Searching for The Blue Clay Beach

Red light, green light, I speed off on a black bike I slightly overpaid for. I’m searching for a blue clay beach that no one’s ever heard of.

A French man who hadn’t cut his hair for 25 years told me two things. Turn left when you reach Los Lagos then travel 5km through the jungle. And you probably shouldn’t drive, he said, it’s quite a dangerous road.

It wasn’t a road, it was rocks and death trap turns. But 5km is quite a long walk. Often, motorbikes and adventure come as a couple, like Instagram and boasting about brunch. But I nearly crashed as many times as Facebook sells your data. Just as I was about to give up and finish the journey on foot, the wilderness opened into crystal ocean.

Yellow white sand, orange brown cliffs: the deposits of clay were in the far right corner. It’s an ancient tradition practiced by the Mayans or the Aztecs, I’m still not sure exactly who discovered it. Either way, people have been doing this for a very long time. I painted myself from head to toe, baking in the sun till it became hard then bathing in the sea to wash it all off.

I learnt two things today. Volcanic clay makes your skin feel ready for world domination like Amazon. And the reason no one has heard of blue clay beach is because it’s definitely grey.

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Seven Rogue Adventures for 2019

1. Barranquilla Carnival, Colombia. March 2-5th.

Flying into Cartagena, one of the world’s most beautiful beach cities, then choosing to drive two hours east in a rickety minibus to Barranquilla – rougher, grittier, but also Shakira’s hometown – to attend the world’s second biggest carnival: that’s pretty rogue, no?

Barranquilla was built on the foundation of African, Indigenous, European and Middle Eastern cultures, a history reflected in the colours, dances, music and costumes you’ll see shimmering on the streets. As a city, it’s famous for producing a disproportionately high amount of beauty queens, but most still don’t know about it’s carnival. This makes it safer, cheaper and easier to navigate than its more famous cousin Rio. It also means less tourists taking pictures and more locals partying. And let me tell you, the Colombians know how to party. When you’ve lived through half a century of civil war, you learn to enjoy the good times. Let them show you how they get down.

2. Jaipur Elephant Festival, India – March 21st

Jaipur, the jewel of Rajasthan’s crown and the gateway to India’s most flamboyant state, is worth visiting at any time of year. However, the intoxicating cocktail of majestic forts, buzzing bazaars and faded Rajput royalty truly comes alive when elephants replace rickshaws as the primary mode of transport. The scheduling is fortuitous, the folk dances, elephant processions and beauty contests – have you ever seen an elephant catwalk? – occur on the eve of Holi festival, allowing you to experience two rogue adventures in consecutive days.

However, remember Ganesh, the elephant god, is amongst the most revered in India, so treat his long-trunked descendants with respect. Make sure you source organic, soluble paint to throw and follow the festival with a trip to Elefantastic. It’s an ethical sanctuary in north Jaipur that rescues mistreated elephants. Visitors are welcome to join these most intelligent of creatures in their journey back to health, feeding, washing and interacting with them.

3. Dia de los Muertos –

The Day of the Dead is Mexico’s answer to Halloween, but more morbid, colourful and downright fun. Humans have struggled to deal with death since the beginning of time, but this festival born from an ancient Aztec tradition is surely one of the most creative ways of grieving.

If you’re celebrating this you’re celebrating, a large mariachi band will congregate in the central plaza and lead a procession of people dressed in Halloween costumes on steroids to the local graveyard. Here, people produce photos of their dearly departed, offer food, drinks and light candles in their memory before dancing and singing songs around the gravestones.

4. Mai Dulce, Chișinău, Moldova. May 28th

Moldova’s annual celebration of the humble dessert has emerged as Eastern Europe’s sweetest festival. The theme this year is circus, so dress accordingly as you eat excessively. They also claim to make the world’s best lemonade, and while it may be a wildly subjective notion, it’s one that merits further investigation. Entrance is 45 Leu, just £2, while kids and grandparents go free. Whilst you’re there, Europe’s poorest country offers the slightly haunting opportunity of time travelling back to the mid twentieth century. Horse-drawn wagons still rule the country roads as combine harvesters plough the fields.

If you do find yourself guzzling down Moldovan treats in the cirque de sweets, I would recommend adding on a unique daytrip. Just an hours drive from Chișinău, you’ll find the disputed country of Transnitria. An independent state recognised only by itself, they still have their own visas, currency, stamps, police force, beer and borders. It’s a curious Soviet time warp that will make your trip to Moldova even sweeter.

5.Gay Pride in Amsterdam, Holland. July 27th

If you’ve never been to a Gay Pride before, make sure you correct that this year. And if you have been before, you’ll know they’re places of love, tolerance, self-expression and hedonism. Amsterdam, as always, has its own irreverent take on proceedings. Their Pride isn’t just a parade, it’s a citywide festival that straddles streets, bridges and canals.

Barges full of dancers from every section of the sexual spectrum float past packed crowds, a traffic jam of floating rainbows of fun. Pride is a delight and everyone’s invited, no matter how weird you are. The weirder, the better actually. The rules are simple: be nice and people will be nice back. And trust me, you haven’t lived till you’ve seen a 6”6 butch man in leather singing Britney Spears from the hull of a boat as thousands of revellers line the streets, cheering every syllable.

6. Songkran, Thailand. April 13-15th

Thailand does new year a little differently. In ancient Siam culture, people would visit their local monastery and pour scented water over monks in a holy cleansing ceremony. Then, they’d collect the blessed water and bring it home to pour over family members for good luck.

Today, Thai new year, or Songkran, is unrecognisable from its holistic history. Imagine if Disney bought the rights then outsourced the choreography to Ibiza, Playboy and Coachella. It’s the world’s biggest water fight, featuring bikinis, beach parties and super soakers; it’s also the closest most of us will ever come to full combat warfare. The chaos occurs nationwide as the country shuts down for three days but the best spots to indulge your inner child are Chiang Mai and Koh Tao.

7. La Tomatina Els Elfaranit flour throwing festival, orange throwing in Italy or grape throwing in Australia.

This is the only entry on the list that everyone reading this will already know. And that’s why you shouldn’t go. That, and it’s one of those things that sounds much more fun than it actually is; like a staycation or another new nightclub opening in Shoreditch.

However, if you do want to attend a festival based on the throwing of food you should go to Els Enfarinats in Alicante, Spain. It’s over 200 years old and happens on December 28th. The participants dress in mock military clothes and stage a faux coup d’etat, throwing flour instead of bombs; significantly less painful than getting hit in the face with a tomato.

I Didn’t Mean to Interrupt the Monk

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I didn’t mean to interrupt the monk from his studies, I just asked if he wouldn’t mind taking this photo. He smiled and stopped reading Dalai Lama’s ‘The Art of Happiness’, tucking a banana leaf inside to bookmark his page. Probably a book worth reading once in a lifetime. Dressed in bright orange robes, he had the wide smile of a man insulated from the evils of this world. We looked through the new photos on my phone.

“To show your family?” “Yes.” I hung my head slightly. “And Instagram.”

“What’s Instagram?” He asked. Have you been living under a rock, dude? Then I realised he had. Or at least inside an ornately carved rock. So I asked, “how long have you been for a monk for?”

“I live here for five years,” he smiled, nodding at the temple behind me. How fascinating. So he has no idea about anything that’s happened in the last half a decade.

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“Do you know Amazon?” I asked. “The rainforest?” He replied. “Sure,” I said, although I’d meant the other Amazon. But now was not the time to tell him an internet retailer is roughly halfway through its plan of world domination.

“Uber?” He shook his head. I guess taxis aren’t required when Buddha handles all the transport towards enlightenment.

How about music, I wondered. “Despacito?” A blank smile. “Kanye West? Pitbull?” Still Silence. His smile made sense now. I’d trade Uber for enlightenment and never again hearing Pitbull shouting his net worth over reggaeton. Maybe I should buy that Dalai Lama book.

I thanked him for his time, he shook my hand. It felt too formal so we upgraded to a hug. I realised I had five seconds for a final question. Tick tock.

“Who is the president of America?” His eyes rose skywards then returned. “Barack Obama?”

“I’m buying the Art of Happiness on Amazon right now. And can we swap lives, please?”

The World’s Biggest Water Fight

You can’t fight back against a child, that’s a rule, isn’t it? I reminded myself as a giggling 7 year old drenched me with a flying bucket of water. Thailand does New Year a little differently. In ancient Siam culture, people would visit their local monastery and pour scented water over monks in a holy cleansing ceremony. Then, they’d collect the blessed water and bring it home to pour over family members for good luck. Today, Thai New Year – Songkran – is unrecognisable from its holistic history. Imagine if Disney bought the rights then outsourced the choreography to Ibiza, Playboy and Heineken.

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I selected my weapon of choice; a neon yellow super soaker and found the beach transformed. It was Baywatch on steroids without the anger issues. There’s an inclusivity about the world’s biggest water fight that reminded me of Gay Pride: I was attacked equally by children, men, women, ladyboys and pensioners. Running for cover, ducking behind sight screens and shooting water at strangers was like simultaneously being transported back to childhood and playing virtual reality as Rambo.

There’s a hint of the carnival vibes in Rio de Janeiro and Notting Hill too. Music blasts from every angle and strangers are connected by an event bigger than any one individual. There really is nothing else like Songkran though: it’s the only place you’re allowed to be Peter Pan and Jack Sparrow. And return fire at children.

A Teardrop on the Cheek of Eternity

Hustlers, homeless bodies, stray dogs, rattling rickshaws and everyone has something to sell me. Agra train station is an ordeal. I battled through the chaos towards symmetry: the Taj Mahal.

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There it stood, a teardrop on the cheek of eternity. Perfect order surrounded by an imperfect world. The problem with the Taj is it’s overphotographed, but nothing prepares you for the rhythmic combination of curves and lines, shadow and light.

Of course, it’s a circus of mass tourism, but a zen-like state of calm permeates. There’s no pushing, just a respectful, orderly queue to get a picture on the Princess Diana bench. I had to wait ten minutes for nine Koreans to make multiple peace signs before I got mine.

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One stupid shot for Instagram and a respectable one for my darling mother.

There’s something comforting about the permanence of Shah Jahan’s masterpiece. We are situated between daily life and the world of true understanding and monuments like this remind us which is more important. The sun never shines all night and no man can live forever but the Taj will always stand.

Am I Getting Kidnapped?

Am I getting kidnapped? I worried, as Abdullah drove my rented car in silence. He’d flagged me down at the side of the road. I offered him a lift. He asked where I was going. I said I was going on an adventure. He told me he knew the most beautiful place in Oman. Let’s go there then, I replied.

“But I drive,” he said.

“I’d prefer to drive, I gave my passport to the man at the rental place and-“

“I drive,” he said again.

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We switched places. His English was only just better than my Arabic, and I don’t speak Arabic. So we sat in silence, driving through increasingly barren desert, slowing only to swerve around camels.

Sometimes we had to stop completely. I’m not sure whether camels are arrogant or simply don’t care if they live or die. I do know, however, that they don’t move out of the road, however much you beep at them. Their boss just laughed when we asked him to make his unruly gang hurry up.

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“How much longer?” I asked.

“We there in half o clock.”

“That’s not a recognised unit of time, Abdullah.”

He shrugged and continued driving. Thirty minutes later, we arrived. I’d been kidnapped and taken to a blue and green paradise. I thanked Abdullah and for the first time, I saw him smile. I’m not sure what the moral of this story is. It would be irresponsible to advise you to start picking up hitchhikers. So let’s say just trust people more, because nice things might happen.

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Twenty Five Pounds I’ll Never Get Back

“£25 please.” Whoever said ‘travel is the only thing we buy that makes us richer’ clearly never rode the London Eye.

I hate feeling like a tourist in my own country but I was trying my best to enjoy the ride. London’s landmarks disappeared beneath our glass chariot: Big Ben, The Shard and Canary Wharf turned into Lego as we entered the sky.

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The lady next to me was convinced I was missing the show. She kept nudging me, pointing and saying things like ‘I’m speechless’, which unfortunately she wasn’t.

Another ten metres higher, another gasp. “Look at that view!” Her smile left dimples in her cheeks. “It’s priceless isn’t it.” I glanced at the guidebook next to me. Actually no, it isn’t. Constructing the London Eye cost £70 million.

She was having a really good time. “It’s just genius isn’t it,” she leant towards me. “Who would have thought of inventing this?” Cavemen probably, I thought, when they invited the wheel 5500 years ago. The London Eye is just a remix. “Yeah they’ve really reinvented the wheel,” I replied. Blank face. Oh come on! That’s good stuff. I wriggled my headphones from my pocket and nodded to the beat of an imaginary song.

We landed back exactly where we started. My new friend was glowing with happiness, she’d really got her money’s worth. She’d taught me something too: act like a kid and you enjoy things more. She looked at me and grinned. “How do you feel?”

I collected my feelings. “Precisely £25 poorer.”

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Why Gay Pride Rocks

Are you gay?” Asked the man with too many tattoos.

“No.”

“Why you wearing that rainbow flag then?”

“Because it’s Gay Pride.”

“Why are you going?” We arrived at Charing Cross tube station before I could answer.

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Pride is a delight. Love, rainbows and unconditional acceptance fill the air. Everyone’s invited no matter how weird you are, the weirder the better actually. There’s a simple formula to having a great Pride. Be nice and accepting, because everybody’s nice here. The last time I got this many compliments was in the red light district of Bangkok.

Pride is also a time for people to raise awareness of other related causes or just try to explain. I particularly liked a sign that read ‘Straight? So is Spaghetti Until You Turn the Heat Up!’ But my favourite was a black dude dressed in a dark jumper with the hood up and pink hot pants. He was holding a home made sign that said #GrimeAndGay4Corbyn

“Are you gay?” The second enquiry of the day was from a man in full leather. He had a whip in one hand and a young Asian man in the other.

“No, I’m just part of the gang.”

“You sure?” He gave me a flyer anyway. It was for a Fist Night in Vauxhall. “You’ve got a pretty face,” he said.

“Thanks, that’s very kind.” A short pause. “But I’m still not going to the fisting night.” We highfived and I was on my way.

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Then I saw the answer to the question from the man on the tube. A dancing policeman, with a Pride t-shirt on top of his police vest, had attracted attention. He was twerking, a piece of pork between a drag queen sandwich. As he disappeared between the bodies of the fabolous queens, I could still see his t-shirt. It read ‘Love Happens Here’.

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On the tube home, I was joined by an oversized drunk whose arms and legs spilled halfway over my seat. She smiled as she ate her kebab. I smiled back.
Then she slurred “So you single or what?”

Sorry,” I said. “I’m afraid I’m gay.”

Shooting For The Moon

The Darien Gap is the most dangerous place on the planet. The border between Colombia and Panama is a thousand square mile area of impassable jungle and swampland, ruled by narcotraffickers, gangsters, wild animals and infectious diseases. There is more chance of getting kidnapped or killed than traversing it safely. So, a new industry has appeared. Sailboats offer a more tranquil way of passing from South to Central America, via the tropical San Blas Islands. This is how I became a passenger on Wild Card, a boat manned by Captain Charlie.

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He slurped straight from a bottle of rum as we bounced over crashing waves. After 36 hours of harsh sailing, he flicked back his long, dark locks, readied his pockmarked face and dropped anchor. We were in the land of the Kuna people. I looked around; hundreds of unspoilt mounds of white sand and palm trees protruded from turquoise waters. We had arrived in Cayos Limones, or Lemon Keys, or paradise. It forms part of the 365 San Blas Islands that lie 12 miles off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Captain Charlie threw me a snorkel and told me to explore. “There are some sunken ships over there,” he said with a flick of his arm, rum bottle still resting by his side.

I dived in the direction that Charlie had pointed. A long, silvery barracuda whished past. I continued towards the bubbly rock of a coral reef. A tuna swerved in front of me, scattering schools of smaller fish. The reason soon became clear: a reef shark burst into view, chasing the tuna through a maze of marine life. I tried to keep up but couldn’t, possibly because I’m not a fish. As I headed towards the shipwreck, I felt a ripple overhead. I came up for air. A battered canoe had narrowly missed me. Three Kuna tribesmen, tanned of skin, were wearing sheepish grins.

Kuna

“Sorry. I didn’t see you,” said the taller man, offering a bow in apology. He invited me aboard the boat and introduced himself as the Sahila, or Chief, of Cayos Limones. I clambered up and he insisted I return to the mainland to share lunch with his family. I glanced towards my boat, Captain Charlie was spreadeagled on the deck. I said yes.

On the island, we ate an emperor’s lunch of lobster, grilled plantain and coconut. Indigenous women, decorated in gold nose rings, beaded red leg bands and bowl haircuts, were sewing traditional mola dresses. They sung gentle lullabies as they formed intricate patterns in blue and orange. They were blissfully unaware of politics, mortgages and traffic jams, and it showed.

Kuna Woman

Chief looked at the sky and sighed. “I am afraid you have come at bad time.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Tonight is no moon.”

“An eclipse?”

“Blood moon,” he nodded. “The dragon comes to try and eat the moon.” I nodded, trying not to show my amusement. But, I thought then, it’s no stranger than believing that a virgin gave birth to Jesus or humans should work for fifty hours a week to buy products they don’t need. I looked around; does a better picture of paradise exist?

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“They are preparing now. This is their night.” The Chief pointed inside a conical bamboo hut. Inside, two albino men were carving something out of wood. The Kuna have a very high incidence rate of albinism, a phenomenon that neither scientists nor anthropologists have been able to explain.

“We have shaman coming also,” continued Chief. “But they will defend the moon,” he pointed at the albinos again.

Half an hour later, a dugout canoe arrived on the sand and a shaman in tattered rags stepped ashore. The sun came down as the shaman set up. I watched him form a circle using palm fronds and tree stumps as the sky turned from blue to orange to black in the background. He stood in the middle while Chief and the other islanders sat around the edge. They beckoned me to join. The shaman burnt an incense-like substance, it smelled like hippies and freedom. He started chanting in a language I didn’t understand, then dancing in a style I couldn’t comprehend. When he came back to earth, he passed round a jug of liquid. “Drink this,” he said. “It is chicha. The breast milk of the great mother.” It tasted more like crude rum to me.

“Now, we must go inside. It is only safe for the albinos tonight,” said Chief. The shaman raised an eyebrow, then gestured at me.

“He is white man too, he can join them.” Chief shrugged. The albinos emerged from the bamboo hut, holding the spoils of their days work: two bow and arrows. I asked Chief what the hell was happening.

“They will shoot arrows at the dragon, to protect the moon. You want to join them?”

I paused for thought. “Yes.” An easy decision. “Yes I do.”

The two albinos and I walked down to the shallows of the sea. They stood a metre ahead of me, took aim and fired towards the moon, emitting a howling sound as they did so. I howled too, tentatively at first, then with real gusto. They fired again, the arrows arced towards the dim, red moon then fell into the ocean. One of them passed me his bow and arrow. We still hadn’t spoken to each other, just howled. I stared at the moon, placed the arrow against the cord that connected the two ends of wood and pulled hard. My arm wasn’t straight and I let go at an angle, the arrow veered off to the right, grazing the arm of one of the albinos. My jaw dropped. I raised both hands in apology. The bow dropped to the water too. I felt forced to reorder my opinion. I think the Darien Gap is the second most dangerous place on the planet, after Cayos Limones when I’m brandishing a bow and arrow.

Hippies, Elephants and Luck

I had just two aims for my final evening: buy toothpaste and an Indian souvenir. This is the joy of solo travel: you are your own boss so anything can happen. You could find enlightenment, stumble upon love or you could find Hans waiting in line at the chemist. Hans was a middle-aged, ponytailed hippie, speaking English to the cashier with a strong European accent. My toothpaste purchase was delayed by an impassioned speech; he was trying to convince the pharmacy to recycle their rubbish. He apologised for making me wait and asked if I would like to accompany him to a night market. I nodded.

“Yeah, I want a souvenir. How lucky.” I thought out loud.

“Luck comes in many forms, my friend,” said Hans with a mystical flick of his hair.

I jumped on the back of his red scooter and we whizzed towards the Saturday night market in Arpora, Goa. The blind turns and potholes reminded me that in India you’re seldom more than five seconds away from danger; whether it’s a motorbike crash on a muddy backstreet or a rabid dog crouching in the shade of a shack selling dodgy curries. Traffic snaked down the hill that led to the market for at least a mile. Hans swerved expertly between taxis, rickshaws and other motorbikes until we entered a carnival of fairy lights.

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The night market was a pop-up shanty town of stalls and shacks, buzzing with the energy of New Years Eve. In the midst of the maze of colourful meandering, Hans explained his life’s work to me. He’d left his hometown in Holland twenty years ago for a holiday and never returned. Now, he was on a one man mission to introduce recycling to Northern Goa and spent his days trawling round local businesses, convincing them to sign up to his endeavour. I was listening, captivated, when I felt the urge to find a bathroom; I excused myself.

I have a rudimentary three-pronged list to determine whether a country is first, second or third world. Do they have a functioning public transport system? What is their stance on women’s and gay rights? And can you flush the toilet paper? The restrooms at the night market informed me that despite its burgeoning economy, India is still a third world country. I held my breath whilst I unzipped and scuttled out into a sea of stars as soon as I’d finished.

Night Market

“I converted to Hinduism in the late nineties,” said Hans. “I really identified with Dharma – their code of ethics and duties towards humankind – and Samsara, the continuing cycle of life, birth, death and rebirth.” He paused for a second and looked towards the sky. “I guess when the Indians’ taught me that life recycles itself, I wanted to give something back and teach them to recycle earth.” Then I saw a stall selling swastikas. In the ancient language of Sanskrit, swastika means well-being. It remains a symbol of good luck across India today and this, I decided, was reason enough to purchase some. You never know when you’re going to get another chance to legally purchase a swastika.

Other Indian symbols surrounded the spices, teas, Kashmiri carpets, carvings, jewellery, clothes, cushions and hammocks on sale. Colourful, perfectly concentric mandalas and images of Ganesh, the trunked Hindu deity, were the two most common. Hans and I were wandering through the stalls, talking about how you make your own luck. His greying bob swayed every time he nodded; whenever he agreed with something I could really tell. But I was never quite sure whether he was nodding at what I said or the meditational trance music in the background. Right now, he was staring at murals of India’s holiest animal.

Hans Night Market

“Hindus revere elephants, they’re symbols of luck,” said Hans. “They resemble their god, Ganesh, and represent the attributes of a perfect disciple. The large ears mean he’s a patient listener. His eyes are believed to behold the future. The long trunk allows him to smell good and evil and his big belly shows he can digest all that good and evil as fuel for life.” I want to buy an elephant, I thought. Around the corner, I found a wiry man selling them. He introduced himself as Ravi. Inside a wide shirt collar, his neck rattled around like a turtle’s, lending him the look of a child dressed up in his parents’ clothes. But these parents had taught him how to hustle. He dangled a succession of products in front of me, describing them with phrases like ‘nice gift, nice gift’ or ‘best price for you, my friend’. We began the age-old dance of bartering. He started high, I countered low. He brought down the price, I feigned disgust. He came down a little further, I shook my head and began to walk away. He chased after, shouting smaller prices. We agreed on a fee of 200 rupees, I handed it over and received an elephant in exchange.

I found Hans by the exit, asking a security guard to summon the site manager to speak about being green. He was holding an elephant similar to the one I’d bought.

“How much?” I asked, pointing at its trunk.

“100 rupees,” he said. Then I realised I’d forgotten to buy toothpaste. I do agree with Hans that luck does come in many forms, but this guy is not one of them.

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