So I took a clean, airy room on the second floor of the Imperial hotel and the manager’s wife bought a pot of green tea up to welcome me.

The best thing about my new room was the view. Not that it was particularly spectacular, mainly just a glimpse of the street and the low rooftops of Old Town stretching away. But I could also look down into the lives of the people living in the tenements below. Directly beneath me was an Indian family who seemed to live their whole life in a courtyard, cooking, washing, tending their kids. When it rained they put up a piece of plastic. At night they ate by the light of kerosene lamps. They only seemed to retreat into the derelict building attached to the courtyard to sleep.

Despite their obvious poverty they seemed content to me. The women were always laughing and gossiping, busy and bustling, the kids forever underfoot. The kerosene lamps cast a cosy glow over the familial scene. Unseen behind my curtains I peered benignly down on them like a lost and lonely guardian angel. A certain wistful longing would grip me when I looked down at them, alone in my room, so far from home.

Sometimes as I stood looking out the window I wondered what I was doing in Asia. In retrospect, you could say I was going through my William Burroughs phase; you know, the alienated, angry, young expatriate wannabe writer drifting through the third-world high on cheap local drugs and looking for visionary experiences.

I never looked at a tourist guide or anything like that. I just wandered around and poked into corners and I’d accidentally find myself in a temple of the Goddess of Mercy or an abattoir or a forgotten, dusty museum. Someone would always come up and talk to me and befriend me. They probably took pity on me, because I looked so naive and out of my depth.


I found out one of the reasons Ojay liked the Imperial was because it had a back set of stairs leading to a quiet alley, so he could slip in and out of my room without being observed. It seemed reasonable to take precautions. After all, the local Authorities were hanging a couple of my fellow country men in the big brick jail up the road next week, for a crime that back home would have probably got them six weeks community service.

I wasn’t planning on any major smuggling operations myself, but I did intend to take back a big roll of government anti-drug propaganda posters- lurid things covered with snakes and skulls and scorpions and the words, “DADA is DEATH“. (Dada I had discovered, referred not to the modernist art movement, but was the local name for drugs) I knew I could sell these posters at a good price for their ironic kitsch charm to collectors back home.

I liked my aimless, wandering life in Old Town but I started to worry that if I lingered any longer I’d never leave. Plus the local authorities really didn’t like Western undesirables loitering in their country too long. (If they didn’t like the look of you at Customs, the word SHIT would be stamped in large, red capital letters in your passport. Apparently it stood for

Suspected Hippie In Transit”!)

Maybe I should go home and pick up my life there, I thought, or I could push on to Angkor Wat and wander amongst the landmines and the ruins. Or, I prevaricated, I could stay here a bit longer, chasing the Dragon with Ojay, and take up that course in Chinese watercolours at the local museum.

Unable to make a decision I cut my Tarot deck . This turned up the Major Arcana Trump VII, called THE CHARIOT. Generally this card signifies travel, vehicles, movement, journeys both physical and metaphysical. The Tarot had spoken; It was time to go.


The morning I left I arose early. It was actually cold. Old Town’s brief winter was moving in. There was even a whispy fog in the nearly deserted streets.

But I was running late, the town hall clock told me I had barely fifteen minutes left to get down to the wharves. If I missed the ferry then I’d miss the morning train. So I’d have to wait for the next one. Which would mean I’d arrive in Capitol City after midnight, again.

Last time that happened I wound up in a darkened alley surrounded by menacing men carrying four foot long bamboo poles. True I’d escaped, but I’d had to spend the rest of the night in a brothel, and they’d made me pay extra for a room without a girl,which hardly seemed fair. I was anxious not to repeat the experience.

But now there appeared to be no rickshaws about this early in the morning. Hefting my bags I decided to try and run for it.

At this point a diminutive figure flip-flapped out of the mist and after peering uncertainly at me for a moment, smiled a toothless smile of recognition.

“Hello! My friend!” he cried, “You want ride again?”

Yes, it was my old friend, the ancient opium addict. He was still wearing his grey shorts but as a concession to the chill he had a scarf wrapped around his throat. His ratty rickshaw waited behind him with the patience of an old horse.

“Goddamn it,” I thought, “I don’t have time for this. “


I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but I HAD to catch that ferry.

“No..sorry,” I started to explain, stammering incoherently, shifting from foot to foot, getting ready to bolt, “I’ve got to catch the ferry, I’m late”

He glanced up at the town hall clock.

“You verry late,” he announced with calculation, then with the air of a man who’s made a snap decision,

“You get in. I take you now. Quick! Quick!”

“Uh,” I hesitated.

But he had the rickshaw pullers ability to exploit a moment of weakness. “Quick quick,”he insisted, “I take you now. You verry late.”

As I stood looking at him I felt the Hand of Fate at work. This, no doubt, was part of some Great Pattern, I had to go with him. Besides, there was something else; I suddenly felt that this was more than just a fare to him, that he really wanted to help me get to the wharves on time. It would be churlish to refuse.

So bowing to the Fates I got in and off we went.

He soon built up to a half trot and maintained that steady pace, his wiry, whipcord legs shuffling methodically, his sandals flip-flapping on the cobblestones. He may have been old but he knew his trade alright. We cut thru traffic, and whizzed around obstacles. We took obscure shortcuts down narrow alleyways.

Meanwhile I considered the situation. What a hypocrite, my conscience sneered, are your acts of “charity” governed by mere expediency?

No, I thought, that’s not it. I was ready to run. It was something else. I tried to reason out my tangled thoughts thusly;

When I first met him I felt sorry for him and tried to demonstrate compassion by swapping roles. A token gesture maybe, but I was glad I did it. But I wasn’t going to be able to keep doing that for him, I had my own life. Perhaps, right now, I thought, the kindest thing I can do is to let him take me to the ferry.

Because it occurred to me just how hard it must be for him to struggle against the young men to make a living. How many times he must have been passed over by squeamish tourists for a younger, fitter, less depressing looking rickshaw driver. Each day a little harder to keep the legs moving, but knowing that to stop was to die.

Yes. Today, I decided, the best thing I can do for him is to let him show me what a good rickshaw driver he is. It seemed important to him that he got his foreign friend to the ferry in time. It was a matter of pride perhaps, professional pride. So he could demonstrate to both of us that he still had what it takes to ply his trade. For his sake, I wanted him to succeed.

Approaching the harbour the street started to dip down and we picked up speed accordingly. If he slipped and fell, I wondered, would the rickshaw continue on and crush him, carried by its own momentum? I could imagine the mangled body.

Careening around a corner I could see that the rusting bulk of the ferry was still at the end of the pier, but had they pulled up the gangway yet? He flip-flopped to a stop outside the terminal.

I hastily clambered out and pressed what I hoped was a generous amount of cash into his hand.

“We made it!” I smiled. Nodding he smiled triumphantly back, then started tenderly shooing me on.

“Quick Quick,” he said, as though hurrying a small child,

“Quick Quick!”

He was right. There was no time for extended goodbyes. I ran past the checkpoint waving my passport and scrambled up the gangway with seconds to spare. On board I looked back for my old man but he was lost in the crowd. Perhaps he’d already got a new customer. I found a seat and looked out to sea. It was still and smooth as a mercury pond, not a ripple broke the surface but for the ferry’s widening wake..


The Old Town is gone now, they tell me. The open air markets, the crumbling hotels, the rabbits warren of streets, the rickshaws, the brothels, the opium dens, all gone. Bulldozed by progress and prosperity. Mighty concrete skyscrapers rise in their stead. A bridge connects the island to the mainland sprawl. No one races to catch the ferry anymore.

No doubt my old man is dead now, his rickshaw in a museum.

But I like to fantasise he’s still alive somehow, an eternal, undying spirit of the pipe, a sort of living opium mummy, cured and preserved by the smoke that sustained him. And I hope that there’s one last opium den left where he can lounge in peace. And maybe now and then he chuckles, when he remembers that crazy young feringhee who took him for a rickshaw ride,

all those years ago,.



The Reverend Hellfire is a practising Performance Poet and an ordained Minister of the Church of Spiritual Humanists AND the Church of the Universe.

Donations accepted.



~ by reverendhellfire on June 24, 2012.

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