A Typical Ko Tao Day

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The beach is empty in the early morning, although the sun is hot enough to enjoy. Coconut palms stretch over the sand to the sea. Longtail boats are anchored in a line a little way out from the shore and, beyond them, more randomly, are the bigger dive boats. Fish writhe in the shallows. An eagle circles overhead. You claim your spot and open your book.

Sometime around ten, a guy wanders out from the dive school, barefoot and shirtless, cracks up a Marlboro and starts to set up for the day. He is a farang but he has been there long enough to synchronise to the local pace. He does everything casually, as if it is not really work. But then why should he rush? Why should anyone rush? He wades out to the boat, grabs the anchor chain and drags it ashore, then loads it with oxygen bottles.

The instructor arrives with a class of laughing students. They try on their masks and startle themselves when they experiment with the oxygen tap. They assemble in the boat and motor out of sight.

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You go back to your book and stay on the beach and colour evenly on each side. The divers come back around six in the evening, still laughing, and repair to loungers in front of the beach bars and balance bottles of Singha on the sand and fuss with Rizlas. The bars play muted dubstep or reggae until the sun has gone and they crank up the volume and the BPM’s and start the fire show.

You stay on the sideline with a bottle of Singha and watch as they set up a limbo pole, douse it in petrol and set it alight. The Thais from the bar, shirts off to show off their tattoos and six-packs, duck under it easily and invite the farangs to have a go. They start a raggedy, giggling line and lurch towards the burning pole and stagger and stumble under it, except one guy in Ray Bans at midnight who slides a cigarette into his mouth and pauses to light it on the pole as he slips underneath.

You’re crazy doing that,” you tell him. But he insists that he only smokes five a day.

© Richard Senior 2015

Vang Vieng: The Town Travellers Conquered

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I got the last seat in the minibus going to Vang Vieng. A bossy woman of somewhere around sixty sat in the front with the driver. She scolded him for using his phone at the wheel and told him to put it away, which he did, but drove the rest of the way with his foot to the floor in revenge. We barrelled through villages at motorway speeds, leaped bumps in the road and felt the g-force on the corners as the tyres screamed in panic.

When we stopped for a welcome toilet break, a young backpacker told the woman she should have kept quiet, but she said that it was the height of arrogance to tell people how to behave. Hang on a minute…everyone else thought, but kept quiet.

Sixty years after France lost its Indochinese empire, forty years after the US pulled out of Southeast Asia, travellers have recolonised this sleepy town armed with nothing more warlike than elephant print trousers and back-to-front baseball caps. They have turned it into an adventure playground.

There are karsts to climb, and cave systems to explore, and the rapidly flowing Nam Song River to float along on an inner tube with a Beerlao in one hand and a joint in the other, as if relaxing on a beanbag at home. There are ‘happy shakes’ and ‘happy pizzas,’ garnished with ganja, ya ba or magic mushrooms, and bars where eating is cheating and water is for washing in and drinks are to be downed in one. And this in a nation so conservative that pop music and jeans were once illegal and sex outside marriage still is.

Every fourth building downtown is a guest house; every tenth is an internet café. The stores in between are bureaux de change, souvenir shops and places to make an “over seacall” or buy a “busticker” to the next destination. The locals shop at stores in villages way out of town or at stalls set up on the old Air America runway, unused by planes since the covert war was abandoned in the middle seventies.

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There is an Australian steakhouse, a French bistro, a kosher restaurant and an Irish pub, which does stews and roasts in the tropical heat, and there are dozens of places to go for a burger, or an English breakfast, and to watch an episode of Friends as you eat.

Wherever you go, there is a hubbub of British, American and Australian English, and English spoken with the accents of other rich countries. Sometimes you hear Spanish, sometimes Russian, sometimes Korean, but rarely Lao.

I am no better than the other travellers: I climbed rock faces, crawled through caves and got hammered; I would have gone tubing, as well, if I were more of a swimmer and less of a coward. But it was hard not to feel ashamed to be part of it all.

Yet, if not tourism, what? A third of Laos’ population lives on less than a dollar a day. Just the other side of the river, across the bridges of bamboo and twine which creak and wobble as you walk on them but which, nonetheless, you share with scooters and cars, it is a world away from the imported culture of Europe and North America which dominates downtown: a world of subsistence farming, of thatched huts, children running naked, women kneeling at the river beating clothes on the rocks, and bent old men pushing older carts, which past generations pushed before them.

It is a scene unchanged since long before Vang Vieng was somewhere you Must Go Before You Die, before it appeared in a profusion of odd-numbered lists, before the first travellers discovered it; before the Pathet Lao came to power, before the CIA sought to influence local wars; before the French folded Laos into their Indochinese empire; before the Burmese and Siamese invaded.

This is the real Laos. Travellers see it briefly from their rented scooters as they hurtle out to the further-flung caves.

© Richard Senior 2015

Thank You for Flying with the Bangkok Helicopter

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It was evening rush hour in Bangkok. The offices emptied of workers and they swarmed on the transport hubs. Motorcycle taxi drivers sat in a line on their bikes at the ends of the sois. Meter cabs worked the main streets. The queues for the buses at the Victory Monument were as long and unruly as they are in London when the Tube drivers strike and there are dozens of applicants for every place on each bus.

I didn’t know which bus to catch to get back to Banglamphu, so I shuttled between stops, and forced my way to the front of each queue in the hope of finding a route map or someone who could tell me where to go; but there was never a route map and no one told me where to go, or at least not in a good way.

I waited to see if the crowds would thin out, but they swelled instead and I gave up on the idea of catching a bus and walked to the main road and flagged down a taxi. “Khao San Road?” I said, and he abruptly drove off by way of reply. The next two ignored me and drove past, and several after that already had fares, so I gave up on the idea of taking a taxi, as well.

That left what is known locally as the Bangkok helicopter: the fastest, most dangerous way to get across town. I approached a knot of drivers and interrupted their sniggering conversation and asked the one who had a spare helmet clipped to his bike if he could take me to Khao San Road. He quoted an inflated price and I tried to haggle but it was a waste of time so I agreed and got on the bike.

I asked for the helmet but he waved a dismissive arm and roared off while I tried to insist. It is illegal in Bangkok to ride without a helmet and I would have been the one to be fined if we were stopped; farangs are easy targets and assumed to be good for the money. I had more immediate anxieties, though, than the risk of being handed a fixed penalty.

I held onto my hat and bag with one hand and gripped the handle with the other. I have no idea what speed we were doing on the expressway, and nor had the driver because the speedo was broken; but it was comfortably above the speed limit. Everyone busts the speed limit in Bangkok if their cars or bikes or trucks will go fast enough. It is so widely ignored the police barely try to enforce it.

The driver kept up the speed as the streets became narrower and busier, ducking through traffic, overtaking a bus, undertaking a truck, carving up a taxi, mounting pavements, weaving to the front of queues at the lights and setting off shortly before they changed, ignoring the horn concerto which the other drivers performed. It seemed to me to be more of an adrenalin sport than a mode of transport. All it would take is a car to swap lanes without warning, a passenger to fling open a door at the lights, a pedestrian to step out between buses.

But locals, as ever, seem relaxed. It is, for them, just a convenient way to get to the office, or school. You see kids of ten or eleven on the back of motorbike taxis, and office girls side-saddle, using the time to finish their make-up. Only the cost would deter them from using the Bangkok helicopter: not the danger.

© Richard Senior 2015

Phnom Penh’s Ghosts

 “Phnom Penh city wakes up early to take advantage of the cool morning breeze before the sun breaks through…. Street vendors push food carts piled with steamed dumplings, smoked beef teriyaki sticks, and roasted peanuts along the sidewalks and begin to set up for another day of business.”

Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father

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Phnom Penh is still recognisable, forty years on, as the city which Loung Ung so vividly recalled from early childhood, before the horror began. The architecture the French left behind is mostly still standing, although often close to derelict. There are still the apartment blocks built in the optimistic first ten years of independence in the Bauhaus-inspired Modern Khmer style. Street food vendors still congregate on every corner. Locals still breakfast on Phnom Penh noodle soup. Motorbike engines still echo through the streets; and cyclos still pedal round looking for custom. The old Olympic Market which Ung wrote about – in disrepair then – has since been demolished and replaced with a concrete monstrosity. But the street markets are still what they have always been: meat and vegetables laid out on mats on the ground; fish swimming in washing up bowls.

The French installed Norodom Sihanouk as king, because they imagined him to be malleable; but he ended up leading Cambodia to independence, and tacking to the right or the left as events seem to demand. He was ostensibly neutral in the Vietnam war, but instinctively anti-American and worried about a South Vietnamese invasion; so he let the communist North build sanctuaries in Cambodia. The US secretly carpet-bombed them, with much collateral damage among the peasants. Sinahouk allegedly approved the bombing in private; and the CIA allegedly approved the coup by General Lon Nol which deposed him.

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Sihanouk, in exile, made an ally of convenience of a Maoist insurgent group known as the Khmer Rouge. His endorsement lent them popular support and they controlled the country by 1975. Sihanouk was nominally head of state again, although in reality under house arrest. They killed much of his family.

The Khmer Rouge cleared everyone out of the cities – even patients from the hospitals – and sent them to work on the land. The five year-old Luong Ung and her family joined what was, for many, a death march. Her parents and two of her sisters were killed.

S21 was a school when the Khmer Rouge arrived. They closed it down and turned it into a political prison. It is preserved as the Genocide Museum. Two rooms are filled with photographs of some of the victims, mostly Khmers, but a handful of Westerners too: an Englishman, an Australian, a couple of Americans and Frenchmen. All were tortured horribly until they signed preposterous accounts of how they had been recruited by the CIA or KGB (the two were much the same to that paranoid regime). Then they were taken away and killed. But not shot. The Khmer Rouge did not want to waste money on bullets. They used anything heavy or sharp which happened to be to hand.

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There are no captions at the Genocide Museum. None is needed. The facial expressions of the victims are as eloquent as a page of text. Many betray the terror which all of them must have felt. Some look beaten in spirit; but quite a few look defiant. One even managed to smile.

Further out of town are the Killing Fields, where the victims were forced to dig their own graves. There are still mounds of earth where the bodies are piled. Human bones sometimes wash up in storms. Few, if any, of those killed had done anything wrong. They might have worked for Lon Nol’s government, like Luong Ung’s father. Or been ethnically Thai or Vietnamese. They might have been monks, or intellectuals, or just looked like intellectuals. Wearing glasses was enough.

The West was wary of getting involved in Southeast Asia after the fall of Saigon. It was, ironically, the Vietnamese who intervened and toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979. A quarter of Cambodia’s population was dead, by then.

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Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, died peacefully at home in 1998. Sihanouk returned as king in 1993. He reigned until 2004. I was in Phnom Penh in January 2013, between his death and cremation. The country was still in mourning.

© Richard Senior 2015   

A Fresh Look at Bangkok

The fruit vendor woke me up as she drove her van down Soi Rambuttri, calling out through a megaphone attached to the roof. The brush seller came after her on a motor tricycle with a putt-putt engine and hee-hawing horn. He had bottle brushes, paint brushes, wire brushes, flue brushes, and every size and every colour of sweeping brush. But no one was buying brushes that morning.

The shopkeepers had rattled up the shutters a few hours before; the barmen had dragged the chairs and tables back onto the street. Travellers sat at a few of them with coffees, cigarettes and Lonely Planet guides; the rest were empty as yet. Tuk-tuk drivers were massing outside the guest houses, like reporters at the home of a shamed politician.

An early ice cream man pedalled past my window on a tricycle with an icebox slung from the handlebars and a tinny chime which suggested a theme from children’s TV. Dee-de-dee; dee-de-dee; dee-de-diddly-dee-de-dee. Behind him was a man with a hundred year-old pushcart piled up with watermelons, who dinged a bicycle bell on the handle as he shoved it down the street. No one was buying watermelons either.

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The street food vendors had claimed their pitches along Rambuttri, around the corner and down the next street. The pad thai, the spring rolls and satays are familiar enough to the travellers passing through, but the rest is new and not all of it welcome, least of all deep-fried crickets and bamboo worms. Thais like them well enough, but if you tell them we eat snails in Europe, they are disgusted.

By the middle of the morning, the roads were an anarchy of honking buses and beeping cars and crazy, fearless motorcycle taxis darting around them; and the pavements were crowded with people and everybody was constantly in somebody’s way. But there were none of the hundred explosions of temper which punctuate every British day, and too readily end in a whirl of fists and knocked over tables. No one seemed to mind very much if someone bumped into them or stood in their way for a moment. And it is easy to say something glib about Buddhist serenity, but it is as much about keeping face.

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The soaring eaves and gilded stupas of Wat Phrakaew and the Royal Palace shimmered in the haze at the other side of the Sanam Luang public gardens.  There are something like 500 temples in the city and monks are as much an everyday sight as nuns in Rome and estate agents in London.

There is a long stretch of pavement near the most important temples filled with dozens of stalls selling amulets. The devout believe that they keep them safe or bring them luck. There are effigies and statuettes, medals and coins, bracelets and pendants, stones and used false teeth. Collectors peer at them through magnifying glasses. Groups of monks browse the stalls. Travellers stop and finger the amulets and pretend that they know what they are looking at.

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A few blocks away, there is a street on which the shops sells nothing but Buddhas. There are tiny Buddhas and enormous Buddhas and all sizes of Buddha in between; there are sitting Buddhas and lying Buddhas, fat Buddhas, thin Buddhas; Buddhas made of plastic and Buddhas made of steel. Then, next to that is a street on which every shop sells policemen’s caps. Elsewhere, there are workshops crammed with boxes and drums, bicycle frames, engine parts, pieces of wood and old bathroom fittings, and right in the back there will be an old man engrossed in repairing a pocket watch or stripping an alternator down. Who knows what his business is? There is never a sign (even assuming you know a ช่าง from a ช้าง) and it is often hard to see any connection between the things inside; much of it looks like junk.

I know that, a couple of miles downtown, there are forests of office blocks which could be in Manhattan, and malls which might be anywhere in Europe, and all your favourite multinationals; and I know that the younger Thais might speak idiomatic, American-accented English, and eat at McDonalds, and stream the same movies and listen to the same music as us. Yet travellers are way too quick to write off Bangkok as ‘Westernised’. So many people said it to me, so automatically, that it was obvious it was no more a view they had come to themselves than when the man in the pub recites something he read in a tabloid about the economy.

For all that is familiar, there is a great deal that is not; and plenty is all but unfathomable for the average farang traveller.

© Richard Senior 2015

Faded Huế

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The arches of the Trường Tiền Bridge soar and dip over the Perfume River, where barges which look two centuries old chug back and forth throughout the day, towards and away from the watercolour mountains far off to the west, and where, of an evening, traders spread their goods on blankets laid out on the bank, and street food vendors light their grills and the flames dance and the smoke coils up and the shrimps sizzle and scent the air, and big neon signs flash adverts from the opposite bank, and lights along the span of the bridge sweep from white to purple to yellow to blue to red to green and white again.

Huế was the capital for the Nguyển dynasty which ruled Vietnam from the start of the nineteenth century. A matryoshka of citadels, one inside the other, led through to the Forbidden Purple City, where the emperor lived with his concubines. There were moats and bastions and multi-tiered gateways; and palaces and temples, and gilded columns and carvings and fretwork, and cylindrical tiles surmounted by dragons. It was a place of exquisite beauty.

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But the city was bombed and shelled and shot at by three different armies in the French and American wars and much lay in ruins when the bell clanged on the final round of the Battle of Huế, which the US Marines won on points.  “Did we have to destroy the town in order to save it?” asked a Marine captain, echoing what another officer had said about Bến Tre further down south a month before.

There is not a lot left of the Forbidden Purple City beyond the stumps of shattered brick which poke from the grass where palaces used to stand, and a portentous flight of steps bookended with dragons which carries you up to an anti-climactic flower bed laid out in the broken foundations.

Elsewhere in the complex, the buildings have been carefully restored and rebuilt. The work is ongoing and, while I was there, men were tearing tin sheets from the roof of a ravaged temple. Enough has been done to evoke the majesty of the Imperial City that was; but there are still dozens of buildings blackened by napalm, pierced with shells, pitted by bullets, untouched and left to decay since 1968, when the battle staggered to its wearied close.

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I spent a good two days wandering the site and – away from the parts which have been freshly restored – I was often alone and there was at least a moat and a two-metre thick wall between me and the bustle of the modern town outside the citadel and the only sounds I could hear were the chirping of birds, the chatter of cicadas and leaves gently falling from the trees.

I strayed into courtyards which time had grassed over and poked inside buildings which looked long forgotten with roofs sagging inwards and rotten doors hanging off hinges. I was not at all sure I was supposed to be there, but there was nothing to keep me out. In one quiet corner, I happened upon an elephant, chained up like a guard dog and left unattended. It huffed and stamped its foot in warning.

In the late afternoon, I left the citadel and made my way across the bridge and back to the hotel with the closing scene of Full Metal Jacket screening in my head:

“We hump down to the Perfume River to set in for the night… I’m so happy that I am alive….”

© Richard Senior 2015

New Year’s East

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I had been bouncing around the Andaman Islands and landed up in Krabi.

A party crowd washed down to the coast for the long weekend, bought fireworks by the armful and let them off on the beach. Street food stalls appeared all the way down the road through Nopparat Thara. Chicken skewers and air-dried squid were piled up on trestle tables; gallons of chilli sauce, hundreds of quartered limes. Smoke from the grills drifted towards Ao Nang. A vendor made som tam in an earthenware mortar, bashing the garlic and chilli, the shredded papaya, the snake beans and tomatoes.

I expected a party on New Year’s Eve on the ponderous curve of peachy sand. But the only poster I saw was for a buffet and live band at a hotel in Ao Nang, and that was hardly worth staying up for.

But, with half a day left to run of the year, I spotted a flyer for Luna Bar (presumably the model for Moon Bar in Richard Arthur’s I of the Sun) which promised deep house and EDM, fireworks and whisky buckets. More fun than a live band and buffet, for sure.

Luna was ominously quiet at 10pm, when I wandered in and scooped up a bucket of the sort which I took to the beach as a child. It came with a quarter of Sang Som whisky, a bottle of Coke and an energy drink and I tipped them in and walked through to the beach, where the holiday crowd was still exploding ordnance. (The firework sellers did well that night.) The bar began to fill up as the year faded out and the crowd spilled onto the beach. They crammed together in raggedy rows, like rush hour commuters, holding up paper lanterns half their own size, lighting them and letting them go. The flickering lights stretched the length of the beach. There were forty, or fifty, or more in the air at a time. A few, swayed by gusts, caught fire and dropped to the water: the rest floated out over spectral karsts, way out into the Andaman Sea.

Then, at midnight, the music stopped and giant Roman candles sputtered into flame on posts along the waterfront. Explosions reverberated like howitzer shells and the glorious colours spilled across the sky. Lines of racing yellow tadpoles mutated into pin cushions of pink, blue and green, distorted, collapsed and came back to earth as a glittering, sparkling downpour.

All the stresses and disappointments I had run away from back home seemed a lifetime ago right then.

Happy New Year!

© Richard Senior 2014

The Kindness of Strangers

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I jumped out of the back of the songthaew (shared taxi) and wandered off to find a guest house. By the time I was a hundred yards down the road, and the songthaew was the other side of the island, it hit me that my daybag was still under the seat. In it were my camera, laptop, emergency funds, spare credit card and enough documents to clone me.

 I flagged down another songthaew and got him to take me to the depot, where they asked me a few questions and I was out at the end of the first round:

“What was the number of the songthaew?”

“Pass.”

“Was it an Izuzu or a Hyundai?”

“Pass.”

 “What was the driver’s name?”

“Pass.”

I looked in the back of the parked songthaews, the controller phoned round the drivers, and I wrote out my contact details, but none of us expected my bag to turn up.

I felt numb as I headed back to Chaweng, checked into a guest house and dropped off what was left of my stuff. But my spirits rose a bit when I went to the beach and felt the powdery white sand underfoot, and a bit more when I sat with a Singha beer and watched the jetskiers carving up the sea and listened to the waves collapsing on the shore. Gradually, as the sun slipped down, everything twisted into focus. It’s only stuff isn’t it? I told myself.

I had an email in the morning from a girl in Moscow, who told me that her mother was on holiday on Samui and had found my bag and in it a print-out with my email address at the top. The lady spoke no English so had asked her daughter back home, who did, to get in touch with me.  I went in a taxi to a smart hotel up in the hills and retrieved my bag with everything still in it.

I had got back what I had given up as lost for good; but – more than that – I had seen human nature at its best. People might get themselves wrapped up with greed and envy, prejudice and spite; but they are capable, too, of spontaneous acts of kindness towards a perfect stranger.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

The Tyranny of the Bucket List

My alarm went off at 3.30am. I got dressed and went out and tagged along with the procession of half-asleep travellers crowded into tuk-tuks or furiously pedalling unlit hire bikes through the crepuscular gloom.  At Angkor Wat, the hawkers were patrolling the car park with torches,

“You wan’ coffee-breakfast?”

“Not now, thanks.”

I joined the concert crowd assembling in front of the temple and sat and waited with increasing impatience for an hour or so until the sun struggled over the horizon. Is that it? I thought and went to get coffee-breakfast.

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It occurred to me later that I had seen dozens of landmarks, just as iconic, but had never before felt the need to get up in the middle of the night and watch the sun rise behind them. But it had never before been a Thing You Must Do before You Die.

It is always a must: a sternly-worded injunction, a must try … do not miss … essential … cannot leave without: never a friendly, you could do this if you want. It is like working for a manager proud of being difficult.  I have been white water rafting, but that was in Thailand which doesn’t seem to count. You have to raft the Lower Zambezi or nothing. I have been to Ibiza several times – I was there for the openings once – but I have never been to a closing party, and that is all the authors of bucket lists recognise. I am not doing very well.

I have no chance of getting to all of the 1000 places in Patricia Schultz’s book, especially if I have to find time to read the 1001 books and see the 1001 movies listed in the Quintessence Editions. And I have not even looked at 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Before You Die. There are still things outstanding which I should have done before I was 25.

Come to think of it, though, it is hard to see how any one person will ever do all the things which routinely appear on bucket lists. The sort who dream of making a million, meeting the president and having things named after themselves are never going to live out of a van. Someone putting in the work to get a book published and have an artwork in an exhibition, while becoming fluent in a foreign language, inventing something and running his or her own business, will not have the time to visit every country in the world. He or she will be hard pressed to fit in milking a cow and skinny dipping at midnight.

In truth, I am not fussed if I never see A Clockwork Orange, and I have wrestled with Finnegans Wake before and been beaten and I am not likely to try again, and while I had the chance to go to the Golden Triangle when I was in Southeast Asia, I decided not to bother. I have no intention of doing a runner from a fancy restaurant, and I certainly don’t want to get arrested. I cannot see the point of shouting “the drinks are on me” in a crowded bar, even if (which I don’t) you have pots of money; and I am not sure there is anything to forgive my parents for.

There are, as well, a load of things I have done and want to do which I have never seen on any bucket list but which will stay in my memory long after that early morning at Angkor Wat has faded.

So when I went to Peru and they told me I had to see Machu Picchu at sunrise, I ignored them and spent longer in bed.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014

“It is the Journey that Matters in the End…” as Hemingway DIDN’T Say

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It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end,” wrote Ursula K Le Guin in her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, although the internet tends to credit it to Hemingway.

The idea is baffling to regular fortnight a year vacationers, for whom journeys mean getting up early, battling across town, standing in line, getting half undressed, being scanned and frisked, having bits of their hand luggage confiscated, being bullied by cabin staff, sitting for hours between an old lady who thinks out loud and a fat man who snores very loudly, and watching the drinks trolley creep up the aisle to the row before theirs, then shoot back up the other end of the plane and behind the curtain for the rest of the flight, then bowing to pressure from the crowd to stand up the second the plane has come to a stop, even though they know that the doors will not open for ages; then standing in line again and again and again until they have stamps in their passports, cases in their hands and taxis to take them to hotels.

If this is what matters, might as well stay at home.

But on a longer trip, when you are dotting about from place to place, by train, by bus, by car by bike, what you see as you travel between the big sights will lodge in your mind as firmly as the sights themselves. You can get as much from the journey as you can from the end.

When I think of Cambodia, I think of the bus ride to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap, through rural villages of wooden houses balanced on stilts, of hayricks, pitchforks and ox carts, of broods of chicks jogging after hens. In the bank of memories from Vietnam are the journeys on overnight trains, waking and looking out of the window at villagers kneeling in conical hats to harvest the rice in the half-light of the early morning. I remember long road trips in South America through epic landscapes of mountains and plains which stretched for ever, and the occasional Andean herdsman tending llamas an hour from the smallest town.

In New Zealand it was the journeys I enjoyed the most. There is not much to Picton and little more to Nelson but the Inter City bus took a glorious route between them, through the Marlborough wine region where the vines had turned and flooded the fields with an ocean of yellow on either side of the single track road, where the mountains were stacked three deep: green then grey then blue. The Tranz Alpine Express train threaded its way from coast to coast, from the ruins of Christchurch to the thrift stores of Greymouth with me gazing up at endless mountains, and into the depths of a gorge at a fast-flowing river, and out across the expanse of a pine forest with splashes of yellow and brown among the deep dark green.

I rarely plan a trip in detail, sometimes hardly at all. But I always know where I am going to end up. I need that to give it some kind of structure, and to focus on when things go wrong and half of me wants to jack it all in and go home. There is always an end, and it is always a destination; but there is always a whole lot more to the trip. There are all the intermediate ends, the UNESCO sites, the bucket list staples, the Must Sees, the Wonders of the World and – more mundanely – the towns where the ferries dock, the cities where the buses stop; the stations at the ends of the lines. And there are the landscapes and townships and villages I pass through as I travel between them.

It is good to have an end to journey towards; but, yes, it is the journey that matters in the end.

(c) Richard Senior 2014