I have nothing to envy except envy itself: Five Cheers for Embattled America.

#adventure, #alternative lifestyle, #living off-grid, adventure, America, Britain, British Isles, California, conservation, England, environment, ethics, global, globalisation, Great Britain, Happiness, history, land ownership, Liberalism, Life, Lifestyle, National Parks, natural world, nature, Reflections, social attitudes, social issues, Society, success, thoughts, Travel, travelogue, United States, Wilderness, Wildlife

Today, I was reading a comment posted on Quora. The leading question was: What Do Britons Envy Most About the US? To which – and I am sorry to resort to the social media art of backbiting – this particular member of Quora’s burgeoning commentariat decided to put down his Daily Mail for a moment to consider the question. If i may add, with a degree of ignorance I have long suspected in my fellow countryman, but hitherto have been unable to prove. This one’s a game changer.

His answer – hardly surprising coming from a reader of a newspaper with a long and illustrious history of jingoism, xenophobia, and acute insular-mindedness – left me wondering two things :

Firstly, whether this man had actually ever travelled anywhere beyond the house he so proudly owns; and secondly, what is it I envy most about America.

Returning momentarily to the Quora contributor, he went about answering the question of envy by singularly failing to address the meaning of what was being asked. So what does the average Briton envy most about America? Well, it helps to know the place by means other than what is daily reported in his favourite Little Britain news rag. His answer? To paraphrase: I’ve just had a full English breakfast and now I’m resting contentedly with coffee and tabloid in hand, admiring the four walls of the house I own outright (as if Americans don’t own homes). Then, for good measure, he throws in a little mockingly-good dose of British sarcasm about how he wished he’d had all that American Free-Dumb (as if Britons own sarcasm).

Upon reading this, I bristle with uncustomary outrage, as i am not an American. However, I think a little part of me might be. My mind is busy thinking, just because a man can enjoy digesting an English breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage, beans, and fried tomatoes, accompanied by 100 pages of right-wing tabloid bile, and all within the comfort of one’s own home, does in no way negate America’s dizzying roadside attractions. 

Comparisons are dangerous when you have little idea what it is you are comparing. In the case of UK-US country comparisons, chalk and cheese.

Does he know that the US is not so much a country as it is a continent? If he cared to step out of his zone de comfort and board a plane to the four far flung corners of the continental United States – Anchorage to the Florida Keys, San Diego to Cape Cod – he might tone down his prejudices a bit.  

Ach! Why should I care what others think? Their loss, my gain. The more of them remain at home admiring the wallpaper, the more of America I’ve got all to myself. So, back to the matter in hand: what do i envy most about the United States of America? That is to say, what do they have that we don’t? That I don’t possess?

Well, turns out, a lot.

For format’s sake, here’s my top five:

  1. World-class National Parks, some the size of English counties. These are designated wild places. Mother nature’s property portfolio. They contain wilderness that belongs to no one in particular and to everyone in general. See Yosemite valley and weep, just as the great Scots-American pioneer, John Muir, did. And that’s just one of many parks that range across thousands of miles from Denali NP in Alaska to the Big Bend in Texas, from Sequoia NP in California to Acadia NP in Maine. Although the designation ‘National Park’ has been awarded to 63 sites across the US, there are literally hundreds more state parks, national monuments, national forests, and so on and so forth. One could spend the multi-millennial lifetime of a redwood tree exploring them, and probably still not reach the end. America’s national parks are some of the greatest entities ever created, and humanity didn’t have to create a damn thing doing so.
  2. It would be naive to state that the US is a classless society, but it would also be a gross overstatement to say that it’s anywhere near as class-conscious as England. There is a proud tradition of meritocracy in the US, which harks back to the days of huddled, squalid masses pouring off the Atlantic liners in search of a better life in a new world. In the US, aristocracy is a term loosely applied to old New England families, and Hollywood film stars. In Britain, aristocracy is real and to this day responsible for walling off vast swathes of land for personal gain. A land grab and power consolidation that has gone on for centuries. This deference to the landed gentry shows no sign of abating, even in the face of 20th century political progress. America’s anti-monarchical revolution of 1776 had its origins in English dissident, radical liberalism. It was then joined by a republican France to become a place where, if you were white and Northern European, the average person was thrust centre stage, and the inalienable right of kings tossed out. Suddenly, we were all kings in a savage land.
  3. Abundant sunlight that mottles a stunning geographical diversity. They used to rhapsodise about the sun never setting on the British empire, as the empire stretched across all time zones. Well, if it’s mizzle in Maine, you can bet Texas will be toasted by UV. If clouds reign over Kalamazoo, rest assured, winter sunlight will dazzle downtown Denver. Fog in Philly? Photons in ‘Frisco. You see the alliteration? Dazzling, isn’t it? Maybe, but it don’t dazzle like downtown Daytona. Who loves the sun? Not just the Velvet Underground.
  4. On the Road right through American popular culture. The tradition of hitting the road, Jack, and not coming back no more, is enshrined not only in American literary culture, but in real life, too. I have a friend from New Jersey. One day, he decided to follow his doctor sister to Las Vegas, a mere 2,000 miles away. Hopped into a car, and headed west. Stopped here and there along the way, but kept going. Within a week he had gone from icy winter to a hot desert where he picked up work as a wilderness guide, in no time. Americans, unlike Brexit Brits, have choices. And believe me, many – through restlessness or desperation – pack up their bindlestiffs and seek emigration within their own nation. They can quit some insufferable place and start again somewhere utterly different, which really just nourishes the soul, and keeps that wonderful literary tradition going strong (see the award-winner Nomadland for a case in point).
  5. Wilderness. Unashamedly, I keep coming back to it. America’s untouched places, which I have seen in the flesh, and continue to see shining in my mind’s eye, are truly a thing of wonder. The Pacific Crest Trail alone runs for 2,650 miles from an iconic bridge on the Washington/British Columbia border, to the Mexican border. The trail bisects some of the greatest wilderness on Earth. Americans, seeking spiritual solutions for materialist problems, set out on the trail. 5 months later they emerge changed forever and for the better, having read the signs that nature put before them. Meanwhile, where do we Brits go for a spot of soul-washing? Wherever it is, we can be sure of encountering signs of a different kind along the way: Private/No Entry/Keep Out/No Trespassing….you get the idea. Envy might be a deadly sin, but nowhere near as deadly as that old assassin, ignorance.

Three Days with Totoro

adventure, Birds, dogs, Happiness, Life, Meaning, natural world, nature, Perú, peru, Photography, Seaside, thoughts, Travel, Uncategorized

Am I right in thinking love spans not only generations but species, too? The most obvious case in point is man’s enduring love for canis lupus familiaris. When did it all begin, this love affair between Man and dog? Round a neolithic campfire on long winter nights with that wolf cub with the soft, ticklish underbelly? I know it can happen in the unlikeliest of places, as interspecies love did with me on a beach in a little balneario near where Peru meets Ecuador.

I fell head over heels for Totoro. King of all he surveys. Totoro, a regent in a republic of waifs and strays.

Totoro lives in Perú’s far north region of Tumbes. He is, quite simply, a regional celebrity. As every dog needs a home, even free spirits like Totoro become attached to somewhere. His somewhere is a beach hostel: a ramshackle beast of a place, oozing character, built metres from the warm Pacific surf.

Totoro is no ordinary dog. In fact, he is such a heartthrob that – and i kid you not – his name is cited in multiple booking.com reviews of La Casa de Diego. At his beachfront hostel home oftentimes he can be found disappearing into a hole in the sand, nuzzling into a smitten guest, or else chasing down pelicans full pelt along the beach. One review, as I recall, lauded this canine character so much the couple in question decided to stay another week, mainly because they were the ones with separation anxiety, and not the dog. 

Like many great acquaintances in life, I made Totoro’s quite by chance. I was staying in a dive further up the beach in the balneário town of Zorritos (little foxes in English), on the scale of Peru a stone’s throw from a Covid-closed Ecuador. How did I even end up there? Being on the road makes no sense at times, because one minute you’re planning a jaunt into the hinterland of the jungle and the next minute you find yourself on a 12-hour coach journey up Peru’s long and parched coastline. Frankly, i was expecting more from this little hideaway. I don’t know what I was searching for. I was the only Northern European face on a coastal highway littered with refugees fleeing the human catastrophe which is Venezuela. Zorritos was, and is, a side of Perú that foreign tourists don’t often care much to see. It wasn’t until i checked into La Casa de Diego a little ways out of town that the other side of that other side revealed itself.

In no small measure because of Totoro.

Monday morning, beginning of December. The height of summer 3 degrees south of the equator where – as you know – summer is a permanent fixture. There’s not a sole around. I’m sitting under a coconut palm, and who should sally into view but this regal-looking Nordic beauty of a dog – half pure-bred golden retriever, half Brad Pitt.

Like a stage actor he makes his grand entrance from the wings. Assuming he’s just another of Peru’s legion of wandering dogs, I note with surprise the lustre of his coat. Lingering on him, i watch him cosying up to a guest who’s readying to leave. He looks completely at home with humans, which is by no means a given in a land where dogs manage to coexist with the population while still maintaining a certain wariness of humans, who to be fair do not fetter them with cuddles and coo-ing affection quite as we do in rich countries. This confidence he airs strikes me as uncommon.

The lady disappears forever from view, leaving Totoro alone on the beach facing the hostel. As if she never existed, he immediately seeks new thrills. Sensing treasure deep below, like a pooch possessed he starts digging. He scoops with such fury that the damp sand sprays six feet behind him. Soon, he has excavated a large mound of sand while simultaneously being swallowed up by the beach. Only his little tush and tail remain aloft.

At length his head shoots up from the sand pit of his own making. He swivels it. Finally he notices me. Trotting over, for that’s what confident dogs do, he introduces himself. It’s love at first sight, for my part anyway. He’s in love with everyone. Moreover, he’s in love with life. ‘Come on,’ he intimates, ‘let ME take YOU for a long walk.’

Plastic rubbish litters the beach. The type of litter that doesn’t biodegrade is a real problem in Peru. But for dogs like Tororo, plastic bottles present an opportunity to play fetch. I pick up a 500ml Coke bottle half filled with seawater and feign a throw. This excites him. I feign again. This piques his annoyance. He barks, but not as a mindless utterance, rather a form of modified speech. His bellow cries, ‘stop fannying around, and throw that thing as far as you can.’ I do and he hurtles off after it like a pro.

We walk for miles together, Totoro and I. Together in the loosest sense of the term, for Totoro is way too individualistic to be walking with anyone. He is a pioneer, this dog. A pathfinder. He goes at a canter, leaving me miles behind, only to find me again, the pinball that he is. When the bottle winds up churning in the surf, he barks at me to find a suitable replacement. Finding one, once that goes the way of the coke bottle he tires of the game and goes off in high pursuit of seabirds skimming the waves in the intertidal zone. Crashing through the surf, he launches himself, almost snagging one in his mouth.

People approach. As they pass, they look on in bemusement at Totoro who is rounding me, corralling me as if I’m a sheep, which I am compared to this lion. He’s calling out to me in a voice so powerful to give him a reason to run. The strangers can’t tell if the dog is showing aggression or is being playful. Totoro trots past a dead and bloated sea lion, showing little interest. An American in a stockman’s hat walks toward us. He asks if the dog is mine. That dog is no one’s, i tell him. He’s a fine dog, the man adds. A dog you might see in America, i say. Yeah, he goes on. He’s not your usual kind of dog here. I reply, i think he belongs to the hostel, but he comes and goes as he pleases.

We walk directly into the sunset until i can no longer visualise where i am. I call him and he responds right away. He knows the score. I am not the first guest at La Casa de Diego to have walked Totoro. Rather, he walks the guests as he sees fit. I happen to be the only one resident at this time, which pleases him while offering me exclusivity. We turn our backs to the tropical sun and head home. Totoro spots another sortie of seabirds skirting the rolling surf and goes hell for leather after them, stomping on the water’s edge like his life depended on it.

On the verandah outside my room, the day is ending. I rock rhythmically on the hammock while under me he settles down to rest. Finally, I think, this elegant brute is settling into the Sphinx position. Every part of him is washed by the Pacific surf. I watch his chest gently rise, gently fall. Every part of him is perfection. His paws are large as a mountain lion. He is in the prime of his life, and that saddens me because at that moment I feel my prime has gone. Well, at least i am as free as Totoro. The difference is, though, Totoro exists only and always in the moment, and I do not. So who now is the freer of us both?

In the morning when I awake, he is there sprawled out over three-quarters of the double bed while I’m shunted to the edge. As if he has learned from other guests the art of manipulation, he hides his eyes coyly with his enormous paws. ‘Sorry for commandeering your bed,’ he says without words. ‘But, on second thoughts, I’m not actually sorry at all. This is what I do when people like you come to stay.’

The day is bright, the heat incipient. Opening the rattan door Totoro bounds down the rickety staircase to the sand below. Like yesterday and all the days preceding, this is the first day of his life. The excitement of new adventures in familiar places is suitably matched by his enthusiasm for the chase.

He waits patiently for me to eat breakfast. Once done, with that stentorian voice of his, he orders me to get up so he can take me for a walk; a long walk on the wet sand of the Gulf of Guayaquil, its lukewarm Pacific waters bobbing gently under twine-bound fishing rafts already poised for the day’s catch.

We walk for hours, leaving fleeting imprints in the sand near the water’s edge. He hurtles off, chasing down whatever has the temerity to try and outrun him. The seabirds that fly in single file inches above the waves are always one step ahead. This frustrates him, and even from a quarter mile away, I hear his voice boom with rage and his long legs pummel the shore. He is in his element in ways I could only dream of.

On the evening of the fourth day of my stay at La Casa de Diego, the curtain comes down on our love affair. I stack my bags up against the fence in readiness for the moto-taxi driver to collect me. Totoro stays by my side but knows what to expect. I am not the first to fall for him, nor will I be the last. I so want to leash him and take him with me on the overnight bus south. But I know that an organism needs its habitat; that to deprive him of this world over which he rules would be to strip a king of his crown.

I can still see him now, digging up the beach, beguiling locals with his brazen beauty and confidence, bounding, like a straw-coloured stallion, after those shore birds that artfully skim the waves single file in a game he’ll never stop playing until he is old and dignified enough to know that against the pelicans he can never win. But winning is a strategy and strategy is not the point. It is capturing every moment that counts, and few embody this true meaning of happiness more than him.

Al Fujairah: Poetry in No-Motion

Arabia, Bedouin, Middle East, Photography, poetry, Poetry, Uncategorized, United Arab Emirates, verse

The United Arab Emirates You Don’t See…

…Everyday

It’s never grey on days like these,

All smiles and gentle bullfights by the beach.

Unnamed Imam Deep in Thought, Fujairah, Emirates.

Imams deep in thought,

Wonder what verse at Maghreb I’ll preach.

Old forts, red earth,

A fat sun slipping into the past.

Contented soul in his Saturday best,

This is not my first, nor will it be my last.

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Migrant Workers , Al Fujairah, UAE

Chaise lounge in a parking lot,

A face that reads ‘I do what I’m told.’

Grand Mosque, Al Fujairah

Ah, the pull of faith.

Who can resist the call of the minaret?

Supplication to the Divine, Al Hayl.

Least of all him,

Knowing it’s not dark yet.

Migrant Workers Relax on Their Day Off

Sharwal Kameez, the sunset’s on fire.

Silhouettes gathered on a broken hill.

Migrant workers cloister wherever

Nowhere is right here,

Where the air is still.

Man and his first love

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

The magnificent, munificent mosque

I lord over all below and above,

Behold not you but me.

Two Migrant Workers from West Africa

Faces from everywhere and no man’s land.

Bound is the man who’ll forever roam.

Street dogs live in spite of the neglect

No such thing as a free lunch,

Betrayed is the dog without a home.

Cars, the street dog, so named because he slept under them

What is this quintessence of dust?

Man delights not me, except this guy here.

A clash of Bulls

There’s gonna be a rumble today,

But we’re only butting heads, so have no fear.

Migrants workers from the Sub-Continent play cricket anywhere that’s flat.

Silly mid-off, this game leaves me stumped.

It’s just not cricket, in this world it’s all they’ve got.

Lone figure against the backdrop of the Indian Ocean

An armada of tankers weigh anchor and enter,

An ocean deep in thought.

All ®ights ®eserved. Trespasserine

Brought Low in a High Place

#adventure, adventure, altitude, America, Andes, Lake, Perú, peru, South America, Titicaca, Travel

It’s one of these rare places on Earth as recognised as it is obscure. Ask anyone if they’ve heard of Lake Titicaca; a surprising number will reply, yes. Ask them where to locate it on a globe, and a fair few will struggle to point to that magical spot between Peru and Bolivia. I have no idea why, but since childhood I’ve been able to press my finger square on it. In hindsight, it was my way of saying,

‘don’t you go disappearing because one of these days I’m coming for you.’

Facts That Stick to Boyhood Dreams

The best factual odds and ends stay youthful as we reach adulthood. Random things conceal their true purpose until decades later. For as long as I can remember I’ve known Titicaca to be the highest navigable lake on Earth. It was family Christmases playing the board game Trivial Pursuit that taught me that. And this cool factoid remained lodged in my mind, planting a seed of fascination with this freshwater sea in the sky that would carry through to this day. And talking of trivia, Titicaca’s stocked with it in the way Lake Victoria used to be stocked with tilapia fish.

Unlike tilapia, you can’t eat facts, but you can regurgitate them. Titicaca is an epic of empirical fact worthy of bringing up time and again.

Since those days of board games played in the Scottish seasonal spirit, I’ve harboured a secret longing to see, with my own eyes, this vast inland body of water. Now a mere 8,370km2, during the Pleistocene – ending 12,000 years ago – Titicaca was reckoned to be subsumed under something much bigger. Back then the entire altiplano was a liquid landscape the size of Great Britain, stretching as far south as today’s Northern Argentina. But being, as we presently are, in the Holocene Epoch, all that’s left these days is a puddle of stupendous proportions, about the size of Puerto Rico. And that’s just the area. We haven’t dove down yet.

Deep, Wide, and Barely Comprehensible

Titicaca is as deep as it is wide. At its deepest, on the Bolivian side, the lake bottoms out at nearly 300 metres (nearly a thousand feet). That’s not far off average bathymetry around the British Isles. Never mind its surface elevation is a staggering 3,847 metres (12,507ft) sobre nivel del mar, as the local Spanish speakers say, which is by no means everyone in an ancient polyphonic region that plays host to the Aymara language (on the Bolivian side) and Quechua (you got it! on the Peruvian side). So, aside from the dizzying altitude, you’ve also got communication to contend with. If you’re struggling with your Castellano when you get there, you’ll leave head-spinning once you’ve been exposed to these other two autochthonous languages.

These are but minor inconveniences when finally, after forty years of not trying hard enough, one finds oneself there on a beach on an isle ringed with clouds in the middle of Lake Titicaca. Standing on a subtropical sandy beach at 12,507ft? Or glimpsing mountaintops so distant I’m not even going to guess how? Or sleeping on a double bed in a lodge atop a huge, anchored raft of totora reeds 3 metres (15ft) thick that’s continuously waterlogged and needs building up every fortnight to avoid sinking? Or watching a storm front gather over starboard waters when on the port side hills are bathed in pure sunlight? No, the lake doesn’t add up. And that’s precisely why it does. And that’s why I want my ashes scattered there, but not any time soon, I pray. 

Heroic Landscape – Or is it?

I entered from Puno, a day’s bus ride from Cusco, passing through Montana-esque high plains landscape. Toward journey’s end the lake’s a shimmering tease. You see it, then you don’t. You round bends on the bus, stealing glimpses over dozing, double-masked passengers, all the while knowing the sky above is stretched thin. The cloudscape populating this sky is itself a mountain range of vapour pressing down on the Andean high plateau beneath. Titicaca is there. Or is it? The billiard table land rushing by you glimmers grey-silvery, but that could be just the sky above mirroring the earth below. You’re on the altiplano now and gone is the intimacy of Cusco’s mountain-drenched surrounds. Distance now morphs into something else. It’s vast and continental.

The high plains perform a trick of the light few other topographies do – how the jagged crown encircling the far horizon could be mountains or clouds, or both. Driving across the continental U.S. years back, the landscape was an illusion of features real and imagined. I loved that magical feeling, the ego death. Never has a person felt so good for standing so small amidst all the grandeur of something so large.

Storms Gathering on Two Fronts

With an air of the unfinished, the city of Puno is no fairy tale on the lakeside. But to give it credit, it commands one heck of a view. Where it lies the lake takes a bite out of the shore, giving it that safe-harbour-in-a-storm aspect. The five days I spent there were stormy, both literally and figuratively. And to be fair, Puno, for all its shortcomings, was that safe haven: not once but twice. The lake itself is the embodiment of inner peace, weighed down by nothing but pure light. But not outwardly. Not always. Even heaven comes wrapped in a black shawl. But back to my tale of two storms.

Figurative one first.

Walking down to Puno’s port from my hotel off the Plaza de Armas, the crowds were milling. The annual festival had been cancelled due to – you guessed right – Covid. Yet. That didn’t stop masked gatherings. It was a Sunday and a bright one at that. Kids rode their pedalos with glee in the shallows while their parents fawned over them, snap-happy mobile cameras in hand. A gloved woman held aloft a great raptor, leaving the day-trippers to swoon around the blindfolded bird. Where the falconer is also the hawker, the kids posed with the raptor while their parents parted with their hard-earned cash.    

The Legend of Uros

Down by the jetties, many pleasure boats. I boarded and before long we were making waves. This section of the lake is littoral: shallow, reedy, and cut through with navigation channels. Before long it opens out into a vastness the likes of which I had never seen, least of all at 3,850 metres up. On the far horizon was our objective: the floating island community of the Uros people. With an island of braided honey-yellow reeds improbably floating on 20 metres (60ft) of dark water, a sky of azure and the rest of heavenly emptiness, this was going to be a photo opportunity way too good to resist. Evidently, it would seem others on the boat were finding something similarly hard to resist.

The boat moored and we disembarked on this bouncy mat of totora – an aquatic grass that is the lifeblood of these lake people. Even the creation—origin-myth stories of the Inca and the legend of Tiwanaku on the Bolivian shore feature strongly this boat, house, and island-building material. Hell, its reputation extends so far and wide that 2,000kms away on the Pacific coast near Trujillo you can still witness totora canoes cresting on the breakers. At least, I did.

Reed the Warning Signs

So, there was me snapping happily away with my expensive Nikon when two fine young fellows from the boat ride over started displaying a lot of interest in it. I know enough Spanish to realise that they were from neighbouring countries to the north. I wasn’t unduly concerned until two women from the boat approached me, looking serious, speaking Peruvian Spanish.

‘These men are going to rob you unless you get off this island.’

I looked at the women, I looked around. How immediate was the threat? How was I going to get off the island of reeds? They explained that Puno and Titicaca were hotspots for camera thieves, never mind local, from all South America. They swore that it was so rife as to be a quasi-industry, organised at the port and in the town’s seamier quarters. They went on to say that these usual suspects would dare not rob me here, in plain view, on a huge reed mat anchored in 20 metres of water. Rather, it would happen back at the port where their cohorts would be waiting in ambush.

‘Get off the island now,’ they repeated. ‘Don’t return to port on the same boat.’

No News Like Bad News

Spooked, I put the camera back in the bag and wandered to a stall where a local artisan was displaying his colourful handicrafts. We talked. He too had noticed these shifty sorts eye-balling me and my camera. To my surprise, he reiterated what the women had warned me. He said that well-meaning gringos descend on the lake from far afield with their $2,000 cameras, blissfully unaware that for South Americans with nothing to lose the sell-on value of a stolen camera is worth more than a half a year’s wage. The temptation is too great to refuse. I asked if they get violent.

His reply was oblique yet sinister enough.

‘Often it doesn’t need to come to that.’

‘Why is that?’ I asked.

‘Because your camera will be gone before you even know it.’

By now I was genuinely spooked. I watched them watching me, the two of them. We were on an island prison and our pilot was in no hurry to return to port. Short of swimming like some desperado fleeing Alcatraz I analysed ways of holding onto my camera by making a graceful exit. Another cruiser was moored up. I asked if I could join, but the pilot answered that it would be hours before they returned. So, I did what any exasperated fool would and rolled up to an Uros islander who was sitting in his motorised canoe just waiting for a crisis to unfold.

The Not-So-Great Escape

‘How much to get me off this island?’

He paused then asked for s/10 (soles), about $3.

Forbidden from running impromptu taxi services back to shore, the best he could do was to drop me on a neighbouring isle, in reality another giant totora raft anchored in a daisy chain to the one I was on.

Two minutes later there was I on another giant, floating totora mat, alone. Looking pleased and prepped for the great escape, I sat and waited for my ship to come in. As sure enough one did, carrying the two shifty types plus the other passengers from the journey over.

Oh no! Of all the lousy luck.

Playing the Fool Playing it Cool

I had found myself not primed for a discreet escape, but instead with egg on my face on the one island among dozens in the Uros archipelago that catered for every one of the armada of boats ferrying day-trippers daily to this UNESCO wonder. They all spilled off, a good few smiling at me knowingly as they paraded past. They must have thought,

‘What’s the token gringo doing here before us?’

I spotted the women who had originally raised the red flag. Their faces combined pity and a suppressed giggle. Last to disembark was the sum of all our fears: the two likely lads who had this little island archipelago in the grip of fear. They eyed me again before wandering around, intentions unknown. 

Storms Real and Imagined

Uncomfortable minutes passed before I gate-crashed another vessel. I sat on the open top deck and, to forget my surrealist escapades, fell into conversation with a young Peruvian sitting opposite.  The late afternoon was overcast. A chill had settled on the water. Receding into the vanishing point was Shutter Island, where a storm of uncertainty had raged in my mind. Glancing ahead I noticed the boat in the navigation channel ahead of us contained – you guessed – the very people I was trying to escape.

As I chatted to the young man opposite about paradigm shifts in human thinking necessary to save a faltering humanity, I realised we create storms in our minds. When we travel to distant lands these storms can feel like a Force 9. Yet we can drink these storms away from our fragile psyches because they do exist for the most part only in teacups. To be honest, the only gathering storms worthy of worry are those that incubate over the high Andes before hatching over Lake Titicaca.

The Wrath of the Weather Gods

Now onto the second tale of two storms: the literal one.

Earlier in the article I mentioned my Titicaca storms were both literal and figurative. While fear gave rise to the figurative storm, the literal one arrived riding on a chariot with bugling trumpeters not one day after my bungled great escape.

Right Place, Wrong Season

I decided to return to Uros, this time to experience nightfall on the lake. I chose a nice bobbing retreat. Though I was told this was not the best season for staying, on the day I arrived the sun blazed high in the sky. Few, if any, tourists were visible. Gone was the dread of being robbed. Serene was the feeling of lying on a divan on a veranda overlooking the wide water. That is, until I was awoken from a daydream by an abrupt change in the weather. A veil of grey, curdled cloud had drawn a blanket over the blue yonder. Throughout the day the low pressure built, and the wind picked up.

Watching clouds intensify over the peaks away to the Northwest was impressive enough. Tempestuous as a Turner painting, photographically the conditions were perfect. However, my glee was short-lived. When evening fell the creeping storm front found the lake where – similar to a hurricane feeding voraciously on the Atlantic – its destructive energy ramped up a notch or two. We were in for a rough ride, and no anchor was going to stop la isla de totora from listing.

Gale Force Fun

As the night went on, rain bucketed against the glass façade, hammering the pane until I thought it could take no more. Pools started running under the door and under the bed. Fork lightning flash-bombed the big sky. The atmosphere rumbled in deafening decibels. The whole bedroom swayed from side to side. I felt like I was in the belly of some great leviathan. I went out and could see great waves now lapping against the thick edge of our totora raft. The cold descended and before soon I was cocooned under half a dozen blankets. I fell into fitful sleep, or at least think I did. I kept waking up from dreams of going under by sitting bolt upright and gasping with sleep apnoea on account of the high altitude. So not only was I seasick on a lake, of all places, I was also mountain sick far from the mountains. Only on Titicaca, where our sea-level lives stop making sense, could this happen.

Sleep disruption aside, for the adventurer this was riveting stuff. Titicaca delights where other places disappoint. The worse the conditions, the more a sense of boys-own adventure overcomes you. A Shakespearean weather drama unfolds over your head in skies so endless, for the sake of sanity the mind needs to limit them.

A Place Called Eternal Home

On the third day I was relieved, admittedly, to return to safe harbour at Puno. Happy to leave the lake, I knew there and then the lake would never be happy to leave me. I had breezed into town from Cusco with two Liverpudlians, one of whom was there to fulfil his father’s dying wish to have a vial of his ashes scattered on Titicaca. His father had never been to Perú, and yet still considered the lake sacred enough. Me, I now had, so planning to have a portion of my desiccated self tipped into the lake I thought was the least I could do, to offer to eternity the dust of my bones. I waited forty years to float on the world’s highest navigable lake, and I’ll spend another forty years alive, I hope, before my earthly remains sink into that deep water. Pachamama, she’ll wait.

End…

Cha-cha-chani: Volcanoes Don’t Get Much Bigger Than This.

#adventure, altitude, Andes, mountains, peru, South America

Though Chachani may sound like a dance step, ascending this Peruvian volcano – one of only eighteen on Earth to exceed 6,000 metres – is no waltz.

No Walk in the Park

As I sit here tapping away, turning milestone into narrative, an ironic smile upturns the corners of my mouth when I think of trying ballroom dancing on its icy apex. So, if you’re thinking of celebrating the feat of summiting your first 6,057 metre peak (19,872 feet) with a little jig, forget the waltz. You can forget the cha-cha, too. In fact, about the best I could hope for was a stiff and ponderous trudge: the dance of the malfunctioning robot.  

Those who purport to know say Chachani is the easiest 6,000 metre climb anywhere in the world, but I can testify that if climbing Chachani is a stroll compared to the others then the others must require something extraordinary. That, plus a lungful of bottled oxygen. Nevertheless, it was an opportunity way too good to miss.

Chachani coming in from the North

To See or Not to See

Let’s go on the proviso that it’s not everyday one decides to tackle a behemoth of geology that stands proud above all else – even over the formidable presence of El Misti, a 5,822 metre (19,101 feet) stratovolcano that, alongside Chachani, forms a silent guardianship over a white city named Arequipa that itself sits 2,335 metres (7,660 feet) up on the arid Andean plateau in Peru’s deep south. So, let’s go on that proviso: one chance in life to ascend to places that few ever venture. Or would ever want to. Do you take it? You’d be a fool to, but an even bigger fool not to.

Don’t Go it Alone

Adventurous types pour into Arequipa, or at least they did before Peru declared a national state of emergency due to Covid. As of early 2022, the city and country were still struggling to recover sufficient tourist numbers. Bars and diners lay empty. By government decree, not one but two face masks were the order of the day. Troubling times for the adventure tour industry, sure. Having said that, keep a good thing down and it always rebounds.

The bigger they are, the higher they rise. Arequipa’s two famous volcanic landmarks are, by any measure, epic. Hardly surprising then that a number of tour providers on Calle Jerusalén, as well as in and around the Plaza de Armas remained open for business. Covid might have detrimentally impacted the local adventure travel industry, but it seems it couldn’t make a dint in interest for Chachani. The rates too, were as low as the volcanoes were high: about $80 all in.

When it comes to mini expeditions of this stature, it’s a professional guide you need. These guys go to university to learn to lead expeditions in these mountains. I went with Waiky Adventours, but a whole host of others made similar arrangements.

The Long Road to Basecamp

A good many operators in Arequipa’s burgeoning adventure tour business will take you most of the way to base camp by jeep. Up and up the route snakes, north and away from the city’s sprawling limits, past the sublime figure of El Misti toward the indomitable sight of Chachani spread even over a massif of towering, flattened peaks.

With Arequipa due south and out of sight, you come in behind it to face Chachani’s arid, northern flanks. Grazing vicuña dot the altiplano, gentle in their ways. As you are already at nearly 5,000 metres at the foot of the range, it doesn’t look especially imposing. We were subsequently to discover that just because a thing doesn’t appear imposing, it doesn’t mean to say it’s not. Up here in the liminal space between worlds habitable and inhabitable a peaceful silence pervades the air, as if the mountains are holding their breath ready for you to hold yours.

Up Where the Air is Thin

Away to the right as we started our two-day round-trek to the summit, I saw there a painted mountain. Made of iron and sulphur and all those minerals that Man so desires, under the shifting sky of cotton wool stuck on a background of cerulean blue the mountain’s rusted hues throbbed and dimmed with the coming and going of the light.

I knew such wondrous sights could only be had up here in the Gods. The natural reaction to seeing this psychedelic landscape at high altitude is to gasp, but that – as became immediately clear – was easier said than done. Oxygen levels at roughly 5,000 metres (16,500 feet) are about 60% of those at sea level, meaning those lungs have to work nearly twice as hard just to make up the same ground.

The Long Wait

Arriving exhausted at our base camp, we were encouraged to rest up and sleep for the day. The reason given was that at night the air pressure drops in the high mountains. Above about 5,000 metres sleep becomes a real problem after dark, as I found out the hard way. Other than a brave, solitary fox that came calling for dinner at our basecamp not a lot ekes out a meagre living above this height. Multicellular life wasn’t really designed for it. Even the unexpected sight of a fox tamed into revealing itself by the temptations of a handout – life must be unremittingly tough at the top.

This being the season the Andean weather gods show their unpleasant side, vistas to die for can be fleeting. By mid-afternoon the fog crept in and all about. The altiplano and all the peaks rising from it, like ships scattered on an ocean, disappeared. All at once, we were wreathed in a freezing world of the spirits. Visibility decreased until not a thing except our date with the mountaintop could be seen.

Nightfall at 5,000 Metres

I must have fallen into demented dreams for a few minutes before awakening in the pitch black with a pounding headache. Our basecamp comprised half a dozen tents, though only one showed signs of life and that amounted to no more than a rasping cough. The others lay dormant. I thought for a moment my group had gone home, and I was left alone with High Altitude sickness, until the thought consoled me that others too probably lay in their tents peering into the void, thinking about how difficult sleep was, and how cold it was becoming.  

As the evening ground on, my headache worsened. In the absence of sunlight, the chill gripped me with an intensity hitherto I had never experienced. I cocooned my legs inside my down jacket, but even that was glistening with frost.

I tried to lie horizontal, until sleep apnea grabbed me by the throat and made me sit up and lunge at the vestibule zip. I couldn’t breathe. I was alone. And then to cap it all, the nausea, which I had suffered at altitude elsewhere in Peru, came back with a vengeance. I couldn’t wait for midnight to come. That’s when the push for the summit would begin. Or would it? At this rate of physiological decay, I would need to be escorted down and off the mountain.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Sometime before midnight, the camp stirred back into life. Everyone gathered around cups of hot coca tea. Headlamp beams made feeble work of the immense darkness of our surrounds. I reported my symptoms to my guide, who seemed irked that his hopes of a hassle-free night ahead might be inconvenienced by having one of his clients die on him.

‘Stay here and we’ll come for you in about 8 hours from now on our way back.’

‘Are you not supposed to descend with high altitude sickness?’

Then I addressed him in Spanish, hoping for more sympathy.

‘No creo que deba quedarme aqui. Hay que bajar.’

By now my lungs were froth-corrupted, resulting in a lot of sputum being gobbed onto the ground. Bad sign. I ran to a rock where I vomited. Worse sign.

When he saw me throw up, his demeanour changed. Suddenly he was concerned.

‘The other guide will accompany you down.’

But some deeper power had stirred in me. My pride burned such that the air no longer felt so icy. I instructed him as to how we were going to tackle this.

‘I want to do this thing. If my headache gets worse higher up, I’ll take the other guide and turn back.’

He agreed, albeit dubiously.

The Only Way is Up

The climb, in the early stages, was brutal. I trailed the others, who had galloped off ahead, whose headtorches I could see as little beacons high above. For each scheduled stop I died a thousand times. Chewing with all the might of a retired mule, gobbets of mashed coca leaf occupied the space between teeth and gums. Hope against hope, I was sucking on that coca for dear life.

Although my eyes were fixed on the pool of light into where our frozen feet stepped, above me I caught glimpses of stars coruscating bright as a glitterball, and so bountiful they scorched the black out of the firmament. Jupiter rose over the shoulder of Chachani, not as the fake star it is with the naked eye at sea level but as the planet it truly is from Hubble.

As the hours passed, the gap between the early pacemakers and me started to close. I found I was gaining in strength while others were flagging. The headache dissipated; the nausea diminished. The coca was doing what mother nature intended. Not for nothing is this plant considered so valuable.

Kids half my age were showing signs of mental confusion in the absence of o2 brainfood. Grabbing one, he looked to be falling off the mountain. Another became quite delirious, muttering something under his breath. A girl in the group, who I later witnessed practically running up the Colca Canyon, looked lobotomised. Could brain damage be permanent, I thought.

So Near and Yet…

They say the darkest hour is just before the dawn. What they don’t tell you is that the coldest hour is also before the dawn. I should have known better.

We had climbed through the night. Our expedition team had gone from tight knot to attenuated line of trudgers. The first rays of morning had settled on distant peaks. The air was frigid and by now my toes had stopped receiving warm blood flow. But there was light even in the absence of day. Our guide was now excitable. Geeing us up, he promised us our reward was within reach. One in our group was suffering badly. He looked catatonic and I was worried for his welfare. Our guide plied him with coca and candy while his head swayed, and his attention faltered.

But me, I felt a new lease of life. Yes, my toes were frostbitten but my heart had never felt this heat of the moment. Yes, each step felt like my last, but I had found a new spring in my step. The night had yielded to a new day. The world was as if viewed for the first time. Seeing the rounded summit of Chachani and the cairn sitting atop I was overcome with emotion. So much so, that I threw up again.

What Goes Up…

Our travails were not quite over yet. An arête had to be crossed to reach the crater and beyond the summit whence we could see all of Arequipa before us. Picking through the jagged rock and ice we came upon a flattened brow and like that, the climb was over.

I sucked in the air at over 6,000 metres and held it there while I tried to absorb the magnitude of what I had achieved. Tears welled in my eyes. The others wore smiles as wide as the climb was long. Was it joy or relief?

Peering over the edge Arequipa, a city of two million people, was coming to life. And like that, she was gone, wreathed in the impenetrable fog. Our guide hastened us to descend before the weather worsened.

‘Back down the same route?’ We asked with a foreboding.

Then with an impish smile, he shook his head.

‘We’re taking the quick way down,’ he replied.

Then he turned, marched over to the world’s longest gully, slumped onto his backside, and proceeded to slide down the snowy mountain. Incredulous, we gawped at his receding orange figure as it diminished away to a pinprick. What had taken six hours to ascend was taking ninety minutes in the opposite direction.

We all looked at one another with childish delight then, slumping onto our backsides, followed him all the way back down to where we left the oxygen behind.

End.

Debunking the Myths of Travel, Fifteen Times Over

#adventure, adventure, ageing, debunking, global, myths, Travel, upside_down, world
  1. Seeing the world opens the mind (Not always – travel can have unintended consequences of reinforcing pre-existing cultural stereotypes. Travel obliges you with the power of empirical observation, but for what end? To see for yourself where narrow-minded cultural tropes originate? – Yes, Italians do gesticulate wildly; Aussies can be laconic; Chinese chatty; Germans analytic; Arabs welcoming; Russians deadpan; you get the idea. It’s when these tropes are broken, that’s when travel becomes interesting).
  2. Seeing the world gives you a new found appreciation for home – (Does it? For me, it comprehensively dismantled the whole notion of what home was, never mind where. Rootless, I’m living with the consequences to this day).
  3. Seeing the world enlarges career prospects – (Well, that’s a moot point. Providing you travel often enough, travelling to new lands will become your career at the expense of a ‘real’ one).
  4. Seeing the world fulfils a long-term longing to see the world. (If only. Whoever coined the the idiom ‘travel bug’ wasn’t being glib. Globetrotting is as psychologically addictive as pot. That big first RTW journey won’t quench any thirst you might have had. Rather, it’ll give you an unquenchable taste for more).
  5. Seeing the world is something you do in your 20’s. (Okay. This one’s a marginal call. Admittedly, one does see one’s fair share of the youth out there on the planet’s intersecting backpacker trails. It seems much of the population of Germany between the ages of 23-30 is, at any one time, somewhere out there occupying every square terrestrial metre of planet Earth, lugging a Deuter backpack around and looking confident. But let’s give a warm hand to the intrepid oldies – those who have either been honing their globetrotting skills for decades, or those who are new to the game and humbled into personal excellence by starting their adventures of a life time AFTER spending their lifetime adventures toiling year after year for da man. Deferred gratification exists, but not for everyone).
  6. Seeing the world ensures you’ll never be the same again (Don’t bet on it. That’s why, more often than not it’s so damn disappointing coming home. Personally, this scenario has happened to often to even mention).
  7. Seeing the world is so character-building that for every country visited the next will obviously be easier. (Funny you should mention that. I once knew man who had been to 173 countries. And he swore the hundredth was no easier than the first)
  8. Seeing the world is too much for old timers. (This is a deviation on point no.5 – Ye olde narrative goes rather like this: do your maddest adventures when you’re young and reckless, then when you hit risk-aversion in middle age slow down into sedate sightseeing. No, old is the new young and counter intuition is the new intuition. When one starts one’s travel career as a snowflake puss-in-boots, one can be freaked out at the slightest thing. Arriving in Hong Kong aged 22 in desperate need of work – i can testify to the fear. By the age of 50 life has grown so passé you could watch a beheading on a Friday afternoon in Chop Square, Riyadh, only to consider this spectacle a form of – albeit not to everyone’s taste – entertainment.)
  9. Seeing the world is an elaborate exercise in self-discovery. (Give me a break! Seeing the world is pure discovery. Sometimes you’re so overwhelmed with what you see, outwardly, that you kind of overlook what’s going on inside. Taking in Machu Picchu’s magnificent panorama is a case in point. It’s just a pity those pioneers got there before you. But oh well, no shame in standing on the shoulders of giants).
  10. Seeing the world exposes you to unnecessary danger (Invert that logic if you can. Staying home has a nasty habit of exposing you to a different, more pernicious, form: debt, deadening and disappointment. We can throw another dreaded D into the broth: drudgery. Anyway, the closer one is to death, the closer one is to the true meaning of life: that is, feeling alive).
  11. Seeing the world ain’t what it used to be. (that’s because the world turns on its axis through the uncharted void of spacetime, so it’s bound never to be what it used to be. Besides, it doesn’t help that the human race has an insatiable appetite for eating everything contained therein. See that boring field of soya? That used to be a flourishing rainforest containing a mind-boggling array of flora and fauna – sad emoji)
  12. Seeing the world unaccompanied must be lonesome. (No. It can be lonelier among familiars, let’s face it. Lonesome is not as lonesome does.)
  13. Seeing the world in an act of overexposure to much of what treasure it contains will tear up the conventional path through life to absolution. (Uh? Do you mean if we say hello to too many big trips, we say goodbye to that Holy Trinity of social status we call home, family and career? Well, isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t the world already dotted enough with houses and kids playing computer games? Fine, I’m being trite. You can still spearhead that domestic dream by taking mama bear and the cubs with you on your peregrinations. If you want evidence of digital nomadism of the successful kind, go to the Sacred Valley of the Inca in Perú to see a neo-colonialism 21st century-style).
  14. Seeing the world makes you wiser (That’s an insult to all those luminaries who stayed at home to acquire wisdom. Emanuel Kant never left Königsberg; Nietzsche was content with the Alps; Blake’s world was London; and Socrates was no Odysseus. Having said that, it’s hard not to derive some lasting benefits from wandering in foreign lands).
  15. Seeing the world turns you into a global citizen (What a term of nobility! Pity that the best i can do is claim citizenship of nowhere. King without a kingdom. D’oh!).
  16. Can you think of another myth to debunk? Or do you need another RTW trip to experience a Eureka moment!?

To Machu Picchu, With Love

#adventure, #romance, adventure, Andes, backpacking, Eighth Wonder of the World, environment, Lifestyle, mountains, natural world, nature, peru, Planet Earth, Salkantay, South America, Travel, Travel Photography, travelogue, Trekking, Wilderness

It was always central to the plan. Fly transcontinental to Peru. Once in the capital, randomly follow compass points leading out of Lima in all directions but west, which would be suicidal as it would leave me adrift somewhere in the deep Pacific Ocean. But whatever I do, the golden rule stands: don’t fly home without first having taken the long trail to Machu Picchu.

Many roads lead to Rome. So too are there a fair few routes to Machu Picchu. The Inca, like the Romans, were master road builders after all. You can opt for what most do and that is to fly to Cusco, board a mini bus from that old Inca seat of power to the sublime surroundings of Ollantaytambo in the even more sublime Sacred Valley of the Inca, board the train from the terminus there 90 minutes to Aguas Calientes at the foot of Macchu Picchu, and from there board another bus that winds up and up until it reaches, at 2,430mt a.s.l., the ticket booths standing like sentinels at the entrance to the eighth wonder of the world.

Or you can pay Atahualpa’s ransom and trek the three nights, four days to Aguas Calientes on the famous Inca Trail. Equally, you can step out of the ordinary and hike the Lares Route running along the valley to the north of the Sacred Valley. But that plonks you down at Ollantaytambo and from there you’ll still need to ride the packed train to Machu Picchu. For the even more intrepid there’s the Vilcabamba Traverse route, which basically follows in the now well-trodden footsteps of Hiram Bingham, the American who discovered Machu Picchu with a little help from an unheralded fellow who happened to farm land in Aguas Calientes and knew all about the strange ruins in the thick undergrowth at the top of the mountain. At ninety kms long, descending into canyons, crossing raging rivers and back up mountains so steep you tip your head backwards just to see them in their entirety, the Vilcabamba can take well over a week to traverse. And then there’s the Salkantay. Free but definitely not easy. That’s the route I took. It turns out, with unintended consequences.

They always say, don’t they, that certain actions have unintended consequences. The more extreme the action, the more consequential. By the standards of some, walking a full five days and sixty kms to the foot of Machu Picchu over a 4,600m (15,090ft) pass is pretty extreme. Especially so when you happen to be fifty years old on your next birthday. Anyway, i digress. For five days I walked the walk and talked the talk and in between saw deep time cut deep into rock and cappuccino brown waters froth and fury on the valley floor because the mighty, near-mythical Urubamba river could not run down to the Amazon fast enough, pushed on as it was into incandescent rage by mountains pressed hard up against it, bullying it and blocking its light.

It was raining as the ten of us flooded out of the mini bus on the trailhead. In reality, the official start to the 75km Salkantay Nevada was 20km back down a very inundated road-cum-track. Ordinarily, day one of the Salkantay would involve a trek up and up that rutted track, waterlogged by weeks of summer rain and spun into mud by the endless turning of Mercedes minibuses wheels ferrying sightseers up to Humantay Lake. We were cutting to the chase on our five day dash to Machu Picchu by skipping the boring bits.

Our guide, Jorge, told us to get suited and booted. Raincoats and plastic ponchos would be the order of the day. My Texan friend and I clambered onto the muddy ground. Walking poles were doled out in exchange for rent money. Essential item. $10 for the duration. Our walking group – at that point still a bunch of strangers, mainly from Germany and Holland – formed under the rain, almost by accretion. Bedecked in plastic ponchos of the most garish colours, they readied themselves for a 2-hour detour to Humantay Lake, before bracing for a 3-hour climb up to camp 1 at Soraypampa. As usual, I was first off the bus and last onto the trail. The Texan and I rolled a smoke, buckled up and in our own time started this great overland journey with a single step. The young bucks and hinds in the group were already visibly ahead within minutes. But the Texan and I were not lone stragglers. Beside us we noticed a girl.

I had seen her when i first boarded the bus back in Cusco at 4am that morning. There she was all alone with only a covid mask covering her eyes, depriving me of the totality of her pretty face. She sat alone, not feeling the urge to befriend others, as so many solitary types do when they’re on the road. She slept, and when she woke she kept herself very much to herself. Much as I tried not to, i found myself constantly stealing a glimpse of her while trying to act all natural. Physically, she was nothing like us. I guessed Brazilian due to these fulsome lips and coffee complexion. She certainly wasn’t Peruvian, with their proud Quechuan noses. Nor Chilean. Nor Argentinian. Definitely not Bolivian. Ecuadorian? Hmmm. Nah. They too were ruled by the Inca, as their faces testify to. She could have been Colombian, or Venezuelan. I deduced that much. Anywhere in the Caribbean, the genetic blend of European, African and Indigene created this unmistakeable exoticism, verging on the absolutely beautiful. But, no. I settled upon Brazilian, as there are 150 million of them, and only 50 million Colombians and 25 million Venezuelans (there used to be 30 million, but 5 million are now refugees).

As we ambled, tortoises off the blocks, she drew abreast of us. Slightly discomfited by the presence of two jackasses who – as i was to later find out, she found irksome when they boarded the minibus at 4am singing, joking and generally ignoring the protocols of getting on a night bus – it took me to break the ice.

‘See my friend here, he doesn’t think you’re Brazilian. But i do. Am i right?”

She was. And I was. And that was the first time we were right together.

At Humantay lake, the surface water was a bioluminescent paint pot. The color was electric blue-green. Around it the land rose sharply, a browned earth soft as shale where the land had collapsed in. And on top of that sat a crumpled mountainous mass of black rock and ice. The Andean giant flitted in and out of sight, behind a veil of cloud and Scotch mist. It was summer, but the Andes being the Andes and defying definition, this was the rainy season. And for anyone who knows the high mountains, everything is exaggerated, even the intensity of the rain.

I could see the glass domes – our beds for the night – on the ridge up ahead far in advance of arriving. The others were all there, but she and I had fallen far behind. Our footsteps slow, deliberative, rhythmic. We were tired beyond belief, for here at nearly 4,000 metres (or 13,000ft) the air was reed thin and the angle of ascent deceptively steep and seemingly without end. For every gulp of air, disappointment ensued. And as the occluded sunlight dipped on a fading afternoon she and I became more and more talkative. Gassing while climbing at these altitudes is not always the right strategy. So for every sentence a pause for breath that doesn’t readily come the way it does as sea level. Our legs could not catch up with our tongues but I knew that something had clicked between us, language barrier or no language barrier.

Up on the ridge with the Salkantay mountain looming in the twilight behind a wall of white cloud, she and I slumped down. We were exhausted, the right kind of exhaustion that combines the very tired with the very happy. Eagles flew sorties in the valley beneath and every now and then a huge wall of granite would flash into view through the gathering night. Magic all around. This, I thought, is why I damned near killed myself to get here. And in the process i made a friend, a beautiful friend.

Day one not even drawn to a close, and this adventure was already shaping up to be a classic. It’s in the nature of duality that with pain comes a degree of pleasure that makes the pain bearable. Altitude and steep gradients might be the root cause of the pain, but the pleasure was all mine with her by my side. I have a fridge magnet back home that reads, ‘no road is too long in good company‘. Never was this Turkish proverb more true than the moment we collapsed into camp 1.

Is it Possible to Rediscover Something for the First Time?

Africa, Happiness, Music, Paul Simon, Rhythm of the Saints, roots music, tribal

Thirty years ago, give or take a month or two, a not so obvious child was born. (N.B. From the off, let me steer you away from fixating on an actual human birth, for a blog on the wonder of childbirth this is not. Figures of speech loom large in my writing, so apologies if you like your writing served on dry toast with a great dollop of literality. Oops! I did it again, smearing words on bread, which cannot be done, unless you’re making alphabet soup, in which case you can choke your own words, especially if the soup contains croutons.)

Well I’m accustomed to a smooth ride,

Or maybe I’m a dog who’s lost its bite

Anyway, back to the point. This not-so-obvious child was born in a New York recording studio thirty summers ago before the world junked out on the digital dope. The idea behind this multi-instrumental reproductive birth pang – no less the title track of the album – was that the child was obvious, and therefore should not be denied (could not resist a metatextual reference, so bear with me). But, trouble was, this birth went unheralded. No magi. No manger. Unlike the first born; yeah, that one with the South African mbaqanga rhythms and Ladysmith Black Mambaso a capella backing vocals, and for which everyone from Houston to Harare had heard of, recorded not five years before, this gift from our dancing God slipped into the world without slipping into my auditory canal for, oh, the next, uh, 30 years.

I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more,

I don’t expect to sleep through the night

The ‘Obvious Child’, track one of Paul Simon’s much anticipated follow-up to Graceland, that renaissance masterpiece from the little Jewish guy (I’m reliably informed he’s actually Jewish on his dad’s side, which doesn’t strictly qualify him) best known for writing whimsical folk songs about being in a grim northern English railway station pining for America, or about the pulp-faced wreckage of a boxer standing in a clearing on an equally grim New York street. Simon’s masterpiece part II should have registered first time round. But it didn’t. Not with me, at any rate. He titled this Graceland infant brother from another mother Rhythm of the Saints. The Boxer it was not. But Rhythm of the Saints was a lot like watching Muhammed Ali bounce around the ring in his pomp. In short, Paul Simon’s extended musical journey into African roots is pure, unbridled joy captured in a musical jar. Fireflies lighting up Brazilian drums and picking West African strings. The album might be about to turn thirty but when music is as timeless as this who gives a tinker’s cuss how old it is.

Some people say a lie’s a lie’s a lie,

But I say why

Rhythm of the Saints should’ve nailed it on release, but it didn’t. Hardly did it flop either, but neither did it electrify the music scene quite like its illustrious forebear. This much I know because I was nineteen and bonkers about music in 1991, and I don’t remember anything drowning out the sound of Nirvana’s Nevermind at the time. If Paul Simon wanted a shot at redemption on 1986’s Graceland, he certainly got it five years later with Rhythm of the Saints. Made with so much music multilateralism in mind that if you teamed up Kofi Annan with the entire line-up of the WOMAD festival you’d still fall short. And yet, the album wasn’t quite as percussive in the wave effect of critical acclaim as it ought to have been. Nowhere near that of a predecessor that, one could argue, whacked the first nail in the coffin of Apartheid. Maybe the curse of Graceland. After all, Elvis himself fell foul to it.

Why deny the obvious child?

Why deny the obvious child?

I’m fixing to shout to the rooftops about this black opal of a album, buried as it is still close enough to the surface to be easily mined. I won’t bore you with the particulars of my life, nor of a chequered year that’s been about as much song and dance as the long trudge to the gallows. But i will say that salvation doesn’t have to come wrapped in Jesus’ tunic. Paul Simon saved my life this year. Summarily, I dedicate this season of light to him. Or maybe this rapturous album transcends the man, leaving the listener making supplications to the creation over the creator. Track 3, The Coast, is one stubborn son of a female dog. Like unrequited love, its warm tones, its hypnotic melody, and its swinging hotspot rhythms squat in the heart long after the mind deems it sensible to evict them. Much as I try to ignore what is fast becoming musical recitation’s answer to Tourette’s Syndrome, day or night I cannot stop listening to it. When the ensemble builds like a human tower – Bahian percussion beneath Cameroonian guitar strings beneath Simon’s pitch perfect voice – my ageing body starts slithering in a whiplash motion. For a moment the hands of time turn back and i feel like a young buck lubricated at the seams.

And in remembering a road sign,

I am remembering a girl when I was young

Track 6 is She Moves On. Get this, apparently he pens it as a kind of paean to his ex-wife, Carrie Fisher. (Emoji with love hearts for eyeballs) Carrie Fisher, aka Princess Leia, object of my adolescent fantasies sat statuesquely beside the debonair Jabba the Hut in an off-planetary bikini with hair plaited like a brunette Rapunzel. ‘When the road bends, when the song ends, She moves on.’ She certainly did. Sadly, it was onto acute bipolar disorder that she moved. But hey ho, unlike most who rest on their haunches, at least she moved. And if you ever listen to this number, so will you. In fact, maybe that’s the life force behind this work of art that can’t be hung in a gallery. Music is art providing someone’s playing it. When the music’s over…lights out. A song lives only for as long as it’s brought to life. Like any oral tradition that binds tribes into carriers of the flame, music is magic when multilingual. And on Rhythm of the Saints Simon performs an incantation on me unlike most other minstrels who try their damnedest to transcend the medium of sonic art.

The speeding planet burns

I’m used to that

My life’s so common it disappears

And sometimes even music

Cannot substitute for tears

It remains, perhaps, an ironic twist of lime in the caipirinha that the album’s closing track, The Rhythm of the Saints, ends with the lines printed above. And sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears. Is this a call to melancholy in the midst of joy? Can the two ever be truly rent apart when the greatest music makes symbiosis out of sounds and emotions. I have scribbled these thoughts down in the time it’s taken to listen to the album: twice (I took a break to sway my fidgety self to the those Pied Piper drumbeats). In the end, I do declare that these tears Paul Simon cannot hold back, even after composing this unforgettable musical oeuvre, have to be tears of pride that for a guy who made incredible folk songs with Art Garfunkel twenty years before, could go one better by bringing music back home to its birthplace of Africa. My own tears, for what it’s worth, are of relief that 2021 was rescued from ignominy by a little genius from New Jersey for whom the world didn’t quite appreciate when he was busy changing it with his Rhythm of the Saints.

True love sometimes has to round the block before it’s noticed. But nevertheless: how on Earth did I miss the carnival first time around?

Songs Are a Thesis on Life, So Live It.

advneture, death, free will, future, Life, Lifestyle, lyrics, philosophy

Sometimes a song can offer a thesis. It’s usually on life, love and the meaning of it all. Sometimes a song can revisit you after a long hiatus. I have no idea why it barges centre stage into the crowded theatre of the mind, yet barge in it most certainly does. You know when it chooses to stick around, because that damn ditty plays on you. Wherever you go, melodic thoughts intrude, and before soon you’re chanting the song silently word for word with such metronomic repetition that not even the eulogy you’ve memorised for your best friend’s funeral is enough to dislodge it.

We often talk about this human syndrome of having a song stuck in our heads. Lodged with a stubbornness the equal of a goat, that’s how songs seep into the psyche. We even share a laugh when that song turns out to be about the worst piece of shit bubblegum pop the hit parade ever produced. Indoctrination by music is rarely predicated on the quality of the tune in question.

But other times, the song that sticks contains the germ of a idea: a thesis, I suppose you’d call it if you were using it as the intellectual centrepiece of a Masters’ dissertation. It then spends three verses, a middle eight and repeat chorus to test its thesis out on you, the listener. Or maybe, more accurately, what its unstated intention is is to invite you, the listener, to test its thesis for it by living according to the principles extolled in its message. Yes, that’s what it’s doing. That might explain why every great lyrical song is more than an enigma, it’s an insight into the mystery of life.

An old song came back to me this morning as i was busy making other plans. Its name is Live Your Life, by the American Otis Taylor. Aimed at the bullseye between our eyes, the lyrics are really quite straightforward. He sings:

Live your life before you die. Only might be for a little while.

By a little while, he means life can be curtailed at any time without any due notice. Implicit in there somewhere is this notion that as westernised humans, we’ve come to expect longevity, and if your three-score and tenth birthday party never transpires, there’s something frightfully tragic about it. Actually, when you put your social historian/demographer hat on, you’ll see that expectations of a long and biologically untroubled life is very much a late twentieth century indulgence. For much of history death prevailed in infancy as much as in adulthood. It percolated up as much as down. And when it did, the suddenness of finality was not lost on those bygone generations. If they didn’t see death coming, they certainly saw it everywhere.

Anyway, back to Otis Taylor. And the band plays on…

Death won’t touch you, on your heart. It’ll just come around. It’s gonna walk on in and knock you down.

Here his thesis is starting to develop. Causation, the central tenet of most theories, comes walkin’ on in on this little number to knock us down from our exalted position of delusion. The causation rooted in these lyrics says if you live your life before you die then death cannot harm you. It can only snatch you away before you know it. Ergo, if you choose to live life then death cannot enter your heart in some dismal prelude to a mortal end characterised by regrets and the endless act of dying while very much alive.

But what is the magic formula here for a death no more painful than drawing a line in the sands of time? How are we expected to – in Taylor’s words – live your life before you die? Again, the songwriter offers an almost irresistible position in building his case for a life script that conquers death. He sings:

Take time to laugh. Or maybe time to cry. Climb a mountain. Swim the sea.

And what quality do all of these lyrical prescriptions share? They all invoke a vitality – eros – which is the counterforce to the spirit of death – thanatos. They ask you to feel and to do. When inviting you to feel, they steal tears from the sorrow of dying only to fetter those tears on what is more deserved of them, that being life itself. Laugh in the face of death? No. Laugh along with life, fostering the conditions for that laughter to play out. Don’t embolden death with the power of your laughter, nor pleasure it with your tears. Climb above your lowly mortality to reach the highest peaks. Suspend yourself again as you did pre-life in mama’s womb but this time in mother nature’s own amniotic fluid, the ocean. A funeral should be a occasion to celebrate a life well lived, but how often do we feel like heading out to a party when following the hearse to the crematorium?

The conclusions of this treatise with its simple thesis of live the middle ground now if you don’t want the end to live for you stand up to scrutiny. If the premises hold that if a life well-lived is no less than a life with the marrow sucked dry, therefore death has no carrion to feed on when inevitably it comes, then the conclusions are clear: take risks. Don’t fear uncertainty nor shy away from the unknown. Let the light of life dazzle death, consigning it to the shadows until that fateful day when finality doesn’t revel in making a show of taking you away. Sure, we could die a terminal death through a cruel, clinging illness. But by stacking up enough of the life affirmative stuff in our armoury of getting older, even a protracted death can feel more like a soldier’s death: sudden and honourable. If that theory sounds optimistic as it does untested, then that’s a fair kop. But I’m going on that proviso until you prise it from my cold, dead hands.

I, for one, don’t intend to give the scythe-toting hooded one the pleasure. More so in a bizarre era typified by mass quarantining for fear of death (we say our current Covid self-sacrifices are all utilitarian-backed and done for the common good, but the truth is the organism is us fears for itself more than others). Hey, whoever said backing words with deeds wasn’t a challenge? But if we turn the page on this world in existential fear NOW then perhaps something transformative can come of it.

Like Kazantzakis said, leave nothing for death but a burned-out castle. And thanks, Otis, for the invocation to live your life before you die. Wise words. I’m not sure about swimming the sea (never truly got over watching Jaws as a 6 year-old boy). As for the mountains, I’m already packing for this winter. And when I reach the top, I’m planning on having a good weep. But not for death. Hello Life.

Holy Cow! How Ruminating on Love Ends With the Strange Tale of the Bovine.

#romance, abandonment, boats, England, Life, love, parable, relationships

I have a good friend I met overseas. A trusted sort, loyal, bright, boundless in his generosity, a good companion on these journeys of wine and deep talk long into the night.

One fine day he meets this girl. Let’s call her Mademoiselle V, for literary purposes. There’s no dilly-dallying when mutual obsession is at stake. Within weeks he has fallen head over heels for her ineffable charms. And she his. Truly, the man is snared in the self-tightening loop of love. Like all good snares, the more the hapless ankle tries to pull away, the harder the loop tightens. Like all deadly snares, only once the victim learns to relax their grip and accept the will of the snare, their plight will be eased, until starvation sets in.

Over the course of the following year, my friend’s love affair intensified. There was no limit to the gifts he fettered upon her. And she reciprocated in kind, showering him with the kind of things that money just can’t buy. Before long, they were engaged. The faint peal of wedding bells could be heard all the way from France, which is where I thought they’d be wedded, and I given front row seats.

However, all that glitters is not gold. Or, if they had made it to that French altar, tout ce qui brille n’est pas or. But I digress.

When did the path of love ever run smoothly? On our now infrequent nights over wine, worldliness, and European cine noir, he would recreate vivd little scenes of pre-marital turbulence. After a while, these funny flash points of their relationship would come to replace cinema and philosophy as the centrepiece of our drunken, moonlit nights.

The stories he told of jealous fits of rage, of Montagues and Capulets, daggers at dawn, of stormy meltdowns, mini breakups immediately superseded by major makeups. Lurid. Intriguing. The seed that sprouts legend. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara had nothing on those two.

The details of their tiffs became ever more non-linear and madcap, the more libations he poured and the more inhibitions he shed. She would turn from Mademoiselle V one moment into suicidal Desdemona the next. Unbidden, she would test his mettle by climbing over balcony railings 200ft above the ground floor of a hotel, threatening to let go if he didn’t do something, the details of which he never quite got. She would storm out of the car into the back of beyond, leaving him to play chase me. They would be drinking in a bar and she would just up and leave in the company of strangers. Their tortured love I came to understand as part of a larger ritual of constantly affirming devotion and loyalty. All ways of showing affection are funny when human insecurity leads to a craving for feeling wanted and needed.

Naturally, all these tantrums had an unnerving effect on him. Mutual suspicions grew. Sniping about one another became quite caustic. He’d drop whatever he was drinking, and hightail it after her when she’d go periodically AWOL. The hunter would become the hunted. In all, it became apparent that passions, like wine, if left to ferment too long, take on a sour taste. Like corked wine, the taste of tainted love, while certainly unpalatable, was still good enough not to throw away.

In the two years they were an item, their exploits elevated them to the status of legends in their own time. Torrid. Tempestuous. Volatile. Spectacular. Christ! The pair of them were an Elizabethan playwright’s dream. And like a great work of art, whenever they sauntered into our watering hole, no one knew what would unfold through the next act; only that some talking point was bound to infect our wider group.

As was the inevitable. They broke up without fanfare, without ceremony. Most of us expected it. Even they both welcomed it, with acid poured over and the candles blown out long after burning out from both ends. He had had enough of her antics; she had had enough of pretty much every aspect of her present surroundings. And enough of him, too. More than likely.

I raise the spectre of this long-interred affair because their tale has echoes in something I witnessed recently that, on the surface, bears little or no relation to them whatsoever. My story, instead of reliving my own tale of blustery sexual relations with a dark-eyed temptress, in fact centres around young bullocks in a field acting strangely in the presence of my own Mademoiselle V: my boat. The parable of these animals and the boat is that sometimes the very things that are born out of acts of love and obsession, that offer us shelter and sustenance, pride and companionship, and most of all the promise of a future, don’t always appear in the form of lovestruck humans. They can be inanimate and still stress test you to breaking point by placing the same unreasonable, suffocating demands as a run of the mill hetero relationship.

N.B. When reading about the cows in the field and the boat moored alongside, it’s wise to keep this couple in mind – in particular, the intense, all-or-nothing basis to their engagement. That’s how parallels become parables.

Let’s mooo-ve along nicely. So, after weeks and months of mooring in giant brown baths (aka canals) that empty and refill with every lock gate opening and closing, leaving boats beached and stricken for half the time, finally i emerged onto a river section of the canal. Yes, a river, no less. Moving downstream like a liquid glacier, a river is nothing like a canal. On a river a boat can attain its neutral buoyancy easily, as it tends to sit perfectly even in deeper water. The river is clearer and supports proper wildlife, such as otters. The current ensures a degree of purification that you don’t find in stagnant canal water. In short, i found a dream mooring for a fortnight. Instead of the usual tunnel vision you find on ruler-straight stretches of canal with hedges and trees lining either bank, on the river the banks abut fields and meadows, offering a more expansive picture. So far, so good.

IMG_20210608_165305

For some time now, I had wanted to find a safe haven for the boat, allowing me to come and go as i pleased. No mooring until this one had provided that leverage i needed – to be able to walk away from my ‘beloved’ for a few days without worrying half to death that it would be either ransacked, or run aground, by the time i got back. That’s relationships for you, I told myself. Together through thick and thin, but mainly thick. The fact that it took me five years and billows of desert dust to save for the materials to build the interior to my high standards, as well as two more years of Gulag-hard labour, and zero foreign travel, to complete its interior fit-out, lent a certain emotional investment vis-à-vis the attachment and strength of feeling i had toward the boat. When you start a project from scratch, for every pound sterling poured in, another two pounds of love follows, leaving the whole owner-possession dynamic to drift into the realms of smothered love. It’s a strange affair, man and machine. And not altogether unlike my friends explosive dalliance with Mademoiselle V.

Pleased as punch with myself on finding this river mooring, I toyed with all manner of escape plans. I’d lock the boat up and go away camping for a few days. I’d take a ferry to the outer limits of the British island archipelago. I’d even take a train up north to see my family. After a lull of two years in an intense relationship with the boat – never leaving its vulnerable side lest it did anything rash like leaping off the 15th floor balcony of a faraway hotel – finally my time had come to gain the distance the relationship needed. That was until the field’s permanent residents, a herd of delinquent bullocks, decided to step in to the fray.

The first time I saw them mass nearby was under the tree nearest the boat. Thinking nothing of it, i returned back inside to the galley only to watch as a few stragglers began circling the mooring ropes, and the canvas chair sat beside. One picked up the chair in his mouth and tossed it away. Another, eyeing the plastic carrier bag tied around the mooring rope, started chomping on the bag. Another got a bit friendly with the bow ropes. But I wasn’t prepared for what ensued. Another broke through the ranks. Annoyed that only a nub of orange plastic remained where the bag used to flutter, he put his mouth around the 2-foot long mooring pin and proceeded to uproot it completely. I could not believe my eyes. I was seeing the systematic eviction of the boat from its lovely mooring spot by a bunch of rambunctious bullocks.

Suddenly, there was a commotion on the bank. Inquisitive as inquisitive can be for a bunch of cows, this lot were peering through the portholes, licking the outer cabin walls, and generally threaten to set the boat adrift. One of the stern ropes was a particular delicacy for another bully bovine, who started fraying the rope as if it was dental floss. Undeterred, I had a stern word with them all, and the herd got the message and dispersed. It then hit me: you really cannot leave this boat for some well-needed time apart. If you do, you may well return to find your home wedged in a weir somewhere downstream.

The herd returned periodically, showing particular interest in the mooring ropes and the pins. I decided to go away all the same. For only a night, but that in itself was a necessary break. And while i sat around that campfire 60 miles away wondering what in hellfire the cows were up to by the river, i thought of my friend and his former relationship. While neither he nor her resorted to yanking up mooring pins, chomping on ropes and tossing away camp chairs, other acts of don’t-leave-me ultimatums were all part and parcel of boozy Friday nights in their world.

On the Mountain of God (PartIII)

#adventure, adventure, Africa, mountain of god, Ol Doinyo Lengai, Tanzania, travelogue, Trekking

If this was any Mountain of God, the God in question suffered at the hands of a greater one: the weather. Rain lashed the steep slopes. The gradient, the worsening conditions, the midnight black, the rising panic: this was becoming a Jesus lashed by the Romans moment.

I couldn’t stop but turn on my hips to train the head torch on what was immediately behind me. The pitched floor of the volcano, the void behind and beneath. Raindrops rushing me out of the inky nowhere. I began to slip down, unable to keep my footing. Grabbing what purchase i could from the ground, chunks of the weirdest paste came out in clumps. I feared the worst. Not even the Himalaya had put the fear in me like this mythical giant. And like a mythic giant, once stirred from slumber they arch and wriggle, until rising mightily there’s nowhere to hang on but hurtle down.

Moses, my guide, was close ahead. He kept turning to reassure me. I saw in his dark features great courage. Yet, even he, the Masai warrior with a taste for suicidal volcanoes, looked at the very least surprised by these Scottish-like conditions.

It must have been after 3am by now. Lengai sat practically on the equator, but the temperatures struggled above latitude 50. We had been ascending – what felt like near-vertically – for upwards of 4 hours. How much longer until the summit? Moses cast a look of disappointment. “We’ll be there for sunrise. Two more hours.”

“There will be no sunrise at this rate,” I shot back.

Beseeching me to go on, Moses sensed the mood had shifted in me. For the first time in a long time an indifference overcame me about reaching the goal. I had travelled so far overland, paid so much for the privilege of my own cook, driver, armed guard, not to mention donkey handlers. I had spent so many months orchestrating this plan. And yet, here we were, 120 minutes from the crater of the world’s quirkiest volcano and I wanted nothing more of it.

“All right,” I said to him. “Let’s keep going. I suppose the rain might stop.” Of course, the Scot in me knew that when a man wants rainclouds banished, the weather gods don’t take kindly.

Another half hour onward and upward and the rain was truly routing the mountain’s immense flanks. Continuing to slide a foot for every two planted, I suspected foul play, that God – or whoever dwelt in this abominable realm – had no intentions of receiving worshippers that day. I slumped onto the liquid ground, my shoulders hunched in defeat. Moses noticed straight away, and turned back to see what was the matter.

“It ain’t gonna stop, Man. I just know it.”

“Look,” he replied. “You’ve come a long way. You can do this. You’re a Masai, like me.”

“But even if we reach the top, what then? We can’t see anything.”

I had, obviously, researched this expedition, leaving no visual stone unturned. You don’t take on something of this magnitude without first watching a few YouTube documentaries containing aerial panoramas shot from helicopters that leave you gasping for breath. Knowing that on a clear morning from Lengai’s summit Mt Kilimanjaro was there in all its abundant glory ninety miles away, that candy floss flocks of pink flamingos could be seen massing over nearby Lake Natron, and that practically the whole floor of the neighbouring Rift Valley could be savoured with a single sweep of the eye, was beginning to bother me. Why? Because, at this rate there was going to be no clear morning. We were going to end up wreathed in filthy rain clouds, unable to see more than a few metres of visibility.

I tried telling Moses this. “It’s about the views, man.” This fine young man looked, for all intents and purposes, an ancient soul shouldering all blame for what the sky was throwing at us. But none of this was his doing.

“I’m really sorry, Scott.”

“That’s okay, Moses. Let’s wait here a while before we think about quitting.” In truth, the sun could have been shining and I still would have been too afraid to march on.

Far below us I could discern human life in the form of four beams of torch light. Through the swarm of rain drops I studied them for many minutes. They were ascending swiftly. Rainproof and determined, that was for sure. What started as four tiny specks of light moving up the mountain in a series of switchbacks, after a while – how long in this surreality I had no idea – the lights began to close in on us.

Out of the blackness we were confronted. By four white faces. Two were dressed to the hilt in waterproofs while the other two appeared suitably attired for the park on a summer’s day. Through her sculpted hood, one the figures stared right through me. Her headlight bore into my soul as I gazed back at her.

“Are you alright? Why are you sitting here?” she asked. “We saw you climb quickly and then suddenly stop. Why?”

I told them of my misgivings. Playing down my uneasiness about the mountain’s peculiar aura, as well as the impossible gradient of the slopes in these conditions, I chose to accentuate the missed photo-op side of it.

“If this rain doesn’t clear in the next half hour, there’s no point in summiting. We won’t see anything. Isn’t that the whole point of it?”

The girls, both Polish and air hostesses in Norway, as it turned out, eyed me sympathetically. They knew that what was gripping me was also gripping them. This trepidation was self-evidently not shared by all. Their male companions, Russian and by my reckoning not air hostesses, lobbied to go onward. We all remained in this eerie stand-off, perhaps 8,000ft up the world’s only carbonatite volcano. The two underdressed Russians were having none of it while the two overdressed Poles were showing signs of apprehension going any further.

On the face of it, the two Polish girls, Moses and I, were willing the rain to abate. We accepted not only the danger in clinging to such a rain-sodden slope but also the futility in walking vertically halfway to heaven only to get stopped at the pearly gates. The Russians had no such reservations. Men are men, particularly in a nation where Putin would not have forgiven their cowardice so readily.

‘We go on,” they stated. And that was that.

“This rain is here to stay,” I said somewhat defeatedly, and a whole lot defiantly. “I’m turning back.” Moses looked bereft. All he wanted was to be the best midwife he could be, delivering me into wondrous new world.

The girls turned their headlights toward the Russians, then me.

“We’re coming with you,” they said.

The split was on high up on the Mountain of God. One of the Polish girls admitted she had been afraid. I seconded that fear and we were the better for it. As we traipsed down with a beaten Moses ahead, I kept turning to see the progress of the Russians. In a true George Mallory moment, the last we saw of their head torches was them disappearing into a thick wreathe of raincloud about 9/10ths of the way up, according to Moses.

Now safely at the foot of Oldoinyo Lengai, a grey dawn broke. The mountain, its flanks rendered green by the rain and gouged by overflowing gullies, its crown all but invisible, seemed to me a refugee from Scotland’s Highlands before the ice smoothed all before it. Never had equatorial Africa looked so dreich. As we boarded the jeep, the rain finally ceased. But, trundling off across the Rift Valley I could see out of the rear window a perfect conical rising until decapitated by one stubborn son-of-a-bitch cloud that simply refused to budge.

The Russians might well have landed first, but as sure as sugar is sweet there’s no chance they were going to be met by that uninterrupted view all the way to Kilimanjaro. Though for them, that was never the purpose.

Below are hyperlinks to versions 1 and 2:

https://trespasserine.com/2016/09/06/on-the-mountain-of-god/

https://trespasserine.com/2016/09/20/on-the-mountain-of-god-2/

The Social Experiment: Going Off-Grid

#alternative lifestyle, #living off-grid, adventure, boats, Canal, climate, conservation, Ecology, England, environment, ethics

Part II: Life Off-Grid

There can be fewer acts of homegrown radicalism quite like going from mains power hook-up to living off grid. But what is it to live off-grid? Everyone is familiar with the term, though few are familiar with the kind of life that entails. Think of it thus: if mains power is similar to taking antibiotics through an I.V. drip, then living off-grid corresponds to foraging for your own medicine from nature’s own root & herb garden. The contrast couldn’t be greater, the results more startling. Sometimes wondrous, oftentimes disturbing. One thing’s for sure, there’s never a dull moment in the pursuit of the dream of living off-mains.

Before I embarked on what i call life unplugged I had seen glimpses of how it’s done. Having trekked the Himalaya a good few times, I had seen how the teahouses that operate as hostelries from the foothills to alpine altitudes managed to run their entire operations without the aid of AC power, or mains gas and cable telephony, for that matter. Naturally, these mountain people had no choice in the matter. Geography dictated Nepal’s infrastructure perhaps more than most places on Earth. Being poor didn’t help things either.

I marvelled at how these resourceful Nepalis ran an entire trekking operation with only two bottles of propane gas, a couple of 12V leisure batteries, a diesel generator, and a simple 12V wire loom coming off the batteries and leading to the only plug in the whole teahouse establishment. How they transport them up there is a whole other story. You see it, plain as day, a mess of plug adapters clustered onto a head adapter leading out from the wall sockets. From this higgledy-piggledy mess of cables, every mobile phone belonging to every paying guest is drawing electron juice from the auxiliary power source (in the absence of solar panels, usually the genny). There they are: a brood of mobile phones pulling like octuplets on their suffering mother’s teats, in the corner of the mess room where everyone spends their evening relaxing by the pot-bellied stove at 10,000ft.

That was the limits of my understanding back then. About the most i could discern from off-grid living was that when too many appliances try to draw current from a 12V/24V/48V system – one far lower than an AC voltage of 110v (USA) or 220v (UK) – there what’s called a voltage drop. You know when the bare lightbulb suddenly and inexplicably dims before shining brighter again. This, I later learned, is attributable to a fall in electrical pressure, which is essentially what voltage is. The phenomenon of this can be best imagined in cosmology documentaries where a distant star becomes a supernova, suddenly dimming before emitting a brilliant light in the night sky. Anyway, point is I had no inkling at all into the practicalities of surviving off-grid until I actually decided to try it. And try i did.

Initially, the feeling was euphoric. No more utility bills. Atonement for all those ecological crimes i partook of in the Gulf. Rapid diminution of carbon footprint, from gargantuan to nearly invisible. When the experiment in living commenced, it was the height of summer. Solar panels on the boat’s roof trickle-charged batteries, creating a false sense of power security. So convinced was I of the limitless benefits of going off-line that for that entire summer of 2019 I lived like there was no tomorrow: effectively consuming similar joules of energy than i had in a house. Unfortunately for me, gauging the true depth of discharge of those batteries, to whom i owed so much, did not become apparent until the gloomy autumn set in. By this time, so late in the year, long-term damage had been done to the 880Ah of lead-acid batteries. Plus, the solar panels were about as much use through a sunless English autumn/winter as a propeller in sand.

Sometimes the most enduring lessons to learn are also the hardest. It just so happened that the winter of 2019 was among the wettest on record. Noah would have been able to profit handsomely from starting an ark-building business had he been alive in that year. From the first ominous spatter in late September, that rain did not abate until the middle of March 2020. Living under the miserable deluge infinitely complicated the process of surviving off-grid life with relative comfort. Instead, as the batteries began their slow descent into decrepitude and death, the boat’s voltage meter reported a sorry tale of exhaustion with every reading. Just to get through the long evenings with a modicum of lamp light, heat and hot food in my belly, the trade-off was either to run a droning 2kw suitcase generator for hours on end each and every day under the rain, burning unleaded fuel and ruining my chances of salvation, or else run the boat’s powerful diesel engine. Restrictions applied by both methods. Running the genny meant, lest it end up stolen from a public towpath, i had to be in residence while it was going. The noise was incessant, not altogether dissimilar to the thrum of a billion hornets all descending on me. Try keeping your concentration when that din is going all day, and while people parade past your window gawping in to admire the designer kitchen. While the other method for supplying raw power to increase voltage in order to run every on-board system from plugs to pumps to central heating – the boat’s engine – never really deep-cycled the batteries for the simple reason that every 12v battery responds to an input charge voltage of a certain capacity, which the engine could never reach (it needed 14.7v but only put out 14.4v).

Talk about the best-laid plans o mice and men going awry. 250kg of lead-acid battery dumped after one year of chronic abuse. A replacement set costing a small fortune. A tonne and a half of coal burnt to keep the chronic dampness and cold out. Hundreds and hundreds of litres of diesel burnt to run on-board central heating, as well as to partially recharge the batteries. Hundreds of litres of unleaded fuel used to keep the suitcase genny sweet. A sizeable investment in solar panels, panels which for the half of the year you truly need them are conspicuous by their absence to deliver any volts whatsoever. It’s not even the off-grid burning of so many hydrocarbons that bothered me the most: it was the almost permanent state of hyper-alertness, apprehension and even anxiety, just waiting for the red low voltage warning light to blink on. Moreover, that one’s life is now going to be totally dictated to by the whims of auxiliary power. You cannot stop thinking about it. Constantly monitoring the situation; always on edge, twitching to pay back the battery bank for every little withdrawal of amps you make on a daily basis. I mean, how is anyone supposed to relax when providing domestic power becomes an almost obsessional challenge equal to servicing personal loans and debts.

The 99% who turn to mains power as a solution for modern power-intensive living: how could they ever know how taxing it is to manage the off-grid life? I didn’t until I unplugged the cable from shore power. Once the brief honeymoon period ended, the reality hit hard. Now, I believe if you are blessed enough to live in a perennially sunny spot below Latitude 45 degrees, living off grid by means of a large solar array is definitely do-able. Equally, tapping geo-thermal hotspots in your Icelandic backyard would work nicely, too. However, the indulgence of trying such a modus vivendi in a kingdom of rains and dirty grey clouds, like this one, by my reckoning is a challenge too great for most mortals. It was for me. I don’t want to face these uphill struggles through the dark of autumn and winter any more. Not here. Not now.

Human effort is not measured, thankfully, in amps. All experience is good experience, save for murder, incest and animal cruelty. At least i tried. And no one can take that away from me.

The Social Experiment in Living Off-Grid: How Goes It?

#alternative lifestyle, #living off-grid, boats, Ecology, England, environment, Lifestyle, social issues, Society

Part I: Life on the Grid

Or should that be the anti-social experiment in off-grid living? There is that aspect, too, though there’s more to life off-grid than a simple wordplay. Or unbearable isolation. There’s the experiment itself, which has to be longitudinal – meaning same conditions over an extended period – and has to transition from living on-grid to living off, with all the upheavals that entails. For all those who aspire to living La Vida Loca – offline, unhitched, and possibly unhinged – the experience goes a bit thus…

Before entering the spartan realm of minimalist, I was a maximalist. Whereas today I can claim to tiptoe on the Earth with a size-4 carbon/ecological footprint, pre-watershed I used to make the Earth shake with a megafauna-sized carbon footprint. You know the type: Crusty the Clown outsized shoes, freak show dimensions, gargantuan metatarsals. Three years ago, but it seems like only yesterday (to quote The Carpenters), I was following a high-octane consumption pattern.

Living twixt the ocean and the deserts of the Arabian Gulf, I drove a car whose off-roading capabilities rendered it a gas-guzzling behemoth. Not that quenching its thirst for fuel mattered much, as costs at the pump were absurdly affordable. I lived in a business hotel in a spacious apartment high up on the 18th floor. For nine months of the year the air outside was so sultry that the air-con inside was on 24/7. A simple walk around the vast mosque near my home, while pleasant, often resulted in a complete body sweat blended in with atmospheric dust and other nasty particulates. The only self-purification was to lose oneself in the apartment’s planet-sized, walk-in shower cubicle. I dread to think what the water consumption was per shower. And yes, in summer one shower could easily morph into three scrub downs per day. That in itself wouldn’t be too egregious an act of environmental vandalism were it not for the fact that in the entire Arabian peninsula – an area about the size of Western Europe – there is not one single watercourse viewable from space. That means that ‘sweet’ water has to be sourced from somewhere other than the traditional go-to place for the native Bedouins, the well.

Arabia’s carrying capacity for humans is naturally small. To elevate it in order to invite millions of migratory workers in, engineers had to build a series of water desalination plants along the coast. Turning seawater into the salt-free solution that comes through the plumbing requires phenomenal amounts of oil to burn the salt off millions of gallons of water in steam condensers that run day and night. This process accounts for a surprising percentage of all oil production. That aside, the point I’m trying to force through here is that just to have a shower required an industrial process that burnt mind-boggling quantities of oil from water sequestrated from the ocean. The Persian Gulf, all 700 miles of it, is turning saltier because of the desalination required to sustain millions of migrant labourers. This brackish chemistry puts stress on the aquatic ecology, too. Most famously, sea grasses are suffering, which brings big problems downstream to grazers such as the manatee.

At work, we used machinery in a profligate way. Printing worksheets and other paraphernalia for the sake of it resulted in towers of waste paper, un-recyclable laser jet cartridges, and overworked Xerox machines. Air-con ran all day through unmanned corridors, empty classrooms, bare staff rooms, and even little panic rooms where you go to escape the madness. The utilities bill alone must have been equal to the GDP of a small principality. Lights were routinely on in empty rooms. Just switching them off was an act of radicalism.

Workdays there are kinder than in the slave-driving West. One of the reasons so many venture there in the first place. Instead of being bolted to one’s desk until long after dark, privileged expat Europeans (Brits included) would finish work with the sun still high in the sky. That exacerbated our carbon footprint, as at 4 o’clock there’s much life left in the day. Invariably, myself and friends would do some form of physical exercise in an air-conditioned gym, on equipment often running on mains power. In fact, the treadmills often needed their own national grid to operate. Once the aerobic fun and games were over it was time to decamp to the bar for a cold one. Except, for the Guinness to reach chill factor 10 required power beyond power. When outside the temperature is touching 40 celsius with a wet bulb humidity level of 80%, and inside the beer tap has a designer layer of ice around it, you know you’ve got an addiction to mains power. Is there any wonder a pint costs the equivalent of $15?

Of course, this power audit i’m describing is not the half of it. One of the great mass movements of expats in the carbon-rich Gulf is to descend en masse to the airport on the first day of school holidays. It is far from unusual to meet a colleague, neighbour or even drinking buddy in the queue for check-in. Their intended destinations are myriad, but all of them are linked by one carbon-relevant fact: flight time is seldom less than five hours, and sometimes fifteen. That’s a lot of vapour trail.

But this mass gathering of folks sharing similar socio-economic status is by no means confined to the air travel industry. If you want to visualise another airport analogue, but this time for the domestic market outside of school holidays, look no further than the mall. The great emporium of the 21st century – beloved of Arab rulers who see a historicity with the ancient bazaars and souks of the Middle East, as well as a source of great internal revenue – draws the crowds in all weathers, be it hot or hotter. Some, such as the Dubai Mall, are so sprawling as to contain more shops than some cities (Dubai Mall has circa 1,200 individual rental units within its great perimeter walls).

Once inside these 21st Century temples of consumer worship you see the level of food waste. That, in itself, is staggering. If I had a dollar for every plate of leftovers I witnessed, I’d be a wealthy man. Buffets barely-touched. Takeaways partially eaten. Quantities of cooked food that no society without an agricultural base should ever rightfully have within their means. The profligacy of quality food would appall any good Presbyterian. There, in the Arabian Gulf, apportioning little or no value to a precious thing as fresh, quality food is a fact of life in a burnout society gone badly wrong. Now, if these generous helpings of leftovers would go to feeding the pitiful canine waifs and strays that mill around behind malls and hotels, I could almost justify the waste. But they don’t, as a matter of policy. The Muslim rulers would rather legislate for a situation where uneaten food is binned than to nourish an animal considered to be vermin.

Like any superstructure, be it an international airport hub or a world-beating shopping mall, the maintenance costs of the mall are almost as environmentally disastrous as the industrial legacy of building them from their foundations. While I don’t profess to having the data on how many megawatts per hour the Dubai Mall uses in order to keep the lights on, the air-con nippy, and the customers happy, I’ll wager that its not far off the levels consumed by the whole country thirty years ago. A graph showing the mains power consumption over a thirty-year period would likely resemble a hockey stick: from sustainable to a complete loss of perspective in a single generation. The point being here that I was one of millions far exceeding a carbon footprint expected from the average consumer in their home nations. It’s the gift that keeps giving, the party without the hangover.

So much raw power consumed from relatively few sources. We’re not talking PV solar panels blanketing the desert, drawing in abundant current from the Arabian sun. We’re talking good old fashioned oil-burning power stations sending carbon consumption through the roof for many. We’re talking industrial output from raw materials extraction that has had a deleterious – in places catastrophic – effect on the specialist ecology and wildlife of the desert. Arabian leopard, down to two hundred individuals across two million square miles. The Arabian wolf, dwindling away to nothing, unable to halt their own human-led persecution. Hyrax, under threat. Corals, wrecked by coastal degradation. About the only wild things to have prospered are the feral dogs that cling on, unloved, in the derelict quarters of the city. Oh, and the ubiquitous camel, too cherished as a commodity to be in danger of extinction.

It doesn’t take a visionary to see that consumption levels of both power (delivered in cheap abundance by the burning of non-renewable fossil fuels) and commodities (imported on oil-burning container ships in exchange for crude oil and gas) are disturbingly high. After five years, I was reaching a moral dead-end. I couldn’t go on enacting a lifestyle that I myself criticised for its crimes against nature. To be sitting at a bar in the desert drinking Irish beer from a tap that’s chilled not by the air outside but but a long chain of industrial processes demanding huge quantities of power, while having discussions about how to bang the world to rights, that’s wasn’t going to cut it long-term. That’s when the small footprint plan kicked into action.

The transition from energy elephant to mouse has been a steep learning curve. Contrastive, to say the least. It’s not all peaches and cream when you’re trying to atone for your former environmental crimes. The challenges of acquiring power off-grid, of limiting daily usage, and of scrimping on water, are in their own right as equally immense as running power stations for cities such as Dubai. Ethically, living off-grid you’re on firmer ground. However, in a practical sense could we all do it? Or is off-grid living destined to be a strictly niche affair?

In my next blog, I’ll illustrate some of the day-to-day rituals required to keep the lights on, the fire going, and the water running.

To Save First We Have To Spend

biodiversity, civilisation, climate, conservation, developing world, development, ecological economism, Ecology, environment, ethics, future, international development, land ownership, rainforest

“You can take the title to your house to the bank and borrow money. Why? Because the market puts value on a house. We need to see rainforest at that same value level,” he says. “Conservation has to be market-driven. The long-term benefits of a healthy forest are more valuable than the short-term profits from logging or mining.”

Dane Gobin, Iwokrama Forest Management, Guyana (Bloomberg, 2019)

For decades methods have been applied about how best to arrest the process of deforestation in the world’s tropical regions. Everyone from international development agencies to Hollywood greenies have gone all out, doing everything from berating, and even ostracizing governments in affected regions, to incentivising them with the promise of aid, legitimacy and investment if only they would quit the logging.

The argument to conserve biodiversity over the argument to develop economically has traditionally come down to a binary ethical one. Western voices have persistently pleaded on the basis that deforestation – whether it be for lumber, squatting, mining, or slash-and-burn farming of cash crops – is an immoral act that not only deprives countless millions of species of a roof over their heads, but also degrades the quality of soil, air and of the lives of every man, woman, and child in the wider world. The value, therefore, of each hardwood tree, each prowling jaguar, and each creeping vine is in and of itself incalculable – or at least with a value exceeding the sum parts of the commodities that loggers, farmers and miners seek when despoiling the rainforest in the first place. Western thinking goes thus: stay in your sprawling shanty towns; let nature be; allow only indigenes the right to dwell in biodiversity hotspots. But in a world of nearly 8 billion ambitious souls, most of whom live in what’s called the Global South where most of the real biodiversity lies broken against a backdrop of poverty, squalor and deep structural inequality, what then?

Making Borneo into one great National Park, or keeping the Amazon as a primordial world, is all well and fine, but does it really chime with our contemporary mood? Making nature exempt from commodification and monetary value was part of a conservation mindset popular during the heyday of the National Park system in the early to mid twentieth century (think the USA under Teddy Roosevelt). Let’s ring fence the beautiful places in perpetuity, which worked beautifully in wild places such as Yosemite. But today, given the mess we’re in what with a toxic blend of population pressure, degraded environment, and a model of capitalism espousing the greatest consumption for the greatest number to produce the greatest happiness, how durable is the view that wilderness should remain untouched? Isn’t it time to take other, more radical, measures to safeguard the last remaining wild places?

Look around and what becomes apparent is not that the old paradigm is changing. Moreover, it’s that it has to. Under the pressure of realpolitik, of shrinking public spaces, of expansive corporate reach, and of burgeoning populations hell bent on getting a slice of that consumer pie, closing off vast swathes of so-called virgin territory is creating a rift between governments and their people, and more importantly between the reality of the situation and the perception of how to solve it. If not, then how come the more that developing countries (as well as a few developed ones) have tightened their environmental laws over the past generation, the more incursions we see made by various players and the greater the overall dismantling of the biosphere within the primary forest? Within this paradox, political populists hostile to established models of conservation can stand on ceremony with the promise of making pots of money for everyone from what they see as their own – and not the planet’s – natural patrimony.

Seen by populist governments in heavily-populated developing countries as symptomatic of the Western tendency toward paternalism towards the regions these great powers used to rule, in some unpopular cases, such as Brazil and Indonesia, the world has seen in recent years a worrying acceleration in the acreage of virgin forest felled for lumber, cash crops, and the riches that lie beneath the forest floor. And what is the motive that belies this degradation we see in spite of decades of lobbying and campaigning for an end to wilful and unsanctioned deforestation? Why are things, in some sense, worse than anyone could have imagined even twenty years ago? Well, in the words of Ricardo Salles, the Brazilian Environment minister under Jair Bolsonaro’s polemic presidency, the reality goes a bit like this:

“We need to recognise that there are real subjects living in the Amazon,” Mr Salles said, referring to the 20m people living in the Amazon. “So we need to give a concrete response to them, and not simply saying that they cannot do anything in the area of the Amazon. That is not reasonable, it is not even feasible.” (Financial Times, 2019)

By promulgating the moral argument for making the Amazon one gigantic exclusion zone for the millions of restless, economically-challenged people living in its vast surrounds, it seems that no lasting progress can be made. The old model, backed by rich, industrialised countries, many of whom have already laid waste to their own primary forests, is turning out to be a dud. Their appeal to goodness based on the ethical presumption that ‘just because we did it to get rich, to develop our nation state, you shouldn’t necessarily follow’, is now clearly falling on deaf ears. Populism has fostered defiance among the developing states in the equatorial belt. The rising power of China as an ideological counterweight to the traditional Western hegemony is emboldening states, such as Brazil, to let ecocide reign so long as the conditions for human inequality persist. Alongside this, the vast improvements in global supply-chain logistics has smoothed the way for biodiversity loss to become one big concerted effort. Salles’ justification for this lawlessness rife on the fringes of the great Amazonian basin is clearly viewable in these terms. He elaborates the point:

‘That is why people go over to the illegal activities… because they don’t have a space to do something within the law.’

Are we hearing the makings of policy based on the precepts of what is known as ecological economics? This idea is not exactly hot off the press, but it is beginning to demand attention. With the UN’s Millennium Development Goals teetering on the brink, something has to give. And that, unfortunately, is policy attachment to the notion of deep ecology. As outlined previously in this article, building policy goals around a shared ethic that one can never put a price on nature, has proved a bridge too far, and this failure is seen in terms of unsustainable losses to tropical biodiversity in this century alone. Purists might baulk at the idea, but monetising a forest and all that’s in it might just be the one compelling way to make business, and all the rogues that dwell on its fringes, sit up and listen. Speak their language. It’s called cash. Easy to learn; tough to forget.

So, what does monetisation of nature mean in principle? According to Barbara Unmüßig of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, that conservation efforts can be bolstered and public sympathy heightened by revealing an economic contribution of nature and the services it can provide. This translates as tradable prices for ecosystem services. We can encapsulate these wider definitions into what I would term ‘natural capital/equity’. Measuring nature with economic indicators over a tradition of measuring nature, sui generis, against other ethical considerations still has a touch of the abstract to it. So, in short, ecological economism really boils down to saying, look, if you want this patch of forest you’ll have to show you truly value it by paying a high tariff for it. Ergo, those who would place such high stakes on their own economic future, and that of their corporate interests, would therefore place an enormous value on natural capital, to the extent that it would be safer in private hands (acting as a trust) than at the mercy of prohibitive legislation that invariably ends up breached by corrupt officials and short-term prospectors anyway.

If the past fifty years have amply shown that the world doesn’t quite agree on an absolute value placed on nature, it has always contrastingly shown that free market capitalism has been instrumental in placing absolute value on something so long as it can be considered commodity. No one quibbles with the price the market sets, after all. And this is where the problem lies: is it right to commodify nature? Does doing so lead to privatisation by other means? Where governments have failed, can the private sector, including the world’s investment bankers, step into the fray and actually flick the switch on ecological damage and destruction? In short, is it better to harvest a tropical hardwood than to fell it? For the tree, the answer is an unqualified yes. But for the guy who wants a quick hit of capital from the lumber, or he who desires the empty space left once the tree goes, what then? Even this radical idea (well, radical for our modern age) has its limitations. Without applying what Unmüßig terms the precautionary principle – the principle that the higher the risk to the natural environment, the greater the justification must be for a stakeholder to take such action – monetization of the natural world can all too easily slide into the kind of excessive commodification that drives Man to desire ownership and control over every tangible thing. We all know where that leads. And this instinct of tearing down only to build up, or to destroy in order to prosper, can only be moderated at the levels of governance and legislation. Which brings us back to the old ways of trying to combat ecocide.

Perhaps, there is a way, though. A new modus operandi where some ecosystems can thrive while we survive. And all in a more symbiotic, a more mutually-beneficial way. The Selva Maya is an area of tropical jungle spanning three countries: Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. A 150,000 sq km biodiversity hotspot containing no less than five species of big cat, La Selva Maya has recently been acquired at cost by conservation groups with money to put into something other than publicity and administration (Guardian, 22/04/21) Thanks to direct purchasing from the national government of Belize (i believe), this splodge of megadiverse, pristine forest finds itself now perpetually protected. Barring a constitutional catastrophe in Belize, nothing large-scale will ever again encroach on the fragile makeup of the forest. By any measure, what has happened here is a great thing for nature. And by extension, for the whole world. In purchasing the forest, conservation groups have clearly come out in the open, admitting that a monetary value – whatever it is – has been agreed with the previous custodians of the land. However, the arrangement seeks not to commodify what has been purchased, ironically, as a commodity. The contents of the forest will not be up for negotiation, or fair game for the highest bidder. No, that would miss the point.

The best analogy i can come up with for the money paid is that of a ransom. The right people now have the title deeds in their name, and presumably their business model is to leave the place the hell alone to simply be. If enough consortiums can come together to purchase small, affordable patches of rich biota, mainly rainforest, along the entire equator, then we might just begin to witness a joining of the dots until one day every last hectare that was bought by conservationists will start to outweigh the great green spaces on the map occupied by the industrialists, the agronomists, and the settlers, all content with one thing: to bleed nature for all she’s worth. By that point, capitalization of all natural ‘assets’ will be so valuable as to be out of the price league of every sinister corporation or corrupted government.

There is a faint whiff of Thatcherism in all this. In the early 1980s, with Britain exhausted and failing miserably, she encouraged affordable home ownership, and what transpired? Newly privately-owned homes across the kingdom didn’t get trashed; many actually ended up beautified where everyone become a vested stakeholder. The nature wars are reminiscent of her era. Whether humanity continues with the short-term strategy of raid and pillage until no booty is left, or the long-term one of benign ownership at a dollar price – monetising nature without commodifying her – we are, it seems, at a critical juncture. The race is on. It’s all to play for.

Away With the Birds

#adventure, adventure, Africa, barn swallows, Birds, migration, migratory routes, ornithology

Is there any animal that spells summer quite like the barn swallow? Do they even realise they are a harbinger of good things to come? I do not know if it’s them deciding summer or if it’s summer that brings them into being. I dare say it matters not one iota the order of things, simply that one could not co-exist without the other. If either were to disappear, I cannot see how we could avoid joining them in the dustbin of history.

People living at lower latitudes might not appreciate the symbolic power of that first glimpse of a solitary swallow gliding and weaving, banking and dipping above the river and high over the houses. We, however, who choose to inhabit the Northern outposts of the habitable world (i.e. England), place more attachment than we’d have ourselves believe on the return of these seasonal visitors. For us, whether we admit to it or not, the swallow is arguably a national treasure, the most welcome sight over the White Cliffs of Dover in an age where few are getting all excited at the prospect of incomers. After nigh on six months of monochrome, half-light, naked trees and continuous dampness, you can about bank on the swallows to slap an injunction on this dismal run of days. And, yes, to save the rest of us from death by despondency. We owe them much. We owe them a debt of gratitude for returning to us what they callously took from us when they left the previous early autumn. While a simple thanks doesn’t wash with them, busy as they are frantically gobbling up insects on the wing to power the trip home to South Africa, we can perhaps begin to appreciate them by first getting to grips with how mindbogglingly difficult their journey back and forth from latitude 40 degrees south to latitude 50 degrees north.

Weighing in at slightly under half the weight of a pouch of tobacco, and measuring half the length of a school ruler from beak to the tips of their famous forked tail, these little fighter pilots don’t actually require aeronautical engineers to build their means of transport. Nature did that for them over millennia. They are, no less, the complete article. Top Gun school cadets that arrive on the scene with their seventeen million dollar supersonic jet fighter on their back. The inspiration of humans wealthy enough to chase the sun on a perennial basis, swallows don’t need two mortgages in order to live the dream. They do, however, need astonishing levels of stamina, as well as innate GPS coordinates to find their way literally from door to door.

Take the Cape of Good Hope as their starting point. It wasn’t that long ago that humans discovered the verifiable truth that the barn swallows we see here in the British Isles nearly all originate in South Africa. The telemetry of migratory birds was always an elusive truth until tiny metallic bands started to be fastened onto their twig-like ankles. When a swallow was located 8,000 miles away wearing the same band, the connection was finally made. This feat of endurance, flying the length of Africa plus the length of Europe surprised many birders. For starters, how does something weighing fifteen grammes make it that far year after year? And more beguiling, how does an animal with a tiny brain remember how to get home? I mean it’s not like home is just round the corner either. To find its way from a nest in the eaves of a house in a hamlet in a valley in an English county back to a forest in Lesotho or a hole in a crag deep in the Drakensberg Mountains, first it has to find a suitable crossing point on the south coast of England. it then needs to fly at about 50kph, avoiding predatory birds, as well as birdshot from hunters’ guns, through France, over the Pyrenees, over the baking plains of Castille in Spain, up and over the Sierra Nevadas before making another crossing of the straits of Gibraltar. Presumably it doesn’t stop for very long en route, other than to feed where it can and to catch some zzzz’s before the big one across the Sahara. Is this beginning to sound like an epic journey? Well, we’re not properly underway quite yet.

Once into Morocco and over the Atlas Mountains, the landscape becomes disturbingly parched. The complex chain of organic life that begins with plants and eventuates in the presence of insects is on the wane by the time the swallows cross into Mauritania. By now they are well and truly at the mercy of the elements. These elements are always harsh, but sometimes brutal. Food disappears. Soil gives to dust, which swirls around in the lower atmosphere, blinding and choking everything. The heat is intense, even in autumn when the swallows are passing through. Shade at midday, shade at any time of the day becomes a rarity. The nights are frigid. There are so few reliable sources of insectivorous sustenance for them that ornithologists suspect that they make sizeable detours to arrive at Saharan watering holes, of which they are few and far between.

The winds on the open plains of the desert are hot blasts of angry air. The bird must take that wind head on, though if the little navigator gets sucked into a trade wind, he or she will end up blown far off course and into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean where its end is watery.

If the swallow survives the full-blown Saharan stage, by perhaps following the Niger river for water and sustenance, he will find himself entering the Sahel – that band of latitude south of the Sahara and north of the equatorial belt. You might think of the brave little swallow that his troubles are now behind him, but you would be wrong. This passerine bird needs to know it has not ventured off the ‘flyway’ (the corridor that they all traditionally take), but how does he know this when a) a sandstorm has most likely disrupted his passage; and b) when recognisable landmarks beneath them, used season after season to as reliable route finders, have been upended, scorched, moved, destroyed or otherwise fallen victim to man’s insatiable tinkering of his physical world? In the anthropocene age of man the job of swallow with homes in either hemisphere has become intolerably difficult.

If the 18g swallow has made it this far, his chances of reaching home do increase. But success is far from a certainty. In the Sahel, where acacias grow sporadically on impoverished soils, finding dinner is still a major issue. The swallow can try and seek out the brahmin cattle, for their tails are always swishing from the density of flies congregating around their shit. Still, remember, the swallow is a small bird who prefers a diet of gnats and midges and altogether smaller insects. The big-ass African variety, such as the tsetse fly remains a formidable mouthful. Now, beating his wings at upward of 70kph, the swallow powers its way past the Sahel to where green shoots grow. He has now reached the Equatorial belt somewhere around Northern Nigeria. His weary plight will be eased by the sight of forests coming into view. But they are merely a trap. Once he, and another few thousand of his brethren, have reached the forests of tropical West Africa they must be careful where they choose to take their traveller’s rest. The unfortunate will be snared in vast nets that locals booby trap the trees with. There is no hope for a swallow caught in the net. Even though he is only transiting, the swallow will be considered fair game and taken for the village pot.

For the brave few, they might follow the flyway (or skyway as i like to call it) out into the Gulf of Guinea. Once away from land the armpit of Africa can be a dangerous proposition. All it needs is a gust of wind and that’s it, game over. For the foolhardy if they stay the course, crossing the island group of Sao Tome and Principe, they can nail the short cut, reentering Africa in the primordial forests of Gabon, and further south to the mouth of the mighty Congo river. Here they might not be deprived the sustenance needed to power an 8,000-mile journey, but still they are not out of the woods yet. Dangers abound. The Gaboon Viper can strike while they are taking branch breather. Humans continue to predate them and every other piece of flying meat. The rains over the Congo come in torrents, the raindrops as heavy as concrete on their weightless bodies. The electrical storms over the world’s second largest contiguous forest are legendary. Do these pint-sized pilots feel fear?

Once beyond the Congo the swallows are beginning to home in on home. They are now in the southern hemisphere and there is every chance they know this, due to the Coriolis effect, magnetism, position of the sun and stars, and so on. Just when you thought they could hit the home straight for a ticker-tape parade celebrating their incredible marathon, another geophysical kraken emerges. Their voyage home comes to resemble Odysseus and his ten years of wandering. Angola treats them fairly well, providing the Goldilocks Effect for an exhausted bird. However, what lies beyond is in every way as rigorous and daunting as the Sahara. Except this desert is much older and much drier: the Namib.

South Africa is bordered by Namibia to the north. Namibia contains some of the highest dunes on Earth alongside a skeleton coast of nothing but bleached bones and shipwrecks. The ocean is an ice bucket under a burning sun. The dunes have disoriented weary travellers for eons. Only there can north be south and east be west. In the Namib desert can the swallow fall at the final hurdle. If he follows the coast south to the mouth of the Orange River, the swallow will have a fighting chance of making it home in time for supper, though how many lie dazed and confused in the red sands of the Namib no one knows, because no one ever ventures in there and comes out telling the tale.

By now, the great navigator has completed seven of the eight thousand miles. In the Western Cape he can perch on the fynbos, and while the vegetation might be on the prickly side, he will find a good square meal and a place to rest his weary wings.

He’s made it. Many have fallen by the wayside. And, to think, our magnificent young fledgling was only born in England in May, so how in God’s name did he cruise the flyway without having that internal map to guide him? The possibilities are too great, the implications of his amazing solo feat semi-mythical. Leave the answers unanswered. It’s all good. Some mysteries are well-kept for reasons known only to Gaia.

He’s home, South Africa are world rugby champions, the sun is shining as only the sun can in a waterworld southern hemisphere where the skies are cerulean blue owing to the amount of ocean. The earth has tilted away from north to south while he’s been on the wing for those breathless six weeks. He and his squadron of fellow travellers have literally pulled the Earth upward to let their hemisphere bask in the full glow of sunlight. They used invisible pulleys and guy ropes that we cannot see (I know that, because I decoded a conversation between two of them one day). Meanwhile we in the northern hemisphere batten down the hatches for another deathly winter until the swallows return in April or May.

Oh, yes, the return. Did I mention? They’ll be making the homeward journey north as well, about four months from now. That’s if we humans don’t mess up his time-honoured route along the invisible skyway by altering the landscape uprooting trees, exterminating insects, to plough yet another bloody field before he leaves again. Given how far we humans have redecorated the Earth’s surface, it’s a miracle they even find their way back and forth year after year.

So the next time you see one wheeling, darting and generally performing top-notch aerial acrobatics on the green and by the river, doff your cap and take a bow in his direction. For what this tiny frequent flyer does without leaving a carbon trail, we could only dream of.

Oh, The Places You’ll Go.

#adventure, Life, Lifestyle, love, lyrics, mountains, nature, poetry, rhyme, Travel, verse

Picture a Place beyond your front door,

Where the world awaits you, when you are locked down no more.

Where Coronavirus is a Mexican beer-drinking game,

And social isolation a choice not a chore. Things will never be the same.

I’ve heard that one before. The plain fact is, lifetimes well lived never were,

But that little reminder is neither here nor there.


Is it high tide, or glen, or Thai bride, or fen

You seek? Petersburg or Pelion? Russian or Greek?

Then, is it painting a mural on a West Bank wall?

Or lying in wet sand doing not much at all?

Do you see yourself gladly on a deck chair in Spain?

Or puffing away on the Darjeeling train?

A bit of imagination and the possibilities seem endless. And they are.

I can testify to that. Because I’ve kept near and I’ve ventured far.

There’s really nowhere you’ll feel friendless. Whether you’re watching red cardinals from a bench in Central Park.

Or itching your head in the flea markets of Muscat.

There’s nowhere you won’t make your mark.


I myself have had visions on high,

Of following mountains way up to the sky.

And then looking down on all I survey,

A thought. A plot. I’ll come back here one day.

Or not go away,

at all.


I know. I’ll stay rooted to the spot, and dream not of what I’m missing,

but of what I’ve got.

Which is really the whole world when what’s all around

Are mountains beyond mountains. What is this I have found?

Head in the jet stream, heart on my sleeve,

Life’s best in the thrill of the chase, i believe.

Or better still, I found contentment. That’s what i meant.


There is so much to see, so far to go,

So many ways: fly, cycle, row. Hitch a ride, crawl on all fours,

It doesn’t matter how. Providing you do it outdoors.

Depart at a snail’s pace. Arrive in an instant.

Whoever said dreams had to be distant?

By saying ‘I can’t’, you never will. A mountain?

You’ll be lucky to get up a hill.

So don’t forget to recall, it’s all in the mind. If you fall,

Only you can leave yourself behind.


If you like, walk on your hands to Timbuktu,

And when you get there you’ll know what to do.

Keep on keeping on, this time on your feet,

and smile aloud at the people you meet. Everywhere along the way.

Your presence there will make someone’s day, no doubt. Maybe everyone’s.

Depends where you are, where it’s about. Greeks are not Egyptians.

Cambodians not Colombians. Angolans not Australians. Same but different,

Different but the same, a million broken pictures within a single frame.

A mosaic, you might say. A tapestry, a dot painting, a thing on a wall,

Hungarian, Haitian, Hurdy Gurdy Man, or Han. People are people. Wherever you find them. That’s all.


Wherever you roam, roam with a smile.

And if strangers invite you in for a while,

Don’t turn them down.

Turn them up, let them speak, of what they did today and what they did last week.

Who cares if you can’t follow, if it’s all mumbo-jumbo.

You’ve given them yourself, not some hollow

Man! They can see your spirit is willing, your eyes are smiling, your voice is trilling

Out birdsong, some foreign tongue, delighted to have you here among

Strangers.

No one is a stranger, not when you travel.

Except yourself maybe. Let that twist of fate unravel.


So, next time you find yourself in some forgotten land.

Soon, I trust. On an island in a warm sea scratching the sand,

Or if needs must, holidaying local. Even if that means dressing up as a yokel.

Original thinking is the key. Another experience in the bag. The making of me.

Give yourself a big pat on the back for re-learning the art of life. Such a drag, after a year stuck at home

On the edge of a blunt knife.

All things exist, but only life is for living. Tell me something I don’t know.

But have you thought of the future, of the places you’ll go?


(Inspired by Dr Suess, Oh, The Places You’ll Go)





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Weathering the Purr-fect Storm

animals, Covid-19, dogs, ethics, humour, Life, Lifestyle, love, Travel

When Choosing Between a Kitten and Wintering in the Sun Is the Extent of Your Woes, You Know You’ve Got a First-World Problem at Hand.

The Time to Remedy it? Never. (Still, a solution exists, if you’ll let me explain)

The world has gone canine and feline-mad in the age of Covid. Whether you fall into the category of emotionally clinging to anything with a heartbeat, or else into that of possessing more money than sense, all you suckers out there from either category are being royally shafted for the privilege of sharing your life with four paws, a tail and a pair of irresistible eyes for company.

If you’re not paying a king’s ransom for a King Charles’ spaniel then it’s an ingot of gold bullion for a French bulldog. As for your regal highness of the High Street and all-round deity of detached houses everywhere – the not-so-humble cat, we’ve got Bengals going for anything but a bargain, and Ragdolls for the equivalent of a small finca in Spain. Yip, puppy prices and kitten costs have doubled, tripled, quadrupled. I would go beyond quintupled but I cannot find the word.

Breeders are having a field day while wannabe owners are prepared to part with pretty much their life savings just to snaffle whatever breed is in vogue recently. The law of Siamese supply and Dobermann demand is beginning to resemble the state of the housing market in SouthEast England where sums involved are so eye-watering you’d be forgiven for thinking the bricks are of gold. Same with our precious little quadrupeds where GBP3,000 for a KennelClub-registered fur ball is de rigueur nowadays. The nation’s housebound millions have put out an SOS for something that can bring a taste of Attenborough into their locked-down living rooms. Is there any surprise therefore that the Bengal Cat is presently so popular? They are, after all, not too many generations removed from a Asiatic Leopard Cat, normally found swiping their prickly paws at anything moving in the forests and grasslands of India. If you can’t go to India’s remaining wild places, then bring India into the comfort of one’s living room, where at this rate we’re all likely to live out our remaining days.

I digress slightly. My blogs wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t. So, we’ve quickly established that interest in acquiring a pet has jumped since half the world was grounded by our surrogate parents in government. In Western nations such as animal-mad Britain, an existing industry has just gone decidedly up-market. Not that the quality of kitten or puppy has improved. Far from it. The costs of acquiring the animal have, however. The trend is so blatantly obvious, judging by the number of daft-as-a-brush French Bulldogs that strut past wearing made-to-measure harnesses, that the nation’s thieves have even got in on the act. Thieves are pertinent to this discussion. We can’t simply ignore them, given that their normative habits of breaking into empty houses have been adversely impacted by commuters working from home. So yes, unsurprisingly, every tea leaf in the land (as pseudo-Cockneys like to call thief) worth his prison stripes has swapped the old cat burglary routine for just the cat part. Yes, literally they have taken to burglary of cats (and dogs who fetch more). Once they were a dogged bunch. Now, the criminal element are merely a bunch intent on decamping with their victims’ beloved (and very costly) dogs. Buy your Lhasa Apso pup for two grand from the auctioneer who calls themselves a breeder before it’s stolen from under your nose. Then have the little bundle of joy ransomed back to you for another two thousand. Times are strange.

I myself am no different insofar as i too crave love and affection. Without it, this man has become part-machine, part-Borg. In the continuing absence of that other feline, woman, in my life I too have longed for the ineffable charms of a four-month old puppy or kitten, as well as the dignified air of an older animal. Longed to say absolutely not, this dog is not sleeping with us on the bed, only to pat the mattress when the lights go out and whisper, come on boy. H’up. Naturally, I would baulk at the prospect of paying through the nose but, then again, I would rather adopt a rescue animal over a market-savvy breeder. More than anything, I’d love fate to intervene and have the animal find me. Wow! Now that would be kind of divine intervention. But whatever the source, the intention must be the same: to guarantee that with ownership you have signed an unbreakable moral contract with yourself to care for that animal from the litter tray to the pet cemetery, relinquishing loving ownership only in extreme circumstances, such as terminal cancer or a seat on the Mars Mission.

There’s no leeway for flaky types when it comes to adopting a fur-baby. Alas, they exist. In droves, I expect, though the majority of dependable types are incensed by these soi-disant owners who sell marvellous, sentient household animals as quickly and conscience-free as the day they bought them. Me, I detest this commodification (treating something as unique as a Siberian cat or a English Pointer a mere commodity) of pets in the strange age of Covid. To have one would be to retain it under all circumstances. No exceptions other than the two mentioned above. That’s the honourable thing. Getting a kitten or a pup is no small matter. It takes responsibility and devotion, as we know. So what does a guy do when he’s faced with the dilemma of desiring that wonderful feeling of bringing an animal into his life, his home, and 15-year plans, while also holding fast to that love for far flung, foreign travel? Twenty years with a Birman cat or a solitary winter travelling around Burma? The whole year round with a Russian Blue or that little getaway to the Russian hinterland you’ve always dreamed of but never had the freedom to? Full-time carer-in-chief for that lovely black Labrador, or a summer jaunt around the coast of Labrador in Canada?

The sickening thing is, it’s one or the other. The two – 1) extended bouts of travel and 2) pet – are mutually exclusive. I could have that kitten to cuddle up to a night, to watch with delight at how she starts becoming an existential part of the home and me, or I could spend eight months of the year lavishing affection on the dogs that pass by the boat, each evening poorer for not having a cat or dog to wile the hours away with in front of the fire. For what? For the escape? For the elan and incomparable adventure of travel? I need both but, wearing this crown of moral responsibility, i can have but one or the other.

Much of the world lives hand to mouth on a dollar a day. They are faced with dilemmas like having to leave their home and families for years on end to find work overseas. As for mine. When your biggest dilemma is to chose between raising a fur-baby or wintering each year in a sunny, mountainous Shangri-La, man you know your problem is quintessentially first-world.

Bearing in mind, there is solution for the uncompromising in me. Go and live in a sunny, mountainous place, taking the dog and the cat with me. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

The Consolations of Fate

Arabia, Christianity, civilisation, ethics, europe, fate, free will, future, greek philosophy, Hinduism, human mind, Islam, Life, Lifestyle, Meaning, meditations, Middle East, Musings, Muslim, Natural Law, natural philosophy

Maktoob: that which is written. Ask any one of 1.6 billion people of the world who belong within the Umma (the global community of Muslims, whatever their sect), and most will confess that their entire life boils down to a narrative, a script already written by a divine hand long before each infant has entered the maternity wards of this physical world. That only two endings are conceivable, paradise or hell, is by the wayside. It is the story of life that counts.

Now anyone who has ever lived among the faithful will know that by and large they are a contented bunch. Muslims the world over smile ineffably. When they are not busy with their struggles or else bogged down in civil strife, Arabs and their muslim brethren everywhere from Indonesia to West Africa seem to spend considerably more time that we in the West in a state of laughter and outward expressions of happiness. There’s a lightness to being among them; a sense that, unlike the self-made man of the West, enormous burdens have been somehow lifted from each and every shoulder. Speak to them about how they imagine their lives are going to pan out and in return you will receive a beatific smile and a shrug. It is not for me to say, he will counter. To which, I will respond baffled and he will reply, why worry about the future. It is not ours to decide.

Oh, fate? I will reply. Well, yes and no, he will say. You see, fate is that collision of two moving bodies sprinting down adjacent streets until both reach the corner simultaneously and boom! two bodies collide. Fate, to the Western mind has the air of being something sudden and unplanned. Yet fate – maktoob, is really rather different. What maktoob implies is that those who ran down that road did so before they even knew it. They collided on the corner not because fate ‘intervened’, as we in the Greco-Roman tradition are want to say. Fate to the ancient Greeks, and by extension the latter-day Western World, rested with fickle Gods. They refereed you through every minor move you made, blowing the whistle on transgressions, on foul play. With fate, occidental-style, you could be up one minute; down the next. But maktoob wrote the book of life before you were even conceived. You keep to a life script without ever consciously reading it. The key thing is that to the believer in the Qur’an, each mere mortal was never tasked with writing their own life story. That onerous task was never laid down before them. Blank pages in the annals of God’s creation were just too precious to be delegated to a human fuck-up. The weight of responsibility too great an undertaking for the pages ever to be left blank.

So here we are, twixt a world of the divine and the secular where the growing legions of secularists are sold the belief that life is what we make of it. Fortune favours the bold. Who dares wins. You get out no more and no less than you put in. The proverbs supporting free will are woven into the very fabric of Western languages. Their fellow mortals, in stark contrast, who maintain a more monotheistic tone (and even spiritual when you consider predestination as a central tenet of most Hindus, Jains, Parsees, Buddhists, Baha’i, animists, et al) do not fundamentally accord with this notion that each one of us is a little God carving out the cosmos in his or her own image. These adherents to Islamic (and Judaeo-Christian to a lesser degree) doctrine (the hadiths of the Prophet and the surahs of the Book) are happy of course to be given a patina of choice in life: what car they choose to drive, what profession they choose to follow, what football team they choose to support, even where they’d like to spend their honeymoon. But to most who adhere to a divine book – that we shall call a operator’s manual for living – all notion that each of us is alone to decide everything short of dying at the age of forty of terminal cancer (and even cancer in the West is often attributed in terms of blame to a person’s unhygienic choices, such as smoking) is risible. Of course, when we visit these holy lands with our fanatical secular faith tripping off the tongue like the good little imperialists we profess not to be but are all the same, our religiously-minded hosts humour us and indulge us our fantasies of taking control of our destinies. We lecture them on planning and freedom to choose and freedom to be and even freedom to fuck up. They listen and nod serenely before heading off to the mosque for the fifth time that day, the thirty-fifth time that week, to radiate in the knowledge that the road for them is already laid. Life is a book whose pages were filled in not by the protagonist, but by the author, a long time in the past, so long ago that time is irrelevant.

In a sense this is logical that the book of life be not composed by the main character, for it is the author – a figure who never appears in the book – as creator. Which brings us back to the happiness factor. For all the student suicides in secular Seoul, Shanghai or Tokyo, how many self-confessed failures in life do we count from among the lands of the strictly faithful? For all my mediocre students in Arabia, did I once ever see one who was so overburdened by feelings of impending academic failure, so ridden with self-blame for poor performance that they sought the easy way out? Not once. Many underperformed in class only to walk out in high spirits. And what of my Asiatic students? Did they push themselves to the outer limits of academic achievement because of a culturally ingrained belief that the buck stops with them? Yes, frequently. Their academic performance is linked directly to the underlying secular notion that we build our house with our own hands.

I try to reconcile the two opposing philosophies of free-will and predestination and I cannot other than to bewail the amount of responsibility heaped on young individuals in Western Secular and East Asiatic Confucian societies to take the quill of creation and write their life story like each one needs to be on the Booker shortlist. The pressures are immense; the philosophical premise of free-will still unproven. Life is lonely on a planet of authors. Life, in contrast, is one big jovial gathering on a planet where one anonymous author wrote everything for everyone for all time. Maktoob. Who wants to be a driver on a mad road when you can be passenger on a country lane? Isn’t it enough to be the train driver? Or must we lay each rail as well while we go along?

This is by no means a rallying cry for mass religious conversion. The strictures of an observant life of answering the azan thirty-five times a week (and much more during the month of Ramadan) are prohibitive and constrictive to the postmodern mind made up of Post-Christians and Post-Confucianists. Whether a philosophical brainchild of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment we call free will is no more than a pleasant self-deception, or at worst, a mirage, most feel no abiding need to abdicate control of their lives, or the appearance of self-control. But with pressures mounting on an ecological world in peril, the millions of inchoate dreams existing in aspirational societies that are grounded in the cult of individualism (this is the very guiding light of the West) are becoming ever more unattainable. Blame heaped on oneself, as well as feelings of failure, will balloon in future. Individuals marooned on a desert island of their own making. And sadly, it will be the West – that vanguard of progressive ideas – that will need the anti-depressants while the Arabs will continue to find amusement in the smallest things, such as death.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, #romance, America, California, Life, love, San Francisco, Travel

Part VII

Love is a Gambler

Muggy Hong Kong nights had by now turned to weeks yet her visage held fast in my mind’s eye. She was the high front that hung in the air, which felt like salvation when the actual skies over Hong Kong are notoriously leaden during summer. Hers was a face that brought belief to a notorious non-believer. In spite of having the novelty of a new idol to light nightly votive candles to, that didn’t change the awkward fact that I found myself 6,000 miles away, and that big old ocean wasn’t getting any narrower.

It was probably here in this neutron star of a city-state – still under benign British rule – that my life tag of misfit really became me. I didn’t fit into colonial life. I struggled to get a foothold on the whirligig. All of Britain’s far-flung colonies it was Hong Kong that came closest to ant colony. Standing tall amidst a crowd or peering out of a tenth-floor window the world at street level was a restless mass. Throngs of black-haired people assumed the awesome choreography of a super-organism. They all seemed to follow a pheromone trail to and from the work shift, which apparently never really knew a time for clocking in and clocking out. The gaps between shoulders were scarcely broad enough to slot a sheet of paper in between. You stole your breath then plunged into the streets there. You didn’t amble along the pavement; rather you were swept away by a human current, one stirred into eddies and froth by seven million deadlines and seven million appointments all simultaneously happening. The streets of Kowloon were tributaries of a larger river of humanity, but that river was not the type to empty lazily into the sea. It was frenetic. It was breathless. But it wasn’t me. Nor for me. Frankly, I couldn’t stand the place. All it served to do was remind me of how attractive the San Francisco lifestyle was by comparison.

After a month or so, I received a reply to my card, a greetings card which i addressed, for want of any other address, to the Traveller’s Hostel, Market Street, San Francisco. That opening gambit – the picture card scribbled with a bit of frivolity underlain with real intent – was a crucial one, because naturally you don’t know how a person who was wrapped around you koala-fashion not six weeks before might react now that time zones have intervened. People are funny in that regard. Playing it cool, of course, I merely threw out a suggestion that I, well you know, come back for a long overdue, erm, reunion. Her reply was a bit scattergun. In it she sounded the warning bells. In fact, reading it, I thought her one-page letter so frantically paced that you’d think she was writing it while on the lam with the cops breathing down her neck. In reality, that’s exactly what was happening in her mind. She was spooked that the feds were homing in on the ‘plantation’ she was tending up in that Jerusalem for monotheistic growers: Humboldt County, Northern California. It was ’94 and Reagan’s War on Drugs in this era was not a Philadelphia-based music band, but a real Dr Strangelove effort to rid America of its fave dessert: narcotics. Federal agencies were in balls deep infiltrating growers in the Northern part of the Golden State where a superabundance of conifers (and even the odd redwood) proved the perfect camouflage for a field of glistening kind bud. Helicopters carrying DEA enforcers swooped low over fields, aggravating freedom-loving planters who responded in kind firing off peppershot from pump-action shotguns. This covert war on America by America was deadly serious and, it would appear, she was in the thick of it. Or, if not a kingpin, then certainly on the fringes clipping top-quality bud and housesitting a motormouth of an African Grey parrot right there in a woodland warzone. As for the letter she sent, I couldn’t make head nor tail of its true intentions, so I left it suspended while I went back to work on Hong Kong Island, clearing half-empty beer glasses from tables full of pantomime characters all of whom had recently rolled into town in fine fettle only to end up rolling out of our madhouse of a cocktail bar the worse for wear.

I think I wrote again toward the end of summer. I was still determined. Undeterred I pressed ahead with my plans to finish up in Hong Kong early November and from there spend a month backpacking around Sumatra before catching the long hau back east across the North Pacific. I must have heard from her one more time as I distinctly recall her saying she was checking out on a one-way ticket in the second week of December. Her dalliance with the USA was coming to an end before she could succumb to more mischief in the pines of Northern California. I had a wafer-thin window in which to act. So I booked Sumatra from the 4th November to the 4th December before catching an onward flight via Seoul on the 6th December, arriving in San Francisco on the same day. She had not a clue of my flight path, but hey ho! the best reunions are often through disbelieving eyes. And anyway, I couldn’t face a Dear John from across the ocean. I hate being dissuaded from acting on impulse by a sensible girl who is emotionally-engineered to dampen the wanton ardour that burns in the male of the species. Sometimes you gotta go out on a limb for the things worth grabbing.

It was cold when I arrived on America’s West Coast. The sky was its cobalt self, but the air was dry and the chill wind sucked from the snowcaps of the Sierras off to the East. All those months in the sub-tropics had ill-equipped both wardrobe and bones to take the brunt of the chill far less a rebuttal from a girl whose affections I must’ve craved.

In a rerun of a film I featured in not six months ago, I stepped back into that Hostel foyer to be greeted by the same barefooted lady who ran the show back in summer. ‘I remember you’, she said. ‘Is xxxxx staying here?’ I enquired. This she affirmed, adding that that i had come a very long way to see someone who was hours away from a one-way ticket home.

I asked where my girl might be at this hour. ‘Probably next door at the bar,’ the barefooted lady answered.

That she was still on this continent, in this town, camped under this roof, was good enough for me. I dumped my bags in my dorm and headed for the bar, for what I’d hoped would be a pleasant shock, a reunion worthy of a Hollywood ending. I was only partly right.

She was there, unlike any other just as I remembered her, like the lady at the desk said she would be. Her recognition of me was slightly more delayed. But when the penny finally did drop, it was as if a ghost had sashayed into the bar, sat down next to her, and said in a recognisable voice, ‘Yeah, I know I look off-colour. I don’t need reminding. So, remember the you of six months ago? I do. In fact I liked the taste so much I came back for seconds. So, remember the feeling we, um, shared? Well I’ve ghosted in here, gatecrashed your life, if you like, to invite you back into that moment.

Well, what d’ya say? ‘

She kept probing me, asking me: ‘Did you really fly 6,000 miles after all this time, on the off-chance that you would find me? Did you really fly all that way just for me?’ Yes, and yes. It all sounded promising. And then the tingle of broken glass. Kshhhh! ‘I didn’t think you would come back.’

I didn’t think you would come back? As in you weren’t meant to come back? Who in their right mind does that? To the outsider a phrase like that reverberates the sound of ‘you went away and so (by the laws of average) I met someone else.

‘I met someone else during summer,’ she shrugged. ‘I mean, people say things in the heat of the moment, don’t they? When you said let’s meet again I didn’t take it literally.’

Well, me for one. I was keen. I had vowed to see her again. It was a covenant I made with myself, and I tried hard not to break covenants, least of all with self. Sitting next to her you could almost hear this internal dialogue she was having. It could have been a convocation of voices all furiously debating in her mind how to respond to a disruptive, if by no means unpleasant, element suddenly busting in on a settled plan of existence. My reappearance on the scene was evidently provoking something deep in her psyche. She was about to close this chapter when who should turn up but the plot twist.

Past is future and future past. You can get a fleeting mention in one chapter, a more fleshed out role in later ones. You can trump all odds and win the girl. Or you can end up a lousy loser in love.

‘I have a boyfriend,’ she said. ‘He’s in the Israeli army.’

‘Oh, I see.’ lousy loser it is then. I’ll get my coat, shall I?

‘He’s downstairs at the moment. Thing is, he doesn’t like the British.’

‘We’ll get along then.’

Pinned onto the horns of a dilemma, that’s where she was. I offered to leave, disguising well my impending heartache. Sang-froid can protect a man whose blood runs too hot for too long for the wrong girl. I told her it was worth the 10,000 mile detour just to share a drink with her. She stopped me. Don’t leave! I need to work this through in my mind.

The following day was her last after years in California. We spent some down time together during the day, but the evening was not ours to get all entwined about. She said she owed it to him to spend a final night together. I didn’t overreact. And anyway, she said, this is my final night with him, and you’ll be seeing more of me in future.

I sat outside my room in the corridor that evening. Diagonally down the hall was her dorm. I could hear them from behind the door. He couldn’t have been savvy about this interloper who had re-entered her life. I felt disconsolate. Many months and thousands and thousands of miles for this: to have her tantalisingly within my grasp only to be separated by this fucking dingy corridor, his blissful ignorance of my existence, and her doing the honourable thing. But what was this olive branch she extended, saying tonight would be the last night he would ever spend with her?

I must have sat in that corridor all night alone eavesdropping on the laughter and mirth going on behind her door. My head sagged; a tear or two shed. Solitude is the handmaiden of self-pity, I’ll tell you. My instinct was that love was a gamble and my gamble had not paid off. I don’t know why anyone would compound their state of unrequited love by doing a Romeo and cowering under the proverbial balcony while just above Juliet gets jiggy with another fella. Then again, she had said she needed that time with him as it would be her farewell to him (and I don’t mean Juliet) . Was my presence a trigger for that? I couldn’t begin to second guess a woman of such complexity as this one. At that age without much prior experience, I probably couldn’t second guess a woman with straw between her ears far less a smart one.

The following morning as she was readying to leave on journey that would signify the end of her American period, she knocked on my door. My reaction to seeing her was stilted. I still felt bruised that she had chosen to burn the candle with him the night before while I languished in the corridor alone, my mind imagining what they were up to. She said that she was leaving, but that she had made a choice. What choice? I wondered.

‘I choose you..’

Me?

She was going to write to him and tell him it would never have worked between them. Once that was over, we would once again be free to continue where we had started off in that summer of ’94.

‘I’m going back to Argentina now. But there will be a next time for us. I’ll meet you in England in the summertime.’

And lo! She did. Six months later I pulled up outside York railway station and there she was rested up against her blue backpack, book in hand. Six months of pure South American sunlight had coppered her skin. Hair dark as night and fringed and nothing like the English girls whose hair was all too mousy brown. It had been a year since that first encounter, and there would be many more to savour in the coming years. Having myself left on my big trip from practically there one year before, seeing her there outside York Railway Station completed a beautiful circle made of endless corners.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, America, China, Hong Kong, Life, love, Meaning, San Francisco, thoughts, Travel

Part VI

The Going

Travelling the better part of 7,000 miles only to fall in love is not something that happens everyday. Where X marks the spot right where the heart is, when you find treasure you’re supposed to keep it. That’s the whole point, right? Trouble was, I was booked on a flight to KaiTak Airport, Hong Kong, the day of the ’94 World Cup Final, which by my reckoning was two weeks away. So, it begged the question, how does a guy pack twenty-one years of holding back that lovin’ feeling into two weeks of consolidated passion’? More’s the point, how does a lovestruck Romeo duck out of his promise to board that plane with his best friend? After all, that was always the plan. We stopped short of a blood handshake, but nevertheless a mate’s word is his bond. It was an irrevocable decision that only a selfish, lovelorn bastard would go back on. We boys were betrothed in the sense that we vowed to go to Hong Kong together come what may. Batman can’t take on Gotham without his sidekick, Robin. But who was who and which was which? Was I his sidekick, or he mine?

We would hit the ground running in the continental United States before jetting west 6,000 miles across the Pacific to integrate into the Sinitic world of strange vocal tones and even stranger aromas. Still a British colony, we’d flounce through Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport like colonial masters of old, waving that black post-imperial passport whilst speaking the queen’s own. Immediately thereafter we’d walk into a well-paid position by virtue of the power vested in each of us as crown subjects, beneficiaries of masterful British naval blockades of the Opium Wars against a decrepit Qing Dynasty, circa 1840. We’d save our easily-earned Hong Kong dollars before moving on to the sweat-spangled delights of Indonesia.

Except, she walked into my life in a down-at-heel bar in San Francisco. That wasn’t part of the bargain.

The more time I spent with her, the more I had to borrow from from elsewhere to keep spending on her. I was free-falling into a love that knew no ground. I was helpless and powerless and as I divested that ego-protecting power away from me and into her, I reckoned I had never been so upwardly mobile as then.

It was the little things that stayed with me. The minutiae that had me swooning over her every move. She invited my friend and I to her shared house on Webster St, off Haight Ashbury. An old Victorian clapboard house, an American icon, she rented the front room. We sat down in there on an old mattress lain over a stained redwood floor. She played a cassette of Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. As the opening bars of In the Light came on, she passed me a joint made with Humboldt County kind bud. Two puffs and I was floored. Pretending there was nothing amiss, I picked up one of her art pens and clumsily proceeded to snap the nib, letting black ink soak into the desk on which was laid out the makings of an impressive illustration that depicted the fantasy world of the Shire. If the sketch was supposed to be England, it was like no England i had ever seen. On her bureau, an illustrated book of H.R. Giger. He was the creator of xenomorphs, hideous hybrids – part man, part praying mantis – that would go on to inspire Ridley Scott to make the Alien look, well, more alien. Xeno, i knew, meant foreign in Greek. And morph meaning shape/form. In a roomful of outsiders all cast together, who was the real xenomorph among us now?

Next thing I was coming around from a brief bout of unconsciousness. So wipeout strong was the joint, she had fallen into the arms of Morpheus, too, her head at my feet, my head at hers. Topping and tailing, we could have been coochy-coo twins. I noticed the fit was right. No superfluous limbs splayed over the mattress edge. Some things interlock while other things, try as we might, just don’t fit right. Geometry had sealed our fate and no amount of cramped bed space was going to stop us from – excuse the cliche – fusing together as one. I watched her sleep for a moment. I studied her perfect black eyebrows until seeing her eyes open i tried wrenching my gaze away. But it was no use. Her dark eyes were fixed on me. And that as they say, was that.

How was I going elude my obligations and cancel that onward flight? California was beginning to grow on me and i don’t mean like a callus. I was falling in love not just with her, but with the final frontier of the great American trek, too. There is light throughout the world, unevenly distributed. But this was the first time I bathed in a daylight so pure. No, in that moment, sharing an old crumpled mattress under a bay window on the first floor of an old Victorian house off Haight Ashbury, I resolved to give this infatuation time to deepen. I had to find an excuse not to go without alienating my best friend in the process. I tried to empathise, to put myself in his shoes. What if it were him welching on a deal and not me? Would i resent the love that had found him? Would I have boarded that onward flight to Taipei, then HK without him, flush with the confidence that at the tender age of 22 years and 40 days I could face the enormity of falling on my feet in such an expanse of plain weirdness that was the Chinese hemisphere? Doubtful. With that sense of obligation that solidifies where friendships are at stake, I knew i had to make that 16hr flight west across the impossibly wide Pacific with him, my friend, and not stay with her, my lover to be.

Question remained: how would i find her again now i had resolved to lose her? Remember, this was the age of airmail letters, postcards and the telephone locutorio/cabin. Leaving meant leaving, unlike today where we never really go anywhere other than into a virtual world contained on the screen of a small electronic device that fits snugly into the back pocket of a pair of jeans. Airmail letters signified something deeply profound and deeply, deeply thoughtful; more of a complex whale song than a simple tweet. Anyone who can cast their minds back to that antediluvian world of cursive calligraphy , exotic forwarding addresses, and that personal signature of saliva on the back of the affixed stamp will understand how so. Trouble was, she had no forwarding address and nor did I. Not even a dedicated carrier pigeon with a sixth sense would do. For all intents and purposes, boarding that one-way flight across the Pacific I might as well have been boarding the Mars Express on a never-to-return voyage.

The plane lifting into the endless blue, ahead nothing but deep, black ocean. A moat as wide as any. As i turned to look through the aircraft porthole at the crimped, golden hillsides of California beneath me recede, I turned to my friend for something, support maybe. But his head was reclined backwards and his eyes were closed in quiet contemplation. I saw in him that he was already at his destination, whereas me I had not left my place of departure, and nor would i for months to come. Unwilling as I am to declare it: I really did leave my heart in San Francisco. In the words of Paul Simon, I walked off to look for America. And what did I find at the end of the rainbow? For the first time in life, a true romance cut tragically short.

Diego And Me

#adventure, Dubai, Emirates, football, Life, maradona, time

What did Cervantes famously say? The road is always better than the inn? What was his intention with this use of metaphor? Interpretations vary, though I perceive the meaning to be bound up with the notion of each life as a journey plotting a unique route. When we think only of the destination we forget that the true and essential value of that journey lies not in where we want to come to rest (for that in itself signifies senescence and ultimately death), but rather in everything we missed while tear-assing between start and finish. Ask anyone who has trekked all day among the mind-blowing peaks of the Himalaya only to rest at day’s end in a teahouse whose rooms are basic at best. Did I push my body further than ever on that mountain pass only to rest my weary head on this paper-thin mattress in this frigid room? Was that what drove me on? To put it another way, don’t obsess on the future outcome only to miss the majesty crowned in the moment.

Granted, most journeys are punctuated by frequent stops along the way. A life worth remembering, for me is a life plotted well enough to be divided up into sections – stories nested in larger stories. There’s a tonne of metaphors that can be applied to this structuring of life: milestones; chapters; key stages; or epochs. Obviously, we use metaphors to package decades of life, each part a little, if distinctive, bundle of a greater whole. Of course, it’s easier to swallow the whole when you’re taking bite sizes one at a time. I say this because in Diego Maradona’s death I remembered certain monumental events of his life and how these events reverberated with important events of my own life. He is, of a fashion, an accidental yardstick with which I get a certain measure of my life. In his death I see my past life unfold.

If a human life is no more than the passage of the sun across the sky on one solitary day, then it stands to reason that a life can take a similar trajectory to another. Now no one’s saying they share the same sky with Diego for he owns the sky. What i am saying, however, is that there were times i crossed his skyway. And I’m not talking about bumping into him at an airport, but rather seeing three key moments in his life as an index of my own life.

The first was Mexico ’86. I was fourteen and head over heels in love with the beautiful game (which in those bone-crunching days on boggy fields was often anything but). Growing up in a land whose people supported any team that wasn’t England, when that quarter-final against Lineker’s men in white was aired live from the sun-drenched Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, we sat around that gogglebox absolutely transfixed. We knew all too well the flair and the cunning that was so unashamedly the nature of being an Argentina player. Maradona was everywhere except England accepted as the greatest gift to the game since Pele. In fact, in that era England was not the international footballing hub it is today. Like the spirit of Brexit, the culture of the game south of the border was insular as it was proud. While England could rightfully claim to have conceived the modern game of Association Football, by the 1980s it was the Latins, in particular the Brazilians and Argentinians that were really giving form to the modern game. England was mired in the old ways: the long ball; the crunching tackle; defensive power; the brain-damaging header. It was ungainly as it was anachronistic. Oh, and there were the chipped, concrete terraces. They were overspilling with angry young men who identified as both casualties of Britain’s industrial demise and warriors of a redefined tribe; as prone to violence in the name of their club as Thatcher was prone to the brutal euthanasia of a country riddled with industrial cancer. All in all, it was ugly on the home front. And into that melee entered the Golden Kid, el pibe de oro, a tousled-haired general from the barrios of Buenos Aires (which felt like another planet to us) who was immune to the bullshit dealt out by defenders, whose saw the game as performing art instead of the usual bloodless battlefield ethos of the English, who codified the game in the nineteenth century when games like battles were governed by gentlemen’s rules.

Maradona’s response to the humiliation of a Falklands War fought between Argentinian boys and grown English men four years earlier was to deliver national humiliation to the once indomitable power of Albion. And we fitbaw-mad laddies from north of the border could not get enough of him. Maradona as a figurehead had come to symbolize the struggle against old yet dangerous lions for all of us living in little countries. When Maradona put Burruchaga through with a deft flick from his magical feet, the World Cup was Argentina’s. That dysfunctional nation at the bottom of the world where footballers grew tall and bountiful as Pampa grass had vanquished another monolithic power, this time Germany, with their height and stature and relentlessly boring game of vorsprung durch technik. Beauty had conquered the beast. Maradona, the little master with thighs like a buffalo, against Rudy Voeller, the goal-poaching bandit with the terrible moustache. Like I already stated, Maradona’s Argentina won for all the world’s underdogs, all the little nations that stayed little in their perennial struggle against the mighty ones.

He lit the torch paper, inspiring all of us. So much so, that in the summer of ’86 we played more football than there were daylight hours. In ’86 we learned to play the game as it should be played: not with ferocity but with grace and skill on the ball. It was all about mastery of the ball, and this was his gift to every aspiring boy on Earth. While in England, dribbling was what babies did, elsewhere (and in Scotland no less) dancing the ball past midfielders and defenders was something to be lauded. That change in the whole aesthetic of the game was down to Diego. He, not Pele nor Garrincha, was the pathfinder.

Six months later, my Dad came home one day with a letter in his hand. In it was written, Dear Such and Such, Impressed by your abilities, we would like to offer you a promotion….in England. That was that. Nine months later I dragged my Maradona feet south of the border still harbouring dreams of running rings round Englishmen just as Diego had done. I joined the local club in a rural, primarily rugby-playing, area. The local boys, raised on English beef and Yorkshire puddings, were physical opponents, and they did not have much time for what the Argentinians called la gambeta (the dribble). With disdain for Maradona, the cheating bastard, each attempt at flair, of creative passing and dribbling, was ended unceremoniously. I spent half my time on the deck, as I recall, having been scythed down or slyly ankle-tapped. So physical and harmful to slender dribblers on the left wing, my skinny legs couldn’t take the punishment and within a year I had quit the county league game altogether. Not two years had passed since Maradona lifted the World Cup and my footballing dreams lay dashed on a cold, mud-clotted park alongside their owner.

Ten years after Mexico ’86 I flew to Buenos Aires for the first of what would turn out to be a few times. ’96 was a key year for both Maradona and me. While he was ending his career as an unfit Boca Juniors player, I was commencing mine as a dilettante with a taste for the sunlit bottom of the world. Within weeks I had been inculcated into the ever-widening sphere of the Boca hincha (meaning fan). My nearest and dearest furnished me with a blue & yellow Boca shirt, alongside the other million things she gifted me. From our little enclave on the Atlantic coast 400km south of Buenos Aires, I watched the Boca-River derby and could not believe I had gone twenty-fours years without realising that the game of football meant more to these people here in the south of the world than it did to those people up there in the north of the world. The atmosphere there on the TV en vivo y en directo was unbelievable. Fans clung to high fencing with one hand while swinging their camisetas with the other. Their skinny flaco cuerpos cooked in that cauldron under those floodlights. I was flabbergasted. Compared to our fairly orderly system of collective behaviour, these Boca fans you could liken to gibbons or vervet monkeys behind the cages of the zoo. And I mean that without malice. I had never witnessed passion for a club nor for the game itself. Passion, but not like that, no. The pitch of Boca’s Bombonera was claustrophobic with high fencing and near-vertical terracing. The weight of half the nation bore down on those players in a space electrified by expectations. And watching them play the short game in packed spaces was breathtaking. Whereas we in the north loved nothing more than the ball screaming into the top corner from 25 yards out, the South Americans took a whole different approach to the form that beauty would take en route to goal. They would rather walk the ball into the net, so long as they had put together a complex string of passing interplay in order to reach the goal. In that sense, for them the road was better than the inn. It didn’t matter how it went in, it was in the nature of the journey from goalkeeper through the midfield to goal that had those hinchas rocking the bars of their giant enclosure in rapture.

At the time, few Brits travelled to Argentina. English wasn’t even widely spoken. The nearest to a sentence in English was a lyric of the Beatles or the Stones (Argentina adored the Rolling Stones almost as much as another English import: the game of association football). I was immensely privileged to be there at any time, but particularly at the end of Maradona’s stellar career as a playmaker. His final games, like much of his life, frustrated his millions of acolytes. For him there was no crisis quite like a drama.

The third and final vague intersection of his life and mine would occur twenty-one years after the Argentina episode. In this subsequent chapter of life both he and I had taken a similarly nonsequitous direction, this time to the deserts of Arabia. I was stationed – though not in the military sense of stationed – on the Indian Ocean in an obscure town on the frontier of Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Diego, the journeyman, for that is what he had become in a largely wayward and bizarre coaching career, had landed a job coaching a second-tier team in the UAE called Fujairah, eponymously named in honour of the town, naturally. He was paid handsomely by the Sheikh of the Fujairah Emirate to do one thing and one thing only: earn the team promotion to the top tier. Even a man of formidable talents as Maradona could not replicate his deeds on the pitch with his discipline as a manager. He was struggling to raise his squad’s game. The legend-effect was no magic dust and by the time I took my seat in the stands of Fujairah FC’s stadium, Diego’s team were nudging toward the promotional play-offs, but not without the drama, the agony and the passion that followed him everywhere.

It was, as is the custom where hot desert meets warm ocean, like a sauna out there. The wet-bulb temperature was ludicrous. Nevertheless, we sweated it out just to catch a glimpse of Diego. And there he stood on the touchline, all five foot five of him. Trying to play down the significance of that moment, I tried not to gawp at the figure who lit up the world’s TV screens in ’86. Never in a million years did i imagine that Maradona would wind up here in Fujairah. Never in a million years did i think I would, for that matter. My gaze fell on his pitiful physique. Yes, the thunder thighs were still evident, as was the magnificent mane of salt&pepper hair, but his body had ballooned. He was bloated, washed up like a dead porpoise ready to burst on the beach. As the game got underway, this being a play-off decider, the tensions rose. Things were not going well for Diego’s Fujairah FC. They knocked the ball about like Sunday League players. Their finishing was impotent. But we hadn’t gained access to the game with the false hope that we’d be entertained tiki-taka, Barcelona-style. It was all about Maradona. It always was. He paced up and down that touchline. Me, I was seated yards away, so close I could see the sweat beading in his furrowed brow. He paced up and down like a man possessed by the ghost of a bear that lost its mind after a deranging lifetime in a zoo enclosure. The more the game went on, the more his fury rose. He could barely walk. His spine arched backwards to reveal a belly swollen by beer and bifstek. His locomotion was so stilted you’d think he had splints bandaged tightly onto his knees. But even in his fallen pomp he looked every inch the Napoleon of the football field he was born to be. He was flawed as he was magisterial. When the ball bounced out of play, landing right next to him, I took a deep breath, thinking he would do that magic trick with the ball where he booted it high into the stratosphere, go off and attend to something unrelated before returning to the same spot moments before it hit the deck only to boot it high into the air again, ad infinitum. This feat might sound easy on paper, but it is not. Instead of dancing feet, we saw a man who struggled to stop the ball with his feet. And when he kicked it back to one of his players, he was a rigid as a tin soldier. In thirty years he had gone from quicksilver to a wooden stick figure pieced together at the joints with rusting pegs.

In that failed kick of the ball I remember seeing how time makes fools of us all. I saw myself, what I could do the ball back then, and now, how sclerotic we had both become.

When Order Threatens, It’s Time to Sow Chaos

Political Culture, Politics, United States

Does it really come as any surprise that Chairman Trump is shoring up the Pentagon with what he hopes will turn out to be the type of loyalists who don’t turn tail once the king takes a tumble? In a move which would be considered unorthodox in the hands of practically anyone other than The Donald, the Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, has had the hatchet job done unto him by the head of an outgoing government. Under normal circumstances you’d have to enquire why and what is the point, but norms of behaviour based upon the conventions of clear and rational thinking have been suspended in the USA, so we must assume there is an oblique point to this boardroom clear-out. Instead of winding down the hours, instead of packing his bags for a graceful departure, he’s playing a strategic game of chance wherein if he loads the judiciary and defence complex with enough lackeys and ideological soulmates, somehow the rug can be pulled from under the feet of the newly-elected and his potty period of rule can be extended long enough for a change in constitutional law allowing him a third and fourth term, which is only right and proper seeing that they guy is never going to perish like we mere mortals. Remember: old golfers never die; they just lose their balls. This guy? He won’t even lose his balls because they’ll be miraculously found on the green three-feet from the pin.

It’s a 21st century Viking saga of the 3C’s: Clinton, Covid and the Constitution. He beat two of them and by Jingo he’s going for a third. But to take on the constitution he’ll need Valhalla on his side. Immortality beckons. Failing that, he intends to succumb to a Scandinavian warrior’s death. His maternal genes are Scottish Western Isle, let’s not forget. What that means is that he’s got alchemy in his veins. Part-Pictish, Part-Norwegian Viking, Part-Celt. That’s DNA’s answer to hardcore. You can see it now. When eventually he does die he’ll be the one to decide. It’ll be on his terms. And the finale will be a spectacular, like the opening night of the Taj Mahal Casino in Jersey in 1990. Him lying there within his oversized suit, arms crossed in his favourite pose. His MAGA breastplate over his suit concealing his giant torso and his favourite 3 Wood resting gracefully in his cold, dead hands. The promise of joining the Pantheon with Odin and Thor ensuring a permanent smirk on his face. His crypt will be a Viking longboat doused in petrol. Millions of his dewy-eyed but vastly impoverished acolytes will surround the ceremonial long boat, still seduced by the simplicity of his message that ‘You are all great, and everything is great because I made it so with my genius, and things are going to keep being great so long as you keep me in the hot seat. Even though I’m dead.’

Melania will have split by then, taking her share of Louis XIV furniture back to Slovenia. Having said that, the kids will still be around fighting over which one gets to do the honours with the flaming torch, and which one gets to haul their beloved dad, who has now become ballast, in the boat out to sea where it will drift into eternity on a plastic aquatic wasteland he failed to tackle when he had the chance. A pity that, to Donald of the House of Orange, the threat of the Sixth Mass Extinction event wasn’t quite on a par with what the Trump image-makers at Fox News were nattering about on a daily basis. However, the prospect of his anointed burial at sea is a long way off, given that he’s got at least another three hundred years of bullying and getting away with blue murder in him.

So, what’s the score when a big-time loser is singularly determined to unshackle himself from the binding chains of loserdom? And do not underestimate the man’s determination. He is a legend among stubborn bastards with his Highlander blood up and his William Wallace-like ability to slither out of trouble when it comes calling. What’s more, that sheen you see him covered in when the limelight saturates him, that’s not the sweat of a man who knows justice is breathing down on him. That sheen is teflon, which somehow he managed to coat himself in sometime in the late eighties when women wore shoulders pads. We know that nothing sticks to teflon except teflon itself. Donald fights the auguries of misfortune by heaping on coat after coat of the stuff until he positively radiates plasticity. That with the hair that turns orange under the spotlight and back to blond when by rights a 74 year-old should be white all over, he’s the human equivalent of a chameleon, but not as cute.

So why purge the cabinet and the chiefs of staff when your goose is three-quarters cooked already? It doesn’t take a tactical wizard to work out that he has no intention of going. And even if deep down he knows not even his superhuman inner resolve can save the divine inheritance that most call the temporary job of being President, such is his spitefulness he’ll sow chaos, kick up hell, before he goes. He will gather his Praetorian rearguard and cram them into not any old position of power but positions of power that put the fear of death into fair-minded sorts: positions such as Supreme Court judge, Defense Secretary, Attorney General, or Chiefs of Staff. The guy wants supine loyalty more than anything. This is why Trump Organisation’s executive body consists of the fruit of his loins. Not even his own sperm would betray him, surely? But can these belated appointments – late substitutes in a game that’s surely already lost – really make a difference to the outcome of the election? Can the latest iteration of an employee roll-call that has seen more dismissals than managers at Real Madrid football club provide the steel he needs to stop it all from coming crashing down? Do they, his loyalist appointees, really believe in him? Would they lay down their political life for this soldier of fortune? Or are they wolves in sheep’s clothing, cheerleading him until his great spade of a back is turned, and only then the glint of blades?

Read anything about the Emperor Caligula and the analogies between him and Trump become apparent. Both men were born into powerful families before receiving short shrift from the establishment. Both survived where others didn’t, rising with a bit of help, into populist heroes worshipped by the proles. Both felt themselves to be outsiders miraculously emboldened to attack the very heart of senatorial power while capable of highly erratic behaviour. Caligula killed with extreme cruelty the people he blamed for the death of his loved ones; Trump has let his egotistical policymaking do the killing during the Pandemic. While the latter cannot carry a murder charge, both acted callously. Caligula humiliated the senators he saw filling a first century AD swamp. Trump’s Washington/liberal Media swamp was also targeted, even though his presence as the biggest toad of them all just toxified the swamp all the more.

Caligula, like Trump, surrounded himself with men he saw as a cloak of invincibility. A sociopathic absence of empathy tricked Caligula into thinking he was fine, even when he mocked and derided his senators and, tellingly, his head Praetorian Guard, Cassius Chaerea, for being a tough guy with a cissie’s voice. When Chaerea snapped and plunged a dagger into the space between Caligula’s neck and shoulder the others in their senatorial robes joined in the bloodbath. Will it be the same come the 20th January? Will he be shrugged off bloodlessly by men he thought had his back? Or will Trump be the one to carry out a bloodless coup? Will he become the latter-day Caligula who didn’t die young and spectacularly badly?

Time, as they say, will tell all.