absentfather

Letters for my kids to read in the future, from around the world now

Archive for the month “January, 2012”

Bit more musing from the Big Mango

Dear George,

I haven’t managed to take many pictures of Bangkok to show you, or rather I didn’t want take many photos of Bangkok. I think I was expecting more exposure to the exotic, that is what Bangkok is famous for after all, but it seems unless you are willing to brave the renowned horrors of Patpong the city is predictable and unsurprising. Patpong is the ‘tourist’ area of fabled ping pong shows (although I am reliably informed there are now cigar shows, frog shows and reverse ping pong shows – the mind boggles) and I have enough of an imagination to know that I would find the experience intimidating, disappointing, but worst of all tragic. People go to say they have been, or to genuinely look for the freak show vaudeville that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the civilised world, but once the curiosity or excitement has subsided they must see it for what it is: somebody’s daughter doings something disgusting for money because she has to or she knows no better. Social conscience removed by being away from home, westerners can justify the experience to themselves, and I think it would be the audience at such places which would disturb me the most.

So instead I met some colleagues eating in an Italian restaurant, but instantly regretted it – they were dour and made conversation difficult, so I escaped with two others that I actually do get along with. We walked around for a while taking in the street-side markets, the food vendors selling live animals and any sort of dead creature on a stick and decided to rest at a pavement establishment that looked suitably low market. The girl serving us played a good game of making us feel welcome with very limited English through fake smiles whilst insisting we pay over the odds for drinks. We obliged with glee, knowing full well we were paying tourist prices and hamming up the experience with other customers (“how much are you paying?” etc). We sat in the evening heat, cars rushing past, the diverse population streaming by and various animals circling our table. A cat insisted on first brushing against us and then violently attacking our feet, but then turned its attention to a frog that it pounced upon repeatedly and batted about the head. The occasional beggar walked past, or hopped past, with a cup, the horns blared but we were pretty content just chatting away over a Leo beer or two. An Indian family on holiday sat near us, obviously thinking that we had eaten there and it must be okay and proceeded to order all the seafood they could muster. Mussels, clams, prawns and squid: basically a Russian roulette of E.coli and botulism. We took a tuck tuck back to the hotel and got to bed at a reasonable hour, finally feeling liked have adjusted to the time zone, just in time to fly home!

I’m now in the business class lounge in Bangkok airport with a plate of sushi and a glass of whiskey, hoping that it will sedate me for the 10 hour flight ahead of me, taking me back to you.

More when I am next away in a few weeks

Love

Dad

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The Big Mango

Dear George,

I arrived in Bangkok early yesterday morning (around 1am), had about 5 hours sleep and then had to get up for a full day of appointments, so my sleep deprived existence continues. I missed speaking to you on Skype because your mum had to leave the house to collect your grampa’s car and I couldn’t speak to you last night because the internet was down in the hotel, so I haven’t seen you in a few days. Apparently you are crying all the time unless someone holds your hands so that you can practice walking. Please don’t start walking before I get home. I suppose I am going to miss all these things because of travel. Apparently you are already saying “car” and “shoes” and I’ve only been away just over a week.

Bangkok (the ‘Big Mango’, as opposed to the Big Apple) is not how I remember it from 4 years ago. It is busier, more modern with far more westerners here. Your mother and I first came to Thailand in 2001 as part of our world tour and gave Bangkok a miss,  instead just visiting islands and beaches. Even then it was incredibly popular as a holiday destination, not just for northern Europeans but for Asians, Americans, Latin Americans – it was verging on being ruined by its own popularity and I can only assume those same beach resorts now are. I’ve been here one full day, but even in that time you get a sense of changes, attitude and people around you. I like to categorise the westerners  I see around me and so far this is my little game when I am the BST (Bangkok Sky Train): In my eyes there are only a few categories:

1) Couple dressed casually = tourists

2) Couple dressed scruffily, probably with braids, fishermans trousers, bangles, etc = backpackers

3) Man in suit = visiting business man

4) Couple with pram = expats

5) Couple of tanned men sharing iced drink = gay expats

6) Man on his own, or holding hands with much younger Thai woman = sex tourist

I know, I am a terrible stereotypist, but it keeps me amused. Why does the entire world descend on Bangkok? Everyone can find the experience they are looking for here – a luxury break, the cheapest of holidays, a hedonistic weekend or a spiritual journey – and the local people are forward thinking, accepting and business-minded. The City, like many in Asia, comes alive at night when market stalls are erected and the population pours onto the streets to find everything available to mankind. I met up with two colleagues last night and took a wander through the (rather sterile for BKK) streets around the hotel. I’m staying in the Novotel in Siam Square, bang in the middle of the city, which is much more developed and westernised than I remember. There are still children made to work, either begging, playing instruments or as part of the enticement game for tourist stalls – it makes my blood boil. The malls over the road have all the trappings of Europe, the USA and the rest of the consuming world: Krispy Kreme donuts, McDonalds, Tesco, Starbucks and restaurants from all four corners. The only thing I couldn’t find was Thai food! We looked for a bar to relax in, but I suppose retail space is so expensive that they cannot afford to set up and the only place open in the whole district was a Hard Rock Cafe playing very loud live music so we gave it a miss and had a couple of beers in the hotel lobby instead, getting bitten on the legs by mosquitoes.

I’ll take my camera out tonight and try to get a visual record. When I first started travelling for work I took my camera everywhere, but after a while I became ambivalent and stopped. Such a mistake, as there are some places that I used to visit frequently that I will probably never go back to now – I only have 2 photos of Bogota in Colombia for example, hardly any photos of Uganda or Nigeria or Pakistan. I’m going to make more of an effort to capture this period of my life, although there is always the question of what I’ll do with these pictures. They tend not to be the kind you frame or put on your wall. Just for me and memories I suppose. Here is the view out of my window until later:

View across Siam Square, Bangkok

Love

 

Dad

Expat rant

Dear George,

When you grow up I definitely want you to explore the world – experience new things, meet lots of different people, taste, smell and appreciate what the world has to offer. I don’t want you to become an expat though. As a younger man I always thought that at some stage I would live overseas. Probably somewhere hot, somewhere exotic, but now I realise that I don’t want to and the existence of expats seems somewhat shallower than you can experience in your home country. Expats here in Taiwan have always bothered me, because they are so defensive of their decision to live here, insisting that it is paradise so strongly to the point that I don’t trust them, that they don’t believe it themselves, that it is a bit tragic. Ultimately they are not accepted into the culture fully and they will always be a foreigner, despite speaking the language and trying very hard. They are not Chinese in attitude or spirit. To some degree this is not so much the case with women expats who have married local men, not sure why. I went to a bar last night and the English barman insisted the this was home (he’d been here 11 years) and was the best place on earth. He then found company with local girls he did not know and spent the evening speaking to them in English, in an English themed pub. To me that does not seem like he is acting very Taiwanese, that it makes here ‘home’. Friends that have become expats find comfort in the lifestyle. Undoubtably life is easier, the money often goes further and there is less stress which is worth a great deal. But there are compromises for these rewards: culture is inaccessible, the bubble of fellow expats is small, insular and aware of everyone’s business, plus you are away from friends and family – the people who really know you. I sometimes think it is an escape for some people. The oddballs I see in Japan for example. They are walking down the street with a huge grin on their face and a beautiful Japanese girl on their arm, the likes of which they could never attract at home. Maybe I’m missing something, and I’m sure there is a deeper understanding to be had when you live overseas. There is certainly a whole ream of other advantages. Taiwan is safe, efficient, clean, polite with great food and it is hard not to like. Personally I’d rather be a visitor to many places than a resident of few.

I’m leaving Taiwan today and am on my way to the airport in the back of a cab. They have TV screens in the front so the driver can watch whilst he is driving. Like most Asian countries you need your wits about you in traffic here so I hope he doesn’t bump someone off their scooter. Taiwan has the highest scooter ownership per capita of anywhere in the world – more than one for each person. The streets are lined with parked scooters and they swarm at the front of traffic jams at red lights like angry bees.

Some more images to remember Taipei by:

Pearl Milk Tea

Heading out of any town in Taiwan you see strange little shacks at the side of the road that are illuminated by fluorescent strip lights and have a counter. Behind the counter is a young woman wearing lingerie or a bikini, usually looking bored. When I first saw it I thought it was some sort of brothel but found out it is where they sell beetle nut from. This is something truckers and taxi drivers chew and then spit out the red juice it produces. You see it on the pavements and roads.

I’ll write again when I get to Bangkok.

Love

Dad

Fast food, slow trip

Monday 16th January 2012

Dear George,

So far I have only managed to speak to you/see you once since I left 4 days ago. This is one of the most annoying things about being the other side of the world for work – whenever I’m awake, you guys are asleep and visa-versa. Just enough time difference to miss each other at night and in the morning and then when I do get through there are other annoyances: a bad connection, tiredness, one or the other is in a rush, etc, but I think it is mostly just because you can’t call whenever you want then it doesn’t seem like a choice. I might not have anything to say or even be in the mood to chat, so it is sometimes hard to maintain enthusiasm and that sometimes comes across badly. Hard to explain, but let’s just say it is one of the most annoying things about being the other side of the world for work.

I’m currently in a Mos Burger restaurant near Songjiang Nanjing station in central Taipei having lunch before an appointment with an agent across the road. Mos Burger is a Japanese chain that really should be a global phenomenon. Not only does their food taste amazing, but they do everything well – service, choice, portion size. You can have a burger bun made of rice instead of bread, shredded beef instead of a burger and they serve everything to your table in cute little baskets. They even have baskets under the chairs for you to store your stuff whilst you eat. I often feel self conscious if I go into a restaurant and eat alone, but somehow it is okay in a fast food joint. The more you eat in different parts of the world the more you realise that we are the odd ones out and have it wrong. In Asia it is typically cheaper to eat out than cook for yourself; everyone chooses different things and then shares (even in a Mos burger) and time is always made for mealtimes – no eating at your desk or eating alone. It is very much a social event every day.

It’s been raining a lot here, which is a shame as I wanted to take my camera out for some street shots this morning, but the light was bad and I couldn’t face getting wet. As soon as I stepped out without my camera I started to see things I wanted to shoot- groups of school kids messing about on the MTR, flocks of birds, queues of people waiting for street food in clouds of the vendors steam. Trouble is with these kind of photos is that you take them, admire them and then never look at them again. Not good enough to turn into posters, not the kind of photo you frame for your house. Still, I think it is a good habit to make you look at the world around you in more detail. If you are looking for a photo you look a little harder. There are many hobbies I had when I was younger that I no longer make time for. Photography, experimental cooking, writing, but most of all I miss drawing and painting. I don’t think is is the physical task of drawing or even seeing the results of what I’d drawn that I miss, but the feeling of inspiration that makes one draw in the first place. I don’t take time to admire others’ work or survey the world around me for subject matter like I used to. I was never great at it anyway, but I do miss having a creative outlet. Up to me to sort it out, and not exactly a big problem in life!

My hotel view

Interesting fact of the day is about emoticons. You’ll know all about these growing up with technology all around you. Because many Asian people smile with their eyes rather than their mouths they have different sets of emoticons to represent this. For us a smiley face is 🙂 but for them a smiley face is ^_^

Hope you are having a nice day. You are probably comatosed next to your mother in bed, occasionally slapping her in the face, as is your current habit.

Love

Dad

Jet lag and other stories

CKS Memorial Hall, Taipei - 360 degrees

Sunday 15th January 2012

Dear George

Jet lag is killing me today. It’s 11:30 in the morning and I’ve been wide awake since 4AM. It’s a strange thing, because you think that your body has adjusted to the new time zone, you have slept a whole night and woken up at a normal time and then the next night, kapow! Your eyes snap open not long after you have fallen asleep and you are instantly as awake as if it were midday (which your body obviously thinks it is). So then I know that my day is going to be exhausting, but there is no point being annoyed about it, so I just get up and do something. Often reading, sometimes work, but this morning I went through all the videos we have of you so far and labelled them all so that I know what’s on them and can edit them into something watchable another night. Amazing looking back over them to see how amazed we were (and are) by you. Your first smiles, your first laugh, your first crawl – we are chuckling away in the background with pride.

After I’d had breakfast I left the hotel already dressed for work and armed with a camera. I caught the MTR to Chiang Kai-Shek memorial hall, which is essentially a big shrine to one of Taiwan’s past leaders and gives a very biased history of how amazing he was, which probably won’t remain that way long as everyone now sees him as a pretty horrible dictator. Nevertheless there is a huge courtyard flanked either side by large traditional chinese style buildings that house a concert hall and a museum, at one end is an ornate gateway and the other is the big guy’s memorial with a whopping Lincoln-esque statue of him seated. There are two sentries either side who remain unmoving despite a hundred flashes going off in their faces and children jumping up and down in front of them, but they look pretty annoyed in the face. It was all fairly uninspiring, mostly because it was built in the 80s and is a poor imposter of a monument stealing ideas from some of the worlds truly original memorials. There were lots of noisy Chinese tour parties and a tacky gift shop underneath so I ducked away into the surrounding park. It was a good move as there were traditional Chinese bands playing wailing music and old folk doing tai-chi under the trees with birds singing overhead. It was lovely. I listened and watched as old conductors tapped out the beat and it drizzled gently onto the courtyards.

Shiny helmetWailing music in the park at CKS Memorial Hall

Music in the park at CKS Memorial Hall

I tried to shop for a camcorder (to take more video of you, but in high definition) but the shops were closed or didn’t sell them, so I have come to the exhibition hall early all stocked up with coffee and food. Hope it is not a wash out like yesterday. It was the general election so everybody left Taipei to vote in their home towns. The existing president Ma won and will continue to engage with China more in the future. Not much in it though 51% to 49% of the vote. Politics lesson over, work time for me.

Much love

Dad

Landed Dad

Still Friday 13th January 2011

Dear George

I’ve arrived in Taipei a little late after delays along the way, bleary-eyed as always with a body that tells me it’s morning when it is evening here. The airline has left my bag in Amsterdam, which means I’ve got to wear what I’ve got on until tomorrow night: a pair of vans, some scruffy jeans, a Japanese Star Wars t-shirt and a tweed jacket, all of which are pretty whiffy after a day’s wear. Not great work attire but I’ll sort something out – hopefully some late night shopping for a shirt at least. In Taiwan I won’t need XL, I’ll need GIANT.

I have work from 11 tomorrow morning (it’s 20:45 now) and am in the back of a hotel car taking me to the not so glamorous Fullerton 41 hotel in Daan district. I’ve stayed there before and it is pretty basic compared to some of the hotels I’ve been lucky enough stay in. That is another aspect of travelling that you soon get particular about, actually finding yourself angry because your luxury hotel doesn’t have a tv above the bath, or Molton Brown products in the bathroom. You soon get spoilt, but once you’ve had it, you always want it. Some of the best hotels are in India, because they do service so well. Last time i went i got upgraded to a $3000 a night suite with four rooms and a glow in the dark toilet! I took your mother there in 2008 and the hotels we stayed in we’re amazing, with butler service, a private lounge with free drinks and the most amazing breakfasts. I have images of her with a massive smile on her face at the breakfast table, a view out towards India Gate in Delhi behind her and swathes of different pastries, cooked breakfast and fruit juices in front of her. We had chocolate milkshake for breakfast everyday. At the end of the trip I asked her to marry me, but that’s a story for another letter.

So I’m in the back of a black Mercedes on a freeway with start stop traffic and with furry teeth and probably horrendous breath. When I get into a hotel after a long flight I always first unpack my suit jackets (although not this time obviously) and then hit the bathroom for a full clean, head to toe until I’ve got rid of the plane scum I can feel in my hair and on my skin. I set up my laptop, see which tv channels are watchable and download the emails that have been sent to me whilst I’ve been in the air. I quickly look through the guest information to see where breakfast is served, where the gym or swimming pool is and take in the highlights of the room service menu. I’ll look over the map I’ll have asked for at reception and navigate ways to my appointments the following day and maybe look up some things on the imternet that I’ve thought about during the journey. This time I want to find some music I heard on an inflight film and enter a competition to win tickets to Curaçao from the plane magazine. Not profound this time, but sometimes I dream up all kinds of stuff. Nothing like being stuck in a metal tube high above the earth for hours with no communication to have some really good thinking time. I often think what you’ll be doing, what I’m missing, but try to generally have productive thoughts – my career, details at work, the future, inspiration. I often write it down but seldom get to do any of it. Dreamer.

Right, I’m pulling into the city now and about to face the muggy night. Hopefully I’ll see you on Skype in a couple of hours 🙂

Night night

Dad

En route to Taipei

Friday 13th January 2012

Dear George,

This is my first letter to you and you are almost 11 months old. I thought I would start writing to you whenever I go overseas. I’m not sure you’ll ever read these, or if I’ll ever let you know that I’ve written them, and I’m not sure right now why I have the compulsion to do so. Maybe it is therapy for the guilt I feel for being away, which I’ve always had since before you were born with your mother and others, but which is magnified now you are here. I think I want a record for myself and for you of anything that could be of interest; either sooner or later, for when I want to look back or for when only you can do that. I can’t promise that much of it will be interesting, funny or inspiring, but it will be honest. It will be me, talking to you.

Guess where I am. No go on, guess. Nope, none of those. I’m on a Boeing 747-400 in seat 31K about 34,000 feet above Afghanistan on my way to Taiwan. KLM flight 877 to be exact. When you’ve taken as many flights as I have you become interested in things you never thought would interest you, aeroplane models and configurations being just one of them. I notice the change in colours of the cabin crew neckerchiefs, I know that if I was upstairs for this flight (business class) I would have requested the window seats at the front of the cabin because I would have access to a locker to the side of me and that because I was at the front, other people’s shoes couldn’t slide back into my stuff. People’s footwear smells on planes. I have picked up a lot of knowledge about the jet setting, jet lagging lifestyle that my work has given me and it’s all next to useless elsewhere. If you ever get chance, see a film called “Up in the Air” starring George Clooney and you’ll understand what I mean. I am the person that assesses which security check queue to join, which shoes to wear, and has a set place for every item in my luggage. I could dress from my suitcase in the dark.

The count so far is 17 countries for work (all outside the EU) and 37 countries in total. I’ve been to 5 continents, although strangely never to the USA. I’ve seen the source of the Nile, the great wall of China, the Christ in Rio and the terracotta army in Xi’an, and a whole bunch of other places, but for this trip, I’m going to Taiwan. I first visited in 2006 and I’ve been several times since and even though it is largely industrial, lacking in obvious heritage and history I really like it. The people are warm, generous and value what is important. They stand up to adversity with the same island culture we have and strive to better themselves. And they love a good meal. “Jia ba bai?” is the second most popular greeting in Taiwan, and it means, “Have you eaten?” So I know that I can take comfort in a good meal or two over the next 5 days in Taipei. I’ll update you as I go along, because hopefully by the time you read this you will love food as much as your parents. Judging by the way you devour everything that is put in front of you at the moment, it’s looking likely.

Right, I have two sleeping pills staring at me and 7 hours until a stop in Bangkok, so I’m hitting the hay. The blue, plastic, KLM hay in the sky.

Night night

Dad

PS. Just realised I am flying in a plane of Friday 13th! I fear nothing!

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