Big Ben and the Marco Polo brigade by Frank Kusy
It was while sampling a delicious martabak sayur (vegetable spring roll) from a street cart warung in Bukittingi that I bumped into my old friend Steve from the Trailfinders tour.
‘You look shattered, Frank,’ he said with his familiar grin. ‘Are you still burning the candle at both ends, “going off the beaten track”?’
‘No, mate,’ I said. ‘I just got no sleep last night owing to an insomniac next door and a guy building a house right outside my window at 2am. What are you doing here, anyway?’
‘Oh, I always come to Bukittingi between tours,’ said the twinkle-eyed tour leader. ‘It’s got the cool hill-station air, it’s got fantastic food like you’re having right now, and it’s got this ace clock tower in the square that looks just like Big Ben. It reminds me of home.’
I gave a wry smile. Yes, I had seen that clock tower earlier. It had reminded me of Nicky…and of how much I was missing her.
‘Bukittingi also has lots of interesting little cafes which only close at midnight,’ continued Steve. ‘Look, there’s one in particular that you got to put in your book – it’s called The Coffee House, and it’s a real one-upmanship place, full of “real travellers” going on about who’s done the most daring trip recently. Unless you’ve just crawled off a 60-hour horror bus from Yogya, you’re ashamed to even sit down!’
‘Oh, you mean the Marco Polo brigade,’ I laughed. ‘Yeah, I came across a lot of them in India. Their gig is to cover as much distance as possible in the shortest possible amount of time. A 40-hour journey across China, sleeping in a luggage rack, is bread and butter to them.’
‘You should write a book about real travellers,’ said Steve, flicking a stray mosquito from his close-cropped brown hair. ‘I could give you lots of stories.’
But I didn’t need Steve’s stories. I found enough of my own in The Coffee House.
‘How’s it going?’ I asked the waif-like young German girl sitting by the window. She was nursing a banana lassi. It looked like she’d been nursing it for hours.
‘I am living on five dollars a day in Indonesia,’ she intoned slowly.
Wow, that was impressive. I was having trouble getting by on ten. How was she doing it?
‘Oh, I am eating at warungs all the time. I stay in the cheapest room in town, and I am not seeing very much.’
‘Erm…why did you come here in the first place?’ I asked, puzzled at her obvious lack of enjoyment.
‘Oh, that is easy,’ she said. ‘I vont to say that I’ve come to Indonesia!’
Over in a corner, I saw two travellers in kaftans and funny ethnic hats having a heated debate as to who had had the most extreme travel experience.
‘I’ve got malaria,’ said the first guy. ‘Look at the scabs on my arms and legs.’
‘I’ve got guardia,’ countered the second. ‘I’ve been farting and shitting so long, I can’t feel my arsehole no more.’
That annoyed the first guy, who now had to go one better.
‘I got amoebic dysentery on a 36-hour bus journey to Kathmandu,’ he said with a controlled hiss.
‘That’s nothing,’ grinned the second guy. ‘I had a six-month bout of hepatitis in the Himalayas.’
There followed a hilarious exchange which reminded me of the Four Yorkshire Men sketch from Monty Python.
‘I spent a year in a Buddhist retreat in Manali, living on a bowl of rice a day.’
‘I spent two years meditating in the Kashmiri mountains. Three grains of rice a day, that’s all they gave me.’
‘A rat ate my underpants in Pokhara.’
‘An iguana bit me on the bum in Penang.’
‘Right,’ said the first guy, drawing himself up in his chair to put paid to the matter. ‘I was swimming off the coast of Goa one day and a shark came along and bit off my leg. I had it sewn back on by a witch doctor, but he put these tiny little crabs in my ear that ate half my brain. Then, to top it all off, a bear bit off the back of my head in Dharamsala.’
There was a moment’s pause as the other guy digested this information.
‘Yeah, I know that bear, man,’ he said at last. ‘It ate my girlfriend back in ’83.’’
Excerpt from Off the Beaten Track: My Crazy Year in Asia by Frank Kusy. Universal Amazon link: authl.it/21z