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I Should Have Left the Whiskey

These are photos from ‘The Noodle Narrative’ the part of the book set in 2002 when I bought the bike in Thailand heading for China.

The first leg.
My beer glass was less than half-empty even by a pessimist’s standards, when among the pedestrian parade walked a fellow pushing a fully kitted-out bicycle with a For Sale sign on it. See, I said to myself, that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for… A moment passed. That’s what I’m looking for! Why aren’t I running after him? I ran after him, leaving my seat, and an uncharacteristically unfinished beer.
I had credibility in this crowd from my past travels and motorcycling, and acceptance because of my new plans and bicycle. I listened intently to their tales and couldn’t help but learn. Quite literally a world of experience all came with beer, upbeat chatter, support and camaraderie. We talked loads, drank loads, spent loads, laughed loads, and we were all fit, slim and muscular. It was the perfect launch pad, and without trying we couldn’t help but become our own entity in a predominantly backpackery environment. I’d found the direction I wanted to continue my travelling in, I was so right for this lifestyle, broadened horizons, part of a new scene. Although, I did have to remind myself, I hadn’t actually cycled anywhere yet.
The place was like Angkor Wat without the hype or any inhabitants, and I wandered around temples, carvings, sculptures, moats, palms, cut grass and ruins.
Then more 13th-century architecture, and a Buddha by a moat, all uninhabited, peaceful, and I was overwhelmed by the benefit of having a bicycle. Through a gap in a stone wall I saw an absolute giant of a Buddha on the other side, making me gasp, ‘Jesus Christ,’ before realising the inappropriate faux pas.
My food poisoning in Thailand was crippling for a few days. The room I had to endure was a concrete cell. It was horrendous. Small windows at the top of the walls let in little light and allowed no sights to be seen. I was inside a poured-concrete block, with peeling paint and leaking pipework. A squat-hole toilet in the corner and a metal bed frame with a slice of stale mattress on top. I shat, I sweated, I stank and drank water. After two days I was empty, drained, wrung out, emaciated, weak, white and wretched. When the poison had passed I walked outside to find sustenance.
Eager to leave my cell, I got back on my bike prematurely, cured but still weak because nothing of nutritional value had stayed in my system since Bangkok. It all passed through, the good and the bad, and I was truly depleted.

However quaint, picturesque and untouched it may have been, it was still a scene I had to enter as supplies needed replenishing. It seemed intrusive to cycle down a private access path, and safe to leave my bike on the road. So it was with all senses on full alert that I crossed the undefined threshold into a tiny community, indicating I would like water in a plastic bottle and any food it may have been possible to purchase.
An elder was summoned, I was told I could and should stay with them tonight. This air pocket that was bequeathed I’d rather not breathe. But suffocation and suffering were imminent. I was ushered back to the elder’s homestead to sit on the floor where, between the cracks in the wood, pigs and chickens could be seen running round beneath me. The children sat in a semicircle behind me and watched as plate after plate of cooked and unknown substances were bought for me and the elder to eat. It was as awkward as fuck, no language, no clue, no real want to be there, captive in his hospitality but protected to some degree.
What I recall with the most uplifting feeling was at dawn, as I rolled up my dew-soaked tent and tar-covered sleeping bag, I was given an instant coffee. A man grabbed my arm and took me round to the other side of the hut – to show me where to shit? No, there was a view down the valley, and a stunning red dawn. I felt he had understood something about me, knew what my soul needed. I love sunrises and perhaps he was proud of his, maybe embarrassed last night at his meagre life, he could now show off his greatest asset. ‘Welcome to my jungle, we’ve got sun and rays.’ A stunning back garden by any standard, his wild, untouched and infinite surroundings, his life-learned survival, his harmony with nature and his respect and appreciation for it. Standing with him watching those colours as the sky lightened, I felt something, a gap bridged, I felt a connection, it was an honour – albeit an awkward one – to be invited into their community.
…I freewheeled away, finding the second hill and a pine tree research station. They were just closing up for the night so I offered to keep an eye on the trees while they were gone and camped for free, alone, safely locked inside the gates of the institution. It was a sound sleep, with a night-time of unknown noises from the canopy of trees.
Back on my balcony with a Chang beer, I looked at all my acquired information and made a plan. I was aware that this was a significant moment in my journey – my journey through life in fact. I’d been studying Mandarin Chinese for nearly two years in preparation of what I was about to embark on. I had said I was going to Bangkok-☑, to buy a bicycle-☑ and then cycle to China-☑ … well, ish. I was going to China.

As I continued north the traffic subsided and palms and banana trees became more frequent. Still touristy, this was where the jungle trackers, bungee jumpers, elephant riders and white-water rafters went. Some may call them adrenalin junkies, but they hadn’t cycled round Bangkok.

The bike broke the ice and was then loaded so sloppily it could easily have broken free of the skinny boat. I decided to take control and stack backpacks in a way that wedged it in. The backpackers and I were secured with more precision. Twelve bodies seemed to be the boat’s passenger capacity if we were neatly laid head to toe from bow to stern as if Evel Knievel were about to jump over us.
What a feeling

From my vantage point I could see a fridge being delivered and so I wandered down and asked if I could have the box to make a flight case for my bike. My landlord was ecstatic, his face had lit up when he looked inside his new fridge, and he told me they had to keep the packaging for seven days in case they had to claim on the guarantee but then I could have it.

I mended the previous day’s puncture and cycled off to the Thai string and tape shop, stopping for a beef noodle soup en route back to my room to begin the much-anticipated conversion of fridge box to bicycle flight case. The job stopped before it started when a pedal refused to come undone. Left-hand thread or right-hand thread, it was steadfast and stubborn against an unfitting tool. I walked to the 15mm spanner shop and got what I needed.
My streamlined bike, forward posture and slick bar gear change had me feeling like a revving Ferrari as we congregated at the lights. It was not that all eyes were on me, a popular pastime for the lady cyclist while delayed at a junction is to pull knitting out of the wicker baskets on their bars and do a few rows as they wait for the lights to change. I was not in a hurry but I couldn’t help but beat them to the next red light. Weaving through the network of knitters, I half-expected to be shouted at by uniformed authority. I assumed that when the little old ladies heard the words ‘Pull over’, they just showed the knitting in their baskets and said: ‘No, it’s a hat.’
This was all very different … to everything: bicycles with massive wicker panniers overflowed with vegetables, making my load and capacity for food look minuscule. A tricycle was pulled by a donkey. Some people said hello, like I was a stranger in the village square, but this was a vibrant city, the cycle lanes were busier than the streets, where archaic transportation lumbered along with a punctured lung, smoking like death row.
I took a moment to zoom out and see beyond my bowl. The row of shopfronts the other side of this cobbled street meant little and attracted less attention. But above the commodities I noticed the construction, it was all wooden, intricate carving and Georgian-style windows. It was all so … I don’t know, authentic, I suppose, and that was when I was hit by a sudden realisation. Every Chinese restaurant I'd eaten in, the Chinatowns I’d visited, from red lanterns, dumplings to turned-up rooftops, it’d all been replicated. But this was original, real, functioning. I watched native Chinese people pass before my eyes, on bicycle and foot against this backdrop which was genuine China to the bone. And there, in the foreground, on this back street, was my bike. Dream realised. Achievement accomplished. I was sitting eating noodles in China and I had ridden to this restaurant. Now that was a flavour to savour.
Sitting on my own at the tiny two-table terrace looking on to the street, I took a moment to zoom out and see beyond my bowl. The row of shopfronts the other side of this cobbled street meant little and attracted less attention. But above the commodities I noticed the construction, it was all wooden, intricate carving and Georgian-style windows. It was all so … I don’t know, authentic, I suppose, and that was when I was hit by a sudden realisation. Every Chinese restaurant I’d eaten in, the Chinatowns I’d visited, from red lanterns, dumplings to turned-up rooftops, it’d all been replicated. But this was original, real, functioning. I watched native Chinese people pass before my eyes, on bicycle and foot against this backdrop which was genuine China to the bone. And there, in the foreground, on this back street, was my bike. Dream realised. Achievement accomplished. I was sitting eating noodles in China and I had ridden to this restaurant. Now that was a flavour to savour.

Below are photos from ‘The Elephant Narrative’ the journey in 2003 in Sri Lanka and India

The 2nd leg.
Saturday 15th November: I light the fire and we go about making the house look homely and irresistible to any prospective tenant, we even vacuum and everything. I’m perfectly capable of cleaning but Sofia can, without even trying, give the place a woman’s touch, and I don’t mean putting a pack of tampons in the bathroom. At the arranged time no one comes, no one calls and it would appear we totally wasted our time preparing for the time-wasters. Up and down, it’s rented, it’s not, there’s a viewing, there isn’t, pack the panniers prematurely then spread the contents out again on the couch.
Thursday 20th Nov: I’m yet to find the rhythm of the road, hardly surprising really, I’ve only been on it for 20 kilometres. I do though find a Tesco, a shack with a store of conveniences, and a crudely painted but very familiar red and blue logo above the door. Painted by some enterprising if not franchising owner, who unsurprisingly won’t accept my Clubcard.
Saturday 22nd November: I see faces at the window, I’m being spied on, dark faces, dark eyes, white teeth, no shame, no guilt. This is true captivity. Fuck this, I go out into a red sky behind a lattice of power lines. In a restaurant I’m gifted some thin flaky pastry, they saw me cycle past, seems everyone has seen me. When, that is, they weren’t watching the TV. England, I’m informed, just won the Rugby World Cup, for the first time ever.
Monday 24th November: As soon as I leave the railway station the road is narrow and steep, so steep, I can’t even keep my front wheel on the ground. It’s a ridiculous gradient, I have to push it. A 3-kilometre vertical climb, the hairpins so steep I feel I should crawl or fall backwards.
Monday 24th November: Just before I get to the town where the station is, I see a sign for a lodge. There isn’t much daylight left but a sign is enough to fire up some optimism, it sends me down a steep, unmade road. Man, I don’t want to push the bike back up here, at what point do I turn around? Every corner brings increasing indecision, every decline has to be climbed back up again. How much further am I going to go, when will I give up the idea of finding somewhere to stay? The later it gets the more desperate I become, the more destitute I’ll be the further down I go.
Tuesday 25th November: I decide to give World’s End a miss; $16 is so disproportionate to all other expenses in this country. Three nights’ accommodation, over a whole day’s budget, just to walk a 4-kilometre track. As I cycle off, I think, No, fuck it, if it were free I’d go, I’ve come all this way, it’s been denied me twice, I can’t assume I will ever be back and even if I am it will cost me more than $16 to get here. So I bite the bullet, pay the fee and walk the track to the end of the world … and it’s shite. I do see a lizard though so the trip isn’t a total waste.
Wednesday 26th november: Nothing to eat but tea as far as I can see. I try to see the uniqueness of the scene that is spread before me, I’ve seen it before but will I ever again?
For that reason the landscape is worthy of a photograph, taking me past the halfway point of my 35mm reel of Kodak Colour Plus. I can’t really capture the sight and I can’t grasp the feeling as I’m not feeling it, no one is picking today, and they almost always have a wave for me. I’m aware that I am unaware…
The 3rd leg.
Friday 28th November: I watch the fishermen land this morning’s catch. It’s a frantic ritual, with possibly hired hands, waste deep in the surf, chanting and splashing as both ends of the semicircular net are hauled towards the beach. Doubtlessly, some Hindu god is summoned to fill the heavy net with enough to feed every hungry mouth and fill their empty pockets.
Monday 1st DEcember: A couple of well-dressed Indians in a car pull level with me. ‘Where you go?’
‘Aah,’ they respond, having had their question answered, then the comprehension of my comeback kicks in. ‘Goa?’
Ha, yeah, I’m a hardcore motherfucker, motherfuckers, I think to myself, and find the main road to Thiruvananthapuram quicker than I can say it.
I turn off for Varkala, there is familiarity, it’s been nearly seven years. I stop on top of a cliff and take a photo then head back to what I recall was a kind of hippy community. The price of a room certainly suggests they cater for the deadbeats. One hundred rupees, or just over $2. I was paying $8 at the last place.
Wednesday 3rd December: By accident, I realise if I squat in the shade of my bike, it’s assumed I’m having a dump and I’m left alone. A handy trick. I find what I’m looking for, a quieter road, and ride across a bridge seeing naval ships and shiny hotels. I stop to take it all in, you can’t do that on a bus. Then I watch as a man lowers a kind of Chinese fishing net with umbrella mechanism into the water while I have a chocolate break, all with the satisfaction of knowing I’m travelling to my own, possibly auspicious, schedule.
Thursday 4th November: I have no glass in my windows that look out over the main road to a noisy, polluted, dusty bus station. I might as well be at the elephant festival. I go for a shower but there is no shower, only foot disease lurking in a damp, dark concrete cubicle with a dripping tap. I pour buckets of water over my head, then lay on the lumps and tufts that by their position on a metal frame must be deemed a mattress.
Left with little else to do I watch life go by from out of my broken window. It’s full on, the street’s procession of traffic, throngs of bus station passengers swelling and dispersing with arrivals and departures. The advancing tide of traders, hawkers, beggars and taxi drivers who gravitate round the new arrivals.
Friday 5th December: Ahead is an unmistakable manifestation. Three men in dhotis walk in reverence behind a big elephant’s behind. The animal carries only a man on his back wearing a burgundy tunic and half a palm tree in its mouth. I have a photo of both rear and head. I’ve just ridden past a working elephant, I’VE JUST OVERTAKEN AN ELEPHANT, that’s cooler than collecting seven-year-old mail. I wonder if the rider is the new owner, bought it from yesterday’s festival.
Saturday 6th December: I take my camera in my hand, holding it at arm’s length and, as I ride with the lens pointing towards me, I press the shutter button taking a photo of myself. I wish someone would come up with a term for this act that is shorter than the thirty-two words to describe the action of taking a photo of one’s self, it would save a lot of room in my diary.
Saturday 6th December: Then I find an idyllic little room: the window overlooks a garden, birds tweet – well, they always do, but I can actually hear them over the horns of the traffic. The sun shines through pleasing leaves in a cool breeze, palms and plants flicker shadows across my bed, crickets sing. I hang my sarong in the window and just lie, listening to this refreshing new song. No traffic at all, its absence so noticeable now, it simply never stops, there is no getting away from it, obvious really when you choose to live your life on the road.
Monday 8th December: I take a banana and Marmite sandwich break after a level crossing. The fort in the next town is signposted. So is Bombay: 1,200 kilometres away, arrgh, two weeks of this? Following the coast to get to the biggest city in the subcontinent. Yuk.

Wednesday 10th December: I book my bike onto the luggage car, grab a thali and the train rolls in right on time.
A/C isolates like wealth, there is no parade in this carriage, a little more luxurious perhaps but the price I paid comes with seclusion. I’d gladly downgrade to second-class sleeper if only they had room for me, not to save money but to gain humanity.
Thursday 11th December: He talks like he looks: fast, clean, efficient, like he’s been doing it for a while. I’m out of practice, and swear for punctuation, a breather for my thoughts to catch up with my mouth. He’s Lance, I’m puncture, he’s Armstrong, I’m bum-sore, he’s vitality, I’m fucked. The conversation doesn’t go far, certainly not as far as he has seemingly already travelled today. And then with a ‘Good luck, buddy’, the yellow streak vanishes into the traffic, as undetectable as a performance-enhancing drug.
Friday 12th December: The waves gain momentum across the Arabian Sea and crash in a grand finale right here in front of me. These sights and sounds have so much more appeal than the red LED numbers of a bedside clock burning into my retinas like lasers, or an electronic alarm of alert ringing in my ears. I keep my eyes open, not wanting to snooze and lose this morning. I could live here, on this terrace; I think the Kiwi in the room can read my thoughts and is keen to show this squatter to his own squat-toilet accommodation.
From my friends’ balcony we watch the sun set into the Indian Ocean, happy hour they call it, and drinks are poured, then to a pizza restaurant and beer flows. I feel my waistband tighten, my jaw loosen, my loneliness lost out to sea, and push my bare feet into the sand, as my sporadic tan is toned by a moonlight shadow.
I have breakfast and then go to a freshwater thermal lake to cleanse and baptise my body. Submersed, I dunk my head, leaving nothing on the surface but warm, wet circles.
This company has reached a higher level of relaxation that is only obtained during prolonged stretches of absolute inactivity. The seats around the breakfast table have become a metaphorical talk show comfy couch and we are joined by one guest after another and, as muesli and porridge plates are cleared, a space of temptation and opportunity appears on the table.
Friday 19th December: Fresh water springs out of a crack in a rock to fill a pool where mud-covered and indistinguishable humans sit and harden. Caked and baked the dried earth apparently has some kinds of qualities.
They then crack and crunch down to the sea to return to their characterising skin colour but now penetrated by nutrients.
Saturday 20th December: I hear the boys above at happy hour and decide to remain in my hammock and give the sunset my full attention. Some kind of super sun, deep red imposing as it hangs above the horizon and then melts with distortion into the Indian Ocean. Stone-cold sober and undistracted, it’s a stunning sight – see you tomorrow for your shortest shift of the year.
Sunday 21st December: When Mr. Sitar takes the stage, he recognises me and we exchange smiles. I think my hippy date is impressed, hanging with the musicians, I must confess we’ve met before but not in a groupie kind of way.
Monday 22nd December: I don’t make promises easily, the word implicates honour and if I say I will, then I will, at all cost and inconvenience to me. If I say I promise then barring alien invasion I will endeavour to honour it. Somehow a beach hawker prised a promise out of me to visit her stall. I do, and part with an appropriate amount of rupees worthy of my guaranteed assurance.
Monday 29th December: . Head inches away from a filthy fan that blows nothing worth breathing, offers no cooling but subtly and evenly coats you in every passing particle. It’s going to be a long forty hours. I eat my omelette sandwich and drink my chai bent double on my bunk and so my food, like me, is also stuck mid-transit. We may reach our destination together.
Wednesday 31st December: I walk into the surreal, misty streets of the city. It’s quiet – well, for India. The cold has hushed the hubbub, muted the audible onslaught. I try to photograph it all but it can’t be captured, it’s something in the atmosphere, not tangible. It can only be experienced in person, a passive ambience. I feel like I’m drifting through, no physical contact with person or pavement, a voyeur in the vapour of a million shivering breaths.
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