A collection of short stories
Back in the 1980s, I studied an M.A in English (Emphasis: Creative Writing) at San Francisco State University. As part of the requirement for the degree, I wrote a collection of short stories called In Transit.
I recently pulled out a copy of this long-forgotten work, dusted off its yellowing pages, and have decided to share these stories on my website. They are mostly based on my own experiences and observations in Africa, South America and the USA, mixed with a heavy dose of imagination to be able to call it fiction. You’ll find these stories in a new section of my website called Short Stories, which I’ll be adding to as I dictate/transcribe the stories. I have begun with four stories, all set in Africa, and below is the first one--Beyond the End of the Road. I’ll be glad of any feedback that you would care to give. Happy reading!
Lost and found in the Sahara
I stood, literally, at the end of the road. The fresh tarmac ended in a neat ledge above the golden sand, and a clear blue sky pressed down on all horizons. From here, tyre tracks fanned out southwards into the vastness of the Sahara. It was only mid-morning, but already the sand burned my toes, which stuck out of my sandals. I pulled my pack under the sparse shade of a tree beside the last petrol station for 400 kilometres. All was silent, except for the rustle of leaves in a limp breeze.
Every journey has its point of no return and this had to be mine. I had followed the thin vein of my dream, a red line on a Michelin map of Africa, to where the road ended and the dust began. Beyond lay mystery—the infinite spaces of the Central Sahara, the biggest sandpit in the world and ghost of lush forests in former ages.
I had arrived the night before at In Salah just in time to see the bus pull out for Tamanrasset, the next stop on my route. The official told me the next bus was not for ten days. I wandered around the oasis. Mosquitoes droned above a stagnant pond surrounded by crumbling mudhuts and sagging palms. I walked out into the desert before lying down to sleep on my mat. In Salah—if God wills it. If God wills it, I will get a ride out of here tomorrow. If He wills not, then I will not either.
Enigmatic expressions on faces at the Bayon hint at a long-lost knowledge.
I was sorting through my images recently, looking for some good shots of Angkor to upload to image banks, when I was struck yet again by that blissful smile on the faces that gaze down from the towers of the Bayon, the centrepiece of Angkor Thom in Cambodia.
Originally over fifty towers featured four faces looking in the cardinal directions. Now only 37 towers remain, yet wherever you wander in the Bayon, these faces are looking at you.
Adapting to life under Covid-19
The global pandemic has proved fatal for over a million people, caused a severe headache for millions more and provided a windfall for a fortunate few, such as providers of food delivery services and manufacturers of face masks.
Like most of the world’s population, I’m in the middle of these three groups, which means that like many others I’ve lost my source of income. For the last couple of decades I’ve worked as a travel writer, but now that international tourism has ground to a halt, most of my clients (guidebooks, inflight magazines and travel websites) have either suspended or terminated their publications.
In an effort to recover from this setback, I’ve been trying to put my language skills to good use by taking on editing and proofreading jobs, as well as going back to teaching. I was fortunate to be born in an English-speaking country (the UK), and teaching English has enabled me to live and work in some extremely diverse countries, such as Sudan, Venezuela, Spain and Thailand. In over four decades living far from my homeland, I’ve become a firm believer in the notion that ‘travel broadens the mind’.
So now I spend my days doing small editing jobs and planning for a weekly class with my Thai student Pear, who is preparing to take an International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam. She hopes to go and study a higher degree in marketing in the UK, for which she needs a Band 7 score. Given the huge difference between the Thai and English languages, this presents a considerable challenge.
We spend each class practising past IELTS exam papers in listening, reading, speaking and writing in order to take Pear’s command of the language up to the required level. Fortunately, she’s a very capable and motivated young lady, so I’m optimistic that she’ll be successful.
Of course we’re lucky to be able to meet for our classes, given the fact that students and teachers worldwide are forced to communicate through Zoom or other video conferencing platforms. While such uses of technology are admirable, I’m sure that most teachers and students would agree that a real class setting is a more effective way to learn.
Fortunately, Thailand has not been as badly affected by the pandemic as most countries, and with hardly any deaths and new cases during recent months, we don’t have to worry too much about social distancing. At the same time, it’s sad to see that my homeland, England, as well as the rest of Europe, is experiencing a second wave of infections.
Maybe going back to the basics of the English language is not a bad thing, since trying to explain the subtle and complex rules of English, as well as all the maddening exceptions to these rules, is making me appreciate how rich our language is. And if one day I am able to return to travel writing, perhaps this diversion will have sharpened my creative writing skills.
Dancing in the desert
Way back in 1975, I embarked on a life of adventure. My first move was to leave my native England and take a job as a volunteer teacher in Sudan. I was part of a group of 50 native English speakers who were hired by the Sudanese government to improve the level of English in high schools throughout the country. I was assigned to teach in Sennar, a town on the Blue Nile to the south of Khartoum.
I was supposed to spend a few days in Khartoum for orientation before taking a train to Sennar, but what with attempted coups and a heavy rain season, I had to spend a month in the capital before any trains started running. When I eventually got on the train and set out on my big adventure, I had plenty of time to write, so I got out my pen and began to scrawl the following words.
The Sudanese Shuffle
we were waiting for the train
which was waiting for us
until the train had waited for us
we had been waiting for the train
for some days now
when we started.
we were starting in the train
when we stopped and waited
and went again
and when we went
we hardly went at all
while the wheels rolled around
at the onset.
after the onset we set out
to the desert and all its dreams,
while the wheels would roll round
and then stop, and then sound
like they’d never be starting again.
Just as slow now as slowness can get
And we still haven’t quite got there yet.
A review of the novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain
Everybody knows that Bangkok will drown one day. It sits a precarious 1.5 metres above sea level, which continues to rise steadily due to climate change, while the city is sinking under the weight of its concrete jungle by a few centimetres each year. Some give it ten years, others fifteen. For the city’s 10 million or so inhabitants, this is a cause for concern, and the government’s efforts to stave off the inevitable with multi-million dollar flood barriers have all the pathos of a madman trying to hold back the tide.
The scenario is ripe for a dystopian novel, which Pitchaya Sudbanthad has provided in the form of Bangkok Wakes to Rain. This wildly ambitious debut novel jumps back and forth through the city’s history from the mid-19th to the mid-21st century, and by the end all that remains of the former capital are the tops of the tallest skyscrapers, with floodwaters splashing at their windows.
This pandemic has me lost for words
Help! I don't know what to write, and this is a dire situation for a writer. The problem is that these days there’s only one thing on everyone’s mind—coronavirus. And while everybody and their grandmother has had their say about this invisible killer, writing about any other topic seems simply senseless.
Like many others, I've found that my regular job, travel writing, has ground to a halt since nobody's travelling any more, So for now at least, soft-sand beaches and tropical sunsets are off the menu.
I've therefore hopped on the coronavirus bandwagon and written a couple of blogs myself. The first explains how a Buddhist perspective can help us avoid becoming hysterical about the situation, while the second suggests that we cultivate the subtle art of going nowhere to counteract cabin fever during lockdown.
These stories are posted on medium.com, a site with a paywall, but authors are permitted to share their stories through 'friend links'. Following are the links to those stories, which include embedded audio files in case you would like to close your eyes for a few minutes and listen rather than read:
Publishing on medium.com has been an inspired choice, as the website pays writers when paying members spend time reading their stories. I recently received payment for my first month, which came to a staggering $0.02. This means I only have to earn another $4.98 before I cover my expenses for my first month’s reading.
Medium.com is full of great ideas about relationships, technology, politics, philosophy and pretty much anything else you can think of. Currently it hosts over 11,000 publications and claims to have over 120 million readers worldwide.
And now I've got over my blogger's block, I know exactly which story on Medium that I'm going to read next; 'How I doubled my income on Medium in a month'.
For more of my stories on Medium, just go to medium.com/@ronemmons.
Back when I was a bus driver for London Transport, I used to drive the number 47 between Catford and Shoreditch, crossing over the River Thames at London Bridge. Crossing the bridge several times each day, I developed a fondness for this huge span of granite that connected the different worlds of south and north London. However, as I passed back and forth, the bridge was being taken apart to be sold to a rich American, so the story went.
Many years later, when I was touring around the USA, I passed a turn-off signposted to the bridge, and my curiosity drew me to look at its new location in deepest Arizona. I found the bridge was the focal point of a tourist village at the entrance to Lake Haversu City, a far cry from the grimy streets of London.
Still later, when I penned several travelogues recounting my quirky travel adventures, I reflected on my different experiences of the bridge on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. London Bridge Revisited is one of the stories in the collection called Searching for Shangri-La, which is available as an ebook or paperback on Amazon.
I have also posted the story on this site, and if you’re curious to know what it’s like to drive a bus in London or visit a tourist village in Arizona, click here to read or listen to the ten-minute tale.
I love working as a travel writer, especially when it involves complimentary rooms in 5-star hotels. The trouble is, I’m not really a 5-star person, and I don’t feel comfortable with people bowing and scraping before me as if I’m in some way superior.
A recent experience in Myanmar reminded me of this discomfort. The awkwardness began when the porter brought my bags to my luxurious room, pointed out the controls for the air-con and TV, then hovered in the doorway. Having just arrived in the country and withdrawn cash from an ATM, I only had large notes in my pocket, which I was loath to part with for a tip. After an icy moment, the porter left empty-handed.
One of my difficulties with 5-star living is that the fees I am paid for my work do not allow for expensive treats such as a drink from the minibar or a meal ordered through room service. If I succumb to one or two such indulgences, it costs me as much as a night in a budget hotel, somehow negating the benefit of a free night’s sleep. Sometimes I have found myself in 5-star resorts far from any restaurants or shops and have had little choice but to eat in the hotel restaurant, my stomach churning at the thought of what it is costing me.
One of the many reasons that I love living in Chiang Mai is the nearby presence of Doi Suthep, the city’s ‘guardian mountain’, which rises about 1600 metres above sea level. The most popular place on the mountain is the temple called Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which sits at an elevation of around 1300 metres and on a clear day offers sweeping views of the city and valley below.
While this temple is one of the must-see sights of Chiang Mai for visitors, there’s a place I much prefer to go to enjoy the mountain’s tranquil, natural surroundings. It’s a trail that leads up the mountain about 300 metres, taking about an hour, and ends at a dramatic waterfall that runs all year. I never fail to finish that walk in a better mood than I started.
The world is changing fast, and my line of work is no exception. As a freelance writer/photographer, I’ve spent the last 20 years providing illustrated articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as writing and updating guidebooks for a variety of prestigious publishers.
One of my main clients through these years has been Rough Guides, a company that has earned an enviable reputation for providing in-depth background on the culture of the countries it covers, along with helpful insights and reliable recommendations for sights to see as well as for where to eat and sleep from its researchers.
For nearly 20 years I have been involved with updates of the Rough Guide to Thailand and the Rough Guide to Vietnam, and while the rates of pay were not generous, they at least made it possible for researchers/writers to visit the places mentioned in the guide, evaluate any changes and make revisions where appropriate.
Sadly, since Rough Guides was sold in 2018 to APA Publications, who also publish Insight Guides, all that has changed. Rates of pay are now less than half of what they were, and it is being made clear to researchers that they are no longer expected to visit a destination in order to update a guide. As a colleague commented on the Rough Guide Authors’ Forum recently, “If there’s no actual travel involved, then what is the point of being a travel writer?”
Good question. I may be old school, but I really can’t see any other way of updating a guidebook efficiently without going to look in person at the attractions, hotels and restaurants that are currently listed. So I guess it’s bye-bye Rough Guides—it’s time to find another way to make a living.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.