20 Mar 2020 – 10:36 GMT – 7°C Mostly Cloudy – Co. Dublin, Ireland
Always liked the idea of travel, the wonderment of it. Little intrigues in stories recounted by friends who had travelled widely. Not stories of cruise ships or ski chalets or student binges. I was more interested in stories of life in extremis.
Writer Gerry Hanley told me about the village elder missing the tip of his nose. Elder was shot through a thicket in the crossfire between Japanese and British troops in Burma. The thicket was big enough to have hidden an entire village. The elder was the only casualty despite none of the troops realising there were several hundred people between their muzzles.
I was asleep in a containerised bedroom in the Sahara when a soldier emptied his AK47 two metres from my head. I heard nothing because the air-conditioning unit was so loud and the steel walls thrummed in harmony. The soldier was there to guard us and while on patrol he spotted eyes glinting in the reflected floodlights at the camp perimeter. Not terrorists, they were goats as the footprints attested after dawn. Worryingly, we saw the bullet gouges in the sand but no goats were harmed.
A priest who taught me in school had recently returned from Biafra. I never wanted to see the things he told us about in class. At his behest, we collected silver foil from the cigarette packets that contained slow death for our parents to help alleviate quick death in Biafra. I had over 100 different brands in my packet collection, most taken from the roadside when littering was more popular than today. Some from France and other places I only knew from atlases. There was a terrible stench from the box under my bed,; discarded packets of Carrolls, Gold Leaf, Woodbines, Capstan, Gitanes, Gauloises, Craven A, Rothmans, Peter Stuyvesant, and more. Of course, I would come to smoke Marlboro, Benson & Hedges, Dunhills, Silk Cut and Players Special as I took over twenty years to beat an addiction normalised by societal views of the time. Worked with a Bavarian thirty years later and he had done exactly the same. He said he’d won an award for his diligent foil recycling and then took thirty years to quit smoking.
I remember a colleague trying to settle a large bar bill in Patagonia. “We don’t take American Express” said the barman taking a shotgun from beneath the counter. I still maintain that having enough cash saved us a beating. And what about the night the policeman stopped our car at a checkpoint in Yangon. He demanded cash in lieu of reporting us for breaking curfew. His gun came in the window to the temple of the passenger in the front seat at the same time as his alcohol suffused breath. He lurched back as another policeman called to him and in the moment, we drove off. A very senior foreigner who lived only metres from the checkpoint had insanely given them the booze so that his party guests could leave after curfew.
I’ve seen many vile things but generally without the threat that it could happen to me. I got away with amoebic dysentry, Giardia and pneumonia. Fortunately at different times. I was lucky to have avoided mosquito borne infections. Lucky I wasn’t highjacked or kidnapped like some of my colleagues, all of whom were released eventually. Lucky not to have died at the start of my career among fellow-trainees on the Alexander Kielland because I chose to go to Sharjah instead of taking a plum North Sea assignment.
A few Covid thoughts for the day. Out walking, we overheard three mid-teen age girls planning a holiday – Miami and Ibiza seemed top of their lists – wondered if they’d fund it from inheritances after Covid? And what about tracing infections from meetings where anonymity matters – freemasons, AA and such. Is BDSM the way forward – should we be cuffing our wrists and tying them to our belt to restrict touching our faces? Last Imperial College model I read about suggests a ceiling of 2.4 million US deaths. I suspect the future refrain will be that 75% were saved and that was because of the best policies ever implemented since the beginning of creation. That’s still 600,000 unplanned funerals.