The engines roared and the plane pulled up off the runway. I settled in for the flight and as Morocco fell away my mood lifted. I was still a bit shaky, but the prospect of some friends and Eastern Europe’s notorious nightlife had me well on the way to recovery. I transited through Madrid and, with a full day to kill, walked tentatively down her wide boulevards, still not entirely trusting of my stomach.
It was hot work and I was soon hungry, seeking shelter in the air conditioned aisles of a supermercado. The Spanish on the shelves was too easy after Arabic’s unfamiliar script and I felt strangely at home. I grew bold and, in what could well have turned out to be a foolish move, purchased a beer to have with lunch.
It felt like I had got off in the wrong town. It was quarter past eight on a Wednesday morning and the parking lot outside Utrecht Centraal was eerily quiet. The air was cold and grey snow huddled in the corners, seeking refuge from a brisk wind.
Perhaps it was the wintery conditions, or the fact that the station was undergoing some large-scale reconstruction, but this certainly wasn’t the Holland I had been expecting. Where were the tulips, the canals, the historical buildings?
Winter is a bleak time anywhere, and first impressions can be hard to shake.
My arrival in London heralded a number of changes. Tuk-tuks and tramadol were swapped for the tube and pints of warm larger; bottled water and roadside pad thai traded for solid English fare and drinking the shower water. The Asian humidity gave way to crisp English wind and I braved it alone, the solidarity of good friends exchanged for the independence of flying solo.
Heathrow was quieter than I expected and customs was thankfully uneventful. I lugged my pack down to the tube, following in the footsteps of a million antipodeans before me. I had directions to my cousin’s house: take the Piccadily Underground to South Kensington, get a bus from the road to Clapham Junction (345 or 49), head up the hill past the KFC and the big ASDA supermarket then take the first left.
Piece of cake, right?
On the tube I lose my ticket. A forgiving employee lets me out; his brief chastisement is far preferable to the cost of another ride. Once I find the right stop the bus is straightforward and it isn’t long before I am hesitantly knocking on the door of a bricked Lavender Hill flat.
The remainder of our time in Pai slips by under a warm haze of Tramadol and weed. The weather is stunning, and we laze by the pool, reading and napping the days away.
We scooter out to some underwhelming hot springs and laugh at the signs forbidding you from cooking eggs in them. Later we discover the pool where you CAN cook your eggs, and it is a curious scene indeed. You emerge from forest into a small clearing and are confronted with half a dozen Thai tourists. They crowd around the steaming pool, cooking eggs suspended in plastic bags that swing from the end of bamboo rods. We laugh some more, and photo bomb the chefs standing proudly with their cooked lunch.
Brother Fox and I go for an excellent walk into the mountain jungle and follow a river upstream for several hours. The forest is lush, and different enough from the nature back home that we constantly find ourselves pausing to admire a different mushroom or strange plant. Our lazy pace fits perfectly with our mental space and we yarn contentedly, reaching the rewarding depth of conversation that comes easily to kindred souls.