Motorbikes, Massages and Corruption

“I’m not missing our lotus leaf massage, grab the crowbar,” said Damo.

After arriving in Nha Trang on a night train from Da Nang, we lurked outside the station entrance in anticipation of receiving our motorbikes. It had taken us considerably longer than expected to traverse the Hai Van Pass, regularly voted as one of the world’s best roads.

Hai-van-pass

We were now racing against the clock and took the overnight train to ensure we made our 3pm appointment to review the spa at the five star Fusion Maia hotel. In Vietnam, they transport bikes on trains by constructing a makeshift wooden palate around the bike. It looks like half a fence has been inexactly nailed onto either side, joined by a few rogue hunks of wood on the top and bottom. As the bikes were unloaded off the train, we spotted ours in the first batch. We pointed this out to the man in charge, a diminutive Vietnamese man with a cheap cigarette poking out of his mouth and a crowbar in his right hand.

“No! Three o clock,” he shouted as we moved towards our bikes. It was now 1 o’ clock and we were still over a hundred kilometres from the hotel.

“Nah, don’t worry, we’ll just get them now.” We approached the crates encasing our bikes and tentatively felt how sturdy the structures were.

“No! Two o clock,” he shouted again and brandished the crowbar above his head, striding towards us purposefully. So the waiting time seemed to have decreased by an hour in less than a minute.

“No, we need them now,” we told him, sensing this was extremely unofficial. He paused to think.

Bikes 2

“Okay, 80 thousand dong.” If Vietnam was an airline it would be Ryan Air; it begins cheaply but the price doubles after taxes and unspecified fees. He pointed at both of us to signify it was eighty thousand each, and not a combined price. This is roughly three pounds, but that’s not the point. The point is we had already paid to transport the bikes and this thinly veiled bribe was just going to fund his next ten packs of cheap cigarettes.

‘Fuck off, mate,’ I thought. “No,” is what I actually said. He put his crowbar down and walked over to his desk to grab a pen and paper and begin the bargaining process. Whilst his back was turned, Damo grabbed the crowbar, I selected a short, blunt stick of wood and we began gently dismantling the wooden casing around our bikes. By smashing each piece of wood into smithereens and kicking away the debris.

Bikes

“No!” He shouted again and ran over to us looking both dismayed as he realised he would have to buy his own cigarettes and annoyed his power had been undermined.

“No! Eighty thousand.” If Vietnam was a game it would be Candy Crush; free to play at first but you’re forced to purchase before advancing, and it quickly degenerates into a saga. Fortunately, the spraying shards of wood were prohibiting him from coming any closer and we carried on smashing up the fencing as he waved his arms around in despair. He was the unwilling conductor of a destructive orchestra.

“No! Stop.”

BOOM. SMASH.

“No! Eighty thousand.”

CRACK. Shrapnel is flying around the station forecourt. A dystopian call and answer between the corrupt conductor and the disobedient musicians. This continued for five minutes; we slowly freed our bikes from the mesh of timber as beads of sweat fell from our foreheads to the floor. It transpired that eighty thousand would have been a fair price for this hard labour, but that’s not the point.

“Seventy thousand?” he shouted with less certainty than earlier. Now, this was not a fair price as we’d already completed the lions share of the work. We banished the final panel from being and the two sides fell to the floor with the grace of a fat man dropping a tuba. However, this left our bikes standing there, triumphantly unshackled. We dragged them out of the wreckage and the bike man, sensing defeat, helped us haul them from the carnage. We mounted our bikes, turned them on and rolled towards the exit.

“Ten thousand?” shouted the bike man. Roughly thirty pence was now his new price.

“Fuck off, mate.” I said as we zoomed out onto the main road in pursuit of our lotus leaf massage.

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An Errant Bag and a Bottle of Booze

When the taxi stopped at the departure doors of Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza Airport, I felt the increasingly familiar pang of finality. That combination of affection and attachment that precede leaving a country you can’t envisage returning to anytime soon.

Ezeiza Airport
I was also worried that my bag wouldn’t arrive with me, as I was flying with two different airlines and stopping off in Sao Paulo for eight hours en route to Bogota. I made my reservations known to the staff at the Qatar Airways check-in desk and they laughed off my fears.
“We do this all the time, don’t worry,” they said.
After a pleasant two-part plane journey and an uncomfortable nap zigzagged across three plastic seats in Sao Paulo’s airport, I arrived in Bogota. As my fellow passengers collected their bags and began to disappear, I felt a creeping sense of doom enter my stomach. By the time the arrivals from the later San Francisco and Havana flights had also retrieved their baggage and strolled towards the exit, I was resigned to defeat. I opted to explore the duty free shop for ten minutes and hope my bag had miraculously appeared afterwards.

Duty Free

As I browsed the aisles of booze, I could sense I was being stalked by a bookish sales attendant. I acknowledged him and let it be known I did not require any assistance at this particular juncture.
I settled upon a $12 litre bottle of Medellin rum; a respected and established brand which would have cost double on the high street.
“Ooh no,” he said with a shake of his bespectacled head. “This one’s better,” and pointed at a bottle packaged in a golden cuboid.
“I would assume so, yeah. It’s 80 dollars. It’s also whisky.” I was struggling to mask my frustration.
“But if you buy two, the second ones half price?” He replied in a tone that implied I hadn’t appreciated quite how good a deal this was.
“Oh, so just 120 dollars?”
“Wait a minute,” he pulled a calculator out of his pocket.
“It’s 120.”
“Sorry, just a minute,” he raised a hand to stop me as I attempted to approach the till. He punched in the necessary numbers. “That’s 120 dollars,” he confirmed.
“Yeah, this is 12.” I walked towards the till.
“That’s cheaper,” he agreed, following me.
“Yup. Roughly a tenth.” I gave my credit card and boarding pass to the cashier.
The bookish attendant punched some more digits into his calculator and smiled at the result. “Exactly a tenth!”
I arrived back at the empty Baggage Reclaim Conveyer Belt 2 and admitted defeat. I went to the information booth and explained my predicament. They took the details of my hotel, apologised and promised to deliver my rucksack later that evening, or the next morning at latest. Disheartened, I skulked away then stopped, as I suddenly realised I was probably entitled to compensation. I queued again and informed them that I would be missing a wedding beacuse of their incompetence and required reimbursement as a result. They asked for my boarding pass, stamped it with a sticker and directed me to a pokey office booth outside.

LAX-Avianca

I explained my predicament to the suits at Avianca customer service, Colombia’s national carrier and the airline responsible for ensuring the safe transit of my luggage between Sao Paulo and Bogota. I re-mentioned my mystery wedding and gave some vague and generally unconvincing reasons why their temporary loss of my bag meant I was now unable to attend.

They nodded apologetically and asked for my boarding pass. “Were your toiletries in the bag?”

“Yes,” I replied, and a lady handed me an Avianca branded washbag complete with toothbrush, toothpaste, mini aftershave and facewipes. She picked up a pen and began copying details from my boarding pass onto the top sheet of a stack of forms. Then, she opened the drawer of her desk, counted out 80 dollars into an envelope, scribbled over the sticker on my boarding pass and returned it to me.

“Sorry for the inconvenience sir, the bag will be at your hotel as soon as possible,” she said.

“Don’t worry about it.” I said, wondering whether I should return to the duty free shop and purchase the golden cuboid of whisky.

A Doomed Dinner Date

I have forever been fearful of predicting the nationality of someone I have just met since a shameful moment in the Dubai Marina Mall branch of Waitrose on New Years Day 2014. I was innocently shopping with a Canadian girl who worked at Carluccios; we’d met and exchanged numbers whilst I was dining there during the run up to Christmas.

carluccio-s

Aside from possessing sparkling eyes and a come-to-bed smile, the sole piece of intelligence I’d gathered pertained to her job title of deputy head chef, a fact I’d independently confirmed through reading the name and title printed on the blue badge pinned above her right breast, and the lack of resistance she offered after I addressed her as Abigail, as the badge stated. In a transparent attempt to impress her, I had perhaps faintly amplified my culinary abilities and we’d agreed to meet in the Marina the following week to buy some food and serve up a storm back at mine. As we struck the deal, I was acutely aware that my performance in the kitchen would dictate whether I was allowed back on stage for an encore in the bedroom.

Dubai Marina 1
We met on the Marina Promenade and traded tales of our time in the world’s most superficial city as we wondered past the gleaming luxury yachts harboured at the water’s edge and the Arab men in matching white head-to-toe kandoras, segregated in separate cafes according to their keffiyehs, or headdresses; white for Emiratis, white and red cheques for the Saudis sitting next door and, further down towards the ocean, tied in a thick, white circle, the traditional turbans of the Omanis decorated a restaurant slouching in the shade of the Grosvenor House Hotel.

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We stopped at a crossroads of three concepts; direction, quality and price. On our left stood the red, white and blue corporate crest of Carrefour, a byword for affordably priced, serviceable food. On the right, Waitrose was sneering at the commoners shopping at their inferior rivals. It is worth noting that in Dubai, Waitrose is even less competitively priced than in England, as the Middle East’s inhospitable climate prohibits the production of almost everything except camel milk and oil, resulting in expensive imports from Europe, Asia and Australia. It is also worth noting that this supermarket slash dinner date occurred at the epicentre of my saving spree for South America, which placed me in the awkward position of canvassing for Carrefour, whilst pretending I really wasn’t fussed about where we ended up.
“Shall we go French?” I tried to sound as ambivalent as possible while shamelessly drawing on the stereotype of French food being superior.
“Oh, but the food in Waitrose is so much nicer,” Abigail reasoned.
“Oh, definitely,” I reluctantly agreed, conscious that my performance in the supermarket was effectively the support act for my concert in the kitchen. We entered Waitrose hand-in-hand, Abigail was grinning in genuine delight at entering an emporium of culinary excellence. I was attempting to suppress a scowl.

Waitrose
I’d given the meal a bit of thought on my stroll down to the promenade and had decided to suggest lasagne; an inclusive dish we could make together, with the added benefit of requiring considerable oven time to allow for a couple of glasses of wine. If she found this too ordinary, I had a wild card up my sleeve: salmon and sharkfish pie. Only a real cunt would call that ordinary.
“Do you know what we should make?” Abigail asked, looking sweetly up at me.
“Go on?” I answered, doubtful as to whether salmon and sharkfish pie would be the next words I heard.
“Moroccan tagine!” This really wasn’t going to plan.
“Okay, sure.” I said, mindful I was going to have to invent an urgent need for whatever was shelved in the furthest aisle away, and then furiously google the recipe behind her back. We wondered through the vegetable section: she was picking them and I was nodding with the certainty of a man who had a few Moroccan tagines under his belt as she dropped each item into the basket.
“Let me just go and grab some green tea,” I said, spying the tea aisle in the far corner.
“Ooh, I love green tea, I’ll come too,” she replied, apparently intent on scuppering every plan I hatched.
“I’ll get you some, you get the meat.” I was careful not to specify which meat exactly, and also hopeful it wasn’t a vegetarian dish.
I found Abigail shortly after, perusing the beef products. “I’m not sure if we’ve got paprika, so let’s get some just in case,” I said, with the confidence of a man who’s just been on Jamie Oliver’s website.
We arrived in the queue for the checkouts, with a basket full of unnecessarily premium ingredients. All the cashiers were Philippinos, the second most populous nationality in Dubai, a nation of expats, after Indians. I had picked up some Tagalog, the primary language in the Philippines, whilst travelling there the previous year. I decided to impress Abigail by making some rudimentary smalltalk in Tagalog as we arrived at checkout number six.
“Magandang gabi. Kumusta ka?” Good evening. How are you? I asked the Philippino girl.
The buzz of activity around us seemed to stop and silence enveloped checkout number six.
The Philippino girl was staring at me, outraged. I racked my brain in fear, had I unintentionally insulted her family or implied she enjoyed multiple sexual partners? In Vietnamese, I remembered, the word for chicken and prostitute is the same, and differs only in intonation. But there are no such complexities in Tagalog, I was sure. Abigail was looking at me curiously, in the way one does when wondering whether a TV dinner for one may have been a better idea. The Philippino girl and I were staring at each other, locked in an awkward stalemate. I considered repeating myself, in case the words had caught her by surprise or passed her by.
Then she spoke. And her words lifted the curtain of silence to reveal a secret garden of shame and ignorance.

“I’m Nepalese.”