How mortal combat taught me enlightenment

This guy I was travelling with in Cambodia had a portable games console. He had just about everything actually, in a backpack that weighed twice as much as he did. Unloading off a boat in Phnom Penh, the baggage guy dropped the whole thing in the Mehkong. Fortunately the console survived.

We toured Angkor Wat together, and almost at the top of the central temple we got chatting to a group of monks. They wanted us to read to them from an English book of Buddhist teachings.  I’d read that it was culturally insensitive to hand anything directly to a monk – you’re supposed to lay it on the floor for them to collect. However by the way they reached over and helped themselves to our cigarettes, I decided that the guidebook may have got that wrong.

Then my companion pulled out his console. The monks lost interest in the book as he queued up a bout on Mortal Kombat and handed it over. One of the younger monks took charge, while the others gathered round to watch.

Now if you don’t know Mortal Kombat, it’s an arcade style fighting game, known for its high levels of bloody violence.  One particularly vicious feature is the ‘Fatality’ whereby the winning player gets to execute the loser in one of a number of sadistic methods. It takes a good knowledge of the game, and a complex combination of button presses to perform. I was never able to do it.

When the monk’s game finished, I heard a strange sound. The scary computer voice announced ‘Friendship’ and I was just in time to see the monk’s character handing his opponent a present. This feature requires a one in a million combination of button presses.

Or perhaps just an enlightened soul.

How I desecrated a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The recent demolition of India’s Hampi bazaar didn’t receive a lot of press coverage.  I was only aware of it through my quarterly newsletter from the Hampi Children’s trust, requesting all donations be suspended until the former residents of the bazaar are relocated by the government.

Until last week the orphaned kids who visit the trust for schooling and meals were living and working with relatives in and around the bazaar, selling trinkets to tourists and taking unofficial tours with their fledgling English.  Three years ago I spent a couple of weeks building the world’s shonkiest playground in the yard of a bookshop on the bazaar.  I cleared a few centuries of rubbish, lashed a plank over a medieval foundation stone to make a seesaw, clambered across the makeshift corrugated roofs to hang a swing from a languorous tree and encouraged the kids to daub the ancient walls with brightly coloured powder. It would not have passed an inspection by Greenwich Borough Council.

A 16th Century stone walkway leading up to a UNESCO protected Virupaksha temple, Hampi bazaar was a thriving integration of modern India’s entrepreneurial spirit and its religious heritage.  Recently the Indian government decided that the market stalls, barber shops and hotels that had settled in the 500-year-old stone pavilions were detrimental to the preservation of the buildings – structurally speaking I’m sure they were right.  A decision was made to protect the area by turning it into a private site, chargeable for admission, with plans for a sound and light show to entertain bus loads of day trippers brought in by tour companies.  The 326 residents of the bazaar were evicted, and shortly after three bulldozers arrived with instructions to level the shops and return the site to its 16th Century best.  Sadly the overzealous and poorly briefed drivers took a fair portion of the ancient stone pavilions with them.

I don’t know for sure if they took the bookshop.  It was home to a great man and a fine collection of spiritual books, but its sacred walls were covered in little coloured handprints and some idiot had made a right mess of the yard.  I’m more concerned about the families, who’ve been promised 130,000 Rps each (about £1,500) and a patch of barren land 4km away, far from the tourist trade.  The trust itself still stands, and for now the children are still attending.  They will have to spend more time working now their living heritage has been destroyed.


How I became a tattooed tree

‘The sun was going down, behind a tattooed tree, and the simple act of an oar’s stroke put diamonds in the sea, and all because of the phosphorous there in quantity, as I dug you diggin’ me in Mexico.’

My username ‘tattooedtree’ comes from this line from the psychedelic folk singer Donovan’s 1967 hit ‘Sand and Foam’.  Yes, my parents were hippies.  I took the name when I first went travelling at 18, footloose and tattoo-free.  I had a one-way ticket to Bangkok, but my travel fever had been incubated long before listening to the troubadour’s promises of Mexican grasshoppers creaking in the velvet jungle night.  Ten years later and Mexico is still top of my to-see list.  As with most travellers, the list gets longer with every trip I take.

I thought the name inspirational, but when people saw it their first response was to ask what tattoos I had.  I have a few now, but through a combination of fear and disapproval it took me until I was 25 to come good on my chosen moniker.

After a tempestuous few weeks travelling with my girlfriend (never travel with a partner unless you want to find out) things came to a head in Santiago.  I stormed off into the city, with rebellion in my eye, desperate to prove some vitally important point I can no longer remember.

A storm that might consume itself for want of playmates on a deserted stretch of coastline finds plenty of opportunities for mayhem in a metropolis.  I raged from bar to bar until I came across a shopping centre, complete with its own tattoo parlour.  In the UK such places are normally consigned to dingy back alleys, bedsits over betting shops – and Camden.  Either I got lucky, or mainstream Chile has an appetite for body art.  Pride still stinging with self-reproach, I threw caution to the wind and stepped inside.

The tattooist was an unctuous bear of a man in a sleeveless leather waistcoat with a sleek ponytail and a luxurious moustache that drooped to the corners of his mouth.  His arms and chest were covered with ink.  Beneath his dark mass of body hair it was hard to tell the quality of the work, but I wasn’t about to ask for a closer view.  My Spanish was poor, but his English was worse.  I took out my journal and showed him a couple of designs I’d been working on. they were doodles really, just a starting point for a skilled artist to develop.  He pointed at one, a sixteen pointed sunburst, and grunted.

“Il Sol.”

“Yes, the sun. can you do something like that?”

He grunted again, ripped out the page of my journal and set to work with some tracing paper, his brow knitted in concentration.

“Should I come back later?”


“Dónde? Oh, my shoulder I think.  So I’ll always have the South American sun on my back… does it hurt much there?”

He looked at me blankly.  I pointed, and he grinned and grabbed at my shirt.


“What now?”

He showed me his paper. He had traced my shonky uneven doodle exactly.


“Wait… will it hurt?”


“Mucho peña?”

“No, no. Es vale la peña!”

Before I had time to change my mind my shirt was off and he was sticking the tracing paper to my shoulder with roll-on deodorant to transfer the image. His huge paw was on my shoulder, guiding me into his leather chair. He pulled up a seat next to me and pushed me forward to expose my shoulder. The buzzing of the needle began. And then, my new found friend, who had previously shown no ability to speak English whatsoever, bent forward and whispered in my ear:

“Enjoy the pain.”