Mototaxi vs Peru

26 11 2013

Mertle
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Josh and I had no idea what we were getting ourselves in to. When deciding our team name for the 2013 Mototaxi Junket, I’d asked Josh what he thought it should be, his reply “Um, no friggin’ clue bro?” which despite being an admission of a poor imagination and not an actual suggestion, I decided I liked it and hence forth we were known as team ‘No Friggin’ Clue’. And how apt that turned out to be.

busGetting to the start line in itself was an adventure. From London to Cusco takes several days, three flights and 22 hours on a sleeper bus traversing the bumpy and windy roads over the Andes. Thankfully the bus was equipped with a cinema system, so to pass the time we drank beers which we’d smuggled on to the bus and the watched the movies of interest to us: For me, something with Emma Watson in it, and for Josh, a Star Trek film which he was watching for the umpteenth time. At some point I fell asleep and then slept for most of the journey, while Josh stayed awake forced to deal with the odours coming from the young man with motion sickness vomiting in to a plastic bag in the seat across the aisle from us.

At 3500m, Cusco was nowhere near the highest point of our trip, but we arrived only to find ourselves starved of oxygen in the thin mountainous air and even the simplest tasks, such as climbing the small flight of stairs to our hotel, became an arduous ordeal leaving us practically doubled over gasping for air.

me_cusco

We stayed in Cusco only one night, using our breathing difficulties as an excuse for spending the evening reclining on the roof of our hotel doing very little, which situated on a large hill provided a view of Cusco sprawling out below us. High as we were, we were still dwarfed by the mountains on all sides which were periodically dotted with large crosses and even larger statues of Jesus.

In the morning we boarded the train out to Machu Picchu. Surrounded by the elderly and infirm, we both suddenly felt very lazy not doing the four-day Inca trail to reach the alpine settlement. Diesel fumes from the train filled the carriage, rendering us both a bit light headed only to soon be accompanied by the pungent scent of citronella belched out of an electronic device attached to the waist of a rotund older woman.

As we arrived at Machu Picchu we pushed our way off the train thankful to be clear of the small-scale chemical attack, and set off for the starting point only to be dumbfounded where it was. Instead of the beginning of the path, we found ourselves surrounded by locals in stalls selling trinkets and other tourist fodder and inundated with restaurateurs trying to convince us to come try the alpaca. After a half hour of wandering around befuddled, we chanced upon a bus service which for a small fee offered to drive us to the summit. Exhausted and infuriated, we accepted.

After a perilous ride up a narrow road cut in to the mountain on which the buses seemed in constant risk of plummeting over the side or being pulverised by the other buses ripping back down the mountain we finally made it to our destination.

mp

Built by the Incas between 1200 and 1450 AD and abandoned when Peru was invaded by the Spanish it was lost to the world aside from a small group of Peruvians until it was rediscovered by Yale graduate Hiram Bingham in 1911. Today, it looks anything but lost or abandoned. Positively crawling with camera toting tourists we had to throw ourselves in to the mêlée and compete with everyone else for space to walk, and taking a photo that wasn’t completely full of other budding photographers was nigh on impossible.

peru_puppy

As the storm clouds grew over our head, we decided it was best to head back down to civilisation. The torrential rain soaked us to the skin as we disembarked from the bus so we fled to safety in a small restaurant filled with other sodden foreigners and finally ate some of that alpaca (it was good, if a little chewy).

We met that night in the small town of Urubamba – the start point of our expedition – with several of the other teams. We met an American couple on their honeymoon – Zach and Dawn – the latter of which had been studying Spanish for ten years, and the next team was an Australian couple – Steve and Brenda – who had brought 16kg of tools with them and had been diligently studying mototaxis for some months prior. Between them and most of the other teams we met, Josh and I suddenly felt very outclassed and totally under prepared. Figuring we had little to bring to the arrangement except our wit and charm, we set about trying to seduce our new friends to ride with us so that we may take advantage of their prized skill sets en route.

On the morning of October 11th, we met on a small dusty field on the outskirts of town to have our first taste of the glorious vehicle known to all as the mototaxi. Duncan, one of the organisers, jumped on one of the bikes to demonstrate how they worked and immediately the chain fell off and the bike abruptly came to a stand still. Brilliant. And frankly, it didn’t get much better from there.

first_dayA mototaxi is by no stretch of the imagination a fine vehicle. Despite their ubiquity in Peru, they are poorly made in China and essentially a low powered motorcycle in which the back tyre has been removed and in it’s place a not particularly comfortable two-wheeled sofa crudely welded. The rear left wheel is attached to the engine by a badly conceived two-chain drive mechanism which results in the chains constantly slipping off and needing reattaching and a permanent desire for the bike to turn to the right requiring the driver to constantly turn slightly to the left to counteract this effect. As a bonus, they’re also terribly uncomfortable to ride whether driver or passenger. As Josh so succinctly summed it up a few days in to our trip: “my gooch is really taking a pounding on this bike, aye.”

Having done our trial ride, it was decided that many spare parts were required as if they couldn’t get around a football field without breaking, surely taking them over the Andes was going to punish them in ways we couldn’t imagine. After a long and fruitless walk around Urubamba trying to find the long list of spares (none of which we obtained, but Josh found an entirely unnecessary kitchen sink) we retired to a small cafe where the conversation turned to the perils we may encounter on the trip. Between the poisonous spiders, blood sucking bats, aggressive snakes and the Foreign Office’s dire warnings about highway bandits, I was beginning to feel rather nervous about our undertaking.

start_line

The departure day was scheduled for the 13th, and somewhat hung over Josh and I awoke early to pack our things and get ready – only to find my money belt with my driver’s license had gone missing. After consulting with the organisers who assured me I could most likely bribe myself out of any situation, we made our way to the town square where the local community put on a show for us and bid us well on our forthcoming journey.

kids

Our first real taste of just how terrible the mototaxis are was the climb out of Urubamba. Unable to escape first gear we rung them out at about 9000rpm the entire way while only managing to achieve the pace of a mildly disabled jogger. Our oil was showing temperatures of 120°C within minutes of setting off and those with the provided plastic dipsticks promptly found they had melted off in to the engine never to be seen again.

gringo_allianceBy the end of the first day, the crowd of mototaxis had thinned out, and in addition to the Americans and the Aussies we had collected two other teams – Aaron and Greg, and Nick and Neil. Now ten people and five mototaxis strong, our group – which we later dubbed the Gringo Alliance – was ready to tackle the thousands of kilometres ahead of us as we wove our way through the land of the Incas.

In the following two weeks we encountered many hills, climbing to 4300m at one point and the temperatures dropping well below zero. We stayed in an array of lacklustre accommodations (and a couple of nice ones) and were forced to eat rice and chicken (“arros y pollo!”) for nearly every meal. Whilst tasty, the local cuisine does lack some variety.

surgery

Mertle (the turtle), as we started referring to our mototaxi, decided to completely die on us on about day three. As we could go no further, our posse had to choice but to set up camp in a small quarry surrounded by aggressive wild dogs who loomed around us all night and we were serenaded in to slumber by the beeping of large mining machinery just off in the distance. Steve and Brenda not having any camping gear suspended a tarpaulin off their mototaxi and slept out in the open air. We awoke in the morning light and suddenly noticed the all tarantulas. Never was I more thankful for our flimsy canvas tent.

group1After replacing the carburettor, we unfortunately found that Mertle was behaving just as badly as ever. Not wanting to hold the other teams up, we sadly sent them on our way while Josh and I tried to limp Mertle the 25km back to the city of Abancay for repair. Unfortunately Mertle didn’t get far; we pulled over at a gas station where a group of dishevelled homeless men and more smartly attired truck drivers were milling about. Once again our poor grasp of Spanish proved a hindrance, so Josh quickly drew an artistic rendition of a mototaxi on the back of a truck and thrust the piece of paper in to the face of any who would look trying to coerce them to take us and Mertle to the next town. This didn’t seem to get any traction, and the language barrier certainly wasn’t helping, so Josh kindly volunteered me to catch a local bus back to Abancay and try to find a mechanic. One of growing crowd of onlookers offered to escort me, so shortly thereafter we were rattling back to town on the local ‘colectivo‘.

Finding the mechanic closed (at just after 7am this wasn’t too surprising) my guide took me for breakfast where we were served a horrible soup at a small stand with unidentifiable bony chicken parts floating in it. Out of politeness I tried to force it down, but failed miserably. After consulting my phrase book, in my best Spanish I told him that I was ill and couldn’t eat any more. He didn’t look entirely sure what to do with this information, but nevertheless, he didn’t pressure me to eat any more. Shortly after, he convinced the mechanic to take me in his car back down to look at the bike and with a rigorous handshake and a pat on the back he cheerily left to start his day.

truck1As the mechanic was fiddling with the bike, Josh and I stood and looked on, joined by the ever-growing group of curious locals about these two mysterious gringos and their mototaxi. Just as he was about to tow us back to town for further inspection, the other teams rolled back in to the station. “We missed you too much!” Steve the Aussie proclaimed. Total bullshit we suspected.

It shortly became clear that they’d taken a rather sizeable wrong turn and were forced to retrace their steps to get heading in the right direction again. Josh and I described our plans to put Mertle on a truck and the others quickly agreed that was a good idea. We dispatched Dawn to converse with the locals and quickly came back with an offer for 1000 Peruvian Soles (£220) they would put all our bikes on a truck and drive us to Huancayo several hundred kilometres away.

After heaving the five mototaxis in to the truck through sheer manpower, the doors were locked and the ten of us wriggled in through the mess of machinery not looking forward to the 12 odd hours the driver had told us the journey would take.

12 hours was evidently quite an ambitious estimate as it was a long and uncomfortable 27 hours later we arrived in Huancayo. Forced to sleep in the back of the truck in the cold mountain air (the driver had locked us in there), we all became mototaxi contortionists trying to sleep where we could, beanies, jackets and sleeping bags abound.truck2

And so we trekked on, thankfully once Mertle the Turtle had her carburettor  tuned by a professional she didn’t give any more serious issues. Others in our entourage had an assortment of problems: Nick and Neil had their bike catch fire, which was extinguished with a bottle of Inka Cola which resulted in a lovely marshmallow smell from the caramelised sugar, and Steve and Brenda had their rear brake lever snap off when it collided with a large rock on a rough road. When asked if they’d like to stop, Steve retorted “Nah, don’t need them. I’ve got front brakes.” Typical Steve. This almost proved a bad decision when careening down a hill at speed we encountered a roundabout almost sending them sailing off a small cliff.

The rest of the ride was an enjoyable, if somewhat taxing experience. We climbed mountains, traversed desert and sweltered in the heat of the jungle. Got mauled by mosquitoes every night and were rudely awoken by roosters every morning. There seemed to be animals everywhere, particularly stray dogs who either wanted to bite off your face or lick it, many of the former chasing our mototaxis down the road barking furiously. Peru is a land of diverse landscapes and climes. From snow in the mountains and the minus temperatures in Junin to over 36°C in the jungle; dressing appropriately everyday was a challenge. The road rules also seemed entirely optional, and in the end we drove like the locals: Simply doing whatever we wanted and aggressively honking before, during and after the manoeuvre.

guns

We encountered many self-appointed armed guards on the side of the road demanding money, although they only ever wanted about about two Sol (40p) so it didn’t seem worth quibbling about and they were more than happy to pose for photos which made the bribe seem very worthwhile. Most of the other Peruvians we passed waved in delight, particularly the children, some of who would literally bounce up and down with glee as our bizarre caravan passed through their towns, particularly enthralled with the inflatable Kangaroo bouncing along atop the Aussie bike.

The only real malice we encountered wasn’t even aimed at us; we were informed one evening in the town of Tocache that the town was “closed” the following day due to a protest and we wouldn’t be able to leave. In the morning we found smouldering tires blocking the roads, and glass, nails and stones covering the bitumen. We managed to skirt around these obstacles with only one tyre fatality between us, but this was quickly changed and we were on our way keen to put some miles in between us and the angry mobs circling in the back of trucks shouting menacingly at all who passed. The modern day equivalent of burning torches and pitchforks we decided.dust

After driving practically the length of Peru in two weeks to the day, we arrived in Colan, just north of the town of Piura and just south of the border to Ecuador. The Adventurists (the organisers) threw us a party with fireworks and a truck of beer which the 50 or so of us polished off in quick succession. Our friends Danny and Jared in one of the other teams managed to break their chain just as they were coming in to Colan, so we pushed the bike in by hand which seemed like an appropriate conclusion to the stupidity of the preceding weeks.

The bikes were entirely unfit for purpose, and driving them the length of Peru was definitely not a sensible endeavour, but indeed, that was really was the point of the whole trip. An adventure was undeniably had and Josh and I raised over £1000 to support the good work of the rainforest preservation charity Cool Earth. It was with a heavy heart we parted with all our new friends and set forth on our journey back to England.

finish

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In the Shadow of Chernobyl: Notes From The Ukraine

3 03 2010

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I can’t help but stare at his gun; I’ve always had a lust for weaponry. I feel a mischievous urge: it’s the same urge that makes me want to shout in libraries or throw things at actors at the theatre; something in me just wants to see what would happen. I rarely act on these urges, but they do fill me with a kind of perverse glee. I want to grab the gun and fire it; to hear the crack of the bullet leaving the chamber; to smell the exquisite odour of spent gunpowder; to feel the power of life and death in my hands.

I daydream a little. Surely grabbing the service weapon of the military-fatigued, ultra-stern, permanently frowning, Ukrainian Border Guard at the outer edge of the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone would not end well. I contemplate the likely sequence of events and conclude that making a grab for the gun would almost certainly result in me getting riddled with bullets and having my bleeding corpse tossed in to the pristine snow like a bag of old rubbish. I decide against it.

While I’m pondering this, there is a torrent of Russian going on between our tour driver and the border guard. Neither of them speak a word of English, nor can we converse in their native tongue, so Nathan, Ben and I are having a hard time keeping up with the unfolding situation. They’ve pulled the three of us off our tour bus and the guard is comparing our passports to a piece of paper scrawled with Cyrillic letters and symbols we can’t even begin to decipher.

After some deliberation, “Nyet!” barks the guard, “Hotel. Kiev.” He waves his hand and abruptly walks back to the small building, slamming the door closed loudly behind him. We’re mystified: what’s happening here? Do they want to speak to our hostel? Were we supposed to follow him? While we’re scratching our heads, our tour bus suddenly also departs and disappears off down the road leaving the three of us standing alone and confused in the snow and ice thirty kilometres from the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history and a million miles from anywhere else. It starts snowing again; we look at each other. Fuck.

1

Abandoned at the Border

The weekend had started well; upon arriving at our hostel they’d immediately given us a beer and a large glass of vodka served from a bottle with a pump-nozzle attached (Note: this is one of my favourite ways to be welcomed). We confirmed our Chernobyl tour for the following day, paid our money, and set out for a night on the town.

Walking the streets of Kiev is like stumbling in to a city-wide fashion show; some combination of Soviet genetics, nuclear fallout, and the second-world scarcity of Kentucky Fried Chicken has resulted in a nation of supermodels. Not only that, there seems to be a serious shortage of men; everywhere we went it seemed to just be us and a room full of stunning women stealing glances in our direction. Regretfully, through some cruel twist of fate, none of them spoke even the tiniest amount of English, so our attempts to start conversations were met only with big smiles and general confusion. So much for the language of love being universal.

After many pints of Ukrainian beer, several shots of Nemiroff vodka, and some ice-cream we’d found while on a drunken midnight mission for cream doughnuts, we found ourselves sharing a table with two Russian girls visiting from Moscow who seemed delighted to be talking to three strapping young men. After several more unnecessary vodka shots with the womenfolk, a paper dart throwing competition, and a brusque telling off from bar staff for flinging airborne projectiles in every direction, we staggered back to our hostel and set an early alarm for our tour in the morning.

I awaken sweating, with a thumping headache, and the urge to vomit; bad things happen when you start doing vodka shots in the mid-afternoon. I open the window and let the cold air blast against my face, but I already know it’s not going to be enough to stave off the forthcoming rebellion of my body. I dash to the bathroom. After purging my stomach of the remainder of last nights efforts the three of us go and stand outside and wait to be picked up for our tour. All I want to do on the bus is sleep or die, but the driver plays terrible pumping euro-pop at maximum volume for the whole three hour journey to the Chernobyl border which makes any kind of rest an impossible goal.

Now on top of what already a rather unpleasant journey, we’ve been abandoned in the middle of a frozen wasteland without any real idea of why or what to do now. I hope the woman at the hostel might be able to act as an interpreter and find some resolution to our predicament, so we rap on the window of the guard booth and make a phone gesture to the guards sitting inside. They look at us with unmasked loathing. One of the men reluctantly opens the window and I hand them a small piece of paper containing the hostel’s number. He fondles the paper for a moment then says something to his colleagues which causes an outbreak of raucous laughter, then he hands the scrap back and slams the window closed.

2

Warning: Radiation

We’re now a little panicked: it was -9°C in Kiev and is markedly colder out here, plus a biting wind has picked up which only serves to rob us of what little warmth our bodies are generating. We’re all shivering, the guards are openly hostile towards us, and none of us have mobile phone reception; we’re genuinely starting to fret about the unpleasant four or five hours that lie ahead until our tour bus comes back in the other direction and I’m already quietly thinking about hypothermia. We’re about as isolated from civilisation as it’s possible to be and the only living creature that wants anything to do with us is a lone Alsatian guard dog who is looking to get her belly rubbed. We oblige.

With few other options, we make our way to a small shelter half a mile down the road. It has an open face and contains only a small broken bench, which hardly makes it an improvement over standing on the open road, but at least we’re away from the menacing stares of Border Patrol and it does provide a little protection from the icy winds.

Nathan starts sprinting up and down the road to warm up. Ben is noticeably shaken and starts using language that is not typical of himself and far too profane to quote here. I get out my mp3 player and a small speaker and chuck on some Pearl Jam; if we’re going to freeze to death I figure we might as well die with a soundtrack.

We’re at a loss for what to do. Ben thinks he might have had a single bar of mobile reception back toward the border, so he starts patrolling back and forth trying to capture an elusive signal. Nathan tries to wave down the occasional passing car with little success. I get out all my camera gear and start screwing around in the snow. Hell, there is nothing else to do.

3

Mother Motherland Statue A.K.A ‘Tin Tits’

 

Nathan finally has some success waving down a car; a beaten up old Lada with silver tinted windows rolls to a stop. The driver winds down the window letting a great cloud of thick smoke escape in to the frigid air. The man is wearing full camouflage gear, has greasy slicked back hair, and all gold teeth. “Americans?” he asks with a sinister smirk. We all look uneasily at each other, from the vibe he’s giving off he might as well have said “Would you like to get robbed and beaten?” We wave him on. He sneers at us and pulls away.

Meanwhile, Ben has finally had some success getting some mobile signal and manages to get through to the girl at the front desk of the hostel. “Oh, we’ll send someone to pick you up.” she says nonchalantly, “Wait where you are.” Um, sure. Where else would we go?

After a very chilly couple of hours waiting by the roadside and having each done numerous star-jumps, press-ups and furious sessions of jogging on the spot, a car finally rolls up and out pops what I can only describe as a Russian version of Bruce Willis. He looks all business: big leather boots, an animal skin jacket, a chest the size of a barrel, plus a few gold teeth of his own. “Come my friends!” he exclaims with a wide grin and shepherds us in to his car. The warmth makes us all a little giddy.

Our saviour puts Nathan on the phone with the owner of the tour company who apologises profusely for screwing up our entry permits and by way of making amends, offers to put us up in a hotel an hour or so from Chernobyl and will organise for us to have our own private tour the following morning. Furthermore, he says he will personally collect our belongings from our original hostel and then collect us from the Chernobyl border after our tour and will deliver us to the airport that afternoon. From seeming like an complete failure not a half-hour before, our visit to the Ukraine suddenly looks like it might work out all right after all.

4

Checking Our Radiation Levels (Chernobyl Reactor 4 In The Background)

 

Our evening’s accommodations appear to be some kind of hunting lodge set alone alongside a barren stretch of snow-covered road. The interior is all stone and wood and lined with all manner of taxidermied critters in an assortment of staged positions. Ginormous antlers hang from every wall and comprise the legs of most of the tables; a large stuffed beaver stares blankly at us next to a fake pond of stagnant green water; a giant eagle hangs from the ceiling; a wild boar stands outside the window.
We retire to our quarters for an afternoon nap before dinner only to find more dead animal decorations scattered around the rooms. It’s beyond me how anyone would come to the conclusion that a dead weasel filled with polystyrene and glued to a stick would make a nice ornament, but evidently it’s all the rage in these parts.

The following morning, as promised, we are collected by our own personal tour guide. He has a serious facial tic; his chin seems to move erratically as if of its own accord. He tells us he lives inside the nuclear exclusion zone, and suddenly the tic makes perfect sense. We collect a Geiger counter for measuring radiation levels and head towards the power plant.

5

Pripyat

 

We drive for a long time through the barren landscape. Snow covers everything, but you can see that nature long ago set about reclaiming the man-made structures. Buildings small and large are now eroded and crumbling and engulfed in weeds and foliage. Pripyat, the town built to house the workers of the Chernobyl reactor, has succumbed to rust which eats away at any exposed metal and the broken windows and devastation are absolute. In the rush to abandon the city much was left behind. We came across old 1980’s newspapers and decaying children’s toys while exploring through the desolate shell of what was once a jewel of the Soviet empire.
We park up a few hundred metres from the ill-fated reactor and the large metal and concrete sarcophagus that now entombs the once exposed core. Our Geiger counter starts beeping away furiously; we opt not to stay long. Even after 25 years the radiation levels are too high to spend any extended time in the area.
Trudging back to the car through the snow we I can’t help but think with the world’s energy demands continuing to grow, and nuclear one of the few strong candidates to meet these needs, Chernobyl is a stark reminder of what can potentially go wrong with nuclear energy. Geographical isolation prevented Chernobyl from being a bigger catastrophe than it already was, but more recent disasters like Fukushima show that even with scientific advances of the past two decades, nuclear still can pose a serious threat to human life and the environment. But the real question, in lieu of viable clean renewable energy, what other alternatives do we have?


6

Ukrainian Chic: Hotel Room Deluxe

 

7

Pripyat Amusement Park

 

8


Nathan at Pripyat

 

9

Pripyat


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A Birthday Project

21 12 2009

For my 25th birthday I sent an email to the people in my address book asking either:

  1. If you’re over 25, what was the best thing you did when you were 25 or what one thing do you wish you had done (or done differently) when you were 25?
  2. If you are 25 or younger, what’s one thing you hope you’ll do or do better when you’re 25?

Below are a collection of some of my favourite answers in roughly the order they were received.

(Be warned: there is some profanity, I’ve decided to leave the answers more or less as they were supplied except for a few spelling or grammatical touch-ups.)

The best thing I did when I was 25 or one thing I wish I’d done differently:

Marie:
The best thing I did when I was 25 was probably go to New Zealand lol. Man I don’t know. Everything I did last year was a good idea. I just wish I hadn’t got wasted on a worknight, puked on the platform at Clapham North and gone to work with the biggest headache known to man. If I absolutely have to pick something, then I’ll go with my trip to America to see the X-Files movie. Best pilgrimage ever.

Karl:
I first ventured out flatting with randoms, previously only ever lived with people I knew, but I made the decision to head out and do something new, and it really was the best thing I ever did.

Nathan:
Age 25 was when we were living at Ironmongers Place. I guess best thing that year for me was the random trip to Iran after getting pissed on Friday night.

Worst thing well…. no regrets really. A lot of stupid things obviously, but no regrets. Happy to laugh about all my fuck-ups.

Remember bro, you never regret what you did. You regret what you didn’t.

Nigel:
Best thing I did at 25 was Graduate from University with a Bachelor of Engineering. Set me up with the self-confidence that I could do any job, any where in the world.

Roy:
25 was fantastic for me. I drove in the Formula Three race at the British Grand prix, Brands Hatch. Never had a better year and no regrets. Done lots of dumb things since then though.

Anonymous:
So my greatest thing I did was come to London. I feel like It has helped me come out of my shell. Become a better person in general. More decisive, more in control of my life, and now much happier with who I am. So my advice to you, is enjoy being 25, you are in a fantastic position. Dont worry about the smalls things, and be confident in what you do, small shit can bring you down, but look past it all and try to aim for the bigger picture and you cant do wrong. I just wish I had the confidence I have now back then. There isnt anything I would do differently when I was 25, as I felt like I did the best job I could at the time with what I was given. And I’m glad for the experiences I have been through because its made me a better person in general.

Matt:
Turn 26.

Christina:
I gave birth to my gorgeous son and went to live in the UK for a year.

Jess:
I turned 25 last august and the best thing i hve done is come over here to south america.

Rae:
Best thing I did at 25 was to start my university degree while stuck at home with a 2 year old and a 4 year old. One thing I really really wished I had done at 25 was get divorced instead of waiting till 39 to do that! Also wish I had taken up flying and got my Private Pilots License then instead of waiting till I was 40!

Stephen:
I had travelled half the world, been married to Christina for a couple of years and we had bought our first house at the age of 25 – I guess times were different then but making the sacrifices to get into a property set us up financially for life, sounds a bit boring, but on reflection probably the best thing I did was marrying Christina and getting on the property ladder!

Beej:
I was in Africa at the time I turned 25. Was out there working, based in Nairobi, also travelling around on work, had been there for a year or two and missed the comforts of friends and the lifestyle back home in London. It was selfish and arrogant of me not to see the wider picture, that I was being given an opportunity at such a young age to work, live and see Africa….kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Nigeria, Zambia… I finally realised this and in my final year in Kenya I changed attitude. Really made the most of it…so glad I did, those 2.5 years were actually amazing for me… I grew up, took stock and learned about myself and others.

Steve:
I am a (youthful) 31 year old and for my 25th, based in NZ at the time, I got to go away with all my best mates (ladies too) for a feel good surf trip. What I liked most about it was being removed from our day-to-day environment and its’ inherent social & financial pressures. I remember this type of thing fondly because with the increase in babies about the place now it is no longer possible… Things inevitably change so enjoy the moment.

John:
25 was turbulent times when I thought I found true love but it wasn’t to be, devastated, didn’t know who my friends where, turns out there wasn’t really anyone, even my parents offered no support, I can’t say I blame anyone but I don’t never forget and I refuse to forgive easily, even now I am still plagued by the decisions I made at that time, do I regret it? no. I tried a lot of things I always wanted to do, and found out what I am truly capable of when things are toughest, I dug myself out of massive holes only to find myself on top but not happy and sabotaging myself again.

Martha:
I turned 25 in July… now I’ve reached old age, I want to make sure I do two things: see the world and write a book. Admittedly both of these activities may take some time.

Shakespeare:
MATE, i can’t even remember what i did on my 25th!!! I’d like to think i was at punk, getting absolutely s**t faced!!

Emma:
I was 25 in 2006-2007, I worked in Tauranga (my first job as a vet) which was cool, and headed to the UK to locum and travel – also cool, but the best thing i did was get married! – awesome party!

John:
Looking back the fondest memory is taking my small children sailing.

Shelley:
I wish I had stopped compromising.
I wish I had asked myself if I was truly happy.
I wish that I had seen that I wasn’t actually fat.
I wish I had found my way into a church.

Meriel:
The best thing I did was get married, although I wish Matt and I had travelled more before I was 25 because I can’t fly now and it will stop him from travelling which I know he wanted to do.

Valerie:
I had my 25th birthday in January 1954. I was married to Clive and had a daughter, Stella, who was 2 years old in August of that year. Clive was in the army doing his two years National Service and was demobbed in November. Our son, Stephen, was born in the December.

We lived in a semi-detached house in Golders Green, north-west London and Clive’s father lived with us.

England was still recovering from the 1939-45 war and lots of things were still in short supply, although food rationing had ended a couple of years earlier. We had an Electrolux washing machine which had been Clive’s mother’s and was a pre-war model (we saw an identical one in a museum in New Zealand on our first visit there in 1977!). We had no refrigerator and so had to shop for food nearly every day, but had bottled milk delivered each morning. We had our first motor-car, a pre-war Austin 8 saloon which Clive bought whilst in the army, but then sold when demobbed. We really felt special owning a motor-car and being able to travel where we wanted, when you wanted and not to have to rely on buses and trains.

I don’t think I was ambitious for material possessions, at least I hope not, I was quite content with my little family and so pleased to have Clive home again and not just at weekends. I would not say we had exciting lives, but neither did we have the pressures or competitiveness that todays 25 year olds have to live with. I was fortunate that I did not have to juggle running the home and looking after the children with a full time job. I don’t know that I could have coped with that. I do so admire the young of today who do, but wonder which of us are the lucky ones!

Clive:
My 25th birthday was in October 1954, just a matter of weeks before I was demobbed. When released, I rejoined the firm of chartered accountants with which I had served articles and qualified before being called up for National Service. While in the army I had seriously considered signing on as a regular, but the thing which decided me most strongly against doing so was having a wife with no service background – it was not a world to which I fancied introducing my Valerie.

Back in the professional world, one immediately took stock of what the future might hold. It was apparent that for success in that area one needed one of two things, either a father already in that walk of life or a father with the money to buy one into a partnership and I had neither. It was not long before I took the step of entering the world of commerce and I never regretted doing so.

On the domestic front, I soon became again a content member of the domestic structure that had been fostered in my absence by my wife and daughter together with my father and there our number was soon added to safely and happily by our son Stephen.

Darryl:
I think the best thing I did was manage the stage at a concert venue which came with perks such as entry to after parties, VIP guest lists and back stage tickets for friends etc. Always interesting when Prodigy were playing. Not sure how you’d pull this one off though………

Oliver:
When I was 25 the best thing I did was split up with my girlfriend and find my independence! It sounds horrible but It’s true! I think independence when you are young is essential to becoming a ‘whole’ person.

If I could have done anything differently it would be to grab opportunities and make things happen. With regards to work I waited too long for my company to do the right/fair thing, respected the conventions too much – it never happened which is why I now spend late nights and weekends pushing to get to the next level. My single piece of advice is to get to where you want to be as quickly as possible. Time takes it’s toll and it gets harder the longer you take.

Tommy:
I’m pass that point where I can’t remember what the best thing I done when I was 25. The worst thing that happened was that I thumped two policemen and spent the night in a cell after a school party event.

Jo:
So… as i am over 25 the thing i wish i had done.. (seeing as i have been 25 for only 6 months and have done stuff all in that time) is that i wish i had learnt a different language.. maybe Italian… or Spanish… yep. Not very exciting im afraid.. but thats it, so add it to your list.

What’s one thing you hope you’ll do or do better when you’re 25?

Olivia:
When I’m 25 I hope I find the time to make my bed on a regular basis at least haha.

Simon:
I want to have a threesome with two strippers!

Laurel:
By the time I’m 25, I hope to have gained the courage to follow my true passions with all of my heart, so that by the time I’m 50 I won’t ask “what if?” or tell myself “if only…”.

Lisa:
At the ages of 25 I want to living in London, while a job based in advertising and travelling to Europe at whatever chance I get :D

Again, a big thanks to everyone. Hope you all have an awesome Christmas and New Years!

Much love,

Mark





Part 7: Back To Reality

10 02 2009

This post is part of a series:
http://marksteele.co.nz/the-2008-trip/


Go-Kart Racing At Fontana Speedway - Rancho Cucamonga, California

A few years ago I found myself one hot, sticky night sitting alone outside a crowded Bangkok (Read more…) bar sipping on a cold beer and watching the throng of Thais making their way home from their daily exertions.

The pungent smell of spices hung heavily in the air, masking the humid funk of the city streets, thanks to an elderly noodle vendor by the roadside trying to hock his wares to the passers-by. I gazed idly at the old man going about his work when another equally aged gentleman of Western origin tapped me on the shoulder and asked if he could join me at my table.

“Sure.” I said, “Go ahead”, I’d been hankering for some English conversation all day. As we spoke, the septuagenarian started to tell me the story of how he had found himself this night sitting at my table.

Chris and I On The Hollywood Hot Rod Tour - Los Angeles, California

Chris and I On The Hollywood Hot Rod Tour - Los Angeles, California

“I met my wife when I was eighteen years old,” he told me. “We were both young and naïve, but very much in love. Shortly after, we were married. I never remember having being been so happy. Neither of us had much money; we’d both come from poor farming families, but somehow we made ends meet.”

He sipped his beer and stared vacantly out towards the bustling streets, his thoughts obviously weighing on his mind. “A little over a year after we married, our son Charles arrived and then in the following years my two daughters, Sally and Margaret joined us on this earth.”

“My wife and I always wanted to travel. Since we were newly weds we spent hours talking about the fantastic journey that we were going to take. It was going to be incredible. As time went on, one by one our children grew older, left home and got married themselves and then finally the day for my wife and I to embark drew near.”

He paused; I could see tears starting to well in his eyes. “Two months before my wife was due to retire and we were to start the adventure we had spent a lifetime planning, she was diagnosed cancer and within six months she was dead, having never even stepped foot outside the United States.” I smiled sympathetically, unsure how to respond to his woeful tale.

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard

“Now,” he continued in a sombre tone, “I travel alone the journey she and I were to take together, and I do this for her, in her memory.” He turned to look at me squarely in the eyes. “Son, don’t postpone the things you want to do in your life, get out there and seize the world with two hands – if you delay, you might lose your chance forever.

His words were like a spark to the gasoline fumes of my thoughts. Suddenly my lifestyle seemed vindicated; no longer was I merely a bum coasting along, enjoying an extended holiday in South East Asia. I had found myself on a higher path.

The old man and I shortly thereafter parted ways, but his words have stayed with me ever since. Why should we postpone what we desire in life? I’m not talking about reckless hedonistic abandonment, but consciously planning to enrich and savour our lives on a day by day basis. It is with this in mind that I now try and live my life.

2008 was an incredible year. My travels took me right around the world; from the Arctic Circle through to Western Europe and onward to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the US.

Solitude - Forrest Hill Park, Auckland, New Zealand

Solitude - Forrest Hill Park, Auckland, New Zealand

During my nine months of travel, I hiked up a volcano in Rwanda and saw a family of gorillas in the wild; I dived a World War II shipwreck in the Red Sea and spent five months in my motherland; finally getting the opportunity to be a tourist in my own country and catch up with my friends and family who have had to endure my absence for so long.

Coming home felt peculiar, it forced me to acknowledge the gulf between the person I was when I left and the person I am now. It feels like I’ve grown a lot in the years since I was the confused, angst-ridden teenager that left New Zealand in 2004 and it made me realise how satisfied I am with the direction my life is moving in, albeit it perhaps being a different direction from many.

Franz Josef Glacier - Westland National Park, New Zealand

Franz Josef Glacier - Westland National Park, New Zealand

Coming home also reminded me of the love that I feel for my family, my friends and the natural beauty of the Land Of The Long White Cloud. Many of my memories of home had faded over the past four years. I’d forgotten how much I actually loved New Zealand. Ironically I’d arrived thinking I’d want to leave almost immediately, but when it came to it, I almost couldn’t bring myself to go.

That said, my time at home has confirmed my suspicions that I am not ready to return to New Zealand permanently, now or in the short term. There is still so much of the world I want to see, so much I want to do and living in New Zealand just doesn’t seem compatible with these goals (sorry Mum).

I always find travelling an enlightening experience. I believe there is much to be learnt by the curious mind. Witnessing the culture and customs of a foreign land illuminates the parallels and contrasts to one’s own society, forcing a new perspective upon the attentive traveller. From this new vantage point of thought I feel that I can see what was transparent before; I can appreciate how much of my own mental make-up is blindly inherited from my home land. I think that it is this new awareness of self that can prove such a catalyst for introspection and growth.

Routeburn Track - Glenorchy, New Zealand

Routeburn Track - Glenorchy, New Zealand

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

This sentiment is also echoed in the words of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”

This seems to be a common thread of thought amongst those of philosophical disposition. Witnessing the serene happiness of poverty stricken Africans despite the constant threat of hunger, thirst and death seems to confirm for me that the joy we derive from life comes more from inside us than from our external surroundings or circumstances.

Guitar Hero Shenanigans

'Guitar Hero' Shenanigans

So once again I find myself sitting in a cold London flat. I’m sleeping on an air bed in a mate’s lounge and I’m practically penniless, but I have many fond memories of an epic year behind me. Shortly I will rejoin responsible society – I’ll find a job, start paying taxes and attempt to get out of bed before 9 AM.

This trip has allowed me a lot of time to reflect on what I’ve been doing, where I’m going and ultimately what I want from life. The next few years are a mystery, I have vague inclinations of where they might lead, but it’s really completely unknown – to be honest, I have no idea where 2009, (let alone the rest of my life), will take me. I feel there is strength in tolerating the uncertainty, casting free the shackles of life sustained by fear, familiarity and the expectations of others. I believe it’s about being open to alternate paths and seeing where life may lead you.

Before I sign off, I want to extend a special thanks to my faithful travel companions Tony, Wendy and Mike – Thanks for everything. Here’s to many more adventures together! - and also to the other faces I met along the way that played such a huge part in making this trip so very memorable (you know who you are.)

Kensal Green Cemetery - London, England

Kensal Green Cemetery - London, England

I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading about my adventures as much as I have enjoyed having them and writing about them. I’d love to hear any thoughts or feedback you might have.

With love, until next time,

Mark





Part 6: Cuzzies In Kiwi Land

28 10 2008

This post is part of a series:
http://marksteele.co.nz/the-2008-trip/


Mt Cook National Park
Mt Cook National Park

“You like girls?” asked Chris, an affable, middle-aged Asian chap who’d volunteered to drive us around Singapore in the middle of the night on a drunken mission to find cigars. “Sure” we enthused, interpreting this to be a mere nugget of man chatter before continuing to assault our new found friend with questions about where to go and what to do in the city.

As we cruised the dark, muggy streets, watching the people of the night gliding past, I started to become increasingly aware of growing number of scantily clad young women loitering on the side walk. As Mike and I were about to find out, our driver had other things on his mind for us that night than just finding us tobacco products – and for a country that prides itself on having rules for everything, they sure have a lot of prostitutes.

The car slowed to a crawl and Chris leaned back, a mischievous grin wide on his face, “like any of these girls?” he pressed.

“Ah… sure, they’re lovely” I replied lamely, “but really… we’re just after some cigars tonight…”

“Oh…” said Chris, the disappointment dripping from his voice; his shoulders sagging in his seat.

The BMW rolled on through the night, Chris answering our questions with noticeably less enthusiasm than before. We found our cigars shortly after, some drastically overpriced Cubans, then our driver graciously offered to drop us home, but only after a cursory return trip through the red light district (“just in case!” he assured us).

After a fruitless mission through the seedy back streets we finally arrived back at the hostel but before we could spring from the vehicle, Chris, with a trace of annoyance in his voice, thrust a business card in to each of our hands and said “OK, OK, no girls tonight. You call me tomorrow and we go get girls then. I get best price!” His credentials claimed membership to the liquor industry, but my suspicions tell me our guide for the evening also made a nice sideline pimping Asian women to “rich” white tourists like us.

Rangitoto -Auckland, New Zealand
Rangitoto – Auckland, New Zealand

Mike and I arrived in Singapore feeling apathetic. We’d been roughing it through Africa for nine weeks and the urge for consistency, stability and comfort had kicked in strong. The thought of going outside and exploring yet another city suddenly felt more like a chore than a pleasure, so encouraged by the total lack of tourist attractions and the oppressive heat and humidity outside we hijacked the hostel dining table with our laptops, basked in the icy cold air conditioning and blatantly flouted the hostel’s no alcohol policy by drinking scotch whiskey everyday from the early afternoon, cleverly concealing the bottle under table when the manager came in and vehemently denying her accusations that we were drunk (although the giggling probably didn’t help our case.)

After an unrewarding and expensive week in the Malaysian outpost we set forth to Australia, where we spent another useless week achieving very little. We made it out once to walk through Sydney and down to the Opera House, the otherwise torrential rain kept us from the beaches and the streets and left us instead inside positioned by the pool table at the downstairs bar.

Finally, two weeks after departing the African continent, Mike and I arrived in New Zealand, dressed in tailored, hand-made, silk and cashmere blend Italian cut suits we’d picked up during one of our few excursions in Singapore, hoping to surprise our families with the exact opposite of the stained, scraggly, bearded travellers they were expecting to receive. Unfortunately, our moment of splendour was sadly ruined by the New Zealand Customs and Excise Service who after finding a a collection of knives, including a 24 inch machete, in the neatly suited Michael’s backpack decided they needed to inspect my cousin somewhat closer, although, despite his 45 minute absence he has assured me repeatedly since then that they didn’t once require the use of a latex glove. (I only half believe him).

Mike On The Routeburn Track
Mike On The Routeburn Track

This November marks the four year anniversary of me originally leaving New Zealand and moving to the UK and Michael is only a few months shy of being able to claim the same. In such a long absence, my memories of life in New Zealand had long ago been eclipsed by those of my new life on British shores, so, it was with some surprise to arrive home and fall back in love with the motherland so quickly, in fact, so much so that I’ve decided to stay – until the end of summer at least.

It’s been great being tourists in our own country. One of my biggest gripes about living in England was constantly being bombarded by Brits professing their love for New Zealand. “Oh! Don’t you love the South Island!” they’d squeal, then exclaim “Isn’t the Milford Sounds is the most beautiful place on earth!?” usually followed by them staring at me blankly awaiting my endorsement, forcing me to admit that despite having travelled all over the world I’d actually seen very little of my own country. In fact, my memories of the South Island were largely confined to a singular incident which happened on a family trip almost two decades ago; my Dad accidentally spraying his pristine white shirt in ketchup and actually commenting at the time “I bet this is the only thing you’ll remember about this trip…” (and, of course, it is).

Memories involving condiments aside, a tour of New Zealand has been due for a long time, so it was with great relish (sorry, couldn’t resist) we purloined my Aunt’s car and set off on our noble journey, starting with the northernmost tip of the country that myth claims fisherman ?Maui pulled from the sea. Our first port of call was a holiday house in the Bay of Islands, a picture-postcard perfect part of NZ where we were joined by some friends for an intense week of cultural activities, featuring such quintessential Kiwi pastimes as fishing, beer drinking and barbecue.

Following such a successful week getting reacquainted with New Zealand’s timeless traditions, Mike and I opted to sign up for a day trip of Northland, promising an array of attractions from body boarding on sand dunes, to visiting an ancient Kauri forest and more. We had no way of knowing then that we’d end up spending most the day being stalked by the Eastern European paparazzi.

Napping on the Routeburn Track
Napping on the Routeburn Track

To start with, she seemed normal enough. Mid-to-late fifties; homely attire; thick Soviet-bloc accent. Armed with a video camera snuggly affixed to her right hand at all times, she recorded in minute detail every aspect of our trip from the seemingly endless Ninety Mile Beach, to the driver’s riveting dialogue regarding bus evacuation procedures in the event of fire.

“Can I take your picture?” she enquired in brusque Russian tones as Mike and I sat atop a hill at Cape Reinga, surveying the meeting point of the Tasman and Pacific Oceans. “Uh, sure” we replied, wanting her to go away more than anything else. With that, she aimed her camera, snapped our picture and then meandered off to find her friend, leaving the two of us to resume the serious business of watching the waves crashing on the rocks below.

A few hours, several tourist attractions and countless photographs later Mike groaned, “She’s taking our picture again!” I glanced over to see again a familiar lens aimed in our direction. Mike wheeled his camera across and quickly snapped a shot of our paparazzo-in-training, balancing out the us-to-her photograph ratio at about 50:1. I can only imagine her intentions were for so many pictures of our hunky New Zealander selves; I can only speculate that she must have sold our likeness to popular Yugoslavian media and unbeknownst to ourselves, Mike and I are now probably huge celebrities in the former USSR.

From the northern tip we travelled right the way down the length of the country to Slope Point, the southernmost outreach of the South Island; only the tiny Stewart Island extending New Zealand’s claim further in to the cold, subarctic ocean below. Since leaving Auckland we’ve driven over 5,000 kilometres, passing through dozens of towns and cities on the way; Michael never failing to seize the opportunity to dangle his arm out the window and glare menacingly at anyone who happens to appear in his field of vision. Regretfully, as sinister as his thug impression is, I suspect our gangsta street cred is somewhat lessened by the fact our pimp-mobile is actually a 1995 burgundy red Peugeot hatchback we borrowed from his Mum.

Mark On The Routeburn Track
Mark On The Routeburn Track

So, in short, it’s good to be back. It’s been an immense pleasure to catch up with all my friends and family I’ve neglected for so long with my European antics, and to finally get out and explore the number one tourist destination in the world (well, according to a recent poll I saw anyway). There have, of course, been changes in my four year absence. Notably, my high school chums and I now meet for lunch and have adult conversations about global politics and the financial markets instead of lounging around at the beach smoking joints after school, and people continuously ask me where I’m from and seem genuinely surprised when I reveal my New Zealand origins – my accent is obviously a twisted wreck; perhaps a few more months at home is just what I need…?

New Zealand – roll on summer!

England – see you in Spring!

(and as always, we loving hearing what you’re all up to, keep the emails coming!)

Photoset: http://flickr.com/photos/markandmikeabroad/sets/72157608321817375/

Ka kite ano,


Mark
Web: http://marksteele.co.nz
Photos: http://flickr.com/photos/markandmikeabroad/sets/





Africa Part 5: Missing cousins, Great White Sharks and the Word of the Lord

23 08 2008

This post is part of a series:
http://marksteele.co.nz/the-2008-trip/


Table Mountain

I could never be a hunter. I don’t have much of a stomach for blood, guts and gore. My father, eldest son in a farming family that spanned back generations, spent his childhood on a large dairy farm in rural New Zealand, surrounded by animals, bailing hay and milking cows – good honest blokes stuff. Decades later, no doubt eager to share the joys of country living with my eight year old self, he took it upon himself to take me to see a calf being born.

When we arrived, there was evidently a complication with the birth which required some human intervention to resolve. While the others were milling around deciding on a course of action my Dad handed me a transparent, shoulder-length glove and casually suggested I stick my arm inside the cow and feel the unborn calf within. So revolted by the mere thought of this I chose instead to flee back to the car, leaving my Dad standing there – plastic glove in hand and a puzzled look upon on his face (and yes, I’ll admit it, I’m a total chicken.)

Giraffe ViewIf you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to have seen footage from industrial farms and slaughterhouses, you’ll be all too aware the horrendous conditions in which animals are raised and killed before finding their way to our dinner tables. A few years back, after having seen one of these videos myself I was sufficiently repulsed to experiment with being a vegetarian. I lasted only about five weeks before one fateful night at a Chinese restaurant Sweet and Sour Pork became my downfall – and I’ve never looked back. As much as I hate to say it, I just love meat too much to seriously consider life without it.

My thoughts on hunting and animal welfare aside, I can actually understand why the original explorers to Africa would take to big game hunting. If you’d grown up in England or the Americas, your experience of wildlife limited to livestock, domestic animals and perhaps the occasional fox ; coming across an animal as preposterous as a giraffe or elephant must have been completely unfathomable. I also suspect that without the evidence to back up your claims, very few people back home would believe your tales of yellow, long necked herbivores roaming the African continent.

Plains Zebra, Boehm's raceWe saw all the famed ‘Big 5′, originally a term used to refer to the five animals said to be most dangerous to hunt in Africa – Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Rhino and Buffalo. Lions are remarkably lazy, I’m not sure how they made the top 5, I could have easily killed a dozen lions if I had so desired. Every one that we saw was asleep in the sunshine, their most strenuous efforts amounting to nothing more than the occasional flick of the tail – far from the active, predatory animals I had imagined.

Despite being an eager zoo visitor as a kid, it turns out I knew very little about the animals which I’d admired in their enclosures so many times. Hippopotamus, who I’d once considered rather boring and docile, are actually responsible for the most human fatalities in Africa every year. Fiercely territorial, they will charge at up to thirty miles per hour to protect their domain and something as small as getting in between a hippo and the water is enough to provoke this aggression – almost always with dire consequences. Tito, our guide with Absolute Africa, told us he’d seen with his very eyes a hippopotamus attacking an Australian girl by the side of Lake Naivasha where we were staying. Ignoring thrown stones and shouts from aghast onlookers, they had to resort to ramming the large mammal with a truck to get it to shift back to the water, but sadly, it was already too late for the Aussie. Needless to say, none of us took a stroll around the lake that night.

Hippo FightsThe following day we took a boat ride around the lake to see the hippos up close and personal. When our small boat was a few metres away from a group, the skipper would kill the engines and we’d bob up and down in silence, watching with nervous fascination. With a sharp snort, one by one they’d drop beneath the waves, no doubt planning some sort of terrible revenge on the boatload of humans invading their turf. We waited with bated breath as the captain yanked again and again on the starter cord, trying to get our stubborn outboards to spring back to life. Thankfully, the engines would always eventually roar back in to life and we would escape the fearsome hippopotami and continue on our way.

After leaving Tanzania we spent a few nights in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Mike and I decided we’d had enough activity for a few days, so we found some nice, comfy couches at our campground and proceeded to spend the remainder of our time in the city reclining in comfort, savouring the free wireless internet and close proximity of the bar. On our third day of sitting around on the same sofas, the bartender brought us out two beers telling us they’d been purchased for us by another customer. Mystified, Mike and I looked around the bar trying to catch the eye of the shy lass who’d obviously been so taken by our handsome good looks, yet was just too timid to introduce herself. After much observation of our fellow patrons, our anonymous beauty had still failed to make herself known, so I approached the bartender and asked after her identity so that I might do the gallant thing and introduce myself. Unfortunately, it turns out that our secret admirer wasn’t an admirer at all, but a Japanese business man who had just abandoned his surplus currency behind the bar before heading to the airport. He’d advised the bar staff to buy drinks for their best customers. So sadly, not only were we not being eyed up by the lady folk of the campground, but being classed as “best customers” could also be a construed as being a vague accusation of being alcoholics. (Damn…)

Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures...From Lilongwe we travelled to Caroline Bay on the shores of the immense Lake Malawi. Miles from anywhere, we’d failed to realise that they might not accept credit cards and we found ourselves in something of a financial predicament. After counting every last Kwacha we had, we worked out that our daily budget encompassed two options: three regular sized meals plus water, or two cheese-and-tomato toasted sandwiches plus half a dozen lagers each in the evening. (Errr, we chose the beer.)

Between, shall we say, ‘intestinal troubles’ (must have been those toasted sandwiches…) and Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, I was in little mood for conversation for most of the time we were in Caroline Bay. Mike having finished his book was left desperate for reading material and after scouring the resort for something new, he returned with the only text he could find – the Gideon’s Bible.

With the Good Book in hand, Mike took great delight in spending the majority of the day quoting to me from the scriptures and otherwise informing me of the error of my sinning ways. Michael’s conversion from Atheist to Christian Extremist seemed to come to an appropriate climax when after snaffling some fireworks from the resort later that evening, we let them off on the lake shore only to find out that the building behind us was in fact a mosque, resulting in us being chased down the dark beach by an irate Muslim for interrupting his evening prayers with explosives.

From Malawi we had three options on how to make our way down to South Africa: six full days in a cramped, thousand degree minivan; an overnight coach that ran through Zimbabwe, stopping off in Harare; or to fly. Option one seemed way too sadistic and option two would almost certainly result in being mugged, stabbed or beaten so we took option three and booked flights from the southern city of Blantyre down to Johannesburg.

Carlsberg Brewery Tour IBlantyre is an industrial town, named after the Scottish birth place of famed explorer, David Livingstone. There isn’t really much to see in Blantyre, the only real attraction being the Carlsberg Brewery – Mecca for African beer drinkers. With our flights early the following morning Mike, Tony and I decided we’d use our spare afternoon and go see where the magic happens.

Far from the Willy Wonka experience we might have imagined, the brewery turned out to be sterile, foul smelling and decidedly yawn inducing. After an hour of plodding around feigning interest at vats and loud machinery we got to the eagerly anticipated sampling session. We’d been forewarned by a fellow camper that sampling time would last a mere 45 minutes, so we took advantage of this knowledge and necked as many free lagers as we could – mostly the potent Elephant brand clocking in at a respectable 7.4%.

Three quarters of an hour later we found our inebriated selves ejected from the brewery, so we did the only sensible thing one can do in the these situations and along with some others from the tour, we staggered back to our campground bar in search of another cold drink. Some hours later, after an relaxed afternoon of sitting in the sunshine, chatting up fellow campers and drinking yet more beer I finally decided to leave Mike at the bar and go climb in to my sleeping bag – mindful of our flight in the early hours and the hangover that was sure to ensue.

Woken by my alarm at 5am the following morning I reached across the tent over to poke Mike in the forehead – (his least favourite way to be roused from slumber) – only to find my errant cousin missing. I strapped on my headtorch and went looking for his comatose body in every chair, hedge and any other place I thought might seem a promising option for a drunkard to pass out; yet after walking around repeatedly shouting out his name – no doubt waking everyone else in the campground – I had still failed to find any sign of him. With dawn breaking and the clock ticking down, I gave up the search and went to start pulling down the tent, hoping he would show up of his own accord.

Carlsberg Brewery Tour VIAn hour later, our taxi arrived and Mike was still no where to be seen. Not willing to forfeit our US$500 plane tickets for his stupidity, I scrawled a quick note calling my cousin a retard, wished him luck and told him to meet us in Cape Town. Stuffing the note in his bag, Tony, Wendy and I climbed in to the cab and set off for the airport.

About the time Tony, Wendy and I were finishing our airport check-in Mike awoke dazed and confused in a room with one of the girls from the night before wrapped around him. Noticing the sunlight creeping in through the curtains he suddenly remembered the flight and in a panic, pulled on his trousers and dashed out the door with barely a word to his half-asleep lady friend. Sprinting out to the tents, he found the spot bare and proceeded to leg it down to reception to find his pack already sitting there waiting for him, “Please get me cab,” he pleaded with the reception staff, “AS FAST AS YOU CAN!”

After a leisurely Full English breakfast and few cups of mediocre coffee Tony, Wendy and I strolled down to the departure lounge and prepared to board our plane. As we stood queuing, a dishevelled Mike burst through the door, complete with bed hair, bleary eyes and the pungent smell of alcohol oozing from his pores – and only minutes to spare.

Arriving in Johannesburg was a welcome reunion with civilisation, after two months in mainland Africa I had almost forgotten that there were such things as smooth roads, broadband internet and white people. Celebrating our return to the first world, the four of us found it fitting to order delivery pizza and spend the afternoon crashed out on the sofa watching trashy celebrity documentaries on TV.

Whites OnlyWe only spent one night in Jo’burg, the tales of gun violence and car jacking was enough to convince us that there was no reason to delay getting to Cape Town. We made a quick stop at the Apartheid Museum before we departed, a stark reminder of South Africa’s troubled history. Apartheid may officially be over, but it seems to live on in the hearts and minds of the people. So many South Africans we have met spout venomous abuse towards the blacks, blaming equal rights and black politicians for what they perceive as the decline of their country. In my outsiders opinion, there is still a long, long way to go before South Africa becomes a truly racially equal nation.

We’ve now been in Cape Town for five nights, only a few more days until Mike and I depart for Asia. After a lethargic couple of weeks, we decided a few days ago that some exercise was a good idea so we set out to climb Table Mountain, the immense stone ridge that provides the backdrop to the city. We arrived at the beginning of the trail early afternoon, the hot South African sun high in the sky, and started climbing the steep path. Not long after we began our ascent we found ourselves drenched in sweat and struggling for air; falling against a rock we huffed and puffed trying to regain our composure, only to be put to shame by a passing pre-adolescent girl who didn’t even seem to notice the incline. Suddenly we were regretting our decision not to take the cable car.

Mike on Table MountainAfter a slow arduous climb we arrived at the top, all too aware how unfit the two of us have gotten since being in Africa. Finding a rocky overhang we sat down, exhausted. Drinking in the view of Cape Town miles below, Mike and I sat with out feet dangling over the edge of the precipice and made a pledge to alter our hedonistic ways and start living healthier lifestyles – (although thus far we have yet to follow through…)

The following day, departing from the small town of Gansbaai on the southern coast, we set out by boat to find the largest predatory fish in the ocean: the Great White Shark. Using a slab of tuna attached to a buoy and “Gladys”, a floating seal decoy, the boats crew lured the aquatic death machines up to the boat. Shortly the waters were writhing with sharks, eleven in total, all about five metres (16 ft) in length – their fins slicing through the surface, radiating eternal malice.

With the boat now completely surrounded, we set about donning wetsuits and masks and dropped in to a metal cage suspended in the cold sea off the side of the boat. Completely submerged, the seven of us in the water would make a quick check to make sure none of our limbs were protruding in to shark territory and then through the steel lattice we’d watch the sharks savagely attacking the bait and decoy – their cold, dark, lifeless eyes watching us from just inches away.

Great White Shark IIIn a burst of aggression, one of the male sharks surged at the side of the cage, latching on with his teeth and shaking us all around violently. Thankfully, as quickly as he came, he released us and vanished back off in to the depths, giving us a mighty whack with his tail as he left.

The African leg of this trip is now coming rapidly to a close, Mike and I depart Cape Town in only a few days from now. It’s been a fascinating nine weeks on the continent, needless to say that life here often takes a markedly different form than that of us in the Western world. The people have been great, from the locals we have talked to on the streets and met in stores, restaurants and bars, to the traditional Masai warriors in Kenya and the poverty stricken blacks in the vast slum cities skirting Cape Town; Africans may carry out their lives differently from you or me, but it seems to me that ultimately they want the same things as all of us – health, love, comfort, respect.

Seal Island III’m sure my travelling companions would agree that the highlight of this trip has definitely been the wildlife. Words can’t adequately describe how it feels to climb through dense jungle on the side of a volcano in Rwanda and found yourself surrounded by screaming, chest-beating Silverback gorillas existing in their natural habitat, the way they have for eons. Diving with Great Whites and sleeping in a national park, our tents surrounded by Baboons, are also experiences I am unlikely to forget any time soon.

Usually I’m not prone to homesickness, but with my first return trip to New Zealand in years now only a couple of weeks away, I suddenly can’t wait to get out of Africa and start working my way homeward. With just over a fortnight to go I can almost taste Pineapple Lumps, L&P and the steak-and-cheese pies!

Bring it on.

NEXT STOP: Singapore

Mark
http://marksteele.co.nz





Africa Part 4: Genocide, Naps and Tetris

6 08 2008

This post is part of a series:
http://marksteele.co.nz/the-2008-trip/


African Village
African Village

I seem to have reverted to the sleeping patterns of a 4 year old. As the sun sets, I finish my evening meal and fatigue overwhelms me. I stumble back to my tent in the dark and promptly fall asleep, the time being no later than about half past seven. In the morning, I awake with the sun and am dressed and have eaten breakfast before its even 6 o’clock, then mid-afternoon I crash again, joyfully drifting off in to my now almost daily afternoon nap.

You may just think I am lazy – and perhaps you are right – but it’s not just me operating on the same schedule as the sun. As soon as the first rays of light penetrate the darkness there is a cacophony of birds, dogs and people all up and about starting their new day.

We’ve now been in Malawi for a few days; the temperature has dropped as we’ve gone south (I’m not even sweating right now!), Wendy has Malaria and I’ve discovered after a lifetime of not liking peanut butter, it’s actually not that revolting after all.

Sexy.
Trouser Socks: Sexy.

Transport has always been an interesting adventure since arriving on the African continent. Our trip to the Malawi border, like so many other journeys since we’ve been here, was bursting with people. Our 14 seater bus was crammed full with 25 sweaty people plus luggage, babies and sacks of god-knows-what filling every square inch of interior space, bouncing over the uneven, potholed roads providing us all with the teeth chattering, bone shuddering experience known affectionately as an ‘African massage’. Time estimates are, shall we say, relaxed. Supposedly two hour journeys take five and departure times are likewise irrelevant: we waited 17 hours in Dar Es Salaam for our train to Mbeya to arrive.

Africa is a continent of walking. The roads, littered with bicycles and pedestrians, leave little room for the few automobiles trying to traverse the tarmac. Drivers of the smokey, rusty, broken down clap-traps drive with one hand rested on the horn, honking incessantly to clear a path through the mêlée of human traffic.

Like their roading system, Africa is a land of differences. Obviously, there are the big things such as poverty, civil unrest and superstitious tribal culture, but there a little differences also. For example, all soft drinks are sold in glass bottles which you have to pay a deposit for. After one has enjoyed their carbonated beverage and returned the bottle, your deposit is refunded, then the bottles are sent back to Coca-Cola HQ to be sterilized and reused again and again.

Misty Roads
Misty Roads

Africa is also a land of contrast. The people we have encountered have been ubiquitously friendly, although like anywhere, some of them are out to make a few shillings profit, but most are just happy to say Jambo (hello) and find out about the strange muzungo (whiteys) that happens to be passing through their towns. I find the warmth and civility of these people makes it all the more difficult to believe the atrocities which have, and continue to, occur in this part of the world.

A few weeks back we visited the Genocide Memorial Museum in Rwanda, our sombre visit made all the more poignant by the tears and moans of sorrow erupting from one poor Rwandan woman overwhelmed by the experience; only 14 years on, this is still a fresh and painful memory for many.

Before colonial rule, Rwanda was inhabited by two tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsi. Unlike the vast majority of African tribes, the Hutu and Tutsi lived peacefully as one. They married one another, lived in the same towns and had happy lives together.

Setting Up Camp (Again...)
Setting Up Camp (Again…)

Then the Belgians arrived. With superior firepower they seized control of the small country and after putting the locals through a degrading process of testing and experimentation they decided that genetically, the Tutsi were the superior people and elevated them to ruling class; for the first time creating a disparity between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. From then on, between the people that had once lived as brothers, a gulf of hatred grew.

This aggression finally came to a head when in 1994 Belgium withdrew from Rwanda, removing the power from Tutsi and handing it to the Hutu who had by then been treated unfairly for so long. This reversal of power led promptly to a backlash against the Tutsi which rapidly spiraled in to mass killing; the Hutu openly slaughtering Tutsi on the streets. Laws were then passed revoking the citizenship and all rights of the Tutsi, effectively sentencing all every Tutsi man, woman and child to death.

People killed Tutsi members of their own family, and along with their parents, children were macheted to death to prevent another generation of Tutsi from arising. With little support from the rest of the world, the violence quickly spiraled out of control. Bill Clinton later stated that not sending support to Rwanda was one of the biggest regrets of his career.

Tough Times In Lilongwe
Tough Times In Lilongwe

If the experience of the museum wasn’t painful enough, there was a separate wing dedicated to the children of the conflict. Below large pictures of smiling children, often the only remaining pictures the families had, were plaques stating information like:

Tsumbe
Age: 14 months
Favourite Food: Ice Cream
Favourite Activity: Playing with his older brother
Died: Macheted to death

.

Ngumi
Age: 3 years
Favourite Food: Chapatti
Favourite Activity: Singing in church
Died: Grenaded in a bathtub

It was truly heartbreaking. I still find it hard to digest that a land full of such kind people – or for that matter, human beings in general – are capable of such horrific acts. Surprisingly though, Rwandans seems to have well and truly left their history in the past and have again come together to be a comparatively prosperous, successful country. Perhaps in the face of such ghastly events, one has no choice but to bury the hatchet and move on. Still, I found it surprising to see their smiles.

We’ve recently starting seeking out local markets in search of produce for our meals. My cousin Michael is a chef, so we haggle over the price of fruits and vege then return to the campground for him to work his culinary magic while I play sous chef, slicing and dicing and trying to learn the tricks of the trade. The markets are an experience in themselves; loud, boisterous men trying to hock their various wares, just today I purchased a cheap watch which instead of a second hand flashes the words “I love you” sixty times a minute. Classy. Africa seems to inherit the world’s hand-me-downs – tatty old clothes, worn-out shoes, and toys I remember from my early childhood are proudly displayed as modern technology (Tetris! Sweet!).

Elephants Of The Serengeti
Elephants Of The Serengeti

It’s been an odd transition coming to Africa, in many ways it feels like stepping back in time, but at the same time there are a lot of parallels to life in the West. Everyone has cellphones, even those living in mud huts, and a huge proportion of the young men here are dressed in British football team jerseys. Primitive shacks are adorned with huge satellite dishes, yet piped hot water is practically unheard of. Similarly to my experiences in South East Asia a few years back, I find it striking how joyous the people are in these impoverished places; perhaps there is some truth to the old adage that money doesn’t buy happiness. That said, I’m so looking forward to a hot shower, not sleeping in a tent and having regular, fast internet access.

Man I’m a nerd, I miss my internet … bad.

Mark
http://marksteele.co.nz








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