Come in number 5 – your time is up: health and visa nightmares in Kyrgyzstan

Wednesday 31 August

I haven’t written anything for what seems like an age.  That’s because it has been an age.  Why this is I know not, save for the fact that I guess I’ve been a little jaded with it all and I really haven’t been bothered.  Travel has been shut down, I’ve not really been getting up to my usual debauchery, and I’ve been looking after a dog and a fish.  Where’s the story there?  You don’t want to hear about my toilet habits do you?!  YOU DO?!  Oh well it just so happens that I’ve got one – even though it happened weeks ago – I am now feeling well enough to type it.  Read on – but be advised that you might not want to be eating anything as you do.

So I was left holding the baby. Or rather the hound as it were, while Alex flees the country to return home for a summer break, I’m charged with 5 weeks of walking Margot, feeding Fishy McFishface, and not burning the place down.  Naturally I was going to do my best with such a seemingly impossible task, in spite of initial thoughts of “the cat’s away the rat can play.”  But I did what most caring, thoughtful, sensible men would do as soon as backs are turned – I went out and got utterly wankered.

Now this was all very well and good I thought to myself.  Just a couple of cheeky nights out isn’t going to do anyone any harm.  More fool I.  As some of you may know (and some more than others) I oft describe certain travel experiences via the subject of the current condition of my bowels.  In all honesty I feel this is a considerably more useful approach than “top ten ways to put your makeup on while riding an elephant” or other such travel blog shite.  Should any of you intrepid folk venture to similar climes, you’ll thank me later.  Well this one’s a doozy.

I’ve certainly not been feeling 100% since arriving in Kyrgyzstan – a country I still need to use the spell check for.  But most of the time you can chalk it up to a hangover, or perhaps eating something dodgy like Burger King.  Usually I’ve simply ridden it out with a vat of water and a boiled egg, in spite of a number of friends being sick as a dog when passing through these parts.  I always thought my stomach was a trooper. Long story short – after a particularly hard core Sunday Funday Shit-Show Matinee, I found myself venturing trepidly to death’s door.

Doubled over in agonising pain in the right of my abdomen, I woke with sheets soaking wet.  I was swimming in a sweaty puddle of my own making.  Spasming and shaking uncontrollably, I managed to vibrate to the bathroom like a clitoral stimulant on speed, where I both projectile vomited and pebble dashed the toilet pretty much at the same time.  Liquid from both ends, leaving me a convulsing, crying and gibbering wreck on the bathroom floor.  Jesus Christ I had nothing left to give!  Take me now!  This was no ordinary hangover.  Something needed to be done.

So the next morning and with the help of a dear friend (who would like to remain nameless, so for the sake of argument, from hereafter she will be known simply as – Sheila), we tracked down a local medical clinic with English speaking specialists and in I went to get a check up.  Slipping those little blue plastic hygiene things over my footwear, the doc fondles my tum as I lie on a bench.  She’s got her suspicions, but requests that I return the following day for an ultrasound, blood tests and to put my poo in a bucket.  No problems says I – then I check my passport.  I’m on the last day of my 60 day visa free allowance.  I make a beeline for the border to renew.

You know where this is going right?  Yeah.  I was ONE DAY over.  ONE FUCKING DAY!  Still with some kind of creature growing in my stomach, I’m attempting to cross the border into Kazakhstan (and then swiftly return) when halted by a uniformed guard.  Since neither of us can do maths, he produces a ring-binded office calendar in front of a growing queue of curious Kazakhs, and we proceed to point to and count the days since my last entry. “1…2…3…4…” totally in sync like a fucked up version of Sesame Street.  Sure enough it’s 61.  My protestations for “being in hospital” fall on deaf ears, and I’m told to return to Bishkek to apply for a visa.

Now that could have been worse (in that moment – oh it gets better – or worse – whichever way you look at it), as I half expected to be detained at the border and thusly a dead dog and fish would have resulted.  As it stands, I have to apply for an “exit visa” so I can leave the country and then come back in – all sins forgiven – and begin my 60 day visa free stretch from scratch.  Alright fine.  More of that anon –  now I need to return for my ultrasound.

Most of you dearest readers will know my dad died from prostate cancer.  Now although I’m only 36 – any sort of problem down there and I’m automatically leaping to the notion that I’ve contracted that as well.  I have to get regular check ups post 40 anyway (and that’s not too far off) so I’ve been doing my fair share of googling my symptoms, brought to you by those wonderful panic-inducing folk at WebMD.  So far I’ve got lung cancer, diabetes, genital warts and vaginal thrush.  DO NOT SELF DIAGNOSE.

The worry is still there though, especially after she starts zapping me with this cold thing and begins ringing tiny dots on the monitor that appear to be inside me.  I’m then told I need a gastroscopy.  Yeah sure – no problem.  What’s that..?

IT’S A FUCKING ROD SHOVED DOWN YOUR THROAT INTO YOUR STOMACH.  I’m held down by this large, Russian looking behemoth-nurse as a doc tries his best to choke the life out of me – driving a long, black tube into my gullet.  “RELAX!” his assistant demands, barking in broken English, her manly hands pressing me into a torture position.  My eyes plead with her (did I detect a smile?!) tears streaming, choking, rolling into the back of my head.  It’s a good job I was told not to have food for 24 hours or this is going to look like that dinner scene from Alien.  Apart from there being photographic evidence of wetting my pants at a friend’s 9th birthday party, it’s the most uncomfortable experience of my life.

DIAGNOSIS 

I’ve got chronic cholecystitis, and several duodenal and stomach ulcers.  Basically my gallbladder has given up on me.  I’m also lactose intolerant.  Here for your viewing pleasure, is a picture of my prescribed drugs:

I'm starting my own drug company

I’m starting my own pharmaceutical company

So that’s it.  The game is up.  Years of eating and drinking garbage have finally caught up with me.  36.  Not a bad run.  Now for the beginning of the end.  The slide into obscurity.  Wasting away in a nursing home, pooing myself and drooling over the nurse who changes my colostomy bag – male or female – I’m not fussy at that age.  Goodbye cruel world.

Goodbye heaven - hello hell.  You can see why this has happened.

So long heaven – hello hell. You can see why this has happened: “Frensh” Fries will kill you. But not the bacon! FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST LEAVE ME THE BACON!!

But before all of that – I need to be legal in this country.  So popping more pills than Winona Ryder and once again with the amazing help of Sheila (without whom I wouldn’t have been able to do this), we set off around the city to figure out how the fuck I can stay in this country.  And what a nightmare it turns out to be.  However pictures speak a thousand words, so since you’ve come with me thus far I decided to treat you to a visual diary of events.

First we went here:

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They told us we needed to go here:

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Then they sent us here:

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Where I had to pay a 10,000 Som fine.  That’s about 110 GBP.  Then we went back here:

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Where we handed over the fine receipt before waiting an age for this:

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Which we had to take back here:

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Back to the start, where we had to fill out two application forms, provide a covering letter, two passport photographs, and a further 1050 som (11.60 GBP), get a stamp from some big-wig in a glittery gold office, then told to come back the next day, where I would finally get this:

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An exit visa which gives me 5 days to leave the country and didn’t even use one of the two passport stamps I handed over.  That shit costs money.

I hope you enjoyed that little picture journey dear readers.  What took you seconds took us hours.  All of these “offices” couldn’t be further from each other in the city, back and forth between each one, in sweltering heat, traffic at a standstill while my newly found ulcers struck up a conversation.  We attempted to beg forgiveness for outstaying my welcome – by one day – blaming obvious health issues, but the sour faced officials were having none of it.  Soviet bureaucratic bullshit at its finest – someone’s pocket is 100 quid better off.

And so there we go.  One hell of a crazy few days.  But I’m coming out clean on the other side.  I’ve been eating like a champ (with occasional slips) and once completely off all my drugs (non recreational), I’ve really been making a big effort to cut down on my drinking.  One plus point is that I have successfully stopped mixing drinks.  I’ve only had beer since all this transpired – and I’m pretty proud of myself for that.  I honestly feel that’s an achievement.  Hell I’m convinced it was those 22 bloody mary’s and 7 vodka red bulls that rotted my gut in the first place.  The point is – I’m getting better.  There’s a long way to go – but I’m getting better.

And to make sure I don’t finish on a dour note – here’s a picture of a dog in a bath and a fish.  If only to prove I haven’t killed them.

Yet.

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Responsibility Part Two: Shakespeare with Kids

Friday 10 June

I was 19 when I went to drama school.  I had a silver metal pencil-case with a Shakespeare quote on it – the letters of which I’d stuck on myself in ‘black gothic’ font.  “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”  Man I thought I was so cool.  Lifted from my favourite play – Hamlet – I actually painted the prose in its entirety around the cornice of my 2nd year apartment room in blue paint.  How I ever got laid is beyond me.  My pride and joy was a selection of Royal Shakespeare Company T-shirts.  I bought dad one for Christmas one year: “Although I may look old, yet I am strong and lusty.”  I think he wore it once.  I bled the Bard.  Other people thought I was a wanker.

Break from rehearsals during pantomime at drama school circa 2001.  I've still got that staff somewhere

Break from rehearsals during pantomime at drama school circa 2001. I’ve still got that staff somewhere

'The Don' - playing a police officer self-financing his own sex change operation by pimping kids to the titular character.  Probably not a good idea to include it in this post...

‘The Don’ – playing a police officer self-financing his own sex change operation by pimping kids to the titular character. Probably not a good idea to include it in this post…I’ve got nice female legs though

Trouble was I wasn’t any good.  Even if you have deeply ingrained passion for something you can still be naff at it.  This hurt me greatly, as I understood the texts backwards, could feel and hear and read how it should be acted and spoken, but just couldn’t quite ever lift it off the page.  At least without producing more wood than a branch of IKEA.   Sure I stumbled through a couple of seasons of outdoor Shakespeare to a decent response, including my greatest (and only) ever mention in a newspaper review for my performance as Malcolm in Macbeth :

“Stuart Jameson provides a welcome change of pace in a cast that otherwise has a tendency to shout.”

       The Scottish Herald, July 2004

Funny how I’ve never forgotten that verbatim isn’t it?  What a glowing testament to my acting talents – because I was quieter than everyone else.  Hold the front page Hollywood – I’m coming.  They’re going to be throwing deals at me.

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Apologies for the appalling quality of these photos – most are pictures of pictures or scanned in. One of my first outdoor Shakespeares. The Soothsayer from Antony and Cleopatra. I wasn’t allowed into a club after because of the skin head and snake “tattoo” – they thought I’d cause trouble

As Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream.  The four lovers in that production had about as much chemistry as a rose dating a fart

As Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The four lovers in that production had about as much chemistry as a rose dating a fart

But it was to no avail and never to last.  I had an agent wanting me to move to London – and it might have worked out barring the slight complication that there’s no way come hell or high water I want to ever live in that overpopulated cess pit.  I kept plying my trade north of the border with maybe one decent role a year, and the rest of the time pushing cold-call sales of broadband to old people, being the murderer at murder mystery dinner parties, dressing up in a furry seal costume or getting drugs tested on me for money.  I was living the dream.

Probably my finest work.  Somerset Maugham's beautiful play -  Enemy.  Still out-acted by the tank

Probably my finest work. Somerset Maugham’s beautiful play – Enemy. Still out-acted by the tank

And so I gave it up.  This was also quite possibly because of a girl too, who basically forced upon me an oft shouty ultimatum of choosing her and a proper job over the life of a penniless, struggling actor.  Ironic considering we met in the theatre – she directed a play I was trying to use as a platform for more exposure.

God bothering - playing Canterbury in a WWI set Henry V.  A production that garnered wonderful reviews

God bothering – playing Canterbury in a WWI set Henry V. A production that garnered wonderful reviews

I digress.  So I left creeping the boards behind and the rest, as they say, is history.  But I do fondly remember a moment towards the end of my last flirtation with thespianism, when I led a stage combat and Shakespeare workshop with a load of disadvantaged street kids in Glasgow.  One stocky hard nut approached me afterwards, sporting a Burberry baseball cap, heavy gold chain, Kappa tracksuit bottoms tucked into his trainers, and a face like a pizza. (In Scotland we call them NEDS – Non Educated Delinquents).  He opens up with a thick Glaswegian brogue:

“Dinnae fuckin’ say onythin’ pal aww riight?!  RIIGHT!! (Lowers voice) – but kin ye tell meh whair I kin git mair o’ this stuff?!”

He gestures to the Shakespeare quotes I’d been using to help set up the kids’ fight scenes.  I reached into my pocket and gave him my tiny copy of Hamlet.

“You can start there.”

He hid it as quickly as I brought it to air and turned just before departing at the door, jabbing a sovereign ringed finger in my direction:

“Amm serious!  Dinnae fuckin’ say onythin’!”

I’d like to say a single tear of joy cascaded down my cheek – rather a little trickle of poo down my leg.  I was considerably more concerned for my own safety and wellbeing.  Regardless, I began to believe my calling was elsewhere.

Early rehearsals

First rehearsal – Mercutio and Tybalt fight scene

Fast forward to present day Bishkek and I find myself leading a similar workshop and nurturing a long forgotten passion for theatre in education.  I’ve not done this kind of thing for maybe fifteen years, and I’m extremely nervous and very concerned they’re going to tear me apart, and I’ll be fed to the snow leopards following the next PTA meeting.  But it goes rather well, and to cut a long story short, I’m suddenly suggesting – and then in turn directing – the QSIB international school drama club in their end of year performance.  I offer that a Shakespeare showcase could potentially go down well, and subsequently  The Bard in Bishkek is born.

From the program notes.  The directors.  That's me on the left

From the program notes. The directors. That’s me on the left

So myself and partner in crime/primary teacher extraordinaire Alex choose scenes from some of Billy’s most beloved works.  I’m admittedly a little hesitant that 11 year olds (including non-native English speakers) are going to be able to not only grasp the language but learn lines and have the ability to perform it as well.  What is the old acting adage?  Never work with children or animals.  Or Ron Jeremy.  Pride was getting in my way – I was concerned we’d be left with egg on our faces resulting from a shambolic, poorly rehearsed production.  The kind that parents are forced to watch and squirm through because their loin fruit has one line at the end of act three, and looks cute with a set of angel wings and a tinsel halo.  I couldn’t have been proved more wrong.

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Something wicked this way comes…rehearsing the witches

"The raging rocks, and shivering shocks..."  Bottom channels Olivier

“The raging rocks, and shivering shocks…” Bottom channels Olivier in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

"Good king of cats - nothing but one of your nine lives..."  Mercutio squares up to Tybalt

“Good king of cats – nothing but one of your nine lives…” Mercutio squares up to Tybalt

Worshipping Helena

Worshipping Helena

To continue – we select scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth; and during early rehearsals, we were still undecided how to put the production on.  Standard practice is to just throw up a raised platform, and ruin the audience’s bum bones on those wooden school gym benches.  However such was the talent beginning to shine, I didn’t want it to go to waste with the usual “them and us” staging.  Then memory served well – most of my al fresco Shakespeare days were done in promenade – where the audience moves to the action.  We’d turn the school into a living, breathing Shakespeare set.  The Gazebo would be the meeting-house for the Mechanicals.  The basketball court would see a lunchtime playground face-off between Mercutio and Tybalt at Verona High.  The cafeteria blacked out to become Macbeth’s gloomy and atmospheric candle-lit castle.  Turn and look up to see Juliet at her balcony window.  The garden magically becoming the enchanted forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It was perfect, and the kids couldn’t have been more excited.

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Dress rehearsal

Performance

Performance

"Oh Romeo...Romeo...wherefore art thou Romeo..."

“Oh Romeo…Romeo…wherefore art thou Romeo…”

I love these shots - taken weeks apart.  Rehearsal and performance of the lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream

I love these shots – taken weeks apart. Rehearsal and performance of the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

And then boy did they pull it off.  Although we selected “entry-level” Shakespeare, to the uninitiated it still isn’t easy.  Hell many adults and professional actors still can’t get their head around it – to the point where I almost believe you either get it or you don’t.  Well these kids got it.  They didn’t just get it – they nailed it within an inch of its life – to the point where even having rehearsed and directed them for the previous couple of months, both myself and Alex felt we weren’t watching kids anymore – they became their characters.  I’ve seen productions where the standard of acting isn’t half as good.  They raised their game, they’ve got the world at their feet, and we are so proud of them.  Their parents should be too.

And so here it is!  For your listening and viewing pleasure, by the miracle of technology – the full (edited) Bard in Bishkek performance.  Unless I’ve screwed it up because I’ve never posted a video before.  This was taken from the opening night – so it was a little rough around the edges – but we were still glowing with appreciation for the hard work and effort our cast put in.  It felt like a family.

The full cast

The full cast

The poster - designed by our 11 year old Lady Macbeth - a future thespian and/or tattoo artist

The poster – designed by our 11 year old Lady Macbeth – a future thespian and/or tattoo artist

The newspaper article, program and ticket stubs

The newspaper article, program and ticket stubs

Having a lovely piece written about the whole process and included in the brand new (and only) English language paper here – Voice of Ala-Too Gazette – was just the icing on the cake.  Either way, this kind of production has never been done here before and it was certainly newsworthy.  We had a wonderful turn out, and – dare I say it – there’s whisperings of making it an annual thing.  The spring 2017, QSIB, Bard in Bishkek repertoire.  I believe with these kids (and with many more that are now interested having witnessed their peers knock it out the park) it could go from strength to strength.  Maybe reaching out to other international schools?  Maybe involving the wider community?  Maybe putting together a full-scale Shakespeare production?  The possibilities are endless.  It would be incredible to have been a part of starting something like that.  I guess being responsible has its merits.  Perhaps I have better things to offer than just my  chat from behind a pint glass.

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

A selection of photographs over the course of the production. The beautiful black and whites are credited to Tomas Georgievski – one of the proud parents.

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Responsibility Part One: Camping with Kids

Tuesday 31 May

I should be in China now right?  Hell I should be in India – but tell me something I don’t know.  Apologies to sound like a broken record, but the visa situation hasn’t changed, and I’m still stuck in Bishkek.  As there has been very little in the way of shenanigans to regale you with of late, I’ve thusly regressed into tardy blogging, and haven’t been bothered to let anyone know I’m still alive.   This is due in part to me behaving myself and staying out of trouble for once.  Unfortunately for the sick minded amongst you, I’ve recently been bequeathed a great deal of trust of sorts, so herein lies tales of only a wholesome nature.  Welcome to Responsibility Part One: Camping with Kids.

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Into the hills

Six months ago when I crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan in steady falling snow, if you’d told me I’d still be here in June putting a tent up in blazing sunshine with a load of ten and eleven year olds I’d have said you’re off your rocker.  But nonetheless, that is where I find myself over the course of a two day camping trip with students from the QSIB International School.  It’s the same educational establishment at which I’m directing the upcoming Shakespeare scene production – but more of that anon.  Here I’ve been roped in – willingly I might add – to assist in chaperoning the lovely darlings.  This should be a riot because I can barely look after myself.

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The madness begins

And it doesn’t stop there, no!  Not only that, but I’m told I’ve got to take four of the said kids in the car – along with a load of equipment – in convoy behind the mini-van with the rest of the tearaways.  Now I’m not usually one to shirk driving anything or anyone anywhere (I once had to drive a 12 hour, 580 mile round trip from Oban to Blackpool carrying a live giant Octopus).  But I must admit a little nervous pressure in keeping my charges safe; not least because the roads here are a nightmare and people can’t drive for shit.  More of that later too.

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Hearded by Margot

So almost shaking my head in disbelief as to the situations I get myself into, we set off singing songs, playing eye spy and having my ears flicked from behind the driver’s seat.  This is punctuated by yours truly yelling “AGE APPROPRIATE!” while the kids fall about laughing every time they come close to talking about something they shouldn’t be at such a tender age.  This includes the constant third degree barrage of inquisition surrounding the nature of my relationship with their teacher – Ms. Alex.  As I’m sure many of you parents and teachers are aware – it takes great skill to successfully dodge a malapropos line of questioning from the mind of a ten year old.  “Oh look!  A tree!”

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Base camp

100 or so kilometres outside Bishkek and you’re in the Shamsy Valley, which is a gloriously lush green on the floor, and brilliant pure white at the top.  Every head needs to be covered from the beating sun, especially up here at around 2400 metres (7874 ft).  This applies particularly to me, as I attempted to cut my own hair with clippers recently and ballsed it right up – so I’ve had to shave it all off.  No picture exists at the camp without my Bolivian head scarf firmly hiding my embarrassment.

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Clueless

Working in teams, the kids set up camp with aplomb – which I must say I’m more than surprised at.  I’ve been reliably informed that it’s their third time doing it – and there were tears the first time around.  However the screaming matches between my ex-girlfriend and I while attempting to erect a two man tent at a festival every year would make your blood run cold.  For my own part, it’s been a while since I did this, but I’m having a blast getting back to nature, trying to look like a seasoned pro and kidding on Bear Grylls has got nothing on me.  This falls to pieces when I get a splinter while trying to fashion a working longbow from a bent branch.

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The team

And then there’s the cold at night.  Survivalist I am not.  When the embers of the camp fire have died and the last of the marshmallows devoured to the sounds of tall tales and ghost stories, the mercury just drops away.  In a small tent of my own grouped with the trek leader and other teachers, I’m shivering uncontrollably all night.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold – and I’ve done an ice hotel in the Carpathian Mountains.  I was wearing every stitch I owned, but still spasmed in my sleeping bag while listening to the endless screech of an owl, a dog barking and what sounded like a cow giving birth to an elephant.  Needless to say I was in a stinking mood in the morning.

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Add ghost stories and serve

Ahhhh but I can’t throw temper tantrums here can I?  I have responsibility remember?  I can’t throw my shit out of the pram and withdraw into a beer bottle.  I’m “awake” around 6 am not sure if I’ve slept at all, disturbed by a giggling alarm clock of bairns beyond the walls of my tent.  But after a decent breakfast of scrambled eggs (the kids make all the meals themselves – which can be hit or miss), the warmth of the sun begins to dispel my grogginess, and we throw ourselves into the day’s hike.  

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Homeward bound

And then it’s outdoor kids’ stuff 101 – which actually brings back memories.  Geography lessons, scrambling down a river, learning to use an orienteering compass and walkie-talkies, finding interesting stuff you’re not allowed to take home because it’s disgusting – that kind of thing.  To quote the owl that kept me awake – it’s a hoot.  But it’s when we return to camp that the real fun starts – because none of them has ever played “capture the flag.”  By the end of it I’m wheezing like an old man and bleeding from several scratches earned from diving through bushes.  It was brutal – but I think in their feedback before returning home they all cited it as their favourite moment.  That’s alright for them – I need a new lung.

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Capturing the flag – pure joy

For some reason the school decides to send the school driver to pick up the kids that were in my car as we prepare to return to base.  This has me somewhat miffed and upset – especially since he terrifies them by bolting back at stupid speeds – and I really do enjoy the time I’ve been spending with them.  A drive-home de-brief would have been lovely.  However it’s actually a blessing in disguise, as the return journey is riddled with (albeit somewhat trivial) incidents.  Just little niggles from other drivers or traffic laws here that get my back up and turn the air blue.  But it gives way to something a little more serious.

With everyone safely back at school and into the arms of their thankful, relieved, loving parents; Alex and I are returning home after a successful two days.  Maybe I’m still annoyed at incidents during the journey back, or that a speeding, no-fun, stone faced Kyrgyz guy with little or no connection to the kids was preferred to drive them home over me, but there’s a straw that breaks the camel’s back.  I’m slowing to stop at a red light, when this douche bag behind me sits on his horn.  Just sits on it.  Once the light turns green, he’s still on it even though I have to slow to allow a pedestrian to cross on my right turn.  This is how they do things here.  They’re on time for nothing, yet are the most impatient wankers when behind a wheel.  I lose my shit a little – but only to the point of just slowing down enough to get his back up –  while still actually doing the speed limit of 40 on this road.

Eventually he blazes past us, Alex smiling in the passenger seat, but instead of just driving on, he cuts us right up, forcing me to slam on.  This huge, obese, hideously ugly, Jabba-the-Hut oaf then leaps out the driver side door and waddles over to my open window, yelling something unintelligible.  Fearing a fat fist coming into my face, I’ve reversed quickly and pulled around him – but not before both myself and Alex are pretty shaken.  There’s a possibility he realised we weren’t from here (and not knowing who we are – feared our connections to important ex-pats) and pulled out of his road rage attack.  Suffice to say – they are animals.  It put a damper on an otherwise wonderful couple of days.  My CS gas canister is now in the glove compartment.

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Stand by me

But not to leave on a sour note – and hey – it wouldn’t be “lookingforstu” if something bad didn’t happen.  The trip was awesome, and all this responsibility stuff is actually keeping me on the straight and narrow.  The more I work with these kids, the more I remember how much fun it is, and it might just be rekindling something I long thought dead.  Coming soon is Responsibility Part Two:  Shakespeare with Kids.  Some of them might become friends on my Facebook!  Surely that’ll mean I’ll need to be careful what I spout on here, right?!  Curb the swearing like a sailor?!  No more unadulterated filth?!  But worry not dear readers – no doubt I’ll fuck something up really soon.

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Teaching Shakespeare, horse treks, lost glasses and sleeping in a bush

Tuesday 10 May

Mighty me look at that.  I didn’t do one post for the entire month of April!  What has become of me?  Where am I?  What sordid exploits have I been getting up to?  What fulfilment have you possibly had in your lives without my constant barrage of barely entertaining drivel?  Well my little cheeky chums, I have finally gotten around to updating my adventures (or lack thereof) and April sucks as a month anyway.  Read on if you dare…

Bishkek airport.  I don't think they thought this through.

Bishkek airport. I don’t think they thought this through.

The long the short and the tall of it is I reside in the same place; Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan – which I still need a spell check to write correctly.  Travel wise, not much has changed – except for one outrageously fucking stupid “loophole” in this whole Chinese visa debacle.  If you may remember in last month’s episode I was waiting patiently for the Chinese government to get their act together and allow people to cross land borders.  Well, they’ve decided to relax this blanket ban somewhat, but only as far as making you jump through proverbial hoops in the process.  I need to apply for the visa and cross the border with the same person – minimum of two people.  I then need to exit the country inside one month, crossing with said person at another predetermined border.  I only get 30 days max and I can’t extend.  In fact, it’s not a visa at all, but a temporary electronic something or other. Some faceless moron somewhere is taking the piss.

I won't be seeing a new flag for a while

I won’t be seeing a new flag for a while

However, there is no shortage of people queuing up to go, with regular posts/emails from folk offering their services as a travel buddy – just to get into the country.  Then I guess the plan would be to have a jaunt around for a month before meeting up again to leave legally (most likely into Hong Kong) before your time is up.  This would work out amicably for me, as I get 6 months visa free stay in Hong Kong (thank you commonwealth) which would grant me plenty of time to apply for my new passport.  Thanks to the idiocy of customs officials stamping one stamp to a page in parts, I only have two free pages left.  I need those for China alone.

So this would change my plans further still, as being in HK means I am but a hop, skip and a jump from Vietnam et al.  This then would imply I would do my SE Asia leg first and wait until India cools down a bit while I spend my summer by the sea getting mangled at full moon parties and working in a hostel I would most likely wind up dead at.  Notwithstanding of course surviving the mass immigration of Australians.  In short, I’d be aiming to complete the hitchhike to India sometime this coming winter.

And why not, say I?  It means I’m not going to be arriving in India at the height of its annual killer heat wave, there’s potential to be reunited with traveling buddies in backpacking wonderland, and I’m still on course for my goal of returning to live and work in Croatia for roughly this time next year.  It’s a no brainer.  So I’ve decided to stick it out here for a while and see if the Chinese government relax further and allow solo travelers in.  That, and for some reason I’ve found myself teaching and directing Shakespeare at a local international school.  My life as a globe-trotting drunk tourist has been temporarily suspended.

Teaching kids.  A wholesome activity

Teaching kids. A wholesome activity

Well not quite.  A couple of weeks ago I found myself attempting to get home under the influence of several beverages.  I was adamant that the taxi driver was in the right place, threw my money in his general direction and bundled myself out onto the roadside.  T’was only when he was pulling away did I realise I had no scooby where I was, the blazing sun was well and truly up and there wasn’t a street I recognised.  (In my defence, returning to the scene of the crime sometime later and as sober as a judge I still didn’t know how to get home.  I feel some kind of exoneration for the fact).

So I did what anyone in my situation would do.  I slept in a bush.

Now this was all very well and good.  The weather was fine, the ground dry.  I figured a couple of hours shut-eye in the leaves and I’d wake up with everything falling into place.  Except when I woke, I had no idea where my glasses where.  Now no matter how inebriated I get,  I ALWAYS know where I’ve put my specs – but they were just nowhere to be found.

I must have looked a funny sight at 10 am on a Sunday morning, shirt and tie, scrabbling around in the undergrowth, peering inches from the ground.  A curious man approached and asked in Russian (I think) what was wrong.  I frantically mimed something to do with spectacles, the floor, and sleeping in a bush.

“Lensa?”  He questions.

“DA! DA! DA!  LENSA!”  I exclaim with joy, not really sure if it meant glasses or not but it was a hung over educated guess.  During the drama a young lady appears with a mobile and has handed it to me to converse with an English-speaking friend she has kindly phoned.  Seconds later, all three of us are on our hands and knees scrabbling around in the dirt looking for my lost eyes.

Ahhhh but alas to no avail.  I thank them for their time and with no ability to see even short distances, stumble off upset in a random direction, hoping for some kind of sign to light the way home.  And boy did I get it.  Turning the corner, there’s a new bar opening with a giant, visible-from-space logo that even the blind would be able to see.

JAMESON.

Nearly weeping tears of relief, I stagger into the cafe next door and a barista with perfect English allows me to contact Alex via facebook, who arrives moments later with a “why-am-I-not-surprised” look on her face.  However the benefits of such an adventure are two-fold:  I managed to get home, and I’ve got new glasses, because the ones I lost were shit.

Kyrgyz eye test.  You don't need to know the Russian alphabet, just be able to tell if a gap in a circle appears to the left, right or on the bottom.  Genius

Kyrgyz eye test. You don’t need to know the Russian alphabet, just be able to tell if a gap in a circle appears to the left, right or on the bottom. Genius

Where was I?  I digress…mmmmm…oh yes.  Shakespeare.  Keeping me out of such trouble for much of the week has been the Shakespeare workshops I’ve been asked to run at this international school.  Helped in no small part by Alex – who pretty much got me the gig in the first place as she is a school teacher there.  Anyhoo I’ve found myself not only courting a potential heart attack leading 5 to 11 year olds in drama games, but also actually directing the school’s annual performance, which at my suggestion is to be a sort of Shakespeare Cabaret evening.  The kids are taking to it like ducks to water, and we’re all very excited about the potential for a really entertaining and educational evening.  Most of the kids at the school here are parented by an eclectic mix of nationalities, including expats and locals, who are hopefully going to be treated to astoundingly performed scenes from Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth.  I could think of worse places to be stranded, in worse company, practicing things that wouldn’t have reignited something in me I long thought dead.  Perhaps teaching drama is something I will put on the back burner for when I retire my passport.

A plague on both your houses!  Directing a Romeo and Juliet scene

A plague on both your houses! Directing a Romeo and Juliet scene

In the interim, I’ve bruised my arse bones significantly with a two-day horse trek into the mountains near Kochkor, culminating in staying a night in a yurt, and nearly getting into a brawl with a load of drunk Kyrgyz shepherds.  Picking a fight with someone carrying a shotgun isn’t the best idea, but for some reason they thought our guides had stolen one of their jackets.  As I stood and watched, horse whips were raised to beat humans, and the yurt owner weighed in wielding a wooden 2 x 4.  Surprising myself more than most, the scuffle didn’t dissipate until I started screaming “FUCK OFF” repeatedly into a pocked red face.  Welcome to Kyrgyzstan.

Yurt life.  Home for a night

Yurt life. Home for a night

Speaking of which, they say you haven’t experienced the country until you’ve tried three things.  Horse riding, staying in a yurt, and drinking Kymyz (Kumis) – which is fermented mare’s milk.  The latter I’ve firmly given a wide berth, until Alex convinces me to give it a go.  It’s arguably the most horrendous thing to ever pass my lips, and I include a bottle of weeks out-of-date chocolate Yazoo.  You can guess the rest.  Sick as a dog for a week, with no amount of drugs being able to stop the deluge from both ends. Thusly I’ve experienced a number of firsts in this beautiful country, including exorcist style projectile vomiting at 4 o’clock in the morning so much so I thought my innards were going to be outards and my head would spin 360 degrees.  The power of Kumis compels you!

And he's away...!

And he’s away…!

...to bury a fabulous goal.  I still got it...

…to bury a fabulous goal. I still got it…

And so the world turns and I’m ticking over from day-to-day, to the last syllable of recorded time.  The Shakespeare performance is set down for June 10th, and while I’ve had the option to leave, I’ve decided to remain to see this through, pub quizzes, five-a-side football an’ all.  Y’know – normal stuff.  By which time I’m hoping China have sorted their shit out and let me in, to continue walking the earth to help people save little Timmy who fell down the well.  Like David Carradine from Kung Fu.  Or Jules from Pulp Fiction.  Or The Littlest Hobo.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll wanna settle down.

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China-China-China, Krygz dance recitals and abandoned Soviet factories

Saturday 19 March

Everything’s a bit shit at the moment isn’t it?  And by everything I mean the USA.  And this blog post.  Like many of you I’m honestly sick to the back teeth of hearing the name of Donald Trump, and seeing his chicken fillet face spout the words ‘China’ and ‘wall’ at mindless, brain-dead supporters shrieking as only Americans can shriek at something not worth shrieking about in the first place.  I do always chuckle though – because ‘trump’ was the word for ‘fart’ in our household as children, and I’ll never take him seriously as a result.  And that’s what he is.  A fart.  Fuck off you smelly cunt.

Short foray into politics over.

Speaking of China, I’m about to find out if I can apply for a visa.  Yes, yes I’ve been saying this for an age and you may wonder why the silence?  Well quite frankly things have been all quiet on the hitching front as I previously mentioned, I’ve been waiting out the cold weather, and figuring out which Chinese embassy actually has employees.  If Trump is barking on about their efficiency – he’s never been to one of their consulates.  Mind you neither have I – I’m just trying to be clever.

Winter in Bishkek looks to have left us with all but a whimper, spring has sprung and the time to move on is drawing nigh.  In the meantime, current partner in crime Alex and I have been having adventures.  On International Woman’s Day (something they take very seriously here in Kyrgyzstan) we took a day trip to Issy Kol lake.  Alex is also something of a keen urban explorer (one of the many things we see eye to eye on) and she’s been champing at the bit to explore the ruined, abandoned former soviet factories and boat yards of Balykchy.  This of course is music to my ears and porn for my camera.  We set off early morning to cram in as much dereliction as we can.

Bleak

Bleak

Apparently once a bustling lake port and industry hub, Balykchy is now a wasteland of crumbling factories, glimmers of former glory and what surely is a record number of Lenin effigies.  The population rose sharply in the 70’s and early 80’s, but with the fall of the Soviet Union, like many other CIS backwaters clinging to history, Balykchy has been left to wrack and ruin.  Being a Russian speaker, Alex has talked us into an all but derelict boat yard, and in chatting with the security – one of whom believed me to be James Bond – we glean that the town used to thrive with business and commerce.  Our thirty-something guide remembers times as a child when he used to frequent the docks to witness the throng of workers hammering the rivets in a deafening symphony of opportunity.  Now industry has dwindled to nothing – with only a decrepit tanker being converted into a floating night club for the summer season two years hence, presumably for the more popular resorts along the shores of Issy-Kol.  Yet one wonders if anyone will want to voyage on her at all.

Hustld?  Someone has been.  The floating night club takes shape

Hustld? Someone has been. The floating night club takes shape

The locals loss is the urban explorer’s gain, and Balykchy doesn’t disappoint.  What does is the light however, and with a four hour trip back to Bishkek we need to make tracks.  Our highlight came in the twilight though, as we finally track down and scale a fence into a former Soviet power plant, hug close to the walls, and find ourselves inexplicably whispering.  It’s exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure, as the old behemoth makes unfamiliar noises, creaks and groans – perhaps a security guard on patrol or the floor about to fall through.  Margot (our K9 companion) doesn’t help matters by giving away our position with constant yelping, but to most she would just sound like any other street dog.  With light fading, we barely scratch the surface – including what appears to be an old hospital which is more or less intact.  I guess we just have to save that for another day – it’s not going anywhere for the next 50 years – except slowly into the dust.

Breaking and entering

Breaking and entering

The collapse of the USSR has got a lot to answer for (and more well than I could ever hope to cover in decades of blog posts) but countries that previously flew the hammer and sickle continue to fascinate me. The architecture, the traditions, the art, the languages, the crazy hats.  The choices communities make in what to hold onto from by-gone days and what to leave as relics in a not too distant past.  Some – like the crumbling industry of Balykchy or the decaying ships of the Aral sea – were not out of choice.  But I was (un)fortunate enough to be invited to a dance recital in Bishkek, which has traditions long established in soviet culture and is alive and well for better or for worse.

Pure nightmare fuel - and some bored looking kid dressed as a samovar

Pure nightmare fuel – and some bored looking kid dressed as a samovar

Picture – if you will – maybe thirty 4 and 5-year-olds on a stage, wearing eyebleedingly garish garb, dancing in near perfect unison to something that sounds like a vocal royal rumble between the Teletubbies, the cast of Rainbow and the backing track of the Disney ride “It’s a Small World.”  Utterly terrifying and genuinely uncomfortable, nonetheless the watching parents gush with pride and adulation while I witness the apocalypse.

Please make it stop

Please make it stop

And it didn’t end there – the event went on for a fucking eternity (as only they know how) while the curtain call was longer than the actual performance.  Different age groups took to the stage in droves to bless us with their interpretations of every dance EVER, surrounded by a sea of grotesquely garish flowers, balloons, bouquets and colour clashes that would make Monet weep.  (I’m coming to the flowers anon).  But it was always when the toddlers twerked from the wings that we squirmed in our seats and didn’t know where to look – especially when doing numbers you might witness at “The Titty Twister.”  How much do they know what they’re doing?  How much are they implicit in this?  Is it my fault I have a problem?  My own conditioning from a nanny state where filming a nativity play is illegal?!  The iPhones were out in force as toddlers in ra-ra skirts spun twirls and kicked legs like a vaudeville can-can act in a gunslinger saloon, but you’d be in the back of the Police wagon in the UK if you took a picture of a kid that wasn’t yours.

Where do you draw the line between respecting cultures and time-honoured traditions, or ripping the absolute piss while so damningly convinced that it this needs to die?  Yet for the most part the youngsters seemed to live for it – and so each to their own.  Live and let live eh?  One 4-year-old’s dream is another’s nightmare right…?

Also just as baffling is how much they venerate exorbitant bouquets of flowers, and just how much men can get away with depending on the size of the vase required.  For example – on a dating website – EVERY female profile (I kid you not) has at least one picture of her sniffing a MASSIVE bunch of blooms, regularly accompanied by one heel in the air and sporting those giant celebrity bug-eyed bitch/tart-sunglasses. (It’s similar to western women sucking on a drinks straw in their profile pictures to make them look like they’ve got big lips.  Honestly girls it’s just was bad as pulling the duck face).

“Look how much I’m loved/was loved by another dude!  How many roses can YOU buy me?”

“My man’s cock was THIS big!  This is why I’m still single and on a dating website!”

“He cheated on me several times – but so long as he gives me ALL OF THIS STUFF I’ll take him back!”

Seriously have a word with yourselves.  Money can’t buy you love.  Just ask Donald Trump.

I’ve heard the reason behind such flamboyance is a simple one.  That from where people once had nothing, now they have a something – however little –  and they’re desperate to flaunt it.  So was true for visiting the “silicone valley” in Belgrade, where women brandished brand-new boobs and men drove around in pseudo-flashy cars.  This unashamed brashness and display of gaudy wealth might make most folk with taste a little sick in their mouths – but certainly in the UK you only have to go out downtown of a night to see exactly the same behavour.  I was supporting “homeless” people who’d just bought enormous wide-screen TV’s, brand new smartphones and loud Nike trainers, but couldn’t afford to feed themselves.  Perhaps I’m noticing it again recently because it’s more commonplace behind the former red curtain?

Fascinating stuff, but onwards to update the update.  I’m stranded.  The Chinese government have seen fit to not allow anyone into the country unless you’re flying.  Currently I can’t get a visa without going through the airport and getting into one of those plane things that go missing or randomly fall out of the sky, so you can imagine I’m not game for that. Here therefore I will reside, with possibly a sneaky, unplanned visit to Tajikistan while I await the situation to change.  But in the meantime with the company I’m keeping, there are worse places to be than still stuck in the Bishkek bubble.

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A foray into stability and a return to Almaty

Wednesday 24 February

I’ve become entrenched in my own seemingly bottomless pit of procrastination.  Quite frankly dear readers I’m really tired.  The winter is taking the breath out of me and my knack for finding a decent story, usually derogatory to my own self esteem and pride. Yeah sure I’d woken up in a bar a few times with a blanket over me and slipped spectacularly on the ice again, but you don’t want to hear about that do you?  You do?!  Oh well alright then.  If only because it’s the only self-depreciating tale I’ve told over the past couple of weeks.  I must be going soft.  Maybe I should hitchhike Afghanistan?

So I’d landed hard on my elbow after watching my feet go out from under me and taken the skin off the joints of my fourth and little finger of my right hand.  This was in front of many locals, in broad daylight, and I was sober as a judge this time I promise.  Stumbling in pain into an Italian restaurant, I was covered in blood and embarrassment.  More with embarrassment.  Anyway I’ve ordered a detox smoothie and token risotto while the very kind waiter has tended to my wound with this green antiseptic stuff that makes my right hand look like it belongs to the Hulk.  Apart from the size.  And pain tolerance.  Accompanied by strange looks from Kyrgyz locals, I’m howling with every light dab of the cotton wool swab.  Christ help me if I ever got shot.

Knackered

Knackered

At some point I’ve also managed to run my first pub quiz since Croatia for an expat group, and break my snowshoeing virginity, both of which went surprisingly well considering.  But you’re really looking for the nitty-gritty, the outrageous shenanigans, the near death experiences and utter filth aren’t you, you sick bunch of twisted bastards?!  Today I burned an omelette.  How’s that? Debaucherous enough for you?!  And therein lies the rub.

You see, replacing my wanton desire for mad adventure is a surprisingly simple, if by contrast extremely dull ambition.  I’ve been craving normality.  I’ve been dreaming about waking up in my own place, with all my long-forgotten stored belongings back beside me, undisturbed by a cacophony of snoring, body odor or someone not understanding the rudiments of a toilet brush.  I’ve been dreaming about finally being able to buy Lego again, and spending an exorbitant amount on money on full body, movie-accurate stormtrooper armour.  Seriously chicks dig that shit.   I’ve been yearning for stability, flirting with the possibility of settling down, and (whisper it) thinking about getting a job.  What has become of me?

All this staring out of windows dancing with the idea that I could be a normal human has coincided with meeting a lovely bunch of folk in Bishkek, including a charming American school teacher who just so happens to be in the market for a dishwashing dog walker.  The fantasy of reaching the pinnacle of existence has become a reality.  I am a house husband.  Albeit temporarily.  It doesn’t get better than this.  What was good enough for my father is good enough for me.

All joking aside dear readers it has been a joy to remember what it feels like to be somewhat cack-handidly back in society.  Those who will attempt to convince you that constant, long-term travel is the best fucking thing in the world are only deluding themselves.  It’s lonely, it’s tiring, it’s hard work, it’s stressful and it’s lonely.  I may have mentioned that one before.  Finding a family in Bishkek balances it out, but alas once again the hour draws nigh where I must tear myself away and start all over again.  Resting my head on my own pillow I cannot yet do until I finish this mission I so foolishly set out to complete four long years ago.  I’m three countries away from completing the hitchhike to India, and as much as I’m slowing down, you’d better believe I’m not ready to quit yet.

And so on a bright morning I find myself saying a (temporary) goodbye to a city I’ve fallen in love with against all odds.  Maybe not so much the bricks and mortar as the people.  And by people I mean expats.  I never thought I’d say that.  The border is its usual joke to cross, with the guards yet again stamping an exit date on an empty passport page, leaving me with only two blank pages left to get my Chinese visa.  If on the way back some idiot decides to take one of those, I’m royally screwed.  I’m going to watch them like a hawk.

Look at all that space ruined you bastard!

Look at all that space ruined you bastard!

Shoehorned in to one of those little marshutka mini-buses I’m thankful I don’t have a lot of luggage as I left it all at my destination.  Coming back is going to be fun.  It’s the kind of vehicle whereby if someone stands up next to you their ass is just the right height to brush your face.  Not bad if it’s a hot Russian chick, terrible if it’s a large, sweaty Kazakh dude.  Guess which one it was?  That’s even if they decide to offer you the rear end in the first place.  Equally disturbing is lifting your nose from literature and getting an eye full of crotch.  Sights you can never un-see.

Watch out for fake kids crossing the road

Watch out for fake kids crossing the road

After hours of waiting for the crap bus to follow us across the border, we’re speeding towards Almaty narrowly avoiding a multitude of car accidents, while watching some god-awful Russian crime drama.  As far as I can glean, it’s about an ex-military-turned-paramedic-type with a jaw full of marbles and an estranged lover he can never quite shag even though he’s some kind of hero who solves murders, and always finds himself in the hands of goons, only to be saved by his best mate in the police force at the end.  It’s shit, but even the non-Russian speakers in the van are glued to every foreign word.  I turn towards the window and flit between the brilliant snowy shine outside, and the comfort of a new book.  I’m asleep in moments.

Back to all this shit

Back to all this shit

In a few hours when I arrive in Almaty two months after saying I would return, I will hopefully discover my guitar and other belongings haven’t been sold, a missing persons report has not been filed and I can continue my application for the Chinese visa.  Then a return to Bishkek to bid proper farewells, and finally cross into my 57th country sometime in March.  The great dragon awaits.  I’m going to finish this hitchhike or die trying; probably from slipping on ice while walking a dog.

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