Monthly Archives: February 2012

Another Earth part three

I’m floating in the blood-warm waters of the bay – the pellucid brine holds me as I literally drift off. I repeat to myself a mantra I came up when I discovered the knack of ‘sleeping on water’ in the Red Sea of Egypt:

I am nothing,
nothing,
nothing.
I am everything…
I am nothing.
I am everything…
I am nothing.
Everything
is nothing.
Nothing
is everything…

(‘In the Lagoon’, The Immanent Moment, Kevan Manwaring, Awen 2011)

This helps to remind me of my insignificant place in the grand scheme of things – I’m just a drop in the ocean. Yet we are connected to the great Web of Life, however humble – from the tiniest microbe and ant to the mighty elephant, the redwood, the blue whale… I like this feeling of shedding the skin, the layers of ego and veils of personality. Although perhaps it is impossible to truly escape. However far you go you always end up meeting yourself. Travelling to the far side of the planet (relatively speaking) I felt closer to my loved ones, and more attached to my neck of the woods – I was missing my true friends back home and the kind of landscape I can have a conversation with. However paradisal this place is I simply don’t speak its lingo. I will only ever be a tourist in anywhere but the west. Northern Europe, a temperate climate, the beautiful melancholy of autumn and winter – something about it agrees with my soul. As our English Orpheus Nick Drake once sang:

I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Brighten my northern sky

Yet still, as I floated there, the sun glinting on the waves, flashes came of things I have seen …. ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion (well not quite – the arclights of squid boats illuminating the night sea like UFOs outshining constellations maybe…). Nevertheless, there have been moments of wonder and madness …

Starting my writing workshop on the beach in a grove of palm trees only to be drowned out by a deafening dusk chorus of mysterious birds…
Visiting the spirit houses that every dwelling here has – with their offerings of rice, liquor, tobacco to effigies of Buddhist saints, the King and Queen – with toy cars and other objects of desire iconically placed around them.
Giant turtles swimming stately in their tanks like geriatrics doing lengths – on Turtle Sanctuary island (bequeathed by the Queen for their protection) – the pattern on their backs, a rorschach patina, the ultimate depth psychology.

The acrobatic fire jugglers on the beach – young boys playing Prometheus-like with plumes of flames, pois spinning hypnotically in the hot night.

The intense trill of the cicadas as I ran through the forest barefoot on ‘Robinson Crusoe island’, wearing only my swimming trunks – a Tarzan moment!

Swimming under a full moon by myself – dancing with my moonshadow in the sea.

Being shaken to bits on a speed-boat as it bounced along the waves.

Reading on the beach before cooling off with a dip or a cold beer.

Savouring the taste of papaya as I breakfasted at sunrise, sitting under a palm tree.

The list goes on … but I won’t! Somewhere I can hear a hundred monkeys clapping and its time to get out of the water. (‘Come in number 78 – your time is up!’).

There were moments of connection – though they were sporadic. Friends or allies on my Hero’s Journey cropped up in unexpected places; whileas those I expected to connect with I didn’t at all. I am certainly partly to blame (let mea culpa be tattooed on my brow). Spending a couple of weeks with 14 people is challenging for the likes of me. I’m happy to socialise if I can have my space. I need my solitude to preserve my sanity and I grabbed what I could from the busy daily schedule. I was missing my good friends back home, my partner. A decent conversation with a kindred spirit.

On the final night a couple of participants (bi-focalisers, I called them) organised a ‘Love Cabaret’ (as it fell on St Valentine’s Day). I performed a small set of poems, and other chipped in an ode, a song, or a skit. We had a torchlit ‘last supper’ on the beach, waves lapping at our feet like the last days of Atlantis. There was a ritual dimension to it – we were asked to write what we wanted to let go of on a piece a paper which was burnt in a stoneware vase, which cracked (to pressure of too much catharsis in one go!). Then we wrote our prayers and blessings on a floating lantern, which we sent up into the sky. Its lift-off was touch and go, but eventually it floated free of the trees – into the night.

Relieved it was all over, I walked along the beach in the dark, letting the waves caress my feet.

Whatever marks we mark in the sand, the sea comes and smooths it all a way again. The sighing waves soothed away the internal (eternal?) dialogue, as I drifted off – succumbing to the Sandman.

Something about going away makes you really appreciate what you have. I looked forward to the quieter pleasures of home. Thailand is a riotously camp assault on the senses – part of it is very kitsch, a plastic fantasy (reality shrink-wrapped, a fake one at that). It often feels like you’re getting a pirate copy of the real thing (from designer fakes and ladyboy dance shows to bland cheese slices in film; insipid Yellow Label tea; & several dodgy brands of lager all vying to be Thailand’s answer to Duff Beer). Yet life is there – in all its messy, smelly, squalid actuality. Somehow amidst it all, life thrives.

The whole experience was quite unreal to be honest. Did it really happen? I don’t have much evidence. A rapidly fading tan and jetlag. As well running out of money two days early (I couldn’t use my card on the island – but broke, I still gave my last Baht to a Buddhist monk, trusting in the universe to carry me home: it did) I also lost my camera on the last day – an old battered one, but still – just when I decided to go for a walk around the island, taking souvenir snapshots.

Some things are to be preserved with the camera of memory.

At the end of a rickety pier a ramshackle boat was moored. I was ready to jump aboard and see where it took me.

After a fortnight on ‘Fantasy Island’ I was ready to leave – where was that dwarf and Ricardo Montalban when you needed them? ‘De plane! De plane!’

It was only in the lift back to Bangkok that my ears finally popped. Did someone turn the volume up to eleven?

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Another Earth part two

I was waiting for my ears to pop. They hadn’t sorted themselves out since we’d landed. Crossing the short distance to Koh Samed – the small ferry nosing its way across the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand on a perfectly blue sunny day, (temperature about 35 degrees C) I was beginning to feel relaxed. The sea-breeze, the warm sun on my face, the tang of breeze, and the prospect of a couple of weeks on an island paradise was beginning to take the edges of my road-weariness. And yet, my ears-valves refused to open fully. It made for an interesting acoustic. Conversation was muffled, but audible. It sounded like me head was in a cloth-bag. Still, I was feeling good – I love boat trips and ferry crossings to small islands in particular. As Koh Samed came into view against a sunset, the words of Cavafy’s poem came to my once again (‘May you enter harbours you are seeing for the first time’). I was last in Thailand seventeen years ago, backpacking around on a budget with my half-Italian, half-Iranian girlfriend of the time, Emily. We spent time on some of the Thai islands further south (Koh Tao and Koh Nang Yuan stand out) but not Koh Samed – so this was a ‘new harbour’ for me; and I was returning as a guest tutor for Skyros: flight, accommodation, food and expenses included. How my fortunes have changed! Yet this time, I wasn’t on holiday or a journey of self-discovery – (Siddhartha and all that) it was effectively a business trip. I would be running my Life:Fiction course every day – two four-day stints, with one day off in the middle of the session. Since it was smack bang in the middle of OU term time I also had marking to do – groan! However much I was loathe to take ‘work’ with me, this was the only way I could negotiate this excursion. Online marking of term papers is pretty much the same, wherever in the world you do it – although being able to pop down to the tropical beach for a swim has its compensations!
On making landfall (toes sinking into warm white sand the texture of demerara sugar) our bags were carried up to our rooms by nimble Thai lads. We had a chance to freshen up before the first meal. The room was spotless and comfortable with good air conditioning – essential! I felt better after a shower and a change of clothes. There is something psychologically reassuring about unpacking. It is good to finally arrive. I was looking forward to exploring the island and getting to meet the participants properly…
We had a brief ‘briefing’ followed by a lovely welcoming meal provided by the sweet staff of Samed Cabana – the beach-side resort we had colonised for the duration (enriching the demographic of Swedish and Russian families – many of whom had brought their small children to this safe and picturesque island).
The schedule was bashed out in time for the official start of the programme the next morning – and my daily routine became as follows:
Sunrise meditation and swim
Breakfast on the beach
An hour of writing (working on folk tales)
Demos – the community meeting from 9am
Ecos – staff/participant groups
Then I was free (by 10am) to crack on with my marking – oh joy! I set myself a quota of a couple a day, which would allow me to plough through them within the 12 days.
Lunch on the beach was at 1.30pm
After lunch I usually chilled out on the beach with a book (or a MSS or screenplay…), going in for a swim when things got too hot.
Around 4pm I prepared for my class – browsing my notes over a cuppa.
5pm my writing workshop – held in the resort restaurant.
7pm – free time! Dinner with group, or a quiet one.
Optional evening activities included dancing and the final cabaret.

So, that is the shape of my day for a couple of weeks, with the odd variation. Hardly gruelling, though in the heat it was hard to do any marking or teaching – especially late in the afternoon when the natural tendency is to have a siesta, or a cold bottle of beer and a swim.

Highlights that followed include swimming under the full moon, the day out to the Turtle Sanctuary and the pilgrimage to the white Buddha … Watch this space for further dispatches from Fantasy Island!

Another Earth

One Night in Bangkok

Metropolis Now - Bangkok skyline from Sofitel, courtesy of Melissa


Between the 3-16 February I went to Thailand to run a writing class for Skyros – although forging their reputation on the eponymous island in the Aegean, they now run their famous holistic holidays in exotic locations around the world. When offered the opportunity to run my ‘Life:Fiction’ course on Koh Samed, in the Gulf of Thailand, I leapt at the chance. Although it was the middle of term time and clashed with St Valentine’s (which required some careful negotations!) it was one of those ‘Calls to Adventure’ that you only get once-in-a-lifetime, and so I embarked upon my Hero’s Journey. Whenever I go on long trips the words of Cavafy’s immortal poem always come to mind: ‘As you set out for Ithaka, hope you’re road be a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery…’ Well, it was certainly a long road … ! It was a bum-numbing fifteen hour flight to Bangkok (with a nightmarish transfer in Mumbai in the middle of the night – after nine hours in the air, Indian bureacracy is not what you need in the middle of the night…). Flying cattle-class on ‘Jet Airways India’ (Fly-Lo airlines came to mind, from ‘Come Fly With Me’) didn’t enhance my sense of well-being – but when being sucked through the sky at 500 miles an hour in a cramped metal tube, breathing recycled air and watching recycled movies, little might.
Arriving in Bangkok in the early hours, spaced out and sore, the plush comforts of the Sofitel on Silom Road helped the process of compensation – once I had got there. First there was a high-speed taxi ride along the flyover passed the biggest billboards in the world blocking out the sky. My affable taxi driver drove like the stunt-driver protagonist of Drive – the slick and ultra-violent inflight movie I watched on the way over, worryingly within reach of any youngster via their personal touch-screen TV. The skyscrapers soared above the slums of this massive city – one emblazoned with the legend ‘BMW is joy’ – each one seemingly outdoing the next in architectural extravagance or folly, while monorails threaded through them and tiny tuk tuks and street stalls co-existed at their feet, ants in a rainforest of giant hardwoods, like something out of Bladerunner or Brazil. The concierge took my bag up to my room on the 14th floor, which afforded vertiginous views over this South East Asian metropolis – the air con hit me like a wet towel. Snowy sheets on an emperor-sized bed pulled, like a White Hole. I succumbed to its point of singularity – Z-land. About eight hours later I awoke, somewhat groggily, having slept through most of the day. I showered and dressed, making my way to the 36th floor for the Skyros welcome meeting. Here I met fellow tutors and participants. We arranged to go for a meal together – one had been conveniently arranged at a tourist honeypot. Together, about a dozen of us hit the dirty noisy streets – in such of sustenance. As we dined we were treated to Thai dancing, courtesy to a couple of colourfully dressed ladyboys, with immaculate make-up and thick hairy legs! There followed some comic stick-dancing and a gamelan-style orchestra which some clearly experienced as a form of torture. All the performers looked deeply bored – like neurotic animals in a zoo. I hoped to experience something more authentic when we escaped Bangkok, but the sordid delights of Patpong awaited us. Our guides took us there and left us to – to find whatever ‘floated our boat’ presumably. Well, a couple of cans of beer from the 7-Eleven was all my jetlagged party animal could cope with. I took these back to the hotel and flopped out, watching the hilarious Fantastic Mr Fox – tickled to see Bath’s Little Theatre in the set at one point! Within the last 24 hours I had watched 3 and half movies – even for a movie buff like me, a bit of a binge. This perhaps enhanced my impression of the trip so far as being cinematic and surreal, (indeed, Ballardesque) from the Heathrow airport (trying to sleep in Costa coffee at 4am…) to the hotel – everything glamorously shallow – digitised surfaces, plasma facades, moving adverts, massive billboards, tablets and smartphones. Everyone sucking from the virtual teat, as though we don’t exist if we’re not online, without the world’s trivia at our fingertips. Facebook voyeurs. Wikipaedophiles.
It was with a sigh of relief we escaped Bangkok the next morning, taking a couple of vehicles to the coast – and then a boat over to the island paradise of Koh Samed.
Would the two and a half days of travelling be worth it?
Watch this space!