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Blazing Saddles: Cycling with Coconuts

I occasionally make the mistake of interrupting my tropical island idyll by tuning into BBC World Service over breakfast of a morning. It was on a cloudy day last week when I arose and, casting about for diversion, spotted my long-neglected TV brooding quietly in its corner. I approached it gingerly, dusted it off and flicked its waiting “on” switch, thereby allowing it to bring the outside world, also known as ‘reality’, into my living room.

By Baz Daniel

Sunday 23 February 2020, 04:00PM

The Coconut men cometh! Photo Baz Daniels

The Coconut men cometh! Photo Baz Daniels

The basic thrust of the day’s news seemed to be that the world was even more out of control than usual, with tales of economic disasters, rocketing fuel and food costs, Middle Eastern punch-ups, and impending environmental apocalypse.

Rather taken aback by all this, I set out on a calming bike ride around the quiet oasis of Land and Houses Park in Chalong where I live. Cycling along beside one of the reclaimed tin mining lakes which abound in the Park, I was literally brought back down to Earth by a series of heavy “thuds” as a salvo of projectiles pounded into the earth on the bank of the lake behind my rear wheel.

Looking about, I found myself confronted by the most extraordinary sight. High in the vaulting palm trees all around me, sat lithe, nut-brown men wielding glinting machetes in the morning sun. Another barrage of thudding coconuts hurtled to the ground below them from all directions, forcing me to jump off my bike and take cover.

The nuts plummeted to the ground, then bounced and rolled thunderously, with alarming speed and an almost reptilian venomous intent, challenging anyone to confront their ferocious momentum.

I realised that once again Phuket’s coconut men had arrived and were setting about their death-defying business of culling the nuts. The harvesters hung terrifyingly amidst the fronds fifty feet above me, insouciantly puffing on hand-rolled ciggies while their young sons diligently collected the grounded nuts and loaded them into waiting motorcycle sidecars, while deftly dodging the hurtling green projectiles.

The nut-men and their sons appear every three months or so where I live, to neuter the exuberantly reproductive palm trees, then cart their aerial bounty off to the market to be sold. Their reward for this frankly terrifying work is whatever meager handful of baht the fresh nuts will fetch on market day, which seems scant recompense for risking life and limb.

To ascend to each tree’s nutty apex, the nut-men knot a piece of old cloth from ankle to calloused ankle and use this as a brace upon which to shimmy up the slender, swaying trunks. It’s an amazing feat, which they execute with an air of supreme nonchalance all the while exchanging banter and jokes with their comrades and sons down below.

In our world of warp-speed connectivity and fragmentation, here around the Andaman region these nut-men’s sons are waiting to follow (literally) their papa’s bare footsteps, up into the coconut fronds, as generations have done before them.

Mention the question of their “carbon footprint” to these lads and they’ll think you mean the grubby black marks they had better not leave on Mama Coconut’s newly-polished wooden floor after they’ve been up in the trees all day.

Here as I sat upon my low-tech mode of transport, my trusty bicycle, I mused upon this prime example of low tech. manual methods being deployed, not so that fat westerners could offset their carbon footprint while flying around the world to the latest Climate Change conference, but because that is the way it’s been done for generations.

While superficial change steams through the Andaman region like everywhere else on our beleaguered planet, there are still many examples of such underlying continuity of purpose and tradition in these parts.

As someone who has made this island his home and has had the enormous pleasure of writing this Blazing Saddles column for the past seven years, I can only say how reassuring this is to me, as without such charming anachronisms as our coconut-men, Phuket and the world would seem to be an even more insane place than it already is.

“Bicycling” Baz Daniel fell off his first bicycle aged three... a case of love at first slight. Since then he has spent a further 65 years falling on and off bicycles all over the world, but his passion endures. When not in traction, he found time to become Senior VP of the world’s largest advertising and communications group, finally retiring to Phuket in 2006. He has been penning his Blazing Saddles column, chronicling his cycling adventures in Phuket and beyond, since 2013

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