Eat More Fish

There is nobody on earth who eats the right amount of fish. A fringe of piscetarians want to eat less to shed the last scales of their carnivorous guilt. Most people want to eat more in the hope that Omega 3 may delay their omega and all those fatty acids might clean the drain of their soul. We need to need. I’d be fine if I had a car, could speak English, got laid, prayed more, lost five kilos. For middle-class Westerners, we shiftless children of abundance, the barrel of wants must be scraped thoroughly if we’re to explain away the nagging hollow. Hence – I should eat more fish.

To want to eat more fish requires an extraordinary game of three-card-monty in which the individual must perform the cognitive sleight-of-hand to be both mark and con artist. The fish trick only works if the person in question sincerely believes they want to eat more fish while simultaneously doing everything in their power to ensure this never happens.

Because as soon as we do eat a satisfactory amount of fish and realise, with horror, that our bubbling well of self recrimination hasn’t run dry, our moods are still a mad roulette and the shadow of distance still hangs above our heart; then, my friend, the game is up. A terrible crack threatens to split our every assumption asunder – at least until we gum it up with some even more arcane ambition, maybe to eat more spirulina.

In Hampi I saw a bob-haired French hipster who was very far gone indeed. “Ooh, they have cornflakes with curd!” she told her friend, with all the desperate gusto of an ISIS-captured journalist reading lines to camera. “I’ll have cornflakes and curd with nothing, please!” she said to the waiter. The nothing she got in abundance.

Hey Rama

There is a sculpture in Amritsar like a giant pocket puzzle. It is inscribed, in dozens of different languages, with the last words of M.K Gandhi before he was assassinated by a militant Hindu nationalist who disagreed with his advocacy for religious minorities. These two words have so many intonations and implications that it’s hard to know exactly what Gandhi meant. You can only really hear the differences of out loud. Say them with me now.

First, in prayerful supplication to the divine you’re about to encounter, with all the weight of heaven on the first sermonic syllable – Oh God.

Now in eye-rolling frustration at the predictability of the the thing, a bored, sardonic sigh for those who just don’t get it – Oh God.

Now as a lapse of bearing, a crisis of faith, a escaped exclamation of horror and disgust at the mad inhumanity of man – Oh God.

Now very quietly, as if you’re looking at someone who is about to shoot you in the chest.

Oh God.

The City of Dawn

Indian cities have at least seven cardinal directions. They wriggle and jut in non-Euclidian chaos, a pantheon of angles as confusing as the menus. Since my own internal compass is, at the best of times, a plastic toy with a painted needle, I’ve spent a lot of time wandering in various towns hopelessly, pleasantly lost.

Still no card reader, stolen from Google.

And given Mr Einstein’s much acclaimed proclamations of the pushme-pullyou nature of space and time, it makes sense that the chronology is also a little disoriented. Mobile phone stores crouch beneath millennia old monuments; cities are like bronze-age metropolises crossed with  rundown lunar colonies; the arrow of time spins like a compass at a pole. Events whoosh past then smear and stumble into each other. Days swell into Himalayas and shrivel into cardamon seeds. The only exception to this manic irregularity has been my regularity. Without wishing to dissertate too explicitly on the intricacies of my ablutions; I think I’m the only person in history whose diarrhea was cured by coming to India.

I’m sorry, that might have been a bit much for paragraph two. A second sorry: you may find yourself already rankled raw by my too-too cutesy turns of phrase and nauseating metaphors. I assure you, it’s just a phase – if something smells fishy, it’s the Salman. I’ve just finished Midnight’s Children and my little restraint has been crushed by Rushdieji. And to top off an apologetic trifecta: this post is altogether too little too late, a mangled mess that barely brings the blog a week less far from the present. I’m just not used to this much stuff happening. So though I’ve been to about a dozen places, this post covers the first two, and even then isn’t especially coherent.

I have always there is only one airport. Wait, hang on, my posts are repeating on me… After flying from Kuta I spent a night at The Airport, in a wing of the thing that claimed to be in Kuala Lumpur. I, sleep deprived, wandered up and down escalators and deliriously invented a parodic future academic discipline called Emojiglyphics. It’s core tenet is that the rise of the smiley is, in fact, the beginning of a revival of semi-pictographic script. In ten years we’ll be writing like Egyptians, right down to the cat worship. (Txt tlk, meanwhile, is a return to the vowelless Sumerian form in which the alphabet originated.) In the departure lounge I met a twitchy, talkative seventy-year old from Queensland who hates Tony Abbott and showed me funny pictures his daughter had sent him on his phone. His wife has the same lung infection that killed her mother; the doctors have given her four to six years.

They advised us to cover our faces as they fumigated the plane, spraying for Ebola or Terrorists. Below, grander vapours rose and swirled in glowing kingdoms and reefs. It’s hard to look at the clouds from above. There’s a part of you that can’t process it, and turns, automatically, to smaller things; like the invading elbow of the dickhead on your left. Being in the clouds is surrealer still – they are simply a blankness, a world unwritten. This creeping erasure smothered the views of Kodai, a teetering mountain town I later visited. As we fell on Chennai I flickered in and out of consciousness, catching the sunrise in pieces. First it was a smear of umber the horizon, then a red-green-blue truncated spectrum, at last a bar of gold.

IT IS WISE TO DO YOUR PRESCRIBED DUTY,
BUT SEEK NOT THE FRUIT OF THY ACTIONS.

These were the first words I read in India, hanging above a little tapestry of a scene from the Bhagavad Gita. The quote is from the Krishna, a slick and blue-skinned avatar of Vishnu posing as a charioteer. It’s part of his answer to his worried buddy Arjuna’s question – how is it possible to be free of greed, aversion and attachment without dressing in a hessian sack and going off to live in a cave? Why work when the accumulation of goods is trivial at best and detructive at worst? Krishy’s answer is to toil and do good in the world without feeling ownership over the results. But I think pride – that violet-eyed monster that flatters the meat it feeds on – makes this much easier preached than practiced.

After a farcical quest to find a working ATM in Chennai I took a bus to Mahabalipuram, a pleasant, florid hamlet where I spent three days. I slept in a decadent hotel perched over a verdant latrine where everyone called me “sir”, to my profound discomfort. Mahabalipuram is casually littered with remarkable sixth-century caves and shrines carved from single reddish boulders. “Where will you be in thirteen hundred years?” the rocky faces seem to growl, “and where my sister stones you trample beneath your feet? You are just a lotus drawn in chalk upon the road, to be washed away in the rain.” The most famous of these monuments is Arjuna’s Penance, a carving of the aforementioned archer Arjuna standing on one leg for a hundred days to win the favour of the Gods. Apparently they love that shit. He’s surrounded by hundreds of other figures, deities, spirits, humans, beasts. My favorite was an old fat cat pretending to do a penance surrounded by admiring and gullible mice, the best bit of rock-carved seventh century anti-clerical satire I’ve ever seen.

By happy happenstance I was in the town at the time of an annual festival. Poorer pilgrims from the west, who locals awkwardly referred to as “jungle people”, camped in the park and on the beach, making little cooking fires out of rubbish and twigs. On the night of the ceremony fireworks spattered the sky and a barge paddled a god around a pool as humans and crows watched on. India’s crows mean business. No large and lounging tricksters they, like the ragged umbrellas back home. These are sleek, sickle-beaked gallow birds with little charcoal vests around their necks, veritable stockbrockers of death.

The food here is incredible. I’ve been eating feasts rice, naan, half a dozen chutneys and curries, fresh lime soda and a generous tip for less than two Australian dollars. I’ve even enjoyed breakfast, indisputably the worst meal of the day, whatever self-loathing protein-snorting “healthy” types would have you  believe. Rather than the best-skipped blandness of cooked bread and dust-with-milk, Indian breakfasts are comprised of towering conical crepes, samosas and fried savoury donuts served with spicy coconut and tomato chutneys.

“There are reports that Prime Minister Modi has eaten a thaali meal at the Parliament staff cafeteria. The simple but tasty meal, which many political journalists are familiar with, allegedly cost 75 rupees.”
Wherever I go, the Prime Minister of India watches down from billboards with lotus flag and firm paternal stare. I do not like Narandrah Modi. He’s the kind of man who orchestrates ethnic cleansing without a drop of blood falling on his famously pristine shirt. The kind of man who makes GDPs magically raise as median wages faulter and doesn’t get a hair in his wizard’s beard displaced. The kind of man who sees nuclear missiles as elephants on a chessboard through gleaming, gold-framed spectacles.

In the state of Tamil Nadu, Modi’s matronly negative is even more ubiquitous. See her beam beside a swirling slogan written in Tamil. Watch her wave with her soft-focused disciples. Look at her sit, cross-legged, between hairless monk and hirsute Saddhu, a gleaming testament to her spiritual credentials. The woman’s name is Jayalilalatha Jayaram, but her followers call her “Amma” – mother. The four-time governor of Tamil Nadu, she is, like many of South India’s politicians, progressive, and campaigned strongly for social justice and Tamil rights in the face of Hindi hegemony from the north. She’s currently in prison for overindulging in certain perks of office – namely, 2000 acres of land and thirty kilograms of pure gold.

Nowhere was she more present that Pondicherry, my next destination, a former French colony of syncretistic charmant. Having lived my life in an English Colony, the second-fiddle flavours of a Gallic one are conspicuous. No empire ever took to committing and hiding brutality quite like the motherland. Ol’ Blighty, master massacrer, making whole peoples disappear like a street magician hustling two-bob bits. The French seem positively blundering by comparison. Beautiful Pondicherry eschews the Escherian entanglement of other Indian cities for a neat grid of broad boulevards – the legacy of conscientious Napoleonic city planners who wanted to ensure that protesters could be easily mowed down by grapeshot. The old government house, now a guarded Hilton, still sports a pair of jutting phallic canons, which even I thought was laboring the point a bit. Of course, General Reginald Dyer & co had about as much need for such foppish ostentatiousness as he did the metric system. His boys could shoot ten times as many unarmed natives as a bunch of bloody frogs and still be home for tea.

In the charming, quirky Pondicherry Museum I saw an old photo of an effigy built by Governor Dupleix. Begrudgingly admitting that a set of seventh century Chola obelisks were too exquisite to smash into gravel, he instead used them as spindly pillars to support an oversized bronze statue of himself. The memorial, though now moved to a humbler pedestals, still stands by the beach; resplendent in heavy wig, bulging frock coat and verdigris-whiskered jowls.

Not all idols are imposed by force. Mina Alfassa was born in Paris in 1878. When she was five years old she had her first vision from god. Early in the new century she came to India and befriended Sri Aurobindo, a revolutionary-mystic. Uniting their cont- and subcont- inental clout, the pair of philosophers established an Ashram in Pondicherry and dedicated their lives to the pursuit of peace and universal love. After Aurobindo retreated into asceticism Alfassa; also known by her disciples as The Mother; became the sagely leader of the community.

She oversaw the planning of Auroville, the City of Dawn, a socialistic spiritual metropolis which would unite all the nations of the war-ravaged earth. She penned books of politics, volumes of poetry and a seventeen-volume autobiography. As the sixties slung a diverse spiral of Western disciples her way, the Mother shriveled like a tissue-paper mannequin. She became pale, then transparent, until all you could see were her smile and probing Kohl-blackened eyes. After 95 years of cooperation consciousness dispersed from gossamer body. And at that precise moment her children begun building the dome. For The Mother, who had preached humility, poverty and selflessness, had declared that her life must be commemorated by the four-decade construction of a 1,400 foot high gold-plated orb.

Auroville was conceived as a utopian community free from violence, money or sectarianism, and as you’d imagine that all worked out really well. Designed for a 50,000 spiritual seekers, as of 2015 it has a population of fewer than 3,000; almost entirely Western bourgeoisie. Having spent everything to enter Auroville, they meditate under the weight of unfinished projects and allegations of the exploitation of locals and child abuse. Amma would have been disappointed and frankly, so was – I traveled to Auroville on a day trip, pen poised for a sinister cult compound. Instead I found a new-age bookshop, a tiny art gallery and a Gelati stand. The feverish disciples were just middle-aged white women with aqua kaftans and three quarter length pants. In short, more David than Jim Jones. The dome, which I was only permitted to see from a patch of comically roped-off viewing turf, reminded me in scope and strangeness of the Parkes Satellite dish. It lay on the lawn like a gleaming, scaly egg; a gift for the Ancient Alien theorists of the year 5015. For there is no doubt that our fruitless attempts to contact the beyond will once again be willfully misinterpreted as themselves evidence of success.

One night in Pondicherry I had a plasma-hot veg curry and Kingfisher beer in an empty little restaurant. It was run by a friendly Anglo-Indian guy who told me, proudly, that his son works at Sydney Hospital and even more proudly that he’s a Roman Catholic. As I wandered back through the streets (strangely all the more confusing for their chessboard geography) a booming music bored through my gut. The Cathedral of The Immaculate Conception was hymning in ecstatic worship, it’s looming edifice flattered with spotlights. It was as if the Catholicism of my suburban education – self conscious and moderate almost to the point of Anglicanism – had a racked a line of powdered wafer and smashed back a tabernacle of celestial Shiraz. I wandered, dazed, into the faithful-flooded courtyard and saw a gaudy banner reading:

DO WHATEVER HE TELLS YOU John 2:5

I looked up at a gilded, lifesize, plaster of paris Mary surrounded by a dozen scented candles, that universal shitty Mother’s Day present. An image of an image of a myth of a woman, immaculately conceived by grizzled misogynists who decided that if there must be women they should be mothers and virgins both. Outside, a beggar in skirts crouched on the stair and a half-bald bitch, heavy with litter, lay half breathing on a pile of rubbish.

Amma, Mama, Madonna. Icons devised and self-devised to maximise unconscious leverage for wriggling, conflicting ends. They circle each other like triplicate stars and flicker between darkness and light, always weighed down by gold. I sat on the rocks by the Ghandi memorial and overlooked the ocean. A Tamil elegy rang through the air and the full moon shattered on the black sea.

Cold Water

As I rode the violent fast boat from Gili Air to Amed, Bali, deafened, fume-headed and focusing all of my will on trying not to munt, I couldn’t stop thinking about Tony Blair. What does he want? Does he self-medicate? What’s his golf handicap? Why don’t I think about him more often? I tried to contemplate something else, but just as my eyes were fixed on the spirit level of the horizon, my mind was stubbornly glued to that aging, mild-mannered war criminal. It was as if Tony Blair was my sea-sickness, chaperoning me across the furious depths like a grinning, nervous tapeworm.

Blair is just a symptom of a larger lurgy. My intention is to submerge myself in the world completely, but a part of me often remains resolutely afloat, a mental buoy stuffed with hot air. Despite being in radically different environments a lot my psychic content is just the same as back home – elaborate fictional genealogies and fantasy Q&A speeches. Whenever I get a whiff of WiFi I, like Pavlov’s bloodhound, can’t help but have a cheeky glimpse at the latest Newspoll. And as for Facebook and Twitter, whatever I tell myself about moderation they still have me in their fluffy blue shackles.

I stayed in a guesthouse on the beach in Amed next to a construction site. A whole family lived in the ragged shadow of my room. It was clean, pleasant and cheap, despite the wailing warfare of crook-tailed cats and the occasional whiff of sewerage. Chickens pecked at the ash-black sand while the sky filled the places the sea couldn’t reach. A crescent cove rose in the jungled slopes behind me.

I took a liking to Arakh Jemulek, local palm liquor mixed with lemon and honey. (I was later informed by a mortified Australian couple that the stuff can kill you, but the villagers were drinking it. There’s something about tourists thinking their lives are more precious than locals’ that makes me sick.) A local guy I befriended shared his home-spun philosophy with me and a pair of German girls.

Q. Why do babies cry when they’re born?
A. Because they still have one heart with their mother and their mother is in pain.

Q. Why do people love?
A. Because without love we go crazy.

Q: Why do we have sadness and laughter?
A: Because without them there is no life.

One thing that’s become clearer with less access to the usual apothecary of technical anaesthetics is that my mood tends to swing every 6 to 24 hours. Not anything major; just the difference between excitable and lazy, scotch-guarded against irritation or magnetised toward it. Seeing the arc of my emotional pendulum means I can play games in the face of that clockwork, defy it with jabs of adrenaline and beauty. Noble struggle and graceful surrender, these are bamboo oars we have to ride the endless waves. On a twilit hill in Amed I trekked through the chest-high bushes and brambles, scrambling like a hunter beneath a half-empty moon.

Also chest high (though barely) was my host and guide in the village of Tirta Gangga, an ancient, grinning local who took me on a four hour walking tour of the rice fields. His English was shabby but coherent, and he said “making photos” instead of “taking photos”, which makes a lot more sense. We went to the market, where there was a whole warehouse for offering flowers and men spruiked aphrodisiacs from briefcases. In the livestock quarter the shrieks of crucified piglets calcified my guilt about eating mammals into a commitment not to. (I had a burger the next day. It was my last, I swear.) At the prawn farm my tiny guide told me about the 1963 eruption of Mt Agung, when the sky turned black. At a temple on a hill he told me about Balinese Hinduism, and how it especially associates the Trimurti with three elements – Brahma with air, Shiva with fire and Vishnu with water.

It was the last of these primeval forces that inspired the obsession of the last Raja of Karangsem. At the end of the war he built the pseudo-ancient water palace that gives Tirta Gangga its name. I spent a whole day in the dead king’s playground, lounging around the concrete fountains and lapping the low black pool. As I paced the palace in the rain I was acutely aware that I wasn’t wholly there. I was using experience as fodder for thought and thought as fodder for writing. Can we really live like that, I wondered, thrice-removed from reality? But surely the senses are illusions too, from the feeling of fat drops breaking on my skin to my broken reflection on the surface on the water. It would be easy to drown in the world. I imagined the Raja meditating on the ripples of his Koi filled ponds; eating nothing he couldn’t drink; skin puffy and wrinkled; little streams trickling from his ears, mouth and eyes.

I spent a day in Singaraja, which means “Lion King”. The cafe I lunched at played the soundtrack to the same-named film on incessant loop. In Lovina I visited a sulpherous hot spring, where large, middle aged European couples – forced to figleaf their bits – still managed to outsource any discomfort they had about their bodies to hapless passersby. I chilled in a Buddhist monastery and confirmed that if you look at something after staring at a waterfall it psychedelically shifts and swells. There’s no rest for the idle, and years of low employment mean I find it hard to relax without feeling guilty. But I’ve still enjoyed days at a time devouring novels on the beach. The fish in Lovina, grilled in banana leaves with a symphony of spices, was the best I’ve ever had.

I thought I was being a thrifty, worldly vagabond by taking a five-leg public bus and bemo odyssey from the north to the south of Bali. Then I worked out that because of my shitty bartering skills a direct shuttle bus would have been cheaper anyway. So it goes. But my worst mistake, by far, was going to Kuta.

I’d like to say that I stayed there for one night because it was close to the airport, but that’s not the whole of the truth. Morbid curiosity dragged me in and the vortex dragged me down. Kuta teeters some unholy boundary between Dante’s Inferno and Surfer’s Paradise, a satellite Babylon to comfort the punters. Cries of “transport?” and “massage?” attack you every step, like hands clawing at your ankles through the bars of a pyrite cage. It’s pretty hokey to reference Heart of Darkness when talking about travel in the developing world, but I say unto you truly – every tanned, unsmiling tourist in Kuta is a Kurtz.

After an afternoon of staggering past the the “spooning leads to forking” bumper stickers and phenomenally awful portraits of Rowan Atkinson I decided to do as Romans do and eat nachos and beer in an “Aussie Bar”. I enjoyed this experience, as can be seen in what I wrote at the time:

“The walls are smeared with AFL flags, the air is thick with dread… My consciousness is spooled out like a limp yoyo, dragged down by weariness and booze. Why did I buy a Heineken when the local beer was cheaper? Because it was a brand I knew. A little piece of mental real estate I no longer own was cashed in on, once again, with a barely audible “ching”. I wonder who owns Heineken, probably Coke or Blackwater or something… Triplicate flatscreens hang behind me like Christ and His robbers; some kind of football booms from them, slightly out of sync. As many men as were in Caeser’s legions scream and chant in Gaderine unison, their emotions dictated by the movements of a melon-sized ball…”

I spent the night in a grim hotel haloed by barbed wire, stacking the twin mattresses for comfort. The next day I spent four of my last hours in Indonesia hunched in an internet cafe. I also went to the shopping complex, a sleek and glittering hive in the model of Melbourne Emporium. Time fell away as I wandered around that air-conditioned Cocytus. Taylor Swift crooned on high and organic, dairy-free raspberry gelato (48,000 rupiah a scoop) bloodied my sticky little hand. Meanwhile, outside, kids crouched in allies between the cracks. Up and down I went, up and down, until my stagger turned into desperate jog. The labyrinth lacked nothing for Prada Stores and Genius Bars, but I couldn’t for the life of me find water.

Spice, Scams and Spectres

Let us begin without any pretenses about my pretentiousness.

Sartre writes that stories are told backwards. First we choose an endpoint, then moments of retrospective significance flow from it in reverse with collusion and coherence they never had in their time. And the things we neglect the present for, the memories and reflections we sketch in our heads, are pictures of experiences that were themselves probably spent remembering and reflecting. We put now on ice for later – it’s meaning is inscrutable and we have other concerns. If the moment rots a little in the interim, so be it. Here on the internet, nothing is fresh at all. We dwell in a palimpsest past that masquerades as the present, just as this single cyberspace is really a billion spaces, or none.

So it is that I’m lounging on the island of Gili Air, beer in paw, before a blackness I know is the beach, listening to the ocean gurgle and lap.

So it is that I’m sitting out the front of a stark hotel room in southern Lombok, watching the rain carve continents onto the concrete.

So it is this that I’m hunkered in the back of a minibus cutting a serpentine swathe around Bali as nausea honeymoons in my gut and I contemplate the curse.

But that’s all backwards.

image

I have always believed there is only one airport. It straddles the earth like a transcendental lobby, pinching and contorting space thanks to some trick of quantum physics. Sure, there are many rooms in its limboish dominion. Some smell of clove cigarettes and rotting fruit, others of freshly-pressed suits and rotting psyches. But in the important ways it’s always the same – a part of you is vaguely scared and you have to walk through a Myers. Cheapish booze and pat-down-checks, duty free and duty bound, the Toblerone-and-stick approach. These (the security circus and its snack bar) are the pillars of our civilisation, the waxed legs of this teetering colossus. And for those of us who would see it tumble – how else, exactly, do we propose to fly?

I’ve spent my first fortnight in the Spice Islands. It’s the last month of rainy season here and the storms do not so much brew as steep, infusing darkness into the soggy, nearby sky. I spent the first week traveling with my good friend Alexis, a practical, motherly young man with phenomenally small ears. I do not, alas have many photos, so you’ll have to make do with a shitload of adjectives.

Our first stop, Ubud, was Bali for those tourists who prefer organic avacado juice to Bingtang, who like to imagine that their pale feet tread more lightly than the sandled hooves of Kuta. But beneath the bourgeois Eating, Praying and Loving lies a deep and ancient superstition. Stone spirits with mossy rashes, temples, shrines and other, stranger testaments to the divine crouched and stretched in every strangled corner of the place. This created a sort of psychic humidity that fed the mildew of magical thinking. Maybe it was tiredness, or the rattled disorientation of a transported animal, or the $3 longnecks, but I couldn’t help but feel that the membrane between story and reality was a little more diaphanous.

My troubles begun when I kicked an offering. Not on purpose, but still. My great white foot swung down like a wrecking ball and sent flowers, incense and the little paper tray scooting along the footpath. I hurried on guiltily, riled spirits trailing me like streamers.

These meddlesome sprites have pestered me with a phalanx of technical difficulties: leaving my phone at home, my iPod briefly stopping working, struggling to buy a phone, feeling guilty about borrowing Alexis’ tablet, struggling to buy a charger for the tablet, the tablet briefly stopping working, three pairs of headphones breaking. I’ve tended to get frustrated at this then frustrated at my frustration. (Kerouac didn’t need a WiFi enabled device. Byron didn’t need a a WiFi enabled device. Gautama fucking Siddhartha didn’t need a WiFi enabled device.) But back to Ubud.

In the Sacred Monkey Forest tiny old women sold green bananas by the bundle, bamboo poles beside them in case the legions got too close. The Crab-Eating Macaws had human eyes, hands and habits. They fought, screwed, played, stole, moped. One doggedly stalked my matronly friend Alexis for a good hundred meters before hilariously attacking him. Grooming families chatted while babies swung, hugged and explored. When one tried to sneak away her mother pulled her back with a tug of the tail.

Deeper in the forest huge, whiskered patriarchs lay breathing raggedly as their nervous partners tended to them with expressions of unmistakable grief. In the shady heart of the jungle I saw a god. I recognised him from the temples. He lay snoring in a circular clearing, twice the size of any man, skin the colour and lustre of blood. I didn’t make a sound, but my whispering spirits gave me away to his attendants – tusked chimpanzees in ornate golden armour. One of these retainers shrieked and pointed her spear at me. Macaws rained from the trees and poured from cracks in the earth.

They couldn’t follow us into the sacred cemetery on the other side of the forest. Once every lustrum the bodies are exhumed and burnt en masse in a festival of joy and grief. I like the idea of that, borrowing a plot just for a while before mingling with your community forever. At home we cling to property even after death.

That night we went to a traditional dance, despite my demon-induced migraine. A thousand golden mallets chiseled at my skull while the jeweled dancers waved and twitched. We visited the terraced rice field in Bali and temple after temple. One contained a bizarre, life-sized nativity of a cock fight, resplendent with grotesque gamblers covered in chipped paint. The frozen scene was presided over by the statue of a goddess. She wore thousands of glued-on seeds and sweets and an equanimous smile. Outside, on a bridge over a tranquil most, I watched an offering to being eaten away by transparent red ants.

On the slow ferry to Lombok we played two-player Five Hundred and, like anyone would on a tropical cruise, wrote a morbid sea shanty.

Oh the waves can’t crash on our ghostly ship,
And the rum can’t fill our guts,
Oh the seaweed’s fingers find no grip
But the sun’s fierce rays still cut.

Our cause of death still evades our minds
For we’ve no way to recall
How our bodies sunk but left us behind
In this ship so grim and tall.

Oh time she be a dark mistress
Who rules the taunting sky,
In the salty lace of her watery dress
We sail on begging to die.

Needless to say we were hungover at the time.

Lombok was stark and poor, it’s sycophantic tourist facade a needling reminder of my privilege. We stayed in a town in the south also called Kuta, which was supposed to be a remote paradise. A couple of tourist seasons later and it was still underdeveloped but drowning in refuse. On the desolate beach we were outnumbered twenty to one by women and children selling bracelets along the brilliant, rubbish-cluttered sand.

My prim, meddling friend Alexis and I also made the mistake of purchasing an “open ticket” from the charismatic front man of the Lombok Family Travel Company. The open ticket system is extremely convoluted, but the gist of it appears to be that you pay premium for a shuttle-bus ticket in advance under false pretexts, then, after getting picked up before dawn to ensure maximum compliance, you turn over everything else in your wallet or get dropped in the middle of nowhere.

The once illustrious Lombok Family Travel Company seems to have seen better days. It consists of a single beaten up van; an office down a dark ally in Mattaram; a mute, expressionless driver with a Nietzschean moustache and the aforementioned front-man, a middle aged, wisecracking charlatan whose wife happens to be the precise nationality of his customer at the time. I like to imagine there is also a Gothic, rice wine-addled matriarch, hunchbacked by tragedy, who spits abuse at her son and nephew from the depths of a dilapidated rocking chair.

We spent a couple of hours in the van, locked in a tense negotiations that could have at any stage devolved into a hostage situation (though in this case we were bigger than him, a google search I really should have done beforehand reveals that Mr Lombok Family is not above physical threats.) After arguing and pleading didn’t work, I realised that the whole scam rested on us getting frustrated and losing our cool. At that moment some gnawing tension inside me snapped and I decided to flip the board of our game of psycho-emotional chess. Sparking with adrenaline, I begun the most sickly small-talk charm offensive I’ve ever done in my life, simply to confuse him. I smiled, chattered, thanked and feigned indecision as he grew increasingly frustrated.

Meanwhile, my smothering, shrewish friend Alexis busied himself with the far less important tasking of keeping track of where we were and where we could safely get a taxi. It ended in a stalemate. After a nail-biting double bluff we refused to pay another Rupiah and they turned around and dropped as at a random KFC, whereupon I earnestly shook their hands and promised to wait for them until the afternoon. At least content that we’d wasted an additional hour’s worth of their petrol, we ate deeply distressing “waffle sandwiches” at the dirty bird and hired the loveliest taxi driver I’ve ever met.

I don’t hold a grudge against the Lombok Family Travel Company. I would probably do the same in their position. All these pale, bloated millionaires, the slaughterers and slavemasters of my ancestors, stomping into my home, haemoraging more easy money than my family will see in a year and expecting me to treat them like little kings. I always wonder why people in the developing world don’t hate us more. Perhaps they do, and we just don’t care enough to notice.

Me and Small Ears parted ways on the idyllic island of Gili Air, where I’ve lounged for the last week, walking, snorkeling, reading and writing. This is post is preposterously long already, so I’ll only say that it’s beautiful here, from the celestial sunsets to the haunting call to prayer.

But even here the world grinds on. The beach is covered with mounds of bleached coral the shape and hue of bone. You can hear the pieces tinkle like chimes with every ebb of the waves.

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Ben Voyage

I’ve been in the blogging game since Steve Irwin was torturing wildlife, Kevin Rudd was an avuncular kitten-man and Buzzfeed was just a twinkle in Beelzebub’s compound eye. But things have changed around here. In this whirlwind world of ISIS, ice and Instagram, decent, happy-go-lucky variety blogs just don’t cut it any more. “Pick a genre and stick to it,” the punters cry, “we can’t handle any possible confusion because of nude selfies and the apocalyptic atrophy of meaning.” Well I’m not the kind of person who thinks he’s better than the fickle and bestial masses, so I decided to go with the trend and try my hand at writing a specific type of blog. Unfortunately, my efforts thus far have ended poorly.

• My Fashion Blog, “50 Shades of Gingham”, taught readers to make a huge variety of chic, unique in-season outfits using nothing but a small checkered tablecloth. Although the blog contained literally thousands of photos of small checkered tablecloths imaginatively draped over my naked body, I had to shut it down after a series of inexplicable DoS attacks from deeply confused Men’s Rights Activists.

• My Food Blog, “The Yumpire” was suspended on the recommendation of the World Health Organisation after I was accused of exacerbating the West African Ebola crisis with certain recipes prosecutors are describing as “unwholesome”. I can’t comment further for legal reasons.

• My Mummy Blog, “Momma’s First Steps”, was extremely popular until the #Mumfest2014 convention when my claims of motherhood were discovered to be fraudulent. Somebody worked out that my children, Symphony (5) and Tybalt (2) were actually just meat offcuts and Christmas tree decorations I’d strategically staple-gunned together. The whole thing kind of unraveled from there.

So clearly I have no option left but a travel blog, and by lucky coincidence I’m going away for five months tomorrow. The current plan is thee weeks in Indonesia, three and a half months in india, a fortnight in Cambodia and a fortnight in Vietnam before I return in the heart of Winter, when I shall be needed most. I hope you guys are ready to be rocked by tedium and rollicked by jealousy as I serve you up a heady cocktail of puns, anecdotes, and problematic romanticisation of third world poverty.

Strap yourself in for the digital slideshow of a lifetime – Swami Benjami is coming to town.