Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World
The Backpacker’s Tale
‘How long have you been travelling?’
There it was again, that question, the backpacker’s mantra. How quickly people sought to establish their credentials. At first Tom had found it irritating, almost threatening, and would try and ignore it, to treat it as an empty greeting. Not that this ever deterred anybody. He was reminded of his first week at university, being endlessly pestered by acne-ravaged adolescents eager to tell him their A-level grades. And now here he was on the Khao San Road, being put to the test once more. On a couple of occasions he’d attempted to somehow imply that Bangkok was the latest in a series of exotic destinations, but had ended up instead having to provide excuses for his English pallor. With every passing day, though, he felt more confident in fielding this enquiry.
He looked at the man sitting diametrically opposite, who had an unlit cigarette in one hand, an empty glass smeared with fingerprints in front of him. He seemed oblivious to the flies buzzing around its rim. ‘About three weeks?’ Tom offered. Not quite true: he’d gone back to England after spending twelve days with his parents in their house in Brittany, and then flown out here. ‘Just getting going really.’
The man nodded slowly, as though he had known this all along. ‘Yeah, it takes a while. It takes a while.’ He nodded again. Tom noticed his hair, which appeared to be woven from old rope. ‘Me?’ he said, although Tom hadn’t spoken. ‘I’ve been on the road for ten months now. More than ten months.’
On the road. This suggested movement, purpose – not the mantle of torpor that seemed to have settled on this man. ‘Where have you been?’ asked Tom. He couldn’t disregard the rules of dialogue completely, and anyway, this was the first person he’d spoken to all day, apart from a couple of waiters. The man fingered his glass wistfully, as if it contained part of his story.
‘Do you want a drink?’ After the best part of two weeks with his parents, Tom’s sense of social duty was finely tuned, almost automatic.
‘Yeah, thanks man. A beer. Singha.’
Eventually a waiter brought over a couple of Singha beers. Why had he ordered this? He still hadn’t got used to its chemical taste.
‘Cheers.’ The man clinked his bottle with Tom’s, a deft wrist movement enabling contact both at the neck and the base. What was that about? ‘That’s how they do it in East Germany,’ he explained. Even this seemed like a challenge of some sort. Tom had seen travellers drifting in and out all day, and watched their interactions, witnessed clumsy high five rituals and other more complex and arcane manoeuvres that passed for greetings. There seemed to be so much to learn.
‘Did you say East Germany?’ This didn’t seem to be an obvious avenue for the conversation to go down. It didn’t even exist now.
But the man appeared to be unswayed from his original agenda. ‘Ten months.’ Now he shook his head: it was almost as if he needed to convince himself that this was what he had done. ‘Yeah. I was in India for a couple of months. Sri Lanka, too. Laos…Vietnam. Been here a while, too. This is some place, man.’ He looked slowly around him with an expression of subdued awe. Did he mean the café? Tom wondered. It was fairly unremarkable. ‘Yeah, this is some place.’ The man was about to enlarge on this, but paused to take one of the two beers that had mysteriously arrived at their table. They hadn’t been drinking particularly fast – it was more that the man had taken ages to divulge even this meagre amount of information: he seemed to be functioning in slow motion.
‘So you were in India.’ Tom still hadn’t abandoned the idea that the conversation might be in some way interactive.
‘Yeah. The south east – Tamil Nadu. The monsoon’s different down there. It’s pretty cool.’ Again Tom wasn’t sure what he was referring to. ‘Chennai, Mamallapuram, Ooty, Pondicherry, Rameswaram, Madurai.’
‘Madurai?’ He’d never heard of the place. Or any of the others for that matter.
‘Yeah…yeah. Madurai…It’s kind of…’ He nodded once more. ‘I got this there.’ He stretched across the table.
Tom looked at the proffered hand: a thin scab behind the two central knuckles, a fraying bracelet of braided string, and what looked like an ink stain, although it could at a pinch have been a tattoo. ‘Cool,’ he said. But he sounded as if he was describing the weather.
For nearly two hours Tom listened and grunted in counterpoint to the man’s nods and claims. And yet what emerged from this extensive debriefing was a sense of void, a lack of substance – he wasn’t sure if he had even been listening. He had found himself looking around the café, wondering whether interaction with this wispy man represented progress. Was this really better than being on his own? He tuned back in: ‘…And she said to me: “Robbie, there’s no way you’ll get one for less than ninety rupees – no way”.’
Robbie. That was probably his name – he hadn’t introduced himself, but his narrative seemed to consist largely of these self-referential set pieces, for the most part involving his triumphs over greedy traders and obstructive bureaucrats. And when Robbie wasn’t defeating the forces that were out to ruin things for the honest traveller, he was finding ever more intrepid ways of making his way from place to place. Everything is tricky, he seemed to be saying, and yet Tom had seen the numerous travel agents offering tickets to almost any destination you could think of. It all looked disappointingly straightforward. He turned back to Robbie, who was looking at him expectantly. As he weighed up possible responses – somehow he had slowed to the same lethargic pace as Robbie – he noticed a girl enter the café. He had the sudden sense that the world had fallen silent; he was no longer aware of anything except this extraordinary creature floating through the room.
If there was an antithesis to his edgy, journal-clutching shuffle, the faux nonchalance of his café performance, this was it: although the girl could have been no older than him, she exuded a composure, a self-containment that embodied everything he aspired to. He glanced away, his face hot with discomfort. It was suddenly appallingly stuffy in the café. He lunged at the newly arrived bottle of Singha – was this number four or five? – nearly knocking it over in his haste. Robbie looked at him with something approaching curiosity. ‘You all right, man?’
Tom was not particularly surprised that he found himself paying for all the beer – he couldn’t even remember what evasive strategy Robbie had resorted to. He was too preoccupied with the girl, torn between wanting to stay so that he could observe her, however obliquely, and the feeling that being with Robbie – who was now discoursing on the various tropical ailments he had overcome – would reduce him in her eyes. Not that she had noticed him.
Later, once he had recorded the hole that the afternoon had ripped into his budget, he tried to describe her in his journal. This was more a crutch than anything else, providing a veneer of purpose in bars and cafes. It still retained its tell-tale sheen, its crisp pages. As a literary document, though, it was a pretty dismal affair, a prosaic chronicle of non-event. But here was an opportunity to change all that, to rise above the quotidian.
‘Saw a girl in a café this afternoon,’ he wrote. What was he going to say about her? ‘Slim, tanned…’ He was reminded of his own pallor, the hallmark of his fledgling status as a traveller. He had hoped that his time in Brittany would give him the beginnings of a tan, but it had rained almost incessantly, confining him to the damp living room, where his father would read out crossword clues and then solve them, endlessly surprised by his own promptness, while his mother tutted and sighed at the grey sky outside.
This wasn’t getting him very far. He’d never been particularly convincing when it came to being positive – his enthusiasm always sounded doubtful. ‘Yeah, it was great.’ ‘He’s a really nice guy.’ ‘It’s delicious.’ He could hear the vapid phrases rattling around emptily. It was even more difficult on paper. Describing misery was so much easier. He fell asleep before he could get any further though, waking with a still powerful image of the girl.
Tom felt unconscionably hungry. Not so surprising, given that he hadn’t eaten since yesterday lunchtime – he had somehow sensed he would have ended up paying for Robbie’s food too. His budget was already shot to pieces. He wandered along the Khao San Road, looking for somewhere to have breakfast. As if there was any great difference between these places – they all served the same stuff. But what he knew, even if he wasn’t prepared to admit it to himself officially, was that he was hoping to see the girl. The only person he recognized, though, as he trawled up and down, consulting endlessly identical menus, was Robbie, leaning forward and displaying whatever he had picked up in – What was the place called? Madara? – to some luckless traveller.
As he was leaving the café he had finally settled on, he caught sight of himself in a large mirror: again it struck him how pale he looked, as if he had spent the last six months writing poetry in an igloo. He wandered over towards the King’s Palace – he could sit in the sun for a bit, maybe pick up a bit of colour. Of course the beach would be a better place to get a tan, but Tom didn’t feel ready to head out into the unknown.
When he woke, it was with a headache of indescribable dimensions. How often he had derided people who had ‘a migraine coming on’, ‘a pounding hangover’ – he had always thought of himself as impervious to such weakness. But this was something else: a searing light penetrated his eyelids, his skin felt as if it had been shrink-wrapped onto his head. And… Christ, was that the time? How long had he been asleep? Three hours? Maybe more.
It was only when he got back to his room that he began to appreciate the full effects of his midday nap in the glare of the sun: no amount of water was able to quench his thirst, even though he could feel it audibly sloshing around in his stomach. Much worse though, were the visuals: the removal of his tee-shirt suggested that an alien head had been grafted onto his body, a head that – in colour at least – resembled a ketchup dispenser in a motorway café. What would she think? The girl, that is – he was already in regular conversation with her on a range of topics and experiences, despite never having met her. But of course he couldn’t possibly go out looking like this. Certainly not during daylight.
For two days he crept out in the evenings in search of food, like some nocturnal animal, hoping that that he wouldn’t bump into the girl in this sorry state. By now she would probably have moved on anyway: there wasn’t a great deal to keep people in Bangkok, as far as Tom could see. On the third day, his face now resembling the surface of one of the nearer planets – an uneven terrain of pink and brick – he ventured out in daylight, diary in hand.
‘Tom!’ He looked around. Who could this be? The only person he had spoken to in Bangkok, naturally. Robbie crossed the road. ‘Come and have a drink.’ Robbie was paying? It didn’t seem very likely, although he called the waiter over with the largesse of a rarely sighted uncle.
‘A bottle of Mekong, some coke… And four glasses,’ said Robbie. Four? Who else was coming? Tom followed Robbie’s gaze to see, with a mixture of consternation and exhilaration, the girl and what was presumably her travelling companion – Tom dimly recognised her – entering the café. She looked even more beautiful than before. He rubbed his forehead anxiously. A few flakes of grey skin drifted onto the table. ‘Helen… Rebecca…’ Robbie held a hand up as if admitting people into a tepee for peace talks. ‘Come and join us.’ The swift look that passed between the women, a split-second exchange, could not disguise their reluctance. ‘It’s my birthday.’ That explained a number of things, thought Tom, as they approached the table. At the end of his nose he could see a flap of parchment-like skin, an ongoing reminder of his extended doze in the park.
Tom wondered if it really was Robbie’s birthday, how old he was. But it would be absurd for Robbie to lie about this. Not that it mattered greatly: his announcement – they could hardly have said no – had ensnared these girls, for the time being at least. Bottles were brought to the table, saving the need to initiate conversation. Robbie poured out the drinks meticulously, an alchemist at work.
‘Mekong and coke.’ Robbie held his glass up to the light as if it was a goblet of some rare nectar. The others raised their glasses. Now what? Tom wondered. Again he felt at sea, a neophyte in the world of travellers’ ritual. But no particular ceremony appeared to attach itself to this moment. He sipped and almost gagged.
‘Great stuff, man.’ Robbie was in full nodding mode. Tom gazed down his nose at the dead skin that sat at its end, almost sail-like in its prominence. Wasn’t anybody going to say anything? Perhaps this seemingly reverential silence was the protocol here. But eventually Robbie spoke, leaning forward conspiratorially. ‘Yeah, this is great stuff, man.’
This was ridiculous. Tom swirled the contents of his glass experimentally. ‘It’s a bit like meths…Or maybe paint stripper.’ He sniffed the drink, wrinkling his nose like a snuffling rodent, watching with alarm as a flake of skin floated gently into the glass. What was this? What was he doing? But the girl nearly smiled. Encouraged, Tom introduced himself. But it seemed odd to be saying his name, an afterthought in an encounter that was already going nowhere. And this gambit was met with a strained smile, as though he had said something tasteless.
But it elicited the required response: ‘Helen…and Rebecca.’
‘Where you going from here?’ asked Robbie. He proceeded to elaborate his own plans: Ko Samui, Ko Phang An, Krabi, Penang. Over Robbie’s shoulder Tom could see more or less the same list in the window of a travel agency, prices inscribed alongside. And yet Robbie’s tone suggested a journey of untold danger and uncertainty.
The girl – was she Helen or Rebecca? – again attempted a smile of sorts, but it seemed more like a sigh, this hybrid expression somehow dismissing Robbie’s tired itinerary. She turned to Tom. ‘What about you?’
What was the right answer? He could hardly repeat the same list, even though those were the places that he too had been planning to visit. ‘I think I’ll go to Chiang Mai…Spend a few days there…See what happens,’ he said, each phrase slow and ponderous. He was beginning to sound like Robbie. ‘And you?’ He braced himself for the answer, knowing that it would be palpably better than anything that he or Robbie could come up with.
‘We’re going to Ko Surin…’ He’d never heard of the place. ‘Up towards the Burmese border. It’s a protected area.’ Protected from what? How do you get there? Is it popular? he wanted to ask, but thought better of it. Perhaps Robbie could help out here.
‘Yeah,’ said Robbie, nodding once more and busying himself with the bottles.
‘Is that on the west coast?’ The stupidity of his question hit him even as he said it. You fucking halfwit, he thought, taking a huge swig of Mekong. He wiped a streak of dribble from his chin.
The girl looked at her watch. ‘Mm…But we’re not going to stay around here much longer.’ Tom felt his heart clench up and then do a little back flip. Christ. What was this? What was happening to him?
‘No,’ said her companion. It was the first time she’d spoken. ‘There’s too many people in Thailand. We’re heading out soon. Aren’t we, Helen?’ Where to? Can I come? Tom rubbed his forehead, itchy with dead skin. At least he knew who was who now.
‘Yeah, we’re going to Cambodia. And maybe Laos,’ said Helen. ‘But after that I’d like to go to Africa. Do something a bit different. Asia’s getting overrun.’ It was as if she was describing an infestation of greenfly among her tomato plants.
‘Africa,’ Robbie intoned in a deep voice, like the front man in a reggae ensemble. For a brief moment his coiled, matted hair made sense. ‘Whereabouts you thinking of going, man?’
‘Kenya, maybe Uganda…Tanzania…Zanzibar…’
‘Zanzibar?’ Tom savoured the exotic sound. ‘Fantastic.’ He shook his head – quite why he wasn’t sure. At least he hadn’t nodded.
Helen – he was pretty sure that this was her name now – looked at him with some interest. ‘Why? Have you been there?’
Had he just said that? Had he really just said that? Now he’d have to say something else. ‘Yeah…yeah…one of the best places I’ve been.’ He ignored Robbie’s inquiring expression.
‘But this is great – you’ll have to tell us all about it. Where did you go? How did you get there? Did you get a dhow over?’
Tom felt a huge surge of panic shooting through his body. Now what? ‘Yeah…yeah, that was quite an experience, I can tell you.’ Was that the right answer? The right number of tentative ‘yeahs’? The appropriate degree of archness? ‘You twat,’ he thought. He sounded breathless, like a presenter on children’s television.
‘Was it expensive?’ That was Rebecca – why was it that the first thing people wanted to know was how much everything cost? (‘You went to the Taj Mahal? Do foreigners pay the same as locals?’ Or: ‘Angkor Wat? Don’t you have to get a taxi out there? How much was that?’) How many of these exchanges he had overheard. But he hadn’t answered her question. ‘I suppose we had to haggle them down a bit.’
Now Rebecca was nodding. Clearly he had said the right thing, but he was pretty certain that he couldn’t sustain this for much longer. And he could sense everyone looking at him, expecting…expecting what? Information? Stories?
‘Did you go diving? I heard that it wasn’t bad up by Nungwi…Not as good as Pemba, obviously.’ Helen was utterly, utterly stunning – and she was looking straight at him. But what on earth was she asking him?
Tom wondered whether anyone would notice him flushing beneath the cratered landscape of his sunburnt face. He looked at his watch – 9.40. ‘Actually I’ve got to go now. I’m meeting someone…At…um….twenty to ten…Anyway, nice to meet you all.’ Even Robbie looked sceptical as he stood to go.
But as he turned towards the door, Helen spoke. ‘Listen, I’d really like to chat to you about Zanzibar. You’re the first person I’ve met who’s actually been there…Most people just talk about going there.’
‘No, it’s definitely worth visiting.’ He noticed the swell of her breasts for the first time.
‘Will you still be in Bangkok tomorrow, Tom?’ She knew his name. Amazing. His heart somersaulted wildly, a manoeuvre that defied categorization. ‘We could meet up for…’
‘Yeah…yes…That’d be good.’
‘Yeah, that’d be fine.’
‘Great,’ said Robbie, examining his empty glass thoughtfully.
Tom stumbled out into the night, almost knocking a small Thai man flying in his bid to get away from the scene of his extraordinary claim. Now what? he thought as he weaved along the pavement. What had got into him? How was he going to get out of this? But it was obvious really – he would have to leave Bangkok that night. How could he possibly spend an evening telling someone – someone he found breathtakingly attractive – about a place he had never visited, that he knew more or less nothing about?
Where would he go? There was no shortage of suggestions – the whole area was overrun with travel agencies. He wandered into one at random. Where do you want to go? asked the man behind the desk. Ko Samui? Krabi? Chiang Mai? Maybe Pattaya? he hazarded.
‘Chiang Mai?’ said Tom, a little antipodean upturn in his voice, an attempt to reassure himself rather than a genuine question. It was after all where he had told the girl he was going. But what was he thinking – that she’d follow him up there? Hardly likely – not once he’d stood her up the following night. The bus would be leaving the next morning.
He made his way slowly back to his guest house, zigzagging among the travellers, occasionally catching his mottled image in café and shop windows, again wondering why he wasn’t heading south to the beaches. He wanted to lie in the sun, to get a tan – somehow he thought this would protect him from the vague, unarticulated threat that other people seemed to present. He was about to cross the road when he saw Helen and her friend – what was her name? – browsing through a stack of books for sale on the pavement. Tom hesitated, but as he teetered on the kerb Helen looked up, and fixed him a dazzling smile of recognition. For a second his peripheral vision dimmed and blurred – all he could see was the image of Helen, her shirt rippling in the light breeze, seemingly beckoning to him, like someone in an advertisement for hair conditioner, or some coconut derivative. But when he refocused he saw that she was pointing at her watch, mouthing ‘Eight tomorrow?’ accompanied by a thumbs-up gesture. And again that smile. His bowels gave a loose gurgle.
Did she like him, or was it the ‘fact’ that he had been to Zanzibar that interested her? Tom shuddered, imagining the conversation, his admission that he hadn’t actually been there. But as he passed another café – ‘Internet available’ – an idea occurred to him. Pushing the door open, he found a free monitor and sat down. ‘www.lonelyplanet.com’ he typed, and proceeded to click his way to Zanzibar.
‘Low in political coups and high in bliss-charged activities, the Zanzibar Archipelago is a mere hop, skip and a jump from the Tanzanian mainland,’ he read. ‘Zanzibar island (known locally as Unguja) gets most of the headlines, but the archipelago also consists of lush Pemba to the north, and numerous smaller islands and islets.’ Pemba. So that was what Helen had been talking about. On it went: ‘If coral islands poised in luxuriously turquoise seas, the labyrinthine streets of Stone Town, fecund land and plenty of undiscovered pockets fail to entice you, it’s time you headed home!’ It sounded idyllic. By the time he had trawled through the website, trying to memorise as much as he could, Tom was beginning to feel that he should be going there too. But there were several lacunae, as far as he was concerned: under the heading ‘Money and costs’, for example, all he could find was the bald statement ‘Inflation here is at 5.1%’. This wouldn’t have a great deal of meaning for Helen, though – 5.1% of what?
For much of the night he lay awake, wondering whether he might go through with his new scheme, or whether he would get onto the bus for Chiang Mai. At various points it seemed that both options had their appeal, while at other times the downside of each appeared to be illuminated in neon on the ceiling. But when he woke up, exhausted by this gruelling internal debate, one choice had been removed: the bus had departed some two hours earlier. He wondered if he could get a refund, perhaps get a later bus, or – even better – take a bus to the south.
But somehow he found himself making his way towards the café at the designated hour, reciting facts about Zanzibar under his breath as he negotiated the busy pavements. He was looking a bit better, more tanned than burnt now, but he didn’t feel particularly confident. Part of him hoped that Helen wouldn’t be there, that it had been a casual suggestion, never intended to happen. But his worst fears – and greatest hopes – were fulfilled: she was at the same table as the previous night. It was almost as if she had never moved, that she had been waiting patiently all this time for his briefing on the African island. This sense was reinforced by the fact that sitting at the same table were both Rebecca and Robbie. ‘Fuck off out of my life, you cretinous throwback!’ Tom wanted to shout at Robbie. ‘What’s the point of you?’ But he sat down meekly, as if about to be interviewed for a job.
And as it was, Robbie opened the proceedings. ‘Zanzibar,’ he said portentously. ‘Yeah, that’s where it’s at, man.’ Again Tom wanted to shout abuse at him, to punch him – perhaps a couple of jabs to the kidneys, and then a huge blow to the nose. He was quite small.
‘Yes…Tell us about it, Tom. I’ve never met anyone who’s been there,’ said Helen, flagging the lie once more.
‘The locals call it Unguja,’ he offered, stalling for time. Why would they want to know that? But everybody nodded – not just Robbie this time – and Tom suddenly realized how easy this could be. They obviously knew next to nothing about the place. ‘It’s got everything, Zanzibar – turquoise seas, labyrinthine streets…undiscovered pockets…’ What was he on about? But at least he hadn’t used the word ‘fecund’.
And then came the inevitable question, courtesy of Rebecca. ‘Is it expensive? I mean…How much does everything cost?’
‘I seem to remember someone saying that inflation was around 5%…5.1%, I think.’
Helen looked at him curiously. This wouldn’t do. ‘You can get a beer for a couple of dollars,’ he continued. This appeared to have some resonance – with Robbie, anyway. ‘And a pretty decent curry for three dollars.’ (Would they have curry in Zanzibar? It didn’t seem very likely) ‘Fresh fish for about the same…Perhaps a little more,’ he added, beginning to sound plausible, even to himself. And with this mention of fish he found himself moving to a higher plane of invention. ‘And of course the diving’s fantastic. You can’t really compare it to other places.’ This at least was true in his case.
But his last comment had some effect. ‘You dive?’ said Helen, a sparkle of curiosity evident.
‘Yeah, a bit,’ said Tom bashfully. What did that mean? How could you dive ‘a bit’? Just put your head underwater for a couple of minutes?
Now what was going on? What on earth was she on about? Could he demand a time-out? What was the first one? ‘Paddy,’ he said, sounding more confident than the situation warranted.
‘Paddy? Oh, okay…I did beesack,’ said Helen.
What could this mean? Yet there was no doubt that he had hit the spot with her. Even the wildest fantasies he had played out over the preceding nights had not included this dewy-eyed gaze of excitement: he hadn’t thought to introduce diving into the equation – but for a fairly obvious reason. He needed to steer the conversation in another direction, though, before his flimsy identity fell to pieces completely. How much longer could he sustain this pretence? His next question hardly helped: ‘Do you dive, Robbie?’ He didn’t want to include Robbie, didn’t want him to be here – he wanted Helen all to himself. But if this hairy troglodyte could provide some form of diversion, a smokescreen of fatuity that Tom could hide behind while he considered his next move, then he could stay.
But Robbie remained firmly on topic: ‘Yeah, beesack.’
‘Beesack?’ Tom’s voice rose wildly in his panic. He sounded incredulous, outraged. Everybody looked at him.
‘Oh, you paddy people,’ said Rebecca, joining in for the first time.
Robbie huffed. ‘Owwh, we’re not going down this road, are we? Paddy, beesack… beesack, paddy. The number of times I’ve had this conversation…’ It was as if they were taunting him.
‘The coolest and driest time to visit is between late June and October, but this is also when the place is bulging at the seams and air fares are at their zenith,’ said Tom. There, that shut them up. His delivery was flat, monotone, like an utterance generated by a computer. Which it was, more or less – he had learnt this line word for word from the website.
‘When did you go, Tom?’ asked Helen, apparently putting aside – for the moment, anyway – the paddy-beesack debate.
‘Me?’ said Tom, implying with his squawk that this question bordered on prurient intrusion, although touched by her use of his name. He tried to recall the months of the year. ‘Um…’ His mind was a total blank now. He looked around for inspiration. ‘Good Lord!’ he shouted. ‘That’s William!’ And charged out into the street, suddenly aware that he was dripping with sweat. William? Who had friends called William? That was the name of his parents’ cat, for God’s sake.
Now what? He couldn’t keep running off like this. And – oh God – he hadn’t paid for his drinks.
About an hour later he found himself in front of a computer, far from the scene of his latest escape. ‘PADI. Professional Association of Diving Instructors,’ he muttered, gazing at the screen. And a minute later: ‘BSAC. British Sub-Aqua Club.’