Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Back to slack

Blimey, is it really six months since I blogged? I can't believe how much my life has progressed since then. First of all, I'm working as a journalist in London once more, two years after I thought I'd given that up. The bizarre part is that my career has taken off again and I'm actually enjoying it.

Looking back, I'm not sure I was cut out to be an English teacher. I enjoyed acquiring a TEFL qualification, even though the month-long course was one of the hardest things I've ever done; and it's satisfying to have another string to my bow. But, dash it all, when you get right down to it, I'm a shit-hot writer and editor. And why should I trade in a badly-paid job I'm good at for an even worse-paid job where I'm at the bottom of the pile?

So yeah, I've been back in London since September, working freelance as the sub on an international business magazine hardly anyone in the UK has heard of. That takes up three weeks of every month, 10 months a year, and the editor gives me writing jobs on top of that. It's hard work, but interesting, and the perks - basically press trips, also known as free holidays - make it all worthwhile. And in recent weeks I've been on two, earning me a reputation among family and friends as "that jammy bugger".

First up was Prague. Beautiful, minus-eight-Celsius Prague.

Last time I was there, as a backpacker in 1996, my accommodation consisted of some kind of hall - a school hall, perhaps? - filled with sunloungers. Whereas on this occasion, I stayed in the Four Seasons and all the staff sucked up to me. Heh heh heh.

You know what? I'm not feeling particularly creative right now, so here are some pretty pictures to save me writing anything.

On my first night in Prague, I saw Swan Lake at the State Opera House. My first ever ballet. Beautiful, it was.

That said, I couldn't help but be reminded of an old advert on British TV for Fosters lager, starring Paul Hogan. The one in which the male ballet dancer bounds on to the stage in his tights, and Hogan splutters: "Strewth, there's a bloke down there with no strides on!"

Following that, I went to Belfast for a few days, ostensibly to review a hotel. As it happens I stayed in two, starting with the Culloden Estate and Spa, five miles outside the city.

The 'stars' of The X Factor Live were staying there, apparently. Not that I'd recognise any of them, having never seen the TV show.

Next day we moved to the Europa Hotel in the city centre - a pleasant enough building, if you can tolerate 60s architecture.

Work started on it in 1969, just as the Troubles were starting, and it opened 40 years ago, in 1971. All the top journalists - Kate Adie, Anne Robinson, Trevor McDonald - used to be based here, and in time it became the most bombed hotel in the world, something the locals reminisce about with something approaching nostalgia.

To be fair, though, the city does have its charms.

Anyway, the most interesting thing to happen to me in Belfast was that I fell off a fish. Well, I do tend to make a habit of this sort of thing: at a farm in South Africa in 2002, I fell off an ostrich, pulling a groin muscle and invaliding myself for three weeks. But that's another story.

I'll explain. Not far from the Harland and Wolff shipyard there's a statue called the Big Fish. As you can see, the approach to it is gentle

but there are treacherously steep steps at one end.

So there I was, holding my camcorder in front of me, walking backwards as our guide was talking and trying to fit the bloody thing into the frame. At which point I stepped into thin air.

Sure, my hands and knees were badly scraped when I hit the ground; but on the plus side, I'm hoping to earn £250 by selling my POV video footage to You've Been Framed.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I had a job lined up in China, teaching English to children on the western outskirts of Beijing. It fell through when the government refused me a visa, presumably because of my background in journalism. God, I was heartbroken when the school emailed me the news. But you don’t want to hear about a grown man crying.

I started to look further afield and what I found was not encouraging. If I couldn’t go to China I’d check out Korea, which is also desperate for EFL teachers. Or at least it was. Now, from what I’ve read, it’s flooded with them, and as a newbie in his early 40s I‘d be at a distinct disadvantage. Apparently what they go for are good-looking young people with American accents: three attributes I can’t fake.

I’d studied TEFL in part because I thought Asia was going to usurp the West economically. Well, it turns out that plenty of other people have had the same idea. Officially - and this is almost certainly an underestimate - nearly 10% of the US workforce is unemployed at the moment. A significant number of them are heading to Asia to teach English, which isn’t going to do much for wage rates.

I thought about getting a year’s experience in Europe but didn’t fancy earning a pittance. Realistically that just leaves South America, which I plan to explore several years from now. Maybe the TEFL certificate will come in handy then. As I’ve often said, it’s another string to my bow. But my heart’s not in it at the moment, so I’m going back to London to resume my career in journalism.

I’m delighted, actually, which is odd considering how miserable I was the last time I lived there. Look at it this way, though: I’ve recharged my batteries, secured a freelance position subbing a business magazine for three weeks of every month and, with the additional work I plan to do, I’ll be able to save quite a bit of money for the next few years. In tough economic times, that last point is important to me.

Maybe I’m retreating to my comfort zone. The six hours of teaching I did on the one-month CELTA course in Poland last year were certainly rewarding, and brought out interpersonal skills I rarely get to use when I’m sitting behind a computer screen. When the course ended - before I got distracted by a health scare that turned out to be nothing and a six-month trip around Asia - I remember looking forward with enthusiasm to starting a new career. So yeah, maybe I’m making a mistake.

But I don’t think I am, to be honest. Because I’m keen to plug myself back into the capital’s vibrant and diverse culture, rediscover its theatre scene, buy a Cineworld cinema pass, expand my skills through evening classes, get stuck into a magazine that I think is going to interest me enormously and earn enough money to pay for future international slacking.

I’m just glad to be working, frankly.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Gainfully employed

First the really good news: I’ve found a job! Teaching English, mostly to children, somewhere exotic. For various reasons I’m not going to say where just yet, at least not on a public blog. Only my family and friends (on Facebook anyway) are aware of where I’m planning to go.

I knew that my potential employer was showing interest several days ago, just as I was setting off for Phuket. The next day, after an interview I’d over-prepared for (always the best way), he emailed me a contract to consider. Having chatted again to him today, I’ve verbally agreed to take the job. Apart from a few nerves, I’m really excited.

In truth, I’ve done hardly anything touristy during my time on Phuket and I’m leaving tomorrow. I’ve been too concerned with more important matters (i.e. work and the Doctor Who finale). Mass-market holiday islands aren’t really my scene anyway; apart from a couple of strolls along the beach and round the shopping malls, I’ve hardly left my hotel.

One of the best things about this job offer, though - which stems from me shrugging aside the nagging, irrational fear that if I’m not careful, I’ll wind up in a gutter drinking meths out of a paper bag - is that it’s made me loosen the purse-strings and spend cash almost like a proper tourist, a habit I hope will continue in the eight whole days I have left before I fly home from Bangkok.

Actually, I’d made a start on this before the interview was even on the cards, when I‘d reserved a room over the internet. Since Phuket’s not a budget resort, I’d resigned myself to paying normal hotel rates for the three days minimum I was planning to stay here. However, because of a mix-up on the hotel’s part, the type of room I’d been promised was unavailable, so they bumped me up to the penthouse suite for the same price.

It wasn’t all that impressive - more like a small bedroom with a reasonably plush sitting room attached - but for about £23 a night (three to six times what I’d normally pay for accommodation) I couldn’t complain. Not when I’d forked out nearly as much for a poky room in Heathrow Travelodge six months ago.

When my three days were up I moved to a more basic room, mainly to use the wifi and continue my employment negotiations on Skype.

Now all that’s left is for me to make my way north to Bangkok and come home. Unfortunately, to do that involves travelling along a thin, lengthy strip of mediocrity and I’m bored with beach resorts in any event.

I could do it all in a 16-hour bus ride but that would be knackering and mean another week in Bangkok, so instead I’m going to split the journey into more manageable chunks.

A week on the road, a couple of months in Blighty and before you know it, it’ll be time for me to settle down again. And you know what? I’m really looking forward to those last two bits.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Film fun

How could I have been so wrong about southern Thailand? It’s beautiful here. Amazingly so.

Of course, I have just spent the past couple of days going on trips to its most picturesque spots. Movie locations to boot!

First I went on a speedboat, with about 20 other people, to the island of Koh Phi Phi. The Beach was filmed here at a place called Maya Bay.

Then I went by minivan and longboat to Phang Nga Bay - a national park - and dropped in on ‘James Bond Island’, aka Scaramanga’s lair in The Man with the Golden Gun. (Clip here)

Wonderful stuff.

No slideshows today (a) because I haven’t made them yet and (b) I actually took my shirt off on Phi Phi and photographed myself frolicking in the surf with my Speedos on.

I suspect I did it to record my slimline figure for posterity. The scales outside the 7-11 tell me I’m 83kg (13st 1lb) now. I was 105kg (16st 8lb) when I left the UK. So I’ve lost three-and-a-half stone!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Desert island digs

With three weeks of my Asia trip left I’m more or less killing time now. Lounging around in hotel rooms. Surfing the net. Watching newspaper-giveaway DVDs I brought with me from England. Even a spot of sightseeing.

I’ve been back in Thailand nearly a week. It’s nice enough. With hindsight, my worries that I’d be trapped among permanently stoned beach bums were a little overdone. Although, having said that, my visits to the island resorts have only just got underway.

Crossing the border in a minivan from Malaysia last week, the first thing that struck me was how scruffy everything was. That and the fact that every second or third business was a massage parlour or go-go bar. Picking my jaw up off the floor, I checked my Rough Guide to Southeast Asia and found one paragraph that reluctantly mentioned “the seedy brothel town of Sungai Kolok” right on the border. It’s a knocking-shop for Malaysians, apparently.

Hat Yai, Thailand’s third-largest city, is 60km away. It's utterly characterless but at least it’s a modern city with modern amenities, so I stayed for four days. The one time I went out was to visit the neighbouring coastal town of Songkhla, which is marginally more interesting. Only marginally, mind.

Sometimes I wonder if I might have missed a vocation as an architect, not because I’m interested in designing buildings - I’m not - but because I love to take pictures of them when I’m abroad. If the job of foreign-building-photographer existed, I’d totally be up for it.

Next stop was Koh Lanta, a west-coast island that’s pretty much closed down from now till October due to the rainy season. To be honest I’m not sure what all the fuss is about as regards the monsoon. Sure, maybe once or twice a day it’ll bucket down like crazy, but in my [very limited] experience these showers rarely last longer than a quarter of an hour and five minutes later everything’s dried in the sunshine.

Arriving in yet another minivan, fresh off the car ferry, I was met by a couple of young men from a family-run resort overlooking one of the popular beaches. They gave me a lift there, I liked the look of the bungalow they showed me (room A13 - fortunately I’m not superstitious) and I agreed to stay at least a couple of nights.

I’ve been offline since then because their internet charges were outrageous… as were some of their restaurant prices, come to think of it. That’s what comes of having an almost-captive clientele. In any case, even though the island is low on facilities and choice at this time of year, I did have an enjoyable day exploring the coastline on foot.

So now I’m back on the mainland in the port of Krabi, pondering my next move. I might go to nearby Koh Phi Phi (that's ‘Pee Pee’, not 'Fifi'), where The Beach was filmed. I might even brave the package-holiday mainstay of Phuket, which to my immense disappointment is apparently pronounced ‘Poo-ket’.

In the meantime, I’m adding something new to the blog: musical slideshows. I’ve been making these for months, ever since I discovered I could download Windows Live Movie Maker to my laptop. Each day that I take photos, there’s a corresponding slideshow to go with it.

Here’s one for Songkhla. I‘m not in it, but various buildings are.

Koh Lanta, on the other hand, is full of me being a narcissist, and a beardy one at that.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An unspecified malaise

I’m heading back to Thailand tomorrow as I’m fairly close to the border, I’ve run out of things I want to do in Malaysia and I’m tired of being forced into the dossiest dosshouses by the high cost of accommodation here. I don’t know if I’m going to enjoy it, though.

For two days I’ve been in Georgetown, capital of Penang island in the northwest of Malaysia. I like it here, actually, but I’m happy to move on now that I’ve seen the sights. In some ways it reminds me of home, since it was the first British settlement in the Malay Peninsula.

It’s also very Chinese

and has a lively Little India.

So now I’m sitting outside my dosshouse, using the very good wifi - I have to, as there’s no plug socket in my cell-like room - and eavesdropping on some young drifters talking about the south of Thailand. One’s a 25-year-old Frenchman who’s been bartending there for years and knows all about the drugs, the corruption, the scams and the nightlife (to put it politely).

Christ, these guys make me feel old and staid. I also find myself silently judging them, rolling my eyes at the shallowness of their conversations and asking myself if they’ll ever do anything positive with their lives: highly ironic, given that in a moment of facetiousness I named this blog The International Slacker.

I don’t know if I’m going to enjoy the beach resorts. They’re not my scene at all. I may well end up just finding a good-value hotel with good wifi and taking a couple of weeks to apply myself - seriously this time - to finding some work in the autumn.

Long before I fly home, I’ll also buy a razor to replace one that broke a couple of weeks ago. But until then, I don’t mind going across the border with heavy stubble verging on a beard. From the travellers I’ve met lately, there’s no doubt in my mind that Thai immigration doesn‘t discriminate against scruffs.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Not quite my cup of tea

If I hadn’t been spoilt by Vietnam, and in particular Sa Pa, I’d probably have enjoyed the Cameron Highlands more than I have. Green and hilly scenery‘s all very well but, unless you count the bright, cheerful abayas that a lot of female Malaysian Muslims wear, the people and their fashions here are rather colourless in comparison.

Like Da Lat in Vietnam, the towns here were built as hill stations in which colonial Europeans (in this case the British rather than the French) could cool off. But the towns are very small - one-main-street-and-a-handful-leading-off kind of small - with not much to do in them except eat, sleep and set off on hikes.

I’ve been staying in a place called Tanah Rata, watching my beard grow. I’ve been hillwalking once, using a map of the various jungle paths you can take. It was rewarding in the end, but it wore me out and made me worry at times that I was going to get lost.

I’ve also taken a walk to the nearest tea plantation, a couple of miles down the road.

We've just had a public holiday, which meant that Tanah Rata filled up with weekenders and my room rate almost doubled on Saturday night. It was interesting, watching the Malaysian middle classes turn up en masse in their nice cars (shinier and newer than you’d see in a typical British car park, I’d say) and go on a spending spree in the tea shop overlooking the plantation.

I don’t just mean they bought boxes of high-quality tea bags in various flavours, although that was part of it. No, they also partook of tea and scones (or cake), as did I - for the experience, I guess, and despite a price tag of just over £4 that made me balk a little. That’s over a quarter of my typical daily budget! In fact it’s nearly as much as I was paying for my room. On a normal day, anyway.