How I continued my life long ambition to travel to as many countries as I could around Asia and over to AFRICA
May 15, 2021
Glad you enjoyed the last bit of fluff. One of the problems I find at this my advanced age, is maintaining the correct sequencing of things. I tend to measure my life by major events and adventures, e.g. did I go the Iran in search of the Valley of the Assassins before or after my National Geographic trip to Angkor Wat?
The previous letter took us up to the 1970’s, so I shall pick-up from there. So in the hope that you’re sitting comfortably ….
I do however need to insert the following: when was a child travelling out to Iraq to see my Dad, I recall looking at the departure board at Heathrow Airport, and seeing places that sounded really exotic and exiting. Even though they were unknown to me, I still recall one in particular, Montevideo. I think that was a major contributor for my need for travel and see the world.
Cont. A year later:
Thankfully on my delayed return from Iran and The Netherlands, I was fortunate enough to get a job back with my old Schwarzkopf company. Seems that the guy they put in to my territory had (fortuitously) done a runner.
We are off on an adventure. The first of many it would seem
Ho Chi Minh City
It was the following year that Angkor Wat adventure occurred. Evidently unbeknown to me, my mate Andy from Manchester university had sent details of our trip to National Geographic, for possible inclusion into their magazine. Seems they liked the photos and via him, made contact with me.
The previous year, the Americans had, in their attempts to stop supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail to the Viet Cong, went on a massive 10 – 12 day bombing campaign. Operation Linebacker, which included much of Laos and Cambodia. Regretfully it only temporarily interrupted supplies along said trail. However National Geographic were concerned that the World Heritage UNESCO site of Angkor Wat, which although completely enveloped and effectively hidden in the jungle was potentially at risk.
Most people think that Angkor Wat is one vast temple, but in fact is merely the centre piece of a huge Archaeological Park covering some 25 square kms, with many individual temples. Built in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Angkor city was home to over a million people in its heyday, more than London at the time.
Our starting point was Phnom Penh where we stayed at the dated, but charming and atmospheric Foreign Correspondence Club overlooking the Tonle Sap River. From here it a short flight in one of Air America’s (CIA) DC3’s, which was perhaps more suited to parachute drops than passenger comfort to the small town of Siem Reap.
It was a mere spec on the map, complete with unpaved roads, soldiers and all the associated paraphernalia of war. Although dressed for war, the town still strangely retained a very French atmosphere – a left over from the long-term French occupation of Kampuchea
My job was to photograph the then jungle enveloped and to the casual eye hidden complex. Although unable to show the size of the complete complex as we had a very limited time window. The photos then needed to rather stimulate the viewers interest, with shots, showing as much was possible of certain temples, given that they were wrapped in nature’s own wrapping paper of vines, creepers and even trees in some instances. The occasional statue peeking out from the creepers, doors, courtyards and columns supporting walls were ideal starting points, offering a sense of size.
The big problem was that we had had to organise the visit with the US military, who were officially not there, so our/my task became even more difficult as, everywhere I wanted to go, had to be ‘cleared’ first, resulting in a lack of spontaneity.
Next stop – Bangkok
A very pleasant assault on the senses
I left to return to Bangkok with a sense that I really hadn’t done a great job. I felt I was trying to operate with one hand behind my back, as each shot had to be ‘set-up’ before I was allowed near the area. But in the event, seems that the shots were OK, as National Geographic ran some of them with an accompanying article.
Sadly we were not to know what would happen to Cambodia a few short years later when Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge seized power. His vision of what he called ‘Year Zero’, was a nightmare of genocide, effectively turning Cambodia into an almost prehistoric agrarian failed state overnight.
I was to revisit Cambodia several times thereafter. The first time being in the mid 90’s, when I was based in Saigon with a large international beverage company, handling the whole of Indochina. I also visited once more when my wife and I did a trip down the Mekong in 2011.
Bangkok, was a total assault on the senses of this poor dewy-eyed lad. It should remembered that in the early 70’s the war was still raging next door in Vietnam; albeit that the US had officially withdrawn from front line fighting and were only there as ‘advisors’ ! Arriving in the city after having just finished capturing images of the jungle covered temples of Angkor Wat in war torn Cambodia. In those days The City of Angels, as Bangkok’s Thai name translates to, was full of GI’s on R & R from Vietnam and every bar worth its salt had at least one resident CIA spook. One CIA guy set up a bar in Patpong, he even managed to charge the CIA for rent, as he made the flat above, a registered safe house ! I can’t recall his name, but when he passed on, I believe his daughter carried on with the business – not sure about the safe house though !
Many bars were opening in the then developing Washington Square. Several were owned and operated by US servicemen who as the war wound down, were simply staying on. It was rumoured that one in particular that I was taken to, had been opened by a retiring CIA station chief. It seemed that although vociferously voicing his love of his home town of New Orleans, he wasn’t that anxious to move back, since that’s where his wife lived. Evidently, he’d found far more congenial companionship in Bangkok. Regardless, if Bangkok ever had a cop bar, it wasn’t the smoky little go-go joints down in Soi Cowboy or Patpong, it was most definitely Bourbon Street, famous for its meatloaf and other ‘good ‘ol home cooked’ American fare.
Washington Square was a fascinating place, almost a little slice of the US, and was in fact often referred to as ‘Little America’. As mentioned many of the bar owners and customers were US vets – leftovers. In those days, I doubt that many Americans actually knew where Thailand was, let alone Vietnam. It was just that strange place on the news somewhere. Many years later I went to the then, well-known Lone Staar Saloon, which was unique for two reasons, it had a Buffalo head on the wall from Zambia, under which sat the then owner, George Pipas, a grossly overweight, but warm-hearted guy. Sadly, his weight eventually killed him.
Again, I’ve written many separate stories about Bangkok, but won’t not confuse this mail with those. Suffice to say that the cast of characters that I met over the years, all providing a wealth of stories. But it can clearly be seen that Bangkok made a huge impression on me. I would return many years later to explore much more of the Land of Smiles.
Family – but not as we know it, Jim!
As mentioned, my wife was an avid traveller even before we met. She worked in the travel trade, so we used to get lots of nice freebees’, e.g. a long weekend in San Francisco, courtesy of Pan Am. When British Airways introduced their first 747’s, they invited a few hundred travel agents to join them on a flight to Zurich, where we were bussed to a wonderful dinner. Then the return flight … I recall being in complete and total awe of this huge aircraft, which reminded me more of a ship. A week in Delhi courtesy of Air India. A dinner dance and overnight on The QE2 in Southampton. Plus we had many either totally free, or 2 for 1 deal holidays. I can’t recall all the trips, but several spring to mind, Majorca, Tunisia, and Athens. The latter being notable as we arrived just as the Greeks started rioting. So we had the pleasure of tasting tear gas for the first, and hopefully last time. She was a linguist of note, with fluent Italian and Swedish. Passable French, and Spanish/Portuguese.
South Africa calls me, again! Let’s drive there. So we do!
We were keen to repeat my overland to Jo-burg, we bought the Landrover and were halfway through prepping it. A year or so prior to our planned departure, we had the opportunity of a 2 for 1 deal 2-week holiday to Cape Town in South Africa. We both took a couple of weeks leave from work to do a recce. We stayed in a dreadful little hotel in Greenmarket Square, got several parking tickets due to our overnight parking errors, but fell in love with the Mother City. So without boring you further, after the recce, it was decided that a seat in the back of an SAA 747 was probably a better option than 3 or 4 months on the road.
I’ve just realized that when we were young, we were always looking forward, but now as I write this in my dotage, we are looking backwards. Admittedly perhaps being locked up with the virus this past year may have contributed to this retrospective perspective.
It was almost a year later, we’d sold the house, packed up our stuff to go into storage. I went out on my own initially, and was fortunate to get a job within 10-days of arriving. I got a great reference from my UK company, who evidently even offered to pay my flight back if the South African company didn’t take me !
Even though it took almost six months for me to get the necessary work permit, I lived in a studio apartment in Hillbrow. In those days Hillbrow was the ‘In’ place to live and to be seen. Although the area was mainly apartment blocks, it had an almost village feel about it. I’d chosen it as it was also home to The Chelsea Hotel, which was where we’d stayed on our overland trip some years before. In the six months that I was there, I used to drive past the Chelsea and see a European overland truck parked in the driveway and recall getting itchy feet again. I’d loved the freedom that trip had provided, there was no hurry to get anywhere, date and time meant nothing in those 12 months that we’d dropped out of the world.
Life in the Mother City – aka Cape Town, of course.
Sadly, today Hillbrow is a complete no-go area, the once decent apartment blocks are home to gangs, drugs and crime. But back to the 70’s … once I got my work permit, I flew to Cape Town and started work in earnest. The first shock was that my company car was a Beetle, not the big Chevy that I’d been promised. Seems that I had been appointed over the local CPT Regional Manager’s head, so he was going out his way to make life difficult for me. One of his sly moves was to give me a week of what was known as ‘Country work’. In my case, he gave me the ‘Nobody wants it’ Northern Cape, Upington and environs. The problem was that in that part of the world, nobody spoke English and a cockney lad from South East London, didn’t do the High Dutch that most spoke there. Took me a while, but eventually I started to make myself understood. I think the poor communication actually helped me, as I just used to point to a picture in the sales catalogue and said, “how many, one or ten”? using my fingers. I’m sure some poor shop keepers must still have some of the stock that I sent them.
I rented a furnished house in Seaforth and then sent for the family, including our Old English sheepdog. Thankfully on the refueling stops in Sal on the Cape Verde islands, they had kindly unloaded her crate to let her out for a walk and pee. She enjoyed a similar pit stop in what was then Salisbury – Rhodesia, as the flights used to go via there. I think it was only SAA that serviced Rhodesia for flights in those days. When they arrived in CPT I’m not sure who was more pleased to see me, my wife or the dog, the latter literally threw herself at me.
Just as an aside, the service that one used to get from SAA was incredible, I doubt that even by today’s high standards for service from the likes of Singapore Airlines, it would be light years ahead. Just think, unloading a jumbo jet to let a dog out for a pee – really ?
We stayed in Seaforth for a little over a year, as when our Permanent Residence came through, we bought a house in Somerset West. But living on the mountain ‘down south’ was in retrospect wonderful, I recall being very happy there. Initially living in S. Africa was novel for us, as we had no TV in those days. In fact I only recall us getting a TV around 1979/80, but in the interim, the South African radio was really good, there used to be some great plays on Springbok radio. Music was from LM radio. This was actually broadcast from Lorenzo Marques in Mozambique. LM was the original name for the capital, before it was changed to its current Maputo. I think all these African name changes are a great pity as they lack character. Don’t you think, Lorenzo Marques has far more gravitas than Maputo?
We would charter an airplane. Doesn’t everyone?
Working once a month up in the Northern Cape, there were no scheduled flights there, so we used to have to charter a small aircraft for the trip. You used to put your name on the list and wait until there were a couple of other guys wanting to go, thus splitting the costs.
I recall some hairy moments on those trips. It was on one of these trips, that I would meet a guy who would become a lifelong friend, who sadly passed away very recently.
Whilst in Seaforth, my boss, who by now had become a good friend and still is. He’d taught me to scuba dive. Of a weekend, if we weren’t hiking in the mountains, then we’d be diving on one of the many wrecks that litter the Cape coast. Another pleasure that he introduced us to as a family, was camping in the Cederberg. A mountain range some 200kms north of Cape Town. The Cederberg is ruggedly wild, isolated and thankfully still untouched. It has some great history in the form of rock paintings and is incredibly beautiful. Again, we would go hiking and climbing up in those mountains, there were some spectacular climbs as well. I used to love those trips and still think very fondly of them.
By now I was working as a rep in Cape Town. My boss got an offer to join a company in Johannesburg. They had the agencies for Sanyo and Bang & Olufsen sound equipment; Salton and a local range of appliances, plus Cross pens. It was in those days exceptionally successful. When he left to move to Jo-burg, I was appointed in his place, and in addition to the Western Cape, took on what was then South West Africa – today’s Namibia.
Germany with a Desert – or Namibia by any other name.
Sadly within a couple of years, there was a management coup within the company and of course all the old guard, of which I was one, were obviously on notice from the new regime. Thankfully shortly after this event, my ex-boss/friend came through with a an offer to join him at his new company, handling the appliance and pen divisions in Cape Town. It was the first time that I had accepted a job on commission only, but because we had a great range of products, I was never short of a bob or two !
During the few short years that I was there, it was probably the best job I’d ever had. No scrub that, years later when I was working for myself and consulting to large international companies – that was the best job I ever had, but for completely different reasons.
Party Hard. Work Hard.
The new company was fantastic, it was literally one long party, with a great salary thrown in at the end of the month. To give you an idea, we were earning probably double what the average regional manager was making on a bad month to double that on a good month.
…and so it goes….
Sadly, life keeps moving us forward
About now, somebody at head office realized that their reps were earning better salaries than the MD. Like all companies when this happens, a commission only job is replaced by a mediocre salary and poor comm, plus the company Chevy was to be replaced by a golf, with our drivers taken away. Serendipitously at this time, I was offered a job with a large packaging company as National Sales manager for the tissue division, i.e. toilet paper. Starting a new job in an industry I knew nothing about was a challenge, but I had a great boss and thankfully I picked up the job fairly quickly. The packaging company was the largest in South Africa and I stayed with them for nine years, working in different divisions and locations. I was known as Mr. Fix-it when it came to sales, which thankfully ultimately stood me in good stead.
A final Boardroom Coup
A final boardroom coup
Sadly it was all come to an end some years later. Nampak had bought a small family-owned tissue company in Pretoria. I was installed as joint MD, as the company had bizarrely only bought 50% of the company. My role was obviously to protect Nampak’s interests in the business, but because of the 50/50 ownership, most things I did, or wanted to do, my family counterpart vetoed. Eventually it got so bad, I told head office that the management of the company was impossible. They should either buy out the remaining shares, or sell theirs. They decided to sell theirs, which I thought was a bad move, but it wasn’t my call. I was then offered a role in Pietermaritzburg in Natal, a region I’d never particularly liked, so declined and suggested that they make me redundant, which after nine years amounted to a nice pay out.
As an aside, my old ‘Party’ company changed dramatically over the years with the Jewish tele-sales girl, ended up as MD. To my knowledge she still is, although she’s probably retired by now. The Dutch receptionist, I am still friendly with today.
I start the next chapter of my adventure. Life was moving fast
After doing nothing at home for a while and it has to be said, burning up my redundancy money … Training on my own beckoned and one day I received a phone call from a friend who ran a recruitment company, asking me to go for an interview as a sales training manager for a large drinks company. Naively I had no idea who they were, but as I had nothing better to do went for the interview and found out that they were the major SA franchise holders for a large international beverage company ….
Shall I continue, as I may be boring you?
Tony Lewis 2020
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