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Part 1of living with Miss Tom: The family

10 Sep

Fleas and Dogs on the road. Vietnam.

The bus rolled to a stop at 5 a.m. It took a few minutes of the bus driver’s shouts of ‘Sa Pa!’ before the all the sleeping travelers roused themselves and started to slowly exit. I heard a sound like the distant call of seagulls. Wiping away the condensation on the windows I saw them. Around 20 tribal women, chattering excitedly and waiting to swoop on vulnerable travelers. I had read about this and was prepared.

I managed to fob most of them off by claiming I was already booked on a tour. The other backpackers who hadn’t booked anything huddled together in a daze before heading to a hostel. I had an address for a place to book tours and headed off in a random direction to find it. A couple of women followed me and one of them offered to show me the correct place.

It took about 5 minutes of walking together before we decided I should go stay with her instead. So began the best 5 days of my journey.

My host Miss Tom was from the Black Hmong tribe which live in the hills around Sa Pa in north Vietnam. Getting to Miss Tom’s village took a 4 hour hike through the hills. In our group was Van a girl much younger but partnered with Miss Tom, and two German sisters who would be staying for one night. I had decided to stay for 4 nights. A 4 hour hike after a night bus and waking up at 5 a.m, with my 10 kilo backpack was challenging to say the least, but the quiet of the mist shroud which the mountain covered us in made it all worth while. The madness of Hanoi was far behind.

Over the next 5 days I grew to know Miss Tom, her family and her friends. And I fell in love with all of them.

#1 Su

Su is a tiny, grubby faced, snotty-nosed force of nature. She’s two years old, the youngest and the only girl, and rules the little household by sheer lung power. Miss Tom still breastfeeds her, not having the heart to rub a little chilli on her nipples and wean the kid as the other women usually do at the age of 1. Su likes to eat everything she can get her hands on, try out the mini machete her mother uses in the kitchen and tap other women on the breast to see if she can get a feed.


#2 The Boys

There were three little boys in the house while I was there. Bare footed, bright eyed, grubby and feral; they range in age from 7 till 11. There were another two brothers whom I never saw as they were helping their father gather and dry black cardamom in the forest. The men stay in the forest until the work is done.

The little boys in the meanwhile would be left to run wild and sometimes run the household. When Miss Tom was out, they would light the wood fire, slip a stick through the handle of the large kettle and carry it between themselves to put over the fire. Heated water poured in bowls of leftover rice and vegetables was their breakfast and lunch. When Su screamed enough they would serve her a bowl as well. Sometimes they would get themselves ready, pack a lunch box and head off to school. It all seemed to depend on the mood.

Now I don’t really like kids. My ovaries fail to sing love songs to every passing child and their immense cuteness is generally lost on me. I often try but fail to see what the big deal is. However, this little pack of wild brothers and their despotic baby sister effortlessly carved themselves a little corner in my heart, which is hard to explain.

#3 Leechy

The first night I was there, I noticed the family dog had a long brown booger hanging from his left nostril. This booger would occasionally wave about, and sometimes retract right inside. I asked, so I was told. The dogs often pick up leeches when they drink from mountain streams. The leeches live in their noses for a few weeks before dropping off. Somehow the fates had conspired to combine the creature I love and the creature I abhor in one neat package. Leechy meanwhile was a bit confused by the quiet panic his friendly, best-nose-forward approach was creating in me and the German sisters.

The introduction to Leechy had four main effects on my behaviour:

1) I began surreptitiously checking my nose and ears for uninvited guests.

2) I absolutely forbade my mind to think about any other orifices at all.

3) I was cured of the desire to touch or handle the ridiculous abundance of cute baby creatures we came across. I’m talking chicks, ducklings, new born piglets, buffalo calves, kittens and puppies. Yup, they could all take that cuteness and f**k right off!

4) I started praying every night: ‘Dear God, thank you so much for all the wonderful experiences I’ve had so far. Please, please keep me and my v****a safe from leeches. Thank you.’

On the second day I trained myself to not look at Leechy. By the third day, we reached an understanding. He would wag his tail at me invitingly. I would tell him to piss off and take his leechy nose with him. He would continue to wag his tail invitingly.

On the fourth day the leech disappeared. Where!????? Where did he finally decide to drop off!!!!! What place did this leech find better to hang out in than the lovely moist nose of a dog?



The trouble with paradise

14 Aug

Fleas and Dogs on the road. Cambodia.

We lay on our beach towels dreaming under the sunlit trees. This was our recovery day, from discovering secluded beaches, hiking through tropical forests and snorkeling off tiny islands.

J: See that man.

I prop myself up on my towel. A European man, overweight with dark hair and in his late thirties is trudging by, dressed in a red T-shirt, shorts and baseball cap. Behind him walks a slight, young Cambodian boy, between 10-13 years old.

J: They’ve been together for the past two days,

Once you see them you can’t unsee them. It’s a small island and a smaller village. Invariably the quiet pair will materialize, laboriously walking through the sand, unnoticed by the young travelers playing in the sun. I point them out to another island friend, M.

M: Ahh that’s sick. Ah I hate seeing that stuff, or hearing about it. Man, I don’t want to think about it!

He storms off.

The one thing worse than being a pedophile in paradise is being a downer.

There is no police presence on the island. Guesthouses don’t ask to see any I.D. Local men lounge about in comfy chairs, bare bodied and bored, drinking or arm-wrestling while waiting for their next boat tour hire. Out-of-money travelers sleep on the pier undisturbed. Nobody forms an authority and everybody does what they want. This is the hidden utopia on the edge of civilization, with all its freedom and all its danger.

I go online and write down the hotline number for Child Safe Cambodia, but then don’t know what to tell them. There is a man on the island who I’m sure has hired a child prostitute for the week?

J: Let’s follow them. Maybe we can get a moment to talk to the boy, or even listen to them talk. If they both talk the same language, then maybe they are related.

Me: And maybe we can find the guesthouse they are staying at.

We try to follow them but lose them. Another day J sneaks up enough to overhear the boy speaking French.

Me: Okay, so maybe he is a child living in Europe. Right?

Neither of us looks convinced, but almost want to believe it in the face of our impotency to stop anything worse. From the moment J pointed them out we had taken to eyeballing the man. He knew we were watching.

Soon the day to leave arrived. I was preparing to get the ferry when they walked past. His eyes went to the backpack on my back. A look of relief crossed his face and perhaps even a little triumph.

In that moment I knew that all our speculations were real and yet none substantial. I still can’t pick up the phone and report a look of triumph on a no-name man at a no-name guesthouse on a tiny island in Cambodia.

Child safe Cambodia

Soy Cowboy?

30 Jul

Fleas and Dogs on the road. Thailand.

Taxi Driver: You like show-ping?

Me: No, no. I don’t like shopping. Don’t take me to a shopping street.

Taxi Driver: I take you good show-ping.

Me (miming the trembling half moon in front of my mouth): No! I like drinking, I don’t like shopping! Take me to good bar.

Taxi Driver: He! He! I Thai, I no show-ping. You show-ping! He! He!

We pull up at the entrance of a street. Neon lights spill out across the tarmac. Women in over the knee patent leather boots and hot pants sit out on stools or dance with passers by.

A British man weaves his way unsteadily out of the street. He has the heavy lidded half-smile of the happy drunk. Around his neck hang a tangle of ropes and a gimp ball-gag. He bumps into the cop standing at the entrance before stumbling out into the night.

Me: Ohh!

Taxi driver: He! He! He!




How do you solve a problem like Abeya!

26 Jul

Fleas and Dogs on the road. Thailand.

I´d fled the seedy red light district and landed in a local young blood’s bar close to the backpacker street. I was finally making my way back to the guest house after the stools had been put up and the lights switched on.

I noticed a figure sprawled against the curb at an awkward angle. This didn’t look like a street sleeper, more like someone passed out. I went around to the other side of the body and saw a giant vomit trail.

Okay, first thing to do was check the breathing. Still breathing. She was a girl and a local by the looks of it.

I shook her gently, ‘Hey, hey, are you okay’. A wail was my answer.

‘Do you want a taxi?’

‘Waaaaa yesssss!!!’

‘Okay, do you remember where you live?’


‘Okay, we´ll get you a taxi’.

There were no taxis on this street.

‘Look, I think we need to walk to the end of the street, there are lots of taxis there,’

‘waaaaaaa   noooo, I’m sorryyyyyy waaaaaaaa’

What’s your name?’

‘waaaaaa  Abeya….waaaaaaaa’

‘It’s fine sweetheart, you’re just a little drunk. Not a big deal. Just sit up, drink some water and we’ll get you in a taxi.’


(Oh god please help me!)

‘C’mon, up you get, up up up, upsy daisy!’


Another tourist stops: Is she a tourist?

‘No I think she’s local.’

He makes his apologies: Sorry I can’t really help you.

I let him go. No point in two of us being caught with the weeping mess.

I try to get the neighboring bar staff to help me. They give me the bright vacant smiles I’m coming to recognise in the hospitality industry here. It’s just as bad as the camarero scowl back home.

I heave her up in to a sitting position and prop her against my legs. As I try to hand her a bottle of water she retches a fresh batch and slumps to the ground.

‘Waaaaaaa I’m so sorrryyyy!’

‘It’s fine, you’re just drunk. Just try and sit up for god’s sake!’

(Finally, I can speak to the younger generation from a position of experience.)

I pick up the Blackberry clutched in her soggy hand. There is no key pad lock. I wipe it clean and start dialing all her last dialed numbers, particularly the ones that say ‘fam’ as a prefix. God only knows what it really means in Thai.

One woman, called ‘fam:Jim’, finally answers.


‘Hi, do you know Abeya?’


‘Can you come and get her?’

‘Er, no. No!’

‘Well can you contact her friends or family to get her please?’

‘Er, who is this?’

‘Look can you come and get her please?’


‘She’s very drunk and in trouble. If you don’t come and get her, she’s going to sleep in the street  tonight.’

‘Oh my god!’

Suddenly a girl in a  red dress appears in front of me.

‘Oh my gawd, is she okay?’

‘Hey! Do you speak Thai? Speak to the lady on the phone please.’

‘I know her’, she says pointing at the prone figure of vomit soaked Abeya.

‘Great! Speak to the lady on the phone!’ I shove the phone in her hands.

‘It’s fine, I know where she lives’ she  gives me her assurance.

I turn around to find two local young men lounging against the barrier along with another young lady, looking down at Abeya in the peculiar disinterested interest only teens can summon.

One of the young men: ‘Oh my gawd, did you like, take care of her? Wow thaink you sooo much!’ (What is this? Thai hipster?)’

‘Well not really, …. (she’s still lying on the street in her own vomit), but here you can take care of her now’, I shove the packet of tissues into his hands, and the bottle of water into his companion’s. ‘I’m so f*****g glad you turned up!  Bye Abeya!’

Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! I’m so sorrrryyyyyy!!!!!!!


p.s: Fleas and Dogs is on the road again.



Life of a stranger who stole my phone

5 Aug

Life of a stranger who stole my phone is a rather funny tumblr site which came about because a thief who stole a phone in Ibiza didn’t realise he had to switch off the automatic document upload function.

So all the photographs he has taken since stealing the phone have been uploaded to the original owner’s dropbox and then put up online.

The site is alright but the comic potential swiftly exhausted. The phone owner produces the occasional funny title, and then the occasional boring comic description.

Don’t stop though! Scroll down to the comments at the bottom of the page and that’s when it really gets funny. Now creepy Habib, the thief who stole a phone from a skinny dipping girl who was too drunk to realise that the person lying under the deck chair wasn’t her friend (these are her words I swear!) has decided he can make friends with her.

He’s left a comment on the tumblr page offering to return her phone. The people who responded to him had me in stitches.

Habib stranger who stole my phone

Fleas and dogs is on the road in India

2 Jan

Me (from the back seat): Oh my god! We just passed an elephant in a truck! There was an elephant in that truck!

My mum: Really? In a truck?

Dad (points to another truck with an elephant painted on): Did it look like that?

Me: No, it was a real elephant!

Dad: Was it big?

Me: It was an elephant!

Mum: How could it get up there?

Me: er….dunno

We lapse into companionable road trip silence.

Mum turns to dad (conversationally): Did you put the bag of rum in the boot or is it in the back seat?

Elephant truck

Barcelona’s specialists in aeronautical law

22 Mar

Flight delayed? Lost Baggage? Overbooked or airlines just plain taking the piss?

Sounds like a job for Retrasos!

Retrasos (delays) are a firm of Barcelona based lawyers who specialize in consumer rights and aeronautical law. Yeah, I didn’t know what aeronautical law was either.

A student of mine told me about this funny band of lawyers. He used them to recover the cost of all the extra flights he had to take to get from South America back into Europe during the great Icelandic volcano eruption.

Although they smack of ambulance chasers, I can’t help liking this group of specialist lawyers.

They have a 90% success rate and the owner of the firm is refused carriage on most major airlines. If the airlines are so peeved, they must be doing something right.