A Friend Made on the Road

A Friend Made on the Road

I met Chris in the early 1980s whilst I was travelling around China. A charming and very good looking young Dutchman of Indonesian descent, he and his friend had been backpacking in Asia for over a year. They were in the final stages of their adventure and getting a little weary and travel-worn.

Chris and I got on extremely well, and though we spent time together and had obvious chemistry, we never went further than a few kisses and hand holding. We parted ways after several weeks of adventuring together, with addresses exchanged and no backward glances. At that time, China wasn’t really the ideal place to party in or start a romance, as all focus was needed to negotiate the terrain, regulations and language barriers.

I returned to Hong Kong, where I was living, and after several weeks received a phone call from Chris, who was planning to settle in Hong Kong for a while, find a bar job and raise money to return home. I met he and his friend at the train station, and they stayed with me until they found accommodation at Chung King Mansions on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. Chung King Mansions was a rabbit warren of shops and cheap rooms that were rented by travellers, drug addicts, illegal immigrants and criminals. It was a grubby labyrinth with little natural light and constant movement.

My mother was very interested in the combination of free travel and the frisson of risk that came with smuggling, but quickly realised that a middle-aged white woman could all too easily be set up to smuggle something a little harder, so she backed out.

Chris started working in a bar in Central Hong Kong and we developed a close friendship and casual sexual relationship. I was under no illusions about the depth of the relationship. He wasn’t a con man, but he had little money and liked to have a good time, so he was always open to pretty young women with money taking him out and spoiling him.

Living in Chung King Mansions meant he had easy access to hash, which he loved. He wasn’t into harder drugs–not because of any moral stance, but he reasoned that using them was stupid, and he was shrewd and street wise. Chris loved music and dancing. He’d make me the most beautiful mix tapes of music, the kind of music that you felt deep inside of yourself and could only fully express through movement. He worked hard, and aside from a bit of help from his pretty, wealthy women, he used to do something called the ‘Milk Run’, which enabled him to travel for free.

The Milk Run was a gentle form of smuggling that was risky, as you didn’t get a chance to check your suitcase before you travelled. Chris was nothing if not a pragmatist, and reasoned that as a dark-skinned young man, the run’s organisers would have realised that he would draw suspicion. Therefore, he would be given nothing more than basic runs. (My mother was also very interested in the combination of free travel and the frisson of risk, but quickly realised that a middle-aged white woman could all too easily be set up to smuggle something a little harder, so she backed out). The Milk Run was usually just smuggling furs and watches between Asian countries, such as Taiwan. Smugglers’ travel costs and a stay in a cheap hotel were covered, and in return, their luggage allowance was used to carry goods between countries. If they were caught, the goods were simply confiscated and the smuggler sent on their way.

At that stage, I was looking pretty rough. I’d been squatting for months in steadily seedier flats. I was bloated from drinking too much, was using a lot of drugs. Although still young, I wasn’t able to negotiate the excesses anymore while stilling looking good.

Chris and I had some great times until a woman he met in Thailand paid for his flight back home to Amsterdam. We swapped contact details and kept in intermittent contact over the next year, whilst I moved from Hong Kong to London and then decided to visit him briefly when I went to Amsterdam with a friend. At that stage, I was looking pretty rough. I’d been squatting for months in steadily seedier flats. I was bloated from drinking too much, was using a lot of drugs. Although still young, I wasn’t able to negotiate the excesses anymore while stilling looking good. This was exacerbated by my exceptionally bad hair. A friend who claimed to be a trained hairdresser had bleached my hair and ended up setting it on fire. So I had an afro in a variety of yellow, orange and blond colours, which was constantly breaking off in hunks and hanks.

I didn’t feel very good about myself.

My friend and I ended up in Amsterdam and couldn’t find anywhere to stay, as there was some big event on, and all the reasonably priced accommodation was gone. Our first night there we slept in the movie theatre of the Milky Way Night Club, where we were able to sleep until the club closed at 5 or 6 am. I rang Chris, but he said that he couldn’t put us up because he was living with his father. But he wanted to meet me for a coffee.

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The young man I met was different. Distant, cool and a little forced. I asked him why, and he simply said that he was working now, and the man that I’d met had been on holiday and was a different person. We never saw each other again.

About Charlotte Rodgers

Charlotte RodgersCharlotte Rodgers was born in New Zealand, received the 1982 PEN international young writers award, and initially eschewed all thoughts of a promising future in favor of many years of travel, fast living and dodgy relationships. She now leads a life of quiet eccentricity in Somerset, England. She is an artist, yoga teacher, gardener and published author. She continues to be a voracious and adventurous traveler.

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