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Elephant street scene

A man ran towards me, waving. He wore over-sized sultan slippers and held on to a bejewelled turban. ‘Rope!’ he called out breathlessly, ‘I am in needing of some rope.’

‘Rope?’

‘And an ox, or perhaps an elephant.’

There was an explosion from further down the valley. ‘Please, no time to lose!’

We ran back down the narrow track. A brightly painted bus was stuck, its back wheels spinning furiously, ripping up turf; its tortured engine flat out. When the driver saw me he instinctively jammed on the brakes. The bus slid backwards, to the bottom of the hill.

There was silence apart from the hiss of steam from the radiator and the squelch of our shoes on the monsoon-drenched path. Five rifle-brandishing soldiers, who appeared to be wearing thick make up, peeked from behind the bus.

They tensed as I picked up a branch from the ground.

There are some advantages to having grown up in the interminable winters of northern England. I placed the branch in front of the rear tyres. The soldiers sprang into action, gathering more fallen foliage. They cheered as the bus inched up the slope. When it reached the road, the only man without a spat of dirt on his clothing, shook me warmly by the hand. He introduced himself as Joy. ‘Ha! You have saved us,’ he said, laughing. ‘Let me introduce you to our leading lady. You will be liking her very much.’

The leading lady, Sophia

The leading lady, Sophia

The sultan, the soldiers, the leading lady; it was beginning to make sense. We climbed aboard the bus, stepping round cameras and lighting rigs, to a woman sitting serenely at the back doing a crossword puzzle. She stood and brought her hands together. ‘I am Sophia,’ she said. ‘You are very handsome. You look like an apple. Would you like to be in our film?’

The director, a professorial man with a pencil thin moustache, strode towards me, appraising me through a frame of his thumbs and index fingers. ‘Drug smuggler,’ he said. ‘See you on set in the morning.’

 

By the following morning, rumour was rife that the Englishman who had ‘single-handedly saved the bus from a swamp’, was also a Hollywood star. On the five minute walk from my guest house to the bus, I was asked for my autograph seven times, and when I arrived, the crew all stood and applauded.

On set

On set

Maybe it was first morning nerves; perhaps it was a reaction to the Full Fortifying Monty breakfast, but as Joy ushered me aboard the bus, I felt an urgent need for a bathroom. He assured me the film location was only minutes away… 189 minutes to be precise.

As soon as the bus doors opened I lurched to a fence behind a line of trees. I did what I’d needed to do for nearly two hours and, feeling severely weakened, I turned to make my way back. There, standing staring at me, was a crowd of over a hundred men. ‘Hello,’ one of them said. ‘Would you like to visit my bicycle shop?’

 

A boy pushed his way through the crowd. ‘Please come,’ he said earnestly. ‘Police is needing to see you.’

I followed, the crowd a couple of yards behind me.

What had I done? Did I require a filming permit? Had I inadvertently soiled sacred ground?

The policeman puffed out his chest. ‘What,’ he demanded, ‘is being your name?’

I watched him make a note in a small book.

‘What country is it that you are coming from?’ Again, he jotted down my answer. ‘Why do we have your presence in our village?’

I could feel the crowd shifting nervously. The policeman slotted his notebook into a pocket.

‘Please to come with me.’

He led me away from the crowd towards an imposing building I took to be the jail. It was twice as high as the surrounding houses. Inside it was dark and damp.

‘Wait here,’ he said and left me.

Since that day my travels have led me into many sticky situations, but this was the first time I’d ever really thought I was in serious trouble.

The door opened and hundreds of people filed in and encircled me. Children giggled nervously. Light flooded the room once more. A giant with a long beard appeared in the doorway. He walked towards me in complete silence, carrying a ghetto blaster. His face creased into a princely smile.

‘I am the mayor,’ he said. ‘Mr Robin, it is a great pleasure to be having you in our village.’ He turned to address the assembled village. ‘We are blessed, truly blessed to have a star in our midst.’ There was a smattering of applause. ‘And now,’ he said, turning to me again. ‘Please,’ his hands pressed together as if in prayer ‘dance.’

‘What?’

He flashed his smile, wobbled his head and pressed play on the cassette recorder. The music that filled the room, the music to which I was being asked to dance in front of hundreds of strangers, was The Rivers of Babylon by Boney M.

Sophia with her minder, Joy, and the rookie Bollywood drug smuggler

Sophia with her minder, Joy, and the rookie Bollywood drug smuggler

It has a jaunty enough beat once it gets going, but it’s not a tune to encourage any true dance floor expression. I did my best. I clowned around, juggled invisible balls, and sashayed this way and that. By the end of the song I was running low on ideas. I bowed with a dramatic flourish, sure my performance would be found wanting. The assembled village erupted into wild, rapturous applause.

The director and cameramen

The director and cameramen

The mayor stepped forward and shook me vigorously by the hand. ‘Excellent, most very excellent!’ he said.

Standing grinning next to the mayor, was Sophia. The mayor hustled her forward. ‘And now…’ Another princely smile. ‘Again!’

Sophia, the Bollywood star, shimmied and twirled around me; coquettish and coy yet commanding. I couldn’t begin to match her dexterity and grace, so I merely mimicked her moves, and when she pirouetted behind me, pretended she’d pinched my bum.

The song finished. I saw the mayor move towards the cassette recorder but before he could rewind the tape once more the director whispered in his ear. Sophia and I were needed. Relieved, I walked, Sophia’s arm interlinked with mine, towards my film debut. I was going to be the best damn drug smuggler ever committed to celluloid.

Part of the day's routine was dancing to Boney M on the crew bus

Part of the day’s routine was dancing to Boney M on the crew bus

But not today. My scene, the director promised, was scheduled for first thing in the morning.

I watched Sophia’s scene being shot. There was just one camera and no sound equipment. All the dialogue, music and effects would be dubbed in later. Watching Sophia face off with the money lender was to witness a master class in wordless expression. Her arms gestured and eyes flashed angrily, but her lips merely mumbled an approximation of the dialogue.

 

The following morning I was told the man playing the money lender had to return to being a taxi driver in Madurai and they needed to film his scene. Mine was bumped once more.

 

By the fifth day I reasoned that as everyone thought I was a film star, I may as well act like one.

‘I can’t work like this,’ I bawled at the director, ‘If I don’t film my scene today, I’m going.’

‘Why?’ he said.

‘I need to… go.’

‘I write scene especially for you.’

I thought he had done this days ago.

‘You will be chased,’ he said, with a dramatic sweep of his arms, ‘By entire village.’

I nodded. He paused.

‘Scene open with you running like crazy man. You can do that?’ he asked. ‘Like crazy man?’

Sure, I could run like crazy man.

‘You look behind, and see angry crowd; stones, stones throwing, Molotov cocktails throwing. Men shooting, but you running.’

I nodded again. This sounded more like it.

‘You running through tea plantation, but they don’t be getting you. You run through chai shop through the school and police station. A woman sitting at writing machine-’

‘A typewriter?’

‘Writing machine, yes. You push her and run outside and…’ He hesitated and looked round. A man rode by on a motorbike, carrying a live duck by the neck.

‘And,’ he continued, ‘You jump on motorcycle and drive away.’

He smiled. ‘Is scene pleasing you?’

It was.

‘We begin shooting in fifteen minutes.’

I ran to change into a black shirt I’d had made in Calcutta. It was the most convincing drug dealer outfit I had with me.

When I returned, the director had disappeared. I asked Joy where he’d gone.

‘For your scene he is wanting red sky.’ He looked up and squinted in the bright sunlight. ‘It surely will be happening tomorrow.’

The next morning I resumed my journey. A year later I received a letter from Joy. He said the film had been seen by only 17 million people. ‘Perhaps if you had stayed to film your scene, it would have been a success.’

Travelling north, wondering what might have been...

Travelling north, wondering what might have been…

 

 

Michael Jacobs

I rose with the desert sun, a mere two hours after having returned from a Mojito soaked evening in a salsa club. It was my last night in Mexico and I had to be up early to catch one of several flights to reach home. Why is it, I thought to myself, that an early start is so frequently foreshadowed by a late night?

I found myself thinking about my friend, the writer and bon viveur, Michael Jacobs. I’d recently been re-reading his excellent book, Andes, in which he constantly squeezes every last drop out of an evening. For him, late night carousing and early morning volcano scaling would often be punctuated only by a quick shower and change of clothes. The first time I met him we spent the night drinking Guatemalan rum until I was sweating the stuff. The following morning I felt every bit as ropey as I did now.

Michael in full flow at an event in Belgravia Books last year

Michael in full flow at an event in Belgravia Books last year

I reached for my phone, keen to head-off the unpleasant jolt of my alarm. Still rubbing sleep from my eyes, I scrolled through my mails. To delay getting out of bed a few moments longer, I opened up Facebook. Funnily enough, right at the top of my newsfeed was a picture of Michael proudly receiving a culinary award. It was a photo I had first seen a few months before. It was unlike him to repeat a photo, or indeed, to repeat anything. I read the accompanying text. It was written by two of his Spanish friends, saying that Michael had died.

I read the post again, desperately hoping I had misunderstood, but the many messages that had already been left, mirroring my own shock and sadness, put the news beyond doubt.

Although Facebook is very effective at broadcasting personal news, especially for someone with so many friends spread so widely throughout the world, we’re all still struggling with the etiquette. The post announcing Michael’s death had 26 “Likes”.

I only met Michael towards the end of 2012, at the launch of his last book, The Robber of Memories, and was immediately struck by his irrepressible modesty – on this, a night dedicated to him and his new publication – his boundless charm and genuine interest in others.

The Robber of Memories paperback jacket 2

In the book, which many believe to be his best, he navigates the often murky waters of the great Colombian river, the Magdalena. The journey is interwoven with a very personal meditation on the effects of memory loss. If there is one silver lining in Michael’s premature passing, it is that he was spared the destructive power that dementia had on the minds of both his parents and one of his literary heroes, Gabriel García Márquez.

One of the people to whom The Robber of Memories was dedicated was his much loved Uncle Brendan, a doctor who helped Michael to deal with the slow disappearance of his father’s lucid mind. His advice could have been Michael’s own motto for his time on earth: “to enjoy one’s own life with added intensity.”

When I began writing The Mango Orchard, one of the few texts I found that gave me some clues about how I should approach a book which combined an exploration into my family’s past with travel writing, was Ghost Train through the Andes by Michael Jacobs. Not only was he retracing an ancestor’s journey (his grandfather’s), it was also a journey that took him to Latin America (Chile and Bolivia).

Ghost Train Jacket

It was therefore a great thrill meet him at the launch of his latest excellent book, The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia. Despite my own memory of the evening being blurred by Michael’s generous helpings of Colombian rum I managed to remember that he agreed to meet again so I could interview him for the magazine Ventana Latina

ROM Launch, Autumn, 2012 133

The interview gives a fascinating insight into the writing of the book and the meeting with Gabriel García Márquez that inspired it. Please click here to read the interview in ENGLISH or SPANISH.

I will also be “in conversation” with him at Belgravia Books on March 14th. I can’t promise Colombian rum, but there will be wine and nibbles… more details to follow

 

 

This is an article I was asked to write by Susan Heim in May last year. This year’s  first resolution is to write all articles within 7 months of being asked!

 

Come the beginning of a New Year, we often assess our lives and make a commitment. We promise ourselves we’ll quit smoking, get a new job, give up chocolate, take up sword swallowing, learn Russian, or spend more time with the family.

 

sword swallowing

Some people will do anything to get out of spending more time with the family

 

This year several people have told me that they intend to spend more time with their family, but not necessarily in the sense that they intend to head home from the office half an hour earlier or attend their son’s soccer practice. They were talking about family history.

People embarking on a genealogical investigation are usually struck with two emotions. Firstly, there’s the heady excitement of undertaking a voyage of discovery into who we are, where we come from. There’s the thrill of the unknown: maybe there’s royalty in the family; perhaps an ancestor discovered a cure to a tropical disease, wrote a world-famous opera, or murdered his entire village and ran away to Papua New Guinea where he was mistaken by a local tribe for a hearty lunch. You never know… until you find out…

To read the rest of this article on Susan Heim’s blog, please click here

 

The Oaxaca Times recently asked if they could reprint the article I wrote for Traveller magazine last year to coincide with the release of the English language release of The Mango Orchard in Mexico, and seeing as it’s pertinent to today’s date, I thought I’d post it here:

I arrived in Oaxaca in the half light of an early April morning. Still stiff from my journey, I stretched out on a bench outside the bus Central and watched an old man walk by, bent double with the weight of the basket of pineapples he was carrying on his back. Small clouds of dust rose from his every sandaled step, as though his feet were disturbing spirits desperate to be released from the earth. I arrived in Oaxaca shattered and broken hearted; damaged after a thirty hour bus journey, away from Juanita, the Guatemalan girl with whom I saw my future, in pursuit of the ghosts of my past.

Even years later, I cannot fully explain what compelled me to make the decision to leave Juanita and follow in my great grandfather’s footsteps through Mexico. It certainly didn’t make any sense to me that morning; I was too exhausted and bereft of understanding to appreciate being anywhere.

En route to my hotel I passed a cemetery, its giant tomb stones like a skyline of gothic skyscrapers. Even at that early hour, I saw people replacing flowers and dusting headstones. It seemed fitting to begin my Mexican adventures in a town famed for its celebration of the departed; a place where the past is not so distant from the present.

I slept until mid-afternoon, when I was woken by an earth tremor. There was something ghostly about the low groaning rumble from beneath the surface of the earth. In my sleep-hazed state I wondered if Juanita was sending me messages through the elements. Or if someone else was.

One of my great grandfather’s photos from Oaxaca

Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I opened my bedroom window on to a meadow of roasting roofs and domed towers glinting in the sun. There was hardly any breeze and the heat of the afternoon had the hue and unhurriedness of treacle. There was something both unsettling and reassuring about being woken from a heavy sleep to find the wakeful world not so different from the one I had just left.

A Storm Brewing over Monte Alban

I spent a couple of days visiting Mitla and then Monte Albán, the ancient capital of the Zapotec people, for which Oaxaca is rightly famed. These were both places that I knew my great grandfather had visited. His sepia photographs of the head scarfed women standing in front of Mitla’s mosaics had helped to colour my boyhood image of Mexico. I felt no trace of his presence though. The closest I came to a spiritual encounter was a fierce storm that whipped up such whirlwinds of dust and grit in the causeways in between the Monte Albán pyramids, the staff had to close the site several hours early.

The next day I visited several of the 17th century baroque churches left by the Spanish. The air was infused with incense, cool and dark; the bright sunshine filtered by blue stained glass and weak candle light reflected in gold leaf. For all their grandeur however, I found the churches more impressive than beautiful, and more awe inspiring than nourishing for the soul.

My search to discover my great grandfather’s secrets had so far led me to tombs and temples which failed to move me. I needed to try a different tack, or abandon my quest and return to Juanita. The next morning, remembering my favourite travellers’ maxim, if you don’t have a map you can never get lost, I left my guidebook at the hotel and set out into Oaxaca once more.

Opposite the hotel a Jacaranda tree had carpeted the street with purple. Whistling and kicking his way through the blossom confetti was a man carrying a tray of cigarettes and two flasks of coffee. I reckoned that anyone with anything to sell would gravitate to where people communed, so followed him down high-walled side streets, flowers reaching across telegraph wires like bunting, and on to wider avenidas. I noticed a man with armfuls of washing up brushes and another weighed down with eggs whisks, oven gloves and several dozen boxes of women’s tights, and another pushing a wheelbarrow full of popcorn. All were heading in the same direction. They crossed a small patch of wasteland and weaved their way through a collection of VW colectivo minibuses that were gathered like cows congregated in the corner of a field. Beyond was a tianguis, an unofficial market in which people displayed their random wares on plastic sheets: second hand self-help books, plastic guns, bird cages, coat hangers, car batteries, spanners, keep fit videos and painted replicas of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Seven Dwarves.

The tianguis morphed imperceptibly into an official market, goods arranged on wooden stalls: net curtains, carpets, clothing, machetes, penknives and kitchen utensils, computer games and pirated DVDs, tethered goats and boxes of frogs.

On I walked, to the in-door market, housed in a giant tram shed of a building. I was greeted with the smell of roasting meat and powdered spices, shouts of pasele, pasele, the rhythmic smack of the butchers’ cleaver, competing mariachi bands and a display of watermelon sliced open, the blood red flesh crawling with bees. Beyond it were brightly illuminated pyramids of passion fruit, mangos, prickly pears and kumquats.

Children in school uniform sat on the stall steps doing their homework with satchels at their feet, or spooned their lunches from plastic containers as their parents negotiated over their heads.

I took a seat at a food stand in the heart of the market, run by a thick set woman with ruddy features who stirred a vat of black mole with a wooden spoon the size of an oar. She passed me my order of quesadillas, which I ate happily listening to her sing along with a lone mariachi strumming his round-backed guitar. The lyrics to their melancholic song cautioned a lover not to go back, but to follow his dreams. Sitting there in this cathedral to daily life, I knew that my Mexican adventures were only just beginning.

 

I’ve had quite a response to my last post – I suppose any blog that has the word pornography in the title is always going to turn people’s heads. A few people wrote to complain about the photo I’d included. “That’s not an airport floor!” they said, “Are you sure that isn’t your personal stash?

Okay, so I’ll come clean, the photo, while closely resembling the pile of pornographic magazines that were thrown on to the airport floor, because I didn’t have a camera to hand, is actually the result of a search on the internet. But before I talk about that, to the people who complained, can I just say that you obviously studied the photo a great deal more closely than me.

About the blog photo, please allow me to pass on a piece of advice: never, never, never put the words “piles of pornographic magazines” into an internet search box. The search engine returned images I wish I had never seen. As well as pictures of pornography, piles of magazines, piles of pornographic magazines, it also offered up pornographic images featuring people with piles…

So to all those people who were upset not at the site of a pile of pornography, but the surface beneath it, I offer my sincere apologies and a picture of an airport floor.

An Airport Floor

I came across an article in The Telegraph the other day listing some of the best excuses for late trains. Among my favourites are “The train now arriving on platform one is on fire. Passengers are advised not to board this train.” And a Cardiff to London train being suspended because of “a giant clown on the line”.

 

On my travels I’ve been delayed by a bus driver’s mother’s birthday party, a bison on a landing strip, and even a fleet of combine harvesters parked at the end of a runway by angry farmers. But never before have pictures of naked women been to blame.

I am travelling from “London” Luton, to fly to Bucharest for a meeting about a film I am writing. The train to get there arrives bang on time. It steams in to the station. I see the blurred faces of confused passengers who had planned to get off. Then I hear the squealing of brakes. A strong burning smell fills the air and the train finally comes to a halt with half of the last carriage at the platform. The commuters and I look at each other. As one, we start running towards the train. I am expecting it to reverse to meet us half way. But no, when we are thirty or forty yards away, the train pulls off.

I see the station announcer raise the microphone to his mouth. “Sorry,” he says, shrugging, “I think he forgot.”

The next train does stop, but unfortunately it also stops at 100 other stations en route and when I reach the airport I have to run to the gate, barely breaking step to clear security. But I needn’t have bothered, there’s another delay. I ready myself for the excuse.

Just in case you can’t imagine what a pile of porn looks like!

A young man with a bashful but defiant expression is locked in a heated discussion with the airline staff. They say his carry-on luggage weighs too much. He says it doesn’t, the airline people insists it does. This goes on for a while.

Eventually, another airline official, a woman with the air of a senior librarian, arrives at the gate. She looks over her half-moon glasses at the young man and makes it absolutely clear that the flight will go without him unless he makes his case lighter.

He sighs, then swallows and unzips his bag. He rummages around for a minute and then drops a magazine on the floor, then another, then another, then another. By the time he has finished, there’s a pile of about twenty magazines of absolute filth scattered on the floor. The other passengers (mainly male, it has to be said) take turns to tut and shake their heads while taking a good look.

The young man looks broken-hearted.

I wait for the apologetic tannoy announcement “We’re very sorry for the delay of the flight to Bucharest. This was caused by heavy pornography.”