|Beyond The Comfort Zone – Extracts|
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These extracts contain strong Adult language. Please read no further if you are easily offended.
September 2004, no-man’s land on the Thai – Burmese border. Temperature 105 degrees, Humidity 95%.
I stood on the bridge, looking over the rail to the chocolate brown water below, trying to gauge the drop to the river. Beads of sweat ran down my cheeks, gathered at my chin and fell the forty or so feet through the turgid air to become one with the swollen torrent running beneath me.
Behind me, to the tourists at least, everything looked as it should. Life on the bridge was in full swing, a steady two way procession, the ebb and flow of border life. Fruit sellers peddled their wares, hawkers sold postcards, grinning at bemused Americans dressed in appropriately garish shorts and T-shirts. Chatter from half a dozen languages mixed with the stop-start whine of ten thousand freshly hatched crickets from the jungle nearby. Meanwhile, trucks belching black smoke, laden with chickens, people, cases of Johnny Walker or piled high with Pineapples and Watermelons made their way to and fro across the no-man’s land of some hundred and fifty yards between the two border checkpoints. The closeness of the surrounding hills made sure that not a breath of wind disturbed a claustrophobic blanket of heat and dust.
To me however things were looking far from hunky dory! Without raising my head, I looked to my right. Through the railings on the Thai side at 2 o’clock, I saw a young Thai couple. She posed for a holiday snap, her back to the railings. Meanwhile, her partner pretended to take some holiday shots for the folks back home in Bangkok, his telephoto lens pointing over his girlfriends shoulder and aimed squarely at my head. Finger never moving from the shutter button he cranked out a dozen or more photo’s of yours truly. “Well, that’s f*ckin’ marvellous” I said to myself as I looked back to the River below. I licked the salt from my lips.
Turning slowly, putting my back to the camera, I looked around me, acting as nonchalant as my pounding heart would allow. Fifty yards ahead and to the left our contact was melting into the crowd on the bridge. Looking back, he briefly paused to test the ripeness of some mangoes before he spun away, quickened his stride, and disappeared into the sea of brown faces. Moments earlier myself and my partner Franco had just tried to negotiate with him the price for eight pre-teen girls, to be sold to a Mamasan from a Bangkok brothel.
Franco now stood rooted to the spot some ten paces in front of me. Circling the two of us, having just dismounted from two shiny blacked out SUV’s, were five Burmese secret police. They wore checked shirts left outside their pants, clean white vests, chinos and wrap-around sunglasses. They were easy to spot, and my mouth had gone dry the moment they stepped from the vehicles. They casually made their way through the crowd, smiling ever so slightly, cutting off all avenues of escape. Franco leaned on the flaky concrete rail at the side of the bridge. We were in deep shit. He knew it. I knew it. The words of the briefing the night before played over and over in my head. “If something goes wrong, anything. If something doesn’t feel right. Get out and get out quick – we won’t be able to come in after you”. F**k! F**k! F**K! What the f**k was I thinking? I should be on a stage somewhere earning pot loads of cash and grinning at screaming girls! I should not be out here sweating my balls off, contemplating jumping into a f**king god knows how deep river, probably getting shot in the process. Or worse, disappearing into the Burmese prison system and left to rot.
I tightened my grip on the rail, flakes of white paint falling to the river below. Although I was a better than average swimmer I didn’t fancy my chances. Even if I survived the fall, I still had over fifty yards to swim before I would find cover when the river eventually bent around to the right. If they decided to shoot, even the worst marksman in the world would surely hit me before the bend. Then there was the river itself. Deep into rainy season, what was a thin ribbon of water was now a raging spinning maelstrom, hurtling beneath the bridge at several miles an hour. Not far downstream things got a lot worse, as it joined the mighty Mekong. At this time of year it would be two miles across and travelling even faster. I’d seen the Mekong in flood, and remembered its awe inspiring effect on me at the time, tumbling fallen trees in its current like matchsticks. I imagined my bloated, bullet ridden body turning its death roll in the branches of a floating tree. F*ck that! I decided against the jump.