|Beyond The Comfort Zone – Extracts|
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.
Beginnings – Heroes and Villains
In 1961, as the bricklayers of Berlin busied themselves building their wall, across France vineyard owners congratulated themselves on creating one of the best vintages of the 20th Century, and a contrite Adolf Eichmann awaited his death sentence in a Jerusalem cell. High above them all Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin spun around a tiny blue world and became the first man to experience the vacuum of space. Far below him in a small Cheshire town in North Western England another, much smaller vacuum, was being filled.
I was born in Northwich on Thursday the 18th May that year, to Joyce and Barry Turner. My mother was a Secretary at the chemical giant I.C.I. and my Father was a Shipwright at Pimlotts shipyard. I was followed in timely succession by two sisters, Ann and the youngest Joanne.
Now, everyone has a childhood, populated by aunties and uncles, nephews and nieces, and mine was no more remarkable than yours probably, suffice to say that when I look back, my early memories are largely ones of happiness. The summers were always sunny, the summer holidays seemingly stretching on forever, Christmases were always white and the presents plentiful. That all came to an abrupt halt, one summer’s day in 1972.
It was by all other indications a normal Sunday afternoon. I thought nothing of it at first, my parents were having an animated argument in the upstairs bedroom of our simple council house, nothing unusual in that, and I was doing my best to ignore them. The argument abruptly stopped and my father came thundering down the stairs. I remember he had his coat in his hand and he barely gave me a second glance as he breezed past me, slumped in a chair, in the living room.
“You’ll have to make your own tea son, I’m off!”
I’d like to think that given more time to prepare, he might have come up with a more eloquent and enlightened last phrase, a moment of wisdom perhaps, for his son to carry with him on his journey to adulthood – but probably not. The door slammed shut and I never saw him again.........................
Love, Loss and Rollercoasters
.............. I’ve tried many times to explain the volume of several thousand screaming girls trapped in a confined space. The closest I can come to it is if you imagined standing next to a 747 engine on takeoff. All you hear is a rush of white noise, a hiss so loud and crushing that your hearing begins to flutter as your eardrums reach the limits of their ability to process it. Our grins had been replaced by looks of disbelief, I’m pretty sure none of us had ever experienced anything like it. We launched into the first song. I couldn’t hear a single instrument, how any of us managed to play through the songs I’ll never know. The Volume needle remained pinned to the red for the entire gig. The flashes popped, the girls screamed, I couldn’t hear a thing – I loved every minute of it!
All too soon it was over, we gave our bows and one by one the band members left the stage. At this point I had no roadie, so I was last to leave the stage after collecting up my Saxes. I waved and as I left glanced down at the stage-floor. It was covered in cuddly toys - and dozens of pairs of girl’s knickers. Back in the changing room everybody was already packed up, I was on my own, packing away my Saxes when a very agitated security man brought a very breathless Jen through the door.
“Oh My GOD” she wheezed “That was AMAZING….they were carrying girls out one after another…it looks like a warzone out there!” I didn’t have chance to reply before the flustered security Guard broke in.
“Look you two, we really have to go are you ready?” I was a bit surprised at his lack of patience.
“I’m going as fast as I can mate, I’ll be with you in a sec.” I said as I packed away my horns.
“No, we can’t wait. Are you ready?” What was his problem?
“Ok…I’m ready.” I slung my two cases over my shoulder, giving Jen the Soprano, and the two of us followed him out of the upstairs changing room and headed down to the backstage door. When we reached the door he hesitated, turning to us once again asking.
“Are you sure you are ready?” I looked at him as if he was insane.
“Yeah, we’re ready…. Let’s go.”
He turned to the closed fire-doors that led to the outside.
“Ok…..Ok…..” He said, almost to himself, as he took a deep breath before finally, with a flourish, kicking the door open.
Jen and I stood there for a moment, transfixed, like rabbits in the headlights. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. Before us, Police, linked arm in arm, formed a corridor to the open door of the tour bus. On either side screaming fans dived and clawed, attempting to find a way over or under the police line. The officers sweated and slid, their helmets lying in the dust, as the tide of girls buffeted them time and time again.
We were pulled out of our stupor. The doorman put his arm around the two of us as we attempted to head towards the sanctuary of the open bus door. I got barely a few feet before I felt my Jacket being pulled and I immediately sagged to my knees against the line of Police. As I struggled to free myself, I watched as a fan leaped over the Police cordon catching a handful of Jens hair in the process, pulling her in the opposite direction. Somehow I managed to get free and grabbed Jen with my free hand, the two of us fought our way forward, eventually stumbling up the stairs of the Bus. We watched through the windows at the near apocalyptic scene, as the hysterical fans, tears streaming down their faces, battered themselves against the side of the Bus. .....................
Tumbling Towards Thailand
.............My first view and impressions of my new home were from the air as we made our approach to Chiang Mai international airport. This was to be my home for the foreseeable future and I admit to feeling more than a little nervous as the aircraft swung around the side of the mountainous Doi Suthep past the huge seated Buddha on the hillside and started its descent over the flat plains of rice paddies. First impressions were not good. It looked so tiny, so much countryside and so few buildings I couldn’t really see any semblance to what I would call a real city. My apprehension grew as I came through passport control and hopped in a Tuk-Tuk making my way to the temporary guesthouse accommodation I had arranged before I left the UK. Once more it was teeming down, the streets were deserted and the Tuk-Tuk screeched and slithered down the narrow alleyways of the old city finally arriving at the aforementioned guest house. The owner greeted me with a huge smile, which eased my nervousness and I checked into what was a very simple room on the top floor. Opening the curtains and staring out through the ubiquitous mosquito screen revealed a small and ancient Wat opposite, almost identical to the one I had noticed next door when I arrived, the smell of fruit tree blossoms and jasmine wafted in though the open window.
The gravity of the situation, of what I was about to undertake, really hit me for the first time. I had left behind my friends, family and to all intents and purpose my profession, and landed in a country where I didn’t speak a word of the language and didn’t know a single soul. The stark reality was that, if something were to happen to me here there was not a single person in the entire country that would shed a solitary tear or mourn my passing in any way. I stared at the suitcase and two rucksacks at the end of the bed. My entire possessions, every single thing I owned in the world was in those cases. The rain outside increased its assault on the corrugated roof, it completed the feeling of total isolation that had now befallen me, I sank my head into my hands, ‘Jim, I hope you know what you are doing’. I allowed myself a few tears that night, actually more than a few. What had I done!.......................................
Step From The Edge
.............................The next day, as I was having my customary breakfast of Bagels, Cream cheese and Avocado at my usual watering hole, Franco appeared. Strolling quickly across the café, he slid into the bench opposite me. He leaned over the table, and gestured me in closer, lowering his voice conspiratorially, the smell of last nights drunken repast wafting between us.
“Listen Jimbo, I’ve got an idea tell me what you think”.
I listened as he told me how further north he had heard of a village that is possibly being used as a staging post for child trafficking. He’d like to go and see if we could get some secret footage with the new hidden camera.
“Sounds a tiny bit on the dangerous side matey” I said with more than a hint of sarcasm, concentrating on smearing the ripe avocado into the bagel in front of me.
“How far north is this village?”
“Oh, way up in the Golden Triangle”
“Where, Chiang Rai?”
“No a bit further than that”. Well, could he be any more vague I thought to myself!
I pressed him. “Which bit of the Golden Triangle are you talking about?
Franco paused for a moment, deciding whether or not to tell me.
“The top bit”.
I took a bite out of my Bagel and started to go over the area in my mind. Chiang Rai is the gateway, further to the north and to the left is Mae Hong Son, to the right is the Mekong and further past that Lao…. I stopped chewing, the swallow sticking in my throat, as it dawned on me where he is talking about.
“Shit, you’re talking about going into Burma”. He nodded.
“Are you stark raving mad, you’ll never make it in and out, and there are Army checkpoints aren’t there?”
He explained that he’d got a contact on the Burmese side, and could get the passes we needed. I shook my head.
“It’s too dangerous mate, I don’t think I’m up for it”
Franco looked disappointed “Look, you’re always telling me you wanted an adventure, well this qualifies. Are you scared?”
“Yeah, I am, and you should be too”
If we got caught filming, or even with the camera system on our person, any number of things could happen – none of them good. The village it transpired was thirty minutes or so – he didn’t know exactly - inside the Burmese border, and we would pose as tourists trying to experience the local village life, and obviously we would be doling out cash gifts along the way to ensure smooth passage. This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for an adventure, what was wrong with an Elephant trek or some white water rafting? But I knew if I said no he would probably go alone, I also knew the probability of him getting up to his neck in it was high. What to do?
I looked past Franco to the street outside, it was raining. The kind of tropical rain, that bounces a foot high as it hits the pavement, soaks everything in five seconds and then is gone in an instant. An overweight tourist crammed onto a motorbike several sizes too small for him splashed through the torrent outside. Behind him riding pillion, was a small girl of about 15 years of age. She is not his daughter. They slowed to a squeaky halt at the crossing directly outside the café window, her expressionless face leaning against the man’s back. She should have been at school or laughing and playing in the rain with friends. Instead the girl, clearly Burmese, now clung to the back of the bike. Her innocence was gone, with no childhood to speak of she seemed to carry the worries of the world on her tiny frame her perfect almond shaped eyes unfocussed, unblinking, staring blankly through the curtain of water between us. The rain stopped abruptly, and for a second our eyes met through the glass. She looked at me for a moment, then turned her head away in embarrassment as the motorbike with its sad cargo sped on. I turned back to Franco.
“Ok, fuck it I’m in” then added “don’t get me killed”
“I’ll try not to” He beamed back.
The next day unable to sleep I awoke early, brewed a fresh pot of coffee and took it outside onto the balcony seating myself in my usual chair. In the distance monsoon rain clouds, inky black and laced with lightening, raced across the valley floor some forty miles away. Perfect sheets of rain, their edges crisp at that distance, fell from each group of black cotton candy and shafts of bright amber light separated each group of clouds. Like torch beams they illuminated swathes of the lush green rice paddies beyond the Hang Dong road all the way to Doi Inthannon. The golden singular spire of Wat Suan Dok rose majestically two blocks to the west seemingly painted in 3D relief against the shifting backdrop of the oncoming storm. It was an awesome sight. I stood up and walked to the edge of the balcony. It wasn’t raining here yet, but below me the deck chairs and loungers scraped around the poolside and the Palms leaned heavily their fronds rippling violently as they bowed to the tepid breath of the approaching monsoon downpour. The benevolent shadow of Doi Suthep, its peak shrouded in mist, sat to my right. I fixed my eyes on the shining stuppas of Wat Phra Doi Suthep, still poking through above the mist, and raised my hands to my forehead in a silent traditional wai. I gathered my thoughts. .................