An African In Asia

Patrick claimed to be a former Special Ops officer; unable to cope back in his native USA, he had returned to the scene of the crime. He insisted he had recovered his sanity in the bars and whorehouses which littered Phnom Penh. Patrick was a sad and almost broken figure of a man, extremely warm with a very gentle and disarming nature hiding a very sinister past. I enjoyed our games of chess and sometimes his “Did you know?” trivia, but I was also aware that, despite his gentle nature, he had become so desensitized to death that he would sleep quite sound with me in a shallow grave at the end of his garden beneath his Dendrobium orchids.

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The building still stands and remains in very much the condition it was left in. For a small fee, you can enter the unassuming building and walk around unescorted. Beyond a few wire-framed mattresses, old photographs, dried bloodstains, chains and appliances used to administer electric shock, S-21 is more a journey of the imagination than a solicitation of the senses.

Phnom Penh’s Russian Market, on the other hand, situated south of the capital, solicits all the senses, with colourful silks, gold and silver merchants, and food sellers which, alongside traditional Cambodian dishes, sold what I will unashamedly call exotic delicacies. Inspired by curiosity, I supplemented my diet with spiders which looked like tarantulas and locusts which had been fried until they were crisp. The spiders tasted like crispy beef and the locusts like crispy shrimp. I passed on the oversized larvae which resembled giant maggots; even I have my limits.

Departing Cambodia, I crossed the border into Vietnam, leaving behind my drinking buddy and chess opponent of the last few days, Patrick, a former Vietnam Veteran who was obsessed with death and any related trivia. A typical conversation with him would start out with: “Did you know the Cobra is the only snake whose venom is directly injected through the fangs?”

In 2000 Ishmahil Blagrove set off from Thailand on a Brompton Foldaway bicycle, with the aim of cycling through South East Asia; the following is his story.

1st February 2006

I remember thinking, This is the most uncomfortable journey of my life… why am I doing this? For the past eleven hours, I had been sitting on the rim at the back of a pickup truck packed with seven Cambodians, two Japanese tourists, a smattering of chickens, sacks, bags, rucksacks, and my forever dutiful travel companion and beast of burden, the Brompton T5 foldaway bicycle.

Why I decided to cycle through Asia on a bicycle designed for shopping trips is a peculiarity which joins a long list of questions which have punctuated my life and which will probably forever remain unanswered: How did I end up in the middle of a revolution in Sierra Leone? What was I doing in the Amazon, eating ants and being taught how to hunt monkeys using blow pipes by Huaorani natives? Why did the police ask me to kill a mugger on a backstreet in Colombia? How did I find myself in the middle of a mudslide in Venezuela which claimed the lives of 40,000 people?

I had just cycled from Bangkok to the border town of Poipet with the intention of cycling through Cambodia, Vietnam, South East China, Lao, and back into Thailand. But heavy rains from the monsoon had severely damaged the roads, making them impossible to navigate on two wheels. So I was reduced to folding up my bike and hitching a ride on the back of a truck. A journey which should have taken three hours transformed into an eleven-hour nightmare of torturous bumps, stops, tows, and even pushing to navigate the broken roads and swollen rivers which lead to Siem Riep, the home of Cambodia’s famous tenth century Angkor Wat ruins. The breath-taking ruins of Angkor are a testament to the cultural and intellectual development of the Cambodian people, a period of cultural and social development in South East Asia very rarely discussed in the West. The steep cascading stairways, magnificent pillars, and mystical presence of these ruins had been reduced to ignoble photographic backdrops for Japanese and Western tourists flocking to take “wish you were here” photographs.

From Siem Riep, I boarded a ferry for the six-hour journey down the Tonle Sap River to Phnom Penh, the capital city. It was here in 1975 that Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge fighters toppled the republican government and forced all the people of the cities and towns throughout Cambodia into the countryside, effectively turning the whole country into a forced labour camp in an effort to bring the country back to the year ‘Zero’ and return the people to a peasant economy in which there would be no class divisions, money, books, intellectuals, or schools. The city still bears the scars of this period and has a list of macabre venues which have somehow made it onto the tourist checklist: for example, the sinister sounding S-21, otherwise known as Tuol Sleng. A former school, it was turned into an interrogation and extermination centre where thousands perished, including nationals from India, Pakistan, United States, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

On the roads heading to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon), the difference between the road surfaces was noticeable immediately; the roads were smooth and well-kept, and the people less tense. My Brompton T5 bicycle wasn’t faring too well; due to the pot holes of Cambodia, I had lost several spokes and my wheels were beginning to buckle under the weight of my body and my luggage, which included five kilos in the front pannier and twelve kilos on the rear rack. As soon as I arrived in Saigon, I checked it into the nearest bicycle doctor. I had made provisions for tyres and other parts, but had not made any provisions for spokes.

The Brompton is a rather unusual-looking bike which has become exceedingly popular in Britain over the last few years. It uses sixteen-inch wheels, which can be quite awkward when looking for replacement wheels in foreign countries. Nevertheless, the ingenuity of the local bike-smith immediately got to grips with the problem and he cut down some spokes from a regular-size bicycle and fitted them perfectly. The repair cost me $2.00.

To my surprise, slap bang in the middle of Ho Chi Min City, amidst the tall buildings in the busy centre of town, was a very large and imposing HSBC bank; Globalization had truly arrived.
My interest in the Vietnam War led me to the war museum; there, they displayed pictures of US atrocities and unexploded bombs. Despite the horror of the images, it was refreshing to see history from another perspective.The people of Vietnam were warm, friendly, and welcoming; I had many wonderful experiences travelling through Dalat, Da Nang, Hue and up into Hanoi. By this leg of the journey, my sign language had been almost perfected and I could relay almost any message I wanted to communicate; my most common message was, “where can I find food, water, and shelter?” The plan of action was to ensure that I was in or near a town or village before nightfall and knock on selected doors waving a few single US dollars and placing my hands prayer-style beside my head, indicating a place to sleep. This very rarely failed; if it did, I would try and try again until someone took me in. Very often, I was a novelty: a 6’2” black man with an afro cycling through town. Often, children would run behind my bicycle or whole crowds would gather, laughing at the spectacle of this large black man with funny hair and dark glasses, riding what must have appeared like a clown’s bicycle. The Brompton had its own celebrity too. People would be amazed at the way it folded and how small and portable it could become. I had to continually fend off offers to swap or buy my bicycle. By this time exhaustion was setting in, so I jumped on an overnight train which would take me over the border into China and up into Kunming.
He eventually thrust it back into my hand with the departing words: “BLACK, NO GOOD!” He pointed to his own hand and, turning to walk away, indicated his own skin: “THIS GOOD!” I re-boarded the train with much food for thought.

Before I began this journey through South East Asia, I reasoned to myself that I was likely to experience prejudice and racism in the countryside as the people may not have had much contact with people from the west. I also reasoned that the cities would be a lot more liberal and welcoming. To my surprise, I found the opposite; the people of the countryside were exceptionally welcoming, whilst some city folk displayed open signs of hostility and disgust. Once, while taking a bus ride around Bangkok, a woman thrust herself up against the window in an effort to avoid even the slightest contact. On another occasion, I arrived to check into a guest house and was told there was no room; on my way out, I saw a white back packer walk in. I stood by the doorway and waited until I saw him handing over his passport. I then re-entered and asked him if he had just checked in. He replied: “Yes, I saw you on the way in.” I stood staring in disgust at the receptionist, who averted my gaze and proceeded to process her new guest.

I have encountered prejudice throughout Europe and the United States; here in Asia it was no different. The assumed low financial and intellectual value of the Black Man has become a universally accepted prejudice. However, encountering such blatant racism in so-called communist Vietnam and China was a little surprising.

These sorts of stories plagued my travels, but I refused to let them cloud my perspective of the people. The people I had met in the countryside redeemed the negative experiences I had. Cycling through small towns and villages, people would invite me into their homes for dinner and we would just sit there laughing at each other; they would speak their language and I would speak English, and this ritual would be repeated in almost every home I visited. Often I would engage someone in a deep conversation (well, as deep as sign language would take us); fits of laughter was how we relayed mutual understanding. There was much laughter.

I disembarked at Kunming and was welcomed by sub-zero temperatures and frost. I stood for a moment, marvelling at the skyscrapers and development; Western propaganda had sold me a big lie. With no coat and my only long sleeve item being a green lightweight sweatshirt which had been given to me by someone I met along the way, I wasted no time in checking into a hotel. That night was spent indulging in another experimental food fetish. I tried dog meat. Throughout the journey, I had seen dogs hung up by butchers like legs of lamb. Dog and cat meat are an acceptable part of the Chinese diet. I was pleasantly surprised as it tasted sweet, similar to lamb, and was presented in a stew accompanied by rice, no different from how one may receive a meal in any restaurant.

There was no way I would survive cycling in this weather, so first thing in the morning, I departed Kunming on an overnight sleeper which would take me back down south towards a warmer climate. The journey took twenty-three hours, and there were no seats on the coach, just flat wooden racks in layers. I positioned myself at the back of the coach taking the window, so as to enjoy the scenery and not to have someone sleeping either side of me. At the back we slept six to a row with no room to sit up and barely enough room to lie flat on our backs. The journey was punctuated from start to finish by a cacophony of out-of-chorus meows from about thirty kittens which had been crammed into a wire mesh cage and strapped to the roof alongside the oversized luggage. This reminded me of how we transported chickens on public transport in Jamaica. I pitied the screaming creatures, dismissing the notion that they were to become loving pets, and then berated myself for my hypocrisy, knowing that if these kittens were to be served with mushrooms on a bed of black bean sauce, I too would indulge and lick my fingers afterwards. I finally put my head down to sleep having sedated my conscience with the reasoning: one man’s Aberdeen steak is another man’s sacred cow.
At the border, Chinese immigration officials boarded the train and began checking everyone’s documents. A French national and I were the only foreigners on board. They took a glimpse at his passport and handed it back to him. They then looked at my passport, and looked at me, then at my passport and back at me. Then mutterings began in Mandarin and they left the train with my passport. They shortly returned and asked me to disembark to the platform. On the platform, I was greeted by an older gentleman who was obviously their supervisor. He looked at me and then scrutinised mypassport; this I could understand, for I had not shaved in three months and looked nothing like the clean-cut picture in my passport.
Down south, I met a couple of Czech cyclists who had ridden from Prague through Russia, Pakistan, and China; they were heading through Lao, so we crossed the border together at Boten and from there, I proceeded through what I will describe as one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited. The people, in general, were the calmest, most welcoming and genuine people I had ever met. The tranquil atmosphere and landscapes solicited emotions of inner peace. My concept of time became warped; what seemed a minute was really an hour or vice versa.
Was I imagining these emotions? Was this country as wonderful and as beautiful as my senses translated them, or had I fallen into some emotionally induced psychosis? If paradise is a cliché to describe a place of unadulterated beauty, then psychosis or not, paradise it was.

My journey ended much the same way it began, with me asking myself: Why did you do this? What was it all about? From the nightmarish eleven-hour trucking extravaganza to the prison-like barracks of the overnight train in China, I certainly had my fair share of traveller’s hell. I had journeyed into sub-zero temperatures without so much as a jacket. I had been denied lodging and nearly booted from a train in the ugly name of racism. Yet I had also encountered some of the most warm, welcoming, and thought-provoking people I had ever met. I had experienced history through another perspective. And my eyes saw some of the greatest splendour they had ever known. In this frame of mind, it might be easy to compare and contrast, or to say that the positive experiences outweighed the negative ones, or vice versa. After deeper consideration, however, I realize that no comparison is needed. All of life’s experiences, whether good or bad, beautiful or ugly, are fodder for creativity, be it intellectual, cultural, or artistic. Throughout my life, I have embarked on a number of journeys with unknown destinations and with questions pervading my thoughts from start to finish, and even still in the aftermath. And if I take those unanswered questions with me to the grave, then so be it. Each experience adds to the tapestry that is my life. The world is my classroom and its citizens my professors.

Ishmahil is currently in West Africa directing a documentary which uncovers the impact of war, poverty and corruption on the continent and its people. If you would like to contact Ishmahil please send mail to exposure@ricenpeas.com