Israelis were mostly capable of moving on in minutes. I was staying with my friend Noah in her apartment in Tel Aviv in an old renovated warehouse. She and the other people in the building had held a big party to make some money, turning their homes into a nightclub for an evening and all their furniture had been stashed in the apartment of Schmuel, in number 8. The next day Noah wanted her furniture back but Schmuel was having his siesta and, with classic Israeli chutzpah, he declined to get up and open the door. “Benzona!” Son of a bitch, she yelled, pounding on his door with her fist. I imagined that they wouldn’t be on speaking terms for weeks but two days later they were sharing mid-morning coffee like nothing had happened. * 103
Living with the Answer There’s a street in Tel Aviv called Shenkin street where I often went to watch all the sexy girls parade up and down in their summer clothes. It was lined with clothing stores, jewellery stalls and hip cafés where everyone eyed each other up. I used to call it Lolita Street on account of all the aggressive sexuality of the young girls hitting the scene for the first time. Shenkin was about as showy as Tel Aviv gets but it was almost exclusively a young crowd, with the exception of a few older guys reinventing themselves as cool. Everyone was pretty, everyone was trendy – and if you weren’t then you probably had no business being there. All of which made the presence of the orthodox religious so incongruous. Above the pretty people passing by, the men in black rented an apartment with a balcony where they played folk guitar and sang songs to their favourite dead rabbi. “Nachman, Nachman, oh oh Nachman…” From beneath designer haircuts and too much cosmetics, the young and hip looked up in disbelief at these curly haired, bearded guys all in Polish Aristocratic black, bouncing up and down in a way that could never be described as cool. Yet the religious kept it up all through Friday afternoon, the busiest day of the week on Shenkin, handing out leaflets to anyone who would take one, begging them to come and be a Jew. In a brilliant psychological ploy, Judaism describes someone who doesn’t have belief as living with the Question whereas the faithful have returned to the Answer. The chances of converting the residents of Shenkin might have seemed slim at first sight – the flapping black suits, silly beards and shaved heads for women weren’t exactly a big draw – but Israelis have been going back to the answer in record numbers for some years now. Having blown their minds on acid while traveling in Asia, many Israelis fell flat on their faces when they returned home. Kings and queens abroad, they arrived home to face grief and nagging from all sides and no one could care less about their life-changing acid trip in Goa. The religious, on the other hand, were more than ready to listen and offer explanations. There’s 104
no hallucination or mind-trip so intense as not to be covered in the Kabballa or another mystic Jewish text and they offered something of a map to trippers who got lost. I had a friend called Gidi whom I’d introduced to LSD back in the Himalayas in 1998. We’d hung out a lot and a couple of years later we bumped into each other at a festival in the autumn. Around a camp fire we caught up on our travel stories and compared notes on the meaning of life. He was a bright, sensitive man who’d recently lost his mother and was looking to take his life in new directions. Then I left Israel and when I returned five years later I tried to look him up via a mutual friend. “Oh, didn’t you hear?” she told me sadly, “He ‘returned to the answer’ and went to live in a settlement on the West Bank.” There were also some who were just waiting to teeter over the edge into religious faith. Some of these were scarred by traumatic war experiences while others had always been a little illuminated. I met Lee’at at a festival in the Spring. I was dancing to some drums and my wild India moves drew her attention. She was trained in ballet and pretty soon we were improvising a contact dance, our wrists interlocking and then springing free. Over the next couple of days she kept me company as I failed to sell incense on my stall and we talked about spirituality and life in Israel. “It’s hard to live here, huh?” I remarked. “You have no idea how hard.” she emphasized. She let me read through a collection of quotes from mysitcal rabbis. As we talked over the teachings there was an air of romance in the air but she was a conservative girl who wouldn’t contemplate anything casual. Her aspect of unattainability made her a perfect match for my tendency towards unrequited love and we stayed in touch by email over the next year, always chatting about the spiritual, a common ground I hoped might bring 105
us closer. When I returned the next year she’d just ‘returned to the Answer’ but I didn’t grasp the significance of that until we met and I ran forwards to hug her. “Oh no!” she winced, stepping back, “I can’t touch men now.” Instead she introduced me to a high five where the hands pulled back a few inches short of contact. It’s the best!, she assured me. While Israel could seem as modern and materialistic as anywhere else in the Western world, religion was also never all that far in the background. Judaism is intimidating enough in its depth not to be brushed lightly aside and, bound up with identity and tradition, a little candle of faith burned in even some of the most sacrilegious Israeli minds. For, while Zionism was historically a secular movement, if Israelis don’t believe in the whole Promised Land story then they’re hard pushed to explain what the fuck they’re doing in the Middle East. “We were here two thousand years ago!” shopkeepers sometimes told me indignantly, “The Arabs weren’t here then.” I couldn’t imagine them supporting a campaign to give Sydney back to the Aborigines or New York to the Iroquois, however. Religion in Israel was far from straightforward. There were a myriad of different sects and traditions happily bickering with one another. The followers of certain rabbis disparaged the teachings of others and each was sure of having the better interpretation of the Law. There were orthodox who followed rabbis long dead, others who hinted their teacher was actually the Messiah and also shining, New Age Reform Jews who set psalms to Leonard Cohen melodies. The heaviest presence though were the archetypical men in black, the Orthodox referred to as ‘Haredim’, the ‘fearing ones’, their self-appointed task to fear for the future of Israel. They dressed in black suits that were all the rage back in 19th century Poland and some of them even wore the big furry hats in the middle of summer. 106
Their looks prejudiced me against them from the start. They seemed to sacrifice common sense for an idea stuck in time, sweating it out in their suits from another time and place, so preoccupied with a vain sense of identity as to miss the point of being religious altogether. Every orthodox Jew I saw seemed to have sickly, pallid white skin from a lifetime of studying indoors and the great majority of them wore glasses, even the children. I supposed it was the result of reading texts with such tiny font and nodding their heads as they did so. While they made a show of reading in public at bus stops I couldn’t help thinking about Pharisees who prayed on street corners. All in all, the orthodox Jews were the ugliest and unhealthiest people I’d seen anywhere. The wives of the haredim had their hair cut short in the interests of modesty and the most pious of them had shaved heads, wearing a wig to compensate. I felt appalled at the puritanical extremes they’d gone to. And the stiffness extended beyond the dress sense. I had a flat mate in Tel Aviv who was taking a break from the religious life for a couple of years, He remained in touch with his devout friends and still believed in the sanctity of it all but he wanted to try living without for a while. In short, he wanted to get laid. He had great luck at first, meeting an absolutely stunning girl who spent her last five days in the country with him before flying to the USA to work. Afterwards he told me it was more or less the first time in his life that he’d made love. He was twenty seven years old. Then he sat down on a chair in the kitchen and with a sheepish grin on his face, he asked me: “Tell me, what is a woman’s period?” It turned out that whilst he knew that babies didn’t come from the stork, he wasn’t quite sure what menstruation had to do with it all. Suddenly feeling quite old, I had to sit down with him and go through it all from the birds to the bees.
The haredim were not popular in Israel. As Israel was only supposed to be founded after the return of the Messiah, many of them didn’t recognize the state and thus didn’t serve in the army. Their influence in parliament ensured that they got money from the government to continue their studies of the Torah and it was the right wing religious who spearheaded the building of settlements in Palestinian land, thereby prolonging the bloodshed indefinitely. Moreover many exuded an arrogance, a holier-than-thou attitude that alienated them from the rest of the population. Or even from each other. I saw a orthodox man in the street ask his wife where the keys were and when she wasn’t sure he turned around, waving his arms in the air and calling on God to help him. His wife just hung her head low. My friend, Noa, particularly hated the haredim on account of her sister returning to the answer and becoming an uptight freak. She was a compassionate girl though and, whilst visiting her parents one Shabbat, a hared came up to her in the street and asked if she was Jewish. She nodded uncertainly and the man in black frowned in disappointment. It occurred to her he was looking for a Shabbat Goy (a gentile) to perform a task for him that the Torah forbade Jews to do on Saturdays. He confirmed her guess eagerly: “I left my boiler on,” he explained, “And I’m worried it might burst unless it’s turned off.” According to religious law it was out of the question for either of them to do it unless actual life was being risked but it wasn’t that serious yet. Noa suggested that they try at a nearby sea food restaurant in case there were any Asians working in the kitchen – shellfish and shrimp being, of course, non-kosher. Sure enough they found a bright young Filipino man in the kitchen who spoke only broken English but who was happy to help. The three of them then walked in Indian file and in silence to the Hared’s house. Noa had nothing to say to the worried hared and communication was difficult with the bemused Filipino who trailed along, wondering what they wanted of him. They arrived at the house, climbed the steps to the bathroom and then tried to explain to the poor Filipino what was required.
“You see the red button there? You have to push it hard – push it! Yes, the red button, with your finger – push!” With a face that suggested a suspicion of being on Candid Camera, the Filipino slowly extended his index finger towards the red button, all the while being urged on by Noa and the hared. His task being completed, they then smiled and wished him a good day. I could imagine him returning home to his wife that evening. “You’ll never believe what happened to me today. These Jews are crazy…” * Tel Aviv I stayed with friends all over Israel but the times when I took an apartment for a few months it was usually in Tel Aviv. The only real city in Israel (the rest are suburbia built around malls), Tel Aviv is the centre around which everything rotates. Surrounded by a host of satellite towns, it’s a secular pole, worlds apart from Jerusalem, just one hour away. Seen as Sin City by the religious, Tel Aviv is Israel’s only real city, pulsing with life on the edge of the Mediterranean. It was also one of the dirtiest and loudest modern cities I’d ever come across and wasn’t a place to live if you were looking for peace of mind. The streets were lined with blackened buildings, barbed wire dangled off fences at waist level and scooters mounted the pavement, almost running you down. Everywhere were Israelis shouting at each other and merrily arguing down their cell phones. Tel Aviv seemed to me a confusing mix between a European and Middle Eastern city where one could skip from the first world to the third in just a few streets. On one hand, there were the chic and upwardly mobile in shiny cars, dining in sushi restaurants and, on the other, I saw a humble working population labouring 60-70 hours a week. The thriving hi-tech industry kept the city solvent with the latest start-ups in computer engineering and internet ventures yet there were also street markets everywhere hustling cheap black market produce.
South Tel Aviv was where all the colour and life of the city was to be found and I lived in the artistic slums of Florentin, a twenty minute walk from the beach. A neighbourhood of carpenters, mechanics and metal workers, it was also where the cheap rents were and attracted a crowd of artists, musicians and stoners over the years that ensured the eventual gentrification of the neighbourhood. The working class and those who would rather have done anything except work lived side by side, competing to see who could make the most noise. I found an apartment on the fourth floor of a building with crumbling plaster. It was high enough not to need bars on the windows in case of thieves and was almost out of earshot of the carpenter making planks in the courtyard below. There was a rat that lived behind the refrigerator and senseless graffiti left on the cupboards by the junky ex-occupants. When I’d arrived I had to clean up broken glass from the floor and throw out old torn porno mags strewn across the room. Surprisingly, there was no heavyduty techno music to deal with from nearby apartments, just the staircase discussions of the family that lived opposite. They’d stand in the hallway, 2 floors apart and converse. “WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” “OUT! I’LL BE BACK LATER.” “WELL, CALL YOUR FATHER TO LET HIM KNOW WHERE YOU ARE.” “BUT WHY?” “I’LL TELL YOU WHY-” Luckily, I tended to write until 3am and by then most of the social commotion would have died down. But then, of course, I could always count on the car alarms. It was just a pet theory of mine but I reckoned that one businessman got a monopoly contract to provide car and burglar alarms to the entire country. He then bought all the faulty and reject alarms from a factory in China and as a result I almost never passed a night in Tel Aviv without hearing an alarm go off somewhere. “WOO! WOO! WOO! ANG! ANG! ANG! XXXXEEEE! XXXXEEEE!” 110
And so on in cycles designed to drive anyone insane. For hours. No one complained and no one ever did anything about it. Once or twice I tried to communicate the idea of environmental pollution to Israeli friends but the look on their face always made me crack up before I could finish. By day Florentin was full of wholesale shops selling clothes, furniture, kitchen supplies and toys. Men with boxes and delivery trucks were everywhere, pulleys lifting loads to the top floor and I had the perpetual feeling that the entire neighbourhood was about to move house. By night though the neighbourhood was dead and the cats came out to take over the streets. There were hundreds of them, hiding behind car wheels, tearing bins to pieces and hiding in cardboard boxes. When I returned home at night they’d jump out with a frightened squeal as I approached and give me a taste of what heart failure must feel like. Before heading to the beach for sunset, I often liked to stroll through the Carmel Shook. Nestled among the narrow streets of one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, the market was a slide show of humanity itself. At first glance it appeared almost like an Arabic market with densely packed stalls and the merchants filling the air with their sales pitches: “Tomatoes! Tomatoes! 5 shekels a kilo!” “Hello, beautiful, Come, try the avocados! Cheap!” “I’m here, I’m there, I’m everywhere - grapes, 7 shekels a box!” Originally, the Carmel Market was run by Jews from Iraq and there was still a strong Sephardic feeling. They were a tough, uncompromising, loud bunch and they worked harder than just about anyone in Tel Aviv - six days a week they manned the stalls ten hours a day - never mind all the unpacking and transport. When you entered the Carmel Shook you knew you were in the domain of the market people. They were utterly at ease in their territory, holding shouted conversations between stalls with 30 customers between them. Avi! Avi! Why did your sister hit me in the face? What, I said something wrong? 111
Survival of the Fittest was alive and well in the Carmel Shook. Commerce was brisk, rude and merciless as the cheapest clothes, shoes, cosmetics and farm produce wound its way here to be snapped up by shoppers out for a bargain. An Israeli friend told me the army had to invade the market in the 70’s just to get some tax out of them - until then the inspectors didn’t dare enter. I quickly learnt that the stall holders weren’t above taking advantage of their customers, either, especially if they were English goyim. I was always careful to count my change and ended up putting mental black crosses against half the stalls there for cheating me. Even if they were honest they still hurried me - Yallah, yallah, give me the money - and it took me a while to learn to stand my ground. There was one middle aged woman in particular who everyone hated but she didn’t seem to care less; she sold bread from her stall and did her best not to give me my change, pressing more bags of yesterday’s puffy bread into my pockets instead. As usual, the lesson was that if you didn’t stand up for your rights in Israeli no one would give you any. At the same time, though, given how hard they worked, the humility of the market people was breathtaking. I loved watching these hard men play-fighting all day, singing along with the radio and just living the life. Once I bought some flowers for a friend and as I walked through the market one of the stallholders stepped in front of me with his arms open and declared: “For me? Ah, no, it really wasn’t necessary!” Many Israelis looked down on the people who worked here, regarding them as one step away from Arabs in the ongoing cultural tension of West and East that is the story of modern Israel. It was true that the workers here weren’t exactly shy. I was once asked by the boys cleaning up on the stalls: “You have a cigarette for me?” “No, sorry.” “Why not?”
In an increasingly modern city with American aspirations, the Carmel Shook was a Middle Eastern respite from the office buildings and it was always packed with Israelis who came to buy groceries and get into an argument. At night when the stalls closed the market was hosed down and all fell quiet. The Thai immigrant workers and the poor came along to pick through the vegetables dropped on the floor and, when they departed, the rats, cats and cockroaches took over. Aside from the market the only place I went in Tel Aviv was a second hand bookshop and the beach. The former was run by an American Jew who came here as a young man and forever regretted the decision. Yossi sat behind his desk with a sardonic look of I told you so on his face, complaining all day about the corruption and incompetence of the state. He could be very droll though – I once asked him how he was doing and he replied: “Well, you know, every morning I look in the mirror expecting to see a 17 year old and instead I see this old fart with bags under his eyes.” The beach was what I really lived for. It was too cold in the winter to swim but how many cities were there in the world where you could leave it all behind to go and watch a sunset over the sea? At the end of Tupim Beach there was a causeway made out of rocks that extended out to sea about a hundred metres and I was there every afternoon with a guitar or a book. It was also a good place to meet other people who didn’t quite fit into city life as the rocks drew hippies, heartbroken girls and a collection of lost-its and leftovers from society. One group of men in particular spent a good deal of their waking hours on the beach and were known as the dervishes. They were usually to be found around a fire made from driftwood or scraps from the city and anyone was welcome to go and sit with them. Anywhere else in the world, a bunch of bearded guys in second hand clothing drinking beer around a fire could be potentially threatening. Here, wild and woolly as some of them were after traumatic war experiences, they took pride in their gentleness and generosity – when one of them rustled up some food to cook, one and all were welcome to partake.
I’d sit on the rocks and look back at the coastline and wonder what it looked like 20 years before when the hotels had yet to be imagined. Like many beach cities, Tel Aviv is cursed with big hotels all along the sea front, choking the streets by blocking the sea breeze and cutting off the view. If I turned around I could look over the water at Jaffa, the Arabic city from which Tel Aviv sprang just over a century ago. Only walking distance from Tel Aviv, Jaffa began with no warning; only the subtle changes in architecture and neglected look to the streets giving the clue that you’re entering a new neighbourhood. Jaffa was theoretically a city in its own right but there were so many Israelis looking for cheap rent and large apartments that it was pretty much part of Tel Aviv. It was considered pretty hardcore to live in Jaffa though as the Arabic thieves took special pleasure in targeting the Jewish residents. It was generally a poor and rougher area, too and whilst staying there with friends, we had to call the police when we heard a fight in a nearby apartment. “I’m going to kill you, you whore!” a man shouted over and over to the accompaniment of breaking glass. It was probably not the best place to be when the shit hit the fans in the Territories however. The mix of Jews and Arabs was peaceful on the surface but there was an undercurrent of bitterness and violence that didn’t make it a relaxing place to live. Though it was nothing if not colorful. Every ten minutes young guys cruised the streets with Egyptian violins playing at top volume on their car radios. I couldn’t help thinking it was like the entrance of the bad guy in a Cairo melodrama. * Jail Story 2 With the 500 pounds that British Airways gave me in Delhi plus a small advance from my publisher on sales of Hand to Mouth to India, I headed to Israel to spend the summer chasing girls in Tel Aviv. My book was my calling card and eased my way into sofa surfing for weeks at a time with friends who enjoyed having a colourful guest. Or at least they were kind enough to see I’d been through the wars and could do with some shelter in the meanwhile. 114
I was still living on next to nothing but at least having a place to stay eased the uncertainty of my day to day existence. Far from being an endless holiday, just staying on the road without money created a subtle inner desperation as I tried to keep my head above the water. I couldn’t stumble as I had no place to fall. Looking back, it seemed to work out well enough but at the time, as I hopped around from country to country, I was too busy trying to work out where the next meal was coming from or where I would sleep the next night to worry about where my life was heading. When you’re broke, the details are everything. There is no big picture when you need to find a place to wash your clothes or need to borrow someone’s nail clipper because you can’t afford the extravagance of buying a new one. The mechanics of living a carefree life of no responsibility often entail being entirely absorbed in the tedium of staying clean, fed and sheltered. It took a long time for the stress of Delhi to fade but a succession of Jewish princesses went some way to healing my soul and I eased the load on my hosts by disappearing to festivals when I could, hooking up with the alternative Israeli scene where there were plenty of other India Casualties to trade stories with. In the November of that year, I ended up in the Israeli Rainbow Gathering in the desert playing guitar around camp fires and falling in love in the moonlight. For three weeks I lived among bright, shining people a world away from civilisation. There was no electric, no alcohol and no commerce of any kind, donations given to the Magic Hat paying for all the food that we cooked together. I stayed right to the end until the 300 people at full moon had dwindled to 5 and we said goodbye to the desert together, already mourning the peace we were leaving behind. Returning to the Babylon of Tel Aviv was a trip. At first I thought that all the billboards and neon signs were decoration to make the city look nicer. Reality began to sink in as girls masked with cosmetics hustled past, arguing with their cell phones and avoiding eye contact. The neighbourhood car alarms took turns to malfunction.
Feeling more of a stranger than usual I ambled through the streets to my friend’s apartment on one of the busier roads in the city, the passing roar of the buses drowning all conversation. I found the key under the doormat as usual and minutes later I was taking my first real wash in about three weeks. Afterwards it took about five minutes to remove the grime I’d left behind on the bath tub. I squinted at the electric light bulb overhead that had replaced the desert moon, heated a cup of tea on a gas cooker instead of an open fire and sat down on a sofa and cushions that were admittedly more comfortable than sand and rocks. Okay, I was back in Babylon. It was time to plug back into the Matrix. In my email account I found four messages from Clive and one from a mutual friend of ours in London. Before I left for the desert I had written to Clive letting him know that I was broke – while I’d never asked him for anything in return for all I did for him in Delhi, he’d always promised to help me out if I got stuck in the future. He’d replied saying that he would see what he could do. The second and third emails confirmed this but said I’d have to come to Amsterdam to pick up the cash. By the fourth email he was worried that I hadn’t replied and wondered if something had happened to me? That message had been sent two weeks before. The email from our mutual friend, Bob, asked that I ring him as soon as possible. This sounded a little ominous and I placed a reverse charge call straight away. “Hello, Tom. Erm, have you seen the news recently? No? Ah, well, I think you ought to take a look at the Middle East section of the BBC and call me back in half an hour.” As I waited for the internet page to load part of me already knew what I was going to see. 5 BRITONS ARRESTED IN THE GULF ON DRUG SMUGGLING CHARGES. PROSECUTION CALLS FOR DEATH SENTENCE
The article blathered on about an international smuggling network using sophisticated internet communications to coordinate their activities. Yes, drug smugglers, too, used email. And ,of course, there, in black and white, were the false names under which Clive and Natasha often traveled. They’d apparently been apprehended with piles of cocaine. I guessed they’d been on a run to supply the appetites of the ex-pat teachers, nurses and consultants who needed all the drugs they could get their hands on to stay sane in the Gulf. Bob had received a frantic call from Clive soon after the news hit, asking him to phone up a list of contacts to see who could help. Everyone so far had either hung up or turned to jelly on the other end of the line. Bob himself had no intention of going anywhere near the Gulf but was worried that Clive might be facing decapitation or death by stoning. He offered to meet the expenses if I was willing to go. Sometimes I got the feeling that there was a bunch of drunken angels somewhere on a cloud, splitting a bottle of whiskey as they doodled around with my life script. I learnt in school that every story must have a beginning, a middle and an end – so what was going on? Natasha had only been free for 5 months since we’d gotten her out of jail in Delhi and now she and Clive were in worse shit than ever before. It struck me that I maybe should have just shook hands with Clive back in June and said goodbye when I perceived he was on a trajectory of selfdestruction. But I hadn’t. I still enjoyed his good company and thought our paths might yet come together for the best. We’d even talked about going into business together exporting crystals from Brazil. I knew from the moment that I spoke to Bob on the phone that I would go but it took me a couple of days to understand why. Firstly, I knew no one else would go. Most people would have just shrugged their shoulders and said it was a hazard of the trade. But I could only guess at what nightmare Clive was going through and didn’t feel I could turn my back. Secondly, I had asked him to help me out and he’d agreed to come through for me. I’d been in the desert when he had invited me to come and collect but still, he’d been prepared to help. Maybe this run to the Gulf had even been in part to cover what he was going to give me. I wasn’t responsible but I couldn’t deny the karmic link either. 117
Looking back on it now, maybe I also went because it was a good story. Most people don’t have all that much exciting happen to them in their lives. As a travel writer you have to be something of an Experience Junky, if only to gather material interesting enough to merit a few thousand words. The days of Cook, Burton and Livingstone were over, perhaps, but the planet was still a strange, unpredictable place with plenty of scope for adventure and exploration. In every sense, each time I got off a plane on some crazy mission I felt like I was going where no man had gone before. Or had ever wanted to. Bob bought a plane ticket via the internet and I spent my last 50 shekels on a taxi to the airport. It looked as though I might have to beg my train fare into London at Heathrow Airport. But I struck up conversation on the plane with a guy who was kind enough to buy the last copy of Hand to Mouth to India that I carried in my bag. Bob looked relieved to see me as now he wasn’t alone in the middle of the whole story. It was his apartment that Clive had stayed in for so long and ended up trashing the previous winter with burns on the carpet, pills dropped all over the floor and the aroma of heroin fumes in the living room. None of this, however, could quite outweigh Bob’s essential English decency for a friend in need. Bob was a professional gambler. With the help of a mathematics don in Edinburgh, he’d devised a system that gave the actual likelihood of a horse winning the race. So if Golden Soldier was given 7/2 by the bookies, the real odds might be more like 5/1. Bob paid a modest amount for the raw data each day and then put it through the filter of his own expertise and knowledge of horses. He then placed thousands of pounds on the most promising names. “I have bad years, of course.” he admitted. “Like, last year I made a loss of 150,000 pounds. But this year I’m already up 250,000.” He was blacklisted from most of the bookmakers around London and several knew him by sight. He’d taken 15,000 pounds in a single afternoon from a Ladbrokes branch around the corner earlier in the year. “The manager had to come down to confirm the betting slip. As he read it he just kept shaking his head saying: ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake; it’s going to take us 3 months to make this back.’” 118
Now if Bob tried to place a large bet at a bookmakers they phoned up head office and checked his name and physical description. As he could no longer bet in his own name he had to pay people for the right to set up betting accounts in their names. He felt no pity for the bookmakers, though. “Fuck ‘em!” he grinned. “They’re just a bunch of parasites who feed on the naïve and desperate. It’s always the people who can least afford it who lose the most.” Bob could blow a thousand pounds in a single night without blinking when things were going well. That night he took me and a couple of friends out to a small and exclusive casino in Soho. We dined on aromatic duck and drank a bottle of Burgundy each as we discussed Clive’s situation. We speculated on the chances of bribing the officials and whether I might be picked up as a suspect just for visiting the jail. Maybe I would have to change cars a few times to avoid being followed. The imagined scenarios got more dramatic with each bottle of wine and I found myself so drunk that I succeeded in getting lost in the casino; I went to the bathroom and when I came out I found myself in front of the main reception. It was such a small place that it would have been absurd to ask directions but for the life of me I had no idea how to get back to the main salon. The receptionist’s gaze fell upon me quizzically. Fortunately, in that moment Bob and his friends came out to collect their coats and find me. “How are you going to get to the Middle East if you get lost inside a casino?” Bob laughed. * I flew out to Amsterdam where Clive had left some bags containing phone books and spare passports. I turned up at an old, narrow Dutch house near Rembrantsplatz and met a Northern English woman with dreadlocks and tattoos. She eyed me up and down with some hesitation but let me in with a tired sigh. She showed me where Clive’s bags were and her welcome began to warm as she saw that I was calm and sane. “They stayed here for weeks and weeks and baselined coke in this room,” she complained, “ I told them I didn’t want that kind of shit here but after 119
they left I found burnt foil everywhere and leftover wraps of smack.” I was getting used to finding a trail of debris behind these two. Amsterdam was cold, wet and grey in the short days of December and once I had the phone books there was no point in hanging around. I caught a flight to the Gulf and traded the rainy gloom for one of the brightest, driest climates in the world. As I strolled through the customs channel a large woman in uniform caught my eye. “Hello, sir. And what brings you here?” “Oh, just a little Christmas shopping.” I told her, doing my best to sound wealthy. Rich tourists came to do some retail therapy in the Gulf all the time. Although Clive and Natasha had been caught in the capital they were being held in a province a couple of hours away. I took a two hour taxi ride there and checked out the new scenery through the window. The overall impression was that of sudden concrete rising up from the sands like the dream of an architect who’d lost his mind in the desert. The buildings were as ostentatious and gauche as the land was flat and arid. With the arrival of the black gold, the Gulf States had built their cities with all the taste of a tourist in Bermuda shorts. The buildings looked like they’d been grafted onto the sand with super glue while the dust curled around the edges, promising a return to rubble and ruin within a century or two. A character played by Matt Damon in the movie Syriana later said this to a fictional sheik: You know what the business community thinks of you? They think that a hundred years ago you were living in tents out here in the desert chopping each other’s heads off and that’s where you’ll be in another hundred years. This part of the world had long been on the arse end of nowhere on the great Arabian peninsula. The deserts were barely passable until the last century and most trade routes went via the sea rather than through the sands where the Bedouin waited to rob them. When Wilfred Thesiger went to live with Bedouin tribes in these parts shortly after WW II they admitted they’d heard ‘the Christians had had a war recently’. 120
Thesiger and Lawrence conjured up for their readers lives of romantic austerity with the Bedouin where the old values of comradeship and devotion to God burned strong. Their books summoned an unforgiving world of relentless sun and sand, the kind of place you could die of thirst if your camel was too stubborn to release its milk. On one such occasion, Thesigerâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s companions stitch shut the anus of a camel until it relents and lets them drink. Naturally, everything changed with oil. With the help of the British and the Americans, simple sheiks were made enormously rich overnight and they reacted to their new wealth like someone who had just won the lottery. They traded their tents for villas and high rises, their camels for imported sports cars and otherwise carried on exactly as before. The local women kept their veils and their place in the kitchen, the men sat around drinking coffee and gossiping, whilst a few million Pakistanis, Sudanese and Filipinos were brought in to do the actual work. In the fortnight I was there, I never saw a Gulf Arab lift anything heavier than a glass of tea. I was arriving in the middle of Ramadan which is the heaviest season in the Muslim calendar. Between sunrise and sundown no one was allowed to eat, drink or, if they were especially pious, swallow their saliva. I wondered what Muslims did in Norway or Finland â&#x20AC;&#x201C; when Ramadan fell in the summer months it would amount to a death sentence. Upon arrival I could see I was going to be pushed for entertainment in this small, out-of-the-way, town. Men of all ages in long white robes hung around the dusty streets but there was not a female face to be seen anywhere. The homogeneity was only broken up by the Pakistanis and Indians who worked in the shops, hating the Arabs with a vengeance but doing the dirty work so that they could send money to their families back home. Intuitively siding with the underdogs, I took a room at a hotel managed by some Christian Indians. It was also probably the only place where I could hope to order breakfast or lunch this time of the year. The waiter who brought me room service was a Muslim, however and I felt obliged to tip him well for enduring the aroma of cooked food. From my hotel window I could see smoky, red mountains glowing in the last of the sun and I resolved not to leave without climbing them. Shortly after the sunset call to prayer, a collective wave of relief could be felt 121
sweeping across the town and men seemed to jog out of the mosque to break the fast at home. Life in the street seemed to have picked up a little and I decided to go and see what this town had to offer. Street vendors were now grilling strips of chicken and beef which they wrapped up in a thin nan bread. There was no music to be heard anywhere and the only sounds come from the passing traffic and the conversation of the men walking off their large suppers. The pavements were full of billowing white robes as the Arabs strolled along like cartoon ghosts. Young guys chewed on street food and spat into the gutter without ever staining their clothes. The shop fronts looked pretty gaudy but seemed affordable and I made a mental note to buy some smart clothes later. Just then I felt a heavy, sweaty hand on my shoulder. I turned to meet a smiling gorilla in white and he grabbed my hand in greeting. “Salaam aleikum!” “Aleikum salaam.” I responded. Then he leaned close and whispered heavily: “Come to my room!” I tried to leave but he held my hand in a vice. Smiling, I employed the only trick I remembered from 3 years of kung fu – a twist that allowed him to choose between a broken wrist and letting go. He let go. In fact he was still standing there, beckoning obscenely when I looked back to make sure he wasn’t following me. Other than flirting with the locals entertainment was limited to the Bollywood flicks at the local cinema and…well, that was it actually. There were two cable channels on the TV in my room and I prayed five times a day for something worth watching. The next day I arranged to meet Dr Al Khalif, the lawyer appointed to defend Clive and Natasha. He came out to meet me at the hotel and turned up early at my hotel room. I had just finished dressing up in white shirt, black trousers and shoes and had probably managed to look more like an unemployed waiter than an international legal delegate. As all my posses122
sions were strewn across the room like an adolescent, I ushered us both into the elevator so that we might talk in the lobby. We descended five floors and took our seats on the leather couch downstairs without uttering a single word. Al Khalif was a heavy bear of a man with thick, black hairs lunging out of his nostrils and eyebrows to meet his Islamic beard. His chest was wet with respiration and it seemed that his robes stuck to him as he walked. He seemed to be more apprehensive than I was, which was funny, seeing as he was the one playing on home ground. Maybe he thought I was part of the international smuggling ring. Hey, I probably even used email. We observed a thoughtful silence for a minute or so during which time he stole furtive looks at me and assessed my character. Finally, he took a deep breath and resolved to cut straight to the chase. “The weather here is very dry.” he suggested. “Yes, indeed. In my country it is raining much.” I replied, taking care to speak slowly and carefully. “And now it is Ramadan.” His eyes brightened. “Yes! Very holy time for Muslim people! You are Christian?” I knew from past experience in Muslim countries it’s so much easier just to say yes. “Yes, Dr Al Khalif but lailahahillalah – is One.” “Very good! You know Arabic?” “No, but one day, enshallah, I shall learn.” We continued in this way for around fifteen minutes, pretending that I’d flown 2000 miles just to make smalltalk. Slowly, painfully, we got round to the point. I learnt that my friends hadn’t been caught with drugs at all. Friends/associates of theirs had, however and the police arrested Clive and Natasha in their hotel room. Traces of the coke and heroin they’d taken in Amsterdam showed up in the urine tests they were made to take and, apparently, this was enough to press charges.
Dr Al Khalif explained that while the prosecutor was pressing for the death penalty, this was highly unlikely given their nationality. Probably they would serve no longer than 5 years and might even get a pardon before that. Every time one of the important sheiks returned home safely from abroad he thanked Allah by releasing a batch of prisoners. Al Khalif would represent Clive and Natasha for the duration of their trial – around 9 months – and would continue to solicit on their behalf to the powers that be after that. For this he wanted 15,000 dollars. “This jail business is not Islamic.” he sighed. “My father was imam. In those days imam was also teacher and judge of village. When someone break law they whip him 100 times. Then finished. No jail, no long court problems.” We arranged to go and meet Clive the next day at the jail and in the meantime I called up a pair of New Zealand missionaries who were helping out. Brian and Jennie were a sweet couple in their 50’s who had been stationed in the Gulf for over twenty years now. In all that time they hadn’t learnt more than a few words of Arabic and lunch in their home was shepherd’s pie with boiled green beans on the side. They told me about an Australian woman who had been murdered in the region around ten years ago. The police responded by arresting her daughter as prime suspect. The son flew in from Sydney to try and straighten things out and they arrested him on the first day of his arrival. The same fate met the first friend who came to help and, thereafter, concerned parties negotiated by telephone. Right. That evening I made an arrangement with a friend in England that should two days go by without receiving an email, he’d know I’d been apprehended and could start posting me food and books. The next day Dr Al Khalif turned up in his chauffeur-driven car to take me to the jail. I made every effort to appear like a smart, presentable gentleman with no connections whatsoever to any of this sordid business. My story was that I was an old friend of the family helping out, a consultant by trade.
Normally in these kinds of jails the visiting hours consisted of families shouting across two sets of fences and a small courtyard to their loved ones on the inside – an open air version of Tihar. Fortunately, Al Khalif had arranged a private meeting in the warden’s office – Clive and I could talk without anyone listening. He went to find Clive and I found myself alone in a room with desks, papers and armchairs. An open window gave onto a corridor and suddenly around 50 pretty young women came passing by. One of them stopped at the window and smiled at me in surprise. “Hey! Who are you? What are you doing here?” she whispered excitedly but before I could reply a guard nudged her along. She gave me a parting wink and was gone. They were Soviet bloc prostitutes who had overstayed their visas. They were waiting to be deported, given new fake ID’s by the Russian mob and imported again. Clive was escorted into the office and though his face betrayed no emotion his eyes shone with appreciation. Aware that time was an issue we got straight to business. “You know my name, right?” The authorities still didn’t know that their passports were fake. Clive wrote me a list of all the friends/associates who owed him money or who might be willing to help. The lawyer had to be paid somehow. He signed over to my care the bags, cell phones and money that the police had confiscated and then heaved a sigh of relief. “It’s fucking awful in here, Tom. The men are 90% homosexual and I have to be on my guard 24/7,” he clenched his fists to make his point. “The TV’s all in Arabic and they won’t let me have paper and pen to write with. I’ve got no soap and I sweat like a pig all day. I’m bored out of my mind. I even offered to clean the cells for them – the place stinks – but they wouldn’t let me,” he looked me in the eye. “Thanks for coming out, man.” Natasha came in and her eyes opened wide to see me in smart clothes.
“Tom! You’ve cut your hair short and you’re wearing a tie! You look like a professional. But your fly is undone.” I looked down and understood why the guards hadn’t looked as impressed as they should have. Her smile died when she remembered where she was. “My life is over.” she said, holding her head in her hands. To cheer her up I asked if she was getting any action from the other Russian girls. “Every night!” she giggled, “The guards have no idea of the things we do!” I got back to the hotel that night, charged up the cell phones and started going though the phone books. It wasn’t unreasonable to suppose that the phones and the hotel room could be tapped so I went to a local call center to begin phoning around the world. “Hello, is that Sven? Hi, my name’s Tom and I’m a friend of Clive who’s been arrested in – hello?” “Hi Donald. Your friend Clive is in jail in-“ “Hello Nori. I am a friend of Clive? He has big problems…” Around half the people I rang hung up within a few seconds. Of those I spoke to around half wanted to know what the fuck Clive or I wanted from them. One or two were genuinely dismayed though and offered to send money at once. Their trust was amazing – they were willing to send money to a complete stranger to help Clive. I picked up the money transfers and took the first installments of the lawyer’s fee over to his office. He invited me to come and break the Ramadan fast at his house the following evening. It didn’t feel like an invitation I could decline and his Pakistani chauffeur came to pick me up shortly before sunset. “How long have you worked for Dr Al Khalif?” I asked him on the way over. “Fourteen years. Last year I wanted to go home to my family but Dr Al Khalif said, ‘please, stay one more year.’” 126
“And you think that Dr Al Khalif is a good man?” He shrugged as though it were a foolish question. “He is a lawyer.” We pulled up outside a villa complex in the desert with high walls surrounding a garden and a house big enough for the most prolific Arab family. The sun had just set and Dr Al Khalif was waiting for me in the doorway with a tray of melon slices. Arabic hospitality is lavish no matter what the means of the host but it can be stifling at times for Westerners used to a little more personal space. I would far rather have been chilling in my hotel room but Clive’s fate depended on the good will of the lawyer and it was important to make a positive impression. We sat on the carpet in the main room and broke the fast with trays of steamed vegetables and fried meats. I sampled them all enthusiastically and praised the virtues of the cooking. When the main course came out, however, I had little room left to do justice to my plate. A large piece of fish had been stewed with rice and then put into the oven until both were firmly lodged together. I think then they’d fried it to give it a little more grease. “Arabic food is most delicious!” I exclaimed for the 50thtime that night, kneading balls of rice together with my right hand. I had been offered a spoon but I assured them I was used to eating as the Arabs do. I somehow got through the main dish and was wondering if it were possible to find any Alka-Seltzer in the local pharmacy. But then Dr Al Khalif came through from the kitchen bearing a jug as though it contained molten gold. “Here is a specialty of our country,” he told me with gleaming eyes, “My wife made it herself. As if on cue his wife appeared briefly in the doorway and flashed a bucktooth grin from beneath her headscarf. There was no getting out of this one. They spooned a gray mixture onto my plate and I sighed with relief. It was halvah– a sweet made of ground sesame and sugar. I ate it all the time.
I raised a big dollop to my lips but when I tried to withdraw the spoon it wouldn’t come out of my mouth. This was not halvah. My best guess is that they took the fat from camel humps, mixed it together with uncooked rough buckwheat flour until it reached the consistency of cement. I dragged the spoon out of my mouth but now my lips were stuck together. How was I ever going to swallow this? “Well, are you liking?” they asked. A must-lie situation. Desperately trying to work the mixture off the roof of my mouth, I made the kind of face as if to say words-could-not-describe the taste. When they looked away I swallowed half a litre of water and felt the gunk crawl reluctantly down my throat. They looked as though they were about to offer me some more and so I immediately launched into a 20 minute monologue praising Islam, Arabic family values and camels until one of his wives came to clear the plates. There only remained to drink coffee and eat strange, luminous sweets bought from the marketplace. I’d read somewhere that the correct form for drinking coffee amongst the Bedouin is to swallow it as fast as possible – expressing that it’s so good that you simply can’t wait for it to cool. I scorched my throat before noticing that everyone else took their coffee in discreet sips. Whilst I wondered if I’d done serious damage to my esophagus, Dr Ali Khalif described to me his plans to take a third wife. In all my travels in the modern Muslim world I’d rarely heard of anyone taking more than one wife but Ali Khalif could obviously afford it. He licked his lips as he told me about the 17 year old he was presently negotiating for. I tried to imagine how she might feel to be given as a slave to this heavy 50 year old with hair coming out of every follicle. Somehow I doubted she would have much say in the matter. * Running for my Life The days were rolling by and I was bored to tears. I took to dashing up the seven flights of stairs each time I returned to my room. I tried to take a 128
second off my time each day. It broke the monotony of the hotel and the waiters cheered me on as I passed by each landing. I made friends with the managers of a nearby hotel that lodged Arabic students in jeans and t-shirts who claimed to be living on a budget. They clandestinely munched biscuits in their rooms during the day and flirted with Russian girls by internet at night. They took me out to a trade fair and introduced me to the phenomenon of papering. They wrote their phone number on a scrap of paper, rolled it into a ball and tried to throw it to the Arabic girls walking past with their chaperones. If they were lucky they might get a phone call the next day and they could romance over a Nokia for the next year or two. I kept up the visits, liaised with the lawyer and waded through the phone books to rally support. After two weeks I was beginning to feel a bit useless though and wondered for how long I should stick this out. I hadn’t been arrested but I wasn’t getting anyone free in a hurry. I made some inquiries to see if $10,000 in the right hands might speed things up but I was strictly counseled not to even entertain the idea. I needed to clear my head and think so I took a taxi out to the red mountains that I’d been staring at from my hotel window each morning. The Afghani driver seemed reluctant to leave me in the middle of nowhere and warned me about an army encampment to the south. He became surly when I insisted I knew what I was doing and drove away in a huff. It didn’t seem like a good idea to go anywhere near the military so I climbed up an embankment of rocks that kept me firmly out of sight. There were a couple of Bedouin huts nearby but there was no sign of life anywhere on this hot afternoon. I stretched out on a sun-baked rock and tried to play my thick, Indian bamboo flute but soon decided I’d been born with lungs too small for the job. Below me the flat, arid land stretched away to the lights of the city and then to a beach without a single bikini. I dozed for a while until the sun began to set behind the town and it occurred to me that it would soon get dark and I had no idea where I was. It couldn’t have been more than 10 miles into town and I decided that a walk would work up an appetite. 129
I walked along the road but noticed I was getting a lot of strange looks from the sporadic cars that passed. I really didn’t feel like meeting anyone out there and the paranoia of the taxi driver had lingered in the air. I scrambled down a bank to the side of the road and walked along in the shadow of some olive trees, hopefully out of view of the road. Just then I heard tyres skidding to a halt as a jeep pulled up and out jumped two Bedouin guys with fierce, black beards and long white robes. One of them slid down the bank and marched up to me with a long stick in his hand. He started shouting in my face in Arabic but there was no anger in his eyes. I didn’t know what he was saying but I read in his dilated pupils the spark of malice and plain old lust. It might seem paranoid to think they wanted to rape me but it wouldn’t have been the first time I’d come close to being sexually assaulted in the Muslim world. A few years before while hitchhiking in Pakistan I’d almost gotten abducted and only the kindness of a local friend had saved me (see Hand to Mouth to India). And after reading T.E Lawrence’s accounts of homosexuality in his travels with the Arabs, I felt I had reason to be wary. I had studied kung fu for a few years but I hadn’t been in a fight since I was 10. In theory, I knew how to hit someone but it seemed just as likely that I’d end up getting seriously hurt myself. Throwing the first blow felt like stepping off a cliff with wings attached to my back. I still held in my hands the heavy bamboo flute and I briefly wondered what damage it could do. But if I broke the skull of my leering assailant I could end up in serious shit; if I missed then I could expect to be thrashed to pieces myself before being raped. In any case his friend was waiting by the jeep – he probably had a cell phone to call in reinforcements. Maybe I could have pushed him out of the way too but I didn’t know how to drive. My getaway would have been an unimpressive series of bumps and jolts. All of this ran through my brain in the second that the Bedouin leaned forwards to grab my jacket. I glanced to either side and saw no sign of civilisation or shelter. Well, if I couldn’t hide I could always run. I turned around and scrambled up the bank and set a new Middle Eastern record for the first 100 metres. I heard a car engine start behind me and 130
the screech of wheels as the jeep made a U-turn. I maintained my desperate pace and between deeper and deeper gasps I could hear them moving into second gear behind me. I tried to stop approaching cars with outspread arms and an expression of pure desperation. They swerved around me with the smell of burning rubber. Finally a car pulled up to a halt and the electric window wound down. The Bedouin inside looked me sternly in the eyes. “What problem?” he asked. “Please…” I gasped, “Please help – bad men!” I pointed as the Land Rover pulled up beside us. But the man had already got out of his car to greet my pursuers. They kissed one another on the cheeks and I suddenly doubted I was going to get much help from the new arrival. I turned to run again but found the thinner of the original guys blocking my path. I swung back my flute and he moved out of the way. Again, I sprinted faster than I had since school athletics day and, again, I heard a car engine start up behind me. Desperation poured out along with the sweat. I reckoned I could run for a few more minutes before I would have to collapse by the side of the road and throw up blood. Then I’d be in no position to put up a fight. Maybe I should just stop now and make my last stand? Was this really happening? I thought of the European sailors who promised to convert to Islam if Allah would only deliver them from a particularly fierce tempest. I kept running and at the top of a gentle incline I came across three shops in the middle of nowhere like a mirage in the desert. I jumped up on the veranda of a grocery store and found to my relief that it was run by Pakistanis. “Please help me – the jeep… they...” Hyper-ventilation stole away the rest of my words but my distress was evident. “Calm down, sir. Don’t worry. You are safe here.” the shopkeeper laughed. I breathed a prayer of thanks as I knew he would see it as his duty to protect the guest even if he was uninvited. Also there was no love lost between 131
the immigrant workers and their hosts. I hid behind shelves of rice and chick peas, wondering what the hell I should do next. But just then the call to prayer sounded and the Pakistani declared he had to close shop and I was ushered outside. “Where are you going?” I asked, appalled to see my protector walk away. “It is time to pray!” he answered cheerfully. “Do not worry!” I watched him fade away into the dusk and was tempted to join him but guessed they wouldn’t let me, an infidel, into the mosque at prayer-time. I found myself on the veranda with four Hindu boys from Goa who must have felt a little out of place here. Predictably, a moment later the jeep pulled up and wound the window down. The Bedouin with the look of a devil on his face yelled in English. “Hallo! My friend! Where you go? Come with me – I take you your hotel! Come my house! Ha! Ha! Ha!” I ignored him and walked down to the opposite end of the veranda but he reversed to keep up with me, maintaining his lascivious spiel the whole time. The Hindu boys urged me to go with him and I felt like the only sane person within a hundred miles. But perhaps because his family was waiting for him to break the Ramadan fast he drove off. I had a feeling he would be back. The Hindu lads took me around the back to their cabins where they prepared me a milky chai. I remembered that I was carrying a cell phone and began to call everyone I knew in the country. The lawyer and the missionaries were out but the hotel answered. “Hello? Yes, it’s the Englishman. Yes, room 706. Please send me a car or a taxi at once, it’s an emergency. Well, send a Christian driver then. What? No, I don’t know where I am. Just send cars out on every road to the mountains!” The battery died and I cautiously walked around to the road. A taxi came on duty early and I jumped in before he could protest. I grabbed a bunch 132
of banknotes out of my wallet and waved it in his face. He looked at me as though I was crazy but shrugged, started up the engine and we drove away to safety. I booked my flight out the very next morning. * The Abyss Back in London Bob was impressed with the whole story and let me keep the grand or so left over from the cash he’d thrown my way to go out there in the first place. More than anything I suppose he was happy someone else had taken the whole story on their shoulders. Problem was I no longer had a plot. Maybe the reason I kept responding to these SOS calls was that it gave me a mission, a sense of purpose and direction that was clearly missing in my own life. I bummed around friends’ houses in England, took a trip back to Israel to chase a doomed love affair and generally wondered where my life was at. I wished I could live again the innocent years in India when it had been enough to follow in Ali’s footsteps, confident that I was now set upon the Path and all else would make sense in its own good time. But I understood at least the old Indian tradition that the only way to show your respect to your teacher is to surpass him. Ali himself had always counseled me to ‘kill the Buddha’ in that respect and invent my own life. It’s your movie, he’d always said, and if you don’t like it just write yourself a better part in the script. In many respects though I was waiting for life itself to direct. I genuinely thought that if I just waited around long enough then Mysterious Powers would tell me where to go and what to do. For me to just choose a direction by myself seemed almost impudent. It had never really occurred to me that growing up could be so ad lib either. Life had to be invented. In the meantime, Clive and Natasha were still in jail and though the death sentence seemed unlikely now, I’d hardly worked any miracles. Still, there 133
were some loose ends and as Bob went away on skiing trips I tried to tie them up. The lawyer needed to be paid and Clive had a half-brother in Ireland called Patrick who had managed to collect some of the drug money owed to him. Patrick was incapable of speaking slowly or clearly enough for the lawyer to understand his Irish accent, however and so I couldn’t leave him to it. I didn’t have a bank account of my own or a stable address so I arranged for Patrick to send the money to Rudi in Vienna, one of Clive’s remaining friends. Rudi spoke very clear English and he was willing to stay in touch with Ali Khalif in the Gulf. It was like a tragic-comedy. Over the next fortnight it felt like the international telephone wires were wrapping tighter and tighter around me, tugging me towards a looming abyss. Somehow by virtue of being trustworthy and half-together the whole Clive Aid program had come to rely upon my coordination and planning. My daily life was coming to resemble a Quentin Tarantino movie. Rudi emailed me saying that he hadn’t heard from Patrick in Ireland for two weeks now and was waiting for the rest of the money to pay the lawyer. Dr Al Khalif was threatening to quit unless he received his next installment. Patrick had been nothing short of useless from the beginning. I doubt if he had ever left Ireland in his life and wasn’t even capable of setting up an email account so that we could communicate. He couldn’t speak his own language clearly enough to communicate with foreigners and now he wasn’t even bothering to stay in touch. On the other hand he hadn’t asked to be drawn into a story like this. He would have had a hard time finding the Gulf on a map and never should have needed to. All this international intrigue and logistics must have been a nightmare for a guy like him. That was what was so fucked up about the whole story, that it spilled over and upset the lives of those who had nothing to do with it. None of us were making any money from smuggling drugs. I called Patrick’s cell phone three times a day but it was permanently on the answering service and I left repeated messages, my irritation growing with each one.
‘Hi, Patrick –it’s Tom. Listen, you need to get your act together. Your brother’s rotting away in jail and we need to get the money to the lawyer, yeah? Okay, please call me on _____________, cheers.’ Finally, I leafed through Clive’s phone book and found a name with the word ‘cousin’ next to it in brackets. Phoning up an unknown Irish family in the middle of their dinner to inform them that their cousin was in a Middle Eastern jail counts as one of the more surreal things I’ve done. They were fairly deadpan about it and I guessed they were fairly used to these kinds of stories. Or else they didn’t care too much. Either way they were loyal enough to go and search all of Dublin for Patrick. I finally got to speak to him on a new cell phone at midnight.. He was frantic. “Hi Tom? Ah, you don’t believe what I’ve been through. The cops picked me up on charges of money laundering – They threw me in jail for ten days! I couldn’t explain where Clive’s drug money had come from. I told them it was for some internet publicity work I’d done but I had no receipts to back my story up. It’s fucking edgy, Tom, I could face ten years for this. You didn’t leave any messages on my phone, did you? They confiscated it from me and they’re probably checking it. “I think they might be listening in to this line, too. I’m pulled over on the side of the road and I’m feeling fucking paranoid, I can tell you. What am I going to do, Tom? Hey, do you know how I can get hold of any faked Bank of Ireland papers? Like, where did Clive get those false passports – can you sort that out, Tom?” I suddenly regretted having made this call from a friend’s house rather than from a phone box. It had been cold and rainy outside. “No, Patrick. I don’t know anything about that. I don’t have anything to do with that kind of thing. Look, I’ll call you on Monday, okay? Bye.” The next day I received an email from Rudi in Vienna saying that Interpol had been taking pictures of him in the street. He wasn’t too worried as he had a normal life with a job and nothing to hide but thought I might like to take some precautions. 135
I, on the other hand, had everything pointing towards me. My passport was full of suspicious stamps from the world over. In the past year I had traveled through Delhi, Kathmandu, Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, the Gulf and London where I’d stayed with a professional gambler. I had no bank account and no apparent profession except for my book to hold up like a shield against the interrogator’s spotlight. In addition, I had been over to see Clive in jail and my name was written in the visitor’s book. If Interpol were serious about cracking the rest of the ‘international smuggling ring’ then any half-intelligent officer would want to have a chat with me. The address books alone that I carried would have made for interesting investigation. They would probably assume that I was a courier myself or even the architect of the whole situation. It was pitifully ironic. Clive was due to phone up Bob’s apartment the following weekend and, as Bob was out of town, I’d arranged to take the call. I was getting more and more nervous about taking another step in this whole story and as a last resort I elected to consult the I Ching. For once it wasn’t too ambiguous: The Abyss. Extreme danger. Do not move. I read somewhere that when you’re going the wrong way the gods give you first a Wink, then a Hint and finally a Nudge. Apparently, it could take years to recover from a Nudge so I decided to take the Hint. How had all this ever happened? Little by little I’d drifted into this until I’d completely lost my way. Just two months before I’d been writing songs on a guitar with hippies in the desert. I thought of the old cowboy movies when the heat begins to kick in. The lead characters exchange grim looks and head for the hills. I used half my remaining cash to book a flight to the Himalayas.
Hand to Mouth in Bangkok In October 2001 I flew one way to Bangkok with $200 in my pocket, enough for me to live for 3 weeks while I looked for a job teaching English. I’d never taught before, and had no qualifications to my name but I didn’t see why that should have posed an obstacle. How hard can it be? I joked before leaving. It had been another funny sort of year. After recuperating in the Himalayas, I’d jumped over to Tai Wan with the idea of busking on the streets but left after 5 days to chase a French girl I’d met for a few hours in Bangkok. We hit it off but returned to Europe flat broke and had to split up to hustle some cash. While she picked grapes in France and waited for a job accompanying Iranians on false passports to Japan, I made enough to buy a flight ticket back to Thailand and work it out from there. That year was the first time I’d been further east than India and it was like discovering a whole other face to Asia. My head was full of the stories that Ali and the other old Goa freaks had told me and I wished I could have been there 25 years ago before the Thai Paradise had been swallowed up by tourism and development. Still, once I drifted outside of the backpacker slums I entered a whole other world. No one seemed to speak any English and listening to Thai was like being bathed in nasal bird song. The Thais themselves were small with beautiful faces and jet black hair, ambling around in shorts and vests, forever eating something or laughing. I knew India backwards but now I was just another dumb white farang, sweating heavily and reduced to pointing at snacks in the street, sending the Thais into giggling fits when I tried to pronounce their strange singsong language. Whereas I took it for granted that everything in India was always broken, here everything worked. There were convenience stores on every corner, cheap street food that didn’t make you ill and everywhere garish, plastic produce from the endless markets that filled the streets of Bangkok; 137
clothes stalls, sweet stalls, soup stalls, cosmetic stalls – even stalls selling goldfish at midnight. There was a dignity and pragmatism in the Thais that I never could have imagined in India. They kept their environment clean, never shouted and smiled in any situation, regardless of how they felt. They walked like warriors but without any hint of aggression and whilst I could sense the invisible hierarchies of class and race, there was an inherent gentleness to them. Down by the river I’d seen a young guy take off his shirt and trousers to jump in after a baby bird that had fallen in. At first I assumed he planned on eating it and his foolish smile when he set it down to safety left me quite humbled. There wasn’t that much to love about Bangkok, a city where the eyes get tired from just taking in all the information with the non-stop markets, street stands and buzz of mopeds. There was never a trace of a breeze in the street and though I had to shower three times a day to remain vaguely sociable not once did I see a Thai even sweat. The Bangkok traffic was obnoxious. Crude metal buses shunted around ceaselessly with ticket conductors who approached with exhausted smiles and a money tin that they snapped open and shut all the time like a crocodile’s mouth. Out of the window I saw all the scooters and motorbikes cutting their way through the traffic on a death wish. The mirrors were angled so that the driver could comb his hair and squeeze the occasional spot. I only found peace of mind in the park down by the river at dawn where the tropics came to life like a dream. While I made chi kung, old men shadowboxed near me, throwing punches that wouldn’t dent a paper bag. In the afternoon, after everyone froze to attention for the Disney-like national anthem, mothers and students bounced up and down to the free aerobics session led by an instructor on a stage, all joining their palms to wadi their gratitude and applauding at the end. Then the kids turned up for a juggling and circus workshop. They hustled all day to sell cigarettes in the streets but at dusk came to spin plates on sticks and twirl batons. For the farang, all roads eventually led to Khao San Road where the worst could be seen of consumer travel. Thousands of drunken Brits, paranoid 138
backpackers and mercenary Thais willing to sell whatever anyone wanted to buy. The bars competed for the disorientated drunks with go-go girls wrapped around their necks, You buy me drink, handsome man? A swirl of cultures, coarse and raw and mercenary; just like I always imagined a sailorâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s port to be in the stories. A place to be charmed, bewildered, robbed. Behind calm eyes, the Thais watched this tinsel town fair; the fat, pink, hairy farangs who only washed when the remembered to and wore the same shirt for more than one day. Look how they grow hair on their arms, their legs â&#x20AC;&#x201C; even on their faces like a dog. They shout, argue and think they are kings. But their hearts are hot. The heat was relentless and some nights even a sheet was unbearable. Sleepless, I switched on the lights and watched the geckos getting fat on the fly screens that covered the windows. Every few seconds they scrambled a few centimetres and gorged on another mosquito. A torrential rain and my cardboard hotel room could as well have been a berth on the Ark. If the rain hit during the day everyone scrambled for shelter. A few seconds too late and there was no point in running any more. Then the clouds shifted and the sun poured out once again like some Asian torture. In seconds it was so sultry that you were sweating in your soaked clothes. The expats marked themselves apart from the travellers by virtue of their shirts, trousers and shoes that they wore to teach English or write copy in a newspaper or NGO office. They had long adapted to the conservative Thai culture and, with nothing to prove, they opted for a quiet life. The other outsiders were the Chinese but the city belonged to them. They were behind the wheels of each Mercedes and whilst the Thais lived and enjoyed, the immigrant Chinese worked and thrived. Their material dreams condensed and consolidated into waves of construction all over the city. One day theyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d cover all of Asia with their concrete dreams. Yet I could cross a bridge and see beneath me a woman oblivious to which century we were in. She stood on a fragile bamboo boat fanning a fire on which rested an enormous iron cauldron of steaming water. She fanned the flames that sent embers into the water and the boat span as she shifted her weight. 139
Bangkok used to be a city of canals. The Venice of the East and other such tired clichés. No one but tourists were interested in the past and then only a packaged past they could understand. But ghosts lived on in Thailand. Everyone carried amulets for protection against them and with each new construction the spirits had to be appeased with incense and gifts. Even the restless souls of the dead had their price. Gravity couldn’t be so easily pacified though. The city sank 5cm each year and was only a metre and a half above sea level to begin with. 30 years before the population was only 2 million and now it had reached over 12 million. Bangkok had become too heavy for itself. When I asked Thais about this I only got a smile in reply. * I found a place to stay a stone’s throw from the river, hidden away from the traffic and the chaos and close to the park where I went to make chi kung in the mornings. It was one of the last surviving guest houses to be made of wood and was run by two sympathetic sisters who charged just $2 a night. The rooms were narrow like cells and the walls were so thin that I could hear all the sniffing and snoring of everyone on my floor. Happily, there were no couples staying there at the time. With enough money to last me 3 weeks, a month if I only ate noodles, it was imperative that I get on the case and find a job pronto. I phoned up the ads that declared English teachers were in hot demand and I soon had a job offer on the phone. The only catch was that I’d arrived at the beginning of a student holiday and the schools were closed for the next month. That made things interesting. I decided to postpone worrying about imminent starvation by learning something about the whole English teaching racket so that I might not be completely lost when it came to standing in front of a class. I sat for hours in internet cafés and printed out tips and tricks from TEFL sites where other English teachers shared their secrets.
Out of curiousity I scanned the jobs pages and saw that English schools in South Korea were so desperate for teachers that they were willing to pay $2000 a month, give a free apartment and pay for your flight there. All that was required of applicants was that they were prepared to commit for a year and that they possessed a university diploma. It could be in industrial engineering for all they cared but they wanted graduates. I had thought about going to university when I was 18. In fact, I had applied and was accepted by three English universities to study anthropology. But then I just sold marijuana all summer and flew to India to learn about foreign cultures the gonzo way, trading academia for experience. I didn’t want to see the world through a textbook of other people’s ideas. That still left me without the qualifications to get the job in Korea, however, so I strolled down to Khao San Road and bought myself a fake BA in English Literature for $50. It was half the money I had left but I’d always heard that education was worth investing in. I found the email of Kevin, an agent in Seoul, on one of the website forums and he called me up soon afterwards for a chat about where I’d like to teach and under what conditions. I made him promise me I’d only be teaching adults, not the crowd control scenarios faced by most kindergarten English teachers in Asia. “That should be no problem,” he assured me, “Now, I got your diploma in the post, do you have your transcripts with you?” My what? I had no idea of what transcripts might be. I wondered whether they might be the kind of thing I could claim didn’t fit into my rucksack… “Ah, no, I didn’t think to bring my, ah, transcripts with me – they must be at home somewhere...” I answered haltingly. There was an ominous silence on the other end of the line and I wondered if I’d blown it. “Hmm, well I guess I can get round that…” came a rather unconvinced reply and he told me to hold tight for now and he’d be in touch soon. It was low season in Bangkok and it rained almost every day, keeping the few guests that there were in the guest house, drinking tea and trading sto141
ries. There was a Swiss girl, Christine, studying Thai massage and who had long, tearful conversations with her boyfriend back home on the phone. There was also Kong, a Japanese guy who lived on cigarettes and green tea alone, squeezing by on the one Japanese lesson he gave a week in a nearby town. Then there was the odd passing backpacker who had to be told not to buy gems from the tuktuk drivers. But our community was only completed one morning when I came back from making chi kung to find an Australian guy with greyish hair, drinking beer for breakfast. “Cheers!” he toasted as I came in and proceeded to tell me his story; John had been living in Laos for the last 14 years and spoke fluent Thai/Lao and had been running a successful guest house and restaurant for backpackers in Vientiane. Then the Laos government had decided that foreigner businesspeople were capitalist leeches and should be driven out. John had been imprisoned for 3 days before being deported, his guest house, wife and 2 children left behind on the other side of the border. He didn’t let his tears show though. Indeed, his cheerful voice was the dominant sound in the guest house over the next few weeks as he drowned his sorrows over cheap, Thai beer. He was loud, sometimes crass and so convivial that the loners in the guest house came together around a plastic table to share glasses of Chang. He gave Christine advice about her relationship (which she was wise enough to ignore), reassured me that the school in Korea would soon be in touch and shook his head in regret as Kong calculated whether he’d live longer by spending his last baht on a packet of instant noodles or cigarettes. When he couldn’t find any of us to bounce his good humour off, he’d switch to gossiping with the twins who ran the guest house and were clearly unused to anyone speaking their language quite so well. The sight of a drunk Ozzie gabbing away in fluent Thai will stay with me forever. The school in Korea finally got in touch and a telephone interview was scheduled one afternoon. It’s just an accent check, Kevin had told me. “Hi! Is that Thomas! This is South Korea calling!” 142
“Yes, hello! How-” “We in South Korea have declared war on the English language, Thomas!” “Indeed? Well, I hope to-” “South Korea is number one! We’ll see you soon!” True to their word, my flight tickets came through and I spent most of my remaining $30 on a new shirt and a haircut so that I wouldn’t be sent back on the first plane. I gathered up my bags in the guest house and came down to find a farewell committee of John, Christine and Kong awaiting me. “Our boy’s going away!” John blubbed, “And we’re so proud!”
Teaching English in South Korea Hell Smells of Pickled Cabbage Ulsan, South Korea, November 2001 South Korea was the only country I remember that anyone expressly warned me not to visit. I’d been told more than once that it was about the most hung-up, sterile, joyless society imaginable. Somehow I had the feeling even from the faces of the people on the plane that I wouldn’t fit in. They were friendly enough but I had the feeling I was talking to a Messenger window each time they asked me a question. My plane was delayed and I arrived in Seoul International Airport a little too late to meet Kevin; he had proposed we meet for a friendly milkshake at a fast food place in the arrivals terminal and I was relieved not to have to make up any anecdotes about my college days. Immigration were keen to talk to me, however and in a private office to the side it was determined that yes, I was arriving on a one way ticket with $10 in my pocket and no work visa. For some reason they then seemed to lose interest in me and when I was left alone in the office I just stood up and walked back over to the next desk where they stamped my passport with 90 days permission to stay. I made my connection flight to Ulsan and I was met by a woman called Jane with a painted smile and an uptight accent that she’d brought home with her from the US. “Are those all your bags?” she squealed, eyeing my rucksack and guitar with alarm, “Are you sure you’re going to stay here for a year?” I honestly hadn’t given it a moment’s thought but I nodded and made appropriate reassuring sounds. Without any explanation, I was then driven to a local sports stadium to hand out leaflets promoting the English Institute that I’d only seen from the car window. It’s a great place, I told the few Koreans who made eye contact. On the way back I checked my watch: Only 364 days, 23 and a half hours to go. 144
For the first few days in South Korea I literally watched paint dry as the school was in the latter stages of construction. The walls were the kind of gleaming office white that I’d never expected to see the inside of and they reflected the neon lights with merciless brilliance. After a number of confusing handshakes with some 15 Koreans of unexplained rank, a large American face came through the crowd and introduced himself as Mike. He couldn’t hide his relief at finally meeting another non-Korean. Around us swirled presidents, vice-presidents, executive directors and every other conceivable combination of titles. An endless stream of chiefs that vastly outnumbered us poor Injuns. The only person whose status was immediately clear to us was the big cheese, a walking cardboard cut-out called Mr Kim. He was a millionaire whose ambition was to promote his reputation as a great man by opening a prestigious new English school. As founder and financer of the school, he gave compulsory vision meetings where everything else had to be put on hold as Big Kim held forth for an hour or more. With the eloquence of a general, he lectured with passion and zest about the importance of bridging the language gap to unite nations and enable Korea to prosper. At least I think that’s what he said – he didn’t speak a word of English. I soon learnt that in Korea, hierarchy is everything. When a Korean entered a room he immediately took a snap assessment of the ages and social status of all those present. He had to know where to slot himself in. To my astonishment, a hippy drifter like myself was suddenly elevated to the upper strata of the pyramid in the revered role of a teacher. This meant that when I spoke in my classes, people had to listen. The novelty of this soon wore pretty thin, however. Having shelled out large amounts of money to learn English from hired foreign devils, most students were too shy to actually speak except when I forced them to. They were so terrified of making mistakes that they played it safe by sitting in silence. Historians have traditionally struggled to explain why China, Korea and Japan were so insular for the majority of their history, rarely attempting to establish any kind of empire. While explanations usually focus on the need to fend off cultural pollution and rampaging barbarians. I wondered if it was closer to the truth that they were just afraid to attempt small talk abroad. 145
The hierarchy thing wasn’t exactly a catalyst for group discussion, either. One time in a free-talking class I tried to get a debate going between a 40 year-old businessman called Mr Lee and a female student by the name of Su-dae. It went something like this: Su-dae: I think that war is a terrible thing. Mr Lee: Ah, but sometimes we must to fight! Su-dae: Yes. Mr Lee: A country must help themself and sometimes fight the warTeacher Tom: What do you think, Su-dae? Su-dae: Yes, sometimes war is a good thing. They joke in America that if you want to pass your exams, you sit next to a Korean. In a go-getter society, they damn well owe it to their ancestors to get good grades and be a success. Korea has distilled the essence of the winner-loser culture to the extent that no one can imagine any other way to live. Success in the most conformist sense was the only value anyone ever talked about. The Koreans in my class told me it was normal for them to work 50, 60, even 70 hours a week. Sometimes I arrived at 6am for my first class and found the deputy chairman dozing on his desk, his tie stuck to the side of his face. At the sound of my footsteps, he’d jump up and mumble a good morning on his way to the coffee machine as though he’d been awake all the time. Ask not what your company can do for you but what can you do for your company... Kids in Korea went to school from 9 until 5. Then they usually attended an English ‘cram-school’. Arriving home around 8, they had just enough time to eat dinner before tackling their homework. Only the really lazy kids finished in time to get to sleep before midnight. A New Zealander who came to teach the kids at our school was happy to let them run around as much as they liked. “This is about the only chance they in their day to have any fun.” he reasoned. 146
So how come after fifteen years of such intensive schooling they could still hardly put a sentence together in English? Every time I asked one of my female students something she’d hide her face behind her hands and giggle in embarrassment. And the men, when faced with a question that required them to think rather than just repeat, would resort to the trick of faking a migraine; clasping one hand to their forehead, they went through a series of contorted facial gestures until I let them off the hook and moved on. The Koreans were by and large very nice to me, though. I had a private student who insisted on bringing me bags and bags of groceries to each lesson, more than could ever have consumed on my own. I had to meet her in the car park to carry up to my apartment an endless stream of fruit, ceramic bowls and jars of kimchi, the pickled cabbage that is the Korean national obsession. At times, though, the gift-giving could be almost mysterious, taking on a esoteric, even voodoo aspect. I filled in once for a Korean teacher who was feeling ill and, in return, she presented me with a token of her appreciation. At least that’s what I think it was. She gave me a tea bag. I tried not to laugh but I couldn’t help imagining a similar scene in the West: “Hey, Sarah, thanks for picking me up from work yesterday!” “Hey, don’t mention it.” “No, really. And I’d really feel better about it if you would please accept this stick of chewing gum in return.” Anyway, it was that kind of small thing that showed Korea hadn’t been completely drowned in the Americanisation of their society. Although malls were everywhere and down town consisted of sickly jazz bars and ‘pubs’, street markets still thrived in the alley ways where the old folks had a good time haggling over octopus tentacles. It was practically the first time in my life that I’d ever worked and the nearest thing I’d ever had to a regular job. Timetables, staff rooms, coffee in polystyrene cups, waking up to an alarm clock, clean shirts, staff gossip, cursing the managers behind their backs, endless meetings, notice boards and morale boosting karaoke parties at night – because the company that sings badly together stays together! 147
I looked at myself in the mirror each day and a pair of tired eyes looked back in disbelief. Was I really going to walk through the cold at 6am in the morning to stand in front of a whiteboard and bluff my way through the past progressive tense to a bunch of earnest but inhibited Korean students? It didn’t make sense. Every minute that I spent under those lukewarm lights was a minute of my life dribbling away, never to come back. It seemed criminal to waste my youth like this. Time seeped away slowly and I wondered if this would be a modern application of Dunbar’s trick from Catch 22 – a soldier on the front lines who did things he hated so that he would feel like he was living longer. I never remember the sky being anything other than grey in Korea. The sun never came out and nothing interesting ever happened. A couple more foreign teachers arrived and we looked out on the illuminated crucifixes that rose above the buildings in the night sky and wondered how we had ever ended up in this frigid Catholic town. I felt myself going dead inside and I wondered if this was how everyone with a job felt. How did people make it through their lives like this? But I had no money until pay check day and the cash would let me go wherever I wanted. Provided I didn’t go on a murderous stampede with a Magic Marker before then. On the days that my schedule allowed me a lie-in, the banana man inevitably came around on his pick up truck to wake up everyone up at 7am. With a loudspeaker attached to a recorded sales pitch, he was in danger of being hit by a flying ceramic pot or jar of pickled radish. But even he wasn’t as bad as the cheerleader dancers who came to open the new convenience store at the foot of our apartment building. Whenever a business in Korea wanted to drum up business, be it a liquor store or a mobile phone shop, the formula was simple - they hired two teenage girls to dress up like space tarts. With plastic miniskirts, matching caps and boots, they pranced, sang and recited sales monologues through a PA all day long. It was a sight too bizarre and awful for words. But I was certain that it was those very same side walk cheerleaders who become the moped girls. In every Korean city there were young women 148
buzzing around on their scooters, delivering packages and documents. And as a vastly more profitable sideline they rendered themselves, too, for a price. A friend told me he was once buying a car in Korea and when a moped girl arrived to deliver lunch, the guy selling the car offered to buy him 30 minutes of her services. “Did you take advantage of the proposal?” I asked. “Nah, Of course not.” “Well, good for you.” “Yeah, if I’d taken her into the back room I’d have been obliged to buy the car...” But apart from daydreams of expensive moped girls, Korea was about as wild as a caged earthworm. Freedom and spontaneity seemed to have been choked to death by the mesh of social expectations. Everyone wanted only to succeed and meekly jumped through the hoops set before them without ever questioning why. Their conformism almost made me a murderer some mornings. The car was given such right of way that it sometimes took a full 5 minutes for the little green man to give us permission to cross the road. Naturally, no one would have crossed otherwise, even if the roads had been clear. I usually just picked my way through the lanes of traffic and behind me a few businessmen and housewives would instinctively follow. It was poetry to watch their faces when, halfway across they’d freeze, a mortified expression on their faces as they realised they’d been duped into jaywalking. Meanwhile, the school was really starting to piss me off. My boss, Jane, had threatened to fire me unless I signed the new contract she’d drawn up, having decided the old one wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. The changes weren’t major but then she left the contract on the desk in the staffroom so the Korean teachers could see that they were making half the money we were, even though they were the only ones who had actually studied how to teach English. 149
What really swung my decision to leave though was when Jane walked into my classroom one day in the middle of a lesson and asked me to step outside. “Er, Thomas, I just wondered is your diploma maybe a photocopy?” “No, no, of course not. Why did you think that?” “Well, the man at the immigration office didn’t think it was real when he saw it today. I told him it must be but would you just mind calling up your university so they can confirm everything for him?” My heart stopped as I wondered if I had come so far only to be left destitute just 10 days away from my first pay cheque. I was already living largely on the charity of Mike, the American teacher who lived next door to me. Then I had a sudden moment of clarity. “Jane, I’d love to but you know ah, since the attack on September the eleventh,” I said sadly. It had been just two months since the towers had come down, “There’s now all kinds of new laws governing the protection of private information and they won’t simply be able to give the data over the phone… ah, I’m going to have to write to them with my signed authorisation before they’ll be able to do anything...” Now it was simply a race against time. Would I get paid before all my stalling tactics ran out? The average stay of foreign teachers in Korea is said to be four months. I’d met quite a few people who were intent on completing their one year contracts and I guessed it was up to me to balance the stats. But dull, unimaginative and pedantic as the Koreans might have been, they weren’t stupid. Most schools only paid the wages on the 10th or 15th of the following month as a kind of insurance against deserters like me. When we split early they were compensated for the cost of the flight ticket by the ten or fifteen days we’d worked gratis. Still, in the week approaching pay day the atmosphere grew tense. They put back my salary by five days and I ended up chasing the director around his 150
office, demanding my money. Not a smart move, perhaps, but I was beginning to have trouble sleeping at night. The other foreign teachers were also wondering if this new school actually had the money to pay us and we began to darkly plot about how we’d rip off their computers if they didn’t. For their part, the directors began to huddle together in the corridors, speculating which of the foreign devils would make a midnight run, shooting us black looks as we passed. The relief I experienced when the director took a chance and paid me my wages is beyond my talents as a writer to describe. Holding a pile of won in the hand, I was now invincible and it was all I could do not to kiss him. The salary was excellent and for a good three, maybe even four seconds I considered hanging on but I’d already made plans. The school had made the oversight of supplying us with phone lines so they could change our schedule at will and I made good use of the connection to ring up old friends in Israel. I knew Israelis ran the street markets in Japan and I figured I’d have more fun as a merchant than as a teacher. I was given some numbers and got through to a gruff Israeli voice that identified itself as Sagi. He must have had his doubts about an Englishman calling out of the blue but he had nothing to lose and told me to come on over. The reaction of the other foreign teachers when I broke the news the day before my departure ranged from disbelief to laughter to thoughtfulness – the last on the part of the guy from New Zealand. He’d arrived without his diploma and claimed that it was in the attic somewhere in his parents’ house in Wellington. I later heard that after his 90 days tourist visa was up it still hadn’t arrived in the post. He flew to Bangkok to re-enter on another tourist visa and when he returned he had a diploma in his hand…
Selling Fake Rolex Watches in Japan Tokyo, December 2001- March 2002 I arrived at Otsuka station and waited with my bags beside the boiled octopus stall, fighting back the nausea from the stench of cooked tentacles. A cruel wind kicked in and I turned up my collar and sat on my luggage. The cold didn’t seem to bother the Japanese schoolgirls in mini skirts though. They chatted away on each corner with their mobile phones, their faces displaying an array of downloaded expressions. Identical salarymen in identical suits scurried to and fro like worker ants, gripping their briefcases tightly, their faces expressionless save for the quiet desperation in their eyes. Moving to intercept them were the massagee girls in sports jackets and mini skirts who handed out promotional flyers. One of them saw me beside my bags and decided to make her pitch: “You want fuck? 10,000 yen.” I shuddered and wondered why I wasn’t on a beach somewhere. Tokyo gets about as cold as London or New York in winter and it occurred to me that it wasn’t the ideal season to be working in the street. Why were all the rich places in the world also the coldest? Maybe heat killed ambition. Japan had long been something of a California for the backpacker rice bowl refugees of Asia who needed to replenish their traveling funds. Back in the gravy days of the late 80’s the Japanese economy was literally spilling over and travellers arrived from the world over to scoop up what they could. People taught English, juggled in the squares, worked in bars or as models and sold trinkets in the street for absurd prices. It was an era when you could find electric guitars left in the trash in perfectly good condition – last year’s model, of course. I imagined it was sweet revenge for the Japanese to restore national pride by patronising the gaijin who came to peddle on 152
the streets. The more money they spent the more their sense of racial superiority was confirmed. It was a time when you had to be talented not to make money. Two friends of mine from Goa, Anna and Pete, told me how they had made their season’s fortune. Anna worked in a hostess club – a very Japanese phenomenon where businessmen pay large amounts of money to have girls light their cigars and laugh at their puerile jokes. They weren’t allowed to touch the girls but took a masochistic thrill in sitting next to a beautiful woman all night. And if she was foreign and blonde, well… Meanwhile, Pete walked the streets with his guitar looking for somewhere he could busk. “I was moved on by the yakuza, the Israeli mafia, the Nigerian mafia and even some guy who claimed to be from the Irish mafia. Finally, I ended up singing Michelle and Yesterday 100 times a day in the metro.” “We were the Beggar and the Whore.” Anna laughed. The good old days. Any mathematician will tell you though that unlimited growth is impossible. The Japanese economy had been out of control for a long time but no one in the government wanted to lose face by admitting it. The heart attack arrived in stages and though the country survived the shock, it was downhill from there. There were still pickings to be had, particularly for the hostesses but the angles had grown slimmer with the years. To squeeze any more blood out of the Japanese cherry stone you really had to have your act together. To anyone acquainted with how they do business, it will come to no surprise to find the Israelis at the top of the food chain. Their business dealings ranged from drugs to stolen goods but mostly they ran the street trading racket. In the old days anyone could just turn up and set up shop in the street with whatever stock they’d bought cheap in Thailand or India. Granted, they’d pay whatever the yakuza asked of them when one of their boys came around but there was more than enough money for everyone. By the mid-90’s, however, the Israelis had sewn up the choice spots in al153
most all of the main cities and towns in Japan and taken control of the whole racket. The Israeli bosses bought the rights to certain locations from the yakuza and then imported Israelis to come and work for them. The boss gave the worker the pitch, the merchandise, security back-up and a brief lesson in Japanese and the art of selling. The worker was then left to do his best to flog the trinkets of the day and he kept 40% of what he sold. After costs. Selling Beads to the Natives One of Sagi’s workers, Eli, came to find me at the Metro station. He was a tall, lean guy who lurched through the meek Japanese crowds as a shark might pass a school of fleshy tuna. I greeted him in Hebrew and he eyed me suspiciously: “Are you Jewish?” “No.” “Ah well,” he smiled, “Nobody’s perfect.” Eli helped me with my bags and we walked to a gaijin-house, the cheapest place to stay in town. For $300 a month I got to sleep in a bunk bed in a room with three other men. There was another room with a pair of bunk beds and all eight of us could just about squeeze into the tiny living room. If we didn’t all try to sit down at the same time. There was a tiny kitchen where you could just about boil an egg but the icing on the cake was the bathroom – having already milked $2400 out of this rabbit warren, the landlords profited further with a coin-operated shower. It cost us a dollar each time for about five minutes of hot water. So why did we live like this? Because getting your own place in Tokyo is hell. Japanese landlords generally charged the first, second and last month’s rent in advance. Then of course you had to give a ‘gift’ to the agency, plus key money. Very often the landlord needed a ‘gift’ as well and then there was the issue of getting a guarantor. He’d need to be paid too. The result was that to move into a place of your own you might well be putting out 4 or 5 grand at once. Thus 154
fly-by-night gaijins like me had little choice but to put up with what they could get. Even when the landlord walked in and demanded to know why the washing up hadn’t been done. Sharing such a tiny space with 7 strangers gave me an idea of what jail might be like. There were three other foreigners teaching English or working in bars and a couple of Japanese guys who watched porn on TV all day. The latter sniffed and snored in their sleep and I fantasised about slitting their throats in the night. Coming home to boil noodles each day and wince at schoolgirl porn was enough to make one feel like an utter loser. In fact, the only good thing about the apartment was that it made work seem like an attractive option. The next evening I was taken to meet Sagi at his stall. He was a heavy-set Libyan-Israeli with the look of a large bear who’d just finished a good pot of honey. At 25 years of age, he was one of the youngest bosses in Tokyo and he regularly bailed his family out of financial difficulties back home. He’d come here five years before to make his 40% commission as a seller and he studied Japanese in his spare time. He saved up enough to buy his own spot outright and now had 6 workers beneath him. Sagi was undoubtedly the best salesman I’ve ever seen. While he was teaching me my first words in Japanese – cheap, discount, bargain etc – a Japanese salaryman walked up to the table with the cuddly toys. Sagi was all over him in an instant. Sensing his customer was already drunk, Sagi started joking with him and began putting small Pooh Bears in his hands. The customer reached for his wallet and Sagi kept him off-balance the whole time with a series of jokes and pats on the back. He took the man’s money, put a fake Rolex on his wrist and then took more money. The salaryman ended up walking away with 5 or 6 items he didn’t really want and $300 less than he started with. Sagi barely blinked as he continued the Japanese lesson. Eli told me a story later which confirmed what I saw. “Sagi came to visit me at my stall one day – he thought I wasn’t selling enough, the asshole. While he was giving me a hard time he put down on my stall a lighter he’d just bought for a dollar in 7-11. We started arguing and along comes this drunk salaryman, sees the lighter and falls in love with it. 155
There was a picture of Madonna on the back or something. I stood there and watched while Sagi sold the lighter to him for $100. I kid you not.” Sagi left his stall with his second-in-command, Dudu and took me with him to visit another stall. As we drove through the dark streets of Tokyo he told me the deal. “Okay, Tommy, you know the business, right? You get 40% of what you sell. If someone steal something from your stall, you pay. Now look, what we do is not legal. The police catch you – you don’t have a boss. You don’t know me. You want to stop working - you tell me two weeks before. You’ll make good money.” The next three days were dedicated to my training. Christmas was coming and there was no time to lose. I was taken around to see each of the workers and learn something from their style. Each of them had five folding tables lit up with light bulbs that clipped onto the display cases. A generator hummed nearby and the overall effect was brash and shiny in the dark, cold streets. Everyone was dressed in at least three layers and hopped about from one foot to the other to stay warm. Some made a policy of staying behind their stalls so as not to scare away the timid Japanese, while others, like Eli, saw selling as a contact sport. His stall was in the centre of down town Ikebukuru and it faced a crossing on a busy shopping street; every time the lights changed 500 potential buyers hurried across to where he lay in wait. I arrived in time to see Eli hit a teenager on top of the head with an inflatable hammer. Eli laughed and slapped the boy on the back, dragging him over to his stall and his friends followed. Even if he couldn’t embarrass them into buying something, other Japanese soon came once they saw other people at the stall. “These people are animals. Like sheep.” Eli told me with a glint in his eye. “If you want to sell you must be like a wolf. You go and grab them.” I tried to get into the spirit of things and grabbed hold of a man in a suit and pulled him over. He shook free, apologising and never even made eye contact. I had more luck with some teenagers in hip-hop clothing but had no idea what to do once I got them near the merchandise. They too slipped away.
“You’re too nice.” Eli told me, shaking his head. “If you want to do this job you need to be the bad guy.” Where the fuck was I? Who were these people? Why did I leave my cushy job in South Korea to sell fake goods on the street? It just wasn’t in my nature to bully people into buying stuff and I went home depressed. What on earth was I doing with this bunch of sharks? Everyone working on the basta (Hebrew for ‘stall’), considered the Japanese to be a bunch of rich suckers. No one was here for a cultural exchange. The entire motivation of every Israeli working on the basta was to fill their pockets and go. The entry stamp lasted three months and you had to make every day count. When I asked the Israelis what they thought of the Japanese the answer was invariably the same. “They’re stupid.” At first I took this to be bigotry but after a few weeks of working with them I was saying the same thing. Really, though, the Japanese weren’t stupid, just gullible and naïve. They picked up stainless steel bracelets and asked: “This real silver?” “Of course it is – look how it shines!” they’d be told and they’d hand over 20 or 30 bucks for some worthless trinket. The Japanese had rarely encountered bare-faced lies and treachery before and had evolved no defence against it. It was like watching the Incas die of the imported common cold. After that I rarely saw Sagi. He left the running of my basta to Dudu, his deputy manager. Dudu was an athletic Spanish-Moroccan Israeli with white skin and jet black hair. He was a childhood friend of Sagi and had been in Japan for three years. Like Sagi he had no education to speak of but was street smart and spoke fluent Spanish, Hebrew, English and Japanese. Dudu was a tough guy with a nice side to him that kept catching me offguard. At times he treated me almost like a kid brother, patronising me when I made mistakes and defending me against Sagi. He liked to see the good side in people but when he turned on them he could be ruthless. He 157
was a guy with a good nature in a bad business and I guessed he’d grown up learning to fight his corner. In the beginning he told me something that made me wish I had never come to Japan, putting his cell phone away and smiling. “Eli has found a girl. Maybe I’ll have time to get there too.” “What do you mean?” “When one of us finds a Japanese girl he calls the rest before he gets to the love hotel. When he’s finished the next one goes in. What are you making that face for? You don’t understand, Tommy – the girls here like it! If they didn’t they would say something. Most of them are whores anyway.” he added defensively. He knew full well that the Japanese were too embarrassed to say no. But like many Israelis, he’d grown up learning that if you didn’t stand up for yourself then you deserved all you got. Dudu showed me how to work the generator, set up the lights and then he meticulously arranged my basta, explaining the importance of keeping the rows of bracelets neat and orderly. It suited the Japanese mentality, he said. He climbed back in the tiny, oblong van: “Go take all their money!” he laughed and drove away. Alone in the street with 5 tables of glossy jewellery I felt absolutely ridiculous. Who was ever going to buy anything from me? How was I going to look someone in the eye and tell them that all they really needed was this fake Rolex watch? Or tell some girl that she looked cute with a silver ring on her little finger? In these early days I had no idea to what depths I would fall. The street felt tacky and remote in the Christmas lights and the Japanese shoppers came and went, ignoring me completely. When one of them did stop I had no idea what they were saying and in the dead moments I practiced my sales pitch under my breath. Nearby, a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet had a television set outside that played the same nauseating jingle every minute and 47 seconds. Each time it began I was reminded that I still hadn’t sold anything. 158
In my first five days I had made 25 bucks for myself and was plunging fast into the red. I spent 10 hours a day begging the customers to buy something and cursing myself for having come here in the first place. I was stuck at the end of the world. The Japanese were all mindless robots, the Israelis a bunch of crooks and I was the worst salesman in the world. I cried for hours beside my stall and Dudu had only to see my expression at the end of the day to know how little I’d sold. Then, after a week, I suddenly had a day when I made $150. I’d been pestering the older hands for the tricks of the trade and now it seemed to be paying off. You had to begin very quietly and build up to make a big deal of the customer when he put something on. You had to disorient him and move him around the stall. You had to forget about how much your crap stock was really worth and pick a high number out of the blue. If he demurred you made him a special ‘friend’ price but you had to close the deal quickly before he changed his mind. If a customer argued about the price of a watch you could often tip the scales in your favour by offering to throw in a cotton friendship band, just for him. Incredibly, the prospect of a purple piece of string would often induce him to cough up the $150 for the watch. And if you had a stubborn customer who refused to meet your price then you saved face by playing your last card. “Let’s play junken!” The ancient game of strategy and honour known in the West as scissors, paper and stone. “You know junken?” they’d respond, laughing. “Sure. Now if you win you pay 14,000. If I win 17,000. Okay!” Before they could protest I began exaggerated athletic warm-up mode, stretching my wrists and taking deep breaths. We’d throw and if I was particularly desperate I looked to see what they were throwing in mid-air. Everyone from old ladies to students to salarymen were delighted to play junken and almost all of them had the grace to pay up when they lost. And of course if one of them looked sad afterwards I’d cheer them up by making them a present of a small piece of coloured string. 159
“Really?” they cried, their eyes shining with gratitude. Throughout my time in Asia merchants had pissed me off with their repetitive sales pitches: Hello? Come look my things? Looking is free – I make special price just for you! And here I was mouthing the same patter by rote. It was too cold on the street to study Japanese and I had to keep an eye on customers coming to the stall. Hence in 3 months in Tokyo, I learnt how to explain the difference between a battery-powered and an automatic watch. But ask me how old I was or where I came from and I was stuck. The Christmas season was coming and I was moved to Ikebukuru, not far from where Eli bullied his customers into parting with their yen. Business was booming and on the first day I made $230. $30 more than Eli. When he found out that evening he looked me up and down again with suspicion. “You’re sure you’re not Jewish?” “Yup.” “Then how come you’re so smart?” * The Police and the Yakuza For the New Year’s period the whole of Sagi’s team moved to sell in Ikebukuru, The regular police were on holiday and so we could get away with such a blatant presence for a few days. It has to be said that the Japanese police were not an impressive bunch. A journalist in Tokyo told me they solved the majority of cases by just sitting and waiting. The guilt of having broken the social contract often made the culprit crack and he would simply hand himself in. Most of the time though they seemed to busy themselves with jumping out in ambush on people riding their bicycles and demanding to see their ownership papers. It was comical to watch them in such full blown investigations when a hundred metres away the Yakuza ran gambling and prostitution joints. When they saw us selling in the street they walked up and said: 160
“Dame. No.” “What, sorry?” “Nihongo shabimaska?” “What? Sorry, I don’t understand.” “Uh.. close! Close!” “Oh – close! Okay, okay.” We’d slowly begin to take off the lights, one by one, carefully wrapping up the leads. If they were still waiting we’d then close down the boxes (leaving all the bracelets in order) and turn off the generator. In the unlikely event that they were being tough and still supervised our close-down, we’d wheel away our stuff and take a coffee for ten minutes. Then we’d dash back and open up pronto. When they returned an hour or two later they simply couldn’t believe we were still there. Did the gaijin know no laws? Had we not died of shame the first time around? Was there no end to our depravity? There was clearly nothing else for it but to pull out all the stops and play hard ball. They made us fill out forms. They read: I am sorry to have caused a disruption in the street and blocked traffic. I promise never to do it again and I agree to be punished if I am caught doing so. It was for parking offences. I must have filled out that form 25 times. I liked to think that, in some government office, the paperwork was building up and detectives were shaking their heads as the pile grew bigger and bigger. We were such tough cookies. On the few times that they brought a sergeant down to deal with me they couldn’t get over the fact that I was English, not Israeli. That much they 161
knew; that the whole operation was being run by Israelis and led by a mysterious mastermind called ‘Johnny’. Everyone in Tokyo from customers to cops to yakuza seemed to believe in this all-powerful figure named ‘Johnny’ who was responsible for half the illegal business in the city. There were limits to how far we could push things though. If we didn’t show respect then eventually they could make a warrant against us. In a worst case scenario we risked a fine and three months jail. As it was, over the ten day Christmas period I was closed down 41 times but still made over a hundred bucks a day. Eli had been pushing his luck for sometime now though – the inflatable hammer sales approach really was stretching the cultural boundaries a little too far. Fortune smiled on him though – he left Japan right after New Year and the very next day a special squad of police turned up with their handcuffs out to arrest him. Instead of a tall, intimidating Israeli, however, they found a small, gentle Hungarian man who also worked for Sagi. “The expression on their faces was priceless.” he said. On the other side of the coin were the Yakuza. They came round once a month in order to collect their tariff and that was usually all we saw of them. In theory, Sagi or Dudu could call them in case of problems and they’d send down some boys to sort it out. It was nice to know that we had the mafia on our side but none of us felt inclined to really owe them anything either. They were not your average meek Japanese. The yakuza had an honour system where, when someone in the organisation fucked up, he was expected to show his shame by cutting off a segment of one of his fingers. The tradition apparently originated from the old days of sword fighting when, with the loss of each finger, a warrior’s grip became weaker and thus increased his dependence on his master. He had to perform the amputation himself and without, presumably, bursting into tears. One guy showed up drunk at my stall one night making a nuisance of himself. He clearly had no intention of buying anything but kept trying things on and joking around. I was getting a little pissed and was about to tell him where to stick his sushi when he said: 162
“I am businessman, too!” and he held up his left hand to reveal two missing fingers. I was instantly all smiles and suggested he might like to go and talk to ‘Johnny’. Dudu told me how he’d seen a young Yakuza guy go from having 9 and a half fingers to 5 in the space of six months. “I wanted to tell him to change jobs.” he said. Then there was the story I’d heard about Sagi making a deal with an elderly Yakuza boss for new territory. Sagi paid up in advance but warned him: “Don’t try to cheat me.” “I’m an old man.” the yakuza responded, laying his hands upon the table. There was not a single finger missing. Our only protection was the cell phone. We couldn’t leave our stalls behind if there was any trouble and so depended on this lifeline to Sagi or Dudu who could sort out any problems. It was rarely needed but on one occasion a local Yakuza passed my stall and demanded a watch at half-price. He was a heavy guy on a bicycle that seemed to buckle under his weight and his face suggested he broke heads against walls for kicks late at night. I apologised profusely and said there was nothing I could do, I couldn’t go lower than the set price. “Half price!” he yelled again. “I’ll just call Johnny!” I suggested. Sagi picked up and I explained what was going on. “Okay, Tom. You want to give him the watch half price or you want me to call our yakuza to sort it out?” Sagi asked lazily. “Shit, I don’t know. I don’t want to make any enemies.” “The motherfucker. Let me talk to him.”
I proffered the phone to the motherfucker in question but he just grunted and cycled away. I guess he didn’t want to find out who was at the other end of the line. * The First Real Work of My Life I was making good money and collecting good stories but at the total expense of my social life. This was practically the first time in my life that I had ever worked and I ended up doing on average 11 hours a day, 85 days out of 90. I closed up at a freezing 2am every day and the Metro was already closed so there was no possibility of going anywhere. It also seemed stupid to go and out spend what I’d worked so hard to get. A night out might only be $30 or $40 but there were days when I didn’t make that much on the basta. In the end, my idea of a good time was sharing a few cans of beer in a doorway somewhere with one of the Westerners from the Gaijin-house. I could have done with some female company but then I only had a bunk bed to offer her even if I had managed to bribe everyone else to take a walk. A girlfriend from France kept promising to come and like a fool I took her at her word. I’d hang on expectantly for her to show up and then get an email that she’d hit a hitch. I gave up on her about ten times but then always a phone call would come out of the blue and hope would somehow resurrect itself. I spent at least $150 on truncated phone calls that winter. It was strange to be so sexually frustrated on a street where there was so much sex for sale. Apart from the hostess clubs where only flirtation was on offer, there were the massagee girls and a whole string of blow job bars. Prostitution is an integral part of Japanese society and no one feels any shame about it but the whole affair is very segregated. In one place you might be allowed a hand job. In another you received a blow job from a girl while you sat at the bar. In another, full intercourse was part of the menu and the woman in question still called the customer ‘sir’ throughout. If you were looking for a long term escort then there was always compensated dating – the schoolgirls and university students who wanted all kinds of cell phone accessories and Gucci handbags that they couldn’t afford…
Every night salarymen stumbled out of the hostess clubs having just paid $500 to drink a couple of glasses of saki with a few simpering girls. The hostesses would stand with Mama-san at the door to wave goodbye and probably call him once he was home with his wife to make sure he got home safely. But before that he’d be all geared up and headed to the blow job bars to unwind. There a Thai or Filipino girl gave them relief in the darkness and they ambled back along the street, drunk as a coot an hour later. All the shiny things on my stall attracted them but I generally had to catch them before they fell headlong into the tables. I once saw a tense-looking salaryman so mindlessly drunk that he walked in circle for around ten minutes. He collided with walls, lampposts and cars like in a Chaplin routine but never once made a sound of discomfort. It was only afterwards I realized that throughout the entire episode he had never so much as loosened his grip on his suitcase… On slow nights, the touts for the blow job bars and the hostesses and the massagee girls all stood around in the street and complained about how cold it was. “Where do you suppose you rank in the social order?” a friend asked me one day. “Somewhere between the touts and the whores?” If not always profitable, it was educational to work on the street. I got to know the regulars and the stories that the neighbourhood held. I got kicks out of watching the evangelical Scientologist from Canada who tried at least 200 conversion attempts a day on passers by. He spoke fluent Japanese and followed his targets 100 metres down the street as they frantically bowed to effect a polite escape. When I was selling it felt like the easiest job in the world; people just walked up and gave me wads of cash in exchange for trinkets. I felt like Columbus buying America with beads. But then I wouldn’t sell anything for a few days and my spirits flopped like cooked noodles. I would just stand by my stall and cry for hours straight, unable to understand how I’d managed to lose my way so badly.
When I hit a barren patch I exuded failure like a body odour. The customers began to haggle, hesitate and finally fall back with apologies and bows. I hated myself for having come down to this; standing in the street with fake Rolex watches in my coat pockets. I had one day when the wind blew over my tables three times, sending me scrambling in the gutter to collect tumbling silver rings. It was bitterly cold and no one even looked in my direction all day. A light rain began to fall and I had to pull out the plastic covers to protect the merchandise. I managed to do this, getting pretty damp in the process, when a cop turned up who spoke English – something almost unheard of. He warned me that I had better not be there when he returned in ten minutes time. I waited for fifteen and then opened up again. Midnight came and went and I was just about giving up on life when a drunk businessman came by and asked for a watch half-price. That was all I needed. A clown. Then something happened. He caught sight of the special quality Rolex Daytona watch and pulled out $300 for it. With the Rolex on his wrist he suddenly fell in love with the entire stall and in the space of five minutes he spent $900, all told. Only $270 of that ended up in my pocket but in that moment I decided to see my three months out in Tokyo. * My savings were beginning to pile up and I wore them all in a secret money belt around my waist as I didn’t know where else to keep them. “You can leave your money with me and Sagi to look after.” Dudu kindly suggested. I wondered just how big a sucker they took me for. Not that they would have stolen it but they would certainly have invented some interesting fines and deductions if I was ever late or didn’t sell enough. At the end of my second month I moved to a slightly better gaijin-house for my last few weeks. I didn’t know who else was living there and didn’t feel like leaving my cash in the room. So I slung my money belt in my shoulder 166
bag and went to meet Dudu at the corner of the road for a lift to work. A couple of hours later, I was standing in front of my stall when I suddenly realised my bag was nowhere in sight. I whipped out my phone. *gDudu? Did I leave my bag on the passenger seat?*h “I don’t know. I’ll go to check.” The next five minutes lasted an eternity. “Tom? No, it’s not there. What was inside?” It was like the sky had fallen on my head. Three months of enslaving myself to the drunken caprices of hung-up salarymen for nothing. Hundreds of hours of shivering in the cold and rain and worrying about the next sale. All gone in the time it took me to lose a bag with $3500 inside. Was it possible I’d left it at home? Was Dudu lying and right now counting through my savings to see how much the windfall had brought him? Feeling 100 years old, I left my stall in the hands of a massagee girl and ran desperately back to the street corner where Dudu had dropped me off. My stomach pitted up before I rounded the corner and time began to slow down; there, leaning against the wall, lay my grey shoulder bag, exactly where I’d left it two and a half hours before. All the money was still inside. I guess no one thought there would be something of value inside a bag that wasn’t made by Louis Vitton. It seemed to me that Japan was the only country other than Saudi Arabia where this could have happened and here there wasn’t the deterrent of losing a hand. Stealing would just have been breaking the law, severing someone from the social contract that defined him. The Japanese sense of order and conformity bewildered me at times. It seemed that for this painfully shy people the best policy was to follow the herd and hope no one noticed them. They even seemed to walk in a loose formation with all the other commuters in the street. When I weaved my through the ranks of marching salarymen they began to stumble in confusion. 167
I remembered the Japanese who had freaked out on so many dance floors in Goa, the acid opening their minds to an undreamed of world of possibilities. Now I understood why sparks flew as the strict social conditioning of growing up in Japan short-circuited. Stuck on the street every day, I only had a superficial glimpse into Japanese culture but, in the long pauses between sales, I couldn’t help coming to unflattering conclusions. Alienated and alone, I craved for human contact but all the Japanese around me seemed to be playing a role. From the girls who simpered like dolls whenever there was an older man around, to the clerks at the 7-11 who embarked on a robotic litany of greetings, fawning, gratitude and farewells each time I walked in to buy a beer. They performed their roles without even making eye contact and I wanted to grab them by the collar and get them to say something off the script. Even if it was go home you filthy gaijin. The Japanese were without doubt the strangest people I’d ever seen. Waiting for hours on the street for someone to buy something, I was never short of anthropological curiosities. I used to love to watch friends meet; two girls who hadn’t seen each other in a while would run up to each other like they were about to launch into a big hug. “Yuki!” “Yoko!” But when they were about a metre away they’d both pull up short and wave at each other frantically. And when they parted, it would become a contest to see who would be the person to give the last bow. I saw women backing away as far as 50 metres apart still jerking the chin slightly as they looked back. The quiet desperation of the Japanese seemed more like anguish at times and Paul Theroux seemed to nail it down when he asked is there any Japanese smile that does not feel like an expression of pain? Individuality appeared to be synonymous with vulnerability and so it was better to just not stand out. Every night I saw drunken salarymen stumbling out of the blow job bars 168
and Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d have to catch them before they fell full-length into my stall. Some of them were young men who might have had lonely wives at home but were obliged to go out on the town because their boss required their company. Loyalty to the firm was everything. The extended corporate family that swallowed whole the lives of the men in suits who worked for it like ants on the farm. Workers who changed jobs too often were regarded as selfish and unreliable by employers. They had to stay on board or else jeopardise their prospects. And if the salarymen seemed like cogs in a giant Machine, the rest of Tokyo came across as equally robotic; the teenagers who walked down the street with their cellphones as a third eye; the surgical masks worn by anyone with a cold; the men of all ages reading cartoon porn on the metro; the kids who could no longer draw the Chinese symbols embedded in the Japanese language as they had become so used to just pushing a button... It all belonged to a horrifying dystopian vision of a future I wanted nothing to do with. A world where perhaps life itself could be reduced to the certainties of ones and zeros on a handheld device. * In the new gaijin-house where I spent my last month I was sharing a room with just one guy, Yaron. He also worked for Sagi but though he had been in Japan a little longer than me he had never learnt to sell. After three months he was only a few hundred dollars up from when he started. Then one day he came home having sold three watches and a big grin was plastered across his face. I was happy for him until he learnt the next morning that heâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d been paid with fake yen. Instead of the $120 he thought heâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d made, he had to pay Sagi back $150 for the cost price of the watches. It was nothing short of tragic. I tried to hide my relative success and reflected that it could have been a lot worse. The other residents were mostly Nigerian. They came in on student visas and then hooked up with their own mafia. Many Nigerians sold drugs, robbed houses or promoted strip joints but these guys were working with hip-hop clothing. Hip-hop was big in Japan and the youth had their own groups who copied all the style and body language of their American heroes. 169
All the Nigerians had to do was walk up to a group of teenagers wearing the gear and yell: Yo, bro! West coast! West coast! with all the appropriate shakes of the wrist and secret handshakes. Sugoi! the kids cried, excited about meeting a real black man. Then he’d herd them to a clothing store and take his commission on whatever they bought. The last nationality in the house was a Nepalese chef called Krishna. He earned fairly good money when he could get it together to work but always blew his money before he could send any back home. Even 10% of what he made would have been a fortune back in Nepal but he was too drunk most of the time to do the maths. If he had just saved up for 6 months he could have gone home and bought a restaurant of his own. I sold him a watch while he was drunk one morning and felt like shit about it for weeks. He bought it as a present for a Japanese girl he liked but she eventually gave it back as she had no interest in him whatsoever. I had fallen so low that I even profited on sad luck cases like this. In my second week of selling on the basta a Japanese boy wanted to buy a chain for 6000 yen and a ring for 3000. He gave me 10,000 and left without waiting for the change. I started after him and Dudu held me back, laughing at my innocence and assuring me he could afford it. “Would you give him back the money if it happened again today?” Dudu teased me from time to time and I could no longer give him a clear answer. Unlike most of the Israelis in Tokyo, however, I never pretended the stainless steel was silver and I always tried to change the watches that broke. And the Japanese knew perfectly well they were copies. Many of them had the original Rolexes in safes at home and wanted an imitation for day to day use. In short, while I hadn’t become an out and out crook, I left Japan $3000 richer than when I arrived but much poorer in spirit. I’d learnt to lie, manipulate, flatter and cheat. I no longer felt any guilt about over-charging 170
and I took every penny I could. I spent every spare moment doing calculations in my head as to how much money I was making and how long it would last me. The hitchhiking hippy I used to be seemed a distant memory. This isn’t happening, was my mantra, this isn’t real. In the nomadic lifestyle sometimes your hand is forced. You do what you have to do until better times come along. I made my money but it took me months to shed the opportunistic mentality I’d acquired on the basta. I came, I saw, I sold imitation goods. I left Tokyo for dust. I wouldn’t miss the ant-like businessmen or the girls with their bleached hair and sun-bed baked skin. I’d lined the pockets of my Israeli boss and I was barely on speaking terms with Dudu. The winter had been bitterly cold and I had survived on noodles and beer for too long. I was out of there. History. I only regret that I never went back to the old gaijin-house to bust up the coin-operated shower. I reckoned the landlords owed me at least $60 in loose change.
A Year in Brazil Our plane took us over the equator, over the swathes of thick rainforest that harboured armies of Colombian guerillas, jungle factories where kids pounded coca paste with their feet and set us down safely in the border town of Leticia, officially the last town in Colombia before Brazil but more like no man’s land. I’d teamed up with an American friend, Joe, who I’d met in Costa Rica and traveled with a little in Panama and Colombia. He’d barely escaped the clutches of his Colombian girlfriend who tried every trick in the book to make him miss the plane from Bogota earlier that morning. She’d faked illness, pretended to lose the keys to the compound on the way out of it and on top of it all, she was a Mormon and hadn’t even put out during the two months they were together. “What was I thinking?” he laughed. “Shit, that’s nothing.” I told him. “When my girlfriend in Medellin heard I was leaving she went into uncontrollable shaking fits on the bathroom floor, panting I want to die, I want to die, over and over.” Our troubles behind us, we checked into a sweaty little hotel close to the port where we were due to catch a boat down the Amazon to Brazil. The porter tried in vain to help us with our rucksacks and then hesitated at the door. “Ah, los senores quieren mujeres?” No, we’d had enough of Colombian women and, besides, we had hammocks to buy. *
After my ordeal in Japan I went to live in a tipi village in Southern Spain to recuperate. With the help of the hippies I put my soul back together, having sold bits of it along with the fake watches in Tokyo and then, when autumn came, I caught a plane to Mexico. I carried with me 30 kilos of bed spreads and cushion covers that I’d put in the post the last time I was in India. Long-suffering friends had looked after the boxes for me, cursing my name each time they moved house, hauling the packages from loft to loft. I had a sure-fire tip that Indian tat was in high demand from American tourists but I arrived at the beginning of the season in Cancun and none of the shops had any money to buy stock. I soon tired of carrying boxes of textiles around in the tropical heat and ended up giving it away to a hotel janitor down on his luck, swearing never to dirty my hands with commerce again. A weekly column for a free listings rag in Tokyo kept me afloat as I drifted down through Central America looking for my Latin Dream. I made $45 per article which was peanuts but I could choose the subject and by living modestly, 3 hours of work each week were enough to keep my head above water. It was getting embarrassing to be back on the backpacker trail though. Within a couple of minutes of meeting someone new at the hostel I’d be asked how long have you been traveling for? If I answered seven years I’d at once be asked to tell the story of my life and while I enjoyed the attention to an extent, I felt like a fraud. Naturally, if it was a cute Swedish girl asking I wasn’t beyond hamming it up a bit but the truth was that the thrill of travel had long gone for me. I still had fun, still met interesting folks and still wouldn’t have traded my life in for an office job in London but that was about it. Another hotel, another bus station, another border and chance encounter. The varied had become repetitive. And though I was the celebrity of the hostel, the romantic image of the road-worn troubadour wasn’t really me. I pushed on anyway, not really knowing what else to do and tried my hand at waiting tables in the foreign-owned joints in Guatemala and Nicaragua. I think it’s fair to say I proved quite talentless in the service industry. How waiters ever remembered orders or avoided dropping trays of tiramisu on the floor was a mystery to me.
More to avoid the other travelers than anything else, I used a chunk of my almost exhausted savings from Tokyo to catch a plane to Colombia. Of only because the guidebooks didn’t recommend it. I hung out in Medellin for a couple of months, reportedly the most dangerous place in the world and saw a poverty more savage than anything I’d seen before; bodies passed out cold everywhere in the mornings on crack, naked children trembling in the gutter on solvent highs and even two guys fighting it out with machetes in the street one afternoon – the fear of losing a limb added a gingerness to their movements that transformed the battle into a surreal ballet. The safer parts of Colombian cities aspired to be American and were as conservative as the poorer neighbourhoods were wild. Like in so many countries in the world I’d seen, I didn’t belong with the simple folk and the educated classes aspired to the kind of materialistic culture I was fleeing in the first place. Why I thought Brazil would be any different is anyone’s guess. I had the idea that I could find a nice little beach town, get a hot girlfriend and learn bossanova guitar so that when I returned to Europe I could busk on the street. That was my idea of long term planning at the time.. Or perhaps Brazil was just the next country along the map. I had to go some place, after all. * The Lonely Planet probably describes the week long boat journey down the Amazon as the journey of a lifetime. We were taking the trip as it was the cheapest way to get to Brazil. $250 each would get us passage all the way to the mouth of Belem, including 3 meals a day. But there was also something of the spirit of Conrad about the whole affair. I knew that we’d see precious little of the rainforest as all the big trees had been cut down long ago and we’d be chugging through the middle of an immense stretch of murky brown water. Still, there was a pleasure in being completely out of reach, edging along a murky waterway with some of the most remote people in the world. I figured it might be the perfect introduction to Brazil. 174
The boat itself could have come straight from The Heart of Darkness; a lump of iron bobbing up and down next to a brown river and a hazy sky, looking for all the world like a cheap Brazilian café on drugs. We strung up our hammocks and for the next 6 days relinquished any notions about personal space, peace and quiet or privacy. The boat filled up like a cattle carrier and hammocks were strung at every conceivable angle, elbows, knees and asses in our faces each way that we turned. The other passengers were mostly brown-skinned Brazilians, short and dumpy, wearing the national costume of a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and sandals. They yelled at each other from one or two feet away about the weather, the football, the daily routine of the boat and accompanied their exchanges with elaborate mime routines, as though they weren’t sure the other person spoke the same language. Almost all of the women above the age of 20 seemed to be carrying a baby and, naturally, there was hardly a father in sight. When I later saw the infamous postcards of girls walking down Ipanema beach in bikinis, I reflected that photos of teenagers holding their newborns would have been so much more accurate. As the sultry days passed and the boat grew more and more crowded, we came to hate Brazil before we’d even arrived. Every direction we turned there was another curious face, a loud voice or another close up view of a body part dangling down from the hammock above. Surrounded by swathes of brown water, distant jungle shores and with barely a literate soul on the boat, we felt like we’d taken a ticket straight to the bowels of the earth. On the last day we took a short cut down a narrow tributary and finally got to see the jungle. All the big trees had been cut down long ago for profit that had probably not be seen by the families who lived in wooden huts along the river banks. The mothers and their kids paddled out in narrow canoes with bleak hope in their faces and passengers threw donations of clothes and books overboard, wrapped up in plastic bags. The weekly passing passenger boats must have remained a totem image to them. Our destinations and purpose belonging to another world, far from their daily lives of mud, mosquitoes and flotsam. Passing just metres away we were literally worlds apart. 175
When the first high-rise emerged out of the jungle in the distance we were ready to cheer. Belem might have been full of slums, drug addiction and crime but there were also bars, cinemas, running water and transport to take us on into the Brazilian Dream. * I left Joe behind and took a flight straight to Rio de Janeiro. I decided it was time that I tried to settle down somewhere for more than a few months and the Marvellous City seemed a more alluring choice than most. I found a little warren hole of an apartment in a building on the edge of Ipanema, just down the hill from a favela. Rio is unique in that the poor get the sea views and breezes as the slums are built up on the hills that overlook the moneyed beach areas. Living in such close proximity I soon learnt to tell the difference between a fire cracker and a gun shot when the military police or a rival gang threatened to invade. The favelas, of course, were where the drug trafficking took place and they were organized as unofficial, independent communities. It was even suggested to me that I was safer living in close proximity to the bandits as it was a strictly-enforced rule that no one should ever rob anyone else inside the favela. It was always going to be open season on gringos though and so I took care never to walk home in the shadows and sometimes took taxis late at night. Perched on the hills, it was impossible for me to forget the presence of the favelas in the 7 months I lived in Rio. The houses were constructed at odd angles, looking like theyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d fall prey to the next mudslide and it was said that stray bullets passed straight through the home made walls. There was one circling road that led to the top but the principal access to the favelas was up endless steep staircases that must have been hell for anyone over 50. The first time I saw the entrance to my local favela I mistook it for a second hand furniture lot and almost strolled over to ask them for a table. The stairway was obscured by piles of wood and hanging vines that draped down from the cliff and the surrounding trees and a couple of heavy-looking guards kept watch. At night there was generally a fire burning and at any hour there were teenage kids whoâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;d approach me whispering: 176
“Branco, preto.” White, black. Cocaine, Marijuana. Sometimes I’d pass by and there’d be a woman with her arm in a sling beating hysterically on a trash can with her good hand. At other times mean-looking dudes sniffed coke off the roofs of cars and eyed me to see if I was wearing anything valuable. I might have had trouble in forgetting about the favelas but Brazil was a world leader in economic indifference and the chic set that frequented the local Irish bars had no trouble in ignoring the poverty. Indeed, they seemed put out that I kept returning to the subject. “Why are all you foreigners so obsessed with the favelas?” a girl snapped at me one evening. “Why are most well-off Brazilians so ignorant about them?” “We know all about them! We have to walk home afraid that some son of a bitch from a favela will come and rob us in the street!” I wanted to tell her that she wasn’t afraid of being hungry tomorrow, or of the military police gunning her down in the street, or of working for nothing all her life, or having kids that had nowhere to go to school and becoming drug addicts. Instead I came up with the snappy answer that she was an ignorant spoilt tart. The more apologetic Brazilians had rehearsed responses of concern regarding poverty in their country. Yes, it’s dreadful, when I see children begging for glue, just breaks my heart. They contributed a few dollars to the Zero Hunger drives organized by President Lula and slept peacefully knowing they’d helped put rice and beans on someone’s plate. But whilst most Brazilians I met had a knack for slipping reality inside a nice, comfortable cliché and moving on, I could never quite get over the contrast. Ipanema was overflowing with money. The neighbourhood surely had the world’s highest concentration of gymnasiums and beauty salons in testament to the cult of the body that was the true religion of Rio. I think, more than anything, it was the poodles that really got up my nose. In the south zone of Rio de Janeiro you couldn’t escape the puffed up 177
pooches mincing along in their little designer suits. I was talking this over with an American friend in a bar as we were watching a bunch of rich girls giggling at a table; they had obviously just come back from skiing in Switzerland or somewhere and were waiting for daddy to enrol them in fashion school. “I’m going to ask them if they own a poodle.” my friend declared. He walked over and received an enthusiastic squeal of delight. The next moment one of the girls had whipped out her digital camera to show a video recording of her pink fluff ball bouncing across her garden lawn. Like in any society with appalling inequality of wealth, the rich were also imprisoned behind the walls of prejudice and fear they’d helped build. They clucked their tongues when they learnt that I took buses at night and I met one girl, the daughter of a government minister, whose mother was forever hassling her to install bullet proof windows in her car. All the money and connections in the world couldn’t buy them the freedom that the young black boys had, roaming the streets in packs at 3am. Black as the night they were already young men at 9 years old and they feared only the military police who used them for target practice. Sharing a bottle of glue and looking for someone to mug, they hitchhiked on the city buses and ran only when they heard a siren. “Sometimes I think the city really belongs to them.” a girlfriend called Cristina, told me. She was someone born into a good family in Leblon who felt disgraced by the pretensions of her roots. She talked to anyone and everyone on equal terms, even to the young guy who boarded her bus one day and stuck a pistol in her face. “What are you doing? Where do you live?” she asked him. He swore back at her and demanded her wallet but she wouldn’t back down. He ended up apologising and asking for her telephone number. She was one of the young, privileged Brazilians who expiated the greater social guilt by working in NGO community projects in the favelas. In the circles of philanthropy she found too much nepotism and hypocrisy to bear, though and it was only the work itself that kept her going.
“Some of the kids there have never learnt to play.” she told me, “When we go to make theatre workshops in the detention centres for young delinquents their eyes just light up with joy. But their defences shoot back up in a moment once the guards come back in to announce the end of the class.” I met a 10 year old called Paulo on the bus one day. He was out of his head on glue and asked me for some spare change. I gave him a lecture of you’re-wasting-your-life-with-that-shit and he promised to stop. I ended up taking him to the supermarket so that he could come home with some meat. But as I wished him good luck and walked away, the checkout lady cried out behind me: “Senhor, you forgot your beef!” And she snatched the bag up and out of Paulo’s hands. From that day on I saw Paulo everywhere; passed out cold on the side walk at midday, begging at my local juice bar or marching confidently through the streets at 3am. When I saw him on my way home I had the reassuring feeling that nothing could happen to me as long as children were still walking about. I was just a couple of blocks from the sands of one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, the high street was full of people wearing designer clothes and nibbling at sushi and yet I had only to blink to see another world living in coexistence. Every time someone dropped a can, a drunken skeleton would be along with a plastic sack to collect it for recycling. Street people slept on cardboard beside the ATM machines and rented out parking spaces, giving your car a rubdown and ‘protection’ for the time you were gone. Barefoot black kids wearing nothing but a pair of shorts rode suicidal skateboards in front of people’s cars and as the poor were 90% black, it was almost as though someone had just plastered a slum from Lagos onto the edge of Ipanema. Some nights I came home and found 3 or 4 military policemen prowling the street outside my apartment building, sub-machine guns cradled in their arms. The ensuing gunfights would keep me awake and thousands died each year in such firefights. It was like living on the edge of a civil war, an internal conflict that happened on the periphery of society without hindering the day-to-day peace. 179
I didn’t bother trying to understand the politics of it all. Colombia had shown me the pointlessness of that. Whether police or traffickers, they were men with guns trying to make some money and they mourned only the bullets when someone met a premature end. It was well known that the police were only interested in busting dealers so they could sell their own drugs back to them. Occasionally, the cops would grab me as I walked past the favela, assuming I’d just been there to score some coke and would be a healthy target for a shake-down. “Tem droga?” Do you have drugs? “I’m sorry, what did you say?” I replied. They turned to each other. “Voce fala Ingles? Eu tambem nao.” Do you speak English? Me neither. Then, turning back to me. “Hotel?” “I’m sorry, gentlemen but I simply don’t understand.” Losing their cool, they’d usually drive off in a huff. On the other hand it wasn’t as if the traffickers were anyone’s best friends either. On the first warm Sunday of spring, around 50 bandits stormed the most fashionable stretch of Ipanema beach; thrusting pistols in people’s faces, they filled up sacks of wallets and mobile phones. The day before the newspaper headlines had been People of Rio go back to the beach! The day after it featured photos of bandits stomping on the head of a young guy who had tried to call the police on his cell phone. A few months of living in Colombia had taught me how to walk tough or at least a little bit crazy. When I returned home late at night from a bar it was at an energetic pace, arms and legs in counter swing and with nervous twitches of the neck. On one occasion a dodgy-looking guy came wheeling towards me in an intercept pattern so I turned around and kicked a lamppost. He backed away with an alarmed expression on his face. All the same I was grabbed twice in 6 months, on both occasions just 20 metres from home. The first guy asked me for a cigarette and then tried to grab me but was young enough to be brushed off easily. The second time I 180
was careless enough to take the shadier route to my house even though it was already 10:30pm. A drugged-up guy lurched out of the shadows, took hold of my shirt and hissed. “Monneh!” Everyone says you should just hand over what you had but I had just come back from jogging and only had a couple of coins in my pocket. Besides, I suddenly felt so angry that I shouted in his face. “Fuck you!” He shot a few nervous looks down the street and put his finger to his lips. Didn’t I know that I was supposed to stay quiet when he wanted to rob me? I took the cue and began screaming at him. He loosened his grip and reached to take something from his pocket. I didn’t wait to find out what it was. I pushed him away and dashed around the corner to my apartment. Brazil wasn’t the poorest country I’d ever seen and I pointed out to people that in India it would be a crime to throw a coconut away without eating the meat and using the shell for fuel. Even in the favela they were able to steal their water and electric with a bit of home-made plumbing and wiring and they didn’t have to pay any rent. What characterized the poverty here was the violence, the lack of opportunity and the endemic racism. 90% of the favela was black and yet at the fashionable Ipanema coffee shops there wasn’t one dark face in fifty. Few people talked openly about racism in Brazil but it was there, smoldering beneath the skin. Only my landlady, a gentle old soul in her 70’s, assured me that the mulattos (the light brown) were okay but that the blacks ‘smelled’. The guy who sold me coconut juice every day was a guy called Flavio who commuted two and a half hours every day to work from his favela on the other side of the city. One day he lamented that he and his wife were ‘falling into the rhythm of separation’. “You know, Tommy, I can give her food and a roof over her head – but I can’t give her an education.”
When he got to know me a little more he told me about an execution he’d witnessed the weekend before. In the middle of the afternoon a young guy was made to kneel in the street and two hoods blew his brains out. He was alleged to be an informant. “In front of the kids and everything.” Flavio said, shaking his head. He told me it was risky for him to even visit a favela under the control of another cartel; if conflicts arose between rival cartels then he might be labeled as an informer, too. Perhaps it would have been easier for me to understand all of this if anyone else had been interested in talking about it. Someone like Flavio didn’t expect me to understand. What did I know about living in a slum? And yet no one with any education seem interested in anything but fashion, telenovelas and football. They wanted to pretend there were no monsters hiding under the bed. An exception was Gina, an anthropology student who was studying the street vendors of Copacabana. In various parts of the city an aggressive campaign was under way to clear the side walks of these unregistered merchants who paid no taxes. The vendors were generally residents of the favelas and just trying to make an honest living: “Sure, maybe they’re selling copies of Louis Vitton bags or Gucci rings,” Gina laughed. “But that’s better than assaulting buses or selling coke, no?” Every day the merchants could be seen grabbing their fold-up tables and stock and disappearing down alleyways as the municipal police showed up. These were tall, mean looking men in grey uniforms who carried long, black police sticks. They were mostly from the same backgrounds as the vendors but that only seemed to increase their zeal. One day I saw an argument break out between a street vendor and a tall, black cop. The other police were busy mangling his stall and when he protested they chased him into a corner and started to beat him with clubs. In response to the brutality, a great roar of protest went up from the crowd that had gathered and waves of people steamed in to intervene. But then more police arrived, shifting the balance and the solidarity prudently evaporated. 182
“The authorities in Rio want to make the city like the ones in Europe, modern and sterile.” Gina told me. “What they don’t appreciate is that these neighbourhoods belong to those who live in them. They know their city inside-out but when it comes to urban planning no one ever asks them what they think.” I couldn’t close my eyes and ears to all of this and it left me ill at ease in the society I lived in. Brazilians found me tiresome for wanting to analyse this kind of thing and I considered them the most superficial people I’d ever met. Sure, I’d come to Brazil to party, too, but there was only so much small talk about someone’s new poodle that I could take. On the other hand, the graphic injustice in Brazil also served my own emotional agenda. I was still angry at the world and each time I felt frustrated with where my life was going, I could externalise my rage on the ignorance of rich Brazilians or police brutality. As usual I found myself so thick in the heart of experience that I didn’t know where I ended and where the world began. I negotiated the streets of Rio, getting to know the sides of the city that most people found superfluous to know and wished I had half as good a map to my own troubled psyche. While everyone else was having fun in the Marvellous City, more often than not I was wallowing in tragic loneliness or rage. When it all got too much for me, I’d walk down to Ipanema beach to catch the reflection of the sunset in the sky and sit by the waves a while. At the far end the Two Brothers rose up into the sky, hills that hosted Rocinha, the world’s largest favela. Hundreds of sparking lights shimmered on the distant hilltops and left me to reflect that the reason most people stood so far away from reality was that it was the only way to get a decent perspective. * Still, installed in an apartment in the alleged party capital of the world and with a regular monthly income (I’ll get to where that came from), it seemed natural to try and catch up on the wild teenage years I felt I’d never really had. While I’d been contemplating Eastern Truths with the old farts in Goa, I hadn’t spent enough time chasing girls and Rio seemed to be the place to catch up. 183
It took me a few weeks to even find the nightlife in Rio de Janeiro, though. I didn’t know a soul in the city and had to find out by myself where the action was. I assumed there would be fun to be had in my neighbourhood, Ipanema, but when I headed out at night I found myself mostly hovering about empty bars or with my nose pressed to the window of busy restaurants where people chatted away happily. Cariocas (the inhabitants of Rio) seemed to like to get together and for snacks and beer on café terraces and spend the evening laughing loudly. I ruled these kinds of places out quickly; somehow it was harder to make eye contact with a group of people sat down at a table. It was also more embarrassing if a girl brushed me off after I’d taken the trouble to pull up a seat next to her. Playing harmonica on the beach one evening, I was overheard by a cool girl who took me down town to Lapa, a street party that stretched for a kilometer in a poor, historic district and where every class in Rio mingled. Plastic chairs and tables on the street made impromptu bars and stalls sold cold tins of beer, caipirinhas and hot soup. There were forro clubs with the doors wide open and people danced in and out all evening. A little further down, there was often a hip hop DJ playing a set in the street and further on down still, was a café where a samba band sat at plastic tables, drinking beer and playing old classics for the crowd behind them to sing to. It was music at its most unpretentious and democratic. I wasn’t always up for the long bus ride to Lapa though and I finally found a local hang out spot in the form of the Emporio, a crowded bar with terrible music whose only virtue was that the clientele over spilled into the street at weekends. Most cool cariocas regarded the place as ‘fallen’ (gone downhill) and the odd handful of tourists that ensured the presence of the predator one step up the food chain: the prostitute. There were only a few of these though and I soon learnt how to distinguish them from the other girls. It was all in the eyes. I only got lucky at the Emporio 5 or 6 times in the half a year I spent in Rio but it was open to 4am and so constituted a kind of last chance option 184
after striking out at the Irish bars. I’d head out alone or with a couple of other travelers I met who were doing their stint in Rio and girls were all we talked about. Quality of life was purely measured upon one’s statistics and batting average. Often the best bit about hooking up with a girl was telling the story to the guys the next day. I was fast becoming as superficial as the next man. Sex was always on the cards in Brazil. People gathered in nightspots to drink and dance but it was rare to see anyone inebriated and flirtation was the driving force behind the whole scene. It meant almost nothing to kiss someone and more than once I found myself wrapped up in someone’s arms before I’d quite got their name. I wasn’t much of a player though, mostly because I didn’t really want to be there. The hunt entailed standing around in bars in the evening for hours and I felt quite out of my element, urged on only by my optimistic hormones. The Emporio crowd was as superficial a bunch as Rio de Janeiro had to offer, comprised mostly of rich kids playing bohemian. There were a few ‘gringo-hunters’ though amongst the girls which made things easier. The bar was also close enough to home that I could stumble home drunk, eyeing the shadows nervously. Towards the end of my time in Rio, I only went along to the Emporio to chat to Luizinho, the guy who sold beers out of the back of his car a little further down the street. He was a short, thin man with a pony tail and was one of the most impressive characters I met in Brazil. At 43 years of age, he’d been selling beer from his car for 17 years and was as streetwise as it got. “Good evening! Are you in peace? 2 cans of Skol? Perfectly.” His speech sounded almost as idiosyncratic in Portuguese as in this literal translation. Luiz was a spiritual guy who began each night with a prayer which he said with his eyes open, scanning the street for trouble even as he quietly asked for blessings. He never drank and put up with a hundred idiots every evening just so he could take $50 or so home to his family. I’d heard it said that Taoist masters should be able to function as well in the bustle of the 185
marketplace as much as in a mountain cave, but this was the first time I’d seen something like it in practice. When a car driven by two body builders twice his size pulled up with the radio on full blast, Luizinho was there in an instant to tell them to turn it down. He couldn’t afford for the neighbours to be disturbed in case they made a complaint. Luiz had people he could call on to sort out any aggression or theft but he was too cool to ever need to. Despite his size Luiz was so well-centred that he had mastery of most situations and was widely known and respected. If some hood turned up from the favela demanding a beer he might hand it over just to avoid the hassle. There was never any issue of pride or ego with Luizinho. He was there to make his money and then go. I spent entire nights by his car telling stories about India and asking him about street life and the favelas, drinking beer after beer until I was too far gone to speak Portuguese. Meanwhile drunks would come and sit on Luizinho’s car. He’d ask them not to and they’d get up for a few moments before resuming their seats. He’d chase them away again and then someone would start to haggle over the price of a can of beer, counting out their centavos in a futile attempt to awaken pity. Then the municipal police VW van might cruise by and Luiz would abandon these idiots in a flash, ready to shut up shop in a moment should the cops decide to stop and make trouble. He kept a plastic bag by the side of the car for the empty cans and he let the street people collect them for recycling. They got paid by the kilo of tin cans that they brought in. “You see, Tommy, as much as I could use the money from the cans there are always people who need it more.” Luizinho was an expert people person. I had the feeling that any student of psychology would learn more in a month with Luiz than in a year at college. He pacified the aggressive, uplifted the depressed, entertained the friendly and sympathized with the troubled. Anyone working in the street was exposed to all the social elements and at 3am in Rio all the dregs came tumbling along.
Luiz was growing tired of the constant hassle of his job though and was studying by day to become a dental assistant. He hoped that within 5 years he might be able to quit selling beer. His favourite diversion on a quiet night was to tease his old friend, Josiah, the peanut guy. Josiah was a large, black man who stumbled around with the lurch of a wounded dog and was drunk almost 24 hours a day. He had a large cartoon face and the look of someone who thought himself always on stage. At the slightest encouragement he’d burst into song, drawling out Hey Jude or Yesterday, though he knew hardly a word of English. Josiah carried with him a large tin oven with coals inside to keep the peanuts warm in their paper cones on top. Of course, he was generally too pissed to remember to light the coals in the first place and his peanuts were so salted as to be practically inedible but somehow he made a living. His sales tactic was to lurch into the nearest ring of people and begin to gabble incoherently or make dramatic faces, utterly impervious to the dagger looks they threw at him. In fact I learnt to measure people’s character from the way they reacted to Josiah. Some either brushed him off the moment he appeared, or else seemed to be painfully holding their breath until he left. But nothing could dampen Josiah’s spirits, a man who had nothing and whose brain was in a permanent haze from a lifetime of drinking cachaca. The only person who could wind him up was Luizinho and he never missed an opportunity. He’d wait until Josiah was in earshot and then stage whisper: “Tommy, did I ever tell you about the time that Josiah got so drunk he couldn’t make his way home for the night.” “Gaygaygaygaygayhomohomo!” Josiah yelled, leaping in between us. Luiz stepped to the side. “In fact he was so drunk that he went to piss against the wall and passed out half way through.“ “Gay! Luiz is homo! Luizinho is homo!” Josiah protested, his eyes popping out of his head, simultaneously mortified and delighted to be the centre of attention. 187
“He was so drunk that at 9:30 in the morning he was still lying down on the pavement with his trousers around his ankles.” “Gaygaygaygaygay!” “And a bull dog came along and took a big lick of Josiah’s bare ass!” “Luizinho likes boys! Queer gay homo!” “Nothing makes me happier than when Josiah starts cursing me!” Luizinho laughed, hardly able to contain his delight. Luizinho might still be there digging around in the ice in the back of his car to sell cans of cold beer to all and sundry. An astute, compassionate man I couldn’t help but think he deserved better. When I left Rio de Janeiro to continue my travels in Brazil he was one of the few people to whom I said goodbye. * So it’s time to own up what I was actually doing in Rio. I’d arrived with about $500 and hence had been amenable to a business proposal made to me by a Canadian entrepreneur. It was essentially a once in a lifetime getrich-quick scheme that promised to make me around $30,000 a year without working for it. What more could I ask for? It beat selling fake Rolexes. A friend of a friend - let’s call him Jefferson - wanted to get hold of a medicine – an anti-depressant called Dorosol – sold across the counter in Brazil with a prescription. It had been withdrawn from sale worldwide and Brazil was pretty much the last place it could even be found. There was still a huge demand for Dorosol though as it was so effective with so few side effects. It had been withdrawn largely as a marketing ploy to sell another more expensive medicine. So how was I supposed to get hold of it? Well, given my recent track record I fancied myself as something of a maverick problem solver and was confident that anything could be done in a country as corrupt as Brazil. Jefferson put up the money for my living costs in the meanwhile and the 188
deal was that we’d split profits evenly. He had a huge mailing list of interested customers. I guess at the bottom of my heart I knew I was making a mistake. I didn’t really believe in antidepressants and knew that I hadn’t been born to make business. Yet I’d tasted enough of the working life to know I wasn’t cut out for that either. Making a living as a writer seemed like a dream hopelessly out of reach. The idea of an easy thirty grand silenced the voices in my heart that warned against this kind of scam and I talked myself into thinking this was just God’s way of letting me get a step on in life. With the profits I planned to buy land in Croatia and set up a traveler’s refugee camp. I’d import a bunch of hippies from Rainbow Gatherings to build the tipis and tree houses and when people asked me how I’d manage to finance it all, I’d tap the side of my nose and tell them to wait for the memoirs. Dorosol turned out to be a highly-restricted medicine though and it could only be bought at the pharmacy with a special blue prescription and those could only be written by psychologists. In any case, three boxes at a time wouldn’t be enough – we wanted around 2000. Whilst I was scheming up ways to sign up a Fagin’s army of patients, who would each get a prescription for three boxes, I met Bobby. I’ve met many forces of nature on the road and could give Gurdieff a run for his money when it comes to meeting remarkable men. I’ve always been attracted to people who have concentrated their personalities into one solid beam of intent, shining brighter than all the rest by virtue of knowing what they want or what they believe. In a world of infinite choice most people seem to dribble their lives away, never quite knowing what they’re about. The options are just too varied for us to ever really choose. Deep, inner conviction made these forces of nature stand apart though it didn’t necessarily make them saints. Bobby was one of the most determined, decided people I’d ever met and simultaneously one of the most repulsive, pitiful and vulgar. A wiry Canadian Jew in his 50’s, he had bushy white hair and moustache, predatory eyes and a gummy smile with not a single tooth left. I could never quite bring myself to ask him why. He had the morals of a jackal and the taste of 189
a vulture but I couldn’t help but be fascinated with what he’d done to his personality in his time on earth and I wondered if there was still a soul in there, clinging on for dear life somewhere inside. We met when he hustled me on the street to go on his favela tour, the only walking tour of a favela in Rio! Yeah! I know all the gangsters, most of the cops too. That’s coz I’m a DEA agent, baby! That’s why I get all the best coke… Working out Bobby’s life story took me the better part of the 6 months I spent hanging out with him in Rio. These days he made a living off commissions from backpackers for arranging flights, renting apartments, tickets for shows and selling the odd bit of coke and the flow of outrageous stories was all part of his charisma and sales technique. He was interesting enough to get the attention of the travelers in the street and then he’d be all over them, hungry for what he saw as his due share of their daily budget. I hung around for long enough to see the cracks in the stories and, like most conjurers, he longed to tell someone the truth. His early years were filled with stories of mafia connections, US prison and fighting in Vietnam, none of which I was ever able to verify. What I did establish was the Bobby came from a wealthy family back in Canada and had been a great source of embarrassment to them. What he’d done, exactly, I didn’t find out but he accepted a banishment to Brazil on condition that his mother sent him money each month to keep him afloat. There came the day though when the cheques stopped arriving. Bobby phoned up Canada in an apoplexy and discovered that his mother was on holiday in Florida and had left no contact number. Stuck for cash he just walked up to the first well-off looking Brazilian he saw and asked: “Excuse me, but do you speak English? I’ve just had my wallet stolen by some kids on the street – could you see your way to lending me a couple of bucks to get back to my hotel?” The first Brazilian he asked handed him the equivalent of $10 without hesitation, perhaps eager to show off that he spoke English. Bobby waited until he’d gone and then hit up someone else with the same story. It worked so well that he ended up making a couple of hundred bucks a day at this 190
ruse and then he’d head up to the favelas where the coke was cheaper. The bandits there knew his game and gave him the affectionate nickname Speak English. Eventually Globo TV heard about him and sent a camera crew down to film Bobby at work. “Fuck off,” he told them, “I’m working.” But as it turned out, Brazilians were so anxious to get on TV that they begged Bobby to pull the ruse on them in front of the cameras. Once the media interest had died down, Bobby sensed that it was time to move on and became a Fixer for travelers and expats in Rio. He knew everyone from the heads of the favelas to the deputy chief of police and I figured if anyone would know how to get hold of a restricted medicine it would be Bobby. “Is it some kind of sex drug?” he asked, his eyes lighting up. With Bobby, everything came down to sex, drugs or money. There were no other motives in the world than the pursuit of one’s pleasure centers and no one was ever to be really trusted. Despite my stories about a small group of depressed friends who wanted a lifetime supply of Dorasol, he soon worked out that I was part of an underground medicine operation. He was okay with that, he just wanted his 10%. First of all, we tried to get some boxes through a doctor with a gambling habit at the Bingo. We spent an inordinate amount of time at the Bingo. For all his grand talk, Bobby whittled away the minutes of his life watching numbers come up on a computer screen and feeding it bank note after banknote. Whilst he kept track of every cent he ever spent, with the bingo machines he could lose $500 in a day. Which, after getting a few boxes for us, is exactly what the corrupt doctor went and did. He disappeared for a while and it took us months to shake him down for money. Then we tried setting up an export company but the lawyer, too, ran away with the initial cash and we got tired of playing the game straight. We looked up the address of the pharmaceutical company and Bobby dressed up in his smartest shirt and trousers to see if there was any chance of bribing him. He came back with a suspicious look on his face.
“Why does everyone freak out every time I mention Dorosol?” he asked me. “What do people really want this drug for – is it for gays who want multiple orgasms?” It seemed that the directors of multinational pharmaceutical companies had big enough salaries that any bribe would have to be in the mid five figures and I didn’t think Jefferson would be sanguine about trying that. Our next plan was to hire some Nigerians to go and rob the warehouse. We met in a café but I could see that they didn’t really trust Bobby and the sight of me hardly gave them confidence in a criminal undertaking. They pretended they had no idea what we were talking about and we got the message pretty fast. Meanwhile I had Jefferson phoning me up for status checks and I could hear him wondering if I was just taking his money orders and living it up in Rio. We’d never met and it was only the character reference of an old friend that had convinced him to risk his capital. He must have known the odds were long that I would come through but that the pay-off would be worth it if I did. Jefferson kept wiring the money through but the truth was that Bobby and I had no idea how we were going to get hold of Dorosol. It was on the shelves of every pharmacy that we walked past and we knew there had to be a jeitinho, a way, and we trusted it would reveal itself in time. Meanwhile the weeks turned into months and, as Bobby had already taken an advance, I hung around him to remind him of his obligations. He was mostly good company and it was fun to watch him walk up to backpackers on the street and hail them: “Where do you come from?” Easy pickings for Bobby and, most of the time, he was an honest fixer, coming up with cheap flights or fake student cards on time. The trouble was that he didn’t keep any records of the money people gave him and he put it all in the same pocket. Thus every once in a while he’d lose someone’s flight ticket money in the bingo and then he’d be on a mad scramble to borrow money from someone to cover it - often turning to me and I tried to use that to pressure him into further exertions in the quest for Dorosol.
With a cocaine habit of around 5 grams a day, Bobby was an avaricious, opinionated ego-maniac but I was the first person in years with whom he had something resembling a friendship and he told everyone I was his nephew. He kept trying to drag me along to his visits to the whorehouse of Copacabana and, on the one evening that I did turn up to keep him company, it was a pitiful sight. The Sunset Lounge was a shabby dive and Bobby was just another old guy sat in front of a beer, watching bored hookers shake their tits in dull red lighting. When I turned up with a few friends, he jumped up to dance and it was like watching someone’s grandfather try to act cool. “How about that?” he gasped after some cheesy steps, “Now if they put some decent music on I’ll really show you something!” And that was the irony of it. For all his self-confidence, street smart and overwhelming personality, he was basically a lonely old guy with not a friend in the world. Even with all the money that flowed through his hands, he stayed in a $4 a night guest house with rooms like cells and a shared cold shower. He was an enigma to me. But just hanging out with Bobby on the street was an education in itself. He knew every character and every scam going. He once pointed out a German Brazilian who made his money out of robbing backpackers. “Backpackers are so tight that when he buys them a meal they think he’s their best friend. Then he invites them on a trip and when they’re not looking he runs off with their credit cards. He’s the kind of guy that when you shake his hand you count your fingers afterwards.” Then there was Joao, Bobby’s coke dealer. An enormous mass of rippling fat, Joao was a convicted murderer and not someone you’d want to meet in a dark alley, assuming he could fit into it. “Do you know how he brings the coke down from the favelas without the police searching him?” Bobby asked with his big, toothless grin, “He hides it in the roll of fat under his armpits! Would you search him there?” Finally we decided the only way we were going to get hold of a quantity of Dorosol was to print up a few hundred fake prescriptions and make a one 193
time thing of it. We’d hire a team of Brazilians to take the forged receipts round to every pharmacy in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo and, by the time alarm bells started ringing, we’d at least have enough pills to have made the whole thing worthwhile. As it happened though, the very same day we stumbled upon a corrupt pharmacy who declared he was ready to sell us the boxes out of the back door. It was bound to draw the attention of the authorities that so much Dorosol was being sold at one time but all I could think of right now was getting hold of the pills. Each one meant $5 to me and there were 30 in a box. But first I had to get them to Canada. I remembered the lessons I’d learned from Clive in India and headed to the shop to buy some birthday cards, sticky tape and cotton wool. I tried just taping the boxes down inside but the pills rattled and were a dead give away. So I spent a couple of long evenings popping the pills out into a bowl and then taping them down inside the birthday cards with a layer of cotton wool to reduce the tactile effect. “What’s inside, documents?” the man at the post office asked me. I nodded and my heat began to race before he handed me the receipt with a frown. I was careful not to use that post office again, instead sending the parcels from branches all over the town where the clerks couldn’t give a damn what was inside the parcels. But there was worse heat to come. One evening I was taking a juice with Bobby and two conspicuously normal men in casual clothes came to sit at the table near us even though there was plenty of room in the café. As Bobby and I talked numbers he suddenly remarked that was a strong smell of bacon in the room. They were plainclothes feds who had come to see what Bobby, a fixture in Rio, was doing spending so much time with this young gringo. I was badly shaken up and made some investigations to find out just how illegal what we were doing was. I had assumed we were dealing in a class C substance that might merit my expulsion from the country and a slap on the wrists but nothing more. That was all international law would have demanded. I learnt to my shock that by sending medicine out of the country 194
clandestinely, I was effectively trafficking in controlled substances, a crime as heavy as dealing coke. I’d seen Carindiru, the movie about the infamous Brazilian jail and I didn’t give myself a life span of more than half an hour if I was convicted. How had I ended up in such a ridiculous position? Inch by inch, I’d drifted away from my true bearings and ended up in this sordid movie, my freedom now at stake in a quest to make a fast buck. What happened to the ‘spiritual path’ that I’d embarked on so many years ago back in Goa? I was lost. Meanwhile there didn’t seem to be any way I could back out just as the going was getting good. Jefferson had received the first packages and was clamouring for more as he had now invested some $10,000 in this and it would take the first few hundred boxes just to break even. I had to stay on the scene just to make sure that Jefferson didn’t lose out. Bobby had by now entered the salivating feeding frenzy of a hyena and was pushing hard for his 10%. He juggled the numbers and manipulated me to the effect that he ended up with his share of the money before we’d received even half the boxes we needed. And there was still the stubborn hope inside that, dangerous and stressful as all this surely was, I was still going to make my lion’s share and be financially independent for the rest of my life. It just needed enough boxes to get through in the post and then it would all be golden. Just like Clive three years before, pushing all the while for that one last deal that would bring untold riches. Live and don’t learn, seemed to be my motto at the time. By this time the sheer effort of holding it all together left me a weeping wreck in the evenings and each morning I swallowed it all back down to put on a brave face and make business. And so, perhaps not unsurprisingly, as I failed to listen to my heart, something eventually cracked inside and it took the better part of a year and a half to be put back together again. After a stressful conversation with Jefferson on the phone, who wanted to know how exactly Bobby had conned his full advance out of me, I went to bed with every muscle in my body tensed and received a rude awakening half an hour later. I jumped up in bed with something like an electric shock in my head. While I tried to work out what was happening to me, 195
another wave came as though all the energy in my body decided to surge towards my head at once. It felt like my skull was about to explode into many pieces. There was no pain involved but I knew that I couldn’t let the surging rushes break, they had to be pushed back down, my life depended on it. By using chi kung techniques, deep breathing and massaging my feet, I could just about keep the rushes down and I wondered if I was on the verge of an epileptic fit. But the rushes kept on coming through the night and each time they hit it was like being thrown off a building with a bungee cord tied to my ankles. I sat alone in my apartment in the small hours of the night, wondering if all the LSD from the past had perhaps fried some neural circuit. At the same time violent spasms of pain in my back prevented me lying down and the less I slept, the harder it became to ward off the head rushes. The minutes passed like those before a firing squad and, by the time the first light of morning filtered through the window, I was thinking about suicide. I couldn’t let the rushes come and if I didn’t sleep I wouldn’t be able to stop them. There was no way I’d be able to explain what was going on to a doctor, it was hard enough to put it into words at all. Maybe opiates would have helped but I was too scared to take any sedative drugs in case they made me lose total control over the rushes. I wanted to live but I knew I could only handle one, maybe two, more nights like the one I had just endured. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I began to think of the most painless way I could end it all if I was left with no choice. The rushes abated during that day and as it happened I’d already made plans to escape Rio and head to a beach in the north east of the country. The city had been eating me up for some time and I longed to hang out in nature again. I’d thought ahead and had hired an American guy called Dan to take over my job of popping the pills and hiding them inside the envelopes. It was weird to call him and Bobby up to make the final arrangements when I’d been contemplating the end of my life hours before. I suppose even someone before the firing squad might take an interest in the weather. Dan was a goodhearted guy who had come to Brazil to travel, found a girlfriend and couldn’t believe his luck. He was a simple man who was just 196
happy to be getting laid on a regular basis and he was looking for a way to avoid going back home. I felt a bit guilty roping him into this sordid business but rationalized that he was big enough to look after himself. Besides, if he didn’t do the job I couldn’t leave and that was a given. * I took a bus up to the north east and found myself a house in a small village in a bay with dolphins. The head rushes continued to come but less often during the day and it was clear they were aggravated by stress. For a while I couldn’t even read or be alone for too long for fear they might come. When I lay down at night I had to prop my head up with cushions as each time I lay down flat I would jolt back up with a sudden rush. I would endure 4 or 5 shocks like this before getting to sleep and they were often accompanied by white light behind my eyelids. I wondered if I had a brain tumour. The village in which I chose to convalesce was called Pipa, an hour south of Natal. It had once been a quiet fishing village but thanks to its good surf beach on one side of town, and a quiet bay with dolphins on the other, it was now firmly on the map. There weren’t that many backpackers around but every weekend throngs of Brazilians from nearby cities came to party. The surf beach was called Praia de Amor, the Love Beach and I learned it had been renamed to encourage tourists. An American guy had just died while swimming there and the word was that he’d suffered a heart attack. “24 years old and he had heart problems.” a Brazilian from Sao Paolo laughed, “It’s a funny coincidence but everyone that dies on that beach does so from sudden heart problems. I’ll tell you another interesting coincidence - it used to be called Praia de Afogados - Beach of the Drowned. The currents there are lethal.” Consequently, I spent my days on the other beach which could only be reached by a 20 minute walk over the rocks. Every day I had to calculate the tide so as not to be cut off but the inaccessibility of the Dolphin Bay was its blessing. With a steep, red cliff behind the sands, there was no room for development and the beach remained pristine.
The dolphins were a panacea for the soul and they jumped through the waves on the hunt for fish and the sight of them brought a childlike joy soaring out of my chest. Sometimes they’d appear just a couple of feet away from me in the water and then my heart would be in my mouth, simultaneously ecstatic and terrified. The good surf and the dolphins had brought development to Pipa, though it was still quite organic and small-scale. I saw photos from years before when even the local kiosk selling cigarettes seemed like a big deal. Money had flowed in fast and Brazilians from Sao Paolo and Rio had floated up to live here. The local population was pretty much bemused at the sudden turn of events and the local gossip was always about who had just sold what for how much. The large sums of money offered for their land proved to be irresistible to many. Then it only remained to see how long the money would last once they’d bought themselves a pick-up truck of consumer goods and drunk the rest away. They were fishermen. They didn’t know how to invest capital. Months after the sale, many were soon begging to live with their relatives. There was money flowing through the two streets that made up Pipa with cute little restaurants and boutiques but the poverty of North East Brazil was never far from the surface. While most people could read in this village, it was common to see teenagers smiling with missing teeth – they couldn’t afford the dentist. I found a house to live in by the usual method of asking in a shop and waiting for a crowd to gather. Within five minutes I was surrounded by grannies debating the merits of various houses their children were renting and finally a thin old woman called Dona Hilda escorted me off to see her son’s house. She was a genteel woman with wispy grey hair and not a spare ounce of flesh on her. We had to pause every 50 metres for her to catch her breath. The house seemed idyllic. Set back from the one street that the town claimed for its own, it was a two bedroom house with a long veranda shaded by lemon trees. I could look out on the stars at night and lizards crawled around the walls, eating mosquitoes. I’d lay back and watch them hunt for hours.
Her son was an incorrigible alcoholic called Jiba and he lived in a small, one-room hut to the side of the house. It felt kind of odd to see him living in comparative simplicity beside me but he was happy enough for the income. It would see him through another hundred bottles of cachaca, the Brazilian firewater and there were already a good 60 bottles stacked up by the side of his hut. He was 40 years old and beyond all hope of marrying and Dona Hilda put up with the black sheep of the family with an air of silent regret. After a couple of days on the bottle he’d stumble into her kitchen, bellowing loudly, demanding food. Jiba was a good guy but was the type to drop litter in his own garden and it was sad to see him at 8 in the morning, leaning on a street corner for support with a near-empty bottle of cachaca in his hand. He was, as the Brazilian saying went, ‘killing himself alive’. My house seemed like a good place to de-stress but on the first morning I woke up to someone bellowing in the garden. “Lucas! Lucas, you little shit! Don’t get your feet dirty or you’ll have to take a bath! You hear me? A bath!” It was the daughter of Dona Hilda screaming at her 4 year old son as she scrubbed away at the laundry. No sooner would she stop then her sister in the opposite house would start: “Joanna! What kind of way is that to arrive home, all sweaty?” I rose up groggily with the idea of pointing out that, 200km south of the equator, sweat was likely to be part of the equation. One sight of the two daughters of Dona Hilda stopped me though. Whilst their mother was small and thin, these two had all the grace and bulk of water buffaloes. Never once in the two months I spent there did I see them smile. Instead all through the day it was: “Joanna! I’m going to put a bullet through your head!” “Lucas! I’m going to stab you in the belly!”
Lucas was a little boy who loved to run around the yard and help his silent and moody father carry things around. A bright cheerful chap, he must have been awfully confused why he wasn’t allowed to get any sand on his feet, given the entire garden was made of it. One day it got to be too much: “Lucas! You son of a whore!” I burst out laughing, wondering if she had realised what she’d just called herself and while I was too strange an entity for her to acknowledge, it was a while before she raised her voice again. The two daughters seemed such ignorant monsters in comparison to the serene Dona Hilda – but then where had they learnt to behave like that to their children if not from her? I asked some other neighbours how these hefty trolls had ever managed to find husbands and I got the answer: “There’s always an old boot for a bare foot!” At nights people gathered to drink beer at a couple of bars in the street and, on New Year, the village turned into a town with thousands and thousands of Brazilians arriving to party. They drove up in their pick up trucks, put a paddling pool in the back and then sat in it, drinking beers and listening to the car stereo. I was tempted to give them directions to the beach but they seemed happy enough as they were. I eventually found a girl to spend a few days making love with and no one was happier than Dona Hilda. When we returned home one morning after visiting the dolphins, Dona Hilda was standing on the porch, barely able to contain her satisfaction. “Nao tem graca estar sonzinho, ne?” (‘There’s no fun in being alone, hey?’) “They probably feel much better knowing that you’re a normal guy now,” my girlfriend told me and I realized how strange I must have seemed to them. I spent most of my time in the house alone, sitting on the veranda reading and writing. There was barely a soul in the village who wasted their time on such eccentric pastimes. It was in Pipa that I began the first draft of this book, finally writing up the key episodes of my travels that threatened to fade into a nostalgic mist unless I got the details down. As I recalled the crazy stories I’d been 200
through and the extremes to which I’d put myself over the years, my current state of health became a little clearer. For 8 years I’d been dancing on time through a collage of cultures, languages, chance meetings and intense situations of a thousand varieties. I had been voyaging through worlds of human experience that would have been enough to unbalance most people, never mind someone as sensitive and fragile as me. As I filled the pages of a school notebook, the stories came back to me in colour memories and I began to wonder that I was even still standing up. But while I’d begun to appreciate that I’d hardly been kind to myself over the years, I still hoped that there might be a simple medical condition that could account for what was happening to me. My ears got blocked up to the extent that I woke up one morning half-deaf and it took a local doctor to drain them for me and restore my hearing. This gave me the sudden hope that the whole thing might be linked to a problem in the inner ear canal and I built up my hopes around a visit to a specialist in Natal. He declared there was nothing wrong, however, and tried to write me a prescription for a sedative instead. Meanwhile, the rushes showed no sign of going away. I could function during the daytime but when I got tired I had to be constantly on guard that they wouldn’t overwhelm me. I joked with friends that perhaps one could learn to live with a certain amount of fear and disorientation but when I woke in the middle of the night in panic there was nothing to laugh about. Finally, as money was running out, I accepted the invitation of a girl whose parents were doctors in a nearby city to go and make some tests. They fixed the paperwork to get me a free brain scan and I had to lie on my back on a conveyor belt to be rolled into a huge x-ray machine. Even lying down put me on edge and I had to concentrate on my breathing just to get through the test. I waited around 3 anxious days for the result but the neurologist couldn’t see anything wrong and tried to write me a prescription. “What’s it for?” “I haven’t got time to explain to you all the ins and outs of neurology!” I was told and I threw the receipt in the bin the moment I left the office. If they didn’t know what was wrong with me how the fuck could they prescribe medication? 201
I headed back to the doctor’s house and, feeling more lost and alone than at perhaps any point in my travels, I received an email from Bobby, a man who didn’t know how to use a computer. It read. Dan just danced. Call me. Danced was Rio slang for ‘to go out of the picture’. I understood at once what he meant and called him up at once. “Tommy? You got my email? Fuck! They caught Dan at the post office and then went back to his apartment and found a hundred boxes. They think it’s ecstasy. Man, this sucks. So what do you want to do? You want to leave him to rot in jail or do I got to talk to my connection in the federal police?” I asked him to find out what it would cost and, an hour later, I learnt that $3000 would be enough to pay everyone off to get Dan free. I phoned Jefferson in Canada and, though we only knew each other by phone, to his credit he believed me at once. He was dealing in illegal medicine but he was essentially a good guy who was fresh out of business school. He’d never been to anywhere like Brazil and I assured him that jails in these parts were the kind of experience that could wreck a life permanently. He didn’t need any persuading to send money to free Dan, a man he‘d never spoken to. By some fateful chance, he’d just done his accounts that day and found that we’d made our first 3000 bucks profit. It seemed fated. Cheap as the north east was, my accounts were now running low and it didn’t look like Dorosol would be keeping me afloat any more. My visa had long since expired and I knew I’d have to make a run for it across the border with Argentina. I took a bus to Rio and when I met Dan I heard the whole story. “I was in the post office with the packages when suddenly these cops came running in and pushed me into a car. I don’t know where they came from. They put me in a cell and hit me in the face a bit. They thought all the pills were ecstasy. I kept telling them but they wouldn’t listen. I thought I was going to die! Then, after a couple of hours, this guy in a suit walks in and tells me Bobby says to keep your mouth shut and sit tight. Then the money 202
arrived and they took me to the bank to hand it over to them. Now I just want to go home.” If I had any remaining doubt about the truth of the story it disappeared when I heard Dan’s emotion when he spoke. A simple guy, he could no more lie convincingly than he could do long division. In any case, both he and Bobby stood to make more money if the business had continued. For me, it was the final nail in that particular chapter of my life. I’d gone against my instincts and the stress of dealing with sharks like Bobby had caused my nervous system to break down. Now all that I had worked for had gone for nothing and I realised that, in a way, I always knew it would. The 30 grand a year was a pipe dream made for stronger smokers than me. Even Bobby saw it that way. “Don’t get involved in this kind of thing again, Tommy. You’re out of your depth. It doesn’t suit you and next time you might get hurt.” Concerned advice coming from someone as existentially selfish as Bobby is a memory that still makes me smile and gives me hope for humanity. With the business gone down the drain and a malfunctioning nerve somewhere in my head, I knew it was time to head back to the first world. I had to make some money and get some medical attention and even just live some place where I could relate to the people. I found the Brazilians to be mostly superficial and they found me heavy and boring. I needed to be with friends again and I reflected that when this mini-disaster struck me my first response had been to deal with it by myself in a remote village. I felt like I had no home to go to. The day before I went to the Argentine border where Bobby assured me I could bribe the immigration to let me through, I remembered a conversation I’d had with an English traveler in Mexico, a year and a half before. He’d just finished working the season as a punter in Cambridge, taking tourists up and down the river in the old fashioned boats propelled by a wooden pole. An English gondola.
I walked into an internet café, found three punting companies operating in Cambridge and sent off emails asking for employment. By the next morning I had a job offer from the boss of a small company who thought my language skills would be a boost to his team. I could start as soon as I arrived. The Brazilians were still asleep when my taxi pulled up at the border and so I went straight through to the Argentines. I sent my driver in to negotiate and he came back with the good news that $70 would be enough for them to ignore the fact that I had no Brazilian exit stamp. Given all that I’d been through, risked and endured in the previous year in Brazil, it seemed like a cheap price to pay to leave it all behind. * Israel I worked the summer in England, 60 or 70 hour weeks taking tourists up and down the river in Cambridge, living like a monk to put some money aside. I was still getting rushes most night and I saw acupuncturists, more ear specialists and even the local doctor but nothing helped. My doctor was at least honest enough to tell me that if I consulted more neurologists I would likely as not spend years in inconclusive tests and best-guess medication. It was hard enough just to explain to people what it was I was suffering. No, it’s not a headache. If no one could even understand what it was then how was I ever going to be able to get any help? It took an old friend to lay it on the line for me. “You need to talk to someone, Tom.” As I reached the last few years of my 20’s I began to notice that many of my oldest friends were heading to therapy. All I could think of were Woody Allen monologues but they assured me that there was more to counselling than neurotic psychoanalysis. It was more like an opportunity to let someone in to see what was going on inside. I had a natural resistance against the idea - going for help felt like admitting defeat. I was a Sufi following my spiritual path that I’d learnt in my early days in Goa and… who was I trying to kid. I’d gotten lost and badly needed a guide. 204
I flew to Israel in October 2004 and looked up Nathalie, the Israeli girl who had got me so stoned on my second day in India, so many years ago. I stayed in her place while I looked for an apartment and it just so happened that she’d begun to see an alternative therapist called Gal, and suggested I give her sessions a try. I found myself a cheap apartment in Tel Aviv and headed along to the first session with some foreboding. No one was going to tell me anything I didn’t want to hear. Either it would suit me or I would just listen to my intuition and get out of there. So when Gal asked me to close my eyes and imagine a white ball of light in my centre, I snapped: “Look, I’m a fast learner so can we just get to the point?” “Yah, so, Tommy, do you think that your way of doing things fast and intensely might be part of the reason you’re here? If you’re going to let your patterns dominate even your healing we’re never going to get anywhere.” I doubt I was one of Gal’s easier clients but I really had nowhere left to run to. She was clearly intelligent, very intuitive and I had no choice but to trust. With her help over the next few months, I began to meet myself for almost the first time in my life. We argued most sessions until she’d eventually out-manoeuvre me and show me the disconnect between who I was and who I thought I was. It’s funny but when you go for help, the first thing that usually happens is that you crash. When you take time out then all you’ve been running from catches up with a vengeance. As your therapist holds up a mirror to show you the patterns that have been steering your life into ever-decreasing circles, it’s humbling. It’s like you’ve been walking around for years wearing the Emperor’s New Clothes and you suddenly realise how transparent your act has become. I learnt how much of what I did, thought and said came from deep core beliefs that projected their negative manifestos through me until I took them to be reality itself. Life is painful, I’m unloved, people reject me these were all things that, though I might not have admitted it to myself, on some deep level I took to be the gospel truth. These core beliefs took my past experience and lined up the memories like a prosecuting lawyer might arrange evidence against the defendant:
It’s always been this way, this is how it is now and this is how it will always be. I’ve always been alone, I have no one to love now and I never will. The irony was that these beliefs then pushed me into the kind of behaviour that made them come true. But like snakes who have been sleeping under a rock, these beliefs fought their ground fiercely when disturbed and it was all I could do to imagine that another reality might be possible. The only life rope I had was to trust that Gal knew what she was doing. She wasn’t reading out loud from a psychology textbook or trying out some pet theory, she was there with me every step of the way. I also knew that she’d been through these hellish places in her life and had come out the other side. My suffering wasn’t an academic curiosity for her, it was like a postcard from places she’d already been. And slowly, I began to recognize that there were two sides to the coin; taking responsibility for what had happened to me in Brazil, to acknowledge that the rushes hadn’t been some freak occurrence but the result of all the choices I’d ever made - it just about knocked me over. I felt like a total loser. But the upside of accepting that I’d made the bed I was lying in, was that the power was also in my hands to change it. Yes, maybe I’d totally fucked up until now, maybe I had no idea what life, love or God was all about, maybe I’d gotten totally lost in a series of random trips... But so what? I could only start again from where I found myself. No one was going to think any the less of me for admitting I’d made mistakes and as always, the long journey home could only ever begin with the first step. It took me the better part of 5 months of working with Gal to understand that all these years, I’d been living in a small part of who I really was. I learnt that most of us live in our personality, the collected bunch of beliefs and behaviour we collect as we grow up. We learn defence mechanisms to avoid getting hurt and fine-tune our tricks for getting attention and impressing others. We’re so worried about whether the world will love us that we rarely meet ourselves on our own terms. “Then one day your soul wakes up and says here I am,” Gal laughed, “And until you get to know your real self, you can never hope to know anyone else, much less God.” 206
I didn’t get as far as meeting God in those first five months but the rushes stopped and it was like the sun coming out after a year and a half of bad weather. When the electric shocks to the head felt close by, I had felt like I was only half-alive. I couldn’t imagine a future with them and had almost lost hope that they might ever go away. Working with Gal had required me to go places I never would have chosen to go and at times I had to be dragged along screaming. But as my mental tension eased and I could lie down on my back without fear of my head exploding, I had to admit she’d taken me the right way. My intellect protested at some of her more esoteric ideas but I began to accept the possibility that I just didn’t know. I now had proof that anything was possible. It took another couple of visits to Israel to work with Gal before bigger shifts took place inside. After I crashed in Brazil, my skin had become so thin that I often couldn’t hang out in a bar or a party for more than a few minutes before I broke down in fits of tears. Those first 5 months she could only patch me up to the point that we could repair the worst of the damage done. Passing through the deep existential fears, the impoverished scepticism and the ocean of tears I’d been carrying all these years, took many more sessions and blind leaps of faith. At the risk of sounding born-again, I eventually came to a fundamental choice inside about belief. While I could rationalise just about anything, I knew that thinking didn’t really get me anywhere. I had only to look at the brilliant philosophers and scientists to see the most miserable, alone people in the world. If genius minds hadn’t found the Big Answers what chance did I have? Instead I began to wonder if Joseph Campbell was closer to the truth when he insisted that what we’re really after is a deeper experience of life, not the meaning of it. So I just decided to believe in my own life. I chose to believe that my happiness was in my own hands. That I could be loved. That my pain could be healed. That change could happen. That life is beautiful. And that maybe, positively maybe, we’re not alone in this. And if I was wrong… I’d have lost nothing at all. What was there to lose?
* Still On the Road When you approach 30 this sudden fear kicks in that you’re late for your own life. Maybe you haven’t made money yet, had kids, found where you want to live and want to do. “We might not have done anything with our lives but at least we had no ambition.” an old freak once laughed in Goa and I was touched by the Taoist quality. It reminded me of the old Chinese poet who wrote his verses on paper that he then made into little boats to sail down the stream. I found myself with no money, no qualifications and no real skills that I could trade for money. But then I founded www.roadjunky.com and discovered that I had half a million words of travel advice and stories to share. It turned out there were tens of thousands of disaffected travelers out there in search of themselves and suddenly a community was born. And I had a purpose. I’m still on the road and though sometimes my spirit yearns for somewhere to call home for more than a few months at a time, my life is a pretty rich and rewarding one. I meet amazing people, I see beautiful places and I more or less live from my writing. And though I sometimes feel stuck in my old trips, lost in the labyrinth of life choices, condemned to repeat the familiar patterns, I now know in my heart what Ali always told me: It’s your movie and if you don’t like it just write yourself a better part in the script. Although we can never know how or when, change can happen in a heartbeat.