It was late morning in the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai. I’d awoken with a splitting headache, a result of heavy drinking the previous night and the hot, humid weather that I was still not used to.
I made my way down to the ground floor of the guest house, which happened to be a restaurant and bar. That was good news – while travelling I live by a hair-of-the-dog philosophy for hangover cures.
It was roughly 11 a.m. and the street was bustling with activity. The ground floor was packed and I took a seat at the last empty table out by the street side.
I called to the waitress for a tall glass of Chang beer and a menu – food also being an essential part of the hangover recovery process. The beer came quickly, and I ordered a simple meal of pork-fried rice before giving the waitress the menu and a few Thai baht for the beer.
A short time later my food arrived, along with another beer. I started reading. Lost in thought.
It was shortly after I finished my meal that the deep roar of an engine began drowning out my music. I looked over to see a man riding a jet-black motorcycle pull up in front of my table, along the street edge.
The man was tall and tanned, wearing shorts, sandals, a white tank and a black helmet with a short visor. He had to be in his mid-sixties. He walked into the restaurant with his helmet tucked under his arm and glanced around. He looked shocked at how full the restaurant was. From my peripherals, I could see him making his way over to my table, which still had three empty seats.
I glanced up at the man and he motioned for me to remove my headphones – he clearly had something to say.
“Oi, you ink it would be okay if I sat here?” said the man, pointing to the opposite side of the table. “You can leave your headphones in, I don’t expect you to chat wit me or nuffin, just wanna cup of coffee.”
Throughout my travels I had met many people with many different accents, and this man had a unmistakably British one.
“Sure,” I replied.
I set my headphones down on the table. Despite his assurance I could leave them in, I felt awkward listening to music while he sat quietly across from me. I like to think I’m more social than that.
I took a sip of beer, and lit a cigarette from my pack while the man ordered a cup of coffee and a shot of whiskey.
“What are you going to do with a cup of coffee and a shot of whiskey?” I said.
“Whaddya think? Drink’em,” he replied. I felt sorta stupid for asking, it just seemed like a strange combination.
He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shorts and flicked the paper pack so that a single smoke left the pack and found a home between his lips.
“Where you from?” he asked, looking up at me while he lit a smoke. “American? Canadian?”
“I’m from Canada,” I said. “And you?”
“Me? I’m from here,” he said. “Well actually, I’m from just outside town. I live with my wife on her family’s farm.”
I took a long, deep drag from my cigarette and continued, “originally?”
“Well, originally I be from east London, but ‘ats ancient history now,” he said as he poured the shot of whiskey into the cup of jet black coffee.
Whiskey and coffee – I still couldn’t get my head around it. It seemed like it was too hot of a climate for a concoction of that sort. I left this experience wondering why he drank it, I assumed it must taste good. It wasn’t until over a year later in Belize that I tried mimicking the drink – it was terrible. I still don’t get it.
We started talking about narcotic use in a country that has such harsh drug laws. The man’s advice to me was simple: don’t do them.
We had been joined at the table by another backpacker. Mike, a scrawny American from Pennsylvania, had been coming around a lot lately because his hostel was just down the road from mine.
He was just in time for one of the most interesting stories I’d ever heard.
“You see, when I was in my early 20s, me and a friend came up with quite a lucrative plan to smuggle hash from Morocco back to London,” said the man. “We spent sometime building compartments in my jeep.”
He paused for a moment and took a long sip of his coffee-whiskey mix.
“You see, it’s easy enough to cast metal compartments – well easy when you work in a shop anyway. Once you have ‘em made you just hide the hollow metal boxes under the truck, and you’re in business.”
Both Mike and I stared at the man in amazement; when he first sat down I never would have guessed our conversation would stray so far from the commonplace topics.
“So you just drove the hash back to London?” I asked.
“Yes, we would drive to Spain –– a long bloody drive that is, then take the ferry across to Morocco,” he said, “then head back the same way we came.”
It is ironic that all I had previously known about Morocco is that it produces lots of hemp, hash and hash oil – a fact confirmed by this man, who had driven from London to North Africa to acquire it.
“I had made a connection there, years before while on a vacation, that could get me good quality hash and hash oil.”
He stopped and put his cigarette out. “So when I got to Morocco, he would deliver me blocks of hash which I would hide inside the compartments.
“It all worked well, and was extremely profitable – until I got caught.”
“You got caught!” I blurted out. “What the hell happened?
“Did they beat you, or whip you or lock you up?”
“No whippings or beatings, at least not initially,” he said. “They threw me in a shitty, dark, toilet-less jail cell. And in that jail cell I stayed for a long and terrible 12 years. It’s terrible being in a foreign prison, especially an African one.”
“But how, how did they get you? Just a random search?” said Mike, now clearly interested in where this conversation had gone.
“Someone tipped ‘em off, and I got a very comprehensive search at a police check point, obviously leading to my arrest and subsequent imprisonment,” said the man calmly.
I pulled another cigarette from my pack. I think imagining the gravity of the man’s Moroccan situation stressed me out vicariously. I lit the cigarette and waved at the waitress for another beer.
“It was hard to argue too, when you get caught red-handed with drugs stashed in your car, there’s not a hell of a lot you can say,” he said.
“But you learn a lot about yourself after 12 years in hell, it’s dark and smells terrible. Panic is your first thought, but that quickly fades into a long dark depression. Prison is the worst punishment imaginable – it makes the sane go crazy and the crazy go insane. Suicide becomes a mans best friend,” he said sadly. “Sometimes I wonder how I lived.”
He picked his cup from the table, put it to his lips and tipped the rest of the alcoholic coffee down his throat. He set the cup back on the wooden table and the smile returned to his face for the first time since he began the story.
”Now I live in paradise with a beautiful wife, a big farm and enough money to enjoy my days.”
He paused and laughed.
He was right, things had to be better now, living in northern Thailand is a dream I share with many others, but it was evident he still carried the stressful memories with him, it was obvious from the deep lines in his face. Wrinkles from the terror and horror of a Moroccan prison.
There was a lesson to be learned from this story, and it’s importance was immediately impressed upon me. Never traffic drugs, it’s simply not worth it.
Smoking a joint in a foreign country is bad enough – selling the stuff is just plain stupid. The man agreed.
“Stay away from selling the stuff kid, I tell ya – it’s simply not worth it. Freedom is just too good.”
By Matthew Bossons