Wednesday, 15 December 2010


There is extraordinary – and there is Aron Ralston (above), who cut off his own arm, trapped under a boulder, to save his life. His story, filmed as 127 Hours by Danny Boyle, might surprise you.

Ralston is honest enough to admit the downside of the fact that this supposedly life-changing experience did not actually change his life as perhaps it should, writes my colleague Patrick Barkham in today's Guardian.

"What did I do? In the years following my amputation I thought, I won't let it change me, I just want to be the guy I was before and prove that I am still this hard hero. It's almost pathetic to the extent that what I really needed was a humbling and what happened? I just got reinforced – I'm a fucking badass, I just got out ofthat. Nothing's gonna stop me!" He lowers his voice. "But I was ultimately humbled actually through a relationship – a girl who broke up with me.".

In the first guest blog on Lives Less Ordinary, read his incredible story here.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Out of the shadows

Thet Sambath has been looking for the truth for ten years. That’s how long it’s taken him to track down some of the men and women involved in Cambodia’s savage Khmer Rouge regime. His father, brother and mother were murdered during that reign of terror, but Sambath isn’t after revenge – he wants his countrymen to hear their stories.

If anyone can persuade ageing party cadres and henchmen with blood on their hands to open up, it’s Sambath. A senior reporter on the Phnom Penh Post, he asks extraordinarily uncomfortable questions with charm, humility, smiling eyes and a gentle voice.

A British filmmaker, Rob Lemkin, has captured Sambath’s mammoth quest and turned it into a film, Enemies of the People. It has been nominated for an Oscar.

Every weekend Sambath kisses his young family goodbye and heads into the country, video recorder in hand, to dig up the unbearable past. His wife, wringing out washing, is non-plussed: “I wonder why he is so different from other people,” she smiles. “He’s always off in the forest.” She seems unaware that he has sacrificed ten years of his life to discover, for the first time in Cambodian history, what actually went on between 1975-79. She just misses her husband.

Sambath started at the top. Nuon Chea (below) was Brother Number Two to Pol Pot – and is now an 84-year-old with bad teeth and a certain grace. It took three years of regular interviews before Nuon Chea admitted knowledge of any killing, something Pol Pot never did.

But it’s a pair of illiterate farmers, Mr Khoun and Mr Suon, who provide hard facts, in all their terrifying detail. “You must talk to uneducated country people to get the truth,” says Sambath. “It’s hard for foreigners and journalists, but easy for me because I am a country person too.”

Between them they were responsible for killing hundreds, probably thousands, of Cambodians. They slit their throats and, when their hands started to ache, stabbed them in the neck and flung the bodies into ditches. Sambath, armed with a plastic knife, smilingly asks one of the men to show him how he did it, as casually as if he was asking for a demonstration on the best way to slice an onion.

Later, they confess to eating human gall bladders. But they are remorseful, and eager to tell their story. One of the men has a look so haunted he appears possessed (pictured, below). A Buddhist like most Cambodians, he isn’t expecting to come back as anything much in the next life. “I feel desolate,” he says.

Meanwhile, Sambath has decided that, after ten years, he’s finally ready to tell Nuon Chea that his own family was butchered in the 70s. He hadn’t wanted to tell him before in case Nuon Chea thought he was out to avenge them. He does so softly, off camera, while we watch the man’s reaction. “What is your response to my family’s story?” asks Sambath, quietly. It’s unbearably moving.

Nuon Chea was arrested in September 2007, and will stand trial next spring. “I feel very sad,” says Sambath. “We worked together for ten years.”

It is entirely to Sambath’s credit that you feel no hatred towards these men, only sorrow. Perhaps we see them through his forgiving, generous eyes. "These people have sacrificed a lot to tell the truth," he says. "In daring to confess, they have done good – perhaps the only good thing left."

I went to Cambodia earlier this year. Its people were warm, friendly but, behind the smiles, sad. Perhaps with these stories the country can start to come to terms with his heartbreaking past. If it does, one extraordinary man can take a lot of credit.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Boyo's Own adventure

He may be a Hollywood actor, starring in a glossy TV drama with a constellation of stars, but Matthew Rhys is just an ordinary Welsh lad, worrying about the rugby. Although he loves Los Angeles, it's no Cardiff, he says, and certainly doesn't invite impromptu pints in the pub. "It's so vast, we're dotted all over. So you either drive and don't drink, or you stay the night at whoever's nearest to the pub we're going to," he says. It is a problem.

Rhys is polite, sincere, funny and easy to talk to. He's obviously interested in other people – I realise with horror when I play back my tape that I have spent nearly half the time wittering on about my job, my flat, my degree, my travels. His answers to my questions are lengthy and intelligent and thoughtful, but I get the impression he's just as happy quizzing me than talking about himself.

Rhys has played Kevin Walker in Brothers & Sisters for five years. That's a long spell in a profession where insecurity is a given. "It's like having a weird office job," he says. "I go to the same place every day, I park in the same spot, I turn up in shorts and flip flops and then put on a suit." His character – who happens to be gay, rather than being "a gay character" – is rarely without a shirt and tie.

Does he enjoy the routine? "It's nice to have security, but part of me misses the variety that comes with not knowing what you're going to do next." The cast (Sally Field, Rob Lowe, Calista Flockhart and Rachel Griffiths among them) are great mates – he was recently best man at his co-star Dave Annable's wedding.

Rhys's latest role is less stellar: he is bringing to wider attention, with first a documentary and now a travelogue, the extraordinary heroics of a small group of Welshmen in Patagonia, Argentina. Almost 125 years ago to the day, a party of 29 men left the safety of a small Welsh colony, established 20 years earlier, in search of more fertile land – and with it, survival – in the Andes. Their gruelling 700km journey, on horseback, took them five-and-a-half weeks.

To commemorate the 125th anniversary of the trip, descendants of the original men decided to recreate the entire journey. And Rhys persuaded them to let him come along.

"In my ignorance or arrogance, I underestimated the physical challenge of it," he says. "I didn't realise we would be in the saddle so long, and by the third day, I wasn't sure if I was up to it."

Part of the attraction was to document some real Welsh heroes "who make you feel good about being Welsh", he says. "I was a big cowboy fan when I was growing up. Wales doesn't have those kinds of heroes, so I wanted to get their story out."

He came across it when he stumbled on the diary of John Murray Thomas, one of the group's leaders. “He was a great adventurer. What they did was the equivalent of space travel, unknown and incredibly dangerous. We’re [the Welsh] not really known for our pioneer spirit, but here was someone who very much was.”

Rhys found extreme contentment on the month-long ride. "It was an immediately gratifying, real experience," he says. "You're not pretending to be anyone else."

Patagonia is the subject of his next film, out in March, in which he plays an Argentinean of Welsh descent.

He is drawn to stories like this. A few years ago he made a documentary about another extraordinary character, Griffith Jenkins Griffith, a Welsh-born industrialist who donated parks and public spaces to Los Angeles, but become better known for shooting his wife and spending two years in prison.

As well as promoting charismatic Welshmen, it seems the attraction of telling these stories is having a bit more creative control. "If you break up the elements of film acting, your input and satisfaction can be weak," he says. "You're reciting someone else's words, under someone else's vision, wearing clothes someone else has told you to wear. And the director and editor get to decide how it all turns out.

"I've started directing a bit on the show" – he has three episodes under his belt – "and I find it really gratifying. Everyone asks you how you'd like something shot, and you think, wow – I have an opinion on how this looks, what happens, the tone."

Rhys is about to reprieve, briefly, his role as Benjamin in The Graduate (he starred opposite Kathleen Turner on stage in London), this time for radio in LA. "I miss the theatre enormously. The Graduate feels like a lifetime ago but it was one of my best jobs. Everything clicked. The cast got on, we had a great social life with it, and it was great to make people laugh every night.

"It's weird how your perspective changes. At the start of your career you think, I just want to do cutting edge work that makes people think. Now, I would do a blockbuster in a heartbeat." What changes? "Just the awareness of what we do," he says. "Don't get me wrong, I take it very seriously and work very hard. But at the end of the day, we're entertainers."

Crossing the Plain, published by Gomer Press, is out now.

Black and white photographs: Matthew Rhys

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Brief Encounters: circulation

Rui, our regular swimming coach, is a dark-haired, sun-kissed, Portuguese janota who looks too warm-blooded and Mediterranean to enjoy the chilly, 15 degree waters of Parliament Hill lido on a Wednesday morning.

So I usually get a sympathetic response when, as one of the few people swimming without a wetsuit, I climb out after 40 minutes to defrost in the showers.

But today, Rui wasn't there. Instead we had a tough-looking drill master with a crew cut, barking instructions like an East End Sergeant Major.

"You're cold?!" he said, as I got out early. It was as if it was the oddest, most unlikely thing I could have said.

"I think it's time I got a wetsuit," I replied. "Never use one," he said. "And I swim all year round. Just swim harder."

He smiled, and I realised that underneath the crew cut, he was a softy. And perhaps, secretly, a little bit impressed that among our group of wetsuit-clad, big-shouldered men, I was the only one braving the cold.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Midsummer Madness

The last time I met a group of strangers in a layby it was 1989, the second Summer of Love. Under-age and under dressed, we were trying to find a field with a rave in it.

Over 20 years on, I'm doing something a little more age-appropriate but just as fun: meeting outdoor swimmers, pulling on a swimsuit and jumping in a river.

After making friends in a heartbeat – standing semi-naked by the side of a B-road does accelerate the bonding process – we pick our way across a field. We're quite a sight: barefoot, red hats, wet suits and goggles.

Chat is excited but a little nervous. How long will the swim take? How cold will the water be? Will the current help us? What happens if we want to get out early? We pass a group of picnickers, flushed pink from the sun and the empty bottles of wine littering their rug. They wave and shout words of encouragement.

Soon we're at the riverbank. Here in Oxfordshire, we are around 40 miles from the source of London's great river. The water is brown-green, clean and sleepily slow-moving, the bank lined with lush shrubbery.

I hop down and into the shallows, surprised to feel sand between my toes. The water is colder than I expected but as soon as I dive under and stretch out, my shivers pass and it cools me down. I am at the front (it won't last), cleaving through the water at a gentle pace. No-one is racing: strokes are languid as we drink in the surroundings. It's exceptionally peaceful, just the lapping of the water, murmuring chat and the occasional whoop behind us as someone enters the water.

Reeds and leaves become entangled in my fingers. Ducklings wobble past. And every five minutes a large boat looms into view. It makes me feel very small bobbing at water level as they cruise past.

After a kilometre or so, I'm starting to chill. Most people are in sturdy wetsuits but my new-found friend and I are in skimpy swimsuits (it was only a last minute change of heart that made me leave my bikini at home). So we get out at a stretch of sand and walk back to the parked cars. Our goose bumps are soon warmed by the afternoon sun.

We catch a lift to the end of the swim, at the village of Shillingford a mile away, and await the swimmers (pictured, above – that's me by the barge wrapped in a woolly grey cardigan).

Soon, red hats appear around a bend in the river. They reach the bank and clamber out into awaiting towels, beaming with the joy of exertion, relief and pride. I haven't enjoyed a Saturday afternoon this much in years.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Storm in a treehouse

Koh Rong is a tiny island off Cambodia's south coast – 15km of pristine jungle and pale sand so soft it feels like icing sugar between your toes.

A few hundred people live here, their corrugated huts lining the beach on the island's eastern edge. Their children attend a local school. They fish. And they provide food and drink for the small groups of scuba divers who explore Koh Rong's emerald waters.

Until recently, few tourists visited this beach. But in the past couple of months, a handful of wood and thatch bungalows have appeared among the trees. And if you keep walking, round a tiny headland, you reach few more, including a magnificent treehouse, two storeys high with vertiginous steps, waves lapping at its feet and heart-stopping views out to sea.

This is where we spent the night.

The treehouse was built by Nuch Ros, a beautiful, bubbly girl from Sihanoukville across the water, and her Turkish husband, Bora Ozturk (she fed us hot sour soup to revive me after the bumpy crossing). It has a large bed with a mosquito net, open sides to catch the breeze, even a shower. We threw down our packs and dozed to escape the searing midday sun.

A word on that: it is a hardier traveller than I, I have discovered, who braves Cambodia on the cusp of the rainy season. Most days it reaches 40 degrees, and it is so humid that I swear I sweat even in the shower. I am always, always hot. A fan is a must, air-conditioning preferable, otherwise sleep (in the loosest sense) involves lying in one position long enough for the sheet to soak, before rolling onto a drier patch and repeating.

The rains are on their way, though. Most evenings, thunder rumbles like timpani and lightening forks through the clouds, sometimes followed by a short downpour that cools the air momentarily.

But that night in the treehouse, there is no relief. We are sweating and fanless (the generator is turned off at 9pm). We watch three storms over the mainland, praying for them to reach us, but instead, the air is as thick as noodle soup and the surf beneath us turns listlessly. Sleep is impossible.

Suddenly, a light breeze blows across me. It is almost imperceptible, but I sit up nonetheless to feel its effect on my body. It slowly picks up, and soon my wet skin is drying, the mosquito net is billowing gently and the mercury is falling. I am pathetically grateful.

It doesn't take long to stiffen and minutes later, an empty water bottle blows off the window ledge and lands with a clatter on the floor. Suddenly, lightening fills the entire room, thunder rumbles angrily and the rain comes down.

We're now wide awake. The mosquito net has come loose completely, but I tuck it back under the mattress. It's a pointless exercise as it is whipping around us like a main sail in a gale. A towel and a bikini, tied securely to the balcony, are whisked away into the night. Rain is slicing through the open windows, and the sea is roaring beneath us. Thunder claps deafeningly directly above our heads.

I point out that the treehouse, barely two months old, hasn't yet weathered a rainy season. And suddenly we are laughing uncontrollably, tears streaming down our faces, hysterical with relief, excitement and fear that our treehouse is going to collapse into a heap of sticks.

The storm continues at this intensity for over half an hour. We've stopped laughing, we're cold and wet and we just want it to end. Finally, after a few false alarms, the wind subsides, the mosquito net hangs loose again and I fall into a deep, cool, exhausted sleep.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Living off the land

The tribal people of the world don’t have much of a voice. But journalist Joanna Eede has been collecting their extraordinary stories. She has spoken to Bushmen in Botswana, Amazonian Yanomami and Canadian Innu, among others, about their lives, homes and beliefs.

“This is our land. Do only people live here? No, there are also monkeys, even bears. The land is for everyone, men, animals and plants. The land is full of the spirits of our forefathers, it is a reciprocal relationship. The land is for our men of today and for our children.” So say the Asháninka tribe in Peru, echoing the beliefs of tribes the world over.

These people inhabit some of the most remote corners of the earth: tundra, sea-ice, mountains, deserts and prairies. They have done for thousands of years. “The affinity with their homelands is reflected in the names tribal peoples call themselves,” says Eede. “They are the savannah people, the people of the headwaters, the people from the wild pig place.”

“We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, the winding streams with tangled growth, as ‘wild’,” says Luther Standing Bear, an Oglala Lakota Sioux. “Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was it ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame.”

Each tribal society is unique. But most share the belief that man and nature should live together – and that a long-term attitude to the caretaking of the planet is vital. “The Iroquois of North America always consider seven generations ahead in their decision making,” says Eede.

We can learn from these wise people, who tread lightly and lovingly on the planet. "Only we, the indigenous people, know how to protect the forest," says Davi Kopenawa, from the ancient Yanomami tribe in the Brazilian rainforest. "Give us back our lands before the forest dies. It is dangerous to abuse nature. The sky is full of smoke because the napë, the non-Indians, are logging and burning our rainforest. The rains come late, the sun behaves in a strange way. The lungs of the sky are polluted. The world is ill."

This week, indigenous people in Brazil are threatening violence after a successful tender for the rights to build a giant hydro-electric plant on their ancient land. "Indians will be forced to kill the white men again so they leave our lands alone," says Kayapó leader, Raoni Metuktire.

We can also learn from their philosophy on life, too. "The desire for possessions is destructive," says Davi Kopenawa. "Nothing that can be bought, or sold, has any real meaning. Possessions are looked upon as symbols of advanced humanity, yet they disappear with the wind. All they do is cloud the mind and pollute the soul."

What can we do? Tell their stories, the tribal people say. "You have seen with your eyes what is happening here," says a Bushman in Botswana. "Go and tell people what you have seen. What would make us happy is if we have the rights to stay on our land."

Last Sunday, a glamorous gathering of actors staged a one-off benefit in London, performing readings from Eede's book, We Are One, which was written for the charity Survival International to mark its 40th anniversary. Julie Christie and Gillian Anderson shared a stage with Derek Jacobi and Mackenzie Crook. Sadly, Colin Firth didn't make it...

Should we care that tribal people are being forced away from their land and livelihoods? "Yes, if we believe that taking other people's lands – and so destroying them – should not be tolerated," says Survival International director, Stephen Corry. "They teach us that price and value are not the same things, and that community can be more intelligent and humane than government."

Or, as Cecilia Mitchell, a Mohawk in the USA puts it: "Different people, different ideas and different beliefs make life so much more interesting.”

Photographs, from top: Mike Goldwater, Grenville Charles, Bruno Morandi

Brief Encounters: ticket

Settled by the train window, the sun streaming in, the elderly man reminded me of a character in a Graham Greene novel: smart hat, straight back, distinguished nose. He was heading, via London, for the coast. Where, I asked? "Brighton. Or Weston-super-Mare. I don't know yet," he said, with admirable free-spiritedness.
"I remember the golden age of steam," he said to no-one in particular. He tried to get a small boy interested in the semantics of the albatross insignia on his uniform, but all he wanted to do was spot Wembley Stadium.
I tried to buy a ticket but the inspector's machine was broken. The man flashed his free pass – "43 years on the railways got me this," he said. He offered to escort me to the ticket gate to back up my broken machine story. But when we pulled into the station, there was no barrier.
He looked concerned, and for a moment I thought he was going to march me to a ticket desk. But then he cracked a smile: "Good job his machine was broken, eh? And to think, I had to work for my free trip." And he shuffled off across the concourse.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Eruption in Iceland

Icelanders rarely forget they live on a groaning, fiery land-mass astride two of the earth's giant plates, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (pictured above, the plain caused by the plates pulling apart). But in case they do, a volcano erupts to remind them.

Last night's eruption happened not from a snow-capped crater but from a crack in the earth about 1.5km long, near the Eyjafallajoekull glacier. If it erupts again – and a relatively small eruption like this often precedes a bigger one – the glacier could melt, causing devastating floods. Worse, nearby is Katla, one of the country's largest, most dangerous volcanoes. When there is activity nearby, it often starts to move.

Even in a country used to volcanic activity, it's exciting. When they heard the news, young men left their Saturday night beers to jump into 4x4s and head off for a closer look. All the roads were blocked by police cordons.

How do Icelanders feel about their volcanoes? Greipur Gíslason, one of the organisers of Iceland's second design festival, HönnunarMarsthe reason I am here – says volcanic eruptions, unless they are life-threatening, are reassuring. "It's really good," he said this morning, wearing the smile of a secretly proud father whose naughty child has just come top of the class. "It reminds us our little island is working properly."

"The earth has reminded us that its creation is still going on, and that we are not its creators," Iceland's president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, told us today, as we sipped white wine at his home outside Reykjavik. "These ever-present, but unexpected events have a strong influence on the mindset of the country."

"We're excited," a young woman told me. "Katla has been sleeping for too long. Her last eruption was nearly 50 years ago so she is behind schedule." (Volcanoes, by the way, are gender neutral, but the most powerful have female names).

I experienced some of Iceland's awesome energy yesterday on a trip to see Geysir, the hot bubbling spring that erupts every 15 minutes or so (below).

It was awe-inspiring. But I fell in love with the tiny bubbling spring nearby...

I swam in an outdoor pool heated by geothermal energy. And I've showered every morning in piping hot water from the ground. On my flight from London, I sat beside a man who sits on the board of an Icelandic renewable energy company. The country produces more energy than it needs, he told me, but it doesn't know what to do with it. I hope they find a solution: if they do, Iceland will become very rich again.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Brief Encounters: swimmer

In the last few years I've swum in an inky black lake in upstate New York (where I dared not put my feet down for fear of monsters); in a Scottish loch so cold I thought I would have a heart-attack (but didn't fear monsters – whoever heard of a monster in a Scottish loch?); and in too many bathtub-warm Indian seas to mention. It soothes, strengthens and regenerates.

But my most memorable outdoor swim was two springs ago. I extended a flying visit to Munich by one day and jumped on a train bound for Starnberger See – a glorious lake 40 minutes from the city. I found a patch of grass among the trees lining the shore, stepped gingerly down the slippery wooden steps into the water and kicked off.

In a heartbeat, the tension in my shoulders lifted and the heart-ache engulfing me at the time subsided. I felt nourished. "Swimmers often feel that in water they are truly 'in their element'," writes Kate Rew, author of Wild Swim, founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society and friend, "and in lakes this is somehow enhanced. They offer the chance for muscles to stretch out and glide for miles, but they also nurture a different kind of wellbeing – that of the heart, soul or psyche."

Back on the bank, as I lay there drying off, a woman in a tiny towel approached the steps. She let the towel fall away revealing a white bikini, dipped an elegant toe into the water and jumped in. She had the figure of a race horse – tall, lean and toned – and her skin was deeply etched in soft, honey-coloured wrinkles. It was the most wrinkled body I'd ever seen. She must have been at least 70.

Yet she looked remarkable. She seemed comfortable in her skin the way so many older women aren't. I bet she swam every day. "When I'm that age..." I promised myself. And I turned my face toward the sun.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Brief Encounters: Pick-up

I’d never been to the US before, so I’d never met anyone from Alabama – I don’t think they give them passports. “You girls ever been in a pick-up truck?” he asked. We giggled.
His name was Chip. I still don’t know whether that’s short for anything.
He took us fly fishing, me and Caroline, my oldest friend. I never really got the hang of it. Besides, I was too fascinated with Chip: he had everything a man needed for a day’s fishing: rod, bait, book, cool beers and a padded thermal sleeve to go round them. I've always envied that sort of simple self-sufficiency.
Caroline and I were visiting a friend on the coast in Maine. That night, with no catch, the four of us ate at Mable’s Lobster Claw. Talk turned to women. Apparently, the girls of Maine weren’t up to scratch. What about Internet dating, we suggested. “I’d be lettin’ maself down.”
A few days later, we drove round to say goodbye. The pick-up was outside, a pair of trousers draped over the back. It was dark, the deep black you get in the country, and the hiss of crickets filled the air. We banged on the veranda door, and eventually he appeared, a beer in his hand snug in the thermal sleeve. “I’m goin’ to Portland, gonna get me a girl,” he winked. “Ya’ll have a naace trip home.”

Thursday, 25 February 2010

"Hugo Chavez thinks we're dating"

Courtney Love, it must be said, isn’t the sort of guest who usually graces The Guardian’s morning conference. On the days there is an invited speaker, it’s usually director of policy at this, or deputy chair of the national association of that – not fast-living former strippers.

But she stalked into the packed room in six-inch scarlet and black heels, skinny as a model, squeezed herself between the bemused editor and deputy editor, and held the room in thrall.

I can't really tell you any more – everything she said was off the record, and I'm an honorable journalist. But we’re among friends, so I’ll try to give a flavour of how extraordinary she is. Bonkers is another word for it.

“I’m here to share my thoughts with you, high brow and low brow,” she announced, tongue in cheek. Nothing was censored – she used the f-word liberally, was wildly indiscreet, and made grand pronouncements: she knows, for example, with unwavering certainty, who the future president will be.

Her thoughts, how can I say this politely, meandered – when asked a question, she would veer off on a tangent so unrelated that not only she, but everyone else, had forgotten the question. It didn’t matter – the tangent was always more interesting.

She was genuinely funny. She noted that drugs may have once played a large part in her life – “but don’t tell anyone...” she said. When asked how she felt about ageing (she’s 45) she said: “I’m here, aren’t I? I think that’s pretty age appropriate.”

She’s an Anglophile: she loves Russell Brand and Noel Fielding – “comedians as rock stars” – and the hip taxidermist, Polly Morgan, and is obsessed with fashion. She talked Hollywood, foreign politics, split infinitives, feminism and – movingly – about how hard it is for her daughter to listen to her Dad’s music. I admired the way she was unintimidated by the crowd of opinionated journalists. She was a match for any one of them.

Most of all, she made me feel like I’ve lived a really, really boring life.

And the Venezuelen president? Apparently he may have taken a shine to her, she claims. That’s it – no more revelations from me. But get me drunk and I’ll tell you everything.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Brief Encounters: Neck

She was a smiley English girl, with a handsome, surfer-blond French boyfriend. We boarded the train together at Colombo, and they hauled their surf boards onto the luggage rack, where they threatened to fall off and concuss someone all the way to Hikkaduwa. We were packed in as tightly as jigsaw pieces. Only sweatier.

We chatted excitedly about reaching Sri Lanka's south coast. But an hour or so later – hot, hungry, thirsty and facing backwards in my seat – I started to feel nauseous. So she lifted up my hair and blew on the back of my neck. It was such an unexpected, kind and intimate gesture from a stranger, and it worked: my queasiness disappeared a moment later. But I felt warm inside the rest of the way to Galle.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Brief Encounters: Vivek

His smart navy suit stood him apart from the other staff at Chennai airport – and conferred, I hoped, some authority – so I raced over to him. Vivek, his badge said, and he was barely over 22.
"How can you have left your passport on the plane?" he asked, smiling, after I breathlessly told him what I'd done. I didn't know myself - tiredness, preoccupation, hurrying to make my connecting flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Vivek picked up his phone and spoke to someone, unhurriedly. It seemed an inconclusive conversation. "Can I look on the plane? It's just out there,
I just landed," I said.
He shook his head. It took me a second to realise he was doing an Indian head wobble, which can mean yes, no, maybe, whatever...
"We will get your passport back, no problem," he smiled. "What seat were you in? Do you have ID?"
I handed him my credit card. It's a measure of how much, from experience, I trust Indian people - or perhaps how desperate I was - that I did this without hesitation. "Wait here," he ordered.
Five minutes later he was back, strolling calmly towards me clutching my green travel folder. I tried to play it cool, but I was so relieved I wanted to cry. I gushed my gratitude and sprinted from the terminal.