The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

THE DISPLACED Q: On your travels, have you ever run into horror in the midst of beauty?

We’re trading horror stories again today — about places that are otherwise considered beautiful. With all the violence in this planet’s history, almost every unspoilt view has been a battlefield at some point or other.

But instead I have a personal tale, about the beauty — and the power — of nature.

My wife and I have recently moved to Perth, Australia, to be close to her family. She grew up in a village surrounded by forest on the outskirts of Perth called Roleystone, in the same house her dad and three sisters still live in.

Heaven in the hills

Her hometown is an amazing place — far enough from the city that urbanites consider it part of the outback, yet close enough to have those things that make modern life so convenient, like mains water and electricity.

It’s a ocean of tranquility, a haven for wildlife from bandicoots to parrots to possums to kangaroos. All of them can be seen in the back garden of the family house, which is built into half an acre of steep, wooded hillside.

It is utterly beautiful.

To live in that house is to experience peace — at least until the possums start fighting on the roof! During the period when we lived with her family, I used to wake up every morning to bird-song and dappled light streaming in past the trees that shade the windows.

But then, in February of 2011, tragedy struck in the form of a raging bushfire. Most Australians have nightmares about bushfires at some point or other, but out here in the forest it becomes real all too often.

Fire is a way of life for much of the native flora; the cycle of summer burnings is so regular that seed pods from the honky trees only split when roasted in several-hundred-degree infernos. The vegetation is designed to burn, charring the outer layers of bark on trees that have adapted to cope with — indeed, have come to require — this treatment. Iconic Australian species like grass trees and gum trees couldn’t reproduce without fire to crack open their rock-like seed casings. It’s just another cycle: natural, predictable — and unstoppable.

Especially when it gets out of hand.

Because humans aren’t like those trees. The colonizers of Australia have learned to live with the harshness of its environment — but there’s one thing that can never be withstood, and that is fire.

Hell in the hills

The blaze that engulfed Roleystone was started by accident (as so many of them are). A local man, using an angle grinder outside the front of his house, caused the sparks that set the bush alight for miles around. In a matter of hours, the neighborhood was surrounded by fire, dozens of properties were ablaze, and street by street, as the fire advanced, residents were told to evacuate their homes.

My wife and I were back in England at the time, dealing with some issues of our own, so all I could do was scour the Internet for news while she studied Facebook for updates from her family and friends.

My wife’s father and her three sisters had packed their most precious belongings into the car. Photo albums went in first — the only truly irreplaceable things in the house, containing the last memories of my wife’s mum.

As the wind picked up and the flames grew closer, the next street over was evacuated by fire service volunteers. Helicopters thundered past overhead, carrying giant buckets filled with lake water.

My wife’s whole family sat by the radio, listening to the emergency broadcast, waiting for their street name to be announced; waiting for the call to flee.

It never came.

The wind changed again and the fire swept past less than half 500 metres away, incinerating the village on the other side of the hill.

My wife’s family never had to make the choice between leaving their home for good, and staying to risk their lives defending it. They were luckier than many of their neighbors — though thankfully all of them chose wisely. No one stayed, and no one lost their life.

What they did lose was absolutely everything else.

71 houses were burnt to the ground. Another 39 were damaged, along with two schools — and the main bridge into the village, which collapsed.

Almost two years later, the local landscape has started to recover. The legacy of the fires is, as always, new growth; everywhere new trees and under-brush is flourishing, dark green against the black. The charred portion of bark reaches three or four metres up the trunk of every tree, and still dominates the woodland when viewed from the road — but the trees themselves survived, and will prosper because of it.

Unlike the houses.

Now, we drive through that scorched, blackened forest almost every day. Houses have been rebuilt on many, but not all, of the vacant plots. Life has returned to normal in Roleystone, bordered as it is by charcoal-coated trees. It’s a reminder that living here, in such a volatile environment, is very nearly as dangerous as it is peaceful, beautiful and idyllic.

And so as not to end on a downer, here’s one of my favorite quotes from comic fantasy book writer Terry Pratchett:

Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, share your stories with us! Have you visited any beauty spots that are tinged with horror? We’d love to know about them.

Let us know in the comments, or catch us on Twitter: @DisplacedNation

STAY TUNED for Monday’s guest post, a horror tale of a different kind.

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5 travel situations that spell H-O-R-R-O-R!

Overseas travel can be a dangerous business. Casting yourself out into the wide world — into a foreign culture, possibly alone and thousands of miles from home — is always going to present challenges and perils aplenty.

Sometimes everything goes all right, or almost — sure, you lose your hat at the beach, or your taxi driver struggles to find the right address; but otherwise, everything is fine.

And then there are those moments when something goes terribly amiss — and your stomach feels like it’s dropped into your shoes!

This post is devoted to those H-O-R-R-I-F-Y-I-N-G moments…beginning with five of mine, hand picked from dozens. And I’d like you all to share yours!

1) Your accommodation is not as described.

Now this is a common enough problem. As a broke backpacker, I’ve stayed in some seriously nasty places, but there was one that took the biscuit — or would have, had I dared to eat it in there. I refer to the last two beds left anywhere in Perth — which served my sister and I right for waiting till we arrived to arrange a place to stay. It was coming up to Christmas, and the place looked okay on the Web site. Cheap and cheerful, just like us! Only the rooms stank. They were knee deep in the occupants’ clothes, and it was clear some of them had been hanging out in there for a while. My room, bizarrely, was all girls apart from me — with sarongs hanging from the top bunks as privacy screens. That seemed like a good idea, as I certainly didn’t want to see what was going on — not judging by what I could hear…

Yep, you guessed it. Turned out that place was being used as a brothel, with the owner taking a cut to look the other way. We lasted two nights before thankfully finding more salubrious accommodation. I guess I should have been grateful that our beds weren’t charged by the hour…

2) Your money is suddenly all gone.

Been there, done that! Haven’t we all? When living on a small island in Thailand, I discovered to my horror one day that my bank account was almost empty. A closer inspection revealed a series of withdrawals — always the maximum amount possible, all transacted on the mainland over five hours away by boat.

Something didn’t add up. I got in touch with my bank and took the last of my cash out — only to have it stolen in a bungalow break in the following night! Luckily, I’d made a lot of friends, and they supported me until the bank agreed I’d been defrauded, and gave me all the money back.

(Interestingly enough, years later, it occurred to me that around the time of those withdrawals I’d been buying a lot of diving gear for cash…and of course, my island was too small to process its own transactions, so they all showed up as being made on the mainland…)

3) You drop your camera.

People get very attached to their photos — and we travelers more so than most. Hardly a week goes by without some friend pleading on Facebook for pictures of a night out that got inexplicably wiped from memory. So dropping your camera is potentially a huge disaster — and one that, thankfully, I’ve never done. No, I’ve never owned a camera, because I am death to gadgets. I’m terminally clumsy, which is why no one trusts me — except my poor wife, who paid the ultimate price. She handed her camera to me for safekeeping only for a minute, while she went back to lock the door of our traditional Fijian hut. Now I never thought of concrete as traditionally Fijian, but that is what the path was made of. So when I fumbled and dropped the camera, it shattered into about a thousand pieces.

We were able to claim it on insurance — not ours, as we hadn’t bought any, but my mother’s, since she was kind enough to pretend it was her camera I’d destroyed.

The photos, however, were gone for good. And seeing as how I was wearing a bikini in some of them, maybe that’s for the best…

4) You eat a dodgy curry!

Eating something that doesn’t agree with you and developing a pain, quite literally, in the backside only gets worse when you’re miles from home. And unfortunately, it also gets way more likely. Especially if, like me, you have a habit of eating food from wherever is cheapest! I never found out what caused my illness in Ecuador, but it resulted in my own Night of the Living Dead, in which I, zombie like, spent twelve hours weaving between my bed in a crummy hostel dorm and the nearest toilet two floors away — where (ignore the rest of this sentence if you’re squeamish) I was vomiting more blood than I’d ever seen outside my body. I honestly thought I was going to die that night — a good thing I was already dead!

And last but by no means least:

5) You discover there is no toilet paper…

Whether it’s electronically controlled and plays music at you, or a rough wooden plank over a hole in the ground, you know you’ll have to use the facilities at some point, and when that moment comes, will adapt somehow — you haven’t really got a choice. In one extreme case I’d left it as long as humanly possible — by which point there was no thought in my head beyond getting out of the restaurant in time! Once I’d made it to the toilet round the back, I felt much better. Until, that is, I felt in my pocket and remembered I was wearing new jeans — and hadn’t transferred over the stash of TP…

I won’t go into any more detail, apart from to say that for the rest of that meal, I adopted the local practice of only eating with my right hand.

* * *

So, now it’s your turn! Travel horror stories, if you please! And as always, you can catch me and the rest of the crew on Twitter: @TonyJamesSlater +/or @displacednation.

Thanks for reading!

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, an interview with a displaced author of a violent romance!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Images (clockwise, left to right): Horror image from Tony’s personal collection: fooling around with an abandoned vehicle near Wolfe Creek, Northern Territory (2007); sexy woman, pawn shop and Canon camera all from MorgueFile; Tony’s “undead” photo from a Halloween in Perth, Australia (2008); toilet paper and travel boot from MorgueFile.

THE DISPLACED Q: On your travels … have you ever seen a ghost?

Tony+ScaryBoy_collageOn your travels, have you ever seen a ghost?

And if you have — who ya gonna call?

I know, I know, you saw that one coming!

Seriously, though, for today’s Displaced Q, I’m asking about your supernatural experiences. Between all of us, we’ve been to a lot of places. So if there’s any truth in spooks and spirits, some of us are bound to have seen them, right?

Getting into the spirit of things

Well, I’ve never seen a ghost; but that could well be because I’m about as psychic as a cheese. Seriously — I’m not what you’d call particularly sensitive. Even to the physical world around me, as my body can attest; it’s constantly covered in bruises from walking into walls, chairs, doors — anything that regular people have sufficient grace to avoid.

But I digress. Our topic today is ghosts, and I’m a big believer in them. Why is that, you may wonder — given that I haven’t had a particularly spooky encounter of my own? I’ve visited (allegedly) haunted pubs, and creepy castles by the bucketload (being a Brit has its advantages in this regard).

I’ve also been in tombs of many different kinds — from the long barrows of the old Celtic peoples to the chiseled-out mausoleums of Petra in Jordan, to the pyramids and underground catacombs of Egypt.

And … not a sausage!

You wouldn’t believe…

Yes, I’ve had those strange, hard-to-explain occurrences that I think everyone has at some point or other: doors opening on their own, things moving from one place to another; one time I was looking right at a mirror when it fell off the wall and smashed to pieces, after over a decade of hanging there unmoving!

More recently at my wedding, there were two important guests who were no longer with us. We invited them anyway, with our hearts and minds. Both were ladies who shared an obsession with butterflies, so we felt blessed by their presence when a pair of butterflies danced over our heads all the way through the ceremony!

And yet, I know such experiences are easy to explain. Maybe I want them to be paranormal in origin, but the logical part of my brain is too active. It soon rationalizes these kind of happenings until I feel foolish even mentioning them … so, generally, I don’t. (Unless of course, the Displaced Nation is doing a series of ghostie posties.)

The multilingual (and TCK) actor Robert Stack served as host of the TV program Unsolved Mysteries. As he once said:

I don’t mind UFOs and ghost stories, it’s just that I tend to give value to the storyteller rather than to the story itself.

Do ghosts escape from dreams?

But I do have dreams. Sometimes, when things happen, I swear I’ve already dreamt about them at least once. And then, just occasionally, I have dreams when I’m visited by the spirits of people I’ve lost.

Earlier this year I had to make that journey every expat dreads — back to my home country of England, all the way from Australia, to help look after a dying relative. It was my granddad, and we weren’t sure he was dying at the time, but whilst keeping vigil with him I had a dream that rang with prophecy. His wife — my grandmother — who had passed on almost ten years earlier, showed up in my dream, wandering about his house and looking under things. When I asked her what she was looking for, she replied that she was here to find her other half, and that it was somewhere in the room.

It was a curious dream, and a thought-provoking one, but not unpleasant. I had the presence of mind to tell my family about it as we prepared for another day caring for Gramp.

The doctors at the time were discussing weeks versus months, but he clearly had received his marching orders. He died that evening.

This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this, although I hope it will be the last; at least for a while. To have dreams of lost ones you first have to lose someone — and I’ve lost enough people this year to last me a lifetime.

That being said, I don’t think ghosts are evil, or vengeful spirits: just souls left behind, looking for something — or someone — they needed or cared for in life.

* * *

What do you think? Am I crazy?

To think that after all of my world travels, the most ghostly encounters I’ve had anywhere occurred back in my childhood home, in my bed.

Now that IS spooky!

So what about you folks? I’d love to hear your tales of what goes bump in the night. We’re coming up on Halloween, after all! In your travels, have you ever come across any restless spirits? Or had any experiences which made you think twice about them? Let me know in the comments!

Alternatively you can hit me up on Twitter: @TonyJamesSlater +/or @displacednation. I look forward to hearing from you!

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, an interview with a Random Nomad who writes books about dead bodies!

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Image: Tony (L) and  Scary boy from MorgueFile (R)

THE DISPLACED Q: Expats & other globetrotters, what foods do you inflict on visitors from home?

I was a very finicky eater when I was growing up.

I would only eat beans on toast or fish-fingers.

Not beans with fish-fingers! Oh, no. In fact if beans touched the fish-fingers, the whole lot was all for the bin.

My poor mother must have been in despair.

Flash forward to the present day, and not much has changed…

Okay, so it has! Honest. I’m now prepared to try anything and everything — although my regular eating habits are not substantially more sophisticated. Well, I’ve added pizza to the mix, which I guess counts as Italian food.

So my question for you today, is this: what do you do when the roles are reversed, and your parents come to see you in a foreign land and rely on you for food? Do you inflict the local cuisine or look for a McDonald’s to tide them over?

The adventuresome Slater women

Now, my Mum has spent half her life trying to inflict a healthier diet on me, and I’d love to pay her back for that. Unfortunately she still has an infinitely more varied diet than I do, so there’s not much I can honestly try to inflict that would phase her.

As explained in my last Displaced Q, I once ate a peculiar insect dipped in soy sauce in Thailand, just to prove a point about my iron stomach. That may be why, when living in Thailand, I sometimes fantasized about getting my mother to try one of the deep-fried locusts they sell on the streets. First I would convince her it was a staple part of my new, healthier diet. And then I would watch carefully while she munched on it, seeing if she could keep it down. Just, you know, to get her back for all those times the beans touched the fish-fingers…

My only sibling, Gillian, has been traveling almost as long as I have, and is far more experimental when it comes to cooking and eating. Although I’ve never seen her eat insects either… But then, I can’t really blame her for all the horrible vegetables I was forced to consume as a young man.

Instead I’ll take revenge on my Dad.

The stick-in-the-mud Slater men

Because whilst it’s not his fault either, he is a very easy target.

He is not big on travel.

He is not big on foreign food.

Anytime he’s left to his own devices he invariably buys fish and chips wrapped up in a newspaper and eats it on his knee in front on the telly.

Sometimes for weeks at a time!

Bless him, he’s even more set in his ways in terms of food that I am. It took me a year to inflict pizza on him for the first time, and I’ve still never managed to convince him to try a nice pad thai.

The thing is, we both know what we like, and we’re both happy to stick with them.

It’s not the most exciting way to live, and certainly not the healthiest.

We’re both firm believers in this saying of Mark Twain’s:

“Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.”

So, our combined intake of junk food is worryingly high.

But just for a change, I’d like to inflict on him — and on all my family, given half a chance — the one thing I’ve eaten that might prove too much for all of them: guinea pig (cuy) in South America. Or possibly baby octopus in Thailand.

Just to see the looks on their faces… And to hear my Dad announce in no uncertain terms: “I’m not bloody eating that!”

* * *

So, now it’s your turn! What foods would you inflict on a visiting relative, and why? Or have you already inflicted some — and with what results?

Answers on a postcard to — no, wait! Stick ‘em in the comments section below. We’re not in our childhoods any more; it’s the future!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, an interview with a Random Nomad who has eaten cuy and loved it! (She was one of the winners of yesterday’s Food Alices…)

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img: The Slater women chowing down at a Medieval banquet; stomachs of iron indeed!

THE DISPLACED Q: On your world travels, have you ever downright refused to try a new food?

Well, I’ve developed a reputation for having a cast-iron stomach as I’ve traveled around. I’ve never been shy to try new things, even though my own taste in food is pretty poor.

I ate a peculiar insect dipped in soy sauce in Thailand — mostly because I’d just finished telling my friends about this cast-iron stomach of mine, and they felt inclined to put me to the test.

On this occasion I passed — despite the stall holder who’d sold me the thing waiting until I’d taken a good healthy bite before pointing out that I wasn’t supposed to eat the wings and carapace. So why did he leave them on? Sadist. They tasted — and felt — like eating fingernails. Dipped in soy sauce, of course.

But I survived, and since then have graciously accepted all manner of disgusting foods — most notably, vegetables of all kinds, including (horror of horrors!) Brussels sprouts and broccoli. Blech!

I personally feel that there needs to be a very good reason before I refuse to at least try something. What would be cause for turning a food down? I’ll go with Woody Allen’s principle:

I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead — not sick, not wounded — dead.

Known for my stomach of iron…

In many cultures, especially those found in Africa and Asia, refusing food (or drink) is considered to be an insult to the host. Well, I’m never one to insult my host — at least, not intentionally. What comes out of my mouth does enough damage by accident without me refusing to shove something into it.

Generally, I don’t refuse food.

I didn’t even refuse mansaf. At least, not the first time.

I was in Jordan with my wife, doing the touristy thing, seeing the sights. It seemed appropriate to try the local cuisine, especially as I’m all about embracing new experiences whilst traveling. Jordan was the first country I visited in the Middle East, and it promised to be something entirely different from what I was used to.

So we found a nice local restaurant, all tricked out with low benches and huge long tables for communal eating. The proprietor was waiting on us himself because it was a small, family-run establishment. I liked that — made me feel comfortable and safe.

He asked what we wanted to eat, and I told him I’d like to try something traditional, something that the local people ate. The menu was in English, but mostly featured Western food like burgers and pizza. I figured since I was in an authentic setting, I should try some authentic grub. The owner was more than happy to suggest something, and ordered me mansaf.

When it arrived, I caught a slight snigger from my wife, who had just been served her pancakes. In truth, it looked utterly revolting. But I had every confidence my iron stomach would prevail, and I’d soon be one cultural notch up on her and ready to boast about it!

…until it broke down!

The lamb (or possibly goat), still on the bone, was stringy and gelatinous. It had the consistency of those bits you cut off and throw away, the ones you can’t even bring yourself to feed to the dog because the very thought of them being eaten turns your stomach. It was a like a large knuckle joint, all sinew and cartilage and tendons… I had a feeling I’d been given a leg — Which, if you’ve seen a sheep lately, doesn’t do much to whet the appetite. But I ate as much of it as I could ferret off the bone, and then started in on the sauce.

The sauce was made of rancid yogurt. I’m serious – it said “rancid yogurt sauce” on the English menu, although I’m sure it translates into something less off-putting in Arabic. I didn’t want to think about how it was made, or about how impossible it would be to concoct something along these lines whilst adhering to any sort of health-and-safety principles. I just ate the stuff — or, as much of it as I could get down.

That night, my wife mocked me through the door to our en-suite bathroom as I locked myself in for the long-haul. I’d barely made it back to our hotel in time for the first heave.

Whatever it was I’d put into my body, it didn’t appreciate it and was doing it’s best to get rid of it; I spent the rest of the night kneeling on the bathroom tiles — you can get the picture.

Was the mansaf cooked right? Who knows? Was it poisonous? Well, my body seemed to think so. Will I try it again…?

Hm.

A few nights later, mansaf became the only food I have ever officially refused, on the grounds that there is no fun at all in projectile vomiting for several hours straight.

***

So! I’ve shown you mine, now show me yours! Do you have any qualms about refusing the foods offered to you on your travels? Have you ever done so? Or were you too much of a good sport so didn’t refuse — and regretted it later? (And what happened? Apart from, you know, the obvious…) Let me know in the comments!

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, an interview with a Random Nomad who doesn’t eat to travel but travels to eat!

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THE DISPLACED Q: What’s the cheapest — yet tastiest — meal you’ve discovered on your world travels?

So what is the tastiest cheap-eat I’ve come across whilst traversing the globe? Not being much of a foodie, and being a writer, cheap — yet tasty — is what I’m all about.

Well, I hate to be boring and predictable — so I won’t be. Yeah, the street food you get in Thai markets is to die for when you’re hungry. Not only that but you can eat three full meals back to back for the price of a loaf of bread in Australia.

But that’s not what I’m going for. No, for sheer cheapness compared with mouth-watering deliciousness, I’m going to have to go with an old favorite: Indo Mi goreng, an instant-noodle brand produced by the world’s largest instant noodle manufacturer, located in Indonesia.

Not just any old noodles!

Now you could be forgiven for thinking I’ve gone off my rocker here. There are countless brands of instant noodles floating around out there, and they’re pretty much all unified by one thing: being rubbish.

Nutritionally rubbish. Tasteless. Processed. Crap.

But not these noodles! I ate them almost every day on my rejuvenating hike across Western Australia – mostly because they were light enough to carry in a full rucksack and impossible to mess up in terms of cooking. These ones are nice, super nice even. And when I went back to England recently and discovered I couldn’t buy them there, the wife made me order them wholesale! I think they came directly from Indonesia. Forty packet… Oh, yes, this is how much we love these noodles.

Even though we buy them in bulk, they still cost less than the postage!

All the Asians in my area of Australia buy them — either in ten-packs, or in the same giant box I had delivered to me in England. That’s how you know they’re good noodles — when your Malaysian housemates fill their shelves with them!

But I can’t devote this entire post to one brand of instant noodles, can I? Um…no. But I’m hard pressed to think of anything else that’s so delicious for less than 50 cents.

A case of “you get what you pay for”?

Well, Canadian athlete Joe Sakic spoke true when he said:

Any free meal is a good meal, you know?

Or did he? I’ve come across a few ways of getting free food in my time — from famous vegan soup kitchens in a hippie commune in Margaret River (Western Australia) to the delightful food they served me in hospital when I was selling my body to medical science (also know as being a guinea pig for medical testing). And none of these meals were especially delicious.

You know, they would shoot me full of weird, untested drugs, imprison me in a hospital for weeks at a time, make me sleep on rubber sheets and wake me every morning at 4:00 a.m. to take my blood.

But still, the worst thing about the whole experience was the food.

Free is only good if you don’t have to have it; being forced to eat isn’t great no matter the quality of the food. Which, unsurprisingly, wasn’t great.

Tastes that refuse to be acquired

Then, of course, there are the meals in foreign lands that people treat you to. In my experience, that can be risky.

On my last morning in South America, my Ecuadorian girlfriend took me for a surprise breakfast she’d been planning for some time.

She led me all through the suburbs of Quito, to a restaurant which was famous for one dish in particular: ceviche.

Now, I’m not a fan of seafood. I can just about choke down a fish-finger — as long as I can’t see the insides of it. Ugh!

Of course, this topic had never come up; one of the myriad disadvantages to starting a relationship when you don’t share even one common language. We communicated mostly in sign language, and the half-assed version of Spanish I was picking up.

So naturally, I’d never mentioned my intense dislike of seafood, in much the same way as she thought it would be too much effort to explain what her surprise was. As a result, neither of us knew what to expect until I lifted the lid on my service and saw what it was: namely, half the cast of Finding Nemo, after being put in a blender with some brown sauce and chillies…

I tried to eat it, honestly I did!

I didn’t succeed though.

At least, the bit I did eat came back up so rapidly we have to make our excuses and leave the restaurant at top speed…

So remember that, whilst free food is irresistible, you should always season your desire for a cheap eat with a little caution, especially when traveling. The old adage is true: there is no such thing as a free lunch (or breakfast).

There are few things worse than being violently ill in the middle of a country where no one speaks your language. Far from home. Far from healthcare you trust… And wearing most of your raw-seafood breakfast.

That is almost never a good look. :0)

* * *

So, that’s all from me on this particular displaced Q! Now it’s your turn! What experiences have you had in your search for cheap eats around the world? Any tasty morsels? Anything we should avoid? Any scrumptious stories…? We’d love to hear from you! You can also hit us up on Twitter: @TonyJamesSlater +/or @displacednation.

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, the second part of a two-part travel yarn about two madcap Indonesian ladies who are taking Japan by storm!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Img: The contents of Tony James Slater’s shopping bag, taken on 9 September 2012 in his current home of Perth, Australia.

A day in the life of an expat writer

So, today I’ve been asked to share with you all what it’s like to be an expat writer. I looked around for a real writer to ask, but they’re notoriously hard to spot in the middle of the day, so I’m afraid you’re stuck with me. Currently, I’m working on a sequel to my first book, That Bear Ate My Pants! — a second light-hearted travelogue that covers my volunteering adventures in Thailand (amongst other things).

The fantasy:

It is, as you can well imagine, an extremely glamorous life, full of high-octane car chases, explosions and pithy one-liners… At least, inside my head it is.

The reality:

I wake up at 6:40 a.m. I’ve no choice, because that’s what time my wife wakes up. Much as I would love to moan at her about it, she’s doing it for me — in fact, she gets up, gets breakfast and goes out to work, all in the name of supporting me while I lounge around at home, pretending to be a writer.

So, yeah, I figure it’s best not to grumble.

Even though it’s bloody freezing at 7 a.m.!

It continues to surprise me that it can be this cold in Australia. Who knew? (But I’ve already written a post about that.)

At random intervals throughout the day I receive instructions from the wife via text message.

“It’s sunny out! Go for a walk.”

“It’s raining — bring the washing in!”

“Don’t forget to clean the bathroom today!”

“Eat something!”

It’s because she loves me, but also because she’s lived with me long enough to know that I’m an idiot. Without these helpful prompts she’d get home to find I’d tweeted my heart out, e-mailed everyone I know in this hemisphere and written thousands of words of my new manuscript — but that I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast.

Then, when she takes me to the gym, I end up fainting halfway through the class.

Oz is for artists

Australia is an amazing place for such a wide variety of reasons that I could fill this entire blog post waffling about them; but there’s one stand-out fact that makes a real difference at this point.

The wages here are good. Very good. So good, in fact, that my wife, working part time as a cleaner, can comfortably support us both!

Now, we’ve been backpackers long enough to know how to live frugally. We rent the room on the top floor of a share-house, for example, rather than splashing out on our own flat. (Hey, it’s a nice share-house, not a rat-infested dump like most of them!)

Other than that, I’d say we do okay. We eat out plenty, go to parties and the cinema, and have a gym membership so ridiculously expensive I sweat more thinking about it than I do using it — but we manage it all quite comfortably, on one part-time wage. (Ever since sales of my book took off in February, I’ve been earning just about a minimum wage from it; before then, it was pocket change!)

I’ve never found another country where this is possible.

Back to my productive morning

After wading through a mountain of emails, tweets and Facebook messages — some of which aren’t even spam — I finally get to start on the real work. And then…

10:00 a.m.: Check my sales.
10:02 a.m.: Shout “WOOHOO!” unnecessarily loudly, pissing off my student friend in the next room, who doesn’t have to be up ’till 12:00.
10:05 a.m.: Celebrate with a coffee.
10:10 a.m : Back to work, until…
10:30 a.m.: Check sales again — just to be sure I wasn’t imagining things.
10:32 a.m.: Wake up student again with another cry of “Woohoo!”
10:35a.m.: Celebrate with another coffee…

There is a compulsion amongst self-published authors to constantly check our sales and our Amazon rankings. This is because, unlike “properly” published authors, we have access to this information in real time. Watching sales tick up one by one — or watching them stubbornly refuse to do so — is a highly addictive (and utterly pointless) pastime.

I DO NOT suffer from this.

I check less than five times a day — except on the days when I check more often. Which is quite often.

But I don’t suffer from the compulsion. At all.

I also don’t do denial.

The sounds of silence

So, we’ve reached lunch. Or rather, we should have. By this time I’m usually quite deep into the world I’m writing in — which for me is my own torrid past. Having to nail it down so completely, with colors and gestures and remembering what people said, sends me into such a vivid re-living of the event I’m describing that I lose all track of time.

If I don’t get that text from my wife telling me to eat, I don’t eat lunch.

Which is one reason why I’m so skinny, despite sitting in front of my desk all day.

When I do get the text, it scares the hell out of me.

I’m usually sitting in silence. I can’t work with music on, or else I end up listening to the lyrics and, inevitably, singing along with gusto. As the student in the next room can attest, I’m one of the worst singers in the entire country. Maybe even the world.

So all is calm and quiet. Only the rhythmic clacking of keys disturbs the air as I try to produce 2,000 words (my daily minimum) — 2,000 good words (5-6 pages), not random churned-out waffle. Then my phone screeches at me and I jump three feet off my chair, in a move that amazes anyone lucky enough to see it happen.

“How the hell do you jump that high while you’re sitting down?” they ask.

“You must have some potent muscles in your arse!”

“Why thank-you,” I tell them. “It’s all the practice I get, talking out of it.”

A man works from sun to sun…

My wife gets home and takes me out to the gym. I rely on her because I can’t drive. Actually, I tell a lie: I can now. I took a test last December (my first, at age 33) and passed with flying colors. But I haven’t driven since, so I tend to rely on her — not just for money but as a taxi service, too.

Poor woman.

Anyway, we only have one car. Or more accurately, about two-thirds of a car; it’s gotten considerably shorter since she crashed it into the back of the taxi a few months ago. But it still works, so what’s the problem?

Although I do have to put my hand under the bonnet to start it.

After the gym — assuming we’re not going straight out for dinner with friends, to pile all the calories we’ve just burnt back on at Nando’s (for those who don’t know, it’s a fried chicken chain) — we wend our weary way home.

She cooks, and I clean up afterwards because a) she’s been cleaning all day, and b) I can’t cook for toffee. Seriously — beans on toast is the pinnacle of my culinary ability. And I usually burn at least one component of it.

While she cooks, I finish off whatever piece of writing was rudely interrupted by the end of her working day.

But social media is never done!

After dinner I tweet, do Facebook, and send e-mail — but from the comfort of our bed, where we sit with our legs propped up watching a movie.

And we’re often also eating ice cream, because if you’re going to go to the gym four times a week, you might as well make it worthwhile. :0)

And then it’s 10:00 p.m.: well-earned sleep time for the wife. After all, she’s got to be up at 6:40 the next morning.

So I tuck her in and sneak downstairs, where I carry on twittering, writing the odd guest post, sending out review copies of my book to bloggers, replying to e-mails from readers, making posts on forums and indulging in my two main vices: drinking a glass of wine and allowing myself to write a bit of my first novel, a work of science fiction, which I hope one day to publish. Right now it’s just a guilty pleasure for when I’ve finished my “real” writing. Ah, good times!

At around 2:00 a.m. I generally remember that I’ll be getting up at 6:00 as well, as it’s impossible to get back to sleep after seeing the wife off to work; it’s also usually around this time that someone living in a far more sensible time-zone strikes up an interesting conversation on Twitter…

But I try to be in bed by 4:00.

I don’t always make it.

Y’see? I told you! Pure, unadulterated glamour…

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Images (clockwise, left to right): TJS’s desk, TJS in embarrassing gym costume, the Slater-mobile, and TJS’s long-suffering wife, Krista, in her wild pants and equally wild hair (all from Tony James Slater’s personal collection).

In search of Spanish paradise, Joe Cawley finds his salsa in the writing life

Hands up, anyone who’s ever thought of jacking it all in — running away to a paradise island, opening a bar and living the easy life?

I know I have. So many times! Thank God I didn’t, though, because Joe Cawley got there first and wrote a book about it — and in the process discovered that the easy life is not quite as idyllic as you’d imagine. In fact, it was terrifying!

Joe’s book, More Ketchup Than Salsa: Confessions of a Tenerife Barman, is a hilarious account of his decision to trade in working in a cold fish market in Bolton, Lancashire, England, for running a bar in the sunshine of Tenerife, the largest and most populous of Spain’s Canary Islands. Accompanied by his girlfriend, Joy, Joe anticipates a paradise of sea, sand and siestas — but instead ends up with a life of chaos, full of crazy locals, irritating expats, gangsters, con men, and the endless nightmare of Spanish bureaucracy.

It’s a great book, and I loved it.

Today we’re lucky enough to feature an interview with Joe that was published the week before last on the excellent writing blog Woman On The Edge Of Reality. Linda Parkinson-Hardman is that edgy woman, and she has very graciously allowed me to share this interview with you — because Joe Cawley is a hero of mine! By the end of this, I’m sure he’ll be one of yours, too!!

Here’s Linda:

In More Ketchup than Salsa, Joe had me laughing so hard that I spilled a cup of tea all over the bed. His tale of travelling from Bolton Fish Market to Tenerife, Costa del Bognor, opens up the can of worms that most of us never even consider when we are sitting sipping coffee on a terrace and dreaming. His daily battles with cockroaches, the local mafia, animals and the never-ending variety of people that stepped through his door, was the wake-up call I needed to think again about what it was I might just do if I ever decided to take the plunge and live abroad. This is the perfect book to take on holiday with you especially if you are already planning to make that move.

Hello, Joe, and welcome to the hot seat. As you know, I start every interview off with the same question: “What is one thing that no one would usually know about you?”
That I was once appeared as an alien in a US TV commercial for Chevrolet. Not the proudest moment of my life, or the most comfortable. I had to stand outside in 100 degree heat painted from head to toe in silver and wearing a silicone head extension. I’ve looked better.

What did the best review you ever had say about you and your work?
That More Ketchup than Salsa was: “Fantastic, hilarious, painful. Completely un-put-downable. Probably the best book I have read this millennium!” And no, it wasn’t written by me. Or my mother. (Linda’s Aside: I have to agree, it was brilliant and I’m looking forward to a sequel.)

How did you choose a title for your book?
I was at the Carnival in Tenerife watching lithe Latinos strutting their stuff to the salsa beats. A pocket of Brits were trying to copy, but their movements were all over the place and sloppy. I thought it looked more like ketchup than salsa.

Have you ever wished that you could be or do anything else instead of writing, and if so what?
Absolutely not. I love it…best job in the world. Although if pushed, I’d say drummer in a rock band. I nearly got there with that one but was foiled by a bowl of sugar, a broken tooth and an over-zealous immigration official.

Have you ever written naked?
Hell yeah! I often wake up in the middle of the night with some inspired idea for a chapter. And not being one for pyjamas, I’ll sit butt naked at my desk and write for hours while my dog gives me quizzical looks. I try to finish up before the postman arrives though.

Do you have any hints or tips for aspiring writers?
Write. The difference between “aspiring writers” and “writers” is that the latter have finished something.

What has been the best experience you have ever had in your life?
Apart from having two gorgeous kids, I’d have to say sleeping in an open-sided hut in the Peruvian Amazon while a tropical lightning storm exploded all around me.

Are you jealous of other writers?
Not jealous, but definitely inspired. D. H. Lawrence was my first inspiration. I just love the way he paints with words. Bill Bryson was my second. In fact I’m inspired by any author who has great success. It makes me think there’s no reason why I can’t do it.

What was the most important thing you learned at school?
Kissing girls who wear braces can be painful. (Linda’s Aside: Oh dear, I was one of those girls!)

What is the book that you wished you had written?
The Bible. Though I’d have included full-page photos. It would make it seem all that more believable.

Tea, coffee, water, juice, wine or beer: which do you prefer when writing?
Water while writing during the day, wine for creative stints in the evening. And maybe the odd Jack Daniels and Coke or single malt if I’m feeling very pleased with myself.

* * *

So, readers, any further questions for Joe — especially from an expat or travel perspective?

You can meet Joe online on his author site; you can also read his work in The Sunday Times, Telegraph, Independent, Express, New York Post, and Taipei Times; and/or you can join him on Twitter: @theWorldofJoe

You can also download the book onto your Kindle from More Ketchup than Salsa from Amazon UK or Amazon US.

What are you waiting for? You’ve still got two weeks of summer left! And thanks again to Linda for letting us share this awesome interview.

STAY TUNED for a guest post tomorrow from long-time friend of the Displaced Nation, cultural writer/producer Anastasia Ashman.

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Christmas in July & other Winter’s Tales from an expat Down Under

After sweltering through America’s hottest July on record, three of us Displaced Nation writers have been imploring the fourth, Tony James Slater, for some cooling stories from his newly adopted home of Perth, Australia.

I noticed a Christmas tree in my gym a couple of weeks ago. I wondered what the hell it was doing there, until some kind staff member — presumably on hearing me curse in the middle of the foyer — decided to enlighten me.

Christmas in July, the Aussies call it — for no apparent reason other than that most countries celebrate Christmas when it’s freezing cold outside, with snow on the ground and cards covered in penguins and polar bears decorating the mantle piece.

July is as cold as it gets in Perth. The temperature — sometimes — dips into the single digits overnight, and we wake up to a sensation overly familiar to a Brit like me: not wanting to get up because it’s warmer in bed!

Once upon a time, when I made my first visit to Oz from Thailand, all those years ago, I arrived (in my infinite wisdom) in June. At 6:00 a.m.

I had no idea Australia had seasons. From the postcards and other literature, I’d assumed it was the Land of Eternal Summer.

It was achingly cold, pouring it down with rain — and I was wearing a pair of shorts and a vest [tank top], because that’s all the clothing I owned!

I’m now super careful when advising my friends who plan on visiting: “Don’t come November to February,” I tell them. “It’ll be way too hot. You won’t be able to breathe.

But don’t come June to August either — it’ll be too cold! And all sensible Australians will be holed up inside with our mitts wrapped around a hot cup of Milo.”

Mmmmmm…. Have you ever had Milo? It’s a hot chocolate malt drink. I must say, it really hits the spot this time of year.

Storm warning!

We have our blistering hot summers, too, down in Oz. In fact, the whole country is geared around this inevitability. That may be why no one seems quite prepared for the winter.

It rains, of course — it has to, otherwise we’d be in an even worse state come summer. But no one here is quite ready for it when it does.

Take the Great Perth Storm of 2012, for example. Several weeks ago now, there was a severe weather warning issued. Businesses closed early. Employees scurried home, fearing what would happen if they were caught in traffic when The Big One hit. By the time it started raining, the streets were deserted – which was probably a good thing. Boy, did it rain! It rained, and rained, and the good folk of Perth cowered indoors, until…the rain stopped.

And that was it.

I honestly think half of them didn’t expect to survive it.

They were most upset when they had to drive to work the next morning, through rapidly drying puddles.

The four seasons in one day

But let’s not get carried away; to those of you fanning yourselves under an air-con unit, wishing you’d remembered to get it serviced before the heat-wave hit, I can sympathize — it’s not exactly cold here all the time.

Even in winter, the middle of each day is quite pleasant — probably what you’d call “beach weather” on most of the rest of the planet.

Charles Dickens’s description of an English springtime seems most appropriate:

It was one of those [March] days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.

Have you ever worn a hat indoors?

Perhaps because of this, the houses here are built without insulation, and without any form of central heating. Most of them have a little wood-burning stove in a corner of the family room, but that’s it — and of course no double glazing!

Houses built like this in Europe would never pass the building code, but it seems that the housing industry here just doesn’t worry about it. Yeah, sure, they’re building houses that’ll be a bit cold in winter. But the owners can always wear a jumper! Or, as frequently happens when we visit my father-in-law in his house in the Perth hills, a scarf, gloves and a beanie…

In an unheated, un-insulated house at night, there are only two things to do — and one of them doesn’t really belong on a public forum like this. The other, of course, is to wear as many layers as you can — kind of like you’re going hiking in a blizzard — and try to keep exposed flesh to a bare (sorry!) minimum.

Of course, this being winter, you can find that blizzard. Just about. There’s nothing between the bottom of Australia and the top of Antarctica, so our southern seas get a little chilly around now. We have snow-capped mountains – okay, we have a snow-capped mountain. Sometimes…

But the scene over in neighboring New Zealand is a little frostier!

In fact, my sister is there right now, training to be a skiing instructor.

And because the architecture over there is mostly derived from what we have over here…her house also doesn’t have any heating either.

All things being equal…

I’m content to be cold once in a while. It reminds me of home — just a little, in a slightly-chilled-’till-the-sun-comes-up kind of way. Not like actually being back in England — where, even though it’s summer, I think it’s colder than here… I mean, did you see that beach volleyball tournament? Only in London could they import twenty tonnes of sand and play beach sports in torrential rain…in bikinis.

Now there’s a refreshing image!

So instead of feeling sorry for yourselves over there in sweltering America, please do feel pity for us over here. After the terrible inconvenience of our slightly chilly winter, we have plenty of other ordeals to face — like Christmas on the beach!

* * *

So tell me: would you rather be here — or where you are right now? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter: @DisplacedNation +/or @TonyJamesSlater. Now back to my nice mug of Milo before it gets cold — cheers!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Random Nomad, who, too, has some stories to help alleviate the effects of the heat…

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Main image:  “Polaroids” are all from Tony James Slater’s collection: The Great Perth Storm of 2012; Tony’s wife, Roo, asleep in her dad’s house in the hills of Perth (2012); Tony & Roo celebrating Christmas on Cottesloe Beach, near Perth, Australia (December 2011).

THE DISPLACED Q: As an expat, do you ever get confused about which team to support at the Olympics?

The long-anticipated Games of the XXX Olympiad, also known as London 2012, are now in full swing. Some members of the Displaced Nation team are looking a tad bleary eyed after staying up late several nights in a row to watch their favorite events (gymnastics, anyone? or how about some synchronized diving?).

Maybe we’re getting grouchy from the lack of sleep, but we’re beginning to engage in some surprisingly heated debates — surprising given how much we looked forward to the arrival of the Games.

Or perhaps it’s not surprising given that most, if not all, of us residents have confused, hybrid nationalities…

In any event, here’s my displaced question for YOU: What if an athlete or team from your native land ends up competing with one from your adopted country?

Now pay heed, because this could be important.

I studied in Cardiff, Wales, where this sort of thing can be a matter of life and death. I’m English y’see, and while Wales may be part of the United Kingdom, it’s also its own country. For which I can hardly blame it…

Historically, Wales and England have not been the best of friends — in fact in one English city, it’s still legal to shoot a Welshman with a bow and arrow at certain times of the year.

For some reason it’s one law they just keep forgetting to appeal…

To say the English have treated the Welsh unfairly is…well, fair. We were utter bastards to them back in the day, as we were to pretty much every other civilization with which we came into contact. That’s why they all rose up and threw us out at various points in time.

Unfortunately, we haven’t learned our lesson — that infamous stiff upper lip isn’t the only national trait we’re known for. Yes, we Brits are an arrogant lot — legendarily so — and never more so than in the arena of international sport.

Luckily we’re not very good at most of it, or we’d have been involved in even more wars.

The art of living dangerously in a country of sore losers

But the Welsh, alas, aren’t much better; on the contrary, they have a horrible habit of being even worse than we are. Rugby is supposed to be their game, yet we English keep beating them at it. And if you’re the only English bloke in the immediate vicinity shortly after such a humiliating defeat occurs…well, the Welsh aren’t known for having a magnanimous, forgiving nature. They are known, rather, as barbarian tribes so unruly that even the Romans couldn’t subjugate them.

I never once tried to subjugate anyone, but in my three years at university I was on the short end of a serious subjugation every time the Welsh lost to England. Which was depressingly often.

So, herein lies the dilemma: You’re an expat. Your birth-home team is playing your adopted-home team. Do you:
a) Cheer for the local team to curry popularity — even if you’re dying inside with every goal scored by the locals?
b) Cheer for your native country’s team to show character, and honesty, and that you’re not afraid – even if, inside, you are actually terrified at what the locals may do to you afterwards?
c) Find a nice, comfy hole to lie in for a week or so until all the excitement dies down? (Note: Not for heroes. I’ve been known to adopt this tactic.)

Both a) and b) are seriously risky strategies. When questioned by a drunk and excitable Welshman, approximately five feet tall and about the same girth — along with ten of his veteran drinking buddies — it was always something of a lottery. Declare for my homeland, and pray I was in better shape athletically (or at least less drunk) than any of them; or declare for Wales, and risk getting beaten up anyway because they thought I was taking the mickey.

My answer varied (like my patriotism) with the number of pints I’d drunk.

(Note to self: Singing “God Save The Queen” loudly in response is almost never a good idea, even if you are drunk enough to hardly feel a thing. And especially when you haven’t even bothered to learn the words…)

The art of not having an opinion

Thankfully, I have since come up with my patented Ultimate Solution™ to this problem, after years of suffering one way or the other — or sometimes both ways simultaneously — at the hands of my ancestral foes.

I don’t cheer for my home team. Either of them. Because to be honest, I don’t give two figs about a sport unless I’m actually playing it, and then if I win, at least I’m dressed in the right gear for running away.

Let’s break this strategy down a little more.

PRINCIPLE #1: CHEER FOR THE WINNERS, REGARDLESS OF NATIONALITY
Taking this approach means you can celebrate every goal. If “your” team loses, you’re not too heavily committed, having cheered equally for both sides in their best moments.

Indeed, no one will be 100% sure which side you’re on, and as you’ve shared at least a few cheers with their side, they’re bound to feel more kindly disposed towards you than if you’d been screaming obscenities at their favorite player.

The second, and even more important part of this strategy is:

PRINCIPLE #2: BE THE LOSER!

As Leo “The Lip” Durocher, manager of several Major League baseball teams, once said (in 1946):

Nice guys finish last.

It doesn’t matter who wins in the end. No, really, it doesn’t. That’s the whole point of the saying “It’s only a game!” — because it is.

And while some people honestly admire a winner, and are happy to let them enjoy their well-earned celebration, in my experience most people have a bitter spot in their hearts for those who beat them — or their team. And it’s not a healthy place to be for anyone — basically, they can’t stand someone who beats them.

But everyone loves a loser.

If your birth-home team loses, be the humble eater-of-pie. Congratulate your new-found compatriots and maybe let slip — in an unguarded moment — that you knew they would win anyway as you’d had a horrible feeling that they were actually a much better team.

And if your adopted-home team loses — join them in commiserating. Because let’s face it, people from your home country are a bunch of so and sos — except you, of course. Which is why you’re here, and not there… “They” never play fairly. One day, hopefully soon, the local team will show ‘em who’s boss. And until then, well, you might as well drown your sorrows with the rest of the losers…

Either way it goes, you get points for being a good sportsman. That’s what I call winning by default.

* * *

Okay, readers, now it’s your turn to weigh in on this vexed question. Do you ever feel confused about who you should be rooting for at the Olympics, or is this a moment when blind nationalism sets in, and it’s your home athlete/team or nothing?

Tell me what you think!

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, another in our “expat moment” series…

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Image: MorgueFile

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