A Taste of Bangkok

bangkok My husband films abroad for most of the year and if I am to maintain any degree of familiarity, I do the same. I have travelled to North America, Europe, Thailand and Africa in his wake and all have been voyages into the great unknown. Generally speaking the visits have been fabulous opportunities to see wildlife and people otherwise only glimpsed at through media or zoo.

I have visited Bangkok on several occasions, discovering a world where sex is currency, street food should be avoided by delicate western stomachs and a trip in a local taxi could be your last.

street food

The Thais are predominantly Buddhist, their philosophy being that no amount of Health and Safety regulations are likely to interfere with or prevent that karmic moment when your number’s up. So, no seat belts or helmets are worn, though ironically the cabs have little shrines on the dashboard that will help to modify the bad karma imported into the car by unlucky foreigners! There is a horrible sense of impending doom everywhere, bundles of live electrical cables droop heavily onto pedestrian walkways, Rats and cockroaches skitter over street-side food counters, to the dismay of no-one, and motorcycles often bearing more than two passengers, zip along the wrong side of the road and take short cuts along the pavement. This is not a city for the faint-hearted or unwary.

cables

Bangkok, renowned for it’s easy going approach to underage sex, transgender prostitution and open brothels is tempered by its less than relaxed view of drug taking. Getting caught with drugs on or in the vicinity of your person, can result in a long stay in the Bangkok Hilton. This is apparently an ironic title for a prison closer in standard to Dante’s ninth circle of Hell.
However, pushing aside the obvious risks posed, I ventured into ‘Nana Plaza’, the city’s sex mall. It was heaving with Western men of a particular age, education and girth. They sat at numerous open bars, sipping beer and waiting, what for I had no real idea. It could be that the choice was too great, or the constant sexual indulgence was taking its toll on clogged arteries and libido. Whatever the cause, having purchased my entry ticket in the form of a gin and tonic, I was ushered into what I could only consider to be a marketplace. The interior was filled with a central arena, where topless girls, all holding a card with a number on, paraded clockwise, while we (me and a number of paunchy male customers) walked round anti-clockwise. The system had an impeccable logic. You spent the minimum amount of time viewing and, having nominated the lucky girl, wrote down the number and handed it to one of the helpful administrative types that prowled the periphery.

nana

I observed but declined politely.

A Lesson in Kind

teaching1On Thursday I taught a class of 10/11 years olds how to structure and create stories. They’d all been writing stories since they could hold a crayon but a new face, with a couple of new approaches is always welcome. They listened patiently as I enthused over structure, character and plot development but were getting sore bums by the time I’d begun to expound upon the virtues of brainstorming ‘What if?’ scenarios.They wanted to get down to the business of writing and sharing. They’d listened and now they used the writing exercise as a basis for oral storytelling, with each other but mostly with me. A couple of sentences on paper and they’re up on their feet, flapping their paper around and ready to reveal the intricacies of their plot orally.

teaching2

Writing is such a difficult way to express your thoughts and ideas. Why should you have to go through the misery of selecting words, checking punctuation and grammar and exposing yourself to repeated criticism and deconstruction? It’s so much easier and less time consuming just to adopt an expression, establish eye contact and take your listener through the labyrinths of your imagination, constructing a drama with endless possibilities and characters that are vaguely reminiscent of parents, teachers and friends. You can also do a quick volte face when the lure of the bar wins over your epic narrative; shovel in a blood-soaked battlefield; kill off that heroine that bleated too much and create a comic side-kick. You are there, reading your audience and can turn on a dime. These Homers did just that. They read my face and body language and if they thought I wasn’t sufficiently sold on a plot, they’d adapt it. But however much we want to cling onto our oral history and cherish the sit-us-down storytellers, we have to have wordsmiths. These stories, which were told with conviction and boundless energy, were raw, unformed and unedited. The majority of the class weaved the ancient themes of lost love, singular heroes, sacrifices for the good of all and escapes from hideous monsters. What they needed was the time and consideration of planning, structure, twists, reveals and character to turn these memes into something that would merit more than just a grading.

teaching3

It made me think about whether I was writing for pretty much the same reasons. I had written my first novel to prove I could, and to play around with scenarios and characters that pleased and intrigued me. The cold reality is, that as soon as you want someone to pay to buy these thoughts, you’d better be all over the structure, punctuation, twists and authenticity. I chase reviews, positions in the kindle sales ranking and brood endlessly on my progress, or lack of. For all the time spent creating a novel, the same is spent selling it. So, as I contemplate Thursday’s brief return to the classroom, where I distributed knowledge and experience like manna, I wonder whether the learning didn’t go both ways.

Fifty years…A black mamba!

To take the sting out of achieving the half-century my husband took me to Botswana. The Okavango Delta is an African paradise, filled with heart-breakingly generous people and the most varied and overwhelmingly rich mega fauna.We few from Maun to Pom Pom, which is a sandy clearing on the periphery of the flood plain, where we were greeted by giraffe, zebra, ground hornbill and kudu.leopard in tree

 

Not just one or two either! Huge, dust-raising multitudes of ungulates munched their way along the airstrip, not even bothering to raise heads or focus a gaze in our direction. By the time we reached Sandibe Reserve we’d had stones thrown at us by elephants (they drag logs across the roads to stop the land cruisers), seen two leopards draped lethargically from branches and counted at least twenty different species of bird.

Our accommodation was a small luxurious lodge, with outdoor shower (and yes the vervets do watch judgmentally!), four-poster bed and an uninterrupted view of the river. As the sun disappeared thousands of painted frogs, no larger than a postage stamp, began to trill a metallic upper C, at an ear-splitting decibel level.

elephant throwing

On the night of my birthday, after having consumed monumental amounts of food and champagne, we wended our way unsteadily, along the un-lit path back to the lodge. After dark all guests had to be accompanied by a ranger as the hippo, notoriously ill tempered and with a tendency to roam freely around the camp (along with lion) might trample you just to make a point.

The housekeeper had run a bath for me and floated petals and scented oils on the surface. Just as I stepped in there was a loud hysterical shrieking, which was then accompanied by my husband yelling for me to ‘Come immediately.” I entered the bedroom cautiously, as the shrieking was now accompanied by the shape of a creature flailing in the long mesh drapes.

hippo

“That snake-,” my husband waved to a wall behind him, “-bit a squirrel!” Suddenly the curtain began to shake violently, as the squirrel skittered up to the railing and disappeared into the gap between the wall and the thatched roof. There was a flurry of scratching and then an ominous silence.

“What snake?” I asked, with a degree of trepidation. My husband moved back, lowered his tone and cautiously pulled back the adjacent curtain. Above our heads was a large snake. Its coffin-shaped head and extended body leaned improbably away from the wall in an ‘s’ shape. Its underside was grey with darker tones on the back. There had a been an enormous python squatting in the rafters of the dining area, where it occasionally mambashot out like a torpedo to try and snatch an epaulette bat, it’s success ratio was about one a fortnight, according to the rangers. But this snake was nothing like the python, it had a dynamic, slender frame and when it gaped its mouth was coal black. It was the most perfectly alien creature I’d ever seen.

“Keep an eye on it,” said my delighted husband, grabbing the horn and heading for the front door to warn the rangers.leop prints

 

In the tens of seconds that I stood alone and stared at the snake, naked as the day I’d arrived fifty years before, I felt an overwhelming and profound sense of gratitude and brevity. My mitochondrial mothers had also stood naked on this continent and for the brief, shining moments that they and I looked and contemplated the snakes around us, we must have shared the sense that paradise would soon be lost…