Trails of the Unexpected

by Ant Stone on September 4, 2009

in Australia,China,India,Indonesia,Mongolia,Nepal,New Zealand,Russia,Singapore,Sri Lanka,Tibet

I stare at the newspaper. It wasn’t me. I gawp at the television. It wasn’t me. I trawl through the internet. It wasn’t me! I listen to the radio, podcasts, and conversations on the bus. It WASN’T me! At least — I hope it wasn’t me?

I didn’t know much about Asia before I scribbled over her ancient lanes. I thought it was a factory to stock my English necessities. Indeed, my local fish and chip shop, newsagent, petrol station, pizza shop and Chinese takeaway were all owned and operated by cheery Asians.

It’s only now, as I’m sat in as-safe-as-safe-can-be New Zealand, that it’s sunk in. I’ve left a trail of destruction in Asia. I tell myself every day it wasn’t me, but there’s a residual inkling; that it was.

I believe in the butterfly effect — that a butterfly can fart in Blackpool and lift the skirt of a Cornish virgin. So could it actually be possible, that I inadvertently contributed to some of the most iconic headlines of the past two years?

Travelling

Perhaps the day I fell asleep in Moscow’s Gorky Park, I missed the chance to quell the August 2008 invasion of Georgia? I’ll never know, I’d quickly fallen asleep on a round-city recce because Moscow had swiftly bored me. However it’s not just the invasion of gritty Georgia that has me looking over my shoulder.

In July 2007 I arrived in Mongolia. The Mongols were in full on party mode; it was the annual Nadaam Festival and everywhere I looked small horses jerked fancy young jockeys around the beaten green Gobi. Gers sprang up; a hundred pickpockets tried their luck; I was cruelly threatened in a local nightclub; and I heard of one backpacker being kidnapped, and another who was raped.

Though shocking, none of this deterred me — I was in Mongolia. I was living a dream I’d dreamt for years. A year later — July 2008 — and Ulaanbaator became the stage to escalating violence as protestors rallied against suspected election fraud, and a year later a flood temporarily swallowed the capital. This was amazing; not least because Mongolia is one of the emptiest expanses of land I’ve ever seen. The devil had hit the bull’s-eye.

China’s also suffered. I spent three fascinating months there in late 2007 and ever since it’s been hailing horror. First of all, hundreds of thousands of my beloved Chinamen were affected by the worst snowstorms in decades. Then the warm up to the forthcoming Olympics became the catalyst to a massive anti-China uprising, resulting in my cherished Tibetan skies being splattered with the worst violence in Lhasa for twenty years. As if China hadn’t taken enough of a pounding in my absence, the Sichuan earthquake then culled tens of thousands and not to be outdone, the north-eastern Xinjiang region imploded in another round of ethnic violence. I won’t even mention their milk.

Brimming with innocence, I entered the Kingdom of Nepal. Word had already reached me of the Maoists — a terrorist group — demanding money off stoic foreign hikers in the mystical foothills of the Himalayas. Undeterred, I dodged my way around Kathmandu, spluttered down the river, clambered through bushes looking for tigers and rhino and snuck in and out of Buddha’s old place.

Other than a few spontaneous (yet peaceful) protests, I was confident things were running smoothly. Then I left — and a trio of bombs rippled the terai. Before I knew it the headlines told me the terrorists were in government and soon after they levered the monarchy permanently off their thrown. What had I done? The Kingdom had fallen.

Backpacking

India was never short of controversy during the four months I spent there — that’s one of the reasons I love it so. But nothing of the scale that happened after I left. First off, forty-nine people were slain by a series of bombs in Ahmedabad, and a few months later the sickening news came through that Mumbai had suffered a similar fate, with four times as many losing their lives to hereditary violence.

If all of this wasn’t bad enough, the next country I forayed into was Sri Lanka. I’m almost thankful that when I first stepped foot on the Venerable Island, it was already in the throes of civil war. It meant I couldn’t be the catalyst. The Sinhalese government pulled out of a six-year peace deal the week I arrived. I stayed for two months, fearlessly venturing to the war-torn east coast before looping around and back to India. Then the government accelerated its stance, fuelling the climax to a bloody feud. Maybe my many inquisitive questions were misplaced?

The next country I dared to step foot in, was tiny Singapore. Rumours were strife that a woman in her twenties was brutally cursed for crossing the road without being escorted by a little green man. And then, if that wasn’t shocking enough, I was told off for taking too long to order noodles. I’ve got my eye on Singapore, if only to see if anything interesting ever happens.

From Singa’ to the Indonesian archipelago. A two-month jolly around Sumatra, Java and bountiful Bali proved to be one of the most exhilarating periods of my life. I left full of admiration for a country of simple brilliance. Four months later the government executed the infamous Bali Bombers, which seemingly acted as little deterrent — eight months later, central Jakarta reverberated to the blasts of two of its iconic hotels.

A year in Australia ensued, for the most part I was safe in the haven of Melbourne sipping stubbies and perusing antipodean quirks. Then one Saturday I dropped Reb and her dad at Avalon airport, and the radio began to crackle through the news that became known as Black Saturday; bushfires left 173 dead and levelled lives in the worst natural disaster in Australia’s history.

All of the above lays in my wake. Battered and torn, broken and bruised. Lives inextricably twisted, love curtailed, and communities eternally altered.

Perhaps it’s true, that you only really know a country and its people once you’ve been there — once you’ve spent time laughing with its children. But perhaps it’s also true, that you only get to know a place, once you’ve left?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Daniel September 16, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Wow — “once you’ve spent time laughing with its children” — that’s spot on. Thanks for this post. Was a great read.

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Ant September 18, 2009 at 11:52 am

Thanks Daniel, it’s nice to hear such positive feedback, especially from a literary perspective.

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David Dutton September 22, 2009 at 11:34 pm

Great post. Look forward to reading more from you.

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Ant September 23, 2009 at 11:05 am

Thanks David, it’s always good to hear from people who have just discovered The Trail.

While it’s true you’ll see some great articles coming up here at TrailofAnts.com, it’s also a great place to look back and read some of the fantastic stories about my time on the road. Keep the comments coming, they’re most welcome mate.

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