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Wednesday 29 May 2013

Votes & Views #33



AFRIKABURN – THE HAPPENING


Three weeks ago, about this time of the morning, my companion and I were sitting in a seemingly endless desert landscape. Just a few, faint shadowy outlines of an escarpment to the east of me; the pink walls of the Cederberg in the far west. To the north the plain reached away into the horizon, just meagrely tufted with the odd, dry, scrubby plant-life. However, we were not alone. From a few hundred metres behind us came the pervasive thump and fragmented phrases of music, waxing and waning on the light breeze. We were at a strange place indeed – AfrikaBurn.

Each year for the past seven years, this alternative art community gathering has assembled at this place, well over a hundred kilometers along a very dusty road from any town, to create transient sculptures, effects, appearances, costumes, noises, music and alter egos. A sprawling settlement of Bedouin tents, caravans, and any other imaginable shelter springs up on the circumference of the inner circle, the ‘Binnekring’ which is about a kilometer across, and open-ended at the southern end, where monumental constructs fade into the distance. At its height, over six thousand revellers, artists and participators, as well as some inevitable spectators, are crammed into the campsite. There are no facilities besides the most basic of pit latrines, screened discreetly with shade cloth above waist height, but open to the desert beyond - the ‘loo with the view’. You bring your own water, food, shelter, and spirituous refreshment for six days – or you go thirsty, hungry, sleepless, cold and sober. But follow a few common-sense precepts, and you are in for a whacky mixture of mediaeval fair, New Age fete, circus, art exhibition, outrageous fashion show, fancy dress party and an overload of other sensory input.

A Gypsey encampment - ours
We didn’t quite know what to expect, but had prepared for it anyway. Several sets of costumes had been sewn, glued, wired and cobbled together, for the theme was to be “Archetypes”, which allowed for great latitude in interpretation. An ad hoc chariot had been re-engineered out of various unlikely materials, to be drawn behind a bicycle. The hired camping trailer provided half the storage, kitchen and accommodation, while a tent and gazebo completed our windswept home. After setting up camp in the swirls of a dust-laden stiff breeze, we took our first walk, down to the Binnekring, to see what was on offer. Everywhere a frenzy of action, preparation and completion was on the go. At this stage only a sprinkling of people wore costumes for the occasion, but already you were invited to participate in adding your daubs to a painting, making a prayer flag, having a cup of very good coffee at the Stasie Kafee or possibly to provide the motive power to a dynamic display which spat a continuous stream of bubbles into the desert air. The aim is to partake and take part – as the fancy takes you. You are free to be as exhibitionistic as you dare, and to partake of as much as you deem to be prudent, to play to your heart’s content, whether you are three or
And on the vast desert expanse...
eighty-three. There is an easy amiability among ‘burners’, a readiness to engage in conversation, a generosity in word, refreshment and deed. You find an interesting setup, you start a conversation, sit down, exchange names, enquire about their creations and get-up and depart after a while in mutual goodwill. It’s all very relaxing and non-threatening. If the crush of people becomes too much, why, then you wander out into the desert, the Binnekring or Playa, for a couple of hundred metres and admire the montages and enormous statuary that have been created by gifted artists, craftsmen and backyard engineers, while you are fascinated by ‘Mutant Vehicles’ testing their, sometimes precariously rehashed wheels, superstructures and motive power. The human imagination boggles at the mobile versions of teapots, scooter flamingoes, ships, a stationary bicycle whose peddlers provided their breakfast smoothie, various animals from camels and bats to eagles and snails, from a porcupine to T Rex, to name but a few. At night brightly illuminated versions of these as well as partygoers, draped in metres of LED lights and glowsticks, streak through the darkness, or blink like a myriad of fireflies. 

Mutant Vehicles
The distances over which the display stretches is daunting and for fitter, younger people than ourselves, bicycles are definitely the method of transport. Never mind, even senior citizens can get around easily, but a shooting stick is a valuable accessory for leaning on as well as taking a few minutes rest every now and then. Wheelchairs, both manual and powered, are not uncommon on this level landscape. The map you are given is a mere approximation of what is where. The otherwise featureless plain is short of landmarks, and it is deceptively simple to lose one’s sense of direction in daylight – not to speak of the middle of the inky night.

As more and ever more people arrive, the camping places get more cheek to jowl. There is a constant stream of cars arriving, each raising a cloud of dust. To complicate matters, innumerable children on bikes are whizzing about, and though we see a few narrow squeaks, there seem to be no fatalities – but I would hate to be the parent of five lively sprouts, as our neighbours are. They have had a long drive, it would seem. After getting their camp in order, the rotund would-be reveller needs a little afternoon sleep. His snores are loud enough to make us want to leave him to his snooze and head out into the melee once more. This among a growing crescendo of five or six different discos blaring out their particular brand of music across the desolation. Soft, silicone earplugs are the ONLY solution to getting a modicum of sleep. At night we have a fire to sit around, as well as a barbecue, but this is a little fraught with danger, as the wind blows in strong gusts, and sparks could so easily cause a catastrophe. We have several fire extinguishers on hand – just in case.

Our first night walk. Our young companions go to a disco and pub. We opt for playing blind man’s buff in the inner circle. Although we both have headlamps, these are only necessary when spotting approaching wheeled traffic, and then to let them know that you are there. The surface is so flat that one can step with confidence into complete darkness, and head for a point of light (where you trust your destination to be) but you might just as easily land up serendipitously at something in between that you did not even know existed. So it is that we try various experiences, mostly involving light and motion, and we are drawn to the flickering flames of a small anonymous funeral pyre of a montage we had not even viewed before the fire. Yes, the idea behind this assembly of artworks, is to burn the majority of them during the festivities. Unfortunately, to the uninitiated, it is not always clear as to what will be incinerated next, nor where it is to be found. Instead, we learn to watch the route of the fire tender, the drift of the crowds at night, as well as the appearances of the aptly named ‘Sawdust Cannon’ which lights up the desert with great billows of flame as it travels around. After an hour or two, we are exhausted and opt for bed atop the camping trailer, where we are rocked to sleep by fitful tugs of the aspirant gale that flaps the attached tent and canopies.

Boadicea, her chariot and trusty Zebricorn
The event gathers momentum and the actors – including ourselves – get into gear. Walkabout in costume (or the lack thereof, as one very scantily clad sprite does) is the thing to do. If you have a Mutant Vehicle, take it for a spin; pick up crowds of children young and old alike and negotiate your way carefully through the crowds of cyclists, pedestrians and motorists. Smile, chat, look about you, get photographed and point your own gadget of choice at whatever sight tickles your visual fancy. There is a large battered truck, bearing the sign ‘Free Wine’. As long as you bring your own mug/glass, you can contribute towards the effort of making the load a little lighter. Sure, it’s not the best Sauv blanc, but who cares in that dry as dust arena? The accent was on ‘giving’. The only commodity for sale on site was ice. That was trucked in daily at great cost and dispensed to the thirsty and hot masses. Further, everything on offer was yours free, gratis, with a smile. The spirit of mutual generosity welled up in all but a few who came only to take. Yes, there 

were some who staggered noticeably and slurred their speech, others wandered about vacantly staring into a space uniquely of their own chemical manufacture, a lot of raucous laughter was heard and presumably there was a whole lot of lovin’ going on – but with the exception of a few small groups of youths ranging about, loudly proclaiming their self-importance in speech liberally larded with fexpletives, there was very little to offend any reasonable person. I do believe there was an argument within a few metres of me, but it was so short, I missed it entirely and was only told about it afterwards.

It was advisable for us, who lacked the stamina to partake of the party spirit for the entire morning, afternoon, or evening at one go, to return to camp for a little r&r, not to speak of a comfort break at the outlying toilets, every couple of hours. The impact on the senses was just too great to be able to assimilate everything. Inevitably we missed many once-off events, which may have been advertised on the programme, or on a notice board somewhere, but which went unnoticed among the many distractions. When all else failed, one sat in one’s ‘lounge’ under the gazebo, sipped a cool drink and watched the passing parade. It was a pastime that never failed to entertain. Feathers, veils, outrageous attire made from improbable materials, rehashed footwear, clanking metal accoutrements or large expanses of bare skin– the display of different peoples’ views and opinions of what was fitting, stylish or just plain shocking, fascinated endlessly. If you sat in your chair for long enough, why, it was almost certain everything mobile or ambulant would pass in front of your ringside seat sooner or later. If someone looked as if they just had to be immortalized in electronic form, you jumped up and asked permission to photograph the person – just good manners.

We attend the major burn of the whole event that night, that of the ‘Arch Clan’, a huge, circular construct, towering about twenty metres high over a platform on which it had been built of wood and rush-mats. The crowds were restrained in a circle round the massive sculpture at a distance of about fifty metres by the marshals. Then, after a preliminary firedance by a troupe, without further fanfare, the flame was kindled, and within a few minutes the entire huge wheel was ablaze and the surrounding crowd ‘melted’ further back into the darkness to escape the searing heat. A brief, spectacular and sobering reminder that on our human scale, organic life is short.

Just 'Married'
A mass purple wedding has been planned, we had heard. Being thusly inclined, my companion and I duly queue up clad in purple (myself in blonde wig and in drag) and we are honoured to be the first to have our vows read to the assembled masses by the bogus bishop, in which we promise each other full participation in each other’s aching bones and wobbly bits. All courtesy of a pushy, inebriated partygoer who has insinuated himself as our ring-bearer and who whispered arcane blandishments (or threats?) into the bishop’s ear. Our wedding ‘song’ is blasted out by the bish’s backing disco, while we indulge in a suitably triumphal dance. The rest of the crowd gets ‘married’ en masse. Our camp neighbour, a dour-looking lady from somewhere on the Platteland, tells us later, that she thought our ceremony was ‘touching’.

We stumble on an ear-bending heavy metal disco in the dark of night, which consisted of a whole armament of heavy artillery and fireworks mounted on a truck, while four DJ/musicians disported themselves on another contraption in front of the vehicle, using anything from an anvil to a angle-grinder and trumpet to give a dazzling, deafening, but most enjoyable performance. Many of the major burns had an accompaniment in the shape of a psychedelically illuminated, topless bus, complete with disco and a rocking crowd of spectators clinging to the top and sides to give a musical send-off to the immolation of another work of art. 

The Grateful Heart Burn
By accident, we landed up in one of the far-flung corners of the arena, as a towering structure of a giant cheese-grater and its cheesey heart (Grateful Heart) were being toasted. The introductory firedancers were a class act by themselves, but then the fire shaman, the father of all archetypes, created the magic flame by friction and set the huge construction ablaze. It took a while to catch alight, but once the huge plywood edifice was enveloped in the conflagration, it became so torrid that the crowds almost caused a stampede to get out of reach of that fiery breath. Out of the inferno a number of small, raging tornadoes emerged in an eerie procession, like spirits of the departed, and danced towards the spectators, before they evaporated within a few seconds – an infernal phantasmagoria.

Kitchen Fire
At 1 am the Department of Public Works’ camp kitchen, twenty metres behind us, explodes. We are woken by the bang of the gasbottles spewing metal fragments into the night - but go back to sleep, as bangs are an everyday occurrence. Then we are roused by our young companions who tell us that the camp must be evacuated immediately. We hastily pull on some clothes, and I make my way through the huddle of tents towards the glow of the fire. It is across a roadway and there are crowds gathering. The works team has already contained it into one large blazing heap. Not a breath of wind. Unthinkable what could have happened if there had been a storm, as was the case during previous nights. We go back to bed. The whole thing is downplayed, and the event goes on as before, but revellers are asked for donations, as the works team are without food and water supplies. All they have left is a pile of empty fire extinguishers. When we leave a couple of days later, without intending any sarcasm, I offer them my two extinguishers, and they are accepted gratefully.

As kaleidoscopic, hot days follow luridly firelit, starry, cold nights, we find ourselves amused, entertained, amazed in turn, but also emotionally and intellectually involved. Though the incessant noise assaulted our senses, at times we chose to ‘sit in’ on one of the roving disco experiences, and sway and stamp along to the beat with crowds of youngsters the age of our grandchildren. In between venues, animated conversations would start up with complete strangers in the semi-dark; experiences would be exchanged and pointers given to future events. These new acquaintances might at times switch on their headlights and then find out that we were of a quite different generation from themselves – and they would be unexpectedly delighted by our age-difference – as we were; to find communication so easy in that environment. There was a definite sprinkling of mature hippies among the crowds, not to speak of downright old fogeys like us, but we were far in the minority.

On the last day, the wine truck was still doing its rounds. Among the many offerings, the Stasie Kafee had run dry of their thousands of litres of coffee; the screenprinter had run out of paint; our little contribution of free, elderly sci-fi books had been looted; many of the man-powered contraptions had lost their chains or drive-belts and stretches of desert were empty of monumental sculpture, and the sawdust buckets at the pit latrines were empty. There were huge gaps in the camp-site, and deserted Bedouin tents flapped in the breeze. The Binnekring still sported a number of non-incendiary sculptures dotted about, but already teams of volunteers were collecting the inevitable debris left by the masses as they were trying to eradicate all ‘Matter Out Of Place’ to leave the desert as they found it. We had been part of a Happening, in the true sense of the word, and as we left, we feel we have gained so much - yet why are we as desolated as the landscape that surrounds us?

Votes & Views #32



PENANG PERAMBULATIONS

For this leg of the journey, I had booked ahead to stay a few days in a ‘homestay’ in Penang, touted as being a great cultural experience, as well as within walking distance of the city centre. I was genuinely excited and looking forward to a few days on this small island, part of Malaysia, which was a notable hub of the spice trade and reputed to be a foodie destination of note.

At the Phuket airport lounge I was accosted by an elderly Chinese from Penang, and we engaged in a serious discussion on the evils of governments, especially when it came to the rights of minority groups. Obviously his people don’t feel safe in Malaysia; jobs are reserved for the Malaysians, money is pumped into their education, health and pensions, while lesser groups’ needs are ignored to a large extent. Nepotism and corruption are rife, and the rulers are as corrupt as can be since all criticism is stifled. So what’s different from Africa? He reckons that Malaysia is also suffering a huge brain drain from all the educated, and more especially the Chinese leaving. We wasted a mutually informative hour and then boarded another of these little turboprops that we had first encountered in Vietnam. There were only between 20–30 passengers, and I wondered how long Firefly Airlines (cute name) could possibly keep aflight at that rate of occupancy. All along the route, while there was no cloud cover, there was land in sight. Either the sea was dotted with islands, minute to respectable chucks of crust, or the Malaysian coast lurked in the shadows and waxed and waned. The approach confused me entirely, as we approached from the south of the island, crossed the third-longest road bridge in the world, and then came to another under construction, of a similar design.

Immigration was pretty laid-back again and with one or two exceptions who encountered difficulties, the passengers were all let loose on Malaysia. We queued for tickets, then we queued for taxis, but instead of my age and Buddha-like figure being the decider, the family before me and the single guy behind me got the Mercedes, and I got a clunker with a bad gearbox, juddering clutch, bad brakes and poor driver. We landed in the Friday afternoon rush-hour and my man weaved, ducked, jumped lanes, got lost and referred the problem back to me. I refused to help; he being supposed to know how his town was assembled. So phone for help brother, you have a cell phone! With directions relayed to me, I succeeded in locating the landmark which we were meant to find in Pengkalan Weld, the promenade along the bay, as he attended to the traffic, but he overshot the mark and had to get back to where I’d asked him to stop in the first instance. This was where I was decanted as his car could obviously not ride on a walkway a few feet wide. There was no signage, so I had to take it on trust that we had arrived at the correct place. I promised him dire curses would be laid on his head if he just deserted me in what would turn out to be just a warren of old Chinatown. Bag slung over my shoulder, I dived into the seething melee, and was soon on some sort of a jetty, which a few friendly elders, sitting smoking in front of a technicoloured temple in their underclothes, affirmed indeed to be Chew Jetty.

Chew Jetty
This was a culture shock of some proportion. We had seen a sea-gypsy village in Halong Bay, where a few dozen boats were moored together, but nothing like this modern-day perpetuation of an ancient Chinese way of life. Instead of wooden stakes being rammed into the lagoon bottom they had taken a stack of 25-litre paint tins, knocked out the bottoms and filled them with concrete and perching these on top of each other to obtain a forest of tottering, rusting piles. This is obviously a more permanent solution than wooden pillars which could be attacked by marine borers. However, even the platforms and walkway showed many signs of repairs and additions, which testified to the age of this place. The houses were built cheek by jowl on these with a narrow frontage, often with a flat platform verandah, on which you might find the sleeping forms of elderly or otherwise idle people. The houses extended the entire length of the jetty, leaving a precarious four-plank walkway, bicycle and motorbike lane, with odd open spaces on the opposite side where fishing skiffs are moored, just the place for hordes of tourists, playground for toddlers, kids, teens doing tricks on their bikes and mommies with perambulators. 

This is after all a UNESCO World Heritage site and Chinese from the world over have come to view part of their diasporan history. Even they were overawed and muted by this microcosm of Chinese early life that had been preserved for touristiority. Whole groups were being photographed at key points of the jetty, which seemed to include the porch of my destination, as it had a large poster proclaiming its ancestry, on the wall. However, the security gate was firmly locked and there was no reply to my ‘hallo’ from the interior. A kind, if surly, lady from across the jetty took mercy upon me and made a call to someone. Obviously with some success, as she motioned me to take a seat on a bench on her porch and commanded me in an unknown tongue to wait. With some trepidation, I have to admit, I sat on the kerb, in a strange city, in a strange country, without anyone round me even speaking a smattering of the same language. This certainly looked as if it might be an adventure of sorts, so I made the best of it – smiled at everyone going past, waved at the kids, and consented to be photographed by the tourists. The shoe was certainly on the other foot, and I had become a noteworthy sight on this historic jetty. Time passed; then a middle-aged lady came bustling up and greeted me – in Hokkien, I presume, since I didn’t understand a word. She led me to the closed security gate, opened it and beckoned me inside. It was a fully functional home; no frills, nothing special. My room was about two by four metres, lined with clapboard, one fluorescent on the ceiling and a fan as well as an air conditoner (which roared horribly at intervals). The mattress had a sheet over it, and two covered pillows; towels in the wardrobe – that seemed to be it. She led me along through the house to the kitchen, pointed out kettle, teabags, instant coffee and a bowl of fruit. The rest was obviously up to me. I heard some vague gurgling sounds from nearby, which reminded me that my last visit to the toilet had been a while back. I mimed flushing a toilet, and she pointed at a corner screened off by some corrugated asbestos sheets. The door was closed, so I knocked and was answered by a male voice. Mrs Chew explained something unintelligible and we wandered on through the house. A few moments later we were joined by a burly man clad in a towel. Obviously Mr Chew; so I introduced myself, he grunted and departed elsewhere, while his spouse pointed to a child in a family photo on the wall, saying ‘daughter’ and pointing at the wall clock’s face, miming that she would be here at 9 p.m. Before leaving me to it, she pulled out her cell phone, dialed said daughter and handed it over to me. A slightly incoherent conversation followed, during which unseen daughter tried to interpret all the features of her home to me, while leaving out all the important bits. But she would be home later and we would meet face to face, she ended breathlessly. I told her that I was looking forward to that.
Mrs Chew departed; Mr Chew had stretched himself out on the planks of an attached deck at the rear of the house and was snoring loudly, so I could do whatever I wanted to do. Nature called and I returned to the recently vacated cubicle in the kitchen. The sanitary arrangements in the house consisted of a slightly bigger than a metre square concrete slab with a squat-toilet bowl sunk flush into it, a cold shower head, and a plastic pipe with a faucet, lying handy in case one should not wish to use the nonexistent toilet paper. Through the porcelain’s hole one had a fine view of the somewhat murky green sea below. Ah well, as I was in Georgetown, I did as the Georgians did. There was no room for a washbasin, which was in the kitchen, next to the sink; neither was there a mirror. That made some sense, since Chinese people don’t shave much.
Chew Jetty Eatery
I was parched, so decided to prospect for some local brew. There were a number of shops along the jetty, selling snacks, tourist geegaws and foodstuff labeled in Chinese. At the first fridge I saw, I made enquiries and for a change spoke to a young lady with a reasonable command of English, who was bouncing a fat baby on her hip. No, beer she did not have. What? Didn’t Chinese drink beer? I asked. She explained that she liked to keep alcohol off the premises as far as she was able, but that I could get it on terra firma a hundred metres further along. We had a short chat about why I was there, where I was staying and what I was paying for my accommodation (a query repeated by everyone I chatted with). In no time I found a tavern which dispensed a couple of cans of the local brew, and as I had noticed a flourishing food market as we drove in along the promenade, so I decided to dip in there for supper. A very attractive-looking stall with a large crowd immediately caught my eye, but apparently they were getting their sustenance in a raw form, which meant they then had to do a sort of fondue-style cook-out. It was a sultry evening, and the idea of standing next to a roaring gas burner seemed just a little too close to purgatory to appeal much, so I wandered off until I found me a Hokkien Mee stall selling a noodle concoction with shrimps, pork and bean sprouts. I needed somewhere to sit and drink my beer as well as eat, so I wisely invested a tad more than a dollar and had me a fair portion of eminently edible stuff, while downing some cold lager at the same time. A lad came over with a drinks menu, and I waved him away, but I had obviously transgressed the rules of the place as he pointedly left the menu, which stated quite clearly in many languages that patrons of the food-stalls were to buy at least one drink per table, at a minimum – so he must have been the landlord or clan chief or something. As I wanted some real coffee to take home for the next morning, I hastened to comply with house rules, and got a double takeaway in a plastic bag with a straw in it. Neat solution.
Well, that was the inner man taken care of, so I wended my way back along the jetty, nodding to the neighbours, so to speak, and looking into the shrines as well as the front doors of every house, which were left open to let some of the heat escape. My abode was deserted except for the still form on the planks at the rear, so I took my remaining beer to a lounger on another part of the precarious deck which surrounded the house, and watched the passing parade. One of the reasons for wanting to get off the jetty for supper had been the pervasive, gentle, putrid perfume of sewage that enveloped the entire historical site. Not unnaturally so, since everything emanating from a few hundred people living there, went down the drain, straight into the sea. Since this was a quiet backwater of the bay, there was hardly any wave motion, and I doubt there was much by way of a current. A romantic picture it might make, but pixels don’t pong. The reality is somewhat more unpalatable. Maybe the evening air had something to do with it, but I finished my beer as quickly as possible and went to my air conditioned room, which while it did not smell any better, at least the miasma was cooler.

My verandah
A little later some people entered the house. I investigated, and found to my surprise that I was sharing the house not only with the Chews, but also with three youngsters from Ghuangzhou. This was going to get really chummy, especially considering the dearth of plumbing. Nothing I could do about anything at this stage, but wait for the daughter to arrive. This did not happen, as far as I could discern, so finally I went to sleep. In the middle of the night, there was suddenly a huge racket. Doors banged, people talked loudly and stomped up and down outside the room, which, since the whole place was built on planks, made the bed rock violently. For a while I tried to ignore it, hoping it would stop and I could go back to my slumbers. As the racket carried on unabated, my ire overflowed and I had a look at the time; 1.22 a.m. – I shot out of bed and out into the house to confront two girls in their nighties (me in my boxer shorts). They looked suitably abashed by my sharpish query as to what the hell they thought they were up to in the middle of the night, and stuttered something about only brushing their teeth. I snarled at them to keep quiet and let senior citizens have their sleep, and retired once more. For some reason the talk continued, as did the shifting of furniture and thudding of feet. By 2.30 I was ready to commit murder, so I banged on the wall and shouted ‘shut up’. This did seem to have some effect, but once I wake up in those small hours, it takes me a while to go back to sleep. Instead I spent some of my waking hour(s) trawling the internet for alternative accommodation – which seemed uncommonly scarce – but then, it was the weekend and Georgetown was obviously a popular destination. By 6.30 the kids were at it again, this time at the front gate – leaving. They were sped on their way by my thunderous looks and disappeared out of my life.

I managed my ablutions under trying conditions, which I will leave to the readers’ imagination, but they included a shave under the cold shower – by touch. As I came out of the ‘bathroom’ I was accosted by a very attractive young lady on her way out, whom I naturally assumed to be the missing Miss Chew. She was, but not the right one, instead she was the Singapore sister on a visit. I asked after the whereabouts of her sibling, and she assured me she would be meeting her for breakfast – which I hoped I would also be able to do, since I had a few choice words I wished to communicate. There were obviously Chinese girls hidden in all sorts of unsuspected corners of the house, since a little later Siew Pheng, the queen pin of this whole scheme, appeared. A lovely lass, actually, full of apologies for my night of misery, and quite willing to refund me all monies paid, call me a taxi, get me fixed up somewhere else, and so on. How could I not mellow under this charm offensive? I explained that I just couldn’t stay under these conditions, took back the money for the nights not yet used, as such and she even helped to carry my luggage to the taxi she had summoned. We parted on excellent terms and I was in the hands of a driver who demonstrated some impressive local knowledge. He suggested that my possible choice of destination, which I had made during the night via the internet, might be a little rowdy, since it was a popular hangout with Aussie and Kiwi backpackers. In fact the whole street suffered from the same problem, while the next street was a lot more laid back, quieter and populated by older patrons. I was only too glad to agree to this, but the first half dozen places were already full and unable to accommodate me. Finally we arrived at the 75 Travellers’ Lodge, where a dour Chinese elder, who went by the name of Feng, inducted me into the mysteries of a fairly unprepossessing room with the tiniest skylight admitting a dim semblance of daylight – but it had a toilet, a basin and a shower all crammed in one cubicle, as well as a bed and air conditioning – what more could a man want. It was near the centre of town, which made walking about a possibility, and eateries abounded on every street, according to Feng. I found out about the three mosques within earshot the next morning at about 5 a.m.

I moved in and almost immediately left again to seek sustenance. Within a block I came to an Indian place. Not overcrowded, but some patrons. The first dish I chose was not available, the second, a rawa thosi, was. This was absolutely delicious, and while the coffee wasn’t really to my taste, I couldn’t complain. Siew had written down a couple of streets for me where she thought I might find antique books, so I set off. Almost immediately I was sidetracked into Chowrasta market, which I didn’t even know existed. Stalls, mostly offering fresh fruit, vegetables, prepared foods and drinks, lined the alleys, while inside the cavernous building meat, poultry and fish occupied one side while the other held displays of haberdashery and dry foodstuff. I was delighted to come across produce that was unfamiliar once more. There was a pickled green tuber, shun-tshe, which unfortunately was too large to buy for a sample; then a pink flower bud, Rosella, which is eaten as a vegetable, a type of ginger I had never tasted before, a number of new gourds and squashes, which I was not about to sample, and as a first prize, they also had water-chestnuts, something I had been looking for since Hanoi. I also bought some jackfruit and sabodille, which looked rather like dusky sheep’s testicles, but taste gorgeous. It was hot work, going up and down tiny alleys, but I managed to criss-cross the entire place and finally set off well supplied on the antiques search once more.
There were a couple of secondhand bookshops, from one of which I managed to get a fairly current guide to Myanmar, but I was less successful with older material. Only one shop owner confessed to having had Burmese laquerwork books in the past, like the one I refused in Phuket, but his supply had dried up. My hip and back were murderously sore, so I kept on having to try to find places where I could rest for a few minutes. Suddenly I spotted a roadside eatery selling the familiar Chinese steamed bun. The language problem arose once more and I couldn’t establish whether they were sweet or savoury, but the lady beckoned me inside and to my delight, showed me a trolley full of steaming dim sum that had chunks of prawn sticking out of the little darlings. Now I had been looking for such an establishment ever since we arrived in the east, and I was delighted to make my choice of four types, three apiece, with a pot of tea thrown into the bargain. I was not disappointed. This was absolutely delicious stuff, but for the first time in my life, I had a problem eating my food with chopsticks, since being steamed pasta, they were as slippery as greaseballs. Well-satisfied, I plodded back through the streets, with only one task to fulfill, i.e. the purchase of a small pocket knife which I could use to peel my water chestnuts, as I had to leave my key-ring sized Swiss Army job in Singapore since I might have bene suspected of hijacking intentions on the flights. Finding one was quite difficult, as Chinese cooks and Tong members are both known for their liking of huge cleavers, but at last I was successful at a small hole-in-the-wall general dealer and, exhausted, I dragged myself back to the lodge to try and catch up on a bit of sleep.

Dim sum banquet
That evening I sallied forth once more to a place nearby, which my landlord had recommended. The Red Garden was touted as a night market and the biggest assembly of seafood in town. Yes well, we would see. It was only a few blocks distant, so I made my way there and found a large courtyard populated with the inevitable plastic chairs and tables, and very little else, since the hour was early. Nonetheless, the stalls around the periphery promised a huge choice, at very reasonable prices. After doing a round of window-shopping, I was seduced by the sushi stall – something clean and simple to start with, I thought. I ordered a modest platter and a large beer, which arrived in a wine bucket filled with ice – a most sensible idea in this heat. It was also a big mistake; it was the worst sushi I have ever eaten. The fish was dry, tough, leathery and the rice was awful too. Obviously the genre has not translated well into the tropics. To make up for the disappointment, next was an oyster omelette that I had been wanting to sample since Hanoi, where instead, we had been presented with an omelette sprinkled with tiny clams. This one was excellent, and I felt a lot happier still, when I saw another stall opening up and hanging out a sign proclaiming that they would be selling dim sum. But sufficient unto the day; I went home to a slightly less noisy night’s rest.
The morning was grey and misty – or smoggy, when I stuck my head out of the door, but there were things to do. It was Sunday, 9 a.m., and the streets were eerily quiet in this nation of Moslems and Chinese. The shutters were down over the shop fronts, there were almost no cars on the roads – this did not bode well. The place I had earmarked for breakfast was lifeless. So were the next half dozen eateries. This was a calamity. I moved over to a cyclo rank where a dozen men were sprawled in a half comatose state over their vehicles and the pavement. I asked if they were in business, and if so, what the rate would be. The head man answered that it was the expected ten ringits (US$3) an hour, so the cyclo mafia had penetrated here as well. I stated that I wanted someone to take me to Little India and the head man detailed one of his scrawny minions to take me. 

I first felt his muscles to see whether he could shift my hefty frame, then I had a mate take a photo of me reclining in my conveyance, and we were off. My pedal pusher managed quite well, but I did feel somewhat insecure, as he went through stop streets, turned without looking into intersections, with a blithe disregard for the safety of my legs, which after all, would be the first to impact any oncoming traffic. Still, this lord of the roads proclaimed proudly that he had delivered me at my destination after no more than five to ten minutes of leisurely exertion along level roads. He held out his hand and said ‘ten ringits’. 

‘Not on your nelly, you haven’t earned your cash yet, so drive me round the place’, I replied. A heated argument ensued in which he reiterated that he had delivered me to my destination and I could expect nothing more, while I said I wanted my sixty minutes for that extortionate amount which his boss man had quoted me anyway. I can’t recall the exact words we exchanged, but in the end I threw the money at him and he left it lying in the street and rode off into the sunrise, shouting uncomplimentary terms over his shoulder. I picked up my ringits and looked round. Little India at this stage consisted of several tables at the roadside, with some work in progress, but no produce to be seen. Obviously its existence was pretty erratic. Across the road was a garish temple, mainly in pink, with clashing shades of purple, turquoise and gold. That was it, nothing further. I consulted my tourist guide and decided that probably the ferry to the mainland was my best option for something to do in this defunct town. It was quite a long walk, since I entered the terminal from the wrong side, but I made it onto the double decker ferry just in time as the gates closed. I shrugged aside the ridiculous return fare of the equivalent of forty cents US for two twenty-minute ferry rides and boarded. At that stage I had no idea whatsoever what to do on the mainland, so I looked once more at the map, and to my delight, found an arrow leading off into the hinterland, which proclaimed ‘St Anne’s Church, Bukit Martajam, is the site of an annual pilgrimage, and which houses the Cherun Tokun stone with a 5th century Buddhist inscription in the Pali script.’ What serendipity! This was surely a worthy place to visit, and possibly to photograph.

 Fortunately the first taxi drivers I accosted on the other side of a twenty minute ferry ride, both knew about the church, and one even knew of Cherun Tokun. We struck a deal and set off into mainland Malaysia in a very ramshackle Toyota with collapsed seats, blown exhaust and a variety of other ailments and deficiencies which would make it unroadworthy in most countries. Still, the steed and the driver were willing. On this side of the straits the country was much more third world. The roads were still good, but buildings looked much shabbier, rustier and neglected; there was rubbish strewn all over and the traffic was wilder and more erratic than in well-ordered Penang. There were numerous factories, but most were elderly, obviously producing goods for local consumption, unlike the gleaming industrial giants of branded world products that I had observed on the island. We drove for what seemed like an hour, which made me a bit apprehensive about the low rate quoted for the trip, but my man said he knew where it was. Finally we came up against crowds of people and a road block manned by police. My man turned off and parked. He turned round apologetically and gestured that I should get out and walk; St Anne’s was thataway. It turned out that I had just chosen the good saint’s day, of all days, to come here, and the road was blocked by a throng of pilgrims, worshippers and sightseers as well as stalls selling food, drink, garments, religious mementoes and votive offerings. Rather reluctantly I set off on foot, after a burly parking attendant with no English, assured me that it was the way to go. Most of the pilgrims seemed to be of Indian descent, with a sprinkling of Chinese and a few Malays, which, coupled with a Catholic saint’s festival, seemed quite odd in a Moslem country. Every few hundred metres I asked for reassurance that I was still on the right path. No spire was to be seen anywhere, but then there were a lot of trees in the way. My last informant, who was selling ingenious two-metre long votive candles, obviously for megasinners – no thicker than a centimetre, but cunningly taped to a sturdy stick to keep them from drooping in the heat, waved me to the left round the next clump of trees, and sure enough, there was the church.

A really interesting style of architecture, reminiscent of the layered roofs of Thai temples, but without the upswept ends. At the front, an open, arched portico with slanting walls sheltered a statue of the saint, the focal point for the crowds, and quite ethereal, beautiful choral singing, not at all Christian-sounding to my ears, washed over the surrounding countryside. Thousands of pilgrims bearing lit candles, surged inexorably towards the saint, while other streams of humanity flowed away again. An impressive and ordered scene. But my taxi was waiting, and I had to find my stone. Again, it proved to be something of a task, given the crowds, the language barrier, coupled to the fact that it was a pagan monument. Nonetheless, with a lot of goodwill and help from bystanders, I finally arrived at a massive boulder, larger than an elephant, inside a fenced enclosure, under a roof. To my disappointment, there was very little to see, except, very plainly the date, 1840, chiseled into the top, and various graffiti from thence onwards, culminating with ‘David loves Mary’ in quite fresh chalk. I could hardly make out the Pali script, but took photos nonetheless. I hope to be able to find out from other sources whether this is an ancestral form of the Balinese, a thousand years later.
A sweaty half hour later, I rejoin my patient cabby and we drive back to port. In appreciation for his good services and reasonable fare, I overpay him – something I have not been noted for in Asia. Again, I manage to sprint on board the ferry as the gates are closing. By the time I get back on dry land, I am parched, starving and dead tired. I need a rest, so decide to lash out and enrich the taxi industry some more. A drive to Penang Hill is indicated. At the taxi rank a burly Indian chappie with a smattering of known language is located and he quotes me a fairly hefty price for the trip, but as I have no map on me which indicates exactly where this hillock is to be found, I agree. He’s a chatty lad and I finally find out why Penang has died this Sunday morning. According to cabby, the Moslems wanted Friday as their day of rest, which is only fair, since they are in the majority; however the Chinese had the most economic clout, and they wanted to work seven days a week to satisfy their admirable work ethic, whereupon the Indians joined with the rest of the minority groups in protesting that man shall not live by work at all times, and the previous government apparently bowed to the might of the supposedly Christian West, declared Sunday as an optional workday in deference to the mighty dollar, and now nobody is satisfied. At least that’s how his story went. On the last stretch of road leading up the hill to the station, there is one almighty big Chinese temple. Over the top doesn’t begin to describe it. I tried a photograph on the way down, but it’s so big there’s no way to fit it into a frame from across the street.
At the funicular I pay my dues (about the same as the Table Mountain cable car’s) and wait in the supposed queue as half a hundred Indians managed to insinuate themselves in front of me inside of ten minutes waiting time. It’s one of their national virtues and pastimes, I believe. The train arrived, suitably slanted at about thirty degrees, and as soon as it is gorged with passengers, departs at a breathtaking speed up the hill, actually much too fast to let anybody get much of a view of anything except dense jungle, the odd house and a few cuttings and tunnels rushing past. The good company was not going to waste time, which was money, on a day when they could cram 120 people into the caboose every five minutes at $10 a pop, were they? The station at the crest was actually nothing of the sort. From it you could spend a further tidy sum of money and take a golf-cart buggy-ride to a ‘ginger garden’ and aviary at the summit. A winding road led there, which had the health warning sign up, saying it would take 15 minutes to walk the distance. I was tempted, as I might have enjoyed the gingers, but given the touristy locale, I decided it probably wasn’t worth it, so opted for a much-needed snack and drink at the overpriced food court to rest my wearies. Admittedly it was a touch cooler here than in the muggy city, which I thought might be due to the fact that we were up in the pea soup which could be described as light cloud cover (you certainly could see almost nothing of the city below), but then I discovered that the roofed-over, but open-sided food court, was actually air-conditioned by a bunch of oversized units causing global warming elsewhere, and dropping condensation on all the inmates.

There was nothing more to do, so I decided to quit, and queued, coincidentally with the same fifty Indians who again proceeded to push past me, until the train arrived. As the rush commenced, I decided to repay in the same coin, and Asiatics were shouldered aside ruthlessly, toes were trampled and my meaty arm barred passage to many a Tamil. I didn’t get quite to the front of the carriage, since there was a burly Brahmin in a white robe, a good foot taller, and a foot bigger round the waist than I, whom I just couldn’t shift. But I snuck in close to him so that at least by cricking my neck, I could see our descent, and I certainly spoilt everyone’s photos by being in them. The ascent had been fast; the descent was quite hair-raising, especially at one point where the line suddenly dipped to at least 50 degrees and it felt as if we were falling over the edge of the hill. Most impressive and entertaining. I toyed with the idea of taking a bus back to the city, but as I had a vague idea that the terminus was a goodly footslog from the inn, I gave in to temptation and found yet another taxi, who charged me 40% less than the robber who had brought me out here. This elderly gent and I had almost no conversational skills in common, but he very ably deposited me where I hoped to get a real meal. To my disgust, the establishment was also closed for the non-Sabbath. So I cast about and finally found me a working class Tamil establishment, which dished up a good, solid dosa dish, and a most enjoyable vegetarian vermicelli noodle mush, washed down with iced coffee since they didn’t serve beer – all for less than the price of a cup of coffee in Cape Town. At last a bit of economy along with all this reckless expense of the day!
My afternoon rest was disturbed by frenzied bouts of drumming, seemingly from the next room at the inn. It started, rose to a crescendo, dropped to a few rolls, then the odd tap, then silence; then it would recommence. Problem was, one never knew when the drumming was going to start up, and it did, for some hours. I was minded to give this hippie maniac who was relieving his stresses, a good solid piece of my mind, when I realised that the noise was actually coming from another building behind ours. On enquiring at the front desk, Feng’s stand-in led me to understand that it was either a martial arts group or dancing troupe that was giving a performance in a clan temple. I returned to my 

Chulia Temple
room and practiced meditation. Whatever it was, it finally ended as night fell. To compensate I went to indulge on some divine dim sum, sampled dried, toasted calamari chips, and even ventured into the field of what I thought were sausages, but later came to the conclusion that they were actually crisp, fried lengths of intestine, without the stuffing that normally makes a sausage. No matter, it all tasted good.
My night was yet another uneasy one as a Nordic berserker couple discovered a good WiFi signal in the ablution block right next to my door. They set up their computer a scant two metres from me and proceeded to bellow out messages of goodwill to their family members in far-flung countries. As midnight loomed, my composure deserted me completely and I once more entered the fray clad suitably in boxer shorts and a bad attitude. I bellowed at them that it was the middle of the night and to kindly shut up and keep their folks awake in the morning and let me go to sleep. They ducked their heads apologetically, lowered their voice by half a decibel and shut down the Skype within a few minutes, thus avoiding murder and possible compound computer fracture. Again, getting annoyed at that time of night doesn’t help in getting to sleep, but at least I slept through the muezzins’ early throat clearings at first sparrow belch.
At last Monday and normality came to all of us. I hobbled out of the inn as fast as I could and scouted for calories. I passed by a few Eurocentric eateries offering eggs, toast and marmalade and opted instead for one of the ubiquitous ‘Mee’ stands on a corner. His menu was all Hokkinese to me, so he pointed out heaps of ingredients, like three sorts of noodles, assorted chopped veg, shrimps, chips of meat – that sort of thing. I chose several innominate ingredients and asked him to do his cheffy thing and sat down, ordering iced coffee as an afterthought. This came from the other side of the stand, where another man was offering similar fare, but based on a staple of rice. It seems a fairly common practice in Penang for food hawkers to combine forces; one holds the lease on the premises, but sublets a corner to another competitor, in the hope that the greater spread of dishes will attract more custom, some of which will rub off onto him. An eminently sensible idea, especially so when most foodsellers specialise in one type of dish only. My man quickly stoked up his hibernating charcoal embers in an oil-drum which was cut in half, by turning a crank on an air-pump and plonking his wok on the resultant white heat. A handful of this and that, a sprinkle of the other, frantic stirring and in less than two minutes I had my steaming, tasty dish in front of me.

Street Eatery Basics
The inner man replete, a taxi was next on my list since I couldn’t face a whole morning’s walk. First the cabby was requested to show me the architectural highlights of the early 19th century city hall, law courts, St George’s Church, etc, which were most impressive. The magnificent Eastern and Oriental Hotel also, was on a scale I had not seen before. Large and grand enough to compete with Buckingham Palace, it looked; all gleaming white pillars, domes and porticoes where your chauffeur would whoosh you up to the pearly gates in your Rolls. No, I did not peep inside. They would in all likelihood have hoofed me out, dressed modishly in crumpled shorts and shirt with $5 sandals. Fort Cornwallis came next; a square and much smaller copy of the castle at the Cape, complete with pentagonal bastions. In the armaments department they had us beat though, since their Big Boy peeking over the edge is at least a thirty-two pounder – though apparently the cannons were never used in combat. Then onwards to the museum, which I had been keen to see since my arrival, but which had been shut over the weekend. The displays were quite good, mostly well-labelled in several languages, but the items on display were very local in nature, and limited to the period from 1785 until the present, focussing on the different population groups that made up the mix, although as an afterthought, the art gallery provided a water colour painted by an artist before that date, which showed a Malay fishing boat, ‘suggesting’ that there may have been a village in pre-European times! Of greater interest to me were a number of different versions of the Koran, some splendidly illuminated, most handwritten, which illustrated the varied character of the calligraphy, depending on the period and place of origin. In the art gallery I was delighted to find a large collection of prints on Penang by my old acquaintance William Daniels, who had done some lovely work on South Africa in the early 1800s.

32 pounder Cannon at Fort
Some considerately-placed chairs enabled me to rest up for the next leg of the morning’s walk. This was into the centre of the old town, where I hoped to find a carver of signboards, who would hopefully be able to enlighten me into the intricacies of Chinese ideographs. Along the way the oldest temple in town caught my attention for a few moments, but it was completely encircled by Indian stallholders selling all manner of items, which didn’t really seem to fit in with Buddhism/Taoism. I couldn’t get an intelligible explanation from anyone, so I took a photo and moved on. Next was a very splendid modern edifice, the Kapitan Keling Mosque, which though most photogenic, unfortunately had a large banner proclaiming some restoration work, spoiling the best aspect. I found my wood carver in a little side street; a skinny little elder, fast asleep in a wheelbarrow in the middle of his workshop. He was surrounded by untouched planks, and there were no more than half a dozen finished items standing about – none particularly impressive. The elder awoke and pointed me in the direction of some pamphlets that the Historical Trust had printed, which outlined the elements of his craft. He then tried to sell me a six inch square of red-painted timber with the symbol for luck on it – for the princely sum of 30 Euros (if I understood him correctly). I thanked him kindly but told him I couldn’t afford the excess luggage, and wandered on.
Since I dislike wandering about with bottles of lukewarm water clutched in my sweaty paw, I land up in the alternative situation of suddenly having a raging thirst because I’m dripping buckets of sweat. Thank goodness in Penang this was rarely a protracted problem. Somebody was always selling water; you just had to find a place with a fridge. I’d mapped out a rough campaign of route so that I would land up in a street known for its eateries at roughly the right time. I don’t carry a watch, but usually my innards will give me a hint when it’s lunchtime. I chose an establishment run by a harried looking old warrior, more for the comfort of his chairs than the menu or the name, which inappropriately was ‘Mona Lisa’. He advertised a special soup filled with vegetables, which I thought might be the thing for this thirsty work I was doing. Mostly soups contain a certain amount of noodle as well, so I assumed I would be replenished. To my surprise this was not the case. It consisted of nothing but a fine assortment of vegetables in a delicious broth made from pork bones, as far as I could taste, and it was just spicy and salty enough for my taste buds.
I wandered on along a street which had specially been mentioned as containing antique shops, but not a single one could I find. As I turned the corner, I was back near the market which had so interested me on Saturday. I invested in a few samoosas, which gave me a chance to sit in the broiling sun while they were cooked, and then I reckoned Ihad done enough – time for a bit of rest. 
 
I had to pass one of the mosques from which originated the calls to prayer, that had become part of my days and nights, and I saw a number of men lounging near the front door. This was my chance. I walked into the courtyard and asked if the imam was available. Someone understood and called him for me. A tall, youngish man, clad in a white robe, with a Malay turban on his head, came to meet me with a smile. I introduced myself and he replied in excellent English, asking whether I was a Muslim. This I denied, but trotted out my ‘borrowed’ son-in-law again, and explained that I was looking to find a copy of the Koran in Bahasa, the local language, with a parallel Arabic text, which I would like to bring back as a present to South Africa, as I had already managed in Vietnam and Thailand. He was charmed by the idea. He summoned one of his brothers from inside the building, and dispatched the old man to bring me a choice of Korans to choose from, from the latter’s establishment. Within a few minutes I had a splendid copy (definitely in the excess baggage department) and I departed from the mosque with many ‘trimah kassies’ and bearing the blessings of the imam. Such nice people.
To sum Georgetown up – it’s a charming little city. The old, central part oozes history and has a grand old dame of 19th century East about it, while the seedier parts are reminiscent of what Fordsburg was to Joahnnesburg back in the sixties. Flophouses, motor repair shops (often quaintly labeled as doing ‘car knocking and spray painting’), tourist junkshops, haberdasheries and clothing shops rub shoulders with a few remaining craftsmen, hundreds of eateries, street markets and the like. In between are genuine cultural sites, temples, institutions of learning, guilds and associations and other places that could interest a traveller. The overall look is shabby, in need of more than a coat of paint. On both sides of the road are open channels with water flowing in them. In part they are covered over with cement slabs, but these are often broken or missing. In the absence of continuous sidewalks, walking the streets after dark would be risky, especially since the street lighting is mostly confined to emanating from passing traffic. Certainly not the ideal place for an inebriated pilgrim to stumble home along in the dark of night. Let us also acknowledge that the liquid travelling along these channels often consists of more solid matter than last night’s dishwashing water – as can be deduced from the stench that emanates from them at intervals. While I didn’t see any rats, they must flourish in that environment. A skip filled with waste, which I passed in the evening, had been thoroughly looted and spread over the road surface by the next morning. Obviously cats, rats or dogs, or all three would be the culprits.
Penang prides itself as being the food centre of Asia. That may be an exaggeration, but for sheer variety and value for money, I would certainly agree. It is an absolute wonder to me that all Penangians are not complete tubs of lard, given the abundance, quality and cheapness of their food. I have no idea of what rentals or house prices would run at, but judging by the accommodation available to the backpacker, it should be fairly reasonable. Transport too, is almost ridiculously cheap as long as it is of the public variety. A return trip on the ferry to the mainland costs a mere US$ 0,40, which is about a cent a minute. The public transport offers modern, air-conditioned rides, which won’t cost you an arm and a leg; and there are even a few free bus routes within the city. But tourist beware, the shoe is on the other foot if you look for other means of getting from place to place. Taxis often have a sign on the door ‘Do not haggle, as prices are fixed’. These are the guys to avoid, since they always seem to add an extra $10–15 just for the hell of it. Rather pick an elderly car with a white-haired gent driving it – ask him what the fare is to where you want to go, and if you don’t argue with him, why, he might even stop a couple of times for you to scramble out, take some photos and buy a bite to eat or something to drink, without wanting to raise the ante because you are infringing on his day. I’ve said my piece on cyclos – they’re highwaymen and thieves – let them starve, I say. For the rest of the businessmen in town, yes, they’re all scratching a living, but I didn’t come across any downright larcenous types. If you don’t fancy the price, shake your head regretfully and walk on. I didn’t find anybody running after me with a sudden ‘better offer’ because he liked my face. I returned to Singapore, well-satisfied with an interesting interlude!



Votes & Views #31


OH - PHUKET !


So the landing was an hour later than anticipated – probably because nobody had told me that there was a different time zone on the island. The welcome was warm and the taxi driver spoke not a word of English – but he’d brought along his voluble girlfriend, who gave it her best shot – so we had plenty of conversation of sorts. I saw little of the night’s landscape, but got the impression that like Bali, there was a lot of construction going on. The road twisted and turned, rose and fell along an almost incessant settlement of sorts. Finally I was decanted at the hotel, led through a roofed parking area cum reception and dining locale and arrived at the counter to be given a key to my room. No formalities, no signing in, just settle in and go to sleep.

The morning was grey; it sounded as if it was pouring with rain, or the sea was right outside the window. Turned out it was the sea rolling up onto a curved beach; then I remembered that this whole coastline had been wiped out by the tsunami of 2004. I’ve always wanted to experience a really hefty earthquake, but it occurred to me that this was neither the time nor the place for the realization of my dream. Telephones and room service have not been invented in this part of the island, so I stagger downwards and accost a lady who seems to belong here. Our common language ends just after ‘good morning’, and while she seems to understand the concept of coffee, none materializes and with a heavy heart I get cleaned up, shaved and go foraging for breakfast. The same lady is there, playing with a baby clad in a smile. With some anguished mimicry I manage to convey the fact that I haven’t eaten for a long time. She rushes off and brings me two helpings of everything, orange juice, coffee and scrambled eggs. The website could only accept two people for a booking for their only choice of room, i.e. double, so I have just been paired up willy nilly with myself. No matter, at least I get two cups of coffee – the bare minimum to sustain existence in my world. A lovely, almost white, fluffy ginger cat makes my acquaintance and deigns to be scrabbled behind the ears. I take a morning constitutional along the curve of the beach, take the odd photo and dabble my toes in the lukewarm water. That will be about as far as doing obeisance to this beach bums’ paradise will go. I have no intention of ‘burning my hide till I’m died, Clyde’ as the song goes; I dislike sunscreen almost as much as insect repellent and fabric softener; nuff of the beach.

There is a wish-list for this part of Asia, and I gird my loins in search of transport. Another, elderly lady appears and whisks the baby away. I quiz her with the word taxi, and she beckons me to follow her into a neighbouring alleyway. With a bit of mime, goodwill and a desire to enter into a commercial transaction, we manage to establish my needs and her capabilities to find a solution. I sit down in the shade and play with bare-bum grandchild until an individual turns up and introduces himself as Shai. As has been the case with my last country visited, here, too, inflation has wreaked havoc in the Asian taxi industry. I need a translator, gofer and bloodhound. This man seems as if he might be of some assistance as he has a nodding acquaintance with English, although he immediately pulls out the standard tourist issue program, listing everything from massage, elephant rides, bungy-jumping, snake charming and cabaret, to the Phuketian version of Disneyland – none of which floats my prahu – so we agree on his services 9–5 for an extortionate sum and set off towards Phuket town, or maybe that should be city, since it’s the provincial capital.
None of this standard Third World South East Asia here. There are many signs of prosperity. A building boom is under way, the roads are wide enough to accommodate a minimum of two to often four lanes of traffic; there are thousands of gleaming cars, tens of thousands of motorbikes, and only occasionally a rusted, corrugated tin shanty will rub shoulders with its new, high-rise neighbours. Although the island’s highest point according to the map is less than half the height of Table Mountain, the whole terrain seems to consist of series of steep-sided hills, among which the roads wind, twist, rise and fall with breathtaking curves. There ain’t no such thing as a straight road in this region, it seems, all dictated by the topography. Despite having told Shai I wanted to see a market first, he drives me up a winding route on the outskirts of town to a ‘view point’, one of the must-see points of interest for all visitors. I duly inspect the vista, and a very impressive one it is too, with two large bays encroaching on the town which nestles among lush, tropically clad hills; photograph it and then tell him sternly to press on with my desires. We park in a side street as Shia reckons it’s better to walk, a decision I’m not ecstatic about, but go along with, even if the temperature and humidity are definitely above my comfort level.
Still, the man delivers the goods. A few blocks later we walk into a good, old-fashioned fruit and veg market. Nothing huge, but a couple of dozen stalls, laden with middens of greenery, pyramids of multi-coloured fruits and heaps of vegetables (including the largest, most succulent carrots, I have ever seen – some the size of my forearm!). This is what I want to see and taste. In no time at all, I find two new (to me) species of ginger, one a spindly bunch with sharp taste, called kashei, the other round, white and with green stems attached; also with bite to it, and called khaa. Both are apparently used in cooking up Tom Yum Goong, the spicy prawn soup. Most of the tropical fruits on offer are old friends, but I spot a smallish fruit shaped like a feijoa, or tree-tomato, but with a skin like a cling peach. This is apparently a lamut, has two

large black seeds and tastes really delicious. A green seed-pod, with frilly edges, is eaten by locals like green beans – but I can’t even make out the local name for it. Another legume looks like a lima bean, but is green and tastes of nothing much until I am given a taste of the veggie-vendor lady’s lunch which contains this item. With a bit of chilli and tomato, it makes a very satisfying stew – apparently called a sataah. There are dozens of greens I can’t identify. Here a poor translator is of no use. Shai doesn’t cook and the ladies often don’t have specific names for the herbs. Although I’m frustrated, it’s still an experience to taste all these unknown nuances.

One market leads to another, and just a block on is the new, double-storey edition in a yellow building, covering a whole block. You are immediately assailed with the smell of fish, chicken and pork. Most of the day’s livestock has already gone, and what remains is fast turning into an unappetizing leftover. There are a few fruit and veg sellers as well, but not half as interesting as the old street-market. We head off into the unknown. I discover that Shai actually has very little knowledge of his capital city beyond the most visited tourist attractions. He does have the advantage of being able to ask the right questions when prompted. Firstly we turn up the bookshop I’ve been looking for. Nothing there for me except possibly a choice of paperbacks in English, Danish, German, Finnish and Russian (mute evidence of the nationalities of visitors), but after a long and exhausting forage up and down the streets, I ask Shai to get the car to pick me up as I’ve had it and my back is killing me. We resume the search for a mosque that I know must exist, and en passant I spot a shade over a shop window that says ‘antiques’. Anchors on; I hop out and pop into the establishment and ask the young lady if she has anything resembling the printed word of yore. She understands English well and invites me up a narrow spiral staircase to the upper floor. She points out two of the, by now familiar, oblong folders. I open one, but as far as I can remember, it looks the same as the two I have already bought in Cambodia and Laos. At the sight of the other one my heart misses at least one beat. This one is wider, fully gilt decorated, and when I open it, there is a heavy, black, unfamiliar blocky script. When I ask her, she tells me it’s from Myanmar. I’d give my eyeteeth for it – but when I ask her the price, she quotes me the best part of $750. I’m daft, but not daft enough to pay more than the total price of all airtickets, return, as well as hotel fees and meals, that I might be spending anyway on a trip to the country of origin within the next fortnight. I make a counteroffer; she phones her boss; no deal. Regretfully we part.

 Shai and I soldier on through the streets, trying to find a mosque. Turns out we were looking at too low a level. Suddenly I spot a green onion-dome way up in the sky. Success, and we drive into the courtyard to find no less personage than the imam and a hadji, whiling the hours until sunset away on a shaded bench in the garden – for it is Ramadan, and time hangs heavily over hungry bodies. The imam is an elderly, portly gent with a hennaed white goatee. He has no English, but luckily the hadji does, and I explain my quest, which borrows a Moslem son-in-law from my erstwhile travelling companion again, whom I wish to gladden with the present of a Koran in Thai script – possibly even with parallel Arabic in the bargain. This Imam is not one of a paranoid, persecuted minority, as his counterpart in Saigon had seemed to be; he is quite happy to give directions to a shop he knows of, which has stock of just such an item I am looking for. We part amid expressions of mutual esteem, thanks and wishes for a propitious end of the fast. Five minutes later we are in a street which we had combed previously. Shai says it must be here; he’s followed the instructions carefully. He points at a shop draped with robes, cloths and suchlike truck. We stop and go in past a woman in a hijab. Sure enough, a whole wall is lined with Islamic literature. Shai explains; the woman is hesitant, looking doubtfully at my pale face; she defers to a young man. Shai explains that the purchase has the imam’s blessing, and that we had been sent to their shop expressly by him, so the pair relent, and a few minutes later I have successfully acquired exactly what I was looking for, in a convenient format, at a good price.
Our next task is to find the tourist office. This is made difficult by then fact that I have an outdated map of the island, courtesy of my niece. There is a demolition site where the office is supposed to be, so while we are standing around on the pavement at the supposed location, an elderly passer-by comes to the rescue. He explains to Shai where the place has moved to and at last we smell success. I consult a friendly lass, who steers me to a further two bookshops, a street-food eatery, as well as giving me new maps, booklets and other good advice. Two bookshops later I have acquired a few small dictionaries that I may never consult, but at 2–3 dollars, blow the expense and give the cat another goldfish, I say. I get dropped off at the street-food stalls and though I had set my heart on dim sum, these were already finished for the day and instead I had to have some other perfectly delightful tidbits washed down with several glasses of iced coffee. I love to sit in a public place like this and watch the other diners and the passing parade in the street. Striking is the large number of middle-aged, elderly to downright decrepit white males that have personable to extremely beautiful, much younger Thai women in tow. I see two of my coevals sit down for a meal, hand over their wallets to the girls with them and leave all the ordering and finance to them. I could think of worse ways to end one’s life as a male – don’t know about the female angle on this though. Everywhere I go, I find people friendly, helpful and quick to reply to a smile with a smile. Such a change from Vietnam.
Since I am a sucker for any form of interesting architecture, we head south out of town to the renowned Wat Chalong temple. Even at the gateway I can see that this was going to be quite an experience; ornate gilt, sculpted curlicues, pomp and circumstance everywhere. The more of the temple that comes into view, the more breathtakingly beautiful it gets. Wow, wow and triple wow. Shai drops me off in front of the main building and indicates vaguely where he will be found when I’m done. So as to be able to fit the entire temple into a picture, I move across the road to get a bit of distance. The next moment all hell breaks loose behind me. It sounds like a full-scale terrorist attack, staccato explosions from left to right lasting for about ten seconds, ending with an almighty big bang. I duck and slew round to see that a temple assistant has just set 

off this barrage of fireworks inside a beehive shaped brick structure, and as the gunpowder smoke drifts lazily away, he starts sweeping up the cracker remains that have been propelled into the street. Not sure of the significance of this attack, but I would presume it was a direct onslaught on the forces of evil, or to put them to flight. I shed shoes and enter the temple. Cool marble throughout, much light streaming in through the open structure (in contrast to the dark, mysterious interior of the Luang Prabang temple), a simple altar with three buddhas on it, garlanded and bedecked with flowers, with serene worshippers on the carpets, praying, depositing incense and flower offerings – taking not a blind bit of notice of the sizeable crowd of tourists that share their holy space. Behind the altar is the inner sanctum, obviously the holy of holies (possibly the place reputed to contain some relics of the Buddha) and this is closed off by a glass wall. I peer in briefly, but don’t wish to disturb a man praying there, so leave. There are a number of other buildings in the complex. The one across the road, only slightly less resplendent, is closed for some reason. Further back there is a wooden building on stilts, built along traditional lines, but I can’t find any signage indicating its significance. The inside is cool,
dark and once again populated by kneeling worshippers and reverent tourists. The inner room has a number of statues and some muted lights, but the remarkable feature is a smallish metal safe on a podium. Looks as if this then is the resting place of the relics. I leave and turn my attention to the backmost edifice of the shrine – a resplendent towering temple, crowned, no, inspired with an enormous spike about the height of the Eiffel Tower. This extraordinary creation, with its incredible ornamentation and detail accentuated with reds and
gilt, could be absolutely garish and over the top, but instead it conveys awe, joy and celebration, and invokes a feeling of participation. I see two Chinese girls having a photo session of themselves, so ask them if they would do me the favour of taking a shot of me in front of the building as well. They are happy to oblige, but immediately want to be photographed in turn standing next to me. Two young men passing by join in the fun and they too get pics taken next to an overweight, sweating European. Beats me what the attraction is – probably my resemblance to the buddha. I pop into the high temple, and find it full of nagas and buddhas in all sorts of postures. The walls are a bit more garish, and to my mind the inside isn’t half as impressive as the exterior. I take a wander past the inevitable stalls of tourist truck, have an iced coconut for refreshment and enjoy the relative peace of the place, more especially so since not a single trader bugs me with their wares. The first tourist attraction in Asia where I have encountered this phenomenon. Shai comes wandering past and we tear ourselves away from this beauteous place.

Our last effort was unsuccessful. Though advertised in the tourist bureau’s directory, the University’s cultural centre had ceased to exist in all but echoing halls with garish posters. I had been hoping for an exhibition of Thai writings, books and scripts. It was getting on for 4 pm, so I decided to call it quits and we headed back to Kamala Village after a hurried stop at a supermarket for much-needed water and a few tins of Chang, another brand in a long line of extremely drinkable beers in the region.
After a lengthy rest, and communication session with home, I decide to hobble down the avenue for a light supper, since our hotel’s water-supply is on the blink, so I don’t quite trust them right now to feed me. My back problem has not been improved by the pavement pounding of the day; progress is difficult and painful. I am reminded that this is the country that must surely have invented ‘Thai massage’ as described in such glowing terms in numerous travel programs I have seen and I am minded to seek some relief from these specialists. Not fifty metres down the main road, I encounter the first illuminated sign, declaiming at length the expertise of a masseuse, whose name I disremember. Strangely enough, the sign is above a dark passageway, but as I stop and peer down it, my eyes wander upwards and there she is: a young siren leaning over the balustrade of the veranda. She smiles seductively and beckons me in. Somehow I get the idea that this might not be quite the massage I am looking for, so I shake my head regretfully and hobble on. Not a great distance further, another flashing sign with a similar legend. I hasten towards the large, lit-up display window, and find that this is actually a wide-open french door. A bevy of nubile maidens in very hot pants and skimpy tops are decoratively draped over the furniture, and all start twittering excitedly at my appearance. Then I notice a short, powerful man, with a face like a bulldog, lurking inside the door. Ah, a bouncer – or maybe a pimp – the uncharitable thought strikes me, and I hastily wave them good-by and wander on. I was still hoping for ‘third time lucky’ when I stumbled across the next and last massage establishment on this stretch of road. This one has a huge icon of a slinky black cat painted on the glass door and proclaimed itself to be ‘The Pussy Parlour’ for any type of a long list of massage variations, all including the word ‘sensuous’. I give up on the idea of backache relief, at least not during the hours of darkness in this street.
The majority of eateries have a distinctly European flavor, judging from the menus on offer at the roadside. French fries, steaks, pizzas, Bolognese – hell no, that’s not what I came to Asia for. I am almost seduced by a cart vendor selling sausages and satays on sticks, but I feel the need for some vegetable input, so I meander on. I run out of town and turn back again. The builders are working on a section of a large open space in the very last restaurant, but there are a half dozen locals sitting there (usually a good sign), and the menu looks attractive. I wander in, nod all round and sit down at a table. The half dozen locals turn out to be proprietors and everybody rallies round to obey my every wish and command. Turns out I couldn’t have done much better anywhere else. I had a three course delicious supper, including tempura vegetables, stir-fry and prawn cakes and a Singh beer (just to continue my brewing investigation), for under $15. A happy diner went back to the hotel to find the water was back on, but so black that it would be pointless to have a shower. Sleep dirty and sweaty – much more hygenic.
This time I had taken the precaution of bringing along some iced coffee from the previous night’s restaurant to wake up to. The morning looked a lot brighter for it. Breakfast under the palm trees was lovely, and I asked a neighbouring young Filipino lady to take a photo of me sitting there, with the sea in the background. A little later I looked up into the crown of the coconut palm looming over me, and saw a lonely ripe nut dangling there. Mindful of the fact that quite a significant number of people the world over get killed every year by falling coconuts, I changed my chair with alacrity. I could just see the headline – ‘elderly bookseller gets nutted’. Then it was off in search of transport once more. I meandered down to the local taxi rank, where four guys were lounging on an elevated platform under an atap roof, smoking and chatting. There was enough common language and we proceeded into negotiations. Once again I ran into the Asian taxi Mafia like into a brick wall. Even though they had no fares, even though the streets were all but empty of tourists, their rates were thus, and thus they would remain. It was already a stinker of a sunny, simmering day, and with my limited time left on the island, I knuckled under and hired a likely lad by the name of Palm, for half the day instead of scratching about for cheaper rates from tuk-tuks, buses or the like.

This time we headed due east (as far as the innumerable hills would permit) and landed up in front of the Thalang National Museum, cunningly hidden behind the gaunt concrete frame of a new apartment block. I paid my dues and at the same time located a lady with a smattering of English, whom I asked if she could find out more about the cultural centre that we had failed to find the previous day. She promised to make enquiries while I viewed the exhibits. Granted, Phuket is only a microcosm of Thailand, but the displays were pretty poor. Pride of place was given to a statue of Buddha, dating back to about the 11th century, which had miraculously been recovered in two parts and reunited. A monk and his friends were making an offering, so I waited politely until they finished and then took a photo. The next room contained mineral specimens – oddly enough the island has a quite diverse geology and used to be a prominent tin mining location. Without rhyme or reason, the displays, most of which were only labelled in Thai, then switched to prehistory, and it was with some surprise that I found items displayed, dating back up to nearly forty thousand years ago. Among them were some distinctive polished Neolithic stone axes, with the same sort of tang which I had seen in Vietnam at the museums, which are not part of the arsenal of the European prehistory as far as I know. Finally pay dirt. A seventh century stele, inscribed with what by now had become almost familiar characters. This had come from an ancient city settlement on the island, and was apparently a record of a ground transfer between two persons. I took a few photos, but to my disappointment, there was nothing else by way of the written word.
The lady at the front desk was not able to be more specific about the cultural centre at the Ratchapat University, but she assured me that she had found out that it did exist. So I pointed my driver at it and we set off once more. Again I was directed to the same building as I had visited previously, and this time I was at least able to discern sounds coming from an office in the deserted building. An effusive gentleman greeted me and I put my case to him, i.e. that I was looking for traces of development of the art of writing. He pointed to the wall surrounding us, which had the sad collection of posters on it, but I explained further, upon which he introduced me to a very pleasant young man, Ami, whose English was better, and gave him orders to locate a library, librarians and books as I wished. We were off, wisely in motorised transport, since the search took us all over the institution. We interviewed a number of female children behind desks, were shown numbers of dog-eared paperbacks in the vernacular, but nothing even vaguely looked like being related to the origins of writing and the manufacture of books in the country or island. I explained further. We went up a few floors; we interviewed another child. We went to another building. Finally, I could sense that this odyssey was not going to bring much success, as we got into an office for staff enquiries and after a lengthy explanation, I was given the cell phone number of a professor, who apparently was a dab hand at the history of Phuket. Small problem was that she had retired and nobody knew where to find her. Full stop. Just for fun I shall probably try to call her – but my expectations are low. It seems to be official – culture and Phuket don’t mix, so don’t go looking for it – this is a place for holidaying. I had run out of ideas, so decided to quit as my transporter’s time agreed on was near expiry. We returned to Kamala, and I lay down to rest my aching back, only to wake up in the early afternoon, feeling a distinct need for some sustenance. This I satisfied with some delicious Tom Yum Goong, reinforced with a hunk of steamed rice. For the first time I actually tasted the two varieties of ginger that I had encountered at the market, and a very interesting contribution they made too.

There was nothing much to do except to laze about in the shade, looking out at the beautiful bay and the heat-shimmering hills that surrounded me. In all, not a bad way to spend a quiet afternoon. While my brief visit to the island had not been wildly exciting, I enjoyed the beautiful scenery, the cheerful people and some really delicious food, presumably not cooked to European tastes, although there were plenty of eateries doing exactly that as well. For the visitor who enjoys his action, there is more than enough to please, as are the lovely tropical beaches, generally clean water and all the infrastructure one could wish for. The pace is less frantic than in the three Indochinas, more like Bali, but with more sophistication and a lack of an agricultural element – a typical tourist paradise. I shall have fond memories of my verandah, overlooking a picturesque bay, shaded from the extremes of the setting sun by large casuarina trees, and with coconut palms displaying their wares almost within arm’s length.