Archive for March, 2010

Streetlife and Stokies

March 16, 2010

Why is that wherever you go in the world you have a roughly 90% chance of running into a Stokie? In Nevada, Monaco or Bangkok you can hardly walk around for a day without hearing that accent or seeing the red-and-white stripes. Its up to you whether you keep your head down and walk on, or stride up and fire off a ‘howat’ or ‘ay up mate’.

I see two Stoke City shirts on the top floor of the MBK shopping centre in Bangkok. One is worn by a middle aged man talking with his friend. As they lean on the banister overlooking the huge space, the wife sits on a bench on her own in her Stoke shirt, waiting patiently for the men.

`Long way from Stoke`, I venture. One of the men is here for a two-week holiday that turned into four weeks. The man in the football shirt has retired over here now, having just bought a property north of the city.

I explain that this is my first day in Bangkok and this shopping centre is driving me nuts. The MBK centre is like a Vegas casino, designed so that you could wander round for days without seeing an exit. Each floor has different shops, one floor of furniture, one floor of mobile phones etc. In the `market` areas there are hundreds of stalls crammed in together, each one looking pretty much the same as the last. Each one with a shopkeeper eager to sell you stuff. I have seen enough and want to get out. I can`t find my way out. I keep going round in circles and up and down the escalators and by the same mobile phone stalls. On the clothing floor I stumble into some kind of eatery and gesture at some pork. I get confused about the price of the food and worry that I am being ripped off until I realise that they are charging me the equivalent of 80p, not £8.

Out of the air-conditioned mammoth and onto the street. For a few days I walk the pavements, trying to feed my eyes as much as possible and get to know the layout of the city. Hmmm. You can do that in Birmingham pretty easily, you can do that in Barcelona fairly easily, but Bangkok? Difficult. The place is hot. The place is huge and sprawling like London. Something else. Bangkok streetlife. Its as if every building is let twice – the day lease and the night lease. The day people have to set up their stalls and their chairs while the night people are inside sleeping. When evening comes, the day shift get to go inside their home and rest while the night shift comes on. So much of life happens on the street. Walk ten yards. You see two restaurants with plastic tables and chairs on the pavement. One hooker speaking to a fat Danish man. One vendor with a cart selling necklaces. Two tuk-tuk drivers waiting for fares. In a doorway, a motorcycle-taxi rider in his red bib waits for a fare. Three beggars, one of them has no legs and is lying face down in the middle of the pavement with his arm raised up and hand extended holding an empty cup. You stop and stare – is this normal? I guess so because there are scores of people making their way down the street without looking at this guy. Walk another ten yards you see another set of restaurants, vendors, hookers, hustlers, taxi drivers, a different beggar face down on the floor.

One of the most bizarre sights are the blind karaoke beggars. Led down the street by a helper they mime to the Thai hits blaring out of the boombox strapped around their shoulders.

In the day time in the heat it gets a bit much when you`re trying to get somewhere and you have a constant stream of people in your face trying to sell you stuff or con you. In the night time its more fun. Everything on the street. Chinatown is the most extreme. Narrow main streets lead to cramped side streets lead to tiny back alleys. Even in the tiny back alleys are streams of pedestrians brushing past speeding mopeds rushing past 99 street stalls. Look to your left see a tiny darkened room with a few aluminium tables . You squint and realise its a noodle bar. Go in and have some noodles.

Never could I have seen so many people and so many things concentrated into such narrow lanes. Noisy too, of course, the chatter of the street, the shouts, the honking of horns. Lots of laughing. When a moped rider gets knocked down everything stops and everyone turns to look. Many people go to help him and he is helped off the street like a footballer off the pitch. He is OK, he is on his feet but limping. The traffic starts to crawl forward again and I keep eating my langoustines.

Even on the six-lane highways, men pushing carts selling fruit or flowers move through the crawling traffic. Fortunately the taxis charge only by distance. It costs you the same whether your journey takes 2 hours or 2 minutes. Yes, a two-minute journey can take 2 hours if you travel at the wrong time of day.

If you take a tuk-tuk instead of a taxi, you will have to haggle the price. If its too cheap, its a con. The driver will take you to a gem shop or travel agency that you don`t want to visit. If a stranger approaches you on the street and is really friendly, they are probably trying to con you too. One guy had an interesting approach:-

`You have a lucky face sir, I can see.` said the Indian man in a huge cheap double breasted suit. `But you have some problems, some… bad habits`. I smiled and wondered what kind of strange con this was as I hurried back to my hotel.
Bangkok is great but its hard work. Far more difficult to deal with than London or New York City. However, no matter how much hassle you get or how lost you become, you are never more than a few metres from fantastic food or a superior massage.

The Hangover, Grilled Sea Bream

March 9, 2010

‘The 13.11 to Manchester Airport is running approximately 29 minutes late. The 13.43 to Norwich will be delayed by approximately 19 minutes.’

A bunch of pale, unhappy people at Platform 13. Three trains worth of passsengers waiting for late trains. Cold and drizzle. When the train gets here, not enough seats. Thank God I have a good book. On the other side of the aisle, a couple of teenage girls with a pram. 20 minutes into the journey, I am only pretending to read my book while I listen to their conversation. They are proudly and loudly telling a third woman about their day.

‘We jus bin on Jeremy Kyle. Jeremy Kyle yeh, to get DNA test. Afterwuds I showed im a picture of is doorta. Ee looked like e wuz gunner cry. 3 purtential dads, ee sed. You look at your dorta’s face, I sed, and you tell me 3 purtential dads.’

The full errgggghhh-inspiring chavvy Nottingham accent. A regional dialect debased. The loud voice that makes you want to pull the emergency cord, break out the hammer from the glass and throw yourself through the train window.

‘Wen shes old enuf she’ll find im, an she’ll be able to make er own mind up. She’ll meet im, and she’ll think… Wot the fook am I doin?’

At this point I had to put my hand in front of my face to try and conceal the fact that I was pissing myself. Chantelle hated Steves guts, and would rather her daughter never meet him, but she had travelled from Nottingham to Manchester with the pushchair and her friend to go on a TV show to prove that Steve was the dad.

`Ee didunt say big-a-boo to me. Jeremy Kyle laid intuh im tho, made im look abarrt this fookin big. Oi shuddup nar weir ere`

I take my bags down from the shelf with the red airline tags and pack up my book and sigh again and feel the malaise in the stomach and transport my jet lag into a taxi and go home. Earlier, in an airport, I feel glad I saved a little battery life of the i-pod because i really need to listen to it now. Play roulette with the songs, shuffling through until I hit the one that fires a dart into the knots malaise in the stomach, a liquid flower bursts in the stomach, stopping me in my tracks, warm wave of tingles, eyes wide, unsteady on feet, keep walking to the bathroom, splash water on face. Only in this moment, was it right to listen to this song, I was meant to hear this now and only now could it have provoked this reaction.

Wasnt it a good year
Wasnt filled with talking
It still moves through my heart
From time to time
City after City
Granite grey as morning
Heroes died in subways left behind
Far behind
Like our love

Now the rhythm section kicks in and Scott starts singing the next verse to me. I step into some kind of weird altered state, some kind of trip or moment of clarity or just a rush of weird emotion. For that minute the song says it all, everything that has been in my life and all that will be. In the altered state joy and despair and knowing are close things together. You feel everything.

You`re on your own again
And you`re your best again
Thats what you tell yourself
I see it all the way
As far as anyone could see
Except when it began
I was so happy
I didn`t feel like me

I want to swap the pale faces on the train platform for caramel faces, in places where the proportion of smiling faces is high, even in the City! Swap the grunting monotones for the rising and falling speech-tones. Stay away from the grounds where the grumpy sun stays hidden behind the thick clouds, be living where the bright sun cannot be repressed behind a cloud, shining through all clouds.

Many long moments when the internal dialogue says `Is this real?`. Different light in the magic hour, thin wind, no extra words. A child trots up to add something to your plate. My girl opens a bottle. She won`t let me pour. The grilled sea bream sits in a dish with a candle underneath, bubbling a honey sauce. Shrimps wait to be eaten in a bowl of tom yum soup. Strong beer with ice. Sun dropping fast throws dappling slabs on the sea. Two people walk slowly past. Dog brushes your elbow. Deck chair and low table. Two deck chairs face the same way, toward the sea and the setting sun.

My notebook keeps stepping out of my pocket, songs and words, lots of them. Record them.

`Are you OK?`

I shake my head, `This is… heaven.`

`You like Thai food?`

`Mmmmm.`

The heavy orange sun stops laying down its silver slabs and comes to rest on a mountain just a couple of hundred miles away.

`Is that where we are going tomorrow?`
`Yes.`

The mountain island is shaped so that the orange sun looks like a fortune-tellers ball in a dark cradle-base on a table.

What else can you do but grin? But smiling isnt enough because the scene and the beauty and the company and the food is so exquisite there is the attendant pathos as you know it is one brief time. It can only be replayed in memory, when it has ceased to be now and has become then, dead.

Many `I cant believe it` moments. Many private moments.