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.

Full Beards, Empty Air and Reinvention at 6000m

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Travelling is almost exactly like internet dating, minus the prospect of sex. With both activities, you always spend more money than you wanted to, you always get that niggling feeling that someone else has been there before you, and most importantly, you can always start fresh in the morning.

With travel, as with internet dating, reinvention is king.

That’s why normal life can be so tiresome – you are constantly obliged to play ‘you’. Stray from what your friends (or you) regard as ‘you’, and they’ll think you’re weird and maybe stop being your friends. But when you travel solo, you don’t have any friends, just the freedom to be whoever you want to be when you wake up. So on the day I woke up in the Ecuadorian Andes, I decided with absolute clarity that I wanted to be Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor and Ranger of the North (from the Lord of the Rings), and go on a quest of my own. But first things first, I needed accomplacies.

Looking around the hostel with my new, smouldering Aragorn eyes, I spotted a young man-boy who looked almost identical to Legolas from Lord of The Rings. His name was Octavio, which confused me because I hadn’t intended to have a Transformer on my quest but I let it slide because I’m accomodating like that, and we quickly agreed to scale the absurdly high, active cone of Mount Cotopaxi with another man who didn’t really look like anyone from Lord of the Rings but had enough of the Boromir about him to join the troop.

Cotopaxi is high. How high? Well, high enough that half of the people that try to climb it don’t get to the top. At 5,897 metres, it’s more than 3 times the height of Ben Nevis, which, like most Scots, I used to think was a real mountain. At that height, there is less than half the oxygen that there is at sea level. With such meagre supplies, your heart rate rockets to a panicky machine-gun staccato, your legs turn to lead and if you’re unlucky, your eyes stop working too.

A few days prior to my reinvention as Aragorn, I met a man stumbling down drunkenly from the summit of Chimborazo (marginally higher than Cotopaxi, and officially the highest point on earth due to the equatorial bulge), who breezily informed me that he’d gone blind in one eye at the top. ‘Don’t go there’ he said simply, before taking his hulking frame off down the mountain, more falling than walking.

It’s easy to die at these altitudes. I found a blog written by keen mountaineering types who had to give up on the ascent because it was too hard. When they returned to the refuge, they were met with the sight of 2 human bodies being thawed out beside the wood-burning stove. They had disappeared in a blizzard months earlier and been spat out by the glacier only moments before. The old me would have baulked at these risks but then, the old me didnt have a beard like I did, or a multi-tool with excellent pliers. The new me just grew more beard and pushed on into the wilderness with Legolas/Octavio and almost-Boromir.

The training ground of choice for those wishing to summit Cotopaxi is the impossibly beautiful but dog-riddled mountainscape of the ‘Quilotoa loop’ – a 3 or 4 day hike terminating on the rim of a dormant, 3800 metre high, lake-filled crater that used to be inhabited by a hermit until he died by thinking he could survive only on air. Apparently it’s called being a ‘breatharian’, or as I like to put it, being ‘a dick’.

In the wilds though, you don’t need to be a breatharian to risk your life. You just need to be a human walking past a dog. There are so many, everywhere, rushing at you from all angles as their owners watch on with the kind of apathy that borders on criminality. I had my sword of course (small knife attached to pliers) but didn’t want to use it. As a general rule, killing man’s best friend in front of them isn’t a good look, especially when that man probably has a real sword to repay the favour with. No, for bloodless and thus guilt-free dog-battery, I needed a good, stout stick.

No sooner had I seen it in my mind, than it magically appeared in front of me – a timber of the perfect size, stoutness and swingability. If I had wanted to, I could have stunned an Alsation or killed a medium-sized mongrel with that thing. I christened it ‘Douglas the Dog Destroyer’, to no laughs from Legolas/Octavio and almost-Boromir, but some from me, and proceeded to get sun burnt, short of breath and happy over the next 3 days. It was good times. But it wasn’t high enough. To be truly ready, we needed to go into the clouds. At 4,800 metres, Pichincha beckoned.

We postiviely bounded up, Legolas/Octavio possessed by some kind of Elvish energy and me following up the rear with a more human level of energy. Almost-Boromir had deserted us and gone off to ride horses in lower elevations, so we had found a replacement, who was absolutely nothing like anyone from Lord of the Rings so that whole metaphor kinda fell by the wayside at that point, but I stayed in character anyway. We would need Aragorn’s valour soon. I made the call. It was booked. Tomorrow night, at midnight, we would go higher than any of us had been before. Perhaps we would fall further than we had fallen before too.

The plan was simple – drive to the carpark, walk to the refuge, eat lots of soup, coca tea and altitude pills, then try to sleep for 3 hours before a midnight start. Sleep? No chance. After 3 hours of shivering in the foetal position, eyes wide open, we rose to the flash of lightning storms. Plural. The guides shrugged it off – ‘there is some electricity in the air’, they scoffed at the silly gringos with their sense of mortality.

Our guides, Miguel and Milton, were tough men. You could tell that straight away. Miguel was a stout man with a pot belly and a handshake that could split a coconut. I became convinced that if the storms came too close, he could simply punch them away. Milton had a wicked laugh and a tattoo on the piece of flesh between his thumb and forefinger, which also made me think that he was tough. Whenever I asked them if the climb was hard, they would laugh in my face and say ‘It’s a beach.’
Funny, guys, but in my book ‘beaches’ generally weren’t places where lightning bolts tried to tetris themselves into 100-foot deep crevasses via the medium of human flesh. Still, I liked their style.

Out we plodded, in our massive plastic boots. To either side of us, in the far distance, lightning flashes from two mighty storms silently silhouetted the mountains. We trudged onwards to the glacier. As we fastened our crampons, she groaned a deep, shuddering, weary groan. Not more of you humans. When will you learn? This place is not for you. You’re not meant to be here. Especially you. Yes, you with all the Snickers. I felt myself slipping out of character. What was I doing here? I’m not a mountain guy. I’d never even worn crampons. I’d had full-blown vertigo from childhood and a primal fear of falling into anything, especially crevasses. Immodium time.

After an hour of trudging, we arrived at the glacier and my skull felt like it was splitting into 2. Having Googled it, I knew that a severe headache was one of the most serious symptoms of altitude sickness, but I also knew that if the guides got even a whiff of this, they’d turn tail and take me down. 200 dollars for nothing. Not on my watch, Milton. Not on my watch. I silently stumbled on, sucking in as much oxygen as I could but only ever getting half as much as I needed. Only 800 vertical metres left. The Glacier belly-laughed underfoot.

That first third was a bitch. A real bitch. All the Snickers in the world couldn’t have saved me. And trust me, I had all the Snickers in the world. I also had 3 bottles of Gatorade, some inadvisably-bought wasabi nuts, a flask of manzanilla and honey tea, a bread roll with nutella, banana, nuts and raisins in it, and for some reason, a tiny lighter. I imagined falling into a crevasse and trying to melt my way out with the tiny lighter over the course of several years. Despite myself, I laughed. My head exploded. I almost fell over. ‘Bien?’ Milton enquired. ‘Bien’, I lied. ‘Pero, necessito una pausa por favour.’ I collapsed onto the snow. The storms had slid away over the horizon. The only sound was the creaking of crampons on snow and our desperate wheezings.

1, 2, 3. Left foot, right foot, ice-axe. Left foot, right foot, ice-axe. Soon, ‘ritmo’ was all I had left. Side-step, side-step, ice-axe. Rhythm was everything. Rhythm and breath. Eventually I managed to couple my breath to my steps, and fell into a sort of trance. I wasn’t in pain, not like I would be when I cycled up mountains, when my quads and lower back would burn up with the fire of lactic acid. My muscles were fine. There was just no oxygen. Nada. It was the air equivalent of rice cakes – you could feel it going in but it didn’t do anything. You know you are in trouble when even the air is lying to you.

Through the darkness, I could see Milton shimmying around an ice wall with 3-feet daggers of ice hanging inches from his head. He had a helmet. We didn’t. ‘Vamos!’ he called back, the rope tugging me forward. Eyeing the 30cm-wide ‘path’ with a sheer drop into nothingness that this maniac was cheerfully encouraging me to take, suddenly my light-headedness had gone. I slammed my ice-axe into the wall and prayed to the Gods of crampon.

But adrenalin only sustains you for so long and soon I was back where I started – heaving, spluttering, cursing the useless, empty air. The Gatorade wasn’t working, the Snickers were frozen solid and the tea was just as impotent as usual. I desperately needed strength from somewhere else, so I scanned through all my friends, family – anyone I’d ever met, looking for strength, and paused on one person, unable to look away. I imagined her climbing beside me, hurting worse but complaining less, and I felt a strange energy spreading through my body. I’ve never felt anythign like that before, but it was honestly like she was, even in her absence, pulling me up. She’ll probably never know it, but she was the only thing that kept me going.

Legolas-Octavio, however, was struggling. I could feel the rope between me and him tugging as he slipped around on the ice behind me. Perhaps his Elvish magic didn’t work so high up. ‘Por favor, Octavio necessita una pausa!’, I croaked forward to Milton, who begrudgingly stopped. Offering him some tea, I told Octavio to think of someone who gave him strength, and to breath more. When he turned to me, I could see that his left eye was almost completely closed. ‘I have a headache’ he said. ‘Drink the tea.’ I insisted, ‘Breath. We’re almost there. You can do this.’ He nodded, unsure what he was agreeing to, or where he was.

Then, after six and a half hours of climbing, the false summits stopped being false and we reached the top of the beanstalk. The horizon was just beginning to bleed an orangey-red. On one side, a carpet of cloud rolled out from under us. On the other, 70km away, the lights of Quito twinkled reassuringly. People, warmth, full-fat air. The crater gaped at us ominously. Everything was bathed in blue light.

Afterwards, Octavio confessed to me that he’d cried as he thought of the people in his life that gave him strength. Not-Boromir said it was the hardest thing he’d ever done. Milton and Miguel said it was ‘A beach’. 2 days later, I shaved my beard off, and my hair, and started the next version of me, more aware than ever that you can grow a beard, you can climb a volcano, heck, you can even batter a dog with a stick in your mind, but it won’t change who you call on for strength in the darkness of night.