Quarantine Dreams

I know what it looks like. It looks like I’m sitting at the kitchen table, eating cold spaghetti out of a Tupperware container, flecks of red sauce decorating the front of my dressing gown. But I’m not. I’m actually sitting on a low plastic stool in an alley off Yaowarat road in Bangkok’s Chinatown, eating a huge bowl of spicy aromatic noodle soup. A trickle of filthy drain water runs by my table, and there’s a watchful cat in every shadow. The combination of the hot soup and the near 100% humidity has the sweat pouring off my head and running in rivers down my back. It’s a cacophony, the clatter of plastic bowls being stacked as the chef shouts to his sister washing dishes in a tub in the gutter. In fact everyone is shouting, but it’s laughter-filled and joyful, and although I don’t understand a word, I feel as though I understand everything. From the main road, the roar of ancient motorbike engines gunning and the incessant honking of tuk-tuks, and the general rumbling of a massive, heaving, overcrowded city. This soup is the only dish this family makes, and they serve it up all day every day, ladling stock that’s been bubbling and concentrating since this morning when it was made with the leftovers from yesterday. This stock is the secret to their success, the quietest member of the family, its recipe a cherished secret. The bowl in front of me sends up waves of rich complex smells, chilli, fish sauce, lime, cilantro are the only ones I can pick out. They mingle with the ambient smells of exhaust and sickly sweet durian and something leafy I can never put my finger on. I kind of wish I could ask, but I also like the mystery. The beer is so cold it’s making everything hotter by comparison. It’s Singha, or Chang- whichever one they have- they’re pretty much the same, and perfect for this weather and food. I can buy it in New York, but it doesn’t taste nearly as good there. Until I motion for another one, I’ll be completely ignored, which is just how I like it. I could watch this family as they work, with their ease and affectionate humour, all night.

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You could be forgiven for thinking that I’m sitting at my desk, papers strewn chaotically on all sides, staring blankly at another news website, while perched on a rickety old desk chair with dodgy hydraulics that slides queasily up and down without warning. But you’d be wrong. I’m really sitting on a narrow polished wooden bench, making my way across Victoria Harbour on Hong Kong’s Star Ferry. It’s an old tub built in the 50s, apparently held together with paint and lacquer, and I’ve managed to nab a window spot although not without a fight– those old Hong Kong ladies are stronger than they look. We’re motoring from Central district over to Tsim Sha Tsui which is a part of town I’d just as soon avoid. It’s the part of town favoured by people who go to Hong Kong for the shopping (to me, these are the true foreigners- I genuinely can’t wrap my head around visiting an exotic and wondrous city to spend money on stuff.) No this is all about the ferry ride- 25 cents for 10 slow peaceful minutes; a half mile of breathing space between the frenetic clamour on both banks. I often think that New Yorkers would go insane without Central Park, and the same might be true for Hongkongers without their harbour. The water here is a mysterious deep emerald green, and the swell is always just enough to keep the dumplings in my belly bobbing pleasantly. Looking back, the grand Victoria Peak looms possessively over Hong Kong Island; a warm salty breeze sweeps the dust from my mind. I can’t quite believe this place exists, and that I’m in the middle of it.

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I realise this has all the hallmarks of me washing my hands for the twentieth time today, gazing glumly into the mirror as I lather up and dutifully follow procedure. But appearances can be deceptive. You see I’m really floating on my back in a hotel pool high above Jakarta- Indonesia’s packed and rapidly sinking capital. The sky is threateningly overcast, like it is every day, almost guaranteeing a biblical downpour in late afternoon; the pool only slightly wetter than the air above it, thick and still and heavy with humidity. The heat is jaw dropping. I’m so far up, only the occasional car horn pierces the dense atmosphere; the only other sounds a few birds chattering in the surrounding gardens, and the gentle lapping of the milk-warm water. There’s very little in my mind aside from the salty, spicy Nasi Goreng I had for lunch, and the fried duck I’m planning to have for dinner. I drift over to the side where a towel and a cold beer are waiting patiently. I’d better get out and get dressed- I’ve got a gig tonight!

Wait. Now I know I’m dreaming…

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A Page from the Jetlag Diary: Bangkok

Bangkok. I haven’t slept properly in ten days and thing are getting weird. So many hours lying awake in the dark, hoping against hope that unconsciousness will overtake me; always just slightly too hot or too cold. I feel myself drifting towards the blackness, but I never get beyond limbo.  Every day I eventually give up and stumble out of the hotel and try to make something of the day, but today even the gentlest of exertions seems beyond me. At noon I drift out into violence, the merciless South East Asian sunshine piercing my corneas like a hot needle. The chaos of central Bangkok leaves me disoriented and bewildered- roaring motos, gasoline fumes, sputtering tuk-tuks, their drivers’ garbled voices as they race by. The familiar but overwhelming smells: wok smoke from the food carts, sickly sweet durian, fish sauce? Dog shit? Normally fairly adventurous, all I can think of now is comfort, reassurance, familiarity; the pleasant thrill of communicating through the language barrier to procure a plate of green curry almost unimaginable now. I weave, dazed, down the street, perception skewed, the road rippling, sudden shimmering troughs appearing underfoot; every car horn, engine rev, child’s scream grates my nerve endings. I’m going to eat a hamburger, I just know it. It goes against all my principles of international travel; I’m going to despise myself, and worse, I know it’s way more likely to make me sick than anything from a rusty food cart down the end of a cat infested back alley. I perch on a stool in the horrendous western-style bar- the type specializing in “international cuisine”: pasta, Thai classics, fish & chips. I slog through the greasy overcooked overpriced burger, trying to keep my eyes averted from the horribly brutal Muay Thai accosting me from multiple big-screens. It’s precisely the bad decision I knew it would be, but deep down, I’m ashamed to admit, it’s meeting a deep need. I trudge the two blocks back to the hotel, where I look down and realise I’m clutching the sodden, crumpled napkin from the bar, like some kind of security blanket. I can’t see an end to this.

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 I’ve experienced an unwelcome feeling of lethargy or indecisiveness this trip. Beijing and Bangkok are two resoundingly exotic locations I’ve visited several times before, and while still undeniably strange and mysterious, still largely unfathomable, I’ve now done a lot of the things I wanted to do here- eaten the must-try foods, seen a few of the standout sites- and I find myself feeling constrained by a kind of apathy, maybe because the gob-smacking awe is gone. I’m far from comfortable, but it’s starting to feel a little familiar. 

 With no plan in mind, I took a packed commuter boat across the Chao Phraya, the muddy, polluted river that snakes through Bangkok. It dropped me at Wang Lang market- a maze of alleyways crammed with stalls selling a bewildering assortment of goods mostly aimed at the locals. I waded in, but before long the tight spaces and constant bodily contact drove me to a deserted riverside bar where I nursed a Singha beer and contemplated my surroundings. Brazenly predictable Thai pop music floated blandly from nearby speakers and mixed with the sounds of the river: shouts of passing riverboat drivers as they leaned almost into the water to pull off hairpin turns; the rumble and fart of their smoke-spewing and apparently homemade engines; their wake splashing against the stone wall below me. I watched the river carrying the detritus of an overcrowded, rapidly sinking capital: plastic bottles, discarded children’s toys, a single flip flop. Some kind of small heron-like bird watched me as it floated by on a clump of weeds. I tried to climb inside this little universe but I still felt like I was watching the action through a screen. I was in it but not of it.

 

In the end I found an answer to my listlessness where I should have known to look all along: at the bottom of a bowl of extraordinary Tom Yum soup from the excellent Mit Ko Yuan. Chewy lemongrass stalks, roughly torn-up lime leaves, ferocious chillies, clumps of cilantro, and whole giant prawn heads just begging to have the restorative goo sucked out of them. Weird, this travel thing- it’s different every time. But with a stomach full of local good stuff, tongue on fire and veins pumping with chilli-induced endorphins, I don’t worry about it quite as much.

(Thanks for reading! If you want the next one sent straight to your inbox, enter your email address top right of this page… Cheers, Nick)

Opium, noodles, and a near execution: Bangkok

As we waited at the baggage carousel, I could feel the panic rising. My pulse was racing, and no amount of delicate dabbing could prevent the beads of sweat forming on my brow. I burped quietly: cabbage. I looked around furtively, but no one was paying me any attention. Even more furtively: still nothing. Maybe we’d be ok. Maybe the rumours were exaggerated. Maybe Thai customs wouldn’t find the illicit drugs I definitely wasn’t carrying and sentence me to an horrific death. I tried to keep my hands steady as I gripped my bags, but they were coated in sweat, presumably the baggage handlers’. Keeping my eyes down, I headed for the green “nothing to declare” line. My breathing was shallow and ragged; my mind was racing out of control; my hair was simply a disaster. If they noticed the panic radiating out of every pore, I knew I was a goner. But wait- there was nobody there. Not one customs officer. Not one sniffer dog. Maybe they were waiting beyond the exit doors. Not there either. Was it possible? Had I made it? Had I just passed through the most famously strict, death-penalising, border crossing in the world, carrying absolutely nothing illegal, nothing even remotely frowned-upon, without being stopped? I exhaled deeply (cabbage again). I’d made it to Bangkok.

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Brotherly love

For the last two legs of the tour, I was traveling with my younger brother- let’s call him Tim. After all, our parents did. Our last sibling adventure had been seven years previous, when we’d whole-heartedly tolerated each other through Spain and Morocco, and this felt like a much-anticipated sequel. Like Garfield 2. Tim’s a top-shelf travel buddy, with a keen eye for food, and an ear for adventure. And he’d found us a cracking hotel.

Not a hotel at all, it was a two-storey apartment above a Spanish bar in Chinatown; a traditional “shop house”, where the original shopkeeper would have lived. Our hostess Pupe and her Spanish husband Victor had discovered the place derelict for twenty years, and restored it in original style, and it was just amazing. Bare plank walls and floors, winding, almost vertical flights of stairs, sliding wooden doors, glassless windows for airflow- when we walked in it felt like stepping back in time. The only thing missing was a local girl to prepare my opium pipe. And she showed up later (apparently she’d been caught in traffic- whatever, that’s points off on Trip Advisor). And a bar downstairs which was almost never open, and which we were asked to “keep an eye on”. What more could you want.

The neighbourhood too, was just what the doctor ordered- no modern hotel chains, no western restaurants, very few tourists. We investigated other parts of town, but the best times were spent wandering Chinatown’s chaotic noisy dirty streets, smoke-belching scooters missing us by inches, two rats for every half-tailed cat, the intense heat and humidity sticking the shirts to our backs. And the incredible food absolutely everywhere. Day and night, on every corner, down every alley, a family with a rusted metal cart whipping up curry or noodles with every animal part imaginable, all served with bunches of fresh herbs and chilies to burn your face off. We’d sit on low plastic stools on the sidewalk and inhale this stuff, alternating it with slugs from giant bottles of dirt-cheap local beer, gasping and sweating from the heat and sheer intensity of flavour. It was a stimulus overload, the only respite coming when we’d retreat to our dark and mercifully air-conditioned rooms for a nap.

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Curry in a hurry

Nights were a gas too, particularly the one coinciding with young Tim’s birthday. We started with cocktails by a canal, progressed to delicious laneway food (pork maw anyone?), several hazy hours in a blues club, (where, as I remember it, the band was terrific), then a second dinner of unidentifiable roadside deliciousness. I forgot to buy Tim a birthday present, but let’s not bring that up- I don’t think either of us remembers…

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Poisoning young minds

As I was technically in town to work, next day I hied out to the university for a clinic with some eager and talented youngsters and then a gig at the very cool Black Amber Social Club. The occasion was the 5th anniversary of Sweets- a record label that also presents occasional shows by visiting musicians. The rhythm section I was assigned performed manfully, and the crowd were polite yet responsive. I don’t get the feeling Thais have heard too much jazz, but they do like a good time, and they got right into it.

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At Black Amber Social Club

Next day we said ta ta to Pupe and left for the airport before the noodle shops opened, much to Tim’s chagrin. Bangkok is a hell of a town and I reckon both of us will be back for another dip in the near distant future. Next stop: Singapore!