Just add Tequila.

“It’s fine, just drink it,” they assured me. “No pasa nada”

“Drink it”

I’m a city boy and drinking milk straight from a cow was a little daunting. Isn’t it supposed to be pasteurised and homogenised and presented in attractively and persuasively labelled bottles in hygienic fridges in the supermarket?

This was warm.

Even when the milkman delivered milk directly to our house when I was a child, it was cold. But no, this milk had just moments ago been extracted from the cow’s udder, and I was being urged to drink it as is.

The milky breakfast was the sole reason my Mexican friends had dragged me out of bed at the crack of dawn and led me through the cold, deserted streets of Tecalitlan to a farm on the town’s outskirts.

The milk wasn’t just warm, it was bubbly and frothing like a barista’s latte, but nowhere near as appealing.

I lifted the cup to my lips.

“Stop!”

“What?”

“Don’t drink it,” they now insisted.

Thank goodness, I’d been saved.

But before I could celebrate, my friend produced a small flask and poured a mysterious liquid into the warm frothing milk.

“It kills the bacteria,” she explained, while her compatriots laughed in the background.

“It’s Tequila.”

Mexico City by bike.

Surely you can’t cycle through Mexico City.

It’s a chaotic, crazy, polluted, frantic city of about 20 million people and almost as many cars. It’s so busy people push each other into train carriages on the metro, and the central business district drowns in traffic jams full of frustrated motorists on a daily basis.

The peak hour rush is more of a peak hour grind.

And yet, it is possible to cycle.

Sunday Ciclovia, or Cycleway, opens 55 kilometres of the central business district to cyclists, pedestrians, and rollerbladers with strollers from 8am – 2pm, and closes the streets to motor vehicles. People take over the famous Paseo de la Reforma and revel in the festival atmosphere of car-free streets. And, being Mexico, the bike ride feels like a party.

On the last Sunday of each month, the Ciclovía expands into a Ciclotón (longer route), stretching up to 97 kilometers across Mexico City and encompassing several highways.

During Ciclovia, hundreds of Chilangos (residents of Mexico City) and visitors cycle freely and happily through a portion of the CBD and soak up the renowned colonial architecture and aspects of the city that are rendered invisible by the daily grind.

But I don’t have a bike.

That’s ok. Bikes can be hired from various locations within the city, for a few pesos. Sturdy, comfortable bikes are available to all, as are helmets, and they offer people the opportunity to navigate the city in a unique manner.

Why?

Environmental activists and concerned Chilangos lobbied authorities for years to remove gas-guzzling motor vehicles from the city streets and reserve this space for cyclists and pedestrians. They did so to promote alternative transport and to encourage locals to consider moving around the city without a car. They also did it to allow cyclists to ride in peace and safety, even if only once a week, and to prove that cities can be returned to the people.

Plus, they wanted another excuse to smile, socialise and enjoy life, because this is Mexico.

Ciclovia began as “Muévete en bici” (Move by Bike) in 2007. It grew to become the fifth largest car-free day in Latin America, with an estimated 4.2 million total users. It has also reportedly altered the culture of the city, and the Non-Motorized Mobility Strategy Office has in turn created the ECOBICI bike-share program and a dedicated bike lane network.

Is it necessary?

Yes, Mexico City is an extremely polluted city, due largely to the number of motor vehicles using its roads every day. Such is the level of air pollution in the mega city that its forested park ‘Bosque de Chapultepec’ is known as los pulmones del DF, or the lungs of the capital.

Ciclovia happens every Sunday in Mexico City and is open to anyone on a bike, roller blades, skateboard, scooter or even their dos patas or two feet. It is a refreshing and fun way in which to explore a fascinating and bustling destination and it helps, ever so slightly, to breathe fresh air into the city.

If it can be done in Mexico City, it can be done in almost any city – even yours.

Santiago de Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba is a vibrant, sultry, energetic city on the southeastern side of the Caribbean island and is famous for its Carnaval, its fort and its people.

The city of eternal summer lies at the mouth of the Bahia de Santiago and comes alive every night to the sounds of Kisomba, Salsa, Casino and Reggaeton. Santiaguenos love to sing, dance and feel the music coarse through their veins to such an extent that it seems that they were born into music. African, Spanish and other influences combine to produce some of the world’s most beloved and recognisable music, which can be heard streaming out of cafes, bars and houses at any time of the day, and especially as the sun disappears.

Visitors will recognise classic tunes which have accompanied fiestas for many, many years, while youngsters will be more familiar with artists such as El Chacal, Laritza Bacallao and Gente de Zona, whose energetic beats originated in Cuba.

Of course, Santiago’s love affair with music and dance is most evident every July during Carnaval.

Afternoons feature parades of children and teenagers in all manner of costume, and even artists on stilts warming up the people in Plaza Cespedes for the main event later that evening.

Vendors ensure that festejeros, or party-goers, are in the mood to celebrate by the time the sun sets and the real party begins.

As darkness arrives, flamboyant floats awash with glitter and vibrant colours carry beautifully-adorned and astonishingly talented dancers through the streets to the cheers and applause of the appreciative crowd. Pulsating beats fill the night air until the early hours of the morning and create a heady atmosphere of joy, celebration, pride and beauty.

Interspersed among the floats are groups of dancers on the street similarly attired and entertaining the crowds with their raw, unrestrained rhythm and phenomenal dancing ability.

Many famous musicians were born in Santiago, including one who rose to fame in Jamaica. Alpharita Constantia Anderson is better known as Rita Marley and widow of Bob Marley, and is an accomplished musician in her own right who collaborated with her late husband on many of his songs.

Santiago has also produced many famous boxers and baseball players, as well as outstanding athletes such as Olympians Alberto Juantorena, Yaime Perez, Leonel Suarez and Anier Garcia.

Rum, or Ron in Spanish, also brings fame to Santiago courtesy of the vast array of sugar plantations which surround the capital city and drive the economy for many of the people who live in the province. Visitors can learn about the production of the world-famous drop at the Museo del Ron in the centre of the city, and can sample the product at the museum or in many of the bars and cafes throughout the centre.

El Morro, or fort, is another famous attraction in Santiago. El Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca sits on the shores of the bay of Santiago and was built to protect the city from invading forces in years gone by. Today it is a popular tourist site and glimpse into the colonial history of Cuba, as well as an ideal location from which to enjoy views of the bay. Views at sunset are even more impressive.

An attack on the fort is extremely unlikely these days, as is evidenced by the relaxed attitude of these soldiers.

Santiago is a vibrant city of music, rum, fiestas and dance.

Two tales of a city.

The first inkling appeared before even crossing the bridge. She was young, confident and comfortable with the spotlight. Comfortable with the attention and the cameras snapping her every move, her every detail. Her frilled and voluminous black skirt sat below a figure-hugging bright red top and above exaggerated platform shoes and frivolous long socks. Hair in pigtails, adequately accessorised.

Her friend was just as pleased with the attention. This itself is a rarity in a culture which traditionally expected women to defer to men and display humility and subservience. They were also comfortable with the beats of western pop and hip hop drifting across the stream.

The teenage girls were the precursor to Harajuku Street, the epitome of Japanese counter culture and youthful rebellion against a stereotypically conformist culture. Harajuku Street is the birthplace of alternative self-expression and youthful resistance to Japan’s hegemonic culture.

Harajuku Street was at one time the only place to see, or even consider, outward displays of challenges to conformity, and certainly the only place to see a woman with tattoos.

It is thought to have become commercialised these days. Counter culture and expressions of freedom replaced with overpriced must-have fashion statements catering to the coolest kids of the capital. A stroll through the precinct doesn’t necessarily challenge this view.

Items of immense value lie inside the shops, judging by the queue stretching from the door and around the corner, and by the presence of the bouncers managing the flow of traffic. Objects of high quality and expert craftmanship perhaps. Garments of exceptional beauty or simply items that no one else possesses – not yet. Items found only in this store, at this time, which will set their buyers apart from from everyone else on the street, at their school or university.

That explains the queue. Not the quality, the appearance, the fabric or the production, but the originality. Originality and the rejection of conformity created Harajuku Street and drives its energy. Keep in mind, this was before the age of Instagram, and even Facebook.

What is it like now for image obsessed teens?

I left the trendy young things and continued my journey around the streets of the city. The dichotomy of Tokyo revealed itself within an hour.

She was demure, eyes downcast; inching forwards slowly with tiny steps. Adorned in traditional Japanese attire and make up and tottering on tiny sandals to the soothing tones of traditional Japanese music. She was participating in a wedding procession which had been practiced for hundreds of years in Tokyo and throughout the country.

The bride’s family completed the age-old ensemble and were also dressed in traditional wedding clothing and following rituals passed down from generation to generation.

Japan’s traditional culture and Harajuku Street’s inherent modernity present two tales of a city.

Why is the waitress carrying a pistol?

My breath froze as another bead of sweat rolled down my back.

A deafening noise pierced the suffocating humidity and engulfed my senses. I gasped for air through a bone dry mouth. Then I saw it.

The waitress emerged from the cafe with a steely, determined expression fixed across her face. In her apron, beside her pen and notebook, was a pistol.

I froze. Everyone froze, entranced by the sight of the pistol and the ensuing confrontation we were powerless to stop. Patrons deftly lowered their cutlery with extreme care so as not to attract the attention of the waitress, and held their breath lest they become her next victim.

She strode defiantly toward her target with the practiced assurance of a seasoned veteran, and neared the pistol with her right hand, never for a moment removing her gaze from her intended victim.

Bead after bead of sweat rolled down my back as my heart beat quickened and opened every pore of my skin. I dare not speak, I dare not breathe, and wished I could somehow evaporate into the soupy evening.

Why had I chosen this cafe? Why had I not sought the safety and air conditioned comfort of an indoor eatery where the scene I am now witnessing are unheard of? Was it the view, the cuisine, the cool breeze skipping across the river?

Except the breeze had disappeared, as if in a vacuum, as if it too feared the wrath of the waitress with the pistol. The incessant hum emanating from the loud speakers served to bless what could be my final meal.

Brunei not a violent country. This was not a violent city. Yet this scene was not uncommon. Not unheard of. I should have known better. I admonished myself for inviting this danger into my life, a life which could at any moment be truncated.

I admonished myself again. I knew the target was defenceless. I knew the waitress, with her pistol enjoyed a grossly unfair advantage over her tiny victim. Yet I felt no sympathy for the creature. I felt no compulsion to defend it. I wished it gone. Now, and forever, never to return to this place. I cared not for its welfare.

She drew.

Extracting the water pistol from her holster, she fired upon a stray cat for the umpteenth time that day before clearing away the remains of a family’s meal. The desperate mangy cat scurried for cover and the waitress holstered her weapon for the next battle.

The waitress then quietly carried the assorted cutlery and crockery back into the kitchen.

Image: Van Thanh

A la plage.

The beach beckoned.

Soft sand, sunshine and warm water were my reward for what I had endured the previous day, my first day in Rabat.

I’d been threatened.

The threat was vague, but direct, and it was to manifest itself today. I was nervous as I left the hostel, because the man who’d made the threat knew where I was staying and had promised to get me, but I swallowed my fear and walked to Rabat Beach to bathe in its refreshing waters.

Strolling to the beach through the heavy morning air of this fascinating city was not as enjoyable as it should have been, as trepidation settled in my stomach. I reminded myself to ignore my unjustified paranoia, but I couldn’t stop worrying.

The threat which jangled my nerves eventuated after a shopping trip to buy toothpaste and a few other simple items, including the shorts and towel I was taking to the beach.

My suitcase had been delayed on the flight from Nairobi via Dubai, and I had only heavy hiking clothes to wear during Morocco’s summer heat. The problem started when I got lost among the myriad street signs bearing the name ‘Muhammed’, which hampered my search for Avenue Mohammed, where I’d been told I’d find a supermarket.

I made the mistake of arriving in Morocco with no Arabic or French. I then made the fatal mistake of backtracking and criss-crossing a major intersection in my frustrating and sweaty search for the elusive supermarket. Local man Muhammed had found me, and had offered to help me find the shop. Little did I know that he wasn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart.

Muhammed did guide me to a supermarket. I thought he’d leave me at that point and be on his way. His directness, self-assuredness and aggressive manner had put me off from the beginning, and I was frustrated and surprised when he followed me into the shop.

Once inside, he managed to upset the female staff, make a mess, draw attention to us and make me regret my decision to follow him. At one point, he raced off to menswear to find the shorts I was now wearing to the beach, and proceeded to throw pairs at me after holding them against himself like a Moroccan Mr Bean.

I did manage to buy what I needed, except for one essential item, but once we left the shop and started walking back towards my hostel, the problems began. Mohammed lit up a cigarette upon stepping outside, and he soon realised I didn’t need him anymore. This is when the demands began. He asked for a bottle of water. I bought one for him and one for myself.

Then he wanted beer.

“Have a drink with me,” he said in the same aggressive tone he’d used on the supermarket staff. It didn’t seem right to add alcohol to this situation, but he was insistent.

“Have a drink with me. I’ll call my friends. It’ll be fun. We’ll show you Rabat. Let’s have a good time. I helped you. I found the shop. I found you the towel…” he persisted.

“I’ll buy you some more water,” I offered.

“No!” he snapped, “No water!”

And he persisted with his demands for beer, which now included beer for his friends.

“Buy me dinner,” he then demanded.

“We have dinner together!” and by this point he was virtually yelling at me, ignoring the reaction of people nearby.

“We have dinner, I know a good restaurant.”

No thanks.

“I’ll buy you a snack,” I offered hesitantly. I knew I owed him something, but I was reluctant to keep opening my wallet, lest he see how much money I was carrying, for he knew the true value of the notes more than I did.

“Where are you staying, which hotel, what’s the name?” he demanded. I said nothing. One golden rule I had remembered is to avoid telling strangers the name of your accommodation.

“You’re staying at the hostel near the medina, aren’t you?”

Yes, I was, and he knew its name, but there was no way I was admitting that to Mohammed. Then another demand. More aggressive.

“Buy me cigarettes!”

Oh, hell no, I thought. There is no way I’m buying cigarettes. I’m not swallowing more second-hand smoke and watching him drop yet another butt on the ground.

“No!”

I dropped the pretence of off-hand politeness.

“No!”

“Fuck you,” he shouted. “Fuck you man!” and soon we arrived at the intersection and stopped to await the green light.

“Fuck you man. I know where you’re staying. You are fucking nothing. This is my city…” he shouted, pointing a threatening finger at my face. The barrage continued.

“You’re a fucken cheat man, you dickhead, you are shit…”

The light turned green. I started walking. Mohammad continued the insults, then something happened. He walked in front of me, blocked my path and said:

“Fuck you man. I know where you stay. You watch out shit head. This is my city. I do things my way. Tomorrow, I show you.”

Then he walked off.

Thus, my eyes remained peeled for any sign of Muhammed as I strolled to the beach. I made it safely to the beach, where calm, inviting waters lapped the shore and local families played in the sand and splashed in the shallows.

I chose a spot, lay down my towel and sat for a moment. I drank in salty air for the first time in months and let the stress of the previous day slide away. I swam, sunbathed, swam, sunbathed and ate. Then I swam, sunbathed and drank. Time mattered little. I purged my mind of the ugly threats of the day before and looked forward to the rest of my journey through Morocco and into Europe.

As the sun sank in the sky and the call to prayer rang out over the beach, I decided it was time to farewell the beach and head back to the hostel, before deciding on dinner. In a country like Morocco, there are many inviting culinary options, so I set off with a decided spring in my step.

It was only when I reached the hostel that I realised. I realised what I’d forgotten to buy at the shop yesterday while Mohammed harassed the staff. I’d forgotten to buy sun cream, and I was burnt from head to toe. My face was burnt despite the broad-brimmed hat. My back, chest, arms and legs were red raw. The tops of my feet too. This is going to hurt for days. Then it will peel.

So much for a relaxing day at the beach.

All this for a tube of toothpaste.

What are you willing to endure for a tube of toothpaste?

As much as I endured one hot and humid morning in Rabat?

“Find Avenue Mohammed, there you’ll find a supermarket,” advised the helpful receptionist at the hostel.

“If you don’t find this supermarket, you will find many other shops and you can buy what you need.”

What I needed wasn’t much. Some toothpaste, a toothbrush and other toiletries, a towel and some summer clothes. My suitcase hadn’t arrived on the flight from Nairobi (via Dubai), and I was walking the sultry streets of Rabat in long pants and hiking boots. The directions were straightforward, so I assumed the little shopping trip would be straightforward. I was wrong.

I’d never been to a Muslim country before, so I didn’t realise that almost every street sign carries the name Mohammed. I found an Avenue Mohammed and I pondered which sign to follow at the crowded intersection in downtown Rabat. It was too hot to walk back to the hostel for clarification.

Oh well, I guess I just choose one.

Here we go.

I crossed the bustling intersection with sweat already trickling down my back and collecting in my hiking boots. Avenue Mohammed stretched before me, with shops of all descriptions hugging its curb. From behind my sunglasses, I scanned the street and the shops for my destination. The sunlight wasn’t blinding, but the glasses shielded my darting eyes from locals and disguised my recent arrival to the city. It was a safety tip I’d learned while travelling in Kenya and other parts of Africa: never look lost.

Ten minutes later I saw no evidence of a supermarket, or any shop selling toothpaste. This is the wrong avenue. I needed to return to the busy intersection and try again. I crossed the avenue, to avoid backtracking. I then walked back on the other side of the road, walking into a few shops on my way to pretend I wasn’t lost. I didn’t need a bunch of flowers, cigarettes or a new mobile phone case. I needed to look like I wasn’t lost.

Back at the intersection, I chose another avenue. Let’s see how this goes. I wiped the sweat from my brow then replaced my broad-brimmed hiking hat. I rolled up my sleeves and set to work. Darting, scanning and searching for a supermarket and a cure for my bad breath. The shoe shop seemed a good place to pretend to be shopping, as did the spice shop. The third shop I entered under the guise of shopping was not so useful. Aisle after aisle sold only multi-coloured fabrics in the shapes of burqas, hijabs and niqabs.

Oops, I don’t think I’m supposed to be in here. Get out, get out…before anyone notices.

Soon my problems began. Avenue no 2 did not hold a supermarket, and I had to return to the intersection yet again.

I was spotted.

A sweaty, tired, anxious, jetlagged Caucasian in hiking clothes stands out on the sultry streets of Rabat, and I soon had company.

“Hello,” he greeted me enthusiastically, “how are you?”

“I’m fine thanks,” I said dismissively, trying to be polite but firm and non-committal.

“Where are you from?”

“Australia”

And the questions continued. Normally innocent questions, but in this context they were not. I knew that he knew I was lost. His eagerness, directness and self-assuredness put me ill at ease. He rightly assumed I didn’t speak Arabic and soon discovered I didn’t speak French. He also sensed that I needed something. I was extremely reluctant to accept his help, but I was also extremely hot, thirsty, tired and frustrated. If I tell him I’m just after some toothpaste and a few other simple items, maybe I’ll get what I need and I can be rid of him.

“This way,” he commanded, and we set off determinedly down avenue no 3. My new friend, also called Mohammed, lit up a cigarette and tried to glean as much as possible from me in his broken but functional English. I moved to his left to avoid breathing in his second-hand smoke and berated myself for becoming helpless. Four months travelling solo in southern Africa had taught me a lot, but maybe not enough.

We soon found a department store and he clarified what I needed. He demanded assistance from the women in the store, and his condescending, aggressive tone only diminished my opinion of him. Then it turned farcical. He found the towel rack and started testing different towels. He rubbed some of them up against his face and compared their softness, while reminding me of the importance of a soft towel. Locals stared at him then at me. I couldn’t claim I didn’t know him, as he was the only person in the store speaking English. The pantomime ended when I selected a cheap towel to use until my suitcase arrived. He didn’t approve, I didn’t care.

He scurried away and left the staff to arrange the towels he’d left strewn all over the shelves. How do you say sorry in French or Arabic? I thought. It was too late anyway because he’d charged off to menswear.

A pair of shorts would suffice for the beach. How I longed for the beach right now, as my body odour overpowered my bad breath. But soon the pantomime sprang back to life. Act II involved my friend throwing shorts at me after holding them against himself like a Moroccan Mr Bean.

What have I got myself into?

Embarrassed and annoyed, I hastily grabbed a pair of shorts, not even sure they would fit, and walked off trying to find some toothpaste. Mohammed had convinced himself that his presence was essential to my shopping trip, indeed my survival, but had forgotten that every supermarket in the world is basically the same. I’d actually hoped he would just direct me to the shop and be on his merry way, but Mohammed was a seasoned performer, and I his latest audience.

Fortunately, Mohammed restrained himself from ‘demonstrating’ the toothpaste and toothbrush before letting me fill my shopping basket, and we made our way to the check-out. Mohammad morphed from comical to agitated in the check-out queue and this signalled a very uncomfortable walk back to the hostel.

He lit up a cigarette as soon as we stepped outside and I copped another mouthful of second-hand smoke. He realised I didn’t need him anymore and this is when the demands began. He asked for a bottle of water. Fair enough, I bought one for him and one for myself. I could already feel the onset of a dehydration headache, and the water was too late but welcome.

Then he wanted beer.

“Have a drink with me,” he said in the same aggressive tone he’d used on the supermarket staff.

Isn’t he a Muslim? I thought. I don’t care if he drinks, that’s entirely his choice, but should I be drinking with a Muslim?

It doesn’t seem right to add alcohol to this situation, but he was insistent.

“Have a drink with me. I’ll call my friends. It’ll be fun. We’ll show you Rabat. Let’s have a good time. I helped you. I found the shop. I found you the towel…” he persisted.

“I’ll buy you some more water,” I offered. I’d hastily gulped down the first bottle myself.

“No!” he snapped, “No water!”

And he persisted with his demands for beer, which now included beer for his friends.

“Buy me dinner,” he then demanded when he knew I wasn’t going to have a drink with him.

“We have dinner together!” and by this point he was virtually yelling at me, ignoring the reaction of people nearby.

“We have dinner, I know a good restaurant.”

No thanks, I thought, there is no way I wanted to have dinner with this angry man.

“I’ll buy you a snack,” I offered hesitantly. I knew I owed him something, but at the same time realised that if I bought him one thing he might keep asking for more. Plus, if I kept opening my wallet to make purchases, he would see how much cash I had. It may have been quite a lot, and it may have tempted him to demand more. I’d withdrawn cash from the ATM at the airport, and as I’d only arrived in the country a few hours earlier, I didn’t really know the value of the notes in my pocket. How much money was I carrying in real terms? I didn’t know. Mohammed would.

“Where are you staying, which hotel, what’s the name?” he demanded. I said nothing. One golden rule I had remembered is to avoid telling strangers the name of your accommodation. It can never end well.

“You’re staying at the hostel near the medina, aren’t you.”

Yes, I was, and he knew its name, but there was no way I was admitting that to Mohammed. Thank goodness for the sunglasses.

Then another demand. More aggressive.

“Buy me cigarettes!”

Oh hell no, I thought. There is no way I’m buying you cigarettes you creepy, scary man. I’m not swallowing more of your second-hand smoke and watching you drop yet another butt on the ground.

“No!”

I dropped the pretence of off-hand politeness.

“No!”

“Fuck you,” he shouted. “Fuck you man!” and soon we arrived at the intersection and stopped to await the green light. He kept swearing at me, and the entire street tuned in for Mohammad’s Act III.

“Fuck you man. I know where you’re staying. You are fucking nothing. This is my city…” he shouted, pointing a threatening finger at my face. Why do people always learn profanity in a second language?

He does know where I’m staying. Why did I get myself in this situation? How did I end up a public spectacle on my first day in a foreign country where I don’t know anyone or even speak the language?

The barrage continued.

“You’re a fucken cheat man, you dickhead, you are shit…”

Wow, his vocabulary is more extensive than I thought. The light turned green. I started walking. Mohammad continued the insults, then something happened. He walked in front of me, blocked my path and said:

“Fuck you man. I know where you stay. You watch out shit head. This is my city. I do things my way. Tomorrow, I show you.”

“I’ll show you,” what does that mean?

Then he walked off

I looked straight ahead, ignored the glares from passers by, and walked steadily towards the hostel. I took deep breaths of Rabats sultry air and tried to calm myself. Don’t look back. Stay calm. Concentrate. Concentrate on navigating your way back to the hostel.

What if he’s following me?

Don’t get paranoid.

But what if he is?

I ducked into the Medina. The hostel was on the corner of the Medina, not far from here. Maybe I can lose myself in the crowds and the maze of streets, and drop my new friend if he is indeed following me. I shot into side streets and narrow lanes and I was convinced I’d lost him.

I lost him, but I was lost.

I now made another new friend. I don’t know if his name was Mohammad. I never caught his name. He was young. Maybe 12. And he knew I was lost.

He motioned me to follow.

Not again, not another ugly interaction with a local, but again I had no choice. I was even more tired, more sweaty, more smelly and more frustrated, so I followed.

We ducked through lanes and alleys crowded with people and stalls and carts and souvenirs and tourists and noise and animals, and the young boy stepped them all like an agile footballer. We ducked and weaved our way through the ancient Medina and suddenly we arrived.

The hostel.

But how? I hadn’t exchanged a word with the boy, or told him where I was staying. It was probably the most popular hostel in Rabat, but it wasn’t the only one.

He knew.

“Oui, Merci,” I said to the boy, relieved to have made it. I guess there are some honest, helpful people in Rabat after all. Thank you young man for restoring my faith in humanity. He smiled, then held out his hand. Of course, he expected a little reward for his troubles. I placed a note in his hand and he demanded more. I placed another one in his hand and he seemed satisfied. He ran off ducking and weaving.

Weary, thirsty, hungry, scared, smelly and fed-up, I walked to the bathroom. I reached for the toothpaste and spread it on the toothbrush.

Aaaaah, clean teeth never felt so good.

Image: William Warby

How to teach English in Brunei.

What did you do in the holidays?

It was a simple writing task designed to ease the students back into school life after the holidays.

“I go shopping,” she wrote.

“I buy beg, shoe and cloth.”

Vocabulary and grammar are an issue. We’ll have to work on that.

Next one.

“I go to the shops,” he wrote. “I buy beg, shoe and cloth. I’m very happy.”

And so it continued. Nearly every student in this year 9 class spent their holidays shopping, and nearly all of them bought beg, shoe and cloth.

What are beg, shoe and cloth?

Shoe is supposed to be shoes. Beg is supposed to be bag, and cloth is supposed to be clothes.

I now had a decision to make. Either I find a way to start selling beg, shoe and cloth to Bruneians, or I find a way to teach the students how to finally write these words correctly.

I consulted my Scottish colleague, Sheila, with whom I shared the class, and we decided we had to do something to finally teach the students how to use these simple words correctly. We knew why they made the mistakes. Malay speakers do not use plural forms of nouns, instead use the noun twice to show two or more of a thing. Eye is mata in Malay, so eyes are mata-mata. Person is orang, so people are orang-orang. Cloth was partly the result of a difficulty with plural forms, and English words ending in ‘s’.

As for beg, this is a case of phonetic spelling. Malay is a largely phonetic language, and Malay speakers adopt this habit when using English. They pronounce bag like ‘beg’, so spell the word this way.

We arrived at the next class well armed. Then we began.

I stood in front of the class, waited for their undivided attention, then sat on the cracked concrete floor. I dropped my head and held up my hands, ready to receive something. I pretended to be sad, downtrodden and hungry. Students called out some terms in Malay and collectively realised that I was pretending to be a beggar asking for money or food.

“That is what beg means,” I explained. “It is a verb meaning to ask for something in a certain way. A person who begs is called a beggar, and the act is called begging.”

Done.

Now for part 2.

I called forward one of the female students.

“You’re my mother,” I told her “…and I’m your young son,” and this elicited laughter from the class.

“We’re in a supermarket shopping for groceries, and we’ve just arrived at the chocolates.”

“Mummy, mummy,” I pretended to plead. “I want a chocolate.”

Students laughed and the student understood her role.

“No, I’m not buying you chocolate son. Too much sugar.”

“Mummy, pleeeeaaaseee, give me chocolate,” I continued, with increasing desperation.

“Don’t you love me mummy,” and I started to sob either out of commitment to my performance, or from flashbacks of the endless mistakes in the writing tasks.

“That is another example of beg. But, the thing you use to carry other things is called a bag, and spelt b.a.g. – just like this one,” and I pointed to a student’s school bag.

Once the laughter subsided, we practiced the pronunciation of bag and beg, and revised the difference between the two.

Next, we had to tackle the word cloth.

Sheila stepped up.

She called two boys to the front of the class. Two cocky, arrogant boys with an unjustified confidence in their English language ability, even though they couldn’t spell bag. She complimented them on their appearance; their fancy Nike sports shoes, their immaculately gelled hair. They enjoyed the compliments.

Sheila produced a number of cleaning cloths, the type used to wipe up stains from a kitchen bench. She draped them over the boys shoulders, pinned a few to their sports uniforms and even draped some over their heads. The class burst into more rapturous laughter at the boys’ expense, as the style masters were reduced to mere mannequins for cleaning products.

“Is this how you dress when you go out?” Sheila asked.

“Is this what you wear when you go to a party? Do you wear blue cloth, red cloth, orange cloth. Do you mix and match the colours or just make one bold statement? Do people buy you cloth for your birthday presents?

And their classmates submitted to fits of laughter.

“At least it doesn’t matter if you spill something on yourself.”

Sheila then explained.

“This,” holding up a cleaning cloth, “…is a cloth.”

“Shirts, trousers, jeans, dresses, skirts, socks and jackets are clothes.” She then wrote the two words on the board, explained the difference again and had the students practice the pronunciation of each.

The boys were soon put out of their misery and we arrived at word number three.

This was a combined effort.

“Take off one shoe,” we ordered the students.

“Everyone take off one shoe. It doesn’t matter which one, just take off a shoe and leave it by your desk.”

Once the students stopped laughing and accusing each other of foot odour, we gave the next command.

“Now hop around the classroom on one foot.”

What?

“Hurry up, start hopping.”

They weren’t sure at first as to why they should hop around a classroom during an English lesson, but a few students realised it was more fun than endless grammar drills, so they started hopping, and soon the whole class was stumbling and laughing their way around the room. We continued this until we both stopped laughing, and then justified the activity.

“How many feet do you have?” we asked one student.

“Two”

“How many feet do you have?” we asked another.

“Two”

and so on around the room.

“So, everyone in this room has two feet, but apparently you only need one shoe. Most of you told us you bought one shoe at the shops, so you must only have one foot.”

Most students groaned at our Dad joke and the subsequent order to hop around the room, and then we practiced making the plural form of shoe.

Before the lesson ended, we revised the correct form and use of each word. Sheila and I left the classroom confident that we had finally corrected this glaring, simple and frustratingly common mistake in our students.

A week later, we sat down with confidence to review another writing task we had set our year 9 class. A task which taught us that most of our students love to go shopping

“…for beg, shoe and cloth.”

Are your parents alive?

Are your parents alive? he asked.

That’s an odd question, I thought, especially from someone I’d just met.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Mother and father?”

“Yes.”

He smiled.

I was confused. Was it culture or concern which prompted this question? I’d certainly never asked it or been asked it while growing up in suburban Australia. Most Australians would assume that other people of a certain age would have two living parents. It’s not definite, but likely. When I was asked this question for the first time while travelling through Africa, I was also of an age when strangers or new-found friends could naturally assume that both of my parents were alive. However, during my numerous visits to southern and eastern Africa, Latin America and South East Asia, I was asked the same question many times.

Why?

Why did strangers want to know if my parents were alive?

I tried to analyse the tone of the question. This is hard to do in a second language, and I conversed primarily in Spanish or Portuguese in Latin America. Tone is also difficult to decipher while speaking English to non-native speakers. Nonetheless, I tried, and I never felt like anyone was prying or being invasive. No one was rude, or impertinent. I didn’t detect any hidden meaning to the question, and definitely no inkling of dark humour or a bizarre joke. What stood out most was a straightforward tone designed to glean information – whether my parents were alive, yes or no.

While the question was very common, it also failed to present as a distinct social custom. It didn’t belong to a particular country, state, province or tribe – I heard it everywhere. There was no sense of gravity or depth to the question. It also wasn’t the first question I was asked, but it arrived fairly early in the conversation with people I was meeting for the first time.

At least it was easier to ask than other questions which always found their way into conversations while I was travelling the world solo, such as:

Why aren’t you married?

Why don’t you have children?

Having confirmed to myself that the question served simply to extract information, I then began to wonder what people would do with this information. I always said yes, and the conversation usually moved on. Often we discussed the age of my parents, where they lived, their occupation and other ‘GTKY’ (get-to-know-you) questions. If I’d said no to the first question or the clarifying question, would the conversation have followed a different path?

What about yours?

A long time passed before I felt confident enough to reciprocate. That’s when I started to understand one of the reasons for the question. In Africa, and other parts of the world, most people replied ‘no’. Rarely did adults from these countries have two living parents. And there is a simple reason for this: life is precarious. In developing countries, life is more fragile than it is for (most) Australians and citizens of the developed world. Life expectancy is lower in Africa, South East Asia and Latin America and death usually visits families sooner than it might in other parts of the world.

Threats to life are far more common and present in these countries. Poverty, natural disasters, violence, famine, political corruption, war, tribal conflict, poor hygiene and sanitation, the climate crisis, transport accidents and so many other causes of suffering are a more salient reality for people living in these parts of the world.

As a result, threats such as terrorism don’t strike fear into the hearts of people in some parts of the world in the same way that they do in places like Australia. A politician need only utter, or imply, the word terrorism in a country like Australia and they can justify a raft of excessively strict laws or policies on immigration or policing. In developing countries, terrorism is just another threat among many. Friends in Mexico even joked that a terrorist attack on their soil wouldn’t be met with the same reaction, because locals would think that the sound of explosives was just another Saints day festival at the local church, and another excuse to celebrate. Some Mexicans went so far as to suggest that if Mexicans heard the explosions of a terrorist attack, they would rush into the street with food, alcohol and a stereo, ready to party. That said, Mexicans also sadly acknowledged that they don’t need foreign terrorists to destroy their country, they have drug traffickers. Terrorism is still a threat. It is just one of many.

What is an orphan?

An orphan is a child without parents. In my upbringing, that meant no mother or father. However, I learned that in Brunei an orphan is a child without a father, even if the mother is alive. I deduced that children were awarded this classification because the father is still seen as the bread winner, and for this reason some ‘orphaned’ children in Brunei receive a small amount of financial assistance from the government. Of course, state support or welfare is very rare in developing countries, so life is much harder for children when their parents pass away.

Life is uncertain. COVID-19 has reminded everyone in the developed world that life is precious and can be taken away from any of us at any time, but this is something people in places like Africa, South East Asia and Latin America have always known. The fragility of life and the need to cherish it is a realisation I made on many occasions during my travels, especially when I was asked if my parents were living.

My backpacking days finished many years ago, many years before COVID-19. Fortunately, and with great pleasure, I can still answer yes when people ask:

Are your parents alive?

Ambuyat: Delight or Disgust?

Ambuyat will delight you or disgust you.

It has the power to excite you, or to threaten your constitution. Violent physical reactions can result from the mere memory of the food.

Ambuyat is the only uniquely Bruneian contribution to international cuisine. It is also found, under various names, in the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, which share the island of Borneo with Brunei.

Popular Bruneian food is essentially Malay. Most Bruneians are Malay, and this is reflected in their language, customs and cuisine. Ambuyat, however, is uniquely Bruneian.

What is it, and why does it repulse or delight people?

Ambuyat is a gooey, runny colourless and tasteless substance which is placed in a bowl in the centre of the communal table, and extracted with a bamboo fork called ‘chandas’. Non-Bruneians like me are known to struggle to attach the ambuyat to the chandas. Ambuyat has the consistency and texture of the substance that starts in the nose, travels through the throat and is expelled via the mouth – much to the disgust of onlookers.

Bruneians love it.

Ambuyat is not the extent of the dish, though. The table is filled with other meat and vegetable stews, such as Tempoyak sauce. The ambuyat is dipped into the sauces, and these provide the taste to the dish. The stews and sauces can be delicious and even quite spicy. The issue for many non-Bruneians is not the taste but the texture of the ambuyat, the feeling of it running down your throat is like being forced to swallow the substance which starts in your nose…

If you can force it down, you can savour the taste of the accompanying sauces.

Can’t I just eat the sauces alone?

You could, but then you’re not eating ambuyat, and not immersing yourself in the cultural experience. It would be cheating.

What is it made of?

Ambuyat comes from the interior trunk of the sago palm. The dish is compared to tapioca starch, and to okra. It is relatively easy to prepare. Take the starch powder and add some water, before stirring. Then prepare the sauces for dipping.

What makes Ambuyat even more appealing is that it can be served with a side of durian, a fruit so smelly it is banned from public transport in countries like Singapore.

A Bruneian friend had ‘encouraged’ me to try it, just as I’d encouraged my friend to try vegemite. Our respective reactions were similar.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t force down more than one or two mouthfuls. My friend was initially put out, before declaring with glee:

“All the more for me!”

Image: http://www.bruneitourism.com