Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Living out of a bag

February 23rd, 2012

I’d returned to the hostel dorm after my early morning swim. As curious about the regular crowd that did this sort of thing as I was for the clarity of thought I invariably found in the solace of my lengths. Medicine man was sat cross legged by his bunk, a large array of foil tablet strips spread out neatly in a large arc before him. He nodded. I smiled.

I’d risen early. Little after five thirty. Quietly made my way down to the bathrooms below. At the bottom of the stairs a patch of vomit. Covered with a small strip of toilet paper. Ineffective but at least a little modicum of consideration. Decided I needed a cup of tea. Kick myself into life. I was trying to shun the usual coffee, my staple for the last few years in a world where a decent brew had invariably been as elusive as much of the fauna.

A Japanese student in an oversized black down jacket sat in the otherwise empty cafeteria, illuminated only by the unwelcoming green glow of the escape signs and the harsh light of the television on the wall above his head. Cartoons. I didn’t think he was watching. And thought he’d been there a while. Quite possibly all night. I headed off into the crisp morning air. Collar of my heavy cotton top turned up. Thick gloves on. But no jacket. Wanted to enjoy the refreshing sharpness without being too chilled.

Ten minutes brisk walking. The odd cyclist, dog walker. A few business opening up. Traditional butcher pulling down his old-fashioned awning. Fine cuts in the window. Cafes yet to unstack their chairs. The local swimming pool was council owned but run by some sort of local co-operative. I approved. The mixed changing area felt clinical and smelt strongly of old ladies perfume even though none were to be seen. The sort of odour that lingered.

Lengths done in a lane marked ’Keep it slow’ and then quick scribblings in my pocket book. An abundance of ideas, random thoughts – mostly single words I hoped would be equally meaningful later. I’d had lots to think about and lots to do. Hot shower. Then ready to venture back outside and see what unfurled in the day ahead. I liked plans. Structure. A very logical mind. But now I also found myself intrigued – compelled even – to indulge in uncertainty. Made things a bit more interesting.

Soon strolling purposefully back towards Portland Road and the hostel. Children heading off for school. Closer to the main thoroughfare smarter houses and sharper uniforms. Satchels and wind instruments. I turned by an Estate Agent. The window display alluringly suggested buoyant sales. One family home just sold for a snip over five million. It was detached.

French pâtisserie. I’d had to insist on English Breakfast tea. Not Earl Grey. Too much of a soapy after taste. Smart place. Authentic oak beams in a new setting. Reasonably priced breads. Expensive looking cakes. A young woman sat at the next table. She’d especially frizzy hair and stared intently at an e-book. Most the clientele sought coffee to go. Overly enveloped in scarfs and heavy coats.

Stopped briefly to buy lunch at a local supermarket. The cashier smiled and then croaked a few words. Bit of a sore throat I’d asked? That time of year I’d added. No, she’d replied. Surgery to remove lumps on her throat. And it’d not get better than this. I gulped, nodded and then left. Kensington High Street.

I was heading for the Royal Geographical Society. Next to the equally prestigious Royal Albert Hall. The sort of place where you might easily drag a dead tiger across its well-worn dark wooden floors, Blunderbuss under one arm, Pith helmet under the other. And nobody’d care to mention it.

In one stairwell a collection of photos of Past Presidents. Household names. The odd Admiral. And one chap who closely resembled Lord Lucan. I was hopeful of election to Fellow shortly. But admiration wasn’t my purpose. Sound advice had been that an expedition without a report was called a holiday. And mine had been no beach towels and bathrobes. A few suitable examples from the archives to be studied before I compiled mine in earnest.

Amidst the Society’s large collection of expedition reports I’d stumbled on a couple that intrigued rather than informed. A 1978 project cycling along the banks of the Nile by students from a public school close to where my parents lived. I especially liked the quotation on its cover.

"I would think twice of an Englishman’s view of his neighbour, but would trust implicitly his account of the Upper reaches of the Nile"

I also liked one of their entries in a list of publications they’d featured in. Playboy. No explanation given. Or extract enclosed. Teenage boys. Another report – chance find once more – shed light on how a friend had mostly likely met his wife.

Brief detour on my way back to the hostel. Gentlemen’s Outfitters. Abdul had me quickly measured up. Explained I needed black tie. Prestigious function I’d emphasised, the sort where you’d be wise to consult Debretts before attending. My copy had gone astray so I’d plans to sneak a peak in nearby Waterstones. Winged or classic he’d asked. I’d done formal before but not in this fashion.

Back that night at the hostel I’d sunk into one of the deep sofas in the lounge. The lights were dimmed and the television on. On the next sofa someone with passable facial features for a woman in her late sixties. But the sizeable Adam’s Apple was unmistakable. I christened her Bob. Unspoken of course. Engrossed in University Challenge.

Struggling to read in the gloom I wandered back to the reception area. It was busy, the previous night’s group of French students and their teachers being replaced by another equally large one from across the Channel. But I was able to find somewhere to sit, quickly returning to the relative comfort of Huxley’s Brave New World and oblivion to the orderly chaos around me. I’d still to finish the various prefaces that’d been added over the years before the book proper.

Next day another early start. Just after five. Synapses all fired up. I emerged from the bathroom as Bob entered. Padding around in boxers. Pre-op I presumed. At reception staff were trying to eject a middle-aged man and not for the first time. Ignoring the altercation, I headed off for another swim.

On my way back I’d found Bob nodding to a passing dog walker. The man continued on a few paces then stopped. Turned around slowly and then stared for a few moments. I’d hurried back to the hostel. Packing to be done and the check-out time was getting close.

A short while later, as I strolled across the hostel courtyard, I observed Bob now sat in the cafeteria, engrossed this time in quiet discussion with medical man. Lots of appreciative nods. Time for another railway encounter and some sea air. Soon finding myself grabbing a tea on the train from the trolley. Refreshment whilst I wrote. The attendant – his badge said host – spoke only to tell me the price. Another gravelly voice. Probably used to be a sixty a day man. This time I was silent.

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Fried Green Tomatoes

January 26th, 2012

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I’d sought lunch at Sally’s place back in Ponce De Leon. Two minutes I’d said. Fifteen minutes ago. So I’d got up and left. My server seemingly unaware of my disgruntled departure, despite having just three customers to attend to. Disappointing. Enticing kitchen aroma, and some sensibly priced choices on the menu.

Reminded me a little of a cafe bakery in Portmadoc a few years ago. Quickly apparent they’d no intention of ever serving me. If they’d actually had the decency to say so I’d not have minded so much. But they hadn’t. Instead the silent treatment. Cowardice in the second degree. Sort of thing they invented firing squads for.

But then I’d stumbled on a sign for the Whistle Stop Cafe. About ten miles further on in Westville. No fried green tomatoes, but the cook insisted I try their deep fried Oreos. Served drizzled with melted chocolate and dusted with icing sugar, the usually dry cookies transformed into a soft, sweet filling. Moorish I’d said.

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Breakfast at BJ’s

January 21st, 2012

Ken visits a small cafe in Vancleave for breakfast. Not the most obvious of establishments…

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Grand Designs

January 17th, 2012

Grand Designs. Explaining it was a television programme about innovative house building and renovation projects. Exactly the sort of thing they’d just finished doing. For the second time. Lep and Perry having built a similar property on another lot. This time a few additions and modifications. Fine tuning. Open plan living area a little broader. Generous kitchen island. And little details. Shower embedded with smooth pebbles. Desk lamp base a model Penny Farthing. Biker Soap dispenser in the bathroom. Journal for fellow riders to share thoughts with other travellers.

I’d felt a bit jaded when I’d arrived. Irritated. A series of minor incidents. Cafe I’d been recommended. About to leave before my coffee finally arrived. Twenty minutes. But remarkably good food. When it eventually turned up. Even if it wasn’t quite what I’d ordered. Club sandwich rather than salad. "Our menu is somewhat large. Our kitchen and staff are not" said the sign.

Cracked asphalt, major highways rather than minor roads, eventually giving way to better shoulders. Later approached by a man in a gas station. Had someone been "******* with me?" he’d asked. A few uplifting glimmers. Smart new bridge across the Mississippi. Brief encounter with German rider Stefan, heading for California.

Back in the cafe I watched two women enter. Shuffling past uncleared tables. Into the single female restroom. Mother and daughter. Perhaps. Emerging five minutes later. Sidling off out the door. But good conversation over dinner. Huckleberry Finn. Fermented mare’s milk. The works of John Steinbeck. Restorative.

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Bon Wier

January 14th, 2012

Mildred hadn’t liked Paris. The French, I’d asked? No response. But she was an avid Anglophile, a frequent visitor to Manchester from where I originally hailed. And loved Eire. Donegal. Ashamedly admitting I’d always meant to visit but hadn’t quite managed it.

We’d met in a cafe in Bon Wier. The only one. Almost three and I was ravenous. Sixty miles covered on an apple, a small bar of chocolate and the occasional sip of coffee. Meant to stop for lunch in Kirbyville twenty miles back but didn’t like the look of the place. There’d been another cafe shown on my map a little further on. But it was closed.

Most of the day had been spent slogging along the same stretch of busy four-lane highway. Tough headwinds. And quite a few dead dogs. One every few miles. No sympathy. Chased by far too many in recent days. Reliant on vitriolic abuse to fend them off. Spirits sustained by the odd passing truck filled with wood shavings. Delicious smell of fresh sap.

I’d gone for the pancake stack with a side order of bacon. Had to wait a while, but worth it. And close on thirty more miles to cover before dark, so I’d decided to opt for the addition of ’one egg and toast’. How did I want my egg, asked my server? Poached. Was that in water? Mildred overheard. She was one of the cooks here. Knew how to do it. And would I like some tea? No, I replied. Coffee was good and scrambled would be fine instead. Time to text my parents. "Louisiana. Two miles".

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Willkommen to Burton

January 11th, 2012

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Whispers of German spoken at the counter. Often just a few words, sometimes an entire conversation. The cafe’s menu reflected this. Seemed only appropriate to opt for the Ruben sandwich. Sauerkraut. Swiss Cheese. And corn beef. I didn’t remember the latter as being especially Germanic. But this was Texas. Small town of Burton.

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Willkommen

January 11th, 2012

Burton. Germanic restaurant. And there’s sauerkraut

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Monika’s on Lily

March 24th, 2011

Tantilising aromas of freshly baked muffins. Banana cake. My favourite. Prepared on the premises. And great coffee. A small cafe – "Monika’s on Lily" – owned and run by Monika. Of course. Helped by Mum Ela, together with Emma and Kate. Always welcoming. And very understanding. I’d mistaken Ela’s Polish accent for one of a neighbouring nation. Mortified at my mistake. Quickly begging forgiveness.

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Always a quiet admiration for the Polish work ethic. Not afraid of hard graft. Long hours. Doors open six am. Cyclone flood damage cleaned up so thoroughly you’d simply never have guessed. Not even the slightest hint of dampness in the air. Add a family wedding for good measure.

[You can find "Monika’s on Lily" in north Cairns on the corner of Lily Street and the James Cook Highway – a kilometre or so south of the airport]

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Repressed souls

October 14th, 2010

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Explicit imagery. Of a mostly sexual nature. Vivid. Enlightening to some, dark and deviant to others. Freud, I’d decided, must have had a very troubled childhood. Or a remarkable, if disturbed, imagination. I’d returned to Charley John’s cafe for breakfast, curious to see how their "Full English" compared to the efforts of "Fat Boy’s" back in Bishkek.

Found myself inexplicably drawn to the bookcase on the far wall. Alongside the tame travel guides, I’d found Freud’s "Interpretation of Dreams", a worn, if recent, edition of "Lolita", and a well thumbed copy of "Memoirs of a Geisha". The latter catching my eye because the author was a man. All presumably deposited by fellow travellers. Some repressed souls amongst them.

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A very English encounter

October 13th, 2010

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Charley Johng’s cafe. John’s was deserted. Inside a young English woman. Travelling west, by train mostly, her husband somewhere in the Gobi. Beijing-Paris rally. In a Bentley. Admired his courage. His style. But thought her choice of transportation probably more comfortable, even in the confines of a cramped sleeper.

Louise and her husband Peter were from Hampshire. Yes, I explained, knew their town well. Or at least I’d passed through it many times on the train. With hindsight, thought it probably came across as faint praise. Which it wasn’t. Just an observation. My conversational English a bit rusty.

[To learn more about Peter’s – accompanied by brother David – ventures in the Beijing-Paris rally, visit peking2paris.wordpress.com]

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