Sunday, April 05, 2009


Taking a few capsules of pure codeine and lounging around the pool for a day before the race was probably not the best training regimen for a eight-hundred-and-seventy metre river swim.

Halfway across the river, as i choke on another lungful of the muddy Mekong, and its currents do their best to drag me down and across the border into Vietnam, i begin having second thoughts. In fact, what i am having is more along the lines of an existential crisis, but this is no time to split hairs. I am thinking this enterprise would best be filed under the heading "It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time." Deciding to enter the 14th annual Mekong River Swim. Having a number drawn on my arm with a thick felt pen and wading out into these warm waters, my feet squelching alongside 150 other, slightly more seasoned, quite obviously more fit, and almost certainly better-prepared swimmers.

In a bar with Kate Liana in the early hours of this morning i decided how i could not only do this swim, but do it easily. I had an epiphany over a Kahlua on ice, as i came to the sudden realisation that even though i can hardly swim at all, suffer chronic asthma, am prone to panic attacks and on the wrong side of a mid-life crisis, all i needed do was to put my mind to it. This, so it seemed, was simplicity itself. Time after time, when an athlete wins an Olympic gold medal or sets a new record for the clean and jerk, she will explain the secret of her success: "This is proof that you can do anything at all if only you put your mind to it."

I switch to backstroke. This has the added advantage of giving me a more line-of-sight approach to my frantic prayer-making. My second thoughts are returning, bringing with them, like unwelcome mental gatecrashers, some menacing third, and even fourth thoughts. Because, in the harsh light of day (and this sun is indeed very harsh: it is the kind of sun that Richard Brautigan must have been suffering under when he wrote: "The sun was like a huge 50 cent piece that someone had poured kerosene on and then had lit with a match, and said, 'Here, hold this while I go get a newspaper,' and put the coin in my hand, but never came back") the problem with this "proof", elucidated so regularly and with varying degrees of articulation by our sporting greats, is that it simply doesn't hold water. Unlike my fucking lungs. If one person wins, how is this proof that anyone can do it? Statistically speaking, a sample size of one is hardly what you would call representative. What about the other ninety-nine hundred and ninety-nine people who also put their mind to it? I look up from my backstroke to find i have been swimming in a slow circle.

After helping Kate Liana finish her final pot of beer, and agreeing with her that yes, we should indeed totally do brunch, and agreeing to meet her at the boat first thing in the morning for the swim, i went home, lay on the bed, and put my mind to it. It was simple. All i needed to do, when i turned up for the swim in a scant few hours, was to focus my thoughts on the opposite bank of the river. Then, if these Olympians were right, my mind would somehow carry me across to the other side like a kind of mental ferry, without the tedious physical reality of kicking or paddling coming into it at all.

In the 13th annual Mekong River Swim, last year, the circling boats had plucked one sorry "competitor" from the opaque waters of the Mekong in the final stages of drowning. He had been drinking heavily the whole of previous day and night, and had, so the story goes, only left the Heart Of Darkness bar that morning with barely enough time to fetch a towel on his way to the river. Of course, nobody had thought to prevent someone so obviously and totally inebriated from entering the event. Such an idea, id est, limiting someone's freedom, could scarcely have been entertained. This is, after all, Cambodia.

"If i don't make it, i want my 2009 Mekong River Swim t-shirt to go to my son," i say to Zoë, as we stand waist-deep in the river awaiting the gun. Zoë is speaking to me again, and has seemingly forgiven my trespasses of several days ago when i tried to abduct her, strip her naked and strap her to Russian military hardware for the purposes of Art. She has adopted the defensive approach deployed by many of my female friends: let us just assume he is joking. Of course, Zoë doesn't realise that the peril which i face is utterly real: she swims a kilometre or two every morning at the pool at the Himawari Hotel, so for her, a 870m swim is nothing. A swim that is, for me, like a jet aircraft dropping, all aflame, to dramatically disintegrate on impact with the water, is for her just a drop in the ocean. She has no idea of the circumspect solemnity with which i impart this information: "If i don't make it..."

Zoë is covering the swim for The Paper, in the time-honoured Gonzo style of immersing herself in her subject. The metaphorical gun is fired by someone shouting "Go!" (are these organisers really so hopeless that they can't find a loaded pistol in Phnom Penh?) and we splash forth, a human flotilla of flailing limbs, goggles, and funny rubber hats.

Needless to say, the Lord answered my prayers, otherwise this post would have been cranked out by the Electric Nerve phrase generating machine (which can easily replace me as a writer because, as Scottish journalist Gilbert Adair notes - a writer whose own translation of the French book La Disparition by Georges Perec into English is faithful to the original in that it does not contain even once the letter 'e' - "writers these days don't write, they process words") and my Mekong t-shirt would be in a Fed Ex box on its way to my by now completely orphaned son. But it was not to be. After giving up putting my mind to swimming, after giving up the idea of fixing a picture of the opposite bank firmly in my mind, and beginning to actually swim, after another fifteen minutes or so in the water, I finally manage to haul my sorry ass up the clay bank - only to find not only can these alleged "organisers" not find a gun in Cambodia, but they can't even even find enough drinking water for 150 competitors - after i stumble up the clay bank, looking, bleary-eyed, through a thin film of water pollution, disillusioned, and not quite stone motherless last but, instead, sincerely grateful to the morbidly obese, blind, retarded girl who may take that honour but a few strokes behind me, after thanking the Lord (and my finishing the swim is clearly proof of Her existence), a whole 32 minutes and 16 seconds after the invisible gun, after i stumble up the bank into the middle of nowhere only to find an old Khmer lady trying to sell me a silk krama (like where do you think i keep my money, lady? Up my ass?) i begin to wonder why i didn't take more advantage of the organisers' completely lax approach to testing for performance-enhancing drugs.

Zoë did it in 14. But for me, 32:16 was a personal best. For a Mekong River Swim. Which, of course, is proof that you can do anything at all if only you put your mind to it.

These days i'm putting my mind to returning to the saltwater pool at Blue Lime, to continue my training regime. Only this time i need to be far more disciplined. The codeine will have to go.

Clearly, what we need at Blue Lime is opium.


miCheLLeBLOG said...

The Knight-of-Lost-Causes strikes again. I rest my case.
But you gotta love the optimism.

Juice said...

Too funny! Really enjoyed this piece, made me wish I was there to see you compete 9or at least there to finish some beverages!)

Fantastic quote of Gilbert Adair. I was having this realization recently when i read a few new travelogues or what ever you want to call them. A string of cliche's which are collated for maximum effect - 'drink,play,f@#k' & 'Do travel writers go to hell' are two that come to mind.

see you soon

sarah toa said...

I can't believe people actually swim in the MEKONG! did you see any Blind Mullets?

Mark Roy said...

Actually i may have dropped a few in myself, Sarah - that river scares the shit out of me.

Kate Liana said...

I can't believe I said let's totally do brunch, but then again I also can't believe we were in a brothel that late before a major sporting event.

Somewhere in the middle of the river I was wondering why on earth I didn't go home earlier. I was only beat by 2 of the 4 10-year old girls in the competition.

Thanks for the credit for the Khmer rouge cocktail. You can say that the recipe is yours, since it's a slightly different version than mine, but then that would be a lot of words.

melinda said...

i guess you could declare from this point forth that things are going swimmingly!! glad you didn't become an overseas statistic a.d, though im sure alexi would've appreciated his new t-shirt none-the-less...i guess if it were of the meekong river you could have called it a t-shit lol at least now i know where the term blind mullet came from, had me scratching my head for a moment there.
as always, be fabulous!
love mayhem x