On the Road Again: Middle East Diary

August 31, 2007

Some unexpected travel came out of the trip to London last month so here I am on the road again. Heading this time into the Middle East, a part of the world that has grown on me.

Emirates EK419

Departures, especially those on long trips are now to be dreaded, regardless of how glossy the brochure extolling the destination, or the claims an airline makes via is model stewards about how much you are going to enjoy the trip. The maxim that the journey is more important than the destination might be good for your chicken soup guide for life but has zero relevance to long haul flights. Emirates seem to have slipped in a couple of extra rows since I flew with them last and I am unable to stretch out, testing my claims that I can sleep anywhere. We bore out of Sydney and head for Dubai via Bangkok where I now sit after a brief walk around Thailand’s new airport. When I came through here for a couple of days last October we missed this new building by one day. Nearly a year on and it already shows wear and tear. Sadly it is another modern airport with nothing startling about the shiny chrome and glass and new concrete. The holding pens for all the seething, crying, bored, irritable stock are no different to any other holding pens in any other airport trying to attract then quickly churn as many passengers as possible. Here we all sit at 2 o’clock in the morning, badly wanting to nod off and not really able to in the plastic seats they have for us. This flight seems to have a lot of kids on it so our gritty eyed fatigue is accompanied by a symphony of sniffles, grumps and outright dissenting wails. I feel sorry for these parents who are stoic in the face of the assault. If I find the place drear, they must hate what it doesn’t offer for small kids trying to work out what is going on. But the diminutive Thai staff are good humoured and see us though and reboarded all with a semblance of good humour. For which we are all thankful.

The Brakes Were Glowing Red

April 8, 2007

I had just endured one of the least pleasant aspects of travelling from Australia to Europe with QANTAS – the stopover in Bangkok. It is a tired airport that offers poor respite. But we were back in the plane and thundering down the runway heading for Frankfurt when suddenly we were thrown forward in our seats as the reverse thrust came on and the brakes were applied. The complete inability to do anything except hang in the seatbelt was remarkable. The g-forces were probably not that great but were sufficiently strong to overcome any ability to sit upright or move your arms. Turns out the fuel pump on one of the engines had failed so the crew elected to stop and replace it.

We stopped at the end of the main runway and blocked it for an hour as the brakes cooled down.The Thai fire crews rushed out, seen here approaching the plane (the humidity had fogged up the windows), all jumping out of the vehicles and excitedly pointing in the area of the nose wheel and the main undercarriage. The Captain came through a few minutes later and explained the brakes were “glowing cherry red” and we would stay where we were until they had cooled down.

Five hours later we took off again. After enduring another painful four hours at Don Muang airport, Bangkok.

Dog Girl of Bangkok

October 24, 2006

I discovered Lumpini Park ten years ago. Countless thousands of Thais and others found it before me but it was a discovery nonetheless. It is a jade green oasis in the middle of a gritty city which offers some respite from the madness of the streets. Back in Lumpini, with my throat catching on the bite of cooking fire smoke drifting in from the surrounding streets, I am reminded of why I liked this oasis back then. Old gents herald their presence by the click click click of drafts pieces being stamped across a drafts board. In the fading light and through the humidity you search them out and discover them crouched around a stone table in the deep green jade light shadow of a rubber tree. Paraded in neat rows are elderly folk, some in wheel chairs pulled up on the lawn, some waiting to carry out their fatigue performing Tai Chi movements, some exercising and everyone out and socialising. Water half heartedly flops out of a fountain but the soothing acoustic effect is what counts. Couples paddle in row boats or paddle boats on the lake which simpers like the onomatopoeic park name suggests – limpid, green, hinting at depths which will not be there. Unselfconsciously a young man, hair pulled back in a bun, performs a rigorous callisthenics workout in front of me on the lake’s edge. Drifting in and out of the smoke are the occasional hints if liniment, imposed on us by wiry middle aged men who run like there is no tomorrow, competing with each other to beat the clock or impress the girls. They have a crew cut air of military or police personnel. Maybe that is what this striving is really about – they have their physical assessments coming up.

It has now just gone six o’clock. The national anthem has been played over the requisite tinny speaker system – callisthenics, rowing and clicking have been transformed into postures of “attention” for a moment or two and now the park seems to be emptying. A band has started up on the other side of the park, a warm breeze is pushing through the trees on this little island on which I sit, a sad cat wanders past and gives me a hopeful eye (sorry, not carrying any food) and the darkness deepens in a smoggy, velvety way, draping itself over you. As it does the numerous 12 volt bulbs lighting up the cooking carts in the middle distance get brighter and the geckos at this table get more active and numerous. I sentimentally feel that Lumpini rediscovered is a little like coming back home.

Shortly after six a guard (a gardener a little earlier perhaps?) appears, resplendent with medals and braid and pressed uniform and in perfectly clear sign language informs me the gates were closing on the island. Then jumping onto his pushbike rides furiously over to the gate, jumps off and waits to usher me out. Unfailingly polite he pushes his palms together in the sign for prayer, points his conjoined fingertips to his chin and politely bows. An imperative has never been so invitingly put. Iron fist in a velvet glove was the sarcastic and ungracious thought that came to mind – these people could not be more polite if they tried.

A few fat, warm drops of rain discovered the bridge as I drifted over it but the hissing of rain on the lake suggested something a little more agitated to come. Sure enough, within a minute or two the bath water warmth rain was sheeting down. The aerobics class under the yellow lights continues to their crazy beat but is a little thinned out as a result of the downpour. Small pagodas scattered around the park rapidly fill up as families seek shelter. Joggers keep jogging. Sheltering in the lee of a handy acacia on the waters edge I lost myself in the moment. Rain hissed. Acacia flowers rained into the water, their kissing the surface luring catfish to investigate, these arriving in a swirl and departing in same. One lay up on the surface with its mouth open, as if hunting fresh rain water. When done he silently slipped back to wherever he came from. Petals drifted down, leaves bounced, ducks waddled across the lawn in pleasure and despite the shelter my shirt slowly became translucent and stuck to my back. So dampened, the thought crossed my mind that it would be best not to go near any air-conditioned building until I had dried out – I would freeze.

And so I did – the lure of a banana waffle put me into an air-conditioned shop where I chilled out – literally. But a couple of hours on now and the water on the pavement from all the rain has risen as fast as it fell and the damp air makes you perspire even when sitting still. At my feet is a dun dog. Ears drop below centre like an old bullock and gives him a weary air. He flops to the pavement and lies motionless except for soulful eyes which slowly scan. Even an itch invites a slow turning of his head to his belly where an even slower gnaw induces stupor and he flops back on his side. Three of his buddies lie on the path with him, suffering the heat at this night hour, the only sign of life being rolling eyes. I have propped here to try and capture some of the flavour. Pretty hard when the scape changes so dramatically every few minutes.

To my right is the ubiquitous building shrine with a gold god, burning incense and plenty of light. A few teenage boys sit around as 14 year olds do anywhere. Beside them, sitting on a step is a petite Thai girl, short skirt, knees and feet tucked together, eating her dinner – a plate of rice and who knows what. Motorcycles idle past with young men picking up their office working girls who all seem to carry shopping and who all look immaculate. Sukhimvit Road is to my left. Its attracted a whistle blower. In fact a herd of them and for some reason incomprehensible to me they whistle a constant blast imagining all the while they are directing traffic. Arms move nearly as quickly as the whistle blasts. Tuk tuk driver pulls up and yells hello. I pretend not to hear him – to answer is to invite a conversation I will not be able to stop. Or worse, an offer of help when I don’t want one. Gas lamps illuminate the food carts in front of me and the heat of the wood fired braziers wafts over on occasions. Seared fish is slipped into plastic bags for hungry diners who don’t have time to stop. Kebabs of every size, shape and colour cook next door on another mobile food cart. What look like yellow balloons turn out to be octopus kebabs.

One of the dogs flops over to reveal swollen teats. I wonder where her pups are. Young fellow helps a girl push her food cart up the ramp past me. Full of coconuts with inserted straws. The cart that is. Smiling, they bow their thanks to each other and disappear into the crowds, moving in opposite directions. Beside the food stands two men sell watches, beautifully highlighted by the 12 volt bulbs which also no doubt hide the imperfections of these fakes. Beside them a young girl sells from a mound of those padded bras the Asians seem to love so much. Immediately opposite an old man, feet curled up beneath him, sells a range of fruit that makes you wonder where he sources them. Uh oh, all the dogs (OK, four of them) are electric. Up and following a girl on a bicycle. Now six dogs. Heat forgotten.

She props her bike and squats on her heels, the dogs crowding around in silence. She pats them all, checks their ears and eyes and teeth. Turns their heads around. Checks every angle. I move closer to try and take a photo but the dogs get jumpy and start barking. She tells me she loves dogs and feeds them raw chicken and duck each night after work. A lovely little vignette of life on the street and I wander back to my perch. She told me she looks after 40 dogs here! In all this madness as well! Crowd all the little food carts together, and leave room for two single file lanes of pedestrian traffic, add all the sounds and smoke and dust of bus and truck engines and movement (roar, belch, grind), the sound of 1000 lawnmowers (read “two stroke motorcycles”), the smell of damp concrete, the fragrance of incense constantly on the air, the flood of people drifting past (fortunately not even the occasional tourist is in a hurry) and you have a strange site for an animal drop in centre. I have been sitting still long enough now for one of the dogs to leave his raw duck and wander over and gaze at me. Wonder what is going through his head. It clearly wonders too and goes back to the duck. As I leave the area I give the dog girl of Bangkok a wave. She does not see me – she is busy wiping the nose of one cur with a tissue. Truly she loves dogs.

Bangkok February 2004