The real thing in thirty-four stanzas
Janice Simpson (RMIT University, Australia)
The Bamboo Road Bicycle Expedition will weave a magical path between two of the world’s Alpha cities – Shanghai and Singapore. Between our departure from the historic Bund in Shanghai and your first sip of a ice cold Singapore Sling at the Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore you and your bike will experience three months of intense, incredible, exhilarating cycling.1
- Somehow my friend convinces me to sign up. ‘You’ll see local areas that only locals know about,’ she says. ‘Just think of the weight we’ll lose. We’ll be so exhausted we won’t be able to think. Imagine that, our heads will be clear for months on end.’ Who’s to know it’s also a tour that will exhaust the locals by endless requests for extra towels and toilet paper and cold beer; and that it will exhaust the tour staff with unplanned emergency room procedures and IV antibiotics administered in the tour bus and stitching people up on the side of the road.
- ‘Come and see the real thing,’ sang Russell Morris. ‘There’s a meaning there, but the meaning there doesn’t really mean a thing,’ he droned.
- My first day on the bike in nine weeks takes me south from Hat Chao Samran to Hua Hin, ducking along back roads before joining Thai Highway 4. It is officially the cool season. Begin at dawn and finish before ten. Enter the oasis of an air-conditioned hotel room, wash clothes, do slow laps in the pool if the hotel runs to such luxury, snack, drink, read, snooze.
- Come and see the real China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia. That’s what the tour company promised. I was hooked.
- A dog bites one of our riders. It snagged her leg, yellow teeth leaving perfect puncture marks through tanned skin. She must go to hospital for rabies treatments for the duration. I went to hospital in Hangzhou after my chain ring sliced deep into my calf. I saw many real Chinese people there.
- Wherever you are, you can imagine the real South East Asia on Saturday mornings through the travel pages of The Guardian, The New York Times, Die Welt, The Sydney Morning Herald, Le Monde, The National Post. We can parcel up the real South East Asia in neat packages. Simply put, there is a real South East Asia to suit every single traveller.
- But there is not much real Singapore remaining. Let the “tourist hordes” go to the boring museums, and if I choose to do something cultural, beyond booking in for plastic surgery or finding a hidden Singapore where east-west fusion food and strobe-lit speakeasies are tucked behind inscrutable oriental doors, let it be a visit to a recreated house to see “entire sets of bedrooms, kitchens and street scenes” as they were before Singapore underwent development. ‘It’s an authentic slice’ of history, Time Online tells me. 2
- I grew up in a house, perhaps not one with “sets” of bedrooms, built by my grandfather and father during the 19th and 20th centuries. I lived in one of Geelong’s stately homes built out of hand-hewn sandstone for the Armytage family in the 19th century. Both still stand, despite development.
- Rag and corrugated iron shanties perch on thin tree trunks, trees that used to hold the banks of the Mekong together. I swear they teeter sideways in the up-river breeze. Silhouetted women squat, perhaps cooking. Children scamper down the bank, plunge into brown water full of floating weed islands, plastic demi-johns, beaded polystyrene. They throw silver rivulets of water into the air. I can hear their shrieks and laughter from where I am perched, skimming the wide river in a motorboat.
- On my first trip to Greece I noted rusted reo striking out from the roofs of cube-like houses, climbing their way up in support of a ghost storey. I wandered through the Acropolis, marvelled at the engineering. I wondered why the Greeks couldn’t seem to manage basic building when they so obviously could thousands of years ago.
- A golfer from Australia marvelled at the engineering at Angkor Wat. ‘A thousand years ago,’ he said, ‘the engineering was unbelievable. Yet they can’t build a road from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Seven hours it took to travel 321 kilometres. I felt sorry for the bus driver.’
- A Greek explained the reason reo is left on house roofs. The owner of an unfinished house avoids tax.
- After WWI, men built the Great Ocean Road running for 243 kilometres along a cruel and beautiful coast in southwest Victoria. Carving a passage through volcanic rock could not have been easy using hand tools and wheelbarrows. Tigers and browns to watch out for in summer, with the promise of a dip in the roiling surf after work. Wet winds from across Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean climbing the cliffs in winter, campfire smoke threading through low cloud bringing more rain. These men had spent time ducking bullets and shells on northern hemisphere trenches and plains measuring a dead man’s length. Turkey, France, the Middle East, with training in Egypt and furloughs in Paris or the green fields of England. When the Casino ran aground at Kennett River and jettisoned her cargo of Christmas supplies, men were drunk for two weeks on her barrels of beer and cases of spirits.
- I ride through palm oil plantations, through forests of rubber trees, always on the lookout for dogs. Five puppies, fluffy caramel blobs, wait on the silty verge. Dark caramel elders slink across the road ahead. I slow down, wait for the others. They’re better at working the skinny creatures than I am.
- Women and children sit cross-legged on shady porches, their houses no more than a concrete box, windowless spaces to sleep. They have motor scooters out the front where we might have lawn and a hedge of roses. Dogs lie in the shade. When I pass by, they run at me, barking. I yell. The women laugh. But it really is nothing to laugh about.
- Three hundred and sixty four Thais are killed on the roads over the three-day New Year long weekend. Thirty six Cambodians die on their roads during the same period.
- Herds of cattle graze on the roadsides. Sometimes they clip slowly down the bitumen, tails flicking the hot air, flies gathering on the dung pats. I am careful to never ride between a bull and his cows.
- ‘I met a traveller from an antique land’, begins Shelley’s sonnet about Ozmandias. I have always loved this line. But, aren’t all lands antique?
- Silhouetted women hold mobile phones against their ears. What would Mum make of this? When the phone in our kitchen rang, someone rushed to pick it up. Everyone else was quiet as a bike. No silent mode. No checks for caller ID. No off button. Whoever called was answered. There was even a bell, connected to the telephone by a piece of brown cloth-covered cord, that rang loudly at the other end of the house. Your call was important to us.
- I watch Mathew Evans on television and drink in his Tasmania. What is my Tasmania? I go to Hobart, the southern city on the pristine island at the bottom of Australia, the city where I was conceived in late March to early April 1951, the time for planting crops of broad beans, sowing sweet peas and burying spring bulbs in cooling soil. My parents are, or maybe were, Ronda Lay and John Virtue. Ronda and John. Mum and Dad. As I don’t know if they “are” still, or now should be properly referred to as “were”, I’ll choose the past tense. I’m guessing this is the appropriate one, given she was twenty-five when she had me more than sixty years ago, and goodness knows how old he was.
- I have two real mothers. One is my birth mother, or I might call her my biological mother or my relinquishing mother, depending on context. The other took me in at thirteen days and stayed with me for a little more than forty-eight years. I call her Mum, or Dorrie, the name everyone else used for her, although her real name was Dorothy. Born Dorothy Winifred Bennett, she became Dorothy Winifred Simpson on marriage.
- I was born Gloria Jean Lay. I legally became Janice May Simpson five months after my birth. I still am.
- Post-positivists claim multiple realities.
- We have a reverse bicycle index. In Melbourne the number of people riding bikes into the CBD each day has tripled in ten years. In Siem Reap, perhaps one in twenty people going places rides a bike. In Bangkok, Saigon and Shanghai, bike riders have dwindled to almost none in less than a heartbeat. Vale quietude.
- In the showroom at Phnom Penh there are two Rolls Royces for sale.
- Plastic and traffic. That is the real South East Asia.
- Greene’s Saigon 3 seen through the dissolute eyes of Fowler, British foreign correspondent in the 1950s, is a city of swan-like women, black eyed and watchful. White ao dais, luminescent in the sultry dusk, drape perfect bodies. My Saigon is a rope of car horns and motor scooters cast out before dawn, a gradual hauling in come midnight. Hotel staff members dressed in identical ao dais are elegant in a heat that makes me drip. My shorts are sweaty and stained dark. I have not wet myself.
- Both my real mothers abandoned me. I guess it’s hard to say which loss cuts deeper, at birth or after forty-eight years. I’m going with the latter. Fowler lamented his loss of Phuong to the quiet American. I meet many Phuongs in Vietnam. Some dress in the ao dai. I wonder if Phuong lamented the loss of the quiet American, too. I would like to think she did.
- I read a desk calendar quote attributed to Albert Einstein. ‘Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.’ Another, this time purportedly from Nietzsche, states: ‘Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.’ Some desk calendar.
- In Chau Doc I meet a woman from an antique land. She is broad, her hair has a tendency towards frizz, her skin is the colour of seventy percent cacao chocolate. ‘I am half Vietnamese and half African American,’ she says. ‘My father drove a tank. He was much younger than my mother but she was in love with him. She left me in an orphanage when Saigon fell. I was five then. My brother selected me to be his sister from a photograph the orphanage sent to our parents.’ She is here to spend time with her old Vietnamese mother who shows her exactly the spot her father ran his tank into another vehicle. ‘His name was Corey, or some other name like that. My mother isn’t sure,’ she says. ‘I remember this place. How to cross a road, what to eat. When I arrived at my new parents’ home I stopped speaking. When I began to speak again a month later, it was in their tongue.’ In another reality, she is French, the child of a divorced couple. Her mother has dementia and she has not seen her father for a long time.
- Here’s some of what I know. As well as being my mother, Ronda was also the mother of five-year-old Vicki. They lived with her parents and in May 1951 she ran away, leaving Vicki, and her parents, and her sisters, and was never heard of again. Well, not quite, but that’s another tale. John Clive Virtue was living in a boarding house not far from the Lay household. He graduated from the University of Tasmania in May 1951 with a degree in engineering. She said he was English. But I don’t think he was, as I found him on an electoral roll. That’s the only place I ever have found him.
- Since I’ve known the names of my parents, I’ve often chuckled at the combination of “virtue” and “lay”.
They lay down together.
Her comely good looks were a virtue.
Or perhaps the virtue was more like Shakespeare’s version in ‘Measure for Measure’.
Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall
(Act 2 Scene 1 Line 38)
or was it more akin in meaning to
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue; never could the strumpet,
With all her double vigour, art and nature,
Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Ever till now
When men were fond, I smiled and wondered how. 4
(Act 2 Scene 2 Lines 182-84)
- There was no ‘subversive adult Disneyland’, as MONA’s creator David Walsh describes this gallery of old and new art, to distract my parents in 1951 Hobart. I wonder what they would have made of such a place. Labyrinthine spaces, words falling as water, a euthanasia machine that made cold blood pulse through my veins on my last visit when I sat in front of a laptop on a comfortable leather chair, following instructions to wittingly accept an infusion of death drug. I don’t know if I could do this, really press on, keep reading screens that warn me I shall cease to be conscious in two minutes, that my body will shut down, that breathing will halt. And my heart will stop.
- And one final quote, this time from T. S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton, the first poem in the work, Four Quartets. ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality.’
Come and see the real thing, come and see the real thing, come and see
I am the real thing! Oo mama mow-mow (repeat x 4) 5
1 Gold 2014
2 Wu 2014
3 Greene 1955
4 Measure for Measure II.ii.182-84
5 Young 1969
Gold, H 2014, The Bamboo Road, Tour d’Afrique, viewed 30 April 2014, <http://tourdafrique.com/tour-overview/?t=bamboo-road>.
Greene, G 1955 The Quiet American William Heinemann London
Shakespeare, W 1564-1616 The Leopold Shakespeare: the poet’s works in chronological order, from the text of Professor Delius, introduction by F.J. Furnivall London: Cassell, Petter, Galpin 1877
Wu, D. 2014 Singapore: Ten Things to Do Time viewed April 30 2014, <http://content.time.com/time/travel/cityguide/article/0,31489,1845806_1845592_1845508,00.html>.
Young, J 1969, The Real Thing EMI Australia
Janice is studying postgrad at RMIT University in Australia. She believes that research, travel and creativity go hand in hand. There’s nothing like being on a bike or walking through strange lands to permit the mind to dredge up submerged ideas and turn them into formed thoughts.