Mike Hurst was a musician. Tall with long dark brown hair and blue eyes, he looked every inch the traveling Irish folk musician he was. He’d quit his job in London selling advertising when he neared thirty and traveled across the world playing music in restaurants, bars, on street corners, to pay his way.
During his latest trip around Asia he’d lazed on the beautiful beaches of Bali and Phuket, seen a rare Balinese funeral, stayed in a long house beside the crystal clear waters of Lake Toba, and played his fiddle for a bunch of kids outside a market in Panang, Sumatra. He’d crouched in cramped buses while drunks crooned off-key Sinatra songs, slept on the floor of a dirty train between Surabaya and Jakarta, and survived blood poisoning from a mosquito-bitten finger.
Mike always traveled light; just a small rucksack with a couple of changes of clothes, a battered guitar and his hundred year old fiddle. While in Bali he had a local artisan carve him an ivory bridge, and he’d fashioned a beautiful ebony fingerboard and fixed it to the fiddle himself. His fiddle was the only possession he truly treasured.
One day, this was during the Marcos era, he flew into the Philippines on his way to Japan after a year-long trek through Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Mike stayed a few days in Manila, but the noise, pollution and frantic pace soon had him on the move. He headed north on a Rabbit bus and ended up in Baguio. Five thousand feet high up in the mountains, Baguio was a picturesque town of steep hills, a large open market, surrounded by mysterious looking wooded hillsides covered in fir trees.
He was lucky to meet a local Filipino called Nino who heard him singing in a coffee shop the day after he arrived. Nino asked him to sing at his pub in the center of town, gave him a small but adequate salary, and a rustic old house up in the hills to stay in.
Mike loved living in the old house. Each morning he would wake up and breathe in the pine-scented air and look out across the valley from his bedroom window. The view was spectacular. Smoke curled up from chimneys of the few houses further down the valley, making the valley look like a scene from a Chinese brush painting.
Sure, there was no hot water. He had to bathe in freezing water drawn from the rainwater tank behind the house. That was invigorating. And the furniture was minimal, but this suited him because he didn’t believe in crowding his life with excess baggage anyway. He had a bed to sleep in, a roof over his head, a job he loved doing. He was happy.
But life has a funny way of turning the tables on you.
A couple of months after he arrived in Baguio he went a couple of thousand feet down the mountain to Asin, a beautiful sulphur hot water spring resort. It was run by another friend he’d met in Baguio, so they spent a pleasant day together downing beers and relaxing in the steaming waters.
That afternoon when he returned to his house he was stunned to see that it was empty. Everything he owned was gone, including his musical instruments. All he had was what he stood up in. Luckily, he had his passport, his onward ticket to Tokyo, and a small amount of money, but that was it. Mike was stunned. He immediately called the police and made a report. They promised to try and find the culprit and then went on their way laughing to each other.
Mike realized they weren’t going to do much about it. After all, he was a foreigner and he’d lost some money, a few clothes and his musical instruments. Hardly worth bothering about. But he wanted his violin back if possible. So, he started making inquiries among his friends and soon heard rumors that Nino’s brother, Nono, was responsible for the robbery. He was jealous of Mike and wanted to live in the house himself. But instead of politely asking Mike to move he’d decided to clear him out completely, keeping all Mike’s possessions into the bargain.
Mike realized that there was no way to prove his suspicions, so he bowed to the inevitable and moved in with some friends working in the Peace Corps and sent to Ireland for more money.
Meanwhile, another Filipino friend promised to lend him some money if he ran short so that he could afford to eat and pay his rent. Mike managed to pay for a cheap guitar that sounded good because the local maker had shaved the back almost paper thin. Using this, he continued to play in local bars and restaurants to support himself. Despite the occasional work he got he still had to borrow some money from his friend to buy the bare essentials. It was a difficult and humbling period.
Two months passed and no money had arrived, so he went to Manila to ask his bank to find out where it was. They reported that the money had indeed been sent….to Kuala Lumpur. Apparently, the Irish bank thought it was in the Philippines! A forgivable mistake, Mike thought. After all, they are both in Asia. The bank promised to have the money transferred to his account in Manila, and Mike returned to Baguio to wait for it.
Finally, another month later, the money arrived. The first thing he did was repay the friend who had lent him enough money to survive on. Then it was time to move on.
Although he had an air ticket to Japan he decided to head back to the UK where he could work and make enough money to continue his travels again in the future. So, he put the word out around his friends that he had a one-way ticket to Japan for sale. A couple of evenings later a Rhodesian calling himself Mike Hunt turned up at the coffee shop where he was singing and told Mike he would like to buy his air ticket. As they talked, Mike realized that Hunt was obsessed with James Bond, the movie secret agent. Hunt claimed that he modeled his life on Bond. He tried to speak, act and live like him. It was a strange way to live your life, Mike thought, but it seemed to make Hunt happy.
Mike was elated that Hunt wanted to buy his air ticket, and they made plans to meet in Manila the next Friday night where they would complete the deal. Hunt told him he would treat Mike to a free weekend at a 5-star Manila hotel owned by the Marcos family. “Don’t worry,” he told Mike, “I’ll pay for everything. And I’ll pay for the air ticket then too.”
This sounded like a good deal to Mike. He turned up on Friday afternoon, met Hunt, and they checked in. Hunt carried a large heavy looking suitcase, while Mike carried just his small rucksack. Before going to the hotel, on Hunt’s advice, he’d stashed his guitar and the rest of his stuff at a friend’s place where he could pick it up on the way to the airport on Sunday before flying off to Bangkok on his way home. Hunt had told him there was no need to carry all his gear with him to the hotel because he wouldn’t need it. Mike only realized later on why Hunt had advised him to do this.
That night they went down to the disco in the basement and had a great time. Hunt signed for all the drinks. The next day they lazed beside the pool all day after a sumptuous breakfast. Every time they ordered a drink or food, Hunt signed the bill. Mike reckoned they were racking up a considerable bill, but his new friend didn’t appear to be concerned. This reassured Mike that Hunt could afford to pay for the air ticket. He was, he admitted to himeslf, a bit mystified why Hunt would want to buy his ticket when he could obviously afford to buy one from a travel agent, but he just shrugged and congratulated himself on his good luck. Mike wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth.
That night they went back down to the disco and danced till late. Hunt continued to sign for the drinks, including those of a gaggle of girls who flocked around the big spending pair. They had a hilarious night and staggered up to their rooms when the disco closed at 2 a.m. They made a date to meet for breakfast at nine that morning so that they could check out of the hotel in time for Hunt to catch his 11.30 plane to Tokyo.
The next morning Mike was awoken by a knock on his door at 8 a.m. He staggered out of bed and opened it to see Hunt standing there dressed and ready for bear.
“What are you doing up so early?” Mike slurred.
“I thought we should clear up our business so that we have time to spare to get to the airport.” Hunt responded.
Mike just shrugged and said he’d be in Hunt’s room in five minutes. His mouth was dry and his head ached. He was in no condition to ask why Hunt needed so much time to settle the air ticket business, but it didn’t sound good. He went into his bathroom for a quick wash and then went next door to Hunt’s room hoping to clear up the sale in a few minutes. When he went in he saw Hunt standing there with a large folder under his arm. Mike sat down in one of the lounge chairs and then got right to the point. “Have you got the money for the ticket?”
“No.” Hunt replied. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“What do you mean? You said you would pay me for the ticket today and now you are telling me you don’t have the money. Do you expect me to just give it to you?” Mike demanded irritably.
“Well, yes actually, I want you to trust me until after I get a job in Tokyo and have made enough money to repay you.” Hunt said.
“Oh sure. So if you don’t have enough money for the ticket, how are you paying for the hotel?” Mike asked.
“Er, that’s another thing. I’m not paying for it. My suitcase was just for show. It’s stuffed with newspapers and a couple of bricks. We’re just going to walk out of here this morning.”
“What?!” exploded Mike. “You want me to trust you for the price of the ticket and you are going to cheat the hotel into the bargain? That’s not a good basis for establishing trust is it?
“Wait. Look here and I’ll explain.” Hunt said opening his bulky file. “I’ve prepared for this trip. I can show you. I have listed all the ways I can live cheaply in Japan when I get there. I’ve got lists of cheap guesthouses to stay at. I have researched everything thoroughly and I have even learned the rudiments of the Japanese language in the last 3 months while I prepared. I can easily get a good job teaching English up there and get back on my feet within a few months.” Hunt said.
He showed Mike the contents of his file and went through it. Everything Hunt said he would need to ensure he could survive in Tokyo was meticulously written out in a master plan. Mike was not impressed.
“Look, you’ve just made me an unwitting accessory to cheating the hotel. There’s no way I’m going to give you the air ticket without getting paid.”
At this, Hunt broke down in tears and pleaded, but Mike stood firm. No money, no ticket.
Hunt saw his tears were not working, but he continued pleading some more, and Mike started to feel sorry for him. So eventually he pointed to Hunt’s expensive Nikon camera and said, “Give me your camera as security and I’ll give you the ticket. You can recover the camera when you repay the money.”
At first, Hunt tried to say no because he claimed he would need the camera in Japan, but eventually he saw that Mike would not part with the ticket unless he handed over the camera.
“Now, there is just one more thing you have to do for me.” Hunt went on. “You have to go to the airport with me this morning. I’ve been out to the airport already and researched the check-in procedure. Once they issue you with a boarding pass with your name hand written on it they don’t ask to see your ticket again. So I need you to go to the airport with me to check in and then we’ll change your name to mine on the boarding pass. It will be even easier than I thought because our names are so similar.”
By now, Mike realized that he would have to go along with Hunt. He didn’t have enough money to cover the hotel bill. Imelda Marcos could afford to cover it for them, so he packed up his meager belongings in his rucksack, slung it over his back and they both trooped down to the lobby and out the door. One of the hotel security men looked at them meanly, probably because Mike looked nervous, but he didn’t try to stop them. Once they were away from the hotel Mike heaved a huge sigh of relief and they headed for the airport.
Mike checked in for the flight to Tokyo, handed over the boarding pass, Hunt changed the name and then headed for the departure area. Everything seemed to be going smoothly.
Mike turned away and thought to himself that he’d never see his money or Hunt ever again. But he was wrong.
Mike went to his friend’s house to pick up the rest of his gear and then he headed back to the airport for his 4 p.m. flight to Bangkok. When he got there he walked up to the check in counter and presented his air ticket. The clerk who had been on duty in the morning was still there. He looked up with a start.
“But….but you went to Tokyo this morning. What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Oh, I changed my mind and decided to go back to Bangkok instead. It’s so boring in Tokyo.” Mike replied nonchalantly.
The clerk shook his head, filled out the boarding pass and then handed it over.
“Er, have a good trip. I hope you make it this time.”
“Thanks.” said Mike and headed for the departure area.
He zoomed into Thailand and a week that was to change his life.
That week in Bangkok was a blur. Mike spent it almost entirely at the Mississippi Queen in Patpong. Each night he would party with the girls in the bar. He was having a ball, but by Friday he realized he’d better get himself organized for the flight to London the next day. So he rang up Ben, a local Filipino businessman Hunt had recommended he call to try and get the money for his ticket to Tokyo. Hunt had explained that he used to work for Ben and he still owed Hunt some commission money for advertising sales he’d made.
Ben agreed to meet Mike and they made an appointment for 11 a.m. Mike turned up looking the worse for wear, but hopeful he would recover the money for the air ticket.
When he sat down and explained the situation Ben exploded in a huge laugh.
“Give you some money from Mike Hunt’s account?” he roared. “What account? Even if I did owe him any money I sure wouldn’t give it to you. The man was crazy with all that talk about James Bond, and he’s still obviously mad.”
Mike had expected something like this, so he wasn’t too disappointed. And he still had Hunt’s camera. But it rankled that Hunt had played him for a sucker.
Ben asked Mike what he did when he wasn’t playing music.
“I used to sell advertising for publications in London.”
“Were you good at it?” Ben asked.
“Sure, I used to make a lot of money.”
“Why don’t you work for me then? We publish tourist guides. I’m sure you could do very well selling advertising in them.” Ben said.
Ben showed Mike the magazines he published, and after some discussion about salary and conditions Mike said that he would have to think about it as he had a confirmed ticket for his flight to London the next day.
Ben told him to call back later if he decided to stay.
Mike returned to the Malaysia Hotel where he was staying, sat down on the bed and thought about his situation. Here he was in the land of the three Hots: Hot weather, Hot food, and Hot women. Life could be good here. He had a firm job offer and everything was so cheap that it would be no hardship to stay.
If he went to London he would have to start all over again. He’d been away so long he probably had no friends there any more. He had no job, the weather was cold, the food was lousy, and the economy was on the ropes. This was before Thatcher kicked the country into shape. The decision wasn’t difficult. He picked up the phone and called Ben.
Mike did well at the magazine. He helped improve the circulation and the magazine design, and he increased the monthly advertising revenue substantially. He was happy and having the time of his life.
Then, one day Ben called Mike into his office and there sat Hunt with a big shit-eating grin on his face. Mike was both surprised and pleased. It looked like he would finally get his money back from Hunt.
As if he read Mike’s mind, Hunt took out a roll of money from his pocket and promptly paid for the air ticket. Mike went out and got Hunt’s camera and handed it over. Hunt thanked him and said, “Bond would have done the same thing. It was only the right thing for a gentleman to do, don’t you know?”
Mike’s luck continued soon after Hunt had paid him when he ran into a German traveler who also played fiddle he had met on the road the year before. Klaus had since been in an accident and lost the use of his hands, so he couldn’t play any more. After hearing Mike’s story Klaus presented him with his old violin, telling him he was glad it was going to someone who would make good use of it.
No one could have been more pleased than Mike at this happy ending. He has remained in Thailand to this day, and he sometimes thinks back on the bizarre way he finished up in this exotic and exciting part of the world. You just never know what life is going to throw at you, do you?
So, one day, if you walk into a bar somewhere and see an old fiddler having the time of his life on stage, you might just be looking at Mike. Buy him a beer and ask him if he has any interesting stories about his travels.
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