Generated Paradise!

Paul woke in paradise at 1.30am, his entire body stinging from the bites of a tropical squadron of insects. The little buggers were buzzing around him like miniature Messerschmitt, each keen to land and pick up their bloody payload, punctually puncturing him every seven seconds, or so it seemed! Added to the critters fighting trench war fare amid the folds of the ancient mattress, Paul wanted to commit insecticide, but had neglected to pack any!

It was interminable.

There was a mosquito net but it resembled a moth-eaten piece of Victorian lace as it hung,spectre like, from the bamboo ceiling, only serving to disturb Paul and Andrew’s sweaty slumber even further. Andrew had twice been violently caught amongst it’s billowing grey mesh, the first time nearly garrotting himself, and on the second occasion falling heavily to the floor, swaddled like an overgrown infant. Paul had had to untangle his partner swiftly from the errant material, making even more holes in the useless piece of rag.

Andrew struggled proudly to his feet and went out onto the silken beach, the Indian ocean splashing just feet from the balcony of their overpriced bungalow on the underdeveloped island. Paul lay inside under the ragged remainder of the mosquito net, listening to the mercurial generator, which was coughing and spluttering it’s way through the night, drowning the sound of the ocean with one mechanical wave after another. The only other noise heard during the early eastern hours was the incessant coughing and spluttering of the friendly Berliner in the hut next door, who might have been auditioning for the part of Violetta, in ‘La Traviata’ – hourly.

It was a most productive disorder.

In fact, the entire nightly soundscape of stunning Koh Kradan reminded Paul of a touring fun fair. He imagined, during numerous bouts of torrid wakefulness, stepping onto the dove white sands outside, riding the ‘Waltzer’ and grabbing a quick Toffee Apple.

It was not the sound of paradise.

And he most certainly could not sleep.

But sadly there was no fun fair. Just the gigantic, archaic generator and the sanatorium next door.

Koh Kradan was paradisiacal during the day. Other than the day trippers who polluted the near pristine beach with their screaming and floating.

It was pure hell at night.

Paul only hoped he had not contracted Dengue Fever. Especially as the eccentric owner of their prefabricated resort was regularly holding court across his average restaurant, endlessly talking of his recent recovery from the killer disease!

There was no local food. There was no local flavour. There were, in fact, no locals!

The boys had come to the final island on their Thai odyssey, arriving from the striking  Koh Bulon.

Bulon, too, had had it’s own share of drama.

Not least, a jungle which the locals dare not enter for fear of the many ghosts who they swore resided there. Paul and Andrew had just happened to take lodgings on the edge of this forbidden place. They’d heard strange voices in the night, but had not been nearly killed by a malevolent mosquito net as on Kradan.

Koh Bulon was also an island stalked by giant lizards, some three metres long. Paul had got a shock early one morning as he saw a large reptilian tongue, which he was pretty sure did not belong to his husband, appear from behind their jungle hut. The magnificent creature passed majestically by, quite disinterested in the two goggle eyed tourists who watched astounded just feet away. It had been a magnificent sight.

A rare co-existence between fauna and those fawning over it.

There was incredible nurture as well as abundant nature on the charming island. A tiny school where the teachers rented out tourist huts, in which Paul and Andrew had briefly boarded prior to discovering their broody jungle abode, catered to travellers and pupils alike. It was a great lesson in how to use tourism to enable the local community. ‘A’ plus, Paul had thought.

There were also two very friendly squid fishing villages full of equally elastic locals. Locally generated solar power to provide for the resorts.

And a reggae bar!

Paul wondered if it could be bettered.

It was true their next island, Koh Kradan, where they were now residing, was a veritable Eden, but she had a vicious sting in her tail!

She was an Island of expensive resorts. No true inhabitants – only poor food and inflated prices. Together with the BBC’s ‘TENKO’ style hut, in which the boys were now staying, it was a touch disappointing.  Paul considered it to be the last resort. He decided he would never again choose to stay in such a place. Although Kradan was certainly a beauty queen, she was somewhat lacking in the personality department.

 

One would have a much better time, Paul knew, with the slightly sluttish Koh Mook who lay brazenly to the east. He’d always preferred a bunch of scruffy locals puffing away, rather than a division of armoured push-chairs from Potsdam!

Koh Kradan’s beach had recently been voted eighth best in the world by ‘Conde Nast’. Paul could not disagree, but thought it unlikely he and Andrew would return anytime very soon.

They would probably leave it to the honeymooners and the snorkelling toddlers.

And the beautiful fish.

Shame.

Especially as Paul quite suited a snorkel. Or at least that’s what Andrew told him, no doubt hoping for a quieter life!

The next day the boys were to leave for the big polluted smoke of Bangkok, but not before they had to endure another night in their over priced ‘Deer Hunter’ shack. Paul wondered how Robert de Niro would have coped. Then thought better of it.

It wasn’t a night for ‘Russian Roulette’.

That would no doubt occur in Bangkok.

Besides, the tangled mosquito net in the beautifully twisted Koh Kradan would probably get them first!

He lay back and drifted away to the soothing rhythm of The Straits Of Malacca, as they elegantly lapped the silver shore like slithers of mystical mermaids. The sound of the sea was a soporific shanty down in Thailand’s Trang Islands. An intense aquamarine lullaby. Paul let himself drift aimlessly away. But soon enough he felt a sudden tug back towards the shore. A distant rythym drummed steadily in a far off lighthouse. Or rather, a far off generator house. It thudded pleadingly. Gradually bringing him, involuntarily, back to land.  He was once again marooned. Beached in his bamboo cell.  A landlubber dreaming of the sea, and instead being deafened by the bloody generator all night!

Crunch! Thud! Screech! Boom!

The sound of paradise! Lost!

Well, almost.

Paul was more than ready to return to the real Thailand…..

The Old Man And The Sea!

Author’s note.

The author apologises for a complete lack of photography in this blog. The reader will realise for themselves why this is the case.

Paul had known in the pit of his stomach, that the idea of he and Andrew taking a sea kayak and paddling off for the famous ‘Emerald Cave’ on the edge of Thailand’s Andaman Sea could easily end in disaster. But as per usual he ignored the deep warning signs and instead set off onto the deep for a titanic moment on the high seas.

The boys set off from the beach at an ungodly hour, Paul only hoped that there was some seafaring deity who had also risen early and would therefore be looking down or up at them. The sky was a hot slate of muted greys and the sea matched her sullen mood. After a short watch, it was as crystal clear as the Indian ocean, that the Gods had obviously had a very late night! The Boys were on their own.

After the inaugural launch of the SS Lola, The Boys  initially paddled in manic circles attempting to work in tandem; their double act though far less successful offshore. They were sinking much faster than they ever did onstage. At least that took a good couple of hours Paul thought. He barked an order at Andrew to come to the right. Andrew misunderstood his nautical command and used the right oar frantically, steering them over to port.

‘The other way’ Paul screamed.

‘You said the right’ Andrew shouted back.

‘I meant go to the right – to starboard’.

Paul’s formative years at naval school were flooding back. Sadly his pretentious use of seaman’s terminology fell on Andrew’s deaf ears who responded with equally salty language,

‘Fuck off you bossy twat’.

‘We’re taking on water’ Paul said urgently.

‘Piss off’ said Andrew.

He had never been keen on Paul’s inner seaman!

Paul was in the back off the kayak and feeling stern, he could see the boat was filling gradually with seawater. He could also feel himself sinking further into the ocean. He was now wet up to his waist. The kayak was so low in the water he suspected the hull must be filling too. He was well aware that his experience of boats was actually leading him to panic. Andrew, whose boating credentials extended to having once sung show tunes on an American cruise ship on  some of the more ordinary Caribbean islands was certainly much calmer.

Sometimes ignorance was bliss thought Paul.

But The Lola Boys were definitely all at sea.

They managed to plough on through the deep ocean. As they rounded the cape of sheer vertical emerald jungle a large swell began to rock them now and then, each time causing a couple more gallons of seawater to sweep over the side of their craft. Paul stopped paddling occasionally and used his hands to scoop out as much water as he could.

Eventually, after a strenuous row and an even more energetic row, the boys spotted some dragon tail boats moored near to the base of the cliff. They paddled furiously to get to the rocks. When they arrived at the small bay there was nowhere to get ashore. The rocks were jagged and sharp, covered with millions of glass-like barnacles. They managed to navigate to the mouth of a small cave which had a couple of ledges on which they could perch as they attempted to empty their vessel.

‘Let’s leave it here’ said Andrew. Quite exasperated.

‘We can’t’ said Paul. ‘If the tide changes she might be gone when we come out’.

Paul spotted a rope hanging from seemingly nowhere at the mouth to the ‘Emerald Cave’,

‘Let’s tie her up over there’ Paul suggested.

‘You do it’ Andrew spat back.

The boat trip was not going well.

Paul paddled the boat over to the random line and attempted a ‘Sheepshank’. It had been a considerable while since he’d tied one, and what with all the stress of the ‘Lusitania’ moment he settled for a ‘Reef Knot’. He’d always considered that to be one of the most stylish of rope ties, and he knew if he didn’t get the boat secured quickly Andrew would be telling him to get knotted.

Though in less sober language!

Both of them were aware the excursion was not bobbing along nicely as one would wish, but Paul imagined they had independently decided to weather the storm that was brewing, and not let a little water cloud the moment.

Andrew, with a lamp strapped to his head, took the lead. He began his best doggy-paddle into the blackness of the cave. Paul thought he had the look of a drowning miner and smiled silently. He knew Andrew was not in the mood to be mocked. Not when there was drowning to be done. He followed confidently as Andrew lead them deeper into the earth. The cavern grew smaller, and darker with each stroke. They swam an abrupt corner and then there was nothing. An ink-black space and a mass of sea life swimming beneath them.

Paul turned to look for Andrew. There was no light at all and Andrew had been in charge of the torch. The entire rock felt like it was pressing heavily onto to him. It’s billions of tonnes of millions of years of limestone crushing the very breath out of him. He knew it had been stupid.

This excursion! Jesus!

Not only did Paul have a problem with being out of his depth – not just in water. He also loathed tunnels. Whilst driving at speed into the numerous underpasses that pepper Andalucia’s coast road, he had often had to suddenly decelerate, breathe deeply into a crisp bag, and think of a Barbra Streisand number so as to avoid passing out in the underpass.

So why had he considered a watery journey through a hell-like landscape to be fun? It was if he were swimming the Styx in Hades – the devil had the only torchlight. He could just about espy his partner in brine floating on his back about twenty feet behind him – the meagre light shining uselessly upwards into the cavernous cathedral of stone.

Paul then felt an all too familiar dread begin to course through him. His breath became shallow and his head started to spin. He knew he was starting to have a panic attack. It was not the first time.

Paul had always been highly confident in the water from a very young age. He’d been a leading member of ‘The Duckling Club’ at Putney Swimming Baths when he was a just able to walk. His ‘Ten Yard Certificate’ had proved a cinch! But his confidence had taken a huge knock years later when he found himself in hot water on the famous Ipanema Beach. He and two friends had almost come a cropper in the heavy surf there, whilst on singing gig on the QE2. It was only when the three of them managed to make it back to the beach that they had even noticed the entire lack of other swimmers and the flotilla of red flags dotted along the shoreline. He knew then, he’d been completely out of his depth. And he knew now, he’d try to make sure he never was again.

He also knew that having been a strong swimmer in Rio had saved him, but he’d allowed a plankton of doubt to drift across his subconscious. He was now of the knowledge that he was completely powerless if Neptune was not in the mood to play beach-ball.  And the realisation had entirely destroyed his once buoyant attitude to the water. A tsunami of doubt now plagued him like a school of malevolent Men ‘O War. He knew the sea to have an entirely different character if she so chose. Malevolent and unforgiving.

He also knew he was wet.

It was most frustrating.

‘I’m turning back’ he gasped pathetically at Andrew.

‘What?’ Andrew replied.

‘I don’t like it’ Paul choked, ‘I’m going back.’

Paul used the special waterproof bag, in which his unused camera was packed, as a float, and began to kick for the small opening of daylight he could just make out. He didn’t know if Andrew was following. He didn’t care.

‘For fuck’s sake’, he heard Andrew’s baritone echoing in the distant darkness, ‘never again!’

When Paul got to the mouth of the cave he clambered unceremoniously onto the kayak, much of the sea joining him. He fiddled ferociously with the knot he’d tied wishing he’d gone for something simpler. A granny knot would have done! But he’d just had to over do it!

After freeing the vessel he paddled towards the rocks where Andrew had now beached himself. He alighted the craft awkwardly and he and Andrew then attempted to empty the boat for a second time.

‘Shit’ Paul screeched, ‘my hand!’ He had just scraped his left hand painfully along the banarcled boulder he had been trying to cling to whilst performing their marine routine.

‘Bollocks’ he cursed, blood filling his palm.

‘Stop panicking’ Andrew shouted, ‘this is the last fucking time I do anything like this with you. It’s always a fucking drama!’

‘No it’s bloody not’ yelled Paul, slipping from the rock and lacerating his other palm on the razor-like geography which engulfed them.

‘Shit’ he said quietly, hoping Andrew hadn’t noticed.

‘Twat’ Andrew hissed.

They both hauled the boat onto her side and watched as gallons of water flooded out.

‘See’ said Paul. ‘I knew we were sinking!’

‘Jesus Paul!’ Andrew shrieked.

‘What?’ asked a panicked Paul.

‘You’re getting all that blood into the bloody boat!’

Paul looked down and saw the scarlet rivulets dancing along the orange fibre glass hull. It looked oddly pretty. He thought he might be getting a little delirious. He said nothing.

‘So what’ screamed Paul. He didn’t think an extra half litre of him would make any difference to their vessel’s buoyancy. That was just displacement.

He was definitely getting delirious!

‘I’m gonna call over to that bloke on the boat’ he said to Andrew in a manner of exaggerated calm.

‘No don’t’ Andrew yelled ‘that’s so embarassing’.

‘I don’t fucking care!’ Paul said shakily, ‘our boat is sinking. How the buggery bollocks do we get back?’

******************************************************************

Andrew realised their dilemma. Their craft was useless in her present state, and Paul certainly wasn’t helping with his constant panicking. In fact, he didn’t think Paul to be of any use at all. He knew his partner had gone to naval school but that had been over thirty years ago. His current nautical knowledge was now a half-remembered mess of knots and camp semaphore. With a touch dodgy morse code thrown in. Nothing practical that would help them out of this oceanic mess he had allowed himself to be talked into.

Paul always yearned for adventure, yet so often found disaster. Andrew often wondered if they had to come hand in hand. That just maybe his partner craved the exciting moment and the drama. He didn’t want to consider it.

Now was not the moment.

******************************************************************

The boatman made a sign to come over. Paul and Andrew used their boat as a float and made their way over to the larger vessel.

Paul clambered aboard and helped the friendly captain haul the boys’ kayak onboard. It was so heavy they had to ask for help from another of the boatmen nearby. After a few seconds it was obvious why. Seawater gushed for several minutes from a spout on the bow of the boys’ boat. It splashed at length noisily back into the sea, much to the amusement of several European tourists floating safely nearby.

Paul knew Andrew was looking at the package group and thinking that they should have made the same easy choice and come on a motorised vessel. With a guide! It had been Paul who had wanted to take the adventurous route. He knew sometimes Andrew suspected him of doing it on purpose, just to have something to write about. If Paul were being entirely honest he thought Andrew may have had a point. But he wasn’t really sure.

After all, it was a hell of a risk, and he was hardly a bestseller!

When the boys’ kayak was eventually disgorged, the helpful shipmates they’d just met launched the SS Lola back into the water. Paul boarded first, followed by his partner. They thanked the boatman for their services and set off out to sea to return to the beach.

As they paddled away from the relative safety of the rocks, Paul’s hand dripped blood steadily onto the oar. The myriad of cuts stinging sharply as the salt water cut into them mercilessly. The water was coming onboard even quicker than before. Paul had a terrible sinking feeling.

They obviously had a puncture!

He said nothing. Andrew had managed to get himself into a good mood after the earlier drama, and was now singing the tune to ‘Hawaii Five 0’ at great volume, quite unaware of the volume of water filling the Boys’ stern.

Paul knew it was more like ‘Hawaii Five No’!

He only hoped they would make it back.

He emptied their water bottle and began to fill it with seawater, furiously decanting the stuff to whence it had came. When the water had decreased to thigh level he stopped and began to paddle quicker than Hiawatha with a rocket under her pretty feathered arse!

A last the beach came into sight. Paul was fairly confident they could make it.

‘That’s the last fucking time I do anything like that with you’ Andrew began, his sea shanty again, now a familiar tone to Paul, who knew their double act was just treading water at the moment.

‘It’s not my fault’ Paul steamed in, ‘I didn’t ask the bloody boat to sink.’

‘But it always happens with you.’ It’s always a bloody drama!’

‘Maybe that’s when you’re along’ Paul sailed in, ‘I’m alright on my own.’

Paul threw the paddles weakly at his husband and started to make his way up the beach. He was going to have words with the guy who’d hired out the leaky death trap of a bloody shit tub nearly killing them both!

Andrew started to drag the canoe along the sand but soon found it too difficult. It was clear the entire hull had filled with water again. They had been so close to going down.

Paul complained to the kayakman who very kindly offered to only charge them half price for the pleasure of sinking – twice! He explained it was not his fault, he could only be certain of the state of his fleet on their return to port. He then gave a dull, wry look alluding to the tonnage the boys had displaced on the vessel.

‘Bloody dangerous’ Andrew snarled and stomped up towards the bar. It was ten thirty!

Paul was annoyed to say the least. He was glad they’d both survived. But he wasn’t so sure their relationship was entirely as shipshape.

He suspected a couple of tankards of grog may improve the tempestuous situation. But the waters were definitely rocky.

Later, Paul stood in the passive pink sea. Alone and blissfully thoughtless. He felt the sting from his lacerated hands and was immediately reminded of the rocky moment earlier in the day. He smiled.

He headed to join Andrew for a beer, happy to be a landlubber, the wind coming confidently back into his sails. The thought that he and Andrew may have run aground dissipating as fast as a warm sea mist. He knew that he and Andrew had navigated far rougher waters in the past.

Only never in a kayak.

And, thought Paul, never again!

Super Koh-Habiting!

Paul had discovered Koh Muk, a small island in the Trang archipelago deep in southern Thailand, quite by accident. It had been mentioned over dinner by a charming, yet incredibly intense computer scientist from Bavaria. The friendly Teutonic boffin had posessed the charming habit of repeating the word ‘super’ in almost every sentence he’d uttered.

The meal had been ‘super nice’, but unfortunately ‘super expensive’! Andrew was ‘super great’ and Paul, disappointingly, ‘super-funny’! And the island which the young man was recommending them to visit was, of course, ‘super beautiful’ and ‘super clean’.

On first coming ashore, after a less than super journey, Paul could not argue with the former description. Koh Muk  was clearly super beautiful. It’s taste of paradise more than bountiful.

.

The latter recommendation though was less obvious.

As Paul and Andrew walked out of their shabby chic guest house and stumbled through a fishing village of stilted shacks, they could not help but notice the flotsam and jetsam that had made the island it’s permanent mooring.

Koh Muk was a little mucky in places.

Paul learnt later that most of the detritus was washed over from the neighbouring mainland. Along with something a little murkier swimming  beneath the surface.

But the beach appeared stunning to him. A spit of diamond white sand which spat out into an equally jewel-like sea. It was most impressive. As was the incredibly expensive ‘Sivalai Resort’ which luxuriated over that particular  part of the island. Private bungalows fit for minor royalty studded the beautifully manicured grounds. The beach, however, was not private.

Paul had discovered that all beaches in Thailand were owned by the King, and therefore open to everyone. All soles, whether prince or pauper, were able to feel the democratic sand between their toes. Even if it was on the less clean side of the island, Paul thought it was quite right that anyone should be able to take a dip in the affluent effluence. That, he considered, was super fair.

The boys stayed at the fantastically funky ‘Moonview Resort’ for  just one night. The size of the hut and the size of the European tourists packaged together, along with their super loud kids, made a longer stay quite unmanageable. Paul had never understood why parents long-hauled their tiny sprogs halfway across the world to just plonk them on the tropical sand with a bucket and spade. Surely Benidorm would do. The medical facilities on the Trang Islands were basic to say the least. What if one of these irritating toddlers was bitten by an irritated cobra? The famous serpents were apparently rife across the jungle-clad island. One nip and the nipper would be a gonner. Why couldn’t the selfish parents allow their off-spring to discover paradise for themselves later on in life on that most ubiquitous of pursuits – ‘The gap year’.

Another of Paul’s travel bugbears.

He and Andrew had already come across gaggles of ‘gappers’ gawping garishly at the locals. Gregarious amongst themselves, yet taciturn and closed when it came to anyone outside of their group. Paul wished the gap between their obviously intelligent ears had been filled with a few more manners. And often thought if the gap between their legs had also been filled with a little experience, they wouldn’t look so shit scared.

The only island folk folk who weren’t super friendly on Koh Muk were them.

Paul was astonished that one could pass a member of this strange legion on a long jungle trek, no passers-by for hours, and be completely passed by. Without so much as a gap-toothed smile. They were astoundingly under-confident in his eyes. Or just plain rude. Whatever, he was confident that at least some of them would return to their homelands altered by their odyssey. But being somewhat supercilious, he wasn’t super confident.

Farang toddlers, on the other sand, had no place in the tropics. In Paul’s opinion they completely removed the adventure from the environment. Unless, of course, they were part of the ‘Swiss Family Robinson’!

Paul and Andrew decamped, (well almost!), and made for the beach on the island’s west coast, known as ‘Had Farang’ – or ‘Foreigners’ Beach’. Ironically, Paul noticed there seemed to be less of those swimming in the waters of beautifull crescent  bay. It was quiet, apart from a few day trippers coming ashore from ‘dragon tail boats’ to puncture the peace with their squawking snorkelling.

Day trippers were another tribe he could do without!

Some days he sat on the shore at their wonderfully tranquil ‘Long Beach Resort’ longing for a drowning. But he was careful what he wished for. There had been a couple of moments in the recent past when he thought his evil wish had been granted, only to realise it was his husband who was the centre of the life-guards attention. Andrew had been the day tripper in trouble on more than one occasion. Paul had blamed it on the ‘Chang’ but he knew truthfully that his partner’s stroke could do with a little improvement. After all, Andrew couldn’t always rely on his ‘doggie style’! It was most exhausting.

The boys settled into beach-life swimmingly. Koh-habitation came very naturally to them. A small ‘restaurant’ set in the jungle supplied perfect sustenance and the odd visit to the marvellous ‘High Bar’ set amid the tropical canopy, provided shady relief.

Life was, all at once, perfect.

Superb!

As Paul left Andrew for one of his manic meanderings around Koh Muk he knew for certain this perfection would not last forever. It wasn’t just the hideous ‘gappers’ who’d found a gap in the market.

The large tourist companies were beginning to exploit it too. Their characterless chalets being thrown up by the natives on any spare patch of beachfront. Paul knew, having seen how other islands in Thailand had been allowed to develop, that it would probably be a case of paradise lost.

But for now it was super nice.

He inwardly blessed the youthful German who had sent them to this little corner of heaven. It had been a superlative tip from a super smart ‘Gapper’.

He knew they couldn’t all be completely superfluous.

What a superman!

The Lola Boys Go To Pearl Island!

Paul had implored Andrew not to touch the oyster curry. It sounded to him both unappealing and dangerous.

It turned out to be both!

On the long train journey down from Prachuap Khiri Khan, heading for the jungle of Khao Sok, Andrew suddenly became violently ill in carriage 8, on seat 29.

The passenger in seat 30 was not amused.

Andrew suddenly developed the pallor of a stale Brussel sprout, and had already started to emit the putrid wind that is associated with that most unpopular of vegetables. After another of the countless food hawkers passed through the aisle offering fried something on a stick, Andrew decided to fill a plastic carrier bag with what was left of the crustacean curry. Paul had a rapid word in his partner’s shell-like and advised his husband very firmly to make for the nearest public convenience. Which happened to be inconveniently located at the other end of the railway car.

There was trouble brewing in seat 29.

As Andrew made for the lavatory with his ‘Seven Eleven’  bag still attached to his gob, Paul could only pray that he wouldn’t trip on the Buddhist monk who was lolling quite unmindfully near to the exit. He knew that oyster and saffron were considered quite appealing in the culinary world, but doubted the monk would agree were Andrew to shellfishly saturate his religious robes!

Thankfully his partner made no such contribution and managed to get to the ‘little boys room’ just in time to make a noise little boys generally didn’t usually make! The roar reverberated through the train like a Chinese dragon on steroids. The Thais, never a race to engage in unnecessary confrontation, acted as though nothing had occurred. Probably putting it down to the churlish nature of carriage number eight, which was nothing if not rickety.

There were a group of Europeans,however, who made it quite clear they did not approve of Andrew’s fishy Brexit, as they glanced disdainfully towards the temporary oyster shack Andrew had made his home. Paul returned their approbation with one of his very hard stares, a talent he’d learnt from reading Paddington Bear in his early youth.

After all, it wasn’t Andrew’s fault his seafood was resurfacing. Plus, had these Teutonic bullies stuffed themselves with something other than Snitzel and Sausage whilst in the charming Thai seaside town of Prachuap, they too may have suffered a little sea sickness!

Paul didn’t voice this opinion of course. He was more than aware that the British were very capable of the same blinkered choices when it came to eating and drinking abroad.

He knew people who had lived on the Costa Del Sol for twenty years, and only frequented English bars, ate bangers and mash, and couldn’t count to three in Spanish! But he wasn’t going to name and shame. What was the point?

Most of those types couldn’t read anyway!

After what seemed like a night’s fishing expedition Andrew returned to his seat. Quite exhausted and terribly clammy. Paul knew there was no way they were going to make it to their intended destination of the prehistoric forest of Khao Sok. If they persevered with their itinerary there could be an altogether different rumble in the jungle. So when they hit the very ordinary city of Surat Thani in southern Thailand, they alighted the train and made for the nearest hotel.

The establishment in which they found themselves was situated on a dark backstreet on the wrong side of the rail tracks. The over made up woman who welcomed them rather severely, wanted to see no passport, just payment up front.

She assured them it was a nice room. A fact, which after they climbed the multitude of concrete steps to the third floor, they concurred with. It was a pleasant room, were it on a wing at wormwood Scrubs!

Still it had beds, and strip lighting, so they could at least see as they stripped and fell onto the oyster grey bedsheets of what was quite obviously a knocking shop!

On waking from his sick-bed Andrew felt much better and had begun to come out of his shell once more. Paul persuaded him that to hang around in the gritty Surat Thani was not a good idea, perhaps they should head further south, to the Trang Islands.

There was a train leaving at awful ‘O’Clock, and they should be on it.

Andrew agreed, still appearing a trifle pistachio.

Paul was aware that his partner really didn’t have the muscle to argue. And he knew it was him who had warned against the mollusc Massaman. So now his partner was literally jellyfish in his hands.

 

The enigmatic Trang Islands,  deep down in the Andaman Sea, had enthralled Paul since he’d first read about them years ago.  They lay, like a strand of wild pearls, in the Indian Ocean, close to the border of Malaysia. They were home to the equally mystifying Chao Lair, The nomadic sea gypsies of Malay descent, who moved effortlessly with the tide. Making their home wherever the weather was set fairest – much like The Lola Boys!

 

Following another interminable journey on a local train, which just happened to follow the track of the famous ‘Orient Express’, minus the luxury and the murder, the boys arrived in Trang. A mainly Muslim town in the deep south of Thailand, but one that was not prey to the Islamic terrorism that Paul knew stalked the west.

The Lola Boys were not even that adventurous!

There had been some recent bombings around Yala, and the train that had chugged innocently along that line had been blown up a couple of times in the recent past killing many.

The Boys avoided this region and took a minibus due west from Trang, along with a surly French couple and a smiling Thai teenager. Soon they reached the pier, more than an hour away hidden amid the mangroves.

The young driver, who was high on natural energy and quaffing copious unnatural potions which had the same effect, crashed twice on route. Once into a petrol pump, and then again into a scooter that was obviously not so obvious to him. Paul caught his face in the rear view mirror. They both laughed. The tight-arsed couple in the front seats did not share their amusement.

They quite obviously feared for their lives!

Paul wondered how they would cope with the erratic Thai ferry network once they began travelling the islands. De-ipodded and deep in despair. Some of these so-called ‘gappers’ really shouldn’t travel, he thought.  At least not until they’ve had their gaps filled.

In every way!

Then perhaps they’d pack a little experience to bring along with them.

But he knew he was probably being bitter, having put a little too much of that into his own ruck sack for the journey.

Wasn’t it Oscar Wilde who said youth is wasted on the young? Paul knew, as he climbed clumsily aboard the boat to join the miserable duo, that the Irish genius was correct.  The greenness which came with the inexperienced so often kept them clammed up within their shells. Paul was fairly certain he had never been like that, but he couldn’t be quite sure.

When they arrived on the tiny island of Koh Muk, the nomenclature of which Paul had deemed most appropriate, he and Andrew were both knackered. The latter even more so as he had been vomiting Oyster for over twenty-four hours.

They hit the only resort which had a vacant bed in their price range and collapsed into the reception.

They were shown to their hut, which was just about big enough for a hobbit, and both realised independently, it was to be for one night only.

Or divorce could swiftly follow!

The expansive space outside, however, was more than enchanting. The rugged coast of Trang province, with it’s magical limestone karst scenery, cast it’s spell magnificently.

The boys had arrived in paradise.

Koh Muk wasn’t mucky at all. Not at first sight. What a gem!

Paul was aware that in Thai ‘Muk’ was translated as pearl.

Therefore, The Lola Boys had arrived on Pearl Island. An incredible place, home to Thailand’s famous Emerald Cave.

But as his partner still posessed a tinge of something very green he thought he’d better not mention it.

Andrew, after all, had quite clearly had enough oyster to last a lifetime.

A Bridge Over Troubled Water.

The boys arrived in Sangkhom, a small town further along the Mekong, with just a little trepidation. They had visited the friendly workaday settlement four years previously, and had loved it for it’s exquisite ordinariness.

Paul rarely liked to journey backwards, much preferring the surprise and adventure of the soi less travelled. Quite often somewhere revisited had lost the very essence of why one returned, tarnishing both the return trip and the original stay. It was always a risk.

Fortunately very little had changed in Sangkhom.

On pulling in to the two-horse town they’d noticed a new ATM outside the local supermarket but that seemed about it. Fortune still seemed to smile down sunnily on this little stretch of the great river.

At first sight at least.

They were, however, to discover that was certainly not the case. The real riverine tale being a steady stream of sadness and survival.

As they entered the little ‘Buoy’s Guest House’ and crossed the precarious rickety bridge to the small island to which their dilapidated hut creakily clung, the familiarity of their surroundings were at once entrancing. Paul recognised the even tinier shack across from what was to be theirs on this occasion, and was immediately reminded of an evening they’d shared on it’s verandah with a gregarious Gallic couple. They’d inhaled some herbal tobacco together and laughed into the star-studded night as Paul hazily revisited his schoolboy French.

The fat yellow dog was also still padding around amicably, although her hips now appeared to have seen better days. Paul knew the feeling!

And Buoy, the smiling, ebullient proprietress, was still there to welcome them effusively into her home. No need to show passports on checking in. And beers and such were to be taken from the open fridge and written down into book number ten. The number of their shack.

Probably far too frequently!

Paul and Andrew adored an honesty bar. It was so refreshing in every way.

But something at ‘The Buoy Guest House’ was not the same!

The Boys had arrived on a rather special day. It happened to be the very day on which they’d fallen for each others dubious charms, twenty-six long years ago.

Paul thought of it as a milestone, though he was well aware his partner sometimes considered it more of a millstone!

They celebrated in the afternoon with bottles of honest beer and some honest downtime.

The earth didn’t move, but their shaky accommodation certainly did!

 

Later that day, as the boys bravely crossed the bridge of sticks back to the main house, they twigged! It was a different bridge. It was longer and lower than before.

It also leant a little to the left, much like Paul!

 

They then spotted the crooked concrete pylons which had once held up the restaurant. Unevenly sprouting from the river bank like a contemporary Stonehenge.

And the main house, they now realised, was half the size it had been on their previous visit. They knew at once, the earth had certainly moved for Buoy.

They discovered this joyous and spirited lady was also marking an anniversary, yet not the kind most people were eager  to reach. She explained that three years before she had lost her husband to a massive stroke, and shortly afterwards, half of her home to the mighty river in a single stroke.

The wet season had brought with it tragedy,  her husband and livelihood went violently downstream to join that great spiritual estruary.

It was heartbreaking, as the boys learnt how the Mekong had changed it’s mood during the last few years, growing angrier and more ferocious than ever before. Buoy, having lived on the river all her life, had never witnessed the ‘Mae Nam Khong’, as it is known in Thai, behave in such a torrid way. She was certain the current situation was due to global warming. But there were darker forces at work too.

As the Mekong snaked it’s way down from the Tibetan plateau, through China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, before escaping into the sea via the majestic delta in Vietnam, it’s ancient course was being irrevocably altered.

There was now a veritable deluge of huge hydro-electric damns. Great ‘green’ projects that did very little to help the farmers on the verdant plains downstream.

As the Chinese government intermittently flushed these monstrous constructions in their own national interest, little interest was being shown to the thousands of villages who saw their once fertile fields inundated with mud and thereby rendered useless.

Masses of farmers had flooded to join the urban mass in the growing cities of Bangkok and Phnom Pen to work as building labourers.

Growing condos instead of cabbages!

It seemed the vegetables making the big decisions upstream didn’t give a damn.

They could only build them!

Paul also discovered that there was an ambitious plan afoot, headed by none other than China, to blast a vast channel through the Mekong all the way from Yunnan, a province in it’s south west, right down to Luang Prabang in Laos. Thus creating an artificial,  all season waterway capable of carrying 500 ton cargo vessels.

He thought of the incongruity of these giant ships which were to set a course and dwarf the beautiful Buddhist temples, he and Andrew had previously delighted in, situated along the shoreline.  Gigantic steel river monsters washing away thousands of years of antediluvian  beauty in an instant with their giant wake.

A tsunami of slime and greed!

He wished the world would awaken to the disaster that was already taking place. Mankind was getting itself into very deep water.  He’d read of the growing consensus which predicted that in just ten years time the natural habitat of the mighty Mekong would be entirely washed away. Completely destroyed. And there would be no way to turn back the tide once this precious waterway had been dynamited to damnation!

A turbulent point that has got much of the Thai population,who will be affected by this blasted idea, close to boiling point.

Things had certainly changed beneath the surface in Sangkhom, and right along the Mekong’s exotic serpentine journey. And now it was beginning to bite back.

Paul knew one only had to listen to Buoy to realise the evidence didn’t need any buoying up. The rising waters and their now frequent tempestuousness were proof in themselves that the plimsol line had been crossed.

He was, for once, very glad he had trekked backwards, as it had enabled him look forwards. But the future was not bright. It was not orange. It was sludge grey and stultifying.

He silently cursed the Chinese and the equally ignorant President ‘Chump’ for their reckless and shortsighted view on the level of the disaster. They were ignorantly allowing this watershed moment to drift on by  He was sure they would rue the day when they had tampered with the globe’s natural plumbing. They, after all, would also be submerged when the waters rose.

And Paul knew for certain that he would not be drowning in pity on their behalf.

Neither would the beautiful buoyant Buoy.

Damn fools.

Miss Loei.

Loei is a small town in Isaan the region that butts up against the serpentine Mekong in the northeast of Thailand. It is the poorest part of the country and the least visited. Less than one percent of overseas visitors make it here.

It is mostly flat and dry by nature, yet it’s people are most certainly not. It is probably our favourite place in Thailand. It remains untouched by the outside world.

It is real! At first sight some of the province can seem rather dull and ordinary. Were Isaan a beauty queen she may not be crowned Miss World, but she’d be a scream on a night out!

We arrived at our small guest house on the outskirts of the slightly scruffy city of Loei having taken four and a half hours on the bus learning to pronounce it properly. Far too many vowels strewn together for an ignorant westerner.  Eventually I worked it out. Think lurgie without the ‘g’ I told Andrew.  He still hasn’t got it! The place itself, however, has proven to be far less virulent. Yet very contagious. We were almost immediately charmed. In no small part due to Pat, the owner of  ‘Sugar Guesthouse’ our meagre lodgings, who welcomed us like old friends. She was appropriately incredibly sweet.

She showed us to our tiny, yet perfectly formed bedroom, with a smile as wide as Alice’s Cheshire Cat, yet unlike that most fickle of felines, she did not disappear. Instead she hung around to give us all the gen we required on the ‘village’, as she purred on about her home town. She was most obliging, and in contrast to the majority of the proprietors of the smaller establishments in Thailand, her English was exemplary.

She informed us we had arrived on a rather special night, as the inhabitants of Loei were to celebrate the opening of one of their biggest annual events the following day, The famous ‘Cotton Blossom Festival’.

I must have looked blank!

“Or Dok Fai Ban ? ” she added in vain, as if I might somehow cotton on. Sadly I didn’t. I wasn’t even aware Cotton even blossomed, let alone that there was a festival somewhere in the world to celebrate it doing so.

What I do know is that Andrew and I seem to possess  a marvellous ability to roll up to a strange and unknown city when there’s a party going on. It has happened to us on a many an occasion.

In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, we just happened to turn up when the annual food fair was cooking with gas.

In Saigon we once hit the city just in time for ‘Tet’,  the riotous Vietnamese New Year celebration.

And there was one time when we stayed in Vienna when there was a hell of a bash in a gay sauna already in full swing, or should I say full sling. But we shan’t go into that.

Suffice to say, we swung.

We know how to party!

So, of course, we were thrilled that we’d arrived in Loei just in time for the start of proceedings.

We thanked Pat for all her helpful information and headed off to buy a couple of beers from the local ‘Tesco Lotus’ we had spotted on the ‘main road’.

‘You want beer?’ Pat had read our minds. Or noticed our bellies. “Don’t go to ‘Tesco’.  Beer is cheaper in shop on the corner.’

So we strolled down the narrow lane, passing snarling yellow dogs with false confidence to fool them into submission, and came to a wooden shack stocked with essential supplies. We piled a few things we didn’t need, along with our booze onto the counter and, like ‘Mr Benn’ waited for the shopkeeper to appear. Suddenly she popped up from behind the counter to serve us – to our surprise it was Pat.

‘No wonder she told us it was cheaper than Tesco’ I said to Andrew, rather cynically,  on the short walk home.

‘They’re exactly the same price’ said Andrew, equally as ungenerous.

I wouldn’t have known, but Andrew has the unhelpful knack of remembering the price of absolutely everything. It’s a shame he never went on that dreadful show ‘Supermarket Sweep’. The lovely Dale Winton would have been amazed at his ability to price up the total bill for three tins of baked beans, a Stanley knife and a packet of liquorice condoms in under three seconds.

Supping our ale under a small pergola tangled with exotic blossom, we both laughed at the friendly Pat’s double life. Why not recommend your own shop when in hotelier guise ?  The Thais are nothing if not entrepreneurial. Lord Sugar would certainly approve of our Lady Sugar.

Oriental music plucked and twanged from the small compound adjacent to ours, and when we glanced over we saw a giggle of twenty or so middle-aged woman performing a traditional dance. Each one stopping now and then in a fit of laughter when she had become unsynchronised with the rest of the troupe.

Every now and then we could hear a sharp instruction from the teacher at the front, correcting each member for an errant toe or a misplaced finger. It was an unforgiving routine, and some of the girls were quite obviously not up to scratch.

Having had many an impatient choreographer ourselves in the past, we were both eager to see the strict dance mistress who was taking the class.

Moving over to peer across the lattice fence we were fascinated to get a glimpse of her. Lo and behold – it was none other than Pat!

Yet another string to her bow.

It seemed as though our landlady did everything in this town. No doubt were there a fire she’d whack her helmet on and whip her hose out. She was a remarkably adept woman.

There was room for only two other guests in the tiny ‘hotel’. Bob, a rather taciturn elderly Glaswegian, who wore thick spectacles which made his blue eyes look like Wedgewood dinner plates. And Heinz, a more talkative German from Munich, who quite frankly didn’t let anyone else get a word in edgeways! Andrew went for a ‘quick shower’ and left me with the latter in the garden for far too long.

Before Andrew returned, cleaner than he’d ever bloody been, Heinz had managed to give me a dissertation on 57 varieties of motorbike he had ridden.

Including the top speed, cylinder capacity, colour make and model of each one.

‘On your bike Heinz’ sprang to mind, or ‘can it Heinz!’ but I was far to English too say it, and he was far too revved up to have heard.

His uncondensed  tales of engines and exhausts had me quite exhausted. I made it a point to keep out of his bike lane for the rest of our stay.

The next day Andrew and I headed down to join in the festivities amongst the cotton blossom. We had no idea what to expect. Pat had told us, now in tour guide mode, that there would be seven thousand dancers from all across the province dancing a traditional form. I had no idea what cotton workers danced, I knew the inimitable Tina Turner had once picked cotton as Annie Mae Bullock, but I had a good hunch the girls wouldn’t be bopping to ‘Proud Mary’!

We came to the banks of the Loei river, a tributary to the mighty Mekong, and were suddenly drowned in a sea of blue, or rather an ocean.

We had assumed Pat had confused her zeros, even with her admirable linguistic skills, and that the real number of performers would be nearer to seven hundred rather than the thousands she had promised. But we were wrong to doubt her, as the streets and sois, were awash with a turquoise stream of glammed up ladies as far as the eye could see.

And as far as my eyes could see not all of them were ladies!

In fact, a sizeable proportion of the cast of this carnival were, shall we say, rather sizeable.

And not what one would call conventionally feminine. In fact some of them looked like they’d just jumped out of the wrestling ring.

The more masculine they were the more slap they’d caked on. It was a dead giveaway. Heavy rouge on a heavy jaw is always a no no. I should know – I too am guilty of it occasionally.

Only for cash I might add.

This was a certainly a pageant like no other and it was no drag. It was brilliant.

Every shape, size, age and gender under the timid sun shone out with pride. All dressed in identical costumes. A fetching ensemble consisting of a white blouse, long dark skirt and a fetching sash sky blue. Each one dancing to the same beat, with an audience of excited spectators cheering them on.

Mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, daughters, sons and lovers. Not an ounce of judgment, only pure joy and pride.

It was most moving.

Absolute acceptance without the need to accept, because it just came naturally to these people.

I know, or try not to,  some blinkered folk back home who wouldn’t have approved – but the crowd who celebrated in the streets that day wouldn’t have given those ignorami  a goddamn cottonpicin minute of their time. In fact, I’m sure they would have been bemused by such a Neanderthal attitude. It doesn’t seem to exist here.

Thailand certainly has it’s fare share of doctrine and regulation, but not in Loei; not when it comes to expressing one’s true self.

What a town! Friendly, unspoilt and with a sense of humour that would put Bette Midler to shame. Perhaps the distinct lack of foreigners is one of the reasons for this.

It appears that Andrew, Bob, Heinz and myself are the only westerners in town.

Although we have been welcomed everywhere with prayer shaped palms and authentic smiles.

Actually,  I haven’t spotted our fellow ‘Sugar House’ guests since the end of the opening ceremony. Although I did hear Heinz through the sugar paper walls of our guesthouse in the early hours of our final morning. He seemed to be watching a film involving a pig and a fraulein. I can only guess it was an instructional video on animal husbandry. But taking a leaf out of the book of the delightful residents of Loei, I make no judgment.

And the pig seemed to be enjoying it!

On our final morning I sit, sweater-clad and shivering in the almost frosty garden, in the coldest, yet surely one of the warmest towns in Thailand. Pat exits quietly from the front door of sweet home,

“It’s so cold” she says, “on days like these I wish I could go back to my warm bed for another hour”.

“Why don’t you” I suggest.

It is only 7am.

“No, no”, she laughs, “I must go now and do the banking for the village. I am the only one who can do it here. Not all of the people can use a real bank so we have a savings scheme which I run.”

We both laugh at her ability to wear so many hats. She tells me she has to go and direct a piece for the festival later in the day.

“Wow!” I exclaim, “You’re amazing Pat. They’re lucky to have you here. You’re so confident”.

“Or just crazy” she quips.

We guffaw again. And off she goes to be the banker. ‘Miss Loei’ herself.

Pat. Hotelier,grocer,guide,choreographer,director & banker

What a wonderful world.

We leave the city with a slightly sweetened nature but with heavy hearts, as the crowning of the real ‘Miss Loei’ is due to take place at the end of the festival in nine days time and we shall miss the ceremony.

Some may think it sexist, but with so many of the contestants being of the opposite sex, and some slightly in between, I don’t really think that’s a fair critique.

It seems as though ‘Miss Loei’ is open to all.

And why not?

Miss Loei?

We already do!

What A Pallava!

Your name sir?’

‘Paul’

‘I am Kumar. Your hair very good – very nice.’

‘Thank you Kumar’.

‘Very handsome man’.

‘How kind’.

‘I am stone carver. I carve stone for famous Buddha temple in Exeter.’

‘I had no idea there was a Buddhist temple in Exeter.’

‘It new one! You want see my stones? First we go temple – you don’t pay – I don’t do for money, but I see you are nice guy. I know special way. Come. Come….’

And so it began.

My ego up, my guard down, and I’d enlisted Andrew and I on another south Asian magical mystery tour. This time, chasing the young stonemason, at rocking speed, around the seventh century rock temples of Mamallupuram.

We staggered precariously along ancient steps, ingeniously cut from a titanic piece of granite, recklessly attempting to keep up with the young Kumar, who was practically Simian. We learnt later that this acrobatic detour was in order to circumvent the normal gated entrance, thus avoiding the need to purchase a ticket.

An artful piece of dodgery from our new found mate – though we both suspected the relationship may get rockier as the daytime heat began to rocket.

‘How the fuck do we get rid of him now?’ Andrew asked me far too loudly.

‘Oh just chill out a bit – we’re getting a free tour, and free entry’ I countered.  Knowing deep down that we’d be paying for both of those benefits at some point.

I knew Andrew thought the same. But Kumar was roguishly charming, if alarmingly pungent, and he certainly knew his way around the ancient temples of the ‘Pallava’ kingdom.

It was easy to see why UNESCO had labelled the place a ‘World Heritage Site’. The stone carvings absolutely rocked.

Along with the mad dogs it was, of course, just The Englishmen that struggled unnecessarily through the blistering midday heat. Our whistle stop tour may have been unplanned, but the location was so atmospheric, a veritable concert of rock, that we both continued on, allowing Kumar to lead the way.

The mischievous Gods and Goddesses danced out of the rock face, revealing the face of a society which had partied hard for over six hundred years.
And neither of us had ever heard of them.

The Pallavas!?!

Of course, the real Pallava occurred when we finished with the final meditation temple, and were lead conveniently through a gate directly into a small shack, in order to meditate on Kumar’s wares. His stonewares to be precise!

Suddenly the tour guide became the salesman, and we were both made to sit through an uneasy psychic energy session, as Kumar theatrically discovered our healing stones.

And then introduced them to us!

Each at a starting price more worthy of ‘The Star Of India’!

Immediately, we were transported back to the dodgy jewellery dealer we’d met in the suburbs of Jaipur, where we’d come across another absolute gem of a scam! These invariably Kashmiri Shopkeepers are sly, smart and deftly apt at the art of deceit. But they always possess a ‘tell’ – a giveaway – and Kumar’s came with his dreadful impression of an Indian mystic. He threw himself onto his own bed of nails as he launched into a dreadful mix of Derren Brown and Noel Coward’s ‘Madame Arcati’!

Hanging himself  with his own ropey trick!

The drama in his performance was nearly as exaggerated as his prices. Perhaps these blyth spirits think all Westerners completely off their rockers. We may give that impression!

But Kumar soon realised Andrew and I were not quite stoned enough to invest in his.

Then, as Andrew, playing bad cop, audibly hissed that we couldn’t afford the stoneware, and that I wouldn’t be able to eat for the remainder of our stay if we purchased the five items that had inexplicably found their way into our basket, Kumar tried to carve out one last deal.

‘This Ganesh. Good for good friend who is now without husband’.

We knew the trick. Kumar had obviously picked up on something we’d said earlier. The ploy was cheap but still impressive. Unlike the Ganesh we were practically sledgehammered into buying.

As Kumar realised ‘The Lola Boys’ were not the diamond mine he’d hoped for, his mood darkened. The glittering smile became a leering snarl and he barked in throaty Tamil to a colleague who was bashing away in the workshop next door. The workman, who looked straight out of the Stone Age, burst through the shop doorway, with a Neanderthal grunt and a wave of his heavy tool.

The one that cut the rock!

‘He not happy’ Kumar said firmly. The treacle having now dripped away from his voice.

‘Why he not happy?’ Asked Andrew, equally as authoritative, yet in an Indian accent.

‘Because he make this. Not happy with price’.

There was something mildly threatening in Kumar’s tone. Not least because we were surrounded by a weighty array of potential stone weaponry. Fred and Barney had disappeared and the whole drama had grown much darker – more ‘Game Of Stones’!

We’d definitely left ‘Bedrock’!

We stood in the dark for what seemed an age!

I was having visions of the billiard room in Cluedo. Professor Kumar had clubbed Andrew to death with the lead carving. It was time to stop this little game!

I stood. Sighed dramatically, and piped up that I was in need of air and beer. Not necessarily in that order!  That I had grown weary of the unexpected auction this jaunt had now become. And perhaps we would be forced to leave the rockery empty handed after all.

Kumar wasn’t the only actor in the room!

I then tried to appear as nonchalant as possible as I trembled past the giant with the ferocious chisel.

‘Ok’ said Kumar. ‘Ok’. He then instructed Boris Karloff to pack the elephant we’d agreed on earlier.

‘Thank you’, I said, as icily as a good pint of lager, ‘we’d love to buy more. But as you heard Andrew say, we shan’t be able to eat if we do’!

Kumar stared at me stonily.

I was caught for an agonising moment between a rock and a hard face.

Andrew grabbed the packet from Boris and we legged it.

Before we knew it he had led us into an entirely unfamiliar part of town and we stood sweating, legs leaden, attempting to get our bearings.

‘I knew this wasn’t the bloody way’ I gasped.

‘I just wanted to get away from him. That selling! Jesus!’, Andrew complained. ‘I was losing it!’

I had to agree. The hard sell was akin to being whacked across the head several times with a large lump of marble. These salesmen sculpt such a convoluted life story, that before one realises, one is lost in their retail maze, as they attempt to chisel away at one’s sanity. Mining skilfully  until they strike a precious seam in one’s wallet!

It was both wondrous and enlightening to clamber amongst the boulders into an entirely different strata of history – one we were both entirely igneous of !!!

But sadly our relationship with the pushy Kashmiri Kumar ended somewhat, on the rocks.

Sting! Stoned! Stung!

What a pallava!

*********************************************************************

That evening we were both laid out motionless on our beds, after too many hours spent negotiating the debilitating heat.

It was our last night in India, and we had mixed emotions.

Feeling burnt in every way possible, her beauty and her beasts managing  to sear themselves onto our collective consciousness.

The sweet stuff here clings to the imagination like the gooey Indian confectionary, found on every street corner, sticks to the teeth. One cannot simply brush it away. India’s beauty is both ephemeral and eternal.

And the indisputable ugliness? Well that just seems to disappear after a while. Down the pan quicker than a dodgy biryani!

I’m almost certain we shall be back to sample her wares once again. She is too much of a good saleswoman to give up on us completely, and her shelves too well stacked to resist.

Her people are infuriatingly charming. The geography sometimes unfortunately alarming, and the holy spirit, which undoubtedly resides here, utterly disarming.

Love ‘Mother India’ or loathe her, she won’t be ignored.

She certainly won’t go quietly!

As we pack our rucksacks ready for the long hike back to reality, I can hear her already whispering to me on the tropical breeze. Her hot breath invading my senses.

‘Namaste’ she purrs into the black panther night.

‘Namaste’ x