Some people I met as I arrived in places

Kuala Lumpur
The man sitting next to me on the bus from the airport was thirsty and struggling with the heat. I took a sip from my bottle of water and then told him he could have the rest. I was going through my coin bag of foreign currency, digging out ringgit, and he made me a little origami shirt from a Maldivian banknote that depicted a fishing scene. In the spirit of cultural exchange, I gave him an Iraqi note which he refused at first, reasoning that 1000 dinar must be worth too much, but I explained that it was equivalent to about a dollar and anyway I didn’t anticipate many money-changers taking an interest in it.

He seemed kind and jolly, but he had a sad smile. I thought he said that his wife had died, but I wasn’t sure, and I felt too awkward to press for more details. I do this thing too often where I act like I understand everything that’s been said when actually I don’t.

I’d spent the night in the 24-hour restaurant in Colombo airport, trying to doze through muzak renditions of Danny Boy, the staff nodding off on the sofas next to me. The subsequent flight had passed by in a confused blur. I think I broke with tradition and slept a little.

A million encounters with friendly men had taught me to proceed with caution, no matter how nice and agenda-free they seemed. I engaged with the man from the Maldives, I enjoyed talking to him, but I did not give him my contact details. He said if I ever go to the Maldives I should get in touch. I accepted his e-mail address. I don’t know if I can still find it.

Wellington
My flight got in around midnight. The immigration officer asked me to name the people I’d visited in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, and then I collected my rucksack and walked out into the rain. Contrary to the claims of the guidebook I’d browsed in Brisbane, there was no bus, because it was Easter or something. I’d arrived in New Zealand on a visa run, because otherwise I would wind up overstaying my welcome in Australia. And I also kind of needed to just move on somewhere, because Australia Phase One had been defined by all this bullshit going on in my head that I didn’t really need, lots of feeling mopey and anti-social and out of place.

I shared a taxi into the centre of town with two Norwegians; one of them was studying in Sydney and the other was visiting him, and they were going to rent a van and drive around New Zealand and do things like camping and hiking. They asked about my travels, and “Iraq!” echoed through the cab, making me feel kind of like a phony but on the other hand I was only performing the requested recital. Maybe I should just save Iraq as a trump card for when I find myself in the company of oneupmanship travellers: the ones whose chat is all “Where have you been to? Oh, while you were there did you do this interesting thing and that interesting thing? Did you go to this really obscure part that I’ve been to? No?” and then they tell you all about their superior experiences because yours are never good enough.

The Norwegians seemed pretty nice and I almost wanted to ask if I could hitch a ride in their van, but I didn’t want to impose. Anyway I seemed to be on a roll here, being all interesting and independent and stuff, and part of me was kind of amazed at how quickly I sounded like I had my shit together, after spending the past few weeks with the words What The Hell Am I Doing ricocheting around my head. We pulled up outside my accommodation for the next few nights, which was a radical social centre covered in murals, and I said goodbye to the boys and got out all happy and confident, to be greeted by tea and cake by activists who’d stayed up waiting for me. Maybe the encounter with the Norwegians slightly influenced the idea I had the whole time I was in Wellington that it was kind of like Norway; somehow my arrival and the rain that barely stopped and the hills and the harbour and the wooden houses reminded me of Bergen, and hey, it was cold enough.

Melbourne
The white German boy with the dreads had been sitting in the row behind me on the flight from Wellington to Melbourne. As we started to disembark he leaned across and asked me about my Užupio Respublika badge. He’d been in New Zealand for the best part of a year and now he had arrived in Australia without a place to stay for the night. I regretted that I was unable to help him, but there was something about him I didn’t entirely take to. All the same, he suggested we go for a drink and I figured why the hell not – I had time to kill and we were both travellers.

This is the updated version of the many times I’ve thought “hey, you look like a punk, we must have stuff in common! Oh, wait, we totally don’t.”

“Yeah, I was travelling with a friend of mine,” he said as we waited for the airport bus, “but I’m not gay, so living in a camper van with another guy for three months was too much.”

I didn’t know how to respond to this.

“These guys I worked with invited me to Vanuatu,” he said as the bus moved off. “They’re black guys, but they’re nice.”

I thought about whether he might have said this to me if I hadn’t been white. I thought about the white Canadian neighbour about ten years ago who told me she was moving in with some black South Africans and then offered, “They’re awfully nice, you know, Nine, some of them. The blacks, I mean.” I wondered if there was something about my presentation that made people feel the need to explain things like this to me. I wondered if the German boy had considered that I might not be straight.

Instead of going for a drink with him, I packed him off on a bus to St Kilda, confident he’d find a suitable backpackers’ hostel there. I took a train to my friends’ place out in Northcote and sat on the steps outside their place, reading zines and The Day The Raids Came for a couple of hours until Alex came home and plied me with wine.

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If Destroyed Still True #6: Iraqi Kurdistan edition

I’ve been to ten or so countries since 2011 began. When people ask, I recite the list, but there’s one place that cancels out all the others. Their eyebrows shoot up when they hear the name. “Iraq! What was Iraq like?”

I have trouble answering this question. I don’t know what exactly they want to hear about, and maybe they don’t know either. I can’t fit all my experiences into a sentence. I think about the mountains and the call to prayer and the food. I think about walking in Dohuk at night, about getting lost in the park in Erbil, about the goatherds in the Zagros mountains, about the central square in Sulaimany, about the checkpoint in Kirkuk, about how my senses sharpened when we realised we needed to get out of that car, about the kindness of the family that hosted me, about the protests and about the friend who I feared might be dead.

Usually I just say “It was good”, or sometimes “It was mostly good.”

So I wrote If Destroyed Still True #6: Iraqi Kurdistan edition. It tells of hitch-hiking experiences good and bad, encounters with Kurdish and American soldiers, the kindness of strangers, being stranded, death threats, and the demonstrations in the region that have been largely unreported in the western press. At 28 A5 pages it’s the longest issue I’ve produced. It’s entirely handwritten, but fear not! My handwriting has frequently been mistaken for a font.

“sometimes charming, sometimes terrifying” – Sticky Institute

“has something to say and is perfectly astute in saying it. A must read” – Fulsome Prism

“beautiful, thoughtful, a testimony of feelings felt and questions asked” – Said The Gramophone

If Destroyed Still True #6: Iraqi Kurdistan edition
review in Fahrenheit C3100 podcast · review by Said The Gramophone

If you’d like a copy, visit jinxremoving dot org for information on how to order; and if you feel like telling other people about the zine, I won’t mind at all. Thanks for reading.

Everywhere and all over

I spent two extra days in Kurdistan because I turned up at Sulaimaniyah airport on time for my flight to Stockholm and the airport staff didn’t know anything about it. This turned out to be because Air Sweden had changed the departure airport to Erbil, two hours away, without bothering to let me know. I was now overstaying my visa. I stayed with an activist friend and his family. I didn’t sleep well at night because I was in the room that he normally slept in and he had received death threats. I didn’t bother to mention it because I had only two nights to worry about a prospective case of mistaken identity whereas he had to deal with it every night. They knew where he lived.

Finally in Stockholm, I had to quickly come to terms with all the snow and the fact that things were super-expensive. And then on to Berlin for half a day, too tired and in a hurry to bother stating that it felt weird to be back. My home from mid-February to mid-March was Leipzig, where I was looking after a cat while its owner was travelling.

I was in a neighbourhood not far east of the city centre. A few times a week I’d head down to the Turkish shops on Eisenbahnstraße to buy flatbread and yoghurt, which I’d eat with my date syrup from Amedi in Kurdistan. I didn’t go out much at all my first week, I was just glad to have some space to myself. I followed the protests in Sulaimaniyah closely, worrying about my friend’s safety.

I found myself narrating the cat’s every move. I couldn’t help myself. “Stretchycat!” I’d crow whenever he awoke from slumber and stiffly attempted to straighten himself out.

John from Belfast came to visit. We went out to Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, allegedly Leipzig’s most happening street, on a Saturday afternoon. The ghost town effect lacked only tumbleweed. That night we got drunk in a cheap smoky pub called Dolly Dimple. “Maybe it’s a stealth gay bar,” I said hopefully, watching the heavily tattooed girl dancing with female friends to nineties dance music. “I don’t think so,” said John, ever the realist. I requested The Key, The Secret by Urban Cookie Collective and the DJ agreed instantly. I drank a lot of wine. “Maybe he’s a nazi,” I said to John when a shaven-headed boy showed up with a dubious smile. “You think everyone is a nazi,” said John. I attempted to chat up the heavily tattooed girl for him. “Du bist sehr schön,” I explained, harking back to Blur lyrics rather than my two and a half years of German classes.

I allegedly turned into a troll on the way home. “You just don’t understand,” I wailed to John, weaving from side to side, “I hate EVERYTHING.” I couldn’t find the way back to the flat even though we were close, and John stopped a helpful passerby for directions. “Yes but what is there to do in Leipzig anyway?” I demanded to know. “Everything,” said the poor stranger after a bewildered pause. I don’t remember any of this. I am sorry for being a troll.

After John went back to Belfast I developed a social life. I met New Friend Andre and New Friend Ursula and went for VoKü with them, got a free haircut, took a day trip to Dresden with its tobacco mosque, attended house parties with cheap bars. I realised there were indeed things to do in Leipzig. If I were to move to Leipzig properly in the future, I’d already have good foundations for a life there.

I knew that one reason why I thought of my time in Berlin as artificial was that one of its main features had been a relationship that turned out to mean different things to each party. But besides that, it was artificial because it was too easy. If you move to Berlin everyone will be jealous of you. Everyone will tell you that you’ll love it. “Berlin is so you,” they’ll say. It’s not as if you won’t like it when you get there, but the experience will already have been scripted for you to some extent. As an English-speaking expat I’d lived in a bubble where I didn’t need to use German beyond the most basic of transactions, and few of the people I ever hung out with were German and in a way we could have been anywhere. Leipzig was different. Its low immigrant quotient was disappointing in the sense of less multiculturalism – beyond Eisenbahnstraße there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of scope – but at least I was spending time with locals and I felt more conscious of being in Germany.

The legacy of the GDR had not entirely faded. “These West Germans,” said one of my friends, “they’ll see apple trees and they’ll still go to the supermarket and pay money for apples. Us East Germans will just pick them.” I learned about the antideutsch people and Kamal K, the Iraqi man who had been murdered in the city centre. I went to the free museum to learn about life before and after the wall.

I watched Anita – Tänze des Lasters. It was in German. There were a few parts I didn’t understand but I got the overall gist and even enjoyed the film. I went for vegan kebabs at Vleischerei.

There comes a time in every place I go when I’m surprised that it’s almost over. But I have become used to saying goodbye. And anyway I will be back to look after Stretchycat in the summer.

Then Vienna, Istanbul, Kandy, and now Kuala Lumpur. I was last here in 1999. I didn’t last 24 hours back then. Cockroach Stuart and I gave up on it and took the first train we could find to anywhere, which turned out to be Penang.

Heading for Australia, crossing time zones in short bursts. Every so often, especially as my expenditure currently outweighs my income, I find myself wondering what I am doing. How did it come to this?

On my first night I stood on Jeffrey’s tenth-floor balcony. I could see the Petronas Towers and the KL Tower in the centre of the city. I could also see a cluster of lights shaped like a lassoo or a speech bubble, glittering in the sky above a tower block. What kind of futuristic craziness was this? But it was Genting, Malaysia’s Las Vegas, a distant town in the hills, not a projection in the air at all.

Pictures of Kurdistan


Lake Dukan, the largest in Iraqi Kurdistan. There was no one else around


Sulaymaniyah and its surroundings


Cave in the Zagros mountains

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Waiting room


Lucky, one of my charges in Llanidloes


My neighbourhood for two weeks


Please feed the duck

I spent the month of January in Llanidloes, Leigh-on-sea, London and Manchester. I stayed in a total of seven different homes. Although I moved around a lot, it felt like a waiting room month. By the end of it, I’d been back in the UK for nearly seven weeks, a period of time so short it was obnoxious to make a big song and dance about it, but still. I tried to be fully present in my day-to-day interactions, but I frequently caught myself zoning out. I was too numb to commit to the traditional January blues; I enjoyed the time I spent with friends and did my best to be engaging, but often I also felt uneasy, anxious, apprehensive, impatient. I translated it as anticipation. What I needed to do was get out of the country again. That way, uncertainty would have a legitimate position as something I could work through. I was counting down the days.

And sometimes, out in the streets or on the tube, I felt kind of invisible, but that was neither a bad thing or a good thing. It felt a little like camouflage; maybe it kept me out of trouble. I realised that although I’d done well in jettisoning a lot of the sadness since I’d left Berlin, there was still some left, and there was not a damn thing I could do about that. It was boring and I had to be patient.


Sky over Lambeth


Emli‘s dog, Tilly


Charley Stone and friend


Everything I travel with

And then I arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan and the above words felt already redundant.

Repurposed

January to March
The snow at the beginning of the year increasingly struck me as artificial, like it was really icing sugar, or maybe talcum powder. I went out and got drunk a lot, but I mostly abandoned weekends and saved my adventures for midweek instead. I was opportunistic, but frustrated. I frequently woke up with the hangover of the soul; it was like I was looking for something but not finding it. The previous night would come back to me in flashes and mainly it would look like a pointless exercise. I behaved badly. I was just waiting to leave. Correction: in order to leave I was waiting for term to end so I could get my money’s worth from the Polish classes that I got at a discount on account of my low income. Still, in between the many nights full of bad ideas I managed to make a couple of zines, do a couple of readings, DJ a few times.

I went to Anglesey with La Glitch for my mum’s birthday. We rented a cottage and I lit a candle in a church on the day. Hard to tell whether I’d just gotten used to her absence, or whether I hadn’t given myself sufficient time on this trip to reflect. Four and a half years, though, that was a fuck of a long time. By now it just got reduced to brief moments when I was lying in bed hungover and I’d find myself sobbing hard for five seconds and then I’d stop.

We drank in the pub next to the cottage and an old woman with Parkinson’s disease talked to us and somehow, something about her reminded me of my mother, even though the similarities were subtle. She told us about the time she took a bunch of kids to the zoo and one of them stole a penguin. I’d heard this story before, but without the excuse he provided: My mum won’t let me have a cat, he’d explained. When I got back to Edinburgh, I printed out the Snopes discussion and sent it with a card to the pub, addressed to The Nice Woman Who Drinks Whisky And Lemonade. She wrote back.

Mostly, I felt like my mind was never where I was. Penguin had been picking up on it, she said that it was like I wasn’t really there, wasn’t really focused. I didn’t mean anything bad by it, but it left me without much to say for myself.

Term ended. I got drunk one last time in the Wayside and felt mild regret that I would miss the Bon Jovi tribute band playing at the weekend. I went round to Penguin’s and we made badges together, and the next day I left Edinburgh and flew to Brussels, feeling not a whole lot other than numb.

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America, abridged

In rural Pennsylvania I drank cider by a bonfire while people yelled “Fire in the hole!” and launched flaming pumpkins from giant catapults and then boy scouts rushed to put them out with shovels.

In Washington, DC, I killed time in a Salvadoran bar, waiting for Jeremy to finish band practice. The waitress and I conversed in Spanish. She asked how I could travel so much and not miss my family. She couldn’t go home and see hers: it wasn’t just about money, it was about not having papers. She said that if I didn’t manage to contact my friend, I could stay with her and her aunt in Maryland.

I got a lift from Washington to Dayton with a woman who was on her way back to Manitoba. The journey took eight hours but she wouldn’t accept any money for petrol. It turned out she had grown up in the Mennonite town that Miriam Toews described in A Complicated Kindness. She said that she could speak Low German but that it was pretty useless. “I can speak backwards,” I offered. “At least you can communicate with someone.”

I had decided to try not kissing anyone for a year. I got as far as Ohio with that plan.

I walked into a bar in Indianapolis with my rucksack, and the owner sent over drinks on the house because a couple of bands I’d never heard of had cancelled their gig at the last minute. “John Dillinger used to come here,” said my host, a disarmingly cute conspiracy theorist. I nodded like I knew anything, and thought to myself: Four? Or Escape Plan? He drove me to a house on the outskirts of town, a work in progress that had been classified as uninhabitable. It was like the houses in the dreams I’ve had all my life, expanding: when he moved the boards and mattresses that were propped against the walls, they revealed doorways leading to more rooms. I slept on a couple chunks of foam in a cold, bare room; killed time in the morning by studying Polish until he came downstairs and apologised for waking up so late. “My bad,” he said. Outside, a mountain of bin bags filled with leaves awaited an ambitious composting project. He took me for brunch in a Mexican diner and then saw me off at the bus stop.

In Chicago I met up with a friend of a friend, an activist. Green tea turned into dinner and drinks in a pub till the small hours of the morning. We put the world to rights. “Hey,” I said, “we’ve spent several hours together but we’ve only just started using the word ‘dogmatic’ and I think we should throw it around some more.” She smiled shyly and then said, “My place is kind of a mess, but you’re welcome to come home with me if you’d like to.”

I went home with a girl in Somerville, Massachusetts. In the morning we lay in bed talking about ligers and the time she went to Canada for three hours. I wondered how long it would take before her bruises would fade. I wanted to see her again but I didn’t know if she was interested in a repeat performance. I cooked risotto for everyone and when she tried to summon me into an empty room I declined before I realised what that probably meant. But it was okay: my time in the States was ending, and it was what it was. My time with her, my time with everyone. I could be sad about leaving or I could be happy about all the experiences I had had, and I chose the latter.