Buddism VS Cake

The last 14 days have melted into each other. All valleys have become one valley, all people one person, all immodiums one fizzy get-out-of-jail-free card. A village idiot has danced a jig, clicking his cardamom-stained fingers in joy, before being waved away by the girl who sang to make him dance. Butterflies, it turns out, are the true Sherpas of the mountains. Leaves have hung in mid-air, ensnared in the web cathedrals of a thousand spiders overhead, roasting alive inside their black casings.

woman temple pray crop

I think pain amplifies everything. Colour, scale, smell, significance.

Often I would find myself stopped by the side of the road, mouth agape at a mist-shrouded forest or a mashed up butterfly on the tarmac, feeling like I was understanding something.

another valley

It’s easy to drift off into emotional and spiritual incoherence when you are this tired in a landscape this beautiful.

Which probably explains the proliferation of the world’s cuddliest religion – Buddhism.

It’s everywhere here. It’s in the marrow of the place. Even the dogs reek of it.

dog with wheels

You can hear it whispered through cracked windows at dawn, smell its incense thick in the air around monasteries.

And you can see it in the glazed eyes of the indoctrinated.

Buddhism, of course, is mostly silly nonsense. But such beautiful nonsense I have yet to encounter. For example:

‘Buddhism envisions the world as a net of jewels, each facet of reality reflecting every other facet.’

spiders

Facets

Have you heard anything more delightful than that? Or what about this marvellous piece of jibberish from the Dalai Lama:

‘Compassion sets in motion an exponential multiplication of our powers’….As if somehow, by being a nice guy, I can gain super powers. What a thought. What a guy. No wonder he sells so many books.

buncha monks

Seeking special powers, outside Pelling

The Himalayas bristle with seekers of special powers.

In a one-bike village called Yuksom (the one bike was ridden up and down the only street, still covered in the plastic it was sold in), I met a  bloke with a shaved head, sea-coloured eyes and a pectoral ridge accentuated by skin-tight, expensive t-shirts. He wore individually-toed shoes with no soles because it connected him to the earth more and strangely for someone without a bike – cycling gloves.

Consumed and quite clearly overwhelmed by the pursuit of ‘truth’, he explained to me during a particularly harrowing high-speed taxi ride that ‘Everything is a pattern, even us. Patterns within patterns. Programs within programs!’, he exclaimed as we almost flew off a cliff.

‘You know the Matrix?’ he shouted over the sound of our tyres spraying stones into the valley floor 1000 metres below. ‘It’s all in there.’ When I looked over at him to see if he was joking, his head was bowed, eyes closed. Totally away with the fairies.

big prayer wheels

Massive prayer wheels. Massive waste of time? Probably

But oh the beauty. Check this out:

‘In the midst of the seething darkness is Buddha – serene, unmoving, unperturbed – a luminous awareness that embraces all disturbances and converts it into energy and light. When we look upon the chaos of our lives with compassion and bemusement, we achieve a similar alchemy.’

Fuck. Me. That’s fantastic. ‘Bemusement’. Love that. Of course, you could just say ‘chill out’, and not have to build a whole belief system and loads of temples, but then you wouldn’t have all the seething darkness chat.

moody as fuck forest

I checked the seething darkness for Buddha but he wasn’t there

I guess it all boils down to this – these guys have all of this good will and potential to actually do something and what do they do? They spin a prayer wheel. They put up a prayer flag. They incant messages of good will for people who will never hear them or feel their effects, because there are none. This has been proven by it’s not being proven, ever. The beauty and wonder of their mythology and their temples aside, I couldn’t help feeling like it was all a big waste of energy.

buddhist stuff

Their prettiness matched only by their pointlessness

I was in a musty, north-facing hotel room one night when BBC World news crackled up onto the screen. A group of very clever people at the European Space Agency had just landed a probe onto a meteor, an achievement which would enable us to learn a great deal about where we and our planet came from. That’s a real thing and it happened because people DID something, they didn’t just hope for it.  Next up was the world’s first legally recognised cyborg – a man who had an antenna protruding from his skull that enabled him to hear colours. Before this breakthrough, he could only see in Grayscale. Amazing. Not as amazing as a dragon clutching a wish-fulfilling gem like you get in Buddhist art, but it gets extra points for being real.

schoolkid in yuksom

Prayer flags may be a total waste of time but they sure look good

But there’s a far more worrying flaw with Buddhism.  If you choose Buddhism, you choose not-cake.If you do Buddhism, you can’t be attached to worldly pleasures. You have to break those chains. And that means no more cake. Ok, you can have it but you can’t really enjoy it. You can’t lust for it. You can’t be it’s prisoner. You can’t want it. But dammit, I want to want it. Without desire, what are we? Numb. Numb to pleasure as we are to pain. A flat tone. And there’s nothing more boring than flat, which you’d think would be obvious to people living in the Himalayan foothills but apparently not. For all their inter-dimensional sight they can’t see what’s in front of their noses.

God / Kanchenjuga

Darjeeling to Gangtok: The land of God

So there I was, sat in Darjeeling, utterly overwhelmed by the immensity of the Himalayan vista in front of me, when an older Indian couple ruined everything by sitting down and being friendly. Oblivious to my spiritual rapture, they prodded me with words until I was forced to acknowledge them, and we fell into a rather one-way conversation.

The man was wearing a knitted tea cosy in the shape of an army beret and the woman smiled a lot, until we got onto the subject of Kashmir. ‘They have no morals, they are animals!’ she fumed into her tea. Ignoring his wife, knitted beret man offered up his analysis. ‘Pakistan’, he smiled, ‘used to be India. It was aaaaaall India back then. We, the Hindus of India gave the Muslims a place to live – Pakistan.’

I desperately tried to take the man with the knitted army beret tea-cosy seriously, so I narrowed my eyes and nodded vigorously like I used to do in meetings when I was drifting. Nod nod, yes yes, I listen you.

He continued: ‘But they are not gracious enough to accept this history, this heritage. Take Indonesia. They are a Muslim nation but they keep their Hindu names, their history. When Pakistan say they want Kashmir, they are simply ignoring their history.’

I nodded more vigorously, wondering if ‘Army-Casual’ could take off in the West and if he would consent to be the brand ambassador.

The morning sweep, before preparing all that FRESH food, Darjeeling

The morning sweep, before preparing all that FRESH food, Darjeeling

A brownie with chocolate sauce plopped down onto the table and they forced me to eat some, despite being full of bun. ‘You know India is the only truly tolerant country,’ he said, leaning back in his wicker seat and crossing his legs. So tolerant, in fact, that they still keep the place and street names foisted on them by their many invaders – Mongol Hordes, the Dutch, the British. We all agreed that this was a bit too tolerant.

Continuing my Indian education, the man leaned further back into his wicker.

‘Only in India do we cook 3 times a day, FRESH.’ He went on. ‘Tooootally FRESH, you see, 3 times a day.’ He conceded that it was a heavy burden for the women, who were expected to prepare all of this FRESH food, but he continued: ‘If we took that away from them, what else would they do with their time?’ I’m pretty sure he wasn’t joking, but I laughed anyway because it was easier, then excused myself. I didn’t come on holiday to explain the world ground up to an old guy.

Never trust a monkey. They may look cute but where there is one there are many, and they have strong, searching fingers and a bad attitude

Never trust a monkey. They may look cute but where there is one there are many, and they have strong, searching fingers and ideas way above their station

The next day, my alarm clock woke me at 0530 and I rolled out of bed with a spring in my lurch. Monks chanted in the direction of the massive God mountain (Kanchenjunga), waving fans inscribed with Tibetan / Chinese / Nepalese writing, then tapped people on the head with them as a blessing. A horde of hissing, growling monkeys bullied a stray dog, while 50 metres away the dogs got their own back by trapping a terrified monkey up a telephone pole.

I had only one duty for the day and that was to find the best pound to rupee rates for my 480 quid. I was amazed to discover that 2 of 3 places simply wouldn’t accept my filthy Scottish pounds, and the remaining one offered an offensively low rate (85, compared to the 96 offered for the ‘Great British Pound’). To soothe my wounded Scottish ego, I popped into a terrific teashop, where I was allowed to sample two Oolongs in brandy glasses, two white teas in Champagne flutes and two black Darjeeling teas in little port glasses. After they poured it for you, they held the brewing pot underneath your nose for about 30 seconds too long so your entire face dripped with fragrant tea steam.

As I left with my 3 little string-tied parcels of tea, I was given a short lecture on picking seasons. Tea isn’t just tea. It’s a totally different beast according to the time of year it’s picked. The spring (or first flush) tea is light and floral, the summer (or second flush) is more ‘muscatel’ (God knows…) and the autumn flush is richer, deeper and fruitier. I was ashamed to admit that in the UK, we generally don’t know where our teas comes from, just the brand, as if ‘Typhoo’  or Tetley’ were places. It wouldn’t surprise me if some people thought that ‘Yorkshire tea’ is grown in Yorkshire.

Anyway, it all tasted bloody great to me, and gave me this smouldering high that lasted for about 3 hours – long enough to propel me up to the charmingly dilapidated colonial gem that is the Windamere hotel.

Christmas in 61' at the Windamere. Note the faces of local kids pressed up against the window, peering in at all the roasted meats they wouldn't be eating

Christmas in 61′ at the Windamere. Note the faces of local kids pressed up against the window, peering in at all the roasted meats they wouldn’t be eating

On arrival, a boy wearing an incongruous costume of western formal wear underneath a traditional Himalayan shawl thingy ushered me into an empty living room full of deep sofas and a dying fire. On the walls were black and white photos of rich people quoffing gin in the sixties, and paintings of Himalayan scenes, including a shepherd with 3 unsettlingly over-sized goats, and a girl kneeling on a rock ledge over a cloud-filled valley. Soon the fire was roaring and I was flicking through the ‘Times of India’. Apprently, Kolkata meat market is getting a much-needed renovation because it stinks so bad that even the cleaners don’t go there, the Indian army is buying weapons from Israel, and over 100 Air India pilots were discovered not to have valid pilot’s licenses.

A framed sign advised me not to ‘Lie supine on the hearth’, which I would have committed to if I knew what it meant.

Sometimes the tarmac just disappears, leaving only hunched women tottering through dustclouds.

Sometimes the tarmac just disappears, leaving only hunched women tottering through dustclouds

Day 3 on the bike was my worst day on a bike.

It started nicely in Darjeeling, with an impromptu dawn yoga session looking out to that massive God mountain. The air didn’t seem to sparkle, it literally was sparkling. As I was finishing, some locals came up and asked if I could teach them. Apparently their uncle, who had been sitting nearby doing all sorts of weird and wonderful yogic breathing exercises, had given the nod of approval. I said I would return to Darjeeling specifically to teach them, despite being fully aware of how ridiculous it was for a Scotsman to teach yoga to Indians in India. It’s like asking an Indian person to come and teach the British how to do sarcasm.

Breakfast was an epic feast of porridge with bananas and honey followed by a ‘full’ English breakfast – I was going to need the fuel for another 1000 or so metres of climbing. However, my well-laid plans backfired and I was soon enjoying some low quality toilet time, courtesy of Indian bacteria. I couldn’t for the life of me work out how I had got it as I’d been very diligent with my hand-washing and water purifying, avoided all milk and cheese (they don’t do pasteurising here apparently) and avoided all street food. I guess it’s just something you have to go through. Or rather, something that has to go through you.

Durga celebrations - another excuse to let off fireworks day and night

Durga celebrations – another excuse to let off fireworks day and night

So back to the ride. It was horrendous – two agonising hours of pulling the brake levers full force as I weaved through a craterfield of potholes on slopes so steep they should quite frankly be illegal. I found myself cursing the author of the book for encouraging human beings to do this and in my mind wrote an extremely abusive email that I would send to her if I survived.

Then of course, there was the looming threat of shitting myself.

As the front wheel slammed down into another pothole, I willed my sphincter to clench as tightly as my fingers were on the brake levers. It was a tense time. Real tense. And then it ended. The free fall abated and I flowed down into a deep, wide, sticky valley where a dog half-heartedly tried to eat me and my bike. A rogue monkey also had a go, darting out from the side of the road, and I produced an incredible burst of speed to escape. They freak me out, those monkeys, and they always lie in wait where I’m most vulnerable – up-slopes or pot-holed sections. The night was spent in a dive on the town’s main/only junction, nursing litre after litre of salty blackcurrant electrolytes as yet another soundstage kept me wide awake until the early morning, when the fireworks took over.

Everyone loves the horn, even Sikkim border guards

Everyone loves the horn, even Sikkim border guards

The upside of being kept awake is that you aren’t asleep, which means as soon as the sun is up you can be gone. So by 0545 I had clicked my panniers onto the rack and pedalled grimly out of town. towards the capital of Sikkim, Gangtok. Time for another Immodium too, just to be sure – it was set to be another crucifixion of a day, with 1300ish vertical metres to contend with. The dawn freshness soothed my broken mind and tummy and the Immodium took care of the science. Soon, I was at the foot of the climb and feeling good enough to eat so I picked up some delicious, steaming hot vegetable momos from a wee roadside hotel. The owner’s son had never seen a white person before. I feel like I under delivered with my chat, which consisted mostly of mumbled, dumpling-filled nothings with question marks on the end. So to the climb.

Broken

Broken

It was hellish. Of course it was hellish.  But smooth hell is much better than lumpy hell, and smooth and up is much better than lumpy and down. Sikkim roads are comparatively brilliant, which is down to the exceptionally diligent and proud road-building team ‘BRO’. Every year, the roads are swept away by monsoon storms and every year, they rebuild them. I grew to love the various upbeat roadside messages encouraging love, life and safety. Things like ‘Life has no spare – take it easy.’ However, I’m not sure the jeep drivers can read the English. The last 15km were utterly brutal, and made almost intolerable by the back-to-back traffic and accompanying fumes. I focussed on breathing out and not in.

Gangtok baby

Gangtok baby

After several months or years of this, Gangtok revealed herself to me in all her turquoise and pink and baby blue grandeur. The first thing I saw was a sign telling me that: ‘Leprosy is 100% curable.’ 45 more minutes of slogging my way to the top of town and it was over –  I had arrived at Hotel Pandim and immediately agreed to a wincingly high rate for an admittedly quite plush room with loads of cable TV channels and enough room to swing a yaklet (a child yak).

I spent the next hour flicking between the skin-crawlingly awful but undeniably moreish British X-factor, and a TV lecture by a stern white woman wrapped up in the white sheets of a popular Hindu sect.

Cowell:                You have what it takes. I’m really impressed. CROWD GOES WILD.

Sect woman        I was God in the copper age, but I had no memory of my Godliness.

Cowell:                You’re likeable. I like you. The crowd likes you. But you can’t sing. CROWD BOOS.

Sect woman:        And we will be tested. Have you noticed? Every day we are challenged to be more Godly

Clicking off this vortex of no return, I noticed that I had already gained quite an imposing, severe gaze. Looking closer, I discovered that it was a masacara made of splatted flies.

Neon green chicken in my Thai curry

Neon green chicken in my Thai curry

My evening comprised of a Thai green curry with neon-green chicken, and monk spotting. There’s tonnes of orange-and-yellow-swaddled Buddhist monks here, of every shape and size. The most impressive one I saw was a down syndrome one and the impressive part is that he’s evidence of clear follow-through on a come-one-come-all policy up here in Buddha HQ. The least impressive ones were using mobile phones. Three of them sitting on a bench, gazes downward, tap, tap tapping like normal people. It’s just not right. You either get spiritual centredness, tranquility and moral authority OR you get our modern enslavement to the transient froth of modern social networking. Not both. I bet they had facebook accounts too, the frauds.

Cobbling away with his feet

A cobbler cobbling, unsurprisingly

Gangtok, like Darjeeling, suffers from a split-personality. From a distance, she is serene and picture-perfect but up close, when you’re stuck in the steeply winding, fume-choked streets, you often wish you weren’t here. However it’s nothing that some good headphones, sunglasses and a face-mask won’t fix. Yes, it makes me seem aloof and unapproachable but needs must – I can be nice later.

After the near death experience that was ride to get here, I’ve decided I need to lose a lot of weight. Not from my body, which is gaunt and bony, but from the bags. So far I have replaced the heavy but intoxicating ‘The God of small things’ with a tiny paperback ‘Oxford Introduction to Empire’, and ditched my expensive and (I hope) extraneous waterproof jacket, sleeping bag and sleeping mat.

The book feels rather fitting, as I can’t imagine a country more bizarelly contorted by colonialism than India. To be surrounded by poverty-stricken, tobacco-skinned men speaking perfect Queen’s English every time I stop the bike is a surreal and jarring experience. It’s all roses now but the violence it took to get those poor buggers speaking like toffs is bothersome. I would get slightly more upset about it but a waiter just put down a generously filled cherry muffin and green tea with goji berries and chrysanthemums. Next stop, West Sikkim. Or maybe I’ll just stay here and keep looking at God.

God / Kanchenjuga

God / Kanchenjuga

Dawn from the Darjeeling Mail train from Kolkata to Siliguri

Kolkata to Darjeeling: from dust to clouds

I arrived in Kolkata to be greeted by the sub-continent’s worst taxi driver, who couldn’t find the hotel I specifically picked because it was right next to the airport. Up and down the ‘VIP’ road we went, asking other taxi drivers, Tuk-Tuk boys and bystanders where this place was. They all seemed to know exactly where, confidently pointing in different directions as Diwali exploded around us. Eventually we arrived at a cesspit down a dirt track with a man wielding a semi-automatic stood close by. To be fair, the review (the only review) on booking.com did say ‘disappointing’, so I guess I deserved it. The staff seemed surprised to see me, despite having booked online more than 24 hours prior, and they spent many minutes rotating a paper jotter on a desk to see if this would clarify the situation. Relaxing into Indian hospitality, I tried to ignore the taxi driver, who was repeatedly droning ‘RUPPEE, RUPPEE’ at me. Eventually I was taken to my putrid room, where I spent five hours fumbling around trying to build my bike like one of those experiments where monkeys have to work out what shaped holes to put the blocks in. Eventually, bike built but by no means road-safe, I fell into a fretful sleep, flinching every time a Diwali firework exploded, which was about every 30 seconds or so.

Some woman on the approach into Kolkata

Some woman on the approach into Kolkata

I was woken 4 hours later by a massive explosion, which turned out to be the last Diwali firework, and left without saying good-bye. I had no map and no real idea of where I was going. I’d bought a compass knowing full well that I didn’t how to use one, so instead relied on the locals’ ambiguous yet spirited directions and was soon wobbling my way along a deserted highway somewhere on the outskirts of Kolkata in 98 degree heat. Somehow I arrived at the correct train station, despite the efforts of many small children and goats and cars and buses who darted directly into my path as if that was fine. Buying a ticket was a typically Indian experience of being sent from one desk to another, to another to fill out the same information onto a series of forms that resulted, not in a ticket, but in a further 4 hour wait to see if I definitely didn’t have a ticket.

Even a s non-believer, I was happy to have so many prayers in the wind

Even a s non-believer, I was happy to have so many prayers in the wind

Sitting down to write my diary, I was immediately surrounded by boys and men who read each word as it was written, some nodding along approvingly as if to say ‘yes, my thoughts exactly.’ Soon they dispersed, leaving one young man with a brilliant white smile and wandering hands.

‘You have very nice handwriting,’ he said, his hand creeping a little too close to my leg. ‘Are you married?’  he continued, his pinkie brushing my knee. ‘No,’ I replied, wondering if this was just how Indian guys did things. Then he started playing with the hair on my knee. ‘Hair,’ he said.  ‘Hair,’ I said, brushing his hand away without trying to be rude. ‘Yes, hair. Your hair is very nice,’ he said, his hand returning to my knee.

After a few brush-offs, I figured this was probably more a gay thing than an Indian thing but decided to just roll with it – I didn’t want to get into a fight on my first day. Then he said he was going to the wash-room but didn’t go, looking at me with very gay (not Indian) eyes. ‘I’LL SEE YOU LATER. THANKS VERY MUCH!’ I said, staying where I was until he got the message. Before he left, there was a split-second when he moved his head a little too close to mine and I thought he might go in for a kiss, but thankfully for everyone, he desisted and sashayed off to the bathroom.

Organic tea-fields shimmering under the sun

Organic tea-fields shimmering under the sun

Miraculously, both me and my bike eventually got on that train and were soon on our way to Siliguri on the Darjeeling Mail sleeper. After an hour or so of drooling, open-mouthed sleep, I awoke, rearranged my panniers and put my helmet on. There was no way I was missing my stop. So, jostling past sleeping families, hitting them in the head with my swinging panniers, I planted myself at the door and waited for the stop. ‘Where you go?’ came a voice from within a bundle of sheets that I hadn’t realised contained a human. ‘Siliguri’, I said. ‘Aaaaah, yes. 1 and a half hours more. Train late.’ Of course it was late. So naive to think it wouldn’t be late. So back I went, hitting the heads of the same sleeping people with my panniers to my seat, which had now been stolen by a smiling grandmother holding a small child. Instead of back-handing her (I would never do that), I consoled myself with a steaming hot milky Chai in a thimble-sized cup and watched India wake up through the window.

A particularly sinister congregation of prayer flags

A particularly sinister congregation of prayer flags on the way up to Mirik

The train pulls in and I’m out the door like a rocket, my cycling shoes slip-sliding all over the platform as I scream ‘Bike, my bike!’ to anyone remotely official-looking. Mostly they had no idea what I was saying but one guy had the good grace to point me to the other end of the train, so off I shot to that end, screaming ‘BIKE BIKE!’ and waving my pink receipt around. When I got to that end, a man with a beret shook his head and pointed me to the end I’d just come from. This went on for precisely long enough to lose all of my pride, until at last I caught sight of my sturdy steed being carefully plucked from the bowels of a cargo carriage. Sliding to a stop, sodden and shaking, I limply held out the pink bike receipt and said ‘Bike. Is my bike.’ Success. I had bike. I was bike. Bike was me. Bike is us. Bike.

TRIBAL WOMAN AND MAN

Soon I’m gliding through a tropical, dusty landscape with cows kneeling by the roadside and palm trees shivering in the hot breeze. Siliguri is a dustbowl but I find a nice hotel and get the most expensive room (five quid) before popping out for my first taste of Indian food (/parasitic infection). The mutton Rogan Josh was flavoursome but oily and tough, the Kashmir Naan was from Kashmir (the waiter told me that when I asked what the Kashmir Naan was) and the rice was fancy. On the way back, I stopped on a bridge to watch what I can only describe as an orgy of filth in the river below. Kids mingled with pigs snuffling through heaps of garbage, as a crowd of locals watched a JCB digger heaping a make-shift bank of mud in the middle of the river. Young boys stood on the the freshly heaped bank, their arms aloft, talking shite to anyone who would listen. Night-time brought an eardrum-splitting mix of train and truck horns mixed with a post-Diwali Diwali celebration from the disco literally next door.

Steamy, jungly valleys make terrific rest-stops before brutal climbs/ after brutal descents

Steamy, jungly valleys make terrific rest-stops before brutal climbs/ after brutal descents

The book promised that today would require a ‘marathon effort’. ‘You will drink ten litres of water,’ the author said. This, coming from a woman who spent 5 years cycling through all of the Himalayas, in every condition and elevation. Shit. And, to add to my anxiety, the blog of the book had had to reiterate just how steep the roads were, as some disgruntled westerners had evidently not done enough spin classes before coming to West Bengal/Sikkim. All of which added up to me being wide awake at 0430 wearing my cycling clothes, shoes and helmet, waiting for the sun to come up. At 0545, the day switched on like a light and I was soon charging out of town, the wind in my knee hair. In the wrong direction. Luckily, I realised my mistake before I got to the airport and was soon pointing in the correct direction – towards those big fucking hills over there.

large cloud over tiny village

Soon, Siliguri was a distant smear on my memory, as I flew low through towering, cooling forests and on through a military base riddled with monkeys and cheery -looking soldiers who would say ‘Goooood Maaaaawrning!’ as I sped past. At a tiny village called ‘Dudia’, the road ramped up to a laughable gradient (I did actually laugh), and decided to become severely pot-holed too. In my training in Scotland, I’d avoided using the ‘granny ring’ (easiest gear) but wasted no time in clicking down there. There’s no room for pride in the Himalayas. I was really feeling the 30kg of stuff I’d brought with me and discovered with newfound clarity how unnecessary most of it was. This, plus the four litres of water (‘You will drink ten litres of water….’) I was carrying slowed me down to a creaking, weaving wreckage of a man, emasculated further by the stream of rickety jeeps tearing past me, honking madly in triumph or sympathy – it’s hard to decipher the tone of voice of a horn. Easier to decipher were the expressions of pure incredulity on the faces pressed to the insides of the back windows. ‘Why?’ they seemed to ask. I had no answers at the time.

So much style up here it hurts

So much style up here it hurts

After three hours, I collapsed against a snack shack and fell into conversation with a local boy with impeccable English. Looking at my map, he told me I had 12 or 13 hours to go. ‘What?!’ I spat – I had expected to be there in 3. He did a funny Indian head nod-shake that makes you wonder whether they’re agreeing or disagreeing with you, and revised it to 8 or 9 hours. Unwilling to accept the idea that I would have to do this for another 8 or 9 hours, I simply shook my head and said no, it’s no possible – I left at 6. ‘Wow. Ok. 6? Really? Then you will be there in 2 hours.’ It seems my adrenalin had propelled me up the mountain at an unusual velocity. Allowing myself a momentary swelling of pride, I creaked off up the vertical slope and in the blink of a yak’s eye, was where I was supposed to be, but about 5 hours too early. Mirik was my oyster.

I wish this was a traditional West Bengal mask but really it's just a weird batman

I wish this was a traditional West Bengal mask but really it’s just a weird batman

Mirik, 1500 metres higher than Siliguri, was a strange place around an uninspiring lake but did offer steaming hot showers, a magnificent Thali, including a transcendent black dahl, and of course, the requisite sound stage right outside my hotel showcasing the best (worst) of the local singing talent all throughout the night. Other highlights included a rampaging horse stampeding past a flustered family, it’s cock swinging all over the place, and a strange fruit like an avocado with short, green octopus tentacles growing from it’s skin that grew on the outskirts of town.

After another broken sleep, I was wide awake before dawn, clutching my stomach. It felt like someone had put a balloon into my gut and was playfully blowing it up and letting it down. My mega-thali must have been poisoned. Or perhaps it was the eight extra momos (steamed tibetan dumplings), the extra portion of naan, the two pots of Darjeeling tea, and the additional cup of milky, sugary, cardomom-y ‘Masala’ tea. In retrospect, it was probably sheer greed that gave me the cramps and resultingly bad toilet time but at the time, I was convinced it was the Indian food. As I rode off, I swore never to touch it again.

Looks like someone's got a case of the mondays

Looks like someone’s got a case of the mondays

So out I went, gut wriggling and writhing and underslept, straight into a vertical wall of tarmac. Down into the bottom gear I went, down where I belong. The morning was serene – deep blue skies, cheery smiles and the faintest whisper of a breeze. Almost everyone I passed greeted me with a breezy ‘Goooooowd Maaaaaaaawrning!’, which brought an involuntary smile (they’re all involuntary) to my face every time I heard it. If I stopped in a village, I was immediately swamped by smiling, curious men wanting to know where I was from (nowhere knows where Scotland is but they gloss over it). One time I stopped in the middle of a dark, empty forest to change my t-shirt and from nowhere, ten guys on motorbikes had surrounded me, demanding more photos.

Soon I had reached the halfway point – a clustering of chai and momos stalls perched on a rocky outlook that looks directly into Nepal. Their mountains looked bigger. I bought some overly sweet Masala chai and vegetable (cabbage) momos and was then tricked into buying Malaysian almond toffees by a kid who assured me they were Nepalese. The little shit overcharged me by about double too but I’m over it. When I checked my phone, I had a text from my mobile provider informing me that I could top up as usual when in Nepal. It’s true to say that the lines between countries are very blurred around here.

Boy at rest, somewhere on the way to Darjeeling

Boy at rest, somewhere on the way to Darjeeling

Pushing on like the toffee incident never happened, I was soon in Darjeeling, at Hotel ‘Tranquility’ (it was opposite a building site patrolled). They very graciously let me keep my bike in my room and didn’t even make faces about my smell, though they were tellingly forthright with the instructions for the shower. After a bruisingly hot shower,  I shuffled off around the steep, narrow streets to the apparently good but actually rubbish bakery for the worst apple pie I have ever had (it was salty). But there was the view. Ooooooh, the view. My first true panorama of the Himalayas, strung out along the horizon, crowned by a flowing, churning, cascading cloudscape. Storms here must be utterly terrifying. I remember thinking that there was something much greater than us going ont here. No wonder it’s so easy to buy into all the God talk – I’d pray to anything for deliverance from these monsters.

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Dawn in Darjeeling. Apparently, the people of Sikkim think that massive mountain over there (Kanchenjunga, 3rd largest in the world) is a God, which I guess makes more sense than an invisible one in the sky.

This is the kind of photo I hope to bring back if I live

From Scottish lowlands to Indian very, very, very, very Highlands (Part 1)

This is the kind of photo I hope to bring back if I live

This is the kind of photo I hope to bring back if I remain alive

11/09/14

How quickly our worlds change. A few weeks ago I had no idea that I would be flying to Calcutta for a solo, 2 and a half month bicycle tour in the Indian Himalayas. A few weeks ago my world was all about calligraphy, dumplings and being with my glorious but now-ex girlfriend in the steamy Chinese city of Hangzhou.

Regrettably, though a relationship can be cancelled with minimal fiscal implications, the same is not true of flights. But, thank Allah (or whoever keeps Emirates’ planes in the air), I was able to change my flight from Shanghai to anywhere I desired east of Dubai.  Naturally, as a yoga twat and a wannabe ‘gritty’ cyclist, I chose India – home to the only yoga worth learning and the biggest ruddy mountains around.

Let me be clear with you from the start – this is a huge mistake. I know it, my family knows it, my friends know it. I have zero survival skills. I have never put up a tent, built an effective fire, operated a stove, found water from a river or gotten food from anywhere but a packet. I don’t know how to fix my bike if it breaks. I don’t know how to fix myself if I break.

Yes, I’ve made a huge mistake.

Kashgar style

From Beijing to the Wild Northwest

I write to you from the ‘Wild’ Northwest of China, in an ancient Silk Road oasis town-turned-city called Kashgar. Adrift in the world’s second largest desert, the Taklamakan, and within spitting distance of Tajikstan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, this is not China as we know it. In fact, it’s not even China as China knows it, having been largely ignored by the powerhouse cities on the East coast for pretty much ever. Walking down the street, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Pakistan or Afghanistan or any of the ‘stans’. Far from the tea fields and smog of cliché China, this place has a distinct ‘Prince of Persia’ feel to it.

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Never underestimate the reach of UK supermarket chain ‘Morrisons’

People here are of Uyghur descent, a Turkish people of swarthy complexion, razor sharp knives and eyes that, despite being a long way away from the nearest one, shimmer like the sea. As you walk through the frenetic, aromatic street markets, past young, shaven-headed Uyghur girls whirling around in dazzlingly coloured and patterned dresses, you feel a million miles from Beijing. And you wouldn’t be far off – the actual distance from the capital is 4000km.

Here, the air smells of mysterious spices and sizzling lamb, of the thick, sticky sweetness of dates and bagel-like swirls of hot, doughy bread marbled with diced mutton and onions. Dignified, seemingly ancient old men with shrivelled heads and wispy, white beards creak around inspecting the freshness of peaches and greeting friends with soft, tender embraces. The dignity of the variously burkha’d women I shall leave for others to judge, though you have to give them points for style – peacocking takes on a whole new meaning here. A call to prayer from the nearby mosque momentarily drowns out the incessant beeping of silent, electrically powered scooters and the thud-crack of cleaver on mutton. Nearby, a tethered sheep looks determinedly the other way.

Kashgar is famous for two things – its sprawling, chaotic sunday market that supposedly draws in half of Central Asia, and more lately, terrorist attacks – attempts by the Islamic Uyghurs to shake off Han Chinese rule. I came for the market and though initially wary of the latter, have felt no tension, only warmth, curiosity and a watering mouth.

More specifically, Kashgar is famous for selling knives as beautiful as they are deadly. Yesterday, I asked a man in a store if he had some, and from under the counter he produced a handful of small but razor-sharp blades in a little basket. ‘For apple’, he said unconvincingly – of all the many fruits on offer in the market, apples were not among them. Probing, I asked if he had any larger knives, to which he nodded conspiratorially and led me to a back room. The walls were crammed with ornately wrought, metal tea-pots and cups, colourful scarfs and other knick-knacks, but no knives. I looked at him, wondering if he understood what I’d asked for. Perhaps ‘big knife’ was code in Uyghur for ‘waste my time’. But I needn’t have worried.

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To illustrate the sharpness of these knives, the seller held my arm (tightly), then cut the hair off of it. That wasn’t a relaxing time

Taking a key from his pocket, he unlocked a glass cabinet containing some innocuous-looking tapestries and lifted the corner of one of them to reveal an Arabian army’s worth of glinting Uyghur blades. Handing me one, handle first, he let me inspect the craft on the handle and an edge so sharp it could cut space-time in two. ‘Horn,’ he whispered, holding up a ram’s horn so I knew what he meant by horn. ‘Anarguli,’ he said proudly, pointing at the name engraved on the blade. At the time I had no idea what he was on about but later I would discover that Anarguli were the Bentley of Uyghur blades, made in a town 70km further into the sandy sea. I noticed that he didn’t tell me what these blades were for. He didn’t even pretend that they were for cutting watermelons, which would have been a much easier lie to tell because there were more watermelons than Han Chinese in Kashgar. It was at that point that I questioned the sageness of handling killing instruments in the back room of a shop in a town famous for terrorist violence. My hands now slick with sweat, I handed back the blade and said I might buy five. I don’t know why I said five. ‘We do business’, he said and I told him I needed to go away and think about it but he had a beautiful shop.

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A millisecond before I was shoo’d away

This would never have happened in Beijing. Not where I was anyway. Cocooned in the embassy district, I had spent my time dining on michelin-starred crab dumplings, playing cricket with wealthy expats and been measured up for a light-as-air linen suit. There, every second car was an Audi with smoked windows, and there were two Starbucks within walking distance of my gracious hosts’ 27th floor apartment (their mocha is one of my many achilles’ heels and I shall not repent). In the same way that Kashgar is not the China I expected, so Beijing was not. Where one is straining to be independently Uyghur, the other was visibly straining to be western.

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Snoozing at the cricket. Expat life is exactly as entitled as you would imagine.

In Beijing, the fashion conscious wear t-shirts emblazoned with endearingly confused English lines. My favourite was one ostensibly made by Nike that said ‘As if you don’t know.’ I have thought about it a lot since then and I can sincerely admit that I do not know. I really do not know, though I have consoled myself with the belief that the wearer does not know either. Or, in fact, the designer. Other favourites include a pared-down design by the world reknowned fashion designer ‘Caitlin Kletin’, and an unbranded one that read, ominously: Believe you are going to enjoy it.

In Beijing, the adverts depict good-looking Chinese people with skin as white as ivory. Not only do the women’s moisturising creams contain a whitening agent, but so too do the mens’. In the art district, 798, it is even possible to get a legitimate flat white. And lest I forget, Beijing is home to the world’s largest outdoor television screen. How much more like America could you try to be? A towering beacon of Chinese lunacy, the screen is built to face downwards, so the only way you can view it is by either craning your neck or lying down. It is essentially a very, very expensive roof. And to add pointlessness to lunacy, the screen is so long that even if you were blessed with the wide-angle vision of a fly, you would still not be able to see what was being shown. Which, by the way, is nothing.

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Found this guy at the Kashgar animal market. He seemed to be the only guy there without a goat

Yet try as it might, Beijing is not of the west. For every Starbucks, there is a restaurant proudly serving up rabbits’ faces. For every air-conditioned, luxury shopping mall, there are a hundred thousand million billion ‘squat and plop’ Chinese toilets. Though here I must clarify. ‘Plop’ suggests that whatever you produce drops neatly into water. But there is no water, just a fetid hole that even the most festival-hardened Brits would baulk at. Somehow, it doesn’t seem to bother the Chinese though. It’s like they have an olfactory on-off switch that they can flick to ‘off’ at will. (FYI, if anyone is planning on invading China any time soon, I can advise against the use of gas as it will have absolutely no effect whatsoever.)

In general, the Chinese have a very different attitude to their bodies. In Beijing, as I strolled through the blissful serenity of the ‘Garden of the Temple of Heaven’, contemplating what ‘As if you don’t know’ meant, my epiphany was stalled by an old man expelling air out of his posterior with the force of someone who stopped giving a fuck about what the west thinks a long, long time ago. Or maybe he was just old. It happens. And again, at one of China’s most idyllic spots – ‘The Heavenly Lake’ near Urumqi, my spiritual enrichment was disturbed by a father holding his little daughter aloft over some manicured shrubbery as she pissed all over it without a care in the world. Apparently, this is entirely acceptable. And, after experiencing Chinese toilets first-hand, I have to say I would prefer a giant lifting me up over a tree too.

They do exercise very differently here too. On my many jogs around city centre parks, I have seen old people walking backwards for 45 minutes, a man slamming his body against a tree trunk while expelling air forcefully in a mega-burp, and every variation on hitting yourself that you could imagine. Some of the young do modern things like jogging, but mostly it’s a load of old people hitting themselves and holding their arms up in a surrender gesture as they walk.

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Some people just have style built in

It’s not just the body that is viewed differently here. In the west, we have this idea of ‘private space’, a small bubble that surrounds every human, into which you do not step unless invited or drunk. In China, this does not exist. When I visited ‘The Forbidden City’, I was initially amused by, then irritated by, and ultimately dismayed at, the level of full-on jostling that went on. Spearheaded by a screaming guide with a flag on his head, hoards of Chinese tourists armed with every conceivable camera would violently elbow their way to the front of every photographable thing, casting foreigners and countrymen aside with equal indifference. One time, on a rush hour metro train, a young lad looked puzzled when I pushed him away from me. Seemingly, there is nothing wrong with pressing your genitals onto the genitals of another man in China.

Feeling out of your depth and ultimately very confused about almost everything is part of what makes travelling worthwhile. Feeling stupid is an important step towards not being quite as stupid as you were before. But being on the back foot all the time does not a fun time make. It takes random acts of kindness to bring you back from the brink. Here is where China comes up trumps. Many times, I have been led out of rickety mazes of ‘Hutongs’ (Chinese for ‘street’) by kind-eyed, silent locals. More than once, a Chinese person has phoned an English-speaking friend of theirs to explain a situation to me, and most memorably, a Chinese man called Richard guided me through a particularly troublesome check-in experience at an airport, despite having just had his passport and suitcase whisked off into the desert by a taxi-driver.

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When I told him I was coming to Kashgar, he flinched and said ‘Maybe it’s ok for white people there,’ referring to the recent anti-Han volence. He told me he was from Nanking, the city famously torn apart, plundered and raped by out of control Japanese forces in WW2. I asked how he felt about the Japanese and he replied: ‘Last night I sat with an old Japanese man and we talked and drank and shared cigarettes. I smiled a lot and was open. At the end of the night, we toasted to peace. No-one wants war. The Chinese are the same.’ As I watched an old person walking backwards down the road in slow motionl, I thought to myself ‘yes, the same, but bewilderingly, entrancingly different.’

Being mugged by hobbits

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I came to Latin America expecting to be beaten, mugged and raped on a daily basis. That’s not too much to ask, is it? Yet, much to the frustration of my friends and family, I had managed to get through 7 months on this dusty, incomprensible slab of land without so much as a mild choking. In fact, before I arrived in the seedy, Andean town of Huaraz, I was beginning to wonder if anything interesting was going to happen at all.

‘We need a guide’ I asserted, too loudly, eyeing the needle-sharp points of the Andes as I quoffed my stomach-slaying cappuccino from the safety of the posh cafe balcony.’None of us know how to read maps, light a fire or defend ourselves from muggers. We need a guide. And a donkey to carry all our drinking water’. And so it was settled. $100 a head for 3 days of trekking into the wild and wonderful Peruvian Andes. A once-in-a-lifetime adventure into thin air and donkey shit, with the peace of mind that only a fully qualified, trusted outdoorsman and a stout donkey can bring to a septet of bumbling city-slickers like us.

‘You only need water for the first day and we will provide all your food and drinks for the rest of the trip. Tranquilo mi amigo, tranquuuuuiiiiiiilo’, said the squat, smiling Andean in the little office. But I was ‘tranquilo’, I thought, as I handed over my 100 dollars. Why is he telling me to relax when I am relaxed? That’s weird. I wonder why that is. Is he used to dealing with pissed-off people or has my face gone into its default angry mode again? Yeah it’s probably that. It always does that. Silly face. ‘I will meet you tomorrow. You and your 6 friends, and we go to the Santa Cruz trek.’ ‘Yes, cool’ I said, trying to make my face look happy. ‘Tranquilo’ he said again, soothingly. I barely remember agreeing to store our bags in their office – my mind was already gliding with the condors, high above heavy, cracked, blue glaciers.

To function properly at normal altitudes, a human body should take in almost 2 litres of water every day. So if you roll out of bed, sit on a train, then at a desk for 8 hours and traipse home to sit on the sofa, you should have 2 litres of water. So basically, 2 litres is a healthy amount of water to drink if you’re doing fuck all. If, however, you walk up a 4700m mountain for almost 8 hours a day, under blazing sun, it’s probably best to have a bit more. Let’s say, conservatively, three litres. If you’re struggling, two. One at worst. But certainly not zero. Even a donkey would reject those working conditions. And just to put that into persepctvie, Venezualan donkeys let adolescent boys have sex with them without so much as an ‘ee-aw’.

So that was the first problem, though we came to it second. For some reason, these little men thought it was cool to take us deep into the wilderness with a bag of chocolate bars, some apples, and no drinking water. The second problem, which we came to first, was the issue of fire. Not being Bear Grylls, a Neanderthal or in an episode of ‘Game of Thrones’, none of us knew how to make wood hot enough to turn it into fire. But not to worry – that’s what the guides are for, right? That’s why we hired them – to protect us against dehydration, freezing to death and muggings. They’ll probably make a fire automatically, right? After so many years in the wilderness they must be like ‘fire-whisperers’, coaxing flames from the very air with a deftness bordering on sorcery. Not so much.

After 45 minutes sat in the freezing, pitch black of an Andean night, we asked the guide if he could help us make a fire (he was chatting to his mates in the warm ‘kitchen’ tent as we shivered outside). ‘Yes’, he said brusquely, and told us to get wood. 5 minutes later, he arrived at our stack of damp wood with a bottle of clear liquid that smelt like sugar cane moonshine. Swaying, he unscrewed the bottle. ‘Fuego!’ he demanded, shaking a box of matches at the nearest set of hands. A girl took the box and looked at him for instruction. Wordlessly, he tipped a splash of the clear liquid onto the damp sticks and nodded at her. Reading between the lines, she struck a match, threw it down, and, like magic – there was fire. Strange, blue, cold fire, but fire nonetheless. Our spirits soared.

And then it was gone. The Andes lay quiet and icy once more. Nodding sagely, he tipped some more of the liquid onto the damp sticks and motioned at the girl again. Another spark and another woosh of fire as the alcohol burnt itself out. Then darkness and cold again. And again. And again. Each time, the liquid caught then vanished, caught then vanished. The males in the group, none of them exactly bushmen, looked at each other skeptically. This was not how to make a fire. Though not capable of doing it themselves, they had seen it done before and this was not how to do it. Like with porn and sex. We all know the technique but executing it is so very different. The man swayed a little more and proclaimed ‘More patience, more patience’, until his bottle was empty, and he trudged back to the warmth of the kitchen tent, leaving us freezing in the middle of the Andes. Not even merino could save us now.

Thankfully, through a combination of perseverance, desperation and dumb luck, the group mustered a humble, then reasonable, then roaring fire, and we survived the night with cheer and good core temperatures, only to wake to banging headaches. When I asked the guide about the drinking water necessary to stave off altitude-induced (and life-threatening) migraines, he just shrugged his shoulders, nodded over to the cow-piss-infused stream and said something about being ‘tranquilo’. ‘I’ll give you fucking tranquilo you hobbity little bastard’ I thought, as I put on my best ‘happy face.’

By sheer luck, there were 2 people in the group who had brought ‘steri-pens’ – funny little rods that purify water with UV light. If it hadn’t been for that, we’d have had to drink the crisp, clear, cow-donkey-and-most-likely-human-piss infused glacier water from the stream as the little hobbity men looked on with their shoulders in a permanent shrug and a slight smile playing on their lips.

But try as they might, the hobbity men with no water or fire-making skills could not ruin the Andes. Man cannot ruin nature entirely. Razor-sharp peaks tried in vain to scrape vast, blue skies, as turquoise lagoons and 20 metre, tetris-block shaped rocks lay all around. If New Zealand is Scotland on steriods, and Ecuador is New Zealand on steriods, then Peru is Ecuador on Viagra, MDMA and multi-vitamins. The little hobbity men could take our water, they could take our fire but they can never take our Andes.

On the last day, we were told by the little hobbity men to make our own way back to a town 7 hours away, take a taxi from there to another town, then take a minibus from there back to Huaraz (instead of going back in a minibus like on every other tour, ever). By the time we arrived back in Huaraz, the grumblings in the minibus had developed into a full-blown battle plan, and we had designated the 2 prettiest, blondest, most extensively-bosomed attack dogs in our group to coax a 10% refund out of this absurd company.

‘No problem’ the smiley man said immediately, almost as if he was expecting us to say it. Almost as if it was part of the plan. ‘Just come back in one hour and speak to the boss’. Well, that was easy. We celebrated with high fives, expensive beers and pizza, and returned in one hour, but the boss wasn’t there. ‘Come back in an hour’ they said again. So we did, but lo and behold, it was closed. The woman who owned the stall beside the office door said ‘Are you waiting?’. ‘Yes’, we said. ‘They will not come’, she said.

Undeterred, I woke early the next day and marched through the early morning fog of exhaust fumes and churchy types to get what was ours. At 8.30, I arrived to a locked door. Planting my feet in an overly wide stance and folding my arms over my chest, I did my best impression of someone you don’t want to fuck with, and for the next 45 minutes, the churchgoers from the Evangelical church next door gave me a wide berth. Then, out of the starry-eyed rabble of churchites came a man with a face I vaguely recognised.

‘Got a ticket?’ he asked, not recognising me as the guy who had already been on one of their tours. ‘No, I have been on your tour. I am here to get a refund. We came yesterday, twice but no-one was here’, I said, giving him an opportunity to not be a dick, but I got nothing. He simply put his mobile phone to his ear, turned on his heel and walked off into a thicket of church people and fumes.

Incensed at being walked away from but too tired after the hike to pursue him, I planted my feet a little wider, puffed my chest out a little further, and began talking to myself. So that’s how you want to play it. is it? Fine by me. I’ve got all day. I’ve got ALL the days. That’s the beauty of travelling – you’re esssentially just filling time between meals, and I had peanut butter in my bag, so I didn’t even have that constraint. The stall -owner looked at me with pitying eyes, and said ‘You will not get your money. They are bad men’. I nodded, emboldened by the thought of the peanut butter in my bag, and scanned the street for the hobbity men from under the brim of my hot, black felt hat. The sun rose higher in the sky.

After an hour of scowling at anyone brave enough to look at me, a strong-looking man with a mobile phone clamped to his ear came up, calling himself ‘Juan Carlos’. I told him my concerns and demanded a 20% refund. ‘I will be back in one hour with your money’ he said. I shook his hand and verified that he was the big boss, before walking off feeling like Danny the champion of the world. I immediately ordered a victory cappuccino and emailed the group saying I had ‘fixed the problem’ and I’d see them later. ‘Wow’ they said. ‘Well done’.

An hour later I swaggered back. I would probably get sex from this, I thought. Maybe I could even go around South America, getting refunds for people for a commission. I would be the muscle, the silent assasin, the Scottish Robin Hood, the…..

……the door was still locked and no-one was there.

The stall-owner gave me a wearied look and rearranged her Chinese-made phone covers. I planted my feet and folded my arms. These fuckers, I thought. These fuckers don’t know who they’re messing with. I’m Liam fucking Neeson from ‘Taken’. I’m Liam fucking Neeson and you’ve stolen my daughter and tried to sell her to an Arabic fat man on a boat. You utter bastards. Just give me the money now and that’ll be the end of it. But if you don’t, I will find you. I do this for a living. I will find you and I will kill you.

An hour later, 2 little hobbity men emerged from the muddle of churchy types and broke my insane ramblings. They said hello and why was I here? Boring into them with my most evil eyes, I said ‘I need the money from the bad men.’ ‘Yes’, they said, nodding gravely, ‘They are bad men. Maybe they be here soon.’ ‘Do you know them?’ I asked. ‘No, but maybe they be here’. They turned to walk off and in my mind, everything slowed down. Suddenyl there was a longbow on my shoulder. I pulled it off, notched 2 arrows, aimed, and loosed them simultaneously into their backs. As their lifeless bodies his the ground, Juan Carlos came running through the crowd, low and angry, tilted forward at an impossible angle, with a mobile phone pressed to each ear. Focussing on him with my hawk eyes, I loosed another 2 arrows, each one spearing a mobile phone, before soaring 20 feet up, pulling my steri-pen from its sheath, and slamming it to the hilt into his lying chest. ‘Tranquilo’ I whispered, as his eyes closed for the last time. ‘Tranquilo’.

Of course, ‘Juan Carlos’, if that was even his name, never turned up. Over the next few hours, they sent various ‘undercover’ scouts to check on me, all with mobile phones clamped to their ears, all pretending to talk to someone as they stared from the other side of the street. Then one of the guys who’d turned up earlier, professing not to know the owners, turned up to tape a message to the office door.

Apparently today was Father’s day and they weren’t opening the office because of it. ‘It’s very important, Father’s day’, said the lying little orc fuck, as he taped up the message. Ignoring his nonsence, I shouted – ‘I NEED THE MONEY. WE need the money.’ He shuffled anxiously. I was at least 2 feet taller than him. ‘Bring the money or we are going to break your company with the internet. It is easy. We are 7. You are criminals. We can break your company by tonight. Bring the money! It is not polite. It is not professional!!!’

‘Yes, they are bad men’, he said, and dissolved into the now sun-baked crowd of small people. ‘I am never leaving!’ I screamed after him. ‘NEVER!’ 15 minutes later, I left. But not before the final insult.

A man walked past. Smooth-skinned, healthy, kind-looking. ‘Don’t use this company – they are criminals!’ I blurted at him. ‘Yes I know’, he said. ‘They are bad people. They change their name every few months. The police don’t care. Bad men, bad men. Me? Me – I always charge the same price. I am Victor – ask about me. I am good guy.’

Then another man, taller, older and with expensive sunglasses came up, shook Victor’s hand and started talking in Spanish. They laughed about something, then both walked off. When they were out of earshot, the stall-lady turned to me and said ‘That is the boss of the company – Peru Diamonds. The man in the glasses. He is a bad man.’

Everything became slow-mo. If I had a child I would have dropped her and strode off. I zoomed in on the big boss with my terminator eyes, assessed his physical capability, compared it to my rage, and proceeded towards him. The computation had been favourable. ‘I’m Liam fucking Neeson. I’m fucking Liam Neeson from Taken. This is what I do for a living. Just give me the money now and it’ll be over’ I chanted in my head until I was in front of him.

‘You are the big boss, yes?’ I shrieked, surprised to find that I had become a 14-year old boy. He relaxed back onto his lampost. I screamed at him again, a 14-year old boy trapped inside a 32-year old man’s body – ‘YOU ARE THE BIG DOG?’, I demanded. ‘YOU ARE THE CRIMINAL? GIVE ME THE MONEY’. Groups of scared, evangelistic church-goers shuffled past me wearing too-tall hats with ornately folded ribbons encircling them. ‘YOU ARE THE CRIMINAL!’ I shrieked, now more girl than man. ‘YOU ARE MY MONEY, IS IT CORRECT?!’. Shrugging, he walked off down a lane. Later that day, I found out that they’d stolen a laptop from one our bags. The mugging had concluded. I went South, to coastal Desert.

How to be an Alcoholic

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One day, not so long ago, I drank so much alcohol that I bled into the toilet. After 5 silent, appalled seconds, I numbly flushed, got on a trans-atlantic plane and ordered a double gin and tonic. And another one. Don’t think I don’t know how strange that behaviour is. To intentionally hurt yourself like that. How does one get to that stage, you might ask. Easy. SO EASY. Let me tell you.

First, be born into a well-off family on a small island reeking of the stench of ale, beer, vodka, whiskey, sambuca, and if you’re really fancy, wine. You may know this strange island as the ‘UK’.

Then, at the age of 11 or so, accept a goblet of some hellish-smelling, amber liquid from your Dad. Take a sip of the apple brandy, then run full-speed to the nearest tap as the fire of hell itself explodes in your mouth, in your throat, in your very soul. Extinguish the fire. Give your Dad a ‘how could you?’ look. Cry a bit. Try to ignore the one cell in your body that cries out for more.

Hold off on the booze until the age of 15, then make up for those lost years with a collection of alcoholic lemonades (you may know of ‘Hooch’. If you don’t, you may know ‘Mike’s Hard Lemonade’), Coke mixed with anything, and if you’re a real hard man – whiskey.

Then, in your adolescent years, quickly build an association between alcohol and sexual success, or at least the prospect of sexual success (I rarely hit the bullseye in my teens and I rarely hit it now – it’s all about potential).

Now, having established this connection, use it to get you through 4 years of excessive drinking at the ale-stained University of Edinburgh. Suitably ill, graduate to the epicentre of world alcohol abuse – the London advertising industry.

Try so hard to break into this world that you never turn down a free drink. Not at lunch, not during work, not after work. Laugh them down, one after the other, praying that someone will give you a job or make your idea into something more real than scribbles on a page. Discover that the more you drink, the more people laugh. Choose to believe that they’re laughing with, not at, you. Choose to ignore the rotting feeling coming from inside.
Get the shots in.

Eventually break into the tequila-soaked world of advertising, then climb high enough on the ladder that you can buy as much alcohol as you want, but drink it in your own flat so no-one really notices except you, and your girlfriend until she’s not there anymore.

As your wallet grows, so mysteriously, does your appetite for alcohol. Employ a new strategy – that of the ‘connoisseur’. Espouse the superiority of this or that drink, this or that liquor. Insist that your friends try it (after you, of course). Create wonderful, crisp vodka martinis with friends until the bottle is empty (they weren’t wonderful, they were just strong). Buy another bottle.

Insist on going to only the finest cocktail bars because there is something that your friend ‘just has to try’. Finish your drink before your friend is halfway through theirs and order another one – after all, there’s a queue building and we don’t want to wait, do we? Comment on the masterful herbal infusions in the cocktail, the ‘echoes of marshmallow’, the delicate fizz on your tongue and the elderflower aftertaste.

Keep drinking.

Then one day, see your own blood in the toilet. Marvel at this crimson offering from your insides. Wonder how it got there, from what part of your insides it bled from. Was it your stomach lining or an organ? Wonder if it will stop.

Then flush the toilet, wash your hands, look at your blood-shot eyes in the mirror, and exhale. Nothing is wrong. Just another step on the journey. No pain, no gain. Collateral damage. War is hell but who wants to be in heaven anyway? All the interesting people are in hell, plus heaven is too close to the sun for Scottish skin.

Such is the ‘nurture’ side of this coin, but what of ‘nature’?

I never knew my biological Dad. My only memory of him is of a bearded man not being allowed to come into the flat when I was about 5. A flash of bristles, a hint of desperation in the eyes and he was gone. As far as I know, I’ve never seen him since. It’s possible that I have of course, but how would I know? Over the years, I have tried to mentally subtract my mother’s face from mine, like a mathematical equation, to get his, but all I see is a beard. Though logically sound, this is a shitty way to figure out how someone looks. Faces aren’t numbers.

Yet I feel like I know him intimately. Just as I have an affinity with all left-handers, or all people who know for certain that mangoes are the best fruit or that Ryan Gosling is now over-exposed, I feel an affinity with alcoholics. Just to be clear – I am not, and never have been, a full-blown alcoholic. But I have glimpsed the depths. I have felt the magnetic pull of hand to bottle too many times for it just to be boredom. I don’t reach for cigarettes in the same way, or the bums of attractive women I don’t know, and I don’t trip up strangers unprovoked, though all these things would bring me great pleasure. No – alcohol’s whisperings are unique. Or were.

6 months after the ‘Crimsonbowlgate’, my eyes are bloodshot once more. Bright red lightning forks jaggedly from the rim to the centre. If I could see the back of my eyes, I’m sure they’d be bloodshot too. I am so congested that I can’t breathe through my nose, and my muscles ache to a depth I can’t fully contemplate. No matter how much water I drink, I piss orange. It’s been like this for 13 days now. Sobriety hurts.

But with the passing of alcohol comes the arrival of this strange new thing – the whole rest of life. See, when you’re not crawling around your flat/hostel, with a headache as powerful as the big bang itself, you can actually do things. Things other than facebooking or watching masterchef (obviously, I still do those things too – I’m not an asshole).

When you stop drinking, there’s nowhere to hide from yourself. You’re always there, soberly considering yourself. And there’s only so many coffees you can drink and inane cat videos you can lobotomise yourself with before you have to actually do something.

In the 13 days since I broke from the pied-piper’s intoxicating melodies, I’ve managed to, almost without thinking, half-write 4 or 5 pieces, and started teaching yoga, which has yielded the first income I’ve been genuinely proud of since I washed cars as a baby-livered teen. Heck, I think I’ve even started being slightly less of an asshole to my friends and family. That could be an overclaim though. You’d have to ask them.

I still hear her whispers of course. After 15 years of marinating in her starry-eyed liquor, who wouldn’t? Then there’s the fear. The sickening hit of daily panic that perhaps I won’t be able to connect with people without it, that maybe the friendships I’ve made over the years are really only a shared adoration of beer. Then there’s girls. How could I ever sleep with one without being drunk? A terrifying prospect, I’m sure you’ll agree, and an almost intolerable risk. Though I’ve been informed by the internet that this is biologically possible, I remain deeply cycnical. Time will tell, I suppose. In the meantime, I have to find a new drug to become addicted to. Any thoughts? I’m told crack is fun but might get in the way of my yoga.