If there’s one crime that suits my disposition better than others it’s stealing fruit. In England, harvesting fruit without permission is a sport fondly referred to as ‘scrumping’. It’s a right of passage. No stigma attached. Even the prime minister would be forgiven fruit-stealing proclivities so long as he atoned by lowering the tax on apple cider.
Here on the banks of the Mekong, in a country twice removed from the grassy orchards of Somerset, there’s every chance that scrumping is an offence punishable by more than just a slap on the wrists.
The fruit that has got me wondering whether it’s ever right to steal, is none other than the king of fruits, the mighty mighty jackfruit: big as an Ox and knobblier than granny’s crochet blankets. This one’s a beauty: the fruit is roughly wombat-size, irregular, oblong, kissed with black at its extremities, and anchored to the trunk by a stem as thick and sinuous as an umbilical chord. The tree has delivered one hell of a baby!
Thai jackfruit for sale in the market in Jinghong, China
Not to touch the earth,
Not to see the sun.
Nothing left to do but
Run, run, run.
– ‘Not to Touch the Earth’, Jim Morrison –
The dispersing of students after the PDC brought us to the steady conclusion that it was high time to make tracks. With our new recruit, Sam, we packed bags and gathered our strength. Let’s go! “To the East, to meet the Czar…”
The train tracks ate up the miles. Shades of KLF Chillout Album as ambient sounds, lights and the sporadic music of doors opening and closing rippled through the carriage. Lying prone on the grimy floor of the 2nd class carriage. Smudgy faces through compartment windows, cigarette smoke from the toilet. Night tasting like ash and Sal, or was it Dean Moriarty, whispering in my ear… “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
With inertia overcome the road became our only goal. East, ever east.
Train-bus-train-bus-bus. In 31 hours we unravelled the 1,200km from Malin to Istanbul. 2 borders in 12 hours.
4am Istanbul. Nothing to do. Dark. A mist of rain. Find bearings. Coffee. Wait for the train station to open. Train tracks under construction. Change of plan. A bus. Otogar. Ankara. Peak hour traffic. Miss our stop. Run. Sweat, sweat… the Dogŭ Express. Made it! “Let this be a lesson to us,” Richie warns, “you always need longer than you think!”
Our third night since leaving Malin, our first bed: 4-berth carriage aboard the Dogŭ Express. Clean sheets and a pillow. Luxury!
My sweat hanky is working over time. I’m dabbin’ my way uphill, getting nowhere. I’ve got the Bosphorus between my shoulder blades and the Marmara pooling in my waistband. My body of water is about to burst its banks.
We’ve eaten nothing all day but soup and dried apricots; add to this a 12 hour bus journey, traffic jam, two mis-directed metropolitan bus rides, and an hour-long ramble uphill in pursuit of a doss-house – we’re shattered. We hope we arrive at Serbia Travel House before the map dissolves in our hands, ashes to ashes, tree pulp to tree pulp.
Two distracted Russians pop up out of nowhere in the darkness to join in our search for the Serbia Travel House. A wholesome dinner and good night’s rest would do the job but there’s no room at the inn – we join 24 bodies on the floor. We’re too tired to feel alarmed by the conditions, or the snaking queue for the toilet. We brush teeth, store our bags and join the pyjama-party-refugee camp on the floor.
The following day when we’re feeling brighter and more responsive we’ll be able to learn about the lives of the other travellers here including the doe-eyed Syrian who is the only genuine refugee. There’s also a couple who have been on the road continuously since 2004 – living on 350Euros a month between them.
The next day over a tahini bun and Turkish coffee it becomes apparent that we’re in no fit state to enjoy this experience… we’re in Istanbul but we’re minus the stamina to enjoy it. We’re minus the will and the inclination too. What to do?
We blame the heat. We blame ourselves. We use the Lonely Planet to stimulate an appetite for exploration, hoping the centrefold photos and suggestive itinerary will be enough to arouse us into action. Maybe some of that Turkish viagra at the spice market would help our cause…
We take a freshly squeezed orange juice instead and find our way to an independent English-language book store. The shop-boy is enthused by the Turkish cookbook I’ve picked up. I have no intention of buying it. “We’re such bad tourists,” Richie whispers. It’s true.
Richie and I spend the next 2 days in Istanbul being really really bad tourists. All our leads come to nothing: the archaeology museum is closed; the boat excursions up the Golden Horn have come to a halt due to ‘renovation’ (of what? The boat? The river? The Golden Horn?) and the Grand Bazaar is closed too. It’s a relief. Except for a visit to Aya Sofia and the Basilica Cistern we eschew the ‘attractions’ and make for shady places where we watch people and scrape our scattered senses into little mounds of dirt that we push around with our toes and fingers. We chew corn, take photos, stop for tea. Dab dab, swipe swipe, the water keeps on coming.