Monday, November 25, 2013

Fashionably late Doctor Who tribute



If you live in Britain or one of the other 93 countries that broadcast Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary specials this weekend (they made several), you’re probably pretty damn sick of Time Lords, Daleks and that bloody bass line by now. I like the show, but even I need a hiatus after being encouraged to binge over the last week thanks to the BBC giving this show unprecedented freedom to indulge the fandom.

I don’t even consider myself a hard-core Whovian (as they like to be called), but not for the usual reasons someone who quite likes the show may be wary of being associated with it. As a child Trekkie who accessorised his blue school jumper with a comm badge and completed his further education by writing a 10,000 word English Literature dissertation that basically boiled down to ‘Who Is Better? Kirk or Picard?’ (not much of an exaggeration), I’m not shy about my sci-fi fandom. If anything, my stupid reflex is to be repelled by a cult hit gaining huge popular success, in the self-destructive way you might curse mainstream radio for not playing the alternative music you like and then brand the band sell-outs and their new fans as posers when they get their big break.

But 50 years for a continuing sci-fi show (on and off) is a pretty damn fine achievement – Star Trek’s due for the golden anniversary in a couple of years too, so look forward to that getting on your nerves, non-nerds! For once I don’t have any room for cynicism, and have just accepted that while Who might not be my #1 favourite show, it’s a hell of a lot easier to lose yourself in when there’s so much of it out there and the creators have the devotion and the funding to write massively fan pleasing installments. I’ve loved it all, and any discussion over whether it'll suffer or improve after Matt Smith hands over to Peter Capaldi is trifling, as the show will soar as long as it’s under the diligent care of Steven Moffat. I’m not going to write a 10,000 word dissertation on Moffat vs. Davies, the internet already exists. And alright, I am a little excited about Capaldi.

I just watched the anniversary episode a day late online, thanks to being in the jaded half of the world that opts out of imaginative TV, and caught up on the related poignant and whimsical dramas that marked the milestone for this show that I can finally accept among my favourites. I'm coming out of that surprisingly spacious closet, and I even felt compelled to bash out a hastily written short story tribute. Hopefully I've missed the anniversary bandwagon and this will be satisfyingly superfluous, I’d hate to be mainstream. The tale doesn’t really capture the joy and enthusiasm the show has given me in my new non-travelling, work-heavy life, as it ended up being no more light-hearted than any of the other horrible stories I occasionally write. Maybe I watched too much Breaking Bad. But trust me, I’m doing okay.

So I guess I wasn’t killed in the devastating Philippines typhoons then. See you in two months for another update that mentions nothing of any real-world importance!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Three years later...



That'll do.

Hope you enjoyed it.

Maybe I'll do it again some time.

Bit tired now.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Deleted scenes: Year three



A final load of inferior B-sides and outtakes that weren't good enough to include in proper posts but that I'm now insulting you by publishing anyway, like an '80s Pink Floyd album. This covers my third year of travelling after Vietnam - the above photo is one of several I took from my flight over Australia before the spoilsport stewardess told me to close the window. She was right - what's the point of enjoying stuff?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Deleted scenes: Vietnam



I've visited Vietnam twice in the past year, which will be twice in my lifetime if I have anything to say about it. My Vietnam blogs were admirably concise, featuring only the images and experiences I felt were needed to illustrate my points. I'll now proceed to destroy that brevity by presenting a load of extraneous photos that didn't make the cut first time around in another celebration of mediocrity.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Deleted scenes: South Korea



I spent ages in South Korea. It's the country where I've felt the most comfortable in Asia, striking the best balance between value, comfort and intriguing weirdness, and there's always more to see - though considering the immigration hurdles we keep tripping over to get my girlfriend a 30-day tourist visa, it probably won't be for a while yet.

I took a lot of photos and wrote a lot of blogs in Korea, but when looking through my folders for unused odds and sods I was surprised at how many there were. Join me on a trip down memory lane as I revisit Korea in my mind, forget immigration hassle and try to ignore how depressing that sounds. Remember when I could just show up at airports and they'd let me in?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Thieving Bastards V: Thieving BBC Bastards



I'd always planned to continue this spiteful blog series, as it was oddly fun - in an obsessive, vengeful way - the first time I wasted an entire weekend chronicling every unlicensed theft from my first two years' worth of travel photos, supplemented by the occasional futile email or Facebook comment when it was companies rather than individuals doing it. But the idea of putting myself through all that again was just depressing.

So I was delighted to have the work done for me today as I whiled away the afternoon catching up on comedy shows from the past year and saw my pervy anatomical photo of a baboon's puffed-up arse from Singapore Zoo being used as a non sequitur punchline in the middle of the second episode of Kevin Eldon's madcap sketch show It's Kevin.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The boy who was older than his parents



I don't bother celebrating my birthday. So you didn't die again and have survived to the impressive age of twenty-eight, well done! But there are two reasons today is a shade more significant than the average pointless birthday:

  1. Because I'm now qualified to use the classic '28 years old, I was' pull-back-and-reveal gag after describing an act of childish or delinquent behaviour, and more importantly
  2. Because I'm now older than my father was, to the tune of one day (we're equal on leap years), when the first fruit of his loins [some verb pertaining to fruit]ed into the world.

Not to overlook my mother's contribution to the incident, which was arguably greater, but that landmark passed a few years ago and I've had my crisis about that already. Now I'm older than both my parents were at the time I was born, have I got as much to show for my life without having produced a clone of myself polluted by someone else's rubbish genes?

Those pompous eighties idiots thought they'd accomplished something by bringing life into the world, but had they travelled to 25 countries? NO! That's one reliable achievement I've got in the bank.

Had they... let's think about this now... there must be... yes! - had they completed all 96 routes on Super Mario World, including that second Super Star Road stage that's dead hard? HAD THEY BALLS! Admittedly the Super Nintendo hadn't been invented yet. But I've still made something of my life.

If I'd been born a day later, I'd share the same birthday as my dad. He allegedly asked if my mum could just hang on a bit, but for some reason she preferred not to extend the searing agony of labour by another 16 hours for the sake of a fun family factoid. Some people are just selfish.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Deleted scenes: Year two



Another year's worth of photos, videos and blog self-flagellations that weren't good enough to be uploaded at the time, or just didn't fit in with whatever agenda I was trying to push.

Does not include South Korea, which has enough leftovers for a dedicated post.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Deleted scenes: Malaysia (feat. Singapore)



After completing the southern island circuit of Thailand, tourists have two major options: buying a motorbike and speeding through the risky roads of the adventurous Laos-Vietnam-Cambodia loop or taking the bus south to more orderly Malaysia and sterile Singapore. Can you guess which option I took?

I did get round to those other countries eventually, but one at a time on separate trips. I'm not 25 any more.

I found Malaysia to be an underrated travel destination, though I understand why the party people tend to overlook it. That's part of the reason I like it. Falling into a bit of a lull after seven months of tireless travelling, and with a 90-day visa not motivating me to leave any time soon, I saw a lot more of the Malaysian peninsula than was really necessary, later polishing it off with a quick trip around the more exciting Borneo bits. And Singapore has a nice library.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Deleted scenes: Thailand



I resisted Thailand's obvious lure when starting my East Asia travels in more conventionally unconventional Taiwan, the sort of place people normally go last when they've exhausted all the interesting countries in the region and can't be bothered to arrange the visa for real China.

As soon as I arrived in Thailand though, I realised why it's so big with the tourists. Actually, it took about a week until I'd sufficiently adapted to the heat and stopped trying to go so stubbornly against the crowd. The tourist trail in Thailand is rightly criticised for being unadventurous, full of scammers and destructive to native habitats, but it's a lot of fun too, and this is the only country I've returned to every year for more. Unless you count all those Malaysia passport stamps I got from transferring at Kuala Lumpur LCC terminal every two months, which you really shouldn't. Malaysia's up next.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Deleted scenes: Year one



It won't have escaped your attention that I'm not a professional photographer. Professionals don't stubbornly and stingily persevere with the same cheap camera long after its LCD display has broken, meaning they're unable to play around with the settings or even see the poorly framed pictures they've taken until they get back to their hotels. I don't owe you fancy pictures.

But sometimes I'm pleased with photos I've taken, as are thieving bastards apparently. Whether it's down to the serendipity of animals striking austere poses, the sunset picking out details in satisfying ways or me managing to pull a face that doesn't look smug, I'll try to find ways to include as many photos as I can that fit whatever agenda I'm going for in the relevant blog post, giving the nicest ones top billing.

For every photo transferred from my camera to my hard drive there are 10 deleted, and not all of these survivors make it to the internet, especially in the early days. When I've dragged old folders down from the proverbial loft to dredge out any unused pictures of Dave in a cave or Dave from a slightly different angle, I kept coming across photos that I forgot I had, which I never shared with the world because I was worried about storage space or irrelevant pictures distracting from the narrative arc of the post. I can take this much too seriously sometimes.

So here's a selection of previously unseen photos, videos and writings from my first year of travelling, after those first few countries I rebelliously tackled without a camera and excluding Thailand and Malaysia too, which were too big and get their own summer specials. It's guaranteed to be entirely free from coherent plotting beyond 'Dave saw some things and aimed his camera at them.' This post could just as well be titled 'Misc 1.'

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

More panda filth



By overwhelming lack of demand, here's the previous story I wrote dealing with unnatural panda attraction that I mentioned last time. I don't know if it'll help to clear my name of any accusations in advance or just dig a deeper hole, though compared to that horrendous thing I posted earlier in the week, this one's actually quite... sweet? Alright, it's still bloody weird.

This was originally written to be part of a longer story, but as I was going through a New-Year-motivated period of ambition and arrogance at the time, I submitted this scene to the monthly Melting Pot sketch show at The Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh, and was astonished when it was accepted.

It was an incredible experience to see people laughing at my stupid jokes, getting tense at the right moments and presumably wondering where the laughs were in the extremely long, pointless tangents I really should have taken out. It was performed by John MacIsaac and Vladimir McTavish, if you're familiar with their work, and they imbued it with more passion and humanity than it deserved. Thanks, guys!

(I just remembered you're not supposed to know it's about a panda or that ruins the whole point. So try to forget that).

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Taiwan tale



Unlike my previous tales, this latest twisted braingwrong wasn't inspired by my surroundings, but it was similarly the product of me taking it easy and giving my imagination arguably too much freedom.

I've sometimes thought about going back to Taiwan, which was my entry point to Asia almost three years ago and is basically an easier alternative to Real China, but this hasn't been a likely possibility since I got a girlfriend whose country seems locked in a perpetual feud with the ROC. It seems even more difficult for us to get into than Japan, and I'd rather just go back there. I wouldn't go alone; I'm not that guy any more.

This started out as a morality tale about a god-fearing, self-abusing Filipino, but switched to Taiwan for its more convenient access to pandas. This is the second time I've written about a disturbed guy with a panda fetish, but I'm confident this doesn't say anything about my own perversions - these idolised, notoriously frigid and iconically Asian creatures just seemed the most fitting victims for my disgusting characters.

Still, I'd prefer you didn't read this. Especially from chapter 三 when it gets seriously horrible. Once you've read it, you can't unread it.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ad nauseam for a dream



Did you enjoy my Tedious Dreams Trilogy earlier this year? Would you like to be bored by more self-indulgent unconscious nostalgia? Absolutely no chance? Well tough jugs, because I want there to be a written record of these fuzzy memories of things that never even happened before dementia devours it all. You don't have to read it.

In this final (promise) collection from the neural archives, I identify recurring themes in my adult dreams, good and bad. Mostly bad, to be honest. I have plenty of pleasant dreams, I guess they just tend to be more freestyle.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Things that don't even look like other things



During my career as a Ghostbuster (Ghostdebunker doesn't have the same nostalgic ring to it), I was regularly disappointed by how easily people would latch onto the flimsiest photographic 'evidence' that seemed to substantiate their belief that our dead ancestors forge dents in metal fireplaces in the background of photos designed to reflect a camera flash from a certain vantage point to vaguely resemble a stretched, out of proportion face, usually missing a couple of key features, but it's the best they could do. Come on, they're dead! Cut them some slack.

Sometimes we might think we see a face in tree bark, an angel in a cloud or Jesus Christ on a dog's arse (that photo sums up the pareidolia phenomenon better than any dissertation could), but what's really happening is the part of our brains that learns to recognise our mothers' faces soon after birth as a self-preservation measure is over-compensating and interpreting random stimuli as familiar objects - faces in particular, or your preferred brand of supernatural icon. It doesn't even have to be very accurate to be perceived as a face, as the seemingly universal recognition of a colon paired with a bracket or other grammatically irrelevant punctuation to express generic emotions attests. N.B. For those who haven't read a couple of Robert Winston books and now think they're bloody psychologists, he means this: :)

This glitch happens more often when the brain is tired or in poor lighting conditions, making late-night paranormal investigation vigils the perfect pareidolia breeding ground. I won't even get into the 'investigators' who deliberately use faulty sound recording equipment because it produces 'better results' than more accurate recorders that don't make a slight breeze passing the microphone sound like Linda Blair violently vomiting green slime in The Exorcist. And don't get me started on 'orb' photos (HOW ARE YOU NOT AWARE OF DUST?)

I'm not on a mission to destroy fun. Pareidolia is at the enjoyable and light-hearted end of the mental illness spectrum and I appreciate it for what it is. I found stories of ghostly apparitions and faces in the floor fascinating when I was a kid, but we're not kids any more - so when you're tired and think a tree looks sort of like a monk, by all means take a photograph, post it to your blog and consider sending it to Richard Wiseman, but don't make more of it than it is and don't insist it looks like a thing when it doesn't even look like a thing.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tibungco tale



Having already wasted some of my invaluable life making a Photoshop collage of a sparsely populated farmyard to illustrate an off-hand remark about how few animal names I know in the local language, I was somehow inspired to waste even more of my dwindling span writing a children's folk story based entirely around it.

This story is set in and around the ramshackle 'house' I spent one of the worst months in my recent memory, and stars some of the creatures that infested it. Some foreign terms have usurped their English equivalents in my lexicon when it comes to everyday things that are more common over here, so here's a glossary for your reference:
butiki: Common house gecko (the little one)
iring: Domestic cat
lamok: Mosquito
ok-ok: Cockroach
toko: Tokay gecko (the bigger one)
If you can spot any morals in this fable, please explain them to me as I was left confused. Have you strung up your mosquito nets? Then I'll begin.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Learning Cebuano



When Jackie & I returned from our South East Asia jaunt, we were surprised to hear that her adorable niece was now capable of forming complete sentences. Sadly, this inevitable development of rudimentary speech means the gulf between me and Eshen will only get progressively worse the more she learns - I was evenly matched when we only had to communicate in monosyllables and happy or angry facial expressions, but soon she's going to start wondering why Tito Bid doesn't reply to her questions ('Tito Bid' is as close as she gets to 'Tito Dave' right now, but it's still a huge step forward from 'Da Da Da' a couple of months ago. And people have done worse).

The only solution to preserving our friendship is for me to put this extensive free time to use, now I'm spared travel and blogging commitments, learning to speak Cebuano at the same rate as a two-year-old. It's not going to happen, but I can give it a try.

And as I seem to be desperate for blog filler before this thing wraps up in September (you should have seen some of the barrel-scraping projects I got half-way through before abandoning, fortunately you never have to), there's no better solution than a tedious educational post that actually encourages me to learn something useful for my life. The guilt hits me about once a week when I remember English isn't my girlfriend's native language and that all I know of hers is a few onomatopoeic animal names.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The end of the beginning



Remember that dilapidated bunker I moved into so I could be close to my girlfriend? (That's not her pictured, though the age gap would still be less than for most of the mixed race couples over here). The house I optimistically paid four months rent on before I really knew what I was getting into? Well, I only managed one month before the increasing blows to my quality of life got too much and I had to accept that my upbringing and experiences over the past 27 years have given me moderate standards after all.

There are people who would be grateful for a cheap concrete cube with no bathroom, intermittent water and electricity and a menagerie of irrepressible nocturnal beasties, whose circumstances mean they deserve the discount living and who are less likely to be shouted at by kids every bloody time they step outside. They're welcome to it.

But at least I didn't put myself through extreme discomfort for nothing, as by giving my confused girlfriend what she thought she wanted - the chance to help out her family, spend time with me and work alongside me on our sickeningly matching laptops - she finally learned that you can't really balance two entire lives. After getting stressed out by having to look after her sister's store and her sister's kids every day while that sister was somehow allowed to go to work, she chose the life that had me in it.

So on Thursday 18 July 2013, we moved into our first flat together (pictured) in a much nicer part of Davao. Spoiled by air conditioning, an actual bathroom, 24-hour water and electricity, local amenities and security guards reducing the likelihood of me getting kidnapped and held for ransom by terrorists, things are so peachy here, I even forget what country I'm in most of the time. Have you ever deliberately lowered the standards of your life for a while so that afterwards bad things don't seem quite so bad?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Hey, Joe!



Case File: X-40253
Subject: Investigation of Psychic Abilities in Citizens of Tibungco
Agent Assigned: Joseph Mulder

Field Report:

07-11-2013

Despite countless eyewitness accounts in disparate parts of the world, the existence of so-called 'paranormal' abilities to read people's minds and know their most intimate thoughts have never been conclusively documented. All attempts to demonstrate these abilities in controlled laboratory conditions have conveniently failed to yield results, and discredit has been brought on these claims through the exposing of fraudulent mediums in what conspiracy theorists believe is a campaign to cover up a truth the American people are ill-prepared to comprehend.

I, myself, have never held truck with these tales of the supernatural, having consigned them to the realm of science fiction alongside alien abduction accounts, Sasquatch sightings and the theory of evolution. However, since arriving in the Davao region of the Philippines on an unrelated case, I have observed phenomena that I cannot reasonably deny.

Everywhere I walk in the barrios of Tibungco, complete strangers greet me with calls of 'hey, Joe.' Yet I never told them my name was Joe! A group of school children even shouted 'Amerikano' at me, without having seen my passport or any evidence that I hailed from America. With up to one billion people of European descent representing a white majority in dozens of countries worldwide, how could they tell this from my appearance alone? It could be theorised that news of my visit and my identity was leaked, if not for the final proof, when I headed back to my hotel in Davao City last night and the taxi driver asked if I wanted pussy. I did want pussy! This cannot be coincidence.

I have requested the assistance of a renowned expert in the field of parapsychology, Zlądisław Skülbhęrt, for further investigation into the cause and nature of this phenomenon. Doctor Skülbhęrt arrives in two days, I cannot wait to see his reaction when the locals discern his identity as skilfully as they did mine.


07-13-2013

Okay, never mind. Provincial Filipinos are apparently just overly generalising, borderline racist cocks.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Things I miss from civilisation



Now I'm living here for the medium-term at least, I guess it's time for another deliberately confrontational Philippines-bashing post, because this is the country in my thoughts and in my face right now, and a few days spent in the heavily regulated comfort of Singapore was enough to make me nostalgic for when I lived in a country that at least pretended to care about its people.

It's not my fault I was spoiled by a first world upbringing that gave me high standards (working class if that's any excuse?) I was lucky enough to have the chance to be successful and make what I wanted of my life, so choosing to end up in a corrupt third world country where people shout at me and demand money all the time would be ridiculous for any other reason than wanting to be near someone who lives here. It isn't even as cheap as you might imagine, especially with the 3,500 pesos required to extend my tourist visa every 59 days or the alternative of taking more expensive connecting flights out and in every 21 days.

I'm making a lot of sacrifices so we can be together, but time and my patience threshold will tell how far this goes. What if we have kids one day? Being conditioned by a country where hungry mouths outnumber food and means, Jackie will obviously want to. Would I want to raise them here, where education standards are slipping from inadequate to terrible, and to give them the burden of being a Filipino citizen when they grow up, looked down on the world over and having their suffering country trashed by spiteful bloggers? It really does help to write these thoughts down.

Here are assorted reasons my phuture in the Philippines would be phrustrating.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The beginning of the end



On 18th June 2013, faced with the unappealing prospect of boarding flights the next morning that he'd been forced into booking by the Philippines' ungenerous immigration requirements, Dave realised he belonged with his girlfriend in her backwards village where adults stare and children shout at him all the time, paid to extend his visa by a few weeks and sent his empty seats on their way to Sumatra. I hope they're enjoying themselves and keeping out of trouble.

It was an expensive gesture, to be sure - not only in terms of the cost of these three uncancellabe flights, but also in the lost potential of blogs slipping away. There will now be no stressful account of taxi scams in Medan, no poor quality vistas of majestic Lake Toba, no disappointing follow-up to Dave's pathetic drug experimentation when he eats a happy herb pizza in Tuk-Tuk and goes to bed early. Make no mistake; Dave made many sacrifices on the day he finally settled down.

Well, sort of settled.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The inevitable Dave in a cave compilation



It was always going to be a useful bit of blog filler during a less active month, but now I've drawn the line this sadly means I can't go in any more caves ever.

Why not make your own compilation of you doing something that rhymes with your name? Because you have a life or something?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Singapore tale



The final leg of our skewed quadropedal journey across continental South-East Asia before heading back to the Philippines (which is the closest place I have to a home now, though the type of unwelcoming home that only lets you stay 21 days before kicking you out again) was five days in $ingapore. Oh hang on, I accidentally pressed shift and 4 then instead of S, I meant $؋GsaoR. I'm implying they like money.

Another former Asian 'home,' I came to-and-fro a few times and got to know this slightly insane island city-state in the summer of 2011 (it's always summer when you're 85 miles from the equator) and had mostly fond memories. Indeed, after Vietnam traffic, Singapore's tyrannical laws made walking along the pavement a much less death-defying experience, and because the solarphobic population tends to lurk beneath the streets in the air conditioned sewer of shopping malls, I don't even have to share these pavements with anyone else.

Thinking about these subterranean consumer vampires put me in the mood to write another story. I ended up writing a different one based around Singapore's best and worst attractions, which you might recognise if you've been following my 'adventures' for a long time. Drags on a bit, doesn't it?

Friday, July 12, 2013

The uncultured show



Malacca is one of South East Asia's more relaxing cities, a place where many tourists drifting without a schedule find themselves spending a lot longer than they intended. Perhaps realising this, Malacca generously provides a variety of cultural distractions to keep these aimless wanderers entertained or at least give them some photo opportunities to keep their blogs ticking over before they finally persuade themselves to head to the costlier climes of Singapore, including the only dedicated museum district I've seen outside of Europe.

It's been a long time since I visited a legitimate museum to actually learn about a country's culture and heritage, rather than being lured by the promise of dead babies in jars or grotesque waxworks. It's still been a long time, as the couple of museums we tried out ended up having bugger all to do with anything Malaysian.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A childish day out again again again again again again again again again again again again again again



We had some time to kill before our return flight from Singapore, and deciding intelligently to not extend our stay in Vietnam or try to fill up 10 days in Singapore itself (unless I just hung out at the ace library again), we worked our way gradually down Malaysia's west coast on the way, stopping in Malacca.

To be honest, this was another city I didn't really need to revisit this lifetime, having been effectively stranded here for three weeks in 2011 while waiting for my bank to send me something they insisted I needed. Fortunately, after a couple of days of compulsory sightseeing I'd elected to spend the remaining time reading the two worthwhile books I was able to scavenge from the worst book shop I've ever seen. It's gone now, and there's a Japanese kitchen supplies shop in its place. Who could have foreseen bankruptcy for retailers of the best-selling The Grange Hill Annual 1984 and The Millennium Bug: How to Survive the Coming Chaos? I'm glad I was able to capture its fleeting glory at least.

That meant there were still loads of local attractions I hadn't got round to seeing last time, and after minimal discussion, funny animals won.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Dark Museum Off



When I started travelling, I considered museums essential destinations. I'd always had a passing interest in ancient history, so the art museums of Florence, the National Archaeological Museum of Athens and the charmingly run-down Egyptian Museum in Cairo took me on a fascinating journey backwards through time.

I didn't visit many museums after that, at least not many mainstream ones, as curiosity led me to develop a taste for something more niche. Over the past 18 months, I've made a hobby of tracking down museums that are sometimes sinister, mostly morbid and definitely dark.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Things I didn't like about Vietnam



So it turned out we should have gone with my instincts rather than optimistically giving this country a second chance, and probably shouldn't have gone back to Vietnam after all. There were some things I quite liked (mostly the coffee), but Vietnam really doesn't compare to most of its neighbours when you have to deal with the hassle, comparative cost and other annoyances. It didn't even annoy me in the amusing ways I know you enjoy, it just meant I didn't get up to as much because I was disillusioned with going outside.

I resisted writing this list the first time around, but this time I really need to remind my future self to stop being so bloody forgiving.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mekong? No, you Simon



I've liked the idea of following a mighty river from source to mouth ever since I travelled along the banks of the Nile in Egypt and met someone who'd followed it up from Tanzania (mostly by accident, to be fair - he was travelling around Africa and the river kept getting in the way). It's as good a pointless quest as any other.

So far I've mostly failed to encounter rivers of significance, the exception being the Mekong which handily carves out many of the borders in mainland South East Asia. I first saw it when crossing Thailand into Laos, where I followed it north as far as Luang Prabang, and later encountered it again in Cambodia. (At least, I saw a few big rivers in Phnom Penh and it's apparently one of those).

If I'd done my duty and braved China's tyrannical immigration laws to follow the Mekong from its source on the Tibetan Plateau all the way down to Vietnam, I'd be celebrating a futile victory in the Mekong Delta. As it is, I just had a couple of nice days of sightseeing by boat and bicycle.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Insanity is a full-time job

If anyone was following the Jeab Incident out of morbid curiosity, it's been resolved to my minimal possible satisfaction for the time being, so I've taken down the associated blog posts (and libellous Facebook accounts).

All I wanted was confirmation that she wasn't trying to run away with my money forever, and after mediating (very impartially!) through one of her close friends on Facebook it seems things are back the way they were - uncertain, but with the inevitable anxiety postponed to a future date.

I didn't expect to get anything back for years when I loaned money to an unemployed single parent in a low income country, I just didn't appreciate all my emails being ignored. As each day yielded nothing but silence I got gradually crazier to the extent that I've probably damaged her reputation among her friends... the ones who can speak English and understand what the hell I was going on about anyway. I've tried to rectify it with all the people I spoke to directly.

I went too far, but she really should have replied. It didn't look great from over here. I wish we'd managed to get there without the unpleasantness, but at least now I have my evenings back. Getting the £5,500 back can wait.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Peek-a-boo, I annihilate you!



After visiting museums that roundly chastised and demonised Americans, it was time to head out into the jungle to celebrate the achievements of local North Vietnamese heroes. There was still time for more American-bashing, to be honest.

When you strip away the horrific death and suffering angle, the Củ Chi tunnel system is really impressive, and even if the white-washed presentation of the People's Army and demonising of the American killers is a little suspect, it's probably fair considering the number of films and TV shows I must have sat through that characterised the sneaky Vietnamese as being 'one' with the jungle. Because there are no racist overtones there.

These guys had nothing but their wits and managed to drive out the world's greatest military superpower. So what if they might have sent a few kids armed with grenades on kamikaze runs into the enemy camp? Let's put all that behind us and play in some tunnels together.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The war in Viet Flippin' Nam



The war museums in Ho Chi Minh City aren't as humorously revisionist as Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, but there's still plenty of anti-American sentiment and ambiguously loaded word choices to make the Revolutionary Museum and War Remnants Museum worthwhile stops.

The plaques even seemed to get so sarcastically critical at one point, with the Declaration of Independence being juxtaposed against images of crying men with their legs blown off and their deformed Agent Orange offspring. They might as well have hung a banner reading 'Thanks, America' and piped a sincere symphonic rendition of the Star Spangled Banner on repeat. But I think they got their message across regardless, and if I was American I would have felt some ancestral shame and duty to confront these exhibitions of my nation's cruelty, however one-sided.

Yeah, really must get over to India one of these days...

Friday, June 21, 2013

Learning Vietnamese



It feels like a long time since I've slammed face-first into the language barrier, being spoiled by the ESL Philippines and hanging around exclusively touristy areas of Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand after a couple of months in Australia where they spoke something that sounded kind of like English. I just nodded and didn't take the beer tinnie out of my mouth.

So on arrival in Vietnam, I really wasn't prepared for people not being able to speak my language fluently. Even though I've been to this country before and experienced this firsthand through several confusing, open-ended conversations with the staff on night buses, I just forgot language was an issue. I guess I've got really lazy since getting an English-speaking girlfriend and only learning a few choice Bisaya phrases so we can converse discreetly around foreigners. Those conversations are none of your business.

I brushed up on a couple of essential Vietnamese phrases I found scrawled in my notebook from my previous visit, which I'm doubtless pronouncing wrong as no one understands even when I attempt to say the names of major cities, and I always keep a sweaty page of food vocabulary to hand so we don't accidentally eat non-kosher animals like pigs and prawns or non-sane animals like doggies.

I also learned numbers one to ten using a handy memory aid. That's right, long-time followers - that shiver running down your spine and death rattle escaping your throat can only mean one thing. It's the long-dreaded return of my mental mental images. The system bloody works! Almost certainly for me alone.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Innocence lost



Today, my opinion of humanity took a downward turn. Long, unedited, inadvisedly personal dismay-attack follows.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Never Sai never a-gon (Saigon)



Even if you weren't forced to play Russian roulette against your mates or to endure other fictionalised horrors of war, Vietnam isn't one of those countries you forget in a hurry. It's no Brunei. While I mostly enjoyed my 10 days in the Socialist Republic the first time around, my memories of majestic landscapes and incredible coffee evidently soured over time to leave only bitter recollections of scammers and a stress attack so intense, I thought I had malaria.

For my changing opinions of Vietnam, you only have to dip into my blogs over the last eight months:

'This might be one of my favourite South East Asian countries as well as one of the worst'

21 October 2012

'I'll come back and do the south some time'

15 November 2012

'For all [Cambodia's] faults, I'll probably come back some time to stay slightly longer again. I can't say the same about Vietnam'

30 March 2012

'Every traveller I've spoken to about the international scam capital of Vietnam since experiencing it myself has said they won't go back there for that reason alone, and I have to agree with them'

11 May 2013

So when Jackie and I were debating where to spend a couple of weeks in-between Thailand and a return flight commitment from Singapore, Vietnam wasn't exactly top of the list (I really wanted to go to Sumatra, but the risk of actual malaria put Jackie off. Maybe when we get divorced).

After weeding out places I'd been to and had no real need to see again this lifetime, the undiscovered south of Vietnam somehow ended up being the least unappealing. I did it for you guys really, I know you like it when my life's difficult.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Not all Asian people are from Thailand



Being the only country in this part of the world not to be colonised by marauding Europeans, Thailand has a unique perspective on the world and its diverse peoples, and tends to favour classifying this diversity in stark black and white terms that are easier to deal with than all that complicated real-world stuff about ethnic and cultural diversity.

As a frequent visitor to this country, I'm familiar with what Thais think about white people, or 'farang' as they actually came up with a word for. We're all rich, obsessed with sex and have an irritating tendency to vocally complain when we're cheated and lied to. What a drag! One Thai person I knew had such a unified view of white people that she couldn't get her head around the idea of people from Eastern Europe looking for work in the UK or the World Wars being fought primarily between white people, even though she had no trouble appreciating her country's turbulent history with the likes of Cambodia and Burma where the people come from similar stock.

Another country where the people apparently look exactly the same as the Thais is the Philippines, as tour guides, street vendors, waitresses and hotel staff will unfailingly assume Jackie is from the same country as them and try to speak to her in Thai rather than cracking open their faulty English to talk to me, even though I speak more Thai than her. The only Thai Jackie's mastered is ฉันพูดภาษาไทยไม่ได้คะ ('I can't speak Thai'), though hearing her say this in Thai only drags the confusion out for longer, so we ended up switching to the lazy English option and I've convinced her to put on her best exaggerated American accent to avoid further ambiguity.

Mostly this is just a boring nuisance as we have to go through the same explanations and endure the forced merriment when the truth comes out that there are other countries out there where people don't look farang, black or Chinese. But the more it happens, the more it unreasonably pisses me off as the world continues to deny my girlfriend the chance to be treated equally as a fellow international traveller.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Phi Phi? You should have gone before we left



Completing my Krabi trilogy, the most overcrowded island hopping day trip was also the most disappointing. These two factors weren't unrelated: people are rubbish.

While a similarly clement afternoon on Hong Island left plenty of room to manoeuvre, the basically identical beaches and waters of Phi Phi Leh were littered with bobbing bodies as reddening Western tourists clogged the sea while pale Asian tourists crammed into the shade.

To see one island singled out and spoiled this much is confusing and a bit depressing, especially as wherever you point your longtail boat around here you're going to drift ashore on an idyllic island sooner or later. Why single this one out? The reason might be exclusively down to its starring role in some film about a Beach (name escapes me), because some people need that sort of validation to consider a place worth visiting. You'd never catch me being so shallow.

Personally, I was drawn to the Phi Phi Islands for their childish name.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Literally everything I'm carrying now


Mine's the stuff on the shoulders.
The rest is because I'm a (gentleman/packhorse)


Two years on, how does my luggage compare to this same time in 2011 after I'd only managed a piffling nine months of travelling? Have I learned to relax and accept airline baggage fees or become even more minimalist to spite them? Do I have any original items left? Is there anything I've been carting around for nearly three years that I really needn't have bothered with? What's with all the bloody socks?

I still feel self-satisfied when I get the occasional admiring or confused comment about the small size of my baggage (a woman at Sydney Airport was flabbergasted), but luggage has become an issue for the first time on this latest trip as Jackie's been taking the opportunity to stock up on cheap foreign inventory for her family's store, as well as feeling pressure to buy gifts for everyone back home.

This is a completely new situation for me, someone whose only concession to souvenirs is buying a new 'Save the Arbitrary Animal' T-shirt a couple of times a year when the armpit tear in the old one becomes too difficult to obscure, and has resulted in headaches and paranoid frowns each time we pass a local market and a few more items are added to our already heaving bags with the promise that it will somehow fit, contrary to the laws of physics. I don't know if Jackie's a Time Lord or what, but to her credit she was ruthlessly minimal with her clothing when we set off to leave a gaping space for stock, and so far we've managed to convince airlines that those bulging backpacks, suitcases and shopping bags really are suitable cabin bags. Maybe she's a Jedi?

This has meant I've spent a lot more time in plain, characterless malls this time around in Malaysia and Thailand than usual (which means more than no time), with more to look forward to when we head to Korea and Japan in a couple of months for what's looking increasingly like a business trip. Maybe I can claim it all as expenses.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Accidental tour of Krabi



One of the most impressive things about Krabi, once you've got over the overwhelming natural beauty, is how comparatively little hassle there is when walking the streets. I noticed its absence instantly, when gearing up to reject the sales pitches of tuk tuk drivers we were passing on the way to the beach, but they didn't make a peep. We walked along Ao Nang's commercial beachfront and I didn't get any coded offers of masturbation from a single transgender masseuse. What the hell is going on?

Fortunately for my sanity, there were still inept hotel staff to screw things up and villainous travel companies to screw me over and keep me grounded, before I started to consider whether I might be in a slightly derivative heaven. When a budget package tour we'd booked featuring an elephant ride and jungle trekking to a waterfall somehow resulted in us having hired a clueless taxi for the afternoon and going to a temple instead, I knew I was back in Thailand, love it or hate it. Both, in large measures.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

We don't need no stinkin' Kong



The island-speckled seas, inquisitive fish and conspicuously absent hawkers of Krabi made this region my favourite stop in Thailand the first time around. But despite expressing the wish to see more of it in the future, I never got this far south again on my frequent return trips to this country. I guess the extended night bus put me off.

Returning two years later, I'm still confident it's my favourite place in this mostly great country (sorry, Lop Buri, you're still up there), especially now I've seen more of it than what was included on one lazy production line day tour. I've done three of those lazy day tours now. Here's the Hong Island one.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Great drinks of the world, only slightly childish



I don't foray into food features too often, drink dissertations even less so, despite being a living organism who needs fluids to survive, and most of the drinks I drink out here being necessarily foreign and interesting.

That's mostly because when I was travelling by myself I'd usually choose menu options that look like they took the least time to prepare and consume, so I could get back to my room and get on with important business like writing rubbish like this. But when I'm travelling with company and there's someone to talk to while waiting and to watch get excited when the bland dish finally arrives, I have more time for experimentation.

Here are 10 drinks of the world that have made a big impression on me in the last few years. Hardly any of them are alcoholic, which is more down to a lack of interest than some kind of responsible lifestyle choice. Only some of them are childish. I liked most of them.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Batu wouldn't Kek Lok Si when I'm Penangry



My first port of call in Malaysia back in 2011, the metropolitan island Penang was our last stop this time around before we work our way up through Thailand - the reverse of my original journey down the peninsula back when my travels were actually linear.

It was good to be back in civilisation and Wi-Fi zones after struggling to get work done in the peaceful paradise of the Perhentian Islands where I really shouldn't have been worrying about stuff like that and should have just written horrible stories or something instead. This visit also gave me the chance to see some of Penang's major sights that I somehow didn't get around to the first time, being too distracted by old buildings and loose monkeys.

We didn't hang out with any monkeys this time around. She doesn't really like them. This relationship is doomed.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Island tale



We had a partly lovely time on Pulau Perhentian Kecil. I went snorkelling and swam in the sea for the first time in ages and magnificently failed to learn from my past experience of this exact island at the same time of the year as the parts of me that are still vampire-white and normally covered by clothes got painfully sunburned.

Thanks to our tiny, reclusive resort, we also got to enjoy/endure trekking across half the island or braving a bumpy water taxi any time we wanted to go anywhere and Jackie got to experience the on/off Wi-Fi annoyance that's plagued me for two years and might have led to a deeper mutual understanding. Now I just have to take her to Cambodia or Vietnam to experience the hassle of taxi drivers and street sellers and she'll never complain about my stress outbursts again.

I could present scattered photos of fond memories tarnished by sarcastic commentary, but instead I'll take the risk of posting a short story vaguely inspired by our tranquil island week, written in pain as I avoided sun, sea and surfaces while waves lapped outside our window, flying foxes tried to scavenge our biscuits and fluorescent fish flitted beneath the brilliant blue. It's a bit bleak.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Highlander IV: Not a Flower



After spending time in Baguio and Sagada recently, I was happy for another chance to enjoy cool air and pine fragrances when our route east from Kuala Lumpur to the Perhentian Islands was rudely interrupted by the Cameron Highlands.

This was one of my favourite stops in Malaysia the first time, and judging by the disproportionate number of Europeans hanging around here, I can only presume my blogs were successful in boosting its tourism profile. Coming back meant I was able to tick off the final outstanding item on the region's conveyor belt package tour itineraries by trekking deep into the forest to find the world's biggest flower that isn't even a flower and isn't the biggest of these even if it was, which it isn't.

Still, nice walk.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Bleak mirror



It isn't easy travelling as a Filipino, when the whole world presumes you're a criminal and/or prostitute until proven innocent by a long and expensive paper trail, after which they may decide on a whim not to let you into their country anyway without being obliged to give you a reason why.

We expected to face obstacles when applying for Jackie's tourist visas to the notoriously xenophobic Japan and South Korea a few months down the line, but spending a few months travelling around friendly neighbourhood countries first, like Malaysia, Thailand and wherever else took our fancy, was supposed to be the easy part, dipping Jackie's feet in international waters and collecting some useful passport stamps to help her chances of being approved for more difficult countries in the future.

We only learned there's no such thing as a stress-free holiday for Filipinos after we'd already cleared immigration at Manila and were stopped just before boarding the plane. At least the Philippines is consistent, going to great efforts to give me the worst possible impression right to the very end.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Pre-lance Planne(u)r


In Fife, in another life


I started this blog in September 2010 as a self-indulgent travel journal, a means to let anyone who cared know what I was getting up to, so I didn't feel obligated to join a social network or something, and as a way to keep myself sane during the more emotionally confusing and stressful times. It's succeeded admirably.

Before this blog, my only means of expressing these feelings, whims and frustrations was in the form of Word documents written for my own benefit and saved to my hard drive. There's also the angst-ridden emails to the few people I feel comfortable talking about deeper feelings with, whether they want to hear it or not. This practice is still alive and well, but as a ruthless minimalist I occasionally go through my old emails and annihilate any that I feel don't serve a practical function, so all that girl trouble is hopefully lost forever (unless Oliver still has a load of incriminating stuff from me).

So, for the sake of historical context, here are extracts from some of those documents written in the months leading up to September 2010, offering an insight into my changing mindset, the reasons I left Scotland and my original travel 'plans,' back when I clearly had no idea what travelling involved. I just read it through and it's probably the most pointless and boring post I've ever done, but as an origin story it's at least better than those Star Wars prequels.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Things I didn't like about the Philippines



It's that time again - several months into a relationship where I start to think unnecessarily far ahead and consider the long-term ramifications of being with someone from a different country, specifically the matter of where I could end up spending most of my life if we settled down. I'm not selfish about this: if I can continue working freelance forever, I'll have the freedom to relocate wherever I'm needed. Jackie's close to her family so naturally she'll want to be close in a geographical sense too, I have no problem accommodating that. The only problem I have is that this place is a complete shithole.

That's the sort of unreasonable, over-privileged white man intolerance I know you love to read from me, but this isn't a few weeks in grotty hotels I can laugh off later, I'm talking about the place I'll be living for (probably) most of my 30s, 40s and however many more decades my poor nutrition allows. I got a bit bored of seeing the same streets in Edinburgh when I lived there for three years, but at least those streets were clean, paved and not filled with ignorant people staring and yelling at me (not filled, but there was the odd sod).

So since I've cracked open this can of intolerance and I'm taking sanity leave from the Philippines for a couple of months, here's the latest instalment in what was meant to be a regular feature to explore my real or imagined problems with every country I visit. Due to a packed travel schedule in the second half of last year and quite enjoying Australia in January, I haven't taken the time to make a formal complaint about anywhere since China, which makes things look a little unfair and specific - I'll try to remember to be racist about everywhere from now on, alright?

Here are assorted things that have annoyed or depressed me about the Philippines from my privileged, judgmental and probably hypocritical perspective. I'll be back again and again between our trips, but I don't know if I could stay.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Philippeats



I haven't talked about exotic foreign food for a while, mainly because in Australia I was eating complete shit to save money. But then I went back to a country where it's almost offensively cheap to get people to cook all my meals for me. A country which, I realised in surprise, I had next to no idea what the local cuisine is, despite having spent three weeks there before in 2011.

I must have been eating something, surely? Come to think of it, have I ever seen a Filipino restaurant abroad? What do they eat in this multicultural archipelago that's seen Spanish and American colonisation and a melting pot of immigration? Man cannot survive on balut alone. Thank god.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Davey day care



I don't talk too much about the friends I've made when travelling, mostly because people are annoying and time-consuming so I try to limit human interaction as much as possible. But every so often I'll meet someone who's fun and friendly enough to spend some time with, like Eshen.

I'll get this out of the way first - Eshen's a lot younger than my friends usually are. I thought it was a bit weird when I hung out with 19-year-olds in South Korea, but Eshen's only just turned two. She's certainly the first friend I've made while travelling who was born within the life span of this blog, specifically when I was on the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia (where were you on 18 April '11?)

But we haven't let this age gap be an obstacle to our friendship, maybe because people are less judgemental about that over here. I've seen loads of really old foreign men at my hotel with really young Filipina 'friends' and they seem to be getting on just swell. The language barrier isn't any greater than it would be with a child who could barely speak any other language either, and it's about the same as it was with the adult Koreans to be honest. Eshen speaks about as much English as I do Bisaya, but it's usually easy to work out what she's talking about when she invites me to play popular games like throwing her bag across the room, pretending to eat invisible food for three hours, pretending to be shot in the head (classic), placing coins between her toes or just openly laughing at my face even when I'm not pulling a face.

Until she starts crying for no reason and I call for her mother or Auntie Jackie. I can't deal with this drama queen stuff. But I'm learning.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Let's play refugees!



The main attraction we were looking forward to in Leyte (there wasn't much else to do) was the prospect of taking a bus and ferry back to Davao, rather than another bloody domestic flight connection via Cebu or Manilagainagain. With Philippines exhausts the carbon saving would be negligible or possibly even more damaging than flying there, but we were both eager for the more 'authentic' travel experience and - most importantly - the ability to point to these islands on a map in the future and brag, 'did it.'

We didn't let the bus company's (misleading) claims of 14 hours' travel time deter us, despite having endured a similar length journey a few days earlier, though I was a little uncomfortable about how little information we had about what the trip actually entailed, with nothing to be found online and only minimal details from the one guy at the bus terminal who wasn't trying to scam us.

How much time would we spend on the bus as opposed to the ferry? Would we sleep on the bus or arrange a cabin on the boat? Would we be squashed into tiny seats with cardboard boxes filling the gangway, no knee room and the teetering Leviathan luggage of 30 cross-country migrants threatening to concuss us at any time? This epic 26-hour journey makes The Lord of the Rings look like a walk to the corner shop in your dressing gown.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

See you Leyte



We stopped off in Leyte on the long journey from Sagada back to Davao, so Jackie's parents could size up this strange foreigner who'd be taking their daughter overseas (I think they bought it).

As ever, I was excited at the prospect of a brand new island to explore, but a lack of infrastructure and frustrating bus schedules in these provincial towns meant we didn't see a lot.

Seriously, there's nothing to see here.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Hello me, it's me again



Outside of tranniversaries, this blog has developed a small assortment of annual features (or biennial if I forget) that are useful for keeping tabs on my progress, as well as for filling time when I'm not getting up to very much. This one, a gallery of photos of my face taken over the past 12 months, is the most pointless post since last time I did it.

At least I thought it was pointless - that post has inexplicably racked up more than 1,500 views in a year, just shy of my all-time top 10 thanks to the efforts of dead babies, sexy teachers and used schoolgirl panties (if you haven't been following my blog you might be a little lost). What's going on? Why do so many people want to see mostly wonky or poorly framed photos of tourist sites spoiled by me being in them?

Whatever the reason, here's a load more. Fluctuating beard growth is a reliable barometer of whether or not I was travelling alone at different times.