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Ben Trovato

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Paternoster: The perfect place to sell hard drugs and guns without a licence

I am writing this on the stoep of a wood-and-iron shack called Blikkie’s Pizzeria (est 2010) on a rocky promontory on the windswept outskirts of a sawed-off West Coast town called Paternoster.

The only Catholic who still talks to me says that the name means “Our Father”. He has clearly never been to Paternoster, a place where everyone is motherless and fathers are nowhere to be seen.

A lot of people say Paternoster is full of character, but what they really mean is that it’s full of characters full of brandy and guile.

There is a sign outside Blikkie’s that says it has wi-fi. Perhaps it is some kind of new drug. Perhaps I should have asked for a gram of wi-fi, then gone around the back and stuffed it up my nose. I only say this because when I tried to connect my laptop to their signal, it asked for a network key, not a password, and the corrugated dumpling in charge of this high-tech hub gave me the West Coast shrug and threw her hands into the air. They landed with a wet thud at my feet.

Could I at least have a beer? Of course not. No licence. So what? This is Paterbloodynoster, where you can sell drugs and guns without a licence. You can drink and drive, shoot your father in the face and string your panties from the ceiling of the Paternoster Hotel bar without a licence. Out here, anything goes. Except maybe the fishing boats. They have enough fuel to get to the fishing grounds, then limp back late in the afternoon under tow by those wealthy enough to carry a spare Coke bottle of petrol on board.

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Right. Here’s the last in this trilogy of misadventure in the Land of Smiles. More like the Land of Smells. That is: Thailand

Getting off Phi Phi Island before the Wanted posters went up, we fled east – maybe it was west – to the mainland town of Krabi. The ferry was packed with sunburned farangs dressed as extras from a scene from The Beach that ended up on the cutting room floor. Farang is Thai for foreigner. Personally, I think it means “idiot”, but the locals are too polite to let on.

At the pier we were set upon by roving bands of drug dealers. I kept saying: “Don’t mind if I do.” Brenda recognised them as taxi drivers and haggled like a pro for a ride to the hotel. When Brenda haggles, she somehow increases the price.

The driver was friendly, chatting happily away in gibberish, until he discovered that we had no money. We were just as surprised. His mood turned ugly and we went off to find an auto teller at a speed that would have made Lewis Hamilton uncomfortable.

In Thailand, if you get angry, you lose face. This man was driving with a quarter of a face. Brenda thought it tremendous fun.

One night in Krabi was marginally less memorable than one night in Paris, so the next morning we caught a speedboat to a speck of an island called Koh Yao Noi. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. Even the peasants catch speedboats in these parts. And they aren’t glamorous peasants. Not by a long shot. One had a recently stitched axe wound in his head. Come to think of it, that is rather glamorous. A lot of girls like nothing more than rubbing a freshly split cranium held together with high-tensile fishing line. Around Kalk Bay harbour, anyway.

At the Yao Noi pier, a taxi driver reluctantly unfurled himself from his hammock and asked an outrageous amount to take us where we didn’t know if we wanted to go. I beat him down to within R2.50 of his asking price and he refused to budge. I stormed off on a matter of principle. It’s not easy to storm anywhere while dragging a giant blue suitcase whose wheels are locked with rust, sand and roadkill. I went maybe 9m and collapsed against a sign that said “motodike to rent”.

“The throttle is on the right and the brakes …” Brenda was off before I could finish. I found her around the first corner inspecting the gash on her knee. “It’s just a scratch,” she said. “The brakes are …” and she was gone again.

We took refuge at Dengue Fever Central in a hut that was constantly threatened by the high tide.

The World Cup final was on that night and the hovel had no television. Even worse, they had no alcohol, probably because it was run by Muslims. I know this because the place was seething in cats. In these parts, Buddhists have dogs and Muslims have cats. I don’t know what the Christians have. Nervous breakdowns, probably.

So we went to a bar run by a Thai called Matt and a Canadian called Sharon. Being low season, they were thrilled to see us. Matt stayed in his hammock while Sharon took a while to refocus her thousand-yard stare. Since all the games were played at 1.30am local time, we had seven hours to kill before kickoff. All that kept us awake was a pool table, a well-stocked bar and a powerful sense that nobody here cared if we lived or died.

The next morning we mounted our motodikes and set off to explore the island, which is 12km long but longer if you take the heavily rutted dirt track that we were repeatedly warned not to take. Brenda fell off three times, but it was the fourth that impressed me the most. Not having listened to my advice about the throttle, she accelerated up the side of a mountain, ploughed into a palm tree and miraculously survived a shower of falling coconuts. I laughed so much that I fell off my own motodike and then it wasn’t so funny.

We were deep in rubber-tapping territory, being watched by people who looked as if they had never seen motodikes. Crippled with fear and thirst, we eventually arrived on a beach called Paradise. Turns out that the road to paradise is not paved at all. And if it is, it’s with Brenda’s blood.

It felt good to get back to Phuket. The neon signs. The speakers of English. The hustlers trying to sell me a suit. I needed opium but no one was offering, so we checked into a dive on Patong beach and, once again, made for Bangla Road, the red, yellow, blue and green light district of Phuket.

“Hey mister, you want taxi.” “Hey boss, you want tour?” I liked it more when they called me Mister Boss. It reminded me of a time gone by, a time when white people were accorded the respect they deserved.

Brenda had warned me not to go out in a red shirt. She seemed to think I would be mistaken for a revolutionary. Being twice the size of the average Thai, I would have to have been a mercenary hired to return that corrupt thug Thaksin Shinawhatshisface to power.

“Hey mister boss, where you from?” It sounds like an innocent enough question, but if you stop to engage, you’re going to walk away with a boat trip to Jane Blond Island (Scaramanga’s hideaway), a pair of elasticised Muay Thai shorts that will reduce your chances of ever having children and a ticket to a ping-pong show guaranteed to change the way you look at the sport.

“We’re from South Africa,” said Brenda. “Ah! World Cup!” shouted the hustlers. This is what we will forever be known for. “Yes,” I said defensively, “but we also had apartheid.”

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Chapter two in my epic saga of surf and sand in Thailand

Dear God. Will this holiday never end? The ferry from Phuket to Phi Phi looked like one of them prison boats that “evacuated” Japanese civilians from Pearl Harbour after the Americans were caught with their pants down.

Except these ones were way more annoying. One mob spent the entire 45-minute trip photographing each other in a series of bizarre poses. I didn’t understand it and wanted to toss as many of them overboard as I could before being slapped into chains and dragged below decks by a knuckle of punch drunk muay thai fighters.

Ever since I could talk, I have wanted to visit this legendary isle. “Wanna go Phi Phi,” I would plead. Since we could barely afford the bus fare to town, mother would ignore my cries.

The result was that I spent most of my childhood in wet broeks dreaming of sipping pina coladas on a palm-fringed beach while bevies of olive-skinned beauties took it in turns to rub me down with warm baby oil and whisper incomprehensible nothings into my damp little ear.

It felt good to get out of Phuket. Brenda was beginning to take an unhealthy interest in the ladyboys who patrol the neon alleys off Patong beach. And who could blame her, really. Exquisite creatures with the sensitivity and soul of women, yet hung like murderers. I was half-sold myself.

I saw Phi Phi rising from the Andaman Sea like a giant unshaven god cast in stone. There is something about a chunk of rock swarming with jungle in the middle of the ocean that awakens the beast within me. A tiger, maybe. I let out a low growl. Brenda slapped me on the back. “Are you okay?” she said. “Not really,” I whined. “My beer’s gone warm and a mosquito just bit me.” Okay, maybe not a tiger. But a smallish wildcat of some sort, certainly. A lynx, perhaps. A lynx that isn’t averse to a little comfort while fighting the cruel Darwinian fight.

When we docked at Tonsai pier, I was almost knocked overboard by the hysterical stampede to get off the ferry. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to shout “tsunami!” but can no one take a joke anymore?

There are no cars on Phi Phi. This is great if you like walking. I don’t. I find it heavily overrated. For a start, the only urchins on Phi Phi are sea urchins and, unlike the land-based ones, it’s no fun at all when you stand on one.

In keeping with our modus operandi, we hadn’t booked any accommodation. We’re from the “let’s just see what happens” school of travel. More often than not, it ends in recriminations, heavy drinking and threats of divorce. It’s the only way to see the world.

We dragged our bags from one end of the beach to the other, an ordeal made bearable by the frightening number of bars packed onto this narrow isthmus. What a silly word. Isthmus. I doubt I shall use it again.

Staggering more from the heat than the local rotgut, we eventually found a ravaged bungalow at a “resort” inhabited by dying alcoholics and hippies who once saw God but then lost him almost immediately. Right away we were set upon by a posse of monkeys high on the simian equivalent of crack. “They like you,” said Brenda, unpacking a herd of suitcases while I beat off the alpha male with a bottle of Mekong whisky.

Later, I went in search of the boat I won in Phuket in a World Cup bet with a South African expat who was delirious with Dengue fever and Singha beer. Instead of a powerful speedboat I found a leaking long-tail boat cobbled together with driftwood and kept afloat by the grace of Buddha.

My disappointment was tempered by a reggae bar right on the sand. I dug in like a 19-year-old conscript getting his ass whipped by Swapo fighters on the outskirts of Cuito Cuanavale. The waiter took our order and asked if we’d like a joint with that.

“You’re a cop, aren’t you?” I said. He laughed, flailing me with his waist-long dreadlocks. He came back with a Chang beer for me, a Singapore Sling for Brenda and a ready-rolled spliff tucked inside the menu. “Anything else?” he said.

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My World Cup horror prompts zest and recreation in Sodom and Gomorrah, I mean, Phuket

The horror of Bafana Bafana being knocked out of the World Cup in the opening round was unbearable. I was mortified. So great was my shame that I had to leave the country.

“Come along, Brenda,” I shouted, my face awash with tears. “We’re leaving.” She thought I meant emigrating and before I knew it, she had packed up the entire house. “No,” I said, my voice echoing eerily around the empty lounge, “we’re going on holiday.” She was devastated but cheered up considerably when I said she could name the destination.

“Phuket,” she said, dragging 17 suitcases towards the front door.

“Windhoek is lovely at this time of year,” I said. “Phuket,” she said. “Vic Falls?” “Phuket.” “Okavango Delta?” “Phuket.” “Knysna?” “Nice try.”

This meant flying from Cape Town to Joburg to Kuala Lumpur and, finally, in the unlikely event that we didn’t die in a giant fireball over a shark-infested ocean, to Thailand.

Against all odds, we survived with just a touch of deep-vein thrombosis and a smattering of swine flu and touched down at what is laughingly known as Phuket International Airport. There were signs everywhere warning me that the authorities would be less than thrilled should I attempt to bring drugs into Thailand. Why would I do such a thing? Was there a shortage of drugs in Thailand? I doubt it. People come here to fill up on drugs. They come here because their own countries have run out of drugs. Not me, though. I was here because the World Cup had crushed my spirit and left me a broken man. And they expected me to recover without the help of drugs? Ridiculous.

“You’re thinking about drugs, aren’t you,” said Brenda. I was baulking at the entrance to customs, making little darting runs and then backing off, like a highly-strung steeplechase horse facing a water jump filled with sea snakes. She moved in behind me and began nudging my ankles with her trolley.

Walking out of the airport was like walking into the Large Hadron Collider moments after billions of protons had smashed into one another, only hotter. Right away I was set upon by swarms of men the size and colour of walnuts. “Get away from me, you rice-eating savages!” I shouted, swinging my duty-free bag at their heads. Brenda told me not to be a damn fool. She was right. These people are martial arts experts and highly evolved Buddhists capable of killing foreigners with a single look.

The taxi driver drove so recklessly I was sure that behind those sunglasses he had the cloudy eyes of the blind. Inexplicably, Brenda cheered him on, shrieking and whooping and shouting, “Faster! Faster!”

I threw a bunch of baht onto his lap and he slowed down long enough for us to fling ourselves onto the front steps of a hotel on Patong beach. My research had indicated that, come nightfall, the area made Sodom and Gomorrah look like a Mormon convention.

My knee had begun swelling up for no reason and I was beginning to find walking difficult. I told Brenda it was an old soccer injury playing up and she contorted her face into a reasonable approximation of sympathy. I didn’t tell her that the injury was probably sustained during the Germany vs England game while thrashing around on the couch trying to reach a fresh beer without having to sit up.

That night I washed down a dozen painkillers with a bottle of Chang beer and limped off in search of the legendary depravity of Bangla Road. I told Brenda it was the shopping district, which it is, if you are in the market for T-shirts. And scorching hot bonobo sex with complete strangers.

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Do you know the dimensions of the standard SA Railways coupé?

With the holiday from hell coming to an end, Brenda and I took a walk through central Durban. We started at the disaster area formerly known as the Golden Mile and headed for the city hall. As I mentioned last week, everything from North Beach to Addington has been smashed down or dug up. I have no idea if the council is upgrading the beachfront or if this is city manager Mike Sutcliffe’s idea of what an authentic tourist attraction should look like in Africa.

Brenda suggested we play a game while we walked. The stakes were R10 for every white person spotted. We had covered eight or nine blocks and neither of us had won a thing. “This is a stupid game,” I said. Just then I spotted a white man. “There!” I shouted, jumping up and down. “You owe me R10.” Brenda snorted. “That’s a vagrant,” she said. “He’s worth only R5.”

I was mystified. Where had all the white people gone. Emigrated? Surely not. Moved to Cape Town? Quite possibly. I began a series of deep-breathing exercises to prepare to fight our way back to the hotel, but the Zulu hordes ignored us and went about their business as if it were the most natural thing in the world to take over an entire city without a single shot being fired.

After a week of rain, wind and temporary insanity, one might think one would do the sensible thing and fly straight home. But, no. Brenda thought it a good idea to return by train. But not on something sensible like Rovos Rail, of course. We had to travel with the widely-feared SA Railways.

In the old days, a list of names would be put up on each carriage. That way, you could stroll along the platform until you spotted your compartment. This quaint practice has been done away with. Now, there is only one list. It contains the name of every passenger on the train and is discreetly tucked away behind a pillar. From where I stood, at the back of a hysterical throng of people ten-deep, the names may as well have been ants for all the sense they made. Fortunately, I had a pair of binoculars on me, but more on those in a moment.

Struggling with our bags – porters are apparently no longer required to perform this duty and are instead expected to stare at white passengers as if they were personally responsible for apartheid – we eventually squeezed into the compartment. I had barely sat down when a woolly-faced red-eyed beast of a man banged on the door and said he had booked adjoining compartments to accommodate his extended family. I extended my sympathies and pointedly ignored him. He said he would have me killed if I didn’t move. Well, he didn’t actually say that, but his eyes certainly did. I told Brenda to get the bags and meet me on the platform.

Eventually we were escorted to a shoebox. Some might know it as a coupé. We took it in turns to go inside and sit down for a bit while the other waited outside in the corridor. Our coupé made Nelson Mandela’s cell look like a suite at the Mount Nelson. Don’t believe me? The coupé measured 1.8m x 1.4m. Mandela’s cell measured 2.4m x 2.4m. Our basin was blocked. His probably worked. Like his cell, our door could be opened at any time from the outside by authorised officials. Where Mandela had intelligent neighbours who shared his views, we had surly sheep farmers on one side and shrieking harridans from the Cape Flats on the other. Okay, we might not have spent 18 years in the coupé, but by the time we reached Cape Town it certainly felt like we had.

Repairing to the bar out of fear that Brenda and I would begin devouring one another like rats in a sack, I ordered a coke and reached for my binoculars. I bought them at AP Jones in Fish Hoek and they are by far the best pair I have ever owned. They are hollow. The eyepieces unscrew, allowing one to fill up each side with a spirit of one’s choice. I had it loaded with brandy on the left and gin on the right. Things were going splendidly until I went to the bar to fetch a fresh coke and returned to find a fellow passenger fiddling with the binoculars. She was about 104 and wanted to take a closer look at the springbok. I told her there were no springbok and that she was probably losing her mind. She seemed disappointed, but nowhere near as disappointed as she would have been had she poured 250ml of neat Gordon’s and Klipdrift into her eyes.

Smoking is no longer allowed on trains. And since drinkers are invariably smokers, the bar stands empty while passengers drink and smoke in the privacy of their own compartments. This is no fun at all.

Vendors selling coffee and chips and bedding and all sorts of nonsense banged on our door at ungodly hours. Late on the second night, I went from coach to coach banging on other people’s doors. “Police! Open up!” I shouted. Then I would run away. Childish, perhaps, but it added to the excitement of passing through stations like Bosvark.

The credit card machine on the train was broken, as was the air-con in the dining car. There were long delays at stations and a bag we left on the train became an early Christmas present for one of the staff. Good luck for 2010, Shosholoza Meyl.

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