A TV programme awakens memories of a fellow traveller for David Hill.
I saw Tony on TV the other night.
It almost certainly wasn't him, of course. I haven't seen him for 25 years. But on some programme about some celebrity travelling across the UK, there was a glimpse of a smiling cyclist skimming by. I heard myself cry "Tony!"
Tony and I rode cycles in Thailand, quarter of a century back. We were part of a small, imperfectly-formed group: two Melbourne yuppies; two Brisbane sturdies; Ken the Wellington IRD manager, built like a tank-stand. Me. And Tony.
Tony was English, mid-20s, public school, infinitely courteous. We shared a room for much of our trip.
He apologised each morning, in case he'd disturbed me in the night. "Mother says I recite things."
He stood back to let women members of the group through doorways.
I had two bike rides with him and the others. Ride One was in Old Sukhotai, 450km north of Bangkok.
We got there via a day-long train journey, where we were served cookies from The Sweet Home Bakery, and where Tony apologised to the trolley lady for not having the correct change.
We spent a couple of days riding around Thailand's 13th century capital, on one-colour, one-speed, one-brake bikes, which I think cost the extortionate sum of $5 daily.
We bumped along grassed, rutted paths from temple to stupa — those spire-topped bell shapes that symbolise the Buddhist Universe. We streamed in the 31C heat; pedalled among yellow and scarlet butterflies, under huge trees with golden votive sashes tied around them; past niches with marble Buddhas in gold tunics and walls topped with stone elephants.
I heard Tony exclaim "Super!"
A local bus, where Tony fascinated Thai passengers by putting on a sleeping mask before napping, delivered us to Nong Khai, near the Laotian border. This was Trip Two, a five-day, 200km meander, with bike hire correspondingly outrageous at $40 total.
We rode red-grit back roads with surfaces like corrugated iron. Schoolkids in white shirts and blue shorts pedalled by. So did villagers in ethnic head-dresses, with high-protein lizards hanging from handlebars.
We started each day at 6.30am, when the temperature was still a cool 25C, and aimed to finish before the afternoon thunderstorms. We passed through villages of thatched-roof, open-sided houses. Long-legged chickens scattered in front of us. Big, mud-coloured water buffalo snorted at us.
In one place, the village headman showed us around, and called "God go with you" as we left, which was just brilliant. In another, Ken the IRD manager and Tony joined in a soccer game. Tony tore through the opposition, slammed the ball into the net, and apologised to both sides.
The going was flat and easy, except for the corrugations. On the last day, as we rode back to Nong Khai, the afternoon thunderstorms came early, and within minutes, the red road was jumping with bright green frogs. Tony, at the head of our pack, suddenly braked and called "Watch out, chaps!" (He did. He used those very words.) An orange-and-black snake had decided to join the frogs.
We parted back in Bangkok. I'd enjoyed Tony's company hugely. It was like travelling with a surrogate son: eager, energetic, happy to mend my punctures.
Emails were still waiting to be invented then. I sent him a couple of postcards, but it soon petered out, as it usually does. But when I saw that cycling figure on TV, he was back in my mind instantly. You'll be almost 50 now, Tony. I hope you've had many more great trips. Ride on!