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.

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…

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.

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.

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.

The Five Corners of Love

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Pt V

Headed For the ‘Frisco Bay

You see it there in the distance for the first time as you head over the Bay Bridge from Oakland side. Atop a hill on the bay peninsular, San Francisco’s architecture heaps tightly together like the sweepings from some colossal brush. It could be the Emerald City and California the land of Oz. Me, the Tin Man and my travelling companion the Lion. We’re both finding courage on this the first big trip of our lives. To do so, we’ll both need hearts. Mine is to give away but no takers there have been. At the ripe old age of twenty-two years and twenty-two days I’m not giving up quite yet. And in a funny way, I’ve had this weird premonition for some years now that my true love I would find there in San Francisco, at the end of the rainbow. Owning a heart big enough to burst is easy to know when it is pulsating under your ribcage night and day. Unlike the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz I had not come in search of a heart to feel with. I had come, rather, to give it away to the right donor. Then again, maybe this flood of emotion was brought on by the sight of the Emerald City on the hill. After three and a half thousand miles we had reached the end of the rainbow and I could not decide whether the emotional prize was elation for having done it, or disappointment that we would never again be able to embark on this roadtrip for the first time.

It was ’94 and the World Cup was in full flow. England were strangely absent. My beloved Scotland banished to the Gulag of footballing hurt. Every neutral’s favourites, Brazil, were camped, gloriously yellow, in Pasadena, while their arch rivals, the Argentinians, were kicking up a fuss on the other side of the country not a million miles from where we started our long transcontinental drive. On the first night in ‘Frisco, once checked in to the Travellers’ Hostel on Market St we decided to hit the bar next door. Argentina were live on air against a resurgent Romania with captain Hagi spearheading the boys from Bucharest. This Mundial was Maradona’s swansong and the little Talisman from the dirt poor villas of Buenos Aires wasn’t leaving the pitch without being made to. He was absent, mired in cocaine-dusted shame, but in that baron that street in San Francisco I could see that his replacement looked very promising. She was far better looking than him for starters. Wearing the famous albiceleste shirt of pale blue and white stripes, I saw her at the bar crowded by men who it seemed also rated her passing skills. When the final whistle blew, her team had been dumped out of the World Cup. A national humiliation, beaten by the upstarts from Eastern Europe. A man seated at the bar smiled, enchanted, as she stormed past and out the door. Even with a face like thunder I could tell that this one had the allure to raise a thousand ships. She was like nothing i had ever seen. She was part feral, part Bond-girl, part-Hippie. The hair reached to the small of her back It was cut (but not by a stylist) into a thick, raven-coloured fringe. She was tall-ish. Her eyebrows were black and perfect as if painted on. She was slim. Her body’s curvatures were exactly what my primitive mind had identified as Level 5: Near Perfection. Yet there was something tomboyish about her, too. As she took her leave with dramatic flourish, I stood and stared at this incredible specimen and thought, this girl’s got fire inside.

And so the story of love goes…The following day, her ire mellowed very possibly by whatever was responsible for the aromatic fragrance lingering in the air and in her chocolate brown eyes, she clocked my presence. Even to a debutante like me, I sensed the pull exerted by her eyes on mine. Is this attraction? It couldn’t be. Exotic creatures, universally considered as objects of desire, did not desire me. I was lanky, stuck physiologically at age fifteen. I was no Lothario. And most of all, i had absolutely zero confidence in my abilities to hook any fish, far less the big ones. I wasn’t attractive to girls, in my occluded mind. I had no idea how to exit the friend zone; how to make them want me. In the days that followed, a great lesson was delivered on the doorstep of my manhood: that you don’t need to do a damned thing other than be yourself. Love the skin you are in. Don’t try too hard, nor not at all. Stay in the game, but whatever you do, do not be desperate to stay come what may. Let the lady lead, and know that a million years of evolution gave women the executive role in the game of courtship. They decide if the flirting proceeds further; not us men. We are, it turns out, rather incidental in all this. Keep up the witty repartee. Put skin in the game, but don’t flay yourself alive for the lure of a kiss.

Flying Over Planet Lockdown on a Magic Carpet Ride

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It’s 2030. Imagine you could select anything from home to power your low-level flight around the planet. It wouldn’t be the stressed planet we have come to know. It would still be a human planet, but one rather unashamedly changed from the one you knew and despaired of back in 2020.

The overhyped pandemic of 2020, the one that had the world all in a panic to the point where it effectively closed human activity down, produced unexpected outcomes. No one quite knew it at the time, but the quarantining of humanity inadvertently gave breathing space to all terrestrial life that had been trampled in the poisoned dirt since the mid-20th century. Gone were the crisscross scars of vapour trails from planes all across the sky. Gone too were the ‘conjunctivitis domes’ that enclosed all but a few cities and towns in hazy, acrid pollution. More than anything, gone was the constant background noise of society consuming itself into an early grave. At first, even the most misanthropic kept tight-lipped about how the lockdown was having anything but a deleterious effect on them. They wanted to tell everyone about how delirious with happiness they were, that they were reconnecting with the world around, how the spring had never seemed so polarised with deep colours, and how the silence of everywhere had led to a great sonic peace across the entire sky. While patients with Coronavirus were gasping for their last breath, the guilty enjoyment of the majority who bore no symptoms seemed unutterable. But as the lockdown went on, more and more started to admit there was an upside to the downside of putting industrial society on ice for a while. While they cited different reasons for secretly enjoying the mass meditation retreat that the world had become, a common theme began to emerge. The average Joe and Joanne hadn’t been happy for a long time, but it was only through the Covid lockdown that it struck them exactly why.

I would select my cherished silk-on-silk rug from Kashmir as my means of transport, the one I bought for a princely sum from Kashmiris in a bazaar in old Kathmandu. The colour is light green with pink woven into the borders. When you brush your hand across it, the sweep turns it darker or lighter, not unlike suede. The pattern is distinctive: 32 geometric panels depicting the Islamic Garden of Paradise, including pomegranate trees, arbours, plant pots and rambling rose. Tradition tells that this is a design from the revered Iranian town of Qom, from where the finest silk rugs and carpets on Earth are spun by weavers with magic fingers. Hence, magic carpets. If not that precious (and surprisingly tough) silk rug, I have another I’d consider riding on over a changed world in 2021. This one is an Islamic prayer rug (although I do not profess to be a man of any faith, other than faith in myself). I bought it from a reliable dealer in the Emirates, but the thing itself was woven in Northern Afghanistan and is exceptionally beautiful. Not of silk, this short-pile rug is of the finest wool dyed with the madder root into a colour resembling the dark dried blood of many an Afghan who has spilled their veins throughout the long war. Yes, my choice of long-haul air transport would be either the Kashmir silk rug or the Afghan prayer rug. Then again, for spaciousness there’s also that large tribal kilim from Tabriz in my collection. I could spread out on that during my transcontinental flyover. I’ll need a flying jacket and goggles, as it might get chilly, breezy and bumpy riding up there on the thermals. Oh, and my Leica monocular, too, so I can peer into the lives of others, and to see how the wildlife is coming along.

The roots of popular unhappiness, more and more started to realise, were becoming evident in the pleasant results the lockdown had produced on the wider world. Where the pace of life had been pulling us at 5Gs in a centrifuge, instead of being forced outwards the lockdown had now turned the force inward, to where we were all falling forward together into an attractive centre, which I call a natural equilibrium. Where previously few had any time for anyone else, they now found themselves devoting newfound time to the human relations they once held at the fulcrum of their world. Where many were being sucked into deadly debt traps, they now saw another possibility for an economic model that extolled the simple, organic life. Where many couldn’t sleep for the din of a society that had turned into a screaming lunatic asylum, quiet lockdown nights brought quiescence to tortured minds. It also revealed what had always been there but droned out: birdsong, and other naturally-occurring sounds. Where tens of thousand of species teetered on the brink of extinction due to human unwillingness to share, humanity finally agreed that the wild places were too few and the tamed ones too many. Monoculture changed in the agri business. Farmers were now harvesting goodies from the broad-leafed forests they had let grow in the vacuum of brown fields whose soil was depleted to the point of exhaustion. Animals that had resisted extirpation by laying low during the worst of our planetary abuses, and generally driven to the edge by our selfish species, followed suit. Population policy aimed at natural reduction, allowing crops to be grown vertically in great agri-towers that ran on sunlight. Where our industrial-age fear of the dark had produced so much halogen light to power society through night after night, so the lights went off and the stars returned to twinkle over what were sulphurous megacities. Something else unexpected returned: the sun. The industrial age had whipped up a dynasty of stormy weather by seeding every cloud with effluents and contaminants into raining. Gone was the chromatic aberration caused by poor air quality. Now the portrait of the planet looked pin sharp and didn’t we know it.

A revolution in the mind happened soon after the lifting of the 2020 lockdown. People wanted it back. They may not have professed to wanting thousands dead of a pathogen, but what they did want was to mitigate the disastrous effects of the human project by blocking off one month in every year where systems ground practically to a halt; where only essential distribution services, such as food and medicine and so forth remained a mainstay priority. Of course, they were compensated financially, but this would decrease over time as we moved away from heavy borrowing and high expenditure market economics to an ecological model of sustainable productivity. So, there you are on the magic carpet, skirting over the planet.

Ten years have past since the lockdown revolution/revelation of 2020. The annual month of fallow is now enshrined in UN law. Every nation is a signatory. Even the U.S., that resisted for so long because it was a concept engineered through the myth of the American Dream to exist only by maximising capital gains in every overworked American, even they got on board. China remains the dark horse: tense on the issue because the Chinese are caught between their philosophical tradition of Taoism and their love of making money by ramping up industry to ridiculous levels. Europe, being the old man, was at the forefront of the new paradigm for living. The Continentals approved wholeheartedly of this nouvelle approach to tempering things down.

Mechanisms were put in place to ensure that the other eleven months are not abused by the rush to over-productivity, as this habit came to be scoffed at for its backward greed motive. As a burned-out race we started mellowing. Our eyes were evermore open to the great clockwork of nature and how we – contrary to the proud fools that modernity and progress had made us – had broadly accepted our fixed role as a cog in that natural machinery, and not – contrary to the arrogance of our predecessors – as its clockmaker. Delegates even took to doling out liberal sprinklings of Gandhi’s wisdom that we live simply so that we may simply live.

What do you see, future me, when you look down from way up high on that Afghan rug in the new blue sky?