A Foggy Day (In Delhi Town)

November 14, 2017

Good God, but the air pollution here in Delhi is bad. Quite startlingly bad. I thought Hong Kong was pretty smoggy, but it’s got nothing on this place.

Commuters make their way amidst the heavy smog in New Delhi

The government has declared the toxic air pollution an ‘emergency situation’ and have temporarily shut construction sites and a coal-fired power station, closed schools and planned to introduce traffic rationing.

The concentrations of harmful particles so apparently high they cannot be measured by most air quality instruments. The level of so-called PM2.5 pollutants, which can breach the blood-brain barrier, have reached at least 999 in parts of the city, as high as the measuring machines go, and more than 16 times the safe limit of 60.

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The government had planned to introduce a scheme to only allow cars to drive on odd or even days depending on the last digit of their registration numbers. However they scrapped this at the last minute because some green government council objected to exemptions for women, or something.  Planes and trains have been cancelled, but, as usual, the government is busy arguing with other regional governments; currently about dealing with the ‘menace’ of crop stubble burning, rather than actually doing anything concrete. A politician asked who was asked about what the government was doing for farmers, apparently said, “We have been doing more than we can.” Which is sweet, if clueless.

And a plan to use helicopters to fight the air pollution, by sprinkling water on it, has been grounded, because the choppers can’t operate in such thick smog. You really couldn’t make it up.

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Apparently the problem gets worse at the start of the winter, with the celebration of Diwali, where people let off lots of fireworks. So this year the Delhi authorities banned fireworks. Which made not a whit of difference to anyone: our fairly quiet street was like the Somme until 0300hrs, and visibility was down to five metres the next morning. The suddenly cold weather traps the particulates and they don’t get blown away.

Blossom, who is a delicate little flower, has already gone down with a chest infection, and doctors are saying that going out for a walk is equivalent to smoking 50 cigarettes. That would at least make life considerably cheaper.

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A number of people have suggested that I have, indeed, become too grumpy of late: not that I’ve seen anyone I know for the last six months, but apparently they can tell from the general tenor of my emails and this blog.

So, in an effort to seem more cheerful, here are some things I’ve seen recently, as I walk Harley the Wonder Dog around my neighbourhood, that have made me smile.

There aren’t very many of them: it’s an entirely crappy neighbourhood, called Chittaranjan Park, which used to be the sonorously-named East Pakistan Displaced Persons Colony. Despite it being fairly Indian middle class, it’s an armpit of a place: I have to keep my bedroom door shut to keep the rats out; the streets are ankle-deep in dogshit, the drivers are insane, and its all watched over by a cadre of super-miserable harridans who scream at you when your dog takes a leak against a flower pot.

But, in an effort to glean a pearl of pleasure from the shite-oyster that is life in Delhi, I present you with:

Eyebrow dog:

Eyebrow Dog

I don’t know what he’s actually called, or if he has a name at all. But, despite being comedy dog, he is practically the only beast who doesn’t try to take chunks out of Harley when he passes. So he makes me laugh, and he’s mellow. That’s as good as it gets.

And this is a shitty iPhone closeup. Those eyebrows are real…

EyebrowClose

Milk Bar Krishna

Milk Stall

There’s no point getting into my thoughts on Hinduism. But I do admire the way people here integrate their religious beliefs into their daily lives. I’ve been party to any number of ceremonies in the office, or in the electrical junction room, where people chant, and wave incense and seem to take it entirely seriously. And they’ve always welcomed me, despite everything. So I liked this little religious figure, sitting on a disused cold milk shop, for no other reason.

Dog Shit

Dogshit

I just thought this was a curiously straightforward message, in a land known for its sesquidpedalian circumlocutions. Needless to say, I am the only person within 2,500 miles who actually carries plastic bags with which to enrobe the alimentary evacuations of my diminutive canine confederate. Because I’ll be damned if anyone can accuse me of making this country shittier than it already is.

And there’s the grumpiness again….

Grumpy old man

October 25, 2017

There used to be a truism trotted out by Old India Hands, that went something like: “Oh, India will drive you mad. You get to the airport, and think ‘I can’t wait to get back to Blighty.’ Then you arrive at Heathrow, and suddenly realise ‘I absolutely have to get back to India.’” Well, I’ve been pondering that. Because I think India may just have driven me completely around the bend.

Anyone who knows me will know that I’m a fairly peaceable chap. I’m not a shouter, I keep my thoughts largely to myself: in short, I’m quite a mellow proposition.

Well, not recently. Recently I’ve had meltdowns at taxi drivers, lost it in shops and been on the verge of doing bodily harm to innocent passers-by. I’ve gone off on waiters, mobile-phone salesmen, bank staff and random drivers. I’ve employed some of the fruitiest language ever heard in this region since Elphinstone’s retreat from Kabul; stuff I wouldn’t want my mother to know I knew. And I’m not proud.

But this country does it to you. And I can’t quite figure out why. I knew that India was hopelessly inefficient, populated by wage-taking babus with no incentive to do anything other than line their pockets and enforce stupid rules. But I thought I was used to that. But it seems not.

I went into a chemist’s shop the other day to buy a 20 pence tube of antiseptic (for my scores of necrotising mosquito bites, which haven’t helped my mood, along with my scurvy), and it took five people to serve me. Five! Then on the way out, I held the door open politely for a fat cow in a sari who looked at me haughtily and refused to say thank you. She heard a word from me her mother never taught her, I can tell you.

I was sitting in the living room of my grubby guesthouse yesterday, watching a tiny grocery shop over the road. It’s run by two brothers, young, pleasant enough fellows. And I was thinking that ‘gosh, they work hard, open from six am to eleven every day,’ and then I thought ‘no, actually that’s bollocks: they don’t. They sit on their stool all day gazing at their mobile phones, and letting even poorer people do all the work.’ Which is true.

But, but, but, but, but. They provide employment to half a dozen people. They probably don’t earn a fortune, but they make enough to survive, and they’re a valued part of the community. Probably. When did I decide that economic efficiency was the only measure of success? And, more importantly, when did I become such a shit? A spittle-flecked, puce-faced whiner, choleric and intolerant?

The truth is that India has worked some sort of weird and malign magic upon me. I need to get to the airport, and spend a week or two in Switzerland, or Finland, or somewhere cool and efficient. And then I’ll be fine. The truth is, this country wasn’t made for me, and I need to be able to remember that more often.

Small-town blues

August 18, 2017

When I was a mere child, relatively, I spent a summer working on a cattle station in Far North Queensland in Australia, for reasons that escape me now. Suffice to say that it was both an eye-opener, and one of the most brutal and terrifying places I’ve ever been. When I get around to writing my autobiography, there’ll be a chapter on Escott Station, and it won’t be cheerful reading.
But one thing that has stayed with me is the feeling I got when I made it back to Brisbane. Now, Brisbane in the mid-1980s was not the dynamic, get-up-and-go cosmopolitan world city that it is today. Back then, it was Cow Town. But to a rube like me, freshly in from months in the sticks, it was a place of astonishingly urbane sophistication. I’d spent an age in a place with a single copper telephone wire, 1,000 miles from the nearest church or bar, with a population of 40. 
I remember clearly being astonished by escalators, car parks and restaurants. Traffic lights were a renewed revelation. Crowds were frightening. But obviously it all wore off pretty quickly, and cities became my natural home again.
But I’d thought that maybe the same thing would happen again over here in India. I’ve spent the last few days in Bombay, population 20 million, after living in Thiksey, Ladakh, population 2,500 for the last few months. So I was ready for some cognitive dissonance, with all of the world, good and bad, outside my hotel room. In Thiksey, there is a shop, but the man who runs it is not well, so it barely opens. In Bombay, you can get almost anything (except steak).
But no, being in Bombay was the same as being in Thiksey. Just another place. Small town; big city: same same. Shame really. Now I’m sorry I made you read all of that.

In other news, WAR! Indian and Chinese troops apparently clashed only a couple of hours drive from here just the other day. I got very excited about this, journalistically. Until I read the wire story, which said “Chinese troops threw stones at Indian soldiers near Pangong Lake…” Throwing stones? The two largest countries in the world, both armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, and they’re chucking stones at each other like schoolboys? Perhaps this’ll be followed up by a round of pigtail pulling, or some super-tense international ringing-the-doorbell-and-running-away. It’s certainly more charming than the current impasse on the Korean peninsula.
And I also laughed yesterday, Indian Independence Day, at a half-page ad on the front page of the Times of India, which read “Mahatma Gandhi believed in himself. He believed in you, and me, and India. In our skills and ability to match up to the best of standards worldwide. Jaquar salutes that spirit of Indianness. By adopting the highest quality standards in our products, Jaquar has become India’s most trusted bath fittings brand.” Bathos, that is. There isn’t much I can add to that.

Hello, wage slaves! This is me calling, from sunny Kashmir.

Actually, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to rub it in. But it struck me quite forcibly last Monday morning. I was driving through the mountains; we’d just gone over the Khardung La pass, which is (not) the highest motorable pass in the world, at 17,650 feet. The skies were a wonderfully succulent cornflower blue, the snows a gleaming white. The mountainsides fell away to distant valleys and vast churning rivers: the Shayok, the Indus, the Nubra.

I looked at my watch, and saw that it was noon. Or 0730hrs in London, when scores of people whom I know and like would be forcing their way on to crowded Tube carriages, negotiating the hell that is the London Underground, on their way to jobs that they do simply to pay the bills. And here I was, on a Monday morning, driving through a huge and fascinating paradise, along ancient trade routes, past unclimbed mountains and uncharted valleys, all in the name of work.

DMon1

(Oh, and it’s cheap here. Since I’ve been in Ladakh, I’ve only been to the cashpoint once, and have only spent £100. In two months. Back in London, it seemed like just leaving my house caused money to fly out of my wallet.)

Anyway, we were on our way to the Nubra Valley, up near the border with Pakistan and China, and a stone’s throw from the Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest armed battleground. We got to the camp, which is ringed by 18,000 foot mountains, crested with snow, in the lee of an ancient monastery perched precariously on a crag looking out over the valley.

We were there to organise and host a lunch for one of the most remarkable men in the world: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. He comes to Ladakh most years to teach and meet fervent Buddhists, and he had agreed to come and have lunch with us.

I won’t go into the work that went into hosting HH: it was quite a lot, but didn’t involve getting on an urban mass transit system at any stage. But he came, and was incredibly nice and warm, wise, generous and full of a genuinely benign radiance.

We had locked Harley, the Hammer of the Dogs, in a distant tent, but somehow he managed to escape and get past the perimeter of soldiers with machine guns hiding (asleep) in the bushes, and before we knew it he was bounding around under the Dalai Lama’s feet. I dragged him away, mortified, but HH put up his hand and stopped me. “Let him come,” he said, and Harley was allowed to frolic around his divine ankles and disport himself freely.

HBless1

Afterwards, His Holiness blessed Harley (His Harliness, now) and was generally a fantastically good man. I’m not very often star-struck by famous people (ie, never) but the Dalai Lama is different, up there with Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi (before she was corrupted by power and became a vicious Islamophobic stooge) in being a genuinely wonderful man and a wholesome force for good in the world.

DLBlessH

After the lunch, I was standing around with His Harliness and a group of very senior Ladakhi rinpoches, when one of them decided to feed the dog, by grabbing handfuls of cream cake and offering them to the little beast. Normally, this wouldn’t be allowed, but who am I to argue with one of the most powerful figures in Tibetan Buddhism?

After Harley started to visibly and cheerfully bulge around the midsection, the venerable rinpoche looked around him, and, seeing nowhere to clean his cream-covered hands, leant down and wiped them on Harley’s back.

I was, I must admit, somewhat taken aback. It was a bit like watching the Pope blowing his nose on the curtains. Harley didn’t, of course, mind in the slightest, except that he couldn’t reach around and get all the liberal crusting of chunks of cake and cream off himself.

So, all in all, it was a fairly good day in the office.

As it were.

 

So have I landed the best job in the world? Well, no, obviously, because it’s a job, which, despite the self-serving strictures of our capitalist overlords, is fundamentally inimical to human happiness. And I’m not a photographer for Playboy, head of product testing for Gibson Guitars, chief taster for Macallan whisky, or a coriander farmer in Tahiti.

But it’s not too bad, considering. Me and Harley the Wonder Dog walked along the stream through our sylvan glades to work this morning. I installed myself in a corner of the camp’s reception area, fired up Bach’s Mass in B Minor on the excellent stereo, and got down to crafting some pieces on how great things are here.

Every so often I pop outside to be confronted by the vast bulk of the 20,000 ft Stok Kangri Massif on the other side of the Indus Valley, dark and brooding and snow-capped, with the insanely vivid blue of the sky above, the green of the poplars along the river etching the view below. Citrine wagtails and orange-crested hoopoes flit through the glass-clear air and butterflies wobble past. The temperature is about perfect.

But there are downsides. Chief amongst them, for me, are the vagaries of the internet. We only seem to get a couple of hours of connection a day, at unpredictable times: it came on at 2340hrs last night, after being off for 12 hours. So I had to get up and start firing off emails. [And it’s just come back on after being off for five days.]

And I could only do that because the power was on, which is an intermittent affair at best. Often, when the internet is on, the power is off, or vice versa. As my job involves writing, emailing, fact-checking and research, and fine-tuning copy, the lack of an internet connection is a major drawback. I’d be working right now if the internet was on, and you’d be spared this, so, you see, it affects all of us.

Also, the dogs. Ladakh is home to packs of vicious and degraded mongrels, who seem to regard Harley-Ji as a potential luscious and glossy hors d’oeuvre. He was attacked by a vast scruffy hound the other day, and bled copiously from the ear for some time afterwards. So I carry a big stick and walk around with potential death in my heart, which feels a little negative while I’m being overlooked by a holy Buddhist monastery full of vegetarians who worship all life. But I would quite cheerfully kill any beast that threatens my little canine pal, and wouldn’t care in the slightest.

And … er … that’s about it. There’s a distinct lack of Yorkshire puddings and cheeseburgers, rather too much of the old dal and chapattis, very little beer, and the guy who irons my shirts seems resistant to my charms and takes a day too long to get them back to me.

And what’s that sound I hear? It sounds like it might be coming from the world’s tiniest violin.

Regular readers may recall that one of the most important reasons for me leaving London and my loathsome job was my ever-increasing hatred of commuting. I just finally decided that, clichés aside, life really was just too damn short to spend three hours a day on the Tube. I think most commuters think much the same as I did, but they haven’t got around to actually doing anything about it. Well: I did.

Cambodia was infinitely better – taking a tuk-tuk into the office, the warm wind in my face, through the wild and varied scents of downtown Phnom Penh, was a considerable improvement. But, over the five years I spent there, the traffic got worse, the fumes more overpowering, and the attractions of the office less pressing.

But now I think I’ve really cracked it.

My walk to work this morning took 20 minutes. My grassy path runs between two meltwater-fed streams about two metres apart, lined with willow trees. On both sides, treeless boulder fields run up to vast snow-capped peaks touching 20,000 feet. Off to one side is the Indus River, which gives India its name, and which runs all the way down to Karachi.

Me and the dog on the way to work.

So I walk between the streams, along the sun-dappled path, waving to cheerful women planting in the fields and calling out ‘Julay!’, the catch-all greeting of Ladakh. Birds chirrup in the trees and butterflies dance across the path. I carry a sturdy walking stick, cut yesterday from a willow, and am accompanied by Harley the Wonder Dog, bursting to smell and see everything. It is the very definition of the word ‘idyllic.’

Getting Dog Harley up here was less than idyllic, however. Delhi was a miserable 45 degrees (113 Fahrenheit in old money), and crowded and mainly deranged. Only one airline flies dogs up here, and they really don’t have much of a clue. On the phone they told me I had to take him to their offices so they could have a look at him, and at his papers (of which he now has nearly a kilo), and pronounce him fit to fly. So I got there, after a two-hour drive across town, only to be told that dogs weren’t allowed in the building, and that they didn’t care anyway.

The next day, ticket booked, they called back and told me to take him to a vet, three hours drive away, to get a special certificate allowing him to fly. Which was not a cheap certificate, either. That done, we rebooked the ticket, and eventually arrived at the airport at 0300 hours, to be told that the captain of the plane had to look at him and decide on his air-worthiness. But the captain was in bed and couldn’t be raised. Airline maintenance didn’t like the look of him, and because it was a prop plane thought he probably couldn’t go. No one was interested in the slightest in my expensive certificate. And (slightly worryingly) it wasn’t a prop plane either.

Finally they all gave up, against my implacable insistence that Harley was getting on the flight whether they liked it or not, and two hours later they were unloading him in Leh, in front of a crowd of fascinated Ladakhis.

And so today we walked to work, only to find that someone had put a spade through the internet cable, cutting off the whole of the Eastern Indus Valley, which meant I had to go back home and read books on Ladakh instead. Now that’s the kind of commuting I can get behind.

And, I’m hoping to get a 500cc Royal Enfield Bullet next week anyway. Forget this walking lark.

Forms and function

May 8, 2017

Well, I’m back. Sort of.

AngkorStockmore

Since I last posted here, there have been a number of changes in my life. The biggest is that I now no longer live in Cambodia. It turns out that my stupid lawyer didn’t bother to tell me that my appeal – against the giant fine the Cambodian judiciary imposed upon me for maligning a fat French paedophile – had passed, and that at the very least I had been banned from the country for five years. And this had occurred in February 2016. Clearly no one had told the immigration department. Or me.

But it seemed like it was a good time to leave. Blossom was pretty fed up with the place, Harley the Wonder Dog was miffed that all dogs have been banned from Phnom Penh’s parks, and, to be frank, I was kinda bored of the country.

So now we’re in India. Currently in Delhi, we’re going up to Ladakh (the Land of High Passes) for the summer, to write and ponder and be entertaining. I’ve always loved India, but it is a difficult place to get work visas for. But this new job dropped into our laps a few months ago, and he we finally are.

But the paperwork! After Cambodia, where you arrive at the airport, hand over some dollars and waltz in, this place is insane. The forms and interviews in the UK, just to try to get the visas were tough enough. Harley needed me to send 14 separate documents to get a certificate to get him through the airport, followed by an interview with some obscure government department after we arrived. I’ve been here nearly a week, and I’ve spent the whole time filling in forms.

I still don’t have an ID card. Bank accounts need a 20-page form. My Foreigner Regional Registration Office interview is still in the works. The tax stuff is utterly indecipherable. My employers have asked me for a copy of every page of every passport I’ve ever had. They just gave me a form in the last few minutes asking for details of my last six jobs, plus salaries, job titles, mother’s maiden name and job title and my blood type, among other things. And yet I’ve already signed a contract. I went to get some more passport-sized photos taken, and was told I needed at least 30 of them.

Yesterday I had to fill in two copies of a form. At the top were spaces for two identical photos of me, one on either side of the page. For god’s sake, why? For what possible reason can anyone need two identical pictures on one side of a piece of A4? Stupidity in stereo.

It’s lucky I’m a fairly relaxed sort of a chap, because this level of crazed hyper-bureaucracy could easily drive you mad. I’ll keep you posted, as long as I’m not inhabiting a padded room somewhere.

Scales falling

December 28, 2016

So, I’m back in Phnom Penh, for the time being. In the last couple of months I’ve been in the UK (surprisingly relaxed, I thought) the USA (surprisingly busy writing the longest suicide note in history with a single pen stroke) and India (surprisingly confident and happy and increasingly wealthy).

One of my problems, I’ve decided, is that I’m incurably optimistic. When I first moved to Cambodia, I worked with a man who turned out to be amongst the very stupidest people I’ve worked with. I mean fantastically, breathtakingly stupid. But for too long I gave him the benefit of the doubt. “Surely no one can be that stupid,” I thought optimistically to myself, as I watched him try to arrange prostitutes for his best friend, a racist from the Deep South of the USA whom he had never actually met. “People have got him wrong,” I thought, as I listened to him explain how he would deliberately not use sources for articles he typed for the newspaper. “He’s bluffing,” I’d think, as I watched him take bribes from restaurants in return for articles in the newspaper.

I finally came to my senses when he subbed a piece of wire copy, and mistook the name of the French president, Francois Hollande, for a reference to the country of Holland. The piece therefore started “The French President Francois the Netherlands …” and continued for 800 words substituting ‘the Netherlands’ for ‘Hollande’ in practically every paragraph. The scales finally having fallen from my eyes, I had him fired shortly afterwards, and the last I heard he was trying to flog newspaper ads in Rangoon and smoking too much crystal meth. So, as I say, I have a history of cutting people too much slack.

And, on reflection, I think I’ve done much the same with Cambodia.

I arrived here all starry-eyed, seduced by the heat and the fruit and the history and intoxicated by the music. But since I’ve been here, all that has fallen away, and now I see the country differently. I see the horrific pollution, and how no one cares in the slightest about improving things. I’ve seen the awful crushing poverty. I’ve seen the crappy roads, the abysmal infrastructure, the disease, the acceptance of terrible educational standards.

But most of all I’ve seen the grinding corruption, and the concomitant economic inequality. The Rolls Royce showrooms in a city full of people living on a dollar a day. The vast gated mansions occupied by minor customs officials, the army officers who own huge tracts of land, the scions of government officials who carry automatic weapons in nightclubs and will happily use them.

Recently there has been a minor furore here, after it emerged that Singapore said it has imported $752 million of sand from Cambodia, but Cambodia’s records showed it had only exported $5 million-worth. What happened to the other $747 million, one wonders?

Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, the director of an environmental group that has often campaigned against illegal dredging, said: “The companies, which in reality are no more than criminal syndicates working hand in hand with powerful government officials, declare a tiny portion of the actual sand exports. This allows them to make vast amounts of profits, which of course must be shared with those in government who provide ‘protection services’ to them.”

Ministry of Commerce spokeswoman Soeng Sophary said it was unfair to hold Cambodia to the standards of more developed countries. She neglected to explain why. I probably could, but instead I’m going to move somewhere else. Nobody here needs my help to fuck this place up any more than it already is. I can see that now. Finally.

 

 

 

Sax machine

October 19, 2016

I’m currently keeping a file on my computer desktop, to which I add stories from the Cambodian press which strike me as being particularly telling. I call it Ongoing Cambodian Stupidity. Lest anyone think that I have it in for Cambodia, I could clearly compile evidence of stupidity from almost anywhere. Brexit; Donald Trump; the Great British Bake Off – there is seemingly no end to muddled minds. But here are some more gems of sensible thinking from the Kingdom of Wonder.

A senior Forestry Administration official was released without charge after drunkenly killing a motorist with his car and leading police on a high-speed chase in Siem Reap province, because he had no “intention to murder” the victim, a court official said.

While “extremely drunk,” Yan Sideth hit a village security guard on a motorcycle. Police chased him for 13 kilometres. Despite police suggesting charges of speeding, drunk driving, leaving the scene of an accident and reckless driving resulting in death, the chief prosecutor decided to release Yan without charge.

A prosecutor’s spokesman said that the victim had been at fault for driving in front of a speeding car. A spokesman for the Institute for Road Safety, said “It is always difficult to bring justice to victims when the provokers are powerful government officials or rich people,” he said.

Meanwhile Phnom Penh authorities said the chief monk of a pagoda was defrocked after being accused of “encouraging his disciples to drink, take drugs and fraternise with women.” The monk and four novices were defrocked after they were arrested for smoking crystal meth in the monastery. A spokesman said that “after the arrest of those monks, authorities found many empty beers hidden under the Buddha statue in the dining hall.”

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen recently sent a pair of direct messages to acting Cambodia National Rescue Party president Kem Sokha, the first of which threatened “bloodshed” if protests confronted his eldest son in Australia, according to members of the opposition.

According to sources, the premier then said the party should remember what happened when anti-government protesters confronted him in Paris last October – a reference to the vicious assault of two CNRP lawmakers outside the National Assembly by soldiers from the premier’s personal bodyguard unit.

A party spokesman would only say the party had received a “threat to our safety.” He added that the party wanted the situation to “cool down” and would focus on encouraging supporters to register to vote.

And finally, for now, both Cambodia’s former King Norodom Sihanouk and Thailand’s late and much-lamented King Bhumibol Adulyadej were fluent French and English speakers and “shared a deep appreciation for jazz, making names for themselves as saxophonists.”

Despite being hugely important figures in the histories of their respective countries, the two were not particularly close. Apparently Bhumibol came to consider his Cambodian counterpart “a nuisance, in part because in 1954 Sihanouk apparently borrowed a gold-plated saxophone of the king’s and didn’t return it.”