Thursday, 24 April 2014

Where the deserts stop...

The habitations are always the same. Run sometimes by Kazakh peasants, by Tartars, by Uyghur. The peoples of central Asia spread in such ways that the borders of the nation states make little sense. It’s an important distinction, a lesson worth remembering. The borders of the nation states make little sense.

Every arrival, at every roadside cafĂ©, restaurant, or simple tray of smouldering coals, is always the same. Water. Towel. Each proprietor, even if with only a plastic drinks bottle, hanging from the underside of his caravan, has always provided a means by which to wash. You unscrew the lid, just a half turn, so that the water trickles slowly out, and one cupped handful all that the bottle will anyway spare. Other establishments have a bucket, kept inside a cupboard above a sink: a tap to turn, and then a second bucket in a cupboard kept below the sink. That is as elaborate as the plumbing will get. A well in these places is the highest form of luxury, and the echo of the bucket’s first splash feels like the opening swallow of water. A damp towel hangs limp from a line, wet from the faces of the truck drivers who passed this way before me. Every man and woman, passing through all the steppe beyond, goes drying their face on this one towel.

A man leans on a doorframe, tattoos on knuckles, wafting cool air to his gut with a T-shirt rolled up. He hocks mucous up from his chest, spits at my feet, a ball of phlegm rolling over itself to lie at a standstill in the dust. I look up, affronted, and yet it is with broad smile that he sticks out his hand for me to shake. Whatever the Western etiquette, just as the camels that stalk the roadside, soon you start to spit, trying ever in vain to remove the hot air and taste of desert that goes crawling down your throat. It doesn’t mean what you think it means. His phlegm sinks slowly dry into the earth.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Life Cycles excerpt - South Thailand

Leaving the highway, I made my way to smaller roads, through villages more remote, the forest thicker, alive with strange squawks and chattering where before had been only the hum of traffic. New types of death emerged, squashed on the road the flattened coil of what had been a snake, a silver skin with tyre treads across its middle, curled fang jammed between stones in the road’s surface. There was the lizard, a whole metre in length, I must have disturbed the thing for I realised its presence only through my ear. A slithering movement began, a rustling of leather pulled powerfully through gravel. I glimpsed it, a real dinosaur, the hanging skin beneath the neck, broad green back and that gigantic tail, pulled over the ground by long, black claws.
As I moved south the rains returned, transforming me from dry to dripping in 20 seconds, buckets of water from above and laughter the only worthwhile response. After the clouds had said their bit, the sky cleared just as swift, as if it had never bore a grey shade in all its days. The world warmed again, and as I headed in and out of Thammarat, so Thailand grew poorer, the landscape changing, pavements turning back to dust and soil, concrete houses replaced by metal sheets and planks of wood, cars turning to cows, motorbikes to bicycles. Life there became quieter, slower, softening as the sound of engines disappeared. Islam emerged, mosques and minarets, the Muslim south the poorest part of Thailand, where the Buddhists, ever viewed so benevolently in the West, become only the oppressive majority. The Thai Muslims protest for rights and, with deaths and brutality, the authorities crush all dissent, the whole thing one more cooperation in that endless, borderless, war against terrorism.
Out of the hills ran rivers, widening in readiness for the sea. The houses moved from land to water, stilts protruding the weeds and lilies, and tethered canoes pulling slowly back and forth the rope that held them. From a rickety deck, children threw pebbles into a bucket floating in the water, while a mother squatted among tangled fishing nets, fingers working through endless knots. A man floated idly through the scene, gliding home in a boat full of holes, his paddle breaking the still surface with a slow plunge and a splash of water. It doesn’t get better than that, truly picturesque… poverty that floats. From inside my pannier there came a loud fluttering of lenses, the camera desperate for a peek, whispering promises that if only I let it see what I saw, then never again would I have need of a memory.

The complete book, Life Cycles, is published on June 2nd

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