Ain’t No Mountain: Phrae to Lampang, 6 July 2013

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I have to pause before I write this to consider how to introduce and set up what was one of the hardest days of my life. I have to do it justice, I must convey eloquently the struggle…

Until that point, each day had been a struggle; two people in a country they did not know, in physical conditions they were not used to, cycling for long periods and with a significant load. Even when it was flat, it was never easy but we could meet the challenge without too much hardship. And we knew the hills were coming. We knew this day would be the hardest we would face.

I’d studied Google Map repeatedly, done the same with the paper map we carried and trawled the blogs of those who had gone before us. I wanted to know how bad these hills were and I also wanted to know which way to go. It was hard to know exactly what to expect from the sparse information available and I am no pioneer. From Phrae there were two options; the 1023, which wound through a forested national park, or Route 11 which took us past a huge reclining Buddha and then on into the hills. It was not clear from the blogs if anyone had used the 1023 but several bloggers mentioned Route 11, remarking on the length and intensity of one particular hill.

The staff of the Thai Phoom Garden solved the problem. We began talking to the breakfast chef – a man of great curry making skill – and told him our plan for the day. His mouth opened and did not shut, instead he gestured by flapping his hand for one of the girls serving to come over. She had done the journey a lot, he said. Her face, customarily wearing a mask of hospitality, softened when we explained what we were doing. No, don’t take the 1023, she said, too bendy, too fast, she gestured as though her hand was a car. I looked at Nick, the decision was made.

Next the chef wanted to see what kind of bike we would be doing this journey on, laughing to himself, he asked if we would be riding the pink ones…

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The morning passed as our mornings usually did, some hard riding, some photograph taking…

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Along the road were several places where a whole ark of wooden animals frolicked…

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Just chilling…

…and indulgent consumption of sugary drinks. At about 13:00 we reclined beneath the blast of a restaurant fan, the remains of iced coffees, iced lollies, water bottles, red Fanta and crisps strewn before us. This was a rest stop, but also a celebration. We thought we had broken some tough hills and believed the worst was behind us.

The sun was blazing when we got back on the road and I felt in less than good shape. My body does not seem to like coffee mid-journey, so I was only just coping with the heat and the undulating terrain when we descended into a dip, out of which Route 11 crosses the 1023. And, if I had read more carefully, I would have known that this was where it got tough.

Rising from the dip, I stopped to breathe. Nick was keen to go on, at the forefront of his mind was his mantra ‘stopping was failing’ and he did not want to fail. Neither did I, but the idea burned a hole in my motivation and I stopped anyway, with a feeling of having given up; my lungs weren’t working and neither was my brain, defeated as it was by the sight of the ribbon of concrete going up and wrapping the hillside.

It is a fact that I carry a child inside me (I think we all do to some degree). She wants to be approved of, she wants to feel safe and be consoled when she is hurt, she wants adventure and she also wants to be rescued from the jaws of reality. By deciding that it was a good idea to try to cycle from Bangkok to Chiang Mai with all my luggage, I had made that steep, never ending mountainside, the sparse tree covering and the ferocious sun a reality. And she wanted out. I watched as Nick pushed on ahead of me. But the energy that I could force into those pedals diminished and as she made her demands – how much further? when would this be over? – I became weaker still, stopping for what could have been the tenth time, I broke down.

She was terrified. Who would save her? she wanted to know. I was scared, because I knew it was my job and I did not think I could do it. I had no idea how much further we had to climb; there could have been 10km more and all I could manage was 100m at a time. Each time I cycled into the sun it seared every bit of exposed flesh and robbed me of the energy and determination I had left. All the time the road kept on rising and the traffic kept on roaring.

I cried, I paced, I buried my head in my hands and muttered words about giving up. Nick stood patiently. All the while I knew I had to get back on that bike, I was just failing to accept it. I did not believe I could do it. Eventually I did, wobbling from the sparse shade towards the next corner, eyes fixed on the next patch of coverage. It was then that I looked down at my tyres, feeling the spongy lilt to my momentum; sure enough I had a flat again.

Strangely, it offered me respite. I suppose because it was an opportunity to think of something other than that hill, and when it was fixed, I was too – as much as I could be. A little determination had returned and somehow I made it; pedalling at times, pushing at others, I willed that bike and myself to the summit. I have no idea how long it took, how many corners I turned. At the summit I stood there shaking, cold even in the terrible heat. The relief was immense, but I had no idea how I would find the energy for the final 35km of ride. I prayed to somebody right then that there would be no more hills, knowing at the same moment that there was nothing I or anyone else could do about it, I must deal with what was to come.

Shortly after the summit we found a lovely cafe. I ordered melon juice, shivered beneath the fan and marvelled at the ghostly bicycles that cycled endlessly around the boundary of the perfectly manicured garden. And there was only one thing on my mind; I could balance, I could brake, but I could not pedal up any more hills, I simply couldn’t.

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In my semi-stupor I did wonder where they got all these bikes from, and furthermore, how the idea came about…

But geography could not give a crap what I felt I could or could not do. There were several more climbs (although none as punishing) and some cruel ones that could be seen from miles away so you knew they were coming.

But I could do it. I did do it. Not gracefully – when Nick decided to act out the finishing line moment a mountain stage of ‘the tour’ as we approached a summit I told him exactly what he could do with himself – but I scraped through and eventually we were rolling downhill into Lamphang and the sunset.

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Nearly home…

By then I had already told Nick that I had decided I could not go any further, I would be catching the train to Chiang Mai.

The details:
Stayed at Auangkham Lampang – highly recommended.
Cycled x km, check out what Strava says. http://www.strava.com/activities/65102900
Yes, another puncture, the rear.
No rain, only blazing, soul-sapping sunshine.

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The Turtle and The Spider: Superstition and Buddhism in Thailand

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The price of good luck

Before our bike ride began I was in Bangkok, intent on sight-seeing. I decided on the amulet market, close to the Grand Palace, intending to see some of Bangkok and purchase some good luck for our trip.

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The Spider and the Turtle

Protection comes pretty cheap in Thailand, I bought ours for less than 150 Baht (£3.15). But I know you can’t really buy good luck. In the UK we use images of four leaf clovers and black cats simply as gestures, images of superstition gone by. However, superstition is very much alive in Thailand. They say that times have been hard; society has shifted from agriculture to industry, insecurity has grasped the nation and in turn they have grasped Buddhism and superstition. But are these one and the same?

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The Market

The amulet market is exactly that; a street market and labyrinth of covered stalls that sell amulets (or phra kruang). Stall after stall displays small figures – Buddha, the revered King and Queen – either fashioned from metal or clay or encased in glass. Some of the figures are animals or objects; this is where I found the spider and the turtle.

Later, I researched their meanings:

As the spider spins its web it traps within it all the good fortune and prosperity that is owed to the owner for their effort. The turtle, emblematic of earth and water represents good luck, and good health, insinuated through his long life span, pleasant and non-aggressive nature; or so they say.

I was pleased and a little fascinated by my new trinkets, but was still curious about what they really meant to the Thais. I read that those in high risk professions, taxi drivers for instance, purchase the amulets as protection. Get in any cab in Bangkok and you are likely to see small figures on the dashboard, central, just below the rear view mirror. If you look up you will see stains on the ceiling where incense has been burned as the vehicle was being blessed. Many Thais wear the amulets around their necks, which is where my spider can now be found. I like it there and I like a little superstition and myth, it adds texture to life, so long as you don’t rely on it. So, I wondered how what seemed a deep rooted superstition could be part of the Buddhist religion.

The history bit

Apparently, the practice of stamping religious images onto amulets came over from India, entering Thailand, with Buddhism, in the sixth century. The popularity grew in the 1800s and it retains that popularity today. Enter ‘Thai Amulet’ into eBay if you don’t believe me.

Amulet manufacture

One of the most important things about amulets is their manufacture – of course it is, especially in the land of knock-off goods. The real ones are manufactured by monks, their blessing, rather than their handicraft being the crucial bit. Some say the monks increase manufacture when they are in need of extra funds. Once the amulet has been created it is not unlike a race horse, because dependent on its performance (in this case being the good luck and prosperity delivered to its owner), its value increases astronomically. Speculation takes place on the future value of specific amulets, as others might speculate on the performance and value of an animal. Somebody is getting rich.

So the origin of the amulet is the Buddhist monk, yet at the same time they are shrouded in speculation, material wealth and superstition. I was confused. As I embarked on my travels I knew I wanted to find out more about Buddhism; an ancient philosophy used increasingly in modern counselling and well-being techniques. I discussed my ideas with other people before I left, sometimes with guests at the ski chalet who asked where I was going next.

‘Well Buddhism’s not really a religion,’ I said, trying not to reveal my ignorance. ‘It seems more about a way of living your life, a philosophy of understanding. There is no icon (okay, the Buddha, but there has been more than one Buddha in theory anyone can be a Buddha, it simply means ‘enlightened one’), no wealth and politics, no doctrine, no story, only simple principles by which a person might live a full and contented life.’

Monkgate (no, not the location of the over-priced, under-serviced hotel in York, this is monk scandal on a Catholic priest scale)

I arrive in Thailand and find contradictions to all the philosophical ideals I wanted to believe in; great wats stand among otherwise modest dwellings, they cut the skyline with huge glittering roofs, ornate golden effigies, statues, carvings, huge Buddhas that stand stories high observing the highways from a grassy field. What are these for? Monks manufacture protection and good luck in the form of icons, they carry laptops, have smart phones and wear designer sunglasses. I thought their life was a simple one apart from the materialistic society that screws us all up, but perhaps society’s demands have got bigger than their ideals. I mean, I have no idea how I would manage without WIFI, tablet and smartphone.

Buddhism has had its scandals, as other religions have had theirs. This designer monk turned runaway is the most extreme:

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A fascinating, but extreme case. This is likely isolated, but I have come no closer to understanding a belief system that I wanted or needed to believe in.

And what of the spider and the turtle? Well, the turtle bore Nick, his owner, on a safe journey. Not one puncture, no despairing episodes by the side of the road and he was pleasant and patient enough to bear mine. The spider is a different story, with a puncture tally of six overall, I am not sure what Mr Arachnid was doing at those crucial moments. But perhaps there were worse fates that I did not suffer. I mean, I only saw two cockroaches and finished the ride without one mosquito bite. Plus, as I navigated my way from town to town, I did not get significantly lost once; so perhaps I am doing the spider a disservice. I still wear it.

What I Did Not Know – Lop Buri to Sing Buri, 25 June 2013

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What I did not know about the MDR Hotel, Lop Buri, was that it was 2-3km down a dual carriage-way with at least three lanes of hooning traffic in both directions. With each revolution of my pedals (no longer tired after the 87km now that the adrenaline had kicked in) I thought ‘f*ck’ as another car, truck or weaving moped sped by, until the word played on loop. But, we finally found the MDR, checked in, shackled our bikes and tucked into the mini-bar.

What I did not know then was that my relationship with red Fanta and the post-ride mini bar was to be a consuming and enduring one.

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Enduring Love.

What I also did not know was that to get north to Chai Nat, Uthai Thani, Nakon Sawan, we had to pass through Sing Buri. Sing Buri was 40 – 50km away and happy, exhausted, still consumed by trepidation (I speak for myself here), I realised the next day’s ride would be to Sing Buri. It slowly dawned on me that our first day’s effort had been in vain.

What I did not know (but would regularly be reminded of) when trying to plan the second leg, was that the GPS could not be relied upon. While it has a bike setting, the app could not devise a bike ride to Sing Buri that did not retrace kilometres of road towards Ang Thong. The only obvious road was the rather busy looking 311 but for some reason the app did not think it was suitable for a bike. Computer say no.

I’m lazy. The 311 is straight, sure and only 33km. Only, Nick did not fancy it. Instead, the next morning, while heading towards the 311 (because there was no way I was heading back towards Ang Thong) we stumbled across a set of side roads that run parallel with it, through lush, well kept villages that run along the side of the Lop Buri river.

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Rolling through the Thai countryside.

I think this ride was the one and only time that I felt part of one of those epitomous cycling scenes; gentle breeze through the hair, smiling, the world smiling with us (and waving and shouting in the case of the locals) and no gruelling effort-filled sweat drenching our flesh and clothes.

We continued to roll all the way along the Chao Phraya River, to the door of the Chaisaeng Palace; literally the only place to stay in Sing Buri.

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View of the Chao Phraya River from the hotel window. The silty appearance reminded Nick of ‘Nam.

What I did not know was that staying in Sing Buri would be like treating myself to a holiday in Mansfield or Grimsby. Whether it would have mattered, had I known, is another thing entirely. Both Lop Buri and Sing Buri are cities of industry. They really don’t see tourists, Sing Buri less than Lop Buri, I think. With its huge local market, a tarp and post labyrinth through a bounty of fish guts, squid, chicken legs, grinning pig’s heads, garlic, ginger, fruits, tools, bungee cords, ponchos, bagged up sauces, meat on sticks, deep fried chicken, its gaudy karaoke dining, rammed, disorganised department store and packs of territorial mongrels, it was clear that this was a functional town with no particular want or need for tourists.

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A functional sign outside a bar; my kind of place.

Mansfield, Grimsby or anywhere, that was what I came for. The smiles and good service were important and the place did not disappoint.

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The glittery fish of Sing Buri; the envy of Grimsby.

We stayed an extra day. Not because we were captivated, because we were trapped, by what turned out to be a very small amount of rain.

What I did not know is that while we ambled the market looking for the best bike specific poncho, eating meat on sticks and avoiding karaoke joints and Mister Donut, my bike was in the hotel store room with one flat rear tyre (the second so far). So the next morning, imbued with enthusiasm and armed with coloured ponchos for the third leg to Uthai Thani, the first task was puncture repair.

Important stuff:
Travelled 45km
Stayed at Chaisaeng Palace, Sing Buri. Lovely staff, can recommend the cafe and the iced cappuccino
No rain until the following day
No punctures on route

Wat Ifs – Ayutthaya to Lopburi, 24 June 2013

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So, the first leg of the tour took us to the city of Lop Buri, according to the GPS, some 80-odd kilometres north of Ayutthaya. It’s funny (firstly, its funny how people say ‘its funny’ to describe things that really are not funny, things that are frustrating, annoying, disappointing…) but I think I chose to go to Lop Buri over Sing Buri because of something I read on one of the bike tour itineraries. The funny bit is they have a support vehicle. Funnier still, they must have gone there because there was something to see, but I could not remember what. Anyway, on the map, Lop Buri and Sing Buri are a similar distance from Ayutthaya. I booked the MDR Hotel; Lop Buri it was. Approximately an 87km away according to the GPS, 67km, according to hallowed Google Maps.

The first leg was always going to be hard, for the following reasons, as I remember:

1. I was worried about my tyres, I had already had one puncture and barely ridden the bike. Punctures hold a certain mystique for me. When I was a child they put an end to bike riding for weeks until Dad got around to fixing it;
2. The GPS, downloaded from iTunes for £21.99, produced by City App. This app had no reviews and I was about to follow it into the Thai countryside;
3. The traffic worried me. I fairly wobbled along on the bike, proud that I was carrying all my luggage. But I also felt vulnerable; a snail or a tortoise (I saw a fair few of the latter cracked open like water melons on the highways), bearing the full weight of my life and vulnerable to it being smashed to smithereens.
4. The owner of Luang Chumni Village worried me further. Watch out for the traffic, it is dangerous, she said. A British couple had both been killed, she reminded me, during a bike tour as a pick-up had ploughed into them, the driver’s attention distracted by something he wanted in the footwell.
5. Dogs, dogs, dogs, everywhere. Could I out-pace them, weighed down by the burden of my life? Or would I have to stand and fight?
6. Could I actually cycle long distances? A big question that should have come nearer the top of the list.

I left on this wave of ‘what ifs’ and we made our way out of town through back streets, me increasing my chances of making my fears reality by brandishing and reading my iPhone as we went. Soon the town fell away to flat countryside and the odd wat. Already, wats had begun to wain for me (not least because of the packs of dogs that languished in the ruins in Ayutthaya), only the cockerel wat brought me up short.

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Cockerel Wat.

The day was flat, hot and we were chased by dogs. Mercifully, a Thai lady called them off. They have this bark (Thai women) that stops dogs in their tracks. So, on we cycled, increased adrenaline helpful if anything, through ramshackle villages, proud, lonely wats and sparse green and brown paddy land where water birds lifted from the fields as if shaken from a blanket.

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Sorry, I missed the birds but managed to steal this image.

At say 40km, I began to get hot. I had not put on my sunglasses, the sun was penetrating through the ridges of my helmet and the helmet itself had begun to make me feel like my swollen head was in a vice. Under sufferance I swapped the helmet for a baseball cap, put on the glasses and slugged warm water. On we went.

We made it to the centre of Lop Buri unscathed (and refreshed following chocolate milk at the 7 Eleven), cycling goggle-eyed through a huge teak furniture market to a huge roundabout. But then we were lost. I had booked MDR Hotel as I had read that it was refurbished and of the scant choice of accommodation in Lop Buri, it looked the best. Furthermore, the dogs reared their scabby heads, because I was sure I had read somewhere about the presence of large packs in the old town, which was enough to convince me I was not staying there.

Important details:
87km journey
Stayed MDR Hotel, Lop Buri
No rain until safely inside hotel room
No punctures

Survival 101: Ko Lanta

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Note: if Trip Advisor reviews read ‘simple’ or ‘rustic’ you may have to prepare to ‘survive’. We are not talking Bruce Parry SAS-style but that does not mean it cannot feature in the general ‘survival’ dialogue, does it? DOES IT?

I am writing in my hard wood room (yes, I know Parry would not even have a room) in a century old fishing inn, which juts out across the Adaman, whose waters shimmer below, between every plank and joist. I share my room with a spider, evidenced by her webs and an incense coil smoulders in a corner to ward off my other companions, the mosquitoes. Cue survival.

To survive, you will need the following:

Mosquito net
Travel washing line
Swiss Army knife
Common plastic water bottle
Old sarong

    The Scenarios:

Blood Suckers!

The bedroom window has no actual glass, only bars, like a cell. The walls are made of century old planks and there are significant gaps between them; endearing, rustic, indulgent sigh. I began to worry about what would be visiting through these holes. From spiders to mosquitoes, from bats (wheeling in the corridor outside my room, I am not being dramatic) to rats or even the leg-humping chihuahua that belongs to Pao, the guesthouse owner (more on him – the dog – later).

I was not content with the incense coil, nor with the mosi plugin I bought with me. I needed a net, a force field against the the things that go bump and slurp in the night. Luckily, I had said net, but unluckily, not a clue as to how to erect it. The bedroom ceiling is palatially high, the vertical beams so hard that they could be made of stone…what to do with my four cornered box net?

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This…

In sequential moments of genius and extreme insectophobia I realised I could anchor the corners of the net around the wooden beams instead of driving the little hooks that came with the net into the wall. Carefully, with much tongue biting, I poked the little threads behind the posts, using the Swiss Army knife to tease them through. And the washing line? Stretched across from the bed to the barred window (those bars came in handy for something, at least), it provides my fourth anchor point.

Have it, all creepy species that may want to share the room and blood without paying

Wine-oh!

Now this clearly became a survival situation when I paid 650 THB for Jacobs Creek Shiraz Cab Sav from here:

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Says it all…they know how to get the tourists’ attention

Now, you may think (or even say), ‘you’ve been ripped off.’ And paying through the nose is not survival. No it is not. But in my defence this is the cheapest I have found wine out here and what is drinking Jacobs Creek (at all) if not survival?!

When I got back to the guesthouse with the stash the plan was to imbibe it from a coffee cup, seated on the stilted decking area. Yawn of decadence.

Instead, the rain lashed and the wind howled through cavernous and confused building (what’s outside is inside and the other way around). So, my plan was out and I did not feel inclined to go fetch a coffee cup, watched as I would undoubtedly be, by Pao, seated before his laptop and horrendous Thai soap. But my days of slugging wine from the bottle have not yet arrived: I needed a receptacle.

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Created in seconds: a wine tumbler fashioned from my water bottle. Civilised sipping could commence!

Pesky Pup

He ain’t much of a guard dog, although he has his serious face on here.

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And there’s something effeminate about him (apart from when he’s chewing on the long suffering cat, and then he’s simply disturbing). In fact, he has bad thing-chewing and leg humping habits.

So, lonely as I am, I am delighted when he pays me some attention. I am less delighted when he embraces my leg, clasps a mouthful of legging between his incisors and proceeds to hump. When he wasn’t doing that the leather thong on my new flip flops proved great for assuaging his chewing fetish.

Now, I want to keep my new tiny dog friend (although at the same time I feel a little used) but I cannot put up with his dirty habits. Survival is required.

An old sarong and the trusty Swiss Army knife. Don’t worry, no animals were harmed in this survival task, but at the close of business I had a shabby chic, beach fashioned, dog ragga toy made from plaited strips of shredded sarong. Perfect for taking out those tiny doggy frustrations on and I got to keep my friend!! Not extreme survival, I grant you, but innovation. Beat that Parry.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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I picked up The Reluctant Fundamentalist at the airport, afraid that I hadn’t enough reading matter now that my activity based travels had (at least for now) turned into a beach sitting/restaurant sitting/coffee shop sitting sojourn. When I picked it up, I had in mind that I wanted an ‘American Book’; an irony I was to understand later.

Perhaps it was apt that I read it beneath the shadow of the Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, because it is the destruction if The World Trade Centre in New York that provides the pivot for the story and the depth and strength of Nations’ response, it’s drama. And, sadly, it may be relevant that I sit to consider it under another shadow; that cast by the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich and the response of nations having only just begun.

The book has been labelled ‘a thriller’, emphasised by the protagonists of the recent film adaptation depicted on the front cover; their expressions urgent, dramatic. The threat of violence is set as the as the tone in the very first paragraph, as protagonist, Changez, addressing an unknown man, in a market in Lahore proclaims, ‘Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard. I am a lover of America.’

Identity is the theme and the space from where threat emerges, in this spare novella. Changez’s identity, once Princeton scholar and trainee business analyst, what has it become? And who is the man across the table from him, with whom he shares his story? The burly waiter, is he more than just that? Then the bereft Erica, Changez’s love – all American girl and aspiring novelist – unable to maintain am identity beyond sorrow. And finally, what of ‘the fundamentals’ he is asked to believe in, the laws of business or those of his own culture?

The afternoon grows old and turns black. During this time Changez shares his story with us and the stranger in his dangerously civilised prose.

Precise and shocking in its delivery, the book presents some persuasive questions, about the nature of threat and identity in the aftermath of 9/11. Because it is not entirely of his own volition that Changez turns his back on American society. In many ways, the epitome of American aspiration, in the wake of 9/11 he is treated with suspicion and diminished respect.

While the thinly veiled threat throughout the novel is, what has Changez become? by the final chapter threat lingers still more menacingly. Does the threat come from Changez at all? Or, is it elsewhere, the unknown American? The jury is still out.

Reberty In A Bottle

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    The confession:

Since the age of 18 (when it was legal Your Honour) alcohol has played a not insignificant role in my life. It has been there at the major events; weddings, birthdays, graduations, saying goodbye…To be fair it has there at some pretty insignificant ones too, so much so that I am not sure if its the wine or the insignificance that causes me not to remember them.

And, fortunately I suppose, as I have developed a reputation for embracing alcohol, I have become known as a fun drunk, or, in darker moments, the person who makes others less embarrassed about their own drunkenness in a ‘thank God it wasn’t me who…’

spent all night vomiting in the sink

did the crazy jumping out from behind people with jazz hands dance behind unimpressed strangers

cannoned straight into a man with a tray of drinks sending the whole lot flying…

way.

And so, as a maturing and increasingly wrinkly person my idea of working a ski season arrived with a sense of trepidation. As far as I was concerned a ski season is synonymous with excess alcohol consumption. How did I know this? My good friend and ex-seasonnaire who spent five months in a beery haze, gelling the hair of strangers and who has never ridded herself of the taste for Jaegermeister alongside the propaganda of commercial giants, the likes of Jack Wills. Not particularly empirical evidence but on this basis I was convinced that time in a ski resort would not promote my spiritual growth and would more likely accelerate my onward journey to AA (not the fourth emergency service!). But true to my stubborn nature I could not put the idea aside. So, I applied, trained and chose Reberty as a nod to my concerns, the place of one horse and one pub. I believed this stood me in good stead for withstanding the lure of the Jaeger Bomb, tequila, chalet wine and dirty pints…

    Sire de Beaupre:

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The beginning. When the guests arrive they are welcomed with this; a sparkling white wine (of sorts) which costs no more than 1 euro 22 cents from the large Carrefore (a supermarket) in Moutier, the town at the bottom of the mountain (aka the suicide capital of France). It could in fact be that this stuff is the equivalent of a UK Lambrini, which lends some sense to the suicide statistics. But having said that it is much more palatable than Lambrini (most guests quaff it, even those who profess to be in big business and connoisseurs of fine vintage, or even the Swedish who live in a wine dictatorship of exacting high standards on wine permitted to be sold in the country and none of these people are dead to my knowledge, least of all from their own hand). However, the most overwhelming testament to its palatabity is the staff willingness to consume it given half an excuse; the hot tub needs jumping in, as s component in Buck’s Fizz on transfer day morning or the above mentioned Swedish guests turning up so late that we drink three bottles (theirs) and gobble their pork log (long pork pie) waiting for them. And so the week has begun.

    Vin blanc et vin rouge (aka ‘The Chalet Wine’):

The first thing that a guest might ask is ‘what kind of wine is this?’. Well, no, on second thoughts, the very first thing might be to express how it does not taste particularly pleasant (I’m being polite). The response to the second comment is ‘this is true’ and the answer to the first is, well, make it up (its a Merlot one week, Pinot the next) or give or it to them straight, like so; ‘it is a beverage loosely based on wine and coming in two colours, either red or white. It comes in 10 litre boxes which are located in that cupboard and you can have as much of it as you like.’ This response tends to improve the taste and quell any queries about the grape.

From my own point of view the stuff is pretty nasty (not nasty sic, which is in fact good) and not particularly intoxicating owing to it likely being watered down. Irrespective, over the last four months I have drunk a fair amount of the stuff and it seems the main reason (without over analysis) is to burr the sharp edges from an evening (spoken like a true alcoholic); the awkwardness with guests that I have little in common with or quite simply dislike (the man who joined a conversation about getting rid of something irritating and nasty by intoning that he had done this with his ex-wife qualifies) and with whom you can barely get past ‘how was your day?’, the social discomfort of dinning with these people and the moods of others (chefs mainly). Not only does it burr these edges but also your own; memory, energy and sometimes personality. Sadly.

    Vinho do Porto:

The au revoir drink, served avec fromage. The cheese usually goes ignored, yet the thick, rich liquid gets destroyed. It’s not offensive, you might even call it approachable, but despite this and the entreaties of the guests – those you get on with – to sit down and have a glass, Porto is not what you want to be drinking the night before transfer day – the 5:30 alarm and the 10 hour toil. But that does not seem to matter at 22:00, it seems very far away, so you drink it anyway and then it matters less and less with each warm sweet sip.

    Leftovers:

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No chalet is complete without leftovers. The toiletries go in your bathroom, the food in the bin, the alcohol most definitely not. They can’t take it with them, so they leave it behind; gin, vodka, whiskey (Johnnie Walker Black Label, Jack Daniels), brandy (Remy Martin), beer. In the most decadent of moments you might drink this on discovery, bleary eyed, at 07:30 on a Sunday morning in preparation for the long day ahead…

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(Transfer day breakfast)

…but rarely. The gin is the preserve of The Chef, nothing turns his eyes as red and has them rolling around his head like Gordon’s and the whiskey has mainly been used up in hot toddies to ease cold after cold. You can look at this swag in two ways; it saves you money, which out here is often a prime motivator; or (and I think I fall in here) it induces you to drink alcohol you would not otherwise have drunk, with occasional head pounding consequences – the Remy Martin springs painfully to mind.

    BYO:

And beyond that you have to buy your own. Rarely a day has gone by over the last four months when leaving the mountain did not involve one vin chaud or two or three. But nothing harder, at least.

    The Conclusion:

So, gradually, the good intentions, at least to some extent, have been eroded. Never more have I wanted to borrow the words of hallowed soft rock legend, Jon Bon Jovi: ‘sometimes you tell the day by the bottle that you drink’. And the fact is that when working a ski season the drinking is no myth, you could easily find yourself counting days in Porto, Sire Beaupre and spirit. If so, at the very least you will end up tired, run down, sneezing. And that’s how I find myself writing this, sniffling, coughing and with a hot toddy laced with ‘rhum’ in hand.

Cheers.