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/

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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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.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, adventure, advneture, America, backpacking, California, love, roadtrip, San Francisco, Travel, travelogue, United States

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.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, America, California, Travel, United States

Pt IV

California, I’m Coming Home.

Mono Lake lies far from the major urban centres of America’s most powerful and populous state, California. Economists reckon that standing alone on the world stage California would be nudging Britain for the fifth spot in the league of wealthiest nations. But unlike Britain with its Lake District, Mono Lake is no Lake Windermere. It’s mono, and not stereo lake, for a reason. Unlike the collegiate system of lakes dotting England’s northern Lake District, this ancient body of water is geology’s orphan. Isolated in a parched landscape, with no outlet for water to either drain and replenish, the lake long ago turned to bicarbonate of soda. What would the Lake District’s very own poet-laureate, William Wordsworth, have made of Mono Lake had he been there during a lifetime that coincided with one of the greatest movements of humanity in search of treasure without the traditional mayhem, piracy, plunder and pillage: the California Gold Rush of 1849? I’ll tell you what he would’ve done. He would have wandered lonely as a cloud, imitating the desert sky above, until standing there on the lake’s edge he would have muttered to himself – and I mean himself for there would have been no one around for miles and miles – what in God’s name is this i see before me? For once, words fail me.

Once Wordsworth had beheld these alien surroundings he would have shifted his emphasis. From aghast to agog, he would have repeated the sentiment that living in England’s Lake District had instilled in him: that Nature never did betray the heart that loved her. But it’s hard to love nature’s jagged edges. Romantic love of nature here is forsaken. Here on Highway 395, Eastern California, nature is elemental. Here the planet is as troubled as a teenager. Lifted, folded, exposed, hidden, the geology of Mono Lake is akin to that little blister on the skin of the Earth that, to heal itself, seeps clear serum from deep in the interior. Up from the deep interior superheated water fills the lake, changing the water chemistry and that of the rocks on which the lake rests. Not unlike what you see in the Apennines of Italy, cracks in the mantle let groundwater settle down deep before being pressurised by geothermal heat and pushed up to the surface where it does something to the limestone, spewing out carbonates that form towers of tufa in the centre of the lake. You’d think you were on top of Ol Doinyo Lengai, the mud volcano in East Africa. To look at it, you’d think Mono Lake was a volcanic caldera with whiteish scabrous deposits revealing its true Hadean nature broiling away beneath waters that above it appear so innocuous.

It is here we decide to remain for a couple of days. Finding a hostel not too far away, we sense magic in the air. Dave, the guy who lives in an annexe beside the hostel, quickly establishes his credentials as the most sardonic Californian you’ve never met. I’m thinking he’s learned the ropes from spending too much time in Northern pubs until he tells us he’s never been to Britain. Why then the phlegmatic humour? What comes out your mouth is too dark, too barbed, to be Californian with all that floodlit optimism that doesn’t lend itself well to cynicism. The enigma, which is Dave, then decides to take us to the lake for a hot bath.

Once there in nature’s open-air spa we form a circle of cynics. Dave says bathers have been scalded to death by moving all of 6-feet into what they thought was a harmless wet and warm zone when in fact the lake had undetectable hotspots where the water gushes up at over 70 degrees celsius, very possibly higher. I stay rooted to the spot afraid of turning my already burned skin into a whole new level of heat damage. Never before have i bathed in geothermal springs. The experience is unforgettable as it is unforgivable. The sun comes on like a thousand-watt bulb in a cubby hole. The sky is deeply blue. Not a single cloud wanders by high over. Never before have I felt nature burning me from beneath as from above. I have found home away from a home that failed to feel like a home. As my life will one day end, I know for a fact I’m going to like California. Sitting there in an open-air jacuzzi ringed by mountains the thought hits me: I feel good here. After waiting a lifetime to visit, the reality exceeds the expectations. And that doesn’t happen with everywhere we dream of travelling to. This state might just be golden, after all.

With the soda rinsed off our radiant bodies it’s time to move ever west to the world’s best-situated city, San Francisco. But not before climbing up and over America’s last barrier of rock and permafrost: the Sierra Nevadas. ‘Frisco is a Mecca for the godless. It’s where Steve McQueen just about drove his 1968 Ford Mustang off the brow of a hill and into the stratosphere. It’s where Dirty Harry cleaned the mean streets of limping serial killers. It’s where the Age of Aquarius was first entered. In short, it’s where the West ends and new promises begin. And for that reason alone it was worth the pilgrimage.

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, America, California, environment, Travel

Pt III

United Across the Great Divide.

All the way to Reno……

…….I was looking to segue from the last instalment into this one after a hefty hiatus of eighteen months. Once the mothballs had settled I should have known that life lays down markers everywhere only to let the individual decide to see them for what they are or else ignore them for what they’re not. This ‘gift’ came wrapped in an R.E.M. song title. How does one get from Denver to San Francisco in a story without travelling a thousand rugged miles in words? Answer: one cheats by picking a song title which says it all. Hey now, all the way to Reno. If you’re old enough or urbane enough to be listening to REM, you’ll know the number.

All that my memories will reveal to me about the long bitumen from Colorado to beautiful California was that the I25 in Denver led due north to Cheyenne, the state capital of Wyoming. We must have doubled back from our pioneer hut in the Rockies to Denver knowing that to reach central California expeditiously we would be better suited to heading north to Cheyenne before taking a sharp left onto the I80 through the prairie lands of southern Wyoming. The car delivery operator gave us only fourteen days to cross the continent. Adding that failure to present ourselves and their car at our destination in Sacramento might result in an FBI warrant being issued in our names, was enough to keep us from digressing too much en route. No sacrilege on the road to the Sacrament, that was the mantra.

Southern Wyoming, I remember chiefly as being the gateway to the world’s oldest designated National Park. We even spotted roadsigns denoting so. For Yellowstone turn north. But turn we did not, in spite of temptation that Jesus could have empathised with. The detour would have added days to the trip, and quite possibly – in our callow minds – brought us into the FBI’s ambit alongside Colombian cartel lords, the Unibomber, and a splendid array of serial killers.

West we drove through a sea of yellowing grass stuck to hills filed down by the Earth’s master carpenter, time. Through Rawlins, Rock Springs and Evanston, and onward we hardly stopped even after crossing state lines into Utah. At Salt Lake City on the southeast shores of the Great Salt Lake we kept on the I80. The city of the Latter-Day Saints sat there piously wedged between a mountain ridges running north-south. I thought it was befitting of a religious colony of New World Christian non-conformists that they found their new Nazareth in a place so far removed by distance from the Holy land yet so near in terms of the harsh semi-desert terrain upon which Christ built his broad church. They choose one helluva place to settle into unorthodoxy. The Wasatch to the east and north; the Oquirrh to the west, both ranges rising from the valley floor, pushed up until their ridges cut the arid air. In the midst of untrammelled wilderness emerged over time a city as different from any other in the Continental United States that anyone could imagine. So improbable it would end up cemented there but that was the pioneer spirit of the brutal nineteenth century. Those religious zealots with the pioneer spirit welling up in their eyes, they must’ve marched in unison over forest, river prairie and mountain until stopping there with the Rockies towering either side of them they said, this is far enough.

Outside of SLC a vast salt flat shimmers on the horizon. The I80 slices through it, a gesture of unflappable self-confidence by American civil engineers of the mid-20th century. Then again, what else could they have done? Reroute the highway around the imposing site of a salt desert? Nah. Signs offering fuel and food warn of shortages ahead. No fuel beyond here for 100 miles. You get the idea. The heat was phenomenal, yet you wouldn’t have known it, so dry was the atmosphere. The skin burned without telling so. A gasp of air was all it took to singe whatever lines the windpipe. This is mirage country. The flats, where water once abounded, were now desiccated. Salt crystals is all that withstood the heat until turning the world white this bed of minerals reflected the sunlight back but the sunlight wouldn’t bounce back in a straight line. It swayed and wobbled instead, hence the hazy reality of looking through and beyond a salt desert. The trucks ahead looked for all the world as if shimmering through a wormhole, all pulled and stretched out of their normal dimensions, somehow levitating over a roiling sea of salt. The gum i had been chewing on melted onto the windscreen after a failed attempt at flicking out the gobbet of gum going at 60mph. That’s what i recall most: the sight of chewing gum turning to liquid on the outside windscreen, dripping down until realising it would take an ice storm to remove that careless blemish from this car.

And so the road went on. Straight as an arrow it cut through the dazzling flats until leaving them the mountains once again took us into their fold. But by then we had left one state and entered yet another, this time Nevada. Meaning ‘snowy’ in Spanish, Nevada was too baked by this ferocious summer to offer up snowflakes. But it mattered not. By now we had crossed the Great Diving Range and now could say confidently of ourselves, we have made it to the West, to Pacific Time. I don’t remember crossing Nevada on the I80 to Reno, the state capital. It was up and down, though that’s for sure. And because of plate tectonics, the ridges formed N-S, therefore when travelling west you go over every last buckle in the Earth’s crust. On the outskirts of Reno I sensed California was close. Roadsigns affirming such were all the evidence I needed to back my claims. The town itself looked like so many others en route: a pitstop; a temporary settlement in the most unlikely of places that found permanent status on account of the fact that wave after wave after wave of new world hopefuls had kept passing through on their way to the promised land of California only to get waylaid for long enough to put down some odd manner of roots.

It was at Reno we turned off the I80. Knowing we had time before the FBI were called in, we decided to take the back roads into California. Unbeknownst to us, this deviation into the magnificent unknown would meanaling delightful acquaintance with one of America’s truly great roads: Highway 395. Forget Route 66 or even Highway 61, this was the road that would leave an indelible mark on me, so much so that twenty-three years later i would return alone to do the whole thing again. This road had fable written all over it. Had a young a precocious Bob Dylan driven it before making Highway 61 Revisited, we would never have had Highway 61 Revisited.

Highway 395, if you didn’t already know, runs from Carson City near Lake Tahoe all the way to San Bernardino, east of L.A. It runs parallel with the backside of the Sierra Nevadas where grows the Giant Sequoia tree and in between there and the White Mountains where grows the ancient Bristlecone Pine. Between them are vast geographical features that battle the heat and the cold and the light and the dark. The heavens make Wagnerian cloud operas over this gap between two mountain ranges, such is the drama nature cooks up. It’s no coincidence that Edwards Airforce Base lies amid all this scale and all this splendour. Neither is it a surprise that Edwards Airforce Base is where the space shuttle would come into land. To slow from 17,500 mph to 200 you need acres of space to land, you need light to sight the shuttle as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, and you need high pressure, and lots of it, to mellow the bumps. Highway 395 and its back yard had it all. And smack bang in the midst of that lay Mono Lake, whose chemistry was most unusual, whose size was monumental, whose ambience was strange and beguiling.

The Curious Case of the Dog on the Final Day

#adventure, abandonment, animals, cruelty, dogs, environment, europe, fate, forest, kindness, Life, nature, neglect, Oddities, Spain, Travel

Going somewhere exotic to rekindle lost love can be as worthwhile as flogging a dead horse. Until, that is, a minor crisis connects you both in ways you never knew possible. Even if it’s not enough to save a relationship, a double act of kindness can prove a fitting finale to a great affair.

As befitting a relationship that bloomed then faded over two dozen countries in a dozen years, my long-term partner and I met for a showdown in Almeria, Spain. A beleaguered ‘marriage’ was at stake. The intervening years had taken their toll on our inseparability. We fought one another on many fronts in many theatres of war, but always patching up as spectacularly as we had torn each up. Love was no more in the air, though I had hoped it might start suffocating us again blissfully as it had done a decade previous. From my vantage point, this was our last crack at compatibility. And we were going to give it our best shot under the blistering Spanish sun.

To cut to the chase, the endeavour didn’t start well. The bickering picked up nicely after a couple of days. Minor irritants swelled to the point where failure to turn the key to the hotel door resulted in fits of rage the likes of which no Hollywood diva could match. When personal insults fly in the face of what are little mechanical glitches, you know the noose is tightening and the game is up. There was only one antidote to the bitterness: find a place of serene calm off the beaten track. Let nature be our balm.

At the headwaters of the Guadalquivir, lying in the Parque Natural Sierras de Cazorla, we laid down a truce. And, lo, it held. Autumn had repainted the landscape into the most beautiful hues of mustard and rust red. The poplars, standing tall and alone in the saddle of the Sierra, rattled like a thousand tambourines in the breeze. Myrtle trees dropped tiny leaves around us. Confetti for our renewed marriage vows? The portents were good until we reached the source of the once-great river, now reduced to a trickle. So this is the source of our love? The waters of the famous Guadalquivir, running dry because there was never anything upstream of any substance. Is this to be the quality of even the deepest love between two people?

On the Almerian coast we stayed on Cabo de Gatas peninsula, Spain’s southeast cape. A tremendously evocative spot – its rock walls plunging into the Med – we marvelled at the palaeontology of the place: ancient coral reefs submerged off the coast; at four hundred million years old, some of the world’s oldest recorded. A half-finished hulk of a huge hotel, intruding into the delicate coastal ecology. Abandoned before it was ever inhabited, the developers threw up the superstructure without soliciting planning permission from the municipality, as if local government would ever consent to an eyesore of a hotel in the midst of a national park. That chimed with me too. I saw parallels with my faltering love affair. We lay foundations on precious living bodies we have no right building on. That’s love for you.

By the holiday’s end, the salvage operation was about to be called off on the relationship. No amount of romantic landscape was going to inject new blood into old veins. With a couple of day remaining until our final farewell, the two of us wound our way to Baza, a forest high up in Andalusia’s very own altiplano. Elevated to nearly 900 metres, the air was rarefied and the sky cerulean blue. Night would bite. There the trees bristled in anticipation of winter as pines do. Knowing we were calling time on our amazing life journey together, a sudden calm came over us.

Driving through the forest, an animal ran out in front of us. Stopping, we saw it was a dog with big, lolloping ears and a cropped, silver-grey coat, known as a Weimaraner. How odd, we remarked. A handsome young animal with a great pedigree out here in the middle of nowhere. It was agitated, you could tell by the way it paced up and down the road as if looking out for a car that never appeared. Curious, we parked up and observed the dog, who was so distressed our presence barely merited a sniff.

Upset by the sight of this dog darting around in bewilderment, we resolved to do something. Approaching, I saw she was both a bitch and young. With swollen teats she was also a mother minus the pups. Being a Weimaraner, she was friendly and intelligent. Clearly, she had grown up in a human home. I lifted her underside to place her on the back seat and she trembled. Our drive underway, we noticed her quivering in fear and bewilderment. This dog was at best lost; at worst, cruelly abandoned.

Stopping to ask foresters we met in a nearby clearing, they explained that hunters often drive their dogs up to this remote spot where they encourage the young females, already having produced a litter or two, to hop out only to drive off leaving them there. The ones that do survive the wild are found in state of shock. No different from the global trade in trafficking west African women to the Gulf to service male needs then. Use them and abuse them then throw them away.

This news angered the pair of us. After years, we could agree on something. Determined to right this wrong, I drove down the mountain. Finding ourselves now on the plains where Sergio Leone shot the classic Spaghetti Westerns of the late 1960s, our purpose together had finally been revealed: find the dog a home before tomorrow when we go our separate ways forever.

Being a Sunday in a Catholic nation, not much commerce was going on. The streets were abandoned, probably explaining why the location was chosen for tense gunfights in A Fistful of Dollars. A curtain of golden light was falling on the day’s end and we were feeling pressured. The poor dog cowering in the back didn’t help. We called the vet, but the vet must’ve been at vespers in the local church. We called a dog shelter. That too was closed. Taking the Weimaraner back to England was out of the question at such short notice. As the day shortened, our problems lengthened. It was then that we pulled in to a ranch-style trattoria. It was vast and its interior plush in that rustic manner. Whomever owned it was a wealthy man. Again, with no sign of life the two of us wandered round the back to the kitchen where the door was opened. Popping our heads around, we asked for the manager. They sent the owner. He was a tidy-looking man without pretension. Explaining our situation he fell silent.

’Show me this dog you speak of,’ he said.

Impressed by what he saw, he backed away. ‘I have one already. I cannot take another dog,’ he lamented. ‘Even if she is such a fine animal.’

Disappointed, but understanding, we took our leave. As we were exiting his palatial roadside restaurant, a tap on the window. It was him.

‘Tell you what. Here’s the deal. I go to my Land Rover. Now, I don’t know if I left my own dog’s chain on the passenger seat. But if I have, I will take care of this dog of yours. If it’s not there, you’re on your own.’

Walking with him to his car, he swung open the passenger door. The seat was strewn with papers, but there was no chain. He slammed the door.

‘Lo siento mucho,’ he said.

Our hopes fading fast with the daylight, again we took our leave. Seeing the dog’s face forlorn against the window, my soon-to-be ex and I looked at each other with renewed vigour and certainty, for the first time in I don’t know how long. ‘We cannot just dump her by the side of the road.’

‘But I have to return to England tomorrow,’ I answered.

‘Not before we find the dog a home you don’t.’

Turning, I caught the trattoria owner out the corner of my eye. He was moving toward our car, his hands behind his back.

‘Look what I found in the footwell,’ he smiled. ‘It was under all those papers.’

In his outstretched arms he dangled exhibit 1, the dog chain.

‘Fate decided.’ He said with a warm reassurance we knew would translate into responsible ownership.

‘You will care for her? You won’t leave her abandoned a second time?’ You promise?’

Casting his hand as if to magic into existence his beautiful roadside trattoria, he replied. ‘I look after things. And I don’t give up on a promise.’

Without flinching he clicked the hasp of the chain onto her collar ring and calmly trotted off with the Weimaraner, who by now had ceased quivering. With the dying rays of the day warming an old wooden shack that could have been a stage prop in The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, we pondered the view and with it possibly the life we had shared for all those incredible years that brought us to this final day. It had all been thoroughly vale la pena. Worth the pain, as they say in Spain.