The Hell of Wellness

It was 7am on no particular day. Time had melted along with everything else. Outside, a gentle old man with a dot of red on his forehead sold loops of yellow and pink flowers to housewives with porridgy, unwrapped midriffs. Aloof, pedigree dogs pranced around palm trees as their owners slumped into half-hearted lunges. Cows looked on derisively. Inside our cool-floored studio, two red bubbles grew silently from my nostrils and popped, misting my yoga mat with blood. I looked up to my teacher for mercy but he merely floated past, gaze averted. Mysore is no place for quitters.

 

No, apparently Mysore is a place to get some top-grade wellness; to slough off the spiritual and bodily malaise of modern life amongst the endless cowpats, coconut-cutters and straight-up nutters of the spirit world. Every day, westerners flood into this southern Indian city wedged between touristy Kerala and touristy Goa, seeking someone, anyone, to make them whole again. Whatever you think your problem is, you’ll find someone in Mysore who thinks they can fix it. Or give you a new problem that makes you forget about the first one.

garlands crop small

The scented facade of Wellness

The ‘healing’ began immediately, with the most diabolically difficult of all the yoga styles – Ashtanga. If you were put into an Ashtanga class with a blindfold on, you’d think you had been put into a medieval torture chamber, but instead of constant demands for information, the torturer would demand that you breathe more deeply and calmly. If you managed to get the blindfold off, everyone would be smiling like a maniac. Five classes of this were more than enough to make the quadriceps above both knees numb. Not totally numb, but numb enough so I could hammer them with my fists while laughing until bystanders clutched protectively at their kids.

The ‘healing’ continued at a roaring pace after I took my leave from Ashtanga boot camp and signed up for a 4-week intensive at a mysterious school, home to a hidden master wise beyond his years, who could survive on one breath a day. Rumour had it he could fly if he needed to. It was only because he hadn’t needed to yet that he hadn’t. I totally got that and respected his restraint. When I spoke to one of his many disciples, she told me ‘He will give you something.’ If only she’d been more specific, I could have jumped off a building myself and saved myself 600 quid.

‘Any injuries?’ my new Guru purred over his shoulder as he lit candles on the brass God statues in his studio. ‘Just a very sore neck and numb quads. I’m a bit worried about the numbness to be honest.’ He continued lighting his candles for a while, as if I hadn’t said anything. Then without an ounce of pity, and more than a hint of amusement, he whispered over his shoulder: ‘This is the way of the body’, and returned to his candles. Such brazen vagueness. I ate it all up. Now I had a numb little mind to go with my numb little legs.

 

tuk-tuk guy tweaked and aligned

Even tuk-tuk drivers have Gandalf-levels of wisdom in their eyes

 

Even for someone so accustomed to shame, day one was a spectacularly shameful ordeal; not unlike a freshly born giraffe trying to walk after being spun on a roundabout. Day two was the same, as were all of the days after it. My ego petulantly stuck out it’s lower lip as my body failed time and time again to achieve the postures and breathing patterns made to look so easy by the little yoga-yoda. After two weeks of no progress, I approached him for advice. Smiling, as he always seemed to be even when his mouth wasn’t, he pointed to an image of several cobras exploding from the sea, with a black-skinned goddess dancing on their heads. ‘No ego,’ he smirked, and returned to his candle-lighting. What kind of mind-fuckery was this?! I took a photo of the black-skinned goddess and hobbled out of the studio. The mental and physical dismantling was well underway.

I’ve always been surprised at how sick and broken people in yoga classes seem to be, given that yoga is supposed to make you healthy and whole. In Mysore, almost everyone was ‘working through something’ that they may or may not have picked up by doing yoga. See, when you get injured in yoga, it’s not acknowledged as such – you write it off as a niggle, or a kink, or an energy blockage. After all, ‘This is the way of the body.’

 

one-hand man

Looks like he’d gotten an energy blockage on his right hand

 

This slippery double-talk starts with the teachers. When I tweaked (totally buggered) my lower back trying to touch the ground the wrong way (backwards), my teacher casually wrote it off as ‘resistance, coming from fear,’ and floated off to someone less fearful. I think it’s natural and healthy to be fearful of breaking your back. As did an idolising Japanese girl who’s spirit thankfully broke before her back did, sobbing face-down into her mat as we all pretended that was fine. She ended up leaving Mysore with a disc problem. Another young Israeli man arrived from military service with a knee problem and left with a disc problem to go with it. Another faithful male disciple came expecting miracles and left unable to walk. The last time I saw him he was crawling in grotesque loops around a café floor, numb on over-the-counter valium.

Outside the yoga studio, the bewitching continued. Though not everyone was under the spell. At a lunch one day, an otherwise pristine little girl pointed tearfully at the brown stains on her eyes, picked up from an established Ayurvedic doctor a year earlier. The room visibly frosted at the suggestion that it might be his fault. Late one night, another earnest young woman admitted to letting a healer put his hand inside her vagina to correct some urinary tract issues. It wasn’t for long, she said. Most memorably, a group of ‘Spirit Reiki’ students spoke, without a flicker of incredulity, of how they recruited the energy of disembodied spirits to help with their healings. They couldn’t quite explain how this cross-dimensional cajoling worked.

Back inside the studio, I watched in horror as someone merrily inserted a rubber tube up their nose until it popped out the back of their throat, pulled it forwards out their mouth and start yanking it back and forth, effectively ‘flossing’ their sinuses. As they gagged, I got my first adult nosebleed. Please, someone, anyone, let the healing stop. Wellness is terrifying.

My saviour came in the form of the most reviled animal in the kingdom – a mosquito, carrying the dengue virus. I felt the nip in class, just after I had received my first and only word of encouragement in three weeks. Fever gripped me like I was nine again. I moaned like I was giving birth in slow-motion. I slept-talked to empty rooms even when awake. Ferocious boils gestated then exploded inside my nostrils and ear canals. The Ayurvedic pills I took for the fever gave my hands a stinging, red rash. The Doberman next door would simply not shut the fuck up, no matter how many disembodied spirits I roped in. For five days, I disintegrated. On the sixth day, when I could walk again, I went to the Arabian Sea and tried to piece Humpty back together again. Thankfully, it didn’t work. The black-skinned goddess got her way after all.

‘Paper-thin’ was how a friend described the shadow-self that returned from Mysore. ‘And a shit beard!’, was the chorus from other so-called friends. The beard was shit, granted. At best, I looked like a confused scarecrow. At worst, the Scottish ambassador for ISIS. But behind that beard, in my brain, I was experiencing an unsettling level of serenity. Not the kind of serenity that those gormless, shawl-draped, frantically smiling people pretend to have but rather an overwhelming sense of nothingness – an absence of bad stuff rather than the miraculous appearance of good stuff. It’s not like I’d become a good person or anything, just less of an awful one.

I can’t pretend to understand it. All I know is that after busting my balls on a yoga mat twice a day for about 8 weeks, I began to feel like less of a cock. No longer did I tell the automatic check-out machines at Tesco to fuck off when they asked me to put my bag in the bagging area even though I already had. No more did I wince with jealousy every time a facebook friend posted an achievement, or crumple in on myself when an ex-love interest became married or pregnant or just plain happy. I started holding doors open for people unironically, and even stopped laughing outwardly at very small dogs and their owners.

The veil separating me from the world had become rice-paper-thin. If someone got angry near me, I would start shaking and have to lie face-down in an another room. It felt like I could read people’s sadnesses and despairs just by walking past them in the street. Visits to my recently widowed Granny became more of a head-fuck than watching Blair Witch Project alone at a pop-up cinema in a forest. My empathy engines were close to blowing. But just as I could sense all the sadness around me, I was starting to sense this strange new thing called happiness. Or at least I think it was happiness. It didn’t look like the happiness they have in the movies – you know, with the reconciled couple and the dog and the lessons learned and all that nonsence. No, it just felt like relief. Like I’d been holding my breath for 34 years and now I could let it go.

 

 

epic banana man

Happiness is walking through heaps of bananas forever

 

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.

darjeeling epic dawn

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.

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.

Being mugged by hobbits

image

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.

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.

Shelve your inner bastard

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Whilst I enjoy ripping to shreds the ridiculous spectacle of the white man/woman out of their element, it does tend to take the edge off my own personal enrichment process. It’s hard to truly savour the miracle of a butterfly the colour of God herself fluttering innocently around your head when you’re simultaneously pointing and laughing at it, and everyone else, with your mind. Simply put, it’s easy to be a cock. Harder perhaps, is to actually open up to the flood of new images, characters and smells that batter your senses from dusk till dawn and, for a moment at least, try to shelve the inner bastard. So, in an attempt to get this rainbow-shaped ball rolling, and more as a form of personal therapy than an entertaining piece for anyone else (see, still a bastard), I’m going to pour out whatever comes to mind from my travels thus far, stripped of cynicism, comment or critique. Well, maybe. Let’s see how it goes.

Seeing an electrocuted holwer monkey being unceremoniously squashed into a top-loading freezer in Nicaragua.

In Guatemala, having a mayan sauna with a woman and being unsure of dress code. I went for naked. She didn’t. That was slightly awkward.

A tall, slippery, smiling, serpentine hostel-owner offering me a massage while kneading my arm without permission, in the kitchen of his hostel. Utterly unsold, I declined (he was gay and was looking at me funny). A few days later he told me there was no more room at the inn, which I subsequently discovered to be false.

Arriving to a surf hostel after a disgusting 9 hour solo trip through dust and crotchal humidity to be told that there were stingrays in the water and did I want some complimentary iced tea.

Laughing like a madman in a Costa-Rican shower when the water turned from cold, to warm, to hot. Staying in the shower making strange noises for quite a long time.

Psychologically unstable macaws screeching louder than a space shuttle take-off a few feet from my face every time I entered the ‘relaxing’ last third of my yoga routine. Wanting to break open their cage and wring their necks and maybe bite their beaks off too. Understanding that this wasn’t very ‘yoga’ of me.

Spending midnight at New Year alone, on a small platform on a tree overlooking the magical Lake Atitlan, whilst fireworks bloomed above every village on the lakeside. Trying to capture it with my iphone and failing epically.

Watching a tiny cut on my foot become infected and bore downwards with unstoppable fury, as I popped antibiotic after antibiotic, and continually bathed it in hot, stinging salt water. Thinking that the ants and geckos were nibbling into it as I slept.

The soft-as-putty rolls of Guatemelan chocolate that I couldn’t stop buying from giggling little salesgirls who scurried through the jungle paths of San Marcos.

Finding the precious first few hexagons of a bee hive in the watch-tower of what used to be a Nicaraguan torture prison. Thinking that human evil always yields to the forces of nature in time.

Retreating below deck on the rocky ferry crossing to Omotepe, to discover a soothing movie about a dog-turned zombie dog terrorising a mother and child stuck in their car. Every time she opened the car door to get to safety, there he was, all slobber and bloody, matted coat. Even when she was mauling her, I couldn’t be scared because it was a St.Bernard and they’re just cuddly oafs of dogs.

A mid-fifties American woman who limpeted onto me for too many days. Every few seconds, she would clear her throat like a Chinese man, but didn’t spit. Absolutely vile, that was.

Getting stuck in a pattern of eating cold snickers cut into small chunks every day at the Spanish School. Devising a plan for a ‘yoga and snickers’ school in the vicinity. The snickers would be placed in a clear refrigerator in clear sight of the practicing yogis, in a modern-day carrot-and-stick tactic to spur them onto yoga greatness. Deciding to come back to that idea another time.

Getting over my aversion to ‘poor-people’ food. In a little village outside of Antigua, I dove into a bargain-basement ceviche of snail, crab stick and tiny prawn and didn’t get Cholera, just a smile and an un-gurgly tummy.

Another American, this time a 60-something man who had spent half of his life walking alone in the Canadian Rockies, telling me that one time, he had a clear choice to pass through a portal in the roof of his treehouse to another dimension. After I sampled the delights of his ‘volcano’ vaporiser, I understood better his convictions.

Sitting very still in Leon, Nicaragua, and focussing every ounce of my non-existent reiki power over a convulsing, wretched, antibiotic-tortured tummy. After 6 days of it, giving serious thought to flying home to soft sheets, warm showers and sympathy. And doctors.

Trying to browse expensive North Face gear whilst a boy with a shotgun eyed me suspiciously. Knowing that he was the ‘security guard’ not making me feel secure, and scurrying out thinking that Central America was mental.

Watching a stout young chap with lightning quick hands creating a hammock while his boss told us that these hammocks were the best in the world, but the employees suffered from arthritis at a very young age.

Weaving through a dusty ‘pavement’ carpeted with fallen mangoes on an extremely rickety mountain bike in the shadows of 2 volcanoes on Ometepe.

Eating a life-changing crepe filled with molten, sweet banana on Omotepe, then stealing a book from their bookswap to use as a cushion on the following day’s hot and sticky bus-rides to the Costa Rican border. It’s all about creating a gap between your bum and the seat; some room for the air to circulate. Fail to do this at your peril.

Not wanting to leave Panama City after consuming perfect steak in an ice-cold, city-sized mall, a cup of prawn ceviche in the sweltering, stinking fish port and a thor-strength Cuba libre in the old town. But knowing that’s exactly when to leave.

Gazing out at wide-winged, gliding seabirds skimming the Guatemalan waves and thinking that they were from another dimension. Realising that this realisation was probably due to heat exhaustion from my disgusting 9 hour trip.