Joy in the Ashes of nationalism

Nationalism is a scourge on the planet, dividing people along arbitrary lines in order to stir up hatred and xenophobia, justify conflicts and reinforce the gap between the haves and the have-nots of this world.

Except when it comes to cricket. Then it’s just a right laugh, innit?

The second annual Balkan Ashes – fought out yesterday on a wildly unpredictable pitch amid the industrial estates of outer-suburban Belgrade – served as the perfect stage for that light-hearted, sporting kind of nationalism between two countries that hopefully won’t be bombing each other any time soon: England and Australia. Even I, a self-declared ‘citizen of the world’ (*vomit*), felt a sense of national pride burning in my heart as I took to the field, although that could’ve just as easily been indigestion.

Despite this, the nationalism on display during this Ashes showdown was thoroughly confused. England followed hilariously in the footsteps of its national team by a selecting a line-up consisting primarily of overseas-born players. Australia’s squad was a bit more on point, consisting of eight Aussies and three Serbs who work at the Australian embassy. However, our choice to wear a shirt that resembled a knock-off New Zealand cricket uniform didn’t exactly fill our supporters with that green and gold pride.

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The Aussie flag was … well, not really flying, but it was there.

The match started with fireworks (not literally, although most events in this country do involve pyrotechnics). Our opening batsman, Richard, did his chances of getting a British working visa a world of harm by smashing the ambassador for 22 off the first over, then duly retiring. The fact that the slaughter was being filmed by a local TV crew didn’t look great for anyone.

Things swung back England’s way in the second over, with youngster Jovan Reb claiming the scalp of our other opener, Stefan, for a duck. It was perhaps the first Ashes wicket in history to involve neither an Australian nor an Englishman …

Andrew and Isabelle ticked the scoreboard along for a few overs of leg byes and late cuts, until the former fell to a thunderbolt from the Bowler Formerly Known as Prince (he’s legit called Prince – what a name!).

That brought me to the crease. Those of you who’ve played cricket with me in Australia will know that I’ve carved a very comfortable niche for myself at number 10, with a set of batting skills that includes a shaky defence, a lack of attacking shots and a terrible temperament. My promotion to number 5 in this match was part of a cunning plan from our captain Glenn, which was duly described as “I’m not sure if anyone else knows how to bat”.

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I usually bat best when there are no opposition players on the field.

Despite having become very good at being a rubbish batsman over the course of my career, I managed to make a decent fist of this innings. Yes, there were a few edges and near misses, but I actually hit a few boundaries, too, and nearly even clunked a six. I’m pretty sure me hitting a six is one of the harbingers of the apocalypse, so let’s be thankful that I made it to retirement without bringing the world to an end.

Australia’s next – and unfortunately last – significant partnership came between two mates who are named for the big moments: Tony King and Paul Champion. The NSW duo blasted a partnership of around 35, with Champion smashing sixes and King lording it over the Englishmen with his master strokeplay. Unfortunately both fell just short of retirement, leaving our vulnerable tail exposed.

After losing our last few wickets in quick succession, Richard returned to the fray, only to be bowled attempting a hoick across the line. I went back in as the final wicket, and almost straight away spooned a simple catch to the British captain, Andy. Thankfully Andy was feeling generous and decided to give me another life. Glenn was dismissed soon after – leaving me with an unbeaten innings that my average DEFINITELY needed – and we were all out for the not particularly great score of 101.

At this point I should point out how amazing the lunch buffet was. There were mountains of cevapi, kilos of kobasice, clusters of kajmak and even VEGEMITE SCROLLS. During the innings break I forgot about the match and ate myself blind for 15 minutes, until I eventually had to roll back onto the field. If cricket matches can be judged by their spread, this was Undoubtedly The Greatest Match Of All Time.

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Cricket is great, but it’s NOTHING without lunch!

There was tension in the air as the English openers strode out to begin their tricky but gettable chase. They got off to a bright start, taking Glenn and myself for some nice singles and well-placed boundaries in the first few overs. The fourth over proved the charm, however, with a few quick yorkers and a (quite dubious) LBW decision giving Yours Truly three wickets from four balls.

A few more wickets fell, leaving England looking shaky until Eddy Lee and Stefan Nerandzic came to the crease for a stabilising partnership. Eddy – the Kevin Pietersen of the England team, both in terms of batting prowess and South African accent – was his usual composed self, picking off runs where possible and proving fiendishly difficult to dismiss. He and Stefan rotated the strike prudently, notching up the runs and looking solid in their partnership. Finally, some genius field placement from Richard and crafty bowling from Glenn brought an end to Stefan, and victory was in sight for the Aussies.

Eddy’s retirement on 20 lasted only about an over as the England tale collapsed, bringing him back onto the pitch for one last stand. However, Eddy’s partner couldn’t hang in there, with Tony King taking his second wicket to wrap up the match for the Aussies. Two wickets to Richard, as well as scalps to Glenn and Paul Champion, rounded out an even Australian bowling card.

The celebrations were raucous, and Yours Truly had his first cold tinnie in hand about 30 seconds after the final wicket fell. After surrendering the Ashes to England last year, the Aussies had regained the urn with a 101 to 64 victory!

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A gallant England side was beaten by the Australians, who looked sharp in their Kiwi shirts …

Champion once again lived up to his name by claiming the award for the best Australian player, while Simon clinched the honours for England. Their prizes were two pieces of ‘art’ – a hand-stitched deer and a drawing of a wolf – which will surely bring untold light and colour to the basements they end up in …

Overall, the social atmosphere (as well as the amazing food and drink on offer) meant that the Balkan Ashes was more than just a cricket match. A huge amount of credit should go to Glenn Morrison and Andy Richardson for their monumental efforts in organising the event. I’m sure we all look forward to eating, drinking and (I guess) playing cricket when the Balkan Ashes comes around again in 2018.

And as for nationalism? It’s still totally stupid, but it never seems quite so bad when you end up on the winning side …

Why you absolutely should not get a concussion in Eastern Europe

It’s a matter of personal – well, not pride – but I guess interest that for all three days of my life I’ve spent in Budapest, I’ve seen a member of the public bleeding from their head. I know, what a world we live in …

The first of these bloody Budapest bungles occurred in December 2011, at about 4:30 am. My mate Josh and I had just arrived on a night train and were wandering the cold, dark city, hostel-less and looking for some kind of food/Wi-Fi combination. We’d successfully found the first component of our goal and were enjoying an unidentified pastry in an all-night bakery when we heard an almighty THWACK outside.

Naturally, we poked our heads out to see what was going on. What we saw was a middle-aged, definitely drunk, probably homeless man groaning in the gutter, blood oozing through what little hair he had remaining. Standing over him in stunned hopelessness was a slightly younger man who was clearly the driver responsible for hitting him. There was no one else around.

What unfolded over the next hour or so was pure Tragicomedy™. We asked the driver somewhat ambitiously if he spoke English, then upon receiving a bemused shrug in response, mimed the internationally recognised hand-to-ear signal for “telephone” while slowly and loudly saying variations of the word “AMBULANCE”. Nothing. Nada. Realising that the guy was too dumbstruck to apply even the most straightforward common sense to the situation, we went back into the bakery to ask for some help.

The conversation with the bakery woman went something like this:

Us: Do you speak English?

Woman: Little.

Us: Could you please call an ambulance for the man outside?

Woman: No.

Us: What? But he’s been hit by a car and is bleeding from his head!

Woman: No.

Us: Fuck’s sake!

Back outside, the dimwitted driver had still failed to grasp the idea that he should probably do something to help the guy he’d knocked over. A few more attempts at cross-cultural communication ensued, culminating in something along the lines of “CALL A GOD DAMN AMBULANCE YOU FUCKING SPANNER!” That worked …

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Hungarian: hard enough to understand at the best of times …

Unfortunately the concept of ‘urgency’ doesn’t seem to have a translation in the Hungarian language (actually, according to Google Translate it’s sürgősség. Seriously …). So while the poor victim lolled around in the gutter, probably concussed and definitely still bleeding, we waited for 40 excruciating minutes. I wrapped my jacket around the homeless guy, endowing it with a potent odour that to this day remains ingrained in its lining …

Finally the ambulance rocked up and the driver got out, with a look in his eyes that said “You thought this was a farce? You ain’t seen nothing yet!”. He proceeded to STEP OVER the victim, shake the driver’s hand and engage him in a five-minute chat so friendly that I surmised they must actually be mates. Then (and I will always remember this moment ‘til the day I die) he went over and INSPECTED THE CAR FOR DAMAGE WHILE THE VICTIM LAY ON THE GROUND, STILL BLEEDING. Josh and I protested by asking “What the fuck are you doing??”, which I assume the medic translated in his mind as “Is the car okay?”. Finally, the ambulance driver gave the victim the most cursory of examinations, told him to get up and made him GET IN THE AMBULANCE BY HIMSELF while he finished chatting with his mate.

This introduction to Budapest taught me to never, ever call for a Hungarian ambulance unless I wanted to put my worst enemy through pure hell …

***

Having spent only the one day in Budapest in 2011, I returned in 2015 for a couple of days with my family, determined to see the city in a fresh, less blood-soaked light. That optimism lasted for approximately eight hours …

After dark had fallen, I decided to take a stroll around my inner-city neighbourhood, not realising that I was in Crack Central. This soon became apparent when I saw a couple of druggies having that kind of loud, public argument that transcends the language barrier. I instinctively swerved away from the shouting match, but just before I could make a clean escape, the female addict performed an absolute 10 out of 10 body slam on the poor, innocent ground.

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Gotta love a good old druggie argument.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone’s reflexes give up so thoroughly as hers did in that moment. Within a split second she’d gone from perfectly vertical to perfectly horizontal, in as smooth an arc as the minute hand on a clock. She wasn’t pushed; she fell as rigidly as a plank of timber, with her drugged-out mind not even capable of thrusting her hands out to break her fall. The crack of her skull hitting the pavement still rings vividly in my mind.

I’d like to say I responded heroically, but in fact my first thought was “Are you fucking kidding me? Do I really have to deal with this?”. I saw a clearly sober woman who’d seen the incident walking briskly through the square, so I stopped her and asked if she spoke English. “No,” she said, not breaking stride. As she hurried off I wondered if she was some horrible reincarnation of the bakery woman …

I was bracing myself to deal with more Hungarian head blood, more miming and the even harder task of trying to some kind of sense out of a non-English-speaking junkie when my saviour arrived. From across the square, a police officer – clearly bound by his job to offer help as unenthusiastically as possible – arrived to look after the woman, who was alive and moving, although probably still in some unfathomable alternate reality. I felt obliged to ask the officer if I could help, but when he told me it was all under control I pretty much jumped for joy and headed straight off to get some food. For some reason I felt like a jam doughnut …

***

Another day, another Hungarian head wound. By the time I saw this third incident I wondered how I still didn’t know the Hungarian word for “HELP!” or have the emergency services number saved in my phone.

Actually, this was the briefest but saddest of all my Hungarian headscapades. I was heading down the escalator of a relatively crowded metro station when, a few steps in front of me, an old woman totally stacked it and hit her head. Another woman – I’m assuming her daughter – helped her straight up. She was conscious, but was bleeding from her scalp and was clearly dazed and disoriented, to the point where she must’ve had some kind of concussion.

At the bottom of the escalator, a German girl and I tried to help the women who, of course, didn’t speak English. I was quite shaken up by how clearly disoriented the head-woundee was, but her daughter seemed completely unalarmed, almost jovial about the whole incident. Before we’d had time to gather our thoughts, the daughter was leading her blood-soaked mother down to the platform, and the German stranger and I were left wondering how anybody can survive a day in this fucking country without wearing a helmet …

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My standard travel attire from now on.

The reason I’m writing about this today is that, about two hours ago, I saw a large crowd gathered outside the pizza joint on the main street of my neighbourhood in Belgrade. A 50-something man was lying on the ground, breathing but essentially unresponsive, with a welt of red blood spreading through his short grey hair. I didn’t see him fall, but my assumption is that he fainted from the heat and whacked his head on the way down.

At least 10 people were gathered around the bloke, but it was clear that none of us really knew what to do. Several women were fanning him with pizza boxes, while others tried splashing water over his face and body. One woman was holding his hand and calling out to him: “Gospodin, gospodin!” (“Mister, mister!”). Nothing worked.

The longer we went without a response and the longer it took for the ambulance to arrive, the more worried I became. I also realised how completely useless I was in this situation, with no understanding of what the man required from a first aid perspective. My Serbian vocabulary for dealing with head wounds was, I discovered, non-existent.

Of course, an ambulance had been called, but it seemed to be operating on the ‘Budapest’ level of urgency and was taking an eternity to arrive. To add another element of ridiculousness to the situation, we were about 300 m from a hospital. It would’ve literally been quicker to haul the guy into a shopping trolley and take him there ourselves.

Thankfully, this story ends as well as it could. After a wait of at least 20 minutes, which seemed more like 20 hours, an ambulance finally arrived. Like a sleeping princess awakened by the kiss of a charming prince, the victim started to move and talk upon the arrival of the plain-clothes medics, who moved him onto an incredibly unstable-looking stretcher and into the back of the ambulance.

As the crowd dispersed, relieved, I wondered if the incident would stop me from enjoying the ice coffee I’d been so looking forward to (it didn’t). If anything, it was a sobering reminder that, as much as I love this part of the world, there are certain things that you just don’t want to have to deal with when you’re overseas, and a concussion is high up on that list. So you’ll understand if for the rest of my travelling days you see me sporting some protective headgear, like the trend-setting fashionista I am …

Love, peace and joy,

TT

The road will provide

The wind blows in harsh gusts and spurts across nothing; not just the absence of anything, but rather the beautiful, mind-warping manifestation of true emptiness. For as far as the watering eye can see there is absolutely nothing save for the road, a wonky scar leading over the horizon and into oblivion. Ankle-high shrubs fight for survival amid swathes of dirt, but not a single tree breaks the flat, sweeping vista. This is a deep sigh of a landscape, where stresses melt and minds open under star-filled skies.

The eagle gliding high above sees a small black dot by the road – me – next to an even smaller red dot – my bag. I’ve been here for about 45 minutes, contemplating the vastness of it all as I sweat through the lining of my arctic puffer jacket. Like a poorly microwaved steak I’m both burning and frozen; cooking under the harsh sun but shivering in the relentless wind.

I’m roughly two thirds of the way through my ambitious plan to hitchhike across the steppe between Kazakhstan’s two most prominent cities. My thumb, inshallah, will take me from the sci-fi northern capital of Astana to historic, mountain-rimmed Almaty, a 1214 km route equivalent to travelling overland from London to Vienna. Google Maps had given me the illusion that I’d be cruising along an intercity highway, but the reality of potholed roads, police checkpoints and unexpected turnoffs has caused me to temper my expectations.

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The road, a wonky scar leading over the horizon and into oblivion.

So far the journey has lasted nearly 24 hours, with no fewer than eight drivers offering me lifts of varying lengths to where I now sit – The Middle of Nowhere, population: me. This current wait has been the longest of the trip so far, each driver meeting my upturned thumb with a shrug or a laugh or an apologetic smile, but none yet prepared to pull over and fling open the passenger door. I’m not worried, though; I have faith that the road will provide.

In fact, the road has already provided. Its bounties began at the edge of Astana, where I was picked up by a jolly 30-something man whose name, like those of all my chauffeurs, has already escaped my tired, blurred mind. His 15-minute lift turned into an hour-long lunch as he took me via his village to sample some of his wife’s home cooking, his laughing Buddha face lighting up at my gestures of approval. My next ride gave me a pen; the following was an ethnic Chechen whose frenetic traditional music rattled the doors of his rusty Lada.

On the outskirts of Karagandy I received a gesture of hospitality that will never cease to puzzle and delight me. Hanging awkwardly off the back of a roundabout, I’d been struggling to catch the attention of drivers until a shiny 4WD pulled over, its owner hurriedly beckoning me inside. The young blond man barked Russian at me, seemingly admonishing me for my choice of spot and indicating that he knew a better one up ahead.

Not two minutes later we pulled into a nice-looking restaurant. Now apologetic, the driver explained that he couldn’t take me any further before promptly ordering and paying for a large meal – for me. Stunned, I watched as this surprise lunch-provider I’d known for all of five minutes smiled, wished me a safe trip then disappeared back to the road.

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Waiting for the road to provide.

It was in the back of a sputtering green truck that the bulk of the ground was covered, slowly. My wacky Kyrgyz drivers picked me up outside Karagandy, their probing questions and lewd jokes crossing the language barrier. They too bought me a meal – my third free feast for the day – and let me curl up in their cabin until the sun rose and it was time to throw myself once again at the mercy of the road …

My reverie is broken by the appearance of lights on the horizon. Could this be my saviour? I wait for what seems like an eternity as the fleck approaches, growing bigger and eventually … slowing down! I grab my bag in that mad, beautiful hitchhiker’s dash and hop in. The road has provided – what more does it have in store?

A Tragic™ guide to hitchhiking

In case you didn’t already know, I quite like hitchhiking. It’s important to let people know that you like hitchhiking and that you’re adventurous enough to try it because you’re such a bohemian free spirit – otherwise, what’s the point?

There are a few reasons why I like hitchhiking. The first is obvious: it’s free. If you’ve ever seen me swoop mercilessly on your leftovers at a restaurant, you’ll know exactly how much I love free stuff. Getting something for free is like getting a blowjob for the soul.

I should also point out that hitchhiking is amazing in that it turns every humdrum A-to-B journey into an adventure. You never know who you’ll meet, where you’ll end up or when your next ride will pull over. You’ll get a true sense of the country you’re travelling in by interacting with locals from all walks of life, and you’ll end up in some towns or villages that you would NEVER have set foot in otherwise. Also, did I mention it’s free?

If you’re reading this and thinking “I want to be just as much of a pretentious wanker as you!” then you’ve come to the right place. Here’s my comprehensively Tragic™ guide to hitchhiking, replete with everything you need to know for your next adventure/ego trip.

  1. Tell everyone you’re about to go hitchhiking

I CAN’T EMPHASISE ENOUGH HOW IMPORTANT THIS IS! If you want to build up your reputation as a hippie bohemian nomad superstar, you have to talk the talk before you walk the walk. The best way to do this is to subtly slip the word hitchhiking into any conversation you have in the days leading up to your trip.

Me: “Oh cool, yeah that’s really good news. Anyway, I’m gunna head down to Sarajevo next week for a few days. No biggie. It’ll be nice to see the city again and catch up with a few friends. I’m thinking of hitchhiking. Have you had a chance to check out Sarajevo before?”

Friend: “No, I’ve never been … Sorry, did you say you were going to hitchhike there?”

Me: “Yeah, you know, it’s kinda this thing I do. It’s just a cool way to turn your trip into an adventure …”

BOOM! Suddenly you’ve got them eating out of your hand, thinking you’re some sort of modern-day Marco Polo. Make sure you have this conversation with as many people as possible before you head off, then let the rumour mill do the rest – soon you’ll be everyone’s favourite free spirit.

  1. Find a tasty piece of cardboard from a dumpster

Rifling through people’s garbage gets you some pretty intense stares no matter where in the world you are. Nevertheless, when it comes to hitchhiking, the prize is worth the judgment. For your troubles you’ll be rewarded with the perfect cardboard sign, which with a bit of artistic flare you can turn into a one-way ticket to your destination.

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If you have a terrifying and unwashed beard, try to distract attention away from it by accessorising with a fedora and some sunnies.

Ideally you’re looking for a piece of cardboard that’s slightly larger than shoulder width and about a foot tall; something with enough space to write your destination in thick block letters. It’s important you use a thick pen so drivers can read your atrocious handwriting from afar. When I hitched to Sarajevo the other day (did I tell you I sometimes hitchhike?) I couldn’t find a thick pen and was genuinely considering writing a sign in my own blood, but I decided that flashing anonymous bodily fluids at passing cars probably didn’t encapsulate the happy-go-lucky image I was hoping to project …

It’s my policy now that if I ever see a tasty bit of cardboard by the roadside I’ll pick it up and save it for later. Admittedly, the question “Why does your room smell like damp cardboard?” can be awkward to answer, but then again almost no one ever sets foot in my room. If perchance a visitor does call in, I’m quick to let them know that actually it’s “the smell of freedom”.

Your cardboard can be useful for other things, too. Seeing as we’re all friends here, I will admit that I once used my cardboard hitching sign as a chopping board/plate for my lunch. Don’t judge. It was at Plovdiv station in Bulgaria, and all I had was a tomato, some cheese, some salami and a bit of bread to get me through the impending train ride (yeah sometimes I catch public transport like a normal person, what of it). That sprinkling of dirt from the sign, mixed with the soaked-in aftertaste of bin juice, was enough to turn the humble sandwich into a delectable feast …

  1. Get out of the city ASAP

The worst place you can be stuck as a hitchhiker is within a city, where only a handful of the hundreds of cars driving past will be going in your direction. That’s why it’s important to start hitching at the city limits and take whatever lift you can to get yourself into the countryside. Even if your first lift only takes you 10 km outside of the city, that can be enough to get the ball rolling and give you that positive momentum which, for some reason, makes all the difference with hitchhiking.

Of course, this is where you can find yourself in some pretty weird places; expect to wait in a few random petrol stations, truck stops or abandoned former industrial towns along your journey. You’ll get some piercing looks from locals while you’re waiting, but if you just smile dumbly and say “tourist, autostop” in the local accent, they’ll typically take pity on you and possibly even offer you food. Free food from pitying locals is, like, half of what I survive on …

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Free rides and free meals are just some of the perks of the traveller’s lifestyle.

While I’m on the subject, I like to think of hitching as an opportunity to share food. I’ll always try to have a few snacks on me so I can offer something to the driver (it’s also a good idea to bring some little presents, like a fluffy koala toy or a kangaroo key chain). Secretly, though, I’m hoping the driver will swing by their house to offer me a home-cooked meal, something that has happened to me a surprising number of times in recent years. That’s the ultimate travel experience: a glimpse into the inner workings of the local culture and, of course, a free feed.

  1. Always take the lift, no matter how creepy the driver

This is a piece of advice that I, a large and somewhat hairy man, am fortunate enough to be able to follow, and one that might not apply so comfortably to solo female travellers. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to remember that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Actually, you can totally judge a book by its cover, and about one in 10 drivers look like something out of RL Stine’s Gossebumps. Still, even human horrorshows have cars, and if that car is going in the right direction then, hey, why not?

On my most recent hitch I got picked up by a morbidly obese Bosnian man whose fat spilled out of his clothes like jelly, flowing down in Jabba-the-Hut-like ripples. He smoked particularly pungent ciggies and smiled a toothless, stupid grin whenever I attempted a conversation-starter in Bosnian. The stench of stale smoke battled for prominence with his BO, cancelling each other out in a retch-inducing 1-1 draw. Most disturbingly of all, he made a kind of wet-fish parping noise with his lips that reminded me of Hannibal Lecter.

Despite my discomfort at his grossness, though, his shitbox car was driving in the right direction and, without his intervention, I might still be burning to a crisp on the side of the highway outside Požega. My attitude towards this is that every moment in life – like every ride – is potentially brilliant, potentially disastrous, or most likely something in between. So until the day you hear news of my body being found in a ditch, I’ll continue to get in the car when someone pulls over for me.

  1. Learn a few words in the local language

One of the greatest – and often most frustrating – things about hitchhiking is that, depending on where you’re travelling, there’s a high chance your driver won’t speak a word of English. This makes for the ultimate immersive experience, forcing you to test your communication skills outside your comfort zone.

For this reason, it’s worth trying to learn a handful of words in the local language before you set out. No matter where I go, I always aim to have at least five to 10 words to impress my driver with. Except Hungary. Fuck Hungarian.

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A driver pulled over to pick me up literally two seconds after I took this self-timer photo.

Directions and basic conversational keywords are obviously the most useful things to learn, but it’s the swearwords that will really make your driver’s day. With the right timing, knowing how to say ‘donkey dick’ in Farsi or ‘fuck the sun’ in Serbian can be the difference between a tense, uneasy drive and a “You won’t believe what this foreigner said!” story the driver can retell in years to come.

***

There you have it, the most Tragic™ guide to hitchhiking you’ll ever read. Now it’s up to you to take this information, open your mind, hit the road and, most importantly, remember not to blame me if it all goes horribly wrong …

Love, peace and joy,

TT

Cricket’s a hit in Serbia

A Dutchman, an Aussie, a South African, an Antiguan, a Bangladeshi, a Pakistani and two Serbs walk into a bar. The punchline? Well there isn’t actually a punchline because it’s not a bar, it’s a cricket field, and this isn’t a joke, it’s a story about how a common passion can unite the unlikeliest group in the unlikeliest place.

On this Sunday morning we unlikely few find ourselves in Bački Monostor, a cosy village nestled amid the crop fields of northwestern Serbia, a two-hour, poppy-lined drive from Belgrade. While raging storms lashed the capital overnight, the people of Bački Monostor slept easily and woke to a sunny, dry day; perfect conditions for cricket. We file out of the surprisingly nice change rooms in our burgundy ‘Stari Grad’ shirts, greeted by our sky blue opponents with a chain of hugs and high fives.

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Speaking a blend of Hungarian and Serbian, this troupe of local lads – the majority of whom I assume are of Roma heritage – bring enthusiasm and laughter to their makeshift home ground. They play their matches on the local football field, the barely mown pitch distinguishable only by the fast-fading spray paint marking its edges. The pitch’s strange 30-degree bearing renders the square leg boundary barely 15 metres from the batsman’s crease, while only a lusty blow would clear the rope at long on. A few practice balls confirm that this is the kind of deck on which a half-tracker can dribble through at ankle height, while a yorker can fly up to hit you on the chin.

Without knowing whether we’d won or lost the toss amid the joviality, we find ourselves bowling first, our paunchy foes padded up in hand-me-down gear to face the thunder. Jovan – a 15-year-old Serb with the flowing blonde locks of a Pantene model – opens the bowling, his tidy first set demonstrating his talent for this foreign sport. Tim, our Dutch driver, takes the ball for the second over, his awkward but accurate technique bearing fruit with his fifth ball, which the batsman skies to me at mid-wicket. Covering about 10 metres over two nervous seconds, I hold onto the catch, setting the tone for what will be a good day in the field for the boys in burgundy.

After four overs, our captain, Bilal, signals that it’s time for me to roll the arm over. Greatly overestimating my pace based on my height and my Australian accent, he warns me “Samo polako” – “Only slow”, translating in this case more accurately as “Go easy on them”. Bearing his advice in mind, I trundle in off a few steps, windmilling down a few decent balls in amongst some pretty Tragic™ wides. After two wicketless overs I resume my place at square leg, dodging and leaping in vain as shots fly either side of me, crashing into the rusty bleachers marked ‘Domači’ and ‘Gosti’ behind.

Catching opportunities come at regular intervals and, true to our reputation as the ‘international all-stars’ of Serbian cricket, we hold on to them. The most notable moment belongs to Wintley, our Caribbean colossus, who plucks one of the all-time great grabs with a one-handed effort in the deep at long off, while mystery spinner Sakib finishes with a couple of scalps. Every wicket is greeted with a fist-bump and words of congratulations, not only within our team but with the departing batsman, the spirit of camaraderie far outweighing any competitive urges we might feel. The boys from Bački Monostor are eventually dismissed for the eternally hilarious score of 69, with their most prolific batsman holding on for a well-made 29, celebrated afterwards as if it were a maiden century.

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With 15 overs to make our sexually explicit target, our opening batsmen take it easy, putting away the bad balls and seeing out the good ones. That strategy works until Jovan cops a lightning bolt from 16-year-old Bački Monostor prodigy Goku, who removes his middle stump with a ball twice as fast as anything I could produce. For reasons known only to the captain, Yours Truly is sent in at number 3. Choosing not to disclose the fact that I won the ‘most ducks’ award for my local cricket team in Australia, I take to the crease, scoring a slow 5 before getting shamefully bowled trying to hoick a half-tracker into Hungary. Wintley and Tim make up for my failure by steering the ship to a comfortable victory, peppering the short boundaries with fours and sixes.

The high fives and general amity continue as we launch straight into a second match, one dominated by our dynamic batting pair of Eddy (South Africa) and Bilal (Pakistan). Both teams carry on half-heartedly, knowing the result, with thoughts drifting prematurely to the lunchtime feast we know awaits us. “Let’s rrrroll these boys quick smarrrt,” Eddy roars in his Afrikaans-laced accent, “because I’m fucking ungrrrry!” Inspired by imminent paprikaš, we tear through the Bački Monostor line-up, with both teams accepting that a quick game’s a good game, but a hot lunch is far more important.

Our celebrations upon leaving the ground are interrupted by the Tragic™ tidings that lunch won’t be ready for at least an hour and a half. We recoil at the news, as if receiving a physical blow to our already aching stomachs. But every cloud has its silver lining, and as it turns out this is when the day’s fun really starts.

As the local kids take to the field emulating cricket heroes they’ve only ever seen on YouTube, we adults sit down on the grass and immerse ourselves in cross-cultural conversation, my broken Serbian fitting in with my hosts’ broken English to form two thirds of a linguistic jigsaw. Ivan, the strapping Bački Monostor captain, joins us, his hulking lumberjack’s frame suggesting that with some more experience he could become a beast of a bowler. “You know, I could get Afghan guys (asylum seekers living near the border) to play on our team, but is better for locals to play,” he says. “Win, lose, no matter; we just want to learn.” We nod sagely, fully aware that we as foreigners are taking up local spots on our own team, but we tacitly decide not to feel too guilty about it. As the conversation about growing the game in Serbia meanders on, my mind drifts slowly away, distracted by the excellent aromas wafting over from the other side of the clubhouse.

I saunter over to the source of the good smells. The village mayor, his deputy, the local doctor and a rotund, moustachioed man wearing an apron fuss over two large pots of chicken and onion bubbling away on the open fire. I take a seat on the improvised log bench and let the combined perfume of burning wood and boiling onions lead me into a kind of culinary meditation. As the head chef sprinkles large spoonfuls of bright red paprika into the stew, I imagine that the two pots are pits of gently bubbling lava, effervescing but never erupting. The mayor pours me a shot of homemade rakija from a plastic bottle, the powerful plum spirit helping to enrich the illusion.

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Concerned that I might relax so much as to actually fall face-first into the paprikaš, I return to the field to umpire the kids’ latest scratch match, unconcerned that the haze of smoke and rakija might cloud my judgement. We play for half an hour, umpires becoming bowlers, bowlers becoming keepers, keepers becoming batsmen until that glorious tone rings across the field: “FOOOOOOOOOOOD!”

Cricketers young and old file into the dining hall, where a long trestle table accommodates the two steaming pots, piles of bread, bowls of pasta and 15 ravenous people. The room buzzes with excitement and conversation, falling silent only at that tipping point when the rich, earthy flavours of Vojvodina render all else irrelevant. I savour the thick, warming broth, filling my stomach until I can barely move, my fat smile reflected in the faces of those around me.

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Flushed, full and fooded-out, we farewell our hosts and squish back into Tim’s Renault, kilos heavier than we were on the drive up. The deputy mayor escorts us to the road out of town, a honk and a wave seeing us on our way. All of us met and shared this day thanks to the existence of cricket in a country where cricket doesn’t exist. That, I reflect as I count the poppies swaying in the passing sunset fields, is a minor miracle.

Love, joy and peace,

TT

A tragic review of the AFL’s Shanghai Showdown

“Travelling is about stepping outside your comfort zone, immersing yourself in other cultures and really living in the moment.” Which is why it’s ironic that I’ve spent the past few days in Shanghai surrounded by Australians, watching the iconic Australian sport that I grew up with and know like the back of my hand. I’m not only in my comfort zone; I’m lazing on a king-size mattress of comfort, propped up by a pile of pillows and wrapped up in the finest quilts, with a mug of warm cocoa in my hand and an open fire crackling gently in the hearth. That’s how comfortable I am.

The reason that I, like so many other Aussies, was in Shanghai this weekend was to watch a low-standard AFL match between two teams that I objectively couldn’t give a toss about in a city where you can actually feel the air corroding your lungs, one breath at a time. It’s been bloody great.

In the lead-up to the first ever AFL match to be played in Shanghai, a lot of commentators predicted that the Shanghai Showdown would be a shambolic disaster. After the match, however, the AFL have claimed the experiment to be an unmitigated success. I’d like to use my diplomatic skills to find some middle ground and declare the event a “shambolic success”.

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Panda: “So you’re telling me NOW that you have chlamydia??? I just, I just can’t look at you anymore, Koala!”

Let’s start with the positives, of which there were … well, not *many*, but definitely enough. The biggest tick goes to the general atmosphere around the stadium, which was overwhelmingly one of excitement and anticipation. It’s fair to say that all the Aussie fans who’d made the journey felt a certain sense of camaraderie at seeing our beloved sport displayed in such an exotic setting, and we were excited to share the passion with a new audience. For someone who describes themselves in the wankiest possible way as a ‘staunch anti-nationalist’ and a ‘citizen of the world’, I felt myself get oddly emotional as the Australian national anthem rang out across the ground.

This is a controversial opinion, but while we’re discussing positives, I actually think it was a good move to ban alcohol in the stadium. Think about it: Aussies have a reputation for getting belligerently drunk overseas, and the last thing we needed was to represent our nation accurately to the Chinese by getting wasted and attacking people who look different to us. That’s an aspect of the Aussie spirit we can leave at home, thank you very much! I should also point out that it was great to have Port Adelaide, an actual AFL team, participating in the match, and it would’ve been even better if they’d had some opposition.

The most obvious negative, of course, was the quality of the football itself, which stank more than the BO wafting from the oft-exposed pits of the overweight Port supporters around me. My only explanation for how bad the Suns were is that Rodney Eade left his ‘game plan’ notepad on the plane and had to make up a new ‘strategy’ on the fly. Once again, the Power showed that they’re absolutely unbeatable unless they play a team with the slightest touch of class, and Gold Coast proved that they’re still a disgrace to humanity and their city should be wiped from the face of the earth. Port didn’t play particularly well and they still won by 72 points.

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“WE ARE PORT ADELAIDE! And we forgot to pack our Lynx …”

I know they kind of have to build up the excitement, but it really bothered me that at half time the on-field announcers declared the match to be a “cracker”, despite the fact that Port was up by 42 points and the Suns had only kicked three goals. Come on. I guess they couldn’t really say “This match has been an utter shitshow with a few awesome highlights,” but at least they’d have got points for honesty …

Speaking of blatant disregard for the truth, the AFL’s assertion that this match was a ‘sell-out’ is laughable. I can guarantee you that only about one third of the seats in our area were occupied. I know this because we had cushions instead of proper seats, and I put together four cushions to create a sofa, on which I could recline in comfort and drift off when the game became especially unwatchable. The fact that the crowd was thin (and surely at least 80% Aussie, with only a very small local contingent) didn’t stop it from being a worthwhile event – I just wish they wouldn’t try so hard to spin something that doesn’t need to be spun.

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The players line up for the ‘national anthem’ (Port Adelaide theme song) in front of a ‘capacity crowd’ (a motley crew of locals who left at quarter time).

Of course, the main reason there were so many empty seats at the ground is because Gold Coast has no supporters. I’m not kidding when I say that I saw nearly as many Hawthorn jerseys as Suns tops in the crowd yesterday. I would be surprised – and again this isn’t much of an exaggeration – if there were 100 Gold Coast fans at the game. My tip to the AFL: if you want to create an atmosphere next time, choose an opponent that actually has a fanbase.

On balance, and despite its obvious shortcomings, I enjoyed the AFL’s first Shanghai Showdown and I’m glad I factored it into my travel plans, even if the flights did end up costing several hundred dollars more than expected … Anyway, now that the weekend of footy is over I really have no idea what to do with myself here. I guess I’ll immerse myself in the culture by fighting some triad cronies in a Chinese restaurant, then relaxing with some nice smooth opium in a local den. That’s what you’re supposed to do in Shanghai, right?

Love, peace and joy,

TT

A tragic guide to completely screwing up your own travel plans

It seems fitting that the first trip I should take under the moniker of the Tragic Traveller has already descended into farce. Having been rejected from my flight due to Chinese visa regulations I could’ve sworn I wasn’t breaking, I’ve had to cough up a sizeable sum for a new ticket to Shanghai, with the added bonus of an extra six hours to kill in my home airport. It’s hard to find the humour in that when you’re feeling frazzled and forlorn in the limbo-land of Melbourne Airport, but I’m gunna try. Here’s my guide to turning your relaxing holiday into a tragicomic shitshow!

  1. Be a shameless tightarse at the expense of practicality

This point refers to my previous blog post, in which I advised you to fritter away valuable hours of your life looking for too-good-to-be-true flight offers online.

My saga started a few months ago when, heeding my own advice about cheap flights (which is both sarcastic and terrible in equal measures), I scoured SkyScanner looking for the Melbourne-to-Belgrade bargain of a lifetime. The deal I found took me via Xiamen, Shanghai and Moscow on Xiamen Airlines and Aeroflot – a sentence containing more alarming key words than a Donald Trump press conference. Nevertheless, taking it upon myself to be your irrational guide to the world of travel, I snaffled up those suspiciously cheap tickets in a heartbeat, giving myself a six-day break in Shanghai to make use of the city’s recently introduced 144-hour visa free policy.

That all came back to bite me today when, at the Xiamen Airlines check-in counter (otherwise known as the seventh circle of Hell), the attendant politely informed me that, due to the fact that my first Chinese port was Xiamen and not Shanghai, my six-day stay in Shanghai can’t be considered transit under the visa rules and I am, to paraphrase slightly, “fucked”. I was refused boarding and told to buy a last-minute flight direct to Shanghai, which I could fund by selling a kidney or carrying some headphones for her friend (lol she didn’t actually say that but props for the topical reference, right?!).

Anyway, the point is that my tightarsery in looking for the cheapest flights and opting not to get a proper visa landed me in this mess, and it’s tightarsery that will get me out of it! (actually no it won’t).

  1. Act like a dick until you get your way

This next piece of advice is actually completely useless because when it comes to being dicks, airlines will have you covered any day of the week. The only reason to carry on like a whining little shit is for the sake of catharsis; there’s no better feeling than shouting “Well my company policy is that your face is STUPID” at the smarmy attendant who was never going to give you a refund anyway.

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“All wait and no flight make Nick something something …” – “Go crazy?” – “DON’T MIND IF I DO!”

My experience today has taught me that, as a passenger who’s made a bit of a fuck-up, you have absolutely zero leverage over the airline, and bargaining or complaining will get you nowhere. That said, the chance to feel justified in being an obnoxious prick is one you should grasp with both hands, even it if it gives you only the most fleeting moment of joy.

  1. Learn your lesson

About one minute after I’d been rejected from my cheap, internet-bought flight, I thought to myself: “Let’s look for another cheap, internet-bought flight.” NO! DON’T DO IT! The absolute last thing you want at this stage is to fork out another several hundred bucks on a non-refundable flight that will once again leave you “fucked”.

If there’s ever a moment you need a competent travel agent by your side, this is it. Thankfully my wonderful mum knows one and, after a few frantic calls, had found me a seat on an actual proper flight direct to Shanghai, with no chance of getting “fucked” in the process. It cost a fair bit but, in the grand scheme of things, it’s with Thai Airways, so I’ll get a decent meal and the plane probably won’t crash …

  1. Find the positives

Every cloud has its silver lining, or in this case every tablet of rat poison has its aluminium packaging. As covered in my previous point, my new flight will include at least two good meals, a comfortable seat and some in-flight movies to numb my mind with. I’ll also have access to free booze, which I’ve already decided to consume in a quantity best described as “fuckloads” to relieve stress.

It’s not just the flight – you’ve also got to find the positive side of spending a whole day stuck in an airport. I’ve always found (and this really is a fitting moment to be writing this) that airports are a great place to get work done as a freelancer. When you have seven hours in transit and LITERALLY NOTHING ELSE TO DO, you become incredibly efficient at doing all that writing you’ve been putting off for so long.

It’s also true that airports, while horrible in many ways, can actually be kind of fascinating places. Where else can you hear so many languages and see so many cultures colliding simultaneously and effortlessly? In the moments today when I haven’t had my head buried in my laptop screen, I’ve enjoyed some pretty amazing people-watching. You can see the world and all its faraway, exotic corners in the faces of the people passing in front of you. The best are the babies; when you get a wide, uninhibited grin from the little Indian girl sitting across from you in her mother’s lap, you suddenly feel as if everything might be okay after all.

  1. Get some perspective in ya

Recently, more than ever, it’s been a philosophy of mine to reflect immediately on every low moment I have and put it into perspective. That philosophy has led me to this thought: while it might be shit to have already spent about a large chunk of my trip budget without having set foot on the plane, there are many people around the world who are having a much worse day than me. At least I’m safe, I have support and the day’s events have not affected me or anybody I love in any significant way.

This is actually a moment to reflect on how amazing it is that I happen to be alive at this time, born into the set of circumstances that have even allowed me to electronically swap a set of numbers representing gold that doesn’t exist for a seat on a giant Coke can that’s about to shoot up miles into the air and land on the other side of the world. How the fuck did we even get here?? If being barred from a flight and ending up a few hundred dollars short is the worst life has to throw at me right now, then things aren’t looking too Tragic™ after all …

Love, peace and joy.

TT

(okay that all sounded nice but god I wish I still had that money!)

PS: I can confirm that, at the moment of writing, I have a boarding pass to Shanghai and have made it through the arsehole of Australian customs. LET THE TRAGIC TRAVELS COMMENCE!