Who wants to hear about my latest international-travel-related drama? OH YOU DO? Well you’re in luck. Because I’m stuck at Melbourne Airport and I’ve run out of book. Here is a timeline of today’s ineptitude, for your very own amusement.
On the crumbling road to the village our pickup truck is pulled over by the police. “What’s happening?” I ask. “They want to see if he has licence, they just look for money,” she tuts. “Always like this.”
Our young driver flicks down the sunshade with a long, green-painted fingernail and nervously retrieves his papers. All in order. They keep fishing.
25 minutes later, Irma is still calling around for someone to use as leverage. “We also have someone with power,” she says. But a cousin in the police force is too busy to help and eventually the truck’s owner arrives on his motorbike. We leave him negotiating and the driver makes a dash for it, relieved. We’re running an hour late, but we’re on Indonesian time. “It’s normal,” she sighs.
On my second night in Hua Hin, I make an elaborate show of pondering the wares of every food stall in the night market, despite knowing full well that I would end up back at the same stall as the previous night, working my way down the menu rather than working my down the street. Not that it’s a very long menu: I’d tried the noodles with tofu and prawn, and now I’m dying to try out the crispy mussel pancake with beansprouts. As far as I can work out, that is the menu.
One of my favourite things about night markets is pulling up a chair at a shared plastic table in the street, giving you a legitimate excuse to people-watch and chat to fellow diners without looking like a nutter. Yesterday this had not worked out well – a grumpy German group that seemed unused to the system had grudgingly let me take a chair at the end of their table and then pointedly ignored me in silence – but this evening, a jovial middle-aged Thai man and his Mexican friend wave at me to join them and I gratefully accept.
Thailand is famous for its fabulous street food… and the night market in Hua Hin, a little coastal town three hours from Bangkok, certainly doesn’t disappoint. Continue reading
“This way looks pretty safe,” I say, marching ahead around the corner and straight into the trap: six, maybe seven Thai teenagers, eyes full of malice, fingers already on the triggers of their pistols.
I freeze. Behind me, my companions are backing away, about to take their chances ducking through heavy Bangkok traffic, but there’s no way I can outrun our assailants. There’s too many of them, they’ve got me cornered, and I’m wearing badly thought-out footwear. Few farang* are out in this part of the city tonight, and a pale-skinned blonde that’s fresh off the plane is a prime target.
“Tell me again where you’re going,” says my Nan, pouring me a Bacardi and coke with significantly more Bacardi than coke. “Your dad said something about North Korea?”
We’re in her kitchen, a few miles from Heathrow Airport, where every few minutes planes roar over so low that it feels like they might take the roof with them; the kitchen we’d sat in when I was 11 and taping my first interview for a school project on family histories, when we talked for hours about growing up in wartime London because her mother couldn’t bear to let her be evacuated and I realised that real life is seeped in better stories than anything I could invent. The moment, I suppose, than sowed the seeds for a career as a journalist.
It’s Easter Sunday and the church bells are ringing over Palermo. We’re sprawled on the rooftop terrace of our apartment, watching the seagulls over the domes and palazzios and the Arab-Norman towers, the blue hills and the just-glimpsed sea. Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is mingling with the shouts of a market trader and the table is littered with olives and espresso and remnants of last night’s wine.